M14 Combat Rifle

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The story of the M14 is not a happy one. Perhaps the best way of detailing its truly checkered history is to look initially at the way manufacture got under way, or rather did not. John Stennis of the Preparedness Investigating Committee of the U.S. Senate wrote a paper in which he reported his findings on what was, in any other words, a scandal. He quoted Secretary of Defense Robert S. Mc- Namara, who said, “I think it is a disgrace the way the project was handled. . . . This is a relatively simple job, to build a rifle . . . and yet this project has languished for months—years, actually. And I see no excuse for allowing that to continue.”

The report noted that although approved in 1957, no orders were placed for the rifle until 1958 and that production had been meager. This tale of woe was supported by the facts that the first 19 rifles were produced in September 1959, by the end of June 1960 only 9,741 further rifles had been delivered, and by 30 June 1961 production rose to 133,386. By this time Springfield Armory, Harrington- Richardson, and Winchester were all producing the rifle. The buildup to full production had taken far too long, and in 1960 U.S. reinforcements to Berlin had still been armed with M1 Garand rifles. The report also mentioned that in 1961 there were more M1 Garands in stores than there were riflemen in the U.S. Army. Springfield Armory standards were still being maintained.

One interesting point made by the report was that “the quantities purchased [of the M14] should in no way be a deterrent to the development and production of a more modern and ultimate replacement for the M-14 at some future time.” This portent was eventually to usher in the developments that led to the M16 rifle, in an even smaller caliber than the British .280 (7mm) cartridge that had been so criticized by Colonel Studler and his cronies.

In service, the M14 soon gained a dubious reputation. It kicked like a mule, was uncontrollable when fired on automatic, and was not a lighter weapon at all. The M14 was too long and too heavy to be carried all day long in hot and wet climates (as shown by the experiences of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War). The 7.62mm NATO ammunition was too heavy, limiting the amount of ammunition carried by soldiers on patrols. The selective-fire capability was mostly useless, since the M14 was way too light for the very powerful cartridge it fired, and it climbed excessively when fired in bursts. In fact, most of the M14s were issued to troops with fire selectors locked to semiautomatic mode to avoid useless waste of ammunition in automatic fire. In other words, the M14 was a failure as a service weapon; what is really surprising is that its adherents continued to argue forcibly for its retention in the face of the appearance of the Armalite rifles.

However – Post-1970 U.S. military service

In the mid-1990s, the Marine Corps chose a new rifle for Designated Marksman (sniper) use, an M14 modified by the Precision Weapons Shop in Marine Corps Base Quantico called the Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). It is intended for use by security teams (SRTs, FAST companies), and Marine Scout Snipers in the cases where a semi-automatic rifle would be more appropriate than the standard bolt-action M40A1/A3 rifle. The USMC Rifle Team uses the M14 in shooting competitions. Although the M14 was phased out as the standard-issue rifle by 1970, M14 variants are still used by various branches of the U.S. Military as well as other armed forces, especially as a sniper rifle and as a designated marksman rifle, due to its excellent accuracy and effectiveness at long range. Special active units such as the OPFOR units of the Joint Readiness Training Center use M14s. Few M14s were in use in the Army until the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Since the start of these conflicts, many M14s have been employed as designated marksman and sniper rifles. These are not M21 rifles, but original production M14s. Common modifications include scopes, fiberglass stocks, and other accessories. A 2009 study conducted by the U.S. Army claimed that half of the engagements in Afghanistan occurred from beyond 300 meters (330 yd). America’s 5.56×45 mm NATO service rifles are ineffective at these ranges; this has prompted the reissue of thousands of M14s

The 1st Battalion of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”) in the Military District of Washington is the sole remaining regular United States Army combat field unit where the M14 is still issued as the standard rifle, along with a chromed bayonet and an extra wooden stock with white sling for military funerals, parades, and other ceremonies. The United States Air Force Honor Guard uses a version of the M14. The United States Navy Ceremonial Guard and Base Honor Guards also use the M14 for 3-volley salutes in military funerals. It is also the drill and parade rifle of the United States Military Academy, United States Naval Academy, United States Air Force Academy, The Citadel, Norwich University, Virginia Military Institute, and North Georgia College and State University. U.S. Navy ships carry several M14s in their armories. They are issued to sailors going on watch out on deck in port, and to Backup Alert Forces. The M14 is also used to shoot a large rubber projectile to another ship when underway to start the lines over for alongside refueling and replenishment.

Various sniper variants have been used by the United States Navy SEALs, often mistaken with M21 in the overt literature, only one of them has received a standard name in the U.S. military designations system: the M25, developed by the Special Forces. SEALs also use the Mk 14 Mod 0 EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle) for close-quarters battle and in a designated marksman role. “Delta Force” units are known to have used M14 sniper variants. According to Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, the well-known account of the Battle of Mogadishu, at least one of the “D-Boys”, Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart, used an M14 for sniping from helicopters to provide support fire to ground troops.

The U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) have made some use of the M25 “spotter rifle”. The M25 was developed in the late 1980s within the 10th Special Forces Group, which was charged to support Special Forces sniper weapons as well as the Special Operations Target Interdiction Course (SOTIC). The M25 was first planned as a replacement for the old M21, but after the Army adoption of the M24 SWS as its standard sniper rifle, the M25 was intended to be used by spotters of the sniper teams, while the snipers would use the bolt-action M24.

The M14 has remained in service longer than any U.S. infantry rifle surpassing that of the Springfield M1903 rifle, it also holds the distinction of serving as the standard infantry rifle of the U.S. Army for a second shortest span of time than almost any other service rifle, only surpassed by the short lived US Krag-Jørgensen rifles and carbines.

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A soldier using a M14 EBR-RI equipped with a Sage M14ALCS chassis stock provides security in Iraq, 2006.

Dettingen, Bavaria, 27 June 1743 Part I

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King George II, who succeeded his father to the British throne and to the electorate of Hanover in 1727, had three passions: the Queen, music, and the army. Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach was probably the most intelligent woman a British king has ever had the fortune to marry. By relentlessly championing Robert Walpole as ‘prime minister’ she played no small part in consolidating both the Hanoverian succession – which in spite of the ghastly Stuart alternatives was by no means universally popular – and constitutional monarchy itself. Nor was she merely a power behind the throne: when the King was away on state business in Germany, as he frequently was, Caroline had vice-regal authority. A contemporary verse ran:

You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,

We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.

They had eight children, and despite – perhaps even because of – his several mistresses, George was devoted to her. When she was dying, in 1737, she urged him to take another wife. ‘Non,’ he replied resolutely: ‘j’aurai des maîtresses!’ And he had a pair of matching coffins made with removable sides, so that when he followed her to the grave (twenty-three years later) they could lie together again.

George inherited his passion for music from his father, whose protégé Handel he continued to champion: he is famously credited with the custom of standing during the ‘Hallelujah chorus’, and Handel composed the anthems for Caroline’s funeral, as he had for the coronation. But like his cousin Frederick William I of Prussia (der Soldaten-König), George believed the army to be the first and noblest occupation of a king. He certainly took little interest in government, which was ably if corruptly (in modern eyes; the eighteenth century was on the whole more tolerant) conducted by Walpole. It all worked rather well.

George was also physically brave. He had fought at Oudenarde, the third of Marlborough’s great ‘quadrilateral’ of battles (alongside Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet), and would sometimes parade in his old battle coat. ‘And the people laughed, but kindly, at the odd old garment, for bravery never goes out of fashion,’ wrote Thackeray a century later.

Whenever George dealt with army business he took off his habitual Court brown to put on more military red. He put on red as much as he possibly could, indeed, loving to interfere in the army’s business, although he scarcely considered it interference, for despite the measures enacted by Parliament after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the limit of the royal prerogative was still unclear. Like his father, George laboured manfully to standardize drill – what Wolfe, the hero of Quebec (1759), complained of as ‘the variety of steps in our infantry and the feebleness and disorderly floating of our lines’ – though it would be many years before there was a truly common system. He championed the Royal Military Academy, which opened at Woolwich in 1741 to teach gunnery and engineering (a permanent corps of artillery had been formed at Marlborough’s urging in 1716, becoming the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1727). He regulated the price of commissions, abolished the trade in the regimental proprietor-colonelcies and sought to advance able officers, keeping a book in which he made notes on their capabilities and appointments. If he had had his way, he might also – like his cousin Frederick William – have introduced compulsory military service. It was not surprising that when in 1743 the army found itself once more in Marlborough’s old stamping ground, Bavaria, George insisted on taking to the field at its head.

Britain had in fact been at war with Spain since October 1739. By the Treaty of Seville ten years earlier, Britain had agreed not to trade with Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America, and to verify the working of the treaty the Spanish were permitted to search British vessels. While boarding the Rebecca in 1731, the Spanish coast guard severed the ear of her captain, Robert Jenkins, or so it was claimed. British merchants, determined to penetrate the Atlantic trade, used the incident as a casus belli against Spain in the Caribbean (though tardily to say the least, hostilities not beginning for a full seven years). Jenkins exhibited his pickled ear to the House of Commons, and the entirely predictable outrage forced a reluctant Walpole to declare war. Thus began an episode of Caribbean skirmishing – the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ – that yielded very mixed results.

