Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Ever Topical

Last week I made a post on my Facebook page joking about what to write about for this week's article, subjects included bioweapons, The Spanish Flu or maybe rationing. Surprisingly, this met with a good reception, so here's the article you lot asked for! I also take requests.

In 1914 when the First World War broke out there was an immediate reaction in the shops of Britain. Some items simply disappeared, such as beet sugar as the main source for this was Austria, although cane sugar could still be obtained from South America, as it always had been. Indeed, around two thirds of the UK's food came from overseas. As well as some products disappearing, prices generally began to climb, this led to a series of riots aimed at small shops, whom it was felt were engaging in profiteering. Some examples come from newspapers, all are from August 1914. A crowd gathering outside of a shop on Cradley Heath, and then smashing several windows with stones. Police attended, but the crowd would not disperse. In Quarry Bank a mob of between 2,000 and 4,000 people formed. Stones were thrown at a store, the windows smashed, and the shop looted. At Dudley Port a similar event occurred, aimed at a bakers. The ovens were damaged, and flour was spread across the store. The owner of this shop later gave a statement that he had been forced to raise prices because his supplies had done so.
A queue for food in wartime Britain, this particular one is in Blackburn.
The government resisted controls on prices for the most part, although they did eventually relent on imported substances such as sugars, grains and meats. It's interesting to see that the Canadians had a little scandal over the price of meat, which caught up Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle, who was doing good work organising supply of munitions from Canada. He also owned a large butchering chain which produced a huge collection of meats. As such a new word was coined as an insult on profiteers by the Canadians, that word was "Baconeer".
Sir Flavelle, who may have been unjustly accused of profiteering
Back in the UK food hoarding was underway. Doing so was against the rules of polite society. There was a certain amount of satisfaction when one woman in a village near Bristol who boasted that she had sacks of flour hoarded and refused to share. She stored the flour in a bathtub, and was rather put out when it got infested with maggots.
In 1917 the Germans launched unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British. They instantly hit upon success over the summer months sinking some 46,000 tons of meat, and an impressive 85,000 tons of sugar. With these losses the UK government had to report that they barely had enough food for six weeks left. Thus, rationing was introduced early in 1918. This appeared to catch one hoarder living in Kent by surprise. Mrs Jessie Klaber was tried for fourteen counts of food hoarding, as she had nearly 1 tonne of food in her house! She was found guilty on nine of the charges and was fined £10 per charge. In today's money that's about £5,500.

Other measures introduced was the introduction of the Women's Land Army to improve agricultural productivity.
A British journalist, William Cobbett (1763-1835) is often quoted as saying "I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach." If Britain was feeling a bit peckish during the war, then the Axis powers were literally starving. The Germans begun to issue foods that were only technically food. Much to my surprise I found that the Imperial War Museum has a slice of German black bread, of a type called 'K-Brot' in its collection. This bread was issued in 1918 to a British POW and returned with him to the UK. It then remained as a family heirloom until it was gifted to the IWM. This chunk of 'bread' (I use the term loosely) still appears in roughly (it has apparently broken into three parts) the same condition that it was issued in, and it's only 102 years old at this point.


Mmmmm Tasty... Itchy

With the Germans starving, their spring offensive failed, and with the Allies laying into them with great gusto it is no wonder they surrendered. 
Aftermath of a food riot in Germany in 1919. This butchers shop has been looted, and there are now a few Freikorps on hand to prevent further instances. The reason for the looting in 1919 was the allied Naval blockade did not end until the treaty of Versailles was ratified and signed in June of that year, as up until then it was just a cease fire.

 Now, onto the current situation with COVID-19 that is flying around the world. First a quick update from myself, as that impacts on what I'll say about your situation in a moment.

My work has sent me home due to me being an asthmatic. Apart from a bit of boredom I'm fine. I am hoping, I have been told this banishment from work will be reviewed next week so I can get back to my job. Especially as I work for the local government, and we're likely to get retasked to social cohesion and support tasks. Even if this doesn't happen, I've got a work laptop and phone so maybe working on the above from home.

Now for my readers, I realise you're stuck at home bored out of your skulls at current. Some extra fun and games to pass the time might be needed. If I am still free (and not working) over the next few weeks I'm willing to try organising some entertainment for you. However, I have no idea what you lot would want to see, or take part in. So please, any suggestions down below and we'll see what we can do.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Hail to the King

Imagine if you will, you are in North Africa in 1942, and an anti-tank gunner. This is at a time when most of the tanks you've seen are Panzer III's or IV's, and Sherman's are the pinnacle of tank design so far. Then suddenly, clanking over the hill comes this absolute monster of a heavy tank, with over 100mm of armour, and it appears to be utterly immune to anything you can do to it. Today I'll be talking about just such a first encounter.
In late 1942 a small batch of Churchill Mk.III's (were you expecting Tigers?) were sent to North Africa. Accompanying the tanks were crews, these were inexperienced at warfare, having come direct from training units, but did have some slight experience with the tank. In Africa they met up with NCO's who were to lead them, who had more experience in combat, but none in operating the Churchill's. The six tanks were formed into a unit called Kingforce, after the commander, Major Norris King. Kingforce was also short of supplies for essential maintenance, for example the hydraulic traverse systems used a liquid called Lockheed Racing Green Fluid. The unit could only lay its hands on one gallon of the stuff, which quickly vanished in topping up the six tanks, and refilling the system of a tank that sprung a leak.
Trying to free the running gear from wire.
Kingforce was formed on the 14th of October 1942 at Cairo. Total strength was just fifty-eight personnel, six of whom were officers. On between the 18th and 20th the unit moved by road and rail to Burg El Arab, then onto El Imayid. They then followed the front line into the opening attack on the 23rd. The unit had been in existence for just nine days, two of which were used for movement to the front. Thus, one should not expect much from such a green inexperienced unit in combat. For the following four days the unit followed the battle, before entering combat for the first time on the 27th.
Three Churchill's went forward in the afternoon, to secure the flank of the 2nd Dragoon Guards. As they appeared a large number of Axis tanks and anti-tank guns began firing at long ranges against the Churchill's. One Churchill fired a shot at the irritating enemies, and its gun jammed in the recoiled position, rendering it inoperable. Thus, the tank was ordered to withdraw.

