New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 1 — Prelude to War
Prelude to War
FLYING high over the Western Desert towards Cairo one glances around and below at a remarkable panorama. The whole of the eastern Mediterranean with all its long coastline is spread out beneath like a map. To the west, in the fine clear air of this part of the world, one can see past Tobruk towards Benghazi and the Gulf of Sirte; to the east the coastline of Palestine with Syria and its mountains beyond. Behind lies unrolled the island-sprinkled Aegean Sea; in front Egypt is revealed at one glance from the coast to beyond Cairo and the length of the Suez Canal from Port Said to Suez.
It was over all this territory and indeed for many hundreds of miles beyond even so remarkable a vision—over Greece, Malta, Tunisia and finally over Italy—that the Royal Air Force flew and fought during the Middle East campaign of the Second World War. Its operations were as varied as the region over which they ranged; they included almost every aspect of air warfare and they were conducted with great flexibility by able and experienced leaders whose touch was sure. Co-operation with the Army and Navy was developed to a high degree and this was an important factor in the final success. But the RAF's supreme achievement, as events on land and sea clearly show, was the winning and holding of command of the air. When this was lacking our forces suffered defeat after defeat—even the Navy's victories at Taranto and Matapan were followed by the loss of Crete and the closing of the Mediterranean; but once ascendancy in the air was achieved the partnership flourished and then victory was assured.
Mastery of the Mediterranean had long been a cardinal point in British strategy, since it was through this sea that lay the shortest and surest passage to and from India and an Empire beyond. And along this route, for which Gibraltar and Malta provided convenient stepping stones, the most vulnerable point was the Suez Canal, which made the defence of Egypt of prime importance. There was another reason for British interest in the security of the Middle East. Within its boundaries lay rich oilfields, and since in recent times movement by land, sea and air had come to depend more and more upon oil, access to oil was a military problem of the first gravity. Indeed it was one which might face Britain in a simple and very unpleasant form. Five-sixths of the page 4 world's supplies were produced beyond the Atlantic, where sea traffic was exposed to grave interruption in time of war; and nearly half the balance came from Russia and Rumania which were likely to be inaccessible. It was therefore essential that Britain should be able to draw freely on supplies of oil from Persia and Iraq. And if this was to be achieved, these regions, their ports and the sea routes must be held against any threat.
British sea power, the possession of Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria as first-class naval bases, and Italy a well-disposed ally, had long guaranteed the security of the Mediterranean. During the First World War this had been invaluable to our cause. But when, in the late thirties, the war clouds gathered again, two novel and major considerations had arisen to threaten the security of British interests in that area. Italy, under Mussolini's aggressive leadership, had become a potential enemy and there was the advent of air power as a major factor in the control of narrow seas.
By 1939 Italian arms had reached a high peak. The fleet, if untried, was well equipped with fast ships of good quality, the army was numerous and had gained tropical experience in Abyssinia and North Africa whilst the Regia Aeronautica was perhaps the greatest national pride. Fortified by Douhet's teaching, Balbo's long-distance flights of large formations and a fine record in the races for the Schneider Trophy, the Italians had certainly made great efforts to create a modern air force. Backed by a substantial aircraft industry with well-equipped factories, it now had a total strength, including training, transport and reserves, of some 3000 machines. Its pilots had obtained valuable combat experience in the Spanish Civil War; the Abyssinian campaign had tested its organisation, if not its fighting quality, and the products of Italian engineering were viewed with respect in spite of an undue fidelity to old types of aircraft by reason of their superior manoeuvreability—for Italian pilots tended to associate spectacular aerobatics with good airmanship.
