Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Easter Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

No Certain Future

The Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious had started the Second World War in the Mediterranean and in November 1940 she launched the Swordfish that attacked Taranto, which had no small strategic effect on the Italian Navy. However just a few months later the Germans had overcome their initial weaknesses in anti-shipping, and decided to weaken the Royal Navy Mediterranean fleet by sinking HMS Illustrious. At the time the Royal Navy only had two carriers in the Med. The other carrier was the older and not as well designed HMS Ark Royal. Losing the better of the two carriers would have caused the Royal Navy quite some difficulties. The Germans got their chance on the 10th of January 1941.
"No Uncertain Voice" the motto of HMS illustrious, as you can see goes with her crest.
On that day the weather was fine, clear skies and bright sunshine. HMS Illustrious was with the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Warspite, their mission was to provide cover for convoys to Malta and they were steaming near the Pantelleria Straits. She had a combat air patrol up of six Fulmars, and a few Swordfish for patrols. Earlier in the day a flight of Swordfish had made a surprise attack on a convoy of five Italian ships, causing quite considerable damage. After the strike had been recovered, another six Fulmars were being prepared to relieve the CAP, as they were low on fuel. Then, just before 1230, the radar detected large numbers of hostile aircraft approaching.
HMS Valiant and Illustrious, albeit later in the war.
The attackers were a mass of forty three Stukas and a few Italian SM.79s. The latter opened the attack, with a pair of SM.79s making a torpedo run on HMS Illustrious. The British carrier sent up a cloud of AA fire and turned to comb the torpedo spread, both the Italian torpedoes missed and headed towards HMS Valiant, who also dodged the incoming torpedoes. As the two Italian bombers broke off and raced for safety a pair of the Fulmars dived on them, rapidly shooting them down. However these were now too low to intercept the Stukas overhead.
HMS Illustrious defends herself.
Coming out of the turn, back into the wind HMS Illustrious launched the first of her Fulmars. As the Fulmar raced along the deck, the Stukas dived. The first Fulmar made it into the air and was clawing for speed and altitude as a Stuka finished its dive bombing run and pulled up slightly to strafe the low and slow Fulmar, killing the observer and wounding the pilot. The Fulmar staggered then hit the water, the wounded pilot managed to get out of his plane and inflate his life vest. As he watched the Stukas circled the carrier then as they reached a certain point they dived in an attack run. HMS Illustrious was hidden from sight by the shower of bomb blasts and smoke, one Stuka was seen to fly along HMS Illustrious' deck as it pulled out of its dive. The Fulmar pilot was forced to watch his ship sail past and disappear, shrouded in smoke and splashes from near misses. Luckily HMS Jaguar, one of the escorts saw him bobbing in the Med, and thinking him to be a German pilot sent out a boat to recover him.
HMS Illustrious was hit six times. One hit an AA gun position, and passed through to explode on the water below, killing several men. Another penetrated the ship starting a fire. Both of these were 1000 lb AP bombs, and the carrier's deck was only armoured to protect against 500 lb bombs. Oddly the worse damage of the first few seconds of action came from the 500 lb bombs the Stukas dropped.
The first hit the aft lift that had a Fulmar on it, destroying the plane, and killing its pilot. More importantly it stove in the lift, this allowed a second 500 lb to enter the hangar deck. A similar hit on the fore lift damaged the lift but failed to push it in. Then a final bomb this time of 1000 lbs penetrated the armoured deck and exploded in the hangar.
Damage to Illustrious' deck from the bomb hits.
At the same time, a Swordfish had been returning to the carrier after her anti-submarine patrol, and was lined up on his approach. The guns started firing and the pilot could see the the rear lift was "down". That should give you an idea of how quickly this all happened. Then a Stuka flashed in front of the Swordfish, the pilot triggered his Vickers gun, in a snap shot which missed. It's thought that this Stuka dropped the second 500 lb bomb into the aft hangar deck.
The Stuka pilots on seeing the comedy bi-plane decided their ultra modern machines would soon be able to smash this obsolescent Stringbag from the sky. That's a mistake many commentators make, the Swordfish wasn't obsolescent, her first flight was in 1934, just a year before the Stuka. But she was designed for a job which wasn't dogfighting. Naval aircraft are rugged, they have to be to withstand what are closer to controlled crashes than landings.
Equally the Swordfish pilots on HMS Illustrious had trained with their Fulmars on their way across the Atlantic to the Med in ways to avoid aircraft with superior speed. They would perform a series of tight diving turns which would cause the attacker to overshoot repeatedly. As they got lower a misjudged dive would send the attacking plane slamming into the sea, this tactic was used successfully several times throughout the war.
Although it failed to work on the slow Stukas the Swordfish was still airborne after four attacks, although riddled with bullets. Lacking the ability to navigate (the rear two cockpits had flooded with fuel rendering the navigation boards unusable), and obviously losing fuel the Swordfish ditched near a friendly destroyer to be picked up.
Illustrious' bell, damaged in the attack.
On the carrier, they were learning important lessons, however these were learnt at a high cost of dead and wounded. HMS Illustrious had a single hangar which housed all the planes. Along the roof of this hangar was the armoured upper deck. To prevent fire spreading there were giant metal roller blinds that could be dropped to seal the hangar into multiple spaces.
Equally the hangar deck was the action station for anyone not otherwise employed on their normal role. When the two bombs hit it turned these shutters into shrapnel shards that scythed through a large part of the ship's company. The blasts also started numerous fires and disabled part of the sprinkler systems. 126 men were killed and 91 wounded in the battle, a large part of these injuries were in the hangars.
Another near miss on Illustrious
Now a raging inferno, with the boiler room reaching sixty degrees from radiated heat, HMS Illustrious steamed for Malta and help. Despite the damage to the hangar the armoured deck had worked for the rest of the ship, although fires were still burning in several places. As she limped along the Germans and Italians kept attacking her throughout the day. Even after receiving hits to her steering the wounded HMS Illustrious never slowed beneath 18 knots, and all her guns kept in action. Seven hours later she entered Malta's Grand Harbour, still burning, it's reported that her decks were glowing hot from the fires as she entered the port.
Illustrious at Norfolk for repairs, you can easily see the scars from the near misses.
Illustrious spent two weeks in Grand Harbour having temporary fixes applied. For the first three days the weather prevented the Germans from attacking, however from January the thirteenth the skies were clear and she became a target for the Germans. Despite this she was repaired and made a dash for safety, heading first for Alexandria, then through the Suez Canal to Durban. Finally after more repairs at the Durban dry dock she ended up at Norfolk in the US for a full refit.

