When the USA entered World War 2 President Roosevelt and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to plan their way forward. The USSR meanwhile, surprised by the ferocious German invasion, were hard pressed and in retreat. Their Leader, Joseph Stalin, demanded the Anglo-American partners should invade Europe as soon as possible to deflect some of the Nazi effort. The Allies knew they were not yet equipped to sustain a major landing in France although the USA was willing to consider it.
Mr Churchill persuaded the President a more realistic objective would be to invade North Africa to liberate the French colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It was agreed that landings would take place on Nov 8th, 1942. The Americans would land in Morocco and the British in Algiers.
The planners were not given much time to prepare – from August on – which, as it turned out, led to initially shortages of supplies such as fuel and food and spares.
American troops land on a Moroccan beach during “Torch”
[US National Archives]
In support of the operation, three RAF Fighter Command wings, comprising of 6 Spitfire and 3 Hurricane squadrons, and 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups USAAF on Spitfires were transferred from Britain to Gibraltar.
The landings began almost simultaneously in all three landing zones in the early hours of November 8. The Eastern Task Force in Algiers met no active French opposition. The RAF’s first objective was the nearby airfield of Maison Blanche. Sqn/Ldr Ronald Berry’s 81 Squadron was the first Spitfire unit to land there with 242, 154 and 225 Squadrons joining during the day to form 322 Wing, a force of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Hurribombers.
The Allies planned to head for Tunis as rapidly as possible and the RAF was directed to defend the convoys unloading supplies and to move eastwards as quickly as the front line advanced. The air force knew it was in for a torrid time as the Axis air arm dominated the central Mediterranean from Sardinia and Sicily.
Flying with No. 81 Squadron was Ronald “Ras” Berry, one of the leading fighter pilots of his day. Berry fought with the Royal Air Force throughout the war, starting with the Battle of Britain with No. 603 Squadron where he made his reputation as an excellent fighter pilot, shooting down three Messerschmitts in a day.
The following extract from Ronald Berry- Hull’s Spitfire Ace by Don Chester conveys something of the stressful nature of the RAF’s situation in the first days following the landings which was worsened by the onset of the winter rains.
Ronald Berry – Book Extract
On November 11 the British army secured the small port of Bougie near the front line and within hours the harbour was crowded with shipping. It presented a vital new target for the Axis bombers whose strength a few days after the invasion was bolstered by transfer of 400 bombers from the Russian Front and fighters from France and Italy.
At this point the RAF struggled to contain the bombing assault and strafing by cannon and machine gun fire which was relentless. ’This continued strafing is not appreciated’ dryly commented 81’s November Operations report. During an afternoon Ras Berry damaged a Ju.88 and other pilots were also successful but the raiders sank two ships.
Two days later – the 13th– two British parachute units dropped successfully on the nearby town of Bone, close to the Tunisian border. Immediately, 81 and 242 Squadrons were ordered to occupy the town’s airfield, located dangerously close to the harbour. It became the most forward air base at that moment in the campaign.
Responding to a plea for help from the Royal Navy, 81 Squadron, while intercepting enemy bombers, failed to avoid a hail of ack-ack fire from the ships which led to three damaged Spitfires crash landing, fortunately without losing aircrew.
The enemy air forces responded furiously and almost as soon as the British landed at Bone they were attacked by Ju.88 and Italian Savoia bombers. Eleven Spitfires were destroyed on the ground, 20,000 gallons of fuel exploded and heavy casualties resulted. Bone airfield had two tarmac runways which quickly became pitted with craters. Persistent daily rain turned the dispersal area into a quagmire. Sometimes when an aircraft was taxiing an airman had to sit on its tail to prevent it tipping onto its nose.
The terminal building was too damaged to be of any use although briefly some grubby, lice infested mattresses were tried on the floor. Soon, pilots were billeted in hotels in the town at nightfall, otherwise they sheltered in slit trenches or dugouts dispersed around the airfield. Sleep was very difficult, often impossible, as air raids took place every night for weeks. Later, it was decided to relocate the pilots and Officers and Sergeant Pilot groups moved to villas outside the town, just in time as the latter’s town centre hotel was destroyed the following night. Shell shrapnel rained down on the town every night and from their villas the pilots watched as the sky was lit up by a pyrotechnic display of explosions and artillery action.
Aircrews in Tunisia often shared the primitive living conditions of the troops. Tented accomodation was unusual, but did not offer any protection in case of the frequent night raids by the Luftwaffe. Heavy December rains turned the desert into a quagmire.
[National Library of Australia]
The RAF had begun operations at Bone with 16 aircraft and 30 pilots. At one time, due to losses and the continued absence of spares there were only eight Spitfires in flying condition which for 81 Squadron declined to one aircraft and 10 pilots before reinforcements could be brought in.
On November 14 Berry reported damaging an Italian Macchi (Mc200) over Bone and was delighted to find on his return that the RAF Command had sent forward No.111 Squadron with 10 aircraft to further reinforce the base. He said:
“Thank God you’ve arrived. We’ve flown our arses off, most of our aircraft have been bombed or shot up and there’s no early warning system. We’re sitting ducks”.
The remainder of 322 Wing was ordered to Bone on the 17th which added two more squadrons to the base, supported by 1,500 personnel who arrived in a convoy of seventy trucks after a moonlight journey over narrow, tortuous mountain roads.
Battle of Bone Unveils
Thus developed a fierce aerial conflict which has become known as the Battle of Bone, and which curiously remains one of the lesser known aerial battles of World War II. The pressure of Axis aerial attacks quickly rose to several missions every day, by day and by night. As Bone was the furthest forward harbour that the Allies could use to supply their forces during the winter, tanks, guns and other supplies were unloaded under continuous enemy bombing and strafing, which increased the logistics problems that choked the Allied advance.
The Luftwaffe held the upper hand in the air over Bone for almost three months. Only by the end of January 1943 did the balance of power shift slowly to the Allies’ favour.