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How The Air War in the Mediterranean Theater Undermined Germany's Strategic Effort in 1942

on Tue, 07/11/2017 - 17:51

When it comes to World War II, at times it's hard to get past the numbers. After all, they are huge. In the course of civilization there has never been a more destructive war. However, it's imperative in analyzing the reasons why the war ended as it did that we also take account how much qualitative factors proved the trump card in determining victory or defeat. To that end, when examining the Luftwaffe's role in the Second World War it is important to consider how much the German high command's decision to redirect high quality assets into the Mediterranean during 1941-1942 undermined Germany's larger strategic goals.

Compared to the massive air war waged over European Russia, the air war in the Mediterranean was a more modest affair, but one far from unimportant. Not only did it grind down Axis resources, but as it was - some of Germany's best military assets. For instance, in December of 1941 and as Germany's Ostheer (army in the east) fought for its survival in the face of massive Soviet counterblows - the Wehrmacht began sending to the Mediterranean one of its most modern combat aircraft: Messerschmitt's Bf-109F single-engine fighter. The Bf-109F could outfly most Allied fighters at high altitude plus outdive and outclimb them. This resulted in the consistently successful German technique of attacking Allied aircraft from above, then climbing back to a position of superiority from whence they could wheel again on the Allied machines while avoiding turning dog-fights. As it was, German fighter squadrons in the Mediterranean equipped with Bf-109E fighters already deployed an aircraft outperforming the Hurricanes and Kittyhawks equipping the majority of Allied fighter squadrons in North Africa (for much of the same reasons as the Bf-109F). This was in spite of the fact that all of the Allied fighters then in service could outmaneuver the Bf-109 in all of its marks. In addition the Curtiss P-40 was a rugged, solidly built aircraft, with superb hitting power due to its six .50 caliber machine guns. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons the Bf-109E was not only still a superior fighter, but given that the few Spitfires in the region were mostly on Malta - the dominant single-engine fighter then in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union and even though the Luftwaffe had largely dominated the Red Army Air Force, by December of 1941 Soviet aircrews were beginning to chalk up some notable successes of their own. Not least of which was winning local air superiority over the best German armies then locked in combat with the Red Army just outside of Moscow.

Nevertheless, in spite of the crisis then emerging on Germany's Eastern Front, in December 1941 the Luftwaffe began upgrading their Mediterranean fighter squadrons with brand-new Bf-109F fighters. In addition, Italy began deploying new Macchi's C.202 - more than a technical match for most Allied fighters at that time and a decided upgrade over the Fiat G.50bis and Maachi C.200 otherwise forming Italy's fighter strength. Though this widened a major Axis performance advantage over Allied fighters then in service with the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF), one has to question the timing of the German deployment. Regardless, technology was only part of the equation in evaluating the qualitative strength of the Luftwaffe's Mediterranean air fleet growing ever more powerful at the expense of Germany's Eastern Front. When discussing air-to-air combat involving aircraft that are similar in terms of performance the most important factor in determining success remains pilot training. During 1942 Germany had amassed a stable of some of the world's best fighter pilots, many of whom staffed the squadrons fighting in the skies over the Mediterranean Sea and North African desert. These pilots, like their peers in Eastern Europe, were well trained and experienced. Many of them had under thier belts as much as eighteen months of combat against British and British Commenwealth pilots. Operating over mostly North African skies, throughout 1942 JG 27's Bf-109F equipped pilots performed exceedingly well against their spirited but overmatched opponents.However, by the fall of 1942 this advantage dissipated. This happened for a number of reasons, including the ability of both the British fighter force at Malta and the British Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) to regenerate their strength with more modern aircraft flown by increasing numbers of pilots graduating from improved flying schools. However, this shift in initiative also came about because of what happened during September of 1942 - when the British killed several of Germany's most elite pilots.

