On May 13, 1943, nearly 300,000 Axis soldiers surrendered to the Allies in northern Tunisia. This successful conclusion to the North African campaign led to speculation at the time as to where the Allies would strike next.
The Axis had to consider all possibilities for future invasions, including assaults on Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and even Greece. Unknown to the Germans and Italians, the Allies had decided during the January 1943 Casablanca conference that Sicily would be the next target following the successful conclusion of the North Africa campaign, under the code name of Operation Husky.
While conducting the operational planning for Husky in February 1943, General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, informed Allied Forces commander Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower that the U.S. Navy could not provide auxiliary aircraft carriers for air cover for an assault on Sicily.
Marshall then suggested the Allies seize the Italian island of Pantelleria for its airfield, which could be used by Allied fighters to support the Sicilian invasion. Since the island was located between Tunisia and Sicily, its location was ideal. In addition to providing an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the Allies to project air cover over Sicily and wide areas of the Mediterranean, Pantelleria had to be reduced to prevent it from being used as an effective warning post of an Allied invasion of Sicily. With its radar station, observation and listening posts, and its ability to host reconnaissance aircraft, the island could easily monitor Allied air and sea activities and eliminate any chance of achieving surprise in an assault on Sicily.
General Eisenhower was not thrilled at the prospect of seizing Pantelleria and other nearby islands, and although planning continued he looked for reasons not to have to invade and occupy the island. In May 1943, the matter came to a head when it was decided that the invasion of Sicily required landings on the southeast corner of that island. Given the planned invasion of Sicily and its location, the matter was settled. Pantelleria had to be taken. The military issue was how best to take or reduce Pantelleria Island.
The Defenses on Pantelleria Island
Pantelleria is located 53 miles from Tunisia, 63 miles from Sicily and 120 miles west of Malta. It is a volcanic island roughly 16 miles long, by 5.6 miles wide with a total area of about 45 square miles. The island is elliptical in shape with sheer rugged cliffs, a rocky coastline, and a countryside with rocky barren hills. The highest point on the island is Montagna Grande at 2,742 feet.
Pantelleria was an Italian possession, and its defenses were improved by the Italian government in the 1920s. In 1926, Mussolini declared Pantelleria a prohibited military zone. In 1935, the Italians started to build an airfield and construct coastal fortifications and antiaircraft batteries.
By 1939, the airfield was completed. It was an impressive facility for its day, with a 5,000-foot runway with an underground aircraft hangar hewn out of solid rock. The underground hangar was 1,000 feet long and 85 feet wide with a capacity for 80 aircraft. The hangar also had its own power plant and water storage facility. With a 33-foot covering of earth, the underground hangar was thought to be impervious to air or naval bombardment.
The antiaircraft defenses consisted of two batteries of 10 modern 90mm guns and 13 batteries of 72 dual-purpose 76mm guns, which were useless against aircraft flying at medium or high altitudes. The antiaircraft defenses were fortified with an additional four-barreled 20mm Flak 38 gun located near the airfield and six 20mm guns near the harbor area and next to German Freya surveillance radar and a Wurzburg D tracking radar. These additional guns and radar installations were manned by around 600 German troops.
For protection from sea attack, the island boasted three shore batteries with four 152mm guns each. The Italians also had used the island as a refueling and servicing station for Axis submarines and torpedo boats, where they could also rearm with mines or torpedoes.
The primary ground defenses were provided by the Italian garrison commanded by Vice Admiral Gino Pavesi. The Italian forces included the Air Force personnel commanded by Lt. Col. Francesco Raverdino, some militia, and a mixed brigade of 7,400 Italian Army troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Giuseppe Maffei. The total number of Axis troops on the island was about 12,000.
While these defenses looked formidable on paper, the island had a number of significant weaknesses. First, the defenders had little or no combat experience and were not considered high-quality troops. At this point in the war many Italians had grave doubts about the war and their government, and Italian troops had not always fought effectively in North Africa. Over 10,000 Italian civilians lived on the island, and many had relatives among the garrison. During the battle these civilians would add an extra burden on the defenders in terms of water and food supplies and providing adequate protection from air raids for the population.
