Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Vehicle of fire

Due to real life circumstances, and this article in its original form being quite a bit longer than anticipated, I'll be splitting it into two parts. 

Last week we had a look at handheld flamethrowers. Well the documents I read also covered vehicle mounted flamethrowers. This week, and next, I'll be covering those, although the information was only on Allied designs.

The British had the most famous vehicle mounted flamethrower, and it was the most efficient and successful. The following is a brief run down of the Crocodile so you can get an idea of its standards and then we'll have a look at some of the US designs.
The Crocodile started life as a Churchill Mk.VII infantry tank. An armoured trailer was attached to the back to carry the fuel and pressurisation gear, while an armoured channel ran along the underside of the tank. This channel had a plough attached to the leading edge to keep any debris away from the fuel pipe. The fuel pipe itself ran up through a hand-out hole, built into all Mk.VII's. This was normally used for cleaning and getting rid of waste. The hand-out hole was just behind the hull gunners position, from there this fuel line split into two pipes leading into the flame gun.
The flame gun itself was electrically powered with the tank commander having a control on the circuit. This enabled him to arm the gun or make it safe. The same circuit also allowed him to jettison the trailer.
The flame gun itself had three settings on it: "Safe", which rendered the trigger lifeless. "Ignition", which fired an ignited round, and just to be confusing, "Fire", which fired a unignited stream of fuel. The latter were termed "Wet" shots. The gun could elevate +15/-10 degrees and traverse seven degrees left and eleven to the right.
The six ton trailer was made out of 14mm armour plate, apart from the roof which was only 6mm. The 20" tyres were run flat designs and it had a ground clearance of one foot nine inches. The mount to the tank was a marvel of engineering. It allowed the trailer to rotate through 180 degrees in any direction, and still supply fuel, and could be jettisoned on command. When the trailer turned to far to the left or right a red or green light would light up in the driver's compartment informing him of the rotation of the trailer.
Inside the trailer lay five nitrogen bottles, each charged to 3000 lbs/sq. inch. These notoriously started leaking almost immediately and so charging was normally left to the last moment.  These all fed into a common hub which then fed into one of the fuel tanks.
Both the fuel tanks were located on either side of the trailer. They were seven feet, five inches long with a two foot six inch diameter. These contained the 400 gallons of fuel carried by the tank. Each fuel tank was linked in series, with the gas charge feeding in  the back of the series, and the fuel pipe to the flame gun out the front. Range was 140 yards and the Crocodile could fire between 80-85 shots, each lasting one second, this gave a discharge rate of about 4.5 gallons per second. To give you an idea of how much that is, that's about the same amount of water as comes out of a normal shower in three minutes fired out in one second.

Next week we'll have a look a three US projects, and another British flamethrower project. Plus the effect of flame throwers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Smoke and Fire

I've not done a technical article for a while, and not so long ago I found a document that went into flamethrowers in excruciating detail. The data is held in a British report gathered from the MI10 intelligence branch, which dealt with enemy equipment.
By 1941 the Germans were using a updated version of the 1935 model flamethrower, named unsurprisingly the Flammenwerfer 41. It had a nitrogen compressed gas tank above a fuel tank, with a wire braided pipe running to a hand unit. Above the hand unit was a 20 inch hydrogen tank used for ignition. This was held in place by what were described as clips like those used to attach a bicycle pump to its frame. However later a new improved version appeared. The British identified it as a Model 42, although the Germans don't seem to have had this designation. The main change was the type of ignition from hydrogen battery type to a cartridge type. The cartridges were 9mm rimless with a length of 22mm. They were angled about 27.5 degrees and aimed at the fuel jet which was 10mm away. When the trigger was pulled it would fire a cartridge and allow the fuel to flow. The new shorter hand unit held ten cartridges, and these were reloaded when the trigger was released. The spent round was ejected forward. Both the loading feed and the ejection system was described as "ingenious, but highly complicated" by the British intelligence assessment.
"Model 41" you can see the Hydrogen tube being used as a handle in this picture.
As well as German flamethrowers the document considered American designs and vehicle based designs and went into quite some detail on them. The US started the war with the M1A1, which weighed in at 63 pounds fully charged with its 4.5 gallons of fuel. The US then developed the E2 version which had a slightly improved flame gun and ignition system. One change was to the tank that allowed the fuel flow to be activated by the operator, on the earlier M1A1 the fuel flow had to be initialised by a second man.
M1A1, if you're never sure which version you're looking at, the M1A1 doesn't have a fore grip
Another change to the tank was the construction material. The M1A1's tank shattered under tests with a .30 cal armour piercing bullet. The E2's tank didn't. It wasn't judged an issue however as any round that hit the tank was almost certainly going to have hit the operator first, or so the theory went.
Now we come to the old story about flamethrowers exploding when hit. It was found that when compressed air was used instead of nitrogen the air mixed with the fuel vapours to make a flammable mix, however nitrogen was a lot harder to use logistically. Where as a E2 could just be wired up to a compressor the British and German models needed a separate source of compressed nitrogen. This would possibly explain why a German training manual stated:
"In order to give the men a greater sense of security attention should be drawn to the fact that should the weapon be struck by an infantry bullet or shell splinter it will not explode."
As British flamethrowers used the same methods of propulsion as the German ones, compressed nitrogen gas, then it's almost certain that the same would apply.
The US suffered another bout of exploding flamethrowers when they tried to develop a single shot flamethrower. The Germans had developed the Einstoss. This was a single shot flamethrower, a tube four inches in diameter and twenty four inches long. A cartridge when fired provided propulsion for the jet of fuel and ignition at the same time.
German Einstoss
The British developed a similar idea in the form of the snapshot flamethrower. Both of these used normal liquid fuel. The Americans however decided to use a self igniting powder called EWP. It appears to have been comprised of phosphorus as the ignition source with phosphorus sesquisulfide to provide the fuel. The latter is a component of match heads. The self detonating of the US single shot flame thrower came from the use of a cartridge with slow burning cordite to propel a piston that created the pressure and fired the powder out the end of the gun. Not all the powder was ejected, this lead to some of the explosions. Additionally the fuel ejection was found to be non uniform or consistent. The pressure was built by at first using a  stopper in the barrel of the US machine which would blow out at a certain point ejecting the flaming material. This gave inconsistent results however.
With all this in mind the weapon was redesigned. The EWP was contained in a collapsible tube with a frangible diaphragm at the muzzle, the piston powered by the charge now squeezed the package, and caused pressure to build that ruptured the diaphragm. The upshot of this design was the whole device could be re-loaded easily.
In the end the problems involved with creating the EWP and transporting it (a soft squidgy tube that if ruptured would burst into flames) seem to have killed off the project.
Lifebuoy Mk.II
The British at the time had three designs of flamethrowers, these were the Lifebuoy, the Ack-Pack and the Snapshot. The latter we've already discussed and it never seems to have gotten past a experimental stage, or if it did it seems to have been forgotten about by history. The Lifebuoy was the standard issue flamethrower used throughout the war by British forces. It was so named, or so the story goes, because it resembled a bar of lifebuoy soap. Of course it might be because it resembled an actual lifebuoy.
Lifebuoy soap in the 1940's... very slight resemblance.
The Ack-Pack was also known as the Para-Pack. As the name suggests it was a modified Lifebuoy that could be loaded into containers for dropping as part of airborne operations.