"Lies!" The Historylisty edition.
One of the sources I used to write this article was a book I had on the incident. Turns out the writer may, or may not have been entirely thorough in his research. Or at least was a bit confused as to some of the information. My alarm should have been sounded by some of his comments about the Swordfish.
Luckily my proof reader, Scott Wichall, spotted the issue. He found the following website with the official report on the bomb damage to HMS Illustrious.


So for accurate detailed bomb damage reports use the stuff in the above link over the items in the narrative.

Image credits:

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Confession Time

Last week's article about the Steam Tank, well yes, as some of you guessed, it was an April Fools joke. I hope it caught a few of you out though. Despite me never having done one before, I won't do one every year either as it'll get predictable and boring. Next year is going to be interesting as 1st of April falls on a Sunday, my normal day of posting. That should leave you guessing all right!
The first piece of evidence, the letter...
Now last week's article did have some supporting evidence but where had I got it? Well the letter assigning armour plate to the tank was actually very easy. It was a typo created by a civil servant in 1941. Not the "Steam Committee", but the "Stern Committee". We are of course talking about Sir Albert Stern, leader of The Old Gang, and the tank is one of the TOGs. You'll note that I cropped off the bottom of the document that showed the receiving address, of Fosters of Lincoln.
I found this document when dispatched by a friend to find documents on the TOG (quick someone tell Jingles!). My friends name is Andrew Hills (he also gets referenced in the "Hills and Smyth Maritime"), and he has recently completed a book on the subject of the TOG, and gotten a book publisher. The book is called "The Tanks of TOG; the work of the special vehicle development committee in World War Two", and will be available from Fonthill Publishing. It should be out towards the end of the year, and hopefully as I write these a week in advance, Fonthills will have put up the book on their website by the time I post this article and I can give you a link (They didn't, watch my facebook for an announcement).
It's a TOG... If I dare to say any more than that Andrew will be yelling at me over Skype that I got it wrong...
Andrew has spent the last seven years (which has lead to some of us taking the mickey out of his tank choice on more than one occasion) on this work. His obsession with the TOG has had the net result that every time any of the group of researchers on our tank research Skype channel have found any mention of anything of anything relating to the TOG, we've passed it on so you have documents from all over the globe feeding into this book. In addition he's been combing the UK for every scrap of documentation on the TOG, or even remotely related to it. On occasion when he's found some stuff in an archive I've been scheduled to visit he's given me a list of stuff to copy (to give you an idea one of the Zip files was 4Gb in size), in one of those documents I found the page with the typo which I used. His book will be, without doubt, the most comprehensive and detailed study of those massive tanks the British nearly sent into service.
You might ask, how close to service were they? Well one of the documents I was asked to got get for Andrew was the draft of the user manual, which would indicate that it was getting close to service. But in truth I don't know, and I'll have to await the book.
The Mystery turret
The photo of the turret was actually easier. A little while ago I viewed a document about heavy bolted armour under attack. In January 1943 a study was undertaken by the Department of Tank Design to see if the methods of construction used by the Royal Navy for small gun turrets could be adapted to tank design. Two Churchill turrets were constructed, one of normal Medium Quality I.T.80 armour plate. The other was made, quite curiously, of cemented armour plate. Both had roofs about twice as thick as normal tanks, and the armour plate was bolted onto a frame instead of being the usual cast or welded armour. The two turrets were then shot at several times by two and six pounder guns.
The conclusions of the trial were that the method of construction was utterly unsuited to tank turret manufacture. Not only did the bolts create a massive amount of shrapnel flying about inside the turret, but some of the plates could shift under attack which allowed splash from the impact in. It also cracked the plates and mounting frame and dismounted the gun trunnions. Another point was that some of the bolts flew off the outside of the tank causing shrapnel risk to nearby infantry.

