Chapter 6 – The Desert War.

In North Africa the Luftwaffe was hard pressed to keep its aircraft flying in the face of mechanical problems and fuel shortages, and in the end was overwhelmed by Allied aerial superiority.

A Junkers Ju 88A bomber of Kampfgeschwader 30, identified by its distinctive Adler (Eagle) nose insignia, photographed on an airfield in the Balkans in 1941.

The Mediterranean area, covering the Balkans, the North African coast and islands in between, had never figured large in Hitler’s grand strategy. His alliance with fellow-fascist Benito Mussolini meant that any Allied opposition in the south should have been blocked by the Italians, leaving the Germans to deal with the much more important task of destroying the Soviet Union. Vague ideas of a link-up between German forces advancing through the Caucasus and Middle-East and Italians in Egypt and Libya may have been mooted, but they were never taken very seriously. As far as Hitler was concerned, if Mussolini could secure the southern flank, he would have more than amply satisfied the terms of the Rome-Berlin Axis.

Unfortunately, Mussolini proved incapable of doing this. Although he dutifully declared war on Britain and France in June 1940, delaying the process until it was obvious that the Allies were on the brink of defeat. His offensives in the Balkans and North Africa were incompetent affairs to say the least. In September, he sent his Tenth Army into western Egypt, aiming for the Suez Canal; a month later he rather foolishly invaded Greece. Both offensives quickly ground to a halt and, as both the British and Greeks mounted counter offensives, the Italians looked as if they would be destroyed. As early as February 1941, only days after the remnants of the Tenth Army had surrendered to the British at Beda Fomm in Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, Hitler felt obliged to commit German troops, the Deutsche Afrika Korps or DAK, under the command General Erwin Rommel to prevent a complete Italian collapse. Two months later, German troops invaded Yugoslavia and Greece to ensure that the Balkans were clear before the invasion of the Soviet Union began.

Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters of Zerstörergeschwader 26 are lined up, ready for action, in North Africa, 1941. The fact that the aircraft are parked so close together, surrounded by fuel drums, suggests that no-one is expecting enemy air attack.

Luftwaffe deployment in the Mediterranean.

By early 1941, therefore, Luftwaffe squadrons were beginning to be deployed to the Mediterranean. In March, as the Axis alliance was expanded, nearly 500 aircraft, 40 bombers, 120 Junkers Ju 87s, 120 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, 40 Messerschmitt Bf 110s and 170 reconnaissance and transport machines moved to airfields in Romania and Bulgaria. While a further 390, mostly Junkers Ju 87s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s formed Fliegerkorps X in southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Greece and North Africa. It was the latter aircraft that were to support Rommel’s campaigns in Libya and Egypt, although their tasks were never simple those of close support for ground forces. In addition, and of crucial importance, Flirgerkorps X was to help the Italians neutralise the island of Malta, from where British naval and air units were already interdicting supply lines for Axis forces in the North African theatre.

A Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter, characterised by its smooth cowling lines and enlarged under-nose air filter, stands on an airfield in Sicily, late 1942. The camouflage scheme breaks up the contours of the aircraft when viewed from the top or side.

How effective camouflage can be; a Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter flying over the desert.

The first Luftwaffe raid on Malta took place as early as the 9th January 1941, when airfields and harbour facilities were hit, but the campaign was disrupted by Operation “Barbarossa”, the code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union which started in June. Some squadrons were diverted north to take part in Operation “Barbarossa”, while others moved east to bases in Greece, Crete and Rhodes. The intention was to prevent British use of the eastern Mediterranean, through which they might try to carry supplies to their new Soviet allies, utilising the Suez Canal, Dardanelles and the Black Sea. Malta was left to the Italians and Rommel was required to make do with less than 150 Junkers Ju87 Stukas and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. By then, he had managed to push the British back to the Egyptian – Libyan boarder, but in the process his supplies, coming along the coast road from Tripoli, were overstretched. In November, after furious tank battles around Torbruk, the British reversed their fortunes and forced Rommel to fall back towards western Cyrenaica. Once there, his supply line became shorter, but with British aircraft now in bases where they could support their colleagues from Malta, the Mediterranean supply link to southern Italy became vulnerable.

Although dangerously obsolete in the face of fast interceptor fighters, the Stuka continued to be widely employed. In North Africa, it was still a powerful instrument of demoralisation and destruction, but only if protected.

