Regia Aeronautica in North Africa
Air battles in the North African campaign have always been associated with ground battles that took place along the Mediterranean coast in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. The strategic nature of air combat as such never prevailed, and fighter pilots ( as well as other pilots on this battlefield ) shared the same conditions as army soldiers. Supporting their progress or covering their retreat. It was North Africa where the Italian fighters achieved most of their victories.
Since the Italian declaration of war, Regia Aeronautica, the 10th Gruppo near the city of Benin has been represented in North Africa by the 13th Gruppo near Castelbenita with CR.42 fighters . The older CR.32 remained in service alongside CR.42 , but their combat appearances were limited to battle attacks.
Seeing the possibility of weakening the modest Italian forces in North Africa before they were strengthened enough to pose a real threat, several RAF fighter units stationed near the Egyptian border launched attacks to gain air supremacy by involving the few Hurricanes available at the time of the Italian declaration of war. Unfortunately, there were not enough of them to pose a serious threat to the Fiat CR.42 . The two sides fought in several clashes until September 13, 1940. On that day, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani ( who took command of Libya after the death of Italo Balba on June 28 ), a veteran of Abyssinia , ordered his army to cross the Egyptian border and head east to Suez. Within a week, his troops occupied Sidi Barrani when Graziani ordered a halt and began planning another offensive.
In early December, the marshal decided that the time was right for Italian forces to move forward in an effort to occupy Marsa Martuh. However, his advance was thwarted by a five-day limited offensive launched by Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell and General Sir Richard O'Connor . These limited campaigns ended with the conquest of Kyrenaijka by the Allies.
On the eve of this attack, the 5th Squadra Aerea had 444 aircraft at its disposal, of which 324 were fully operational. On the British side, the RAF had about the same number of aircraft at its disposal, and its fighter component had slightly more Hurricanes than in the fall.
The British counterattack was surprising in its effectiveness, which led the German Supreme Command to decide that the X. Fliegerkorps would leave Sicily at the end of January 1941 to help the collapsing Italian troops. Meanwhile, the 5th Squadra Aerea was practically swept from the sky during the December fighting and in the following months was supplemented by the transfer of the first single-engine fighters that arrived in North Africa at Castebenito Airport. They were represented by 37 G.50s from the 2nd Gruppo Autonomo ( 150, 151 and 152 Squadriglia ), together with the 358th Squadriglia from the 22nd Gruppo belonging to the 52nd Storm. At the end of January, two more Groups with G.50 were sent to Libya, namely 155.Gruppo and 20. Gruppo ( after moving from Belgium after the end of the deployment against the British Isles ).
The arrival of the Germans and General Erwin Rommel in particular helped to raise Italian fighting morale, which was very low after the defeat. Fighting broke out again, although at a limited level under the skilled command of Fliegerfuhrer Africa, the troops rejoined the action. Due to the lack of modern aircraft, 5 Squadra Aerea could only support the new Axis offensive to a limited extent, and its aircraft operated mostly at night. Italian fighters were mainly engaged in escort operations, mostly providing fighter protection to the German Ju 87 . During the spring and summer of 1941, cooperation between Italy and the Germans deepened considerably, especially at the unit level.
One such cooperation is captured in Major Baylon's report: " Since April 23, 1941, my 2nd Gruppo Autonomo, located at Base No. 1 north of Derna, has undergone a period of cooperation with the X. CAT ( X Fliegerkorps ) consisting mostly of accompanying missions Ju 87 to bomb the besiegedTobruk as well as against other enemy forces in the pass of Sollum-Halfaya and Ridotta Capuzzo and Ju 88 attacking ships at sea. I myself flew 51 escort flights for German planes between April 23 and July 6. We used 12 to 18 G.50 for each mission. It was a successful period of excellent operations, thanks to the precise and careful planning of each mission by the X. CAT command. "
Fighter units were supplemented during the summer of 1941 with new aircraft in an effort to make up for losses and wear. At the same time, new troops were brought in from Italy. One of them was the 153rd Gruppo armed with MC.200 , which arrived in Castelbenito on July 2, 1941.
The second British counteroffensive on this battlefield, codenamed Crusader, broke out in the morning hours of November 18, 1941, and the first Axis unit to fall victim to was the 20th Gruppo. She flew from Martuba Airport to Stage Airport at Sidi Rezegh to fly an escort mission to fighter bombers in the morning action, with G.50 units found on the ground by the Long Range Desert Group, which penetrated unnoticed80 km into the enemy rear, its victims. Only three machines managed to start and the other 18 were destroyed on the ground by enemy fire. The unit was then relocated to Italy.
In early January 1942, the British advanced halfway to Libya to El Agheila, but their plan to conquer the whole country was thwarted by Rommel's counterattack on January 21. All available fighter units were thrown at the retreating Allied troops, and on January 29, Axis units recaptured Benghazi, where the 6th and 150th Gruppo moved, the 8th Gruppo relocated at the base east of El Agheila and the 3rd Gruppo to Sidi el Ahmar.