By September of 1942 Egypt had become an Axis strategic dead-end - making losses there that much harder to swallow given one could argue that events in Southern Russia during September of 1942 were most likely deciding the war's outcome. On September 6, 1942 British pilots shot down a Bf 109G-4 flown by Gunther Steinhausen. Steinhausen death came moments after he claimed his 40th kill - a P-40 amidst a swirling day of dogfighting over the Eyptian desert that saw eleven British Spitfires, Hurricanes, Tomahawk, and Kittyhawks shot down as well three German aircraft (two Bf-109's and one Ju-87) and two Italian fighters. The next day a British Spitfire shot down Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt's Bf-109F. Before being killed Stahlschmidt not only had been credited with 59 victories, but was the most experienced German fighter pilot flying in North Africa - with 400 operational sorties to his credit. Then, on September 30, 1942 the heaviest blow came. A person widely recognized today as one of the most talented fighter pilot of the Second World War - Hans-Joachim Marseille died bailing out of his new Bf-109G-2 after an oil pipe fractured and it caught fire. It is believed that he struck the tail when bailing out and was knocked unconscious, as his chute never opened and he fell to his death. Marseille had by the time of his death compiled 158 claimed kills (151 of these coming in North Africa against British pilots). Regardless of the actual number of Allied aircraft Marseille shot down (as he was prone to over-claiming), suffice it to say it was well north of one hundred. No other pilot (Allied or Axis) even came close to matching his record during the fighting in the skies over North Africa.

I single out these deaths for two reasons. First, elite pilots were responsible for a disproportionate number of enemy aircraft shot down during World War II. This is because once a pilot learns how to master the intracacies of air-air combat he has an enormous advantage over even well-trained opponents. To that point JG 27 veteran Rudolf Sinner commented directly as to how; "The air war in Africa favored the 'experts' to a high degree." What he meant was that it favored pilots who had mastered the preferred German tactics of suprise attacking their foes. This is a tactic that sounds simple but requires considerable experience in execution. Lining up and shooting down a fast moving target while diving at high speed was far from easy. Mastering the tactic required overcoming a steep learning curve given that a failure to avoid dog fighting was a particularly deadly 'rookie" mistake (because of the British fighter's superb maneuverability). Nevertheless, once German pilots had perfected their tactics it conferred enormous benefits over their foes. Thus, even though we are talking about the deaths of three pilots: these men had an outsized influence on the fight in the skies over the North African desert. One can only think of the impact such elite pilots would have had in the skies over southern Russia - where the Red Army Air Force was still picking itself up off the mat after having been hammered to pieces in 1941. It is worth nothing that at the same time JG 27 lost three of its best pilots - the battle in the skies over the North African desert increasingly turned in the RAF's favor. Second, what was being accomplished while the Luftwaffes strength was being worn down in Egyptian air space? The Axis army in North Africa had long since been stalemated at El Alamein. By August of 1942, no less September, there was no hope of Axis forces besting the British 8th Army and driving on Suez. Moreover, all of this was happening while German forces in southern Russia were coming within, in some cases, hundreds of yards of seizing objectives that had the Germans concentrated their resources just a bit better then the taking of such objectives would have granted Germany crushing advantanges over the Red Army and Soviet war effort - completely changing the nature of the war. Instead, Germany poured some of its finest men and machines into a battle fought largely on Britain's terms.

Nowhere else but in North Africa could Britain force Germany to expend valuable resources in such quantities and do so in a region that couldn't have been more poorly suited for second-rate maritime powers like Germany to have fought an offensive war. Eduard Nuemann, who would command JG 27 commented as such; "The North African theatre was considered by German pilots as...much more difficult than the Russian front. On one hand this was the consequence of the excellent fighting spirit of the British pilots and their good aircraft, and on the other hand to the specific conditions of the desert. The food was defective because the supply over the sea did not function due to the failure of the transports. The climate injured the health of all pilots with a desert time of more than six months - these were the majority." Ludwig Franzisket, also of JG 27 would single out the "enormous technical difficulties and the lack of supply" as being primary impediments to fighting in the desert. Ernst Dullberg, another JG 27, also pointed out that their "main troubles were due to the supply situation" (in spite of the quality of the British pilots and the dogfighting abilities of the British aircraft - which the Germans generally avoided by playing to the Bf-109's strengths and diving out of the sun with speed, firing, climbing away, and repeating). JG 27 veteran Werner Schroer not only complained about the desert's harsh conditions but the Axis inability to properly supply his fighter group - correctly observing that; "The African campaign was a question of supply." In spite of Italy's central position astride the Mediterranean Shroer found; "The supply of the Italians was so poor that their combat effectiveness, despite the heroism of some elite units, was miserable." This informs us as to just how badly the Axis powers had underprepared for waging a campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean, no less reach the Suez Canal or even fight on into the Middle East.

