Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Box of Polish

In August 1944 a small group of Poles were surrounded in an area just two kilometres across, cut off and running out of ammunition they were fighting to hold the Germans at bay, then the SS soldiers arrived. I am not talking of the betrayal in Warsaw, but the battle of Mont Ormel in Normandy.

As the Allied battle plan for Normandy unfolded, with the British holding the German’s attention, and grinding forwards, while the Americans swept through the weakened portion of France, the Falaise pocket began to form. As the sides of the pocket began to form the Germans began a retreat through the mouth of the pocket. The last evacuation route from the pocket was a single road that ran through a pass on the ridge line numbered Hill 262, and on past the nearby village of Mont Ormel. The points of the hill were split into 262 north and south (denoted by "n" or "s" after the hill number), with the road running between the two.  On the 19th of August the 1st Polish Armoured Division was launched across the opening of the pocket, with the aim of zipping it up and trapping the German 7th Army. They would be supported by the rest of the Commonwealth forces on the north side and the US forces approaching from the south. The initial attacks were a great success, with Polish forces penetrating all the way across the pocket and linking up with the US forces. However, the 4th Armoured Division ran into stiff resistance and was held up. The Germans were able to attack the Poles from both sides and clear the way to begin evacuating along the Mont Ormel road again. There remained one tiny thorn in the Germans side. 


Polish Sherman's driving past German POW's. Looks like a bit of an exchange is occurring between the Loader and Commander, and the POW's.
At the start of the attack a detachment was sent to capture Hill 262. It consisted of the 1st Armoured Regiment, the 9th Infantry Battalion, which was re-enforced by a battery of anti-tank guns. There were scatted groups of Germans to be rounded up, some put up a fierce fight, others collapsed immediately. This force split into three groups, two capturing the village of Coudehard and the Manor House of Boisjos, the final group wound its way up a very narrow track onto the top of Hill 262n. As the lead tanks filtered into position on 262n, they came into view of the road through the pass. After a short while two massive German columns approached from two directions, both aiming to use the pass to reach safety. The roads became crammed with a colossal traffic jam of all the Wehrmacht’s vast and varied weapons and equipment. Everything from Panther tanks to bicycles. Motor transport from across Europe were laid out below the guns of the Polish forces. A Canadian observer tank had accompanied the Polish onto the hill, and in the short lull between arriving and the German columns approaching the observer had registered his guns on the crossroads. The massed artillery and the direct fire of the Polish force annihilated the two German columns. The Canadian observer later recounted:
"Men trying to flee. Their efforts were in vain, a shell soon found them and I saw bodies flying through the air. Another shell lifted the turret from a tank; a tank nearby caught fire. Our machine-guns carried on the slaughter. Ten minutes later everything on the road was in flames. Ammunition exploded inside the vehicles, killing the occupants."

The devastation wrought by the opening ambush.
Return fire from the Germans was inaccurate and no casualties were suffered by the Polish forces, who rapidly set about expanding the German trench lines they had seized earlier into better defensive works, extending all the way around the position. It was none too soon, as realising their route out was blocked the Germans began to plaster 262n with Nebelwerfers. With dusk approaching and a massive smoke cloud from the burning German columns it was decided to await first light to attack and seize 262s.

Overnight Germans managed to surround and cut off 262n and the Polish forces. Upon learning of this, the Poles considered counterattacking but realised this would be risky, and so decided to hold on and do what they could to cut the road. While the broken ground made it possible for some Germans to escape, especially at night, the road was seriously dangerous, and utterly unusable during the day. This would severely hinder any attempts to evacuate from the pocket and would certainly prevent any equipment being evacuated. Outside of the pocket the Germans brought up re-enforcements to open the way. Starting at midday 262n was subjected to concentrated artillery bombardment from within the pocket. This was followed up by assaults at about 1400 that penetrated some 300m into the Polish lines. Bitter hand to hand fighting erupted. It took until 1900 for the Poles to restore their lines. In doing so nearly all the ammunition in the Poles position was used up.
The closeness of the fighting. Here a German Panther and Sdkfz 251 are knocked out almost on top of each other. The Sherman tank was also knocked out.
The next morning things were looking bleak. The Poles had around 110 men unwounded, and were down to around five shells per tank, and the infantry less than 50 rounds per man. Of the detachment’s officers only four were still unwounded, three Lieutenants and the Canadian Observer. There had been an attempt to resupply using aircraft, despite the terrible weather knowing the desperation the cargo planes had tried. All their efforts were for nought as the ammunition was scattered outside of the Polish box. Throughout the following morning there were several assaults, but all were fought off, using up the final drabs of the Polish ammunition.

