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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By early 1943, it became obvious things were not going well for the Italians and their German allies in North Africa. The island was used as a refueling base for German planes bound for North Africa and returning with wounded.

On one of the return flights in April, shortly before the collapse of the Axis armies in Tunisia, a Ju-52 crew gave Ferrara a female German shepherd named Iole. The dog was a pet and was being evacuated by the crew; Ferrara was a familiar face at Pantelleria to transiting aircrews, and the Ju-52 crew thought he could provide a better home for Iole.

By the end of April 1943, ferries and other small craft began appearing at Pantelleria loaded with soldiers that stopped only for refueling before continuing to Sicily. Ferrara observed: “I realized at that time that our happy times as noncombatants was about to end.”

Ferrara was on the roof of his house on Saturday morning, May 8, building a pigeon loft, when he heard the drone of many aircraft and looked up to see the first wave of what would become a 35-day nightmare of aerial attack on the island.

“There were dozens and dozens of aircraft,” he said. “They looked like the dark clouds of a thunderstorm. I could not run away but rather stood there transfixed. They flew over my house and dropped their load of bombs on the airport. From my position, it seemed to be a real volcanic eruption, the bombing was so intense.”

The choice of targeting the airfield instead of the port and town of Pantelleria was a blessing in disguise. If the first bombing raid had targeted the town, Ferrara estimates thousands of people would have perished, but instead it served as a warning. Immediately, people fled the town in droves, seeking refuge in country houses and in the many shelters and tunnels constructed during the military buildup in the 1930s. By the end of the day, the island’s only power plant had been hit, and the inhabitants remained without electricity until the island surrendered on June 11, 1943.

Ferrara was fortunate that his in-laws lived in the country and he was able to move his wife, baby, and Iole there immediately. During the next 35 days of bombing and occasional shelling by the Royal Navy, the Allies made a total of 140 separate raids on the island, and each involved hundreds of aircraft. By June 11, approximately 20,000 tons of explosives had been dropped, for an average of one ton for every civilian man, woman, child, and military member on the island.

Life under such bombardment “was hell.” By the first week of June, the town of Pantelleria did not exist; 95 percent of the buildings in the town had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

Even the dead were not immune from the onslaught. Once, when caught in the open at the beginning of an air raid, Ferrara sought refuge in the town cemetery near his in-laws’ home. A stick of bombs hit the cemetery and disinterred many of the dead. Ferrara relates it was an appalling vision. Graves had been blown open, and bones and decomposing bodies were scattered everywhere.

For the living, their lives were constantly interrupted by the increasing frequency of the bombing raids. Meals were frequently skipped, sleep was difficult, water was rationed, and nerves were frayed.

Even animals on Pantelleria were traumatized by the bombing. Ferrara’s dog Iole began shaking uncontrollably at the first sound of aircraft engines. Yet, for the 20 men under Ferrara’s command, “there was never a complaint or protest. They fulfilled their duty in silence until the last day.”

Despite the intense bombing, casualties on Pantelleria were surprisingly light. The low number of casualties was largely due to the early evacuation of the town of Pantelleria and the extensive usage of bombproof shelters. In fact, the lack of concentrated anti-aircraft fire reported by fighter and bomber crews was largely due to the gunners taking shelter during the raids.

The bombing of Pantelleria had initially been met with only occasional antiaircraft fire and no Axis fighter opposition. By June 1, the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica fighter aircraft began to contest the Allied air onslaught with fighters based in Sicily. These fighter sweeps consisted of normally no more than 10 planes, although on June 5, a force of 15 or 20 Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf FW-190s intercepted a formation of B-25s and P-38s over the island.

The next day, Italian Me-109s appeared; however, the efforts of the Axis pilots seemed halfhearted at best. Attacks were not driven home, and the fighters retired at the earliest opportunity. The intervention of Sicily-based fighters did nothing to blunt the bombing attacks.

In all, by the time of the surrender of the island, the Allies claimed 57 aircraft destroyed, 10 probables, and 21 damaged for the cost of about a dozen Allied aircraft.

The outline for the offensive called for increasing numbers of air attacks on June 8 and 9, with the maximum number of sorties on June 10 and 11 (D-day). The number of aircraft in the skies over Pantelleria during these last days of furious bombardment caused a new danger to the Allied pilots: the danger of mid-air collision.

So many aircraft were targeting the five-by-eight-mile island that pilots sometimes found it necessary to circle to allow the smoke from previous bombs to clear prior to beginning their bomb runs.

With most of the crewmembers’ eyes focused on the island and not outside the aircraft, there were inevitably a number of near misses. It was the top cover of Supermarine Spitfire fighters that became traffic cops for some of these raids. They directed pilots to modify their courses to the targets to reduce the concentration of aircraft over the island and to take new courses to return to base to avoid flying into aircraft that were still on the inbound leg of their bombing missions.

The bombing continued almost nonstop with the exception of a three-hour pause on June 9. During that pause, three volunteer fighter pilots from the 33rd Fighter Group flew their P-40s at low altitude and dropped leaflets on the airfield and port facilities of Pantelleria and the residence of the military governor of the island, Vice Admiral Gino Pavesi, with a surrender ultimatum from Lt. Gen. Spaatz.

The ultimatum called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, unconditional surrender of all armed forces, who would become prisoners of war, and the abandonment of all military installations, which were to be left intact. In case the garrison wished to capitulate, it was directed to display a white cross on the airfield and fly a white flag in the harbor area.

Shortly after the ultimatum leaflets were dropped, thousands more were dropped by B-26s informing the garrison and civilian population that the demand for surrender had been given to Pavesi and underlining the futility of further resistance. The Allies repeated the leaflet drops the next day, June 10. Giuseppe Ferrara recounted that the surrender leaflets were welcomed as the island inhabitants were critically short of toilet paper.

As soon as it was apparent that there was no response to the two surrender demands, final preparations went ahead to embark the British 1st Division for a landing on June 11, 1943; the division loaded their transport ships at the Tunisian ports of Sousse and Sfax on the evening of June 10.

The force was split into three convoys, two fast and one slow, that left in total darkness with the clouds obscuring the moon. The three convoys were scheduled to arrive eight miles from the harbor of Pantelleria at 9:55 am the next day. There the assault force would load into landing craft and, protected by four flak craft, five escorting destroyers, trawlers, and mine sweepers, make for the harbor and land the landing force.

The assault force was well equipped. Every man going ashore carried a mess tin and two days’ rations, a water bottle, water sterilization tablets, a tube of mosquito repellant, two rations of rum (one for reserve and one to be consumed on the go), a first-aid kit, and a pack of cigarettes.

Offshore the division had reserves of four meals a day plus water for a week to include enough for 10,000 prisoners and 15,000 civilians. Corporal John Best, a Royal Marine with the landing force, had some reservations about the chosen date for the invasion. “Finally, came our first invasion. It was to be Pantelleria, off Sicily on 11 June 1943, which was also my 19th birthday.

“It was the custom of our mess that on our birthday the lucky man got ‘sippers’ [rum] all round which, of course, meant that I would be ‘three sheets to the wind.’ I explained to the captain of the ship the situation and asked if the invasion could be postponed for a day; he said quite definitely it could not.”

During the night of June 10/11, a British radio listening post on Malta intercepted communications between the military governor of Pantelleria, Admiral Pavesi, and Supermarina, the headquarters of the Regia Marina. Pavesi explained that the garrison was running short of water and munitions and had been told to surrender.