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U. S. CONFIDENTIAL
TACTICAL NOTES ON OPERATIONS IN N.W. AFRICA BY R.A.F. FIGHTER
SQUADRONS BETWEEN DECEMBER 1942 AND MARCH 1945
Reproduced by Air Information Division
(i) The following notes are based on reports received from H.Q. N.W. African Air Forces, and on interviews with certain officers who have returned from that theatre of war. Tactical Bulletin No. 13 (already circulated) also contains some information on the same subject from the officer recently commanding No. 111 Squadron.
(ii) It is considered that this paper is of interest both to Headquarters staffs and to fighter pilots.
Since the time when the N.W. African front was stabilised early in December, 1942, two British day fighter wings were employed in the Forward Areas, while a third was employed on static defence of ports and convoy escort duties. The American 12th Air Force operated its own fighter forces in the Southern Sectors of the front, whilst the R.A.F. was responsible for the Northern Sector. Communications and co-ordination between these forces were difficult to achieve, and were not of a high order. No. 322 Wing equipped with Spitfires was stationed near the port of BONE some 100 miles in rear of the positions of our forward troops, and 130 miles from BIZERTA. No. 324 Wing, comprising 4 Spitfire V squadrons and working in conjunction with two Hurribomber squadrons, was stationed inland in the MEDJERDA VALLEY, near SOUK EL KHEMIS, 40 miles behind the line and 75 miles from TUNIS. For convenience, the activities of these British wings are dealt with separately, in Parts I and II of this paper.
REAR WING - BONE
2. The four squadrons were until recently equipped with Tropical Spitfire V's. One Squadron is now re-equipped with untropical Spitfire IX's, and is now in action.
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3. The main tasks undertaken were the protection of BONE harbour and aerdrome, and escort to convoys sailing within range of enemy fighter/bombers. In addition, sweeps over and behind the enemy lines were undertaken whenever opportunity arose.
Port, Convoy and Airfield protection.
4. The protection of convoys was provided by standing patrols of 4 aircraft; patrols flying either as a section disposed over a broad front, or as two sections of 2 aircraft at different heights (according to weather conditions), the aircraft of each section being in wide line abreast formation. They were normally controlled by sector control on Command guard, but could also be controlled within a radius of 15 miles of the convoy when a fighter direction ship was sailing in the convoy.
5. For aerdrome and port protection, a section of 4 aircraft was often positioned approximately 50 miles east of base at 15,000 feet, with the object of intercepting the enemy as soon as possible after he had been picked up by the R.D.F. In addition, 4 aircraft were kept at instant readiness at the downwind end of the runway, with pilots in cockpits, while the remainder of the wing was at normal readiness at dispersal points.
6. Either as a part of these patrols or as a separate entity, depending on presence of convoys, a section was sometimes kept airborne between BONE and the airfield, which are about 8 miles apart.
Enemy attacks - Medium Bombers.
7. In the early stages the enemy launched daylight attacks in cloud cover with unescorted Ju 88's and some He 111's. These proved to be very expensive to him, and latterly were discontinued. The attacks were carried out in waves of 8 bombers flying in boxes of 4. The approach was level at approximately 12,000 ft., the final attack taking the form of tight formation dive-bombing at an angle of 50º to 5,000 ft. - air speed roughly 330 m.p.h.
8. Intense A.A. fire was usually successful in breaking up these formations, and inflicting some casualties. Our fighters found it best to attack from the beam, swinging into astern. Providing ranges were closed to point blank, no difficulty was found in knocking them down, and there were very few casualties from return fire. The evasive action practised by these Ju 88's in particular consisted of diving and weaving at high speed.
Enemy attacks - Fighter Bombers.
9. Since practically abandoning attacks with medium bombers, the Germans concentrated on the use of F.W.190 bombers. Four or eight fighter bombers approached at about 20,000 ft. with close escort of a similar number of Me 109G's and a high cover in addition. Their tactics were to lose height in a shallow dive to 15,000 ft. up sun during the last 20 miles of the approach to the objective, and to deliver the attack in line abreast
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formation, diving at an angle of 30º - 35º; although against the intense A.A. defences of BONE harbour, dives were often nearer the vertical. Bombs were released anywhere between 2,000 arid 5,000 ft. again depending on opposition encountered. In attacks against the airfield, dives have been carried on to 1,000 ft., front guns being used. The close escort, if not engaged, came down with the fighter bombers, front-gunning any available targets; the high cover of Me 109's always remained above.
It has been in (c) that the inferior speed and climb of the Spitfire V were mainly felt. Enemy fighters approached fast and were travelling at 450/500 m.p.h. at the bottom of their dives; it was very difficult for our fighters to position themselves for certain kills, and it was considered that the arrival of even small numbers of Spitfire IX's would improve matters considerably.
Enemy attacks - Torpedo Bombers.