In February of 1942 the opposing armies had dug in on a line in Eastern Libya running from near Gazala on the coast down to the Allied fortress at Bir Hacheim - with the desert wastes south of that. The two sides held these positions until the Axis went on the offensive late in May. Notably, the Axis built up more than a strong enough desert army had the goal been defensive in nature only. This was because Axis forces were both much closer to their bases of supply at Tunis and Benghazi and because the combined Axis air forces were in the process of pummeling Malta into temporary submission thereby allowing Axis shipping almost unfettered access to Libyan ports. However, the Axis build-up was not without cost. For instance, on May 12, 1942 fourteen German Ju-52 transport aircraft were each loaded with twenty men as reinforcements for Rommel's divisions. Escorted by two Bf 110's the formation ran into a swarm of Beaufighters and Kittyhawks off the African coast. When the carnage was over nine Ju-52's had been blown from the sky while two others had been forced to crash land on the beach. Though such losses in men and aircraft were far from the norm, if you combine this with the contemporaneously occuring heavy losses suffered by Axis transport aicraft in supporting the Demyansk pocket in Russia - the German transport arm (which otherwise had been in good shape) was being ground down mostly due to unforced German errors. Of course the German transport arm wasn't the only military asset being mis-used at that time.

For instance, looking at the Axis position in Libya from a defensive perspective is further instructive. Once the Germans had stabilized the Italian position in Libya there was no reason that Italy could not have provided effective air support for Axis forces in western Libya irrespective of whether the Italians led an invasion of Malta or not. For instance, in February of 1942 the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) had 306 serviceable aircraft in North Africa alone - including two groups equipped with the excellent MC.202 that technically compared well with all Allied fighters (but for the Spitfire which was a moot point anyway since Spitfire equipped squadrons really only operated in any kind of numbers in defense of Malta). For the sake of argument however, let's say the Germans were forced to leave elements of JG 27 in North Africa to bolster the Regia Aeronautica's efforts. There are four reasons why even a dimished German aerial presence should have proven sufficient for acting as a force multiplier helping the Italians defend Libyan air space. First, there was the previously discussed technical superiority of the Bf-109F over the Allied Hurricanes, Tomahawks, and Kittyhawks. Second, and also previously discussed, there was the overall greater experience and quality of the German pilots. Moreover, this is borne out in the historical record. An examination of the Allied and German war diaries and reports from the North African theater during the January-September 1942 period of the war shows that the German pilots were already significantly outnumbered by their foes yet consistently racked up kill disparities over the Allies that on a day-to-day basis were well in Germany's favor. Third, the British had refused to release the far more capable Spitfires (which were easily an effective match for the Bf-109F) for general operations in the Mediterranean. Throughout much of 1942 the British Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) thus faced an uphill battle against the Axis pilots. Fourth, because the front-line was located in Libya and far from the WDAF's key bases and maintenance facilities in eastern Egypt it was highly unlikely the WDAF would be able to marshal the strength in Libya (where they front line sat throughout the first half of 1942) and maintain a tempo of operations to effectively support any large scale offensive attempting to push Axis forces from Libya all together.

In reality the Gazala defensive fighting of May-June 1942 would so weaken the Western Desert Air Force that the RAF's high command was finally forced to send Spitfires and substantial reinforcements. Given the defeat inflicted on the Allied forces in spite of their being dug in and well supported it's not hard to understand that if the Germans had instead remained on the defensive in Libya and not struck east, perhaps while Malta was dealt with as per the original plan, there is no reason why substantial German forces couldn't have been pulled from the North African desert to support the far more important battles in Southern Russia. This is especially true if we consider that any Axis invasion of Malta and the threat this would have posed to the British ability to influence events in the Mediterranean likely would have forced the British to cancel the planned attack at Gazala that in reality was pre-empted by Rommel's own late May offensive.