At 1100 SS troops had infiltrated through a wooded area to the rear and were close to the units dressing station which they took under fire. At the same location was the POW cage for the Germans that had been captured over the previous days. At a range of 50 yards the Germans poured small arms fire into the position, killing around 20 of the POW's. A Pole attempted to climb a tree with a red cross flag but was shot in the hand. The fire continued despite the POW's yelling to their comrades to cease. Then the German infantry charged en-mass. The Polish defenders were literally down to sticks, stones and bayonets with not a round between them. They knew it was useless to try surrendering to the brutal killers of the SS, and so readied themselves for their final fight.
Two Polish soldiers on 262n.
Twelve streams of glowing tracers ripped out of the Polish position and tore into the SS ranks. These ploughs of light ripped through the German lines, like a finger of destruction the tracers were drawn through the German lines. In desperation, the two AA troops of the headquarters squadron had been brought up. Each troop consisted of six Crusader AA Mk.II tanks. Each tank was armed with twin 20mm Polsten guns. Each gun was fed from a 60-round drum. The ammunition load out was all HEI. The attacking SS were caught out in the open, and utterly obliterated. The rounds also set fire to the vegetation on that flank, quickly forming a roaring wall of flame.
Polish Crusader AA Mk.II's before the battle of Mont Ormel.
Shortly afterwards, at midday, the first Canadian tank reached the Polish outpost. The Canadians had been fighting bitterly for some five hours pushing forwards as fast as possible to reach the beleaguered Poles, finally the Pocket was closed.
Vehicle Collection Point after the battle of 262n.
Image credits:
ww2today.com and www.nam.ac.uk

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Old Dog Learning New Tricks.

Seek, Strike and Destroy was the motto and tactical doctrine of the US tank destroyer battalions. The US had come up with a silly idea that their tank destroyers would pursue enemy tanks around the battlefield using superior mobility and firepower to obliterate them. All nations had some weird doctrinal concepts before they experienced modern combat. In many cases these doctrines were failures. Seek, Strike and Destroy was no exception, at the first major battle the US Army took part in at Kasserine Pass the US forces were roundly thrashed. However, a glimpse of a new way of warfare for the tank destroyer battalions was seen just a few weeks later at the end of March 1943.
The US Army was now on the offensive once again, supporting Montgomery's 8th Army. The US armour was pushing forward, aimed at the Atlas Mountains to threaten the flank of the German lines. Their infantry was screening the flanks. A battalion of Rangers had pushed the flank of the armoured attack outwards, throwing the Italians backwards and out of the town of El Guettar on the 18th of March. Shortly afterwards the men of the 18th Battalion, 1st Infantry Division took over. The Italian forces took up position in the high ground at the end of a valley securing the pass. From the high ground to El Guettar there are a series of gently rolling small hills and wadis. The area is banked on three sides by high ground and a marshy salt flat called the Choett el Guettar on the other. One of the main hills in the area between the settlement of El Guettar and the Axis held high ground is Hill 336, which the Americans occupied.
As well as the 18th Infantry Battalion, there was also the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. They were equipped with the less than fearsome M3 GMC half-tracks, armed with US copies of the French M1897 75mm gun. These were stationed on the high ground, off to one flank, and able to sweep the entire valley with fire, albeit at very long ranges. There was also a considerable number of US artillery in the area, and the 601st's primary mission was to support the infantry in keeping Axis forces from sending infantry teams to attack the guns.
At 0500, on the 23rd of March, the German 10th Panzer Division had manoeuvred to strike at the base of the US push and launched an attack down the El Guettar valley. Luckily one of the basics of tactics is to have screening elements forward, these acted exactly as they should have. At about 0430 reconnaissance troops forward of the US line began to see the shapes of infantry moving. At one position a German motorcycle with sidecar acting as reconnaissance for the Germans blundered into the US picket, a quick burst from a submachine gun wounded the rider and damaged the motorcycle and netted two POW's. The recon screen could see more infantry and around sixteen tanks approaching so they opened fire with everything they had, but soon they had to withdraw. This valuable warning had allowed the defenders time to wake up and man their positions and start to get their minds prepared for the arrival of the German Panzers. 

The German plan was simple, a Panzer Grenadier assault onto Hill 336 covered by direct fire from the start line, while the main thrust of the tanks rolled down the road into El Guettar. The assault on Hill 336 went well and after a vicious bout of close combat fighting the US was thrown off the hill. At least some of the US artillery was overrun at this point as well. The 601st had begun to fire as soon as possible, however infantry teams began to flank their position, working to within 50 yards, causing the left hand most platoon to withdraw. This left the Germans able to flank the rest of the company. On the right-hand side of the line another of the company’s platoons was slamming rounds into the approaching Panzer IV's. Here the mediocrity of the M1897 gun began to show. One vehicle scored five hits on the approaching Panzers, but only two were knocked out. In another engagement a M3 GMC hit a Panzer with six rounds before obtaining a kill. Equally first round kills could be obtained as was proved shortly afterwards by another member of that platoon. German fire was coming back at them, and a Panzer IV's 75mm gun could kill a M3 GMC at any range and the lightly armoured half-tracks were taking losses. The platoon commander of 1st platoon had a lucky escape when a Panzer IV's shell hit his engine block, from the flank, disabling his half-track and enabling him and his crew to escape unharmed.

