ALLIED HEADQUARTERS IN NORTH AFRICA -- Three of Italy's key air bases lay crippled today following a daylight assault by nearly 100 U. S. Liberators that dropped more than 200 tons of bombs on the Lecce, Grottaglie and San Pancrazio airdromes yesterday.
The triple-pronged daylight smash was the biggest operation yet executed by the four-engined Consolidated bombers from Middle East bases. Three of the Liberators were lost, but 12 out of more than 40 Axis fighters that sought to protect the airdromes were shot down by the unescorted American heavy bombers in fierce combats.
The Lecce and Grottaglie air bases are located on Italy's "heel" not far from the southern Italian naval base of Taranto. The San Pancrazio drome lies 35 miles north of Rome. The raids on these airdromes, where parked planes were smashed up and numerous fires kindled, followed heavy blows dealt Thursday night to the Sicilian ports of Palermo and Catania and the Sardinian coastal capital of Cagliari.
RAF heavyweights from the Middle East pounded Catania while Palernio and Cagliari were hard hit by RAF Wellingtons from Northwest Africa which poured two-ton block busters and showers of incendiaries on railway marshalling yards and other objectives.
Mitchells In Action
Coincident with the Liberator attacks on the three Italian airdromes, a fourth air base -- the big Castelvetrana station in Sicily -- also was raided during Friday's daylight hours by U.S. Mitchell medium bombers of the Northwest African Command.
P-40 Warhawks, escorting the bombers, shot down at least one and probably two out of a swarm of more than 20 German Messer-schmitt-109's and Focke-Wulf-190's that tried to hinder the attack. And America's only negro fighter squadron scored its first victory when Lieut. Charles B. Hall, 22, of Brazil, Indiana, destroyed an FW-190. Another negro pilot was credited with probably shooting down an ME-109 and damaging another.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was visiting the air base when the negro fighter escort squadron returned without loss, personally congratulated Lieut. Hall as well as the squadron's negro commanding officer, Lieut Col. Benjamin O. Davis.
At Lecce. a Cairo communique from the Ninth U. S. Air Force headquarters related, the Liberators scored direct hits on hangars and runways. They started fires behind the hangars and squarely on dispersal areas and "bursts" of smoke covered the field, indicating hits on dispersed aircraft."
Fuel Dump Hit
The communique told of "a very large fuel fire" breaking out in the southeast section of the Lecce drome and said the northern part also received many direct direct hits.
The principal enemy interception was encountered over Lecce where the Liberator gunners blasted the 12 Axis planes -- including Italian Macchi-202's as well as German Messerschmitts, Focke-Wulfs, Junkers and Heinkels -- out of existence.
Some of the enemy planes -- notably the Junkers and Heinkels -- tried to stem the onslaught by bombing the Liberators from above, but these efforts failed.
At Grottaglie direct hits crashed on hangars "and bursts were seen throughout the target area," according to the communique which added:
"The dispersal area was blanketed with fragmentation bombs. One enemy aircraft was seen to explode and at least one other was seen burning."
The San Pangrazio airdrome, north of the Italian capital, was declared to have been "well covered covered with bursts."
The load of more than 400,000 pounds dropped on the three airdromes by the Liberators included explosive, fragmentation and incendiary bombs. The number of Liberators dispatched against the Italian mainland Friday was nearly twice as large as the biggest formation of these bombers previously sent out on any single mission. The loss of three equalled the total loss incurred by the Ninth U. S. Air Force in operations during the entire month of June.
Sicily Hard Hit
The latest assault on the Fascist homeland was preceded by fresh night blows on the two principal stepping stones along the invasion route to Italy and southern France.
R. A. F. heavy bombers of the Middle East command staged the Thursday night raid on Catania on Sicily's west coast where the railway yards were the main target.
"Bomb bursts were seen all over the sidings and in the industrial area including sulphur refineries," Cairo headquarters announced. "Four small fires were started."
Palermo on Sicily's northwest coast and capital of that island was attacked the same night by bombers of the Allied Northwest African Strategic Air Force. Another formation simultaneously raided the main Sardinian port of Cagliari.
American Mitchell medium bombers, escorted by Warhawks, struck yesterday at the already battered airdrome of Castelvetrano on Sicily. One of the Warhawks shot down an enemy interceptor,, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters announced. The bulletin revealed that all air operations from Northwest Africa in the 24 hours that ended Friday night were carried out without a single loss.
The Middle East air forces lost five planes three American and two British.
R. A. F. long-range fighters from the Middle East scored "many" hits on a schooner in Kyllene harbor off the west Coast of Greece yesterday while patrolling Spitfires shot down a Junkers-86 bomber approaching the naval base of Alexandria.