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How did the Allies achieve air superiority on Sicily?

How did the Allies achieve air superiority on Sicily?

The Allies had freed all of Africa by the start of 1943. Afterwards, they landed in Sicily with a huge air force and fleet. How did they manage to land with the opposition of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica?

Did they fight an air battle over the Mediterranean?

Or did they send aircraft carriers to fight the Axis aviation close to their bases?

I am interested in how they fought, but also why did they win the fight.

To begin with, when the air campaign ahead of Operation Husky (the campaign that culminated with the invasion of Sicily) began, the Allies already had a significant numerical superiority over the Axis air forces in the theatre:

Operation HUSKY air planners had nearly 5,000 operational aircraft at their disposal compared to the 1,500-1,600 Axis aircraft based in Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy.

  • Francois H. Roy II: The Mediterranean Crucible, 1942-1943

Once the campaign in North Africa was over, after the final defeat of Axis forces in Tunisia, the Allies began strategic bombing of targets in Sardinia, Sicily and the south of the Italian mainland. These targets included all the principal airfields available to Axis air forces in those areas. The principal targets of the Northwest African Air Forces (NAAF) in Sicily are shown below:

Click to enlarge - Image source Wikipedia

Another preliminary objective prior to the invasion was to secure forward bases for allied air forces. Long-range bombers were operating from bases in north Africa, but the operational range of allied fighters was much less. Malta was already held by the Allies, despite having been subject to a long-term siege by the Axis naval and air forces.

To supplement these positions, Operation Corkscrew was executed with the objective of capturing the island of Pantelleria, which lies almost equidistant from Tunisia and Sicily:

The acquisition of the airfields in Pantelleria… was the critical first step to acquiring the necessary basing for fighter support for further operations northward in the Mediterranean.

  • Francois H. Roy II: The Mediterranean Crucible, 1942-1943

Axis troops on Pantelleria surrendered on 11 June, with the smaller islands of Lampedusa and Linosa to the south of Pantelleria falling on 13 June, and the island of Lampione on 14 June.

Thus, while Axis air forces had largely been driven off Sicily by Allied bombing raids (by 10 July, only two of the nineteen airfields in Sicily remained fully operational, and more than half the Axis aircraft had been withdrawn), the Allies now had forward bases from which fighters could operate in support of the landings. These islands served the function of aircraft carriers for Allied air forces, and had the advantage of being much harder to sink!

Operations from these islands were combined with continued bombing operations launched from bases in North Africa.

As a result, the Allies were able to operate with almost complete air superiority. The report Lessons From The Sicilian Campaign compiled immediately after the conclusion of Operation Husky concluded:

Except during the initial landing phase, the enemy air activity was almost negligible. This fact, in connection with the limited road net which was used to capacity because of the prevailing terrain, played an important part in the rapid and successful advance of our forces.

  • Lessons From The Sicilian Campaign

An article in Warfare Magazine, titled Allied air power lays the foundation for the conquest of Sicily emphasises the scale of Allied dominance in the air at the start of the invasion:

On 9/10 July the night and morning of the invasion, the Luftwaffe could manage no more than 300 sorties by all aircraft. In the three days 10-12 July, the Desert Air Force alone exceeded 3,000 sorties…

By the middle of July the Luftwaffe was restricted to only 25 aircraft based in Sicily. In comparison at 30 July the Allies were operating 40 squadrons from 21 airfields on the island.

On 17 August the last of the Axis forces retreated across the Straits of Messina to the toe of Italy


  • Stephen R Cote: Operation HUSKY: A Critical Analysis, 2001
  • Francois H. Roy II: The Mediterranean Crucible, 1942-1943, 2012
  • Wesley Frank Craven & James Lee Cate (Eds): The Army Air Forces In World War II, Volume 2, 1949
  • USSAF Historical Division: Airborne Missions In The Mediterranean, 1942-1945, 1955
  • Western Naval Task Force: Action Report: Operation HUSKY July-August, 1943

The battles leading up to the invasion had a significant impact on Axis operations in general in the Mediterranean. The failed Siege of Malta was a significant cost to their forces, both military and merchant. These losses were compounded in the subsequent battles and defeat in North Africa. The tide had turned and they no longer had the initiative.

In addition, they could not compete with the production and replenishment of men and machinery provided by the USA, which was obviously a major factor in all fronts during the war.

Finally by this point in the war, the Luftwaffe was overall largely on the decline, thanks to flawed mission objectives (e.g., narrowly defining how they were to be used), lack of vision for the future (no long range bombers and the obsession with dive bombers), loss of trained men, and the general draining of its power during the aforementioned battles as well the Russian campaign (attrition, compounded by the inability to strike Russian factories out of reach of their air forces).

I'm sure I'm missing some things here, hopefully others can chime in to help out.