One by one the tank destroyer platoons began to retreat, either from their position becoming flanked, or from losses. One platoon withdrawing under pressure lost one vehicle to a US landmine, one had its tyres shot out, and one suffered a mechanical failure in its gun. Equally most vehicles were running out of ammunition due to the large number of shots required to obtain a kill.
A trio of knocked out M3 GMC's at El Guettar
Landmines work both ways however, the US had laid a dense mine field from Hill 336 to the edge of the Choett el Guettar. At about 0700 as the 601st was withdrawing the Germans began to hit these landmines, losing eight more tanks in short order. With the German advanced slowed and stalled the remaining artillery began to bombard the Germans. Pinned in the minefield the Germans were taking a ferocious beating and began to withdraw, even managing to tow away several damaged tanks. The few remaining vehicles of the 601st were low on ammunition so eight Jeeps were dispatched to the rear, six returned full loaded with ammo.
Destroyed German armour at El Guettar
 Another welcome addition that soon arrived was the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, equipped with the vastly more capable M10. As well as more infantry, and a lot more artillery came into battery. The Germans tried another assault late in the afternoon; however, they were met with a rain of shells from the massed guns behind the line. The Germans stalled in the minefield and were utterly decimated before falling back. The next day the 10th Panzer Division reported only twenty-six operational vehicles. The 601st was largely destroyed as well, however. But the stubborn defence from a fixed position had caused far more devitalisation on the Germans.
A destroyed M3 GMC at the Vehicle Collection Point after the battle.

Panzer IV at the VCP.
After the battle most of the vehicles at the VCP were demolished by US Engineers. We can see here what appears to be a Tiger, meaning at least one of these tanks were knocked out in the fighting. Reports state that two Tigers were knocked out.
The 601st was re-built with M10's and took part in Salerno, Anizo and Torch landings and also took part in the Colmar Pocket reduction, before being converted to M36's. They fought through the Siegfried Line and ended the war occupying Berchtesgaden.

Image Credits:
historynet.com and globeatwar.com

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Fun, Games and Speculation

As some of you will have seen over on my Facebook page, I've been moving house and it's not been going well. But I have gotten somewhere and I promised you content. It really did look like I was going to miss a day here, but no, I'm able to keep my number of missed posts to just two since June 2013. I guess I'm like a Lada car (showing my age now), may not be pretty, but always works!

Today, because of the above I'm going to take the easy route and grab a file from my collection and post it. It is a letter from Sir Giffard Le Quesne Martel, a British tank designer and engineer who really doesn't get enough credit these days. He is making predictions, in 1941, on what the future of tank design will hold.

Cover letter
Page 1

Page 2
Ending cover letter

Next week I am aiming to get a normal article up, however it might be another emergency post of archive material. Then we should be back to normal, assuming the electrics on the house don't explode or some other catastrophe.




Sunday, July 28, 2019

SWAB

Well, as warned, last week the house move fun and games has been quite substantial. Could it go wrong? Then yes it has! My car broke down last weekend, with a terminal prognosis, so I had to go buy a new one in the middle of everything. Can anyone explain why I have so much rubbish in my car, including a pack of four CD games from 1999 and a 10m Ethernet cable?

Anyway, to history! I did get a couple of hours free last weekend, and I tried to make an article on the Shallow Water Attack boat, or SWAB. However, there is no real source material out there, apart from one website. but there is enough (such as hits in books) to confirm it seems to have existed.

So with nothing extra to ad, I'll just direct you to this guy's article, for one of those fun, but very very silly ideas in naval history.

Fabulous Flops of naval Engineering.

No idea what I'll be doing next week either, as that's the week of the house move. I should be back online on Saturday afternoon though.



Sunday, July 21, 2019

Light is Right

Light has long been used as a weapon. Some of the first experiments were in the form of searchlights used as dazzle weapons at night. The British developed a series of tanks called Canal Defence Lights, or CDL's. The story of these tanks is a long one, and spans from the First World War to the end of the Second. What every version of the story I've seen has missed is the experiments carried out in 1928 by the Experimental Mechanised Force on Salisbury Plain.
The EMF tried out a night attack, they had obtained several lorries, to which they fitted powerful mobile search lights, which were able to shine forwards. These were placed within the advancing tanks, at a distance of about 70 yards between vehicles. The searchlights emitted a cone of light each, these cones widened and met about 80 yards ahead of the formation. This made life extremely difficult for the defenders who had a very hard time drawing a bead on the attacking tanks. The CDL's would go on to service in many theatres of the Second World War, although never as dazzle weapons.
 You might wonder what got me thinking about CDL's. Well earlier in the week I saw a news story about laser weapons, and it started an interesting discussion, and backtracking through laser weapons of course leads to dazzling, and thus to the CDL's.

For most of my life, when people have talked about lasers and armoured warfare things have generally been very hypothetical and seen as far in the future technology. Well it appears we're on the cusp of entering the laser weapon period of warfare. The pace of technology has made weapons more viable. So, I thought a quick article about that would be interesting.