The gravest unintended consequence of the skirmishing was the slide into the much greater affair of the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1740 Emperor Charles VI died, leaving the crown to his daughter Maria Theresa. Frederick II – later ‘Frederick the Great’ – had succeeded to the throne of Prussia earlier the same year, and had lost no time in exploiting the questionable legitimacy of female succession by invading Silesia, defeating the Austrians at the battle of Mollwitz. He was joined by Charles Albert of Bavaria, rival claimant to the Habsburg lands, and almost as a matter of course by France. Britain – or rather George, for Walpole was against a continental entanglement – backed the old ally, Austria, fearful that Prussia would not stop at the borders of Hanover. Britain and France came to blows not by declaring war, therefore, but as auxiliaries of their respective German allies. With Spain taking France’s side, the war quickly began to look like a continuance of the War of the Spanish Succession – an affair as old as King George’s Oudenarde coat.

Militarily, however, two things had changed. Prussia astounded everyone by the quality of its army – not so much the cavalry, which bolted at Mollwitz (Frederick’s reforms had yet to touch them), but the infantry, which could fire at the rate of five rounds to the Austrians’ three. The lesson was at once driven home to every prince in Europe: a standing army, albeit one made up of conscripts, would beat an improvised army even twice its size. By contrast, the French, who had remained a considerable power even after the run of defeats at Marlborough’s hands, were uncertain, even ponderous, in the field.

In 1742 the Prussians, having got what they wanted – Silesia – withdrew from the war. But two French armies had managed to reach Prague and Vienna, and a third was keeping watch on Hanover from east of the Rhine. The situation looked bad on the map, until all three French armies were obliged to retreat in the face of a revitalized Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive. To hasten their return to France, a British army assembled in Flanders comprising four troops of Household Cavalry, eight regiments of horse and dragoons, three battalions of Foot Guards and twelve of the line – some 16,000 men under the septuagenarian Field Marshal John Dalrymple, earl of Stair.

Stair was a true Marlburian, his age a measure more of experience than of disability. At nineteen he had fought at Steenkirk, and he had been in each of Marlborough’s four great battles. His campaign plan for the autumn of 1742 could indeed have been designed by Marlborough himself: he proposed to combine with the Austrians in a bold thrust towards Paris along the valley of the Moselle. George now demurred, however, reverting to the pretence that Britain was not at war with France as such. Nothing happened for months as the army watched the seasons change about them and felt the winter’s bite in their Flanders billets. But, unusually for troops confined for so long, they fared well. One of the effects of Walpole’s perpetual retrenchment had been the emergence of a corps of experienced junior officers, for since there were few regiments to command and consequently little promotion, there were a great many captains with long service and substantial know-how. These proved invaluable in the hastily expanded army, which emerged from winter quarters in uncommonly good health and spirits – or, as Stair put it, ‘with great modesty and good discipline’. Marlborough would certainly have approved. Indeed, he had set the standard.

Opposing forces abhor a vacuum. Notwithstanding the delusory state of non-war, as the three French armies resumed their retrograde march towards the Rhine the combined English – Hanoverian – Austrian army in Flanders, now 44,000 men, was drawn east across the Lower Rhine towards Frankfurt. In mid-June King George arrived – with a vast baggage train, including 600 horses (which severely clogged the roads), and his younger son, the 22-year-old Major-General the duke of Cumberland – intending to take personal command.

Though George had the advantage of ten years on the earl of Stair, and had fought in the same battle in his Oudenarde coat thirty-five years earlier, he did not, alas, have the old field marshal’s instinct for campaigning. Against Stair’s advice, he now posted his army on the north bank of the Main at Aschaffenburg, 30 miles upstream from Frankfurt, hemmed in by the Spessart Hills to the north. The French, even without La Gloire, were not ones to miss an opportunity and quickly cut his lines of communication, isolating the allied army from its magazines and depots at Hanau just east of Frankfurt. After a week the army was showing signs of starving, and George decided to withdraw north-west back to Hanau.

The French marshal, the duc de Noailles, was exactly midway between George and Stair in age (the three may well, indeed, hold the record for combined age in command). Withdrawing south around Frankfurt, Noailles was quick to see his chance, and despite enjoying only a 50 per cent numerical superiority he at once split his force, sending some 28,000 men under his nephew, the relatively youthful (54-year-old) marshal the duc de Gramont, to block the allied withdrawal in the bottleneck between the village of Dettingen and the Spessart Hills. Meanwhile, five brigades would hook south to cross the Main at Aschaffenburg and attack the allied rear, enabling the bulk of the French artillery to enfilade the allied main body from south of the river. On 26 June, with some justification, Noailles boasted that he would have the allies ‘dans une souricière’ – in a mousetrap.

Dettingen, Bavaria, 27 June 1743 Part II

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King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743. Artist John Wootton (1682–1764).

King George II at the battle of Dettingen

The decisive charge came when the king led his own foot regiments forward and shattered the French front line. George II died on 25th October, 1760, having seen British power increased in Europe, America, Africa and India.

George got the army in motion by daybreak the following morning, leading with his own cavalry, followed by that of the Austrians, and then the British and the Austrian infantry, with his best troops – the Guards and Hanoverians – as rearguard, followed by the artillery and baggage. By seven o’clock the advance guard had reached Klein Ostheim, 4 miles west of Aschaffenburg and halfway to Dettingen. Beyond the village the cavalry halted to let the infantry catch up, but the French batteries south of the Main opened a raking fire from which there was little shelter. Sam Davies, a major’s servant in the 3rd Dragoons, recounts in a letter to a tapster friend at the White Hart in Colchester how he was sent to the rear with the other servants and led horses:

We stayed there till the balls came flying all round us. We see first a horse with baggage fall close to us. Then seven horses fell apace, then I began to stare about me, the balls came whistling about my ears. Then I saw the Oysterenns [Austrians] dip and look about them for they dodge the balls as a cock does a stick, they are so used to them. Then we servants began to get off into a wood for safety, which was about four hundred yards from where we stood. When we got into the wood we placed ourselves against the largest trees, just as I had placed myself, a 12-pounder came, puts a large bough of the tree upon my head, the ball came within two yards of me, indeed it was the size of one of your light puddings, but a great deal heavier.

By now the souricière was discovered, and the earl of Stair, stung by George’s assumption of command and dismayed by his tactical ineptitude, decided that, in his words, ‘it was time to meddle’. He began deploying the army in three lines: the front line with British and Austrian troops, the support line British and Hanoverian, and the Guards in the reserve line on higher ground to the rear. But it took all of three hours – as long as it had taken the Royalist infantry to form up at Edgehill. Marlborough’s regiments would probably have managed it in a quarter of the time.

At midday Marshal Gramont, thinking the allied main body must have eluded him and that he was facing instead the rearguard, advanced across the Beck stream and likewise drew up in two lines and a reserve. George, brave as ever, if lacking an eye for the tactical situation, began urging his men forward, waving his sword and shouting encouragement in his thick German accent, doubtless to mystifying effect all round. With the enfilading fire of the French artillery south of the river, and no proper order, the advance was uneven. And then when the infantry opened fire on the Maison du Roi (the French Household brigade) it was dangerously premature, ragged and wholly ineffectual – except, it seems, for the effect on some of the allies’ horses: George’s in particular, which suddenly took hold of its bit and bolted rearwards, its rider only managing to pull up in a grove of oak trees where a company of the 22nd Foot (later the Cheshire Regiment) was sheltering. Evidently the unexpected royal visit went well, for regimental legend has it that George rewarded them for their warm reception with a sprig of oak leaves, which in time became their cap badge.

The infantry of the Maison du Roi now advanced, Marshal Gramont believing he had the advantage. By this time, however, the allied regimental officers had got their battalions in hand, and the front line was soon volleying by platoons in the old Marlburian drill. The Garde Française staggered to a halt, and then hastily withdrew behind the cavalry of the Maison, who in turn charged the allied left. However, they had the misfortune of falling on the 23rd Foot (later the Royal Welch Fusiliers), one of the regiments kept in being after Utrecht, and better drilled than most. The cavalry of the Maison du Roi were seen off rudely by a volley and a hedge of bayonets.

Our men were eager to come into action,’ one of the 23rd’s officers wrote afterwards:

We attacked the Regiment of Navarre, one of their prime regiments. Our people imitated their predecessors in the last war gloriously [an early example of consciousness of regimental heritage], marching in close order, as firm as a wall, and did not fire until we came within sixty paces, and still kept advancing; for, when the smoak blew off a little, instead of being amongst their living we found the dead in heaps by us.

