RAF in the desert

The RAF had begun to build up its strength in the desert just after the Battle of Britain and just in time for the first offensive in 1940. When it opened, the RAF had about 220 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just two full squadrons of Hurricanes (hardly enough to establish air superiority).

In mid 1941, the RAF’s newly appointed AOC-in-C Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, sat down with Auchinleck (Montgomery’s predecessor) to work out how the RAF and the Army should work together to defeat a common enemy. The RAF would bomb ports to disrupt supply lines and attack the lines of communication behind the battlefield. Casting pre-war RAF doctrine aside, it was also agreed that the army would receive air support directly on the battlefield (Bungay 104-107).

Disruption of supply lines was critical to winning the Battle. Fighting at desert war has been likened to a battle at sea- where the actual territory counts for nothing (waves of a salty ocean or windswept, featureless sands), and advancement cannot be made without machines (ships or tanks…). In this hostile environment, survival meant supplies. In theory, a mobile infantry unit needed 350 tons of supplies a day, including water, i.e. about 10,000 tons a month (Bungay 44).

Tedder re-organised his Command, turning his forward group into Air Headquarters, Western Desert, which soon became known as the Desert Air Force. In July, the Desert Air Force also got a new commander in the form of the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Connigham, who was known as ‘Mary’ (a corruption of ‘Maori’).

The British desperately needed Spitfires to stem their fighter losses in 1942, but they did not arrive. Keith Park acidly observed:

“Early in 1942, Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had 75 fighter squadrons in England, carrying out massive sweeps over France, as compared with only 52 squadrons when the Luftwaffe was at its full strength during the Battle of Britain. When the C-in-C Middle East asked for Spitfires for Malta,Fighter Command refused…when as few as five Spitfire squadrons could have saved Malta from the terrible blitz of spring 1942. This all arose from the mania of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory for Big Fighter Wings.”

Douglas intended to tie down the Luftwaffe and force it to withdraw fighters from Russia, but instead pointlessly lost many pilots and planes over France. The only Luftwaffe units ever to be withdrawn from Russia were sent to the Middle East because of the RAF’s activities in Malta and the desert. The Desert Air Force had to wait until May 1942 before it got it first operational squadron of Spitfires.

Following the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was eventually driven back into the a strip of land between an outcrop of hills and the Tunisian coast. The battle for North Africa did not end until May 1943.

One of the lessons Rommel was to take from Alamein to his later role as commander of the German defences in Normandy was the significance of air power. During the battle, the Allies had flown 11,586 sorties and had lost 97 aircraft. The Axis air forces had managed to put up 3,000 sorties an lost about 84 aircraft. The Desert Air Force hounded the retreat until it ran out of targets, but the Luftwaffe was unable to have any impact on the pursuers (Bungay 196-98).


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