Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wingwalker

Late in the day of 6th July 1941, No 75 (NZ) Squadron Wellington Mk.Is took off from RAF Feltwell. Their target for tonight was Munster. The Germans had just launched their invasion of Russia, and Munster was a major transport hub. By striking it the British hoped to relieve pressure on the Russians.
As they plunged through the darkness the crews were struck, and more than a little relived, by how little enemy action there was. No night fighters, only a handful of search lights and just a few bursts of flak. They arrived at Munster and bombed the target, the city looked like it was in flames. On board one of the Wellingtons the pilot of the bomber circled the city so the crew could see what was going on. The pilot was Wing Commander R. P. Widdowson, whom was also the Squadron Commander, and his second pilot was Sergeant James Allen Ward. 
Sgt Ward
After Wg Cdr Widdowson had seen how the battle his squadron was engaged in had progressed they set course for home. Crossing the Zuider Zee Sgt Ward was standing with his head in the astrodome, keeping an eye out. Suddenly he spotted the first German resistance of the night, the shadow of a lone ME110 was closing from port. Sgt Ward keyed his intercom to warn of the impending attack. However, the intercom had broken in the previous few hours and no one had realized. The German plane raked the bomber with its cannon, spraying red hot shrapnel everywhere and fracturing a fuel line in the wing causing the fuel line to catch fire.
Wg Cdr Widdowson threw the plane into a dive to escape, at the same time Pilot Officer A. R. J. Box in the rear turret returned fire. This wild burst scored several hits on the ME110, and it was seen spiralling out of control. When the plane levelled out they followed the course of the Dutch coast to see how the fire would develop. Two of the crew were wounded by shrapnel, the nose gunner and Sgt Ward.

The crew attempted to put the fire out, first they smashed a hole in the side of the Wellington trying to get to the fire with a fire extinguisher, however their efforts were in vain. Next the crew tried throwing coffee from their thermos flasks at the fire, this did improve matters slightly by damping down the fabric around the wing but didn't extinguish the flames.
The damage to the Wellington after it landed at base.
The crew by now had decided to risk crossing the channel. At this point Sgt Ward volunteered to climb out of the astrodome hatch and crawl out to the fire to extinguish it. A rope was retrieved from the dinghy and tied around Sgt Wards chest, he tried to climb out the hatch, however it was very narrow and he wanted to take his parachute off. The crew refused to let him, and so he tried again and squeezed out. He was now sitting on the roof of the Wellington's cockpit while it was doing somewhere between 100-200mph. Sgt Ward then put the Wellington’s geodesic construction to good use, he kicked holes in the fabric and used the structure to stand on. Like this he made his way down to the wing. He was carrying a large cloth cockpit cover to help him smother the fire. However, it kept being caught by the wind and threatened to blow him off the plane. When he reached the wing, he began to crawl along it using holes made by the German's attack, and new holes he tore in the fabric himself. He was unable to stay close to the wing as his parachute was on his chest and this allowed the howling wind to get underneath him, once lifting him away and slamming him back into the wing. Eventually he managed to reach the engine and was now exposed to the full blast of the back draft from the propeller, but he carried on.
Sgt Ward's route along the wing of the plane
Sgt Ward got to the hole where the fuel and fire was coming from and tried to stuff the cover into it to smoother the flames and clog the fuel pipe. The second he let go the cover caught in the air flow and ripped away. Sgt Ward managed to grab the cover and dragged it back and rammed it back in the hole. Again, the wind tore it away instantly and although Sgt Ward grasped at it, he missed and the cover was gone.

The fire from the fuel pipe was now contained. There was nothing that could catch fire near the flames and so Sgt Ward made the difficult journey back to the cockpit. He was so exhausted by his journey he had to be hauled the last foot or so and into the cabin by the rest of the crew. As the Wellington neared the English coast the flames suddenly flared up, a small pool of fuel had collected inside the wing and had caught. Fortunately, this quickly died down again.

The German attack had also damaged the hydraulics which meant the landing gear was stuck and had to be hand pumped down. Instead of landing at RAF Feltwell, Wg Cdr Widdowson decided to land at Newmarket where there was a much longer landing strip. After circling the airfield Wg Cdr Widdowson radioed to the tower "We’ve been badly shot up. I hope we shan’t mess up your flare-path too badly when we land."
The Wellington thumped into the runway, and rolled forwards, it seems likely the brakes were also damaged as she rolled right off the end of the runway and came to rest in a barbed wire perimeter to the runway. Luckily no one was injured.

Sgt Ward was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. Unfortunately, Sgt Ward would not survive the war, in September of that year his bomber was shot down by flak and Sgt Ward was killed.

Image credits:
 For more on Sgt Ward's exploits, see this page, it contains some new pictures I'd not seen before.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

I spy a T-64!