During the following charge of the 3rd (King’s Own) Dragoons against a great mass of French horse, the duke of Cumberland was severely wounded in the leg. Some said that his mount, like his father’s, bolted, though towards the French not away, but this seems unfair: few riders in a cavalry charge, then as later, would have been wholly in control. A typical charge would start calmly enough at the walk, the riders knee-to-knee. The trumpeter would sound ‘Trot’ once the line had cleared its own side’s guns and pickets, and then ‘Gallop’, when the line would buckle and bow as riders struggled to keep the ‘dressing’. Finally the commanding officer would point his sword and cry ‘Charge!’, from which point all semblance of control would be lost for the final 50 yards, the noise of pounding hooves so great as to drown all shouted commands, trumpet calls and even the sound of firing.

While the cavalry were battling on the flanks, a hard infantry fighting match had developed along the whole length of the line. Here and there the sudden shout ‘Cavalry!’ would throw up a tight square of bayonets until the danger was past and the volleying could resume. Riderless horses on both sides barged through the ranks to add to the picture of chaos. And all the while the French guns south of the Main kept up their raking fire, answered hardly at all by the allied artillery, who found it extraordinarily difficult to come into action in the growing confusion of ‘the mousetrap’, and even harder to get up close to the infantry.

It had been thirty years and more since the British had fought in formed lines against regular troops, and if the general officers were rusty the infantry, as at the desperate fight at Steenkirk, were relearning what the bayonet and resolution could do. But although it was the cavalry that kept the French horse busy, and the bayonet that almost literally steeled the infantry’s resolve, the day was won by dogged volleying, which grew steadier with the practice. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, commanding the 1st Foot Guards,

excepting three or four of our generals, the rest of ’em were of little service … our men and their regimental officers gained the day; not in the manner of Hide Park discipline, but our Foot almost kneeled down by whole ranks, and fired upon ’em a constant running fire, making almost every ball take place; but for ten or twelve minutes ’twas doubtful which would succeed, as they overpowered [outnumbered] us so much, and the bravery of their maison du roy coming upon us eight or nine ranks deep.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, seeing they could make no progress, the French began to quit the field, leaving behind 5,000 dead and wounded. Pressed by the allied cavalry, their retreat soon turned into flight, and many mousquetaires drowned in the press to get back across the bridge of boats west of Dettingen, especially among the Garde Française, who had attacked first and taken the most casualties, but who by all accounts tried to cross the bridge with indecent haste. It is ever the fate of Guards regiments to incur the scorn of those more workaday regiments of the line if they appear not to live up to their advance billing: so many of the Garde fell into the river that the line dubbed them ‘Les Canards du Main’.

But the allies, who had been under arms since the early hours and were exhausted by the best part of a day’s fighting, failed to follow up and turn defeat into rout. Besides, though Edgehill was a century behind them, the fear of loosing the cavalry and regretting it was still strong. And the French in their Gallic obstinacy might even now turn on them with renewed vigour, for their artillery was still in place and protected by the waters of the Main. Only the most seasoned battlefield commander could have judged it aright – a Marlborough, or later a Wellington. Indeed, at the culmination of Waterloo the ‘Iron Duke’ would throw all caution to the wind and urge the line forward: ‘Go on, go on! They won’t stand!’ But King George, for all his bravery, was no such judge. He flatly refused to pursue at all, even in the days that followed. And so, while the allied army restocked its canteens and cartridge cases at Hanau, Noailles limped back to France unmolested.

Dettingen, though a worthy feat of arms, was ultimately therefore of no strategic significance. It blooded a good many green men and subalterns, however, and reminded the field officers – if they had ever forgotten it – that in a bruising fight they could prevail by superior musketry. It showed George and his general officers that their military system was lacking; and it would be the last time a British monarch commanded in the field. But Dettingen, for all its insignificance in the strategy of the War of the Austrian Succession, was seen increasingly as a model of British fighting spirit, above all in the infantry. When at the end of the battle the King playfully chided the commanding officer of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, for letting French cavalry break into his regiment’s square, Agnew replied drily: ‘An it please Your Majesty, but they didna’ gang oot again!’

‘Dettingen’ is a name habitually given to recruit platoons in the Army still; and for as long as anyone can remember there has been a Dettingen Company at Sandhurst, so prized is the occasion as an example to officers. And the battle was something of a watershed in the making of the army, for it had been a close-run thing – perhaps only a matter of ten or twelve minutes, as Colonel Russell of the Foot Guards had reckoned: it would not do in future to pit too many scratch troops against veteran Frenchmen, even Frenchmen without the élan of Marlborough’s day. In London the battle was celebrated as a famous victory, Handel promptly writing a Te Deum to mark it. But the red-coated regiments had been lucky: the French had not been on form. How long would it be before they regained it?

Zeebrugge Raid and Naval Operations in 1917

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Obstructed channel after the Zeebrugge Raid.

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One adventurous operation sanctioned by the Admiralty against the submarine menace was the Zeebrugge Raid of 23 April 1918. There had long been a variety of plans to try and block the Zeebrugge and Ostend entrances via canals to the Bruges lair of the Flanders U-boats. The final version of the plan was overseen by Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. An aged – and hence expendable – cruiser, the Vindictive, was to lie alongside the long Zeebrugge harbour mole and launch an attack by a 900-strong landing party who were to overwhelm the German gun batteries covering the entrance to the harbour. To prevent reinforcements intervening the C1 and C2 submarines had each taken on board some five tons of high explosives to destroy the viaduct linking the mole with the shore. During the chaos created by these actions and amidst a smokescreen, three more old cruisers, the Thetis, the Intrepid and the Iphigenia, would be scuttled across the entrance to the Bruges Canal.

The Vindictive and the block ships were all crewed by volunteers. When Able Seaman Wilfred Wainwright first went aboard the Vindictive he was greatly impressed by the measures that had been taken to fit her out for her special – and extremely dangerous – role alongside the Zeebrugge Mole.

She had been stripped bare of everything bar the essential parts, her mainmast having gone and her foremast cut short above the fighting top. Along her portside ran an immense wooden chafing band reinforced with huge hazelwood fenders and on the port quarter a part of the main mast had been cemented to the deck to enable her to lay alongside any wall without swinging out, head on stern. Covering her port battery ran a false deck lined with sandbags, and towering above this deck was an array of improvised gangways, sixteen in all, flanked by two huge metal huts housing the foremost and aftermost flame throwers. At the break of the fo’c’sle and the quarter deck were two grapnels fitted to wire pennants and leading respectively to the foremost and after capstans. Here fore and after guns had been replaced by 7.5 howitzers and midships abaft the after funnel was an 11-inch howitzer, the port battery had been replaced with 2-pound pom-poms, with the exception of the foremost and after 6-inch gun, whilst two pom-poms adorned the fighting top. There is no denying it she was ugly, as she lay there, a veritable floating fortress, a deathtrap fitted with all the ingenious contrivances of war that the human brain could think of, but we took unholy pride and a fiendish delight in her.

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Wainwright, HMS Vindictive

Naturally, the atmosphere was extremely tense aboard the ships as they sailed across the North Sea. The men could not but be aware of the terrible risks they were taking. The success of the raid demanded that almost everything went off perfectly. There was no margin for error. But for the most part they were young and ready for anything. As they approached the mole, despite the smokescreen, they were soon detected and exposed to close-range fire from the German batteries.

Night had turned into day by searchlights and star shells, and all the venom and hatred of the shore batteries seemed concentrated on us, salvo after salvo struck the ship, doing indescribable damage in the packed starboard battery where all the storming party were awaiting to land; the foremost howitzer’s crew were wiped out with the exception of the voice pipeman, who was a couple of yards away. The strangest part of this was that the trench mortar battery, not more than 4 feet away, did not receive injury at that time. Within the space of a few seconds the leading seaman in charge of our battery had been hit in the back of the head, whilst half a dozen of our battery had received superficial scratches. We were now alongside the Mole and sheltered a little from the murderous hail of shell from the forts, which continued to keep up a burst of shrapnel around our funnels, which showed up and made excellent targets. Every gun in the Vindictive that could bear had now given tongue and the night was made hideous by the nerve-racking shatter of the pom-poms, the deep bell-like boom of the howitzers and trench mortars, and all-pervading rattle of musketry and machine-gun fire; it was hell with a vengeance and it seemed well-nigh miraculous that human beings could live in such an inferno.

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Wainwright, HMS Vindictive

Just after midnight the Vindictive had crashed alongside the Mole some 300 yards further away from the German fortified area and gun batteries than had been intended. This added to the already intense difficulties facing the landing parties forced to clamber ashore under heavy fire.

Already a gaping hole had been torn in the side of our ship by a shell. As we swarmed down the landing boards we hurriedly bade our nearest comrade ‘goodbye’ and ‘good luck’. Each section had its appointed task. Shells were raking backwards and forwards, terrific explosions followed, and groans and cries and shouts filled the air. Star shells shed their light on the scene, and all the time our lads were creeping steadily forwards in the darkness, pelting away at the black masses of the enemy, which loomed ahead.

Able Seaman Cyril Widdison, HMS Vindictive

It proved impossible to reach the batteries so they did what damage they could. Private William Gough was encumbered with a flamethrower intended for use against the occupants of sheds located on the inner side of the mole.