These redeployed Axis assets could have included the attack aircraft forming a significant part of the Luftwaffe's order of battle in the region. Fliegerfuhrer Afrika alone contained not only the Bf-109F equipped JG 27 but also a strong component of Ju-87, He-111, Bf 110 and Hs 126-B-1 aircraft. This represented a total of 260 operational aircraft after Fleigerfuhrer Afrika had been reinforced on May 10, 1942 with the addition of 40 Ju-87, 30 Bf-109 and 15 Bf-110. These numbers represented aircraft not sent to Southern Russia, where inadequate Luftwaffe close air support assets were being shifted across the front to where needed in a firebrigade fashion rather than being built up into two cohesive shock groups capable of supporting operations in the Crimea and near Izium at the same time or effectively supporting Army Groups A and B when Army Group South was split during Operation Blue. Furthermore, at this time the Luftwaffe's Mediterranean order of battle also included X. Fleigerkorps, representing one of the most powerful collections of attack aircraft then assembled by the Luftwaffe anywhere - if for no other reason than the lavish numbers of Ju-88 aircraft and highly experienced aircrews staffing its attack groups.

Yet, all of this air support would still prove inadquate for maintaining an Axis offensive into infrastructure poor Egypt - even one that as it turned out flowed from in reality what became an outlandishly one-sided Axis victory at Gazala that occurred against all numerical odds. On May 26, 1942 Rommel launched a sweeping attack against the British 8th Army's positions on the Gazala Line, routing the 8th Army in a month long battle and recapturing Tobruk. The Allies suffered staggering losses in men and equipment reaching over 50,000 men (including 32,000 captured at Tobruk) and nearly 1,200 tanks. All of this against German losses of a mere 3,360 killed, wounded, or captured (and even lower casualties for the Italians). Nevertheless, even as Rommel's forces pursued the battered 8th Army east into Egypt, the Western Desert Air Force was able to provide enough air cover to shelter the retreating Allied troops and hit the pursuing Axis motorized columns - again illustrating the advantages gained by whichever army was able to fall back closer to its base of supply. Meanwhile, with the shift in Axis resources to the North African desert, Axis air power over Malta had diminished to such an extant that by August the island's defenders were once again a substantial thorn in the side of Axis shipping lanes to Africa.

Moreover, as early as June 27th (or only three days after the conclusion of the victory at Gazala and Tobruk) it had become obvious that the Axis air forces could not successfully maintain twin offensive operations over Malta and in the North African desert. III./JG 53's records show that during the entire day of June 27th its ostensibly powerful collection of air superiority fighters only sortied four Bf-109s to help cover the Axis armored columns pouring into Egypt. The rest of the fighters had been grounded by lack of fuel. This represented another downside to the Axis advance once it had been subsequently checked in July and it was clear there was no way of taking Suez off the march. Forced from their bases in western Egypt the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) was now concentrated near Cairo and Suez amongst supply, maintenance, and repair facilities far surpassing those found near the Egyptian-Libyan border. In addition, by virtue of being pushed so far east the WDAF had also been relieved of its duties supporting Malta's defenders and the convoy battles around the island. This allowed the WDAF to concentrate on bombing Axis coastal airfields in western Egypt and interdicting Axis shipping bringing desperately needed supplies to Rommel's command. This further increased the strain on not only Axis lines of communication but the powerful German and Italian aerial assets gathered in Egypt.

During the first half of 1942 most German aircraft losses over North Africa had been in the air. For instance, from May 26th to July 26th the Luftwaffe reported 91 Bf-109s damaged or lost to enemy action. The WDAF made 95 claims for Bf-109s shot down during the same period. Now, the British pilots, as did the German, tended to overclaim. In no way were all 91 German figthers brought down in air-air combat. Nevertheless, reviewing the German's daily reports from May-June we see that the vast majority of German losses stemmed from engaging with British fighter pilots. This became less true in July (i.e. after the German reached El Alamein). For instance, between July 24th and 26th the British destroyed or damaged four German fighters. Only one of these was shot down in air-air combat, bombing raids on July 24th and 25th took care of the rest. Though the British raids did mostly material damage the intensity of the raiding meant that the steady trickle of daily losses on the ground whittled down German strength in a way that likely would not have been possible had the frontline remained near the Libyan border.