Earlier in the week I took advantage of the fact I was made redundant and went to visit an archive. Whilst there I saw a document that I thought might be of interest. It is a technical assessment of the brand new Soviet tank, the T-64. Here is what the British thought the T-64 performance would be like. This is what the British were able to speculate from the intelligence sources they had, and these intelligence sources are varied and seem to have gone right to the heart of Soviet tank design.
"What's that? No I'm not British. Comradski!"
In September and October 1976 large numbers of a new Soviet tank were seen being issued to Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG). The British had information about the T-72, and its planned introduction, and so thought this new tank was the T-72. This tank obviously sparked the British interest, especially as a large amount of information was being presented. Because of this excess of information, the Military Vehicle Experimental Establishment (MVEE) was tasked with creating a paper in December 1976. This paper involved the work of two British intelligence groups, the Technical Information (Army) and the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre.  MVEE had finished the paper by June, but were soon to be back at work as in November it was announced that the T-72 would take part in the Moscow Parade that year. The pictures immediately caused a concern, as all the agencies expected to see the tank they had identified beforehand, but it wasn't. It looked different. Initially these two tanks were known as the "GSFG T-72" and the "Moscow T-72", but intelligence data quickly identified the "GSFG T-72" as the T-64.
TI(A) and MVEE drew up a fully detailed 1/10 scale plan of the tank based on measurements from photographs. The internals were worked out from a variety of sources including defectors and a photograph of a turret trainer. The latter would have been used in class rooms to help instruct crew. How the British got a hold of this picture is an interesting question, as it seems that at least someone in tank design, or tank training school was spying for the British.
The turret trainer
Equally the British received a pair of recordings of the engine noises of the T-64. They analysed these and found out that most of the noises were in the high frequency range of 4000-80000 Hz. This, it was worked out, corresponded to a gas turbine engine with twenty compressor blades producing 800hp with a shaft rotation speed of between 12000 and 48000rpm. The British speculated that it might be a modified version of a MI-24 Hind engine that had been fitted to a tank. There were other sounds on the tapes that indicated an auxiliary power unit was fitted, which was a 6 cylinder four stroke engine running at 4000rpms producing some 75hp. This it was expected could be used when the tank was snorkelling to propel the tank at 0.5mph to cross the river.
But no T-64 was actually fitted with a gas turbine, so the likely source for these tapes is the Object 219, which was a prototype T-80. This would indicate that someone within the Soviet tank design departments was actually spying for the British, as a secret Object test bed vehicle isn't likely to be driving down the main road regularly enough for a spy to position themselves to make a recording.

This tape and the subsequent analysis did lead to some knock-on effects in the British version of the T-64. Due to a gas turbines high fuel consumption the British loaded the tank down with extra fuel to maintain a 500km radius of operation. This was achieved with some 920L of fuel in external tanks, which the British could see and measure. These due to the way they were linked by exposed fuel lines were considered for movement use, and not for combat use.  A further 360L was stored in the engine compartment, while a final fuel tank was placed on the drivers left hand side holding 1400L.

The drivers position was another oddity. While it was reported as having power steering the position was deemed to be very uncomfortable. This was ascertained by using the position of the episcopes the driver would use to see out of his tank while closed down. This in turn meant that the British knew where the drivers head would have been, and then using the "Soviet 95 percentile" of height (which meant that 95% of Soviet males would be close to this height), worked out how much space would be needed. The Soviet 95% figure was 5ft, 6in. The only place the foot pedals could be placed was on the nose plate, however the leading suspension arm’s torsion bar had to run through that space. This meant the pedals had to be placed higher up the nose plate than would be normal. It meant that the driver had to assume a hunched half crouch while reclining on the seat. It also meant that a set of duplicate pedals had to be installed for when the driver was unbuttoned. As well as the fuel tank the British designers placed some eight spare rounds of ammunition in the drivers compartment.
The loading arms removed for auto-loader maintenance.
The British also knew about the auto-loader mechanism as some photographs showed the loading arms of the auto-loader removed during maintenance. These, along with pictures of the ammunition, allowed the British to manufacture a loading arm to the same design as the Russian one and work out how it fitted into the tank. They estimated the ready ammunition would be between 28-30 rounds. The 125mm smoothbore gun was presumed to assume a loading position automatically after each shot and would have about 450mm of recoil travel. Total vertical movement of the gun was given as -5 to +16 degrees.
The copy of the loading arm the British built. In the left hand one you can see one of the wooden rounds that were also constructed.


The wooden rounds
Although the gun came with a thermal sleeve it was noted to lack a muzzle reference device which would affect the accuracy of the gun. The gunners primary sight was a variant of the TPN-1-21-11 sight with an optical rangefinder across the turret although no sign of a laser range finder was present at the moment it was expected to arrive on later models. The commander had at his disposal a TKN-3 day/night sight, with an assumed ability for hunter-killer automatic laying. All vision devices, including the drivers were deemed to be IR types, which needed active illumination by IR searchlights.

The armour was measured for the turret by taking the space needed for the internal layout and deleting it from the external dimensions. This gave a raw thickness. The report stated that there was no sign of any "Chobham style special armour” and suggested that the use of electroslag remelt was possible. In fact the T-64 had aluminium cores to its armour to save weight, while the T-64A had high hardness steel up until 1976 when corundum-ball inserts were used.

To assist with the hull armour values the report stuck with a Soviet standard of using some 50% of the total tank weight for armour. This figure is a bit of a pain to us in the modern day as we don't know what the total weight the British were using. Combat or loaded weight? But in comparison a Leopard 1 has 39% of its combat weight as armour, but a massive 57% of its empty weight. Equally one source I have has about 25% of the total weight of a Chieftain as armour but fails to mention what state the tank would be in when this was measured. However, it made sense to the British of the time as they knew what they meant. From that they came out with the following armour values for the hull:
Due to the turrets shape it was trickier to map, so MVEE took the simple route and sliced the turret into 100mm sections and plotted those thicknesses.
Cross sections of the turret showing armour thickness.
Because of the small wheels and torsion bar suspension hidden behind the wheels the side hull was seen as vulnerable to chemical anti-tank warheads such as HEAT, for this reason a series of paddles were fitted to the hull. These could be swung out a few degrees cover an arc of about 25 degrees with spaced armour. These were thought to be quite light steel and sprung so that they would be able to swing out of the way of a tree then spring back into position.
"Ulybka dlya britanskogo shpiona tovarishcha."
Other speculated protective features included a potential radiological sensor that would fire small charges upon detecting a nuclear bomb detonation, these charges would automatically close all the grills and louvres on the tank. In addition, an over-pressure NBC system was fitted, however the crew would wear grey NBC suits and individual gas masks.