What follows are some excerpts from the report.

Image credits:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Steam Tank

 As I warned last week, this article is a day early due to me having to go to work tomorrow, and thus won't be able to post.

One of the great things in this pastime is finding an answer to a riddle, and it's even better when it leads to a "you what?!" moment, as you're reading a document in disbelieving awe. For a great many years there has been a picture floating around the internet, namely this one:
As you can see it's a Bren gun carrier with a big gun mounted on it. The gun is a Smith Gun as used by the Home Guard, but no one knew what it was for until now. The best guess was an unknown Home Guard battalion somewhere trying to get themselves an armoured tank destroyer. In fact it was a trial build to test if the gun’s mounting could be married directly to an armoured vehicle. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1940, the UK was standing alone and in imminent danger of invasion, and so the Local Defence Volunteers were formed. These were soon to be renamed the Home Guard. While we now know that any attempt by Germany to invade Britain would have been crushed in in hours, and was doomed to failure, at the time that piece of information was not widely circulated. This lead to a flurry of home defence ideas, not least of which was getting some armoured vehicles to the Home Guard. In due course a committee was set up on 22nd of August 1940 to study the idea of getting a tank for the Home Guard. The committee started out with the name of "Auxiliary Armour Committee", but was soon changed to a name that gives us a clue as to its purpose. The "Steam Committee".

Yes, the Home Guard tank was to be steam powered, and on consideration this isn't as dumb an idea as it sounds. First of all steam power was still in use in the country in agriculture, although nowhere near as widely as a generation before. That would mean a supply of trained and experienced people would have already been in the ranks of the Home Guard. A steam tank would be heavy, but you don't need to make grand strategic manoeuvres with it as the Home Guard needed to keep it in their local area. Equally you don't need it to be fast for similar reasons, along with its speed fitting in nicely with the concept of the the infantry tank.
Most importantly of all was consideration of the fuel supply. Petrol and diesel was tightly rationed. But the north of England is pretty much a solid lump of coal, which would mean adequate and liberal supply was available to power this Home Guard infantry tank. As a further consideration, the tank was expected to be fighting in the densely populated south of England. City fighting throws up quite a bit of timber from destroyed houses, this, it was realised, could be used as a fuel source. Which would lead to a further cut in the logistics burden.
Not quite agriculture, but the point stands I think.
The Steam Committee then, in early 1941, turned its attention to the tank's armour and nearly got derailed in the process. At first the brand new Churchill tank was suggested for the basis of the tank. But the proposal was brought up short by the Ministry of Supply pointing out that the Churchill was needed for the army, and even though the production capacity still had some slack in it in some areas, other areas such as casting and welding had large bottle necks.
After deliberation the Steam Committee suggested that flat plate be bolted together to form its protection. Bolted plate was vastly easier to produce, especially for a shipbuilding country like the United Kingdom.
Enquiries were made of a small ship building firm called Hills & Smyth Maritime, the company wasn't experienced in Government contracts and eager to help the war effort mistook the enquires as an order and began to produce the turrets with great gusto. However this mistake was spotted after only a few turrets had been built, and production halted.
One of the Hills & Smyth turrets.
You can see from the turret design that the later Churchill MK.III turret owed a large chunk of its existence to this mistake. Another curiosity you can see from the constructed turrets is that the roofs were rather thick. This is because the Steam Committee expected waves of Stukas to be over head and were keen to avoid a repeat of France where the Stukas were credited with huge destruction. Of course again, we now know this was more propaganda than actual effect.