11. In the protection of convoys it became apparent that the danger periods for attacks by torpedo bombers wore at dusk and first light. The enemy normally approached at sea level from the darkened sector of the sky. His attacks were carried out sometimes in formation and sometimes individually. The methods used to counter these attacks were simply to patrol at about 1,500 ft., approximately 2,000 yds. from the convoy in the direction from which the attacks were expected to develop, to keep a sharp look out, and to attack immediately the enemy was sighted, despite naval A.A. fire.
R.A.F. Offensive Patrols and Fighter Sweeps.
12. In addition to the tasks enumerated in the preceding paragraphs, this wing was at the call of the Army for offensive patrols and sweeps over the forward areas; but not for direct support in the form of ground straffing.
R.A.F. Standing Patrols.
13. During the first few weeks after arrival at BONE, standing patrols of 45 minutes duration were maintained, as far as possible, at squadron strength over the Army. This meant flying periods of 2 hours and jettisonablo tanks were not available. To begin with, great success was achieved, our aircraft encountering escorted enemy bomber formations and
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occasional pairs of Me 109's engaged on tactical reconnaissance. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy and a 5 to 1 success ratio achieved. All our aircraft invariably went straight into the bombers, and usually managed one quick attack before the fighter escort forced defensive fighting.
14. Before long, however, the Hun put his warning system stabilized and thereafter standing patrols became unprofitable because:-
R.A.F. Fighter Sweeps.
15. This forced us to employ larger members of aircraft on shorter patrols - i.e., occasional sweeps. The Army notified the R.A.F. in what area and at what time thoy particularly desired immunity from attack, and a sweep was laid on accordingly, Unfortunately, (a) still applied, and thus few enemy aircraft were encountered, and our forward positions were still subjected to attacks at times when the enemy knew we were refuelling.
16. The same formation was flown by all squadrons in the wing.
Squadrons within the wing flew well up with the leading squadron, one being approximately 1,000 ft. above the leader and up sun, and the other 2,000 ft. above the leader and down sun.
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17. When sections became separated from their main formations, aircraft flew line abreast so as to provide mutual cover against surprise attack.
18. Sweeps were carried out at heights between 8,000 and 20,000 ft. The distances to be covered, together with the time which of necessity had to be spent over enemy territory, allowed only medium cruising speeds to be used - approximately 220 m.p,h. at 1,850 r.p.m. 2 lbs. a boost - but if warning was received of the proximity of enemy aircraft, settings were increased to about 2,650 r.p.m. 4 - 6 lbs. a boost; and when the enemy was sighted all available power was employed.
19. When attacking the enemy, a proportion of the force was always left above as top cover. When attacked by enemy fighters, sections turned in their own length to meet the attack head on, and thereafter followed their chosen opponent as far as relative performance permitted. Every endeavour was made to reform after each attack.
20. The Hun worked well in sections. When four aircraft attacked, very often one pair broke away downwards and the other upwards, so as to be in a position to bounce anyone who attempted to follow the former. We also used this stratagem.
FORWARD WING - SOUK EL KHEMIS.21. The operations carried out by the forward wing were primarily of an offensive character. Undoubtedly the major difference from sweeps and other offensive operations carried out from Great Britain was the much smaller number of aircraft that could be employed at any one time. This was due mainly to tho following reasons:-
/(iii) The relatively
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22. As a result, the air fighting from the fighter point of view assumed a totally different aspect from any operations carried out from 10, 11 or 12 Groups of Fighter Command. It was very seldom that more than two squadrons of fighters could be employed on any one operation at the same time. (A wing of three squadrons was used once or twice to cover the bombing of Tunis and Bizerta docks by Fortresses, but this was a rare occurrence.) Consequently, no top cover could ever be expected, which came as quite a shock to many pilots who had been used to large scale operations over Northern France and Belgium from 11 Group. Tactics had to be varied accordingly.
23. This was the fundamental basis of all squadron flying, whatever the numbers involved and the consequent variation of the formations. If 12 aircraft were available and there were no aircraft to escort, the following formation was usually adopted:-
24. There was no weaving at all except an occasional slight weave by the leader of the squadron. On a 90º turn, Red and Blue sections crossed over in the usual manner. On a 180º turn or breakcover given by the leader, the section loaders immediately turned as tightly as possible, the remainder of the section following in line astern. The two main reasons for the turn being as quick as possible were, firstly to avoid any chance of being jumped on the turn, and secondly for the section loaders to be able to keep right up line abreast with the leader of the squadron, the latter, of course, being essential for proper cross cover to be afforded. Under no circumstances whatsoever were the number fours of any section over allowed to straggle. Only the more experienced flyers were allowed to fly No. 4, pilots with little or no experience being always put No. 2 to the section leaders.
/25. Should a
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25. Should a pair or section become separated from the main formation, aircraft automatically flew line abreast to guard against surprise attack.
26. At all times, when possible, our fighters flew over enemy territory at the highest practicable cruising speed - approximately 2,400 r.p.m. 4 lbs./" boost, according to height, and on sighting EA, full boost and revs. were used. The high cruising speed was found essential for three reasons:-
Dispersion in Height.
