Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Giant ME

At the start of the war the Mediterranean was an Italian lake, however as the war progressed the Allied forces began to claw control back. This became an increasing problem for the German Afrika corps, battered on land by the 8th Army, then attacked from behind by the US forces through Algeria. As the Afrika corps collapsed back to Tunisia their supply lines dried up. It was at that point to solve at least one of their troubles the Germans decided to set up an air bridge to Tunisia and supply their forces that way. Unbowed by their failure the previous year at Stalingrad to create a sustainable air bridge, they would try again. After all this time the clear skies of the Med wouldn't cripple them like the harsh Eastern Front weather. Plus they had support from the Italian Air Force and new equipment, in the shape of the gigantic Messerschmitt Me 323. This aircraft was a Me 321 glider with six engines attached and it was a whopping 29 meters long with a 55 meter wingspan. It could carry over a company of troops or up to twelve tons of materiel.
Haystack for scale!
Not unsurprisingly the Allies had spotted the importance of the Med and were putting pressure on the logistics corridor. Naval and air units were cutting where possible enemy shipping and air supply lines. This was called Operation Flax.

On April 18th 1943, which was also Palm Sunday, a large flight of Ju 52's (around sixty five in number) was returning from unloading its supplies in Tunisia. I say around as some of these planes were Italian SM.79 bombers that had been pressed into the transport role. The swarm of transports was at just 100 ft as it plodded home late in the day. As they neared the coast they were spotted by allied fighters, 47 P-40 Kittyhawks of the USAAF's 57th Fighter Group were at 4000 feet, and dove onto the vulnerable transports. Some reports say that passengers opened windows and fired small arms at the attackers. However this could have just been normal defensive guns or the SM.79's firing back.
In a very short order thirty one Ju 52's were hacked out of the sky, with a further three being badly damaged, six damaged, and finally three just lightly damaged. One account says that large sections of the sea were a raging inferno from so many crashed Ju 52's. There's also reports that some passengers waited until the plane was near the sea before jumping, hoping to survive.
The transports were not without cover, about twenty Axis fighters were providing protection. These were a mix of Me 110's, Bf 109's and some Italian aircraft. However between them and the Kittyhawks stooping on their transports was a flight of twelve British Spitfires flying top cover. The two forces soon tangled, and a swirling dogfight ensued. As the dogfight fell through the sky it soon mixed itself with the Kittyhawks attacking the transports. This resulted in a fifteen minute fight. At the end of the battle the Germans had lost another ten or so fighters, the Allies in return had lost seven fighters.

The next attempt at an air bridge was the following day, this time the Me 323's were into the breech. However this time the mission went off without an enemy contact.
Three days later on the 22nd the Luftwaffe tried the Me 323's again, departing at 0710 the fourteen transports struggled into the air heavily loaded with fuel and ammunition. They met with a flight of Ju 52's and a large fighter escort. As they crossed the Med the Me 323's peeled off and set a course for a place called Cap Bon. This was contrary to orders as the area was considered extremely dangerous, and went against the planned route. Despite this thirty nine Bf 109's went with them.
As the lumbering giants approached Cap Bon on the Tunisian coast the Allied air forces appeared. The mix of South African, Polish and British piloted Spitfires and Kittyhawks appeared in two groups. One engaged the fighters, forcing them away, the others swarmed into the all but defenceless Me 323's. Most were shot down in very short order, with several pilots claiming multiple kills.

This massacre caused the halt of the German relief efforts, although a "gunship" version of the Me 323 was envisaged bristling with guns to provide cover for the transports. Allied intelligence had been the key. A spy in Italy had a radio transmitter hidden in a church tower and from there he could see the German transports taking off. As he radioed that message through to the Allies there was a short space of time before the German giants would appear near Tunisia, and so the Allies could be waiting for them. On the day of the Me 323's last flight, the radio transmitter was discovered, but by then it was too late.
Gunship version?

Image credits:
www.lonesentry.com, www.worldwarphotos.info and www.luftarchiv.de