Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.

America Bombs the Reich

By later standards the first USAAF bombing of Wilhelmshaven on 27 January 1943 was not a lot, but it was something.  B-17 Flying Fortresses from parts of the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group (H) hit the small port city on the Jade River, hitting mostly industrial plants where they hit at all.  Bombing accuracy, much to the disappointment of the Americans, was never stellar.  They would make up for it later with sheer numbers.

These early efforts, like the 15th Squadron’s 4 July 1942 raid on a Dutch Luftwaffe field in borrowed aircraft, were mostly symbolic.  The Americans taking the war to the enemy, like Jimmy Doolittle’s military stunt bombing Japan 18 April 1942 showed, could be disconcerting,  It also boosted morale for the military as much as the home front.  For a generation that had been told that strategic bombing would be able to prevent the kinds of deadlocks that characterized WWI, this was heady stuff.

By the end of 1943, the USAAF had bombed Germany more than a hundred times, and the Luftwaffe showed no signs of deterioration…on the outside.  Internally, the Luftwaffe had good morale, but the physical and mental strain on its pilots was beginning to tell.  Goering spoke of a “plague” as early as 1942 that killed many new pilots in accidents that more experienced men might have avoided.  But the Americans had lost nearly a third of their aircraft and crews in September and October of 1943…their morale was not nearly as good as their opponents, and never would be.

Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a story about Americans and Germans flying over Europe in that tumultuous year.  Available in paper and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.


As the Soviet juggernaut pressed ever onward to Berlin, the 332nd Rifle Division reached  partly dismantled and almost entirely evacuated concentration camps near Oswiecim, in southern Poland on 27 January 1945.  Eventually, the Allies would find evidence of nearly two million deaths and the Auschwitz/BIrkenau complex, with warehouses full of the pitiful possessions of the inmates.  No one before believed the wild tales coming out of the area.

Even today the sheer numbers of the Nazi’s “final solution” strains credulity.  There is a cottage industry of deniers (author David Irving among them) of the extermination of probably close to 12 million people (a little over half were Jews; the rest just got in the way) as a matter of state policy.  The British who liberated Belsen in Germany in April 1945 couldn’t believe it, either.

Though this writer has never been to Auschwitz he has been to Belsen, where many of the evacuees from Auschwitz were liquidated.  That was bad enough, though a fraction of the size of Auschwitz.   But not believing does not change the evidence, nor the testimony of the survivors.  Just as strategic bombardment gained evidence of success with practice, technology and numbers, so too did the accounts of the survivors of the death camps gain credulity.

The Best Book Nobody’s Buying but Everybody’s Reading

JDB Communications’s latest book, Crop Duster: A Novel of World War Two, has received rave reviews from everyone who’s read it, but apparently no one’s buying it.  Even more baffling, Amazon shows more “used” copies for sale than have actually been sold over the counter…some as far afield as Great Britain.

Mighty good trick for a print-on-demand book that has only had a few domestic sales.

But enough whining.  This blog is intended to entice you, my good readers, to buy JDBCOM books and articles.  Today, we talk about Crop Duster, JDBCOM’s first foray into book-length fiction.

If what interests you is action, suspense, romance, drama, light comedy and a page-turning read, then Crop Duster is for you.  Imagine B-17s and FW-190s mixing it up high over Germany amid murderous flak, deadly cold, and screaming metal.  See in your mind’s eye a firestorm rising over Hamburg, a crippled JU-88 wafting through the fog onto an English field; a fuel-starved Fortress with no rados pounding through an Atlantic storm with a beautiful VIP aboard.

Yes, you’ll find all of that and more in Crop Duster.  Available in paperback and E-book wherever fine books are sold.