By Daylight to Augsburg

On 17 April 1942, RAF Bomber Command mounted one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War. The target was the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half Germany’s output of U-boat engines. The Augsburg raid, apart from being one of the most daring and heroic ever undertaken by Bomber Command, was notable for two main things: it was the longest low-level penetration made during the war, and it was the first mission flown by the command’s new Lancaster bombers in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.

The prototype Avro Lancaster had been delivered to the RAF for operational trials with No. 44 Squadron at Waddington, near Lincoln, in September 1941. On 24 December it was followed by three production Lancaster Mk Is, and the nucleus of the RAF’s first Lancaster squadron was formed. In January 1942 the new bomber also began to replace the Avro Manchesters of No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby, another Lincolnshire airfield.

Four aircraft of No. 44 Squadron carried out the Lancaster’s first operation on 3 March 1942, laying mines in the German Bight, and the first night bombing mission was flown on 10 March when two aircraft of the same squadron took part in a raid on Essen. In all, fifty-nine squadrons of Bomber Command were destined to equip with the Lancaster before the end of the war, and this excellent aircraft was to become the sharp edge of the RAF’s sword in the air offensive against Germany. Developed from the twin-engined Manchester, whose Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were disastrously unreliable, the Lancaster was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, the splendid engines that also powered Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. It carried a crew of seven and had a defensive armament of ten 0.303-in Browning machine-guns. It had a top speed of 287 mph (460 kph) at 11,500 ft (3,500 metres) and could carry a normal bomb load of 14,000 lb (6.350 kg) – although later versions could lift the massive 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, used to attack hardened targets in the last months of the war.

Because of the growing success of Hitler’s U-boats in the Atlantic, the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets. The problem was that getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) over enemy territory, and the factories covered a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids available earlier, the chances of a night attack pinpointing and destroying such an objective were very remote, and a daylight precision attack, going on past experience, would be prohibitively costly.

Then the Lancaster came along, and the idea of a deep-penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters might get through to Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German warning radar. Also, a Lancaster flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below, its vulnerable spot. A lot would depend, too, on the route to the target. RAF Intelligence had compiled a reasonably accurate picture of the disposition of German fighter units in western Europe, which early in 1942 were seriously overstretched. Half the total German fighter force was deployed in Russia and another quarter in the Balkans and North Africa; most of the remaining squadrons, apart from those earmarked for the defence of Germany itself, were stationed in the Pas de Calais area and Norway. The danger point was the coast of France; if the Lancasters could slip through a weak spot, perhaps in conjunction with a strong diversionary attack, then the biggest danger, in theory at least, would be behind them.

Although Bomber Command’s new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, was generally opposed to small precision raids, being a strong advocate of large-scale ‘area’ attacks on enemy cities, the situation in the North Atlantic, with its awful daily toll of Allied shipping, compelled him to authorize the Augsburg plan. If it succeeded, it might reduce the number of operational U-boats for some time to come, and at the same time silence those in high places who were clamouring for RAF Bomber Command to divert more of its resources to hunting them.

The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron at Waddington and six from No. 97, now at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, the two most experienced Lancaster units. A seventh crew from each squadron would train with the others, to be held in reserve in case anything went wrong at the last minute.

For three days, starting on 14 April 1942, the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1,000 mile (1,600 km) flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. It was exhausting work, hauling thirty tons of bomber around the sky at such an altitude and having to concentrate on not flying into a neighbouring aircraft as well as obstacles on the ground, but the crews were all very experienced, most of them going through their second tour of operations, and they achieved a high standard of accuracy in the short time available.

Speculation ran high about the nature of the target. To most of the crews, a low-level mission signified an attack on enemy warships, a long, straight run into a nightmare of flak. When they eventually filed into their briefing rooms early on 17 April, and saw the long red ribbon of their track stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Almost automatically, they registered the details passed to them by the briefing officers. The six aircraft from each squadron were to fly in two sections of three, each section leaving the rendezvous point at a predetermined time. The interval between each section would be only a matter of seconds; visual contact had to be maintained so that the sections could lend support to one another in the event that they were attacked by enemy fighters.

From the departure point, Selsey Bill, the Lancasters were to cross the Channel at low level and make landfall at Dives-sur-Mer, on the French coast. Shortly before this, bombers of No. 2 group, covered by a massive fighter ‘umbrella’, were to make a series of diversionary attacks on Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas de Calais, Rouen and Cherbourg areas. The Lancasters’ track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammer See, a large lake some 20 miles (30 km) west of Munich and about the same distance south of Augsburg. By keeping to this route, it was hoped that the enemy would think that Munich was the target. Only when they reached the Ammer See would the bombers sweep sharply northwards for the final run to their true objective.

As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out so that there was a 3 mile (5 km) gap between each section. Sections would bomb from low level in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs. These would be fitted with eleven-second delayed-action fuzes, giving the bombers time to get clear but exploding well before the next section arrived over the target. Take-off was to be in mid-afternoon, which meant that the first Lancasters should reach the target at 20.15, just before dusk. They would therefore have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the Channel coast danger-areas on the homeward flight. The fuel tanks of each aircraft would be filled to their maximum capacity of 2,154 gal (9,792 litres).

The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron would form the first two sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, with good reason: about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. There were also a number of South Africans, and one of them was chosen to lead the mission. He was Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton, a tall, dark 25-year-old who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock-steady in an emergency. The war against the U-boat was of special interest to him, for after leaving school in Natal he had spent two years in the Merchant Navy and consequently had a fair idea of the agonies seamen went through when their ships were torpedoed. He came from a naval background, too: his grandfather had been an admiral in the Royal Navy. John Nettleton joined the Royal Air Force in 1938, and in April 1942 he was still completing his first operational tour. It was one of the penalties of being an above-average pilot: such men were often ‘creamed off’ to teach others.

Shortly after 15.00 on 7 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was shaken by the roar of twenty-four Rolls-Royce Merlins as No. 44 Squadron’s six Lancasters took off and headed south for Selsey Bill, the promontory of land jutting out into the Channel between Portsmouth and Bognor Regis. Ten miles (15 km) due east, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron leader J.S. Sherwood DFC, were also taking off from Woodhall Spa.

Each section left Selsey Bill right on schedule, the sea blurring under the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer G.T. Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant N. Sandford, Warrant Officer H.V. Crum and Warrant Officer J.E. Beckett. The sky was brilliantly clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.