The T-64 was seen as a step up in Soviet tank design, as well as abandoning their tried and tested technique of re-using the same components over and over again. Despite this it failed to meet the current Western standards. For example, the West were designing Chobham style armour into their tanks, and fitting thermal vision as standard, while the Soviets were still using IR. Equally on items like the NBC system, on British tanks a common air feed was provided to the crew stations meaning the crew could plug into air supplied from the tanks NBC pack, meaning a constant supply of clean cooled air was available to help with crew discomfort. In addition the drivers position was seen as particularly awful.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Little Helicopter that Could

On April the 21st 1944 a US L-1 observation plane was slowly flying along at very low level over the Burmese jungle. On board were the pilot and three British soldiers. This particular patch of jungle was Japanese controlled, so when the L-1 crashed, slamming down in to a rice paddy, and the bank of which ripped the landing gear off, the pilot and passengers were surrounded. To add to the troubles there were three Katana's that the pilot had obtained in the cargo space of the L-1, this would further enrage the Japanese and make matters worse if the Allied servicemen were captured. To add to the pilot’s woes the three British passengers were injured during the crash. The pilot's name was Technical Sergeant Ed Hladovcak, known as 'Murphy', simply because no one could pronounce his name.

The four Allies managed to move themselves about half a mile from the crash site, into dense jungle. They watched as a Japanese patrol appeared and began to search the area for them. Hiding in the dense jungle throughout the day, at one point they could see glimpses of the searchers legs through the undergrowth. By a miracle the patrol passed without detecting them.

There were other searchers out looking for the down airmen, the Allies had several tiny L-5 planes hunting for the missing aircraft. Sgt Hladovcak had done a bit to assist them by spreading a patch of parachute over the foliage hoping it could be seen, and it was. One of the L-5's dropped a note to the stranded Allies which urged them to move uphill as there were Japanese nearby. This began to get the downed Allies out of the Japanese search area. With the crash survivors slightly safer some supplies were dropped. The survivors would have to hold on for some five days before rescue would arrive, all the while suffering from infection to their wounds, heat and exhaustion with the Japanese beating the bushes for them.
Lt Harman, standing on the left, in front of the YR-4
The reason for the delay was a very unique piece of equipment was being prepared for the rescue. The USAAF in Burma had recently taken delivery of three YR-4 helicopters. One had crashed a month earlier, and the third’s pilot was wounded in action. This left one pilot selected to fly this mission, named Lieutenant Carter Harman. He had originally joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and made what is usually regarded as a critical mistake, he volunteered for detachment to Stratford which was close to his home. It was also the location of the Sikorsky plant where he would learn to fly his YR-4.

The YR-4 like most early helicopters, was woefully underpowered, and had a tiny spare lift capacity. These features were not made better by hot weather conditions (like you might expect to find in tropical countries like Burma), or at high altitudes (again like Burma). Even under the best conditions the YR-4 had a ceiling of just 5000 feet. To get to the search base Lt Harman had to fly over some mountains which were actually higher than that. He also had to make the flight with no navigator and had to carry a load of spare fuel in jerry cans. Although at one stop over at a bomber base, the ground crew rigged a spare fuel tank from a L-5 into the cabin. This was to boost the range of the YR-4 sufficiently to reach the nearest large airstrip, and base for this operation. The YR-4 had a range of about 100 miles, in just four days Lt Harman managed to fly 725 miles to reach this base.
Sgt Hladovcak and the three other survivors had been directed to a location which the pickup could be made from, Lt Harman flew to this location and touched down. He could only carry one person at a time and so started ferrying the injured men. His destination was a sandbar which had been secured by British Commandos. This was to be a forward airstrip. Once there the wounded would be loaded onto liaison planes and flown to safety.

Lt Harman flew to the sandbank and linked up with an L-5 which guided him to the landing zone. However due to the heat and altitude the YR-4 could only just carry a single passenger even with the engine on maximum power. Lt Harman began to shuttle the most seriously wounded soldiers to safety. As he landed on the sandbar at the end of the first day the engine that had been running red hot seized with a clanking sound and emitted a cloud of vapour.
Lt Harman spent the night on the sandbar, and the next morning the engine had cooled and decided to work. Again, the YR-4 started to shuttle the men out. On the last run the Lt Harman picked up Sgt Hladovcak. However, the continued use of the landing zone had given the position away and the Japanese were closing. As Sgt Hladovcak scrambled aboard they could see Japanese troops approaching, Lt Harman pulled the YR-4 into a hover only to hear the engine begin to make the same clanking noise again, with the power loss the helicopter began to sink towards the waiting Japanese who were swarming below him.
Suddenly the engine settled down and returned to full power, and Lt Harman was able to pull away and begin the long flight back to base. For the first helicopter search and rescue mission in a combat zone, Lt Harman received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Carter Harman died in 2007 aged 88.

When Lt Harman finished his tour the YR-4's had no pilots and were laid up in storage. When, in January 1945, a B-25 crashed in the jungle two more pilots were flown out along with ground crew and spares to get the YR-4's back into the air. Before they could fly that mission the B-25 crew managed to walk out of the jungle themselves. The replacement pilots were ordered to stay in theatre for thirty days to train up new pilots and provide cover as needed. Only one pilot qualified on the YR-4, one Lieutenant Raymond F Murdock, simply because he was the smallest and lightest of the candidates and so the only one the YR-4 could lift along with an instructor.
Lt Murdock's first rescue mission came in March 1945. A US cargo plane had iced up and crashed into the jungle. Whilst searching for it a native had shown up with a written note giving the location of the one of the downed crewmen. The native guided a rescue party to him. At this point the native’s chief appeared and indicated via sign language that he knew the location of the rest of the plane and crew. Captain James L. Green offered to take the chieftain up in a Fairchild PT-19 trainer so that he could show them the location. Unfortunately, the chieftain became disoriented from flying and quickly became lost. After two hours aloft Cpt Green realised the situation was hopeless and turned for base, when suddenly the engine failed, plunging the PT-19 into the jungle canopy some five miles short of the main runway. As luck would have it the missing crew were sighted around dusk of that day and taken to safety. The searchers now turned their efforts towards finding Cpt Green's plane.