The second Churchill of the troop continued its advance and disappeared over the ridge, in the face of all the German fire. Shortly afterwards, with AP tracer from multiple anti-tank weapons skipping into the sky the tank was seen to be reversing back over the ridge. As she cleared the lip of the ridge she shuddered to a halt and the rear of the tank caught fire. Interestingly, at least on the matter of psychology, Maj King in the last tank said the Churchill was knocked out by an 88mm. He submitted that account to the war office, however, a detailed study on the tank had been carried out and had shown no such weapon involved.
The knocked-out Churchill had suffered a whopping forty six hits. Six from 75mm's and thirty-one from 50mm weapons. One of each had penetrated the armour. There was also one HE impact recorded. One 75mm had penetrated the front turret (killing the gunner and wounding the commander), one 50mm had bounced off the turret face, and penetrated the roof armour on the hull. A final non-critical hit had damaged one of the radiators.
The battered and destroyed Churchill. the 75mm hit clearly visible.
Sadly, the remaining impacts had been from 6-pounders, and had struck the rear of the tank. A likely culprit was an Australian anti-tank battery nearby. Unfamiliar with the silhouette of the Churchill, they had seen the British tank driving in reverse from behind the ridge and interpreted it as a German tank "advancing" on them and reacted accordingly. The fire being seen to start at the rear of the tank also indicates that this was the cause of the loss. Even then, the Churchill had suffered eight 6-pounder hits to its rear, and even then only half had penetrated! Of the crew two were dead, one was injured and two were missing.
Then around thirty Axis tanks attempted to advance on the Commonwealth position, starting at a range of over 2,000 yards. Luckily the tanks of the 2nd Dragoon Guards were on hand to join in with Maj Kings Churchill, and the German counterattack was blunted in a hail of gunfire.
As darkness fell, the last remaining Churchill had taken a further eight hits, two HE, two 75mm and four 50mm. In return Maj King's tank had fired some forty-five rounds, claiming four German tanks. The destroyed Churchill was salvaged for spare parts, including draining a small quantity of Lockheed Racing Green Fluid.

The second engagement, on the 3rd of November that Kingforce was involved in involved all five of the surviving Churchill's. A British attack during the night had become bogged down in front of the German strong point. As it became day the Germans were able to bring increasingly deadly and accurate fire onto the bogged down attack. Then they began to prepare for a counterattack to wipe the attackers out. Kingforce was ordered into action. One tank broke down instantly with its traverse gear failing (possibly due to lack of fluid?) and was ordered to stay out of contact. When Kingforce arrived just behind the Commonwealth front lines, they found themselves at the base of a small hill, with ten German tanks and at least five anti-tank guns dug in at the top. The Germans outnumbered the British tanks by three to one, were in prepared positions, and had the height advantage. One Churchill had its turret jammed almost immediately after receiving nine hits from a 50mm, one of which penetrated 2" into the turret ring, but did not penetrate the fighting compartment. The surviving three Churchill's were able to fire a further seventeen rounds during the engagement, finding targets difficult to pick up. They destroyed one tank and two anti-tank guns.
The cloth screen hung between the tracks was an attempt to mitigate dust. If you look at other pictures it is not always present.
In return they took a ferocious battering, receiving between them fifty-three hits. One, on Maj Kings tank, managed to strike the driver’s visor, which was insecure, and the round threw it open injuring the driver although the round did not enter the fighting compartment. The second of the tanks was unharmed, albeit with many dents and scrapes, one gouge was 4" deep, but the armour had held (although one crew member is listed as injured). The final Churchill, however, took the majority of the fire, receiving thirty-four of the total hits. Thirty-one of which were 50mm rounds which shot off the track and damaged the gun, rendering it useless. Later the immobilised tank was hit in the cupola by a HE round that knocked off one of the commanders hatches, and smashed the cupola periscope injuring the commander in the eye. Maj King's crew dismounted for a short period, then reconstituted crews from the rest of the tanks and re-joined the fight.

Eventually, with some support from Sherman's shooting up the guns, the Germans broke on the armoured anvil that was the Churchill and withdrew at darkness. In total Kingforce had suffered four injured, despite sitting under the German guns for an entire day. All repairs were achieved at unit workshops.

In total the tanks had been hit 106 times, with one loss (likely due to friendly fire), one immobilised and one turret jammed. The hits were from both 75mm, 50mm and HE rounds. The biggest problem was lack of spares and maintenance training and routines that had likely caused several breakdowns that withdrew a much-needed tank from each battle. The Churchill had acquitted itself well, and deeply impressed the crews. The Churchill was well on its way to building its fearsome reputation for hardiness, that would only improve with time.

Now, onto the current situation with COVID-19 that is flying around the world. First a quick update from myself, as that impacts on what I'll say about your situation in a moment.
My work has sent me home due to being an asthmatic. Apart from a bit of boredom I'm fine. I am hoping, and have been told, this banishment from work will be reviewed next week so maybe I can get back to my job. Especially good news as I work for the local government, and we're likely to get retasked to social cohesion and support tasks to make sure as many people as possible survive. Even if this doesn't happen I've got a work laptop and phone so maybe working on the above from home.
 