By November 1941, up to two-thirds of the supplies despatched to Rommel from southern Europe were failing to get through, the ships being destroyed by submarine and surface-warship attack, as well as air assault. On the 2nd December Hitler agreed to act, reinforcing Luftwaffe units in the area and appointing Albert Kesselring, who now promoted to Generalfeldmarschall, as Commander-in-Chief South to coordinate Axis efforts. When he arrived in theatre in early January 1942, he had about 650 Luftwaffe aircraft under his immediate command, 260 of them devoted to supporting the DAK in North Africa, were Rommel had wasted no time in mounting a counteroffensive that would soon push the British back to Gazala. In addition, the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Air Force, had about 500 assorted bombers and fighters available, though it was recognised that these were generally obsolete designs, incapable of decisive action. If Malta was to be neutralised, it was going to be down to the Luftwaffe to achieve it.

The assault on Malta.

The offensive began in mid-January 1942. Initially, raids on the island were spasmodic, and by the end of February only about 1016 tonnes (1000 tonnes) of bombs had been dropped, enabling the British garrison and civilian population to adjust. But in March Fliegerkorps III deployed to Sicily, contributing a further 425 aircraft, which including 190 bombers and 115 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, to the campaign. This meant that the weight of attack could be dramatically increased, starting in March when 2235 tonnes (2200 tons) of bombs were dropped in a total of more than 2800 sorties. British airfields and military instillations were hit hard, reducing the capacity for defence, and though 60 Luftwaffe aircraft were destroyed between early January and late March 1942 over Malta, this was not sufficient to stop the raids. Indeed, by April the British authorities were concerned enough to evacuate all air and naval assets from the island, leaving the army garrison, a depleted 234 Brigade, to face the onslaught alone. If Kesselring had succeeded in persuading Hitler to mount a projected Italian-German airborne assault, codenamed Operation “Hercules” in late April, the island would surly have fallen. As it was, a combination of factors swayed the outcome, memories of the heavy airborne losses on Crete the previous May, a shortage of transport aircraft due to demands from the Eastern Front, Rommel’s sudden advance through the Gazala Line to take Tobruk and move into western Egypt, deterred Hitler from authorising the attack. It must also be seen that Hitler was focusing on his Eastern push and was Boyd up by the seemingly endless success.

But there were other ways in which Kesselring could ensure that pressure was maintained. One of these was to use his considerable air assets against supply convoys moving to the relief of Malta. In March 1942, for example, the British devoted 4 cruisers, 18 destroyers and an anti-aircraft ship to escort just four merchant ships to the beleaguered island, having to contend with virtually continuous air attack. In August, the situation was even more drastic, with 14 merchantmen being escorted by a veritable fleet of three aircraft carriers, two battleships, 6 cruisers, 24 destroyers and an anti-aircraft ship. As these vessels ploughed through the western Mediterranean towards their objective, Luftwaffe attacks were so effective that only 5 of the merchant ships survived. Nevertheless, they delivered enough supplies to ensure that Malta held out, at a time when German attention was already shifting farther east, where Rommel seemed poised to take Alexandria and the Suez Canal. If that happened, Malta would be irrelevant.

An artist records the scene at Ain el Gazala airfield, mid 1941. The Messerschmitt Bf 109E in the foreground belongs to Jagdgeschwader 27, the first deployed to North Africa in April 1941.

A kette (flight) of Ju 87 Stukas returns to its desert base, 1941. The rudimentary nature of the base can be seen, together with its isolation, creating problems of resupply.

High attrition rates.

Throughout his campaigns, Rommel had enjoyed a degree of support from the Luftwaffe, particularly in terms of dive-bombers and ground-attack fighters. Organised under Fliegerführer Afrika, these aircraft, which rarely totalled more than 200 machines, could never wrest complete air superiority from the British, chiefly because the theatre of operations precluded that, with airfields often extemporised and remote. But in 1941 and again in 1942, the Luftwaffe had provided support when it was needed, sending Junkers Ju 87 Stukas to bomb British positions with their usual demoralising effects, not least during the siege of Tobruk which lasted from April to December 1941, and deploying Messerschmitt Bf 109s and some Messerschmitt Bf 110s to keep enemy aircraft at bay or strafe ground positions. On occasions, the size of the Luftwaffe in-theatre had been increased for specific operations, notably in May 1942 when Rommel assaulted the Gazala Line. For that attack, more than 260 aircraft were made available, though throughout the desert war serviceability rates were relatively low, reducing the number of operational aircraft by as much as 40 per cent at times. Heat, dust and sandstorms played havoc with aircraft designed primarily for operations in Europe, and the supply of fuel could not always be guaranteed, especially at times when the Allies were hitting convoys in the central Mediterranean. Nevertheless, when Rommel pushed to the south around the Gazala defences, his bombers flew nearly 1400 sorties to contribute to the neutralisation of the Free French fortress at Bir Hacheim, allowing the offensive to continue.