As they raced over the French coast the pilots had to ease back their control columns to leapfrog the cliffs, so low were the bombers. They thundered inland across the picturesque landscape of Normandy, the broad loops of the River Seine glistening in the sunshine away to the left. The bombers would pass to the south of Paris and on to Sens, on the Yonne River, their first major checkpoint. Sens lay about 180 miles (290 km) from the Channel coast – about an hour’s flying time, at the ground speed the Lancasters were making. If they survived that first hour, if the diversionary raids had drawn off the German fighters, then they would have a good chance of reaching Augsburg.

The bombers were flying over wooded, hilly country near Breteuil when the flak hit them. Lines of tracer from concealed gun positions met the speeding Lancasters, and the ugly black stains of shellbursts dotted the sky around them. Shrapnel ripped into two of the aircraft, but they held their course. The most serious damage was to Warrant Officer Beckett’s machine, which had its rear gun turret put out of action.

It was sheer bad luck that drew the German fighters to the Lancasters. The Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II/Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ were returning to their base at Evreux after sweeping the area to the south of Paris in search of No. 2 Group’s diversionary bombers when they passed directly over the Lancasters’ track, actually passing between Nettleton’s and Sherwood’s formations, although at a much higher altitude. Even then, the bombers might have escaped detection had it not been for a solitary Messerschmitt 109, much lower than the rest, making an approach to land at Evreux with wheels and flaps down.

The German pilot spotted the Lancasters and immediately whipped up his flaps and landing gear, climbing hard and turning in behind Sandford’s section. He must have alerted the other fighters, because a few seconds later they came tumbling like an avalanche on the bombers.

The first 109 came streaking in, the pilot singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster for his first firing pass. Bullets tore through the cockpit canopy, showering Crum and his navigator, Rhodesian Alan Dedman, with razor-sharp slivers of perspex. Dedman looked across at the pilot and saw blood streaming down his face, but when he went to help Crum just grinned and waved him away. The Lancaster’s own guns hammered, there was a fleeting glimpse of the 109’s pale-grey, oil-streaked belly as it flashed overhead, and then it was gone.

The Lancasters closed up into even tighter formation as thirty more Messerschmitts pounced on them, and a running fight developed. The Lancaster pilots held their course doggedly; at this height there was no room to take evasive action and they had to rely on the bombers’ combined firepower to keep the Germans at bay. It was the first time that Luftwaffe fighters had encountered Lancasters, and to begin with the enemy pilots showed a certain amount of caution until they got the measure of the new bomber’s defences. As soon as they realized that its defensive armament consisted of 0.303 in machine-guns, however, they began to press home their attacks skilfully, coming in from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700 yards (640 m). At 400 yards (366 m), the limit of the .303’s effective range, they broke away and climbed to repeat the process.

The Lancasters were raked time after time as they thundered on, their vibrating fuselages a nightmare of noise as cannon shells punched into them and the gunners returned the enemy fire, their pilots drenched with sweat as they dragged the bombers over telegraph wires, steeples and rooftops. In the villages below, people fled for cover as the battle swept over their heads and shells from their own fighters spattered the walls of houses.

Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from his Lancaster as cannon shells found a fuel tank. Seconds later, the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down. Spewing burning fragments, the shattered bomber hit a clump of trees and disintegrated.

Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster, its wings and fuselage ripped and torn, came under attack by three enemy fighters. Both the mid-upper and rear gunners were wounded, and now the port wing fuel tank burst into flames. The bomber wallowed on, almost out of control. Crum, half-blinded by the blood streaming from his face wounds, fought to hold the wings level and ordered Alan Dedman to jettison the bombs, which had not yet been armed. The 1,000- pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheatfield and slewed to a stop on the far side. The crew, badly shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt, broke all records in getting out of the wreck, convinced that it was about to explode in flames. But the fire in the wing went out, so Crum used an axe from the bomber’s escape kit to make holes in the fuel tanks and threw a match into the resulting pool of petrol. Within a couple of minutes the aircraft was burning fiercely; there would only be a very charred carcase left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.

Afterwards, Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out to walk through occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were subsequently rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.

Now only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left out of the three Lancasters of the second section. A quiet music-lover who amused his colleagues because he always wore pyjamas under his flying suit for luck, he was one of the most popular officers on No. 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting desperately for his life. In a bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high-tensions cables. The Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cartwheeled and exploded, killing all the crew.

The enemy fighters now latched on to Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right of and some distance behind John Nettleton. Soon, the Lancaster was streaming fire from all four engines. Rhodes must have opened his throttles wide in a last attempt to draw clear, because his aircraft suddenly shot ahead of Nettleton’s. Then it went into a steep climb and seemed to hang on its churning propellers for a long moment before flicking sharply over and diving into the ground. There was no chance of survival for any of the crew.

The Lancaster was shot down by another warrant officer, a man named Pohl. Poor Rhodes was the thousandth victim to be claimed since September 1939 by the pilots of JG 2, and a party was held in Pohl’s honour at Evreux that night.

There were only two Lancasters left out of the 44 Squadron formation now: those flown by Nettleton and his number two, John Garwell. Both aircraft were badly shot up and their fuel tanks were holed, but the self-sealing ‘skins’ seemed to be preventing leakage on a large scale. Nevertheless, the fighters were still coming at them like angry hornets, and the life expectancy of both crews was now measured in minutes.

Then the miracle happened. Suddenly, singly or in pairs, the fighters broke off their attacks and turned away, probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt withdrawal meant that Nettleton and Garwell were spared, if only for the time being. They still had more than 500 miles (800 km) to go before they reached the target. Behind them, and a little way to the south, Squadron Leader Sherwood’s 97 Squadron formation had been luckier; they never saw the German fighters, and flew on unmolested.

Flying almost wingtip to wingtip, Nettleton and Garwell swept on in their battle-scarred aircraft. There was no further enemy opposition, and the two pilots were free to concentrate on handling their bombers – a task that grew more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and had to fly through turbulent air currents that boiled up from the slopes. They reached the Ammer See and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down once more into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead under a thin veil of haze, was Augsburg.

As they reached the outskirts of the town, a curtain of flak burst across the sky in their path. Shrapnel pummelled their wings and fuselages but the pilots held their course, following the line of the river to find their target. The models, photographs and drawings they had studied at the briefing had been astonishingly accurate and they had no difficulty in locating their primary objective, a T-shaped shed where the U-boat engines were manufactured.

With bomb doors open, and light flak hitting the Lancasters all the time, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of bombs fell from their bellies. The Lancasters were already over the northern suburbs of Augsburg when the bombs exploded, and the gunners reported seeing fountains of smoke and debris bursting high into the evening sky above the target.

