When fighting commenced in North Africa in June 1940, the Royal Air Force's (RAF) Air Headquarters Egypt immediately mounted bombing missions against Italian targets in Libya and helped repel the Italian offensive into Egypt.

The RAF was initially under-strength and equipped with the obsolete Gladiator and Blenheim aircrafts until modern aircraft began to arrive in Egypt. In 1941, as Greece came under attack from Germany, units were diverted to Greece and, in Libya, German air and ground forces pushed the weakened British back.

During the Desert Campaigns of 1941-1942, the RAF provided essential battlefield support to the often-beleaguered ground forces, attacking enemy armour and supply lines despite extremely difficult operating conditions.

In October 1941, to achieve closer air-ground co-operation, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commanding RAF Middle East, oversaw the formation of the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). Its Commander, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, developed a mobile, highly effective tactical air force, which in August 1942 began to receive modern fighters capable of competing with the German air force for air superiority.

By November, the WDAF comprised 29 British, Australian and South African squadrons which, augmented by other Allied units, were able to offer overwhelming air support to the 8th Army's offensive at El Alamein.



Douglas Boston light bombers of No. 24 Squadron, South African Air Force, flying low over the Tunisian desert, March 1943.

With Operation 'Torch' - the Allied invasion of French North Africa - in December 1942, more squadrons arrived to pressurise Axis forces, while, in Tunisia, the WDAF helped the 8th Army to outflank enemy defences south-eastern Tunisia.



No. 223 Squadron crews are briefed in front of one of their Martin Baltimore bombers at La Fauconnerie in Tunisia, May 1943. On 12 May 1943, 18 Baltimores of Nos. 223 and 55 Squadrons took part in the last bombing raid of the North African campaign, against enemy troops dug in at Bou Ficha. Allied air power was now overwhelming, and over the next two days German forces in Tunisia surrendered.

Finally, before the Axis surrender on 12 May 1943, Allied fighters shot down scores of German transport aircraft attempting to evacuate their trapped forces from the dwindling Tunis bridgehead.

This article was edited by Alex Plant. Several IWM staff members contributed to an older version of this piece.

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