Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Airpower in Italy

One reason that Germany was willing to maintain such large forces in the Mediterranean after 1943 was the role Northern Italy played in the German war economy.  The industries of Turin and Milan together with the agriculture of the lowland plain became more important assets with the shrinking of German economic space in the east. This, together with Hitler’s irrational commitment to Mussolini, his oldest ally, are basic realities of any overview of what happened in Italy.

The Luftwaffe also committed significant resources to the Mediterranean.  As Williamson Murray has shown, German aircraft losses in July 1943 when the Wehrmacht was engaged in the battle of Kursk-Orel were 40% higher in the Mediterranean than on the Eastern front.

Once the Allies were firmly established in Sicily, Axis ground forces only appeared to stand a chance if the Luftwaffe could keep Allied air power off their backs. But this was never to be. Luftflotte 2 never had the time or opportunity to make good its losses in both machines and experienced personnel given the more pressing claims of other fronts. In the twelve months after July 1943, German front-line Mediterranean air strength shrank to 475 aircraft, while the Allies expanded their strength throughout the whole Mediterranean to some 7,000 aircraft supported by 315,000 air and ground crews by the end of 1943. From mid-1943, Axis forces endured what John Terraine described as, `the misery of trying to fight under a canopy of hostile air power; and this was to be the German soldier's hard lot for the rest of the war in the West.' The Pantelleria experience implied that prolonged and continuous air attack would inevitably degrade ground force morale, especially as established air power wisdom was that, `if we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and lose it quickly.' On the face of it, therefore, the campaign against the `soft underbelly' of the Axis should have been over by Christmas 1943. But because the crocodile had a hard shell all over, events did not work out that way.

The Allied struggle to close the ring on the Axis in Europe at the time they invaded Italy, landing first at Salerno and then at Anzio. Taking the Italian campaign as a whole, the performance of the Allied air forces proved disappointing. To be sure, one German general writing not long after the war expressed the view that Allied air support at the beachhead, and later at the battle of Monte Cassino, was “magnificent.” He personally had witnessed the density of the bomb patterns, the accuracy with which they were delivered, and the destruction they wrought. However, he also noted that “on entering a position immediately after the bombardment one would find that, aside from a few exceptions, the guns, machine guns, and observation instruments were intact, and that even the effect on the men’s morale, which initially had reached critical proportions, wore off after the initial experience.” An “exact” check of the casualties inflicted by a “heavy” air attack near Monte Cassino showed that they were far lower than those caused by artillery. “Apparently,” the general concluded, “an air attack accomplishes its objective only to some extent if its effect on morale is immediately exploited by a ground attack.”

The remarkable thing about this campaign is that, from its inception in July 1943 to its end in April 1945, the Allies always enjoyed a very clear edge in the air. The few remaining Italian Air Force units in the area could do very little; the Luftwaffe, whose aircraft were increasingly diverted to protect the Reich, was not in a much better position. Another reason for this was that Allied radar worked so well that their fighter-bombers were always able to elude the Axis fighters trying to intercept them. Nevertheless, if ever there was a campaign that unfolded slowly and with great difficulty it was this one. It was really and truly a tug-of-war. In what was known as Operation Strangle, on countless occasions the Allied air forces bombed and strafed German communication lines, both rail and road, all over the country. Almost completely defenseless from the air, all the Wehrmacht’s ground troops could do was to deploy anti-aircraft artillery and set up dummy motor columns, depots, loading sites, and the like. Still, Allied airpower never really succeeded in depriving them of so many supplies as to paralyze their ability to resist. In particular, the vital Brenner tunnel, without which the Germans in Italy could not have existed, was never closed for long. The difficult topography, as well as the inability of Allied pilots to attack by night, both contributed to this.

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