Now for my readers, I realise several of you are stuck at home bored out of your skulls at current. Some extra fun and games to pass the time might be needed. If I am still free (and not working) over the next few weeks I'm willing to try organising some entertainment for you. However, I have no idea what you lot would want to see, or even take part in. So please, any suggestions down below and we'll see what we can do.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Other Mouse that Roared

Last week we covered the Battle of Vianden. Well real life has been ab it busy for me at the moment so I needed something a bit quick and easy this week, and so here are a pair of links I found while digging into the story of the battle.

The first is a webpage dedicated to Frankie Hansen. His story, and a rather epic one at that, can be found here:
http://frankiehansen.org/wk1/index.php?n=Main.HomePage?setlang=en

There are several photographs relating to his life, including ones from his time as part of the Unio'n vun de Fräiheetsorganisatiounen at Vianden, although he seems to have just missed the battle at the castle. 
Hansen at Vianden.
 The next link is slightly more intriguing. It is a series of newspaper cuttings and magazine articles in assorted languages and they seem to relate to the story of Vianden. However, as Google translate won't read the articles I can't assess them. My German is limited to asking for directions, getting a lass to dance with me, and weirdly some very specific terms relating to military hardware. My French is non-existent as well. The PDF can be found here, and if you speak the language may well add far more detail to the previous weeks article.
http://www.ons-jongen-a-meedercher.lu/uploads/media/document/0001/92/d66d3ed4404067477f6197339ace21ff84258041.pdf

Earlier I mentioned that last week was a bit of a busy week for me. This is, I'm sorry to say, likely to be a lot more common from now on. I've currently started a new job, this is for a team of 8-10 people, however, there's two of us at current as recruitment efforts are under way. But for the immediate future the shift pattern to cover the work is a bit brutal. To add to that I've started my History Degree, which is another 18 or so hours to find during the week. Sprinkle on work on my spigot weapons book, consulting work for small games companies and even time for walking the dogs and I'm rapidly running out of hours in the week. The only slack time I have is the weekly article (which can take 6-8 hours if the subject matter puts up a fight). So where possible, I will continue the current schedule of an article a week, and smaller chunks of content over on my facebook page. However, cheap articles like this, or even dare I say it missed weeks (I've only missed two articles since 2013!) may be more likely, but I will endeavour to get one up every week.
Some of the content from my Facebook page (discussion can be found here). its a Sneak peak at the next book I'm currently working on.

Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Mouse that Roared

I've been trying to write this story for some time. I have a folder which has a long list of bookmarks, into which I stick anything I come across that looks like a good story for later research. This battle has been near the top for some years. The problem for this one has been the lack of sources for the actual battle. I've been able to piece together snippets in the events leading up to it, but precious little about the actual battle. I guess it will be one of those stories that suffer from the curse of the historian: "This looks interesting, but we'll never know the answers." If anyone has seen any info on this, feel free to let me know, please!
Luxembourg soldiers being drilled in the UK in the middle of the war
The Grand duchy of Fenwick Luxembourg is not one of the countries that one often contemplates for fighting forces in the Second World War. At the outbreak of the war the military forces available to Luxembourg were just under 700 men, split roughly between about 250 police, and 400 soldiers, with the rest made up of officers. These would lack any serious firepower. Some roadblocks were erected on the German side of the country. When Germany invaded in 1940 the armed forces were, rather sensibly, restricted to barracks and the country overrun. Later in the war Luxembourg nationals would form a battery manning 25-pounders in the Belgium Brigade.
A Luxembourg Policeman saluting Himmler during his visit to the country in 1941.
Resistance in Luxembourg was generally low key and based around non-violent protests such as a general strike, and generally irritating the Germans by refusing to recognise their ancestry and nationality as anything other than Luxembourgish. In addition, safe houses and underground networks were set up. Much like France, there were several different resistance groups, each following a different political association.

In September 1944 the Germans withdrew from Luxembourg under slight pressure from the Americans. The US forces also didn't really occupy the area either, this left Luxembourg as a sort of no-man’s land. The country also lacked any form of civilian control or authorities. Thus, the various resistance groups came together to form one organisation, the Unio'n vun de Fräiheetsorganisatiounen shortened to Unio'n. This provided the day to day administration and formed a militia. One of the notables of the Unio'n was Victor Abens, who had been arrested in September 1942. In March 1944 he was able to escape and return to his home-town of Vianden. Vianden has a large castle from which the Unio'n militia were able to observe into Germany and would report back to the US forces any movements they saw. Both the Unio'n and the Germans aggressively patrolled the area land with at least one serious firefight.
Unio'n Militia, armed with an eccentric mix of weapons. Mainly German, but with the odd US M3 SMG thrown in. The Gentleman, 2nd from right, is holding a French MAS-38 Submachine gun. We'll be returning to him next week, as he has a rather interesting story.
On the 19th of November 1944 the Germans decided to seize the position to prevent the observations from being used against them. In most accounts the enemy is listed as Waffen SS, although no details of what unit are given. There is also a total lack of Waffen SS units in the area. So, it is highly likely that they were Wehrmacht troops, not SS. Often German troops are reported as SS just because it’s the big bad bogie man of the war, and it sounds a lot cooler to be fighting them, than regulars.
 There is one forum post that identifies the attacking unit of the 2nd Battalion of the 941st Volksgrenadier Regiment that sent a company to assault the position. Again, most sources state that around 250 men were in the attack. However, this is questionable as the 941 VG had had a severe beating for most of the last four months, narrowly escaping at Falaise after being chased across France by US forces from Operation Cobra. So, either it was a lot more than a single company, as claimed in the earlier forum post, or it was not 250 men.

