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"Flying Against the Rain"

The Battle of Termoli - October 1943

On the 25th of September 1943, the complex of Italian airfields around the city of Foggia on the southern Adriatic coast was captured by rapidly-advancing British ground forces.   Thus the Allies had attained the strategic objective of their 1943 invasion of Italy within the first three weeks! 

However, from then on the Allied advance became increasingly difficult, as German resistance stiffened and the weather worsened.  The Battle of Termoli, in early October 1943 (in support of which 3SQN was flying from Foggia), was only the first taste of many nightmare struggles to come for the Eighth Army, but it well-illustrates the important contribution of tactical air power in the combined land, sea and air effort. 

Allied amphibious landings in Southern Italy, early September 1943.  Termoli indicated in red.

The following text is extracted from “The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945” by Bryn Evans.

Able to take heavy bombers, the Foggia airfields were seen as the highest priority for the Allied air forces.  Washington and London rated them of immense strategic value, as they would allow the Allies' strategic bombers to mount strikes on industry and infrastructure targets in northern Italy and southern Germany.

It was planned for the Desert Air Force [DAF] to move up to the Foggia airfields, before once more accompanying Eighth Army northwards up Italy's Adriatic coast.  DAF would then hand over the Foggia airfields to the Strategic Air Force [American B17 and B24 heavy bombers]. 

Foggia, Italy, early October 1943.  Aircraft of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, lined up ready for a swift take off.  [AWM MEA0844]

From Foggia, heavy bombers could reach the Balkans, oil installations in Rumania, industrial cities across northern Italy and southern Europe, and even those in Czechoslovakia and southern Germany.  The daylight raids into Germany by the US Eighth Air Force from bases in England were suffering heavy losses and it was thought that strategic bombing raids from the south might draw off some of the Luftwaffe's fighters from northern Germany.

The Foggia airfields occupied a treeless, windswept plain west of the deep-water port of Bari.  The featureless flat land was ideal for growing corn and, like eastern England, also well-suited for heavy bomber bases.   Supplies and bombs could be easily transported from ships in Bari's harbour, which was the only alternative major port to Naples in the west.

Following the German withdrawal from Salerno, and oblivious to Hitler's dilemma over the deposed Mussolini, Eighth Army quickened its advance through Taranto, which it was using as a base for moving up the Adriatic coast.  Between 19 and 29 September most of 78th ["Battleaxe"] Division of the British Eighth Army landed at Taranto.  Once 78th Division was in possession of motor transport, 11 Brigade set off north past Bari, towards their first objective 150 miles away on the Adriatic coast, Termoli.  Its early capture by 78th Division was intended to provide cover for the seaborne landing of the Battleaxe Division's other two brigades.  Although the plan was to occupy Termoli before the Germans could consolidate their line of defence, early winter rain threatened to slow things down.

German troops were withdrawing in a coordinated, tactical manner - to major defensive positions on the Viktor Line along the Biferno river.  (It was also the route of one of the few East-West roads.)  The Battleaxe Division was tasked with crossing the Biferno and taking Termoli, which was the lynchpin to the eastern side of the Viktor Line.  Its capture would outflank the Germans and force them to withdraw again to their next line of defence.

On 2 October, leading troops of 78th Division were within a few miles of the Biferno river, a little to the south of the port of Termoli.  The 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers headed north-east towards Termoli, and waded across the Biferno river.  Also on 3 October at 0200, a Commando Brigade, made up of 3 (Army) and 40 (Royal Marine) Commandos, and the Special Raiding Squadron, landed north of the Biferno's mouth close to Termoli's port.  By 0800 the commandos had secured the harbour, penetrated the town, and in places pushed out beyond its perimeter, seeking to make contact with the Lancashire Fusiliers.  They were followed up in the evening by another sea-borne landing of 36 Brigade, who bulldozed shallow fords to drive vehicles across the Biferno.

On 3 October, it began to rain.  For eighteen hours it rained, bogging down the division's supply vehicles. 

