Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Imposter's Bad Luck

Shortly after 1100 on the 14th of September 1914, Captain Noel Grant was peering through his binoculars at a vessel on the horizon. The vessel the British captain was staring at was carrying the Cunard Line's colour scheme, and was identified as the RMS Carmania, and she was making steam away from him.
RMS Carmania
Cpt Grant had reported aboard his ship, one of Cunard Line's passenger liners at the outbreak of the First World War. His ship had been equipped with eight 4.7" guns and dispatched from Liverpool to the South Atlantic to patrol the South American coast looking for merchant raiders. Cpt Grant had suspected that there was just such a commerce raider operating from Trindade Island, but all he had found was another of Cunard Line’s ships... There was only one problem, Cpt Grant was standing on the bridge of the RMS Carmania. Whomever the imposter was, she wasn't who she claimed to be. This was further reinforced by the fact she was making steam away from him, possibly to escape, possibly to gain manoeuvring room without the risk of finding the island in the way.
The imposter was actually the German ship SMS Cap Trafalgar. Entering service in April she was considered to be one of the most ornate and grandest cruise liners afloat. However, this lavishness had not been extended to her engines. The engines were triple expansion steam type, while the RMS Carmania had steam turbines. Despite being about 800 GRT heavier, the British ship was slightly faster.
Interior of the SMS Cap Trafalgar
The SMS Cap Trafalgar had departed Germany on a route that included Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. On the outbreak of war she had reached Buenos Aires. She then sailed to Trindade Island where she met the gunboat SMS Eber. The Eber had transferred its guns and a portion of its crew to turn the SMS Cap Trafalgar into Hilfskreuzer B. This refit had added two 4.1" guns and six 1-pounder pom-pom guns (other sources say it was six Hotchkiss revolver cannons), along with removing one of her funnels and gaining a new paint scheme which made her look almost exactly like the RMS Carmania.
SMS Cap Trafalagar with SMS Eber alongside on Trindade Island
Under the command of Capitan Wirth, she began her first cruise. This sortie resulted in no successes against the teeming shipping off the Brazilian coast, so Hilfskreuzer B returned to her base for more coal on the 13th September. A day later the real RMS Carmania broke the horizon and the German ship scrambled to get away.
After a short pursuit the German realised he couldn't escape the turbines of the British ship, and he turned sharply to starboard, and came about and begun to close. At around 8,500 yards the RMS Carmania opened fire, the German responded immediately, both ships missed. While the ships might well have been carrying naval grade guns, they lacked the aiming infrastructure and control gear that a normal warship would use. Shells were brought to the guns by hand, from stores in the cabins nearby. Equally they lacked the armour plate of a warship.
RMS Carmania's engine room
As the two ships sedately turned blazing away at each other the pom-pom guns of the German ship seemed to be the most effective. Easier to aim and score hits with, on a normal warship the effect would have been minimal, on the unarmoured and unprotected RMS Carmania the shots would sail straight through the structure of the ship.

At first both ships tried to sweep the decks clear of their opponents. Then the first real round impacted, the RMS Carmania managed to score a hit on the Hilfskreuzer B with one of her 4.7" guns. This caused the ornate German interior to burst into flames and started a small list to starboard. Shortly afterwards a German shell hit a stateroom forward of the RMS Carmania's bridge, and destroyed a water main. The stateroom burst into flames, with no water to fight the fire it quickly spread. The fire became so fierce it spread to the bridge and caused the captain and his command crew to have to abandon the area and fight the ship from an improvised bridge in the aft of the ship.
RMS Carmania's bridge after the fire.
Emboldened by their success the Germans continued their barrage of fire on the upper decks hoping to disable the crew of the guns, or even dismount the weapons. The British changed tactics and began to fire directly at the water line. Even without gun directors and range finders the huge wall of the Hilfskreuzer B's sides soon became riddled with shot, she began to take on water, and her list became worse. Even so the damage to the RMS Carmania was terrible, she too was listing, and with several raging fires. After about 90 minutes the two titanic ships separated, turning away from each other. The Hilfskreuzer B began to send distress signals, which were soon answered by German colliers from Trindade Island. The RMS Carmania steamed away, the day after she was barely afloat and luckily, she met a British cruiser.
 Meanwhile the Hilfskreuzer B was done for, as the list worsened she began to launch lifeboats and the crew abandoned ship. The German support ships managed to pull most of the men from the Atlantic. The Germans took the stranded sailors to Buenos Aires, where they were interred for the course of the war. Exact casualties for the German side are unknown, with estimates between 16-51 killed. The British lost just nine killed.

