Eleven Junkers Ju-52/3m transport planes skimmed the waves of the Mediterranean on December 12, 1941, their green-and-black camouflage contrasting sharply with the brilliantly blue water. They were heading for the coast of Libya in North Africa to bring desperately needed supplies to the famed German Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel.
Determined to deny the Germans those supplies were 16 Martin 167F Maryland bombers flying for the British Royal Air Force (RAF), crewed by men from South Africa. That day the South Africans were using the twin-engine bombers as improvised long-range fighters, and when they first swooped down on the Junkers Ju-52s about 50 miles from the coast, the Marylands had an easy time of it. Two of the transports were quickly set ablaze. Their crews leaped from the planes without parachutes before the burning aircraft plunged into the sea.
The South Africans were surprised, however, at the fierceness of the Ju-52s’ defensive machine-gun fire. A group of three German transports threw so many rounds at one Maryland that its fuel tanks were repeatedly holed, forcing the pilot to break off and head for base. Then the RAF pilots discovered that the Junkers were not unaccompanied; two Messerschmitt Me-110 fighters swooped down and began wreaking havoc on the Marylands.
The Maryland with the leaking fuel tanks managed to evade the fighters, but its pilot realized too late that gasoline fumes were about to render him and the rest of his crew unconscious just as they approached their base for an emergency landing. Several minutes later, ground crews revived the pilot and explained that somehow he had managed to bring his bomber in for a perfect landing — in the middle of an ammunition dump, barely missing numerous piles of artillery shells.
Four other Marylands were shot down and the rest driven off, allowing most of the supplies to get through in what was a clear victory for the Germans. But it was not to be the last time that South Africans would encounter planes of the German air transport service.
When Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring became commander in chief, south (encompassing the Mediterranean area), in November 1941, he approached the task more like a circus ringmaster than a high-ranking officer. On the one hand he had to exercise the utmost authority to earmark scarce supplies for the Afrika Korps, while on the other he had to engage in the utmost diplomacy to coax his reluctant Italian partners to get the supplies to North Africa as fast as possible. His status in helping build up the Luftwaffe during the 1930s helped in the former, and his Bavarian aristocratic background helped in the latter.
Technically, Kesselring and his countrymen were all subject to Italian control as part of the Axis or German-Italian coalition, since the sole reason Germans were fighting in Africa was Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s failure to conquer the British in Egypt. After the Italian army was routed in 1940, the British threat to Mussolini’s colony in Libya drew Rommel and the first elements of the Afrika Korps there in February 1941. He then proceeded to do to the British what they had just done to the Italians, only with far greater ferocity. The fortress port of Tobruk alone resisted Rommel’s blitzkrieg. He wiped out all the previous British gains, driving them back to the Egyptian border.
In the autumn of 1941 the British pushed back, and despite severe losses inflicted by superior German weapons and tactics, they managed to lift the siege of Tobruk and bring about a stalemate on the desert battlefields. Thereafter, it became a logistical race between both forces to accumulate the greatest amount of supplies in the shortest time — to be prepared to strike first. This was no easy task in the desert, since in many outlying spots the only essential that did not have to be imported was air to breathe.
Looking at a map, it would seem that the Afrika Korps had the easier task. Although taking the shortest route from Italy to Africa via Sicily and Tunisia was not possible because Tunisia was still a neutral French colony, the somewhat greater distance from Sicily to the Italian colonial port of Tripoli in Libya was still much shorter than the supply route the British faced. Their merchant ship convoys could not regularly traverse the Mediterranean to Egypt without being exposed to devastating air attacks from Sicily. So the ships were forced to go by the very long haul — around the Cape of Good Hope and then up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.
But since the German U-boats had failed to close the Atlantic sea lanes, the British had a safe, if time-consuming, route for supplies in bulk for Egypt. The Axis route was far more vulnerable. Submarines and surface warships of the Royal Navy took a heavy toll on Axis convoys to Tripoli. And the British-held island of Malta was well-placed to mount additional attacks with torpedo and dive bombers based there.
Rommel himself made the Axis problems worse. All his early victories in Africa came from disregarding the necessity of building up an adequate supply network in favor of fast, sweeping advances. To him, opportunity was everything; his quartermaster officers simply had to keep up the best way they knew how with the fuel, ammunition, water and food that his tanks and soldiers needed. Many times the urbane Kesselring felt like throwing up his hands in exasperation, seeing that Rommel intended to sustain his advances mainly by capturing supplies from the British, turning his panzers into privateers — a kind of self-financing enterprise in a brutal and unforgiving environment.
