Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Terminal Reservist

As is well known one of the main problems during the Second World War was logistics, especially the securing of ports after a landing on a hostile coast. At first there was some thought of capturing a port intact, such thoughts led to Dieppe and Operations Terminal and Reservist.
Entrance to Oran harbour
The latter two were part of Operation Torch, the US invasion of Vichy North Africa. The plan for both was simple. Run a pair of small ships into the harbour, smashing apart the booms covering the entrance to the harbours, then once alongside unload the troops carried whom could then secure the area and prevent the harbour facilities being destroyed. Upon seeing the Royal Navy vessels loaded down with US infantry, and a small party of six USMC (possibly the gun crew on one of the ships), bearing down on them the enemy would instantly surrender. Or so it was thought.
Its interesting to note that this action is the only time in the Second World War when the USMC saw action in Europe, apart from a few men acting with the SOE in France.
HMS Hartland
The plan for Operation Reservist was for two ex-US Coast Guard cutters (which had been gifted to the Royal Navy and were now know as HMS Hartland and HMS Walney) to carry the forces. The force was led by Captain Frederick Peters, a 53 year old retired Royal Navy officer who had won DSC and a DSO in the First World War. Cpt Peters had volunteered for this mission.
Cpt Peters
As the two ships began their run in towards the harbour at Oran in the early morning of the 8th of November 1941, they saw the city ahead laid out with all its lights blazing. As they neared the harbour word of the invasion must have reached the French defenders, a siren began to wail and the power to the city was cut, plunging everything into darkness. HMS Walney led, with HMS Hartland five minutes behind.
As they approached the engines are turned to full speed, however the line is quickly seen as terrible, and the sloops were destined to miss the harbour mouth by at least a quarter of a mile. The two naval vessels begin a full 360 degree turn to line up and try again. In the area there was a colossal thirteen coastal batteries, with the largest gun being a 9.4" battery. Equally there was somewhere in the order of 10,000 men defending the area. This cacophony of weaponry was turned on the two small Royal Navy vessels as they approached. In reply the ships carried a large US flag and had loud hailers to broadcast a message. The two ships did have a five inch gun apiece.
Speared by a searchlight, and blasted at by all the guns that could be brought to bear, HMS Walney made her second approach, this time she was lined up perfectly and impacted the boom and broke right through it. At that point the searchlight spotted HMS Hartland on her approach and switched to it, taking all the gunners attention away from HMS Walney.

As the battered ship moves into the harbour a French destroyer was seen nearby, HMS Walney then maked an attempt to ram, however the two ships scrape past each other, the French destroyer opens fire at point blank range with all its guns. The devastating barrage blasts the armour plate from the bridge, the impacts knocks Cpt Peters to the deck, and causes even more casualties. HMS Walney is now on fire getting shot at by every calibre of gun you can imagine from every direction. On-board the ammunition stores are on fire and detonating, and the forward gun has been hit and is out of action. Cpt Peters scrambles to his feet, looking about he sees he is the only survivor on the bridge. He is now utterly exposed to the fire coming from all around and he guides the exploding, blazing ship forward. Meanwhile the US soldiers are returning fire with their personal weapons as best they can.
However despite this all, Cpt Peters was not hit, and reaches the mole where he was meant to land the US troops. Peters dashes to the forward deck and assists another officer in securing the first of the lines, then he races along the deck to the quarterdeck to assist in tying up there. All the time as he moves about there are two French destroyers on the other side of the harbour. From what is effectively point blank range, they direct a storm of fire at HMS Walney, and at in particular the naval officer rushing about on its deck. Cpt Peters didn't even hesitate or take cover once.
Before the troops could begin to disembark a large shell hits HMS Walney in the boiler room and destroys all power. Finally the damage begins to tell and HMS Walney begins to sink, and the order to abandon ship is given.

