Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Happy Birthday

Those of you whom have read my articles for a long time will have spotted a trend not to cover German forces in the Second World War too much. There is a reason for this. Most simply, German forces tend to be over represented and covered already, and analysed to a ridiculous degree, so the likelihood is that the article is not that new. Equally, for some reason exploits of the SS forces tend to attract even more coverage than you would expect. A few times I've been looking at an interesting article, until I find out the German involved is in the SS, and instantly gets himself deleted from the to do pile. While there is some mileage in the Wehrmacht not being bad guys, and I have covered Wehrmacht soldiers before when they have a good story, for those in the SS there is no defence (although many have tried). However, I recently stumbled across a story about a SS bloke, which I thought I really should cover, so please hold your nose (maybe even literally) and read on.

Josef Dietrich, born on the 28th of May 1892, was an over promoted chauffeur and thoroughly unlikeable bloke. Yet somehow, he managed to end up in charge of 1st SS Panzer Regiment. This unit's main claim to fame was the number of innocent Polish who were massacred by the thugs in uniform during the Polish campaign. In time for the invasion of France and the low countries, the unit had been increased in size to a motorised rifle regiment. During which this force managed to arrive at its primary objective, a bridge, which the Dutch had already blown up. From then on, they just sort of motored about the countryside, once shooting a German student (by accident). Thus, in the 1940 campaign they had never really faced any serious opposition, until they ran headfirst into the rear-guard from the BEF at a place called Wormhout.
After having the town flattened by the Luftwaffe, the 1st SS began to get ready for their assault, which occurred on the following day the 28th of May (yes, Dietrich's birthday). The Germans advanced under cover of artillery and close air support and took over the neighbouring town of Esquelbecq. The British forces there had partially evacuated the previous night, and the HQ had abandoned the chateau. Now Dietrich took it over as his command post.
All the while this was going on Wormhout had been attacked by Stuka's around 0600, with the main advance of the 1st SS arriving at 0745. The town’s defenders are a mixed force taken from the  2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment and 2nd Battalion of the Cheshire’s Regiment. In total there seems to have been some two companies of men, with a couple of heavier weapons, such as machine guns and a 2-pounder or two.

By 0900 the might of the 1st SS division was still being held by the stubborn resistance, and they were losing precious armoured vehicles. About thirty minutes later German infantry try to work their way around the flank of Wormhout, and promptly run in to a Vickers machine gun platoon, which halts any advance on that flank, and indeed keeps the German infantry pinned down in place for the entire morning.
By about midday Dietrich was frustrated by the lack of progress and decided that what the front lines needed was his chauffeur training, and so summoned his personnel vehicle, and an escort and headed for Wormhout.
As they charged forward, they turn a corner and run into a roadblock across the carriageway. A 2-pounder gun immediately started knocking out the escort vehicles, while Dietrich's personal vehicle is riddled with Bren Gun fire from the defending infantry. His driver is killed, and Dietrich and an officer with him are forced to leap out and take cover in a shallow ditch beside the road. Any attempt to move is met with a hail of very accurate Bren Gun fire. What's more, burning fuel from the devastated column started to drain into the ditch, the 2nd officer in the ditch was able to crawl away from the fire to hide in a culvert. However, the burning fuel was between Dietrich and this means of survival. It slowly spread towards him. Dietrich's only course for survival was to smear himself in the mud of the ditch to keep from burning in the heat. As an added bonus, the water, slime and mud in the ditch was actually the runoff form a nearby pig sty so included liberal amounts of pig droppings.
Captioned to be Dietrich's car.
As the day wears on the German advance is going nowhere, to make matters just that bit worse for them the Royal Artillery joins in. Some units try to bayonet charge the defenders yelling "Heil Hitler", and are cut down. However, the constant pressure and lack of ammunition means the defenders start to break. Around 1400, armoured units manage to get round the south of Wormhout and begin to enter with supporting infantry. Around the same time Dietrich was rescued, although the Germans lost a further three armoured cars doing so.
For the next few hours the British defences were mopped up and a large number of prisoners were collected. orders were given for the prisoners to be shot, and the Wormhoudt massacre occurred.

After the war Dietrich was accused of the massacre, his defence was it was not him, as he was still in the ditch when the orders occurred. At the time there was no way to disprove this, although recent discoveries show Dietrich issuing orders at 1500, and thus before the massacre. Another officer who was on the hook for the war crime was captured by the Soviets and wasn't released until after the Nuremburg trials were completed. The British, and then the Germans, did try to convict, however, there was a serious problem in acquiring evidence, and despite several attempts no conviction was possible.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Firsts

At the outbreak of the First World War the Austro-Hungarians immediately attacked their neighbours. The attack went badly. There is a story that the Austro-Hungarians by accident ended up charging across one of the few artillery ranges the Serbians had. This meant the Serbian gunners had some very precise ranging information already known, and thus caused heavy casualties. However, the Austro-Hungarians also had some achievements in the early years of the First World War.