I've done some comparison tables for you:
The little data about the single shot weapons

Part two next week will cover tank mounted flamethrowers, and some rather horrific discoveries. It'll also tackle the question of how effective were flamethrowers.

Image credits:
www.militaryfactory.com, www.ww2incolor.com, www.canadiansoldiers.com and www.tgrantphoto.com

Sunday, August 7, 2016

North Sea Hijack

Esther, Ruth and Jennifer is a book by Jack Davies, it's about a hijack and blackmail attempt aimed at British North Sea oil production. It was later made into a film called North Sea Hijack (Renamed into Assault Force in the US... why?!). Well there's a little known episode that involved a platform in the North Sea, and it has such a charismatic cast it'd be worthy of Hollywood.

First we must skip backwards to the Second World War and the Naval Maunsell Forts I mentioned last week. One of these was emplaced at Rough Sands, and became, unsurprisingly, HM Fort Roughs. It was designated UNCLE-1, shortened to U-1. It was used until 1956 by the British government then abandoned.
HM Fort Roughs today.
Back in the 60's the national waters only extended three miles beyond the shoreline. Beyond that it was international waters, so Fort Roughs was in international waters, this proved a lucrative piece of dry land for pirate radio which had been outlawed by the Maritime Offences Act of 1967. However at the end of 1966 with the Act banning pirate radio transmissions from within the British territorial waters one of the pirate radio stations moved out to Fort Roughs, this was the famous Radio Caroline. However on Christmas Eve 1966 an Ex British Army major, Roy Bates and his son boarded Fort Roughs, grabbed the Radio Caroline's sentries air rifle and took over the tower. Later on when the Radio Caroline staff had been put ashore they returned and attempted to take over again. Bates responded with a Molotov cocktail which set the attackers boat on fire. From then on the Bates family were in control.
On the second of September 1967 Roy Bates declared the location the Principality of Sealand, an independent nation with himself and his family the royalty of the country. One of the first citizens was a German named Alexander Achenbach, who for some unspecified reason was given citizenship and the job title of Prime Minister for Life. As had been shown by the Radio Caroline incident the idea of land outside national laws was attractive to many businesses, Achenbach saw this location as an opportunity.
In August 1978 Achenbach arranged a proposition from a consortium of Dutch and German diamond merchants, they requested that Roy Bates and his wife fly to Austria to listen to a proposal. While there they met with five men who set a time for their meeting, but later never showed up.

Meanwhile at Fort Roughs the Bates’ son, Michael, was still in residence. A helicopter showed up and hovered over the fort and several German and Dutch mercenaries clambered down onto the fort armed to the teeth, Michael was quickly seized, bound and locked away. Later on a German lawyer, and citizen of Sealand, Gernot Pütz (yes, that's his real name) boarded the fort. Pütz was Achenbach’s personal lawyer. In effect it was a full blown coup.

