Purpose of this blog

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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Medium Mirage

For the last three weeks I have been looking at the Vickers Medium tanks of the inter war period, and I think I might have discovered some bits and pieces. Now I posted some of this on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, but I'm going to repeat it here so it’s in a more permanent location, and because the subject has been about as easy to nail down as a mirage is. This why I've been wrestling with it for so many weeks. It didn't help that when I thought I had all my facts lined up I did one last search and bang, new information appeared that tipped everything on its head.

First off, the Vickers Medium is often stated as appearing mysteriously (see Mechanised Force by David Fletcher, for an example) in 1923 with none of the usual development reports having survived. Equally its often stated that the Dragon Gun Tractors (named, as the story goes, for a pun on Drag-Gun) are developments of the Vickers Medium, as they both share a striking similarity in their running gear. As well as the Dragon there was an 18-pounder gun carrier which would carry a field piece portee style and could be dismounted from ramps.
Both these projects are dated from 1922, the year before the Vickers Medium appeared. Therefore, it's likely the other way around and the Medium is a development of the Dragon. You would just need to stick an armoured body on it with a turret on the chassis.
Some websites claim these are prototype Vickers Mediums, they're not. But you can see Seal in the background.
Two Dragons were so converted in the mid-1930's and served at RAF Habbaniya. These had the body of a Rolls Royce Armoured Car fitted and served the RAF's No 1 Armoured Car Company. In the company Rolls Royce had a name with a prefix before it, which read HMAC. This stood for His Majesties Armoured Car. The two converted Dragons were named HMAT Walrus and HMAT Seal. The "T" being for Tank. HMAT Seal went through several modifications during its life, eventually in 1941 she was fitted with a large box body as an APC. Both served in combat against besieging Iraqi troops in 1941, helping to defend the main gate with long range machine gun fire.
Seal, Walrus and a Carden-Loyd carrier of some sort. These are the versions which both saw action
Walrus once had another name...
A hot dusty climate is where the Vickers Medium may have seen combat, this time in Egypt against the Axis, and this is where things become difficult. Google will provide all sorts of stories about where and how the Vickers Mediums were used. The first big difficulty is to lock down exactly how many Mediums were in service. Only the Mk.IIA and Mk.IIA* were built for use in Egypt, and the exact number is unknown, although many sources say there were ten Mk.IIA's built. Other documents point to about twenty four in service with 6th Royal Tank Regiment. Critically the war diary for three months in 1940 are missing and I suspect these might shed some light on what exactly happened to the Mediums. What follows is the data points I do have.

In August 1939 A Squadron of 6th RTR converts from Mediums to Cruiser tanks, leaving B and C squadrons still operating eight Mediums. By October B Squadron had converted as well. In January 1940 C Squadron followed suit bringing 6th RTR up to its full complement of Cruiser tanks. After the Squadrons converted to Cruisers their Mediums were to be handed over to the RAOC. However, when C squadron converted the 6th RTR retained their Mediums. On paper they had twelve, so presumably when B squadron converted they passed over four vehicles.

This collection of twelve vehicles was further reinforced by six Mediums drawn from the RAOC depots, and together the eighteen tanks formed a demonstration squadron used for teaching the use of infantry tank tactics. This squadron put on demonstrations on 18th of January and 18th of February 1940. What happened to the demonstration squadron after that is unknown as that period is within the missing three months I mentioned earlier.

At the same time, we are missing some six or so Mediums. A clue might be found from Egyptian sources. Some sources state that the Egyptians were using the missing Mediums. This is partially backed up by two Egyptian officers being attached to the 6th RTR for two weeks in February to observe how a tank unit functions. In June these Mediums were requisitioned by the British for the fight against Italy. In August four tanks, crewed by non-Egyptian soldiers were at Siwa oasis. Some sources state that is the location where they saw combat as the Allies withdrew from Siwa, but as the Germans occupied it by an air lift it is unlikely they saw combat at this location.
One of the dug in Mediums. It is suggested that the soldiers are Australians, as the European nations tended to keep their shirts on in Africa. but past that there is no clue who owns this tank.
The next data points we have is in January 1941, when preparations were made for the twelve Mediums dug in at Mersa Matruh as part of the defensive line were to be exhumed. This work included surveys to see which could be mobilised, what spare parts and personnel could be arranged and the like. The party tasked with this left on the 6th of February 1941. From that point on the paper trail dries up.

We do have several pictures which show two different Vickers Mediums, all of which have been captured by the Axis forces.

Tank #1: It's named 'Crusader'. She seems to have suffered a fire centred around the crew compartment.

Tank #2: this one has a curious fitting just behind the gun barrel, and different markings to Crusader. Including the number 45. It's often said she suffered a fire caused by mechanical break down, bu as you can see there's no sign of fire. Maybe Crusader is a better candidate for this break down? Also of interest is the broken track on the right hand side.
As a final data point we have a photograph of US soldiers posing next to two Vickers Mediums, one of which could be one which had been pictured earlier, and another one that is brand new. It is rumoured that one of these tanks was seized by the Americans and shipped to the US. 
The US soldiers in front of the tanks. The left hand tank has the number 46. While the right hand one has features similar to No45.
This means we have at least three Mediums which fell into enemy hands. It appears they could not have been from the positions dug in at Mersa Matruh, as those were presumably excavated, and several of the pictures show tanks that were at least in some way mobile.