At all times the Achilles’ heel of the entire Axis North African campaign was resupply. While German troops fought brilliantly at the front, much of their supplies had to come first by Italian merchant ships and then by Italian trucks, moving on a long and exposed coastal road toward the front. Rommel often complained bitterly that if his soldiers were willing to risk so much in the field with Mussolini’s prestige at stake, the Italian-controlled transport service should be willing to take more risks to get the supplies through. It took all of Kesselring’s powers of persuasion in Rome to ensure that at least a minimum arrived.
What Kesselring did not realize was that the British were able to eavesdrop on his communications. In an Intelligence triumph, scholars and scientists in England had managed to break many of the German codes used in radio communication, the result of an operation called ‘Ultra. Ultra could break down and send to the British in Egypt a great variety of intercepted messages — for instance, the sailing times and courses of Italian convoys bound for Africa.
Accordingly, the British sent out strike forces with deadly efficiency. The biggest drawback was that Ultra could never be compromised. Rather than let the Axis powers suspect that their codes had been broken, the British sent out reconnaissance planes to fly over the convoys, so that the enemy would believe that fortuitous sightings had brought out the strike forces. The secret was kept safe even though the methods used sometimes led to the embarrassing predicament of having to pass up easy targets when there were no reconnaissance planes available.
During the last months of 1941, merchant ships sunk by the British averaged at least 20 percent of the convoys. By the end of the year, the average hovered around 50 percent. If the British had maintained that rate, they could have scored a tremendous strategic victory, starving the Afrika Korps and obliging the Germans to fall back without being able to fight another desert battle.
Unfortunately for the British, at the start of 1942 Kesselring showed his strong hand. He sent Fliegerkorps II, a large group of fighters and bombers recently transferred from the Russian Front, to pound Malta into impotence, and he also brought 10 U-boats into the Mediterranean to harass the Royal Navy. Italian convoy losses dropped off dramatically, and Rommel received enough supplies to begin another victorious advance.
Kesselring also stepped up air transport. It was not only faster but also completely under German control. Another advantage was that, so far, German transport planes had received little attention from the British. During all of 1941, there were only seven days when the aerial convoys, composed of about 25 Ju-52s on the Sicily-to-Tripoli flight, encountered fighters from Malta, usually a single twin-engine Blenheim or Beaufighter, and no transports were shot down. In any case, the air convoys took care to stay at least 60 miles from Malta so as to be out of convenient fighter range.
After the island of Crete had been conquered by the Axis forces in May 1941, new air routes were available to the coastal towns of Derna and Benghazi, which were closer to Rommel’s forces. The new routes also brought German transports closer to the British fighters based near Tobruk. As a precaution, the transports maintained precise formations. The Junkers usually flew close to wave-top level except when the sea was flat and calm, since they knew that engine exhaust fumes left a plainly visible trail on still waters, making it easier for British planes to track them down.
When an enemy fighter was sighted, the German formation closed up as tight as possible while the machine-gunners started firing, even when the fighter was still out of range. Any troops on board with machine guns were told to poke them out of the windows and join in the firing. That shower of tracer rounds was almost always enough to discourage all but the boldest fighters. Nevertheless, the Junkers pilots felt safest when one or two long-range Messerschmitt Me-110D fighters were assigned as escort.
Based on Crete were the Ju-52s of the 3rd Group, 1st Special Duty Bomber Wing (so called because the Ju-52 had been the main Luftwaffe bomber during the 1930s; when other groups converted to more modern bombers, the 3rd Group kept its Ju-52s for use as transports and kept its old name as well for status). It was Junkers of the 3rd Group that were ambushed by South African Maryland bombers on December 12, 1941, during a flight bound for Derna to deliver fuel.
Some of the South African officers had thought it was sheer lunacy to use the Marylands as long-range fighters, and events proved them right. But the incident had an ironic aftermath. As soon as the remaining Ju-52s unloaded the fuel at Derna, they received a report that the British were about to capture the town in a surprise advance. All the fuel was burned, to keep it from falling into enemy hands, before the report was found to be false. Another air convoy was necessary the next day to replace the fuel that had been destroyed.
Kesselring had no illusions about how costly air transport was. One horsepower of an airplane engine could move about 20 pounds of cargo at most; one horsepower of a ship engine could move up to 9,000 pounds. At the end of December 1941, the German commander canceled transport flights from Crete to Derna not because of enemy fighters but because half of every load of fuel brought in had to be used to fly the Junkers back to Crete.
