Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Charging Stag

After the closure of the Falaise Pocket the Germans began to fall back from the Allies, and the pursuit across France began. The Germans did defend where possible, mainly leaving delaying forces so there was a line of skirmishes across France. The first major obstacle the Allies encountered was the Siene River, surprisingly the Allies managed to bridge this with some speed, despite some casualties, at several locations. At Elbeuf the Canadians bounced across on the 28th of August, despite the destruction of the original bridge.
 Over the next two days the Canadians began to push forward to pursue the Germans. However the Germans fortified every little hamlet they could as a delaying tactic to try and form a new front line. As a result of this, progress was slow. On the 30th of August the Canadian 4th Armoured was advancing, and leading them was the 18th Canadian Armoured Car Regiment. The Regiment was spread out along either side of the 4th Armoured’s line of advance, with small patrols, each consisting of a platoon of Staghounds up front, on their own and unsupported.
Their advance began well, driving forward all morning then about midday they hit trouble. First in trouble was B Squadron, in the centre of the screen. They ran into a battery of three PAK-40's and lost two armoured cars near Samonville.
D Squadron was deployed to the right of B squadron. French civilians told the advancing Canadians that the village of Denis-Thibault was clear of German forces, so a troop was sent forward. The first Staghound was destroyed by a concealed anti-tank gun and the rest of the troop was taken under a ferocious barrage of small arms fire from a large number of German infantry. In the following fire fight another Staghound was damaged and had to be abandoned.

Meanwhile "C squadron was advancing well, in particular 13 Troop led by Lieutenant W Liard. As they approached Bierville Lt Laird was in the lead with Sergeant Ross J Bell following him. Suddenly from a mere ten feet away a German appeared with a Panzerschreck and promptly destroyed Lt Laird's Staghound. Stuck on a narrow road with no way to turn about and with the ambushing German reloading his Panzerschreck, Sgt Bell had only one possible course of action. This was to blow through the German ambush and hope they didn't have a cut off group waiting for him. Accelerating as fast as the narrow lanes would let them, Sgt Bell's Staghound roared forward. That was the last his unit saw of him.
Sgt Bell's adventure had just begun, as his car raced forward Sgt Bell frantically looked for a way to turn around and return to friendly lines. However the narrow sunken road thwarted his efforts. They cannoned down the sunken road, at times reaching speeds of fifty to sixty miles per hour. As they rounded one bend they found themselves face to face with a column of infantry. The Germans were marching to the front unaware that Sgt Bell and his Staghound were in the area. The armoured car rocketed forwards ramming into the column of men at full speed with both Browning machine guns chattering. The car smashed the standing Germans down with its mass and hardly slowed. Like Sgt Bell, the German infantry were trapped in the sunken road. At the rear of the column were three anti-tank guns being hauled to support the infantry, again the speeding Staghound rammed these obstacles out of the way, smashing them and then they carried on along the road.

The Canadians continued deeper into occupied territory. The next corner held another surprise. A Tiger tank was moving forward, and its huge bulk blocked most of the road. But neither side fired. The Tiger politely pulled a little to the side in the road that was now slightly wider, allowing the Staghound to pass. Obviously the Germans inside the tank didn't realise the bloody and dented armoured car was hostile!
Now Sgt Bell found himself beyond Bierville and ducked into some cover on a slight rise to work out what to do next. It soon became obvious, he could see a horse drawn artillery column moving north east. The lone Staghound began to engage and shoot up the column. Horse drawn guns are horrifically vulnerable as that column found out. Sgt Bell estimated that he killed about seventy horses, with the only one to escape being the one ridden by the units commanding officer. In the midst of this battering from the Staghound the Germans did try to bring one of their pieces into action, but as they began to unlimber it Sgt Bell spotted the danger and quickly silenced it with his 37mm gun.
Decamping from this new battlefield Sgt Bell now found himself far behind enemy lines and almost out of ammunition. Luckily as he was wondering what to do next he was found by some Frenchmen, all carrying guns. These belonged to the Free French of the Interior (the FFI). These Frenchmen were able to shelter and feed the crew, and hide their Staghound overnight. The next morning Sgt Bell set about trying to rejoin C Squadron, a feat he achieved about 1030. He was immediately ordered back to RHQ to give a full debriefing, and he arrived about 1300.
Sgt Bell received the Military Medal for his actions.

Further pictures and images, including Lt Lairds Staghound, can be found here.

Image credits:
anzacsteel.hobbyvista.com, ww2live.com, www.diggerhistory.info and www.warwheels.net

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Old and New

During the run up to World War Two the Norwegian Army was woefully under equipped. This stemmed from pacifism and neutrality from competing sides of the political spectrum. So when war broke out Norway was in a precarious position relying on its weakened armed forces to enforce its neutrality. The Norwegian Army did start a massive recruitment campaign, however its weaponry and equipment was in a pretty bad state. Of course in 1940 the Germans dared to test Norway's armed forces by invading. There was a plan for a coup de main straight up the fjords to Oslo seizing the government, the Royal Family and the country's gold reserves. For this the brand new Admiral Hipper class heavy cruiser the Blücher was to carry some eight hundred men straight into the heart of Oslo. The captain of the Blücher was reported as saying that his main armament should be left in its travelling position because of his contempt for the Norwegians defences and their poor equipment. After all what could these antiques from the last century do against the most modern ship in the German Navy.
The Blücher
Just four days after the Blücher had been commissioned into service, on 8th of April 1940, just before midnight, she began to nose into the Fjords leading to Oslo. Accompanying her were a pair of other cruisers and a pair of minesweepers. The latter wasn't needed, as the minefields were due to be laid over the following weeks. All seemed to be going well for the Germans, until in the early hours they approached the town of Drøbak, and entered the sound that holds the town's name.
Oscarsborg fortress, the Germans would have been approaching from bottom right. You can see the main batteries on that side of the island.
Here lay the Fortress of Oscarsborg. Sitting in the middle of the sound the fortress was formed of two islands. One, the slightly larger, held several eleven inch guns. These guns were brand new in 1900. The state of the fortress manpower was just as bad. To man the guns there were 450 men. These were fresh recruits who had been conscripted just seven days earlier. This was also well below the strength needed to man the guns, and only two of the weapons could be crewed.
To lead these green troops was Colonel Birger Eriksen, who was aged 65. Col Eriksen had spent his entire life in the coastal artillery, and in just six short months would be retiring.
Col Eriksen
Just after 0400 the German flotilla was spotted by the Norwegian patrol boat Pol III, the Germans hit the patrol boat with a torpedo but not before the ship had raised the alarm. Hurrying to their positions the recruits made ready. Col Eriksen stared out at the flotilla of heavily armed ships sailing towards him. Not knowing whom they were, Col Eriksen faced a huge dilemma. Although neutral the Norwegians were closely aligned to the British. If these were British ships opening fire could cause huge ramifications, and with hostilities with Germany likely in the next few weeks then attacking an ally could leave Norway exposed. Another alternative could be that these ships were British and were coming in by invite of the government to thwart a German operation elsewhere. Col Eriksen had literally no clear information or orders.
But what if they were German?