The Unio'n apparently realised an attack was incoming and evacuated the town. Some thirty Unio'n men and possibly (again a single source) five Americans, and a Belgium interpreter remained behind to defend the position. The Germans appear to have had mortar support in their attack. During the fighting that followed the Germans managed to grind forwards, and assaulted the castle, with six Germans actually gaining entry to the castle. Inside there were four defenders, who fought off the Germans, although one of their number was killed. This casualty was the only defender killed in the fight. The other three men in the castle were all badly wounded.
Vianden Castle before its restoration, it is not entirely clear if this is battle damage, or just neglect, as there is no date on when the photo was taken other than 1944. 
The restoration of Vianden castle, sometime in the 70's or 80's I believe.
By the end of the day the Germans had been repulsed, suffering eighteen killed and the Germans retreated. But they would return in December during the Battle of the Bulge, during which the Unio'n displaced out of the way of the German assault. The battle of Vianden was Luxembourg's only battle during the Second World War, which is all the more remarkable for the one-sided victory they achieved.

Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Little Ship

While writing last week’s article on the Merchant Navy, I found mention of a little ship with several merchant navy crew on it. This ship's story is rather remarkable, and full of gallantry. It was however, too long for last week’s piece, so I have done it as its own stand-alone article. There are a few conflicting accounts due to the outcome, so some of the details are unclear, but here's the best I can do. The conflicting accounts are based around the two surviving eye witness testimonies that are available.
SS Li Wo
In 1938 a new 1000 ton passenger ship was commissioned, for use on the Yangtze river. Remarkably it had a draught of just 7ft when fully loaded. This was the SS Li Wo, and it was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company. In 1940 she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and armed and equipped. The crew decided to remain with their ship, and became Merchant Navy, while the officers were from the Royal Navy. She was armed with a single 4in gun on the bow, and twin Lewis guns. There is also one account that states it was equipped with ASDIC and a Holman Projector. The ship was used to patrol the area around Indonesia.
HMS Li Wo
On the 8th of December 1941 Japan entered the war with her sudden expansion. Things went badly for the Allies. HMS Li Wo was based at Singapore, and as the Japanese forces closed in in February 1942 HMS Li Wo was crewed with a scratch crew, including five men from HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and a pair of RAF men, and ordered to reach safety. The crew from the two warships formed the gun crew for the single 4in gun, while at least one of the Lewis guns was manned by one of the RAF men. HMS Li Wo left Singapore on the 13th of February. Over the next 24 hours she was to shelter in the bay, advance and then take up shelter at another bay. The curse was the massive number of Japanese aircraft about. In those twenty-four hours she was attacked some four times, once by around fifty aircraft. One report has her radio gear being damaged. She certainly took heavy damage but was still afloat.
The only semi-contemporary photo I could find of a Japanese air attack on shipping.
On the 14th, she was making sail for safety, when she spotted a Japanese convoy. This was the Japanese landing force destined for the invasion of Sumatra. The Japanese forces consisted of two waves, each with four destroyers and a cruiser. Which force the HMS Li Wo encountered is not clear, but it is suggested it was the one led by the IJN Sendai, and contained eight transport ships. The HMS Li Wo's captain, Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson’s (RNVR) next actions are not clear. Again, the eye witness' disagree if Lt Wilkinson ordered the attack, or consulted with his crew first, who all agreed with his intention to attack. Either way, the HMS Li Wo closed up and prepared for battle. The gun crew were asked on how much ammo they had. Six rounds of SAP, four HE and three AA. That's just thirteen rounds. Some secondary accounts suggest the ammo load was thirteen practice rounds, but this is clearly wrong, and seems to come from an inaccurate account in the 1980's at the Imperial War Museum. HMS Li Wo also hoisted not one, but two battle ensigns, just to make it clear whose side they were on. With preparations made, she headed in towards the transports.
Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson
The Japanese were slow to react, and HMS Li Wo was the first to open fire, the first of their precious shells had missed, going long. The second was short, the third struck in the superstructure of the targeted transport, starting a fire. The gun crew carried on firing, and in two minutes they were out of ammo. However, the 4-5,000 ton freighter was well ablaze. Here again, eyewitness accounts differ. One says Lt Wilkinson rammed the burning freighter, others that he selected a smaller 800-ton vessel to ram. Either way, he made contact with it, and the bows were lodged with the freighter. The freighter had at least one light auto-cannon for AA work, possibly two, and these began to rake the HMS Li Wo, causing the first Allied casualties of the exchange. One of the RAF personnel manning his Lewis gun promptly dealt with the crews of the guns, then switched his fire to the Japanese troops swarming on the decks. The Japanese began to abandon ship.
HMS Li Wo struggled free of the stricken freighter, and began to move on, by now the IJN Sendai had responded, and closed with the British ship. However, her gunnery was so appalling the salvoes from her were missing by up to 300 yards. HMS Li Wo began to zig zag to throw off the Japanese gunners but slowly their shells crept closer. It still took over ten minutes before they were getting near misses, and further casualties were being caused by shrapnel. With a crippled ship, and no weapon to fight the cruiser Lt Wilkinson ordered the crew to abandon ship, although he stayed on board to go down with the HMS Li Wo.
IJN Sendai
Then the cruiser found the range, one of the shells hit the cordite locker and there was a large explosion. She began to list to one side then sunk. The survivors were subjected to a massacre by the Japanese ships and the few who survived that ordeal were left adrift at sea. Eventually a few made it ashore, but were captured and ended up as POW's, but some did survive. When they returned after the war the story of HMS Li Wo was told. Lt Wilkinson was put forward for a Mentioned in Dispatches, as that was one of only two decorations that could, at the time, be issued posthumously. This paltry reward was then cancelled. To be replaced by the other posthumous decoration, the Victoria Cross. Of the crew seven men returned, one received a DSO, one a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, two Distinguished Service Medals and the rest Mentioned in Dispatches. A further three Mentions in Dispatches were awarded to deceased crew.

Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks.