With her new-found strength, particularly that in the air, Italy threatened the whole British position in the Middle East. A mass of fighters and bombers assembled in Libya, where they were capable of prompt reinforcement from the Italian mainland, could present a serious danger to Egypt. At the same time bombers based in Sicily and Tripoli might well close the Mediterranean sea route at its narrowest point where the Sicilian Channel is a mere eighty miles wide. So sure was the British Admiralty of Italy's ability to do this that it presently declared itself unable to pass even military convoys through the Mediterranean ‘on account of the air danger’ and the Fleet was withdrawn to Alexandria and Gibraltar. Malta, from being a busy staging post, then became a threatened fortress on an untravelled road. Its possibilities as an air page 5 base capable of striking at Italian lines of communication between Tripoli and the European mainland were overlooked and it was left to prepare as best it could against possible Italian bombing. For Britain was ill-prepared to meet the changed situation. The fact that airfields and air power were now the key to command of the Mediterranean had not yet been fully accepted and Royal Air Force, Middle East, had been starved of aircraft in order to build up air strength at home.
Yet, in 1939, there was still reason to hope that, with France as an ally, the Italian challenge might be met. The French Fleet could neutralise a large part of the Italian Navy, French tenure of Djibouti safeguarded the gates of the Red Sea while much of the Italian mainland lay within bombing range of French airfields in Tunisia. All the same, as the shadows deepened over Europe once more, both Britain and France deemed it highly desirable that the Middle East should remain at peace. Strict instructions were given that Italy must in no wise be provoked, and although there was some reorganisation of our military dispositions, it was clear enough that the intention was to avoid hostile action in the hope that the Italians might show similar goodwill.
But the Italian dictator Mussolini was not disposed for peace. As a result of the alliance with Hitler's Germany, his dream of recreating the old Roman Empire in which the Mediterranean would once again become the ‘Mare Nostrum’ now seemed more likely of fulfilment. His protestations of devotion to the Axis cause became distinctly more audible and Italian preparations to share in the spoils which Hitler promised were conducted with all the secrecy of an operatic chorus with full orchestral accompaniment. The piazzas rang with shouts for Nice, Corsica and Tunis, interspersed, of course, with frequent references to ‘Mare Nostrum’; Fascist publications were pleased to depict massed echelons of the Regia Aeronautica proceeding south-eastwards towards Alexandria ahead of the Italian Fleet. And when, in June 1940, Mussolini saw the French armies reeling to defeat before the German onslaught, Britain isolated, her army rescued but without arms and without a single ally outside her Commonwealth, it seemed that this was his opportunity. There could surely be little risk in entering a war that, to all appearances, was practically over.
Until the last moment Britain strove to avoid war with Italy. On 16 May 1940, in an effort to dissuade Mussolini from taking action, Winston Churchill made a direct appeal to the Italian Prime Minister. It is described by Count Ciano, Mussolini's Foreign Minister and son-in-law, as ‘a message of goodwill …. dignified and noble.’ But the Italian dictator was in no mood to listen and he returned what Churchill could only describe as a ‘dusty answer’. Mussolini in fact wanted to declare war at once, but the Germans were less enthusiastic about their new ally and, at Hitler's request, the actual declaration against Britain was postponed until 10 June 1940.page 6
Early that evening, speaking from the balcony of his office in Rome, Mussolini told the multitude gathered in the piazza below: ‘The hour marked out by destiny is sounding in the sky of our country. This is the hour of irrevocable decisions …. We are going to war against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West who have hindered the advance and often threatened the existence of the Italian people ….’ But in spite of the long harangue which followed, Ciano notes in his diary that ‘news of the war does not arouse very much enthusiasm.’ And that same evening a broadcast from the capital of one of the ‘reactionary democracies’ prophesied that the summit of Mussolini's achievement would be ‘to increase the number of ruins for which Italy has long been famous.’ The speaker was Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the Chamberlain Government after the Munich Agreement and was now Minister of Information under Churchill.
Within a few days of Italy's entry into the war the Mediterranean situation was radically changed in her favour through the collapse of France. By a single stroke of the pen almost the whole of the French Navy was eliminated, leaving the British to do the best they could against heavy odds with such naval forces as were at Alexandria or might become available at Gibraltar—for between these two extremities, two thousand miles apart, they were now without a single friendly port except Valetta. At the same time the British lost the support of the French army and air force in North Africa, while along the south shore of the Mediterranean over a thousand miles of coast passed into a dubious neutrality under the vigilance of Italian and German armistice commissions. And in the Red Sea area, the French airfields at Djibouti were no longer available for British use.
