Lockheed P-38 Lightning in Operation Torch and Tunisia

Operation Torch (the invasion of North West Africa) was the first major Anglo-American operation of the Second World War. It was also the first time the P-38 saw significant action against the Luftwaffe. The only indication of how the P-38 would cope against German fighter aircraft came from a test flight against a captured Fw 190.

Two P-38 equipped Fighter Groups – the 1st and 14th – were allocated to Operation Torch, with a third (the 78th) kept in reserve in Britain. They did not play a part in the initial landings on 8 November 1942 – the 14th FG did not go operational in North Africa until 11th November. At first they were based in western Algeria, as part of the Central Task Force that had occupied by Oran, but in the days that followed the Germans built up an impressive presence in Tunisia, and the P-38 groups were moved east, initially to Algiers.

The 14th FG was first, moving to the recently captured airbase at Youks-les-Bains, with the first squadron moving on 21 November. This base was close to the Tunisian border, and the P-38s soon found themselves coming up against the increasingly strong Luftwaffe presence in North Africa. Over the next two months the 14th FG carried out a mix of ground attack, bomber escort and air superiority missions. At first they had been involved in supporting the first, unsuccessful, attempt to capture Tunis, which had occupied most of late November 1942. The front line was 150 miles east of Youks, not a problem for the P-38, but there were never enough aircraft. P-38 formations on fighter sweeps over Tunisia were often outnumbered by formations of Bf 109s and Fw 190s.

The 14th FG suffered very heavy losses during this period. Between November 1942 and 28 January 1943 the group lost 32 pilots (out of an original complement of 54) and had been reduced to only seven operational aircraft. During its first period of service in North Africa, the 14th FG claimed 62 victories. Even though North Africa had been given the highest possible priority for new P-38s, there simply weren’t enough aircraft being produced in late 1942 to sustain such heavy losses. On 28 January the 14th FG was withdrawn, and replaced by the 82nd Fighter Group, also equipped with the P-38.

Most of the 1st FG remained further west, with one squadron based at Maison Blanche, close to Algiers, although a second squadron (the 94th) was sent to Youks-les-Bains on 25 November to reinforce the 14th FG. The 1st FG concentrated more on bomber escort duties. In mid-December two of its squadrons were moved to the bomber base at Biskra, and placed under the command of the XII Bomber Command, removing at a stroke all of the problems of communications between bomber and fighter units. Despite their small numbers, during December the P-38 escort fighters were able to keep bomber losses down to acceptable levels.

The P-38 pilots operated under two main disadvantages in North Africa. The shortage of aircraft reduced the size of P-38 formations, often leaving them outnumbered by German formations. Second, their German opponents were often very experienced pilots, while the American pilots were all combat novices. Despite this, the P-38 held its own against the German fighters. It was the first American fighter to reach Europe that could claim to be as good as the Bf 109 or Fw 190. It’s impressive rate of climb surprised many Luftwaffe pilots, who had become used to being able to escape from American P-40s simply by climbing away from them.

During the first months of 1943 the P-38 began to see use as a fighter bomber. In December 1942 it had been used on anti-shipping missions, carrying one 1,000lb bomb, without success. However, from April bombing missions began again, often combined with escort duties - it became common for four or five P-38s of the escort to carry bombs. Once they dropped their bombs, they would then become part of the fighter escort for the return journey.

The fighting in North Africa lasted into the spring of 1943. By April the German position in Tunisia had shrunk to the extent that the Allies were able to concentrate on cutting the German air route between Sicily and Tunisia. During this period long range P-38 patrols accounted for 100 Axis transport aircraft. Finally, in May 1943 the last German troops in Tunisia surrendered. The war in North Africa was over and the war in Italy was about to begin. The 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups, and their P-38s, would take part in that new battle.

P-38 Lightning Aces of the ETO/MTO, John Stanaway (Aircraft of the Aces 19). Despite being best known for its role in the Pacific, the P-38 played a significant but under-appreciated part in the fighting in North Africa in 1942, in Italy, and even with the 8th Air Force, where its long range made it the first USAAF fighter capable of escorting the bombers deep into Germany. This book helps to redress the balance, tracing the career of the P-38 in the Mediterranean and over northern Europe from its introduction early in 1942, through its heyday in 1943. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 May 2007), Lockheed P-38 Lighting in Operation Torch and Tunisia, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-38_NorthAfrica.html

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