This would mean there is an armoured unit operating in the area which is not British, as all the tank units belonging to the British have records which show no signs of the Mediums. It can't be Egyptian, as Egypt didn't declare war on the Axis powers until 1945.

A possible contender might be Australian. These Australian armoured units were equipped with all sorts of non-standard equipment, most famously the captured Italian tanks, which sported a giant white Kangaroo emblem. Equally they were equipped with some very old, worn out and obsolete Vickers Light Tanks Mk.III. Australia at that time did have four Vickers Mediums of her own which would have been used for training at least some of the crews up.

I must stress this last idea is nothing more than a theory, as there appears to be not a scrap of evidence to support it apart form a few coincidences. But it defiantly appears that someone was using these Vickers Mediums in the North African desert, and documentation is scarce. I suspect time may well tell on this one as more research is done into the formations.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Gun of the Century?

A couple of weeks ago while writing the piece on armoured trains it suddenly occurred to me that one of the most ubiquitous weapons ever hardly gets a mention. It racked up a service period of over 100 years and has been found shooting at aircraft, tanks and ships. Just about the only place it’s not fought is in space or under water. The only weapons that come close to its longevity that come to my mind as I write this, would be the SMLE and the .50 Browning heavy machine gun. It was so common often both sides would be using the same weapon. Yet in many articles it's nothing more than a footnote. So let’s review the gun of the 20th century, the Hotchkiss 6-pounder.
For such a common gun there is very little on its design or history. One can presume that the weapon was developed in France by the manufacturer, and 1885 is given as the date it was introduced into service. The reason for developing the weapon is given as a defence against smaller faster torpedo boats that were beginning to appear. These boats were capable of moving at 20-30 knots and launching Whitehead torpedoes that were quite deadly even to the largest battleship. In return the slow rate of fire and laying speed of a battleships main armament meant that the weapons had no chance of hitting such a target. Equally using small arms to ward off was impractical as a Whitehead torpedo was effective at about 800 yards. Added to that torpedo boats could easily add protection by placing their coal bunkers on the outside of the hull preventing the rounds causing significant damage.
Therefore, Hotchkiss came up with the 6-pounder, which was a quick firing design and able to deliver an effective weight of shell at ranges far superior to that of the Whitehead torpedo. Due to its QF design it could accurately fire around 25 rounds per minute.

The gun was used around the world by the following naval countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Empire of Japan, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom, Uruguay, United States and Venezuela, as well as a couple of others, which we'll come to later.

The first test for the gun came in 1894 in the First Sino-Japanese war, where the gun was used on both sides. Two Chinese protected cruisers (Zhiyuen and Jingyuen) were paired together. Both had been manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth in the UK, and thus were at the forefront of the naval design. The same could not be said about the ironclad warship that was the Chinese forces flagship, which had been manufactured by AG Vulcan Stettin in Germany. It had one tiny flaw in its design, if the main guns were fired it would destroy its own flying bridge. When this occurred in the battle of the Yalu River it incapacitated most of the commander’s staff, and the commanding officer, Admiral Ding Ruchang as well. This opening volley also destroyed the signal mast on the ship utterly cutting off any hope of command and control for the battle.
The Jingyuen
In the swirling chaos that followed the two Chinese cruisers  exchanged fire with the Japanese forces, and the action became so close and fierce that the Zhiyuen attempted to ram the enemy cruiser Yoshino. The Japanese cruiser was accompanied by the Takachiho, and Naniwa, both of which were armed with Hotchkiss 6-pounders as well. The ram failed when the Zhiyuen was destroyed by point blank enemy fire. Jingyuen survived and was forced to withdraw with the rest of the defeated Chinese fleet. Later after sustaining damage in a battle she was scuttled by her own side.
The Takachiho
The Hotchkiss 6-pounder fought through several wars in the late 1800's and the early 1900's as a naval gun, until the big one happened, the First World War. Here she began to spread out, being used as an AA gun, and most importantly a tank gun. First placed in the MK.I tank the gun barrels were seen as too long and were cut back, in this sawn off configuration she scored the first ever tank vs tank kill at Villers-Bretonneux.
After this The Hotchkiss 6-pounder continued to serve through many conflicts until the Second World War, in need of guns at least one WWI era tank was reactivated by the British in 1940. One Home Guard unit went a step further and mounted the gun on an improvised armoured car they nicknamed 'Tubby Tankbuster'.
The following year, in 1941 the Soviets may have used a Mk.V armed with 6-pounders against the German invasion.
At sea the 6-pounder was widely issued to British small craft, including the early Fairmile gun boats, before being replaced by naval versions of the 6-pounder anti-tank gun.

It was at sea the Hotchkiss saw its last in-service war. On the 4th of September 1958 the Icelandic patrol vessel Ægir, armed with 6-pounders, attempted to capture a British trawler. When the Blackwood class frigate HMS Russell intervened it officially started the first Cod War. Shots were fired by Icelandic 6-pounders on the 6 October and 12 November. Another salvo of fire was directed at British trawlers in 1974, causing some damage to the British ship.

