The Australians at War Film Archive
Desert Air Force

Desert Air Force


At the start of the war the RAF in the Middle East comprised a Military Wing and a Naval Wing. In 1941, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham took the first steps towards the creation of the DAF proper. During July 1941, No.253 Wing was formed for experiments in close support over the front lines and included two squadrons of Hurricanes and one of Blenheims. Shortly after this, Nos. 258 and 269 Wings were formed for operations over the front line and No.262 Wing was formed for the defence of the Nile Delta Zone. No.258 and 269 Wings provided the nucleus of the Western Desert Air Force when it formed in October 1941.

During the Syrian Campaign the RAAF's No 3 Squadron, equipped with American P-40 Tomahawk fighters, supported Australian troops. On the first day of the campaign the squadron attacked Rayak, strafing Vichy French planes on the ground. On 14 June 1941 two planes from the squadron shot down two German JU-88s preparing to attack allied shipping. On 28 June the squadron engaged six enemy bombers shooting them all down. At the conclusion of the campaign the squadron joined the Western Desert Air Force in support of the 8th Army, losing nine planes in fierce fighting during November 1941. On 25 November, Australian Wing Commander Peter Jeffrey led No 3 squadron and the RAF's No 12 squadron in an attack on 70 enemy planes over Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk. Losing only one plane they downed ten enemy aircraft and a few days later accounted for another eight, as well as damaging a further dozen. Pilots and crews were on constant vigil and stand-by to counter any enemy raiders.

As men from EATS began to arrive they were allocated to the various squadrons. Two more Australian squadrons were formed, Nos 450 and 451, but many men found themselves in RAF units. Clive 'Killer' Caldwell, who would become Australia's top scoring ace for the war, was initially posted to the RAF No 250 Squadron.

In November 1941, the Allied forces launched Operation Crusader. Conditions in the desert were gruelling for men and machines. Accommodation and recreation facilities were primitive, aircraft maintenance was extremely difficult, and dust and disease were common enemies, as were the extremes of temperature. Following the recall of Australian Army troops, , RAAF squadrons remained in North Africa, supporting the 8th Army through the Tripoli campaign and in the push to Italy. The war in Africa ended on 13th May 1943 and, flying from Malta, the DAF supported the Allied landings on Sicily. The Italian winter of 1943/1944 saw the 8th Army cross the Trigno and Sangro Rivers, with the DAF introducing a new form of close support, the 'Rover David' and 'Cab Rank' systems, where formations of patrolling fighter-bombers were maintained over the front lines to be called down onto targets by air liaison officers located with the forward elements of the Army.

The Australian Baltimore squadron No 454 participated in many of these sorties, bombing targets in Verona, Padua and Venice. Heavy snow falls in northern Italy and along the Yugoslavian front often curtailed operations. Between 9-21 April 1945 Nos. 454 and 3 Squadrons flew 650 sorties as the Allied armies pushed the Germans north across the river Po. In 1944 No. 451 Squadron was stationed in Corsica to support the invasion of southern France.

In April 1945 the Allied offensive covered by massive air support launched itself northwards. An armistice was signed in Italy on 24th April and all fighting in Italy ended on 2nd May.

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