Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Zeebrugge raid (part two)

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

Part One.

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Problems Never Change

The St Nazaire raid of the Second World War is well known, what's less well known is that a very similar problem to the St Nazaire one faced the British in the final year of the First World War. Unsurprisingly when faced with the same problem a very similar plan is often used. However while St Nazaire gained itself five Victoria Crosses, the First World War effort had eight awarded. I am of course talking about the raid on Zeebrugge. 

Map of Zeebrugge

The problem was that the port of Zeebrugge was home to the German Navy and a large number of U-boats were based there. Earlier attempts on the port’s lock system had proved futile, so the Royal Navy decided to do things a slightly more traditional way. From the port a narrow dredged channel runs out to sea. The entrance to this channel is protected by a mole, with a viaduct linking the mole to shore. The plan involved storming the German held mole, ramming and destroying the viaduct to prevent reinforcements and then sinking three block ships in the channel. Finally everyone then withdraws back to Britain for tea and medals. The run in would be covered by a smoke screen laid by Coastal Motor Boats, the later might sound familiar, indeed one of these CMB's was commanded by Augustus Agar, whom I've written about before.

The two ferries
The other ships included two Mersey Ferries to carry some of the 700 odd men of the assault party and a modified light cruiser built in the 1890's called HMS Vindictive, which had its armament switched out for the raid. Two guns were replaced by 7.5" howitzers, and the final gun with an 11 inch howitzer. Two of the six inch guns were left in situ, their other two companions switched to two pounder pom-pom guns, with another two mounted further up the superstructure. On either side of the bridge two huts were added, these held a flame-thrower apiece. All this firepower was aimed to port. Elsewhere on the deck would be mortar teams. Once this formidable battery of guns came alongside the mole, one of the two ferries would dock alongside her and the troops would transfer from the ferries to HMS Vindictive and thus onto the mole.
HMS Vindictives 11 incher
The assault party also carried improvised flame-throwers, the operators were given a backup weapon, a navy cutlass.
One of the Flamethrowers
While all this was going on, two modified elderly submarines would be steered into the viaduct. They had been fitted with a gyro steering outfit that would allow the five man crews to aim their boats, and then abandon ship. Each submarine had been packed with five tons of explosive.
After the mole had fallen three block ships, which had been entirely filled with concrete, would steam into the harbour channel and scuttle themselves, then the assault party would break off and regain their ships in reverse of their landing procedure and be away.

Things started to go wrong at the start. As the fleet assembled one of the submarines slipped its tow, and although the crew tried to make it to the raid they were just too slow. The raid started at 2340 on the 22nd of April 1918 with the first wave of CMB's closing up to the mole to lay their smoke floats. The German defensive position brought a hail of fire down on them, however the CMB's speed and agility allowed them to escape unharmed, and the smoke floats were set and started spewing out the covering smoke screen.
Arrogant class cruiser, the class HMS vindictive belonged too.

But the smoke only lasted for a short while. As HMS Vindictive began its run in, the wind changed direction, which made the smoke screen ragged and the Germans unsurprisingly began to sink the smoke floats with small arms fire. These factors combined all but removed the cover of the smoke screen. Instantly HMS Vindictive came under heavy and sustained fire from the German gun battery on the mole.
Vindictive returned fire with six inchers and pompom guns, as she covered the last 300 yards, approaching at a 45 degree angle. One minute late than ordered, the raid time being set as midnight on St Georges Day (23rd April) HMS Vindictive pulled up alongside the mole, albeit about 300 yards from where she should have been. Now she sat and waited as the Germans shredded her with fire causing quite heavy casualties, including most of the senior officers of the assault party. To give you an idea of the amount of incoming fire two of the gun positions had all of their crews killed, and the replacement crews were also killed. After four minutes one of the ferries arrived to shove HMS Vindictive close in alongside the mole so that the boarding ramps could be launched and the assault party could land. It should be noted that this shoving had to be continued throughout the attack. If the ferry had halted then the current and the way HMS Vindictive was anchored would have caused her to pull away from the mole meaning no one could have re-boarded her The officer in charge of the ferry was hit in the head and had lost the use of one of his eyes, yet he remained at his post commanding the ship to ensure she kept up her part of the job.
The landing operation
 Part two

Image Credits

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Tet's Failed Propaganda

The Tet Offensive of 30th of January 1968 is an interesting example of utterly losing the battle, but in the process winning the war. The attacking Viet Cong were a group of rural peasants thrown into a battle in a big city, which many found disorientating and confusing, with almost no support or communications. This later point prevented them from adapting as the situation changed. Equally the style of fighting was utterly different from what they had previously faced being a stand up fight against superior forces. On the morale side of things the often expected southern uprising never happened, which must have been disheartening to a degree. However despite that they kept fighting.
While you might expect me to write about the US Embassy, which has been extensively written about since then, mainly because it's more than likely the US Embassy part of the attack was the single biggest success. It is also commonly held to be the sole reason for the move to withdraw from Vietnam by the US.