After four days Michael was put ashore in the Netherlands where he met his father. Together they started to hatch a way to, in Roy Bates words, "[..]coup-d’étated the coup d’état!"
First they needed a way of getting to the fort. Enter one of the Bates family friends, one John Crewdson.
Crewdson was a pilot of no small skill. He'd flown one of the helicopters in the recent James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, even appearing briefly on screen. He'd also flown one of the B-17s in the film "The War Lover". He'd also flown one of two stripped out civilian helicopters that responded to the 1953 Dutch floods when the North Sea breached the flood defences, drowning 1300 people. In the subsequent relief operations, he rescued 76 people, transported two tons of emergency supplies and ferried forty four medical staff about.
Crewdson doing a pass in "The War Lover"
As you can see Crewdson was no stranger to low level flying. He put this to good use by flying alongside a passenger ferry, using the bulk of the ship to keep him from observation by the Sealand rebels. Then at the last moment he popped up over the ferry and raced in at full throttle coming to a hover over the fort. As Michael and Roy fast roped down, the rebels began to race out of the tower to repel boarders.
As Michael landed he stumbled and hit the floor, he was carrying a sawn off shotgun which accidentally discharged. The blast shocked the rebels who immediately surrendered. The coup was over.
From the left: Michael Bates, Joan Bates, Roy Bates and John Crewdson,
The rebels were mostly released apart from Pütz, who held a Sealand passport, and so was considered a traitor, and tried. A German diplomat flew out to Sealand to try to bargain for Pütz' release. Roy Bates set the release fee at 75,000 Deutsche Marks. Later on Roy Bates released Pütz, saying they'd all become a bit tired of him.
Achenbach set up the Sealand Government in Exile after his failed coup

Roy Bates died on 9th of October 2012, his wife on 10th March 2016, and John Crewdson died when his helicopter crashed into a sand bank on 26th June 1983.

Image Credits:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Boats well Fort

Note: The account of the action on the night of the 22nd-23rd January, which is mentioned later in the article, comes from multiple sources. Many of these sources are confusing and contradictory. So the account is my best guess of the sequence of events.

In 1939 the Luftwaffe made a critical error, they dropped a new secret weapon, a magnetic mine, onto a sand bank off Shoeburyness in the Thames Estuary. This was quickly taken by the British and studied. 
The actual mine, just before removal.
Now alert to the threat of these magnetic mines the British commandeered wooden hulled paddle steamers from the Thames, armed them with a few guns and mine sweeping gear and began to use them to patrol and clear the estuary. Part of their job was also to drive off German aircraft, and prevent the mines being laid in the first place. It was obvious from the outset that a better permanent solution was needed.
The solution was a series of forts made from reinforced concrete and sunk onto sand bars. These would give a permanent stable base for AA Guns. The forts were designed by the Engineer Guy Maunsell, who was an expert in concrete. He designed two types of forts, the army and navy forts. The former was a collection of towers laid out in a pattern identical to a land based AA battery, these forts held several AA guns, radar and search lights which effectively extended the flak umbrella across the Thames Estuary. Two of three three forts survive today, although Shivering Sands Fort lost one of its towers. Red Sands Fort has been taken over by Project Red Sands.
The Naval forts were twin towered affairs with a deck that held a pair of 3.7" AA guns and some smaller close in AA guns such as 40mm Bofors guns and machine guns. Of the three of the Naval forts, only one survives today, as the Principality of Sealand.
All these forts were constructed the same way, on a concrete pontoon which was then floated out to position then flooded. The pontoon would become the foot of the fort and sink onto the sandbar providing a stable base.
A Naval fort being sunk in position. Note the Crew on deck during this operation.
During the Second World War these forts claimed twenty two German aircraft and thirty flying bombs. They also claimed to have sunk an E-boat.
 At 1753, on the 22nd of January 1945 several E-Boat flotillas were alerted to the likelihood of British convoys to Antwerp passing by and so were ordered to intercept. The boats of the 8th Schnellboatflotilla powered out of their bunker Ijmuiden, and turned towards the open sea. They encountered two separate aircraft and engaged them. The first after they took it under AA fire identified itself as a JU88, the second was a Whitley bomber, which they had a brief fight with to no effect on either side. They then reached their patrol zone.

Unknown to the Germans a British flotilla consisting of a control frigate (HMS Seymour) and several Motor Gun and Motor Torpedo Boats was closing on them. These patrol groups were set up to fight the E-Boat menace, the frigate, with its radar, provided command and control, as well as a massive whack of firepower. The motor boats were there to chase down the E-Boats.
At 0030 on the 23rd the E-boat flotilla picked up radar from a British ship, the sloop HMS Guillemot, and turned to attack. The E-Boats launched a single torpedo which missed and a brief, but intense, firefight erupted between the two sides. Hails of fire caused spurts of flame from the HMS Guillemot's bridge, and the return fire set a rubber life raft on one of the E-Boats on fire, unable to extinguish the fire they tossed the raft overboard.
Just before 0300 the E-Boats spot what turned out to be the British patrol group lead by HMS Seymour. The E-boats fired another single torpedo towards the British, who returned fire immediately, the E-Boats then broke away to the north before turning in for another salvo. This time the E-Boats put all eight of their remaining torpedoes in the water and again break away. At this point the Tongue Sands Fort begins to fire at the E-Boats with its twin 3.7" AA guns at a range of four miles.
 On the lead E-Boat the Germans spotted three British MGB's approaching at full power and only 200m away, two more groups of MGB's are closing from North West. The lead boat turned due eastwards to avoid the closest British MGB's, and the rest of the line followed. However during the ensuring short but vicious firefight with every weapon on both sides blasting away at point blank range the E-Boat S-199 and S701 collided (many sources say this collision was between MGB 495 and S701).