He also had no illusions about how overextended the supply lines would become the farther Rommel advanced toward Egypt and the Suez Canal. He pleaded with the Afrika Korps commander to pause long enough for Malta to be invaded and eliminated as a threat to Italian shipping once and for all, but when Tobruk was captured on June 21, 1942 (and with it 1,400 tons of fuel the British had been unable to destroy before it was taken by the Germans), there was no stopping Rommel. Now promoted to field marshal, Rommel pushed his exhausted men as far as the thinly held British defensive line at the coastal town of El Alamein.
After that, Kesselring had a change of heart. Instead of trying to restrain Rommel, Kesselring urged him on. His reasoning was that since there was little hope of transporting adequate supplies over such a long distance, the Afrika Korps should quickly push through the El Alamein line in order to capture the rich supply depots at the Suez Canal. He flew in more troops and 25 tons of fuel a day, a tenth of the minimum daily fuel quota of the Afrika Korps.
But no matter how hard he tried during August, Rommel could neither push through nor outflank the El Alamein line. A great deal of the credit for stopping him belongs to the fighters and bombers of the British Air Headquarters, Western Desert, better known as the Desert Air Force. Comprising fully a third of the Desert Air Force were the squadrons from South Africa. These were not merely British planes crewed by men from South Africa, but separately organized squadrons flying only by special permission of the South African government. Indeed, the men had all taken an oath not to engage in fighting outside the continent of Africa without prior governmental approval. So although the South Africans closely cooperated with the British, they were very much an air force within an air force.
The South Africans quickly established an enviable reputation. They were called the Imperturbables for their ability to fly precise formations under heavy fire. Many times the German fighters and anti-aircraft gunners would send South African planes back smoking and full of holes, only to see full squadrons return to fight in an hour. The Germans complained loudly that their enemy had a limitless number of planes; in reality, they were usually seeing the same planes again and again. Every squadron had its own mobile mechanical and electrical workshop, and with ground personnel willing to regularly work 18- to 20-hour days, the South Africans had the highest repair and turnaround rate of the North African campaign.
They and the rest of the Desert Air Force attacked the Axis forces with scarcely a letup, paying attention to the front-line panzers as well as to the Italian trucks bringing fuel to them. The Junkers rarely ventured past their new main air base at Tobruk, and that was continually bombed. At night Vickers Wellington bombers, guided by flares dropped beforehand, hit the docks of Tobruk and other ports to prevent ships from unloading in the darkness.
Those raids, combined with increased sinkings of tankers at sea, caused the Axis fuel reserves to fall disastrously. By mid-October there was just a four-day reserve. Kesselring then regretted his earlier promise to bring in by air 400 tons a day if necessary — nowhere near that amount was coming in. In desperation, he tried to make up the deficit with fuel-laden gliders towed in by bombers and other combat aircraft. U-boats were also used to land drums on the beaches. Exacerbating the crisis, troop reinforcements were still being flown in, which, of course, meant that even more supplies were needed.
In light of all this, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Rommel would have to retreat when British General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army started its El Alamein offensive on October 23, 1942. The Afrika Korps barely had enough fuel to escape, much less mount a counteroffensive.
Any hope Rommel had of making a stand somewhere in Libya was dashed when he learned that on November 8 a huge British and American armada, code-named Operation Torch and commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had landed along the coast of French Northwest Africa from Casablanca to Algiers. For Rommel, who lost prestige with every mile he retreated, the main hope at that juncture was that the German forces sent into Tunisia by Kesselring to push the French aside and block Eisenhower’s advance could hold out long enough for the Afrika Korps to join them there.
All the worst for a really bad New Year! was the message dropped by a South African reconnaissance plane behind German lines at the start of 1943. But it bespoke an exuberance the South Africans were sometimes far from feeling. While the Allied leaders pondered how best to subdue their enemy in his Tunisian enclave, the South Africans hoped that their war-weary aircraft would not give out before the Germans did.
As the fighting shifted from El Alamein to Tunisia, the South African Air Force (SAAF) had gradually shifted from twin-engine medium bombers to single-engine fighters and fighter-bombers. Number 1 Squadron, SAAF, flew Spitfires (called by the pilots dainty little witches). Numbers 2, 4 and 5 squadrons (grouped under No. 7 Wing, commanded by Lt. Col. Douglas Haig Loftus) flew Curtiss P-40D and E fighters known as Kittyhawks and emblazoned with the insignia of a leaping springbok. Loftus and the other commanding officers discovered that since the forward airfields were so close to the fighting, the Kittyhawks could carry two 500-pound bombs well behind the lines and required half the engine maintenance of the medium bombers.