Communism spreads by propaganda and the communist armies often seem to be quite well indoctrinated, which may have lead to a self delusion that the populace of South Vietnam was ready to launch a populist uprising. In essence the communist leadership listened to their own propaganda. You can see the same effect happening in some circles on social media today. Whereby the individuals concerned create their own echo chamber and then get very surprised when the real world tells them they're wrong.
With this focus in propaganda it's no surprise that during the Tet Offensive one of the locations targeted by the VC was the National Broadcasting Station, for transmitting radio signals. Knowing the importance of the location, several years before, the VC bought a house about 200 yards from the radio station and used it to stockpile weapons. This wasn't a specific plan for the Tet Offensive, just done on the idea of controlling the propaganda stream.
In actual preparation for the Tet Offensive the VC trained up a special technician, he was to carry tapes containing a call to rise up from Ho Chi Min, which was to be broadcast from the radio station.
The VC guerilla's slipped into Saigon and met up at the safe house. There they opened the arms caches, and found that termites had eaten all the wooden fixtures away. They improvised by wrapping the damaged areas with padded cloth. The next major issue they had was that a platoon of ARVN had taken up residence at the station to guard it. Luckily one of the surrounding buildings was higher than the radio station, and they placed a machine gun overlooking the station. Their luck abruptly changed when it was discovered the ARVN guards were using the roof of the building to sleep on. At 0300 the ARVN guard watched a column of vehicles driving towards him, they stopped and a large number of heavily armed South Vietnamese riot police disembarked. Their officer strode briskly over towards the guard and informed him that they were the relief. The guard simply said "I know nothing about this". At which point the disguised VC officer pulled out his pistol and shot the guard.
The VC machine gun then raked the rooftop killing most of the defenders, and the troops stormed forward, quickly capturing the radio station. The specialist with his tapes then arrived and started trying to broadcast. The ARVN officer in charge of the guard detachment had been worried about just such an eventuality so he had organised a safety feature. The radio station was just the location of the studios, the actual broadcast tower was at a separate location. He arranged that on receiving a special code the broadcast tower would be shut down by its operators, preventing a signal from being transmitted. In the moments after the start of the attack and the station being secured, someone transmitted the code, locking out the attackers.
The VC held the station for some six hours as the specialist tried to get his message through. They had by then realised it was futile and with more ARVN paratroopers starting to close in, the VC blew up the equipment and set the building on fire. What happened in those last hours or in the fire fight seems to have been ignored by history, overshadowed by the events at the US Embassy, and we can't say what happened to the attackers.

Image credits:

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Native Knight

On the 7th of August 1942, the US Marine Corps stormed ashore in the opening of the Guadalcanal campaign. Overhead USMC planes fought with Japanese. One Japanese plane piloted by the ace Pilot Officer Saburō Sakai shot down a US F4F. Then unbelievably he was attacked by a lone SBD Dauntless bomber flown by Lieutenant Dudley H. Adams, from the USS Wasp. Lt Adams opening salvo did very little damage, although one of the bullets smashed through PO Saburō’s cockpit missing his head by inches. The Japanese pilot quickly flipped his manoeuvrable plane round and began to shoot up the Dauntless, killing the rear gunner. As the dive bomber began its final dive into the jungle below Lt Adams jumped out and parachuted down into the enemy held jungle. On that day the USS Wasp lost four aircraft, one was Lt Adams' Dauntless, the other three were F4F's. One of those was flown by Ensign Thaddeus J Caponski. Both pilots are listed as surviving, but the names and fates of the other two are not recorded.
As one of those two pilots looked around the green hell of the jungle, they knew they were deep behind enemy lines, surrounded by Japanese forces and dangers from the jungle itself. They may not have known which way to head for safety, or even if the US invasion had succeeded. Then there was movement behind a bush, the pilot fumbling for his side arm. A man stepped out, not a Japanese soldier, but a middle aged native, clad in just a loin cloth. The natives name was Jacob Charles Vouza.

Jacob Charles Vouza
We don't know exactly when Vouza, which was how he asked to be addressed, was born. The best guess is some time around 1900. We do know that he joined the Solomon Islands Protectorate Armed Constabulary in 1916, and served for 25 years before retiring as a senior NCO. However the war returned in May 1942 with the Japanese invading his home. Vouza immediately volunteered for service with the Coastwatchers, a department of the Australian Intelligence Service. Their role was to observe Japanese movements, especially behind enemy lines and report them to the Allies. For this a large number of natives served, their most famous exploit was the rescue of John F Kennedy after his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Now Vouza had found a downed US pilot, and decided to lead him back to US lines.

With the pilot safely returned to friendly lines Vouza volunteered again, this time to scout for the Marines. On the 19th of August the Marines had hacked a small beachhead into the Japanese territory. However Japanese forces were moving up to counter attack. On the 19th a patrol of sixty USMC ambushed a slightly smaller Japanese patrol. Papers recovered from bodies of the Japanese warned of a large Japanese force preparing to assault the USMC perimeter, only there was no indication of when the assault would take place. Vouza stepped forward and offered to scout in the jungle. For identification purposes he was given a small American flag, which he hid in his loincloth, and he disappeared into the jungle.