With propulsion and the armour and turret sorted the Steam Committee turned its attention to the gun. The new three inch OSB Mk.I Smith Gun was soon to come into service and was chosen for the weapon, right up until the moment someone asked about the firing mechanism and mount. A Smith Gun was fired by a horizontal handle and with the crewman crouching a bit behind, sort of like a grenade launcher. Tank guns of the period were shoulder shoved like a giant rifle. Manufacturing a new mount would cause further delays so the trial on the Bren Gun Carrier took place to see if the gun could be operated under armour. It was found that it worked perfectly and so plans were drawn up to mount the sights and gun directly onto the back of the turret front.
A curiosity of the Smith Gun is that it's a smoothbore. The Steam Committee even tried out firing rubble with a blank charge to turn it into a giant shotgun. Again this rubble could come from bombed out buildings. From those tests it was suggested that any hard object could be fired, suggestions for appropriate ammo type from a more theatrically minded member of the Steam Committee included the idea that a local carpenter could knock up a giant wooden stake!
These trials with the Smith gun did have one lasting effect. The trials report includes a list of the Home Guardsmen who took part in the trial. On that list was a name that rang a bell, Jimmy Perry. A quick google shows he was one of the writers of the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army. In one of those episodes (“We know our Onions”) a Smith gun is used to fire a barrage of onions with a blank round. Mr Perry did later say that the series was based on his experiences with the Home Guard.
The order form for the armour plate.
As it turned out the Steam Committee delivered its plans and initially production was approved. Time had marched on to June 1941 and the situation regarding home defence had altered significantly, although the order above was issued, it was cancelled within days. With its work done the Steam Committee was disbanded and the people involved moved onto other things. The handful of bolted turrets were used for resistance testing and shot to pieces, and these tests showed the massive flaws of bolted armour, and so some good did come out of the entire project. Even if Home Guard Steam tanks would have been cooler.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Clouds of Scuds

Note: Next weeks article will be out a day early, on the Saturday, as I have to go into work on Sunday, and so won't be able to post on the normal day.

Whilst hunting for a story this week a friend mentioned Scud missiles, and I thought yeah an article on the 1991 Gulf War, and the battle between Scuds and Patriots, and how the Patriots managed to miss every shot they fired might work! So I started looking at Scuds, and quickly found a much more interesting use in their history.
On February 15th 1989 the Soviet Union finally pulled the last of their combat troops out of Afghanistan, leaving only a few technical advisors. The Marxist government was expected to collapse very quickly by the Mujahideen rebels, so much so that a government in exile was set up. The cabinet's first meeting, with ten of the sixteen ministers appointed was held at a rebel training base consisting of a few stone huts in the mountains. There they were told that their next meeting would be in a very different location, Kabul! However this governmental collapse failed to materialise. So the Mujahideen, possibly prompted by the Pakistanis, drew up their own plan. The idea was to capture Jalalabad, giving the government in exile a foothold inside Afghanistan.

The choice of attacking Jalalabad seems an odd one. The government troops had somewhere in the region of 12000 soldiers, while the Mujahideen had about 7000 men they could deploy. Equally the civilian population was seen to be very loyal to the government, some said that it was the second most loyal place in Afghanistan after Kabul. However it was seen as a test case to see how easy it is to capture a city, plus it was seen as having a large impact on the government.
So on the 5th of March 1989 the Afghanistan forces launched their attack. Successes at the start of the attack despite the smaller force of attackers seemed to bode well. The main highway into the city was cut, and the rebels managed to get to the airfield after two days. They also overran several garrisons.
However in the last case several of the government soldiers who surrendered were executed by the rebels. When word of these massacres got around the government troops refused to surrender as they knew they'd have no chance. With the airfield surrounded the government could only get helicopters into the city, and even that was risky. Equally using jets and helicopters to attack the enemy was made massively more dangerous by the presence of US supplied Stinger missiles. However by the 9th the airport had been recaptured, and the attack blunted. At the height of the battle the rebels fired over 12,000 rockets, mortars and artillery rounds over a period of 24 hours.
The government had to respond and it turned to one of the weapons left by the Soviets, its stockpile of Scud missiles. On the evening of Sunday the 12th of March a volley of six missiles was launched from the base at Darulaman, ten miles south of Kabul, and some 100 odd miles from the fighting. During the course of the three month battle some 400+ Scuds were launched by three batteries. The targets chosen for these seem to be very optimistic, being aimed at targets within five miles of friendly troops. Indeed one Scud overshot its target, hitting Pakistan, although luckily all it did was make a very large crater in the landscape.
This veritable barrage of Scuds did quite some damage to the attackers. Mainly to their morale. A Scud would arrive and explode with no warning and no defence. Another source of morale damage was the supply issues. The rebels launched their attack with just enough ammunition for a weeks fighting, and the logistics couldn't cope with the grinding stalemate that followed.
 However the biggest problems with the attack were political. All the forces involved in the Mujahideen attack were best described by the term "Warband". They each belonged to a separate group of individuals fighting against the government. The two largest war bands seriously distrusted each other. One assassinated the lower leaders of his rival, in return his rival allowed a large reinforcement convoy through his lines to launch an attack. As well as this distrust there was no coordination and no unified command. With no control groups would launch an attack when the mood took them, and with no support from other bands. The final problem was the choice of attacking Jalalabad was seen as very suspect, and entirely a figment of the Pakistani intelligence services, and a great many of the Mujahideen were opposed to this strategy.

After three months of bitter fighting the Mujahideen withdrew on the 16th of May. The war, however was set to continue, despite the Mujahideen having a defeat in their first stand up battle.