The first was against the Kingdom of Montenegro. Over their artillery positions, in the first days of the war the Austro-Hungarians flew Lohner L flying boats from Kumbor. These planes took pictures of the enemy gun positions below and was arguably the first use of aircraft in the First World War.
Lohner L in flight.
The other first again involved the Lohner L flying boat, flown from the same base. On the morning of 16th September 1915, a flying boat (number L132) was returning from a mission to Durrës. On the way back its observer was scanning the surrounding sea, when he spotted a submarine. Upon landing the information was passed to their commanders who checked to see if it was a friendly submarine. The results were soon back, it was a negative, the submarine was an enemy vessel. The submarine was the French Foucault (Q70).

Another Lohner L, number L135, was armed and dispatched to search for the submarine. About ten nautical miles south-west of Cape Oštro, the submarine was spotted. It seems likely that the aircraft was spotted, although several sources give differing accounts of the exact sequence of events. However, what the accounts do agree on was the submarine was only at around 10 meters depth when the L135 released its two 50kg bombs. These were dropped from an altitude of 200m. Each bomber had a delayed action fuse, which was set to 10 meters as well. Both bombs missed by some 7 meters. Another source has the ship diving after one bomb attack, and then later a second bombing run is carried out.
Either way, the Foucault was diving when the bomb exploded near her stern. The blast caused serve damage, and the submarine started shipping water. A fire is reported in some accounts, and water damage to the electrics in others, which in turn released poisonous fumes. In the choking atmosphere the submarine began to sink into the darkness. At 40m the Foucault passed her test depth, and kept going, the hull creaking and groaning in the fume ridden darkness with water sloshing around the feet of the crew. The 29 souls onboard faced one of several unpleasant deaths.
The Submarine Foucault.
Then, the lights flickered on and the pumps began to whir. By a miracle the engineers had managed to fix the circuits. The Foucault began to ascend and when it finally breached the surface around 30 minutes had gone past. L135 had been joined by L132, both planes were on the verge of abandoning the hunt. The crew began to abandon ship into the rough waters of the Adriatic. The last man off was the captain of the Foucault, who had plunged into the choking atmosphere and opened the seacock to scuttle his boat.

Here the two pilots of L135 and L132 showed their bravery. In the flimsy biplane flying boats they set down on the choppy seas. There was no way they would be able to load all the submarines crew and take off again. Instead they acted as floats, allowing the Frenchmen to cling onto the wings, floats and hull as best they could. After a short while later an Austro-Hungarian torpedo boat arrived to take the crew off. The two officers of the submarine were flown back to Kumbor aboard the flying boats. In this entire encounter not one person had been injured. This was the first recorded sinking of a submarine at sea by an aircraft.
Postcard of the saving of the crew.
The first recorded sinking of a submarine also went to the Austro-Hungarians, when on the night of 9th August 1915 21 aircraft attacked the port of Venice. One of the bombs hit the submarine HMS B10, which sunk. Later she was salvaged, and the Italians began to refit her. The British cautioned against this, however, the warnings were ignored. Then an Italian workman drilled into one of the HMS B10's fuel tanks, which caused an explosion and subsequent fireball. The fires it started could not be controlled, and so the dry-dock had to be flooded, utterly wrecking the HMS B10 again. At this point the Italians stripped the submarine of whatever they could and scrapped the rest.

Image credits:
www.flymag.cz and www.wrecksite.eu

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Destruction of History

US Residents, please read this to save your history.

I did have a nice article planed out for today, however, a story broke in the week that I felt needed more coverage, so we’re doing that today. For those of you who saw my Facebook post, scroll down a bit there’s some history stuff in there as well, although we have some more information. The details around this story come off social media, as for some reason the Organisations involved don’t want to publicly announce they’re being tits, so there may be other factors to this story.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.

Here we have a very nicely preserved MBT-70, at TACOM and the Centre for Military History. As far as I can tell at the time of this picture there were five MBT-0 still in existence. Two German versions, two complete US versions and a wrecked hulk rusting away somewhere. This particular one was owned by the US Army and stored at TACOM. Here’s what was left of her a couple of weeks ago:

Although it’s likely that the turret is gone as well now. That’s right, they’ve scrapped her. Chopped her up into tiny pieces and melted her down. Why? No one seems to know. It’s even more curious that at least one other collection was offering to buy/home her. If you wanted the space move it to the other museum! But no, apparently its much better to destroy it. Sorry, are you afraid someone will be robbing the local bank with it?

But wait, there’s more! The “Centre of Military History” apparently has destroyed rather a lot of items of late. Either by scrapping, or dispatching vehicles to be hard targets on ranges. That I can find mention of are assorted rare M60 sub variants and a perfectly preserved, all original parts Sherman were all sent to the target range and are now, likely to be somewhat less pristine. In the latest round of scrapping apparently the following items were destroyed by the Centre for Military History.

  • A large calibre gun or arty piece
  • A “Spahpanzer”, possibly a Luchs?
  • A M109
  • A Swedish APC
  • Some 4x4 mobility vehicle with what I guess is a 106mm Recoilless rifle on the back.

Now to be fair, not all of these exhibits are rare, although the M60 variants were. They included the only two M60A1E2 in the world. Luckily a few individuals managed to save one of the doomed tanks, the other was destroyed.

