Purpose of this blog

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

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:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hangor On

Forty five years (and two days) ago a part of a naval war led to the first sinking of a ship by submarine since the Second World War, one of only three to date. The other two being the ARA Belgrano sunk by HMS Conqueror and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan.
The subject for today's article was the sinking of the INS Khukri in 1971. A subject I was hesitant to look at, as the last time I featured an India-Pakistan war story I had to wade through such a mountain of bile, nationalism and propaganda it put me right off. Luckily this time saner heads have prevailed and the incident is discussed in a much more educated fashion. However I mention the above so that you can understand when I give a warning about the authenticity of some of the data in this article. Some of it comes from eye witness accounts, and thus may well have been edited by the various sides. To cap it all there is still some controversy on the subject.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistani war lasted just thirteen days, and the Pakistanis came off the worst and lost. The war overall was a part of the complex and unpleasant Bangladeshi Liberation War. At the start of the war the Pakistani Navy was blind and had no intelligence on what was happening at sea, and so its submarine, PNS Hangor (of French origin and built in 1968), sailed out into the Indian Ocean to see what intelligence could be found.
The PNS Hangor
She found information all right. The PNS Hangor detected a large fleet of Indian ships closing to create a blockade and bombard the main Pakistani Navy port of Karachi. PNS Hangor transmitted this warning to the Pakistani Navy, but for some unknown reason the warning wasn't acted upon by the PNS Hangor’s superiors. The message was also picked up by the Indians and they did act on it. They dispatched a number of maritime patrol planes and Sea King helicopters to search for this submarine. Along with the air assets a trio of British built Blackwood frigates were also dispatched. However one was in port with boiler trouble, and that just left two ships, the INS Khukri and INS Kirpan.
INS Khukri
The INS wasn't the only navy to be suffering mechanical troubles. The PNS Hangor had also developed an engine fault which reduced its speed. So when she came to periscope depth briefly sometime after 1100 on the 9th of December 1971, she could see the two Indian ships but lacked the speed to approach them to make an attack. However Commander Ahmed Tasnim, the captain of the PNS Hangor, could see the ships were conducting a search pattern. Both navies had the same background, and used the same text books and publications, so Cmdr Tasnim was able to recognize the pattern the Indians were using and decided to position himself ahead of the ships to launch his attack. However there was a complication. During the day a pair of Sea Kings started to operate in his area with dipping sonars. These would have picked up the sub moving to its ambush position. However at about 1700 to 1800 both Sea Kings left the search area. The Indian vessels were informed that their relief would be with them in an hour, but the replacements never showed up. This let the PNS Hangor take up its ambush position. Now at 40m depth the two Indian frigates were on a closing course moving at just 12 knots to improve the performance of their sonar, both of them were zig-zagging. Unable to pick up his targets in the dark, at a range of 9800m Cmdr Tasnim decided to dive to 55m and use sonar to make his attack. At 1957 he fired his first homing torpedo.
Cmdr Tasnim is pictured in the insert
Each torpedo had a travel time of about five minutes. The first torpedo missed, so a second one was launched. It hit the INS Khukri in the engine room, instantly destroying all power and causing severe flooding. On the bridge of the INS Khukri the captain was thrown from his chair and smashed his head on the bulkhead, opening a severe wound. Despite this he immediately ordered full speed, but his ship was already doomed. The captain sent one of his officers to assess the situation whilst he tried to regain control of his ship. The officer returned almost immediately suggesting that the order to abandon ship was to be given as the rear of the ship was already under water. The captain agreed. However there was only a single escape path. As the ship was at general quarters only a few stairwells were undogged. The rear one was underwater, so that left the one leading to the bridge. The captain and two of his officers remained pulling men out of the stairwell and sending them overboard until the bridge was nearly at the waterline, the captain then pushed the two remaining officers into the water and returned to rescue more men. Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla went down with his ship aged 45, along with nearly 200 others.
Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla
The other ship (INS Kirpan) turned to attack the PNS Hangor with depth charges. However the PNS Hangor fired again and hit the Kirpan and damaged her. The Hangor then started to retreat out to deeper waters. The INS Kirpan also left the area, and here is where the modern controversy lies. Many claim she should have stayed on station to rescue the survivors of the INS Khukri. The Indian Navy launched Operation Falcon over the next four days to try and sink the PNS Hangor. However as the PNS Hangor had headed out to deeper waters, and not directly towards her home base at Karachi she survived. Despite this the PNS Hangor recorded 36 depth charge attacks over the next four days, one salvo bracketed the submarine and left the crew tensed for the killing blow which never came.
The PNS Hangor remained in service until 2006 when she was decommissioned, before becoming a museum ship at the Pakistan Maritime Museum. The last officer to inspect her was Vice Admiral Ahmad Tasnim.
PNS Hangor at the Pakistan Maritime Museum