Image credits:
ww2today.com, www.wrecksite.eu, www.ibiblio.org and www.world-war.co.uk

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Price of Petrol Has Been Increased by One Penny

On the 5th of March 1942 The Daily Mirror published a cartoon entitled "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny. Official." It brought to a head arguments between Churchill and the press, as some in government were accusing the press of running an anti-capitalist message that might undermine the war effort. Such a fear was very real, as from the start of the war, there had been several strikes by the trade unions governing dockworkers, who supported Soviet Russia, and were therefore opposed to the war with the Soviet Union’s ally. Unsurprisingly these strikes all stopped in July 1941.
The cartoons artist successfully pointed out it was the latest in a line of work extolling the evils of the black market, and that the public should not complain over price increases.
The cartoon depicted a member of the Merchant Navy, after his ship had been sunk, clinging to the wreckage, adrift at sea.
The Merchant Navy was vital to Britain, as it brought the resources from the Empire to the UK to help fight the war. It also enabled Britain to supply its allies such as Russia, and the Commonwealth later in the war. Without it, the war would not have happened as it did. In total around 32,000 sailors of the Merchant Navy were killed in the war. They were civilians, asked to sail into inhospitable environments, practically unarmed (the vessels they crewed would in the vast majority of cases have an antique 3-4in AA gun and a machine gun or two) to be shot at by the enemy.
Their non-uniformed civilian status makes the moral fortitude of the Merchant Navy men even more surprising. First, as they were men of fighting age, in civilian dress they were often mistaken for people who lacked the courage or will to join the services. In the early years of the war they were sometimes abused and heckled as cowards, this stopped when they were given a lapel pin showing that they were part of the Merchant Navy.
A sailor of the Merchant Navy signed onto a ship’s company. The contract he signed showed everything he would be supplied with including food rations and on what day.
Ration allocation for a Merchant Seaman. Shared by Border_Reiver, relative of the above signatory.
The merchant sailor would be paid as long as he was needed with his ship, or up to a total of two years. When it reached the destination, he would return to the local shipping office and look for another ship. Of course, this became a sore point during the war, as the sailors pay ended when the ship was sunk. This was altered in May 1941, when the Emergency Work (Merchant Navy) Order, Notice No. M198 was issued. This allowed the pay to continue to accrue even when in a lifeboat and would also allow two days leave per month served.

This likely came as some small consolation to some when they survived a long haul after being sunk. The world record holder for longest time adrift on a life raft (although there are longer times for complete boats) is Merchant Navy sailor Poon Lim, who spent 133 days on an 8ft square life raft.
As you will have noticed Poon Lim was Chinese, indeed the crews of the Merchant Navy could be any nationality, including ones from a hostile power (for instance there are examples of Japanese in the Merchant Navy), they could also be of either sex.
Poon Lim on his life raft.
Recognition of bravery was always a problem, as there was a gulf between the existing civilian awards and the George and Victoria Crosses, so Lloyds of London created the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery. A prime example of the bravery and dedication of the Merchant Navy is the story of the SS Ohio.

On the 9th of August 1942 the British launched Operation Pedestal, the attempt to drive a resupply convoy through the besieging Axis forces around Malta. The SS Ohio was a fuel tanker loaded with kerosene and other highly flammable liquids. On the 12th the convoy was attacked by around 120 German and Italian aircraft. In the ensuing chaos of the attack an Italian submarine was able to hit the SS Ohio with a torpedo, which split several of the kerosene tanks and set the ship ablaze. The Captain heaved to, shut down the engines and brought all personnel to fight the fire. After the fire was extinguished, the engines were restarted and the SS Ohio continued with the convoy, with a 27-foot hole torn amidships. The hit had knocked out all the compasses, so the Captain was forced to navigate by dead reckoning and by using the emergency back-up steering gear, due to the main steering also being offline. The ship was awash with leaked kerosene. Then sixty JU-87’s attacked the stricken ship, no bombs hit, although near-misses caused damage, dismounting one of the 12-pounder guns and buckling the ship’s hull to allow water in.
The SS Ohio getting hit by the submarines torpedo.
The Ohio was now only armed with one Bofors 40mm and six Oerlikons. Then five JU-88's decided to sink the ship. Those few guns put up such a storm of fire they forced the attackers to abort.
Then more JU-87's peeled off to attack the SS Ohio, one was shot down by the AA guns, and crashed into the ship. The Chief Mate from the rear wheelhouse telephoned the bridge to report they had been hit by the falling plane, to which the Capitan replied "Oh that's nothing. We've had a Junkers 88 on the foredeck for nearly half an hour."

More bombs fell and more torpedoes were fired at her. The bombs hit so closely they lifted her hull out of the water. Another salvo of bombs as she was being continuously attacked knocked out all power to the engine room, in the darkness the engineers managed to restart her engines, and she regained speed. Then more bombs fell, again the concussion knocked the engines off and filled the engine room with thick black smoke. The engineers remained at their posts frantically trying to restart them, but they were unsuccessful and the SS Ohio drifted to a halt. It was barely 1100 in the morning.

On the 13th the SS Ohio was taken under tow by the destroyer HMS Penn, however the bulk of the tanker proved too much for the destroyer, indeed the wind was blowing them backwards. Then a gaggle of German planes appeared and came barrelling in. HMS Penn slipped the tow, leaving the SS Ohio stationary with the Luftwaffe bombers closing in. She shot one down, but just before they achieved this feat the bomber released its payload. One bomb landed in the hole caused by the torpedo breaking the SS Ohio's back. That was the last air attack of the first day. But the SS Ohio was still afloat.
SS Ohio being supported by friendly ships.
The next day found the SS Ohio being assisted by two ships. Then another attack developed and the SS Ohio was hit once more by a bomb, and had her rudder destroyed by another. Several Merchant Navy crew volunteered to man the guns on the SS Ohio, while under tow. These crew had already been sunk once, then rescued. Later a third ship joined in to assist the wounded ship. One was towing from the bow, one at the rear to keep the SS Ohio on an even course, and one lashed alongside to keep her from listing. Limping along at just six knots the little cluster of ships was approaching Malta, then more waves of German aircraft appeared and began to head towards the small flotilla to obliterate it.