The impact was so severe the crew of S701 was thrown to the deck, staggering to their feet the crew saw the boat they hit as a shadow in the water to starboard. The impact caused severe flooding but S701 was able to maintain her speed. It also left a magazine for the forward gun, marked S199 on the deck of S701.

Bursting clear of the fire fight the remaining boats headed for home. Although two incidents further marred the deployment as two boats ran aground at speed on the treacherous sandbars that infest the area, it was only the rising tide that allowed them to float off. A third E-Boat hit floating debris and sprung a leak. This effectively put the entire flotilla out of action. The crew of S199 was rescued by the trawler Neave. On the British side MTB 495 took one shell to the engine room and Able Seaman George Calder, aged 21 from Edinburgh was killed, and the only causality of the fight on both sides.

Image Credits:

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Bang

On the 5th of July 1944 the 7146 ton Liberty Ship number 243756 left Hog Island in the US and began the long journey to the UK. Her first port of call was part of convoy HX-301. These convoys enjoyed a low loss rate, losing only 0.6% of all ships which used this crossing route. The reason for this was first the convoy went via Halifax, where they picked up more ships then took a long 3165 North East route to Liverpool. Even with an average speed of just 8.5 knots the 130 ships, including twelve US Landing Ships Tank, HX-301 reached Liverpool without enemy incident.
It is reported one of the escorts was an aircraft carrier, and that one of the transport ships had several young ladies on board. Upon finding out this fact the crew of the aircraft carrier put up a plane that dropped a gift of vegetables in a bouquet to the ladies on the transport. However the eyewitness says that this drop missed the ship and was last seen floating past.

Upon reaching Liverpool the convoy split and the ships went their own separate ways. Liberty Ship 243756 sailed for London, along with seven other Liberty Ships. Once reaching London they would hold until another convoy could be formed to cross the channel for the newly opened port at Cherbourg where her cargo of bombs, including several hundred blockbusters, would be unloaded to arm the RAF planes flying against Germany. Upon arrival at London she was assigned a mooring at the Great Nore Anchorage, covered by the Nore Forts.
These Maunsell Forts stick out of the sea on four giant legs, looking weirdly reminiscent of something from HG Well's War of the Worlds. Designed to protect the Thames Estuary from air and fast boats they were armed with a variety of AA guns, search lights and fire control centres. Each fort is linked by a walkway above the muddy sea. The concrete legs mounted on a base were floated out to be in position then sunk onto the sand banks. These sand banks were to cause the crisis.

Most Liberty Ships had a draft of about 28 ft. However ship 243756, named the SS Richard Montgomery, had a draught of 31 ft. The anchorage that was issued to the Richard Montgomery was a mere 33 ft deep. An argument broke out ashore at the control room for the area with the Harbour Master refusing the Assistant Harbour Master’s recommendation that the Richard Montgomery have her birth switched to a deeper one, currently occupied by a frigate. The frigate only had a draught of 24 ft. This argument became so heated that a superior naval officer intervened and sided with the Harbour Master.

On August 20th 1944 the wind changed direction, causing the Richard Montgomery to swing about, she then began to drag her anchor until inevitably she beached. Even worse she beached at the height of the spring tide which meant that even with removing all her ordnance she'd have to stay in position for several weeks before she could be re-floated.
Salvage efforts started on the 23rd of August, another ship came alongside and ran a steam hose aboard the Richard Montgomery to power the ship’s cranes. Then on the 24th the settling tides caused the Richard Montgomery’s back to break flooding several holds and letting some of the colossal amount of explosive contained within her holds to wash out onto the seabed. Salvage continued until late September when the operation was abandoned. So roughly 1400 tons of explosives lie in the mouth of the Thames Estuary, and have lain there since the end of the war. There is a debate over the question of the explosives still being viable or not. But what if they are?
SS Richard Montgomery as she is today. you can see where the currents have eroded the sand keeping her stable and upright.
Well we can look back to World War One to find a possible answer of what might happen. Coincidentally it happened at Halifax, the location Richard Montgomery’s convoy was named after. On 6th December 1917 the SS Mont-Blanc and the SS Imo collided in the Bedford Basin at about 0845. The collision toppled some barrels in the SS Mont-Blanc’s hull which split open spilling benzol, a highly inflammable liquid that caught fire from sparks caused during the impact.
The blaze spread throughout the ship and the crew were forced to abandon her. Some local boats tried to fight the fire after the SS Mont-Blanc beached itself. However at 0904 the fire reached the Mont-Blanc’s other cargo, explosives and guncotton for the French Army.
The Mont-Blanc exploded with the force of about 2.9 Kilotons! The blast vaporized so much water that the bottom of the harbour was briefly visible, and created a 18 meter Tsunami. The 90mm deck gun, melted out of shape was found 3.5 miles away and the shockwave was felt as far away as 129 miles. About 2000 people were killed, and 9000 injured.
The Halifax explosion, the cloud is nearly 12000 feet in height, so that gives you an idea of how far away this picture was taken.
One eyewitness and survivor described the scene. "The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires."
The Halifax explosion was in the middle of a single city in a sparsely populated country. The SS Richard Montgomery lies in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions.

