Purpose of this blog

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Cold Condor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Longest Three Hours

Part one.

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

With United Forces

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

Part two is next week.

Image Credits:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Grind Stonne

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Zeebrugge raid (part two)

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

Part One.

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

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

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

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