So what can we do about it? If you’re outside of the US, not a thing. If you’re in the US however, you can start making a noise! I would suggest writing to your state representatives. A quick letter takes you a few minutes or so. Apparently Robert Sampson (senator for Connecticut), has been written to by one guy, and he's unhappy. SO the ball is rolling, lets see if we can get more going!

Hopefully if enough people kick up a stink then we can prevent any other rare tanks being destroyed. At the moment the damage to history has been limited, but who knows what irreplaceable exhibits will be next?

The US doesn’t have a monopoly on doing this. Though, here are a series of pictures from 1922 which show the Imperial War Museum scrapping a MkV tank, Medium B Whippet, A7V, FT17 and most horrifically a MkI Gun carrier, the last in the world at that time.

If you wish to see more pictures from the set, the IWM website has them.

Even more recently, in the mid to late 1990’s Bovington scrapped the prototype FV221 Caernarvon, which had been hand built as a component tester. It is entirely possible they didn’t realise what they had at the time, as the chassis had been used for a variety of roles over its life time, and it is likely that they thought it just a FV214 Conqueror chassis when they disposed of it. The life story of that particular hull starts as the prototype FV221. Then she becomes a test bed for a gas turbine for a few years. Once again, she is modified into a dynamo vehicle for use at Bovy. Later she has a driver training cab fitted, and is then used as the commentary box on the old Bovington Arena, until the new arena was built, at which point she was scrapped

Sunday, October 27, 2019

New Arivals

Before the Second World War El Alamein was little more than a railway halt, during the War it became the furthest the Germans reached into Egypt. The first battle held there had the Allies on the defensive to halt the Germans. As the situation resolved itself with the Germans held in place there was a place called Ruweisat Ridge. This would be the Germans high water mark, and they would never take one pace further into Egypt. The ridge was a bulge into the Allied lines, and so obviously they attempted to reduce it, and tidy up the battlefield, as Monty was prone to calling the act of straightening front lines.
The first attempt, on the 14th of July, had New Zealand and Indian Infantry Divisions attacking the position, with support from the veteran tank crews of the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades. The plan had the infantry grabbing objectives in a night assault, with the 2nd Brigade then using those advanced positions as a springboard to launch into the German rear, while the 22nd moved up to support the infantry.
At first things looked to be going well. The New Zealander's achieved their initial objectives, although the Indians ran into stiff resistance. The New Zealanders had been forced to bypass several strong-points as well. At this point there was a general failure of communications with the armoured brigades. The scattered strong points also meant that supporting arms were unable to close up to the lead battalions. As the day wore on the tanks moved up, however the 2nd ran into a dense mine field, and being overly cautious due to months of fighting, failed to move up. Meanwhile the 22nd supporting the Indians got embroiled in a bitter tank battle with the Axis forces. This left the New Zealanders exposed and facing increasing pressure with dwindling ammunition and weapons. By the end of battle the Germans had held the position and captured around 700 New Zealand prisoners.
Plans were drawn up for a resumed offensive very quickly. the 23rd Armoured Brigade had only just arrived in Egypt that month, and was not fully constituted. However, two tank regiments the 40th and 46th Royal Tank Regiments, each equipped with Valentines, were rushed to the front. It was hopped that the green troops would be less cautious than the war weary veteran troops. These tank regiments would support an infantry assault on the base of the salient into commonwealth lines, while another regiment and infantry would attack the far side of the bulge.

On the 21st the New Zealanders advanced, starting at 1630 in the afternoon. In an almost identical replay of the first battle, several strong points were bypassed, and the objectives taken. The following day the Germans counter attacked and caused heavy casualties, over running the exposed New Zealanders. The 2nd Armoured Brigade tried to send forth support, however they ran into minefields and the strong points that had been bypassed. To save the failing situation the 23rd Armoured Brigade was brought up and would advance to the rescue on the following day. Thus the 23rd Armoured Brigade was launched into action with just fourteen days in country, on the 23rd of July.
At 0800, the 104 Valentine II's of the 23rd rumbled for,ward at a heady 15mph. First, they had to cross the minefields. Narrow gaps had been cleared, only 30m at most. Soon tanks began to lose their way along the mine free lanes and begin to strike mines. The two tank regiments did, however, push forward. Then they began to take anti-tank fire. One of the guns was the Germany newest weapon that had only just arrived in country.