As a result, it is perhaps no surprise that on June 30th, and as the as 8th Army settled into defensive positions at El Alemain, the Allied Western Desert Air Force could celebrate not only hammering the advancing Axis ground forces but allowing 8th Army to arrive in its new defensive positions in a more powerful state than it should have been considering the losses suffered since May 26th. In addition, more than material assistance was finally arriving for the British led forces in North Africa. By July 19th the United State Army Air Force had begun operations over North Africa - hitting Tobruk and Benghazi over twenty times in the month and doing so not with fighter-bombers but twenty-eight heavy four engine B-24 and B-17 bombers packing considerably greater payloads. In August the USAAF 12th Bombardment Group began arriving as well - equipped with 57 of the B-25C Mitchells that would prove so effective in the ground attack and interdiction role during the war. In addition the U.S. 57th Fighter Group and it's 72 P-40F Warhawks began arriving in August as well. Axis shipping suffered mightily. Though most of the Axis losses were in the form of light steamers, schooners, barges, and other such coastal craft - it all added up. By August 17th the Allied efforts had been so successful the Germans were losing on average at least one ship per day and Rommel's forces could not hope to keep up with the Allied rejuvenation of 8th Army. Then on August 30th Allied aircraft achieved one of their most stunning successes of this period, sinking the 5,000 ton Italian tanker Sant' Andrea.

Meanwhile, 8th Army's rebuild proceeded at a stunning pace in part because of the Axis failure to hammer the British supply centers in the larger Cairo/Suez area. This was true in spite of the fact that both the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica deployed a considerable number of bomber squadrons in the Aegean Islands and Greece. These aircraft instead concentrated on interdicting Allied supply efforts from the Eastern Mediterranean to Malta. Therefore, these otherwise powerful assets accomplished next to nothing in regards to hitting the rich number of Allied training, supply, maintenance, and repair faciiltiies densely concentrated in eastern Egypt. Without an even greater commitment of Axis resources the idea of Rommel's men being able to force 8th Army's positions at El Alamein and drive on Suez was, even early in July 1942, becoming increasingly unlikely. All of which should have prompted the Axis high command to reevaluate what was going on and reconsider how to better use such powerful assets as X. Fleigerkorps.

For that matter, Transporverbande Sud deployed the bulk of the increasing numbers of Ju-52's being ordered to the Mediterranean as part of a desperate attempt to keep Rommel's forces supplied at El Alamein and just over 1,000 miles east of the main Axis supply bases at the port of Tripoli. The scope of this costly resupply effort can be understood if we look at the records of aircraft landing at the Axis airfields at Matruh in Egypt. For instance, on September 2, 1942 a total of 110 Ju-52's landed with supplies for Rommel's forces further east. This represented an enormous commitment of resources at a time when the twin drives on Stalingrad and in the Caucuses were struggling not only against Soviet resistance, but due to a lack of supplies that had forced the German spearheads in Southern Russia to repeatedly spend days at a time halted on the steppe. These immobilizations happened during the crucial exploitation and pursuit phases of Operation Blue that occurred from July into September. This allowed Soviet resistance (given time to rebuild) to stiffen and both drives devolved into the slugfests that characterized the fighting from mid-September into November. Meanwhile, early in November and even after the Axis defeat at El Alamein the Germans still committed valuable resources to supporting operations in Africa that otherwise could have greatly bolstered German prospects in Southern Russia. This included a detachment of powerful Hs 129B-1 ground attack aircraft equipped both 15mm cannon and a 30mm pod mounted tank busting gun armed with tungston-cored ammunition. All of which again prompts one to wonder what such aircraft could have accomplished at Stalingrad or perhaps had they been used to bolster German Army Group A's drive in the Caucuses that at that same time was falling only hundreds of yards short of cutting the main supply roads that would have rendered Soviet resistance in the Caucuses virtually defunct.






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