Christmas Eve, The Battle of the Bulge, the 8th Air Force, and the Medal of Honor.

 

The German counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest was deliberately launched during a period when the forecast weather grounded most allied aircraft. Negating the US and British airpower greatly improved the German’s ability to move and mass forces.

But on the 24th of December, 1944, dawn rose upon a crystal clear sky, and Army Air Forces made a maximum effort to attack the Germans. The fighters, fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers of the 9th Air Force were focused on tactical support.

And the jewel in the crown of the Army Air Forces in Europe, the mighty 8th Air Force, would have its largest single mission of the war.

Mission Number 760 struck airfields, marshaling yards, road junctions, and other communications targets throughout western Germany.

2034 B-17 and B-24 bombers, and 853 fighters of the 8th Air Force would pummel Germany this day. Compared to the ghastly losses the 8th had suffered a year prior, or even six months before, the loss of 12 bombers and 10 fighters was almost insignificant. *

But one of those twelve lost bombers saw an act of heroism that would see a Medal of Honor awarded.

Posthumously.

Frederick Castle, the son of an Army officer, graduated from West Point in 1930, and received training as a pilot at March Field, California, earning his wings in December of 1931. He left active duty in 1934, and found civilian employment, though he remained active in the reserves.

When Ira Eaker was struggling to get the fledgling VIII Bomber Command on a sound footing in England, one of his staff suggested that Castle would make a fine staff officer. And so Castle was recalled to active service as a Captain in January 1942.

And Castle was indeed a fine staff officer, quickly rising through the ranks to become the A-4, the Supply officer for all of 8th Air Force. And his reward for doing that job well was a combat command, first of the 94th Bomb Group (three squadrons of 12 bombers each in a group). Later, he was made deputy commander of the 4th Combat Bomb Wing (with three, and later five bomb groups).  When the 4th CBW grew to five bomb groups, in November 1944, Castle was promoted to Brigadier General.

It was the policy of the 8th Air Force that every mission be led by a senior officer, usually at least a Colonel, but often a Brigadier or even a Major General.

And so on the morning of December 24, 1944, as Mission 760 began to flow from the fields scattered across England to the German fatherland, it was led by Frederick Castle as the Airborne Mission Commander.

His particular bomb group missed its rendevous with its escorts, leaving the flight vulnerable to fighter attacks. Engine problems and damage from enemy fighters crippled his B-17, leaving it a straggler, always a favorite target for enemy fighters. Eventually, his aircraft succumbed to repeated attacks. Castle struggled to maintain control of the bomber to allow his crew to bail out. He himself would not escape.

He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells, set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crewmembers an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward, carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.

*8th Air Forces first strike, on August 17, 1942 had consisted of 12 B-17s striking marshaling yards at Rouen, France.

The Ardennes

On the morning of December 16, 1944 the US Army held the Ardennes Forest with a thin screen line of green units and exhausted units being brought back up to strength.

Through the morning fog came the spearhead of a massive German counteroffensive, designed to blunt the Allied drive toward Germany, and eventually recapture Antwerp, hopefully destroying one or more Allied field armies, and buying time for future German weapon systems to be brought into the fight.

While some units were initially overwhelmed, and the bonds of the Anglo-American alliance were sometimes sorely tested, eventually the US Army rallied, regained the initiative, stymied the enemy drive, and heaped thousands upon thousands of casualties upon the Germans when they could least afford them.

The Ardennes, commonly known as  the Battle of the Bulge, remains the largest battle the US Army has ever fought.

The official Army history of the battle has some of the most moving portrayals of men in battle you will ever read.

Tempest

Good morning. Grab a cup of coffee, this is a long one. Over an hour.

The Supermarine Spitfire is THE iconic British fighter of World War II, but arguably, the series of fighters designed by Sir Sydney Camm for Hawker were, in the end, the more important contribution. Camm designed 52 aircraft for Hawker over his career. The pre-war design of the Hurricane would form the backbone of RAF Fighter Command in the early days of World War II, and bear the brunt of the Battle of Britain.