The final shot fired by a Hotchkiss 6-pounder in anger was during the second Cod War on 11th of December 1975. There are two versions of events, one from the Icelandic side and one from the British side. Both differ widely, but the ending is the same. At a range of some 100 yards the Icelandic vessel Þór fired a live fully functioning Hotchkiss 6-pounder shell into the bows of the unarmed British ship Star Aquarius.
HMS Scylla rammed by the Odin. Odin was armed with Hotchkiss guns like the other vessels. Not a hammer as I had previously been lead to believe.
It looked like the boot was going to be on the other foot when 6 May 1976 the Icelandic cost guard vessel Týr had a run in against HMS Falmouth, however on this occasion although both sides manned their guns no shots were exchanged.

The Icelandic coast guard only retired their Hotchkiss 6-pounders in 1990, bringing to a close 105 years of continuous service around the world.

Image Credits:

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Toilet Bomb, part II

Last weeks article was posted on its normal day, which was also Aprils fools day. It was a bit of an odd tale about a pilot strapping a broken toilet to his plane and bombing the Vietnamese with it.

Last year I did an Aprils fools day post inventing a steam tank for the British Home Guard. Did I do the same this year, is this a confession about inventing some odd story about ap ilot risking life and limb to drop a toilet on the enemy?

Nope, it was all true. The poorly faked pictures were there to throw you off the scent and make you believe it was a fake. There are a number of pictures surrounding this incident, but all are on the carrier's deck before the mission was flown. There is even some video footage.

And the video:

As was said in the article there was footage recorded during the mission as well. However to date no one has been able to locate a copy, so it is likely destroyed.

Also I did a guest article for another website, over at Tanks-Encyclopedia they needed an Aprils fools joke, which I wrote.

We're back to normal next week with a proper article.

Image credits:
www.midwaysailor.com and www.theaviationgeekclub.com

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Toilet Bomb

In 1952 Lieutenant Commander M. K. Dennis was serving as the executive officer for the US Navy's  They were based upon the USS Princeton flying A-1 Skyraiders against the communist forces. During an interview with the press Lt.Cmdr Dennis was to make a comment about how much of a pounding the squadron had been giving the communists. He said, "We dropped everything on them but a kitchen sink."
Upon hearing this comment two of the personnel on the carrier thought why not? Thus, they manufactured a 1000 lb bomb with a sink attached. The press of course loved this and news stories about the weapon circulated in the US. The top brass of the carrier however were less than happy, and refused to allow the ordnance to be deployed.
The 1000lbr kitchen sink bomb
The press coverage however soon caused the weapon to be approved as a PR stunt, and so in August Lt Austin carried the bomb under the fuselage of his Skyraider towards Pyongyang, and the sink was duly dropped on a target.

There is a common fault in peace time armies. Throughout history in the opening months of a conflict you can see armies running short of ammunition as the peace time assumptions on use of ammunition are found to be lacking. The opening years of the Vietnam War were no different.
Often the pilots of VA-25 would be catapulted down the carrier deck with half the pylons on their Skyraiders empty. This was under pressure from the continental US to keep the sortie rate up. The pilots were still going into an intense AA defence network and were suffering losses. Despite this restriction by October 1965 the squadron had dropped six million pounds of explosive on the communist forces.

To celebrate this moment the one of the pilots from the squadron spotted a cracked toilet that had been replaced and was due to be dumped over the side. He retrieved it and enlisted the help of several of the hangar crew. They fitted it with a tail and mounting points. On the final mission of the tour which took place in October 1965 a Skyraider was fitted with this improvised bomb. The Skyraider (number 572) was also gifted the name of "Paper Tiger II"

The mission was termed a "Dixie Strike". At the time, control of US Air Force strike missions was with the US government, planning missions weeks, sometimes months ahead. These were flown from Yankee Station, an imaginary point off the east Vietnam coast.
The laborious planning for these missions, and government approval, meant that the system was impossible to use for flying close support missions for US troops. So Dixie Station was established further to the south. From there Dixie Strikes could be launched.
As Paper Tiger was arranged on deck several of the ground crew, who were in on the idea stayed close to the aircraft to mask the object sitting on the empty outer starboard pylon. Seconds after the aircraft had been catapulted down the deck the message came from the control room "What the hell was that on 572's wing?"

But the sharp-eyed officer was too late, by now Paper Tiger II, and its pilot Commander Clarence W. Stoddard Jr. were airborne and heading Down Town. His wingman was Lt.Cdr Bacon, and was his Skyraider had a video camera fitted.
Arriving over Vietnam Cmdr. Stoddard contacted the FAC to request targets. The FAC asked for a list of ordnance he was carrying. After relaying how many M64 and M57 bombs he had Cmdr. Stoddard added "...and one code name Sani-Flush."
The toilet going down town
 The FAC was amazed by this and brought his plane over to observe. It didn't take long for targets to appear and Paper Tiger II was vectored in for a strike. The two Skyraiders dived on their target and Cmdr Stoddard released his special bomb. The thing about toilets is they have roughly the same aerodynamic properties as a brick, and the fins fitted were wholly unsuited to the job of keeping it straight. The toilet bomb flipped backwards and nearly collided with Lt.Cmdr Bacon's aircraft and then fell somewhere in South Vietnam. The footage of the bomb drop was viewed back on the carrier to much merriment.
The toilet just after its release, pictured from the cabin on Lt. Cmder's plane
On 14th of September 1966 on a second cruise Cmdr. Stoddard was flying his Skyraider on a sweep for enemy truck convoys. When he was near the village of Nghi Thiet his radar warning receiver went off. Cmdr. Stoddard immediately took evasive action and headed out to sea. However his plane was still struck by a communist SAM, and Stoddard was listed as Missing in Action, until 1973 when the verdict was changed to KIA.