The wild charge of the 23rd Armoured Brigade was aimed squarely, and entirely accidentally, at the German 104th Panzer-Grenadier regiment. The lead battalion was overrun by the marauding Valentines. However, their anti-tank platoon was still in operation. The platoon was equipped with PAK-36(r) guns, which had only been issued in the May-June period. These guns were originally Russian 76mm M1936 divisional guns, with some modifications. One of these guns was crewed by Gefreiter (Equivalent Lance-corporal/Private First Class) Günter Halm.
Halm had been born in in 1922 in Elze. He had trained as a machinist. He was conscripted in 1941, and after training posted to the Afrika Korps in 1942. Despite the storm of fire he and his comrades were putting down, the horde of British tanks soon closed up, now able to spot his gun they opened fire. A 2-pounder shot struck the gun shield and sprayed shrapnel amongst the crew wounding two. Despite this Halm carried on manning the gun and kept it in action. By the end of the day his gun had knocked out between 9-15 tanks (accounts differ, and the Germans had a habit of over claiming tank kills). For his actions in the face of a wall of Valentines he was awarded an Iron Cross 1st Class, which was later upgraded to a Knights Cross. This made Halm the youngest ever winner of the award. Halm would survive the war dying in 2017.
PAK-36(r) in action in Africa. Later versions would add a muzzle brake and reduce the size of the gun shield.
While the first battle of El Alamein had no territory captured, it had shifted the dynamic of the campaign. The Germans had held but had been battered flat suffering massive losses of men and material. The savage attacks had been conducted hastily by the 8th Army. The Germans were immobilised, stunned, and could no longer attack. Meanwhile, the 8th Army were beginning to prepare for a punch, and this time it would be properly planned. The 8th Army were going to make sure they had a brick in their hand, and the blow would start the fall of the Afrika Korps which would end in Tunisia in May 1943.

Image Credits:
alchetron.com, www.worldwarphotos.info and nzhistory.govt.nz

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The CIA's Air to Air

In 1965 the US launched Operation Rolling Thunder over North Vietnam. Things went poorly for the US at first, with organisational and equipment issues, compounded by political interference. To make matters worse the monsoon weather in the region was proving a massive impediment to accurate navigation let alone bombing. There was at least an answer to the last problem, in Laos the CIA had for many years maintained a small base on top of Phou Pha Thi, a 5,800ft mountain with sheer sides all the way around. There was a single trail leading to the top of this mountain, and so it was judged secure. It was also only 125 miles from Hanoi. In August 1966 a radar beacon was installed at the base and became known as Lima Site 85. Lima was the phonetic name for L, and thus Laos. To US pilots it simply became "Channel 97" which was the frequency the radar beacon could be obtained from. It was able to tell pilots where they were with a margin of error of only a few feet. Over the next two years the system was upgraded several times, and even had the technicians at the base guiding bombing in very bad weather. Navigation and bombing results improved in very quick order.

The radar site on LS-85
It became such an issue for the North Vietnamese that they began to draw up plans to destroy LS-85. Originally the US had expected the sites destruction within six months. All buildings had been fitted with demolition charges, and the personnel were issued small arms for defence. However, it wasn't until January 1968 that the North Vietnamese started operating against the base. An NVA patrol was destroyed on the 10th of January, on the 11th there was an overflight by North Vietnamese aircraft, presumably a reconnaissance run for the mission on the 12th of January.

On that day two specially modified AN-2 Colts were sent to attack the site. These rugged biplanes had been fitted with an assortment of twelve shot 57mm rocket pods and machine guns under the wings. In addition, their cavernous fuselages had been loaded with tubes of 122mm mortar rounds. These were placed vertically with the openings pointing downwards, and a rudimentary set of bomb bay doors fitted. The mission also included other AN-2's, although accounts differ on how many. Some say one other plane, others say two. But these stood off and orbited the attack, obviously serving as either a master bomber, or equipped with navigation devices to find the site.
 As luck would have it, there was a US aircraft nearby. A lone UH-1 Huey from Air America was making a supply run to the site with ammunition. This UH-1 was flown by Ted Moore. Moore had been a UH-1 gunship pilot in the early years of the Vietnam War, before rotating back to the states as an instructor. He was then recruited to fly in Air America. As they approached LS-85 they saw the two attacking AN-2's clumsily looping and diving on the site, Moore said it looked like something out of the First World War. Unfortunately, his current Huey was utterly unarmed. Then his co-pilot, Glenn Woods, scrambled out of his seat, and grabbed an AK-47 they were carrying as a survival rifle. Woods slid open the side door and perched himself on the runner, as Moore gave chase.
A couple of Air America UH-1's at the LS-85 landing strip.
Over the next twenty minutes, the UH-1 chased one of the Colts, with Woods firing several magazines at the AN-2. Back at LS-85 a local guerrilla had managed to hit one of the Colt's with several rounds from his AK-47, which forced the attacker to break off. As Moore was flying above the AN-2 he was chasing, his downwash was disrupting the airflow over the plane and reducing its speed, so the second Colt was able to catch up. In short order both aircraft crashed, within three miles of each other presumably from the hits from small arms they had suffered. The remaining AN-2's that had been circling LS-85 left the area without taking any offensive action. This was the first (and likely only) time a biplane was shot down by a helicopter, it was also one of the few air-to-air kills the CIA has on its records (or at least admits to!). Moore would leave Air America and become a stockbroker.