27. When carrying out squadron patrols, dispersion in height was found to be a very adequate answer to attacks from above. If the squadron remained on the same level, the enemy aircraft would regain height and make another attack, but if one section turned straight into the enemy, the second climbed into the sun and the third went down a little, at the same time each section sub-dividing into pairs, then the enemy aircraft was usually too frightened at being unable to guess or see what had become of the squadron to attack any aircraft below themselves. This form of manoeuvre very largely stopped his nibbling tactics of climbing and diving.
Escort of Bombers and Hurribombers.
28. The targets given to the bombers were ordered by the Army usually as a result of TacR; and because of the time taken for the TacR reports to filter through, to the Army and back to the squadrons, and the subsequent time taken by tho bombers to reach the target area, infantry and M.T. targets had often dispersed and disappeared before an attack could be delivered. No "broadcast" system, such as has been used in the Middle East, was available in Tunisia. Occasionally, H.Q. buildings, repair shops, etc., were attacked and dealt with very well.
29. The Hurribombers went out in three sections, line astern:-
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While the escort adopted the formation of pairs or fours flying lino abreast stopped up, dowm sun, either:-
Escort of Tac. R.
30. In the early stages, Tac. R. was carried out with unescorted Hurricanes, but heavy losses soon forced us to provide escort, and finally to allot Spitfires to the Tac. R. Squadron.
31. The Tac. R. Spitfires operated in pairs, aircraft flying well spaced in line astern so that both could concentrate on searching the ground. With adequate cloud cover (7/10 to 10/10 at, say, 5,000 ft.) or in the early dawn, an escort of 4 - 6 aircraft was found to be sufficient. In clear weather, a close escort of 6 aircraft and a medium/top cover of 6 aircraft were provided. When the formation arrived over the appropriate area, the Tac. R. pilots reduced height, the close escort remaining above in visual touch.
32. It was borne out in this campaign that Tac. R pilots should be given thorough fighter training.
German Fighter Tactics.
33. The enemy made full use of sun, cloud, and clever camouflage against the mountainous country. Enemy sweeps were always made in depth, i.e. they always employed a strong top cover to escort their ground straffing machines. Towards the beginning of the campaign, Ju 87's and 88's were used, escorted by 109's, approximately half a dozen, to attack troops and aerdromes. Later on they adopted more and more the Focke Wulf fighter/bomber in close support of their troops instead of the heavy bomber. German fighters adopted exclusively the diving and climbing tactics, never attacking except from above. Even as few as two Me 109's would attack a whole squadron if
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they could locate them as a compact unit, two or more thousand feet below, relying on their initial diving speed and rate of climb for getting away again. They would continue this diving and climbing, firing short bursts at the end machines, until they had finished their ammunition.
34. It appeared as though enemy fighters had been given a target to ground-straff as a particular duty, and when encountered, which was very seldom, they were racing to their pin point or back to their aerdrome after a trip that probably lasted not more than 20 minutes. Those tactics were, in consequence, difficult to combat owing to this and to the excellent camouflage afforded by the mountainous environment.
Ground Straffing - Advice to pilots.
35. It cannot be too clearly impressed on new pilots fresh from O.T.U.'s that the element of surprise is the main factor in successful ground straffing. Once this is lost and more than one attack is made on the same target, the chances of its being successful are considerably diminished.
36. When the target is located, attack from the sun immediately, always leaving a top cover. If your first run up on the target is bad, carry on and let the Hun think you are going on to another job and that you have not spotted his position. Return a few minutes later, making sure of your position and make a quick dart down before he realises that he has been spotted. He will not give his position away by A.A. fire unless he thinks that he has been spotted, i.e. if he sees Spitfires circling round overhead he is pretty certain they are going to attack and will open up. Never attack the same target twice on one patrol. Open fire at maximum range, closing to zero feet and carrying on at ground level, weaving frantically.
37. From interviews with various officers it is apparent that the Hun is still up to every trick of cunning. He is especially fond of decoys, cloud cover and hill camouflage. No targets should, therefore, be attacked without leaving a top cover. Every leader of a pair must be a skilful section leader who has to have his wits about him as much as a squadron commander.
38. The air fighting in Tunisia has been totally different from that over France, as individual combats are likely to take place in over 50% of all sorties flown. Consequently, a pilot who possesses some individual combat experience is at a premium.
39. Conditions of living are of the crudest type, and there is no Kenley or Biggin Hill mess to which to return after a sortie, but probably a tent, or a home built mostly underground. Also, fairly frequent bombing and ground straffing of the aerodromes adds to the difficulties of life, and consequently the strain on the average pilot tends to shorten his effective tour of duty to well below the usual 200 hours considered reasonable in groups at home.
Based on reports and information received from N.W. Africa.
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Transcribed by RESEARCHER @ LARGE. Formatting & Comments Copyright R@L.
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