Foggia:  RAAF members of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, pulling a tarpaulin off the rear of their truck after a very wet night.  [AWM MEA0834]

In addition, contrary to their briefings that Termoli contained few enemy troops, it actually held the small Kampfgruppe Rau garrison force, and some accounts indicate that additional German forces in and around Termoli included elements of the 1st Parachute, 29th Panzer Grenadier and 26th Panzer Divisions.  Hopes of an early occupation began to fade.  By nightfall on 3 October some Panzers [German tanks] had probed into parts of Termoli town, in places pressing to within a few hundred yards of the commandos' bridgehead.

Termoli Front Line (red) shown at dusk on the 3rd of October. 
Biferno River (blue) 2 miles to the SE of Termoli. 

Allied intelligence also knew that 16th Panzer Division was on the move towards Termoli.  As soon as Kesselring [the German commander in Italy] had heard of the Allies' attack on Termoli, he ordered 16th Panzer to move from the Volturno on the western side of Italy, to counter-attack 78th Division from the north and west of Termoli.

Montgomery [the British Eighth Army Commander] was taking an uncharacteristic gamble to capture Termoli and break the Viktor Line.  He had only part of the battle-hardened 78th Division in position across the Biferno river.  So, although the counter-attack by 16th Panzer was anticipated, when it came in force, despite a slow build-up by the Germans, its strength and ferocity was a shock.

On 4 October the 8th Argylls and 6th Royal West Kents advanced north some five miles from Termoli along the coast road, Highway 16, aiming to capture the village of San Giacomo, when they ran into forward units of 16th Panzer.  Only four infantry battalions, two commandos and some Special Forces were across the Biferno river.  To try to stop the Panzers they had only one field regiment of artillery and a few anti-tank guns.  The infantry were on their own, cut off on the north side of the river.  A torrid unequal battle, tanks versus exposed infantry, had commenced for Termoli.  Devoid of armoured support, lacking anti-tank artillery and any reinforcements, the 78th Division infantrymen were being systematically killed and pushed back all around the Termoli perimeter.  A bulldozed ford over the Biferno did enable six Sherman tanks to cross, before it became a morass from the rain and flooding river.  (It achieved little, as four of the Shermans were quickly destroyed by the Germans' Mark IV Panzers.)

Tank crewmen of the 12th Canadian Tank Regiment pose with the remains of a knocked-out
German Panzer Mark IV at Termoli on 9 October 1943, after the battle had been won.  [IWM]

The Desert Air Force struggled against the weather to provide close support, counter Luftwaffe raids, and attack enemy ground forces.  Although DAF's numerical superiority was partly nullified in the poor visibility of rain and cloud, it was able to count on a new advantage - the first deployment of the Spitfire Mk.VIII. 

On 4 October Flight Lieutenant Bert Houle, a Canadian, was leading a patrol of Spitfire Mark VIIIs of No.417 Squadron RAF when they came across FW190s bombing Eighth Army positions at Termoli.  Houle was the first to jettison his long-range fuel tank and turn against them.  He fastened onto an Fw190, which had begun to flee westwards above him.

Despite having to climb, Houle's Spitfire caught up with the Luftwaffe's feared fighter-bomber and, from about 250 yards, he got in two bursts of fire.  There was an explosion on the 190's tail, before it fell straight down into a cloud layer.  Houle also damaged another 190, and then chased away a third at tree-top height up the Sangro valley.

The encounter proved the claims that a Spitfire VIII had the power, even in a climb, to catch an FW190.  Houle later stated that he thought the Spitfire Mk.VIII the best of all fighters he had flown.  With its clipped wings and quick roll, he found it could easily turn inside any Luftwaffe fighter he faced.

A beautiful artwork by Pavel Rampir: A Spitfire Mark VIII of 417 SQN is kept out of the slush by a Pierced-Steel Plank (PSP) hard-stand.