Image credits:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Cold Condor

South America has one claim to fame, which I'm sure it'd rather not have. Before the Second World War it seems to have been the source of most aircraft hijackings. The first aircraft hijacking in recorded history was in Peru. On February 21st 1931 a Ford Trimotor belonging to Pan-American Airlines* landed at Arequipa, after leaving Lima earlier that day. As the pilot, Byron Rickards, landed the plane he saw a group of rebels emerge from behind a hangar and surround his craft. The people on the plane were imprisoned, and Mr Rickards was informed that a revolution was under way, and that the plane would now be used for transport and leaflet dropping. Mr Rickards later was to comment on how polite the revolutionaries had been with their request, however he refused to let his plane be so used. This stand off continued for ten days, until Mr Rickards, and his crew and passengers were released when the revolution succeeded, he was then asked to carry one of the hijackers to Lima on his return flight. History doesn't record if he did or not. It does record that Mr Rickards was given a payment of $100 by Pan-Am as a thank you. History also records that Mr Rickards was the first captain of a plane to be hijacked twice. On the 3rd of August 1961 Mr Rickards was hijacked by two males at El Paso airport, who were demanding his 707 passenger airline be flown to Cuba. The FBI shot out the plane's tyres and so brought the incident to an end. In another “first” the hijackers were the first to be sentenced for hijacking in the US.
Modern Ford Tri-Motor
The second ever hijacking was in Brazil, on September the 25th 1932. When three men related to the communist revolution of the time, took a fourth hostage in a hanger, and stole a S-38 Amphibian. Exact details are much harder to establish as none of the men involved were pilots, and so unsurprisingly the plane crashed and all were killed.
Sikorsky S-38, not the ugliest aircraft ever (Blackburn hold that title) but certainly an honourable mention.
So where am I going with this, well it's a lead in to Operation Condor. Before you start worrying I'll not be talking about the unpleasantness of the decade long campaign of killings that came about under that name. But an earlier "Operation Condor", which was semi-military in nature.

On September 28th 1966 thirty five passengers boarded a flight at Buenos Aires heading towards Rio Gallegos. The plane was a DC-4, and eighteen of the men were scrap metal union members, one was a Journalist called Dardo Cabo. The later had links to the scrap metal union, being the leader's Son. He'd also been part of a extremely right wing youth group. After the plane had taken off all nineteen men revealed their cache of weapons and hijacked the plane. From there they forced the pilot to head towards the Falklands islands. Their plan, to capture the islands for Argentina.
Thus later that day the quiet of Port Stanley was shattered by a DC-4 roaring in out of the grey gloom, low over the town. Most alarmingly for the islanders was the Argentinian markings the plane carried. At the time there was no airport at Port Stanley, so Cabo had ordered the pilots to land on the racecourse, and so the plane dug farrows through the soft earth as it tried to skid to a stop.
Perplexed two local officials approached the plane, and were met by the scrap metal workers spilling from the plane weapons in hand, and were immediately taken prisoner.

At the time the Falkland Islands were defended by a volunteer group, lightly armed with rifles. However they had a section of six Royal Marines to train them. These men quickly armed themselves and deployed to surround the plane.  When they arrived they found that the Argentinians had planted a flag on the racecourse, and a tense stand off ensued, with no more than the odd harsh word exchanged between the Defenders and the invaders.

As was noted by the commandant of the US marine corps in 1980 "Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals study logistics." The hijackers had failed to consider the logistics of their situation. The Falklands is not a warm climate, grey, rain soaked and above all cold. The defenders had the support of the locals (which translated to hot food and drink in constant supply) and bad weather gear, the invaders only what they had on the plane. After thirty six hours, including a night huddled under the wing of the DC-4 a catholic priest was sent over to give Mass. After which the Argentinians surrendered, and were returned to their home land.
 The result was the Royal Marine troops on the Falklands were increased to a full platoon, and there was even more distrust from the Falkland islanders towards Argentina, which over the next fifteen years would scupper any moves to solve the problem politically. Ironically, again, another incident involving scrap metal workers raising a flag on South Georgia Island in early 1982 led to the Falklands War.
Cabo Received three years in prison, and carried on his activist lifestyle merging the youth movement with another terrorist organisation, and was later executed in 1977 by the then ruling Junta.
The flag raised by the Hijackers was used by Cristina Fernandez in 2013 at a press conference.

*Pan-American airlines is also, more commonly known as Pan-Am, has a bit of history in this regard to incidents. As well as the first hijacking in history, it also held the deadliest air disaster in history and was the operator of the plane destroyed by the Lockerbie bomb. There was also a Hijacking incident in Karachi which left 20 dead and 120 wounded.

Image Credits:
www.aviastar.org, www.prop-liners.com and www.diariomardeajo.com.ar

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Longest Three Hours

Part one.

We left the two Italian naval officers as they lowered their modified human torpedo into the water off the port of Pola, to begin their attack. 