The RMS Carmania was repaired and continued patrolling around Portugal, until she was assigned to the Gallipoli campaign. She then was used as a troop ship, one of her final acts in service was returning Canadian soldiers to their home. Then she returned to her peace time job of cruise ship. Finally, in 1932 she was sold for scrap.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Last Mission of the Excalibur

Born in June 1921, Cyril Joe Barton was educated in Surrey. When he reached the age of 16 he was accepted as an apprentice draughtsman at the Parnall Aircraft factory in London. This meant that he was in a reserved occupation at the outbreak of the Second World War. Barton endured the Blitz, still working at the Parnall factory, helping to build the trainer aircraft that company produced. In 1941, at the age of 19, he resigned from his reserved occupation, and joined the RAF Reserve. He was formally enlisted to the RAF in April 1941.
Cyril Joe Barton
Training pilots in the UK was tricky. At any moment a brand-new pilot could stumble into a German and the weather was mostly uncooperative. In addition, as an operational theatre the skies were quite crowded with friendly aircraft. Thus, the UK found overseas locations to train the pilots. One of these schemes was based in the US and was called the Arnold Scheme. Leading Aircraftman Barton arrived in the US on the 17th of January 1942 and took his first flight on the 19th. Barton graduated as a Sergeant Pilot in November, by March 1943 he was back in the UK and part of a series of training squadrons flying Whitley's.

In late July he had his first operational sortie, as a second pilot on a Halifax heading to Hamburg, a trip he repeated shortly afterwards. In August he first got his hands on a Halifax himself, but remained on operations as a second pilot.
Between then and March 1944 Barton rose through the ranks to Pilot Officer, and made nineteen sorties, four of which were to Berlin. On one mission his aircraft was shot up by flak and got lost in cloud, however, PO Barton made several attempts to locate and bomb the target. On another mission the aircraft was once again holed by flack and had to make an emergency landing.
At 2214, 30th March 1944, PO Barton's Halifax bomber, named Excalibur, took off from the ill-named RAF Burn. His target for tonight was Nuremberg as part of the Battle of Berlin. 794 other aircraft were involved in the raid, 572 Lancaster's, 213 Halifax's and a small number of pathfinder Mosquito's. This was to be one of Bomber Command's worst ever nights with 95 aircraft failing to return. Excalibur's flight was largely uneventful until they were just 70 miles from the target.
At that point a Ju 88 night-fighter made an attack on Excalibur. The first burst destroyed the intercom. Almost immediately a Me 410 joined in the attack. Repeated salvoes from the fighters ripped into the aircraft. One of these hits destroyed the power supplies to the turrets meaning the crew couldn't fight back, another burst damaged one of the engines, others ripped into the wings.
During the shouted confusion, trying to relay orders, one of PO Barton's commands was misinterpreted and the navigator, flight engineer and bombardier bailed out.

PO Barton had a choice, continue ploughing onto the target, or turn for home. He knew that over the target the burning city below him would silhouette his plane, and any night fighter could find them. Equally his plane was utterly defenceless.
Despite this he carried on to the target, his damaged engine vibrating all the time, slowly getting worse.
A picture showing that the risk of silhouetting was very real. Here a damaged Avro Lancaster has dropped below the height of the bomber stream over Hanover in 1943.
The vibration in Excalibur's damaged engine peaked and then the propeller ripped itself apart. To make matters worse the fuel tanks on the other wing had been badly holed and had leaked all their fuel out, starving the engines on one side of the plane.

Now with only one engine, no defences, half a crew, and a badly damaged aircraft PO Barton finished his trip to the target and turned for home. But how to find home? He had no navigator. Equally, the navigator would guide aircraft around danger zones such as flak hotspots, and here he was deep in Germany surrounded by several of these danger areas.

By dead reckoning PO Barton managed to navigate his way out of Germany. This was made harder by a strong head wind. He also successfully avoided the flak and enemy fighters, all with only one engine. It took him nearly five and a half hours. In the first rays of dawn the crew could see the coast of England ahead. Remarkably they had arrived back in the UK just 90 miles from their home base.

As Excalibur crossed the coast, the last engine began to splutter, a clear indication it was nearly out of fuel. The plane was too low to be abandoned, so PO Barton ordered his crew to crash positions, and began to cast about for a landing site, all the while losing altitude. PO Barton saw that they were heading towards Ryhope Colliery, near Durham. At the time the colliery was surrounded by the houses and schools of the miner’s families. PO Barton wrestled his aircraft over a row of cottages, when the last engine spluttered and died. In the silence Excalibur dipped towards the end house, just clipping it, as she ploughed onwards the rear fuselage with the three crewmen in side it, became detached and skidded to a halt. All three crewmen survived. The forward section carried on its rampage, at some point a local miner heading to work was hit by debris from the plane and killed. PO Barton was rescued from the plane alive, but did not survive his injuries, and died before reaching hospital.
Excalibur's tail section, when it came to rest, with the three surviving crew inside.
For his actions Cyril Joe Barton was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Image credits:
ww2today.com, ww2aircraft.net, aircrewremembered.com, vcgca.org and www.bombercommandmuseum.ca

