Saturday, 9 June 2012

Bombing the Wrong targets Part IV: The Luftwaffe in Africa

One of Rommel's complaints was that the Luftwaffe weren't doing enough and historians are keen to point out the lack of German aircraft over the advance towards El Alamien and even over the fortified front.
So what were the Luftwaffe doing in North Africa?


In a prophetic message to the advancing British soldiers in 1941 a fighter pilot of Jagdgeschwader 53 wrote on the blackboard of their airbase:


"We Come back... Happy Christmas!"
Two months later they had riding forward with the Panzer armies. As the successes of Rommel's push became apparent aircraft were taken from Kesselring's Malta operations and his refusal to accept Herkules and his own thirst for glory meant that the Luftwaffe were dragged along with him on his ill advised thrust into Egypt.
Von Waldau FlFu Afrika
Rommel was notoriously difficult to work with and Frohlich, the Fifu Afrika took to avoiding meetings and was eventually relieved of command and Von Waldau was placed in charge. Waldau had much more of a backbone, he wasn't willing to take Rommel's outbursts and spoke plainly. Of course Rommel's style of leadership left a bewildered Waldau guessing what was going on. During Operation Crusader Waldau held his craft back unknowing what the over all situation was and where Rommel and his tanks were. The same happened as Rommel pushed forward in Operation Thesius and for the first two days the Luftwaffe was absent from the skies. On the third day, in desperation Waldau sent his Stukas up and when they found a group of tanks heading West towards the German lines they attacked. Unfortunately they were Rommel's tanks that had got turned around in the swirling desert combat - luckily no one was killed. Better communication from the field would have averted this and given Waldau's forces more potency.


There were sevre logistical demands on the small air force in North Africa as they were caught in the same supply problems that held Rommel's forces in a vice. At any one time he had no more than a months supply of petrol until November 42 when it dropped by 90%!!! On top of that the desert proved problematic to the running of aircraft with sand clogging aircraft and engines becoming warn out from over use in operations like the air bombardment on Bin Harcheim, but I will come to that in Part V.

Larger parts like wings and undercarriages could not be brought in by airlift or shipping so a lot of damaged aircraft had to be cannibalised just to keep the few in the air and without a recovery service the number of aircraft just dwindled. This was not helped further by Rommel's rapid retreat from the line at Alamien and Luftwaffe crews were forced to abandon the lame ducks and get out with what they could.
Permanent air superiority could never be obtained in the true style of Blitzkrieg. Waldau had too few aircraft. The North African Luftwaffe never really surpassed 300 machines as the Ostfront in Russia had priority for new machines especially with the massing of aircraft for the push towards the Caucuses in mid 1942. Von Waldau also had the problem that he had no medium bomber force. The Luftwaffe needed two engine-bombers for longer term aims such as knocking out enemy airfields behind the lines, harassing communications and roads to help cause confusion and chaos. The desert was not suitable for such aircraft and none could be spared from the operations over Malta or the Mediterranean so Von Waldau had to had to work with Stukas and Jabo (Fighter bombers) which suited Rommel's needs as he really only wanted a flying artillery to give his tanks more mobility and speed.
Geisler sent raids from Crete to strike the Allies behind the lines and hit the RAF depot at Alexandra but they began to suffer from enemy fighters pushing them to night attacks. They were further hampered by the Allies stripping down Spitfires to be able to reach high altitude and intercept the Junkers 86 recon aircraft thus leaving them blind of potential targets and assess damage. Frohlich had also sent a solitary bomber to strike the French held fort Lamy on Lake Chad on a round trip of 2500km but that was about it for the Medium bombers role. The consideration that a medium bomber raid on British targets in Egypt would have led to their destruction at the hands of the larger RAF force in Egypt and the greater discipline of the RAF pilots to target bombers over fighters, unlike the Jagdflieger. 


 The Fighter pilots were a breed unto themselves. Hans-Joachim Marseille, the star of Africa shot down 17 fighters on the same day and had a top score of 158 and rivalled a fellow pilot Horst Reuter's feat of shooting down 6 Hurricanes in a single day TWICE. The famous Bomber pilot Werner Baumbach claimed that fighter pilots lacked the discipline and stoic attitude of the Kampfflieger and in Africa he is proven correct as the fighter pilots became caught up in scoring as many kills as possible to try and get bigger and bigger scores but they saw more challenge in taking down fighters which although important was not what was needed as many Afrikakorps soldiers found to their discomfort as the defence lines and Rommel's devil's gardens were bombed to oblivion. These aces began to suffer losses as the RAF improved the quality of its fighters and the 109 Fs were suddenly facing Spitfire Mark Vs and P-40s instead of the rugged and dependable Hurricanes. Though despite their losses Unteroffizier Bernd Schneider shot down a Bristol Bombay transport carrying the 8th Armies new C-in-C Lt Gen W. H. E. Gott and he was killed on impact meaning that another C-in-C a little known General called Montgomery was called up.