While the Hurricane was a solid design, it was limited by the (then) relatively low powered Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Camm looked to newer, more powerful engines for his next fighter design. The Hawker Typhoon was an all new design, but clearly an evolution of the Hurricane. Powered by the new, powerful, and very temperamental Napier Sabre engine. Designed as a fighter to replace the Hurricane, the Typhoon would instead find itself spending most of its career in the ground attack role.

Like the Hurricane, the Typhoon had  a rather thick wing. That thick wing meant more drag, and also introduced British pilots and designers to the problems of compressibility in high speed regimes. Looking to the laminar flow wing of the North American Mustang, Camm saw an opportunity to design an update of the Typhoon that would be even better. With its much thinner wing, the Hawker Tempest would be the fasted British piston engined fighter of the war.

Camm always understood that the performance of a fighter was very closely tied to the state of the art in engine design, and was eager to incorporate ever more powerful engines into his designs. Indeed, the Typhoon was actually the Typhoon Mk V, with Marks I-V having various other engines as testbeds. The engine Camm really wanted was the Bristol Centaur, but a shortage of that engine meant it wasn’t until the very waning days of the war that enough were available to begin fielding the Tempest II. The Tempest II, with its radial engine was a rather radical departure from the Tenpest V’s H-block engine.

The final stage of evolution would be Britain’s last piston engined fighter, the Hawker Sea Fury. Generally similar to the Tempest II, the Sea Fury featured smaller wings, and was generally lighter overall. It would serve with distinction in the Korean War for the decks of British carriers, and even labor on in the Burmese Air Force until 1968!

Probably the last combat of the Sea Fury was during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The Batista government had received a handful, and the Castro government struggled to keep them in operation. In spite of their advanced years, the Sea Furies in service with Castro’s regime proved highly effective in attacking the transports attempting to invade Cuba.

But back to the subject of our post, the Hawker Tempest.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXN2ojyHsYk]

“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”

That message, sent 70 years ago by  General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces Europe, to the American and British governments, signaled the end of World War II in Europe.


“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.
EISENHOWER”

Top secret document sent by General Eisenhower to his superior officers to inform them that his mission was fulfilled - Germany was defeated and the war in Europe was over. 
-from the Eisenhower Library

Alfred Jodl would sign the instruments of surrender for Germany at Rheims.

File:German instrument of surrender2.jpg

On May 8, a similar instrument was signed in Berlin, ending the war with the Soviet Union. The US and most western nations celebrate Victory in Europe on May 8. The Russians celebrate on May 9.

On May 6, 1945, the focus of the entirety of the Allied forces in Europe was the defeat of Germany. On May 8, the focus was on getting out of the damn Army and getting home. It would take some time for that to pass, and indeed, to this day, Americans are stationed in Germany, though since 1955, as guests and allies of their former enemies.

Of course, the War in the Pacific remained to be won. But with the defeat of Germany, it was seen as a foregone conclusion that Japan would fall to the combined might of the Allies. There would be a great deal of death, destruction and suffering to come, but the end game was all that was left to play out.

Tomorrow, to commemorate this 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe, among other events, there will be a huge flyover of the US capitol by more than 40 World War II era aircraft.

More than 40 vintage aircraft of World War II will fill the skies over the nation’s capital Friday in tribute to the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day.

Fifteen flying formations will form up near Leesburg, Virginia, and follow the Potomac River southeast toward Washington. But unlike the usual “river run” of modern commercial flights into Reagan National Airport, the venerable war birds will bank over the Lincoln Memorial, overflying the National World War II Memorial, head east past the Washington Monument along Independence Avenue, turning south as they pass over the National Air and Space Museum near the Capitol.