Around the same time as the original crew were being led to safety a C47 spotted the missing PT-19. However, in the dark nothing could be done. At first light a rescue party hacked its way through the jungle to reach the crash site. It took them a day and a half to reach the location. They found an unconscious and very badly injured Cpt Green, who had suffered a broken pelvis and jaw and was delirious with his eyes swollen shut. He also had multiple internal injuries. One of the rescue party was the bases surgeon, who immediately set about trying to save Cpt Green. The chieftain it was discovered had died in the crash, and been recovered and buried by his own tribe before the rescue party arrived.

The surgeon after examining Cpt Green was sure that he could not be moved any great distance. To do so would kill him. Equally he could not remain where he was. After being quizzed the surgeon stated that if Green was kept immobile, and the infection was under control he could last about a week, after that it was anyone's guess.

With that in hand the rescuers drew up a plan. They were in heavy jungle, on the side of a ridge line. The plan was to blast, cut and build a landing pad in the side of the ridge. This would mean clearing tree's (many around 150ft tall), then erecting a bulwark made from bamboo to hold together the soil piled up for the landing pad. All this was to be done by hand, although a powered saw did arrive to help with the tree cutting after a few days.

A large encampment appeared at the base of the ridge for all the help and support that came flooding in. Even so it still took nearly two weeks. Green's survival was due in a large part to a brand-new treatment, penicillin. By April the third in one of his overflights Lt Murdock announced that he thought he would be able to get in and would try the next day. Overnight there was a severe storm which threatened to wash away the landing pad. However, the bulwark held firm, although the steps created to allow workers to reach the landing pad were demolished by the battering rain.
The storm also caused humidity to rise and then the landing site was enveloped in thick fog. Lt Murdock wanted to get going before the heat rose too much and cut into what little lift the YR-4 could generate. Eventually the fog cleared around 1030 and Lt Murdock set off. As he sank through the trees he became fouled in a strong wind that blew down the hill, it carried the YR-4 past the landing pad, and the little helicopter didn't have the engine power to raise itself in the face of this wind. Lt Murdock aborted and came in again, this time flying with the wind. This nearly caused a disaster as the tail rotor clipped a few leaves on his descent, but both the machine and pilot held together. Then they were down, the pad had been built with a flat surface sloped at eight degrees to allow drainage, however the helicopter started slipping off the pad. Luckily several men were able to grab and secure the YR-4 before it slipped off.
Green was loaded into the helicopter, the co-pilots seat had been replaced so that a stretcher of sorts could just be fitted into the space when tilted at forty-five degrees. Cpt Green was strapped in. Lt Murdock instructed the ground crew to hold the helicopter down until he gave the signal. This would allow Lt Murdock to run the aircraft up to its full power. Of course, the ground crew would have to throw themselves flat instantly or run the risk of being hit by the helicopter.
The helicopter rose on full power, to a height of four feet. There it reached the maximum ceiling it could achieve with that load. To fly forwards would mean losing downwards thrust and the helicopter would drop slightly, but how much? With no other choice Lt Murdock pointed the nose downwards and dropped towards the trees. Because of the slope he managed to gain enough forward speed to clear the trees and return to the base. After dropping off Cpt Green Lt Murdock he attempted to return to his own base, however the engine sized halfway there, and Murdock was forced to make an emergency landing on a road. A truck towed the YR-4 back to base.

For his exploits during his tour of duty Lt Murdock would win a DFC.

Image credits:
More background to the YR-4 and more pictures here.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

To kill a Convoy

HOMO-03 was the designation of a Japanese convoy that departed from Hong Kong at 1700 on the 4th of April, 1945. Setting out was risky, however remaining was just as dangerous. On the 3rd an air raid of USAAF B-24's had sunk two transports and badly damaged a third. The convoy consisted of two transport ships, the 839 ton Tokai Maru No 2 (The first ship to bear that name was sunk in 1943 at Guam by a US submarine) and the 2193 ton, steam powered Kine Maru. The two transports were given a very heavy escort of five ships. In the lead was the destroyer Amatsukaze, and five corvette sized ships, these were the coastal defence ships CD-1 and CD-134, and the anti-submarine vessels CH-9 and CH-20. The convoy would proceed at about 12 knots towards Shanghai, and then onwards to Moji, a distance of only about 350 miles.
Such a heavy escort was normal, because by this stage in the war the Allied air forces were dominating the area.
The next morning the convoy was steaming along when the first of the US planes appeared. US intelligence had found the convoy overnight and had directed planes to attack. A flight of PBM-5 Mariner flying boats approached and began to make their attacks. I've not yet been able to find the squadron responsible, or an account of the attack however I did find this site which details the life of a PBM-5 crewman in the Pacific. It includes the following about a level bombing attack against shipping:
"VPB-27 and VPB-208 attacked a Japanese transport convoy at the mouth of the Yangtze River. We encountered heavy flak. VPB-208 went in ahead of us, which woke the Japs up, so they were ready for us when we got there. I prayed to be well—and I was well, just like that. But a hit by a 5-inch shell cut our aileron cables, so we couldn’t bank. Our flight engineer, Aviation Chief Machinist’s Mate Julius J. Jaskot was sitting on the back of his seat, with his feet up on the seat, to see what was going on, when a shell came in one side of the hull and out the other—where his legs would normally have been. It missed our gas line by just six inches. That same shell went through our propeller blades without striking them, as if it was synchronized—then it exploded. We must have been flying too low for the shell to arm."