HMS Walney at rest
HMS Hartland fared little better. On her second approach her captain was hit and blinded, the ship impacted into the outer harbour wall. The wounded Lt Commander GP Billot, her captain, ordered her backed off and she tried again. All the time the fire was savaging the ship. This time she succeeded in entering the harbour. However as HMS Hartland passed another French destroyer it too raked the RN ship, putting her out of action and disabling her completely. She had to be abandoned immediately and drifted for a while before sinking.
HMS Hartland drifting on fire.
A similar plan was carried out for Operation Terminal. This time two Royal Navy ships, of similar size to HMS Walney and Hartland, tried to force an entry into Algiers harbour. The first ship, HMS Malcolm, broke through the boom, however she lost three of her four boilers to the storm of defending fire and she had to withdraw. Her companion was HMS Broke (no, not the HMS Broke from the battle of the Dover Straits).
HMS Malcom, with US troops on-board
 HMS Broke took four attempts to breach the boom, all the time under fire, however she managed to eventually enter the harbour and land her troops before withdrawing. However while heading for safety she was hit by coastal batteries and sunk. The troops she landed managed to fight off the French for seven hours until they were forced to surrender.
US troops in Algiers after the French surrender.
Algiers harbour a week after the surrender, the facilities remain intact, due largely to the few troops managing to hold on for those critical hours and denying the French time to destroy the harbour.
Operation Reservist suffered casualties in excess of 90% of the force, they totalled 307 killed and 250 wounded, the terminal casualties were much lighter with 22 killed and 55 wounded. One of the few Reservist survivors was Cpt Peters, who for his actions was awarded the Victoria Cross. All the prisoners were released when the French surrendered on the 10th. Cpt Peters was then sent back to the UK by Sunderland. However it crashed in fog in Plymouth Sound, Cpt Peters made it out of the plane along with the pilot. The pilot struggled to keep him afloat for 90 minutes until they were found and rescued, but Cpt Peters was dead when he was pulled from the water.

Image credits:
warfarehistorynetwork.com, liberationtrilogy.com, www.wrecksite.eu and wwww.iwm.org.uk

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Battleship Sherman

Disclaimer: the accounts from which I draw this are all a bit blurred. So this article might be wrong. The web indicates two books that hold details on the subject are 'Mailed Fist: 6th Armoured Division at War 1939-1945' and 'Welsh Guards at War'. I do not own either of these so they may prove me utterly wrong!

As Axis forces in Tunisia collapsed during May 1943 the Germans formed a line across a natural feature called Cape Bon. Other divisions and units were halting in place as they ran out of supplies or somewhere to retreat too and either surrendered or fought to the last man. The rate of surrender was reported by the Allied newspapers at over 1000 new POW's every hour. At one Allied POW camp there were reports of the camp not being large enough to hold them all, and the prisoners milled about outside the wire.
However a few German units formed a new front line and began to dig in across the bottom of Cape Bon. On one flank was the coastal town of Hammam Lif. The line ran from the town right by the sea, through the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains to Zarhouan and Enfidaville.