LS-85 would remain in operation for another few weeks. Unbeknown to the US forces the North Vietnamese had been planning a special forces attack for some time. Around forty men had been undergoing rigorous physical training, especially in mountaineering. They had been observing the site since about December 1967. On the 10th of March 1968 regular units of about 3,000 men surrounded the base, and began to bombard it with artillery. Overnight the special forces had been scaling the sheer cliffs, and by 0345 the next morning were within 30 meters of the base, at which point they launched their attack.
Lay out of LS-85 radar beacon
Large numbers of the USAF technicians manning the site were killed in the initial assault, all the equipment was disabled. A small group of personnel managed to form a defensive position on the edge of the sheer drop down the side of the mountain. At the airstrip the special forces assault had run into guerrilla positions and had failed, leaving the North Vietnamese fighting desperately to prevent being overrun. At around 0700, Air America helicopters arrived, the first landed at the air strip to evacuate US personnel. Later in a daring rescue attempt another UH-1 hovered, out of ground effect alongside the mountain face, while under small arms fire to pluck the last wounded personnel from the mountain. Of note, was Master Sergeant Richard Loy Etchberger. He helped load wounded onto the helicopter, at the same time kept on fighting off the attacking North Vietnamese special forces. With the last wounded man aboard Sgt Etchberger climbed into the helicopter himself, only to be hit and killed by a bullet, the same bullet over penetrated his body and stuck the co-pilot’s AK-47 shattering it. Sgt Etchberger was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. But LS-85 had fallen and would remain in enemy hands for a few months until they abandoned it. The USAAF would return in a couple of days and flatten every building left standing.

Image credits:
www.soc.mil and www.thegtrider.com

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sabres in Hand

On September 1st 1939, A Polish cavalry regiment spotted some Germans loitering in a clearing near Krojanty. The 18th Pomeranian Uhlans launched a charge at these invaders. The infantry regiment was caught off guard and quickly over run, before breaking, leaving the Polish cavalry in charge of the battlefield. Shortly afterwards a group of German Armoured cars appeared. The Uhlans immediately, and very sensibly fled, trying to break contact, but took heavy casualties during their flight. The next day an Italian war correspondent was brought to the battlefield (presumably after a clean-up of the remains of the German infantry regiment), the Germans advanced the lies that the Poles had tried to charge tanks. The Italian then published the story as an eyewitness account, and the myth of the Polish Cavalry charge against armour was born and lives on to this day.
Polish Uhlan. That's not a lance on his back either, but an anti-tank rifle.
However, the Poles weren't stupid enough to mount futile cavalry charges. At the Battle of Mokra on the same date the German 4th Panzer Division ran into the 21st Uhlans, who fought as infantry, and their 37mm anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles gave the German armour a kicking, knocking out around fifty tanks. The Polish cavalry arm consisted of some 10% of the deployable army of the time, with about 38 regiments of cavalry. Many of these Poles would escape to the USSR, and when the Red Army formed its Polish units, cavalry formations were created as well. In the Red Army the cavalry was used more as dragoons (Equivalent to motorised infantry in more modern armies). The Polish cavalrymen were very unhappy with the horses they were given in the Red Army, seeing the horses as tiny little things, indeed one cavalry man would later state they looked like "Jesus astride a donkey!" due to the size of the mounts. After crossing into Poland, the cavalrymen were able to obtain proper mounts for themselves.

On the 1st of March 1945, as the Soviets pushed into Pomerania, the 2nd Polish Infantry Division found themselves facing the third line defences of the Germans around Borujsko. Ahead of them they could see an anti-tank ditch, and some hints of trenches. There were bunkers with machine guns as well. Manning these was the battle hardened 163 Infantry Division. What the attackers could not see was the heavily camouflaged positions, which each contained a couple of men and a stack of Panzerfausts. These littered the approach to the German front line and were described as being laid out in a chessboard like pattern. Borujsko itself sits on a low hill, and the ground around it is wet and boggy.
After an opening bombardment, that included air strikes, lasting around thirty minutes the first Polish attack was launched. Supported by four T-34/85's, with SU-85's in over-watch, the Infantry were soon pinned and two of the tanks had been destroyed. The Poles aborted their attack and fell back to re-organise and try again later. Another component of the plan was the 1st Independent Cavalry Brigade. This formation was to follow the attack in, and when the Germans broke, they were to exploit the opening. A new infantry regiment was cycled in to launch the attack, with fourteen T-34/85's, each with tank infantry riders on the back. Again, five SU-85s were to provide over-watch cover. This attack started at 1500 and was a total disaster. Over the next forty-five minutes the Polish forces tried three times to close with the German defences, and each time they were repulsed with heavy casualties. Most of the tanks had fallen prey to the Panzerfausts, and were burning away, creating a thick layer of smoke to the front of the German positions.

Suddenly, over the battlefield a single red signal rocket burst. The two lead squadrons of cavalry had worked their way forward using dead ground, now using his own initiative one of the junior commanders had yelled "Lancers! Sabres in Hand!" and signalled the charge. The two squadrons raced forward, seemingly to their doom, flowing past smashed burning tanks, and pinned infantry, who lying there would glance up as the horses thundered by.
Polish Cavalry in the late war. Picture is reportedly taken in Borujsko.
 The thick smoke thrown off from the tanks blocked all visibility from the German trench lines, and what could a man armed with a Panzerfaust do against a horse? The anti-tank ditch provided no protection either, as the horses simply leapt over them, as they did the German trenches. Any German who was found was cut down by sabre thrust. The Germans began to break and flee the charging cavalry. After breaking through the cavalry mustered at a nearby wooded area, dismounted, and leaving their horses under guard returned as infantry to attack any German strong points from behind. This coincided with a renewed attack, with extra armour from the front. By 1700 Borujsko was firmly in Polish hands.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Scanlon's Knock-Out Punch

There is a constant problem in doing these articles. Sources can conflict quite badly. Sometimes you need to glue snippets together from multiple sources, other times they seem contradictory, so let’s see how we get on this week!