The eyewitness also talks about torpedo attacks against Japanese shipping, which is well worth a read.

The result of this unknown squadron's attack on HOMO-03 was that the Tokai Maru No 2 was sunk.
Later in the day the USAAF took their first attempt at the convoy. B-24's and B-26's attacked and had cover from P-38 Lightnings. This attack sunk the Kine Maru. With no transports left to escort the convoy split into two groups. CH-9 and CH-20 returned to Hong Kong. They got back just in time to receive a large air raid from B-24's, the two escorts were damaged, along with two more coastal defence ships and a fleet oiler.

This left the two coastal defence ships, CD-1 and CD-134 along with the Amatsukaze. The later was not at full capability though. In January 1944 the ship had been torpedoed, which detonated her magazine, severing the ship in half just in behind the forward smoke stack. the US claimed her as destroyed however she drifted for six days before being recovered and towed to Hong Kong, where she had a makeshift bow fitted, along with several more AA guns.

The next morning at 1130 twenty-four B-25's appeared over the three escorts. The planes had come from Luzon, and after the long flight had found their targets. They consisted of planes from the 345th Bombing Group. The planes dove on CD-1 and CD-134. They were using skip bombing attacks. This is where the bombers make a high speed run at an enemy ship, when short of the target between two and four bombs are released with long fuses. These impact on the water and literally skip along the surface to strike the target ship in the side. Attacks are normally done in pairs with one of the B-25's hosing the target vessel down with its machine guns to suppress the ships AA defences.
The fate of CD-134. The B-25 in the picture is often identified as Ruthless Ruth, flown by Cpt Mikell.
CD-1 was hit by two bombs, one bounced off the water and exploded on the ships deck. The other hit CD-1 in the side and she began to sink. CD-134 was attacked by two aircraft, and suffered a single hit to the waterline, and rolled over and sunk. The exact credit as to whom got the kill is unknown as different sources give different pilots names. Lt. Lester Morton and Cpt Louie Avery Mikell are the two named. Lt Morton's fate I don't know, but Cpt Mikell survived the war, and in 1948 was taking part in the film "Fighter Squadron" when his plane went into a tail spin. Cpt Mikell bailed out, however he landed in Lake Oscoda, and was lost. His body was recovered a month later.
Amatsukaze before the torpedo hit.
Some ten minutes later six of the B-25's came across the Amatsukaze. The destroyer was alert and began firing on the B-25's as soon as they approached. The wall of flak scored a hit on one B-25 with a single 40mm round, the plane pitched in and hit the sea inverted, killing all on board. The other planes bombed the destroyer setting it alight, before retreating. The final group of six B-25's that had been at the location of the attack on CD-1 and CD134 had not dropped their ordnance. When they saw the pillar of smoke they set course and found the burning Amatsukaze, which was still steaming at full speed with all guns manned, despite being very obviously on fire.
Amatsukaze under attack, it is suggested that the large splash in the background is the inverted B-25 hitting the water.
This flight of planes was led by Captain Albin V. Johnson, who had only recently been made up to flight leader. The Amatsukaze put up a barrage of fire against Cpt Albin's plane, but despite being the target of the destroyers wrath he pushed forward with his attack. His plane riddled with gunfire Cpt Albin released his bombs, scoring a direct hit on the stern of the ship. Cpt Albin's plane roared over the sinking destroyer but couldn't gain height due to the damage sustained and ditched. He was later awarded a posthumous Silver Star.
A direct hit is scored on the Amatsukaze, starting the fire.
Despite the massive amount of damage she'd sustained Amatsukaze was still not dead. She limped on for another mile, where the crew found a reef. They beached her on it. For the next two days the destroyers crew attempted to stop the flooding, however on the 8th the weight of water was too much, and she slipped off the reef stern first and sank.

Further reading:
The most detailed account of the action can be found here:
https://airwarworldwar2.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/the-last-voyage-of-the-amatsukaze/
However that version differs from the more common version found here:
http://worldwar2database.com/gallery/wwii1331

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Killer of Everything

This week I start with a warning, a lot of the material in this article is drawn from sources that seem to be distinctly biased one way or another. Yet the results of the battles point to the likelihood that these reports hold, if not the total truth, then at least some degree of accuracy. With that in mind let us look at an African mass killer.

In 1965 Nigeria held an election, however the election was widely corrupt and shortly afterwards a coup was held by a group of military officers. This coup didn't seem to have many aims other than "get rid of the corrupt politicians", and the plotters quickly stood down. This left the presidency in the hands of the senior surviving member of the government, whom was also the senior army officer. By coincidence or design all the senior members of the coup and the new president were from a single tribe, the Igbo. This led to a counter coup within a few months and the persecution of the Igbos, as it was seen that they were striving to control the country.