Then sixteen Spitfires appeared, they had flown from Malta and whilst on patrol spotted the attacking Germans and broke up the attack, the SS Ohio was now under friendly air cover. The ships reached Grand Harbour at Malta at 0930 on the 15th. The remaining kerosene and fuel were quickly offloaded, even as the ship was getting lighter, she carried on settling lower in the water. Eventually all the kerosene was ashore, and the fuel had been pumped aboard an auxiliary tanker. A short while later the SS Ohio settled on the floor of the harbour, broken in two. The Captain of the ship was awarded a George Cross for keeping her afloat and in action to provide the vital liquids to Malta.
SS Ohio in Grand harbour, Malta, as she is urgently unloaded. You can clearly see how low in the water she is.

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Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Argument

On forums relating to tanks there is often a big argument between which is the best MBT of the modern generation. There are also often polls and lists on webpages, but these are generally designed to cater to the home nation (Eg T-34, T14 or M1 as best tanks ever!). I have my views on the subject, like many others.

However, for this week, life has been a bit hectic, so instead of tackling the above question, I'll simply throw more fuel on the fire by referring to a 1989 issue of The Armour Magazine. This magazine is the US Army's armoured force periodical. In it there is a a copy of an article that was first published in the RAC journal, where some British tank crew went to visit, and play with US tanks, and their views.

 Note: These crews would have been using Challenger 1, not Challenger 2. And it really is only a two page article, although it looks like it should be three.







Sunday, February 9, 2020

Fighting for Both Sides

Towards the end of the First World War heavy bombers began to get small amounts of armour to protect the vital components of the aircraft such as engines. When the Germans did this, they logically began to think about how to defeat the armour. They turned to a weapon that had been patented in 1914 by Reinhold Becker. This weapon was an extremely light weight cannon in 20mm. It was fed by a top loading magazine. Interestingly the ammunition that was used were solid shot, not explosive rounds. This was due to the Saint Petersburg Declaration of 1868. This had forbidden the use of explosives within projectiles of under 400 grams (some sources say 450g). It was the French, and their designer B Hotchkiss who calculated the minimum size of projectile that would be needed to carry a legal amount of explosive, which was 37mm. Which explains why there were so many 37mm weapons in the first half of the 20th century.
The Becker gun was fitted to several German aircraft during the war and was even planned to be fitted to armoured vehicles. Just after the gun was introduced the German aircraft carrying the gun was shot down and discovered by the Allies. At the time they had no ammunition for it though.

A Becker 20mm mounted aboard what looks suspiciously like a Hansa-Brandenburg W.12
 After the war there was a realisation that the St Petersburg treaty needed revision. A summit of lawyers was put in place, and modifications were agreed, stating that light cannon could be used against aircraft. This treaty was never signed, but it became an informal agreement. It should be noted that the British had been using incendiary projectiles against Zeppelins during the war, but would not allow the ammunition to go overseas in case the pilot was shot down and found to be carrying such ammunition in his plane.
A condition of the Treaty of Versailles was that Germany had to demilitarize, this of course included the Becker works, and a ban on the production of guns was in place. Becker had a connection to a small automotive company in Switzerland, called Seebach Maschinenbau Aktien Gesellschaft, better known by its initials SEMAG. The move to Zürich was backed by the German authorities, and thus the Becker gun entered production as the SEMAG aircraft gun. Later a modified form was produced called the SEMAG infantry gun in 1921. In this version the cartridges and barrel were both longer, giving a higher muzzle velocity. It appears there were several sub variants of both SEMAG weapons. In 1923 a heavier 25mm version was built and tested, however the company collapsed before any further work could be done.
SEMAG 20mm Aircraft gun
SEMAG 20mm infantry gun
Another German clandestinely controlled company then stepped forwards, Oerlikon. They took over the SEMAG-Becker cannon's development. There's a hazy period in this weapons history around this time. It seems that over the next decade the SEMAG style guns were widely sold, by Oerlikon, although some of the designs are slowly being refined. They appeared in The Chaco War, Spanish Civil War and The Abyssinian Invasion. They were used mostly in the role of light anti-aircraft gun. The British brought some for testing as an anti-tank weapon. They had a carriage consisting of a pair of light unpowered tracks, so that the weapon could be pulled by a Carden-Lloyd carrier, along with a gun limber. When limbered the gun was folded flat against its carriage, but to fire it, the weapon was erected while still on the carriage. Some sources say this was around 1935, which seems unlikely, as by 1935 the British were looking at the 2-pounder, equally the uniforms give the appearance of an earlier time frame.
As the Second World War neared suddenly the demand for both aircraft and AA cannon increased, and the later variants of the Oerlikon were widely sold around the world and was likely used by just about every nation except the Soviets. Often the cannon would be on both sides of the battle. Consider the Allies against the Japanese. The Oerlikon armed both sides fighters, equally both sides would be using the same gun on their ships as an AA weapon. In the US alone over 120,000 Oerlikon's were manufactured, and in US service they shot down some 617 aircraft during the war. Banks of 20mm's lined larger US ships ready to protect them against Japanese Kamikaze attacks. The guns simplicity (it had just five parts that could break, and all were on the bolt) and the ability to quickly change a barrel in just 30 seconds meant it was well liked. Indeed, the gun much updated is still in service today.
SEMAG's/Oerlikon's in service during the Chinese civil war/Japanese invasions.
A rank of Oerlikon's on the USS Hornet
Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