Laser weapons, as dazzlers, have been claimed to have been used in anger already, however, as you might expect the incident is surrounded in mystery and claim or counter claim, and conspiracy tin foil hat wearing nuts can get quite shouty over it. So, for the next paragraph or two, please apply the word allegedly to everything I say.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca lies between Canada and the US on the Western coast of North America. One of the waterways off it is the Puget Sound which houses a major US naval base, where a portion of the US Navy's submarine fleet, including ballistic missile submarines, are located. As you might imagine this is a rather security sensitive location. On the 4th of April 1997 a Russian merchant ship, the Kapitan Man was lurking in the area. It is highly likely it was engaged with espionage, as an earlier inspection found sensors that would only be used for submarine hunting, which were promptly confiscated by the US Coast Guard.
The Kapitan Man
As the straights lie between the US and Canada both countries cooperate on their security, and the Russian spy ship was obviously going to need investigation. A Canadian CH-124 (Canadian name for a Sea King) helicopter, with a US Navy Observer were investigating the merchant when they both suffered intense pain in their eyes and temporary blindness. It was concluded at the time that bother pilots had suffered laser burns to the eyes, although subsequent events have cast doubt on the situation.

So, what are we looking at in regards to laser weapons, how much power is needed? Well a friend, Maddest Cat sent me this link. It is an interview with a Rheinmetall employed engineer who is working on lasers. In it there are two very useful paragraphs. These are:

'In the class up to 20 kW, optronics can be neutralised out to a distance of five to ten kilometres. We've proven that we can combat aircraft and UAVs up to three kilometres away. We can render medium-calibre munitions and munitions in munitions boxes harmless at up to two kilometres. If we consider combating mortar shells, we're talking about the 100 kW power class, and to combat aircraft we need to be thinking about a power class significantly above 120 kW, because we need to assume distances of four kilometres and more.'

and:

'The efficiency level problem has become a lot less urgent with the transition from gas lasers to solid-state lasers. Previously, we were attaining efficiencies of five to ten percent for gas lasers; today we're achieving efficiencies of close to 30 percent. In other words: To generate 1 kW of laser power today, we need only a little more than 3 kW of electrical power, which represents a huge reduction with respect to the requirements for the carrier platform – particularly as you always have to consider that the energy for the electrical lasers is only required when the laser is actually beaming.'

So, what does this mean? Well simply put a laser loses power the further away it goes as energy is dissipated. A bit like the effect of electric heater, at point blank range it can burn your skin, at 3 meters it can keep you comfortably warm, and at a mile you won't even feel its effect.
In this scene the Terminator asks for a 40 watt (not kilowatt) plasma rifle... what's he going to do, club him to death with it? My desk fan is 30w!
In the first paragraph you'll note that he talks about destroying mortar shells with lasers. Shells generally have a significant thickness of metal, certainly more than is traditional considered as a target for lasers, such as drones, missiles and planes. Why do I consider it important? Well from shells its one small leap from penetrating thin armour plates, like on non-MBT's. then we have a viable anti-tank weapon. But what of power?

That's where the second paragraph comes in, technology has advanced so that we can get quite the power output. A 500hp engine can power a 100kw laser, using the ratio above. You'll note that the above article was written in 2016, when the Germans were looking at a 10 kW laser.
RHM's 10Kw laser on Boxer.
Well the British have just started looking at a 50 kW laser. Not only that, it's multiple 50 kW lasers focused on a single point, which actually uprates the energy of the weapon, although adds its own complications. It's called Dragonfire, it is ready and being developed even as we speak.
Dragonfire turret, coming soon to a MBT near you?
What it means for warfare is anyone's guess. History is littered with people who have made pronouncements only to look very silly, very shortly afterwards. Case in point is the individual who proclaims the tank is now officially obsolete and useless. A hobby of pundits, that started sometime circa 1917, and has carried on until today and every time it has been proved wrong. But we could easily see anti-tank laser weapons in but a few years.

At sea, however, life becomes vastly more interesting. Imagine two lasers on either side of the main mast of a ship, this would give them a nicely elevated position, with unimpeded coverage. As many ships have two masts, they could mount four laser cannons. With such an arrangement you could theoretically have near, if not actually 100% effective coverage, and anything small enough, surface or air, which enters the envelope is instantly destroyed. At current missiles are the major way of achieving surface ship kills, these would, theoretically, be impossible to get through the laser screen. Before you begin to get all excited about the re-appearance of the big gun battleship, remember the shells from these could be intercepted as well. Which will leave what as the main form of surface to surface ship killing? Torpedoes don't have the range or speed; ramming and boarding actions are horribly impractical and risky (although you could likely get a good SF book out of this environment!). Possibly the answer is more lasers. Of course those only have LOS capability, Equally the size of the laser you'd need to burn through a major warship at LOS range is quite staggering... for now!

