Personal Stories

At War — Africa

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By mid October, the Group was totally involved with the war. They were increasingly involved starting with the participation by some pilots with the RAF on August 9, 1942, initially as individuals, then as larger elements and as flights in RAF missions, thus becoming acclimated to the operations. In this manner pilots of the Group had, up through September 13, flown 158 sorties. The pilots quickly gained the respect of the RAF and as one RAF officer remarked, “If all the Yanks are as good as these, we’ll have some fun”.

On September 16, 1942, the Group began independent operations (as a reserve unit) under operational control of the 211 RAF Group, going on full operations on October 7. In mid October, the Group was busy escorting medium bombers, which were hitting the enemy airdromes behind the lines to eliminate the German Air Force threat to the British ground troops. The first air victory by the Group operations was October 9, however there were many victories as early as August 12 by pilots of the Group while flying with RAF squadrons on acclimatization missions. By October 25, the pilots of the 57th had flown 550 sorties.


On October 27th, 8 P-40’s of the 65 Sqd. carrying bombs with 8 P-40’s of the 64 Sqd. flying top cover had completed their bombing mission when they sighted over 20 Fiat CR-42’s of the Regia Aeronautica, and 20 Stukas escorted by a similar number of ME 109’s. They turned into the enemy and destroyed 7, probably destroyed 3 and damaged 3, all without a loss. On October 28, four more enemy fighters were downed by the 57th. Through the period from October 19 through October 31, the 57th flew 743 sorties, claiming 27 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 probably destroyed, and 15 damaged.


The technique of the pre-dawn attack, referred to in Col. Salisbury’s report, as introduced by the Group on October 27, comprised lining up all of the motor transport along the path of take-off, and flipping on their lights at a signal, Instantly, a flight of 12 or more roared off in a 12 or more abreast formation, followed quickly by two more flights. The mission then on the deck out to sea, back to the target from the north, over the coastal ridge and into the attack. Only small arms were encountered, the enemy was so surprised, and the destruction of aircraft on the airfields was phenomenal.


In the period prior to and during the El Alamein break-through the Group flew up to one sixth of the sorties in the area and scored approximately 40% of the air victories, with very few losses. Most losses were caused by enemy ground fire, which most fighter pilots considered more dangerous than aerial combat. After the German retreat began, the Group often flew up to half of the daily sorties in that theatre.


WITH THE UNITED STATES ARMY AIR FORCES, in Egypt, Oct. 28 (U.P.) – American airmen have downed fifteen Axis planes and damaged many others since the start of the present Allied land offensive in Egypt. Yesterday the Americans got seven. They downed four planes Sunday and four Monday. In addition, American bombers are carrying out raid after raid on enemy airdromes, supplies and troop and tank concentrations.

Monday the Fighting Cock Squadron scored its biggest victory, sighting four Macchi-202’s in one sweep and shooting down all the Italian fighters. The engagement took place ten miles southeast of El Daba.

The fight began at 10,000 feet, said Second Lieutenant Robert L. Metcalfe of Hooker, OK, and ended only 200 feet above the ground.

Captain Thomas (Walt) Clark of Wetmore, MI, flight leader, destroyed two of the four Macchi’s in quick succession.

“The first one blew up in a thousand pieces when I fired a burst at it,” he said. “Then I dived at the second with such speed that I was in danger of crashing with him when he went down from my final burst. But I pulled away in time and saw him make a floundering turn to the right and crash in flames.

Lieutenant Metcalfe shot down a third Macchi and the fourth was bagged by First Lieutenant Roy Whitaker of Knoxville, TN.

“It was the grandest feeling in the world – something like Christmas,” Lieutenant Whitaker said. “This is the kind of thing they have given us the best training in the world to do.”

When the squadron returned to base and beer cans had been opened all around it was found that only one of the American planes had been hit and by only one bullet, which had done no damage.

CAIRO, Egypt, Oct. 28- A feature of the war in the air over the Egyptian battle area yesterday was the skill and good fortune of the United States fighter group-skill in the way pilots fought, and good fortune in their getting excellent enemy targets.

The Americans accounted for seven of the eighteen enemy planes that were downed over the battle area during the day. The top scorer was Second Lieutenant Lyman L. Middleditch Jr. of Highlands, NJ, who got three planes in one engagement, increasing his total to four.