Hans-Joachim Marseille, a Luftwaffe fighter “ace” known as the “Star of Africa”, views one of his kills – a Hurricane of No 213 Squadron. Marseille was killed on the 30th September 1942.

On the 30th September 1942, Marseille took off on a solo mission over British Lines. Unable to make contact with the enemy, he turned back towards his own lines when at 11:26 AM, an oil line broke in his Messerschmitt Bf 109-G2. With his cockpit filled with blinding, acrid smoke, he tried to bail out but struck his head on the tail of the aircraft was rendered unconscious and fell to the desert floor. His body was quickly recovered by German units in the vicinity of Sidi-Abd-EL-Rahman, identified and prepared for burial. His decorations and identification were removed and the remains placed on a military cot and draped with a flag. An honour guard was posted prior to the funeral.

But the Luftwaffe could not sustain its desert operations once Rommel pushed into Egypt. As his ground forces advanced to the Alamein Line in July 1942, its air support unavoidably lagged behind, lacking fuel supplies and forward maintenance facilities. In desperation, some fuel and spares were flown to Tobruk by Ju 52 transports and Blohm und Voss Bv 222 six-engined flying boats, but the amounts were small and what there was had still to be carried nearly 640km (400 miles) overland to the Axis frontline the same time, the British were taking full advantage of their shortened supply lines to build up their strength in Egypt, part of which was an enhanced Desert Air Force. By early September 1942, when Rommel made his last attempt to continue has advance, only to be held by the newly arrived 8th Army commander General Bernard Montgomery, at Alam Halfa, the Luftwaffe had been effectively swept from the skies. Nearly two months later, when Montgomery assumed the offensive in the Second Battle of Alamein, the Luftwaffe was outnumbered three to one by British aircraft. There was little that Fliegerführer Africa could do.

Luftwaffe ground crew refuel a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on a desert airstrip, February 1942. The laborious process of pumping fuel into the tanks of the aircraft can be gauged.

A Messerschmitt Bf 110 on a desert airstrip, swirling up the desert dust, already willing and able to go.

Checking for combat readiness. Sighting the machine guns of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on a desert airstrip, February 1942.

About to load a camera into a reconnaissance model of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 .

Cameras loaded, the pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf 110C prepares for a reconnaissance flight.

Mechanics work on the Junkers Jumo 211Da 12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine of a Junkers Ju 87B. This particular aircraft has been “tropicalized” by the addition of sand filters.

Rommel accepted defeat at Alamein on the 4th November, beginning a retreat that presaged the end of the desert war. Four days later, Anglo-American forces mounted amphibious landings in French Northwest Africa, Morocco and Algeria, under the code name Operation “Torch”. As they advanced into Tunisia, Rommel’s rear was threatened, forcing him to abandon the whole of Libya to Montgomery’s men. Hitler rather belatedly realised that the Mediterranean was about to be lost, opening up the “soft underbelly” of Europe to Allied assault, and suddenly found reserves of aircraft which, if mad available earlier, might have made a significant difference. Altogether, just under 1000 Luftwaffe machines, 850 in Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia, and 120 in southern France, which had been occupied by the Germans in the immediate aftermath of Operation “Torch”, were deployed in an effort to halt the Allied advances. To a certain extent they succeeded, helping to stall the Anglo-American forces in the mountains of Tunisia, but the usual problems of fuel supply and maintenance still pertained.

By February 1943 Fliegerführer Africa was down to 150 aircraft, most of which were Messerschmitt Bf 109s, and the recently formed Fliegerführer Tunisia had only 140, which included a small number of the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters. The two commands were amalgamated once Rommel retreated into southern Tunisia, but it was apparent there was little anyone could do to stave off defeat. By May the Allies were closing relentlessly on Tunis, and attempts were made to withdraw key personnel by air using Junkers Ju 52s and even Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant, “Giant”, powered gliders. The results were disastrous, with such aircraft falling easy prey to Allied fighters. Surviving aircraft were withdrawn to Sicily and southern Italy as Tunis fell on the 7th May. Five days later, the war in North Africa was over.