At 0421 on the 9th of April 1940 Col Eriksen, under his own initiative ordered the guns fired. His subordinates were unsure of his actions and in the face of their isolation questioned the orders. At which point Col Eriksen issued his most famous quote: "Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed. Fire!"
Two of the guns were fired at the largest ship in the approaching flotilla, the Blücher, at almost point blank range. What happened to the first shell is open to debate. Some sources say it hit near the forward turret, others that it hit the range finding gear near the bridge.
What isn't in doubt is where the second round hit. About amidships, just in front of the rear mast, some sources claim it penetrated the aircraft hangar. This shell started a massive fire that started to spread.
One of the Krupp 28cm guns, with over casemates in the background. During the action only three were loaded, and of those only two were fired.
That fact that the guns had live rounds loaded is surprising, the standard orders for the coastal batteries was to fire a blank round as a volley, and Col Eriksen is rumoured to have said "Damn straight we're firing live ammunition." He's also said to have used the logic that other forts further up the fjords would have fired blanks as warning shots and have been ignored, so that the ships had received their warning.

With her amidships ablaze the Blücher steamed forward. The flotilla engaged in a fierce gun battle with several smaller batteries of coastal guns. As she passed the island with the fortress on the Blücher towered over one of the smaller batteries on the mainland and silenced them with her secondaries which were able to fire down onto the Norwegian gunners.

The second smaller island that formed Oscarsborg Fortress didn't appear to hold any gun batteries, in fact it appeared to be deserted. It wasn't deserted, a subterranean bunker was built there, housing a torpedo launching system. Two tubes fed into the channel below the water line. This torpedo battery had lost its commander some weeks earlier to illness. Its new commander had been in charge of the battery previously until 1927, when he'd retired. Commander Andreas Anderssen had spent the last thirteen years in retirement living in Drøbak, the previous night he'd been summoned by Col Eriksen so had put on his old uniform and been brought across by boat. Now he was in charge of nine torpedoes. However these torpedoes were old. They were of the Whitehead type, first developed in 1866 and were the first self-propelled torpedoes as we'd recognise them (previously "torpedoes" had been the term for what we'd currently call "mines". Remember the quote "All ahead full and damn the torpedoes!" He was actually referring to a mine field). Some sources say these torpedoes were manufactured about 1900.
Whitehead Torpedo in 1888.
Two were launched from the submerged tubes again aimed at the blazing Blücher, both hit, knocking out all but one of the ship's boilers. Now limping badly the Blücher continued forward and anchored out of the arc of fire for the defenders. Here she was able to try and fight the fires. Meanwhile the rest of the flotilla withdrew, fearing that the two torpedo hits were actually part of a minefield.
About 0530 the raging fires reached the Blücher's magazine for its 105mm flak guns, which promptly detonated causing massive internal damage, and rupturing the fuel bunkers flooding the ship with even more flammables, which also caught fire. At 0622 the Blücher began to sink bow first, before turning turtle.
A series of shots of the demise of the Blücher.
The halting of the flotilla meant that the Royal Family and government was able to evacuate to England, along with the gold reserves first being moved to another part of Norway and then to the UK. This meant the Free Norwegian movement was able to continue fighting alongside the Allies. With all the information and support that the movement was able to give to the Allies, they played a vital role in the rest of the war. This included assisting in the destruction of Bismark and Tirpitz and the destruction and sabotage of the German Heavy Water program.

Image Credits:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Main Bottle Tank

There are any number of battles in military history which boil down to "how did you mess that one up?". Where one side has all the advantages and still manages to lose against an an enemy who, by rights should have been flattened in the first half hour. Well during the fighting at Nomonhan in 1939, there was just such a battle.

As I've mentioned before the fighting at Nomonhan was due simply to a badly marked border, and a chunk of land claimed by both sides. When the Mongolians entered the disputed land it caused a battle where the Japanese were quickly wiped out. From there the skirmish escalated to a full blown war. At the start of the war the Japanese held the initiative, and drew up plans for an offensive into Mongolia. However they lacked a lot of the requirements for such an assault, and tried to make do on a shoestring and eventually the much better organised and larger Russian Army smashed them.
The start of the Japanese offensive was to bridge the Halha River, secure the opposite shore with a division of soldiers, while a veteran regiment mounted in trucks launched a lighting attack deep into Mongolia. The motorised infantry was to be the 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by the able Colonel Shinichiro Sumi. While the men were veterans, the regiments equipment wasn't in such a good state. Rushed to the front they had six each of heavy machine guns and battalions guns and two mortars across the entire regiment. Even the trucks were pressed into service from civilian sources, often still driven by their civilian drivers.

