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"Arthur Dawkins - Tarp and Razor Blades" from the Frank Harding Collection
… 3 Squadron, with other squadrons in the Kittyhawk Wing, were called on to help the Fighting French force of General Le Clerc which had made a magnificent march over the Sahara from Lake Chad and were now threatening to turn the Germans' southern flank. The Frenchmen had thrust up to the south of Gabes and west of the Mareth Line and to meet this threat the Germans sent out a strong armoured force. A fierce engagement took place at Ksar Rhilane and the French called for "tank busting" air support to combat the German armour. The No.3 formation led by S/Ldr. Brian Eaton achieved great success in this operation, coming down very low to bomb and strafe the German force which consisted of fifteen tanks, twenty-five armoured cars and supply vehicles. The tanks were mostly left to the attentions of the R.A.F. "tank buster" Hurricanes with their 40-millimetre cannons, while the Kittyhawks concentrated on armoured cars, "soft skinned" vehicles and ack-ack defences.
The air blitz saved the situation and when the squadron left the scene, tanks, armoured cars, an ammunition carrier and petrol bowser, and at least sixteen motor trucks were in flames. At the beginning of the attack there was some ground fire from the Huns but this was soon discouraged and the organised ack-ack defence collapsed. Six enemy aircraft appeared on the scene but decided that the opposition looked too formidable and made off when the Kittyhawks showed fight. The effect of the air operation in breaking up the enemy counter-attack brought forth a signal from the Fighting French expressing their appreciation of the Wing's timely and efficient aid. This action revealed the shape of things to come in respect to close-support ground and air operations.
Later there was ample evidence that the claims made by pilots were accurate for when our forces advanced over that area it was strewn with burnt-out German armoured vehicles and transport.
One of the pilots, Pilot Officer A. W. Dawkins, brought back an unusual trophy from this mission. He was strafing right at ground level and shot up a large truck which was evidently a troop canteen for debris flew in all directions and on his return to base the fitters found the air scoop of his aircraft full of razor blades.
Here's Kittyhawk pilot Tom Russell's diary from that day:
Extract from Russell Brown's "Desert Warriors":
(Davidson diary) 9 March: no "ops" today - We had eight air raid alerts but A/C only came over our drome once. There are commandos stationed all round us, we are only 15 miles from Jerry's main forces. Guards are posted everywhere as we are expecting visits from Jerry raiding parties. Commandos have gone out to intercept them. The artillery can be heard plainly and the gun flashes are very clear.
In poor health, Rommel left for Rome on 9 March, and an audience with Mussolini. By next afternoon he was at Hitler's headquarters in the Ukraine, where he continued to argue his case for the shorter defensive line at Enfidaville. Hitler refused, insisting that the Mareth Line be defended by armoured units until it was in danger of being breached. He did concede that the infantry could withdraw to Wadi Akarit, thus shortening the Axis front by 160 miles. This was the best Rommel could do for General von Arnim, who now assumed Rommel's duties as C-in-C Army Group Tunis, under the overall command of General Giovanni Messe.
Rommel wrote to Arnim:
"Unhappily, the Fuhrer has not granted my urgent request to be permitted to return immediately to Africa, but has ordered me to commence my treatment at once. My thoughts and fears will always be for Africa."
He never returned.
On 10 March a combined armed recce was flown at 1330. Each squadron provided twelve aircraft, 3 Squadron carrying 40 lb wing bombs while 450 had 500 pounders. The top cover was provided by twenty-three Spitfires. A good target consisting of two groups of tanks, armoured cars and M/T was located near Ksar Rhilane, and the two squadrons had one of their most successful ground attack days of the campaign. Wing Cdr. Burton, leading 3 Squadron, sent 450 south to attack the second of these formations, ensuring that the weight of the attack was evenly distributed. AA was only light when the strafe began and none of the Kittyhawks were damaged. 3 Squadron claimed sixteen M/T burnt and eleven damaged, two armoured cars burnt and four damaged, and an ammunition carrier and a petrol bowser destroyed. As PO Arthur Dawkins passed over one of the trucks he had attacked, it blew up with such force that the canvas tarpaulin flew into the air and wrapped itself around his port wing tip, and when he landed, it was discovered that his air intake was full of packets of razor blades.
All of 450 Squadron's bombs fell in the target area, and then they went in to strafe, claiming seven M/T destroyed. As they left the target, numerous fires were seen, and one particularly large petrol fire was reported. So many vehicles were damaged that no attempt was made to count them.
This operation was in response to an urgent call for assistance from General Leclerc, who was leading a French contingent from Lake Chad to Tunisia … Arnim sent armoured units and dive bombers to ambush Leclerc's troops, but they were forced to withdraw by the end of the day after the Desert Air Force's attacks. 112 Squadron met a force of Ju87s with a strong escort and in the ensuing combat lost six aircraft, with four pilots killed and two captured, a heavy price to pay for the rescue of the French force.
Leclerc Monument at Ksar Ghilane [modern-day spelling].
The next phase of the [Tunisia] battle was about to begin. The Axis forces were now well entrenched in the Mareth Line, and von Arnim had decided to make a stand there, as it was a strong defensive position, consisting of old French fortifications bordered by the sea on one side, and the rugged Matmata mountains on the other, 'which stretched westward to the apparently impassable Dahar sand wilderness.'
[After initially failing to break the Mareth Line] ...Montgomery prepared an attack made possible by a Long Range Desert Group reconnaissance in December. This mission had found a gap through the Matmata mountains at Foum Tatahoine, and Montgomery now planned to dispatch a force through this gap, along the edge of the Dahar, and then through the vital Tebaga Pass in the north which would open a way to the plain of El Hamma and Gabes - behind the enemy at the Mareth Line. [Soon to become, on 26th March, "The Desert Air Force's Finest Hour".]
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