As he probed around the Japanese positions he was captured by the Japanese. Things got much worse when the Japanese found the US flag hidden in his loin cloth. Vouza was tied to a tree and tortured for several hours by a Japanese naval officer. At the end of his ordeal, during which he had refused to give any information he was stabbed repeatedly with bayonets and Japanese swords, taking wounds to both shoulders, his throat, stomach and face. Bleeding heavily and in intense pain he passed out. When he came to the Japanese were gone, having presumed he was dying they left him to it. Vouza chewed through his bonds and began to head back to the Allied lines. After a short distance he collapsed from blood loss. He began to crawl, covering an estimated three miles through the Japanese battle line. Despite his condition he noted the Japanese soldiers getting ready. When he reached the USMC front line he gasped out a warning, before accepting medical attention. The officer commanding the US position credited Vouza's warning as giving them barely ten minutes advance notice, in which they were just able to ready themselves in time. What followed was the battle of Alligator Creek, where the Japanese threw themselves onto the prepared and alert US guns and were obliterated. Even so it was a very close run thing, with the Japanese assault reaching the US position on occasion, but always with heavy casualties. Vouza said later of the whole episode: "Better me die plenty than give Solomon Islands to Japan."
The aftermath of the Battle of Alligator Creek. Its one of the few engagements of the war where the US 37mm AT gun fired Canister shells.
The USMC officer, Major Clemens, had this to say:
"He was in an awful mess. I could hardly bear to look at him. [...] As if this wasn’t enough, he also insisted in spluttering out a very valuable description of what the Japanese forces had consisted, it's numbers and weapons. All of this was passed on immediately."

A grievously wounded Vouza was given prompt medical treatment. He needed a whopping sixteen pints of blood, despite this Vouza only remained in hospital for twelve days! Unfortunately his voice was damaged during the ordeal and never recovered. Vouza later joined the famous Carlson's Raiders as their scout on a month long journey behind enemy lines.
After the war he settled down in his village of Roroni, however he later served as District Headman, President of the Native Council and a member of an advisory council. By the 1950s it was reported that he was suffering memory loss, and unable to remember all the functions and public duties he was involved with and being illiterate he was unable to write these down.
He died on the 5th of March 1984.
Vouza had a list of awards, which may be utterly unique in the world. First he had a George Cross, a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit. He was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and given the rank of honorary Sgt Major in the USMC. His home proclaimed him Malaghai, or "Warrior". He also qualified for the Police Long Service Medal.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Giant ME

At the start of the war the Mediterranean was an Italian lake, however as the war progressed the Allied forces began to claw control back. This became an increasing problem for the German Afrika corps, battered on land by the 8th Army, then attacked from behind by the US forces through Algeria. As the Afrika corps collapsed back to Tunisia their supply lines dried up. It was at that point to solve at least one of their troubles the Germans decided to set up an air bridge to Tunisia and supply their forces that way. Unbowed by their failure the previous year at Stalingrad to create a sustainable air bridge, they would try again. After all this time the clear skies of the Med wouldn't cripple them like the harsh Eastern Front weather. Plus they had support from the Italian Air Force and new equipment, in the shape of the gigantic Messerschmitt Me 323. This aircraft was a Me 321 glider with six engines attached and it was a whopping 29 meters long with a 55 meter wingspan. It could carry over a company of troops or up to twelve tons of materiel.
Haystack for scale!
Not unsurprisingly the Allies had spotted the importance of the Med and were putting pressure on the logistics corridor. Naval and air units were cutting where possible enemy shipping and air supply lines. This was called Operation Flax.

On April 18th 1943, which was also Palm Sunday, a large flight of Ju 52's (around sixty five in number) was returning from unloading its supplies in Tunisia. I say around as some of these planes were Italian SM.79 bombers that had been pressed into the transport role. The swarm of transports was at just 100 ft as it plodded home late in the day. As they neared the coast they were spotted by allied fighters, 47 P-40 Kittyhawks of the USAAF's 57th Fighter Group were at 4000 feet, and dove onto the vulnerable transports. Some reports say that passengers opened windows and fired small arms at the attackers. However this could have just been normal defensive guns or the SM.79's firing back.
In a very short order thirty one Ju 52's were hacked out of the sky, with a further three being badly damaged, six damaged, and finally three just lightly damaged. One account says that large sections of the sea were a raging inferno from so many crashed Ju 52's. There's also reports that some passengers waited until the plane was near the sea before jumping, hoping to survive.
The transports were not without cover, about twenty Axis fighters were providing protection. These were a mix of Me 110's, Bf 109's and some Italian aircraft. However between them and the Kittyhawks stooping on their transports was a flight of twelve British Spitfires flying top cover. The two forces soon tangled, and a swirling dogfight ensued. As the dogfight fell through the sky it soon mixed itself with the Kittyhawks attacking the transports. This resulted in a fifteen minute fight. At the end of the battle the Germans had lost another ten or so fighters, the Allies in return had lost seven fighters.

The next attempt at an air bridge was the following day, this time the Me 323's were into the breech. However this time the mission went off without an enemy contact.
Three days later on the 22nd the Luftwaffe tried the Me 323's again, departing at 0710 the fourteen transports struggled into the air heavily loaded with fuel and ammunition. They met with a flight of Ju 52's and a large fighter escort. As they crossed the Med the Me 323's peeled off and set a course for a place called Cap Bon. This was contrary to orders as the area was considered extremely dangerous, and went against the planned route. Despite this thirty nine Bf 109's went with them.
As the lumbering giants approached Cap Bon on the Tunisian coast the Allied air forces appeared. The mix of South African, Polish and British piloted Spitfires and Kittyhawks appeared in two groups. One engaged the fighters, forcing them away, the others swarmed into the all but defenceless Me 323's. Most were shot down in very short order, with several pilots claiming multiple kills.

This massacre caused the halt of the German relief efforts, although a "gunship" version of the Me 323 was envisaged bristling with guns to provide cover for the transports. Allied intelligence had been the key. A spy in Italy had a radio transmitter hidden in a church tower and from there he could see the German transports taking off. As he radioed that message through to the Allies there was a short space of time before the German giants would appear near Tunisia, and so the Allies could be waiting for them. On the day of the Me 323's last flight, the radio transmitter was discovered, but by then it was too late.
Gunship version?