We start, early one morning with a French farmhouse near Issy les-Moulineaux before the First World War. Out of nowhere a 37mm shell smashed into the farmhouse and ploughed through the building. The projectile was recovered and there was much curiosity as to where this could have come from. Such a projectile was normally used by the Navy, but there were hundreds of miles between them and the nearest naval firing range. Equally, all the eyewitnesses had not reported a gunshot being heard. A local newspaper reporter then got onto the case and begun investigating this curiosity. He very quickly worked out what had happened. It was a stray round fired by a Voisin aircraft that had been testing 37mm guns fitted to planes for the French military. This, by the limited source we have, solved the mystery to the satisfaction of everyone who heard about it, but upset the authorities who had wanted to keep this project rather more secret.
A Voisin IV, with its 37mm gun
The plane’s designer, Gabriel Voisin, had a history of strapping large guns to planes, having first displayed such a weapon on a plane in 1912. Although that plane never flew, and it is unrecorded what type of plane this experimental model was as the internet seems to confirm that the first such 37mm armed aircraft was the Voisin IV of 1915, and yet some sources state that a squadron of 37mm aircraft were used to defend Paris at the start of the war.
Voisin's 1912 display piece.
Voisin's best efforts with this new project would be rewarded, when it is claimed two US aircrew from the Lafayette Escadrille in a Voisin aircraft, with a 37mm mounted in the rear seat of a plane, managed to score a direct hit on a German plane on the 10th of January 1915.

The pilot was stated as Norman Prince, who was born in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1887. He had ties to France with an estate being bought there by his family in 1910. In January 1915 he travelled to France to persuade the French authorities to set up the Lafayette Escadrille, which became operational in 1916. For that reason, I fear we can assume the date of the air to air kill was wrong.
Norman Prince
Prince would serve in the Lafayette Escadrille until October, when with four kills under his belt he flew an escort mission for bombers hitting the Mauser works at Oberndorf. During the mission he achieved his fifth air to air victory. On return to his base, as he was approaching the landing strip, he flew too low and his undercarriage caught on a set of telegraph wires, and his plane crashed killing him.
Bob Scanlon
The gunner on the aircraft was listed as being Bob Scanlon, a person much harder to locate documents for. He was born in 1886 in Mobile, Alabama (or Milwaukee...). As a black he found life in the Land of the Free very unpleasant and soon moved abroad at the age of 16. His first job was a cowboy in Mexico, but he then moved to the UK as a middleweight boxer. Up until 1914 he lived in London working several of the boxing event clubs there. In 1914 he seemed to have moved to Paris. When war broke out he appears to have joined the French Army serving in the front line, at first with the Foreign Legion, then the regular Army. A newspaper story mentions Scanlon by name, when woken during an alert one night he grabs his rile and scrambles up out of his bunker and onto the firing step. He stands there with his rifle until stand down is called. It is at this point the exhausted Scanlon realizes he had grabbed a plank of wood used for shoring up the bunkers rather than his rifle. To make matters worse an inspection is immediately called, there he was, with no rifle in the middle of an alert! Scanlon snapped to attention shouldering the plank and hoped that the officer will not notice. The inspecting officer halted and stared at Scanlon. This officer was quite provincial, and not familiar with Colonial regiments, or the novelty of meeting an American. He assumed it was some traditional tribal weapon, and thus a good display of bloodthirstiness and eagerness to get to grips with the Germans, congratulated Scanlon and moved on.

By December 1915 (Or January 1916) Scanlon had moved to the machine gun company of his battalion, when he suffered an injury to the hand in the closing days of Verdun. This seems to have caused him to be discharged out of service. There is a newspaper article mentioning Scanlon, and it is entitled "Chops of finger to stay in the war", although details are non existent. Thus, it is likely that Scanlon could have joined Lafayette Escadrille as a gunner after this time, with his expertise in a machine guns serving him in good stead for a role as an aircraft gunner.

After the war Scanlon returned to boxing, living in Paris, until 1923 (or 1927). By one account his boxing career was ended when a jealous woman shot him! With that he seems to fade from the records.