The flamethrower was a heavy, unwieldy cylinder containing a mixture of fuel oil and petrol, squirted from a nozzle, and ignited by a electrically fired flare in front of the nozzle. The jet of flame extended for about 30 yards. Because of the awkwardness of this weapon, I lost much time reaching the sheds, having to negotiate several obstacles including a 15–20 foot wall, using ropes and ladders to scramble down it. As a result I lost touch with my little party of marines. On reaching my objective, and entering the shed, I realised I was not needed there. The building had been blown up leaving four wrecked walls, shattered rifles and two dead Germans. Pressing on, I found myself up against an iron handrail at the water’s edge, and in front of me a German destroyer, with her guns firing and most of her crew on deck. I turned my flammenwerfer on them, sweeping the deck with flames. I must have killed a whole lot of them. I tried to reach the bridge, from which someone was potting at me with a revolver, but the range was too great, and my flamethrower ran out of fuel. As the bullets from a machine-gun further up the mole got too close for comfort, I left my now useless weapon and took cover behind a low wall.16

Private William Gough, 4th Battalion, Royal Marines, HMS Vindictive

Getting back on to the Vindictive was no easy matter.

Just after one o’clock the retreat was sounded, and all those of us who were left ran breathlessly back – ran for our lives amid a hail of shot and shell. Of 14 or 16 landing boards only two remained, and these creaked and bent ominously as 300 or 400 of us scrambled aboard. Some of us were helping wounded comrades along; and whilst other fellows had to be carried aboard, I found one poor lad lying helplessly on the shore, only a few yards from the gangway, and with a pal’s assistance I managed to get him safely on board.

Able Seaman Cyril Widdison, HMS Vindictive

From the Vindictive Captain Alfred Carpenter watched the block ships make their way into the harbour, sadly still under heavy fire from the mole batteries. They had all been filled to the gills with concrete in readiness for the detonation of explosive charges placed aboard their hulls to facilitate rapid scuttling.

We saw Thetis come steaming into the harbour in grand style. She made straight for the opening to the Canal, and you can imagine that she was a blaze of light and a target for every big thing they could bring to bear. She was going toppingly, all the same, when she had the rotten luck to catch her propeller in the defence nets. Even then, however, she did fine work. She signalled instructions to the Intrepid and Iphigenia, and so they managed to avoid the nets. It was a gorgeous piece of co-operation! In went Intrepid, and in after her went Iphigenia. They weren’t content, you know, to sink themselves at the mouth of the Canal. That was not the idea at all. They had to go right in, with guns firing point-blank at them from both banks, sink their ships, and get back as best they could. And they did it. They blocked that Canal as neatly and effectively as we could have wished in our most optimistic moments, and then, thanks to the little motor-launches, which were handled with the finest skill and pluck, the commanders and men got back to safety. As soon as we saw that the block ships were sunk we knew that our job was done.

Captain Alfred Carpenter, HMS Vindictive

As they withdrew it was time for the British to count the cost: they had lost a destroyer and two motor launches and suffered 170 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. But had Captain Carpenter been right? Had they really managed to block the Zeebrugge entrance to the Bruges Canal? Certainly, the simultaneous raid on Ostend had been an abject failure, but at least at first there seemed good reason to celebrate success at Zeebrugge and eight VCs were awarded. In the event, the Germans were merely inconvenienced in their navigation by the block ships before a new channel was dredged just three weeks later. All that the British had achieved was a short-lived propaganda coup which had no effect on the submarine war in contrast to the less glamorous hard graft of convoys escort details where the submarine war was being fought and won.

Coincidentally, the High Seas Fleet had made a sortie on 24 April 1918 into the North Sea to try and intercept one of the regular Scandinavian convoys. These large convoys were often escorted by heavy ships and posed a tempting – and isolated – target. This time the Germans concealed their intentions from the British by maintaining strict wireless silence and a great success looked likely. Yet, for all the planning, Scheer had omitted to check with the German embassy in Norway as to the sailing dates of the convoys. In fact, none was scheduled for 24 April. The problems mounted when the battlecruiser Moltke suffered a catastrophic engine breakdown which ultimately required her to be taken in tow. The wireless signals exchanged during this incident were intercepted by Room 40 with the result that Beatty and the Grand Fleet sailed from Rosyth, steaming across the North Sea on an intercepting course. In the end, they were too late and Scheer escaped back to harbour. Both sides had failed, but the British still held the ring around Germany. It would be the last outing for the High Seas Fleet.

In August Scheer was appointed Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, with Hipper succeeding him as Commander in Chief of the High Seas Fleet. The British considered Hipper more aggressive than Scheer and nurtured hopes that ‘Der Tag’ might finally dawn. They were also well aware of evidence of unrest in the German fleet. Crews, cooped up in harbour for too long, had been increasingly influenced by socialist propaganda. British optimists hoped that the Germans might despatch the fleet off to sea – to allow the simmering crews to kill or be killed. In the event Hipper did plan one last great operation in the North Sea, but it was stillborn when the German crews mutinied on being ordered to leave Wilhelmshaven on 29 October. Seaman Richard Stumpf watched events from the pre-dreadnought Lothringen.

We all knew within our hearts – today is the last time we shall ever see many of our ships. My mind contemplated what would happen if we engaged and destroyed the enemy fleet. I toyed with the most grotesque possibilities. In the final analysis this might still result in our victory. Soon, however, an impregnable veil of fog descended upon the sea. The weather made any thought of sailing out impossible. In the sea of fog and fine rain one could no longer make out the stem of the vessel from amidship. Soon thereafter we heard that the stokers on three battlecruisers had deliberately allowed the fires to die down and had even extinguished them. At this time about a hundred men from Von der Tann were running loose about town; Seydlitz and Derfflinger were missing men. Thus the fleet could not have sailed even if there had been no fog. It is sad, tragic that it could go so far as this. But somehow even with the best of intentions I cannot suppress a certain sense of Schadenfreude. What has happened to the almighty power of the proud captains and staff engineers? Now at last, after many years, the suppressed stokers and sailors realise that nothing, no, nothing, can be accomplished without them. On the Thüringen, the former model ship of the fleet, the mutiny was at its worst. The crew simply locked up the petty officers and refused to weigh anchor. The men told the Captain that they would only fight against the English if their fleet appeared in German waters. They no longer wanted to risk their lives uselessly.

Seaman Richard Stumpf, SMS Lothringen

The High Seas Fleet was finished as a combative force. Hipper called off the operation and dispersed his fleet to try and dispel the mutiny. A subsequent investigation carried out by Hipper’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, ranged wide and in its findings echoed earlier pre-war fears as to Germany’s ability to withstand a prolonged conflict against the Triple Entente.

There appears to be ample proof that our armed forces were unable to withstand such a long war, as soon as the moral boost of success was missing and particularly when want and deprivation were presenting the Home Front with such a prodigious struggle. The unceasing depletion in the front line ranks, of youthful enthusiasm and ability in officers and men; their replacement by older age groups already burdened by home worries, or by the very young and inexperienced age-groups, already influenced by the eroding effects of the struggle on the Home Front – this endless and inevitable trend created an unsound foundation and provided the essential ingredients for discontent. In spite of its much lighter losses, this process wormed its way into the Navy, too.

Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, Headquarters, High Seas Fleet

The German Navy had been defeated. Worse still, it had never really been put to the test in full-scale battle. No one would ever know what might have been had they sought out battle in 1914 when the Royal Navy was at its most stretched. The High Seas Fleet was a ‘risk fleet’ that in the end the Kaiser lacked the nerve. The Royal Navy was left frustrated not to have secured the destruction of the High Seas Fleet in battle; that indeed would rankle as long as the memoirs were written. Yet it had carried out its main duties in the Great War successfully. The safe passage of the British Army to the Western Front had been secured and guaranteed; the sea ways across the globe had been defended, even against the U-boat threat; and throughout the war Germany had been partially starved of raw materials by the blockade. These were the valuable rewards of the exercise of pure naval power. In the end the High Seas Fleet created by Tirpitz at such expense, the fleet that had guaranteed British enmity towards Germany, had not achieved much more than the harbour-locked Prussian fleet during the Franco-Prussian War back in 1870. It had all been for nothing.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe Replaced 1917

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Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s flagship, HMS Iron Duke at the Battle of Jutland, 1916.

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Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanded the Grand Fleet in the last great clash of the Dreadnoughts. Here, Jellicoe’s flagship, HMS Iron Duke, opens fire on the German fleet. Although the outcome of the Battle of Jutland was indecisive – both sides claiming victory – the Germans never again risked a serious confrontation with the British Navy.

