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Home>> Canada's Air War >> The RCAF>> Overseas>> Conflict>> The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean

Foggia, Italy

In April 1943, the Air Ministry asked Canada for three bomber squadrons from No. 6 Group to transfer to North Africa. Canada selected No. 420, 424 and 425 Squadrons, forming No. 331 Wing, which was assigned to take part in the campaign to take the island of Sicily.

The newly formed Wing suffered a bout of bad luck early on. On their way to their base at Kairouan, Tunisia, despite taking a wide route over the Atlantic, they were attacked, losing two crews from 420 Squadron and one from 425. Upon arrival at Kairouan, they had to build up two stations in +50 degree heat; four days later they were hit by an unexpected summer rainstorm. Disease was prevalent, and over the course of the campaign the crewmen dealt with dysentery, diarrhea and malaria. Misfortune hit their first raid, with two aircraft dropping their bombs before take-off (fortunately neither exploded) and four aircraft were not ready in time for their sorties. The casualty rate for 331 Wing in June 1943, their first month of action, was 5.3 percent.

Despite these losses, attacks on enemy airfields on Sicily were successful, and the Allies staged an invasion on July 10. Casualties for the month of July fell to 0.5 percent. Royal Canadian Air Force crews flew bombing runs and patrolled the coast with jamming devices, effectively hiding the invasion force from the enemy. By the middle of August, German and Italian forces were retreating to mainland Italy.

The 331 Wing’s mission was originally to last just two or three months—as long as it took to gain Sicily, opening up Mediterranean shipping lanes—after which they were to return to Group 6. With the July 25, 1943 fall of Benito Mussolini, however, the Allies saw an opportunity in weakened Axis Italy. The mission was extended to September in order to support an invasion of the Italian mainland. Canadians attacked railway yards and airfields around Naples, then turned to Salerno in order to prevent a German counter-offensive. The counter-offensive failed. A new front stabilized and the Allies gained a toehold in Italy. In October 311 Wing returned to England with high praise from their commanders.

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RCAF fighter Squadron 417 also served in the Sicilian offensive. It escorted fighter-bombers and light-bombers against Axis ports. The greatest danger came from flak, which caused two casualties, rather than Luftwaffe. By this time Squadron 417 had been in the Mediterranean for a rather uneventful year, as it was involved mostly with ferrying or performing maintenance on aircraft. Even when flying patrols over supply ships, they rarely saw the enemy. In March 1943, however, they were in an offensive against dwindling German-controlled territory in Tunisia, where they covered fighter-bombers. They lost four aircraft during this action.

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