Image credits:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

War Train

Today, armoured trains in the Second World War are seen as mostly an Eastern Front vehicle, with both the Germans and Russians using them. But in the Second World War the British did build their own collection of armoured locomotives. These were generally manned by Home Guard. These seem to have been normal tenders with one or two armoured wagons with firing slits for small arms, some even mounted large calibre guns. These were used to patrol railway lines, which at the time criss-crossed Britain, looking for saboteurs and if Operation Sealion happened would have been used as strong points in the fighting. 
The gun at the front is a 6-pounder, identical to the guns used on WWI tanks.
Equally to protect normal trains a number of wagons with Oerlikon or Polsten 20mm cannons were made. These would provide AA defense to the normal trains.

There is, however, one iconic armoured train in the British arsenal. Its existence started in the early 1920's when two miniature train enthusiasts, who were also racing drivers, collaborated to create a miniature railway line. These two individuals were Captain John Edwards Presgrave Howey and Count Louis Vorow Zborowski. The latter was a millionaire and had his own miniature railway already. He offered to donate the rolling stock and support elements to the proposed railway. Count Zborowski's cars were nicknamed 'Chitty Bang Bang’ and inspired the later book. However, before the railway dream could be established Count Zborowski was killed in a crash during a race.

Cpt Howey decided to continue and after viewing several locations he selected an area between Romney and Hythe for his 15" gauge railway, opening in 1927 with eight miles of track. Later it was expanded to Dymchurch and the track length reached the present 13.5 miles.
Choochoo! Out of my way Jerry!
During the Second World War, if the Germans had launched their invasion Romney Marsh would have been the front line. One infantry unit stationed in the area was the 6th Somerset Light Infantry. As chance would have it the Battalion Adjutant was a miniature train enthusiast. He proposed three modified hopper cars each with two Lewis guns and a Boys Rifle, pulled by a 12 cylinder diesel engine. The latter would be fitted with an armoured cab scratch built by the engineers.

Work began on this scheme, but the engine was insufficiently powerful. In the end two modified cars were created and were moved by one of the railways steam engines named Hercules, which had been fitted with some armour plate.
The crew of the machine was seven in number, two AA gunners two normal gunners, a commander, engine driver and spare man. It also carried rations and small arms for the crew. In normal operation the train would be camouflaged up by 0800 and be ready to open fire on any low level German aircraft that came within range. Often it would spend the night at one end of the track making a return journey the following day.

It is claimed that on one occasion the train was underway when they saw a Dornier 17 heading towards them. The crew brought their weapons to bear and began to fire. Onboard the Dornier the bomb aimer was yelling at the pilot that they were too high, having utterly mistaken the size of the train thinking he was attacking a normal sized set of rolling stock. The area the train operated in has some very featureless and bleak terrain, so it is certainly possible.
You can see from this picture how deceptive the scale can be, at first glance it looks like a full sized train.
As the German bomber roared overhead, the pilot suddenly found himself a lot lower than expected and slammed into the ground. Or at least this is the story. I've tracked down the location of the unit’s war diary, and next time I'm at that archive I will find out for sure!

Despite the potential victory the fate of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was an inglorious one. When the men of the 160th Railway Construction Company R.E inspected the railway in January 1941 they found most of the signals and engines broken, the buildings smashed and looted, but the rolling stock and tracks in a fair condition. From then on, the railway's only service to the war effort was the use of the route as an access point to the PLUTO project for Operation Overlord, which likely did a lot of damage to the surviving tracks.

There is another story of British trains fighting back. On the 27th of November 1942 a D3 class locomotive, with the number 2365, and the name Victoria, departed from the station at Lydd Town. After a short time the crew and passengers spotted a pair of FW190's. The German planes turned towards the puffing locomotive and began to dive in for their strafing attack. Victoria was completely unarmed and had no defense. The FW190's opened fire, hitting the engine.
Not Victoria, but one of hte same class, you can see the number (2380) on the rear of the cab.
 One of the bursts shot the dome off the middle of the engine, rupturing the boiler, and causing it to vent steam and debris straight upwards directly into the face of one of the FW190's. The pilot lost control and slammed into the ground. Victoria is rumoured to have received a kill mark for that action.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fire Fight

The anti-hero is a common enough tale in fiction, but even in real life they exist. Maynard Harrison Smith was born to wealthy parents in May 1911, and after his father died he lived off his inheritance. Throughout his life he had been described as troubled and difficult. He first married in 1929 and had a child. In 1932 the couple divorced. Smith remarried in 1941. In 1942 at the age of 31, he failed to pay his child support to his first wife and was taken to court. The judge gave him an option, jail or the military. Not a clear-cut choice with a country that had just become involved in the Second World War. Smith chose the military, and when a group of thirty odd recruits assembled outside the courthouse in Caro, Smith was lead to join the group while in handcuffs.