Artist: Lesley Arthur Wilcox

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Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

They may still have ruled the waves outside of the North Sea, but the British were deeply unhappy with the outcome of the Jutland fighting. They had dreamed of a glorious triumph but although they had gained a strategic victory it had been at high cost and there was a nagging feeling that a great opportunity had been missed. This air of depression was augmented by the sense of loss as Kitchener became a belated victim of the Scheer submarine and mine trap intended for the Grand Fleet, when the ship on which he was travelling, the Hampshire, was mined and sunk on the night of 5 June off the coast of Orkney. Kitchener may have lost some of his lustre after two years of war, but he was still a hero of the Empire and he had died while in the care of the Royal Navy. Much of the angst over the Battle of Jutland was caused by unrealistic expectations rather than any real likelihood of destroying the High Seas Fleet during a confused encounter in low visibility with night looming. Nevertheless, there were anguished discussions as to what had gone wrong at Jutland with an undercurrent of murmurings as to who was to blame, centred on a degree of ill-informed criticism of Jellicoe by the acolytes of Beatty. In the event, Jellicoe did not retain his command much longer, as he was required to leave his beloved Grand Fleet to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty in November 1916. He was replaced as Commander in Chief by Beatty but, interestingly, for all his bravado, Beatty would institute only minor adjustments to the cautious tactics enshrined in Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Battle Orders.

After the first fleet action in the dreadnought age it is not surprising that there was a great number of technical and material considerations for the British to digest. One thing was evident: something had gone wrong with the battlecruisers and a full investigation into their explosive demise was begun, resulting in strict anti-flash precautions being implemented, plus additional armour protection for all those ships still under construction. But urgent improvements were also required in the design of British shells, which had shown a distinct tendency to break up on impact and hence not to cause the anticipated damage. Night fighting may still have been abhorred, but Jutland forced a belated recognition of the necessity for proper training and preparations. There was a general tightening of ship-to-ship identification procedures, coverable searchlights were fitted and night exercises were begun in earnest. The method of handling and disseminating naval intelligence was also improved to avoid the kind of errors which had dogged Jellicoe at Jutland. The British had certainly learnt some valuable lessons from their bitter disappointment.

Despite their protestations of victory the Germans were deeply chastened by some aspects of their Jutland experience. They knew they had done well, but they also knew how close they had come to annihilation. Whatever they would do next, it would not involve another fully fledged fleet confrontation. Scheer did seek to lure the Grand Fleet into a submarine trap again by using battlecruisers to bombard Sunderland on 19 August. The operations were inconclusive as although Jellicoe was once again forewarned of their arrival by Room 40, he adopted a cautious approach, fearing just such a trap as Scheer had laid. In the end there was no confrontation, and when Scheer realised that there had again been a theoretical chance of his being ambushed by the whole Grand Fleet, he lost all further enthusiasm for adventures in the North Sea. If the British would not take risks, then the High Seas Fleet had little to gain and a lot to lose by exposing itself to the possibility of defeat.

In view of England’s plan of campaign, there was no alternative but to inflict direct injury upon English commerce. We could not build a sufficiently great number of additional large ships to compensate for the inevitable losses which we were bound to suffer in the long run in a conflict with the numerically superior English fleet. We ought to have tried earlier what the result of a victory by our fleet would be. It was a mistake on the part of the naval leaders not to do so.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Third Battle Squadron

The German High Command could only bewail the pusillanimity that had held them back in 1914; for by late 1916 it was far too late. With a successful fleet action ruled out, there seemed to be only one option left that promised any concrete results against their implacable enemy: submarine warfare. In October 1916 the Germans took their first cautious steps when they announced a return to restricted submarine warfare with at least lip service being paid to the international rules. The U-boats took a rising toll of British shipping, but they were still hamstrung by international conventions and Scheer wanted a far more robust approach.

A victorious end to the war at not too distant a date can only be looked for by the crushing of English economic life through U-Boat action against English commerce. Prompted by the convictions of duty, I earnestly advise Your Majesty to abstain from deciding on too lenient a form of procedure on the ground that it is opposed to military views, and that the risk of the boats would be out of all proportion to the expected gain, for, in spite of the greatest conscientiousness on the part of the Chiefs, it would not be possible in English waters, where American interests are so prevalent, to avoid occurrences which might force us to make humiliating concessions if we do not act with the greatest severity.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Third Battle Squadron

The seeds were set for unrestricted submarine warfare; yet this would be a gamble based on the lack of a realistic alternative rather than the inherent merits of the policy. German naval experts believed that they could knock Britain out of the war if they managed to sink some 600,000 tons of shipping a month for just five months. The British would simply run out of shipping while neutral shipping would be either frightened away or sunk as well. As to the likely bellicose American reaction, the German High Command believed that US goods and services were effectively already at Britain’s beck and call; all that was missing was her armed forces. As the US Army was inconsequentially small, it would be more than a year before a mass army could be mobilised; by which time it would be far too late. The Germans decided to ignore the American protests and take their chance. After all, Jutland and their failure to gain victory on the Western Front had left them with no viable alternative.

The ‘Fighters’ I

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The first Griffon-powered Spitfires suffered from poor high altitude performance due to having only a single stage supercharged engine. By 1943, Rolls-Royce engineers had developed a new Griffon engine, the 61 series, with a two-stage supercharger. In the end it was a slightly modified engine, the 65 series, which was used in the Mk XIV. The resulting aircraft provided a substantial performance increase over the Mk IX. Although initially based on the Mk VIII airframe, common improvements made in aircraft produced later included the cut-back fuselage and tear-drop canopies, and the E-Type wing with improved armament.

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Following combat experience the P-51D series introduced a “teardrop”, or “bubble”, canopy to rectify problems with poor visibility to the rear of the aircraft. In America, new moulding techniques had been developed to form streamlined nose transparencies for bombers. North American designed a new streamlined plexiglass canopy for the P-51B which was later developed into the teardrop shaped bubble canopy. In late 1942, the tenth production P-51B-1-NA was removed from the assembly lines. From the windshield aft the fuselage was redesigned by cutting down the rear fuselage formers to the same height as those forward of the cockpit; the new shape faired in to the vertical tail unit. A new simpler style of windscreen, with an angled bullet-resistant windscreen mounted on two flat side pieces improved the forward view while the new canopy resulted in exceptional all-round visibility. Wind tunnel tests of a wooden model confirmed that the aerodynamics were sound.
The new model Mustang also had a redesigned wing; alterations to the undercarriage up-locks and inner-door retracting mechanisms meant that there was an additional fillet added forward of each of the wheel bays, increasing the wing area and creating a distinctive “kink” at the wing root’s leading edges. Most significant was a deepening of the wing to the allow the guns to be mounted upright, resulting in a slightly reduced maximum speed compared to P-51B/C variants.

From its beginning, the Second World War appeared to be an unquestionable Axis success. Fortunately, Hitler’s military decisions combined with the geography of the Soviet Union, the Pacific Ocean, and the English Channel to give the Allies a few desperately needed advantages. For the most part, these opportunities were seized and used with considerable fighting skill until overwhelming American war production took effect. The pivotal year was 1942, with the Japanese blunted in the Pacific and Hitler’s Reich halted in Russia. Operation Torch brought Allied landings into North Africa that would threaten Europe’s belly and eventually shatter the Axis. Despite the Allied debacle at Kasserine Pass, May 1943 saw the remnants of the Afrikakorps with their backs to the sea and surrendering at Cap Bon, Tunisia. This came just five weeks after the German Sixth Army, surrounded and starving, capitulated at Stalingrad.

Italy’s king Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini in July and eventually imprisoned his former prime minister at the Campo Imperatore ski resort in Gran Sasso. A daring raid by German paratroopers freed the dictator, and he promptly declared his own Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. Americans then crossed from Sicily, landing at Anzio and slugging their way up the Italian peninsula. They’d gotten off to a rough start during Torch, largely due to incompetent leadership, but learned very quickly.

As many had foreseen, the entry of the United States into the war spelled doom for the Axis. Even without being bled white by four years of war, there was just no way to compete with the Americans. Once blooded, they rose to the occasion, as did their supporting economy, and it was an impossible combination to beat. In four years of war, shipbuilding had increased elevenfold, munitions fifteenfold; aluminum manufacturing had quadrupled, and aircraft production was twelve times greater than it had been in 1940. The USAAF had begun the war with 354,161 men and 4,477 combat aircraft. By 1944 personnel exceeded 2.3 million and the USAAF could field some 35,000 combat aircraft. A standing Wehrmacht joke went, “When we see a silver plane, it’s American. A black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German.”

The Allied bombing campaign was largely a result of the 1943 Casablanca conference where the British and Americans mapped out the Third Reich’s destruction. Though the goal was identical, both sides were diametrically opposed on strategy. The RAF was committed to area bombing—basically the mass leveling of cities and industrial centers regardless of civilian casualties. Their firestorm method was calculated to destroy vast amounts of acreage (2,000 acres in Berlin alone) and sap German willpower. The first objective was arguably successful, but the second was not. In any event, Hamburg, Darmstadt, and a dozen other cities burned brightly under RAF bombs and eventually suffered 1.4 million civilian casualties. Of course, it also destroyed the submarine pens at Peenemunde and most of the industrial capability in the Ruhr Valley.

The Americans were convinced that only the annihilation of key military and economic chokepoints would force the Germans to their knees. To this end, they espoused the doctrine of daylight precision bombing, which would, in theory, focus immense tonnage in concentrated strikes to utterly wipe out a target. The idea had some merit in that the B-17 was the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s primary heavy bomber. Extremely tough and well-armed with ten guns, it also possessed the Norden sight, which made bombing deliveries within 135 yards from 15,000 possible. The actual CEP (circular error probable) was much higher—more than 50 percent of bombs were at least 2,000 yards off target. However, in terms of sheer volume, the damage was done.