Nettleton and Garwell had battled their way through appalling odds and successfully accomplished their mission, but the flak was still bursting around them and now John Garwell found himself in trouble. A flak shell turned the interior of the fuselage into a roaring inferno and Garwell knew that this, together with the severe damage the bomber had already sustained, might lead to her breaking up at any moment. There was no time to gain height so that the crew could bale out; he had to put her down as quickly as possible. Blinded by the smoke that was now pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. He was completely unable to see anything; all he could do was try to hold the bomber steady as she sank.

A long, agonizing minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. Then she slid to a stop and Garwell, with three other members of his crew, scrambled thankfully out of the raging heat and choking, fuel-fed smoke into the fresh air. Two other crew members were trapped in the burning fuselage and a third, Sergeant R.J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the ecape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few precious extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.

Completely alone now, John Nettleton set course northwestwards for home, chasing the afterglow of the setting sun. As he did so, the leading section of No. 97 Squadron descended on Augsburg. They had to fly through a flak barrage even more intense than the storm that had greeted Nettleton and Garwell; as well as four-barrelled 20 mm Flakvierling cannon, the Germans were using 88 mm guns, their barrels depressed to the minimum and their shells doing far more damage to the buildings of Augsburg than to the racing bombers. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any AA position they could see. The bombers were so low that on occasions they dropped below the level of the rooftops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.

Sherwood’s aircraft, probably hit by a large-calibre shell, began to stream white vapour from a fuel tank. A few moments later flames erupted from it and it went down out of control, a mass of fire, to explode just outside the town. Sherwood alone was thrown clear and survived. The other two pilots, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely with their crews.

The second section consisted of Flight Lieutenant Penman, Flying Officer Deverill and Warrant Officer Mycock. All three pilots saw Sherwood go down as they roared over Augsburg in the gathering dusk. The sky above the town was a mass of vivid light as the enemy gunners hurled every imaginable kind of flak shell into the Lancasters’ path. Mycock’s aircraft was quickly hit and set on fire but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached the target his Lancaster was little more than a plunging sheet of flame, but Mycock held on long enough to release his bombs. Then the Lancaster exploded, its burning wreckage cascading into the streets.

Deverill’s Lancaster was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish the blaze after bombing the target and flew back to base on three engines, accompanied by Penman’s Lancaster. Both crews expected to be attacked by night fighters on the home run, but the flight was completely uneventful. It was just as well, for every gun turret on both Lancasters was jammed.

For his part in leading the Augsburg raid, John Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was promoted to the rank of wing commander, and the following year saw him flying his second tour of operations. He was killed on the night of 12/13 July 1943, his bomber falling in flames from the night sky over Turin, Italy.

Altough reconnaissance later showed that the MAN assembly shop had been damaged, the full results of the raid were not known until after the war. It appeared that five of the delayed-action bombs which the Lancaster crews had braved such dangers to place on the factory had failed to explode. The others caused severe damage to two buildings, one a forging shop and the other a machine-tool store, but the machine-tools themselves suffered only light damage. The total effect on production was negligible, especially as the MAN had five other factories building U-boat engines at the time.

The loss of seven Lancasters and forty-nine young men was too high a price to pay. Not until the closing months of 1944 would the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers again venture over Germany in daylight, and by then the Allied fighters ruled the enemy sky.


The Chaco Air War

A major war was raging between Bolivia and Paraguay in the late twenties/early thirties. Both nations had for many years been disputing sovereignty of the Chaco Boreal, a dispute fuelled by the belief by foreign interests that large oil deposits lay undeveloped in the territory. In 1928 Paraguayan forces had seized a Bolivian fort and immediately a series of isolated but bloody clashes followed. A truce had been negotiated by the Pan American Conference and League of Nations but this failed to hold and in 1932 all-out warfare between the two states erupted

The small Paraguayan air force possessed a number of Italian Fiat CR 30 biplane fighters. Bergamaschi AP 1 monoplane fighters, Caproni Ca 101 three engine bombers and Breda Ba 44 transports, while the larger Bolivian Cuerpo de Aviacion flew about 60 Curtiss Wright Osprey general – purpose aircraft, Curtiss Hawk IA fighters and Junkers W 34s converted as bombers. From 1933 onward both sides made considerable use of their air forces. A high proportion of the aircrews were foreign mercenaries although, with the assistance of an Italian military aviation mission, the standard of training among Paraguayan flying personnel quickly improved. Numerous air combats took place, particularly when both sides began flying bombing raids and it has been suggested that each air force lost about 30 aircraft. Best known pilot of the war was undoubtedly Major Rafael Pavon who, in Curtiss Hawks, was credit ed with three combat victories and came to be dubbed the Bolivian ace of aces.

A further truce was arranged in 1935 and the Chaco Treaty was signed at Buenos Aires dividing the Chaco Boreal between the two belligerents, Paraguay gaining by far the greater area. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties (Paraguay 36,000 men and Bolivia 52,000), and both were rendered economically exhausted by the Chaco War which achieved precious little, as the oil interests that had led to such bitter jealousies were not to be realised for many years to come.

The Gran Chaco War: Fighting for Mirages in the Foothills of the Andes

WWII Air-to-Ground Special Purpose Weapons

‘Mistel’ (mistletoe) was the name the Germans gave to their combination system whereby a fighter aircraft was attached to an old bomber loaded with explosives. The fighter, in this case an Me 109, flew its charge to the target, broke contact and guided the bomber to impact by radio control.

The ‘Weary Willie’ idea of packing old B- 17s with explosive and crashing them on to a target was abandoned in favour of more modest plans involving these Grumman F6F Hellcats. Too late for service in 1945, they saw action in the Korean War.

The Förstersonde consisted of a pair of 77-mm recoilless guns mounted vertically in the wing of an FW 190 and triggered by the electro-magnetic field created by the mass of metal in a tank. It was successful in penetrating the armour of a captured T-34 tank. Very little is known of this project except that trials were made in early 1945 on the fire control system which proved that it was feasible if not immediately perfect, but the weapon never got into service.

Many of today’s air-to-ground weapons can trace their ancestry back to munitions designed in World War II. Most nations experimented with guided weapons, the Germans deploying some to great effect. There were also unique ideas such as the Dambusters’ ‘Bouncing Bomb’ produced for special operations.

Weary Willie and ‘ Tired Tim’ were a couple of much-beloved strip cartoon characters in the days before World War IL , and it was probably the America custom of describing time-expired operational airframes as ‘war weary’ that led to the name Weary Willie for the Boeing B-17s modified for remote-control crashing onto targets such as the underground lairs (No-ball targets) of weapons like the V-1 flying bomb . The relegated bombers were never in the event used for such work, but would have been packed with explosive and taken under radio control on their last mission.