Image credits:
urbanpk.com and www.shipspotting.com

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Krupp Stehlen

Following on from last week's article I'm going to talk about armour once again, this time Krupp Steel! Now this has probably been discussed on just about any forum you care to name at such great lengths before that you're already likely familiar with the argument.
If you're not, it's that German steel was somehow superior, however, as the war went on lack of resources meant that German armour quality deteriorated. There are some comments from the renowned German armour historians Jentz and Doyle that are used to parry the blows of the Allies, as they seem to say the opposite of the reports cited by the deteriorating war situation crowd.
Now while talking about this on a forum I frequent, I was reminded of a document I'd seen previously, and have mentioned on here, about the quality of Japanese armour. That's the point at which I formed a new theory, that might account for the disagreements around this subject.

The issue here is that pretty much everyone you speak to on the subject has an axe to grind. It's either fervent wehraboos complaining Germany would have won if it wasn't for those pesky bombers. On the other side you have what seems to be mostly Soviet (but I'm sure we can find some British or American fanboys wading in) fanatics ranting about how they're superior when it comes to designing armour. So as each side has an agenda then comes the giant game of trying to spin the results to your side, it then ends up as a bunfight with both sides battering each other with their selected evidence until the mods exterminate the thread, much to every sane posters relief.
The Tiger about to under go an air burst test. The panel above the tank is to detonate the HE shell.
So the case for the accusation: there are four main reports widely available on the internet of a captured Panther, a Tiger, a King Tiger and the assessment of plate from a captured Panther.
Incidentally the British tested out the lower hull by stacking a box of No 75 anti-tank grenades, three non-boxed No 75's and a box of detonators, and buried it to the depth of two inches and then triggered the lot.
The results of the pile of explosives.

The most damning of the lot is the US metallurgical assessment and testing of German armour plate. Its given a high Brinell hardness of about 300, but lacking in a key material, and extremely brittle. Yet other reports from big cats (mostly tested by the British, with Soviet reports also suggesting the same) say that the plate is quite soft, surprisingly so, with a hardness of less than 250.
Most, if not all the sources say the same thing in their conclusions, that German plate is bad, but they do so for different reasons. Plus the Panther plate that was tested that lacked crucial ingredients is being cited as standard for all German armour, however this report comes from 1945.
All this might suggest that something else is going on.
The King Tiger before testing by the British.
Now in the defence we have Doyle backing up Thomas Jentz. In a book about the Tiger, in 1998, Jentz writes
"[...]there is no proof that substandard German armour plate was used during the last years of the war. All original documents confirm compliance with standard specifications throughout the war."
At first glance that looks like the Germans just produced some bad plate. But if that's the case, how can items from differing ends of the spectrum pass quality control? Or is there something else we might consider?
It might at this time be useful to point out that although I'm using phrases like "bad" or "poor" the plates tested by the British conformed roughly to what we called medium quality plate, known as IT80. So it's by no means terrible.
Some of No.1 Armoured car squadrons vehicles.
So what might be causing the differing results and the change in quality? Well exposure is a possible candidate. At least in the case of Tigers some of the tested ones were captured in North Africa, and there's an anecdote that I read about that might apply. A No.1 RAF Armoured Car Squadron was serving in the Middle East, in what is now Saudi Arabia. To overawe the locals a demonstration was put on for the Sheik, and a Rolls Royce armoured car was driven around at speed to display its prowess. The Sheik was informed of its bullet proof skin, and the officer invited the ruler to take a shot at the armoured car. The Sheik readily agreed and had his rifle brought forward. This turned out to be a colossal Jezail. This was duly fired and hit the car, much to the crew's surprise the bullet passed right through their armour! Luckily the car didn't display any signs of the penetrating hit and the British were able to bluff their way through and cover up the incident, they subsequently convinced the locals that taking on the might of the British Empire was a very bad idea. A very quick investigation showed that exposure to the temperatures and the sunlight had degraded the armour properties, to the point it wasn't actually effective. All the Rolls Royce armoured cars were quickly shipped back to the UK where they were re-armoured.
"I'll get you, you pesky Roller!"
At the other end of the spectrum you have the extreme cold of Russia, what effect does this have on armour one wonders. So without knowing the full history of all the German vehicles tested one can not say that they never encountered something such as this to effect their armour.

