Remembering Operation Flax: Allied Disruption and Destruction of German Air Transports to North Africa

Less than 150 miles separate Tunisia from the island of Sicily, two important geographic locations in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. After the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, fighting in the region was centered on Tunisia in spring 1943 as the British pushed west and the Americans pushed east, trying to squeeze out the Axis armies. To attempt to thwart this effort, Axis forces began airlifting more support from Sicily to Tunisia since they faced challenging conditions at sea.

During March and April 1943 Allied naval forces in the Mediterranean sank large amounts of Axis shipping to North Africa with less than 60 percent of sea cargo reaching its destination. While aircraft could not replace ships entirely, the Germans turned to air transports to carry personnel and higher priority cargoes. Maj. Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, under the command of Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, began planning Operation Flax—the Allied plan to disrupt and destroy these German air transports.

The Allies allowed German flights to continue unmolested to lull the transports into regular flight patterns. They gathered information from photo reconnaissance of Axis airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and the Italian mainland. They tracked transport formation routes on radar, and plotted radio transmissions. Royal Air Force (RAF) radio intercept learned the transport routes, the arrival and departure times, the turnaround times, and typical German defensive measures. The body of information built up was used to complement information about air cargo and flight plans obtained from ULTRA, the highly sensitive, code-breaking service used to decrypt German messaging. The Allied air forces stalked the enemy transports and waited for a prime opportunity.

The first attack under Flax took place on April 5. Allied forces intercepted an air convoy over the sea and shot down 11 German transport aircraft. After the survivors landed in Tunisia, American B-17 bombers attacked them as they unloaded. That same day American B-25 bombers struck three Sicilian airfields as fully-loaded Axis transports were warming up on the ground. The Allies lost three aircraft while the Luftwaffe lost 25 transports and suffered damage to 67. German transport flight lagged as they waited for replacement aircraft and crews. Flax went back to observation mode, waiting for another opportunity.

On April 17 the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force took over Flax combat missions from new airfields near Tunisia. The next morning they detected a large airborne convoy, and waited for the transports’ return flight to Sicily. Over the sea they intercepted 100 transports, shooting down more than half. Two days later more than half of a 20 transport formation was also shot down. The Germans remained desperate for supplies and continued their effort on April 22. Twenty seven immense German transports, which could each carry four times the load of a normal transport, lumbered toward Tunisia protected by fighters. An overwhelming seven squadrons of Allied fighters converged on the air convoy. Only six German transports survived.

Three days later ULTRA code breakers deciphered an order from the Commander-in-Chief of German Air Forces Herman Goering—all German transport flights to Tunisia were ordered to fly at night. This order by German command proved too little, too late. German air operations in Tunisia dwindled without adequate supplies. Too scared to fly back in transports, many German ground crews squeezed into fighters and bombers for the airborne retreat.

Considered a success, Allied forces destroyed 432 Axis transport aircraft during Flax. The Germans also lost hundreds of crewmen and thousands of tons of cargo. Difficult to replace the men, aircraft, and materiel, German military airlift capacity became permanently reduced. The careful planning of Doolittle and the close cooperation of the Allied air forces created a victory with benefits that continued to the war’s end.