Also, American production continued ramping up; bombers were pouring off the assembly line and there was no real shortage of planes. The concept was really put to the test on August 17, 1943, in a grand raid to destroy the German ball bearing manufacturing centers at Schweinfurt and Regensburg.

It was a disaster for the Americans. German fighter pilots obviously hadn’t read the treatise on bomber theory and were unaware that the bomber would always get through—especially tight, heavily armed formations. Weather, timing, and complex plans aside, some 350 bombers of the 1st and 4th Bombardment Wings launched that morning, but only 290 returned. Sixty heavies and more than 550 men were lost that day, with more than eighty other bombers irreparably damaged—all for no appreciable strategic results. Ball bearing production did temporarily decrease by 30 percent, but losses were quickly made up by affiliated factories.

Bearings were essential as they were used for almost any military equipment with moving parts. Bombsights, engines, weapons, communication devices, and many others were all highly dependent on these tiny steel globes to reduce friction and support loads. The giant Swedish firm SKF was the largest worldwide manufacturer of ball bearings. From Goteborg, Sweden, and Schweinfurt, Germany, it supplied 80 percent of the total European demand. There were also dozens of foreign affiliates, including the Hess-Bright Manufacturing Company in Pennsylvania, which had become SKF Philadelphia in 1919. So when the Schweinfurt plant was bombed, the shortfall was largely covered from, of all places, the United States.

In a shameful footnote to the war, more than 600,000 ball bearings per year were shipped from American ports, via Central America, to Siemens, Diesel, and scores of other Axis companies. This was often to the detriment of U.S. companies that also needed the vital little globes. Curtiss-Wright, maker of the P-40, nearly shut down for want of bearings. It was also very likely that the Swedes warned the Germans about the raid in order to protect their factory in Schweinfurt. The National City Bank of New York (later Citibank and Citicorp) funneled money back to Sweden, and business continued as usual while American boys died in the air over Germany.

The deep penetration raids produced two inescapable lessons. First, the bomber does not always get through against an intelligently defended target and a 17 percent loss rate was not sustainable, even by the United States. The second lesson was the imperative need for a long-range escort fighter.

Enter the P-51 Mustang.

Arguably the finest fighter of the Second World War, the Mustang was the apex of piston-powered warplane development. Ironically, this iconic aircraft was created not by an initiative from the American government, but rather as a response to a Royal Air Force request. In fact, the entire design and initial production were a private venture between the British government and the North American Aircraft company.

Early in 1940 the British agreed to North American’s proposal and in May signed a contract for 320 aircraft. The company, headed by James “Dutch” Kindelberger and Edgar Schmued, was new and very small, and had previously fielded only one aircraft. This meant there were no paradigms to overcome and no history of conventional solutions to fall back on. This was very apparent when the first plane rolled out on September 9, 1940, barely 102 days after the contract was signed.

In addition to being a superb engineer, Kindelberger was also a very solid businessman. He realized that a plane that could be easily mass-produced would have a tremendous advantage once the United States began its wartime expansion. The P-51 was the first aircraft to incorporate an entirely mathematical design; all the contours were derivations of geometrical shapes and could therefore be expressed algebraically. This meant all the tooling and templates were extremely precise, yet easily duplicated for mass production.

Constructed in three main sections, the aircraft could be quickly disassembled if the need arose. Manufacturing of each section would be done separately, then the components shipped for final assembly. The engine mount only required four bolts, and the motor was easily removed by line mechanics with no special equipment. Unlike the Bf 109 or Spitfire, the Mustang’s landing gear retracted inward toward the fuselage centerline. This kept more weight along the main axis and permitted nearly a 12-foot wheelbase for safe ground operations. The brakes were hydraulic and controlled via the rudder pedals.

Other significant improvements included the beautiful bubble canopy and the practical cockpit layout. Most of the vital elements, like trim tabs, coolant switches, landing gear lever, and engine controls, were located so the pilot could reach them with his left hand, since his right hand would be on the stick.

Another innovation was the deliberate design of a laminar flow wing. We know from basic aerodynamics that airflow divides over a wing, and as it splits, the change in velocity alters surface pressure to produce lift. If the flow separates past a critical point, more drag is produced than lift and the wing stalls. This can be delayed somewhat by keeping the thin boundary layer of air closest to the wing intact as long as possible. A laminar flow wing is symmetric, so the air divides evenly and flows over an extremely smooth finished surface. This considerably reduces drag while increasing lift.

One advantage to less drag is that the aircraft can be much heavier, yet still retain high performance. For the Mustang, the greater weight meant more weapons and fuel without a corresponding loss of speed or maneuverability. So high performance was preserved while range and firepower increased, thus giving the Allies a fighter capable of deep escort into the Reich. The U.S. Army had become aware of North American’s aircraft and managed to keep the production line open by ordering a ground-attack version of the RAF fighter. The USAAF purchased 310 of the newly designated P-51A fighters in August 1942, and the first one flew by early February 1943.

Though the Mustang promised to be an excellent aircraft, the Allison engine was a problem. Even with a supercharger and a larger prop, the V-1710-81 motor could only deliver 1,125 horsepower at 18,000 feet. The superb Rolls-Royce Merlin was the obvious choice for later Mustangs, but production was an issue. The British company was already heavily committed supplying the Spitfire, Hurricane, and Lancaster bombers, so an American company was needed to manufacture the engine under license. Back in 1940, Henry Ford offered to do the deal, but only for American defense—under no circumstances for Britain. Instead, Ford built five-ton trucks for the German army and his sixty-acre plant in Poissy, France, began turning out aircraft engines for the Luftwaffe.

So Packard was selected to build the 1,500-horsepower Merlin V-1650. Capable of 400 knots at 30,000 feet, the new engine had a novel two-stage supercharger that would automatically kick in around 19,000 feet. This permitted a climb rate exceeding 3,000 feet per minute, with unmatched high-altitude maneuverability. Combined with the slick laminar flow design, the Allies had a fighter aircraft that could escort bombers all the way to Austria if needed.*

Previous hard-learned lessons regarding weapon systems were also heeded in the Mustang design. The RAF version carried four .50-caliber and four .303-caliber Brownings, while the Mk IA had four Hispano 20 mm cannons. American P-51A variants mounted four .50-caliber machine guns and could carry a pair of 500-pound general purpose bombs. Both versions were equipped with new gyroscopic gunsights that compensated for bullet drop and made accurate deflection aiming possible.

Correctly regarded as the culmination of Mustang development, the Merlin-powered P-51D model began appearing in March 1944. More than eight thousand of these magnificent machines were built, and they had a profound effect on the outcome of the war against the Third Reich. Bombers could now hit factories, laboratories, and key targets deep inside Germany. Steel production and electrical generating capacity fell by 30 and 20 percent, respectively. Hundreds of French locomotives were destroyed along with railyards and repair facilities. Bridges, depots, and rolling stock were attacked to the point where the entire French transportation system was operating at only 60 percent capacity. This made logistical support to the Atlantic Wall and any type of rapid German military response problematic. The Reich’s already fragile economy steadily disintegrated.

The ‘Fighters’ II

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The Fw 190 D (nicknamed the Dora; or Long-Nose Dora, “Langnasen-Dora”) was intended to improve on the high-altitude performance of the A-series enough to make it useful against the American heavy bombers of the era. In the event, the D series was rarely used against the heavy-bomber raids, as the circumstances of the war in late 1944 meant that fighter-versus-fighter combat and ground attack missions took priority. A total of 1,805 D-9s were produced. Production started in August 1944.

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The Boeing B-29 Superfortress is a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber designed by Boeing and was flown primarily by the United States during World War II and the Korean War. It was one of the largest aircraft operational during World War II and very advanced for its time. It featured a pressurized cabin, all dual wheeled, tricycle landing gears, and a remote, electronic fire-control system that controlled four machine gun turrets. A manned tail gun installation was semi-remote. The name “Superfortress” continued the pattern Boeing started with its well-known predecessor, the B-17 Flying Fortress. Designed for high-altitude strategic bomber role, the B-29 also excelled in low-altitude nighttime incendiary bombing missions. One of the B-29’s final roles during World War II was carrying out the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It must have seemed like Germany of 1918 all over again for those unlucky enough to have experienced it. Rice was pressed into unappealing little cakes and flavored with animal fat. Flour was made from nuts and turned into something resembling bread while ersatz, vaguely resembling coffee, was once again brewed from roasted oats.

Oil production essentially halted, even from the dozen synthetic-oil plants that the Germans had constructed. Synthetic-oil manufacturing operations were particularly vulnerable due to their complex machinery and sheer size relative to conventional refineries. Fuel production eventually fell from 180,000 tons per month to less than 5,000 tons, with enormous tactical implications for the Luftwaffe. Combat units were throttled and training curtailed to the point where new pilots received just 120 hours of flight time before going into combat, barely half of the 1942 program. And to alleviate the pilot shortfall, bomber pilots were transitioned into fighters. Both solutions produced disastrous results.

