Chapter 16: El Djem, Tunisia. The Georgian Minister. Palm Sunday Massacre
April 14th,1943: We have now arrived at El Djem Landing Ground, Tunisia, situated about about 30 miles south of Sousse. It is just two minutes flying time from one of the largest Roman Ampitheaters in the world at Ed Djem. Thus it became the landmark used by the Luftwaffe to locate our airfield and bomb us nightly.
We would be sleeping after midnight when suddenly we would hear the sound of several German bombers overhead. We knew that sound because the engines on their bombers were never synchronized, and thus made an undulating sound instead of a steady roar. We then had a few moments to roll out of our cots, through the loose tent sides, right into our own slit trenches. The bombers would make a run, dropping their sticks of bombs if there was a moon to provide sufficient visibility.
If there was no moon, one plane would fly over and drop several parachute flares. Then the bomber(s) would make a bomb run. We did not suffer any casualties from these attacks because it would take just about a direct hit to cause injury since we were below ground in a small two-man trench, and normally there were only one or two bombers at a time.
At this time something happened to relieve the tension of our everyday life under constant attack. One morning a jeep entered our camp area, towing a trailer. A short rotund jolly man in tan military-type clothes called a group of us to the back of his trailer, from which he addressed us. We then noticed that his jacket lapel had an ornament with Crosses on it, instead of his branch of service. As best I can remember his speech it ran like this.
"Men, I am here to hep you. That's right, I am a Baptist Minister, and I am also a Georgia Cracker, and I am going to hep you men." (we were told by our southern comrades that this is how Georgians say 'help'. Georgia Cracker refers to the original American pioneer settlers of the Province of Georgia (later, the State of Georgia), and their descendants. In the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, Georgia ranchers came to be known as "Georgia Crackers" by Floridians when they drove their cattle down into the grassy flatlands of Central Florida to graze in the winter, stopping where the citrus groves began. In order to get the cattle's attention they became very adept at cracking a bullwhip.) He said that services would be held that evening, and all denominations were welcome to attend. Those of us in the need of spiritual guidance did attend.
That night we were awakened in the wee hours of the morning by the whistling of a bunch of bombs on the way down to us, without the prior notice of bomber engine noise. It seems the Luftwffe figured out that we were avoiding their bombs because when we heard their engines we had time to hide in our slit trenches. So, they first located the huge Roman ampitheater at El Djem, then turned to the right, flew 2 minutes and dropped their bombs, supposedly on our camp area.
So this time , before reaching our airfield they idled their engines and glided the rest of the way soundlessly. Fortunately they were bombers and dropped their payloads from a high altitude, which gave us a few moments to roll off our cots into our slit trenches. Luckily for us, all the bombs landed in a ravine behind our camp area !
The next morning we were surprised to see our new ecclesiastical friend hook up the trailer to his jeep and depart immediately after breakfast. Perhaps he found others more deserving of his 'hep'! We often speculated about the shortness of his visit, given the fact that some of us could really could have used his 'hep'!
April 18th (Palm Sunday): On this date the 57th Group made made history: We were alerted by G-2 (British intelligence) and instructed to make a sweep of 48 planes off the tip of Cape Bon, Tunisia and head toward Sicily. We were given 24 RAF Spitfires as top cover. As our planes were between Cape Bon and Sicily they intercepted a huge group of JU-52 three engine transports headed towards Tunisia. flying close to the sea attempting to evade British Radar.
This was a last-ditch attempt by the Germans to support the beleaguered Afrika Corps which was not in a small circle being compressed on both sides by The British 8th Army from Alexandria and the British and American Ist and 5th Armies that had landed at Oran. Our planes immediately dived down to attack those transports. From the debriefing which followed this engagement, we later learned that as one bomber was hit and exploded, it would also blow up the transport alongside of it, because they were loaded with Gasoline, Ammunition and other military weapons, as well as replacement troops.
Our planes were too occupied to notice what went on above them,
where 24 British Spitfires were providing top cover. When those Spitfires looked down at the carnage they saw a large flight of German Me-109 Fighter Planes who were flying between them and our planes, and they immediately dived down to attack the Me-109s.
While I have described this engagement in two segments, it was actually one event in which our planes and the British top cover Spitfires acted simultaneously! We, the ground crews were listening to the radio chatter during this engagement, on the radios of planes which remained on our airfield, because we were aware of why this sweep was ordered by British Intelligence.
The final result was that we and our British Allies shot down 74 Planes in one aerial engagement (52 2-engine transports and 22 Me-109 fighters ). With the exception of the Battle of the Coral Sea in the Pacific, where American and Japanese Carrier Planes participated, ours was the 2nd largest aerial victory in History.
So it was that when my plane (#73) landed and I rushed over to help the pilot remove the various connections he was hooked to, I couldn't help asking how many planes he had shot down. He shamefully admitted that he made his pass at the transports without having armed his eight 50-caliber Machine guns, or six 120 millimeter Rockets, and therefore could not fire any of his weapons!
In addition, immediately following this news, the N.Y. Times headline read 'Palm Sunday Massacre' and told of the 57th's amazing victory. It was indeed amazing because it hastened the end of the Afrika Corps, given that the flight of transports we intercepted consisted of 100 of which 58 were destroyed, and surely many more crash landed in the Mediterranean.
Thus the Afrika Corps, deprived of this last ditch support of materiel and men, was forced to surrender far earlier than would otherwise have been possible ! We later received a Presidential Unit Citation from President Roosevelt. The passage of 60 years has not dimmed the pleasure we who survived still feel, in the knowledge that we played a major part in the destruction of the German War Machine in North Africa!
So ends part 16, of my Wartime Memoirs.