Study This Battle: Why Air Powered Rule That Day at Pantelleria

By Radford (Sgt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit - This is photograph NA 3668 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-39), Public Domain,

Study This Battle: Why Air Powered Rule That Day at Pantelleria

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Photo interpreters observed that instantaneous-fused bombs were having no effect on guns in revetments unless they scored direct hits, and the delayed-fused weapons would sometimes break apart on the volcanic rock prior to detonation.

The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) would introduce new types of general-purpose bombs—the M64 500-pound and the M65 1,000-pound bombs—with thicker cases and better fusing options in 1943, but they would not arrive in theater until after the invasion of Sicily.

Of course, any bomb has to be accurately delivered to be effective, and the USAAF had the most accurate bombsight in the world on its heavy and medium bombers. The Norden bombsight was an analog computer that calculated the bomb’s trajectory based on current flight conditions such as altitude, temperature, wind, and ground speed.

During testing in the 1930s, it showed remarkable accuracy when finely tuned and under perfect conditions. The Carl L. Norden Company demonstrated a circular error probable (CEP) of 75 feet from a bombing altitude of 20,000 feet during prewar testing, but in operational service the accuracy was much less. In 1940 the average score of an Air Corps bombardier using the Norden sight was 400 feet. Under combat conditions, it was worse.

USAAF planners calculated that a B-17 had a 1.2 percent probability of dropping a bomb within 100 feet of a target from an altitude of 20,000 feet. The idea of pinpoint daylight precision bombing was good in theory but was outside the practical capabilities of the Allies in World War II. To obtain the desired effects, massive tonnages of bombs would have to be dropped. This lack of level bombing accuracy caused the U.S. Navy in the Pacific to abandon level bombing and rely almost exclusively on dive bombing.

The various fighters assigned to Corkscrew exclusively used dive bombing  and strafing for their weapons delivery and obtained much better accuracy than the level delivery medium and heavy bombers  but could not match their weight of bombs carried. The P-40s could only carry one 500-pound bomb, the A-36s could carry two, and the twin engine P-38 could carry two 1,000-pound bombs maximum. The B-17’s normal bombload, by contrast, was 10 500-pound bombs or five 1,000-pounders.

As a result, the heavy bombers were given large area targets such as the airfield, port, and dock facilities, and the town of Pantelleria itself while the fighters were assigned to pinpoint targets such as gun positions.

Augmenting the aerial bombardment was naval bombardment. On May 31, the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Orion, escorted by two destroyers, shelled the harbor area of Pantelleria from a range of 13,000 yards. After expending 150 rounds of six-inch and smaller caliber rounds on the docks, the ships withdrew, noting that there was little return fire.

The next day the cruiser HMS Penelope, along with two destroyers, engaged in a similar bombardment. This time, five Italian coastal artillery batteries responded and scored a direct hit on Penelope with a 152mm round; however, the shell was a dud and caused little damage and no casualties.

On the following two days, HMS Orion resumed the attack. Return fire from the shore batteries was sporadic and inaccurate. The rather feeble response to the naval shelling was interpreted as either the result of the daily bombing raids by the North African Air Forces having degraded the shore batteries’ capabilities or the gunners being reluctant to highlight their positions for counterbattery fire from ships or bombing from aircraft.

To test the amount of damage inflicted on the shore batteries, the Royal Navy staged a full-scale naval bombardment on June 8. The task force consisted of light cruisers HMS Newfoundland, Aurora, Penelope, Euryalus, and Orion accompanied by eight destroyers and three motor torpedo boats to serve as a screen against possible U-boat attack.

Aboard his flagship HMS Aurora were the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Vice Admiral Andrew Cunningham and the Supreme Commander General Eisenhower to observe the bombardment and the Italian response.

The naval attack was broken down into two parts. In the first part, the five cruisers shelled the mole and dock area of the port immediately following a strike by B-25s and P-38s on the same area. The second part consisted of the destroyers closing to within 2,000 yards of shore to entice shore batteries to reveal themselves by firing at these tempting targets. Only an estimated 30 rounds were fired by the defenders, all of which missed their targets.