Into Hammam Lif the Germans poured Kampfgruppe Frantz. It consisted of the 19th Flak Division, and a fallschirmjager battalion. This was reinforced with the remains of the Herman Goering Division and two Panzer Grenadier Regiments. The mass of 88 Flak were well sighted, and the German infantry were dug in on the high ground overlooking the town. As the lead British tanks approached this monstrous position a 88mm sighted to fire directly down the main road destroyed the lead tank causing the British to halt. The Germans then began to bombard the stalled armoured unit with nebelwerfers, mortars and other indirect fire weapons. The Germans confidently expected they could hold for at least six days.
That afternoon the Welsh Guards began the assault. The first of the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains was to be assaulted. Each of the five peaks were 600ft tall, steep sided with very rocky terrain. Storming the first crest in the face of fierce German defences took the whole afternoon and all the grit and determination that the Welsh Guards could muster. As light faded the Guardsmen began to clamber down the mountain to assault the others. With one company acting as porters over the course of the night the other peaks were captured. Although only one was defended the Welsh Guards had to climb the rocky slope under a constant barrage of grenades. Eventually they charged the peak, capturing the thirteen defenders. The other peaks took time to capture just due to their sheer cliff like sides. However by first light the mountains were all in British hands. This action had cost the Welshmen twenty four killed, and fifty wounded. Now it was time to storm the main town.
 This task fell to the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse Tank Regiment, equipped with Sherman's. One of the officers was Allan Waterston. The plan was for the three squadrons to charge the town. The front was only a few hundred yards wide between the sea and the start of the mountains, and remember there was a Flak division, equipped with 88 mm's pointing at that gap.
First his squadron scrambled over a railway line towards the coast, here things started to go wrong immediately. A coil of wire wrapped itself around Waterston’s neck, while the tank continued to advance at full speed. The wire began to tighten, choking him and preventing him from ordering his driver to halt. Within seconds he was going to get jerked out of the tank and hung, or decapitated. He managed to get his gloved hands under the wire and heave it over his head, just in time. Waterston, in his autobiography then says "The enemy began to react strongly and we found ourselves in some unpleasantness".
With hails of 88 mm rounds sleeting across the open ground, slamming into tank after tank Waterston led his troop into a wadi and used it to move closer to the Germans. As he emerged at full tilt by the sea his troop was alone. Then things began to deteriorate even further as one of his tanks struck a mine. The Germans had mined the approach to Hammam Lif as well. Coming under concentrated 88 mm fire Waterston sought the only cover he could find, the sea. Charging into the ocean with his second Sherman following him they began to race through the gauntlet of German fire. Each impact threw up a column of water over twenty feet high. Now partially submerged (One of the advantage of a British Sherman is that it possibly had a diesel engine so wouldn't flood as easily), his tanks formed a line, with their wake trailing behind them, and splashes of 88 mm impacts all around, for all the world looking like a naval battle.
Using this hull down cover, in the surf, Waterston found his tanks abreast of Hammam Lif and turned sharp right into the town. Under constant small arms fire the two Sherman's blasted into the town's centre. From there he was able to take the Germans under point blank fire from the rear, destroying four 88 mms. This lessened the volume of fire the Germans were putting down the gap and allowed further reinforcements to advance and capture the town. That day the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse lost twenty two tanks, if it wasn't for Waterston's actions it's likely they wouldn't have captured the town. For his actions that day he was awarded the Military Cross.
His dash and daring later served in Italy where he captured the bridge over the Arno River, which some sources say is the bridge in the background of the Mona Lisa. Alan Waterston died in 2014 aged 92.

Image Credits:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bomba Away!

Late in August 1940 a Royal Marine officer stepped through the gates of the airfield at Ma'aten Bagush in Egypt. The Royal Marine was Captain Oliver Patch, and he was a pilot with the Royal Navy Air Service. He had just been dispatched from RNAS Dekheila, his role was to command a flight of three Fairey Swordfish on an anti-shipping strike along the Libyan coast. The three torpedo carrying Swordfish flew to a forward strip at Sidi Barani, arriving at 0700 on the 22nd. While there they ate a breakfast of tinned sausages, baked beans and bread and waited for the reconnaissance to return. The day before a Blenheim bomber had spotted a supply ship and a submarine tied up in a bay on the Libyan coast, if they were still there then the Swordfish would attack. The reconnaissance returned with a positive result, and soon the three Swordfish were bumping along the sandy air strip, heading for Bomba Bay.

At Bomba Bay the Italian forces were actually larger than reported. The bay contained a single supply ship called Monte Gargano and two submarines as well as the torpedo boat Calipso. The latter was a Spica class torpedo boat, and don't think of something like a MTB or PT boat. The Spica class were over 1000 tons in weight and carried three four inch guns and about ten 20mm cannons, as well as an array of machine guns. One of the submarines was called the Iride, the reason for this mass of Italian shipping was a planned frogman raid on Alexandria. By 1230 the frogmen had transferred their human torpedoes (named Maiali, after a type of pig) to the Iride from the Calipso, and the submarine was setting out. Some reports say that the crew, feeling quite safe, had hung their washing out on the rigging of the submarine to dry.
Midships on a Scipa class
Then from out at sea came the three Swordfish, in line abreast with 200 yards between each plane, chugging along at just thirty feet. The Italians immediately leapt to their guns and put up a barrage of AA fire. Cpt Patch swerved the incoming fire, took aim and released his torpedo at about three hundred yards. It ran straight towards the Iride, striking below her conning tower and blowing the submarine in half.