Ground zero is to the extreme right of the picture. There's a sugar refinery in this picture...

Image credits:
dailymail.co.uk, bbci.co.uk, www.submerged.co.uk and exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Man agaisnt Machines.

With a title like that you're likely expecting a story of a soldier facing off against a large number of enemy tanks, and you'd be right. Now before you head off it's not a story of a single British soldier offing an entire German Armoured Division with the oversized BB gun that is the PIAT. No, this is the story of one American's fight against enemy tanks.

It's not a well known fact but there was more US Army personnel fighting in the Pacific than Marines, the US Army served in the Philippines, and Private First Class Dirk John Vlug was one of them. He served as part of the 126th Infantry Regiment. In December 1944 the 126th was fighting its way along the jungle covered mountainous hell that was Leyte. The Japanese were fanatically defending in depth, every corner of the road the the 126th was advancing along from Breakneck Ridge had Japanese foxholes dug into it. Equally the hills above were covered with spider holes hidden under logs or the roots of trees. The darkness given by the dense jungle canopy gave the Japanese plenty of cover. The closeness of the fighting meant that the US Army's fire support couldn't be employed. The 126th Infantry had been grinding through this defence since mid November.
PFC Vlug
By the 15th of December the 126th had bypassed a large force of Japanese, and surrounded and cut them off. One of the few roads leading to this force of Japanese had a roadblock set up on it to prevent reinforcements. The roadblock and defensive position was manned by the men of the 1st Battalion, PFC Vlug's unit.

During the battle that raged throughout the day two Medals of Honour were won, the first by Sergeant Leroy Johnson, who leapt onto two hand grenades saving the lives of three other soldiers, and PFC Vlug's medal.
In the afternoon five Type 95 Ha-Go tanks approached the roadblock. The lead tank was spewing out smoke in an attempt to conceal the other four. As they approached the roadblock they began to rake the US positions with their machine guns and the 37mm main guns. PFC Vlug grabbed his M9 Bazooka and charged the Japanese tanks.

Halting a short distance away from the lead tank he fired his first round. The missile streaked into the tank and soon it began to spew out black smoke as it burnt. PFC Vlug must not have been taking concealment as both the Japanese and his own side could see him clearly. The crew of the second tank began to dismount to deal with this anti-tank threat. PFC Vlug ripped out his pistol and opened fire, killing the tank commander. The fact he was engaging with his pistol gives you an idea how close he was to the enemy. The remaining two tank crew remounted their vehicle, but before they could move PFC Vlug fired his second rocket, killing the crew.
Before we go any further with PFC Vlug’s rampage, you must consider what exactly he's done. Bazooka crews were normally two men, because the bazooka is so awkward to load for one man. First you have to lower the weapon and drop it so you can load it, then take out the rocket, which is normally carried in a vest with three rounds on the front and three on the back. Once the rocket is in the weapon you have to attach the arming wire to the launch circuit, then you're ready to re-shoulder the weapon and take your next shot. Whilst doing this imagine that there's at least three Japanese tanks shooting at you, and then suddenly you have to pull out your pistol and defend yourself against Japanese soldiers. This is the position PFC Vlug was in. Another thing to consider here is that PFC Vlug’s medal citation states he took six rockets with him, which would be the standard load in a vest. It also states that he used his last round on the fifth tank. So somewhere in the course of this fire fight there is a round unaccounted for. Imagine if it had been a dud, he'd have had to unload the Bazooka while under fire then re-load.
The remaining three Japanese tanks turned to face PFC Vlug and began to fire everything they had, but PFC Vlug was off, he managed to flank one of the tanks and destroyed it with a rocket, then he also destroyed the fourth tank. Finally he came to the fifth tank which lurched to life and began to advance on him. With this eight ton vehicle bearing down on him PFC Vlug aimed but the tank swerved around the burning hulks of the previous two victims. The smoke was blowing across PFC Vlug’s sight picture as he concentrated on the lumbering tank and he finally fired. The M9 Bazooka wasn't the most accurate weapon, and in this case the rocket smashed into the tracks, the sudden loss of tracks on one side caused the tank to swerve off the road and down a very steep embankment.
PFC Vlug returned to his lines, unscathed and the Japanese attack was defeated. PFC Vlug survived the war and died in 1996.

Image credits:
www.allproudamericans.com, www.badassoftheweek.com and historywarsweapons.com

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Two Years Difference

Earlier in the year I bumped into and got chatting to Richard Smith, the director at the Bovington Tank Museum. During the conversation he started talking about World War One, and jokingly mentioned that the popular image of WWI, as taught by the schools, and reinforced by popular media, seemed to be the British Army sitting in a muddy trench, writing epic poetry and getting executed for cowardice. Then 1918 rolls around a miracle happens and the Germans surrendered.

Part of it is the losses sustained during the Somme offensive, which we're currently in the middle of the 100th anniversary of. The British infamously launched a 14 mile offensive, following on from five days of preparation bombardment. On that first day over 60000 Allied troops were killed, to give you an idea of what that means. The modern British Army would have been annihilated, almost to a man in one day's fighting. Even with large underground mines being detonated to clear the way, the battles still lasted for months, until the 18th of November.