Having completed a fighter-bomber raid on enemy airfields near El Daba, the United States pursuit pilots sighted a big formation of enemy planes coming in from the sea. They counted twenty Me-109’s, twenty Stukas and twenty Fiat fighters. Though heavily outnumbered, the Americans attacked.

Lieutenant Middleditch soon saw a Messerschmitt veer from in front of his guns and then crash in flames. He next went after three German planes that were attacking him from above. Down went a second Messerschmitt. He continued to fight the two other enemy planes, which gradually moved out over the sea. Finally he got in a good burst and a third German plane rolled over on its back and plunged into the water. By that time Lieutenant Middleditch was out of ammunition, so he headed for home.

Meanwhile, the other United States fighter pilots, having dropped their bombs, turned on the Fiats, shot down four of them and scored a number of “probables.” All the Americans got back safely.


It took the 8th Army only 12 days to break through Rommel’s defenses at El Alamein and the longest chase in history – 1300 miles in 13 weeks – began. The battle line moved westward across Egypt and so thorough was the RAF’s planning that airdromes far behind the enemy lines were allocated to the various air units long before their actual capture. Pinpoint locations were still found on British maps used two years previously by Generals Wavel and Cunningham.

One great problem was the necessity of keeping up with a fast moving front. The RAF had perfected a unique plan and taught the Yanks its elements. The procedure was simple and effective. The squadrons would be split into halves with an equal number of mechanics, armourers, radio technicians, cooks, truck drivers and so forth in each party. The party which would move forward first would be called “A” party, the rear echelon “B” party. As soon as the ground forces secured a site for a forward airfield, “A” party was to move forward, carrying half of the Squadron’s equipment and rations, to establish servicing facilities on the new airfield. Meanwhile the efficiency of the Squadron was not heavily impaired, as “B” party continued flight operations from the rear. As soon as “A” party signaled that they were ready to begin flying from the forward drome, the aircraft would land and take-off into the combat from there. Then “B” party would move up to join “A” party for operations, at times “leap-frogging” “A” party if the battle line continued to move ahead.

The long anticipated jump-off for the Squadrons came on November 5, and the camps looked practically deserted with half of the men gone, their tents and trucks no longer around. “B” parties continued to operate from their bases and every man had to work twice as hard to keep the aircraft flying. “A” parties drove through ninety miles of bloody battle – and for the first time saw death in all its grotesque forms. Remnants of enemy divisions lay in confusion everywhere, shattered hulks of what were once German armored vehicles, and huge artillery pieces. Each revolution of the convoy’s wheels brought new scenes of havoc and destruction into view.

The next day, “A” parties reached new fields and set up camp. The British Army used a fleet of American built motor trucks to carry supplies onto each airdrome, and established dumps of gasoline and ammunition in the area. Aircraft took off for a mission and as soon as they left, “B” party struck its tents, loaded trucks and moved forward to join “A” party. The aircraft landed at “A” party’s airfield and, after servicing, were ready to fly the short distance into enemy territory to engage the “Wily Hun.” This method of keeping up with a fast moving front was perfect and as no period of inactivity was necessitated by a move, it proved to be the model upon which all future operations were based.
Moving forward was a dangerous procedure for several reasons. The trucks kept intervals of one hundred yards between them so that an enemy strafing aircraft would not account for the destruction of too many vehicles. All the personnel riding atop the trucks kept their rifles at hand for such an occurrence and every fifth vehicle mounted some kind of machine gun against attacking aircraft. It was extremely dangerous to stray from the road or track, as German Teller Mines were planted everywhere. Although an occasional truck would pull off the road in an attempt to pass a slow moving convoy, it would suddenly blow up in a geyser of smoke after hitting a mine – and discourage any further short-cuts around the convoy.

At night the convoys stopped along the road and the men tried to get a few hours of rest. Aside from the cold breeze that whipped around one’s cot out in the open, Jerry aircraft often dropped flares along the road and strafed any concentration of vehicles observed. One night in Halfaya Pass, on the Egypt – Libya border, German aircraft strafed several tanks near the convoy and everyone admitted that the multi-colored tracer bullets and anti-aircraft bursts made an awe-inspiring though deadly, spectacle.


Many moves – ten in two months – then a temporary hiatus – then on the move again. Orders for 2 typical moves follow.

A more motley appearing gang of men than the Group personnel on the move could not be found. The men wore a wide assortment of uniforms and no two of them were alike. British battle jackets and trousers were worn by many, while others had swapped items with their Australian friends back in Egypt and wore huge-brimmed hats in real Aussie style. German shoes were a popular item of footgear in lieu of worn-out American shoes.


