Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bombing the wrong targets Part III; Malta and Herkules

The crux of the whole campaign is Malta. All supplies from Italy to Tripoli or Benghazi have to pass within range of the island. Even the supplies from Crete that came by ship would encounter the Submarines and long range aircraft that would fly round trips between Alexandria and Malta.

Royal Opera House Valletta after an air raid 
Kesselring knew this on arrival, Admiral Raeder knew this post Sealion, the Italian high command were aware of it but were less than enthused by the prospect of a landing. However the Regio aeronautica did commence air raids on the small island catching the small British garrison and defence force off balance. Most of the defences had yet to be finished and the amount of aircraft available had been severely neglected, mainly because the RAF fighter production in 1940 had been purely for fighter command. Faith, Hope and Charity were considered to be the only three aircraft on the island, three Gloucester Sea Gladiators which were more than obsolete compared to the RAF and Luftwaffe standards but compared to the Fiat Falco bi-planes and the Italian twin bombers they were on a rough par. However in truth there were 56 aircraft (20 fighters) on the island at the beginning of 1941 which was when Geisler's units arrived in Sicilly with II/KG 26, 2./KG 4 with the escorting Me 110 fighter units 4 and III/ZG 26 and he also managed to borrow Von Richtohofen's Stabe StG 3 and Lehrgruppe 1 each with two Gruppen

Success was quick as Stuka dive bombers struck convoy MS.6 and between the Stukas and a He 111 pathfinder they sank HMS Southampton and severely damaged the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious who was pursued by Geisler's men who flew 200 sorties (losing 8) to try and sink her but she managed to get to Alexandria.
The first raids against Malta were carried out by Junker 88 bombers flying in small formations over the island with 110 escorts and then came Heinkel He 111 night bombers. The 110s were still inadequate as escorts and their charges were often damaged or shot down as their 110s ungainly struggled in the skies and the Italian fighters just didn't cope well at all. The situation was further exasperated when one of the Zestorergruppe was transferred to North Africa.

General der Flieger Geisler
Then Oberstleutnant Joachim Muncheberg arrived with 12 Messerschmitt 109 Es. They immediately began cutting through the Hurricanes and Muncheberg shot down two of four hurricanes in one go, on 26th February he shot down Flying officer Taylor Malta's resident ace. Aerial supremacy was gained and the surviving Wellington bombers were forced to withdraw and the fighter force was cut down to 24 fighters.
Stukas were used night and day, the 109s supplemented by a gruppe from JG 27 were used for free sweeps and Jabo raids but Geisler lacked the firepower to completely subjugate the whole island and after a total of 2741 sorties between January-May they only lost 44 aircraft, 62 enemy planes shot down (42 by Munchenberg's squadron and 19 by the Oberstleutnant). The threat to Greece and the Balkan situation led to the Luftwaffe force being withdrawn and the Italian airforce being put back in charge of subduing Malta and escorting convoys.

OKW agreed to Il Duce that Italy should rule their own airspace and Geisler was moved to Crete to carry out operations against the British fleet and bomb Alexandria from there. However without the quality German aircraft the RAF were quick to rearm their forces with 50 Hurricanes arriving in Mid May and a fleet of Swordfish.
Geisler's forces did not damage the royal navy but they did contain them to port and in a daring raid 100 RAF aircraft were destroyed in Abu Sueir depot on 10/11 July. However Geisler's forces were not really meant or trained for anti shipping attacks and it wasn't until  Kommando Petersen the anti shipping experts from the Atlantic and North sea were called in as were a small group of Focke Wulf Condors.

However it soon became apparent that the Italians had lost the initiative over Malta as RAF sorties grew more and more bold and voices in OKW and ObDl were vying to have Geisler and his forces returned but to do so would have been a blot on Italian honour so in the end Geisler was moved with a reduced force of 20 aircraft to police the Naples to Tripoli sea lanes. This was not ideal though and soon he was forced to use Stukas against Submarines - something they were truly unsuited for.