The Italian opportunity at the end of June 1940 was certainly immense. Both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea might be denied to British ships, and with Egypt almost completely isolated it should have been a relatively easy matter for Italy to secure control of the Nile Valley, using the vastly superior forces she had at both ends; for all Egypt lay within bombing range of her airfields and its anti-aircraft defence was weak. But as the summer weeks slipped by, the opportunity was missed. A few bombs fell on Alexandria, Omdurman, and even Haifa, but no air or ground offensive developed on a serious scale. The sky over Egypt and the Sudan was relatively untroubled by Italian aircraft; and there was no effective threat from bombers overhead to transports bringing Indian brigades up the Red Sea to Port Sudan or Australians and New Zealanders to Suez. The Italians also made no attempt to use torpedo aircraft against the vulnerable convoys. Indeed in the next five anxious months there were only two cases of damage to British ships by air attack in the Red Sea.
The Italian failure to take advantage of their opportunities was, in the opinion of General Wavell, ‘due firstly to our Air Force who, in spite of inferior numbers everywhere took and kept the initiative; and to the stout action of the small covering forces in Egypt, Sudan and East Africa; and finally to the enemy's lack of preparation or desire for hard fighting.’ Certainly the consummate showmanship and cheerful buccaneering methods by which the RAF produced an illusion of air superiority were to astonish its opponents. They also underlined the lesson, taught in the skies over Britain this same summer, that numbers were not the only test in air warfare.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur M. Longmore, GCB, DSO, Order of Crown (Bel), Legion of Honour (Fr), Croix de Guerre (Fr), Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus (It), Croix de Guerre (It), Royal Order of George I Grand Cross with Swords (Gk), Greek War Cross; RAF (retd); born St. Leonards, New South Wales, 8 Oct 1885; joined RN 1904; RFC 1912; transferred RNAS 1914; RAF 1918; AOC-in-C, RAF Training Command, 1939–40; AOC-in-C, RAF Middle East, 1940–41; Inspector-General, Royal Air Force, 1941–42; RAF representative, Post-Hostilities Planning Committee, 1943–44.
The RAF's main disadvantage lay in numbers and in difficulty of reinforcement since, in terms of performance, the British and Italian aircraft were on the whole not unequal. The British Gladiator, for example, was about evenly matched with the best Italian fighter, the Cr42, while the Blenheim was rather faster than the main Italian bomber, the S79, although the latter had a longer endurance and carried a greater bomb load. Moreover, it was not without importance that there were British air and ground crews in the Middle East who were seasoned and well tried, for this area had been the home ground of the RAF since the First World War. All the same the training and experience that had been gained in peacetime were soon to be sorely tested.
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The Mediterranean Theatre The circles represent the approximate operational limits for the single-engined fighters and the Beaufighters with which Royal Air Force squadrons were equipped in the early years of the war.
At Aden and in Iraq there was a steady sequence of New Zealand pilots, notably Squadron Leader Barnett,2 who was in charge of a squadron at the remote base of Shaibah, and Squadron Leader Russell3 who commanded bombers at Aden. Iraq had been ‘controlled’ by the RAF since 1921 and an early incident in which one well-known New Zealander figured is described by Sir Arthur Longmore in his memoirs:
A tribe to the north, somewhere west of Mosul, had given some trouble to the French during its wanderings on the Syrian side of the frontier, at this point merely a line drawn across the map with no special feature on the desert to identify it. One of our patrolling aircraft, flown by Squadron Leader Arthur Coningham4 of 55 Squadron (later Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham) came down low over the tribe and was fired on. He returned to Mosul, picked up the political adviser, flew back to the tribe, landed near by and called for the Sheikh to give an explanation of his conduct.
1 Air Vice-Marshal H. D. McGregor, CBE, DSO, Legion of Merit (US); RAF; born Wairoa, 15 Feb 1910; joined RAF1928; permanent commission 1932; commanded Nos. 33 and 213 Sqdns 1939–40; RAF Station, Ballyhalbert, 1941; RAF Station, Tangmere, 1942–43; Group Captain, Operations, Mediterranean Air Command, 1943–44; Allied Deputy Director of Operations, Intell. Plans, N. Africa and Italy, 1944; AOC Levant, 1945–46; Planning Staff, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Washington, 1949–51.