The 79th, under the command of Col. Peter McGoldrick (Operations Officer of the 57th one year earlier), arrived in the Mid East on November 2, 1942 and was assigned to the 57th for indoctrination (acclimatization) on November 6. On McGoldrick’s first mission, a strafing assignment, he was knocked down by ground fire and killed by a land mine in his forced landing.


The famous war correspondent and author, Leland Stowe, was on the field gathering material at this time. He expressed surprise that although the Sixty-Fourth Squadron had been named the “Black Scorpions” and Sixty-Fifth Squadron the “Fighting Cocks,” the Sixty-Sixth was nameless. The Sixty-Sixth’s explanation was that the job of leading the Group in exterminating Jerries left no time for naming the unknown “Squadron X.” Aptly enough, Mr. Stowe called the Sixty-Sixth the “Exterminators” in his articles, and the name stuck.

As Thanksgiving Day approached, the men wondered whether Uncle Sam had completely forgotten them, but a miracle was witnessed when B-25 aircraft landed with their bomb bays full of frozen American turkeys and vegetables. The kitchen personnel worked long hours and prepared a meal reminiscent of a banquet back in America. After months of existing on bully beef and tea, this day of feasting was long remembered.

Montgomery was hitting Rommel hard and more names on the map became British occupied. Now the “leap-frogging” game began in earnest and there were several changes of station made during November some necessitated by the extensive mining of the fields assigned. The Group was taking its toll of enemy motor trucks, installations, and enemy aircraft, but suffered its own losses as well.

A move to a forward airfield began to assume the perspective of a hunt. The first ones to arrive usually found stores of enemy equipment, which were very useful. Jerry left articles of every description behind, from delicious food items to portable generators, and souvenir hunting although dangerous, was profitable. Practically everyone strutted about with a shiny Luger automatic pistol on his hip, and the men’s 180-pound British tents boasted cheery light from German kerosene lanterns during the long chilly evenings.

As the offensive on the ground moved westward, the original task of the 239 Wing was completed and the Sixty-Sixth was ordered to rejoin the 57th Group at Martuba, Libya. Many handclasps and greetings were exchanged as the Squadron personnel jokingly called the “Gypsies,” looked up old acquaintances in the in the other squadrons of the “First In The Blue” Group.

A few weeks later, Christmas found the organization eating American rations in part, and although rumors mentioned something about a chicken dinner, rainy weather prevented the transports from flying in the promised treat. A few days later, however, the men ate a delicious, although somewhat belated, Christmas dinner. New Year’s Day saw “A” parties on the move and although one truck in the convoy hit a land mine, injuring two of the men, the trip through the dangerous Marble Arch sector was completed safely. Memories of the dive-bombing and strafing attack a “B” party near Agedabia were still fresh in everyone’s mind. Reaching its new base at Hamraiet in a blinding sandstorm, “A” parties were unable to set up camp for several days. Engineers were still carrying rocks off the proposed field and German aircraft took their toll in several strafing attacks, which killed overt fifty of the hardy soldiers. The men in the 57th were battle-wise and dug in everywhere against aerial attacks. In addition, several of the men had made machine-gun nests from captured German weapons and threw up their own anti-aircraft fire, soon after the Group drove into selected camp areas. Messerschmitts strafed the trucks and personnel. One of the crew chiefs, S-Sgt. Louis Lederman, using a captured Spandau machine gun on a homemade tripod, shot down one of the Messerchmitts. A few days later “B” party, moving toward Hamraiet, lost a truck in an enemy mine field, but no one was hurt by the blast. Darragh was the next base and operations there were curtailed frequently by the driving sandstorms, which blew for days on end.


Action by the Group in the early weeks, July 1, 1942 – January 23, 1943, was covered briefly in a review prepared under the direction of Colonel Arthur Salisbury, excerpts of which follow: “In the Allied preparation for the battle of Egypt, it was decided to assemble the group on L.B. 174 in the Western Desert some thirty five miles southwest of Alexandria. The Group was to act as an Air Force reserve during the period of preparation and then actively participate in the battle. Accordingly, all units of the Group united on L.G. 174 on September 15, 1942, and Group was placed under the tactical control of the RAF 21 Group (equivalent to an American Wing).” This tactical control continued throughout the period covered by this communication:

“On October 6, 1942, the 66th Squadron was attached to the RAF 239th Wing and continued to be so attached until November 19, 1942. On October 7th, the Group ceased to form a reserve and began active operations over enemy lines. The first aerial victory came on October 9th when the 64th Squadron destroyed one ME 109 and probably destroyed another while the 66th Squadron damaged one MC 202.”