With the arrival of Kesselring and a lot of his Luftflotte 2 formations from Russia to set up C-in-C south at the end of 1942 a second phase in the attacks on Malta restarted. This time there was a plan for invasion. Whilst a sustained aerial bombardment by the larger formations Italian paratroop and Von Ramcke's German paratrooper force were training for an assualt codenamed Herkules. Student, the officer behind the victory on Crete had planned it with Ramcke. According to Kesselring's memoirs the draft plan was three fold.

1. Airbourne troops would take the southern heights before assualting and capturing the airfields south of Valetta after the Luftwaffe carried out a strike on the airfields.

2. Using sycronised bombing raids and in conjunction with the paratroops, Naval landings would take place south of Valetta and take the strong points and costal batteries before moving on to strike the harbour.

3. Diversionary attacks on the bay of Marsa Scirocco would draw the Allied garrison away from Valetta.

Kesselring's forces were to strike the airfields, AA batteries and naval yards in preparation for the invasion. For the second time his forces would be used in a strategic context but the difference in the attacks on Malta was that the island was a lot smaller than England and the 109s could operate with much more fuel.
German crews would often fly three sorties a day over the island (one of which against airfields). Fighters would precede the bombers with a strafing or jabo run then the bombs would fall decimating the airfields. Aerial superiority was quickly gained with Hurricane figures dropping to 20 serviceable out of 80 and 97% of all raids were taking part in daylight.
USS Wasp landed 46 Spitfires but they were quickly bounced and their airfields bombed leaving ony 27 by the next day.
The German forces were not immune however and Junker 88s suffered from heavy losses at first as they were diving individually on targets giving gunners time to take them one at a time. Soon formations would move to striking as a Squadron.

Despite these heavy raids and the reduction of Takali airfield to that of a World War One battlefield the battle was called off. Between March and April the Luftwaffe flew 11819 sorties and dropped 6557 tonnes of bombs (3150 on Valletta).

The Luftwaffe was called off. Malta was beaten and supplies were reaching Rommel in Africa in larger numbers. The Italian high command knew their troops would not be ready until August to take the island and OKW still smarting from the massacres on Crete were unwilling to throw their troops into another blood bath. The choice between Herkules and Thesius had to be made.
Rommel with his usual flair and promises of victory against the disorganised British army, who were in full retreat to their defencive line at an unknown railway halt called El Alamein. Rommel had taken vast swathes of supplies from the British at Torbruk and against all the advice from Kesselring and von Waldau he pressed for the attack. Believing that the British would soon be defeated, concern to avoid a similar blood bath on Malta as he had seen in Crete and believing fully in his Paladin Hitler shelved Herkules. Thesius went forward with results far from the German plan but I shall come to this shortly. 

As for Malta... With Herkules postponed indefinitely and Rommel charging deeper into Egypt the plan was forgotten. Loerzer, the fleigerkorps commander in Sicily had his forces scattered to the winds and reassigned. Some of them were reassigned to a blockade of Malta operating from Crete but it proved fruitless as Allied air power grew.

The Luftwaffe did manage to inflict damage upon the British ships. LG 1 interceted three convoys and sank four ships coming to 28970 GRT and three out of the four Destroyer escorts. The British response was to launch operations Harpoon and Vigorous to relieve the island and Commando raids on the bombers based at Heraklion. Though with Stuka assistance they managed to sink another two ships (12915 grt) and two more destroyers.
When the British decided to try another tacck by bringing a convoy (operation pedestal 11th August) from Gibraltar rather than Alexandria the Germans moved LG 1 to Sicily to engage it. Once a radar equipped Ju 88 found it 75 German aircraft attacked over 4 days costing the Luftwaffe 16 aircraft. They did however sink five ships totalling 52416 grt but laden with food and fuel the convoy still arrived.

One final throw of the dice was made in October 1942 and lasted all of three days. Kesselring could only manage 150 aircraft with a 50% serviceability rate and the RAF had grown in number and had a new commander, his old nemesis Keith Park formerly of 11 Group! The Germans suffered a 7.5% loss rate over the three days and even the much overrated 109Gs failed to help the situation and the RAF began using Operation Window to confuse the Freya radars on Sicily stopping the proper fighter response.
The Luftwaffe lost a total of 357 planes in two years, the Italians 175 and the island remained untaken, its operations unhindered much to the detriment of Rommel's campaign.

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