World War II Western Desert: The Desert Air Force

Figure 1.--The Allied Desert Air Force was a basically tactical organization created to support the 8th Air Force in the Western Desert. It was the vehiche through which the Allies began learning the close air support operations so sucessfully mastered by the Luftwaffe before the war. After America entered the War and British factories expanded production, bombers also became an important part of air operations in North Africa. Here we see see what we bellieve to be an RAF medium bomber, the Mark II Wellington that used the famed Merlin engine. This photograph is not dated, but was probably taken in 1942.

The British after the outbreak of World War II began describing their air forces in the Middle East as the Desert Air Force (DAF). Af first the air contingent was very small. The Desert Air Force was formally constituted as the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) (late-1941). Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, an Australian who grew up in New Zealand, took over command of RAF No.202 Group (1941). He began the first steps to the creation of the the DAF and would command throught the desperate figting with Rommel's Afrika Korps until the British vctory at El Alemaine. He oversaw the important development of close air support tactics that the Germans had mastered before the War. No.253 Wing was formed to experiment with the close air support tactical operations that would be so important in the Western Desert fighting (July 1941). WDAF's primary function was to provide close air support to the British Eigth Army. This would be the first time that the Germans had to face the air tactics that they had developed. And here the Desert Air Force would have several advantages over the Luftwaffe. The Germans from the beginning saw the Western Desert as a side show. Hitler's focus and that of OKW was east on Barbarossa. This and British attacks on Italian convoys severly limited the delivery of supplies bd equipment. The British in contrast saw the Western Desert as of critical importance and for an extended period when the War was being decided on the Eastern Front was the only active Allied front. The Desert Air Force also had access to virtually unlimited fuel supplies while the Afrika Korps was constantly starved for fuel. And the Desert Air Force received major deliveries of aircraft from both Britain and the United States. Because the Germans could not bring an adequate force to bear on the British to defeat the British, combat in the Western Desert not only afforded thge RAF the opportunity to lear effective ground-support tactics, but in effect Rommel schooled the British on effective armnored tactics. Suez was the pruze, but perhaps the greatest importance of the Western Desert both in the air and ground was preparing the British for future combat with the Germans. No. 253 Wing at first was composed of two squadrons of Hurricane fighters and one of Blenheims bombers. The British victory in the Battle of Britain enable the British to deploy air units to the Western Desert, No. 258 Wing and No. 269 Wings were formed for front line operations. No.262 Wing was formed for the defence of the Nile Delta Zone. No.258 and 269 Wings formed the core of the WDAF when it was formally constituted (October 1941). WDAF's first major operation was to support Operation Crusader (November 1941). The DAF would eventually include squadrons from the British Royal Air Force (RAF), the South African Air Force (SAAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), and other Allied air forces. Besides playing a major role in the British victory in the Western Desert, the Desert Air Firce was the proving grounds for the development of the close air support tactics that would be needed when the Allies closed with German units in Europe. It would be Coningham as a result of his of his expertise gained through the Desert Air Force that would be given command of the tactical air forces dor the all-important Normandy campaign (June-July 1944). As the Allied air strength steadily expanded and would eventually include bomber contingents, including long-range bombers that could strike targets in German occupied Europe. The primary targets would be the critical Ploesti oil fields in Romania and targets in Italy.


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Created: 8:08 AM 3/22/2012
Last updated: 2:37 PM 3/22/2012