The Tunisian Spring Campaign

The Tunisian spring campaign consisted of two principal phases:

  1. The breaking of the Mareth Line, beginning 20-21 March 1943, and Rommel's retreat to a line north of Enfidaville.

  2. The advance of the Allied armies on Bizerte, Tunis, and Cape Bon, 22 April-13 May.

According to the aircraft status report of 21 March 1943, Tactical Air Force had 567 aircraft assigned, of which 319 were USAAF Spitfires, P-39's, P-40's, and A-20's, and 248 were RAF Spitfires, Bisleys, and Hurribombers. By 1 May, 22 B-25's and 18 P-39's had been added. The tasks allotted to the Tactical Air Force during the spring campaign were:

  1. 242 Group to maintain and hold fighter superiority over enemy aircraft in the Tunis and northern areas, and to be ready to detach squadrons to give operational support to XII Air Support Command.

  2. XIII Air Support Command to obtain and hold air superiority over the enemy air forces opposed to it to an extent which would insure complete freedom of action by the Western Desert Air Force in direct ground cooperation with the Eighth Army. In addition, XII Air Support Command to protect the forward move by the U.S. II Corps.

  3. Tactical Bomber Force to provide the striking force to XII Air Support Command, with the primary task of hitting enemy airfields.

  4. Western Desert Air Force, from the time (20 March) of the attack on the Mareth Line, to concentrate the whole of its forces upon direct cooperation with the Eighth Army.

  5. By agreement with the Air Officers Commanding, Mediterranean Air Command and Northwest African Air Forces, the Strategic Air Force to be available to bomb enemy landing grounds, during the critical days of the attack, on request of Northwest African Tactical Air Force.

Night bombers of the Western Desert Air Force were to keep up a continuous pounding of the enemy forward troops in the Mareth region on the two nights prior to the attack, and to continue in advance of our troops as the battle progressed.

Tactical Bomber Force Bisleys, supplemented by Wellingtons from the Algiers vicinity, would attack the southern enemy airfields with road movement as alternate targets.

This general policy was agreed to in conjunction with the Army formations concerned and dictated by General Montgomery's realization that ground attacks alone might not be sufficient to break the Mareth and Gabes lines within the allotted time.

We have examined the Tactical Air Force strength of 21 March 1943.  On this date the Strategic Air Force aircraft status report showed the USAAF component to have 383 aircraft assigned--B-17's, B-25's, B-26's and P-38's. the RAF had 24 Wellingtons. by 1 May 174 more USAAF planes had been added; these were B-26's, B-17's, and P-40's, bringing the grand total of 581 aircraft.

It was during the spring campaign in Tunisia that the Strategic Air Force came into its own. Hitherto its principal objectives had been the ports, airdromes, railways, and roads of Tunisia; now, even while increasing the intensity of its attack in Tunisia, it raised its sights and even more seriously undertook to include seaborne traffic, together with ports in Italy and the Mediterranean islands.

The Twelfth Air Force before 19 February had flown slightly fewer than 200 bombing missions, all but fine on Tunisian targets, and had dropped about 3,300 tons of bombs. March was still almost wholly devoted to Tunisia. In April about 200 bombing missions were flown, one-fifth against Italian targets; about 3,700 tons were dropped. May, with 186 missions and 6,225 tons, was concentrated almost entirely on Italy. The Tunisian work was done.

Strategic Air Force work was outstandingly effective. The U. S. heavies and mediums, escorted by P-38's, flew over the targets during daylight hours and did precision bombing. Wellingtons in ever increasing number further smashed the targets. Frequently Ninth Air Force Liberators chimed in with the powerful blasts of their bombs. Bomb damage assessment, both by photographic interpretation and by visual inspection on the ground after the campaign, showed extremely gratifying results. The port areas of Sousse, Sfax, La Goulette, and Bizerte were all but completely devastated. Marshalling yards were cratered and rolling stock strewn about in hopeless ruin. Airdromes were abandoned or the landing areas limited, while hangars were blasted and fire-twisted, with irreplaceable Axis aircraft heaped in airplane graveyards.

Implicit in the preceding paragraph is a picture of the purpose and methods of air power. Long before intensive ground operations were started, the Strategic Air Forces began the softening up process in the enemy's rear. First, airdromes and landing grounds were bombed to immobilize the opposing air force as far as possible and to reduce its interference with the next step, the bombing of communications, principally ports and railway yards. The third phase was concerned with isolating the enemy's combat troops from their bases; here the Tactical Air Force usually performed the major share of the task before undertaking the fourth phase, direct cooperation with the ground force advance. Meanwhile, Strategic was pounding away in preparation for the next drive into enemy territory. There was in addition Strategic's commitment of breaking up the enemy's more distant communication centers and airfields in order to hamper his reinforcement, supply, and air cooperation with his troops.

The use of tactical aircraft was developing. During the early part of the Tunisian campaign they had been used mainly in direct ground cooperation, either along the front or against vehicles directly in the enemy's rear. In part this was in response to the natural desire of ground troops and commanders to see their cooperating aircraft while in action, and it no doubt also was brought about by our tendency to separate the purely fighter from the air-ground cooperation function. Our losses gave ample evidence, however, that our tactics were not appreciably affecting the enemy's control of the air. The result was that ground strafing gave way to fighter sweeps as a primary mission. Thus fighter-bombers were able both to harry the enemy on the ground and to meet him in the air. The P-39 gave way to the P-40 and the P-38, and eventually to other types intended to drive the Axis from the sky and then to devote themselves to ground installations and traffic. By April the evolution was well under way.