Image credits:
www.lonesentry.com, www.worldwarphotos.info and www.luftarchiv.de

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spank the Tank

In late November 1942 , twenty sappers of the 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers were picking their way across the Tunisian landscape. Overhead a bright moon bore down, and the peaceful night sky was frosted with stars. Their mission was to emplace mines and set up an anti-armour ambush on a road. This road led to an harbour area with a large number of Axis forces, including tanks. Once these forces were in place two companies of Para's, covered by a section of three inch mortars and supported by some ex Vichy Senegalese infantry whom had decided to join up with the Paras, would launch a frontal assault on the Axis position. The harbour was on the slopes of a place called Gue Hill.

It was similar to an ambush launched about a week earlier. They had convinced the German forces near Béja that the Paratroop force was actually three times its size, by the simple expedient of marching through the town three times, but switching headgear each time. The Para's had moved to Mateur where they got word of a large German convoy protected by armoured cars that had moved past. So they mined the road and when the convoy returned they attacked with Gammon bombs and small arms. This resulted in several captured German armoured cars and quite a haul of POW's.
This time though things were to start disastrously. The force had tried to approach stealthily however much to Lt Col Hill’s annoyance most of the farmhouses had dogs which barked as his men passed, luckily that didn't seem to alert the Germans.
Due to the difficulties in fusing the Hawkins mines which were to be used to seal the road, they had been fused earlier. One of the sappers had his store of fused mines carried in a sandbag, fifteen minutes before the attack was due to start he stumbled and fell into a Wadi, landing on the sandbag. The Hawkins mine is a pressure activated device of about a pound of explosive. When the igniter is cracked it leaks an acid onto a chemical which reacts causing the device to explode. During his fall the unknown sapper cracked one of the detonators. The resulting explosion caused a chain reaction in the other explosives carried by the Engineers. All but two were killed in the three explosions.
Diagram of a Hawkins mine
The accident had another effect, it caused a part of the Axis to retreat, and the remainder of the defenders on the hill to open fire wildly spraying fire all over the place.
Lieutenant Colonel James Hill was in charge of the force. Born in March 1911 in Bath, he had gone the traditional route to college then into the army as an officer. However after a number of years in service he left to marry. Three years later he was recalled when war broke out and first served as part of the BEF in France. He commanded one of the evacuation beaches at Dunkirk and was on the last ship to leave. After conducting some staff duties he joined the brand new Parachute Regiment, which led him inexorably to Tunisia.
Lt Col Hill upon realising that the Germans were getting away launched an immediate assault. The first position was a stone wall and the Allied forces stormed forward, into the German fire. After a few minutes of close combat the wall had changed hands. However a new problem was evident.
Lt Col James Hill
Three German Panzers were dug in further up the slope, these were blazing away with everything they had. Lt Col Hill decided to do something about the three tanks. He had with him his trusty revolver and his swagger stick, nothing else. His force was only armed with Gammon bombs at best, but Lt Col Hill didn't need these.
He vaulted the wall and charged the first tank. Arriving at the tank unscathed by its fire he stuck his pistol into a vision port and sent a single round pinging around inside. The tank crew immediately bailed out yelling "Italiano!". With his first tank captured Lt col Hill charged the next. Again a single round from his revolver caused the Italian crews to bail, and surrender.

Finally it was time for the third tank. This time he found that the vision port was sealed. His response to this was to hit the tank, very hard, with his swagger stick.
This too had an effect, two German troopers emerged with their hands up to surrender to Lt Col Hill. The third, a giant of German, sprung out of the hatch. As he leapt out he opened fire with an SMG. Three bullets hit Lt Col Hill, one each in the chest, neck and arm. Instantly the German was cut down by friendly forces.

Lt Col Hill's Adjutant, Captain Whitelock, had also been injured by a hit to the face and neck. Both were loaded into a sidecar of a captured Italian motorcycle and driven, at speed, to the regimental aid post at Béja. However the only direct route which was safe to travel at speed in the dark was along a railway line. The motorcycle combination fitted in-between the rails and as a result hit every sleeper as a sharp bump.
James Hill later in life
After a brief spell of convalescence, in which Hill decided the best way to train himself back up to standard was to climb out of his hospital ward window at night. He then returned to Britain where he took command of British paratroops On D-Day and halted the German attack in the Ardennes. He also led troops into the parachute drop during the crossing of the Rhine, where he was nearly run over by his batman and Jeep as they landed in a glider. He served until 1945, then became a reservist until 1949. James Hill died two days after his 95th birthday in March 2006.

Image credits:
paradata.org.uk, www.bafc.org.uk and www.lexpev.nl

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Not Enough

We left the Ioki Detachment as the Soviet bombardment lifted on the 20th of August 1939. As the men of the lead platoon raised their heads they could see Soviet troops moving to their front, these were the lead elements of the 601st Rifle Regiment who had been pushed dangerously close to the bombardment. As the enemy movement was only about 30 meters away the Japanese opened up by throwing a number of hand grenades. These caused about fifty Soviet soldiers to break cover and retreat. However they were soon back with reinforcements in the shape of T-26 tanks, including at least one flamethrower armed tank.
As well as wrecking the Japanese wells the bombardment had also destroyed most if not all of their heavy weapons. With these tanks closing the Japanese had no option but to fall back under the pressure. In the bitter fighting a tank became bogged down in a trench, with nearby Japanese infantry closing in to capture them the tank crew committed suicide which earned them the respect of the Japanese. The loss of the tank, and obtaining the front line towards the end of the day caused the Soviet tankers to withdraw. The lack of armour meant the Japanese were able to launch an assault and drive the Soviets from their lines.