The other thing that struck me was the tests on Japanese plate. The thinnest Japanese plate was considered better than the equivalent British plate. This was I recall about 6mm. However as the plate increased in thickness the Japanese methods of treating the armour plate remained the same, and so the face hardening wasn't such a high percentage of the total depth of the plate and so the armour rapidly became worse than a British equivalent. This is what spawned my theory.
So maybe as armour thickness drastically increased then the German methods for treating the plate weren't able to keep up with the increase in thickness which caused the quality to drop. So while the treatments used maintained the standards required, it wasn't producing the same effect due to the increase in plate thickness. You’ll note that the drop in armour performance appears to link with the increase in armour to 100mm. Previously Panzers were manufactured with plate thickness of 50mm or lower. Mid war Panzer IV’s had 50mm plate with 30mm appliqué.
Of course as a theory it's just that. There's still several points of data required to confirm it. But it's just a thought.
Up armoured Panzer IV
Oh, and to clarify, and be blindingly clear: the myth of Krupp Steel is just that, the Germans didn't have a super special type of armour that was vastly in advance of everybody else, they had, and here's the surprise; armour plate just like everyone else. So when you see someone talking about a special German steel modifier (either for or against) ask yourself about their agenda. Because I suspect a lot more work will need to be done on this before either one side or the other has sufficient evidence to explain away all the holes in either argument.

Image credits:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Building a Better Boxtank?

The following video came out a few weeks ago, and upon seeing it several of my friends (including a German) accused me of writing the script for it. Upon challenging this claim they pointed out that British tanks tend to be a bit boxy and heavily riveted, and as I like British tanks its a pretty easy conjecture to make.

Then we began to talk about the merits of sloped vs vertical armour (I know, exciting right...). As I've just read a presentation to a large gathering of armour officers about this very subject I figured it'd be good to make an article on it. So what follows is a non-mathematician trying to explain a horribly complex subject (and we all saw how well that went in the nuclear bomb article).

It is a commonly held belief that sloped armour is better than vertical armour, this isn't strictly true (some claim it isn't even slightly true). Equally it's often claimed that the Russians invented sloped armour on the T-34. First of all let's address the last point and consider what the claim is saying, that every engineer between the ancient Greeks (I'm using Greeks, as Pythagoras' measurements of triangles are the one most used in later on in this article), and the Russian designer of the T-34 had forgotten or were never taught the maths that make up geometry. Yet tanks before and after the T-34 continued to be made with flat plates... why? Maybe it's because flat armour isn't as bad as many claim, if not superior. Consider this, if sloped armour is so inherently superior why do modern tanks use fairly shallow angles on their front plates, and some like the Leopard 2, use none?
Its a Tiger!
Like all things in armour design the slope/vertical choice is a compromise. If you assume that the best idea is to wrap the armour as tightly as you can around components, and thus use the minimum armour for protecting these parts, then with the engine bay, transmission and fuel you quickly get a large rectangle. Which is great as it allows you to fasten the suspension onto the side plates, and already you pretty much have a layout that resembles most tanks ever built. On top of this, literally you have to consider the turret ring. Sloping the upper hull sides means the size of the turret ring you can fit is smaller, and with a smaller turret ring you get a smaller gun. You can't just increase the width of the tank, as most tanks have a restriction on their width. In the Second World War the restriction was limited by the railway gauge that would be used for transporting the tank.
The Sherman is narrower than the T-34, yet the Sherman could carry the bigger gun.

