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
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
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.
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.