The other two Swordfish hurtled onwards, the first lined up on the Monte Gargano and despite being hit in the wing strut released its torpedo. The pilot of the second Swordfish was about to release when his gunner spotted a submerged sand bank running across the track of the torpedo and shouted a warning. The pilot waited until they had cleared the obstacle and released, and turned to follow his two companions out to sea and back to base.
The two torpedoes were running, the first hit the the Monte Gargano causing a major fire, which eventually spread to her stores and caused an explosion. This also set the Calipso on fire causing her to sink. The final torpedo hit the unnamed submarine also sinking her. This was confirmed by Italian news broadcasts which admitted the loss of the ships.
However that's not what actually happened. There was no four ships for three torpedoes. The third torpedo missed its target (the unknown submarine), which later left the bay of its own accord. The Calipso left the bay and commenced rescue operations on the Iride. Most of the crew were rescued from the water, as they had been on deck at the time of her sinking. However nine men were trapped in the forward section of the hull. The frogmen who had just been rescued, but lacked their breathing gear (as it was on-board the submarine) began to free dive down to the wreck of the submarine. First they attached a marker buoy to the hull, one even managed to communicate with the survivors, presumably by hammering on the hull. He was awarded a medal for his actions.
After a radio call for assistance was dispatched by the Calipso, a diver with additional breathing equipment arrived from Tobruk, and five of the trapped men were rescued.

Image credits:

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Darts at Sea

I decided to do a tricky one this week, the Falklands War. Why is it so tricky? Well on one hand you have a lot of misinformation kicking around the net as some individuals seem to have a vested interest in lying about the war.
Argentinian paper claims, I love how HMS Invincible is doing 28 knots forward while the smoke is blowing to starboard,  no one is tackling the blaze and Harrier operations are continuing as normal... For a more detailed view on the claims see this video.

Equally a book a I picked up to help with it by Max Hastings was written only a couple of years after the event, so some of the information may well have been proven wrong, but on the flip side he had a full range of veterans to interview.
The war had quite a lot going on in it, so I'll be focusing on a few of the more interesting events based around the air to sea aspects.

The classic Newsweek cover... I had to get it in somehow.
We'll start early on as the task force is steaming towards the war zone. Britain had issued a maritime exclusion zone around the Falklands. As the task force approached they started getting shadowed by Argentinian Boeing 707's. The worry was that these spy planes could vector Argentinian submarines onto the task force. Due to the sensitivity of the issue the RN asked permission of the government to shoot these hostile aircraft down. After deliberation the government agreed.
At the time the Royal Navy was armed with the Sea Dart missile, designed to shoot down high altitude Russian bombers attacking the fleet, so you'd think that a 707 would be an easy target. However the 707’s were flying right at the edge of the envelope of engagement of Sea Dart. When the missiles were launched, by the time they reached the 707 the target would be outside of range. If however the 707 had altered its course slightly the missile could have struck. So two Sea Darts were fired from HMS Cardiff. Luckily for the Argentinian crew they kept their course and the missiles missed.

Later on the Sea Darts were used for interdiction. The Argentinians regularly flew transport flights in at night to Port Stanley's airfield. The Royal Navy in an attempt to enforce a blockade sent both a Type 42 and a Type 22 frigate forward to get off shore of Stanley, the Type 22's armed with Sea Wolf provided close in air defence while the Sea Darts with their 40 miles range provided the stand-off. HMS Coventry was selected as the Type 42 in this 42-22 combo. Early in the morning of the 9th of May she detected a trio of planes, one C-130 Hercules and two A-4 Skyhawks. At a range of 38 miles she locked on and fired two missiles.
The missiles missed the Hercules, and one exploded near the Skyhawks. The crew of HMS Coventry thought they'd had no effect, but suddenly both Skyhawks disappeared from radar. Max Hastings thinks that both pilots ejected. However the Argentinians claim that both crashed in bad weather... at the same time, coincidently seconds after someone had shot at them and missed. HMS Coventry rounded off the night by shooting down a Puma a little while later with another Sea Dart, which became the Royal Navy's first missile kill.

The weeks that followed are a complicated mixture of events, mistakes, casualties and unhappiness for both sides. But they have been studied in depth by lots of other authors. The net result was another nineteen Sea Darts were fired for two further kills.
Now we come to May the 30th, and here the misinformation ascends to the highest levels, and it all revolves around HMS Invincible and the Argentinians decision to sink her.