During 5 October the Germans forced the defensive lines back to within a half mile of the town.  On the edge of Termoli itself, the infantry made a brave but futile stand at the brickworks site to try and stem the German offensive, before they were forced to withdraw.  To save the troops in the bridgehead across the Biferno, and have any chance of turning back 16th Panzer, the river had to be bridged so that tanks could cross to support the infantry.  As the battle for Termoli reached a critical tipping point, and 78th Division hung on grimly against German armour, DAF made some telling strikes to help force the Germans to pull back...

In two operations No.3 Squadron RAAF struck at both supply traffic and German forces.  In the first operation against a convoy of petrol tankers, 12 RAAF Kittyhawk fighter-bombers claimed 25 flamers, three smokers, and 25 damaged, as well as destroying two other motor vehicles and three petrol dumps.  The tally broke the Squadron's own record for one operation.  In the second operation, Commanding Officer of 3SQN, Brian Eaton, led the Squadron to bomb German troops who were advancing to attack less than a mile from 78th Division troops. 

Two weeks earlier Eaton had broken his left hand, and now flew with his hand and forearm encased in plaster, with a modified cockpit for his constrained hand movements.

It seemed that Eaton was little handicapped though, as he claimed a tank set ablaze, an armoured car and two other motor vehicles destroyed.  This second operation also hit a road convoy bringing reinforcement and supplies to the German front-line forces.  The Germans' attack was stopped and Eighth Army sent a message to Eaton thanking the squadron for its effort, which largely prevented the enemy advance.  The two operations were typical demonstrations of how fighter-bomber interventions in close support of the army could affect the momentum of a battle.

5 October.  Frantic repairs to the Biferno River Bridge (partially demolished by the Germans) go ahead, using prefabricated "Bailey Bridge" components
In the foreground,
a light Pontoon Bridge provides temporary truck access while a swamped Sherman tank is recovered from the river. 
Another Sherman sits on the opposite bank.  [Imperial War Museum]

On the ground at Termoli, despite the persistent rain and mud, a Bailey Bridge over the Biferno river was finally completed during the afternoon of 5 October, after which some tanks from 4 Armoured Brigade were able to move across.  The armour pushed out with support from the 5th Buffs, and strikes by DAF fighters, to link up with 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. 

The fresh troops of the Irish Brigade had to come ashore as planned that night into Termoli harbour...  The next day, 6 October, was decisive.  An attack by 16th Panzer came to a climax, with support from Panzergrenadiers, who broke through the lines in a number of places.  In a desperate and chaotic battle to hold them back, the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Argylls resorted to bayonet charges.  Yet a 78th Division counter-attack was coming.  The fresh troops of the Irish Brigade, who had come ashore during the night, were feeding through to the front lines, and made an immediate difference.   Approaching midday the Irish battalions' counter-attacks, with the support of artillery and some 80 Canadian tanks, forced the Panzers to pull back. 

The decisive advance of the Irish Brigade on 6 October.

Canadian tanks break through at Termoli.

Next day [7 October,1943] 16th Panzer were in full retreat to the north.  The insertion of the Irish Brigade's battalions had turned the battle at the eleventh hour. 

In the skies above Termoli, largely unseen and unacknowledged, DAF had imposed its domination of the Luftwaffe once again in at least three ways.  First, it had prevented any significant attack by the Luftwaffe on Eighth Army front-line troops.  Second, when the weather allowed, DAF fighter-bombers had struck at German positions and their attacking Panzers, as well as inflicting significant damage on German supplies to their battlefield front lines.  Third, its air superiority had allowed Eighth Army troop movements in rear areas, and the Irish Brigade to disembark in Termoli harbour, without any fear of air attack by the Luftwaffe.

In all, some 500 sorties by DAF Kittyhawks and Warhawks in fighter-bomber roles swooped onto German columns, claiming nearly 200 German vehicles either destroyed or damaged.

The loss of two Kittyhawks [one flown by Ted Hankey of 3SQN, who evaded capture] and one Spitfire was deemed a small price when set against Eighth Army's looming disaster on the ground. 
Once again the DAF close-support for Eighth Army was doing its work - but once again it was largely unseen by the troops on the ground.


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