But if such outsize flying bombs as these represent the larger of the special purpose weapons, the other end of the scale is surely and ably represented by the tiny Razzle (and the larger Decker). These were incendiary devices intended for use against enemy crops and forests and consisted of a small piece of wet cotton wool wrapped round a phosphorus pellet and enclosed within two sheets of celluloid about 7.6 cm (3 in) square. Some 450 such devices were carried in a drum of liquid and dropped over enemy territory, to lay on the ground undetected until they dried out and ignited

Yet undoubtedly the most famous special device of the entire conflict is the cylindrical bomb used to destroy the vital Ruhr dams.

Simple in concept, this Barnes Wallis design was little more than a cylinder, set spinning by means of a VSG Hydraulic motor via a ‘V’ belt. With 2994 kg (6,600 lb) of RDX explosive making up, the greater part of the 4196 kg 2994 kg (9,250 lb) total the bomb was capable of skipping total the over the protective booms at 500 rpm once released by the parting of the pair of suspended trusses, to sink against the target wall and be fired by the hydrostatic fuses set to operate at a depth of 9.14 m (30 ft).

Another special Weapon of similar concept was that intended to sink the Tirpitz. This preceded the larger bomb, and was codenamed ‘Highball’. Of spheroidal shape, it was intended to be carried in pairs by an adapted de Havilland Mosquito. The delivery journey and dash back to base would be carried out at 4572-m (15,000-ft) altitude which, although probably alerting the enemy radar, would permit an enhanced range and improved flexibility of the actual attack. Unfortunately all came to naught although tests had been satisfactorily concluded, political pressures finally winning the day so that not even the squadron of special Mosquitoes despatched to operate against the Japanese fleet was ever used.

The supply of special weapons was not in any measure confined to the Allies. For example , the Luftwaffe boasted that its largest convention 5,511-lb SC 2500 nicknamed ‘Max’ which was 3.895 m ( 12 ft 9.3 in ) long and had a diameter of 0.829 m (2 ft 8.6 in), was too large to fit in the internal bay of any German bomber and thus had to be carried externally.

One of the special weapons associated with the night raids against the UK was that popularly known as the ‘land mine’. This was an adapted device that was commonly spoken of in some awe because of its high blast effect; this was partly the result of the weapon’s lack of penetration, since it was dropped under a large parachute of coarse green material secured to the thin-walled casing with plaited lines some 12.7-mm (0.5- in) thick. These weapons were frequently dropped in company with a percentage of ‘oil bombs’, fire-raising devices distinct from the normal thermite incendiaries of which an explosive version was introduced. The oil bombs carried both fuel-oil and phosphorus within a single casing. Another contemporary special weapon was the so-called Molotov cocktail, which consisted in the main of a high-explosive bomb with an attached container for conventional incendiaries which opened before making impact and thus scattered its load.

But perhaps the most dangerous special weapon to come from the German aerial armoury was quite small, the ‘butterfly-bomb’ or SD-2 which consisted of a cylinder no more than a few centimetres in diameter. Semi-circular wings so that the bomb spun to the ground in the manner of a sycamore seed. These weapons proved particular value against soft-skinned vehicles or troops in the open, detonation taking place on impact or after a delay; the weapons could also act as ‘booby-traps’, lying in undergrowth etc. until disturbed. Fighters or Junkers Ju 87s could lay a trail of up to 96 of these SD-2s, while twin-motor bombers could deposit some 360, a contrast in size and scope with such special weapons as the explosive-laden Grumman F6F Hellcats earmarked to fly unmanned against targets in the Pacific area.


Without doubt, though, the glide bomb to end all glide bombs was Mistel (`Mistletoe’). It is said that this idea was put forward by the chief test pilot of the Junkers company in 1941 as a method of putting war-weary Ju 88 bombers to some practical use. In the 1930s Britain’s Imperial Airways had proposed an air mail service on the Atlantic and other routes by using a seaplane mounted on top of a flying-boat. The flying boat took off, carrying the seaplane, transported it some distance along its route, and then the seaplane released itself and flew off to continue the trip while the flying boat returned to base. The object was to use the greater power of the flying boat to get the heavily laden (with fuel and mail) seaplane into the air, as well as carry it some distance without using any of its fuel.

The proposal that now came forward in Germany was a reversal of this. The Ju 88 bomber was stripped of its interior fittings and had the cockpit space filled with a gigantic shaped charge weighing about 3,500kg. A fighter aircraft was attached above the bomber and the controls connected. All engines were started and the fighter pilot flew the combination off. On approaching his target he put the whole combination into a dive calculated to deliver the bomber to the target, then disconnected himself. He then flew an accompanying course, correcting the bomber’s flight by radio until he had steered it into impact with the target, after which he flew home satisfied with a job well done.

As might be imagined, such a revolutionary concept in 1941 was promptly thrown out, but in 1942 it re-appeared but as a means of lifting a glider into the air and then releasing it. This appeared to work successfully, then somebody in the Reichsluftministerium remembered the fighter/bomber combination and brought the idea forward again. In 1943 it was put into development and a combination Ju 88A/Messerschmitt Bf 109 flew a series of tests, leading to an order for 15 sets to be built under the code-name Beethoven. The shaped-charge warhead was built and tested, first against a redundant French battleship and then against reinforced concrete, against which it could defeat 18 metres thickness.

Once the design was perfected and made operational, it became Mistel 7, and the machines were operated in 1944 from a base in France against Allied shipping in the Bay of Biscay. It is reported that several hits were made, though no ship was sunk as a result. Now a crash programme was begun to assemble 100 units, to be called Mistel 2, which were to be used in Operation Iron Hammer against the advancing Allied forces nearing Germany. The order was then increased to 250, and several other combinations of fighter and bomber, according to what machines could be rounded up and converted, were put in hand, but, as with so many other last-minute schemes, the war ended before the force could be built and assembled.

Gliding Torpedoes

Blöhm und Voss, being primarily a firm with naval interests, became involved in the development of a gliding torpedo in the middle 1930s. Dropping torpedoes from aircraft was by that time a commonplace, but it was a rough and ready technique which simply took a standard naval torpedo and dropped it in the water from as low as the pilot dared to go. The Blöhm & Voss Luft-Torpedo (LT F5b) began with a standard 750 kg fleet torpedo and added tail surfaces and apparatus for setting the steering and depth controls from the aircraft. This worked well and improved the accuracy of the aviators, and it was followed by the LT 10 Friedensengel (Angel of Peace’) which used the same torpedo but added wings and tail-planes so that it could make a long glide before entering the water at the proper speed and angle. About 450 of these appear to have been manufactured during the war years, though accounts of their employment are certainly very scarce. Production was halted in 1944 and changed to the LT 11 or Schneewittchen (`Snow-white’), a rather more advanced model, but few of these were ever made.

