By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In 1991, Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg published The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory. In it, they offered a scathing review of the performance of the Allied militaries in Operation HUSKY, the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Theirs is the standard interpretation about the battle for Sicily: the Allies bungled total victory through national squabbles which allowed the Germans to mount a skilful withdrawal even against complete Allied air and naval supremacy while outnumbered by Allied armies by factors of up to 8:1.[1]

Part of their critique is the effectiveness of the Allied air forces. They called into question claims Allied commanders made at finding 1,100 Axis aircraft littering aerodromes and landing grounds across the island. According to Colonel Lioy of the Italian Air Force historical division, Allied claims vastly overstated the reality as the island had long harboured aircraft cemeteries from previous battles. He believed that the Allied bomber offensive only accounted for 100. Lioy pegged total Axis aircraft losses from 3 July to 17 August at not over 200. Finally, Mitcham and von Stauffenberg noted that Axis statistics they consulted show that the Germans and Italians lost 225 and 95 aircraft respectively to all causes between 1 July and 5 September 1943.[2]

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Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. (Source: © IWM (C 4183))

These figures do not stand up to the scrutiny of other sources. First, Williamson Murray’s excellent study of the Luftwaffe, Strategy for Defeat, cited reliable quartermaster general figures for German losses throughout the war. German losses in the May to August period in the Mediterranean Theatre stood at 1,600, matching those of the other major fronts. This number included 711 German aircraft lost in July 1943 alone, a figure 27 percent higher than that of the 558 German aircraft lost on the Eastern Front during the massive battles of Kursk-Orel in July.[3]

Second, Adolf Hitler’s own figures are at variance with Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s statistics. Hitler was particularly displeased with the ground organisation in Sicily and southern Italy. On 13 July, he sent a message to Benito Mussolini complaining of ‘more than 320 fighters destroyed on the ground as the result of Allied aerial attack in the last three weeks.’ When the two dictators met at Feltre on 19 July, Hitler further noted that between 300 and 400 aircraft out of 500 to 600 were destroyed on the ground in the recent Allied air offensive.[4]

Perhaps Hitler was particularly upset with a 15 July raid on Vibo Valentia, where the bulk of the remainder of the German fighter force had settled after withdrawing from Sicily. A force of 117 B-25 Mitchells and B-26 Marauders apparently caught Jagdgruppe Vibo on the ground. Lieutenant Köhler, a German ace with over 20 victories to his credit, wrote:

Toward noon 105 [sic] bombers came and destroyed the Jagdgruppe Vibo Valentia, which had about 80 aircraft. Not a machine was left intact, not even the [Junkers] which had just landed. Fuel trucks, hangars, aircraft, autos, everything was burning. The German fighters in Italy have been wiped out.[5]

Specifically, the raid eliminated Steinhoff’s JG 77, I/JG 53 (which lost 20 aircraft), and much of II/JG 27. After the raid, only survivors of II and III/JG 27 remained operational in southern Italy.

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Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352)

The weight of evidence seems to go against Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s conclusions. Furthermore, while it is true that many of the 1,100 aircraft abandoned on Sicily were from previous battles, the Allies still denied their use to Axis salvage details. Italian losses during the campaign are less easy to come by. However, one source noted that they may have been as high as 800 aircraft over two months – although the same source lowballs the German figure at 586.[6]

The Mediterranean was a meat grinder of Axis aviation. For the war, Axis aircraft losses in the Mediterranean stand at 17,750, much higher than the 11,000 on the Eastern Front, and closer to the 20,419 on the Western Front than one might assume.[7] The air superiority battles around and above Operation HUSKY in the summer of 1943 were a significant milestone in the air war against the European Axis. Indeed, Murray described Sicily as ‘the greatest air battle of the Mediterranean war’ based on the scale of German losses.[8] This result was achieved by an efficient Allied air force that has often been denied the credit it so rightfully earned.

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Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs of No. 243 Squadron RAF undergo maintenance at Comiso, Sicily. Photographed over the tail section of an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1029))

Header Image: A line of Macchi MC200 fighters on Reggio di Calabria airfield under attack by cannon fire from two Bristol Beaufighter Mark ICs of No. 272 Squadron RAF Detachment flying from Luqa, Malta. (Source: © IWM (CM 1298))

[1] See Lee Windsor, “The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,’ Canadian Military History, 22:3 (2013), pp. 6-7 for a summary of this literature. General Max Ulrich, commander of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division offered the 8:1 ratio when comparing the odds his forces faced.

[2] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007 [1991]), p. 305.

[3] Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1983), “Table XXX”, p. 148.

[4] Albert N. Garland and Howard M. Smyth, The United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, D.C.: US Army Centre of Military History, 1993[1965]), p. 240 and p. 243.

[5] Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia and Frederick Galea, Spitfires over Sicily: The Crucial Role of the Malta Spitfires in the Battle of Sicily, January – August 1943 (London: Grub Street, 2000), p. 166.

[6] Hans Werner Neulen, In the Skies of Europe: Air forces allied to the Luftwaffe, 1939-1945 (Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005), p. 72.

[7] Robert S. Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 403.

[8] Murray, Strategy for Defeat, p. 164.

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