The first obstacle they encountered, at about 2230, was a line of metal drums tied by cable to each other, swept by searchlights. Unable to get past it the Italians pushed their torpedo over the top, during a gap in the searchlights sweeps. The grating and scraping of metal upon metal was not heard by the guards.
They then reached the seawall. Swimming alongside the wall Lt Paolucci managed to find a sturdy wooden gate, which again they heaved their torpedo over. This was made all the worse by the tide turning, and it was now flowing out of the harbour. Equally it began to rain, and then hail. Luckily this hid the sounds of the torpedo being shoved over the gate. Buy the time they'd finished it was now 0100 on the first of November.
Viribus Unitis in Pola harbour
They immediately ran into another series of anti-submarine nets, it took a further two hours to get past them. The two men had been in the cold water since 2213 the previous night, and during that time they'd been lifting their torpedo over obstacles, with nothing to stand upon, and swimming against the tide. By now the two exhausted men were close to their objective as they swam slowly towards the mighty Viribus Unitis. They closed in as dawn was beginning to light the sky but disaster struck when the torpedo began to sink! One of the valves had been opened which was letting a buoyancy chamber fill up. While one of the men tried to keep it afloat the other tacked the problem closing the valve.

By 0445 the men were under the towering metal cliff that was the Viribus Unitis hull. They detached the first of their explosive charges, set the timer for 0630, and stuck it onto the side of the hull. As they began to swim away a sentry spotted them. The two men steered for shore hoping to escape on foot, however, a boat was dispatched from the battleship. Seeing that their capture was imminent the Italians armed their last bomb and released it into the harbour (it would later damage a transport ship). Then opened the valve to scuttle their torpedo. Shortly afterwards they were fished out of the water and escorted back aboard the Viribus Unitis. Once on-board they learnt an important piece of information.

At 1700 the previous day the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, had come into existence. Because it had owned most of the coast line the remnants of Austro-Hungary had gifted its fleet to the newly formed state. SCS had declared neutrality in the First World War!
Immediately the two Italians tried to convince their captors that they were in danger, although not giving the exact location of the explosive charge, they did state when it was due to detonate. Eventually Captain Ianko Vukovic ordered all hands to abandon ship, which caused panic and chaos. As the men began to lower life boats and flee the two Italians asked permission if they might save themselves. Cpt Vukovic agreed, and both men leapt overboard into the water once again. However a group of sailors in a lifeboat re-captured them and dragged them back on board. It was now 0620.
By 0630 Cpt Vukovic was still trying to restore order, and there had been no explosion. Some lifeboats were beginning to return when at 0644 the charge detonated drenching the foredeck. Immediately the ship began to list. The coal bunkers were empty and so what little protection the ship had to underwater attack was removed, and she suffered a fatal blow.
Once again the Italians asked for permission to save themselves, and again it was granted. This time however Cpt Vukovic directed them to a rope ladder and ordered a lifeboat to come collect them, but only after shaking their hands.
Cpt Vukovic
About fifteen minutes later the water reached the deck line and the ship turned turtle, her huge gun turrets were seen through the murky water to tumble out of their mounts. Cpt Vukovic was seen crawling along the upturned hull before the ship sank. In the tumultuous water he was struck in the head by a wooden beam and killed.
The Viribus Unitis sinking
The Viribus Unitis had been in SCS service for about thirteen hours, and is I think the shortest term of service for a warship in history. The two Italians were interned until the end of the war, and then given a medal by the Italian government. Maj Rossetti was given a 650,000 lira award as well, which he paid to the widow of Cpt Vukovic.

Finally the whole story leaves us with a lesson about history. Some sources (such as Wikipedia) claim the Viribus Unitis was renamed the "Yugoslavia". While others say that this is false. This is a contentious fact because of the ongoing political issues in the area, and one side or another tries to use it to support their point of view. The argument is that country that would become Yugoslavia wasn't so known until 1929, and so how could a ship be named as such eleven years earlier. However it appears that the term Yugoslavia was used as a concept before hand, so maybe it was true, maybe it isn't.