During training Smith found it hard to accept younger men telling him what to do and had a difficult time. However, he volunteered for aerial gunnery training as he saw it as the fastest route to promotion. He carried out his specialisation training in Texas, upon completion Smith was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and then transferred to the UK. Upon arriving, around mid March 1943, he was assigned to the 306th Bomb Group flying out of Turleigh Airfield. Sgt Smith was disliked and no one wanted him on his crew. This kept him out of action for six weeks. However, on the 1st of May 1943 Sgt Smith was picked to fill in a blank spot in a bomber crew. He had to man the ball turret.

The target, the U-boat pens are the large square building, just to the right of centre. Normandy dock is the angled water feature above the centre.
The mission was to hit the U-boat pens at St Nazaire. Seventy-eight B-17's were meant to go on this mission, however bad weather caused thirty-eight to abort, and another eleven turned back with mechanical problems. The remaining twenty-nine carried onto the target. Luck was on the bombers side this time as they reached their target having encountered no enemy action. They bombed and turned out to sea then flew into dense cloud. The lead navigator made a mistake with his timings, and when they emerged from the cloud bank and saw themselves over the sea, but with a landmass to their north, the navigator declared this was England. The bomber formation began to descend.

In reality this was Brittany, and the bombers were heading towards one of the more heavily defended areas, Brest. By now the Germans had gotten organised and had managed to vector about twenty fighters onto the B-17's. Suddenly the air was filled with planes and gunfire. The fighters savaged Smiths B-17, there was a loud explosion, and the intercom went dead. The pilot of Smiths aircraft ordered his bombardier to check on the rest of the crew, while he struggled to hold the B-17 steady. The Sergeant opened the door to the radio room only to find it engulfed in flames, trapping the crew in the forward section.

In the rear of the plane Sgt Smith’s turret had lost electrical power. He hand cranked it round to allow him to escape. As he emerged the radio man raced past him with a parachute, and jumped, the two waist gunners followed suit. Smith however stood his ground. He realised that the plane was holding steady in the formation, so at least someone was at the controls. Smith started to attack the fire with a handheld fire extinguisher. Then he saw the tail gunner crawl out of his burning position. As Smith rushed to him to drag him to safety he saw that the tail gunner had been hit in the back. Smith gave first aid, before returning to firefighting.
Smith manning a waits gun in a posed photograph.
Through one of the holes torn in the fuselage he saw German fighters barrelling in for another attack. Single handily Smith drove the attacking fighter away with the .50 cal guns. As he returned to fighting the fire he saw that ammunition boxes were beginning to catch alight, so he began to throw them out the large hole torn in the fuselage. Several of these exploded seconds after they cleared the aircraft.

The reason for the fire being so bad was the oxygen system had been hit and this was powering the flames. Again, Smith attacked it with the fire extinguishers, however he saw another fighter closing and raced back to the waist gun to drive it off. By now the fire extinguishers were empty, and Smith was forced to improvise using water bottles, and some accounts even say he urinated on the fire to try and keep it under control. For the next thirty minutes Smith alternated between giving first aid, fighting off German fighters and attacking the fire with his hands trying to beat the flames out.
The Damage to Smith's plane.
Eventually the fires were out, and the German fighters stopped coming. Smith worried that the plane would be melted in half by the heat so he began to throw everything he could over the side to lighten the tail section. Eventually the plane set down at Predennack in Cornwall. Some 3500 holes were counted in the fuselage. About ten minutes after setting down the plane did break in half. The three crew who jumped were lost at sea. Smith was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his actions. A large ceremony was laid on, with the US Secretary of War presenting the medal. However, at the ceremony Smith was nowhere to be found, and everyone involved had to stand and wait while he was tracked down. Smith was on punishment duties, cleaning up in the kitchen after getting drunk and missing another mission. Smith was only to fly another four missions before being diagnosed with combat stress. He remained in England, demoted to private and doing clerical work, until 26th of May 1945. While on these duties Smith married for the third time to an English woman, and they had four children.
Smith getting his medal.
After the war Smith worked for the Department of the Treasury and died in May 1984 in Florida.