A quick heads up, I am moving house in a couple of weeks, so packing and even internet availability may well get in my way of doing articles and the like. This means I have no idea what content (if any) I will be able to get up. This period of disruption will likely last for the next 3-4 weeks then everything should settle back to normal.
Update on the day of posting the article, which is written a week in advance: The fun and games continues with my car breaking down yesterday, meaning I had to waste four hours awaiting recovery, and I don't know if or when it'll be fixed. Equally the move date is all over the place due to the silly people in the house I'm moving into being utter Admin Vortexes, who appear to be so bad they couldn't achieve getting sunburnt in a heatwave!

Image credits:
aviationweek.com

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Beaver Attack

In October 1927 a new fast merchant ship was launched from Glasgow. The ship was the first of the Beaver class, and it will come as no surprise that it was ordered by a Canadian company. This ship was called the SS Beaverford. She was soon followed down the slipway by the Beaverdale, Beaverburn, Beaverhill and Beaverbrae. Powered by six Parsons steam turbines which were geared into twin screws, she could manage an impressive (for a merchant) 15.5 knots. The ship was operated by Canadian Pacific.
The mighty warship SS Beaverford
Into this ship we now add the Captain, Master Hugh Pettigrew, son of a Glaswegian family. He had joined Canadian Pacific in 1910 and gone on to serve on their ships at Gallipoli. Late in 1918 he had a ship torpedoed out from under him by a U-Boat. Now approaching his 60's he was commanding the SS Beaverford. Several times during the war he had made successfully journeys between Canada and the UK. For war service the Beaverford was armed with the heady firepower of a single 3" gun on the bow and a single 4" gun on the stern.
The Admiral Scheer
On the 28th of October the Beaverford was part of convoy HX-84 along with another 37 ships. Their destination was Liverpool and the convoy had a pair of destroyers escorting them. After the first day or so these were scheduled to return to port. Royal Navy ships would link up with the convoy around, or just past, the halfway point and escort them into Liverpool. As if by magic, at 1711 on the 5th of November the Royal Navy escort was seen on the horizon. The convoy's only protection up until that point was the HMS Jervis Bay, a cargo ship that had seven 6" guns fitted to it to give it a bit of firepower. Upon seeing the escort arrive the HMS Jervis Bay moved towards the suspected Royal Navy escort transmitting a challenge. As you will most likely guess already, the Royal Navy escort was in fact a German and in this particular case was the Deutschland class Admiral Scheer. She turned broadside on and opened fire on the HMS Jervis Bay.
HMS Jervis Bay
The Jervis Bay charged the Scheer, firing with everything she had. She also fired signal rockets ordering the convoy to scatter. In addition, she began to dump smoke floats, as did several of the fleeing merchants. A merchant ship with light guns against a fully operational warship was only going to end one way. In twenty-two minutes, despite gallant attempts to delay the Scheer longer, the HMS Jervis Bay was ablaze from stern to bow and was sinking. Some reports state that the Jervis Bay never scored a hit, others say that the Scheer's radar was knocked out by one of the few hits HMS Jervis Bay achieved. Either way, with the convoy's only protection dealt with the Scheer began to savage the convoy, sinking three ships in quick order, and setting the tanker San Demetrio on fire. This ship was loaded with 11,200 tons of aviation fuel, and the fires were soon raging out of control, so the captain had no choice but to abandon her to her fate.

The Scheer now turned its attention onto the SS Beaverford. Pettigrew watched and waited for the gun flashes from the Scheer's front guns. When they came, he immediately called for emergency power and threw the ship into a turn as tight as he could manage. The shells whistled past and missed. During this turn the Beaverford had laid smoke. This added to the smoke on the water, with the smoke floats dumped earlier still spewing out clouds and the remains of the other sunk and burning ships adding to the confusion. Finally, night was falling. The Beaverford had now successfully broken contact with the Scheer in the smoke banks. She was also the fastest ship in the convoy and could have disengaged, and slipped away, as the Scheer obliterated the rest of the convoy.

Pettigrew turned the other way, and steamed towards the Scheer. Firing his guns whenever they got an angle, he had no hope of survival as his weapons stood even less chance than the Jervis Bay of hurting the Scheer. All he had on his side was the smoke, darkness and a surprising turn of speed for a merchant ship. The Scheer had classified the Beaverford as Target number 9. Every time they thought they had destroyed it, losing contact in the murk, they would turn to pursue the rest of the convoy, only to find Target 9 emerging from the smoke with its tiny gun blazing. The Scheer would then turn its attention back onto the Beaverford, firing as soon as they could. As the German's fire began to get heavier Pettigrew would use his speed to disappear again. 