“The grand Air Offensive opened on the 20th of October. This was the first, or purely air phase of the Battle Of Egypt. The Air Forces marshaled for this battle were the greatest ever assembled in close support of a single army up to that time. This first phase had a two-fold objective, i.e., to gain complete mastery of the air and to soften up the enemy by harassing his supply lines. This was the first real test of the fighter-bomber. During this phase the 57th Group flew one tenth of the total sorties flown by the Desert Air Force.”

“The second phase of the Battle Of Egypt was ushered in on the night of October 23-24, with the opening of the assault on the Alamein Line by the Ground Forces of the 8th Army. During this second phase the Group was operating in close support against army targets, bombing and strafing. Missions were flown continuously; as rapidly as the planes could be serviced after one mission they took off on another. During this phase the group flew one sixth of the total sorties flown by the Desert Air Force. And during the first and second phases of the Battle of Egypt the group was credited with approximately forty percent of the aerial victories of the entire Desert Air Force. It was during this second phase of the Battle that the major portion of the German Air Force supporting Rommel was put out of action on the ground. This was the result of a new type of attack initiated by the 57th Group, appropriately called the pre-dawn fighter-bomber attack. The first of these missions was the so-called “Fuka Show” on the early morning of October 27, 1942. Our planes took off before dawn by the light of truck headlights and were over the enemy landing ground near Fuka at dawn. Fuka was the base for most of the German Air Force supporting Rommel and for advanced elements of the Italian Air Force. The enemy was taken completely by surprise; his planes were on the ground; and he sustained great damage from bombing and strafing. This type of attack was repeated by the Group on October 28th and November 2nd. Following these attacks the German Air Force was never again a serious contender for control of the air in the Battle of Egypt and the ensuing Libyan Campaign.”

“The third phase of the Battle of Egypt became discernable on the morning of the 3rd of November when allied tactical reconnaissance aircraft reported that the signs indicated an enemy withdrawal and that the coast road from Daba to Fuka was black with traffic moving West. To destroy this movement the Desert Air Force threw everything it had into the Battle. From midday until dark this 57th Group participated in this “shuttle service” carrying out fighter-bomber attacks. By dusk, transport vehicles were seen burning along the whole length of the road from Chazal to Fuka.”

The German Air Force, in its defeat of France a couple of years earlier, had strafed the streams of civilian refugees fleeing south at that time and the Salisbury report takes note of that.

“The Luftwaffe’s murder of fleeing civilians on the roads of France was being avenged; the Axis soldiery was having a taste of what their Air Force had so often joyously inflicted. Because of the havoc, confusion and destruction inflicted upon him from the air, the enemy was unable to hold his new line southward from Ghazal. As he retreated the air attack was maintained in all its fury and on the 5th of November this attack had so disorganized the Hun that he was unable to regroup his forces for a stand at Fuka. The full retreat was on and Allied air power was maintaining its tempo, winning for Rommel the dubious subriquet of “Master of the Retreat.” Ever westward moved the bombed and strafed German forces through Sidi Barrani, Sollum and Halfaya pass. Air power denied Rommel the power to concentrate for a stand and the “flap” was on to Jedabya.”


More excerpts from Colonel Salisbury’s report, “The Germans made a stand at Aghelia but again withdrew before full pressure was exerted by the Ground Forces of the 8th Army. The withdrawal continued until Tripoli fell to the army on the 23rd of January 1943. Thereafter, Rommel withdrew westward to the Mareth Line.
“In the campaign from Alamein through Tripoli, the fighter-bomber played a conspicuous part and definitely influenced Ground Force tactics. Rommel was never permitted to regroup and concentrate his forces for a determined stand or for a counter attack. The part played by the 57th Group on forcing the wily Rommel to conduct a continuous retreat was significantly great. During the retreat through Libya the Group flew one fourth, and on some days one half of the total sorties flown by the Desert Air Force.”
“In the development of Desert tactics the Group was most conspicuous. The close cooperation with the Army is shown by the timetable maintained in the advance. The Group moved forward in repeated jumps to occupy new landing grounds as soon as the enemy had been ejected. Ten such moves were made between November 5, 1942 and January 11, 1943. At L.G. 75, some forty miles southeast of Sidi Barrani the advance ground echelon had to wait some time a short distance off the L.G., while enemy armored forces were cleared from the field. Maintenance of aircraft under the most adverse desert conditions made possible the remarkable record of the Group throughout the campaign. In spite of the most severe sand storms, and in the face of most critical shortages of parts, material and supplies, the maintenance record for the entire campaign was slightly better than 72% serviceability of assigned aircraft.”