By 1944 Luftwaffe losses were averaging 10 percent per mission, and dozens of Allied aces were created overnight. After its successes during the Battle of Britain and against the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe was definitely seeing the other side of the coin. Only in this case there would be no geographical salvation from the English Channel or the Russian steppes.

Albert Speer, the Reich’s minister of armaments, estimated that 98 percent of oil production had been destroyed by July 1944, which would leave Germany with less than a 400,000-ton reserve—not enough for six months. Combat aircraft were withdrawn from the Eastern Front to defend the Reich, and more than a thousand German fighter pilots were lost during the first four months of the year. Ironically, the man who created the Luftwaffe was also largely responsible for its destruction. Blame for the Allied bombings fell on Goering and his inability to prevent them; in turn, he blamed the fighter pilots. He fired Adolf Galland, Hannes Trautloft, and a score of other top officers. In an eerily Soviet manner, he also instituted a system of political officers who would report anyone failing to display a suitable commitment to National Socialism.

Perhaps the final nail in the Luftwaffe’s coffin came from the blundering employment of a weapon that might have changed the air war. The Me 262 Schwalbe had actually been developed following Heinkel’s successful flight of the He 178 in August 1939—six days before Germany invaded Poland. Jet engine technology wasn’t new, but neither was it well understood, and the technical difficulties were severe. The vexing issue of heat transference within the engine was exacerbated by Germany’s shortage of metals for the alloys necessary to survive extreme temperatures. As it was, a normal engine would operate about twelve hours before needing an overhaul. The quick solution was to fold the turbine blade, creating something like a metallic taco shell, which facilitated air cooling. This prevented rapid meltdowns, helping avoid the problem of an engine “throwing” a blade, which usually had catastrophic effects.

Messerschmitt’s fighter flew its initial test flight in April of 1941, nearly two years before the British Gloster Meteor. Fortunately for the Allies, both Hitler and Goering were not supportive of the new program. In 1941 both men were convinced that victory was imminent and that Germany’s resources would be better utilized manufacturing piston engine fighters. By the middle of 1943, Hitler mandated that the jet be developed as a Schnellbomber (fast bomber) that could be used to strike England with impunity. Professional fighter pilots like Adolf Galland wanted to use the jet against Allied bombers that were destroying Germany. With a speed at least 150 mph faster than the P-51’s and four 30 mm Mk 108 cannons, it was an ideal bomber killer.

Or it would be if it was used correctly. The impressive speed advantage had a very real tactical downside: it was simply too fast for accurate aiming. Closing velocities for a head-on attack were over 1,000 feet per second, and the guns weren’t accurate beyond 600 yards. The jet usually had to break off at 200 yards, about a second away, to avoid either a collision or debris. So under ideal conditions (which were rare), a pilot had a 400-yard window, about two seconds, to aim and fire. The big 30 mm cannons, though devastating, had a low rate of fire at only three hundred rounds a minute. So a two-second burst from all four guns delivered forty rounds, not much to bring down a Flying Fortress or a Liberator. Augmenting the guns were 55 mm Orkan rockets in underwing pods, and as their trajectory was similar to that of the cannons the REVI 16B gunsight could be used for aiming. Also, the rockets had a tactical range of about a half mile, far beyond the bomber’s machine guns, and one Orkan hit was enough to bring down a Fortress.

Finally overcoming political opposition and most of the technical issues, the Me 262 went into action on July 26, 1944. Due to shortages, the test unit became an operational command under Maj. Walter Nowotny until his death in November. The influence of the Me 262 was profound and would be felt in future air wars, but for Germany it was too little and much too late.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord was the Allied invasion of a 50-mile stretch of beach along the Normandy coast. The Germans were well aware that an invasion would occur; however, the location was hotly disputed. Conventional thinking anticipated an assault at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point between England and France. It is here that a mere 21 miles of the Dover Strait separates continental Europe from the Kentish shoreline. It was the logical point to cross in a hurry due to an air or sea threat or if the attacker lacked sufficient transport. The Wehrmacht had faced all these issues in 1940, but the Allies had no such concerns in 1944. It was also too obvious. Plus there simply weren’t enough ports along that section of the English coast to support an invasion fleet.

Shortly after midnight the attack began with airborne drops and glider assaults on the flank areas of the beaches. The British 6th Airborne was to seize bridges over the rivers Orne and Dives, while the U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne took the neck of the Cotentin Peninsula. Unfortunately for the Americans, many of their glider pilots either panicked at the flak or landed their tows in the wrong drop zones. Despite high casualties, the survivors banded together where they could and created incredible confusion behind the German lines.

At 6:30 more than 150,000 Allied soldiers began coming ashore during the main amphibious assault. The western beaches belonged to 73,000 men of the U.S. First Army: Utah was hit by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and Omaha by the 1st Infantry Division with two Ranger battalions. Three divisions of the British Second Army were given beaches code-named Gold, Juno, and Sword.

The 4th Infantry Division was landed on the wrong spot, prompting the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr., to say, “We’ll start the war from here.” And he did just that. As the 4th moved inland it linked up with the paratroopers and only suffered 197 casualties out of the 23,000 men put ashore. The 1st Division on Omaha was a combat-tested unit that had fought in North Africa and Sicily; however, accompanied by the inexperienced 29th Infantry Division, it was landed opposite the German 352nd Infantry Division. This was a well-supplied, well-emplaced unit mostly composed of Russian Front veterans. The beachhead was in serious doubt until a breakthrough was achieved and men began moving inland around nine o’clock. The majority of the 4,600 American casualties on D-Day occurred here.

The British XXX Corps, which would later lead the ground assault during Operation Market Garden, came ashore in the center at Gold. Juno went to the Canadians, who made it off the beaches to Bayeux by nightfall. The 3rd Infantry Division, accompanied by Royal Marines and French commandos, stormed Sword. Naval support included more than a hundred destroyers, a dozen cruisers, and two battleships. Four thousand landing craft brought men in to land, while the RAF and USAAF flew 14,000 combat missions. Against this, the Luftwaffe countered with 250 sorties. Nearly all the fighter units had been withdrawn for the defense of the Reich, and only a few forward detachments remained.

By the end of the day the great risk had abated somewhat. Taking nothing away from the unquestioned courage of those who battled their way ashore, the Allies didn’t win the Normandy beachhead so much as it was lost by the Germans. Not by the soldiers on the ground who, despite their lack of supplies, fought tenaciously. No, the Allies were saved from worse consequences by the divided German High Command and, as always, Hitler himself. The 21st and 12th SS Panzers counterattacked on June 7 and nearly broke through to the beaches. What would’ve happened if all three complete panzer divisions had been released for combat on the morning of the invasion? Or if the Luftwaffe had been committed in strength against the extremely vulnerable beachheads and supporting naval units?

Much of the credit for this goes to a complex web of disinformation woven to deceive Hitler into believing the Pas de Calais was the true target. Or to the months of preparatory airstrikes that significantly crippled the French transportation network. In any event, the invasion succeeded and the continental foothold was established. Any plans the Germans had considered for a massive western redeployment were thrown out two weeks after D-Day.

On June 22, 1944 (the anniversary of Operation Barbarossa), the Soviet Union launched its own offensive from the east. When Operation Bagration commenced with 166 divisions, more than 2,500 tanks, and 4,500 combat aircraft, the days of Hitler’s Reich were truly numbered. Minsk fell by July 3, followed by the encirclement of Warsaw. The Romanians overthrew their government, declaring war on Germany in late August, and by September Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim of Finland concluded a separate peace with Stalin.

By the end of January 1945 the Soviets had crossed into East Prussia for the final push, driving 2 million refugees before them. By January 16, the Red Army had crossed the Oder River and was within 40 miles of Berlin. On that day, Hitler descended into his bunker beneath the Chancellery and would emerge only twice during the next three months. The city mobilized around him, some 330,000 defenders against 3 million vengeful Russians. As eight Allied armies swept across Europe from the west, they were ordered to advance no further than the Elbe River. Stalin was to get to Berlin first—this had been decided the previous year.

All through March the Russians built up 7 million artillery shells to feed their artillery around Berlin—300 guns to cover each half mile of city. More than 2,000 aircraft had been moved up for ground attack; as the Luftwaffe had effectively ceased to exist, there would be no air combat. Inside the capital, schoolchildren and Hitler Youth were armed and thrown into battle beside a motley collection of police, reservists, and a few fragmented veterans such as the 18th Panzergrenadiers. Others were hardened Waffen SS units who would never surrender to the Soviets and would fight to the death. Some of the SS units were made up of foreign volunteers who knew full well that they had nowhere else to die. Among these were the 11th SS Panzergrenadiers (Nordland) containing Spanish, Swedish, Danish, and Swiss volunteers. There was also the 33rd Grenadier (Charlemagne) Division of the SS—an entirely French unit.