A mine at Beaumont Hamel, detonated at 0720 on the 1st of July.
At another place, also named Hamel two years later, the allies demonstrated how much they'd learned from the earlier part of the war. Hamel itself was south of the Somme River. Hamel was located on a ridge line between two patches of high ground. It allowed the Germans a commanding view for directing their artillery. Capturing it, as well as removing the German advantage would also allow the front lines to be straightened. For this job the Australians were tasked with the assault.

The date for the assault was to be 4th of July, 1918. A particularly auspicious date as the Australian forces had been bolstered by US troops. Although the US manpower had arrived it was attached to Australian units to learn the ropes. Suddenly, on the day before the battle, General Pershing learnt of the plan to commit US forces and he immediately ordered their withdrawal. This pulled just over half of the manpower planned for the attack just hours before it was due to be launched. By 1600 on the 3rd only about 1000 US soldiers remained in place. When the Australian leader received further instructions to withdraw all US personnel the Australian Corps Commander planning the action launched a spirited defence saying the troops were essential, the Australian Army Commander backed him at the risk of his own job. Eventually the decision reached Field Marshal Haig who simply pointed out the importance of the attack and that it had to go through, and so the US forces would remain. Thus on the 4th of July US troops first entered combat in World War One.
US and Australian soldiers.
Starting at 2230 the night before a covering barrage of shells was laid on German positions. Under the noise of this the sixty tanks amassed for the attack moved up. At 0310 on the 4th the Infantry launched their attack under the cover of a creeping barrage. The mass of tanks and infantry quickly overwhelmed the German positions, taking just 93 minutes to achieve their objectives which was three minutes longer than scheduled.
A tank in Hamel
Re-supply over torn up terrain had always been a problem, however four tanks were kept aside to bring supplies up, one Colonel upon reaching the area to be covered by his supply dump was surprised to find all the stores he could want.
Aircraft also tried to parachute in further ammunition supplies to the Australians, although with less success, as one plane crashed during this operation. This stunning success was achieved with just 1400 killed and wounded, and some of that had been caused by short shells from the artillery. Compare that to the Battle of the Somme where even with the mass casualties some objectives were not reached.

Oh and Richard Smith also pointed out that most of the war poetry written by the British was dire. He pointed out it was the WWI equivalent of social media and YouTube, where you can see most of its bad but a few gems shine through.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Argyll Law

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." is an old saying that I keep on thinking about when reading about events past. So many times you see the same things happening. Compare today's story to recent military operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula lies Aden, it's a large dormant volcano that juts out from the Arabian shore. One of the districts of Aden is known simply as Crater. During the late 1960's the British announced they were to leave Aden and granting its independence. This kicked off the usual round of bloodletting that had been held in check by the British presence but now rival Arab groups tried to be the dominating power after the withdrawal. The British forces in Crater were the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Scots Dragoon guards in armoured cars. Towards the end of June the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived to take over from the Fusiliers. As part of their preparation for the role back in England, the Argylls had spent their time training inside with the heating turned up and in full kit. After arrival both regiments were billeted at the barracks called Waterloo Lines.
The British High Command wanted to keep disruption in Aden to a minimum, and so set about with a softly softly approach. However the leader of the Argylls, Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell had other views. A man of very robust views, his soldiers loved his approach, and were behind him.
Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell
Shortly after their arrival the situation in Crater began to deteriorate. Arab groups within the South Arabian Army began to fight each other, seizing weapons from their barracks. The British advisors at the barracks along with the SAA officers locked themselves inside their guard room. Shortly afterwards a truck carrying a section of British forces that happened to be driving past on the way back from an exercise came under heavy fire from one of the groups inside the barracks killing all the British soldiers. A force of British troops with Scots DG armoured cars in support arrived on the scene, they rescued the officers, and retrieved the dead soldiers.
A section of Fusiliers in a Humber Pig made a couple of patrols into the Crater, the first was uneventful, the second one came under gunfire. The section dismounted and went after the their attackers, however the signaller in the section was killed thus severing communication with their HQ. After this loss of communication a joint patrol of Fusiliers and Argyll officers accompanied by several men in two Land Rovers set off to find out what had happened to the earlier patrol.
As this patrol drove past the police station, the Arab police launched a blistering attack. Killing several of the men, the survivors attempted to fight back but were cut down in the open street. Only one man, a Fusilier, managed to get out of the ambush, alone he held off his attackers from a flat for three hours before being captured. A force of volunteers from the Fusiliers accompanied by Ferret and Saladin armoured cars rushed to help and arrived on the scene to see the burning Land Rovers and the dead bodies lying in the street. They then also came under intense fire from the Arab police.
The Saladin commander requested permission to open fire with his main gun, however the High Command refused permission. This meant the British had to try and advance with only small arms which of course proved impossible. After several tries they were forced to withdraw.
The Fusilier who had survived the first ambush was later released unharmed. The bodies of his friends were not so lucky, first they were given a public trial by the police and then some were mutilated. Then the two groups within the SAA began to fight each other, while the Arab police did nothing. The British forces were refused permission to move in and solve the situation, and not to at least retrieve the bodies of their dead. The only thing that the British could do was deploy some snipers from 45 Commando on the high ground around Crater, over the next few days they killed several armed terrorists.