Image credits:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

With United Forces

If in early 1918, you had been in Venice one evening you might have seen an odd sight. A lone man swimming around in the lagoons, towing a barrel filled with water, this gentleman would only be seen at night swimming around in circles for hours on end, night after night. If you had met him, as he wearily clambered out of the water after his nightly exercise you'd have found out his name was Raffaele Paolucci, a lieutenant and surgeon in the Italian Navy.
What he probably wouldn't have told you was he was single handedly planning on attacking the Austro-Hungarian Navy.
Lt Paolucci
The Italians had been fighting the Austro-Hungarian Navy since they joined the Allies in World War One, and had kept them bottled up in the Adriatic for most of that period. Now their fleet including the flagship Viribus Unitis, was in port at Pola. Lt Paolucci planned a night swim towing a charge of TNT which he would attach to the hull of a battleship and sink it. His target was to be the Viribus Unitis (which translates as "With United Forces"personal motto of Emperor Franz Joseph I).
The battleship Viribus Unitis had carried Archduke Ferdinand on the first leg of his ill-fated trip to Sarajevo. And likewise carried his body back. She'd taken part in a sortie where one of her sister ships had been damaged and another sunk by two Italian MAS boats. Since then the Austro-Hungarian Navy had been bottled up in its anchorage, subjected to around eighty air raids by the end of the war by Italian aircraft and she'd had her impressive armament increased to include some AA weapons. However the Tegetthoff Class, which Viribus Unitis was the lead ship of, was known to have poor protection against underwater attack. Her protection was similar to protected cruisers, using the coal bunkers as protection along the sides of the ship under the water line. Now a single Italian was planning to swim to her from outside the harbour and mine her. When he felt ready Lt Paolucci approached his superiors with the idea. They told him to keep practising while they worked out the details.
Maj Rossetti
As it happened, the young lieutenant was introduced to Major Raffaele Rossetti, whom had been thinking along similar lines, but with a more mechanical solution. He was modifying a German torpedo that had been washed up on the Italian shore. He'd added a pair of screws powered by the compressed air tanks. Forget the seated position of the human torpedoes of World War Two, both men were to cling onto the outside of this vehicle using their bodies as rudders to steer it. Two charges of explosive replaced the front of the elongated torpedo, and these had timers. Each contained 400lbs of TNT. This entire contraption was nicknamed "Leech"
The human torpedo "Leech"
On the night of October the 31st, 1918, the two men lowered their contraption into the water from a MAS boat just outside Pola Harbour, slipped in after it and began their long swim. Lacking SCUBA equipment the men had to keep their heads above water. It was a cold night with a fierce wind, which meant quite some chop on the sea, as they set off for Pola harbour. They estimated it'd take them three hours to swim to the battleship and return.

Part two is next week.

Image Credits:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Grind Stonne

There's a small village near Sedan in France that was the location of two days of intense combat in May 1940. The fighting was tank on tank combat. Called the "Verdun of 1940" by some, we generally know it as the Battle of Stonne. The French have often been criticised for their lack of attacks during the battle of France, but at Stonne they got up to speed and laid into the Germans.
Famously Stonne changed hands seventeen times over this two day back and forth, a brutal slogging match. Which was exactly the sort of fighting the French were expecting. To give you an idea of how bitter the fighting was on May the 15th the town changed hands at these times: 0800, 0900, 0930, 1030, 1045, 1200 and 1730. The last change on that day was the Germans taking control. But that wasn't going to last, the French would be back.
Photo taken in Stonne
Early the next morning, at 0430, the French opened with a 45 minute artillery bombardment from 105mm guns. Afterwards the plan was for fourteen Char B1 tanks, divided into two companies (the first and third companies of the regiment) to charge the town, while infantry and Hotchkiss H39's would follow up and take the ground. As the artillery barrage was lifting the first company ran into its first resistance. Anti-tank guns, infantry and a pair of tanks were holding a tree line. The seven Char B1's drove at full speed into the storm of enemy fire trusting their thick armour to keep them safe. As they advanced the two tanks were knocked out by tanks from the company. As they reached 100m the fire suddenly slackened and stopped. The German infantry were pulling back or playing dead in their positions.The first company carried on its advance.

The third company reached the local water tower at 0527 and destroyed it to silence a German machine gun that had been sighted on top of the tower. They then began to take the outskirts of the village under fire, which was returned by German heavy weapons.

Meanwhile the first company had been trying to reach its objectives. The commander had been frustrated by impassable slopes, however, this worked in his favour as it had forced the company to move round the side of the German position. Suddenly the commander (Captain Pierre Billotte), found himself on the outskirts of the Village of Stonne, he led the charge towards the church tower he could see in the dawn light. As his tank came round a corner he saw eleven Panzers lined up on the road next to the church, the road was at right angles to him and just thirty meters away! The German tanks were manned and were readying to launch a counterattack against the third company.
Cpt Billotte, and his B1, Eure
Cpt Billotte ordered his driver to destroy the rear most tank, meanwhile he used the turret gun to fire at the lead tank. Under most circumstances either gun wouldn't have had trouble with a German Panzer from the front at longer ranges, at practically point blank from the flank both Panzers were almost instantly destroyed. With the column immobilised, Cpt Billottes Char B1 began to destroy the rest of the German tanks.
Although immobilised the Germans guns could still fire, and they started a concentrated barrage of fire aimed at the one tank. Again the tanks armour and luck held out, and the German shells bounced harmlessly off for the few moments it took for Cpt Billotte to destroy all the German tanks in the column.