On that day the Argentinian Navy and badly wounded Air Force decided to launch one last attack against the British fleet. The Air Force had suffered heavy losses during the intervening weeks in men and planes, but they had made it through to hit their targets. Four Skyhawks, code named Zonda, would join a pair of Super Étendards from the Navy, one of which was carrying an Exocet missile.
After refuelling from a C-130 the flight approached the task force, and began their attack, with the Étendard launching the Exocet, and the four Skyhawks were to follow the missile in.
On board the fleet at 1730 a Yellow Air Attack Warning was issued after an ECM operator had picked up radio chatter from the incoming strike. Then a Lynx helicopter on picket duty and one of the ships picked up contacts on their radars. The radar warning receivers began to squawk as the radar waves from the Étendards bathed the ships of the fleet. Then the tone stepped up a notch as both Étendards began to sweep the fleet. Codeword warnings were flashed throughout the ships and all the ships with the capability started launching chaff
One officer in the ops room of HMS Glamorgan said that as this happened his heart rate began to rise, until they spotted the incoming missile, and as it neared the fleet his heart felt like it was going to burst through his chest as it was hammering away. For people away from the ops room the fear lasted only a few seconds, One crewman said they got the Red Air Warning, and about 45 seconds later it was all over. In that time he had lain down and heard the cry of "BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!”.

However during that 45 seconds HMS Exeter had fired two Sea Darts, with more modern missiles and radar she was able to lock on and fire about fifteen seconds earlier than other Type 42's with the fleet.
Initially a confused warning had been issued, giving the wrong bearing for the attack, and one of the ships (HMS Avenger) had launched chaff and turned to present the smallest possible cross section to the incoming attack. However she now found herself heading directly towards the incoming strike.

The Sea Darts from HMS Exeter shot down one of the Sky Hawks as they barrelled in, that just left the three Skyhawks and the Exocet, and HMS Avenger was directly in their path. HMS Avenger had had a modification over the normal type 21 Frigate. Her divers had recovered a 20mm cannon from HMS Antelope, which had been sunk earlier in the campaign, and it had been mounted on the ship. The gun carried the nickname "Antelopes Avenger". They also had Captain Hugo White, who was a gunnery expert. Some sources claim he personally calculated the range and bearing to fire their 4.5" gun, and managed to hit the incoming Exocet.
However other sources counter this saying the full weight of HMS Avenger's gunnery was directed at the Skyhawks, and either the second Sea Dart that narrowly missed HMS Avenger or Avenger's 4.5" actually hit a second Skyhawks, while the Exocet was decoyed by chaff or was simply unserviceable. The last two Skyhawks of Zonda flight quickly launched an attack on HMS Avenger, which missed and and then they retreated.

There was one other attack on the fleet that day. A bomb rolled out the back of a C-130, hit but did no damage to a tanker called British Wye.
The war wasn't quite over and there were a few more Sea Dart firings which shot down a couple of further aircraft, including a British helicopter. However the final story for Sea Dart I want to talk about is from 1991 and Operation Desert Storm. A British Type 42, HMS Gloucester was working with the USS Jarrett. Both were escorting the USS Missouri, when the Iraqi forces launched a Silkworm missile at the battleship.
USS Missouri fired chaff, the USS Jarrett immediately locked onto the cloud of metallic strips in its close defence stance and opened fire at the chaff... The rounds passed through the cloud of chaff and hit the USS Missouri causing no damage or casualties. Meanwhile HMS Gloucester locked on with her Sea Darts and shot the incoming missile down, becoming the first naval missile to missile kill in history.

But by the early 2000's Sea Dart was nearing the end of its life. Due to certain money saving choices made by the, then Labour, government Sea Dart maintenance was halted, leaving the Royal Navy with just four ships that could fire SAM's, and those were all Sea Wolf. Luckily no major airborne threat developed during the period, and many years later the Type 45's arrived.
This final video is of a Sea Dart engagement sequence, with a bit of a twist.

Image Credits:
www.shipspotting.com and navynews.co.uk

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.

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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.

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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.

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