2 Air Vice-Marshal D. H. F. Barnett, CBE, DFC; RAF; born Dunedin, 11 Feb 1906; Cambridge University Air Squadron, 1926–29; permanent commission RAF 1929; commanded No. 40 Sqdn 1940; RAF Station, Swanton Morley, 1942–43; Air Staff Strategic Bombing Duties, Bomber Command, 1944; SASO (Org) Bomber Command, 1945.
3 Air Vice-Marshal H. B. Russell, CB, DFC, AFC; RAF (retd); born Hastings, 6 May 1895; commissioned Royal Field Artillery, 1914; seconded RFC 1915 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; SASO, No. 21 Training Group, 1939–40; SASO, No. 2 RAF Component, France, 1940; served with Fighter Command, 1940–41; AOC No. 215 Group, Middle East, 1942–43; AOC No. 70 Group, United Kingdom, 1943–45; Air Officer i/c Administration, HQ FTC, 1946–49.
4 Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, Legion of Honour (Fr), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of Leopold (Bel), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel); born Brisbane, 19 Jan 1895; 1 NZEF 1914–16; entered RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC No. 4 Group, Bomber Command, 1939–41; AOC Western Desert, 1941–43; AOC 1st TAF, N. Africa, Sicily, Italy, 1943–44; AOC-in-C, 2nd TAF, invasion of NW Europe and Germany, 1944–45; lost when air liner crashed during Atlantic crossing, Jan 1948.
The main RAF base in Iraq was at Habbaniya, built in a bend of the Euphrates and a veritable oasis in the desert; it was the site of an important Flying Training School which, incidentally, was to win considerable renown in the campaign against the Iraqi rebels early in 1941. Here and elsewhere New Zealand pilots continued to share in the various tasks which fell to the RAF squadrons in the pre-war years. The flights across wide tracts of uncivilised and strange country, often under conditions of extreme heat and discomfort, demanded qualities of resource and endurance, but there is little doubt that for air and ground crews alike the arduous and adventurous operations of those days provided most valuable training and experience. For these men, at least, war in the desert would bring a life and circumstances that were not altogether new.
Before the end of 1940 pilots, observers, wireless operators and gunners of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme, had begun to arrive in the United Kingdom. These men were placed by the New Zealand Government at the disposal of the RAF for operations and accordingly many were posted at once to the Middle East. Later many men passed through operational training units in the United Kingdom, Kenya and South Africa, which supplemented the work of similar units already in Egypt and Palestine to produce a steady influx of trained aircrew from Britain and the Commonwealth.
1 Air Vice-Marshal F. H. M. Maynard, CB, AFC, Legion of Merit (US); RAF (retd); born Waiuku, 1 May 1893; served with RN Divisional Engineers 1914–15; transferred RNAS 1915; RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC RAF Mediterranean, 1940–41; Air Officer i/c Administration, Coastal Command, 1941–44; AOC No. 19 Group, Coastal Command, 1944–45.
2 Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith R. Park, GCB, KBE, MC and bar, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Fr), Legion of Merit (US); RAF (retd); born Thames, 15 Jun 1892; in First World War served Egypt, Gallipoli and France with NZ Fd Arty, 1914–15, and Royal Fd Arty, 1915–16; seconded RFC 1917; permanent commission RAF 1919; SASO, HQ Fighter Command, 1938–40; commanded No. 11 Fighter Group during Battle of Britain; AOC No. 23 Training Group, 1941; AOC RAF Egypt, 1942; AOC RAF Malta, 1942–43; AOC-in-C, Middle East, 1944–45; Allied Air C-in-C, SE Asia, 1945–46.
The desert was indeed a hard school of war, but for many of those who lived and fought in and over it there was a certain glamour in its vivid contrasts, its monotony and its infinite variety, its soft beauties and harsh rigours and, above all, its clean and invigorating spaciousness. Moreover, as those who took part in the desert campaigns know full well, it was the background on which was woven that pattern of teamwork between the armed services which contributed so much to ultimate victory.