The White Ships

On the 27th of June 1942 Convoy PQ-17 left Iceland, where it had assembled, bound for Arkhangelsk. It consisted of thirty-five merchantmen and was extremely heavily escorted with both a close in escort, and larger squadrons ranging further afield to block any German surface units getting within range. As well as the full-blown escorts, such as destroyers, the convoy also included several auxiliary vessels such as HMS Palomares and HMS Pozarica. These latter two were sister ships. Both had been taken over from their peace time duties as banana boats. These were designed to transport banana's at high speeds (before they ripened) for sale. As the war broke out, they were fitted out to become AA ships, mounting a whopping eight 4in AA guns and a similar number of 2-pounder AA guns. In addition to these there were rescue ships, minesweepers, several other auxiliary vessels and even a pair of submarines. One of the ships was the Royal Navy Patrol Services' (RNPS) trawler, HMT Ayrshire.
HMT Ayrshire at Iceland.
The convoy's speed was just 7 knots and covered about twenty-five square miles. The Germans made contact with it on the 1st of July, and a series of German planes began to shadow the convoy. The planes would circle around the convoy outside of firing range. One exasperated captain ordered a signal sent by lamp to the German which read ' Please go round the other way!'. The plane promptly flashed back a signal 'Anything to oblige an Englishman' and promptly reversed course, to orbit the convoy in the other direction.

PQ-17 at Iceland.
Several U-boat attacks were foiled, and one large scale torpedo attack, where the Germans broke off their attack in the face of the weight of fire the convoy could throw up. One of the planes was caught out as it broke off and headed for home. It had not noticed that one of the destroyers from the screen was returning to refuel and the plane flew right by it, only to be swatted out of the sky.

By now the convoy was in the pack ice near the arctic circle. One eyewitness reported seeing an iceberg with a crashed German plane on it, shot down by a previous convoy. The pack ice damaged a couple of merchantmen who were forced to turn back. There were also two more air attacks. There are a variety of reasons for what happened next, a misunderstanding of signals and conflicting intelligence. These facts have been analysed and scrutinised by many historians, and even people who barely count as historians (e.g. David Irving). The situation was this, the Admiralty believed that a force of German capital ships was bearing down on the convoy. The messages they sent were miss-understood to the extent the commander of the convoy expected to see the upper-works of the German ships to break the horizon at any moment. Thus, he issued the fateful order for the convoy to scatter. He took his escort ships with him and headed south to reinforce the screening squadrons so as to delay the Germans. Several of the merchants hooked up with the auxiliary vessels. HMS Palomares and HMS Pozarica took charge of a few merchants apiece and were supported by some of the other auxiliary vessels such as a minesweeper.

HMS Palomares, one of the converted 'Banana Boats'
Three merchantmen, the SS Troubador, SS Ironclad and an American ship the SS Silver Sword linked up with HMT Ayrshire. The trawler was armed with a single 4" gun, and a pair of machine guns (we've covered RNPS trawlers before), she had been a fishing trawler before the war. In charge was the RNVR Lieutenant Leo Gradwell. Before the war Gradwell had done some private sailing as a hobby. Now with no charts, firepower or anything else he had three merchants to protect. He led them north deeper into the Arctic Circle. There, they became stuck in ice. Around them the rest of the convoy was being slaughtered by German aircraft and U-boats. Lt Gradwell took charge. First, he camouflaged the ships, this was done by using supplies carried on one of the ships, which included cloth and white paint. After disguising their ships as icebergs, they sat and watched German reconnaissance planes searching the area looking for more targets to pass on to their attack squadrons. The planes seemed to ignore them. Even so he had the crews ready for an attack. Some of the ships were carrying tanks on deck. He had the guns unlocked and traversed to face the most likely direction of attack and loaded. If nothing else, they would be able to give a single defiant salvo at whatever German hove into view.
Blohm & Voss BV 138, likely the reconnaissance planes used by the Germans, and possibly one of the stupidest designs I've ever seen. The armament of this plane was a pair of 20mm's, one in a turret at on the nose (roughly where the bloke is in this picture, you can see the mount for it, but has been removed in this picture). The other is in a turret at the rear, about where the tarpaulin on this picture disappears under the tail boom. Thus most of your field of fire is blocked by the tail boom. It seems to counter this a single machine gun was placed at the back of the top engine.

The ships managed to free themselves from the ice, and there was no sign of attack. It appeared the disguises had worked. Using his sextant and a copy of the Times World Geographic Pocket Book that he had on him, Lt Gradwell led his ships to safety. One account suggests the crew of the US ship wanted to stop at the first land they encountered and off-load then declare themselves neutral. Lt Gradwell talked them out of it. There are similar accounts from another eyewitness who saw a US ship where the crew had disabled their guns, halted in a bay and were camping ashore. In the other case the eyewitness blames the inexperience of the crews, as many were landlubbers tempted by the pay, and the heavily unionised nature of the US merchant fleet.

The three ships escorted by HMT Ayrshire arrived safely. In total only eleven ships made it to port, most likely as part of the groups escorted by MS Palomares and HMS Pozarica.


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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ramming speed

Today, I'm going to take one of my periodical voyages into the depths of history, or at least slightly outside the scope of the normal date range of subjects I cover on here. The catalyst for this was the bloody awful TV adaptation of War of the Worlds that the BBC aired at the start of last December. In that dire program they failed to include one of the iconic parts of the entire book, and several films (even the 2004 Tom Cruise film had something sort of like it, if you squinted hard enough). I am talking of course, about HMS Thunderchild.