Image credits:
www.ww1-planes.com and boxrec.com

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Operation Gutesholz

At 1400, on 27th June 1944 the guns around Rauray, almost due west of Caen, fell silent. Both the Germans and British forces had agreed a local truce to allow recovery of the wounded. The village of Rauray had been the focal point for the British attack that had been rolling on for the last few days. Rauray had been selected as the objective, because it was on the high ground, and a British attack was to pass underneath this position as part of the larger battle for Caen. If the Germans had been left in position, they would have had full observation across the attack, and had a perfect jumping off point for an attack into the flank of the Scottish 15th Division. To give you an idea of the severity of the fighting, earlier a company of the 11th Durham Light Infantry, consisting of two platoons, and seventy men had been reduced to just six uninjured. On the German side a company of Panzer Grenadiers was down to just 21 men.  During the truce, at 1600 the Germans withdrew, considering their position untenable in the short term, and left the British in charge of the ruined ground.
Clearing a sniper in Rauray.
The remains of the exhausted 11th DLI battalion occupied Rauray itself. In support was the 1st Tyneside Scottish battalion. Over the next couple of days, they pushed out from their position but met stiff German resistance, and were subjected to particularly heavy Nebelwerfer barrages. The resistance came from Kampfgruppe Weidinger, which was made up of elements from the 2nd SS Panzer Division. By the 1st of July the 1st Tyneside has extended their line to the south east of Rauray and linked up with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. The 1st Tyneside's positions were not entirely random. Previously they had reconnoitered the area looking for good defensive positions. Most of the area was bocage, with limited fields of fire. However, A company was sited in a large five cornered field, which gave several hundred meters view range. Into this field were deployed several of the 1st Tynesides surviving 6-pounder anti-tank guns. The others were dispersed where they could find the best fields of fire along the relatively open front. In addition, two dummy guns were set up to further confuse the Germans. To their rear was the Suffolk Yeomanry.

Early on the 1st of July the Germans launched a major attack. Kampfgruppe Weidinger was reinforced by the 9th SS Panzer Division and this mass of tanks and Germans advanced on the battered battalions around Rauray. The German objective was not to take Rauray, but head for Cheux. Rauray, and the positions to the south east were directly across the German's axis of attack. In doing so they would slice off the head of the British salient extending past Caen, and cripple British forces in Normandy. Von Rundstedt saw this as their last chance to throw the Allies back into the channel. The initial opening looked very very promising. The attack started at 0600, and by 0630 the 1st Tyneside company that had been the focal point of the attack was reported as falling back through the Suffolk Yeomanry's positions. All that stood in the way of this mass of armour were a handful of 6-pounders.
Those 6-pounders however had a secret weapon, super velocity rounds. These days more commonly called APDS these days, this was likely the first real test of this brand-new projectile. But initially it caused problems. Brian Stewart, commander of the 1st Tyneside's anti-tank platoon reported that the gunners were caught out by the velocity of the shots, and most of the rounds fired went high. However, the range was short and some would have struck. It is likely that after the initial opening salvo's the 6-pounders had used up their scarce few APDS shots and started firing good old fashioned APCBC, with telling results.
Due to the unusually open terrain, at least for Normandy, the Germans found themselves in a rather horrific crossfire. Tanks from the 24th Lancers had moved up to support the 11th DLI in Rauray and were on the left of the German attack. The 1st Tyneside's 6-pounders were on the right-hand side of the attack, and the Suffolk Yeomanry were blocking the front.
Moving a 6-pounder by hand.
There is an account from the Suffolk Yeomanry's after-action report, where a German tank flanks a pair of anti-tank guns and begins to lay accurate fire on them, causing causalities. One of the gun Sergeants, by the name of Hall, rallied the survivors and formed an ad-hoc gun grew. These men then manhandled their gun 350 yards to bring it into a new firing position. They got their gun ready to fire, and just in time. A Tiger used a burning enemy tank that had been previously knocked out to advance into a hull down position. Two rounds were fired, the second one causing the Tiger to brew up. A second Tiger attempted the advance in exactly the same way. The crew had the range perfectly and only needed one round to destroy it. Shortly afterwards a Panzer IV became engaged with the gun team. A fierce firefight broke out, and several men were wounded, and one killed. However, the Panzer IV was destroyed. Then a packet of four or more German tanks attacked. This was too much for the infantry who retreated, leaving Sgt Hall's mauled gun team to hold them off. In the bitter fighting that followed it seems that Sgt Hall knocked out or destroyed two of them.

This crossfire, and the stubborn resistance by the Suffolk Yeomanry blunted the German attack. Later that day, around 1100 they shifted their axis of attack northwards and closer to Rauray. The Suffolk's, DLI, 1st Tynesides and 24th Lancers, although battered and exhausted kept on fighting holding the Germans with bitter fighting. By 1700 the Germans retreated. The exact losses the Germans suffered is hard to tell. But as an example, Kampfgruppe Weidinger lost 48 vehicles from all causes. The 9th SS Panzer Division, on the 2nd of July reported the following vehicles operational, 10 Panzer IV's, 19 Panthers and Stug III's. Upon hearing of the results of the battle, Von Rundstedt was asked, what do we do know? To which he responded "Make peace, you fool!".
Attacking prepared massed anti-tank guns is expensive in tanks, as the British would find out in Op Goodwood. However, there was one huge difference between the German attack at Rauray and Op Goodwood. The British actually managed to take ground, the Germans failed.