As for the pilots and base personnel, they were glad to leave the desert for the more civilized region of Tunisia, with its better food, more plentiful water, and the comic relief provided by the various squadron mascots. Lieutenant Antony Britten of No. 5 Squadron wrote that they had a little fox terrier bitch called Chippy who flew on all communication flights and eventually landed in Italy. Number 2 Squadron had a vervet monkey they had acquired in Ethiopia, called Jacko. Jacko was quite famous and used to ride sidesaddle on a medium-sized dog called Junkers.
That the South Africans were having to fight for Tunisia at all was a tribute to Kesselring and his skills as a soldier (he had been an artilleryman in World War I). As soon as Eisenhower’s armada had landed, Kesselring set up an organization in Tunisia to bring in German reinforcements much faster than the American general expected. Next, he supervised attacks blocking the Allied advance while at the same time establishing a strong defensive position for Axis troops among the craggy hills of the region. Then the shoe was on the other foot; both the Eighth Army and Operation Torch were at the ends of tenuous supply lines, but the Germans had only about 100 miles of open water to cross between Sicily and Tunisia.
By mid-April 1943, the Afrika Korps had joined the German forces in Tunisia to form a unified bridgehead in northern Tunisia. But Rommel disagreed with the strategy of staying put; he believed his men should fall back to Italy to avoid being cut off. Kesselring, though, showed his usual forceful hand as senior field marshal, taking advantage of the fact that Rommel was no longer such a propaganda idol. He constantly shuttled between Sicily and the port city of Tunis (in ancient times the fabled Carthage), making sure that adequate supplies were brought in and defeatist or unsatisfactory German officers (including Rommel when he fell ill) were brought out. At one point Kesselring’s plane was accidentally fired on when it came in to land at Tunis, whereupon he promptly scolded the anti-aircraft gunners for having missed such an easy target!
Kesselring was optimistic because he thought that at last the problem of supply was largely solved. He ordered Luftwaffe transport chief Maj. Gen. Ulrich Buchholz to form the Ju-52s into long convoy streams of at least 100 planes, with scores of fighters for escort. And he thought he had solved the problem of transporting cargo in bulk by using the planes of the 5th Long-Range Air Transport Wing — huge, six-engine Messerschmitt Me-323D Gigant (giant) transports, each of which could easily carry a 10-ton load. But what Kesselring did not foresee was that for the first time in World War II the British and American air forces would combine to achieve overwhelming superiority in the air.
Ultra was keeping the Allies informed about most of the Luftwaffe‘s timetables. Operation Flax was put into effect starting April 5 to take advantage of this invaluable information. The operation entailed sending heavy and medium bombers to hit airfields in Italy, Sicily and northern Tunisia as the transports were taking off and landing, as well as vectoring fighter squadrons to intercept the transports over the water.
The American fighters made the first gains with a sweep by Lockheed P-38 Lightnings on April 5 that brought down 11 Ju-52s. From then on, the score of downed transports steadily increased, peaking on April 18 with the famous Palm Sunday massacre, in which newer model P-40 Warhawks of the American 57th Fighter Group shot down at least 50 Junkers.
The South Africans were eager to take a break from dive-bombing sorties and join in the sweeps, but they were justifiably worried about overwater flights. Their workshops could perform wonders but not miracles, and the battered Kittyhawks were becoming dangerous to their pilots. They felt that they should have been receiving the newer Warhawks, and the officers suspected that the unstated reason why they were not was their oath not to fight outside Africa.
Nevertheless, the South Africans made ready. On the morning of April 19, Colonel Loftus led the 36 Kittyhawks of Nos. 2, 4 and 5 squadrons out over the coast to intercept a convoy of 18 fuel-laden Ju-52s. While the dozen planes of No. 4 Squadron stayed up to engage a group of timid escorting fighters, Nos. 2 and 5 squadrons swooped down and so quickly ignited the transports’ cargo that the sky was dotted with flying bonfires. All 18 of the Junkers were destroyed. Then the South Africans flew back home and repeatedly buzzed their airfield in a victory celebration. It was a methodical slaughter, as Loftus later described the action. He added, We loved it to death.