After three days Col Mitchell received permission to send in a probe to assess the situation. Col Mitchell's "probe" was actually to be the full scale assault on Crater. In preparation he began dispatching reconnaissance patrols into the area at night. To ensure the safety of his men he ordered the street lights switched off, which caused the civil authorities to complain. The British High Command immediately ordered the Argyll's to switch back on the lights, which they duly did but only after removing all the light bulbs in the street lights!
On July 2nd Col Mitchell himself led a patrol into Crater, stripping the roof off of a pair of Land Rovers they mounted a machine gun. The two Land Rovers then set out for a high speed patrol of Crater, as soon as they entered the area someone tried to drag a trailer full of Coke bottles across their escape route. Col Mitchell quickly spun the Land Rover around and smashed through the trailer at full speed, with the second Land Rover right behind him. The British authorities were later billed for the loss of 800 bottles of Coca-Cola.

The next day Col Mitchell launched his "probe". A platoon of Argyll's was airlifted in by Royal Navy helicopter and seized the gate, the rest of the Argyll's then moved in, linking up with the airborne assault. Led by a piper playing Scotland the Brave, the Argyll's pushed into Crater against no opposition, apart from a brief volley of small arms that was quickly replied to by a Saladin. When they reached the old fort, the Piper still playing, the SAA defenders fled (possibly from the bagpipes?). From there the Argyll's captured a number of important locations.
The next morning instead of the call to prayer the locals were woken by the Argyll's pipes and drums blasting out Long Reveille. The band was surrounded by riflemen, which delivered a clear message.
The Scots DG and the Fusiliers had been serving together for some time, when the armoured cars drove into Crater with the Argyll's the Scots DG mounted copies of the Fusiliers hackles on their Ariels. At the end of the day the leader of the armoured cars was able to radio to the Fusiliers "Your hackle flies over Crater again!"
The next problem to fix was the police. Col Mitchell held a meeting with the leader of the police force, who admitted the policemen were terrified of retribution from the Argyll's. Col Mitchell's terms were simple, and much like the standard for sieges for most of history. Lay down your arms, hand over the ring leaders, and the police would be unharmed. Resist and they'd be wiped out. Unsurprisingly the police surrendered.

The Argyll's then locked Crater down, establishing several fortified positions covering most of the main roads. If trouble started these positions could immediately take anyone under fire. Aggressive patrols began, and with this sense of security shops began to reopen and refugees began to return. In fact later on when the rest of Arden deteriorated things remained calm in Crater, all due to Argyll Law as it was called. Which was described by Col Mitchell as "They know if they start trouble we'll blow their bloody heads off!"
 The later was found out to be true as on several occasions terrorists and police tried to challenge the Argyll's and came off the worst. There was a period where the preferred method of attack was lobbing grenades at the Argyll's then the attacker would flee to a local mosque. The mosque's were considered safe as the British had been refused permission to enter and search by their high command. Instead they were to surround the mosque and call upon the Arab police to do the search. However this was quickly seen as a waste of time as the police would never find anything even if and when they arrived after several hours. To give you an idea of why the police were seen as ineffective, at one point Col Mitchell was nearly hit by a grenade attack with the grenade thrown from the police barracks. At Tehran a car full of police tried to take an Argyll patrol under fire, but found out about Argyll's law the hard way
Not Argyll's, but, presumably Para's. Note the military correct facial hair of the NCO. Issued for scaring locals.
Col Mitchell solved the grenade throwers hiding in Mosques by setting up sniper positions watching the front doors of the Mosque's. When a grenade thrower was seen to be entering or leaving he was shot. On the 24th three terrorists were killed by the snipers as they fled, and the terrorists quickly realised the Mosques were no longer places of safety.

Eventually the British forces withdrew, and the Arabian Peninsula collapsed into its current state. Col Mitchell was of course the last soldier out, as he always led from the front. An example of this is when he yelled at an officer taking shelter in a doorway, his comment was "What the hell are you doing? Get out in the middle of the street where people can see you!".

Image credits:
www.psywar.org, www.bfbs.com, www.nam.ac.uk, argylls1945to1971.co.uk and www.dailyrecord.co.uk

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Raise your Sights

Had a bit of a crazy week this week, including writing about twenty pages for other tasks, so it's a short one today as the sight of a .doc file makes me jittery at the moment... I'm afraid and it's made from a part file I found in an archive, so some of the events may not have ended up as detailed, but its still nice and interesting.

The Right Honourable Arthur Blaikie Purvis was born in 1890 to a Scottish father. During the First World War he was in charge of purchasing explosives from America for Britain which set him up perfectly for his role in World War Two. He headed the British purchasing mission in the US, and like Lord Beaverbrook, whom he often argued with, he was instrumental in the economic actions that led to the Allied success.
First when France fell, he immediately arranged for all outstanding French weapon orders to be honoured and transferred to Britain. He was also part of the team responsible for setting up Lend Lease. However his greatest moment was "to get the Americans to raise their sights all round."
The Right Honourable Purvis
In this he pushed for the US to move onto a wartime footing in production before they entered the war. There were attempts at standardisation between weapons, such as in the case of artillery. America offered to drop 4.7" calibre and adopt 4.5" calibre, with standardised ammunition. In return the British would abandon 5.5" and move to 155mm. Carriages would be of an American type, while sights would be of a British design.