If these weakness caused worry to Col Sumi, the Japanese Higher Command did not share his misgivings and ordered the assault to begin on the evening of 2nd of July. Problems started immediately. Navigation in the region was horrifically hard, as there were very few landmarks. In one place one engineer unit began building its pontoon bridge on a lake, until it was noticed that there was no current. The bridge itself dated from the early 1900's and had never been designed to carry more than a field artillery piece. Even this equipment was in such short supply that the bridge (the engineers had all the bridging material in China) had to have pontoons so widely spaced that the bridge could only support a single truck at a time, and the truck had to be fully unloaded. To make matters worse the bridge was only 2.5m wide (about the width of a standard car park space). The crossing point was also the narrowest part of the river, but this too caused problems and compounded others. Because the river was narrower, the current was much faster, which lead to the bridge being curved, making the drive across even more difficult. Plus the river bank was sandy gravel which made it exceptionally difficult to anchor the pontoons. Every so often crossings would have to be halted for half an hour or so to allow the bridge to be repaired. Because of this, and other units that belonged to the infantry division also wanting to cross (Col Sumi was the ranking officer on the scene but he was described as an "outsider" to the division and so was largely ignored) the 26th Regiment only had a single battalion across the river by noon on the 3rd. Yet in the wildly optimistic plans drawn up by the divisional command, Col Sumi's entire regiment should have been across the river the night before.
With Russian pressure mounting on the infantry division protecting the bridgehead, and it likely to take most of the rest of the day for the rest of the 26th Regiment to cross the Japanese were faced with a choice, send a single battalion to do the job of three or wait and see what would happen. If you've read anything about the Japanese during Nomonhan it'll come as no surprise to find that they decided to proceed with the single battalion attack.

The battalion across the river already consisted of the 532 men and 78 trucks of Major Adachi's 1st Battalion. Although the other two battalions of the 26th Regiment dismounted and crossed the bridge on foot which was much quicker, they were still separated. The 1st Battalion began its advance towards its distant objective. After advancing for about a kilometre it ran into enemy armour.
Col Sumi stood atop an observation point and looked to the west, on the horizon he could see shapes moving in the blistering heat haze, Russian tanks were beginning to amass for an assault.
Against them stood a handful of Japanese soldiers and a smattering of field guns from 1906. The terrain was against the Japanese as well, it was flat open desert with no cover. Even the sandy soil was against the Japanese. At the time one of the principal Japanese AT weapons was a Type 93 mine on a bamboo pole. The pole was used to position the mine under the tank's tracks, where upon it would explode, disabling the tank. In the light sandy soil a tank would often pass over the mine, pushing it into the ground without meeting enough resistance to set off the explosive charge.
In preparation for this fight Col Sumi had dispatched officers to visit units that had seen action against the Russians earlier, and they returned with a variety of experience on the subject. One of the things that was suggested were Molotov cocktails. To this end Sumi's regiment requisitioned some 1200 bottles of soft drink, after some arguing with the quartermaster. First they had to be emptied, the soldiers were happy to do. Then they were filled with some sand to give them ballast, and the rest with petrol. When the tanks approached the bottles would be capped off with some wadding and then lit from a match and thrown at the Soviet tanks. These bottles were known as Kaenbin.
When the Soviets charged the 26th Regiment they attacked with a mass of hundreds of tanks and armoured cars. The Japanese infantry were out in the open with no cover, and no AT weapons, apart from the Kaenbin. As the tanks approached the soldiers started trying to light matches to ignite the wicks on their petrol filled bottles. However the wind ripping across the desert snuffed out the matches. In desperation the first bottles were flung unlit. Much to everyone's surprise the bottles smashed on the side of the Russian tanks, and spread fuel all over the tank. The tanks had been rushed from their base over many miles, and had been driving all the way in the baking sun, meaning the decks of the tanks were scaldingly hot. The petrol would catch fire from a combination of the heat of the direct sun and the searing deck plates. The tank would begin to burn from the bottom up, giving the appearance of the ground being on fire. Then the flames would creep higher. When they entered the petrol tank there would be a larger puff of flames and the tank would judder to a halt.
In that first action the Japanese claimed to have destroyed 83 tanks, in the open with nothing more than the Kaenbin.
You can see how much cover the Japanese had from this and other pictures. Its interesting to note if you look at the area now there's actually a lot more cover than there was back in the 30's.

By the end of the day the Russian forces had been forced to withdraw, however with stocks of Kaenbin almost exhausted, and no other means of defence the Japanese had to fall back, although the surprising resistance did mean the Soviets didn't push as hard as they might. This allowed the Japanese forces to fall back across the bridge and then destroy the span.

Image credits:
warfarehistorynetwork.com and www.flamesofwar.com

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Red Bridge

Disclaimer: This one is written from mostly French sources, and so was put together using Google Translate, so it might have some errors creeping in. Equally the information is quite sparse on the battle.

On the last day of May 1918 the German assault was in full flow, however near Retz Forest the French Moroccan infantry were about to launch a counter attack. Shortly after the attack was opened on the defending Germans, a number of tanks burst out of the cornfields just a few tens of yards away from the German lines. These tanks were unlike anything seen before by the Germans, they were Renault FT's. The Germans, by now knew how to deal with tanks, and started shooting at vision slits with their machine guns. However this had little effect, and one by one the German machine guns were silenced. The Renault FT was produced in huge numbers and sold around the world, and became the father of a great many nations tank programs. In 1940, At the start of World War Two there were still several hundred, if not a thousand or more in the French inventory.
When the Germans invaded France on the 10th of May 1940 the French military began to react. The French Army’s Ecole des Chars (tank training school) formed an impromptu battalion from the cadets and instructors who volunteered for combat, many of the instructors were reservists. At the time the School had a huge array of vehicles, including two Char B1 Bis', four Char D1's, three Char D2's, two Hotchkiss H39's, two Hotchkiss H35's, four FCM 36's and a single Renault R35. It also had on its books about 350 Renault FT's.
In the FT's the commander's controls were crude. The commander had to kick the driver to transmit his commands. A boot to either shoulder indicated a turn to that side was desired. A kick to the back was advance, and the poor drivers head, kicked once, was asking for the tank to be halted. Repeated blows to the head were the signal to reverse.
From the School's tanks the R35's and H39's and some of the FT's were formed into two companies. One of those companies was held back to protect provide Paris with an armoured force for its protection. In this role the FT's would have been more than adequate.