Image credits:
www.combinedops.com and thisdayinaviation.com

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Vietnam Stuka's

On 13th of April 1972 the darkness of the early morning was lit up by the flashes of a huge number of artillery pieces. For the next 15 hours they fired at their target. The focus of this concentration of fire power was the city of An Loc in Vietnam, and shells would be landing at a rate of one every eight seconds for the rest of the day. This barrage helped to sap the ARVN defender’s morale even further. Whilst the city had been bolstered by forces, these were the survivors of further positions that had been over run in the preceding eight days by a brand new communist offensive. The offensive had been launched out of Cambodia and after two days of bitter fighting had crushed the Quần Lợi Base Camp. As it fell one of the US advisors was last heard of calling down air strikes on his own position.
The following days involved the surrounding of two smaller bases, and their eventual defeat. A portion of the soldiers involved had managed to break out and retreat to An Loc, without any heavy equipment.  A small force of ARVN and US advisers from these positions were surrounded and nearly annihilated. Eventually two OH-6’s managed to land and carry the entire platoon to safety. In the lead OH-6, six of the twelve people lifted out were carried out clinging to the landing skids.
An Loc itself.
The communists surrounded An Loc with some 35,000 men, along with a vast array of artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. But these were not all the communist forces had, they also had some forty T-54 tanks. To support their attack they launched these at the beleaguered ARVN forces. This was the first time the ARVN soldiers would face armour.
Unsurprisingly this debut caused an outbreak of tank terror, and the ARVN lines began to break. Things looked bleak as the tanks rolled steadily down the main roads, one column of which was heading directly for the defending division's HQ.

At this point two things happened.
Firstly, a private named Binh Doan Quang stood up in his foxhole, and levelled his M72 LAW, which weighed only 5.5lbs, against the gigantic thundering behemoth heading right towards him, and pressed the button. The rocket streaked out and slammed into the tank, destroying it. The rest of the ARVN soldiers in his position saw this and realised that they had the answer to the tanks. The ARVN's efforts were helped by the Soviet trained NVA tankers. Due to the unique way the forces were deployed the tanks were part of the NVA force, while the majority of the infantry were part of a Vietcong division. This meant there was little coordination between the two. In addition, the NVA tankers would often just drive at a steady pace down roads instead of using their mobility to go cross country. Equally this steady pace would leave what little infantry support they had behind. The story of tanks in a bombed-out city with no infantry support is one we all know the results of.

At the ARVN HQ about to be overrun by tanks a US advisor, Colonel Miller, grabbed his radio, on a US band, and said "Send me some Stuka's!". Somewhat to his shock he got a reply.
Serpent Six identified himself as being overhead, with two Cobra gunships. These are not the twin engine tow laden gunships armed with a 20mm cannon we know today, but much more primitive machines. They were armed with a rifle calibre mini-gun and rockets, which were normally fitted with HE warheads. However, these rockets had been fitted with the brand new HEAT warhead.
Overhead in Serpent Six, a Major by the name of Larry McKay, was positioning himself for an attack run. Col Miller tried to wave him off as the air around An Loc was covered by hundreds of AA weapons. Nevertheless, Maj McKay positioned himself above the town. Just before he was about to start his attack he saw a rising column of smoke as a heat seeking missile streaked towards him. He threw the AH-1 into a tight ninety degree turn and managed to get the missile to go after the hot gas that was his exhaust trail, not his helicopter. Banking back, Maj McKay put his Cobra into a steep dive directly towards the column of tanks. He chose such a risky approach for added accuracy against the targets, which were in friendly lines. On his first pass he knocked out three tanks in the attacking column, one at both the front and rear of the line, and one in the middle. The two Cobra's then set about the T-55's, being credited with destroying some twenty vehicles. By now US air power was responding and the number of planes stacked up above the battlefield was so many that the air space was becoming dangerously overcrowded.

One by one the aircraft rolled in, some making attack runs at only 20m separation from friendly forces. This firepower, along with the rallied ARVN soldiers knocking out tanks forced the battle to move into a prolonged siege.
Resupply of An Loc became more and more difficult due to the huge amount of AA firepower deployed. On April the 14th three USAF C-130's tried to make a resupply drop to the city. The first plane managed to get in and out having dropped its load. A second plane approached and was met with a hail of AA fire. The flak killed one man and wounded two others, as well as setting a fire in the cargo bay. The fire was located on the 27,000 pounds of ammunition which burned fiercely. The load-master fought past the flames and dumped the cargo. Two of the pallets exploded seconds after leaving the plane, causing severe burns to his face, neck and hands.
On their way back to base it was found that the landing gear would not lower. The load-master with the burnt hand furiously hand cranked the landing gear down, and the pilot managed to bring the C-130 in on just one engine. For their actions both the pilot, Colonel William R. Caldwell, and the load-master, Staff Sergeant Charles Shaub received the Air Force Cross.

The battle of An Loc would grind on until the 20th of July, when the communist forces withdrew unable to break the defenders.

Image Credits:
www.history-of-american-wars.com and vnafmamn.com (be warned the last site seems to hold a lot of errors.)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Violet hedgehog