Destroyer Escort

Here’s a training film from World War II days as the DE program was ramping up. It’s apparently intended as an orientation for new sailors assigned to new construction.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09tLc4O7s9I]

The DE program was really almost wholly a result of Franklin Roosevelt. The Navy didn’t have a prewar plan for mobilization construction of the DE type, unlike many other combatants. It intended to use 173’ PCs and full size DD ships. Roosevelt helped the Navy change its mind. The DE program was hugely successful, with several hundred being commissioned between 1942 and the end of the war.

Further, the wartime DE program led to the further development of what we today call frigates. Quartermaster will tell us in the comments about his days aboard USS Courtney, a direct descendant from the wartime DE design.

With the exception of the extremely austere Claude Jones class, pretty much every post-war ocean escort class was quite successful. The various classes shared a few common traits. First, they were not intended to sail with the main striking force of the fleet, the carrier battle groups (though shortages of escorts meant they often did). They were balanced general combatants intended to escort amphibious shipping, replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. They emphasized anti-submarine warfare, but did not ignore anti-surface and anti-air warfare, if only for self defense.

They also tended to fill those seemingly endless extra missions that the Navy finds itself tasked with, but not requiring a more robust warship.

The last of the FFG-7 Oliver Hazzard Perry class frigates will be leaving the fleet shortly, to be replaced by the LCS, bringing to a close a 70 year history of ocean escorts in the US Navy.

Lifeline to Rendova

The invasion of Rendova was one of the more obscure operations in the Pacific. In a nutshell, the small island was seized by the 172nd Regimental Combat Team in order to provide a base for long range artillery to pound the Japanese airfield and defenses at Munda Point on the island of New Georgia.

Like so many other operations in World War II, the operation was filmed by combat camera crews. And like so many others, the film was edited and released to the public. Usually these short 10-20 minute pieces would be shown before the feature at a movie theater, along with a newsreel or two.

These films were both for the general information on the war effort, and, of course, propaganda designed to generate support for the war effort on the home front.

This short film about Rendova gives an overview of the operation itself. The second half of the film focuses on the treatment of the wounded, and shows both that treatment and the production of medical supplies that the home front effort supported.

What’s remarkable about this 1943 film is that it breaks one of the taboos of wartime press. Showing Japanese dead was rather routine. But when it came to American troops, the rules were different.  It was understood that photographs and film could show wounded US troops, but not the dead. This film, however, indeed shows the bodies of Americans fallen in battle, though carefully so that no individuals might be identified. It’s also somewhat more graphic than usual in showing the actual wounds of Americans.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgd3N40XSG4]

Liberty Ships

One of Roamy’s very first posts here concerned the WWII emergency shipbuilding program known as Liberty Ships.

As it happens, I recently acquired a book on Liberty Ships.

The haste with which they were built, and the relatively new technology of welded hulls, lead to some issues with brittle metal, and hull failures, especially in cold water.

The massive Liberty Ship program was designed to quickly build as many general purpose (break bulk) cargo ships as possible. The Liberty Ships were simple, but not crude.

http://www.byteland.org/taltales/liberty_ship.jpg

The primary bottlenecks in shipbuilding were these:

First, the program could not be allowed to compete with existing merchant and warship building. To avoid this, entirely new yards and slipways were built (at government expense). In fact, many of the companies that operated these yards had no history of shipbuilding at all. Indeed, these neophyte firms often brought innovations to shipbuilding that left older firms aghast, but were eventually adopted by traditional firms, and are still in use today.

Second, the real bottleneck in production was propulsion. By 1940, the triple expansion steam engine was widely considered obsolete in American merchant marine service. But most production intense part of a steam turbine plant is the reduction gearing. There was a very real limit to how much gear cutting capacity America had or could be expected to achieve, and virtually all that was allocated to warship production. And since geared turbines were out, the old triple expansion steam engine was pressed into service for the Liberties. That actually meant that a school for teaching how to maintain the older technology had to be opened. The relative simplicity of the TESE meant that foundries that normally had no maritime connection could also be used to build engines.  The boilers were also relatively simple (though not crude) and could similarly be build without competing for the limited capacity of traditional boilermakers for warships.