The failure of the Italians to evacuate the civilians before the battle was a serious mistake. The Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater were outnumbered at sea and in the air and effectively had lost control of both to the Allies. The question seemed, for both sides, to be less centered around whether Pantelleria would fall than exactly how long the island could hold out against an Allied landing.
A Test For U.S. Heavy Bombing Tactics
On May 9, 1943, Eisenhower began preparations for the assault on Pantelleria. He ordered a concerted effort by Allied airpower, including units of the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Northern African Air Forces (NAAF) against Pantelleria. He further directed a naval force under the command of Rear Admiral R.R. McGrigor of the Royal Navy to blockade the island and provide gunfire support.
The landing force would consist of the British 1st Division under Maj. Gen. Walter E. Clutterbuck.
On May 13, Eisenhower told Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, “I want to make the capture of Pantelleria a sort of laboratory to determine the effect of concentrated heavy bombing on a defended coastline. When the time comes we are going to concentrate everything we have to see whether damage to material, personnel and morale cannot be made so serious as to make a landing a rather simple affair.”
The Allies were initially planning to bomb the island into submission. U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz would be in charge of the operation. Spaatz had a potent air force at his disposal for what came to be known as Operation Corkscrew. He had four Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber groups with 192 aircraft (2nd, 97th, 99th, 301st), four North American B-25 Mitchell groups (310th, 321st, 340th, 12th), three Martin B-26 Marauder groups (17th, 319th, 320th) with a combined 285 aircraft, one Douglas A-20 Havoc group with 57 aircraft (47th), three wings of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters (1st, 14th, 82nd), and three wings of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters (325th, 33rd, 324th), to total 300 aircraft.
It is worth noting that the participating U.S. 33rd Fighter Group also included the 99th Fighter Squadron. This squadron was the first of the Tuskegee Airmen squadrons. These squadrons were manned and piloted solely by African American airmen. During the Pantelleria campaign the men of the 99th flew their first combat missions. Flying P-40s were Lieutenants William Campbell, Charles Hall, Clarence Jamison, and James Wiley, and in June, six of the 99th’s pilots became the first black airmen in the Army Air Forces to take part in aerial combat when they traded shots with German fighter planes.
Meanwhile, the British Commonwealth contribution to the campaign consisted of three wings of Royal Air Force Wellington bombers plus one South African Air Force Wellington wing in No. 205 Group, four RAF and SAAF A-20 Boston Mk III bomber squadrons (12th and 24th), RAF 326 Wing with Bostons, two squadrons of Baltimore bombers with Hurricane fighters, and RAF 242 Group.
Concerns About the Operation
The main air assault was to begin on May 18, 1943, and would consist of 50 mediumbomber sorties and 50 fighter-bomber sorties daily against the island through June 5. On June 6, the plan would shift to around-the-clock aerial bombing that would increase in intensity up to the scheduled invasion day, June 11. The smaller islands of Lampedusa, Linosa, and Lampione would be reduced after Pantelleria’s fall.
Opposing this air armada were approximately 900 Axis aircraft. These included 90 Italian fighters stationed on Sicily, consisting of 52 Macchi 202 aircraft, 23 Macchi 205, and 15 Macchi 200 aircraft plus seven Me-109 fighters operating within the 1 and 53 Stormo (Wings). The Germans possessed Luftflotte 2 under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, which included 130 Me-109s in JG27 and JG53, 80 FW-190 fighters in Sturmgeshwader 10 and Schachtgeschwader 26, plus 30 Me-110 long-range fighters, and 20 Ju-88 night fighters for about 357 total Axis aircraft. The remaining planes were scattered from Sardinia to Corsica and the Italian mainland but were within striking range of Pantelleria.