The night also brought about a temporary answer to the lack of water. The soldiers mopped up dew with rags, then chewed on them.

For the next five days the Soviets threw in attack after attack, fresh reinforcements were thrown at Fui Heights supported by bombardments. Zhukov himself said the defenders were “more a obstinate resistance than we thought it could provide”. Zhukov was critical of the way the commander on that front was acting and replaced him on the 21st, insisting that he should have bypassed the battle. However now that battle was joined the Soviets had to commit more reserves. Eventually most of the Russian reserves for the entire operation were committed. By the end of the battle the Soviets had committed a rifle division, at least three tank brigades, two cavalry regiments and an airborne brigade, the latter was the last reserve the Soviets had.
The Japanese armed with only bayonets, rifles and grenades, and with no heavy weapons fought the Soviets to a stand still.
All was not well on the Japanese side, tanks were able to operate freely within their lines, including flame tanks. They'd not seen any form of resupply of food, water or ammunition. On the 23rd, at 1600, the telephone lines to headquarters were cut, on the same day the wireless sets were destroyed. The only thing slowing the Soviet advance was frequent bayonet charges. On the 24th at 0700 Lt Col Ioki had to pull his command post back in the face of Soviet advances. A trench being used as an aid post was defended only by the wounded armed with pistols, the entire trench was machine-gunned.
In the afternoon a meeting of all the officers was held. At its heart was the dilemma. The Detachment had been ordered to hold this location, however the position was untenable. Lt Col Ioki had his duty of care to his men conflicting with his orders. His force was down to under 200 men. Lt Col Ioki tried to shoot himself, however, Captain Tsuji Kiyoshi wrestled the pistol from his grasp. In the end, at 1600 the retreat was ordered, with the aim of returning to HQ, re-arming and coming back to deal with the Soviets.
The men too wounded to move were given grenades to prevent capture. The walking wounded were to be escorted out. The Japanese forces huddled near their jumping off point with each man clutching the belt of the man in front and slept. If they had let go then they would have missed the signal to move out. The only thing to wake them was the last of the rations being handed out. A bag of rice was passed down the lines, each soldier would nibble a few dry grains then collapse back into a fatigued sleep.

Originally the retreat was scheduled to start at 2200, but due to the moon being too bright the movement didn't start until 0230. At 0330 they ran into some sentries that tried to resist and were quickly dispatched. However tanks were seen nearby moving about looking for the escapee's with searchlights. Despite being in the open as dawn broke the Japanese force managed to escape. Upon reaching safety the soldiers collapsed with exhaustion, many were too fatigued to eat from the rice balls or drink from the canteens given to them.

But the tragedy didn't end there. The next bit is hard to explain, and really needs a lot more space than this paragraph. Article 43 of the Imperial Japanese Army Penal Code gave the punishment for “Quitting a position without cause” as death. However the “without cause” part was ignored within the IJA's culture. To any western observer losing 73% of your core force, being surrounded without food, water or ammo resupply for five days is cause to retreat. The Japanese of the time saw it differently.

Michitaro Komatsubara, the officer commanding the front, blamed Ioki's failure to hold the Fui Heights as the reason that his entire front unravelled. Despite the fact that the position ceased to be an anchor to the line a few hours after the general Soviet offensive, or the fact that the Japanese troops were outnumbered, had no armour of their own and lacked logistical support. No, according to Komatsubara it was all Lt Col Ioki's fault for retreating. The senior officer declared that if the Detachment had dug trenches along its flanks it could have held, despite the Detachment doing just this. Komatsubara also claimed that Lt Col Ioki had behaved badly for not apologising for his retreat, despite there being some evidence he did (manners were of critical importance in the Japanese officer corps). To that end, Komatsubara began to bully Lt Col Ioki. First of all he sent a staff officer with orders to convince Ioki to commit suicide. The staff officer was sympathetic to Ioki's plight but was under orders. So for an hour each day he “advised” Ioki. Then Komatsubara sent his Chief Medical Officer. Who also “advised” Ioki, stating that he was soon to die from his advanced diabetes, or the wound in his leg.
On the night of the 16th/17th of September Ioki Eiichi shot himself in the temple. This was a major scandal throughout the IJA, but only two high ranking officers openly came out on the side of Lt Col Ioki. In the end Komatsubara failed to live up to his own ideals, treating Ioki's widow with contempt in their correspondence.
After his death a sympathetic officer tried to submit an amended after action report stating that Lt Col Ioki was killed in action. Amending reports often happened to hide a disgrace from a family such as someone being taken prisoner, such losses were often marked as KIA to spare the families shame. The amended report was rejected by Komatsubara.

One other officer came under similar pressure, and in the end also committed suicide. This officer was Captain Tsuji Kiyoshi, whose only crime was to prevent Lt Col Ioki from shooting himself in a shell hole on Fui Heights.