Three days passed as Buchholz gathered the planes of his mangled transport service to make another great effort. On the Allied side, at 7:40 a.m. on April 22, the Kittyhawks of Nos. 2, 4 and 5 squadrons took off from their fields near the Tunisian towns of El Alem and Kairouan for a routine offensive sweep off the tip of a peninsula called Cape Bon.
By coincidence, the Spitfires of No. 1 Squadron were over the nearby coastal city of Hergla at 7:55 a.m., waiting to escort Warhawks of the American 79th Fighter Group. But the Americans were late that morning, and when the similar-looking Kittyhawks flew by, the Spitfire pilots mistook their identity and joined them as escort instead.
Off Cape Bon there was a slight mist over a perfectly calm Mediterranean. At 8:30 a.m. about 10 miles out, a Spitfire pilot beheld a remarkable sight: 15 giant Me-323Ds flying in V formations made up of 11 in front with a smaller V of five tucked behind, like a chevron. They were losing altitude rapidly, preparing for a landing on the peninsula.
Somehow the Kittyhawks missed the transports at first, so the Spitfires made a fast diving attack that downed two Me-323s. Then, with No. 2 Squadron’s Kittyhawks joining the Spitfires to fend off a dozen Messerschmitt Me-109 and Focke-Wulf F-190 escorts, the Kittyhawks of Nos. 4 and 5 Squadrons came around to take their turn at the transports.
I first ordered a head-on attack to break up their tight formation, and at once five of them crashed into the sea, recalled Major John E. Parsonson, leader of No. 5 Squadron. Then we went in from all sides and hunted them till we had shot them to bits. Amplifying on that last part, Parsonson said, We hunted them like wolves.
Since many of the Me-323s were carrying fuel, the South Africans found it frighteningly easy to set them ablaze. One good machine-gun burst was usually all it took to set fire to the wing fuel tanks of one of the transport’s six engines, after which the flames inevitably spread to the cargo of metal drums. Whole burning planes plunged nose-first into the sea, making enormous expanding ripples on the calm surface. One Me-323, catching a full blast from a Kittyhawk at a 250-yard range, simply disintegrated in midair in a blinding flash. Still others broke in half at the wing, and the two pieces spun crazily down.
The transports that were carrying troops were harder targets, and the South Africans expended a great deal of ammunition bringing them down. Lieutenant Britten recalled that when he slew his giant it didn’t catch fire all that easily. But when they finally did go down, scores of troops would tumble out into the water, trying to escape.
By 8:50 a.m. the massacre of the giants was over. In that short 20 minutes, 14 of the 16 Me-323s had been destroyed. The Germans lost 119 airmen; only 19 crew members were rescued from the waters off Tunis. And during the encounter, Nos. 1 and 2 squadrons contributed to shooting down six of the escorting fighters, so Nos. 4 and 5 squadrons finished off the transports almost undisturbed.
It was only afterward that a few 109s and Fw-190s found their way down to our level, Britten recalled, and I clearly remember doing a head-on attack with an Fw-190. Fortunately for both of us neither of us was able to get our guns on to each other, but the Fw-190 passed so close above that I heard his engine.
For the price of one fighter lost in action on April 22, the South African Air Force had achieved a decisive victory in the battle over supplies. A few days later, one of the surviving Gigants was destroyed in an Allied strafing attack on Tunis, leaving only one Me-323 to return to Trapani airfield. Kesselring was aghast when he learned what happened to his Me-323s. He was forced to stop all daylight air convoys immediately and to switch to a smaller number of night flights. Even those convoys, however, were subject to attack from night fighters based at Malta.
Realizing that an Allied victory in North Africa was now inevitable, Kesselring next tried to accomplish a Dunkirk-style evacuation from northern Tunisia — but it was too late. All Axis forces, including what was left of the Afrika Korps, surrendered around midnight on May 12, 1943.
When word came of the German surrender, boisterous celebrations erupted on all the airfields of the South African squadrons. The anti-aircraft gunners fired tracer rounds into the sky while other men lit green, white, red and yellow flares.
Perhaps another symbolic moment in the decline and fall of the Axis forces in North Africa had occurred on the afternoon of April 19, when Allied fighters attacked a German Ju-87B Stuka dive bomber. The Stuka — formerly the terror of the skies and vanguard of the German blitzkrieg — was being used that day to tow a glider, because of a shortage of transport aircraft. A South African fighter sent both the dive bomber and the glider down in flames.
This article was written by Vincent Cortrigh and originally published in the January 1999 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!