But what of the armour itself? An example given in the paper I mentioned is a 100mm vertical plate vs a German KwK 42 L/70 75mm, the gun most famously mounted on the Panther, at 2000 yards. At that range the KwK 42 could penetrate 104mm, and so beat the 100mm vertical plate by 4mm.
But what if we slope it?
Well to cover the same area, at say 30 degrees, the plate now weighs more. Before you all grab for calculators scratching your head or reach for the comment button, remember the missing part is the roof and thus normally much thinner and lighter, and is a different calculation and balancing act for the designer. We're just talking about the ability to protect fire from the flanks. Most people when working this out have the “roof” of the triangle the same thickness as the sides for simplicity. However even the newest student of armour design can spot that the idea of having a 100mm thick roof is a bad idea. (Note: I'd actually be interested in seeing a comparison of weights and thickness that includes the difference in thicknesses of side and roof plates)
So using the same weight of armour means you could get, 80mm of armour at 30 degrees. The same gun at the same range as used before has a penetration of 89mm. So you're actually worse off as the gun has beaten you by over twice the margin of the vertical plate.
But one thing we've failed to take into account is ballistics. All the numbers listed so far are for a shell approaching on a dead flat trajectory. As the range increases the arc the projectile needs to take to impact on the target also increases. This has the effect that the strike gradually moves closer to a 90 degree angle on sloped armour. At the same time on vertical armour the angle is getting steeper, actually increasing the thickness of the plate. A similar effect could be achieved by the tank driving cross country, which would have dips and be uneven.
Yeah, now go down the slope and the angle decreases, and add in a ballistic curve to the shot.
Also to add to the mix is the type of projectile being shot at you. A pointed projectile is best for shooting at a vertical plate, whereas a blunt nosed projectile does best against sloped surfaces. The latter is because the corner is the tip of the impact. So knowing your enemy is going for sloping armour in a big way, start firing blunt projectiles at him. During the Second World War British rounds were designed to be fired against tanks with 30 degree sloped armour..

So in summary, a vertical plate will always give its designed level of protection, and may actually give more. It's also technically (possibly?) lighter. With that in mind why are modern tanks not universally square? I honestly have no idea, it is reported that sloped armour is actually harder to spot, and blends into the background better than a square tank, and that right angles show up really well to radar. There's also a question of crew morale, as sloped armour is seen as better. So if you ever see another “design your own tank” competition, give the poor humble vertical plate another chance!

Image Credits:
www.brhoward.com, www.fprado.com and globeatwar.com

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Early Invasion

You'll remember some years ago now I mentioned Jack Churchill, and his special brand of madness. Well when I heard of this chap I immediately knew I had to do this article, although material on him is a bit sparse. Another reason for me picking him is that this soldier was born in a village not to far away from where I grew up, and one I passed daily for many years on the way to work.

On 30th of October, the wife of Mr King, a builder from Cambridgeshire living in Caxton, had a son. He named him Peter. Six months short of the Second World War Peter, now aged 23, joined the army Dental Corp. He actually served as an instructor and became proficient in weaponry. As the war situation worsened, and being proficient in most forms of weaponry, and getting disillusioned about teaching dentists how to shoot straight, Sgt King applied for transfers to combat units, these were all rejected.
At this point Sgt King fell in with Private Leslie Cuthbertson, from Newcastle. Together they decided to do something about the situation they both found themselves in. Together they pooled their bank accounts, and had a total of £30 as operating funds. Then they managed, presumably with King's instructor status to obtain a number of hand grenades and a pair of revolvers. They also obtained one bayonet. As would any other self respecting soldier they also purchased a knife. With this arsenal of materiel they turned their attention to the men to wield it, and after lights out on the base the two would meet for clandestine route marches and after hours PT.
Eventually they saw themselves as ready. On 11th of April 1942, Sgt King stole two rail travel warrants from the guardhouse, and the two soldiers left for adventure. They arrived in a small Cornish village, and pretending to be soldiers on holiday they spent two weeks in the location. During this time they taught themselves to rock climb.
After this time they collected their weaponry and set out for the harbour. On their way they posted a letter to Winston Churchill. The letter contained their pay books and an explanation of their plans.
At the harbour they stole a boat, and these two soldiers with a pair of revolvers, set course for France to storm Festung Europa, two years ahead of the rest of the Allied armies...
They landed, oddly enough, on the Cherbourg Peninsula. Once here the army of liberation roamed the countryside looking for mischief to inflict on the Germans for several days. On one occasion they spent their time cutting telephone wires. Then feeling this was insufficient they found a railway line which they promptly set about with some of their hand grenades. Some sources say they tried to cut the line as a German troop train approached. However it is unlikely that a hand grenade would have had an effect on length of track.
Now with, one presumes, the Germans alerted to the invasion, the first wave used the rest of their grenades on a signal control box blowing it to pieces and then retreated. They reached a French port and hijacked another boat, setting out for England. Again sources differ as to what happened. Some say that the boat had a run in with a mine, others that the engine broke down. Either way they found themselves drifting in fog, as the Channel current pushed them towards the Atlantic. They drifted in this boat for about twelve days, when an RAF air sea rescue launch found them.
Their story was so unbelievable that they were at first treated as spies. However the precaution of sending their pay books into the Prime Minister paid off, and both men were just Court Martialed. After the Court Martial they were drummed out of the Dental Corp. Pte Cuthbertson was transferred to the Durham Light Infantry, and survived the war to eventually became the deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle and he died in 1996.
Lord Lovatt
King, by now a private however, still has a story to tell. Pte King joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. After a while he went on detached service to another unit, the Commandos. Upon hearing of Pte King's exploits their commander Lord Lovat got King transferred to his company. In the Commandos King rose to the rank of Sergeant Major, and landed in the first wave on D-Day, with the objective to blast through to the Paras at Pegasus Bridge.
By the war's end King was a Captain, after being promoted in the field for a series of actions, including a three day patrol behind enemy lines to guide artillery onto targets of choice. After the war King emigrated to New Zealand and became a factory manager, until 1950, at which point he joined the New Zealand army to fight in Korea. In 1951 at hill 335 King was acting as a forward observer for an artillery battery. Using his guns he broke up the first Chinese human wave attack. However return artillery fire cut his communications. Cpt King then joined in the defence of the hill, leading a section of LMGs against a second human wave attack. After bitter fighting Cpt King was wounded and had to be evacuated.