On April 20, Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, the guns opened fire and did not stop until Berlin fell. To the north, the Soviets broke through Hasso von Manteuffel’s depleted panzers, the last real line of defense, and the encirclement of the capital was nearly complete. Russian tanks entered Berlin, and six days later the inner city was occupied by a half million Red Army soldiers with 13,000 heavy guns.

Early on April 27, Hitler wrote out his political statement justifying the war, expelled Himmler and Goering from the Nazi Party, and then married Eva Braun. Three days later, on the afternoon of April 30, 1945, he killed his dog, Blondi, and supposedly shot himself. The 8th Guards Army under Gen. Vasily Chuikov (of Stalingrad fame) had every Soviet gun open fire on May 1 and destroy what remained of downtown Berlin. The next afternoon at 3:00 p.m. the firing stopped, and beneath the smoke of the ruined city cheers rang out from 500,000 Russian soldiers. German units in western Europe, Norway, and the Channel Islands began surrendering, and Victory in Europe Day was proclaimed on May 8, 1945.

On the other side of the world, while Berlin burned, the Americans had forced the Japanese back across the Pacific. Saipan had fallen nine months earlier, putting Japan within range of the new B-29 bombers. In March 1945, while the noose around Berlin tightened, the USAAF launched a 325-aircraft night strike against Tokyo. Upward of 250,000 buildings burned, with 89,000 Japanese casualties, and on April 1 the Americans stormed ashore at Okinawa. The nearly three-month battle cost the lives of 7,000 soldiers and Marines—more fatalities than D-Day. It was a deadly harbinger of what an invasion of the Japanese home islands would cost.

The conviction that Tokyo would never surrender, that millions would fight to the death, led to a lonely bomber lifting off from the island of Tinian on August 6, 1945. Six hours later, flying under the call sign “Dimples 82,” a B-29 named the Enola Gay made history as a single 10-foot-long bomb dropped from her belly. Called “Little Boy,” it fell for forty-five seconds before arming, and at 8:15 a.m. it detonated 1,968 feet above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The atomic blast vaporized the city center, and the subsequent firestorm destroyed everything else within five miles. Three days later another B-29 called Bockscar also took off from Tinian’s North Field and dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki. Between them the pair of bombs killed at least 150,000 Japanese and convinced Emperor Hirohito that immediate capitulation was his only option to end the war.

On September 2, 1945, representatives of the Japanese Empire stood on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Rows of big, khaki-clad U.S. officers stood by and watched as the diminutive Japanese foreign minister, dressed in a black frock coat, meekly signed the surrender document. Senior officers representing the various Allied powers followed, the British in white shorts, the Americans grim and unsmiling. Even the Soviets showed up in dark uniforms and shoulder boards to claim a share of the spoils from their grueling twenty-five-day war against Japan.

As the short ceremony ended, aircraft roared overhead in a very visible display of U.S. military might. Flying one of the F6F fighters was James G. Daniels, the surviving wingman of the Wildcat flight shot down over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—the only man known to be in the air at both the beginning and end of the war.

World War II cost at least 50 million lives and military casualties were less than half of those. The Soviet Union alone lost 18 million and, not counting Stalin’s domestic butchery, at least 10 million of these were civilians. Poland’s population was barely 80 percent of what it had been in 1939, and 4.5 million Germans didn’t survive the war. The United States military suffered 292,000 dead, and of these, 45,520 were USAAF battle deaths—only Army ground forces sustained higher losses. Naval deaths from combat stood at 34,607, of whom 3,618 were aviators killed while fighting. The Marines lost 17,376 men in combat and 1,835 pilots.

Combat aviation was certainly born during the Great War, and its potential was accepted during the intervening years that followed. However, World War II saw aviation advance to a level that would have been unimaginable just a decade before. Bombing theory was somewhat revised to coincide with reality, though this lesson would again be forgotten in later wars. Heavy air transport was vital for the Normandy invasion, just as the lack of it sealed Paulus’s fate at Stalingrad. However, neither transport nor bombing success is feasible without the protection that can only come from fighters.

England’s very existence after 1940, the Pacific theater after Midway, and the ultimate destruction of the Nazi Reich are perfect examples of what is possible with fighter air superiority—or the lack of it. Fighter pilots certainly can’t win wars alone, but World War II absolutely proved that you cannot win a war without them.

Italian battleship – Vittorio Veneto

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The Vittorio Veneto saw more action than any other Italian battleship, being hit twice by torpedoes and once by bombs.

The first modern Italian battleships, the three Vittorio Venetos, were also the last. They displaced some 40,000 tons, were armed with nine 15-inch main battery guns, and their indigenous Belluzo geared turbines gave them the impressive speed of 30 knots, faster than the contemporary King George Vs, and only exceeded by the U. S. Iowas. Vittorio Veneto and Littorio/Italia were completed in 1940, and in November of that year Littorio was badly damaged by British aerial torpedoes at Taranto. It was repaired and renamed Italia after the fall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Vittorio Veneto survived a number of unsuccessful actions against the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The last unit of the class to enter service, and the last Italian battleship, Roma, completed in June 1942, was not so fortunate. Roma was blown up with heavy loss of life by a German television-controlled glider bomb in September 1943 as it was proceeding to surrender to the Allies. Work on the fourth ship of the class, Impero, was suspended, but the hull was taken over by the Germans as war booty in 1943 and used as a target and test subject; it then sank during a U. S. air raid, was later salvaged and towed to Venice, and there beached and broken up by 1950, a never-completed battleship.

With her sister Littorio, the Vittorio Veneto formed the spearhead of the Italian navy at the outbreak of World War II, having been completed in April and May 1940 respectively. Both formed the 9th Division at Taranto, where it was hoped they would deter the British Mediterranean Fleet by virtue of their high speed and heavy armament.

Both ships put to sea several times in response to British operations, but they missed the Battle of Calabria on 9 July 1940, The Vittorio Veneto was lucky not to be damaged during the Fleet air raid on Taranto in November 1940.

The new Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto came close to seeing action, along with Giulio Cesare, on 27 November 1940, when an Italian force consisting of the two battleships, six cruisers, and six destroyers, commanded by Admiral Ingio Campioni, attempted to attack a British convoy escorted by the RN battleship Ramillies, the battle cruiser Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, as well as light cruisers, destroyers, and support vessels, under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville. The forward cruiser forces on both sides exchanged fire at a range of 12 miles. But when the Italians learned of the presence of an RN aircraft carrier, they turned about for homeport Naples. This clash took place only about two weeks after the devastating RN carrier raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and the Italians were apparently still demoralized.

On 28 March 1941 while taking part in a sweep against the British convoys evacuating troops from Greece to Alexandria and Crete, the Vittorio Veneto was hit by a torpedo dropped by one of HMS Formidable’s Fairey Albacores, The 457-mm (18-in) torpedo hit abaft T turret on the port side at 15.21. Serious flooding followed and power was lost on the port outer propeller shaft, but she could still steam, and limped away to the North West.

More British attacks followed at dusk, missing the battleship but hitting one of her escorting cruisers, the Pola. The engineers and damage control parties worked hard to stem the flooding, and by 20.34 the Vittorio Veneto’s speed had increased to 19 kts, and she was able to make her way back to Taranto for repairs, leaving the Pola and two sisters to be destroyed by the British Mediterranean fleet during the night.

In December 1941 the Vittorio Veneto was hit by a torpedo from the British submarine HMS Urge, and needed another three months in dock. She joined the Littorio for an operation against a British convoy in mid-June 1942, but the Italians were losing the initiative, and thereafter she spent most of her time in La Spezia as Taranto was under constant air attack. On 5 June 1943 she was damaged by Allied bombers, and the following September she joined the melancholy line which steamed to Malta to surrender to the British.

The Vittorio Veneto was interned at Alexandria while the Allies debated the future of all Italian warships. There was talk of ‘tropicalizing’ the three ‘Littorio’ class battleships as fast carrier escorts for the Pacific but they lacked endurance, and although they returned to Italy in 1946 they were not permitted to be incorporated into the post-war Italian Navy, being sold for scrap m 1951.

Construction: Littorio/Italia: Ansaldo (October 1934-May 1940); Roma: CRDA (September 1938-June 1942); Vittorio Veneto: CRDA (October 1934-April 1940); (A fourth unit, Impero, was broken up, uncompleted, in 1948-1950.)

Displacement: 40,724-45,485 tons

Dimensions: 735′ x 780′ x 107’5″ x 31’5″ (averages for class)

Armament: 9 x 15″ 4 x 3-gun turrets

Armor: 13.8″ belt; 3.5″-6.4″ main deck; 7.9″-13.8″ turrets

Machinery: 4 x shaft Belluzo geared turbines = 128,200 hp = 30 knots

Complement: 1830-1950

Fate: Littorio: broken up, 1948-1955. Roma: sunk by German television-guided glider bomb, 9 September 1943. Vittorio Veneto: allocated to Britain as war reparations, scrapped 1948-1951. Littorio/Italia: Littorio renamed Italia after Italy’s surrender in 1943; allotted to the United States as reparations; scrapped 1948-1955.