Allied air power lays the foundation for the conquest of Sicily

Posted on Wednesday 7th August 2013

Following the final victory over Axis forces in May 1943 in Tunisia, the Allies prepared to invade Sicily. During June and into July the build-up of aerial forces on Malta gathered pace. One week before the Sicily invasion D-Day, operational strength based in Malta had increased to five squadrons of night-fighters, four reconnaissance flights, and twenty Spitfire squadrons. Ground crews were also in residence preparing for the arrival of three fighter bomber wings. Having emerged from its long siege of 1940-42, Malta was now the equivalent of an unsinkable, giant-size aircraft-carrier, strategically positioned to provide air support of the Sicily invasion.
Nearly two months before the planned troop landings on 9/10 July 1943, Allied air forces opened the campaign for Sicily. Their strategy, as they had pioneered in the desert and Tunisia, was still revolutionary – to first win the air war. Allied heavy bombers flying round the clock from North Africa, first bombed the island of Pantelleria into submission, then hammered the 19 Axis airfields in Sicily. Axis squadrons were forced to disperse to bases in the north of Sicily, and to mainland Italy, which pushed Luftwaffe fighters back beyond an effective range of the Allied landings. Air interdiction operations also intensified in the Mediterranean against Axis shipping, and protecting Allied convoys against U-boats.
In the three month long air war for Sicily, there were many remarkable successes. Two stories which follow, give just a glimpse of the nerve and skill of the Allies’ flyers.

u-boat alert
Shortly after mid-day on 16 June 1943 Flying Officer D T Barnard DFM of RAAF 459 Squadron, lifted his Hudson bomber into the air from the Squadron’s airfield at Lydda, Palestine. Barnard was a 23 year old Australian from Launceston, Tasmania. Before the war he had been a clerk in Melbourne, Victoria.
The Australian pilot’s orders were to rendezvous and collaborate with an Allied naval force, which was searching for U-boat U97. The German submarine had sunk an Allied merchant ship near the port of Haifa. Despite good visibility and only scattered cloud, Barnard was unable to locate the naval ships. He decided to gain height and begin a search patrol on his own. He might be lucky and catch sight of the navy ships, or even the U-boat .
Two hours later Barnard and his crew spotted U97. It was motoring slowly on the surface, north-westwards perhaps making for its base in Greece or Italy. Some of the U-boat crew appeared to be relaxing taking the sun on its narrow deck, and had clearly not seen the Hudson bomber. Barnard at once went into a dive, while his crew readied the bomber’s depth-charges. At low level above the waves he began a run from dead astern of the U-boat.
Barnard’s bomb-aimer released three depth charges. One fell directly onto the U-boat causing a massive ‘dry-hit’ explosion. Two other depth charges fell into the sea, and exploded alongside its hull. The blast from the direct hit drove the Hudson bomber upwards for some 400 feet. Despite fighting for control of the plane, within five minutes Barnard saw the U-boat’s brow rear up out of the sea, as U97 sank stern first below the waves
Barnard turned the bomber onto a homeward direction. It had incurred serious damage to its wings, fuselage and rudder. With the same skill shown in the depth-charging of U97, he nursed it safely back to Haifa.

Mosquitos in the night
When the Sicily invasion came in the early hours of 10 July, Allied planes flew 1,092 sorties protecting the ships and landings. At the same time the incessant bombing raids on Sicilian airfields drove enemy aircraft progressively back to Italian mainland air bases.
To try and counter the Luftwaffe’s capability to mount night attacks against the invasion force, a group of Mosquito night-fighters were brought in. On 4 July Squadron Leader J W Allan, DSO, DFC, landed in Malta in a detachment of six Mosquitos from RAF Squadron 256. Allan was 24 from Epping in Essex, but of Scottish birth. His radar-navigator was Flight Lieutenant H J Davidson, DFC, a 30 year old industrial chemist from Wingham, NSW, Australia.
On the night of 15 July the Luftwaffe sent a 30 strong group of Junkers Ju 88s and other bombers in a raid against Eighth Army at Syracuse. Allan and Davidson went to work, shooting down five bombers, four Ju 88s and a three-engined Cant Z1007. During the remaining four weeks of the battle for Sicily, this remarkable team of Allan and Davidson were to claim another nine Luftwaffe bombers. Several times their own aircraft was damaged, twice returning on only one engine, demonstrating both their own and the Mosquito’s resilience.

the dividends of air power
On 9/10 July the night and morning of the invasion, the Luftwaffe could manage no more than 300 sorties by all aircraft. In the three days 10-12 July, the Desert Air Force alone exceeded 3,000 sorties. Allied planners had allowed for a worst case of losing 300 ships from enemy air attack. In the event only 12 ships were lost.
With freedom of the Sicilian skies, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Axis road convoys, and hit ports and rail lines in both Sicily and Southern Italy, to curtail the enemy’s supplies and communications. By the middle of July the Luftwaffe was restricted to only 25 aircraft based in Sicily. In comparison at 30 July the Allies were operating 40 squadrons from 21 airfields on the island.
On 17 August the last of the Axis forces retreated across the Straits of Messina to the toe of Italy. Allied land forces had been able to conquer Sicily with near impunity from the Luftwaffe. Once again the principle of winning the air war first had laid a decisive foundation for the Allies, and a trail of devastation for the enemy.

De Havilland Mosquito B MkV - RAF 105 Squadron
British troops with an American paratrooper in Avola, 11 July 1943. (Wikipedia)

Lockheed A-29 Hudson light bomber. (Wikipedia)

'Some of the U-boat crew appeared to be relaxing taking in the sun on its narrow deck, and had clearly not seen the Hudson bomber. Barnard at once went into a dive, while his crew readied the bomber's depth-charges...'

Lockheed Hudson V - RAF 48 Squadron, 1942.

'With freedom of the Sicilian skies, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Axis road convoys, and hit ports and rail lines in both Sicily and Southern Italy, to curtail the enemy's supplies and communications.'

Further Reading

With The East Surreys in Tunisia and Italy 1942 - 1945
(Hardback - 240 pages)
ISBN: 9781848847620

by Bryn Evans
Only £25.00

The East Surreys were in near continuous action from November 1942, when they landed in North Africa (Operation TORCH) through to the end of hostilities in May 1945. During these three years of bitter fighting they cleared the Germans from Tunisia, took part in Operation HUSKY, (the invasion of Sicily) and fought up through Italy as far as the River Po.

Trained as mountain troops, the East Surreys saw set piece and patrol action in the Atlas Mountains, on the slopes of Mount Etna and Monte Cassino,…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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