———————————————————————

Now, you know that massive losses to merchant shipping to U-Boats in the Atlantic spurred the Liberty Ship program.

What surprised me was the relatively small numbers of Liberty Ships that were lost to U-Boat attacks.  I suspect it is because the worst losses of the Battle of the Atlantic took place before the Liberty Ship program really started placing large numbers of ships into service. That is, most were replacements for losses already incurred. There were appalling numbers of losses, but most were from mechanical casualties, and very often after 20 years of service.

————————————————————————–

One thing I found rather spartan about the ships was that the navigation suite consisted primarily of a magnetic compass. Combined with a sextant and charts, that was about it. The lack of a gyrocompass was surprising. Virtually none of the Liberty Ships was fitted with radar of any sort during the war.

VJ Day

It would take another two weeks before the surrender documents were signed on the deck of the USS Missouri. But on this day in 1945, the Empire of Japan capitulated, bringing to a close the deadliest war in the history of mankind. Spanning across Europe, Asia, the Pacific, the Atlantic. Millions upon millions died, either through the direct effects of weapons, or through starvation, disease and deprivation.

The United States, spared the direct horrors of combat on its shores, emerged with a new status as a global leader. The use of atomic weapons changed forever the concept of massive, total warfare. The dynamics of global power were changed in ways that still reverberate today.

Millions of American men (and quite a few women) donned the uniforms of our nation’s armed forces. They fought hard, and learned to fight well. They won in every theater. They came home and grasped the opportunity to improve their lot in life, and boost the prosperity of their communities and nation as well.

Today, these veterans are a dying breed. Let us all take a moment to remember their efforts to secure the blessings of liberty to our nation.

WWII Armored Division

Earlier we took a look at the “triangular” infantry division in WWII. Now let’s take a look at the armored division structure. The armored division in the US Army was designed to exploit any breakthroughs in the enemy lines. As such, they were a relatively small division, with all major elements being mounted in either tracked, half-tracked, or wheeled vehicles.

The division headquarters was at the top. Beneath this were three “Combat Commands” which would be roughly equivalent to a modern brigade headquarters. There were three tank battalions (generally equipped with the Sherman tank), three infantry battalions (mounted on half-tracks), and three self-propelled artillery battalions (at this time, most artillery in the Army was towed by trucks).

Sherman Tank
Sherman Tank

You can quickly see that this is a much smaller division than an infantry division. Where an infantry division had nine “maneuver” battalions and four artillery battalions, the armored division had only six maneuver battalions and three artillery battalions. But it was still a very “triangular” organization and a very flexible one at that.

The “Combat Commands”, named CCA, CCB, and CCR (for Reserve) didn’t have any set “ownership” of battalions. They were assigned those units the division commander thought they would need for any given mission. Now, typically, you might see each Combat Command organized with one battalion of tanks, infantry and artillery. But this was by no means set in stone. A commander might give CCA two infantry battalions, a tank battalion and two arty battalions with a mission to break through a given position, while CCB would follow through with two tank battalions, the third infantry battalion and the third arty battalion, while CCR was left with no troops, but might be planning the next engagement, when it would receive whatever troops it needed.

There was a ratio of roughly one armored division to five infantry divisions in WWII (well, in Europe. There were no armored divisions deployed to the Pacific Theater). And while they were designed to exploit breakthroughs, that wasn’t the only way they were used. They often spearheaded attacks, led counterattacks against enemy penetrations, and of course, did their fair share of holding the line when on the defense.

You can see the organization of a WWII armored division here.

Why are we here?