After this the Char B1 lurched on the road, turned left, and began to head deeper into German occupied territory. As he neared a T junction further up the road Cpt Billotte met another parked column of Panzers. These were lined up facing up the road Cpt Billotte was coming down. He quickly despatched all these tanks taking even more hits.  As he neared a hairpin turn the Germans set up an ambush with an anti-tank gun, which again fails and the gun is destroyed. Finally they try another ambush, again with a lone anti-tank gun, which also fails. By now Cpt Billotte is over extended deep behind German lines, and out of targets. So he returns to the village, by now in French hands, the time is about 0730. The French managed to hold until 1730 when the Germans retake the village.
The following day the village changed hands at 1100, 1430, 1500, 1630, 1700 and then changes hands once more for the last time, at 1745 as it's captured by the Germans.
Another picture of Stonne
Cpt Billotte's tank had taken over 140 hits during the battle, but stayed in action until it broke down on 13th of June at Possesse, and had to be destroyed. Cpt Billotte was captured and made a POW, but almost immediately escaped to the Soviet Union, where he was interned. That didn't last long as the Germans were soon to invade, once at war the Soviet Union turned the internee over to the French military attaché, whom he served for a while before making his way to join the Free French in the UK.
Pierre Billotte died in July 1992 aged 86.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Zeebrugge raid (part two)

Last week we left the Zeebrugge raid in mid battle, as HMS Vindictive slammed into the mole and her troops got ready to charge.

Part One.

HMS C3, the submarine with the explosives in it was aimed directly at the viaduct steaming as fast as her engine could carry her. However her cloak of darkness was ripped from her by star shells fired by the Germans. A few four inch guns opened fire on her for a short while then halted. The captain of C3, Lieutenant Richard D. Sandford,  decided not to use the gyro gear as he decided it couldn't be trusted and the viaduct must be brought down. At 0015 HMS C3 slammed into the viaduct, the explosives didn't go off, and the crew bailed to a skiff on the rear of the submarine as their means of escape, while Lt Sandford lit the fuse. As they left the submarine a party of Germans began to fire on them. At this point it was found the propeller shaft of the skiff had been broken, and the crew began to row the boat away under fire. The skiff was meet by one of the CMB's which was detailed to pick up survivors from this part of the operation and the Germans on the viaduct were torn to pieces five minutes later when the charges on the sub detonated.
The gap in the vaiduct
Back on HMS Vindictive the two flame-throwers were readied. However both lacked pressure to fire. Then suddenly as HMS Vindictive was pushed into place one of the huts got pressure, the flame-thrower was turned on the mole and fired. Unfortunately the storm of fire had shot off the ignition apparatus. One rating furiously tried to light the stream of fuel with matches, going through two books with no luck.
The assault troops clambered up their boarding ramps. Initially there was very little fire. However things soon began to hot up. Two German destroyers were alongside the mole on the shoreward side, and they began to pour fire across the mole. Equally one of the two gun batteries had machine guns placed covering back down the mole.
One of the portable flame-throwers was brought up and hosed down the German destroyers deck but even this made no impact in the fight.
The Royal Marines tried to advance, but the extra 300 yards distance made their attempts futile. However their fire did silence one of the two German batteries on the mole, as it never fired a shot at the block ships.
The deck of HMS Vindictive, taken after the battle.
The three block ships arrived at about 0025. They were in position, having sighted the mole from rockets and illumination fired from HMS Vindictive and German star shells. Their position was further confirmed by one of the small motor launches that was in front signalling position by lamp. The three block ships were in line astern. As they neared they began to receive fire, and return it, sinking one of the barges set to maintain the net closing the mouth of the harbour. The lead ship then rammed into the net, and it snagged on her. Reacting immediately to this occurrence the captain steered to the side dragging the net with her and opening the way for the other two ships. After a short while the engines failed and the lead ship drifted and ran aground.

The final two ships were over crewed. Each of the block ships was to have disembarked one of its watches of crew before the run in. However on the two remaining ships the watches ordered to disembark had refused as they didn't want to miss the fight. Despite the heavy gun fire both ships managed to scuttle themselves inside the canal mouth, across its width the third ship had spotted that the second had scuttled on one side and deliberately spent some time manoeuvring under point blank fire to ensure he scuttled on the opposite side. Both the crews were evacuated by launches, and ships boats. One of the launches had even followed the block ship up the canal despite the withering fire.
The Three block ships in the canal.
With the blockships seen steaming towards the harbour mouth, the requirement of HMS Vindictive to capture the mole was over and the order to retire was to be given. However the siren which was to be the signal to fall back on HMS Vindictive had been shot off. So the order was passed to the ferry pushing HMS Vindictive into the mole to sound its siren, which it duly did.
The assault party began to fall back, at the start of the attack there had been 16 boarding ramps from deck of HMS Vindictive up to the mole. Now only two remained. These bowed alarmingly as the men filed across. Once the captain of the HMS Vindictive received the announcement that all were aboard he waited a further ten minutes under fire to ensure no one else would arrive, he then ordered that the ferry tow the bow off and HMS Vindictive along with the rest of the flotilla began its withdrawal into the night leaving the German held port blocked.
HMS Vindictive after the raid.
Or so the British believed. The Germans removed part of the canal wall and dredged a new channel around the stern of the one of the block ships. This enabled U-boats to pass at high tide.

 Image Credits:
www.rnsubmusfriends.org.uk and www.dailymail.co.uk