Image credits:
www.militaryimages.net and www.dday-overlord.com

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Bouncing Bazooka's

About two months ago I mentioned, on my Facebook page, a friend in the US by the name of Harold Biondo. Now he's a lucky bloke, and gets to spend his time leafing through the US Archives. He recently came up trumps again, finding this testing report:

At first glance It's pretty earth-shattering stuff. Tanks with Zimmerit on them are proof against Bazooka's and presumably other early shaped charge warheads like the PIAT! Simply by providing a cushioning effect against the fuse. However, this report provides an ideal example for you historians on critical thought, and how to deal with sources. Now, I have no doubt that some of the doggy denizens of the internet who have vested interests will try to make much of the claims held within the above letter, I saw enough of that with the Japanese heavy tanks from my first book, but it’s something we'll have to bear as long as there's free access to the internet.

First, let’s review what we do know about Zimmerit. Zimmerit was born out of a problem that was facing all nations. Technology was advancing fast enough that tank armour was pretty quickly leaving infantry anti-tank weapons behind. After the opening salvos of the war it became pretty clear that anti-tank rifles were not going to do the job any more, so everyone started scrambling for ways to defeat the armour. For example, Britain produced the No 68 anti-tank grenade which could be fired from a cup discharger from a normal service rifle. This was a pretty poor warhead but did have the advantage of starting research that would eventually culminate in the PIAT, but that is a story for another time (and is going into a book!). In the meantime, Britain used the sticky bomb, a kind of hand thrown HESH round which you could use to beat a tank to death with.
Note the guy on the right? He's about to smash his sticky bomb onto the hull of this Valentine "Panzer", at which point the sticky glue will hold the bomb in place and allow the explosive gel to spread. At the same time, when the safety lever is released it starts a short time fuse before detonating.
In Germany thoughts turned to HEAT weapons as well and resulted in the Hafthohlladung. Unlike the sticky bomb, which used glue to affix itself, the Hafthohlladung used strong magnets. Now weapon development in Germany during the war was one of trying to stay one step ahead of everyone. You can clearly see it when you look at tanks. Each generation of AFV's would be one up on the previous generation as Germany tried to introduce the answer to their own tank design. This ensured that if any of the Allies tried to match them, they would be ahead and have better tanks. Of course, this all went horribly wrong when the Allies reached the level of the Sherman and happily stayed there, while the Germans kept on devoting massive amounts of time and energy to getting the newest thing.
As they kept designing the counter to their own weapons, the obvious concern was the magnetic anti-tank mine. This is where Zimmerit arrived. It was a paste designed to be added to the tank that would cause any magnetic mines to fall off. When applied it could be allowed to dry naturally, but this would take eight days. By using a blow torch this could be sped up to two days to coat a tank. The use of a torch started considerable fires as the solvents used in the application were burnt off, but the time saved was considered worth it. Earlier I mentioned that Germany spent a lot of time and effort preparing for an enemy weapon that was not yet in the field, and here is a prime example. In the ten or so months that Zimmerit was applied to German tanks roughly 15,000 tanks and AFV's were produced. Please do note this is a very rough figure to illustrate the point. At two days per tank that equates to 82 years worth of work just to apply the Zimmerit!

Zimmerit was discontinued from September 1944, which leads us back to the original report quite nicely. You'll note that Captain John Long states that tanks equipped with this covering were only encountered in Belgium. Most of Belgium was captured in September to November 1944, which seems to tie up quite nicely with Zimmerit service. But there are additional problems with his account, which illustrate why eyewitness reports are so notoriously difficult.
Tiger turret nicely showing off the Zimmerit, as some areas have been knocked off.
First, he states the colour as green-grey (possibly German field grey?), but 15% of the composition of Zimmerit is pigment, which gives it an ochre colour. Next he states that the thickness of the covering was 6.35-19.05mm. Yet every other source I can find states that the Zimmerit layer was between 4-6mm. It could be Cpt Long misremembering the facts, as this report seems to have been generated sometime after February 1945. Or it can be explained away, by such factors as painting the tank and dodgy measurement taking.

That last point applies in spades to the rest of the report. Those of you who have seen reports from grown ups at dedicated trials departments will know that every aspect of the trial is documented. Often batch lots of ammo are recorded. Indeed, in testing one form of protection, one trials department had to source ammunition from a particular batch, from a particular factory, that had gone out of production the year before just to ensure consistency in the trials. This involved the British logistics system scouring its depots for boxes of ammo that had not been yet fired off (You'll be glad to hear, that it was successful, the testing proved the facts, and the Germans got a hell of a surprise when they found themselves on the wrong end of a WASP flamethrower and couldn't kill it).
So here we are to ask so many questions of Cpt Longs trials. What was the fusing like, the angle of impact, what type of warhead and rocket (the M6 Bazooka rocket was notoriously unreliable)? Also, what was the expected result? This last point should be considered as the text talks about rockets not sticking in the covering... was this something you were expecting? Why? We don't even know the number of rockets fired. There are just too many variables not recorded in this report, so we cannot say why Cpt Long got the results he did.

What we do know is that HEAT warheads were killing German tanks with Zimmerit, and that the Germans stopped applying it from September 1944. if it was so effective at stopping incoming HEAT warheads you can bet the Germans would have been plastering it all over their tanks, yet they did not. This would indicate the problem was with Cpt Long's methodology. This is why you should always be careful of badly documented reports of trials carried out by troops in the field!

Still a damn interesting find by Harold, so our thanks to him for letting me share it with you.