This persecution led to most of the Igbo's retreating to their native home lands in the east of the country and caused a serious political upheaval and crisis. On the 6th of July 1967 the eastern region split from Nigera, declaring itself as the independent state of Biafra.
Flag of Biafra
The Biafra army wasn't the best equipped. A battalion had about ten to fifteen Second World War vintage Tommy guns, a couple of LMG's, HMG's and mortars of varying calibres. Later on, a platoons worth of assault rifles which had been captured from the Nigerian troops might be added for a shock platoon, if the unit was lucky. Otherwise the normal soldiers were armed with antique bolt action rifles, typically K98 Mausers.
The air force was in an equally bad state, having a single B-26, with this the Biafraian air force quickly started to launch air attacks on Nigerian targets, and actually could claim air superiority. The B-26 was based at Enugu air field and protected by a single Bofors AA gun. At about 0630 one morning in August or September 1967 the B-26 was being prepared for its days mission, when a Russian advisor flying a MIG-17 streaked across the airfield and strafed the bomber, damaging it.
The Biafraian B-26
It was clear from this moment that the AA gun used as the airfields defence would be insufficient, and a new defence was needed. This task was handed to the Science and Technology group based at the airfield. These were students and scientists from the University of Biafra (now University of Nigeria Nsukka). There was a second Science and Technology group based at Port Harcourt formed around the core of engineers from a Shell-BP facility. Later on both S&T groups would join together to for the Research and Production (RAP) organisation.

The answer to the MIG's was drawn up by the Enugu S&T group. Their solution was similar to anti-helicopter mines or somewhat similar to the British parachute and cable system used, briefly, during the Battle of Britain. This mine would be triggered to throw dust and debris up in front of the jet. Hopefully the jet would be hit, however as a consolation the dust might be ingested by the engine and wreck it. A metal bucket like device was constructed and several loads of debris were loaded and test fired. These gave ranges for the heaviest materials of about thirty feet, and the lightest up to 1000ft. This device was named a Dust Mine.
The "Dust mine"... I think. One massive problem with identifying items involved with this subject is pretty much every piece of ordnance is called an "Ogbunigwe" (see later for why). There is no clear distinct designation system, and invariably the device listed as an Ogbunigwe is just a simple metal tube. So this has partly clouded the subject matter.
Due to the shape and design several people have claimed the weapon used the Munroe effect, others reading this have suggested it was a HEAT warhead. A key point to the Munroe effect is that the cavity of the warhead is clear, the dust mines were filled. However, the shape of the weapon would indicate that a Munroe like effect is possible. Until someone dissects a dust mine then there is no way to say if it would act as a HEAT warhead.

By late September the Nigerian Army had gotten itself organised and was pushing on Enugu, causing the S&T group to flee and join up with its sister unit. By the 4th of October Enugu had fallen, and the exhausted Biafraian troops were retreating pursued by the Federal Army. At Ugwuoba Bridge a Biafraian officer attempted to rally a delaying force. Seeing a group of soldiers carrying some Dust Mines he ordered them to emplace the mines facing towards the other side of the bridge, he promised the troops that they could flee after the mines were detonated, just to see what their effect was. As well as hammering the advancing troops with blast waves and debris there is a report that a wave in the river was thrown onto the advancing government troops when the mines were detonated. Described by another account as "A tornado of dust, stones, fire and water" causing massive loss of life and destruction. The next morning a local man viewing the devastation called the dust mine 'Ogbunigwe', which is most often translated as 'Mass Killer' although there are other translations in a similar vein (such as the one used in the title to this page).

Meanwhile the RAP had been busy, they had decided to build a rocket. At first they attempted to build several full sized rockets, but they all failed. Then starting on small models of about six inches they built larger and larger rockets that worked. But the range was limited to some 200 yards. One of the scientists involved on the project said a man with a degree in economics gave them a tip that enabled them to reach a range of some two miles, although he fails to state what this tip was.

Whatever the result of the research, crude rockets which were simply tubes were soon being deployed. They were possibly tipped with Ogbunigwe. These crude rockets with no streamlining or thrust control were horribly inaccurate and unpredictable. The flight path was so erratic that sometimes the launchers found the rockets coming back towards them.
One of the rockets in its launch cradle, with room for a second rocket.
One such incident was in mid-October 1967 when a rocket was fired towards a pair patrol boats. A thick heavy smoke trail was drawn though the air, about halfway to the target the rocket veered to the right twice and was heading back. Then without warning it turned again, through 180 degrees and arced towards the second boat, which was 200m away from the boat that the rocket had been aimed at. The rocket hit the boat setting it on fire, and after a short time the fire reached the ships ammunition with deadly effect.

The famous author Frederick Forsyth was a war correspondent during the Biafra war, and witnessed a rocket attack when it was fitted with an Ogbunigwe. His account read "It spread death and destruction over a large area, and as usual the first division (...) were advancing in solid phalanxes of packed soldiery. An American who examined the scene afterwards estimated that, out of 6000 men who took part in the attack, 4000 failed to return."
Google suggests this is an Ogbunigwe barrage. I can't prove it one way or another.
The most famous use of these rockets was at an ambush at Abagana. The Nigerians were mounted in about 100 vehicles. One source says there were only 500 government troops, more claim there were some 6,000. The Biafraian troops set up their kill zone and saw the first of the Nigerian troops enter it, the young troops wanted to open fire immediately and were panicking from nerves. The Biafraian commander kept his troops calm and let the forward elements pass awaiting the main body of the column. His troops looked at him like he was committing treachery allowing the enemy to penetrate their lines. Whilst issuing the rocket operator with instructions, the soldier in his nervous mental state pressed the launch button. The rocket wobbled through the air and then impacted as luck would have it, on fuel tanker, filled with petrol for the convoy. The resulting explosion caused massive amounts of damage, and the rest of the battalion then opened fire. Accounts of the ambush often list Nigerian casualties around the 5800-5900 mark.
The aftermath of the Abagana ambush. A lot of accounts as shown above talk of single rockets being used. However from the wreckage shown, it appears that salvo's of rockets are normally fired, and the 'remarkable', or rather very lucky hits of single rockets described are down to volume of fire.
All the luck and homemade weapons couldn't save the Biafraian state and in 1970 the last pocket of resistance surrendered. It is to the last Biafraian commanders credit he refused to move to a guerrilla war and plunge the area into decades of conflict like so often has happened elsewhere in the world.