The German bouncing bombs

There was an immediate response to the bomb by the Germans. After the Lancaster crashed from hitting high-tension power lines, the intact mine was removed from the wrecked plane by the local troops, who initially thought that it was a reinforced auxiliary fuel tank. Once its true nature was realized it took just ten days for the German engineers to draw up detailed blueprints of all the design features and they set out to build a bouncing bomb of their own. The first constructed was code named Kurt and was a 850lb (385kg) bomb built at the Luftwaffe Experimental Centre in Travemünde. The initial trial was from a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 but the importance of backspin was not recognized by the designers, and the bomb leaped high in the air after release, posing a danger to the aircraft.

To obtain more range, and thus provide safer conditions for the dropping aircraft, which, it appeared, would usually be above the bomb when it detonated, a rocket rail unit was fitted. This increased the range but also showed a tendency to push the bomb off course if it happened to be yawing at the instant of ignition. To cure this a gyroscope stabilising unit was designed, which would have been run up before the bomb was dropped but while the aircraft was aimed at the target, and which would subsequently detect any tendency to veer off-course and apply the necessary corrections to the tail unit to steer it back again. But, in November 1944, before this could be built and tested, the project was closed down. The one thing that remains to be discovered about Kurt is what target the Luftwaffe planned to use it against?

The fact that the Germans found an intact bomb was due to a vital factor overlooked by the British designers. As we have seen, these were essentially mines fitted with depth charges. The bomb that overshot – because it was never immersed in water – was never going to explode, and so it was recovered intact. A conventional time fuse should have been fitted, and then the weapon would have functioned as conventional bomb if it overshot the dam. And the Germans missed something equally crucial – the fact that the bombs were spinning. It was the backspin that gave the bouncing bombs their awesome ability to ricochet so far across the water. This remained a military secret long after the war; indeed, you will note that there is no mention of spin even in the movie of the Dambusters. Although Barnes Wallis advised on the film, and it is painstakingly accurate in many respects, he was prohibited from releasing this vital piece of information and the public never knew.

The drawings and diagrams were ultimately all lost, and little technical detail remained. In 2011 Ian Duncan, a director with the British documentary company Windfall Films, recreated a scaled-down version of the bouncing bomb, with Dr Hugh Hunt of Cambridge University in charge of the experiments. They began logically (as did Barnes Wallis) with small spheres leading onto increasingly large projectiles, ending up with a half-size bouncing bomb with which they successfully targeted a purpose-built dam. The physics proved interesting: just as Barnes Wallis had calculated, the lower the bomb was dropped, the further it travelled.

The Americans had tried to make use of this principle immediately after World War II. Because they were sent every British military secret, their designers were aware of the need for backspin, and they also knew that a low launch altitude helped maximize the trajectory of the spinning mine. They copied the British design of the Highball weapon, renaming it Baseball. Initial investigations were promising, so – to maximize the distance the bomb would travel – they decided to launch it at 25ft (7.6m), less than half the altitude of the British Dambusters. This was such a success that the officials reckoned the pilot should fly even lower and see how far the bomb went this time. As the plane sped above the water at the perilously low level of 10ft (3m) the bomb was dropped and bounced perfectly – so much so that it smashed up through the fuselage, completely severing the aircraft’s tail. The plane flew on momentarily and then smashed into countless fragments as it hit the water at speed. The surviving film of the incident makes the whole event so obviously predictable, and one can only sympathize with the compliant pilot who either thought it would be good idea at the time or was simply following orders.

Meanwhile, Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron remained together and they were subsequently given the opportunity to deliver Barnes Wallis’s later weapons. The Cookie 5-ton bomb was carried by Lancaster bombers and used with great effect to attack submarine pens in France and German warship bases in the fjords of Norway. Although it proved a success, it was no more than a vast, conventional blast bomb. Barnes Wallis had in mind a very different secret weapon which would penetrate the ground and deliver such powerful shockwaves that it would bring down buildings and bunkers for a considerable distance around. Whereas a conventional bomb (no matter how large) did its damage through air-blast, Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary new bomb would generate a miniature earthquake, by setting up huge ground waves of energy. These could demolish a building from below.

Other solutions were sought to increase the penetrating power of high-explosive bombs. Towards the end of the war, a rocket-assisted high-impact bomb was conceived by the Royal Navy’s Captain Edward Terrell as an alternative answer. The rocket could give a smaller bomb the velocity needed to penetrate thick concrete. The weapon weighed only 4,500 lb (2,000 kg) and could be dropped from a safe altitude of 20,000 ft (about 6,000 m). When it had descended to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) a barometric fuse would fire a rocket motor in the tail. This accelerated the bomb to give it a final speed of 2,400 ft/s (730 m/s). This secret weapon was first carried under the wings of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers used by the 92nd Bomb Group on 10 February 1945 against the S-boat pens at IJmuiden, Netherlands. Altogether, 158 of these so-called Disney bombs were used operationally by the end of the war in Europe.

Barnes Wallis scaled down his proposals for his gravity-assisted penetrating bomb, and in 1944 designed instead the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bomb, which could be carried by the current bombers. Later in the war, the Avro Lancaster improved to such an extent that it could just support a 10-ton payload and so, as we shall see, the 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam bomb was finally put into production. It was a secret weapon of unprecedented power. As in the case of the Tallboy bomb, the Grand Slam was spin-stabilized by its fins and was built with a thick, heavy steel case to allow it to penetrate deep layers of the ground unscathed. Dropped from high altitude, it would impact at nearly the speed of sound. During manufacture, hot liquid Torpex explosive was poured in to fill the casing and this took a month to cool down and solidify. Torpex (named because it had been developed as a TORpedo EXplosive) had more than 150 per cent the force of TNT. The finished bomb was so valuable that aircraft that could not drop their weapon in an abortive mission were ordered to return to base and land with the bomb intact, instead of jettisoning it over the open sea. Barnes Wallis had planned to create a 10-ton weapon in 1941, but it was not until June 1944 that the bomb was ready for use. It was first dropped on the Saumur rail tunnel from Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron. No aircraft were lost on the raid, and one of the bombs bored 60 ft (18 m) through the rock into the tunnel, blocking it completely. These massive ‘earthquake’ bombs were also used on the great concrete structures that the Germans were building to protect their rocket storage bunkers and submarine pens, and caused considerable damage. The Valentin submarine pens at Bremen, Germany, were made with reinforced concrete roofs some 23 ft (7 m) thick yet they were penetrated by two Grand Slam bombs in March 1945.

