How much did the US Army Air Force contribute to Axis defeat in the Mediterranean, and what implications did that victory carry for the rest of the war? In The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno , Christopher Rein argues that the extant literature on the campaign has misunderstood airpower’s contribution. Biased interpretations on the part of both air and ground partisans have led to misconceptions about how the campaign played out, and about the nature and capabilities of the USAAF.
Rein tracks the USAAF deployment to North Africa from late 1941, before US involvement had officially begun. US airmen deployed to Egypt in 1941 to begin preparing for US involvement, to support US aircraft being exported to the RAF, and to begin learning RAF tradecraft. The US involvement on the Eastern side of the Med accelerated with the Pearl Harbor attacks, as some of the squadrons that escaped from the Philippines found their way to Egypt, eventually becoming the Ninth Air Force. These squadrons would (after a failed attempt to attack Ploesti, and an abortive scheme to support the Soviets in the Caucausus) eventually join the RAF in supporting Montgomery’s offensive across Egypt and Libya. The Ninth Air Force would be joined by the 12th in the wake of Operation Torch, as the Allies slowly tightened the noose on Axis forces in Tunisia. Following the surrender in North Africa, the USAAF would support amphibious operations in Sicily and Italy, and wage a very successful counter-air operation against the Luftwaffe, notwithstanding the unfortunate diversion of heavy bomber assets to a disastrous raid against Ploesti.
Rein argues, contra much of the historiography on this subject, that the USAAF had relatively sound doctrine and aircraft to undertake a tactical air campaign, but that the problems lay with training and experience. In particular, Rein argues that the struggles in the early part of the campaign came from the lack of joint training with US Army ground forces. Apart from several small engagements in the Pacific Theater, the US Army had virtually no experience with ground-air integration in conventional combat situations. The lack of available aircraft prior to the war exacerbated this problem. Much aircraft production in 1941 and 1942 was diverted to the Pacific, to preparing for the Combined Bomber Offensive, or directly to the RAF. Over the course of the campaign, the Ninth and Twelfth Air Forces developed the tacit knowledge necessary to carry out effective air tactics and operations, both through experience and through interaction with the British (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans). In particular, the USAAF developed tactics for the employment of fighter-bombers, a use of pursuit aircraft not conceptualized with any detail prior to the war.
Rein comes to grim conclusions regarding the effectiveness of strategic bombing during the North Africa campaign. USAAF heavy bombers were used effectively for long-range interdiction at several points during the campaign, attacking transportation networks in Libya and Italy. However, the diversion of these bombers to attacks on Axis oil production at Ploesti proved a costly catastrophe. On a single night, fifty-three heavy bombers were lost, a total that exceeded combined losses for the previous thirteen months. The lack of these aircraft, Rein suggests, helped add to early Allied troubles in Italy. Rein also argues, without qualification, that the commitment of additional heavy bombers to the anti-submarine role could have substantially reduced Allied shipping losses and, potentially, accelerated the end of the war. Overall, Rein argues that the diversion of resources to the CBO significantly hampered Allied effectiveness in the Med, although the USAAF and RAF nevertheless managed to wage a successful air campaign.
The misunderstandings associated with the North Africa campaign stem, in large part, from the broader disputes between air and ground power advocates. Airpower advocates interpret the campaign mostly in negative, doctrinal terms; ground commanders without a sense of how to use airpower dispersed assets, and left the (smaller) Axis air forces in control of the air. On the ground side, commanders were frustrated with the inability of the USAAF to provide much in the way of force protection, although Rein points out that this also stemmed from misconceptions of the degree of support that airpower could provide for advancing ground forces. The term “penny packets” emerges from this campaign, stemming from the argument that the US defeat at Kasserine Pass came, in large part, from the inability of airpower assets to concentrate and wage an effect counter-air campaign against Axis forces. This dispersal violated the precept of centralized control, decentralized effect by parceling out air assets across various ground commanders. In fact, bad logistics and bad weather prevented the USAAF from playing its role at Kasserine Pass.
These problems of command and control a) stemmed from inexperience, rather than bad doctrine, and b) were largely solved by mid-1943. Nevertheless, as the modern USAF has struggled to forget its origins in strategic bombing theory and doctrine, the “penny packet” argument has replaced the “independent decisive effect of airpower.” In comics terms, this amounts to a replacement of a “Golden Age” origin story with one from the “Silver Age.” After independence, of course, the USAF would utterly gut its tactical capabilities, in spite of promises made to the Army and to General Eisenhower.
This is an outstanding work on a campaign that remains misunderstood. Rein writes well, and has considerable practical and theoretical experience of airpower (a USAF Lieutenant Colonel, Rein teaches at the US Air Force Academy). The book is relatively short, but explains the strategic and operational issues sufficiently that even relative novices should be able to follow the action. Rein also draws implications from this episode for the later history of airpower, although the lack of space and development makes these feel a touch strained. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book.