The German's fire was not completely ineffective, hits had set fires on board, and soon the Beaverford was burning. It is likely that these hits had caused heavy casualties as well. For five hours the unequal struggle continued. Eventually the damage she had absorbed was just too much for the Beaverford. The Scheer had fired 83 rounds at the Beaverford, hitting with sixteen from its 5.9" guns and three from its 11" guns. By now the Beaverford was crippled and slowing. At 2245 the Scheer sailed past the Beaverford, who was burning fully. The Scheer hit the Beaverford with a single torpedo in the forward hold. This hold was filled with ammunition and blew the Beaverford in two. None of the crew survived. Due to the delay the Scheer was only able to catch one more merchant and sink it, the vast majority of the convoy made it to safety.

For his role the commander of the HMS Jervis Bay received a Victoria Cross. The crew of the Beaverford received no official recognition.

In the grey light of the following morning, one of the lifeboats launched from the San Demetrio saw a burning ship nearby. It was the tanker, still ablaze, and afloat a day later. The sixteen men remained in the lifeboat, due to the dangers of the fire and the bad weather. The next day they found themselves nearby the still burning San Demetrio again, as a fluke of tide and currents pushed them together once again.
The still floating San Demetrio
The crew had a choice to make, re-board the burning tanker, or stay in the lifeboats in the middle of the Atlantic. In the end they re-boarded. They had just sixteen men to fight the fire, but first they had to restart all the engines and generators. Once this was achieved, they tackled the blaze eventually managing to extinguish it. However, nothing remained of the radio, or navigation equipment. Using dead reckoning, and the sun, they managed to sail to the UK. When in home waters they refused the offer of a tug to tow them the final distance. This it turned out was a wise choice. The sixteen men were thus able to claim they had no outside help and were due the cost of salvage of the vessel and her cargo. The Salvage court awarded £14,700 to be split between the crew, with nine of the crew receiving £1,000 or more each. The Chief Engineer and second officer who had led the re-boarding both received £2,000 each.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

It Werfer's Panzers?

A couple of months ago I did a post about Nebelwerfers. In it you'll spot that I failed to mention anything about the Panzerwerfer 42, that is what this follow on article is about.
The Panzerwerfer 42 was created from a Maultier half-track, which in turn, was an Opel Blitz three-ton truck, with the rear wheels replaced by Carden Lloyd style suspension. It was then fitted with an armoured body although the roof of the bed was unarmoured. The cab and sides and rear of the vehicle were 8mm in thickness, and the armour over the engine was just 4-5mm. A rotating base was fitted at the back of the vehicle with one of the three crew in it, on top of this turret sat the multi-barrelled launcher. The launcher fires the usual 15cm ammunition that many Nebelwerfers were able to use.
To those interested in such things, the payload was reduced from 2t to 1t, 1Cwt. Total unladen weight increased from 3t, 17Cwt to 6t, 1Cwt.
All these measurements were taken from a Panzerwerfer 42 captured in France in 1944 by the British. The vehicle had originally been manufactured in 1943 by Adam Opel AG, at the Brandenburg/Havel factory.
The reason for the launcher's creation has been guessed at by several people. Modern thoughts are towards the idea that it was to avoid counter battery fire, which was something that dominated Nebeltruppen's tactics and thoughts, especially in the late war. At the time the British thought that it was to increase the rate of fire, as the crew could remain with their vehicle while it was firing, without having to retreat to a point of safety. This advantage is likely offset, due to there being only three crew compared to six in a normal towed launcher detachment and needing to reload more tubes. The throw weight of a single salvo should however be higher.

The tactical employment of Panzerwerfer 42's depends on their organisation. A normal Werfer battalion has three troops of six launchers. The type of launcher would be uniform across the battalion, presumably to make logistics of ammo supply easier. A Panzerwerfer 42 troop, consisted of the following:
  • Troop commander in lightly armoured command car
  • 1x telephone section.
  • 2x Werfer sections each of four launchers.
  • Ammo section
  • Enough transport for the above. 
Thus, the Panzerwerfer's would have eight launchers. They were often used to bulk out a battalion’s fire by becoming a 4th troop to the battalion. Because of this they would only be employed by units with a supply of 15cm rockets. It should be noted that the battalion would provide the observers, and these would report back to battalion HQ first with fire missions. These would then be passed onto the launcher troops. The result of this meant it could take around ten minutes for the Werfers to fire on a target. This compared poorly with the British practice of the observers reporting direct to the gun units, which meant response times were often 30-60 seconds.
The other role Panzerwerfer's were used in was as an independent unit. The independent unit's roles and activities would depend on what the situation of front line was. On a stabilised front line, multiple firing and observation positions would be provided, and fully scouted out. Firing data would be calculated, and even ammo reloads pre-placed. The Panzerwerfers would occupy a position with weapons loaded, fire their missions from their spotters, re-load and displace to a second position, and then rinse and repeat.

In support of an advancing unit, the Panzerwerfers would pull off the route of march into concealment before firing, and all re-loading was to be done in concealment. This mobile form of warfare stressed the use of concealment as a priority. If enemy surprised the unit with ground forces direct fire was fully expected of the unit.
The final role, and one that would become more common for the Panzerwerfers during the war, was covering a rear guard. In such a role the launchers would fall back from previously reconnoitred position to the next. If an enemy ground forces were encountered, it was suggested to leapfrog the troops two sections ahead to disengage the unit.