The Rt. Hon. Purvis however wasn't being as straight as he lead the Americans to believe. At the start of May 1941 there was an offer on the table to provide US 90mm M1 AA guns for the Canadian Army. However the British decided to see if they could manufacture 3.7" AA guns in Canada. For reasons unexplained the Rt. Hon. Purvis agreed with the Australian born Sir Clive Baillieu, and a colleague in the British Purchasing Commission to not inform the US of this plan.
Sir Baillieu is the Gentleman on the left.
Part of the reason for preferring the 3.7" was a comparative analysis of the two guns which you can see below.
Pretty damning
This was prepared in the UK when the the Rt. Hon. Purvis was in London, indeed he had to hurriedly obtain a copy he'd loaned from General Pratt in May 1941.

The Rt. Hon. Purvis didn't live to see the completion of his work, or being proved correct. He boarded a plane at RAF Heathfield near Prestwick on the evening of 14th August 1941, in order to return to Washington to complete the final push to convince the US President to move to a war footing. Shortly after take off the plane crashed killing all on board.
The Purchasing Commission was then taken over by Sir Clive Baillieu.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Is there a war On?

Germany, as we all know, started rearming in secret under the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1931 a twin engined cargo plane pottered down the runway, it later became the Heinkel 59 float plane. Destined to be used by the German Navy for a variety of roles, this twin engined design was never going to set the world on fire. It had fuel tanks in its floats, fixed pitch propellers and two horribly underpowered engines. To give you an idea, it couldn't out run a World War One era fighter. On the plus side it was a very stable aircraft.
However suddenly a situation arose in the planning of Fall Gelb that suddenly gave the humble HE-59 a centre stage in world events.
HE-59 float plane
The issue was Holland. In the centre of Rotterdam runs the river Nieuwe Maas and the seizure of the bridges over the river was of importance to the German plans. With the Dutch prepared for war they might have time to demolish the bridges before the German forces could reach them. With this in mind a plan was drawn up, a tiny force of German airborne infantry was to land crammed into twelve of the ancient HE-59's. On the outbreak of war these twelve planes would chug slowly into Holland, land on the Nieuwe Maas and the troops would then inflate rubber boats, load the boats with their weapons, ammunition and equipment and paddle to shore capturing the Willemsbrug and Spoorbrug bridges. The latter was a railway bridge close by to the Willemsbrug road bridge.
The two bridges
The Royal Dutch Air Force had several hundred armed aircraft each with about three times the speed of the German planes. If the Germans had been attacked they'd have been unable to fight, and unable to run, and been hacked out the sky. To make matters worse the river had plenty of 20mm AA gun emplacements.
All the soldiers involved practised unloading from the cramped HE-59's on a German lake until in the early hours of the 10th of May 1940, they put the plan into action. At  0450 the planes arrived over Rotterdam, and swept down onto the water, landing in a wedge. An unknown number were damaged in the landing. No enemy action had been encountered so the troops quickly unloaded and began to paddle for the banks. Once at the banks the Germans started to struggle up the steep sides, laden by their weapons and equipment. However some helpful Dutch civilians thinking it was an exercise helped the soldiers ashore. The German soldiers behaved impeccably towards the civilians. The civilians were interested in this strange occurrence and crowded around the German soldiers. This proved to be a hindrance as the Germans tried to move to capture both ends of the bridges. Eventually the civilians were ordered out of the way at gunpoint. With the bridge secured and no explosive found the soldiers started to set up a roadblock, then a unit of Dutch police appeared and tried to prevent the Germans blocking the traffic. Three were killed and the rest taken prisoner.
The actual landing opperation
As the Germans tried to expand the Dutch forces began to respond. Sending out patrols armed with an LMG they began to slowly force the Germans bridgehead to constrict. With attacks from all directions fierce fighting began. What's more remarkable is these attacks by the Dutch forces were carried out with none of the commanders communicating with any of his allies. Yet they seemed to be perfectly timed.

Then as the day wore on a new threat appeared. Two Dutch naval vessels approached, a Motor Torpedo Boat with a pair of 20mm cannons, and a larger coastal patrol boat with a pair of 75mm guns and a pair of heavy machine guns. In order to save the bridge the MTB was to use its 20 mm cannons to clear the bridges, while the larger ships cannon were to smash any German forces around the bridges. As they took a pounding from the centre of their position the beleaguered Germans suddenly got some welcome news, one side of their perimeter had linked up with the main German force! First some machine guns arrived and began to take the naval vessels under fire, the smaller MTB was unarmoured so stayed in the lee of the larger ship, to protect itself from the hail of machine gun bullets.
The Dutch MTB, named TM-51
Then the AA gun emplacements along the river bank opened up, a single Ju-88 Stuka swept overhead and planted a stick of four 250 kg bombs into the river aimed at the coastal patrol boat. They missed, but the force of the explosion lifted the MTB out the water and knocked out one of its engines, as well as causing structural damage. The MTB pulled out. The coastal patrol boat carried on fighting until it had emptied its magazines and also had to withdraw.

As the German bridgehead was linked up more forces began to move into the area until the river bank was in German hands, but the opposite side was still in Dutch hands. Now you have the situation that lead to the Rotterdam blitz...

Image Credits:
weaponsandwarfare.files.wordpress.com, www.netherlandsnavy.nl and www.waroverholland.nl