(A) Hours flown 5545.54
(B) Missions 383
(C) Sorties 3702
(D) Weight of bombs dropped (pounds) 415, 660
(E) Victories
(1) Enemy aircraft destroyed 62
(2) Enemy aircraft probably destroyed 12
(3) Enemy aircraft damaged 42
(F) Losses by enemy action (mostly by strafing)
(1) Aircraft 26
(2) Pilots 15 (8 confirmed POW’s)
(G) Of the 383 missions noted above, 75 were bomber-escorts, 75 patrols over harbors and shipping convoys, 145 fighter-bomber or strafing and the balance were fighter-sweeps or intercepts. A very large number of enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground and many more damaged; more than 100 gun emplacements put out of action, while at least two tanks were destroyed and others damaged. Many tents and innumerable personnel were also destroyed.

The foregoing account of the combat activities of the 57th Fighter Group should be evaluated with the following consideration borne in mind: Claims of victories were based strictly on the RAF method of establishing proof, and are believed to be extremely conservative. During the early phase of campaigning the 57th Group maintained a ratio of critical shortages of aircraft and pilots. During the month of October 1942, victories were 27 enemy aircraft destroyed, 7 probably destroyed and 15 damaged for the loss of one 57th Group pilot. Throughout the entire period the most critical shortage of parts, material and supplies did not deter ground crews from establishing a record throughout of better than 72% serviceability of assigned aircraft. During this period of more than four months, all personnel of this Group lived under the most rigorous conditions. Only on rare occasions did they receive issues of American rations, clothing, tentage and other sanitary measures. No facilities were available for entertainment or recreation. This Group was the only American organization to move forward immediately behind the British Eighth Army and at Hamraiet L.G., 35 miles SW of Sirte was subjected to three days of concentrated bombing and strafing by the enemy aircraft. Nevertheless, with utter disregard for there own personal safety and welfare, each and every member of the 57th Fighter Group performed his duties in an exemplary manner, is keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army Air Force.

With the capture of Tripoli by the British 8th Army on January 23, 1943, there was time and occasion for celebration. General Strickland said that the Fifty-Seventh would be employed in the Tunisian Campaign, and the men gritted their teeth and moved westward. From Zuara, Libya, an advance party crossed into Tunisia on March 2, and although they set up camp deep inside the border, a German counter-attack from the Mareth Line forced them to retreat over 40 miles to Ben Gerdane.

A few weeks later the Group was flying from El Djem L.G. and on April 18 made the famous “Palm Sunday Massacre.” The 57th Group in ten minutes shot down the astounding total of seventy-five German aircraft for the loss of six Warhawks. This example of Yankee plane trading broke the arch of the aerial bridge over which the Germans were supplying the Afrika Korps-which was like pumping blood into a corpse. That night the Intelligence Section worked until midnight to sort out the claims, and a party was laid on that will never be forgotten. Twenty-five days after the Palm Sunday Massacre the Axis in Africa surrendered.


Like a chess player moving his men, the high command moved Squadron to meet the needs. Squadron 66 of the 57th Group was attached to the 239 RAF Wing from October 6 to November 19. Then the 112th RAF (Shark Nose) Squadron was attached to the 57th Group from November 19, 1943 to January 28, 1943. From March 8, 1943 to May 23, 1943, the 314th Squadron of the 324th Group, which had somewhat earlier arrived in the Middle East, was attached to the 57th.


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"At War — Africa" pictures.

In a report of May 30, 1943, prepared under the direction of Col.Salisbury, the statistics for the Group from the time it entered action until the end of the African Campaign, May 22, 1943 are reported as follows:

Sorties 6103
Missions 530
KIA 10
POW 10
MIA as of report date 12
Late Arrivals 14
E/A Victories 224
E/A Probables 37
E/A Damaged 140
500 lb. Bombs dropped 1706
Weight of 500 pounders 853,000
40 lb. Bombs dropped 304
Weight of 40 pounders 212,160