The third limb was the Stukageschwadern who worked so hard to help Rommel advance. They were expertly handled by Waldau who, with Kesselring's intervention, managed to tame Rommel into letting him know what was going on in advance rather which paid massive dividends in the taking of Torbruk which earned Waldau the Knights Cross and Rommel his baton. However the bombs were near useless in the desert. Unless there was a direct hit on a tank or building they were next to useless. Half of all bomb damage and casualties are caused by flying shrapnel and glass but in the desert the explosions only throw up sand which doesn't do any damage when it hits other vehicles or even soldiers.


Waldau's 300 aircraft were beset by enemy bombing attacks, SAS strikes, bad weather that turned the dust strips into swamps, supply issues that plagued the whole African adventure, huge lines of communication and with the massive advances by Rommel a head on the lines that would outrace all the important logistical sections like Fuel, signals, repair miles in the rear with no time to catch up. The situation was so dire that a glider formation was brought in to fly these necessary logistical organisations up to the front without wasting fuel.


Kesselring promised Rommel an airlift of supplies and the Feldmarschall provided. It took a bit of time as the Luftwaffe didn't have the number of transports available in the Mediterranean theatre and they had to be disengaged from the Eastern front which obviously takes time. Oberst Robert Starke with some six Gruppen of aircraft and gliders from LLG 1 were the first to arrive and begin operations. The airlift flew a total of 4425 sorties across Mittlemeer from Greece and Crete to Bengazhi flying in pulks of 25. There were extreme shortages of crews due to sickness and aircraft even though Starke took ambulances and signal aircraft and even a modified refrigeration plane to plug the gaps. These shortages meant that crews would often have to fly the trip twice a day!

The trip was perilous for the formations of Junkers 52 transports and their Messerschmitt 110 escorts. Not only were their take off times similarly heralded with an Ultra message, which of course were duly read by the RAF, they also could only fly on good weather. On the 12th May 1942 15 Ju52s were intercepted by Kittyhawks and Beaufighters, by the end of the battle 8 transports were lost and a further one damaged - 175 soldiers went down with them but only 39 were rescued.
That day one of those true acts of heroism that War brings out occurred when father of six Hauptman Kroseberg of the Search and rescue flew over the survivors and dropped his own life jacket to the men in the sea - only to go MIA before he could return.

However the crews managed to deliver 28,200 men and 4400 tonnes of supplies as well as taking back the wounded, which numbered over 10,000 for June 42, mail, Von Waldau's burnt out aero engines so that they could be repaired and retuned later. In the early stages of Thesius they carried 1000 men, 25 tonnes of material and 300 tonnes of aviation fuel- Daily!
The air fleet transferred to Brindisi in Italy at the end of a railway hub operating to Torbruk but the number of aircraft dropped to 161 aircraft by August, 50% were operational. Allied fighters were increasing in number and pressurising the transports and their escorting ME 110s from 7 and 9/ ZG 26 and 70 52s were lost in a six week period! These craft would be vitally missed that winter with the airlift to Stalingrad! Further aircraft were drafted in including Wiking flying boats and Messerschmitt gigant 323 and 321 transports and even the transport schools were mobilised to assist coming up to half the Luftwaffe's transport fleet even Bomber groups were conscripted. The sad fact was as Rommel fell back the Crete based aircaft under Wild's Lufttransportfuhrer I could no longer reach the German front lines and after Torbruk fell only the line from Italy to Bengazi remained and that was under constant pressure from a resurgent Malta. Even sadder still, and infuriating for Kesselring, Rommel blew up all the ammunition and fuel he had demanded that Kesselring's men had fought so hard to get to him as he withdrew from El Alamein.


By November '42 they had flown the Herculean feat of flying 42,000 men, 15,000 tonnes of supplies pulled 9000 wounded and sick out of the front.


It can not be said that the airmen and machines of FlFu Afrika and of Luftflotte 2 operating in the Mediterranean had not tried their utmost or not fought valiantly. Ultimately they were undone by overall strategy and logistics though.

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