The final portion of the attack saw the three motor torpedo boats close to within 300 yards of the port, which succeeded in provoking several 8mm machine-gun nests to open fire on them.

The attack lasted about 90 minutes before the British withdrew and the results of the shelling were appraised. The conclusion was that of the 16 known coastal artillery batteries in range of the British warships only four returned fire; one fired until it was silenced by a cruiser, and the other three responded only intermittently.

The result of this action convinced Eisenhower that critical shore defense batteries had been rendered ineffective and the daily analysis of bombing effectiveness that crossed his desk was too conservative. He told his staff that he had every confidence that plans for the upcoming assault on the island could be adhered to.

He also opined that since the bombardment would be intensified and continued for the next three days until June 11, the morale of the defenders would be sufficiently shattered for the landing troops to capture Pantelleria with relatively few casualties.

Giuseppe Ferrara was a 24-year-old NCO in the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) when he first set foot on dusty, sun-baked Pantelleria in 1939. He had previously been assigned to the heavy cruiser Duca d’Aosta during the Spanish Civil War and was trained as a machinist.

When he was assigned to Pantelleria to run the fuel depot there, “My heart sank,” he recalled in his memoirs. “I came from a fertile land of Sarno [30 miles east of Naples], fertile and rich in water and was now in a dry land without even a source of water.”

He describes drinking from the stagnant water cisterns of the civil population’s houses or rusty storage tanks owned by the military. The truly adventuresome drank from the couple of springs that came out of the volcanic rock, but the water stank of sulfur. He didn’t have much time for sightseeing or feeling sorry for himself. The entire island was a construction site with work in progress expanding the port facilities, leveling two volcanic cinder cones to create a flat landing field for the airport, and tunneling into the adjacent hill to build the enormous underground hangar.

As time went by, Ferrara began to enjoy the assignment. “The people were hospitable and had great local food and wine and, something very important to me, the girls on the island were very beautiful.” The next year, 1940, he met a 16-year-old girl and “it was love at first sight.” He received permission to marry, and a few months later his daughter was born.

The quiet life of peacetime garrison duty was interrupted in June 1940, when Italy declared war on France. Shortly thereafter, the island began receiving reinforcements and additional aircraft, supplies, guns, and German technical experts to install and operate three Freya radio direction-finding posts.

Ferrara was in charge of the main fuel supply depot on the island at Villa Silvia outside of town. This depot consisted of two large fuel storage deposits that were buried deep underground. He did a brisk business refueling MAS motor torpedo boats and submarines that attacked British naval convoys that passed by Pantelleria as well as providing fuel to the airport.

In June 1942, the island figured prominently in the Naval Battle of Pantelleria. The British sent a heavily escorted resupply convoy from Gibraltar to their besieged base on Malta. The Regia Marina dispatched two cruisers and four destroyers and intercepted the convoy near Pantelleria, sinking two destroyers and four merchant ships, including an American tanker, the SS Kentucky.

Savoia-Marchetti SM-79 torpedo bombers from Pantelleria and Sicily finished off several damaged vessels. Only two of the original six merchant vessels made it to Malta and the loss of aviation gasoline aboard the Kentucky severely hampered air operations out of Malta for weeks.

The day after this action in the Sicily straits, Ferrara was ordered to take a sailing vessel from the harbor of Pantelleria to search for survivors of the British merchantmen sunk the previous day. He found several survivors from the merchantman Burdwan, whom he took aboard and returned to Pantelleria. One of the survivors was the ship’s doctor. “I offered him a cigarette. He had a badly burned face and was suffering much pain, but he disdainfully refused. Evidently, he had not yet digested the defeat.”

Other boats from Pantelleria rescued other British sailors. When he arrived in port, Ferrara saw these prisoners being offered hot plates of pasta, which they ate voraciously.  “Unfortunately, they were not used to that type of food and all had violent diarrhea.”