The above doctrine seems to imply at first glance the modern idea of avoiding counter battery fire was the aim of the Panzerwerfer. However, as re-loading was done after firing, and before moving then this could not be the case. Of course, that is only 'Doctrine' and in most of the major European armies doctrine was often seen as guidelines by lower tier commanders.

Image credits:
www.worldwarphotos.info

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Bombing with Hope

Imagine if you will, you are a young soldier in September 1944, and you are in a glider bouncing over the North Sea towards Arnhem. Perhaps you are from a land locked state in the US, or an inner-city area in the UK. The only light into your dark cocoon of a glider comes from the windscreen around the cockpit. Suddenly there is a commotion up front from the pilots, along with a 'thunk'. Seconds later as you stare towards the cockpit you see the towing aircraft cross rapidly up the windscreen. Then ahead of you is nothing but the rolling grey waves of the North Sea. Suddenly around everyone is dropping their equipment and weapons in preparation for ditching. Then the shuddering impact, followed by a hectic few seconds of crowded activity and the seeping cold of water trickling into your boots and clothing. You manage to fight your way out of the aircraft and inflate your life vest. But now you are adrift in the North Sea with a few of your mates. All you experience are huge waves and sky, and the taste of saltwater. On the crest of one of these waves you catch a glimpse of an large aircraft in the distance, flying low, heading right for you, salvation? No, it is not a flying boat it cannot land to save you, if you don't get out of the water soon you'll die from the cold. You're dead.
A Vickers Warwick, possibly your view from the sea.
Or at least you would be, if it was not for the yachtsman, and boat designer Uffa Fox. As the war progressed the Air Sea Rescue capabilities of the UK underwent a massive upgrade from the early years of the war. Small floating shelters were being moored along the routes of bombers, fully equipped with food, water, first aid kits, entertainment and signaling equipment. Equally, the planes of Coastal Command would start to carry dinghy's that could be dropped to people in the water. These would, invariably be governed by the tides and winds, and would often end up pushed ashore onto mainland Europe, resulting in eventual capture by the Germans. But what, if one could drop a boat by parachute to a stranded person? This idea was termed the Airborne Lifeboat, or ABL.

One of the rescue floats that were moored in the channel. The colours are actually yellow and red.
The requirements for the boat were tough, it had to be lightweight, but incredibly strong to survive the forces of dropping. Equally, it had to be able to be operable by the most inexperienced, and be all but unsinkable, as well as self-righting. Uffa Fox, along with help from several RAF officers designed the first Airborne Lifeboat after his company was given official sanction on the 8th of January 1942. Built from double skinned mahogany with waterproofed fabric in-between, the first examples tried several different engines, but all turned out to be too heavy. Eventually a pair of lightweight Vincent 2-stroke motorcycle engines were used, these gave a top speed of about six knots. There was a set of sails, and a beginner’s guide to sailing (on waterproof paper) included in the boat was well.

A series of shots showing an ABL in action.
On landing the boat would automatically deploy, including a salvo of rockets which would fire lines out fore and aft to act as a sea anchor, and provide adrift crew something to haul themselves onto the boat with.
Inside an ABL. This is obviously a posed shot, as the rockets have not fired, as well as the crewman looking suspiciously well groomed and not particularly soggy. There were other rockets in the bow and stern as well.
Often the ABL would only be needed for a short time until one of the RAF rescue launches, or another boat picked up the rescuees. On one occasion the bomber crew in an ABL was picked up by a Danish fishing boat, which then set course for home. The Coastal Command bomber that had dropped the boat, had stayed on station to ensure pick up, had scotched this idea by firing a few warning bursts from its gun turrets. The fishing boat heaved too until a short while later an RAF launch arrived to take off the crew. It is claimed that by the end of the war the ABL had saved over 5,000 lives.
Salvation arriving from coastal command for a ditched B-17 crew.
On the 30th of March 1945 a US Catalina flying boat was sent to retrieve a P-51 pilot who had ditched off Schiermonnikoog (one of the islands off the coast of Holland). They eventually spotted him and landed in heavy seas, however, before they could rescue the pilot a wave smashed one of the engines. Despite this the crew continued to attempt to rescue the downed pilot. Unfortunately, it appears the pilot was already dead or unconscious and he did not respond to attempt to save him, and he drifted apart from the Catalina and was lost. A distress call was sent by the Catalina crew, but no one was able to locate the flying boat for the rest of the day, or the missing pilot’s body. The next morning a RAF Warwick, along with an escort of four Mustangs, spent some two hours searching for the Catalina. When they eventually located it, an ABL was dropped. The Catalina crew tried to taxi over to the ABL, however this exposed them to the waves, and the tail was smashed off the plane, which began to sink. As the first ABL had been lost a second Warwick was vectored in and dropped another ABL. As the Catalina crew abandoned their aircraft, they climbed onboard the ABL, which also began to sink, so they abandoned ship once again and returned to the partially submerged Catalina. The final decision to abandon the Catalina was provided by the Germans when a ME262 streaked into the area and strafed the Catalina. So, the crews left the flying boat for the final time on three dinghies. At this point a third ABL was dropped by a US B-17.


The ABL was fitted to a huge number of planes. Here a fairing is being demonstrated for the fit to a B-29. After the war A new, improved, standardised version of the ABL was introduced and fitted to Avro Shackleton's.
The crew boarded and spent the next 36 hours or so heading North-West, until the ABL's fuel supplies ran out. Battling the weather and Germans a Beaufighter managed to enter the area but was lost for unknown reasons. The following day, the 3rd of April, supplies were dropped, including fuel. Despite this the ABL's engines could not be restarted. In the evening another ABL was dropped, but by this time the Catalina crew were too exhausted and made no effort to reach it. RAF launches spent the night of the 3rd looking for the Catalina crew. On the 4th of April several aircraft were searching the area when the news came that the Catalina crew had been recovered by an RAF launch. In total the Catalina crew had spent some 109 hours adrift, but they all survived and were landed on the morning of the 5th.

Image credits:
www.navtechlife.com

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Eden

A couple of weeks ago I had to travel up to Yorkshire. I travelled down the day before, and as I had a few hours spare I visited a Museum called Eden Camp. Consider this  review, if you will.

Eden camp was set up in 1942 as a POW camp, it consists of all the old huts turned into a series of galleries each focusing on one aspect of warfare.
Some of the German POW ID cards that were saved from the camp.
It does focus on other aspects of warfare having a couple of huts turned into regimental museums or focusing on other conflicts, but the vast majority of it is about the Second World War. One thing that is a bit perplexing to me is you have a logical start point (Hut 1), and progress takes you through the following huts in sequence, each covering a later period. Then it offers an alternative start point of Hunt 24, which is proudly entitled 'Museum inside a Museum!'.  This starts at Hut 24, and progress takes you through the following huts in sequence, each covering a later period.
Yes I did just copy and paste, as although the exhibits are different it really is covering the similar ground.
The silly thing is the huts cover similar ground, but don't cover exactly the same items, and their exhibits are sometimes different. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Huts are laid out to conform with GCSE history syllabus as well, but this a logical idea for the museum to make itself sellable. One thing that I really did notice was the cost. I arrived at just after 1500, the museum closed at 1700 (although the staff started their close down routine at about 1600), and it was still full price to get in. That price was pretty steep as well, coming in at £10.50. Some museums are free, or offer reduced costs to enter after 1500.
I got round everything in about 90 minutes, but I wasn't stopping to read I was just ambling around taking the occasional picture of stuff I thought you'd find interesting.

One of the main selling points of the museum is in several huts they've converted the hut to a diorama of the events they are talking about. For example in the Blitz section they have a bombed out house:
Or a house that has just been hit by a incendiary bomb, with ARP types dealing with it:




The dummies involved in these are bloody terrifying! Equally a lot of them are pitch black, especially if moving from bright sunlight (as I was) into a pitch black room. The floors are sometimes uneven as well, although all obstructions have gentle ramps up to them.
They do have somewhat of a sense of humour, in the U-Boat walk-through:

And from the D-day section:
There are some interactive activities to keep the inquisitive mind going:

If you lift up the Friend or Foe tabs it will tell you if you are wrong, or what the plane is.


But these activities are not common.

They did have some larger external exhibits, and this is where the museum felt the cheapest. As several of them seem to have been brought simply because its vaguely militarily themed, even though some of them are not really connected to the subject of the museum.
12-pounder QF naval gun
WE.177B nuclear free fall bomb.. because reasons?
Captioned as a WWII British Bofors 40mm... yeah ok, it is a Bofors 40mm under all that junk, but its not a British one that I can see.
Yeah...? No! Now the museum looks like you don't know what you're talking about, which casts doubt on everything else in your museum. Equally the Museum has this Really irritating habit of sticking 'Eden Camp' on each of their large exhibits. Which again makes the place feel cheap and desperate.

Oddly their best exhibit was hidden out the back of the Admin buildings, mainly because they hadn't had time to 'restore it' and end up calling it a Sherman Firefly or somesuch. As it wasn't 'restored' You're able to get right up to it.

You'll note the engine bay is missing along with all its automotive parts, and you can actually see into the fighting compartment.







Anyway, the following are just some of the fun or interesting stuff they had supporting the diorama's you could walk through.







Their Churchill Crocodile
That's what 6in of armour looks like. The inside is in a terrible condition though, as it is semi-open to the elements.

The following section of pictures are from the Blitz display and I think they're quite interesting. The first shows a 1kg magnesium based incendiary bomb 15 seconds after it was ignited, the second is after 45 seconds.
15 Seconds
45 seconds
Anyway, that's all, next week we're back to normal with an article as usual.