Heavy bombing had always been part of the Allies’ plans, but less thought had been given to close air support of the army. All that changed in the summer of 1942.
A little over a year ago, I was in Sicily on one of my numerous trips to the island—part of my research for a narrative history of the Allied campaign there that I was writing. There were some places I hadn’t seen before that I wanted to check out, not least the town of Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, where German fighter pilot Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff had been based with his wing, Jagdgeschwader 77. Using Steinhoff’s diary as a guide, I climbed the winding road up the 2,500-foot mountain that looms over the town, Monte Erice, until, a few miles from the top, I saw a sheer rock face and, before it, a small plateau, just as he’d described it. Lo and behold, there were the remains of the operations base for the Luftwaffe fighters—several derelict stone buildings, long since abandoned, overgrown and forgotten.
From there, I could gaze out to Trapani and the airfield and the big, wine-dark Mediterranean beyond. Back in 1943, Steinhoff and his fellows had had a terrible time and his diary is rich in atmosphere and mood. Theirs was a desperate situation: they didn’t have enough support from their superiors; they were increasingly outnumbered by the enemy. There weren’t enough aircraft, spares, or fuel and it was hot—blisteringly hot. They struggled with combat fatigue and physical exhaustion, and the heat and dust added to the misery.
What struck me about the Luftwaffe on Sicily in the summer of 1943 was how much it mirrored the experience of the Royal Air Force on Malta around a year earlier. In the spring of 1942, tiny Malta, just 60 miles south of Sicily, was similarly beleaguered. The British pilots were suffering in the sweltering heat, plagued by dust and mosquitoes, with not enough to eat, and not enough spares or fuel or anything like enough aircraft. They were being hammered.
The reversal of fortunes of the two air forces in that single year was extraordinary, and it occurred to me that this perfectly illustrates the vital importance air power played in World War II in the west. When the Luftwaffe was in its ascendancy so, too, was Nazi Germany. Yet the moment the Luftwaffe began struggling to produce properly trained aircrew and enough high-quality aircraft, Germany’s fortunes dramatically began to wane.
Malta and the Mediterranean are a case in point. In May 1942, with Malta on its knees, the Luftwaffe was pulled out of Sicily and sent to North Africa to support Erwin Rommel’s new offensive. This allowed the RAF on Malta to cling on, then fight back, so that by July of that year they had regained air superiority over the island. At the same time in Libya, the RAF’s reorganized and much-improved Desert Air Force was able to save the British Eighth Army from annihilation after the fall of Tobruk on June 21, 1942. Once safe behind the Alamein Line, the Eighth Army never, ever retreated again at any point in the war.
While heavy bombing had always been part of the Allies’ plans, less thought initially had been given to close air support of the army—what would become known as a tactical air force. All that changed in the summer of 1942 in North Africa, when the RAF indisputably proved its immense worth. From then on, the tactical air forces of both the RAF and the U.S Army Air Forces were developed exponentially and, by 1943, had become the spearhead of future operations.
By the time Macky Steinhoff and his men were battling over Sicily in the summer of 1943, the Allies had amassed a staggering 3,500 aircraft in the Mediterranean Theater.
Coincidentally that was pretty much the number of aircraft the Luftwaffe lost over the Mediterranean that summer—catastrophic losses that signaled the slide to irreversible defeat for the Germans in the war in the west. From then on, there could be no recovery.
Standing on Monte Erice, looking toward Trapani, it was easy to think of Steinhoff there before me, knowing that the tables had turned irreversibly and that his struggles in the skies above were doomed. And although he was on the wrong side, I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him. ✯
This article was published in the December 2020 issue of World War II.