Ultimate penetration bombs

These ground-penetrating bombs are among the secret weapons that have gone on to give rise to present-day developments. Remote guidance was added to the Tallboy bomb by the United States during the Korean War. The resulting weapon was the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tarzon bomb, used with devastating effect against a deep underground control room near Kanggye. Bunker buster bombs were also dropped at the Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm. At the outbreak of the First Gulf War none of the NATO forces possessed such a weapon, so some of the original Barnes Wallis bombs were brought out of museums and used as templates for the construction of 2-ton bombs. They were laser guided by the United States forces and proved highly effective.

During the late 1990s a nuclear bomb was being designed by the United States for use in tactical warfare. Known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator it underwent extensive design and development even though the use of nuclear weapons was prohibited by international agreement. Work on the project continued until it was finally cancelled by the Senate in 2005. Meanwhile, in 2007 the Boeing Company announced that they had carried out successful tests of their Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) weapon at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This bomb, also known as the Big Blu and Direct Hard Target Strike Weapon, is a 30,000 lb (14,000 kg) penetration bomb designed to be delivered by a B-52 Stratofortress or a B-2 stealth bomber against heavily protected subterranean targets. This is a project for the United States Threat Reduction Agency, and is designed to hit the ground at supersonic speeds so that it can penetrate deeply prior to detonation. Most of the mass is in the casing, not the explosive component. All of his stems from the work of Barnes Wallis during World War II, so once again the legacy of these secret weapons remains with us to this day.

USA guided missiles

One of the first guided missiles designed in the United States was the Dragon, a radio-controlled aerial torpedo with a television camera mounted in the nose. Development proved difficult, however, when private television and electronics related firms attempted to merge their designs with the air- frames developed by the military. To overcome some of the ensuing technical difficulties involved in systems integration, the NDRC enlisted the aid of the National Bureau of Standards, which formed a special research group for the project. But before development advanced to the production stage, the project became sidetracked when the navy requested the National Bureau of Standards to design an effective antisubmarine guided missile. Using a scaled- down version of the Dragon, late in 1944, the National Bureau of Standards produced the Pelican, a radar-guided antisubmarine missile.

By this time, however, the German U-boat threat had subsided greatly, and despite its excellent performance in flight tests, the navy scrapped the Pelican, declaring that the missile was of “no operational use.” The technical knowledge gained from the development of the Pelican was subsequently applied to a more advanced model, the SWOD Mk 9 air-to-surface guided missile, also known as the Mk 57 Bomb, or Bat. The Bat, developed by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in cooperation with the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, was a low- angle glide bomb equipped with a radar bombsight for active homing. The Bat entered service in January 1945 and was first used on 23 April 1945 at Balikpapan, Borneo. Although the Bat was the only completely automatic target- seeking missile developed during the war, its efficacy in combat proved less than satisfactory.

Air War Over Iraq

Frank Wootton’s painting “The Battle of Habbaniya, May 1941” shows Hawker Audaxes and Airspeed Oxfords bombing Iraqi artillery along a high plateau within firing range of the Royal Air Force’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School. (Wealdown Limited Editions, UK)

In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands — a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.

By Kelly Bell

At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base’s ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm — neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.

In the spring of 1941, the RAF’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors — few of whom had combat experience — and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.

There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II — yet few have heard of it.

The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain’s oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d’état that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece — which had just fallen to the Third Reich — to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.

Until Rashid Ali’s coup, British forces in the region — falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies — anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel’s recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.

As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.

Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base’s civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base’s cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya’s greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.

During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base’s landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew’s initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp’s main gate and handed over a letter that read: “For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it.”

Such comportment of forces on a “training exercise” struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: “Any interference with training flights will be considered an ‘act of war’ and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.”

Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base’s seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations — behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.

Habbaniya’s RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.

On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty’s diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw — without response.

Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office — again, civilians — authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.

Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.

Supporting those ground forces were elements of the Royal Iraqi air force, including 63 British, Italian and American-built warplanes equal to or newer than those at Habbaniya. Number 1 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at Mosul had 25 airworthy Hawker Nisrs, export variants of the Audax powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. Number 4 (Fighter) Squadron at Kirkuk possessed nine Gladiators. At Baghdad No. 5 (Fighter) Squadron had 15 Breda Ba.65 attack planes, while at Rashid No. 7 (Fighter-Bomber) Squadron could field 15 Douglas 8A-4s, as well as four Savoia S.M.79B twin-engine bombers purchased from Italy in 1937. On paper, at least, the Iraqi air force had the RAF outclassed at Habbaniya.

Smart contacted his ambassador in Baghdad to issue an ultimatum for the Iraqis to start withdrawing from Habbaniya by 8 a.m. on May 2. In that way should they refuse to heed the deadline, the whole day would be available for combat. Smart was still unsure of how far London would support him if he engaged the armed forces of a country not clearly defined as an Axis power. His maddening uncertainty was tardily banished by a May 1 telegram from Churchill: “If you have to strike, strike hard.”

That emboldened the harried commander to make the first move. He had learned from a radio message that 10 Vickers Wellington bombers from No. 70 Squadron had arrived at Basra. With expectations of their support, he would launch an airstrike at dawn on May 2. Although an aerial assault against well-dug-in armored forces had never succeeded before, Smart was upbeat, remarking, “They should be in full retreat within about three hours.”

Smart refused to withdraw the aircrewmen and least-experienced students from the trenches despite their doubtful ability, even bolstered by 400 Arab auxiliaries, to stop an armored charge. Knowing that their ground crews’ availability to service returning machines would be critical in the fight to come, Smart’s squadron commanders furtively toured the perimeter late on the night of May 1 and led the necessary personnel away from their fighting positions.

At 4:30 on the morning of May 2, 1941, the first flying machine cranked its engines on Habbaniya airfield. Thirty minutes later 35 Audaxes, Gordons and Oxfords were showering bombs on the Iraqis, joined by Wellingtons of Nos. 70 and 37 squadrons from Basra. The Iraqis were well dug-in on broken ground that provided good cover and concealment, so the British saw few potential targets at first. The Iraqis, unable to draw beads on the airplanes in the darkness, retaliated by shelling the air base, but the gun flashes gave away their positions. The Audaxes dropped explosives on the anti-aircraft gun pits while the Wellingtons’ turret gunners strafed them. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners used many tracers, again marking their positions for the British airmen to attack or avoid. After bombing from just 1,000 feet for maximum accuracy, the British carefully scanned the plateau for suitable future targets.