By 1942, German resupply difficulties in North Africa were such that every method was used. Here, a Gotha Go 242A glider disgorges its cargo of fuel and other essentials.

A Heinkel He 111H is bombed-up. The solar toupees of the ground crew and tropicalized engines of the aircraft show that the scene is one from the Mediterranean.

The versatile Junkers Ju 88 on a desert airstrip, ready to go on a bombing strike against the British 8th Army positions.

A Junkers Ju 88 “revving up” for take-off. The bomb load can clearly be seen.

Army personnel check the harness of their parachutes before boarding the Junkers Ju 52 transports in the background, Mediterranean theatre despite the “jump boots” being worn, these are not Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers).

A Junkers Ju 52, the “good old” work horse of the transport units of the Luftwaffe disgorges some of its Afrika Korp passengers.

But this did not end the fighting in the Mediterranean. Despite the collapse of Mussolini’s government in July 1943, leading to an armistice with the Allies in September, German forces occupied Italy and Luftwaffe units continued to support ground forces where and when they could. In Italy itself, this was never easy, the Allies enjoyed numerical and technological air superiority by mid-1943, but occasionally successes occurred. One of these was in the fighting for the Dodecanese Islands in late 1943, when ill-judged British attempts to seize the islands from their Italian garrisons were countered. For a time, Luftwaffe aircraft reasserted their strength, hitting outlying islands and British warships with Junkers Ju 87s and Junkers Ju 88s preparatory to landing on Kos and Leros, carried out in part by Luftwaffe paratroopers withdrawn from Greece. But this was a rare victory, caused principally by American refusals to support the British in what they perceived as a peripheral campaign, leaving their allies overstretched and vulnerable. Elsewhere, by 1943 the Mediterranean was essentially an Allied “lake”, with the Luftwaffe assets still in-theatre outclassed. By then, of course, Hitler had their worries, not least on the Eastern Front, where Soviet forces were gradually turning the tables, and over Germany itself, where Anglo-American bombers were beginning to have an effect on the war effort. The Luftwaffe had much more important duties to perform.

An early version of the Messerschmitt Me 321 glider, appropriately known as the Gigant (Giant), during trails at Leipheim in the summer of 1941. The Gigant was designed to carry tanks or self-propelled guns.

A logical, if somewhat bizarre, development of the Me 321 glider, the Messerschmitt Me 323 had six engines in order to transform it into a transport aircraft. It was used only as a transport aircraft. Me 323 equipped transport units flew between Europe and North Africa unmolested by Allied fighters, until early in 1943 when one such unit was decimated by RAF fighters.

Loading field artillery into a six-engined Messerschmitt Me 323.

The Messerschmitt Me 323 six-engined transport aircraft in flight to North Africa. It proved very vulnerable: on the 22nd April 1943 a transport unit had 14 of its 16 Me 323 shot down in a single air engagement by RAF fighters.

A mix of the tri-engined Junkers Ju 52 transports, the work horse of the German forces and twin-engined a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on a desert airstrip.

A Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter stands guard, while the Luftwaffe Standard bearer presents the standard to the parade.

A Blohm und Voss Bv 222 Wiking (Viking) long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance flying boat, 1942. This aircraft type was not impressive, but was used to carry emergency supplies from Athens to Derna in Libya in late 1941.

As British forces advanced from Alamein into Libya in late 1942, they came across the sad remains of the desert Luftwaffe. Here at Derna, a heavily cannibalised Messerschmitt Bf 109.

Axis defeat in North Africa: British troops have gathered the remains of a host of Luftwaffe as well as some Regia Aeronautica, aircraft, stacking the wings to create a fence around less recognisable material. But possibly this was to be used as a propaganda shot, here lies the mighty Luftwaffe!

Two Messerschmitt Bf 110s fly in formation close to one of the Aegean islands, late 1943. The one in the foreground carries the code “3U”, denoting Zerstörergeschwader 26.

Burning oil-storage tank mark the aftermath of a Luftwaffe raid during the early stages of Operation “Barbarossa”, July 1941. Destruction of such targets was a vital role of the Luftwaffe.

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