Image credits:
napoleon130.tripod.com and www.thescoopng.com

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Medium Mirage

For the last three weeks I have been looking at the Vickers Medium tanks of the inter war period, and I think I might have discovered some bits and pieces. Now I posted some of this on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, but I'm going to repeat it here so it’s in a more permanent location, and because the subject has been about as easy to nail down as a mirage is. This why I've been wrestling with it for so many weeks. It didn't help that when I thought I had all my facts lined up I did one last search and bang, new information appeared that tipped everything on its head.

First off, the Vickers Medium is often stated as appearing mysteriously (see Mechanised Force by David Fletcher, for an example) in 1923 with none of the usual development reports having survived. Equally its often stated that the Dragon Gun Tractors (named, as the story goes, for a pun on Drag-Gun) are developments of the Vickers Medium, as they both share a striking similarity in their running gear. As well as the Dragon there was an 18-pounder gun carrier which would carry a field piece portee style and could be dismounted from ramps.
Both these projects are dated from 1922, the year before the Vickers Medium appeared. Therefore, it's likely the other way around and the Medium is a development of the Dragon. You would just need to stick an armoured body on it with a turret on the chassis.
Some websites claim these are prototype Vickers Mediums, they're not. But you can see Seal in the background.
Two Dragons were so converted in the mid-1930's and served at RAF Habbaniya. These had the body of a Rolls Royce Armoured Car fitted and served the RAF's No 1 Armoured Car Company. In the company Rolls Royce had a name with a prefix before it, which read HMAC. This stood for His Majesties Armoured Car. The two converted Dragons were named HMAT Walrus and HMAT Seal. The "T" being for Tank. HMAT Seal went through several modifications during its life, eventually in 1941 she was fitted with a large box body as an APC. Both served in combat against besieging Iraqi troops in 1941, helping to defend the main gate with long range machine gun fire.
Seal, Walrus and a Carden-Loyd carrier of some sort. These are the versions which both saw action
Walrus once had another name...
A hot dusty climate is where the Vickers Medium may have seen combat, this time in Egypt against the Axis, and this is where things become difficult. Google will provide all sorts of stories about where and how the Vickers Mediums were used. The first big difficulty is to lock down exactly how many Mediums were in service. Only the Mk.IIA and Mk.IIA* were built for use in Egypt, and the exact number is unknown, although many sources say there were ten Mk.IIA's built. Other documents point to about twenty four in service with 6th Royal Tank Regiment. Critically the war diary for three months in 1940 are missing and I suspect these might shed some light on what exactly happened to the Mediums. What follows is the data points I do have.

In August 1939 A Squadron of 6th RTR converts from Mediums to Cruiser tanks, leaving B and C squadrons still operating eight Mediums. By October B Squadron had converted as well. In January 1940 C Squadron followed suit bringing 6th RTR up to its full complement of Cruiser tanks. After the Squadrons converted to Cruisers their Mediums were to be handed over to the RAOC. However, when C squadron converted the 6th RTR retained their Mediums. On paper they had twelve, so presumably when B squadron converted they passed over four vehicles.

This collection of twelve vehicles was further reinforced by six Mediums drawn from the RAOC depots, and together the eighteen tanks formed a demonstration squadron used for teaching the use of infantry tank tactics. This squadron put on demonstrations on 18th of January and 18th of February 1940. What happened to the demonstration squadron after that is unknown as that period is within the missing three months I mentioned earlier.

At the same time, we are missing some six or so Mediums. A clue might be found from Egyptian sources. Some sources state that the Egyptians were using the missing Mediums. This is partially backed up by two Egyptian officers being attached to the 6th RTR for two weeks in February to observe how a tank unit functions. In June these Mediums were requisitioned by the British for the fight against Italy. In August four tanks, crewed by non-Egyptian soldiers were at Siwa oasis. Some sources state that is the location where they saw combat as the Allies withdrew from Siwa, but as the Germans occupied it by an air lift it is unlikely they saw combat at this location.
One of the dug in Mediums. It is suggested that the soldiers are Australians, as the European nations tended to keep their shirts on in Africa. but past that there is no clue who owns this tank.
The next data points we have is in January 1941, when preparations were made for the twelve Mediums dug in at Mersa Matruh as part of the defensive line were to be exhumed. This work included surveys to see which could be mobilised, what spare parts and personnel could be arranged and the like. The party tasked with this left on the 6th of February 1941. From that point on the paper trail dries up.

We do have several pictures which show two different Vickers Mediums, all of which have been captured by the Axis forces.

Tank #1: It's named 'Crusader'. She seems to have suffered a fire centred around the crew compartment.


Tank #2: this one has a curious fitting just behind the gun barrel, and different markings to Crusader. Including the number 45. It's often said she suffered a fire caused by mechanical break down, bu as you can see there's no sign of fire. Maybe Crusader is a better candidate for this break down? Also of interest is the broken track on the right hand side.
As a final data point we have a photograph of US soldiers posing next to two Vickers Mediums, one of which could be one which had been pictured earlier, and another one that is brand new. It is rumoured that one of these tanks was seized by the Americans and shipped to the US. 
The US soldiers in front of the tanks. The left hand tank has the number 46. While the right hand one has features similar to No45.
This means we have at least three Mediums which fell into enemy hands. It appears they could not have been from the positions dug in at Mersa Matruh, as those were presumably excavated, and several of the pictures show tanks that were at least in some way mobile.

This would mean there is an armoured unit operating in the area which is not British, as all the tank units belonging to the British have records which show no signs of the Mediums. It can't be Egyptian, as Egypt didn't declare war on the Axis powers until 1945.

