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Eugene Ely, Coventry, Possum Hansell and the Consequences of Elections

Today, we celebrate, or at least acknowledge, obscurity, horror, firsts, and aviation…in our own way, of course.  As a natural consequence of today’s missive, your intrepid researcher/correspondent will endeavor as is his wont to bring you, his regular readers, entertainment, history, facts, (limited) opinions, and at least some sober analysis of events that took place on 14 November.  Among many other things, Robert Fulton was born on this day in 1765, James B. McPherson of Civil War fame was born in 1827, King Gillette patented his safety razor in 1904, and the Somme offensive ended in 1916.  But today, we talk about flying…and not.

Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  

Aviation was an amateur endeavor in the heady days before WWI turned it into a deadly enterprise.  It was dangerous before airplanes started carrying weapons, but usually only to the intrepid adventurers flying the fragile kites.  Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  Naval gunnery was not yet capable of firing over the horizon, but it wasn’t that far off. In 1910, Eugene Ely, a former auto salesman who taught himself to fly well enough to get a job with Glenn Curtis met Washington Chambers, who had been appointed by the US Navy to investigate the possibilities of heavier-than-air flying machines for scouting.  Since radios of the time weighted as much as the airplanes did, the machines would have to launch and land on or near a ship to have any use to battle fleets at sea. On 14 November, 1910, Ely took off from an 83-foot wooden platform built on the deck of light cruiser USS Birmingham anchored in Chesapeake Bay while in a Curtis pusher, the first time a heavier-than-air machine had launched (if barely) from a ship. Ely died in a crash less than a year later.

By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged.

Early in WWII Hitler placed prohibitions on attacking populated areas.  Gradually those prohibitions fell away until they were a dim, if quaint, memory. In the industrialization of the West Midlands of Great Britain ancient cities like the ancient cathedral city of Coventry, with its dense population and proximity to coal, became prime targets for German bombers.  Along with the 14th century cathedral was the Coventry Ordnance Works which made gun mountings for the Royal Navy, and other plants that together supplied a quarter of the RAF’s aircraft. On the night of 14 November 1940, some five hundred German bombers from Luftflotte 3 and the pathfinders of  Kampfgruppe 100 bombed Coventry in an operation called Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata). By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged. Over a thousand people were killed and injured during the attack, and only one German bomber was shot down. It was the first use of pathfinder aircraft equipped with beam-riding navigation equipment and bombing patterns intended to mark targets, and one of the first to use a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs to intentionally start large fires.

Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.

Studying Coventry and the other large air strikes in Europe and Asia before America’s entry in WWII was Heywood S. “Possum” Hansell, an American Army Air Corps officer, a man with a long pedigree of service. Hansell was a member of the “Bomber Mafia,” a small group of vocal advocates of daylight precision air bombardment that included Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle. Hansell was the chief of the Foreign Intelligence Section in the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, and responsible for writing two papers known as AWP-1 and AWP-42, outlining the Army Air Force’s plans for strategic air warfare against both Germany and Japan. As a reward for his work, Hansell was given the command of the 1st Bomb Wing, the B-17 component of the Eighth Air Force in England. Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.  Hansell was also the architect of the Combined Bomber Offensive with the RAF.  Soon, hansell found himself shifted out of Europe and the Flying Fortresses to Asia and the Superfortresses, the B-29s. But Possum was a better staff man than he was a commander, and the multitude of serious command-level problems on Saipan, with the B-29, and with the completely new command arrangements (Twentieth Air Force was commanded from Washington).  As a result, Hansell was replaced by fellow Mafia member Curtis LeMay.  After the war Hansell held a number of minor, if important posts in training and administration, retiring from the Air Force for the last time in 1955.  Possum Hansell, the architect of the bombing campaigns in Europe and Asia, died in Hilton Head, South Carolina on 14 November, 1988.

History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.

And so.  As Barack Obama told the assembled Republicans on 10 October 2010, “elections have consequences.” Last week, your intrepid researcher briefly discussed the then-upcoming election, where the United States was choosing between the first woman presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, from a major party and the first non-politician, non-military candidate, Donald Trump, from another.  History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.  Except…it didn’t roll that way.  Much to nearly everyone’s surprise,  the political neophyte Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and rather resoundingly.  One of the (many) consequences of  this election is the almost-certain end of the Clinton family’s quarter-century of influence on national politics. Another will be that Trump, having very few political debt to pay, will be free to choose people who will do their jobs, not kowtow to others just to curry favor.  Once again, we shall see.

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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.

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Crop Duster a Finalist on Bookbzz

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce that John D. Beatty’s Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a finalist in the Bookbzz 2015 Prize Writer Competition.  Starting on 1 February, readers will be able to vote on their favorites.  Go to http://bookbzz.com/crop-duster-novel-world-war-ii-john-beatty/ starting 1 February for both professional and fan reviews and to vote on your favorites.

John D. Beatty, sole proprietor of JDB Communications, LLC, is a professional writer of more than forty years experience in military science and in industry. He retired from the US Army Reserve after 27 years of service.  He is the author of Crop Duster: A Novel of World War II; The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War; and What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at Warm 1941-1945, and other pieces of military history.   He lives and works in Wisconsin.

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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.