America Comes to the Desert


As U.S. and British leaders gathered in Washington after Pearl Harbor for their first wartime conference (Arcadia), British land, sea, and air forces were fighting against Axis forces in a desperate struggle for control of the Mediterranean. The Allies considered this area crucial to their interests because it affected supply lines to the Soviet Union, aircraft ferrying routes to India and China, and oil fields in Iran and Iraq. The prospect of triumphant German and Japanese armies joining forces in India remained a recurrent Allied nightmare.

An operation by the British Eighth Army in late 1941 that featured bold thrusts by armored spearheads drove the Germans and their Italian allies westward from the border of Egypt. But Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps soon resumed the offensive. What began as a limited German thrust in January 1942 against El Agheila, Libya, grew by May into a major attack. Bolstered by increased supplies, the Afrika Korps battled through British defensive positions at Gazala and captured Tobruk on June 21. Retreating across the western desert to hastily prepared defenses at El Alamein, sixty miles west of Alexandria, the British averted complete disaster only by determined rearguard fighting and domination of the skies.

As the Germans opened their May assault, Sir Charles Portal, chief of air staff for Britain, met in London with Gen. Henry H. Amold, head of the Army Air Forces (AAF), to determine how to bring U.S. bombers and fighters to the Middle East. In fact, the first U.S. heavy bombers had already arrived. During a stopover along the African leg of a newly established ferrying route to India, twenty-three B-24s commanded by Col. Harry Halverson diverted from their Asian journey and proceeded to Egypt. There they prepared for a strike against Ploesti, a Romanian petroleum complex vital to the German war machine. Over the next three years, that target became legendary to the thousands of airmen who flew against it. On the evening of June 11, 1942, thirteen of Halverson's small force of B-24s took off from a Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield near the Suez Canal, arriving the next morning over the target where they bombed the refineries as planned. The raid marked the first AAF combat mission over Europe. From this modest start, the American presence in the Mediterranean theater grew into an overwhelming force.

Halverson's B-24s stayed and supported the U.S. Eighth Army in the desert war against Rommel. For the next several weeks, they joined the RAF in targeting German supplies, attacking convoys at sea, and repeatedly striking the harbors at Benghazi and Tobruk. In Cairo, meanwhile, the structure of the AAF in the Middle East took shape. On June 28, the U.S. Army Middle East Air Force (USAMEAF) activated under the command of Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton. With nine B-17s from the Tenth Air Forcein India, he was a recent arrival. The Halverson and Brereton heavy  bombers were the only U.S. combat aircraft in the Middle East until P-40 fighters and 8-25 medium bombers arrived in August.

Concordia Vega Oil Refinery - Ploesti, Romania

The USAMEAF joined the RAF, Middle East, commanded by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur W Tedder, and the Western Desert Air Force, led by Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, in forming the Allied air power opposing Rommel. The Americans soon became familiar with British air tactics and doctrine. They observed Tedder's and Coningham 's fight within the British military to divorce air power from the control of ground commanders and they participated in the effective application of air power to the battlefield.

By the end of August, as new aircraft arrived, the Americans increased their tempo of operations, flying almost daily missions against enemy shipping at sea and in the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk. In September, U.S. P-40s and B-25s, flying with existing RAF units, joined the heavies in blunting a major Axis attack on Alam Halfa at the southern end of the British line. The next test for U.S. airmen came in October at El Alamein.

El Alamein

At 9:40 p.m. on October 23, 1942, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, the British Eighth Army's new commander, began the second battle of Alamein with a four-hour artillery barrage. Although the battle consisted primarily of tank and artillery duels, Allied air power also contributed. Allied fighters and medium bombers slashed at frontline gun emplacements, tank groups, and infantry positions, and blasted overextended German supply lines. The U.S. 57th Fighter Group roared overhead, scoring twenty-nine aerial victories, and B-25s succeeded in breaking up two enemy counterattacks. By November 4, their victory was complete and Allied forces, including the U.S. Ninth Air Force, began pursuing the Afrika Korps across the Libyan desert and into eastern Tunisia, where Rommel linked up with existing German forces. Until late 1943, the Ninth Air Force supported the British advance, flew interdiction missions against German supply lines and reinforcements, bombed Ploesti, and joined theTunisia-based Twelfth Air Force in attacks against a widening arc of targets northward into Sicily and Italy.