A possible contender might be Australian. These Australian armoured units were equipped with all sorts of non-standard equipment, most famously the captured Italian tanks, which sported a giant white Kangaroo emblem. Equally they were equipped with some very old, worn out and obsolete Vickers Light Tanks Mk.III. Australia at that time did have four Vickers Mediums of her own which would have been used for training at least some of the crews up.

I must stress this last idea is nothing more than a theory, as there appears to be not a scrap of evidence to support it apart form a few coincidences. But it defiantly appears that someone was using these Vickers Mediums in the North African desert, and documentation is scarce. I suspect time may well tell on this one as more research is done into the formations.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Gun of the Century?

A couple of weeks ago while writing the piece on armoured trains it suddenly occurred to me that one of the most ubiquitous weapons ever hardly gets a mention. It racked up a service period of over 100 years and has been found shooting at aircraft, tanks and ships. Just about the only place it’s not fought is in space or under water. The only weapons that come close to its longevity that come to my mind as I write this, would be the SMLE and the .50 Browning heavy machine gun. It was so common often both sides would be using the same weapon. Yet in many articles it's nothing more than a footnote. So let’s review the gun of the 20th century, the Hotchkiss 6-pounder.
For such a common gun there is very little on its design or history. One can presume that the weapon was developed in France by the manufacturer, and 1885 is given as the date it was introduced into service. The reason for developing the weapon is given as a defence against smaller faster torpedo boats that were beginning to appear. These boats were capable of moving at 20-30 knots and launching Whitehead torpedoes that were quite deadly even to the largest battleship. In return the slow rate of fire and laying speed of a battleships main armament meant that the weapons had no chance of hitting such a target. Equally using small arms to ward off was impractical as a Whitehead torpedo was effective at about 800 yards. Added to that torpedo boats could easily add protection by placing their coal bunkers on the outside of the hull preventing the rounds causing significant damage.
Therefore, Hotchkiss came up with the 6-pounder, which was a quick firing design and able to deliver an effective weight of shell at ranges far superior to that of the Whitehead torpedo. Due to its QF design it could accurately fire around 25 rounds per minute.

The gun was used around the world by the following naval countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Empire of Japan, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom, Uruguay, United States and Venezuela, as well as a couple of others, which we'll come to later.

The first test for the gun came in 1894 in the First Sino-Japanese war, where the gun was used on both sides. Two Chinese protected cruisers (Zhiyuen and Jingyuen) were paired together. Both had been manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth in the UK, and thus were at the forefront of the naval design. The same could not be said about the ironclad warship that was the Chinese forces flagship, which had been manufactured by AG Vulcan Stettin in Germany. It had one tiny flaw in its design, if the main guns were fired it would destroy its own flying bridge. When this occurred in the battle of the Yalu River it incapacitated most of the commander’s staff, and the commanding officer, Admiral Ding Ruchang as well. This opening volley also destroyed the signal mast on the ship utterly cutting off any hope of command and control for the battle.
The Jingyuen
In the swirling chaos that followed the two Chinese cruisers  exchanged fire with the Japanese forces, and the action became so close and fierce that the Zhiyuen attempted to ram the enemy cruiser Yoshino. The Japanese cruiser was accompanied by the Takachiho, and Naniwa, both of which were armed with Hotchkiss 6-pounders as well. The ram failed when the Zhiyuen was destroyed by point blank enemy fire. Jingyuen survived and was forced to withdraw with the rest of the defeated Chinese fleet. Later after sustaining damage in a battle she was scuttled by her own side.
The Takachiho
The Hotchkiss 6-pounder fought through several wars in the late 1800's and the early 1900's as a naval gun, until the big one happened, the First World War. Here she began to spread out, being used as an AA gun, and most importantly a tank gun. First placed in the MK.I tank the gun barrels were seen as too long and were cut back, in this sawn off configuration she scored the first ever tank vs tank kill at Villers-Bretonneux.
After this The Hotchkiss 6-pounder continued to serve through many conflicts until the Second World War, in need of guns at least one WWI era tank was reactivated by the British in 1940. One Home Guard unit went a step further and mounted the gun on an improvised armoured car they nicknamed 'Tubby Tankbuster'.
The following year, in 1941 the Soviets may have used a Mk.V armed with 6-pounders against the German invasion.
At sea the 6-pounder was widely issued to British small craft, including the early Fairmile gun boats, before being replaced by naval versions of the 6-pounder anti-tank gun.

It was at sea the Hotchkiss saw its last in-service war. On the 4th of September 1958 the Icelandic patrol vessel Ægir, armed with 6-pounders, attempted to capture a British trawler. When the Blackwood class frigate HMS Russell intervened it officially started the first Cod War. Shots were fired by Icelandic 6-pounders on the 6 October and 12 November. Another salvo of fire was directed at British trawlers in 1974, causing some damage to the British ship.

The final shot fired by a Hotchkiss 6-pounder in anger was during the second Cod War on 11th of December 1975. There are two versions of events, one from the Icelandic side and one from the British side. Both differ widely, but the ending is the same. At a range of some 100 yards the Icelandic vessel Þór fired a live fully functioning Hotchkiss 6-pounder shell into the bows of the unarmed British ship Star Aquarius.
HMS Scylla rammed by the Odin. Odin was armed with Hotchkiss guns like the other vessels. Not a hammer as I had previously been lead to believe.
It looked like the boot was going to be on the other foot when 6 May 1976 the Icelandic cost guard vessel Týr had a run in against HMS Falmouth, however on this occasion although both sides manned their guns no shots were exchanged.

The Icelandic coast guard only retired their Hotchkiss 6-pounders in 1990, bringing to a close 105 years of continuous service around the world.

Image Credits:
 www.fiddlersgreen.net