Image credits:
www.avalanchepress.com, www.armchairgeneral.com, warfarehistorynetwork.com and www.ww2incolor.com

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Deadly Pancake

In the last few years I've talked about the battles of Nomonhan several times, and today I'll be returning to that battlefield. First I wanted to talk about why we keep ending up there. For such a tiny war, a few months and a few divisions you have so much material. For anyone interested in the military it is a topic that must be studied. It has so many elements, new technology, logistics and psychology. On the latter, the Japanese are a fascinating study, where the Japanese Command's plans often seem to look like this:

Equally you have the Japanese trying out new tactics and weapon systems, and drawing totally and utterly the wrong conclusions simply because of their world view. There's one other reason why this small brushfire war keeps cropping up, this is because it is so well researched. At first glance you might think, especially from the Japanese point of view, that this is impossible, as there's no more than three or four works on the subject. Luckily one of those works (Nomonhan, by Dr Alvin Coox) is a masterpiece. The book itself is about two inches thick, and is well over 1000 pages. Dr Coox must have put an unimaginable amount of time into it, including interviewing a great many Japanese veterans of the war. If you're remotely interested in the Japanese in World War Two it's a must have, as it explains and gives insight and depth into something that is often seen as baffling and simplistically explained here in the west, the Japanese psyche and world view that gave the war in the CBI and PTO it's rather distasteful but unique character.
Including today's article, and the previous ones, there's at least one more story that I could use as a start point for an article, but today we'll be looking at the Ioki Detachment.

The fighting at Nomonhan stuttered to life when in early 1939 a force of Mongolian troops went looking for grazing for their horses. As is often the case in history the trouble was that the border wasn't clearly defined. Both sides claimed the Mongolian troops were on their side of the border, and despite it being in the middle of nowhere with no strategic importance the Japanese reacted by dispatching the reconnaissance regiment from the 23rd Division, to see off the interlopers. This ill fated force was named Detachment Azuma after its commander. In short order the force was destroyed and both sides turned their attention to this insignificant desert.
Japanese troops marching to Nomonhan, you can see what he terrain is like from this picture.
The reconnaissance regiment was re-built and took part in the fighting, the new commander was the diabetic Lieutenant Colonel Ioki Eiichi. Originally it was to be part of a force sent to cross the Halha River, however on July 10th 1939 it was dispatched to occupy the northernmost flank position of the Japanese forces at Fui Heights. The term “heights” is slightly misleading it was described by one officer who saw it as a slightly raised pancake. The detachment set to digging in along it's awfully over extended frontage of 300 meters, while the battle raged elsewhere. There was some brief combat on July the 15th, when the Detachment was supported by tank fire. In August the initiative had passed to the Soviets, and they began to use their logistical superiority to prepare a hammer blow. The soldiers of the Ioki Detachment could watch Soviet forces crossing the river in the distance and amassing to their front. By the 18th the Soviets had a rifle division, one tank brigade, two cavalry regiments and a heavy artillery brigade. Against this Lt Col Ioki could muster two and a half platoons of cavalry (about 80 men with horses) and an engineering company, two machine guns and two companies of infantry. In addition they had a smattering of heavy weapons. These are guesses as to the type of weapon though as my sources fails to list the hardware. Four rapid fire guns possibly Type 94 37mm anti-tank guns. “Rapid fire infantry guns” was the Japanese Army name for anti-tank guns. Two mountain guns, possibly Type 41 or Type 38 75mm pieces, and a battery of infantry guns, these would likely be Type 92 70mm guns, and it’s likely there were two of them. These latter guns would likely only have had HE ammunition, although the rapid fire guns would have had both AP and HE.
Japanese at Nomonhan
Not that it mattered in the end. The 20th was the start of the Soviet attack, at 0500 the heavy guns opened fire. For hours the hill was blanketed by heavy Russian gunfire. The dust and smoke bursts combined to give a visibility of just two meters at times. One of the gun platoon commanders counted three rounds per second landing. This whirlwind of firepower smashed into the Japanese lines destroying most of their few heavy weapons. The commander of the mountain guns, who was described as a large bearded man replied against this overwhelming onslaught, after each gun fired he was seen praying it would find its target. As well as smashing the defences it also smashed the ten meagre wells the troops had dug to provide them with a tiny trickle of water. Another position that had been dug was a seventy meter wide pit where the regiment's horses were tethered. Eighty percent of the horses were killed in the barrage, and the rest stampeded. The charnel pit of the horses was a horrific sight, but many of the cavalry men were secretly relieved. The lack of water meant that none could be spared for their animals who were suffering, equally no time could be given to tending for them. Water became a critical problem in the blistering desert heat. All previous water supply had been done by truck, but now about fifty tanks from two armoured brigades were working their way around each flank of Fui Heights, and the general Soviet assault had routed the forces on either flank of the Detachment and therefore there could be no resupply.
At 2000 the artillery cut off like a light switch. The deafened, thirsty and battered infantry peeked over the top of whatever cover they had left only to see Soviet troops advancing, about thirty meters away.

Part two will be next week.