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Battle of Forrest Damp

At Roermond two rivers join, these are the Maas and the Roer. In 1945 this was the tip of an area called the Roer Triangle. The two rivers formed the left and right sides of the triangle. On the 14th of January the British launched operation Blackcock to clear this area on the Holland-German border, by the time the operation was completed some two weeks later, it would have seen some truly fierce fighting.
At around 0300, on the 21st of January 1945, the 5th battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borders moved out. Their objective was the German town of Waldfeucht. This was winter in central Europe so it was bitterly cold, with three inches of snow on the ground. The 5th KOSB had a company of men leading the way, while the rest of the force moved either in Kangaroo's or carriers. There were some Sherman's from the 13/18th Hussars along for the operation as well. The lead company found a few mines, which it removed, however little other resistance was encountered. Soon the force had seized the town. The town was deserted, with no German forces in place. The population would emerge from their cellars briefly and kept asking about what time it was, or were glancing nervously at time pieces. From this behaviour the British concluded that a German attack was imminent, and they thought first light was the most likely time for this. In a rush the battalion began to get ready for action. Two six pounders were brought forward to cover the north and west sides of the town. After they had been unlimbered and roughly sited work began to dig the guns in. This was severely hampered by the frozen ground. No real progress had been made on these fighting pits when the first rays of sunlight appeared at dawn, filtering through the mist.
The ideal dug in situation for a 6-pounder in winter. The 5KOSB ones were far from this, and standing out in the open.
The spreading light revealed several large box shapes lurching through the mist, towards the town. It was a full-blown German counter attack, fifteen assault guns lead by two Tigers from Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 301, with infantry from either the 175 or 183rd infantry.
The British asked for their Sherman's to engage the Tigers, whom were sitting targets out in the open. The British tanks refused to show themselves, knowing what the outcome would be. The two 6-pounders, still exposed in the open began to fire. A blazing firefight soon ensued, slowly one by one the crews of the guns were killed or wounded. At one gun Private Archibald Moore, who was acting as a loader, stepped forward and took over when the gun commander was wounded. With small arms rounds sparkling off the gun shield Pvt Moore directed his gun to fire at one of the Tigers.
The anti-tank battery's commanding officer, Captain Robert Hunter took control of the other gun. Cpt Hunter's first shot stopped the Tiger by wrecking its tracks. He continued to pour fire into the tank until it burned.
The two knocked out Tigers at Waldfeucht.
By now the Germans were about 100 yards away from the two 6-pounders pouring small arms fire and grenades at them. Cpt Hunter was wounded by this storm of fire. By now there were only five men serving both guns, one of which was the wounded Cpt Hunter. Together both guns turned their attention on the last remaining Tiger and began to fire as fast as they could. Soon it began to burn.
Men of 5KOSB posing with one of the knocked out Tigers
Pvt Moore then grabbed a Bren gun from beside a dead soldier and opened fire upon the nearby infantry and the fleeing Tiger crew.

On the east side, at the same time, another Tiger had launched an attack with supporting infantry. Here there were no plucky 6-pounders to stop the beast. Four Sherman's were destroyed trying to stop it, which might account for the reluctance of the tank commanders to engage the pair of Tigers. Bitter fighting ensued as the Germans reached the outskirts of the town and began to push through.
The Tiger as it ground down the street blasting into buildings at point blank range ran into two men, a platoon commander named Gideon Scott and his PIAT gunner Pvt Kirkpatrick. The first round failed to detonate and bounced off the Tiger’s armour. Scott began to re-load the PIAT. Another round was fired at the Tiger but missed. The shots had alerted the Tiger crew to the danger, and a hail of gunfire was directed towards the British defenders position. Scott was wounded in the hand.

Scott was born with deformities in both hands. These had nearly prevented him from enlisting in 1939, until he had challenged the recruiters to allow him to fire a rifle, which they were concerned he would have been unable to handle. Scott had shot in competitions for his college at Bisley and was quite a proficient shot. Having proven himself able to shoot he was enlisted.

As they re-loaded for a third shot, Scott saw a wounded soldier lying directly in the path of the giant Tiger, and who would soon be crushed by the 70 tons of tank. Scott leapt up from his position and raced out into the street, despite having already gained the Tiger’s complete attention and his position being the focus of its full firepower. He reached the wounded soldier, and with the ground shaking from the Tiger’s roar he dragged the wounded man into cover with bullets whistling about him.

The Tiger led the advance through the town with infantry storming into its wake. It approached the building chosen as the HQ, Cpt Ravenscroft and his batman begun to lob grenades out of the windows onto the Germans below, until they were captured.
British troops in Waldfeucht
By now it was late afternoon. The Germans had reached the town square, which had become no-man’s land between the two forces. The Tiger claimed a Sherman, four more were knocked out by Panzerfausts in the fighting around the square. The situation was looking bleak, with the Germans now in control of 75% of the town. However, 4th KOSB had arrived and were pushing into the Germans flank. This began to relive the pressure on the 5th KOSB. It still took until midnight to fully evict the Germans. The final Tiger was found stuck in an arch over the road and was destroyed in place.

The battle had raged for eighteen hours. Cpt Hunter was awarded a Military Cross, he remained in the reserves after the war finishing with the rank of Colonel. After the war he ran a company that was the first to produce muesli in the UK. He died in March 2016. Pvt Moore was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal and survived the war. 
Cpt Hunter
Scott was awarded a Military Cross, and survived the war dying in 1999. When his children asked him what he had done to win the award Scott replied 'it was for once being first in the queue for the Naafi!'

Image credits:
ww2today.com, businessinsider.com, crimsonaudio.net and telegraph.co.uk