On January 14th 1944 convoy OS.65/KMS.39 departed from Liverpool. It consisted of about fifty ships in total, although several of the ships (including the escort carrier HMS Fencer) scheduled to be part of the convoy did not join. The convoy was made up of two parts, the OS part would head for Freetown Sierra Leone and the KMS part for Gibraltar. Their initial progress would be together as they had to pass the German U-boat pens on the west cost of France. This would mean passing right through the U-boats backyard. On the 17h of January the convoy was spotted by a HE-177, and the warning flashed to the U-boats. Only one U-boat was in position to intercept the convoy, this was U-641.
On the 11th of December 1943, U-641 had departed St Nazaire for its fifth war patrol since entering service. So far the U-boat and its captain Horst Rendtel had not had any success in killing Allied shipping, they had been involved in three fights with aircraft however, and had damaged an Avenger flown off the USS Bouge in June 1943. Now they maneuvered towards the convoy reported by the HE-177.
In the outer ring of escorts steamed HMS Violet, a Flower class corvette. The Flower classes were tiny ships, with puny armament and low speed. They were considered horrible postings as they tended to get swamped in the open ocean and were permanently cold and damp. What they were was cheap, and able to carry anti-submarine weapons. Normally they would be expected to keep a submarine busy until the convoy had passed and then attempt to rejoin. When armed with just depth charges this was often all they could do. Even with ADISC, in the final moments of an attack the contact would be lost, and the final aiming of the depth charges would have to be done by guesswork. HMS Violet's previous kill had been in conjunction with two destroyers, another corvette and a minesweeper. It had taken all five ships to kill the submarine U-651 in June 1941. Indeed, its suggested the ratio of depth charges used to submarines killed could be as high as 60:1.

However, HMS Violet was on her first cruise after a refit, where she had been fitted with a Hedgehog mortar. This was a multi-barreled spigot mortar (possibly developed from the Blacker Bombard.. I'm currently researching if that is the case, I'll let you know), which threw the projectile ahead of the ship. This allowed the ship to keep track of its target on ADISC while making its attack run. In addition, the hedgehog projectiles would only detonate when they touched the hull of the submarine, meaning an almost guaranteed kill. The ratio for Hedgehogs was close to 6:1.
HMS Violet
On the evening of the 19th of January 1944 HMS Violet would face off against U-641. There are several accounts of the battle on the web, some indicate that U-641 was spotted on the surface by radar, and that initially HMS Violet fired her guns at the submarine, causing the submarine to dive. However, HMS Violet’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Napier Stewart, filed a report on the subject. It seems to indicate that this version of events is wrong.

At 1901, while in position CC, a doubtful echo was heard on ADISC that might have been a submarine. The range was given as 1900 yards. C. B. Peakson was trained to stand ADISC watches, however he was not fully qualified, hence the doubtful nature of the report. The order was given for HMS Violet to reduce speed to 5 knots, and she began to close. Meanwhile a fully trained crewman was brought to the ADISC controls. By 1902 the echo was confirmed as a submarine and it was now at 1800 yards. When the range had dropped to 1300 yards the submarine started to turn away and was making a speed of about 2kn. Slowly HMS Violet closed the distance, and at 1912 speed was increased to 8kn, and steering given over to ADISC control, and Violet started her first attack run.

At 1917 and 45 seconds, at a range of 220 yards the Hedgehog was fired, lobbing the ungainly projectiles into the air, to splash down into the water ahead of the corvette. Some sixteen seconds later two explosions were heard, followed two seconds later by another one.
A US Ship fires a double Hedgehog. From the splashes it looks like U-641 might have been on the edge of the pattern, to be unfortunate enough to be hit by three charges.
During the last few seconds of the attack the ADISC contact was degrading from the submarine’s wake, and as HMS Violet passed over the attack point she lost contact, and a calcium flare was dropped overboard to mark the position. The contact was regained at 1921, although the contact was described as 'woolly' due to the disturbance in the water from the explosions. By 1928 HMS Violet had reached 1500 yards distance and turned for another attack run. As contact had been lost, the ships plotting room had maintained the location of the last position of U-641. As the corvette approached at 1935 an oil patch was sighted in the location near the flare. It was decided not to make a second attack, although Lt-Cmdr Stewart admits later this was a mistake.

As HMS Violet passed over the attack site a huge explosion was heard by all on deck, the engine room and on ADISC. The engine room also reported noises caused by breaking up, however this was not confirmed by the ADISC operator as it was now blinded by the wake. On the third pass the oil slick now measured about 277m by 185m, and there was a strong smell of oil. A sample was taken by dragging a canvas sack through the slick, but steps were not taken to preserve the sample and it was likely degraded by the time it reached shore.
HMS Rosebay
HMS Violet then linked up with HMS Rosebay and they began a box search of the area, some six hours later at 0152 there was a mix up in signals and the search was ended prematurely. Not that it mattered in this case, U-641 had been lost with all hands.

Image Credits:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Veritable Victory

As 1945 opened the Allies had stabilized the setbacks caused by the Battle of the Bulge. Equally their supply woes had been somewhat improved by the opening of Antwerp. Now they had only the Siegfried Line to breach and they could push into Germany. The British and Commonwealth forces decided to do this around the Reichswald forest. The attacks for this would be launched at the start of February and were known as operation Veritable.
To start proceedings a huge array of guns was to be laid on. As well as over a thousand regular artillery pieces, 80x 4.2" mortars, 114x 40mm Bofors guns, a regiment of Sherman's and 24x 17-pounder antitank guns were to be used to batter the German positions. In addition, the Commonwealth had the use of their newest weapon, the Land Mattress. These were a British 3" rocket, with a 29 lb warhead taken off a Hedgehog anti-submarine launcher strapped to it. Detonation was done by a fuse the British Army had deemed unsafe, but the Canadians considered adequate. The Land Mattress came in two forms, all were scratch built prototypes, ten of one variant, two of another. These launchers could land a huge volume of fire in a very short time. In an earlier battle a single troop of launchers landed 128 rockets in just 20 seconds on a target.