After Korea he left the army again, however he wasn't out of colours for long, rejoining the army in 1956 to be part of the peacekeeping force in Kashmir. For this post he was given the rank of Major. King finally left the army in 1959 for the last time, the same year he got married. Three years later while travelling to a meeting his car spun out of control and crashed into Lake Wahapo and he was drowned.

Note: Any formatting/picture oddities are down to Blogger. Its getting worse every week.

Image Credits:
dailymail.co.uk and www.canadiansoldiers.com

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Friendly Fire

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, and keeping with tradition I'll be writing about something a bit different from my normal fare.

When Finland managed to claw itself to freedom from the mess of the Russian Civil War its military obtained a number of items from its former Russian overlords. One such spoil of freedom was the minelayer Voin. Armed with a pair of 47mm guns, bad seakeeping and a low mine laying capacity she was soon turned into a depot ship.
In the 1930's she was renamed Louhi. During the Second World War she was re-armed and served throughout as a minelayer, and despite her shortcomings she achieved the third highest total number of mines laid.
The minelayer Louhi
At the end of the Continuation War the Finns made peace with the Russians. One of the clauses of this peace was to expel the German forces inside Finland, this in turn led to the Lapland War. There was a veteran submarine officer called Captain Olavi Syrjänen who had been a liaison officer with a German U-boat. He'd been selected for this role due to his ability to speak German fluently. At the outbreak of the Lapland War Cpt Syrjänen held a goodbye party for his friends, the crew of U-370, and their commander Oberleutnant zur See Karl Nielsen.
Oblt.z.S Nielsen was born in Hamburg in 1911, and had joined the navy in 1935. He was posted to command of U-370 in November 1943, later he'd become good friends with his liaison officer.
Olavi Syrjänen
As the Lapland War progressed, there wasn't much fighting as the Finns were slowly pursuing the retreating Germans, just enough to keep their former allies moving, but not enough to catch them or have a fight. This might have had something to do with the Germans conducting an orderly withdrawal, and then informing the Finns, in secret, of their timetables so the Finns could follow up and just happen to miss the retreating Germans. Eventually pressure, and threats of resumption of hostilities, from the Soviets forced the Finns to take an active part in the war.
Karl Nielsen
The Finnish Navy also had to start operations against the Germans in conjunction with the Russian Navy. One of the ships included in these was the minelayer Louhi, now captained by Cpt Syrjänen. Due to the chance of mines being laid in the wrong place a Russian liaison officer was stationed on the ship.
On 12th of January 1945 the Louhi and another Finnish minelayer were placing a minefield to hinder the Germans. They were escorted by a pair of Soviet gun boats. Suddenly there was an explosion at the Louhi's stern. She was ripped wide open and  began to sink, going under about two minutes later. She took eleven of her 41 crew down with her.
After twenty minutes in the freezing sea, without a life jacket, which was being used by the Russian liaison officer, Cpt Syrjänen was rescued by the Soviet gun boats. He was the last of the survivors to be rescued.

Some distance away lay U-370. Oblt.z.S Nielsen had ordered a pair of acoustic homing torpedoes to be fired at the flotilla, not knowing his friend was on one of the ships.
Cpt Syrjänen died in 1992, and  Oblt.z.S Nielsen is still alive today. U-370 was scuttled on the 5th of May 1945.

Image credits:
uboat.net and www.hs.fi