 However the 2nd Company was dispersed along the Marne to protect ten bridges stretching along the river from Ferté-sous-Jouarre to Château-Thierry, and was in position by the 25th of May. As was so often the case the French deployed their tanks in small numbers. At one of the bridges in Château-Thierry there stood a lone FT commanded by Cadet Charles-Armand de Rougé. The bridge  had only just been rebuilt after the battle at Château-Thierry in 1918. About two months after that battle, on the 28th of August Cadet de Rougé had been born in Paris. Now the young noble was watching refugee's and shattered French units retreat back across the bridge which he was parked next to, guarding. He was not completely alone, some of the French infantry began to halt in place to help him defend. The bridge was also rigged for demolition.
Medallion featuring Cdt de Rougé

 On the 10th of June 1940, Cdt de Rougé spotted a line of vehicles approaching, these were trucks and a pair of armoured cars from the 54th Reconnaissance Regiment, belonging to the 1st Greisberg Jager Division. Cdt de Rougé opened fire, along with the rest of the defenders as the Germans tried to charge over the bridge. The lone FT knocked out at least ten enemy vehicles, and the Germans were forced to break off the attack. As the battle drew to a close Cdt de Rougé stood up in his hatch, and was hit by small arms fire, and fell down outside his tank, the bridge was also demolished at about this time. Cdt de Rougé died later on of his wounds. When the new bridge was built, and opened in 1950 it was named after him.

Image Credits

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Aachen's Call

At 1615 on the 15th of October 1944 two US combat patrols met in a muddy area of countryside. The soldiers were from the 1st and 30th Divisions, and their linking up late on that Sunday afternoon meant that the German city of Aachen was now officially surrounded. For the last five days the two forces had been a mere two miles apart, but repeated attacks by the 116th Panzer "Greyhound" Division had kept the two US forces from closing. Now trapped in the pocket were some 5000 German soldiers backed up by five tanks, six 150 mm's, nineteen 105 mm's and eight 75 mm's, although the latter may have been anti-tank guns not artillery pieces. In addition the city was heavily fortified with bunkers, and even where not fortified by concrete the city was constructed of heavy thick stone walls, turning every house into a bunker.

The city of Aachen was in the US Army’s original plan to be surrounded and left to wither on the vine. However the logistic problems faced by the attackers, and the forces required to surround it were considered, plus there was the propaganda value. As an ancient city the German Kings were crowned there, and holding it gave the Nazis an air of legitimacy. It was also the first big German city to be threatened by the Allies. Faced with this possible rallying cry, and their own problems the Allies decided to subdue the city.
First however, like the days of Charlemagne (who was born in the city) the Allies broadcast an ultimatum calling for the city’s surrender within 24 hours, or it would be reduced with all the forces they could bring to bear. Colonel Gerhard Wilck (the garrison commander) did not reply, he was later to comment on the state of the German officer corps and say "The only cement that holds many German officers in place is fear, not only for their own lives, but of reprisals against their families at Himmler's hands."
Thus with neither side willing or able to give terms, the ultimatum expired on the 11th of October at 1200, and the US Artillery began to fire, and the US 1st Infantry Division began its attack.

On one hand the 1st Division only had two infantry battalions of the 26th Infantry regiment to act as assault troops. But they did enjoy some certain advantages. While the city was not yet completely surrounded they did have enough of it to place the artillery support in a position to fire parallel to the line of advance. Artillery fire was often long or short of its target point by a significant margin, but the degree of inaccuracy laterally is very small. Normally when firing over the heads of friendly troops it is the length ways inaccuracy that causes problems. With the side on set up the artillery could be brought down startlingly close to the US forces, sometimes even being aimed at targets within the same block, which game the US a massive fire-power advantage.
The US Infantry moved their way down streets in bitter close-in fighting, slowly pushing the Germans back. But the buildings proved very resistant to the 75mm and 76mm guns of the US armour. A new weapon was needed, and as luck had it the US Army had reluctantly adopted just such a weapon, the M12 Gun Motor Carriage.
The M12 was a First World War vintage 155mm gun, copied from the French and mounted on the chassis of a M3 Lee. The whopping 155mm gun fired its 95 pound shell at nearly 2500 feet per second. There is a story of one M12 taking a hit to the gun barrel, just short of the muzzle. Desperately needing this gun back in action at the front and no replacement barrels being available a quick fix was suggested and carried out, of just cutting a foot off the end of the barrel and sending it back into action. This, technically, created a sawn off self propelled artillery piece!

The effects of the M12's was colossal. Towards the final days of the battle one M12 was brought up and fired towards the final German defenders. The shot slammed into the first house and blasted a hole right through it. The round then carried on smashing through another two houses before the delayed action fuse caused it to detonate inside a fourth house, blowing it to pieces. One round was also used upon Colonel Wilck's HQ, a disused cinema. This caused Col Wilck to refer to them as barbaric during his interrogation shortly afterwards. However one should consider the Colonels mental state during this time. An account of his interrogation can be found here.
An example of how the M12's were brought into action can be found at Hindenburgstrasse. There lay a German bunker impervious to anything the US could get directed at it. So an M12 was brought up, however the M12 was a very rare and vitally important piece, and no replacements could be found if it was knocked out. With only one to cover the battalion the US commander had to be careful.
To get a line of fire onto the bunker the M12 would have had to be driven out into the main street exposing it to a hail of enemy fire. The commander used a bit more ingenuity. He brought up a M10 Tank Destroyer and used it to cut a firing slit in the wall with point blank high velocity shells. Then he sent some tanks to flanking positions where they commenced a suppressing fire. Then he sent some infantry out to clear some of the nearby houses on the German side so that they couldn't be used by a Panzerfaust team to ambush the M12. Then the M12 was emplaced at the "firing slit", lined up on the German bunker, and began to fire as fast as the gun could. The M12 fired twelve rounds, some at the bunker, some lobbed in general at the German positions. Later it was found out the bunker had in fact been a German tank, which had been obliterated by the 155mm shell. Equally, one of the randomly fired rounds had, by sheer luck caught a Panzer that had been emerging from a side street to fire at the M12. Obviously it too was destroyed.

Image Credits:
militarymashup.com and www.dailyherald.com

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Terminal Reservist

As is well known one of the main problems during the Second World War was logistics, especially the securing of ports after a landing on a hostile coast. At first there was some thought of capturing a port intact, such thoughts led to Dieppe and Operations Terminal and Reservist.
Entrance to Oran harbour
The latter two were part of Operation Torch, the US invasion of Vichy North Africa. The plan for both was simple. Run a pair of small ships into the harbour, smashing apart the booms covering the entrance to the harbours, then once alongside unload the troops carried whom could then secure the area and prevent the harbour facilities being destroyed. Upon seeing the Royal Navy vessels loaded down with US infantry, and a small party of six USMC (possibly the gun crew on one of the ships), bearing down on them the enemy would instantly surrender. Or so it was thought.
Its interesting to note that this action is the only time in the Second World War when the USMC saw action in Europe, apart from a few men acting with the SOE in France.
HMS Hartland
The plan for Operation Reservist was for two ex-US Coast Guard cutters (which had been gifted to the Royal Navy and were now know as HMS Hartland and HMS Walney) to carry the forces. The force was led by Captain Frederick Peters, a 53 year old retired Royal Navy officer who had won DSC and a DSO in the First World War. Cpt Peters had volunteered for this mission.
Cpt Peters
As the two ships began their run in towards the harbour at Oran in the early morning of the 8th of November 1941, they saw the city ahead laid out with all its lights blazing. As they neared the harbour word of the invasion must have reached the French defenders, a siren began to wail and the power to the city was cut, plunging everything into darkness. HMS Walney led, with HMS Hartland five minutes behind.
As they approached the engines are turned to full speed, however the line is quickly seen as terrible, and the sloops were destined to miss the harbour mouth by at least a quarter of a mile. The two naval vessels begin a full 360 degree turn to line up and try again. In the area there was a colossal thirteen coastal batteries, with the largest gun being a 9.4" battery. Equally there was somewhere in the order of 10,000 men defending the area. This cacophony of weaponry was turned on the two small Royal Navy vessels as they approached. In reply the ships carried a large US flag and had loud hailers to broadcast a message. The two ships did have a five inch gun apiece.
Speared by a searchlight, and blasted at by all the guns that could be brought to bear, HMS Walney made her second approach, this time she was lined up perfectly and impacted the boom and broke right through it. At that point the searchlight spotted HMS Hartland on her approach and switched to it, taking all the gunners attention away from HMS Walney.

As the battered ship moves into the harbour a French destroyer was seen nearby, HMS Walney then maked an attempt to ram, however the two ships scrape past each other, the French destroyer opens fire at point blank range with all its guns. The devastating barrage blasts the armour plate from the bridge, the impacts knocks Cpt Peters to the deck, and causes even more casualties. HMS Walney is now on fire getting shot at by every calibre of gun you can imagine from every direction. On-board the ammunition stores are on fire and detonating, and the forward gun has been hit and is out of action. Cpt Peters scrambles to his feet, looking about he sees he is the only survivor on the bridge. He is now utterly exposed to the fire coming from all around and he guides the exploding, blazing ship forward. Meanwhile the US soldiers are returning fire with their personal weapons as best they can.
However despite this all, Cpt Peters was not hit, and reaches the mole where he was meant to land the US troops. Peters dashes to the forward deck and assists another officer in securing the first of the lines, then he races along the deck to the quarterdeck to assist in tying up there. All the time as he moves about there are two French destroyers on the other side of the harbour. From what is effectively point blank range, they direct a storm of fire at HMS Walney, and at in particular the naval officer rushing about on its deck. Cpt Peters didn't even hesitate or take cover once.
Before the troops could begin to disembark a large shell hits HMS Walney in the boiler room and destroys all power. Finally the damage begins to tell and HMS Walney begins to sink, and the order to abandon ship is given.

HMS Walney at rest
HMS Hartland fared little better. On her second approach her captain was hit and blinded, the ship impacted into the outer harbour wall. The wounded Lt Commander GP Billot, her captain, ordered her backed off and she tried again. All the time the fire was savaging the ship. This time she succeeded in entering the harbour. However as HMS Hartland passed another French destroyer it too raked the RN ship, putting her out of action and disabling her completely. She had to be abandoned immediately and drifted for a while before sinking.
HMS Hartland drifting on fire.
A similar plan was carried out for Operation Terminal. This time two Royal Navy ships, of similar size to HMS Walney and Hartland, tried to force an entry into Algiers harbour. The first ship, HMS Malcolm, broke through the boom, however she lost three of her four boilers to the storm of defending fire and she had to withdraw. Her companion was HMS Broke (no, not the HMS Broke from the battle of the Dover Straits).
HMS Malcom, with US troops on-board
 HMS Broke took four attempts to breach the boom, all the time under fire, however she managed to eventually enter the harbour and land her troops before withdrawing. However while heading for safety she was hit by coastal batteries and sunk. The troops she landed managed to fight off the French for seven hours until they were forced to surrender.
US troops in Algiers after the French surrender.
Algiers harbour a week after the surrender, the facilities remain intact, due largely to the few troops managing to hold on for those critical hours and denying the French time to destroy the harbour.
Operation Reservist suffered casualties in excess of 90% of the force, they totalled 307 killed and 250 wounded, the terminal casualties were much lighter with 22 killed and 55 wounded. One of the few Reservist survivors was Cpt Peters, who for his actions was awarded the Victoria Cross. All the prisoners were released when the French surrendered on the 10th. Cpt Peters was then sent back to the UK by Sunderland. However it crashed in fog in Plymouth Sound, Cpt Peters made it out of the plane along with the pilot. The pilot struggled to keep him afloat for 90 minutes until they were found and rescued, but Cpt Peters was dead when he was pulled from the water.

Image credits:
warfarehistorynetwork.com, liberationtrilogy.com, www.wrecksite.eu and wwww.iwm.org.uk

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Battleship Sherman

Disclaimer: the accounts from which I draw this are all a bit blurred. So this article might be wrong. The web indicates two books that hold details on the subject are 'Mailed Fist: 6th Armoured Division at War 1939-1945' and 'Welsh Guards at War'. I do not own either of these so they may prove me utterly wrong!

As Axis forces in Tunisia collapsed during May 1943 the Germans formed a line across a natural feature called Cape Bon. Other divisions and units were halting in place as they ran out of supplies or somewhere to retreat too and either surrendered or fought to the last man. The rate of surrender was reported by the Allied newspapers at over 1000 new POW's every hour. At one Allied POW camp there were reports of the camp not being large enough to hold them all, and the prisoners milled about outside the wire.
However a few German units formed a new front line and began to dig in across the bottom of Cape Bon. On one flank was the coastal town of Hammam Lif. The line ran from the town right by the sea, through the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains to Zarhouan and Enfidaville.

Into Hammam Lif the Germans poured Kampfgruppe Frantz. It consisted of the 19th Flak Division, and a fallschirmjager battalion. This was reinforced with the remains of the Herman Goering Division and two Panzer Grenadier Regiments. The mass of 88 Flak were well sighted, and the German infantry were dug in on the high ground overlooking the town. As the lead British tanks approached this monstrous position a 88mm sighted to fire directly down the main road destroyed the lead tank causing the British to halt. The Germans then began to bombard the stalled armoured unit with nebelwerfers, mortars and other indirect fire weapons. The Germans confidently expected they could hold for at least six days.
That afternoon the Welsh Guards began the assault. The first of the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains was to be assaulted. Each of the five peaks were 600ft tall, steep sided with very rocky terrain. Storming the first crest in the face of fierce German defences took the whole afternoon and all the grit and determination that the Welsh Guards could muster. As light faded the Guardsmen began to clamber down the mountain to assault the others. With one company acting as porters over the course of the night the other peaks were captured. Although only one was defended the Welsh Guards had to climb the rocky slope under a constant barrage of grenades. Eventually they charged the peak, capturing the thirteen defenders. The other peaks took time to capture just due to their sheer cliff like sides. However by first light the mountains were all in British hands. This action had cost the Welshmen twenty four killed, and fifty wounded. Now it was time to storm the main town.
 This task fell to the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse Tank Regiment, equipped with Sherman's. One of the officers was Allan Waterston. The plan was for the three squadrons to charge the town. The front was only a few hundred yards wide between the sea and the start of the mountains, and remember there was a Flak division, equipped with 88 mm's pointing at that gap.
First his squadron scrambled over a railway line towards the coast, here things started to go wrong immediately. A coil of wire wrapped itself around Waterston’s neck, while the tank continued to advance at full speed. The wire began to tighten, choking him and preventing him from ordering his driver to halt. Within seconds he was going to get jerked out of the tank and hung, or decapitated. He managed to get his gloved hands under the wire and heave it over his head, just in time. Waterston, in his autobiography then says "The enemy began to react strongly and we found ourselves in some unpleasantness".
With hails of 88 mm rounds sleeting across the open ground, slamming into tank after tank Waterston led his troop into a wadi and used it to move closer to the Germans. As he emerged at full tilt by the sea his troop was alone. Then things began to deteriorate even further as one of his tanks struck a mine. The Germans had mined the approach to Hammam Lif as well. Coming under concentrated 88 mm fire Waterston sought the only cover he could find, the sea. Charging into the ocean with his second Sherman following him they began to race through the gauntlet of German fire. Each impact threw up a column of water over twenty feet high. Now partially submerged (One of the advantage of a British Sherman is that it possibly had a diesel engine so wouldn't flood as easily), his tanks formed a line, with their wake trailing behind them, and splashes of 88 mm impacts all around, for all the world looking like a naval battle.
Using this hull down cover, in the surf, Waterston found his tanks abreast of Hammam Lif and turned sharp right into the town. Under constant small arms fire the two Sherman's blasted into the town's centre. From there he was able to take the Germans under point blank fire from the rear, destroying four 88 mms. This lessened the volume of fire the Germans were putting down the gap and allowed further reinforcements to advance and capture the town. That day the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse lost twenty two tanks, if it wasn't for Waterston's actions it's likely they wouldn't have captured the town. For his actions that day he was awarded the Military Cross.
His dash and daring later served in Italy where he captured the bridge over the Arno River, which some sources say is the bridge in the background of the Mona Lisa. Alan Waterston died in 2014 aged 92.

Image Credits:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bomba Away!

Late in August 1940 a Royal Marine officer stepped through the gates of the airfield at Ma'aten Bagush in Egypt. The Royal Marine was Captain Oliver Patch, and he was a pilot with the Royal Navy Air Service. He had just been dispatched from RNAS Dekheila, his role was to command a flight of three Fairey Swordfish on an anti-shipping strike along the Libyan coast. The three torpedo carrying Swordfish flew to a forward strip at Sidi Barani, arriving at 0700 on the 22nd. While there they ate a breakfast of tinned sausages, baked beans and bread and waited for the reconnaissance to return. The day before a Blenheim bomber had spotted a supply ship and a submarine tied up in a bay on the Libyan coast, if they were still there then the Swordfish would attack. The reconnaissance returned with a positive result, and soon the three Swordfish were bumping along the sandy air strip, heading for Bomba Bay.

At Bomba Bay the Italian forces were actually larger than reported. The bay contained a single supply ship called Monte Gargano and two submarines as well as the torpedo boat Calipso. The latter was a Spica class torpedo boat, and don't think of something like a MTB or PT boat. The Spica class were over 1000 tons in weight and carried three four inch guns and about ten 20mm cannons, as well as an array of machine guns. One of the submarines was called the Iride, the reason for this mass of Italian shipping was a planned frogman raid on Alexandria. By 1230 the frogmen had transferred their human torpedoes (named Maiali, after a type of pig) to the Iride from the Calipso, and the submarine was setting out. Some reports say that the crew, feeling quite safe, had hung their washing out on the rigging of the submarine to dry.
Midships on a Scipa class
Then from out at sea came the three Swordfish, in line abreast with 200 yards between each plane, chugging along at just thirty feet. The Italians immediately leapt to their guns and put up a barrage of AA fire. Cpt Patch swerved the incoming fire, took aim and released his torpedo at about three hundred yards. It ran straight towards the Iride, striking below her conning tower and blowing the submarine in half.

The other two Swordfish hurtled onwards, the first lined up on the Monte Gargano and despite being hit in the wing strut released its torpedo. The pilot of the second Swordfish was about to release when his gunner spotted a submerged sand bank running across the track of the torpedo and shouted a warning. The pilot waited until they had cleared the obstacle and released, and turned to follow his two companions out to sea and back to base.
The two torpedoes were running, the first hit the the Monte Gargano causing a major fire, which eventually spread to her stores and caused an explosion. This also set the Calipso on fire causing her to sink. The final torpedo hit the unnamed submarine also sinking her. This was confirmed by Italian news broadcasts which admitted the loss of the ships.
However that's not what actually happened. There was no four ships for three torpedoes. The third torpedo missed its target (the unknown submarine), which later left the bay of its own accord. The Calipso left the bay and commenced rescue operations on the Iride. Most of the crew were rescued from the water, as they had been on deck at the time of her sinking. However nine men were trapped in the forward section of the hull. The frogmen who had just been rescued, but lacked their breathing gear (as it was on-board the submarine) began to free dive down to the wreck of the submarine. First they attached a marker buoy to the hull, one even managed to communicate with the survivors, presumably by hammering on the hull. He was awarded a medal for his actions.
After a radio call for assistance was dispatched by the Calipso, a diver with additional breathing equipment arrived from Tobruk, and five of the trapped men were rescued.

Image credits:

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Darts at Sea

I decided to do a tricky one this week, the Falklands War. Why is it so tricky? Well on one hand you have a lot of misinformation kicking around the net as some individuals seem to have a vested interest in lying about the war.
Argentinian paper claims, I love how HMS Invincible is doing 28 knots forward while the smoke is blowing to starboard,  no one is tackling the blaze and Harrier operations are continuing as normal... For a more detailed view on the claims see this video.

Equally a book a I picked up to help with it by Max Hastings was written only a couple of years after the event, so some of the information may well have been proven wrong, but on the flip side he had a full range of veterans to interview.
The war had quite a lot going on in it, so I'll be focusing on a few of the more interesting events based around the air to sea aspects.

The classic Newsweek cover... I had to get it in somehow.
We'll start early on as the task force is steaming towards the war zone. Britain had issued a maritime exclusion zone around the Falklands. As the task force approached they started getting shadowed by Argentinian Boeing 707's. The worry was that these spy planes could vector Argentinian submarines onto the task force. Due to the sensitivity of the issue the RN asked permission of the government to shoot these hostile aircraft down. After deliberation the government agreed.
At the time the Royal Navy was armed with the Sea Dart missile, designed to shoot down high altitude Russian bombers attacking the fleet, so you'd think that a 707 would be an easy target. However the 707’s were flying right at the edge of the envelope of engagement of Sea Dart. When the missiles were launched, by the time they reached the 707 the target would be outside of range. If however the 707 had altered its course slightly the missile could have struck. So two Sea Darts were fired from HMS Cardiff. Luckily for the Argentinian crew they kept their course and the missiles missed.

Later on the Sea Darts were used for interdiction. The Argentinians regularly flew transport flights in at night to Port Stanley's airfield. The Royal Navy in an attempt to enforce a blockade sent both a Type 42 and a Type 22 frigate forward to get off shore of Stanley, the Type 22's armed with Sea Wolf provided close in air defence while the Sea Darts with their 40 miles range provided the stand-off. HMS Coventry was selected as the Type 42 in this 42-22 combo. Early in the morning of the 9th of May she detected a trio of planes, one C-130 Hercules and two A-4 Skyhawks. At a range of 38 miles she locked on and fired two missiles.
The missiles missed the Hercules, and one exploded near the Skyhawks. The crew of HMS Coventry thought they'd had no effect, but suddenly both Skyhawks disappeared from radar. Max Hastings thinks that both pilots ejected. However the Argentinians claim that both crashed in bad weather... at the same time, coincidently seconds after someone had shot at them and missed. HMS Coventry rounded off the night by shooting down a Puma a little while later with another Sea Dart, which became the Royal Navy's first missile kill.

The weeks that followed are a complicated mixture of events, mistakes, casualties and unhappiness for both sides. But they have been studied in depth by lots of other authors. The net result was another nineteen Sea Darts were fired for two further kills.
Now we come to May the 30th, and here the misinformation ascends to the highest levels, and it all revolves around HMS Invincible and the Argentinians decision to sink her.

On that day the Argentinian Navy and badly wounded Air Force decided to launch one last attack against the British fleet. The Air Force had suffered heavy losses during the intervening weeks in men and planes, but they had made it through to hit their targets. Four Skyhawks, code named Zonda, would join a pair of Super Étendards from the Navy, one of which was carrying an Exocet missile.
After refuelling from a C-130 the flight approached the task force, and began their attack, with the Étendard launching the Exocet, and the four Skyhawks were to follow the missile in.
On board the fleet at 1730 a Yellow Air Attack Warning was issued after an ECM operator had picked up radio chatter from the incoming strike. Then a Lynx helicopter on picket duty and one of the ships picked up contacts on their radars. The radar warning receivers began to squawk as the radar waves from the Étendards bathed the ships of the fleet. Then the tone stepped up a notch as both Étendards began to sweep the fleet. Codeword warnings were flashed throughout the ships and all the ships with the capability started launching chaff
One officer in the ops room of HMS Glamorgan said that as this happened his heart rate began to rise, until they spotted the incoming missile, and as it neared the fleet his heart felt like it was going to burst through his chest as it was hammering away. For people away from the ops room the fear lasted only a few seconds, One crewman said they got the Red Air Warning, and about 45 seconds later it was all over. In that time he had lain down and heard the cry of "BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!”.

However during that 45 seconds HMS Exeter had fired two Sea Darts, with more modern missiles and radar she was able to lock on and fire about fifteen seconds earlier than other Type 42's with the fleet.
Initially a confused warning had been issued, giving the wrong bearing for the attack, and one of the ships (HMS Avenger) had launched chaff and turned to present the smallest possible cross section to the incoming attack. However she now found herself heading directly towards the incoming strike.

The Sea Darts from HMS Exeter shot down one of the Sky Hawks as they barrelled in, that just left the three Skyhawks and the Exocet, and HMS Avenger was directly in their path. HMS Avenger had had a modification over the normal type 21 Frigate. Her divers had recovered a 20mm cannon from HMS Antelope, which had been sunk earlier in the campaign, and it had been mounted on the ship. The gun carried the nickname "Antelopes Avenger". They also had Captain Hugo White, who was a gunnery expert. Some sources claim he personally calculated the range and bearing to fire their 4.5" gun, and managed to hit the incoming Exocet.
However other sources counter this saying the full weight of HMS Avenger's gunnery was directed at the Skyhawks, and either the second Sea Dart that narrowly missed HMS Avenger or Avenger's 4.5" actually hit a second Skyhawks, while the Exocet was decoyed by chaff or was simply unserviceable. The last two Skyhawks of Zonda flight quickly launched an attack on HMS Avenger, which missed and and then they retreated.

There was one other attack on the fleet that day. A bomb rolled out the back of a C-130, hit but did no damage to a tanker called British Wye.
The war wasn't quite over and there were a few more Sea Dart firings which shot down a couple of further aircraft, including a British helicopter. However the final story for Sea Dart I want to talk about is from 1991 and Operation Desert Storm. A British Type 42, HMS Gloucester was working with the USS Jarrett. Both were escorting the USS Missouri, when the Iraqi forces launched a Silkworm missile at the battleship.
USS Missouri fired chaff, the USS Jarrett immediately locked onto the cloud of metallic strips in its close defence stance and opened fire at the chaff... The rounds passed through the cloud of chaff and hit the USS Missouri causing no damage or casualties. Meanwhile HMS Gloucester locked on with her Sea Darts and shot the incoming missile down, becoming the first naval missile to missile kill in history.

But by the early 2000's Sea Dart was nearing the end of its life. Due to certain money saving choices made by the, then Labour, government Sea Dart maintenance was halted, leaving the Royal Navy with just four ships that could fire SAM's, and those were all Sea Wolf. Luckily no major airborne threat developed during the period, and many years later the Type 45's arrived.
This final video is of a Sea Dart engagement sequence, with a bit of a twist.

Image Credits:
www.shipspotting.com and navynews.co.uk

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Easter Sunday

As I write this it's Easter Sunday, and I've just got back from a morning out, and as I'm stumped as to what to write about I figured my trip would do.

I went shooting. Now to some of you this might not seem exotic, but in the UK we have rather stringent gun laws. To give you an idea, back many years when a teenager was regrettably murdered by some lowlife prat with a submachine gun, the then government decided, as usual, that it needed to appear to be doing something to deal with gun crime. However gun laws were so strict already their only answer was to ban air rifles...

Early this morning, however, I visited a nearby gun club, they even allowed me to shoot. As I was hanging around near the firing point one of the members offered me a gun to shoot, it was a Mosin Nagant carbine. Apart from a few .22's and some low powered air rifles many years ago this was going to be the first gun I fired.
First shock, no safety. Just a bolt, a trigger and that's pretty much it! As the barrel on the carbine is quite short, but its still the full sized round, it's got a hell of a bang on it, there was even a ball of flame shooting out the barrel. This was a big surprise and may have caused some giggling on my behalf.
Not me, I don't have a beard. Just a shot for showing the flash.

While myself and the nice bloke who'd lent me his Mosin Nagant to shoot were chatting he asked why I was interested in shooting. I mentioned you lot and that I do quite a bit of military history, and well the conversation went something like this:

Him: "Military history?" While reaching for a gun bag. "How well do you know the words to men of Harlech?"
Me: "!!!!!!!!"
Again, not me....
Yes, he had a Martini-Henry. Well he says it was a Martini-Henry I suspect it was actually a 60 pounder cannon, into which you load what look like Saturn V rockets. It weighed a ton, I'm not a small bloke, I regularly do archery and weightlifting but this thing was BIG.
This first shot left me crying with laughter into the stock. It caused a couple of other visitors to jump a mile when it fired. A massive cloud of smoke with bits of debris covered the firing point. Along with the distinct smell of sulphur, exactly like the smell you get if you eat too many hard-boiled eggs and then fart. That's the odd thing; the smell of gunpowder changed throughout the morning, but only the Martini-Henry had that sulphuric smell.

Compare, if you will, the Mosin Nagant round to the Martini-Henry round
Next my host pulled out a rather short cloth gun bag, I was curious as to its length, and about to get my next shock. It was an AK74 with a collapsible stock. Now the laws in the UK only allow single shot weapons. No semi-auto or full auto. This AK had been manufactured without gas parts and couldn't accept them, so was perfectly legal. Of course it meant that the bolt had to be viciously yanked backwards after each shot. Of all the weapons I fired that morning it was this that felt the easiest to handle.
The Mosin Nagant and AK74, that drainpipe you can see on the left of the picture is the Martini-Henry.
Well that's not strictly true. The other gun I used that was even easier to handle was a Czech CSA VZ.58 MARS in 5.56. Now bearing in mind the British laws this had gas parts, but is still legal. What happens is the bolt is locked back by the gas parts operation. Then when you pull the trigger the bolt is released. The net effect is it acts similar to a semi-auto, however you just need to pull the trigger a second time after firing your first shot, which is a bit of an odd feeling.

I also had a go with a Winchester, and that's quite a handy little rifle, one can see why they're so popular, I think in part it was down to the pistol rounds the one I was using shot. You could easily see how you could get a blistering rate of fire out of it. One interesting thing about the Winchester was it has a safety feature. It actually has a mechanical interlock. Once you've worked the lever to reload the rifle you have to pull the lever in tight to the stock otherwise the gun will not fire.
The other collection I fired. From the left, Winchester, two guns I didn't fire, VZ.58 and finally Mjölnir in rifle form the Lee-Enfield. I suspect that's actually what the "M" stands for in SMLE...
Then finally, the main reason why I have thought about shooting. Someone got out a SMLE No.4. While the .303's were being loaded, they looked so puny for such a legendary rifle. But the rifle itself... it felt like you were aiming something the size of the titanic and it had a kick that was unbelievable. It felt almost as heavy and with a high a recoil as the Martini-Henry. Of course it lacked the latter's cloud of dense smelly smoke. By this point of proceedings I had a very badly bruised shoulder, and well the power of the Lee Enfield caused its barrel to skip out of the rest, it was almost a bit to much for me to handle that first time, as I wasn't used to what it was going to do. One thing I did notice, that might have been a result of me loading off handed, was the bolt had a curious spring to it. As you push the bolt forwards there was a cushioned area where the bolt would spring back a bit, which you had to force forward before locking the bolt down wards, the Mosin Nagant had lacked this.

I'm sold, I'm aiming to go back!