But there was still more metal raining from the sky. The British during The Second World War had a habit of using their Vickers heavy machine guns to fire indirectly, as I have mentioned before a Vickers gun with sufficient supply of ammunition and water could fire for extraordinary periods of time. This rain of small arms ammunition would also suppress the Germans.

To cap it off the two main towns in the area, Goch and Cleve, were to be visited by the bombers of the RAF and USAAF. This bombardment started at 0500 on the 8th of February.
9RTR in the Reichswald forest
The plan of attack called for this bombardment to last for about five hours. Then heavy tank forces would be sent in supported by infantry. Most of the tanks were Churchill's, with the 6th Guards heading towards Cleve, and the 9th RTR covering the other side of the Reichswald. The ground was frozen hard in the run up to the operation, which would give the tanks maximum room to manoeuvre. In addition, an absolutely huge smoke screen was to be laid and maintained to protect the lines of advance from being observable by German outposts on tall factory chimneys nearby.
Archer trying to advance in the flooded areas.
As the attack started mid-morning on the 8th a light rain began to fall, it would continue for the next five days. As well as the rain the temperature rose, and the ground thawed out. To make matters worse the Germans had blown dams and levees on the rivers flooding the entire area. Soon the ground was nothing but a waterlogged swamp. It got so bad that DUKW's had to be used to keep the Churchill tanks of the 6th Guards resupplied.
The rain caused some minor problems for the Germans as well. One unit, the 655 Schwere PanzerJäger Abteilung had ended 1944 in Prussia, then had been shifted over to the Western front via Berlin and Hanover to Paderborn. Shortly afterwards they were moved to Speyer, where they had painted their tanks white in readiness for the fighting. However, they were then moved north to defend the area around the Riechswald, as they arrived they realised their camouflage needed to be washed off.

They arrived in the area with two companies on the morning of the 9th of Feb. The two companies were 2nd Company, which had thirteen Jagdpanthers in four platoons of three and a command tank. The 3rd Company was equipped with Stug IV's.
One of the first actions happened early in the afternoon on the 9th. The infantry of the 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment were in an exposed position, on a track running north east on the edge of the Riechswald. When two of the Stug IV's opened fire this threatened heavy casualties.

Luckily for the infantry a platoon of Canadian M-10C's were nearby. These belonged to D Troop of the 56th Self Propelled Anti-tank battery. They were commanded by Lieutenant Charles Hewson-Captain Kydd, aged just 33. Lt Kydd had been born in Oregon before moving to Nova Scotia as a child. From there he had joined a bank, before joining the Canadian Army in 1941. Lt Kydd's M-10C was sitting in the middle of the track. Without seeking to find cover he immediately returned fire on the two Stugs, quickly destroying both whilst staying out in the open.

The following day D Troop’s M-10C's and the 2nd Monmouthshire's continued to advance, they encountered stiff resistance from German paratroopers armed with Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks. One of D Troop’s M-10C's was hit four times, another only once. But incredibly both tanks remained in action throughout the day.
Late in the afternoon the advancing 2nd Monmouthshire’s came under long range high velocity gun fire, the rounds were coming from a place called Dammershof, some reports say a farm near the village. They halted on the reverse of a crest. We now know it was one of 655th's Jagdpanthers, but at the time it was reported as a Jagdtiger. Again, D Troop was in support of the 2nd Monmouthshire. First Lt Kydd moved his troop to a concealed position to ensure they were protected. Then he set out on foot alone to hunt the Jagdpanther. Moving across the boggy terrain, with constant mortar bursts nearby and small arms fire whipping past, Lt Kydd found the Jagdpanther.

He returned to his troop, again exposed to enemy fire the entire way. He selected one of his undamaged M-10C's and took it forward. Pressing on alone and unsupported into no-man’s land over incredibly boggy ground Lt Kydd managed to get the M-10c onto the flank of the Jagdpanther at a range of just 400 yards. He opened fire and after four shots disabled the tank by knocking off its tracks. However, the Jagdpanther was still able to fire, and it was already covering the main Commonwealth force. Lt Kydd moved his tank back towards his front line and began to shell the Jagdpanther with HE. After several rounds the periscopes and gun sight were smashed and the crew blinded. The Germans bailed and hid in a near-by barn. With this monster removed from the battle the British infantry were able to advance and capture the German tank crew.
Thought to be Kydds Jagdpanther
There is one more thing to mention for this account. There was a nearby incident where a 9th RTR Churchill knocked out a Jagdpanther. The crews from that incident are reported as hiding in a barn until captured. There are two possibilities, first the 9th RTR kill is the same tank destroyer that Lt Kydd engaged, and they fired the HE into the front of the Jagdpanther. Or that the combats were separate, but the fate of the crew was attributed to both combats.
The back end of the above Jagdpanther
Lt Kydd was awarded a Military Cross at some point in his career, but the exact details of when are hard to find. He survived the war, and was demobbed on 2nd of February 1946, where upon he returned to work in the bank.

Image credits: