Chapter 15: Fierce Attacks on Afrika Corps. Desolation at Sfax. A Thief Caught
March 26,1943, at Soltane, Tunisia:(the Mareth Line Front.)
Starting this date history was made by the Desert Air Force (RAF):We were instructed to launch an all out offensive against the German Ground Forces, in support of the British 8th Army's offensive. The Afrika Corps found that they were prevented from standing at their guns at critical moments as a direct result of our continuing unrelenting attacks.
Throughout a 2-Mile Front, our planes kept their anti-tank gunners from their guns, Crews were kept away from their tanks, and tanks kept away from the raging battle. If the German soldiers remained on top of the ground they were strafed and bombed by endless flights of our P-40s, the RAF's Spitfires and Hurricanes.
On top of that, large concentrations of German Armor found themselves on the receiving end of 500 pound bombs dropped by light bombers of the RAF, followed by the 2-Engine, and 4-Engine bombers of the US Army Air Corps. Not even in the heyday of the German Luftwaffe when they were conquering country after country in Europe, has there been such a coordinated concentrated effort by Air Forces to open the way for their ground forces to smash through the enemy;s defense lines!
As an example, one mission required 200 Fighter planes, and 100 Bombers, and when we had accomplished their mission, the 8th Army was able to steam-roller over the German defense lines and create havoc with their rear defenses. As an example of the ferocity of our own effort, on March 29th, the coast road on the Mediterranean Sea had
a flight of fighter-bombers, bombing and strafing every 10 minutes !
Sunday, April 4th, during a lull in our operations, we moved up to a new landing ground at Medenine, plagued by typical North African Sandstorms. One particularly bad one lasted a whole day during which time operations were at a standstill. I sat in my tent writing a letter, with a writing pad on my lap. When I tried to read what I had written two lines before, I was unable to do so because it was already covered over with fine sand.. You cannot imagine what it is like to try to live out in the open, in tents during these sand storms. When my mother used to open the envelopes containing my letters, sand would pour from them.
This is the first time we have been situated in a nice spot since our arrival at the Suez Canal. It is a real oasis with everything that is usually associated with an oasis: date palms, olive trees, and grass. We are told that the push will resume in a few days, so we are making the most of this rest period. The British 8th Army is pursuing the German Army and the battlefield is in a state of flux, so we have to wait until we are assigned targets.
April 8th, we have now resumed operations bombing motor transport that are retreating. It has become difficult to find targets to attack now, making us believe that the Afrika Corps may be trying to evacuate North Africa.
Our old friends in the 239 wing of the RAF were shelled at their airfield in Gabes, and had to retreat back to Medenine. (Our squadron , the 66th, operated as part of the RAF 239 wing from El Alamein until just recently, when the other two squadrons of our group (the 57th), were brought from Palestine to join up with us, thus making our own Wing).
We are now told that the British 8th Army (the Army we are working with) and the Americans of the Ist Army that had landed at Oran, have joined together, five months after they landed at Oran on Operation Torch.
We sank a small transport 15 miles from the port of Sfax and we expect to hear that Sfax has fallen momentarily. The British 8th Army is advancing so fast that we are pretty much out of range to do any heavy bombing.
We were told that during the period from March 28th through April 3rd, our P-40s dropped more tons of bombs that the Medium Bombers !
April 11th: 'A' Party moved out to occupy a more forward airfield at Cekhira, Tunisia, 35 miles north of Gabes. The British 8th Army is rumored to be 5 miles from Tunis.
April 14th; We are now en route to El Djem, Tunisia in a large convoy on the coast road., and ahead of us this morning one Army truck loaded with 100 octane aviation Gas hit a mine. The explosion that followed destroyed that truck and the two which followed it, killing all occupants of the 3 vehicles.
We were held up for a while until the British sappers could open up a passage for us through the mine field, so we could continue our journey. Had we been in advance of those trucks, we would have suffered the casualties they did, such are the fortunes of War!
We shortly found ourselves traveling on a decent Macadam Road, driving past fields of flowers. It was like a dream to us, who had seen only desert sand for the past nine months!
We passed through Sfax, and saw the damage that Allied bombing had visited upon the seaport, with the harbor ringed with destroyed vessels of all kinds. We also saw a large convoy of allied ships unloading various supplies desperately needed by our land and air forces, such as Gasoline, and ammunition.
Thus it was that on April 14th we arrived at our new airfield, El Djem, North. It was a new airfield, built by the German Army, who never had a chance to occupy it, due to our having breached their Mareth Line defences. The town of El Djem is steeped in historical value for many reasons, among which is that it contains the ancient Roman Coliseum of Theoditus. It is one of the largest such structures erected and used by the Roman Empire. We noted that the local Arab population seems more hostile outwardly than what we had previously experienced. It appears that many of them are working for the Germans laying mines, etc.
April 15th, our airplanes arrived today and we made three fighter sweeps but could not find any Messerschmidts to attack. The German Army is dug in at Enfidaville, Tunisia and it appears that it will take another all-out attack to dislodge it. After sending the airplanes up to us, 'A' party got on the road, and has just joined up with us.
April 18th: Very little action, so some of us took off and visited the Coliseum at El Djem, which had been built during the heyday of the Roman Empire. It is a large and splendid structure, even in it's partially destroyed present condition.
As an interesting sidelight to our operations, occured when we had to send our Mess Sergeant home in Chains to stand trial for embezzlement of Government Mess Supplies. It seems we had been losing too many bags of sugar and flour for no apparent reason, which resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Air Corps.
Special Agents who unearthed the method by which our mess sergeant sold this material to the local Arabs. The result was that one day he was arrested, placed in chains, loaded on to a helicopter and sent home for trial. The irony of it occured to many of us, in that here was a thief who would shortly be safely home (alive) whereas, we the honest ones , still ran the risk of being killed in combat!
So ends part 15 of my wartime memoirs, with the story of the Palm Sunday Massacre to follow, in which our fighter group with help from the RAF shot down 74 German planes in one massive engagement- The second largest aerial engagement in History, ranking only 2nd to the Battle of the Coral Sea in which American and Japanese carrier planes took part.