On January 30, the commander of the British 8th Army ( Ritchie ) decided to create a new landing line behind Gazala, which led north to the coastal fortifications of Tobruk. The relentless Rommel continued to prosecute, directing all his air forces to strike against the port fortifications. German bombers carried out a number of daily attacks under the protection of MC.200 and MC.202 .During one of these missions, the Italian Deputy Chief of Staff General Santoto reported: " Ten MC.200s , which provided close escorts for 12 Ju 87 , were attacked by 20 P-40s. Bf 109 providing remote escort, failed in the initial capture of the attack. The Italian pilots, accepting the challenge, fought to the limit and allowed the German formation to return without loss - the price was six MC.200 . "
The Italian-German offensive to break the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line resumed on May 26, 1942, when 59 MC.202 carried out a surprise attack on a large Allied airfield near Gambut. A formation of 24 Kittyhawks was caught parked wing on wing on the ground and was immediately attacked. Although the Italians reported the destruction of the entire formation, the RAF wrote off only two aircraft from Sqn. No 250.
When the Axis Armored Divisions began their attack in the afternoon, the MC.200 and CR.42, along with Luftwaffe units, intervened with British forces behind their fortified line. Finally, in the evening, after the attack of 800 Italian and German counterattack aircraft, the besieged fortifications finally fell.
The fall of Tobruk followed, and Axis troops maintained pressure on the retreating Allied troops, advancing up to 50 kilometers a day in those days. Air support reached a critical stage because ground equipment could not be transported to the captured airports at the same rate as mechanized troops were advancing still east. More or less, the movement of troops was most limited by logistical operations, which were not thoroughly planned by either the Germans or the Italians.
Fortunately, the RAF did not pay much attention to the Axis supply columns during the cover of the retreat of its own troops, and so the vulnerable columns were virtually undisturbed in their efforts to get supplies to the front line. The Allies stopped their retreat at El Alamein, which proved to be the best place to defend against the advancing Axis army.
The great depression of El Qattar was virtually impenetrable to the motorized forces, making it impossible to use Rommel's favorite bypass tactic. Allied positions were supplemented by fresh reserve forces and fortified with obstacles and minefields. Most importantly, close cooperation between the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force has finally begun to work. Close cooperation does not arise overnight, but is the result of trials and tests in various situations of progress and retreat that have been the order of the day in North Africa. This close interplay was totally lacking on the Italian side, as Regia Aeronautica was unable to guarantee functional tactical support for the Axis ground forces. This deficiency proved to be fatal.
5 Squadra Aerea subordinated all available air forces to support Rommel's attack against defensive positions at El Alamein which began on August 31. at this time, Italian aircraft showed an average of 60% of the combat readiness of the total number, compared to the RAF, which ranged between 73 and 77% of combat readiness, it was low. The conditions of the African desert burdened the operational capabilities of the aircraft to the maximum limits. The sand found its way into all parts and mixed with oil often led to engine seizures. Air filters for Italian fighters were not available until the end of the fighting in Africa, which was due to the views of senior officers of Regia Aeronautice that these problems can be eliminated by improvisation and maintenance more easily than by changing equipment and supplies. Finally, the number of different types and variants of aircraft that Regia Aeronautica used at the end of 1942 led in itself to supply problems, for example in the procurement of spare parts, which were never available in the required quantity.
At El Alamein, between 600 and 700 Italian and German aircraft were thrown into action against Allied forces in excess of 1,000 fighters and bombers.Of the 700 Axis aircraft, only 150 were fighters and 180 dive bombers or fighter bombers, the remnants were dominated by transport and reconnaissance machines with a few medium bombers.
On the ground, General Bernard Montgomery took command, who firmly believed in the cooperation of the Air Force and ground forces and also strongly demanded it.
Although the Axis soldiers and pilots demonstrated bravery in the attack on El Alamein, it was not enough for the attack to succeed. The Desert Air Force focused on attacks against armored vehicles at the front, and when the second battle of El Alamein broke out on October 23, the fortunes of war in North Africa definitively passed to the Allies. On October 31 and November 1, the key moments of the battle came when there was a breakthrough in the positions of the Axis. At this stage, the Allied Air Force achieved air supremacy over the battlefield, which, in addition to quantitative superiority, was also signed by the deployment of mobile radars, which detected the approaching Axis aircraft in time. On November 12, the last troops of the Axis of Egypt, and the next day Tobruk fell.
On November 8, the Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria opened a second front in Africa during Operation Torch. The survival of Italian and German troops in Africa depended on the effective maintenance of strong positions in Tunisia and western Libya. Their troops quickly retreated to Tripoli and then advanced on Tunisia. Tunisia, meanwhile, was occupied by forces moved mostly directly from Sicily. Paradoxically, the occupation of Tunisia partially improved the supply situation, as the journey from Sicily to Tunisia was significantly shorter than the current supply to Libya.
Italian and German air units immediately launched an offensive against the landed units, both from bases in occupied Tunisia and directly from Sicily and Sardinia. The intensive deployment of all units was accompanied by heavy losses of both fighters and bombers, and part of the operations, despite poor equipment, moved into the night.
The final battles for Tunis took place for the Axis pilots in heavy battles against the predominance of up to six for one. Their airport was constantly bombed by Desert Air Force. There was a gradual withdrawal of troops in Sicily, and in mid-April 1943, only the remnants of the 54th Storm remained in Tunis.
On May 6, 1943, Anglo-American troops launched a decisive attack, their advance was supported by a series of bombing missions that facilitated their advance. On May 13, 1943, the last Axis troops in North Africa capitulated.
More articles from this author