Now those of you who know the book, will recall that Wells described the HMS Thunderchild as a torpedo ram, and to be fair that's possibly a better description of today's article. The second half of the 19th century was an odd time for Naval types. They were experiencing a period that us tank historians will instantly recognise. Ironclads were arriving, and the only way to penetrate an ironclad’s armour was by steadily bigger and bigger guns. In turn this meant that theoretically you could armour a small boat, and make it fast enough, that the size of gun needed to penetrate the armour was so big it would not be able to track the smaller craft well enough to hit it. However, such a concept was of no use as in return the small craft would lack the firepower to do damage to the bigger ship. Remember at this time the ironclads were armed with banks of guns down the side of each ship, no turrets were in sight. All that changed in 1866 when the Whitehead torpedo was unveiled by its Austro-Hungarian inventor, and suddenly the smaller ship has a potent weapon as well.
Whitehead torpedo with the Argentinian Navy
Another thing that happened in 1866, also involving Austrian Empire was the Battle of Lissa. It has been claimed that torpedo rams were strongly influenced by this battle. At this battle a smaller Austrian Empire force ran into an Italian force near the island of Lissa. The Italians were lined up in column astern, the Austrians formed a block and charged in from the flank, much like at the battle of Trafalgar. As luck would have it the Italian commander was transferring his flag as the Austrians approached, meaning that only one portion of the Italian fleet opened fire. As the action devolved into a messy brawl the Italian ship Affondatore tried to ram an Austrian ship but missed. Then the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max tried to ram two Italian ships, but both managed to dodge the attack. Then after a bitter gun duel with the first ship they had tried to ram, the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max found herself in position again and went for the ram. The Italian ship slowed and tried to reverse out of the way and suffered the inevitable consequences. She sunk some two minutes later with a 5ft hole below the water line. The Italians then attempted to counter-ram the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, however they missed. The gun decks on the Italian let fly at the damaged Austrian ship with a full, point blank broadside. But in the excitement, they had forgotten to load any shot.
One of the Austrian Empire ships after the battle of Lissa
With all the ramming involved some have claimed that the torpedo ram class of ships from around the world were designed to sink by either torpedo or ramming attacks. It seems this is not the case, however. To explain I shall focus on the Royal Navy’s use of the Whitehead torpedo.
HMS Vesuvius
The first ship designed for the Whitehead was HMS Vesuvius. She was in part an experimental ship, in part an actual warship. Her stated purpose was to sneak into French ports at night and start firing off torpedoes at moored ships. This sounds great at first glance, however, her slow speed of just 9 knots, single torpedo tube and only ten reloads make this seem dubious. Despite this several new ideas were included in her design, such as using coke to reduce the smoke given off, and that was vented underwater to reduce her visibility. However, before she was even laid down a new, improved class of ship, the true torpedo ram was designed.
HMS Polyphemus in her dry dock before launch, showing off the odd shape of the hull, the Ram and the bow torpedo door.
This new ship was named HMS Polyphemus. She was very low in the water, her hull resembling a submarine, and plated with 3 inches of armour. Ships of the line, like the ones at the Battle of Lissa usually had about 5in of plating, so she was extremely well protected. She was armed with five torpedo tubes, one in the bow inside the ships ram. The other tubes were pointing out the sides of the hull, with one each side on the 90-degree line, and two angled forward. In addition, she carried 18 spare torpedoes.
HMS Polyphemus afloat.
Like HMS Vesuvius her mission was to penetrate enemy harbours and sink ships with torpedoes. You might wonder why the targets were to be in harbour, well the Whitehead only had a top speed of 26 knots, which made hitting a moving target with a single torpedo extremely unlikely, especially as you are firing from fixed tubes.
So why the presence of the ram? Easy, it was to help the ship gain access to the enemy harbour. If the enemy placed a sturdy berm across the entrance to the harbour, then ships like HMS Vesuvius would be unable to gain access. But the torpedo ram could just cut through the barriers.

All this was tested out in 1885. In April the Russians orchestrated the Panjdeh incident. Fearing a possible attack into India the British began to prepare for war. One option was to attack Kronstadt harbour, or at least blockade it. The Russians when faced with the creation of a large Royal Navy fleet, and the British allocating some £11 million pounds for war, backed down and the crisis ended. However, it was decided to conduct trials of potential fleet actions of a type similar to the Kronsadt scenario. Thus, Berehaven on the south-west tip of Ireland was selected to stand in for the Russian base. It was defended by shore based torpedoes, command detonated mines and several berms and obstacles. The force playing the "Russian" ships inside the harbour, successfully managed to slip past the blockading "British" fleet and arrived off Glasgow.
To explain the caption, Berehaven is in Bantry bay.
However, before the exercise was completed, HMS Polyphemus was unleashed. One night, dodging torpedoes fired from shore installations, and bodily smashing through nets, steel hawsers and booms she ripped into the centre of the harbour at full steam, and would likely have had plenty of targets to launch her torpedoes at.

However, this class was to die out quite quickly, for the shortest lived of the class look at the US Navy's attempt, the USS Intrepid. She was commissioned on 31st of July 1874, and decommissioned on the 22nd of August, of the same year! The reason for the torpedo ram's short life was twofold. First, quick firing gun development meant that smaller lighter guns with sufficient punch that could be trained on a fast boat were coming into widespread service. Equally, a simple defence against torpedo attacks in harbour was devised, the anti-torpedo net suspended from booms. With the means of attack negated, and the chance of survival limited the torpedo ram was quietly retired with only a handful of her class having been built around the world.
The only picture I could find of USS Intrepid.
This is the USS Alarm, from 1873. As you can see she appears to be similar design to a Torpedo Ram as well, although less well protected. It is likely she was an experimental design similar to HMS Vesuvius.  Below is a sketch of her firing all her torpedo tubes.
HMS Polyphemus was sold for scrap on the 7th of July 1903, just a few short weeks after the 1903 opposition of Mars, and the class is now immortalised by HMS Thunderchild. From the description of HMS Thunderchild in the book, it almost certainly is HMS Polyphemus that Wells describes in action.

Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks.
Special thanks to Conrad for donating via Patreon.

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