The Most Destructive Weapon

Seventy five years ago in 1945, on 2 May in Italy then two days later on 4 May in Germany, all Axis forces surrendered. In those campaigns the hard won air supremacy of the Allies made a crucial and decisive difference. A weapon first used in North Africa, and little recognised outside of battlefield tactics at that time, made a revolutionary impact in the defeat of the Axis armies.

In the Second World War Allied armies fought their way from Egypt through Libya, Tunisia, Sicily and the length of mainland Italy, without any major reverse until final victory in May 1945. This was despite the German forces and their defences being favoured by the mountainous terrain, first in Tunisia then throughout Italy.

Historians and veterans of the campaigns speak consistently of the German soldiers’ professionalism and training, and of their superior weapons and equipment. Most problematical of all is that the Allied armies in Italy hardly ever enjoyed a 2:1 advantage in ground troops, and were often outnumbered. Air superiority established by Allied air forces, of which the Desert Air Force (DAF) was a renowned leader, was a decisive advantage for the Allies. Air Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder GCB, who was commander of the DAF in North Africa, and in the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy, stated that the DAF played a lead role, and was ‘…the key to the ultimate victory’ in Europe’.

DAF was made up of both squadrons and individual airmen from nearly every Allied nation. Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans were prominent from the early years, either in their own national squadrons, or in RAF formations, within DAF. Later DAF embraced airmen from many other Allied nations, such as Czechoslovaks, the Free French, Greeks, Poles and Yugoslavs. Many believed DAF gained its strength and esprit de corps from its very diversity of nations and cultures. A common cause welded them together.

Experiences recounted by aircrew of the DAF take you back to those times, when those campaigns hung in the balance. They paint a picture of the life and death struggles of airmen, as Allied air power sought to subjugate the Axis air forces, and make the difference for Allied armies on the ground in North Africa and Italy.

In the final battle in Italy for the River Po, the lead-in air blitz and sustained air-to-ground bombardment were pivotal to assist the Allied armies’ victory on the ground. The final battle which broke the German armies in Italy demonstrated that the vision espoused earlier by General Auchinleck and Tedder, had been followed to the end. When General Montgomery had taken command of Eighth Army in August 1942 he had confirmed his trust in this strategy, and said that Eighth Army and the DAF ‘… must fight hand in hand. It is one battle, not two.’

Air Chief Marshal Slessor of the RAF summed up the Italian campaign, when he said that ‘if there had been no air force on either side, the German Army could have made the invasion of Italy impossible’.

From embryonic beginnings in 1940 in RAF Eastern Command in North Africa, the air force groups, wings and associated squadrons that became designated as the Desert Air Force fought an air war against the Italian and German air forces for five years. Over those years they won and sustained air superiority until the final victory. In that time they pioneered numerous innovations and ‘firsts’, which were copied in most other theatres of the Second World War, such as:

  • Winning the air war first, to achieve air superiority

  • The first trial and development in combat of the fighter-bomber

  • Air interdiction of the enemy’s communications and supplies to the battlefield

  • Establishing what is now called a ‘No Fly Zone’ before a major offensive, as at El Alamein

  • Close air/army support through forward air controllers, first trialled at El Hamma, then a ‘Cab-rank’ of fighter-bombers over the battlefield, called up by the army through mobile operations rooms

  • An air blitz coordinated with, and prior to, an army offensive

  • Development of dedicated fighter-bomber squadrons in an air-to-ground war

The list of pioneering ‘firsts’ by DAF seems remarkable. Not only was DAF the leading air force in introducing and implementing these techniques, tactics and strategies, it deployed them often simultaneously, and flexibly, in support of ground forces in long, gruelling campaigns. The formative years of DAF in the desert instilled adaptability to harsh conditions, where the variety of challenges and the hardship of operating demanded fortitude of spirit. These attributes became engrained in the ethos of DAF.

One of its most important achievements flowed indirectly from its success and is often overlooked. The dominance of DAF first in North Africa, then in conjunction with other Allied air forces in Italy, allowed Allied armies to re-deploy over long distances in rear areas, without Axis air forces spotting, attacking or disrupting their movements. This enabled Allied armies to concentrate for an offensive with impunity from enemy interference, and very often bestowed the benefit of surprise for the attack.

The development of the fighter-bomber role in the air-to-ground war by DAF became perhaps not only the most physically visible impact but also the most psychologically damaging on the Axis forces. The ever increasing destruction which was wrought on German forces in Italy reached a crescendo in April 1945. General von Vietinghoff, C-in-C of the German Army Group C in northern Italy, thought the fighter-bombers to be the most destructive weapon used against them in the final battle:

They hindered practically all essential movement at the local points. Even tanks could not move during the day because of the employment of fighter-bombers. The effectiveness of fighter-bombers lay in that their presence alone over the battlefield paralysed every movement.

General von Senger of XIV Corps stated:

We could still move when required at night, but we could not move at all in the daytime due to air attacks. It was the bombing of the river Po crossings that finished us.9

The role of the fighter-bomber, and related tactics learned from DAF, were also used to great effect by other Allied tactical air forces in the Normandy invasion, and the subsequent advance into Germany. Although the technology has advanced beyond any comparison, the principle and strike power of the fighter-bomber can be seen in the evolution into modern multi-role combat aircraft an indispensable weapon to project military capability.

The achievements of DAF over five years is also demonstrated by the subsequent career success of each of its commanders. In January 1943 AVM Tedder became deputy to Eisenhower at the latter’s request, and AOC-in-C Mediterranean Air Forces. Then, in December 1943, when Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander for the Operation OVERLORD invasion of Normandy, Tedder went with him as his Deputy. Subsequent DAF commanders, Coningham, Broadhurst, and Dickson, followed in successive transfers to very senior air force appointments for the north-west Europe offensive.

Yet the achievements of DAF owed everything to all of its officers and men in whatever role or period of time they served. From 1940 to 1945 it was they who suffered, died, were wounded, maimed or taken prisoner, but who made the enterprise a success. As AVM Foster said, ‘….it is the quality of the youngsters who actually do the job, and the enthusiasm of the maintenance crews who keep their aircraft going for them, that gets the results’.

The first-hand accounts and stories from DAF airmen in this book are but a small sample of some of those youngsters who did their job for those results. And some are still with us in their later years to tell of their time in the legendary Desert Air Force. Read the stories of the exploits of many DAF airmen in this book, and you will better understand the history that they made. And you can be the judge as to whether the Desert Air Force was the Allies’ leading tactical air force of the Second World War, and whether the fighter-bomber was the most destructive weapon? And was Air Marshal Lord Tedder correct, to judge that the DAF had been a fundamental key to the Allied victory in Europe.

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The above article is drawn from The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945 (2014), and re-issued in paperback in July 2020.

Bryn Evans

You can order a copy here.