Image credits:
www.aviapress.com and pwencycl.kgbudge.com

Sunday, December 25, 2016


At 0430 on the 14th of May 1917 Zeppelin LZ-64 (Formerly LZ-22) was cruising about over the North Sea near Terschelling. She was engaged on her 31st reconnaissance flight, in preparation for a Kriegsmarine sortie the next day. However she'd never make it back to base. About ten miles away and two to three thousand feet higher was a Curtiss H-12 flying boat of the RNAS. After it spotted the Zeppelin it began to climb in order to gain a bigger height advantage. It then dove down on the lumbering German behemoth, pulling into level flight about twenty feet lower than the German and only fifty feet away. The front gunner opened fire with his twin Lewis guns, but almost immediately both guns jammed. The Curtiss flying boat began a bank away from the Zeppelin to allow the gunner to clear his jams, however as it turned the gunner thought he saw a glow inside the envelope. When the Zeppelin came into sight again a mere 15 seconds later she was hanging at an angle of 45  degrees tail down down and the underside of the envelope was fully alight. Five seconds later she was a glowing inferno, falling tail first vertically. A mere 45 seconds after the attack commenced the fires were out leaving a charred blackened metal skeleton plummeting into the sea. When she impacted she left a massive slick of black ash and a 1500 foot smoke column.
This was one of the many incidents in the air over the North Sea in the later years of the war that has gone largely unmarked by authors to date. One of the key players in this story were the Curtiss flying boats. When first delivered they were considered unfit for purpose by their aircrews, however, several modifications and most importantly two engine upgrades later and the definitive Felixstowe F.2a version appeared.
These flying boats were a key part in halting the German U-boats in the channel. And as well as reconnaissance they also carried out attacks carrying bombs. Equally as we have seen they fought with German Zeppelins on at least three occasions, one of the later attacks was flown by the pilot in the opening paragraph, Flight Sub-Lieutenant R. Leckie.

While robust, agile for such a large craft and well armed the F.2a didn't have it all its own way. The Germans began to mount naval sweeps with floatplane fighters. One such plane was the Hansa-Brandenburg W.29. Rumoured to have been designed on the back of a wine list by Ernst Heinkel at a cabaret show one night, it involved removing the top wing from an earlier double decker seaplane. On several occasions these German patrols (not always in W.29's) clashed, for honours even.
One such event, on 18th March 1918, one F.2a was attacked by two German planes, later in the same patrol they got attacked by another three. Upon reaching base they counted 80 bullet holes in the plane, with one through the pilots coat and another through his boot!
By far the biggest fight between the two foes was on the 4th of June. A patrol of four F.2a's and a H-12 was lead by the now promoted Captain R. Leckie. On the German side were 14 W.29's led by the Ace Friedrich Christiansen. Before the battle started one of the F.2a’s suffered a blocked fuel line and had to land. Interestingly it seems that Christiansen claimed this plane as a kill. In the roiling furball the Germans lost six planes, and the British had another F.2a forced down due to the blocked fuel line problem, which was common on the type.

At this point two stories appear. One has one of the F.2a's involved being painted bright red with yellow lightning bolts, and it was claimed by the pilots its was the only way they could identify it. Another is that the fuel line problem was so common the threat of being forced down at sea meant there was a need for a high visibility scheme that meant the flying boats could be spotted and rescued easier.
Whichever was true the go ahead was given for the pilots to paint their craft as they so desired.
The risk of landing without the ability to take off again was not a minor one. On one occasion a H.12 landed at sea to rescue the crew of another plane that had been forced down. They then found the sea to rough to take off again. The crew released four homing pigeons with a message for help and their location.
Pigeon N.U.R.P/17/F.16331 arrived with the message after a gruelling flight of fifty miles, and the crew was rescued. However the incident was not without casualty. The gallant pigeon collapsed from exhaustion and died shortly after arriving. He was stuffed and preserved with the title of "A very gallant gentleman", and is currently on display at the RAF Museum at Cosford.
One of the most graphic accounts of the battles in the North Sea comes from the 31st July 1918. Friedrich Christiansen was leading his squadron when they spotted a lone F.2a, which had set out on its patrol at 0600.  What makes this so unique was one of the observers in the W.29's had brought a camera with him and recorded what happened next.
Caught from several directions at once the F.2a tried to dive away reaching just over 100mph. However their escape route was cut off by two of the W.29's who made a head on attack killing the bow gunner with a bullet to the neck. Then the five W.29's sat on the F.2a's tail and took turns to riddle it with bursts of gunfire. Eventually one of the bursts hit the gravity tank. Full of holes this began to leak fuel everywhere, and more seriously this meant the engines were not getting enough fuel and they spluttered and died, forcing the pilot to set down on the water. The pilot got a carrier pigeon away, and was about to send another when the five W.29's re-appeared line astern and began to strafe the sitting duck of a F.2a.
The F.2a landing, under attack.
The crew clings to the wing for safety as the fuel leaking from the gravity tank catches fire under repeated strafing attacks.

One of the crew, who didn't know how to swim, and had a damaged life jacket was set on fire and severely burnt, so he leaps overboard from the nose of the aircraft. Seeing their comrade sinking the last two surviving crew abandon the burning plane and swim to his rescue.

The burning F.2a was soon to sink, leaving a pool of burning petrol. The crew (seen here in front of the nose) swam away and after 35 minutes in the water were rescued by HMS Halcyon.

Of the people mentioned so far, Robert Leckie retired from the RCAF as an Air Marshall in 1947, and died on 31st of March 1975. Friedrich Christiansen survived the First World War, and during the Second World War was in charge of the occupation of Holland, and was tried for war crimes after the war. Originally sentenced to twelve years in prison in 1948 he was released in 1951, and died in 1972.

Image Credits:
nzhistory.govt.nz, www.aviastar.org and www.wingnutwings.com

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Will the real Americans please stand up?

At the start of the Battle of the Bulge on the 16th of December 1944 several freezing, scared, ill-supported engineers were manning a roadblock at Malmedy. The sounds of war had picked up over the last few hours and troops fleeing from in front of them had brought tales of a massive German attack. During the day they passed a straggler though, it was a single Jeep with three or four men in it. Unbeknownst to the engineers the men in the Jeep were Germans. They were a reconnaissance team from the now almost mythical Panzer Brigade 150. This team reported back how lightly defended Malmedy was to their commander Otto Skorzeny.
VisMod Stug III as used by the Germans.
After the failure of the original plan due to a massive traffic jam which held up Panzer Brigade 150, Skorzeny convinced his superiors that his force could attack and defeat the scratch defence at Malmedy. He was given the go ahead. Panzer Brigade 150 was again held up by traffic jams, and this delayed their ability to marshal for attack until the 21st. In between the 16th and the 21st the defenders were reinforced by four battalions of infantry (one armoured), with support from two platoons of M10 tank destroyers. In the intervening days the engineers had also began mining and booby trapping the area. One of the leg infantry battalions was the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), it consisted of Norwegian-American soldiers, and all were fluent in Norwegian. Compare if you will to the German attempts at assembling English speakers in Panzer Brigade 150, where you had just ten who were fluent in "American", thirty odd who spoke fluent English and some two hundred with moderate English skills. The Germans had some US equipment, although in this battle they only used the vehicles. By a strange turn of fate the mortars on the US side ran out of ammunition early on in the battle, so to keep the guns firing they took 8cm German rounds from a nearby captured dump and fired them at a risk of a round detonating in the tube.
So you had Norwegian-Americans using German weapons to fight off Germans using American equipment!

Some of that captured US equipment was rattling down the road toward Malmedy at 0300 on the 21st of December. On one flank a German formation led by a halftrack drove through a dense forest and wound its way along a road hacked into the side of a steep hill. As they approached Malmedy the lead halftrack hit a mine and became a bright fireball, the Germans reacted with an immediate assault towards the US lines, yelling, in English, for the US soldiers to surrender. The US mortars and their base of fire put down such a withering hail of fire it slowed the German assault to a crawl and then the artillery joined in. US artillery of World War Two had some problems, one was a somewhat slow time on target approach, where using carefully timed charges and elevations at the guns they could have multiple rounds in the air from one tube, all of which would arrive at a target at the same time. This meant the opening salvo of a US unit could often be devastatingly massive compared to other nations, but it did take some time to calculate. However it would arrive without warning. Now the firepower of six battalions of artillery, and even two of anti-air, fell on the flank force. This in effect removed them from the battle.
Waiting a mile away in a small hamlet above Malmedy was the main assault force of Germans, with two companies of infantry and four Ersatz M10's (Panther tanks disguised to look like M10 tank destroyers). While the sounds of the battle rumbled across them they maintained their positions ready for the attack. At 0530 they started their offensive planning to take the US forces by surprise. Almost instantly their hopes were dashed as they hit several tripwires linked to flares and other pyrotechnics which stripped the cover of darkness from their attack. One of the Ersatz M10's hit a mine as it charged down the road towards a flanking position with some infantry as they tried to capture a railway embankment.

Four other Panthers, and a mass of infantry assaulted directly towards Malmedy. In the foggy darkness the four Panthers found themselves looking in a mirror as they faced four M10 tank destroyers. Unsurprisingly the four Panthers won the short fight and forced the American line to bend back, with the US defences congealing at the Paper Mill. Here they met Private Francis S. Currey. His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
He was an automatic rifleman with the 3rd Platoon defending a strongpoint near Malmedy, Belgium, on 21 December 1944, when the enemy launched a powerful attack. Overrunning tank destroyers and antitank guns located near the strong point, German tanks advanced to the 3rd Platoon's position, and, after prolonged fighting, forced the withdrawal of this group to a nearby factory. Sgt. Currey found a bazooka in the building and crossed the street to secure rockets meanwhile enduring intense fire from enemy tanks and hostile infantrymen who had taken up a position at a house a short distance away. In the face of small-arms, machinegun, and artillery fire, he, with a companion, knocked out a tank with 1 shot. Moving to another position, he observed 3 Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house. He killed or wounded all 3 with his automatic rifle. He emerged from cover and advanced alone to within 50 yards of the house, intent on wrecking it with rockets. Covered by friendly fire, he stood erect, and fired a shot which knocked down half of 1 wall. While in this forward position, he observed 5 Americans who had been pinned down for hours by fire from the house and 3 tanks. Realizing that they could not escape until the enemy tank and infantry guns had been silenced, Sgt. Currey crossed the street to a vehicle, where he procured an armful of antitank grenades. These he launched while under heavy enemy fire, driving the tankmen from the vehicles into the house. He then climbed onto a half-track in full view of the Germans and fired a machinegun at the house. Once again changing his position, he manned another machinegun whose crew had been killed; under his covering fire the 5 soldiers were able to retire to safety. Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Sgt. Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion's position.

The Germans now devastated and beaten began to withdraw, and the Battle of Malmedy was over. Soon the Panzer Brigade would be replaced in the front line, and then disbanded. The 99th Infantry stayed in the area until January then was replaced in the line and undertook several other rear area duties until the end of the war.

Sgt. Currey survived the war, and is still alive today. In 1998 he was awarded another accolade, he had an Action Man (yes I used "Action Man" because I'm British. In the US it was called G.I. Joe) figure modelled on him.

Image Credits: