A short history of the 12th Air force
The Western Desert Air force (WDAF)
Initially commanded by Air Marshal Conningham, it comprised of 16 Squadrons (9 fighter, 6 medium bomber and 1 tactical reconnaissance) and its role was to support the Western Desert ground forces. It was created after the failed attempt to relieve Torbruk, Operation Battleaxe, where it was calculated that there was not enough co-operation between the Army and Air force. The WDAF was completely outclassed by the German BF109E and BF109F fighters, but their numbers were insufficient to tip the balance in their favour.1 Losses were extremely high at first due to the German technological superiority in the air and in one particular case, a Squadron commander lost 120% of his pilot strength within a six month period. This highlights the difficulties the Allies faced in the early periods of the North African Campaign, where Rommel and his Afrika Corps entry meant the Allies weapons were totally outclassed on the ground and in the air.
In the build up to the Alam Halfa, around the time when Allied production was increasing rapidly, the WDAF began to receive Spitfire Mk5's and the American P-40 variants, the Warhawk, Kittyhawk and Tomahawk and by the battle of El Alamein the WDAF comprised of 29 Squadrons, which included later variants of the Hurricane and Spitfire planes that could undertake bombing duties and were equipped with cannons as well as the normal machine guns, as well as the American built Boston, Mitchell and Baltimore bombers. This increase in technological advancement for the WDAF meant that it now had the ability to enforce its numerical superiority upon the German Airforce (GAF). After the Torch landings the WDAF was extremely effective in harassing the German and Italian armour and contributed greatly towards the Allied victory in North Africa.
1. Adrian Gilbert, The Imperial War Museum Of The Desert War (BCA 1992) page 142.
The hurricane was the Allies most useful aircraft in the Desert war as it was particularly durable; an attribute that was very important in the harsh conditions of the Desert. It served several roles in North Africa, such as photo reconnaissance, patrolling as well as fighting and bombing. The Hurricane was developed into a lethal Tank Busting aircraft which was first exploited to the full at Alam Halfa where Rommel`s retreating Afrika Corps were bombed day and night by the Allies. The Hurricane has received little applause for its service during World War II as the Spitfire stole most of the limelight and has become a legend in its own right.
Stats on the Hurricane
Stats on the Spitfire.
The Spitfire was the principal Allied fighter that could cope with the Lufwaffes BF109 fighters in the early and mid phases of the Second World War. The arrival of the Spitfire in the Mediterranean and North Africa severely eroded the BF109's superiority in those theatres and forced Germany to produce new variants of the Messershmitt. It was the Spitfire that received the glory during and after the Second World War and it was the plane that the German pilots most feared until the arrival of the American P51 Mustang and the Typhoon. It was the arrival of Spitfires in Malta that kept the Islands hopes alive and allowed it to withstand one of the most violent sieges ever witnessed. The Spitfire, like its enemy the BF 109 had many variants and this proved the planes relatively simple yet very effective design that was able to be modified continually have a lasting effect upon the Second World War. In the Desert War the Spitfire was used for many roles, much like the Hurricane including Photo reconnaissance, fighter,fighter-bomber and tank destroying sorties. Most feared as a fighter the Spitfire had a lengthy career which continued well after the end of the war. The ability to turn tighter than the BF109 was crucial in ensuring the Spitfires success in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
- The Spitfire and Hurricanes worst nightmare.
The BF109 Page
- Lethal German Dive Bomber
The Junkers Ju-87 Dive Bomber had a fate much the same as the BF109 as it became legendary in the first year of the Second World War, only to steadily decline in relative performance as the war continued. The Stuka as it became known was responsible for sinking more ships sunk than any other aircraft in history, whilst having an incredible tally of tank kills as well. The Stuka was a Psychological weapon too, with its screaming sirens (nicknamed the 'Trumpets of Jericho') attached to its landing gear spats that terrorised its targets before hitting them with up to 3,968 lb of high explosives. In the first year of the war the Stuka became synonymous with Blitzkrieg and was seen as the flying artillery of the Second World War. The Stuka comprised such an important element of the Blitzkrieg tactic, with the enemy being constantly harassed from the air whilst having to deal with the onslaught of elite Panzer divisions on the ground, not to mention the bombardment from conventional artillery.
The Stuka served as an important weapon for the Axis powers and ensured its remarkably quick victories in Poland, France, Norway, Denmark and Holland. When more capable fighters were fielded by the Allies, the Stuka was not up to the job of defending itself adequately. As the war went on the role of the Stuka became smaller and smaller as well as more difficult and the FW190 took over its role. There is no doubting however that the role that the Stuka played in the opening rounds of the war in the various invasions and the early phases of the Battle Of Britain had a profound and indeed decisive effect upon the Second World War.
For more information on these aircraft, see The Hangar for more information.
Diverted and Committed Troops
Weapons In North Africa
Commanders and their tactics
High Command Disputes And Interference
Concluding thoughts on the North African Campaign