More than one US Army soldier in the Cold War looked at his map of Western Europe and wondered why the US Army, the anchor of the Nato Alliance, was stationed at one of the least likely invasion routes. The geography in the north of Germany is generally flat or low rolling hills, quite suitable to armored forces attacking from Poland and East Germany, where the bulk of the Soviet army was stationed.

In the south, the terrain was far more mountainous, with numerous chokepoints where attacking forces could be blocked, trapped, and destroyed. The primary Warsaw Pact Forces there were the Czech Army.

Given the importance of this terrain, why was the vast majority of the US Army in Europe stationed in the south, rather than in the north where the heaviest attack could be expected? The answer is a historical accident from 1940, and shows the tyranny of logistics over tactics.

In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany was triumpant. They had conquered all of Western Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterrenian Sea. The only countries not under the Nazi thumb were a compliant Spain and tiny Portugal, both neutral countries, and that defiant lion, The United Kingdom. Following the fall of France in June 1940, the British Army was forced to retreat at Dunkirk and return to England. The British evacuation there will long live in the annals of history as a magnificent feat, but it was still a defeat.

The remains of the British Army were in bad shape. Most of their equipment had been abandoned in France. Just twenty miles away lay the victorious Wehrmacht. Already the German Army was laying plans for an autumn invasion of England. The British Army quickly moved to the southeast of England to defend against this planned invasion.

The Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force fought a desparate struggle for command of the skies, took place over that summer and fall of 1940. The Germans knew that air superiortiy was needed for a successful invasion. They failed to achieve it. Still, the British were obliged to maintain a defense in southeast England lest the Germans try. While here, they began the process of re-equipping and rebuilding.

After the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, Churchill and Franklin (and more importantly, their military staffs) both agreed that eventually, there would have to be an invasion of France across the English Channel. The US began moving forces into England. Since the southeast of England was full of British troops, most US forces were based in the west.

When the time for the invasion came, the decision was made to land in Normandy. Here is where the tyranny of logistics raised its ugly head.  Looking at the map below, we see that the US forces, stationed in the west, would be forced to land on the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. The size of the invasion fleet was just too large to swap positions while at sea. The British would land in the east and the US to the west. When they broke out of the beachhead and wheeled to head east, that would place the British to the north and the US to the south.

After the invasion of Normandy, further US and French forces would invade southern France near Marseille, reinforcing the US position in the south.

While military planners would have preferred the heavier, larger, and more mobile US forces to attack across the north of Europe, while the smaller, less mobile British Armies made a supporting attack in the south, the delay, cost and confusion of trying to switch their positions made this impossible. Moving the forces might have been just barely possible, but there was no way to even attempt to move their huge logistical tails. The die was cast and the stage was set in stone. The disposition of forces would remain all the way across Europe to the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of 1945.

With the defeat of the Nazis, the vast majority of the Allied armies were demobilized and went home. Because so much of the German society had collapsed, however, significant occupation forces had to remain. Germany was divided into zones of occupation, with zones for the Russians, British, Americans, and French. Mostly these zones were where the forces had halted at the end of the war.

When the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1947, the Western Allies began to reinforce their positions in Europe, eventually forming NATO in 1949 (the Warsaw Pact wasn’t formed until 1955). By this time, it was too late to shift major forces to better suit the terrain, again primarily because of logistics. There was a political factor here though. If the US had tried to reposition major forces outside the US zone, the Soviets would have been able to protest that we were not abiding by the terms of the agreement. In fact, they could have argued that they should be able to move outside their zone as well, perhaps into the British or US zones. We certainly didn’t want that. Even after West Germany regained its sovereignity in 1955, it was logistically impossible to switch the positions of the major forces.

It is a fair guess that more than one US general, looking at the defense of Western Europe during the Cold War, cursed the fates that places the Allies in the positions they held. In fact, a large part of the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine was about flipping this geographical disadvantage on its head, and finding a way to use manuever to hide behind the terrain of southern Germany and strike into the flank of any Soviet attack to the north.