As soon as an aircraft landed, one of its two crewmen (they alternated) would hurry to the operations control room, report on the results of his raid and suggest targets for the next flight. Meanwhile, the other crew member would oversee ground personnel in making repairs, refueling and rearming the aircraft. The planes’ engines were generally kept running. As soon as the first crew member returned with a new assignment, the two would board their machine and return to the fray.

The Wellingtons performed well on the first day, but being big they attracted the eagle’s share of groundfire as well as half-hearted attacks from two Iraqi Gladiators and two Douglas 8As. One damaged “Wimpy” was forced to land at Habbaniya and then set on fire by Iraqi artillery shells; nine other damaged bombers were declared unserviceable when they returned to Basra. Groundfire brought down an Oxford flown by Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, and Pilot Officer P.R. Gillespy’s Audax failed to return.

Smart’s estimate that the Iraqis would cut and run within three hours proved seriously overoptimistic. By 12:30 p.m., after 7 1/2 hours of almost-constant aerial assault, they were still shelling the base, and at 10 a.m. their air force had joined in, destroying three aircraft on the airfield. One of the Gladiator pilots, Flying Officer R.B. Cleaver, was trying to intercept an S.M.79B when his guns failed, but Flying Officer J.M. Craigie caused a Ba.65 to break off its strafing attack.

By day’s end, the British had flown 193 recorded operational sorties — six per man. The RAF had lost 22 of its 64 aircraft, and 10 pilots were dead or critically wounded, but only a crippling injury was deemed sufficient to send a man to the infirmary.

Although the Iraqis had been sorely hurt and showed no inclination to launch a ground attack, they were still firmly ensconced atop their elevation with a variety of fieldpieces trained on the smoking flying school. Furthermore, that afternoon Iraqi troops invaded the British Embassy in Baghdad and confiscated every wireless transceiver and telephone, leaving the only two significant English outposts in the region isolated from each other.

By that evening, Dudgeon and Hawtrey were the only squadron commanders not dead or hospitalized. They decided that the next day Hawtrey would command all remaining Audaxes and Gladiators from the base’s polo field, which was visually screened from the artillery by a row of trees. Dudgeon would direct all Oxfords and Gordons from the cratered landing field.

Meanwhile, the Committee of Imperial Defense had transferred command of land forces in Iraq to Middle East Command, compelling Wavell to assemble whatever elements he could spare into a relief unit, called Habforce, to march the 535 miles from Haifa to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali’s leaders also appealed for help, but the Germans were preparing for their invasions of Crete and the Soviet Union, and the Italian response was slow. Only the Vichy French in Syria agreed to send arms and German-supplied intelligence to the Iraqis. They also promised the use of Syrian airfields to any aircraft that the Germans or Italians were willing to commit to Iraq.

On May 3, Smart, noting that the Iraqi artillery had not caused as much damage as he feared it would, called for the RAF to launch some preemptive strikes against the Iraqi air bases. Three Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron bombed Rashid, also claiming to have shot down a Nisr and damaged another. The Iraqi airmen struck back, but Cleaver attacked an S.M.79B, which he last saw diving away with its left engine smoking. One of the Gordon pilots, Flight Lt. David Evans, developed a novel and risky but effective method of dive-bombing. After the ground crewmen had affixed fuzes with a seven-second delay to the 250-pound bombs, he would remove the safety devices. That meant that if a bomb came loose from its fitting, it would probably explode seven seconds later. After takeoff, Evans would climb to about 3,000 feet and scan Iraqi positions. Then, diving at about 200 mph, he would yank back on the stick and drop a bomb from six to 10 feet over the target — too close to miss. Seven seconds later, just as Evans made it to a safe distance, the bomb would obliterate the target and rattle his teeth. This method so terrified the Iraqis that they took to their heels without bothering to fire at the plunging Gordon.

Although Rashid Ali’s troops kept shelling Habbaniya, they balked at storming the base. Their confidence was further undermined by the arrival of four Blenheim Mk.IVF fighters from No. 203 Squadron on May 3. Eight of No. 37 Squadron’s Wellingtons bombed buildings and strafed aircraft at Rashid on May 4 but lost a plane to a combination of 20mm groundfire and an Iraqi Gladiator of No. 4 Squadron. The Wellington crew was taken prisoner. Two Blenheim Mk.IVFs from Habbaniya also strafed Iraqi aircraft at Rashid and Baghdad airfields. At that same time, six Vickers Valentias and six Douglas DC-2s of No. 31 Squadron were flying troops into Iraq and ferrying out civilian evacuees. One of the DC-2s flew into Habbaniya with, among other supplies, ammunition for a couple of World War I–era fieldpieces that for years had stood as ornaments outside the officers’ mess. To the garrison’s surprise the old guns proved still operable, and when they opened up on the plateau, the Iraqis were convinced the British were being reinforced with artillery. The trainers only flew 53 sorties that day, but they also flew night missions to deprive their besiegers of sleep.

Still, the defenders were suffering much worse than their foes seemed to realize. After four days of combat, just four of the original 26 Oxfords were still battle-worthy. The Audax, Gladiator and Gordon contingents were similarly depleted. Pilots were also becoming even scarcer, as half-trained cadets died in action or suffered from cracked nerves.

On May 6, an Audax returned from a dawn reconnaissance mission with news that the Iraqis were withdrawing. That encouraged Colonel O.L. Roberts of the 1st King’s Own Royals, commander of ground forces at Habbaniya, to mount an assault, backed by the Audaxes, to drive the enemy from the plateau. The timing was perfect — the Iraqis, their morale broken at last, suddenly abandoned the heights in a disorderly withdrawal down the Baghdad road toward Fallujah. Meanwhile, six Wellingtons from No. 37 Squadron hit Rashid again.

That afternoon the British spotted a column of Iraqi reinforcements approaching from Fallujah, which soon ran into the forces retreating from Habbaniya. In complete disregard for military procedure, both groups stopped on the highway, and personnel jumped from their vehicles to confer, leaving all their trucks, tanks and armored cars parked in plain view. At that point, Savile hurled every remaining Audax, Gladiator, Gordon and Oxford he had — 40 aircraft — at the bunched-up mass of vehicles. The young airmen in their old planes knew they would not have a better — or another — chance like this, and they made the most of it with all the shells and bombs they could carry. The two airstrikes took two hours, with the British flying 139 separate sorties. One Audax was damaged by groundfire, but they left the Iraqi convoy in flames.

Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.

Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.

The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.

In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya’s makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.

On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, Luftwaffe Colonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel’s new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, “The Führer desires a heroic gesture,” Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, “An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British.” The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya’s garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: “Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent.”

Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.

On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft — including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s — attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.

Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners’ crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage’s fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage’s death was not in vain, however — one Heinkel’s engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.

On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith’s quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie’s disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.

Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart’s emotional collapse was hardly surprising — he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier — yet until Churchill’s tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D’Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya’s aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.

On May 20 Habbaniya’s Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya’s planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas — a Greek pilot-in-exile — and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.

Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. “Freddie” Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.

On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF’s now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad’s airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers’ monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq’s pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.

The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.

The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain’s vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.

For further reading, try: Dust Clouds in the Middle East, by Christopher Shores; Hidden Victory, by Air Vice Marshal A.G. Dudgeon; and Gloster Gladiator Aces, by Andrew Thomas.

This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History.

Portuguese Air Power in Africa

The need for a replacement for the Portuguese bomber and close air support fleet in Africa during the Colonial War, composed of the PV-2 Harpoon and of the F-84G Thunderjet, led to the procurement by the Portuguese Air Force of a new bomber in the mid-sixties. But it would prove difficult to acquire new aircraft because of the United Nations arms embargo then in force against Portugal, so special methods had to be used. In late 1964, with the decision made to acquire the B-26 Invader a contact was established with an arms broker in order to try to obtain 20 B-26 Invader aircraft.

Noratlas N.2501D, Esquadra de Transportes, Forca Aerea Portuguesa

By the early 1960 Portugal’s surviving colonial possessions in Africa began to reject Portuguese authority, the first armed rebellion emerging in Portuguese Guinea Fighting broke out in August 1959 with the PAIGC (Partido Africano de Independencia da Guine e Capo Verde). At first only a handful of T-6 Texans of the FAP (Forca Aerea Portugesa Portuguese air force) were available to deal with the emergency until supplemented by Republic F-84G Thunderjets in 1963. FAP presence increased to match the rebel activity and in 1967, Esq. 121 ‘Tigres’ with eight G91R-4s was set up at Bissalau, along with additional T-6s and Do 27 liaison aircraft. The G91s flew in support of Portuguese troops and against the PAIGC’s supply trails near the Senegalese and French Guinean borders. Five of the type were lost to enemy action at least two of them shot down by SA-7 missiles In May 1968 General Antonio de Spinola was appointed governor and he ordered 12 Alouette III helicopters , which were essential for operations in a country that was comprised largely of marsh and soft terrain . The Alouette Ills were part of Esq. 121, as was a flight of Nord Noratlas transports which undertook all local supply flights

By 1970 the campaign had taken on a much tougher approach and the FAP was using napalm and defoliants against PAIGC targets The PAIGC received limited air support from a number of diverse sources . Conakry-based Nigerian MiG-17s were used for reconnaissance flights, while Soviet-supplied Mi-4s carried out supply flights in the east of the country . Several FAP aircraft were lost to SA-7s and AAA fire : PAIGC claimed to have shot down 21 aircraft in seven years The PAIGC declared an independent republic in September 1973 . Seven months later the military seized power in Portugal in a nearly bloodless coup and established a provisional military government which installed Spinola as president. As a result, independence was granted to Guinea-Bissau on 10 September 1974. The FAP undertook the withdrawal of most military and civilian personnel by 15 October


While the situation in Portuguese Guinea was worsening. trouble flared up farther south in Angola. The actions of the Marxist Movimento Popular de Libertario de Angola (MPLA) forced the stationing of FAP C-47s and PV-2 Harpoons at Luanda to support the army. Several major towns soon came under MPLA siege and the small Portuguese army element in Mozambique was stretched to breaking point. A number of civilian aircraft, such as Piper Cubs were pressed into service as light transports to resupply outlying settlements, while DC-3s and Beech 18s were used as makeshift bombers. These and the other FAP aircraft were joined in June 1961 by F-84Gs. A substantial paratroop – dropping effort was sustained, first by the C-47s and later by Noratlases, to relieve several towns under siege. Fighting continued mostly in the north of the country and the Noratlas detachment made regular parachute drops with the 21st Battalion of the Regimento de Cacadores Paraquedistas to garrison towns.

Although Portugal was the subject of a US arms embargo due to its African conflicts, seven B-26s were sold to the FAP in 1965 to supplement the PV. These helped to compensate for the F – 84G losses, which stood at five (mostly through accident rather than action) and growing Soviet support for the MPLA. Yet another guerrilla group materialized. In 1966, when a breakaway MPLA group established itself as the Uniao Nacional de Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. FAP aircraft maintained constant attacks against the MPLA. which was advancing Inexorably westward towards the capital.

The arrival of G91R-4s in 1972 (some coming from FAP units stationed In neighbouring Mozambique) boosted the FAPS combat power. Helicopters also became an increasingly important part of operations. The Alouettes were used to move troops rapidly to trouble spots and by 1969 they had been joined in country by the first Pumas, F-84Gs, B-26s, T-6GS and even armed Do 27s which kept up a constant cycle of air attacks on rebel positions.

However, the strain of fighting across Africa was proving too much for Portugal. The coup heralded the end of Portugal’s involvement in Angola, which was offered independence on 1 July 1974.


The third chapter of Portugal’s African wars concerned Mozambique. Following the other colonies, struggle for independence Mozambique saw the rise of Eduardo Mondlan’s Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (FRELIMO) movement in 1962. Again only small numbers of FAP C-47s and T-6s were on hand when serious trouble broke out in 1964. In a short space of time, 16,000 troops had arrived in the country and additional T-6s, PV-2s (eight) , Do 27s (12) and some Alouette III’s were despatched to support them FRELIMO operated from bases in Tanzania and later Zambia

The FAP commitment to Mozambique became larger than that in either Guinea or Angola, although combat operations did not begin in earnest until 1968. A network of new air bases was set up as a result at Beira (T-6Gs, PV-25 Auster D.5s and Noratlas transports) and at Tete (T-6Gs, Do 27s, Auster D.5s, Alouette IIIs and G91R-4s). Additional G91s were based at Nacala. Nova Freixo was occupied by T-6s, Austers and Alouettes while C-47 transports were based Lourenco Marques.

Now under the command of amora Machel (later to become president), FRELIMO began vigorous operations against the Portuguese from 1970. South African-registered crop-sprayers were used to spray herbicides over FRELIMOs border strongholds. in an attempt to deny them food. These aircraft departed the country prematurely, after AAA fire shot down escorting T-6s and one of the crop-sprayers.

Once again Portugal found itself fighting a losing battle with a conscript army. The G91s returned to Portugal in 1974 in anticipation of an offer of full independence Mozambique gained independence. On 5 June 1975 and took possession of several T-6s and Noratlases for its own use.


1983 opened on a stage of intense international diplomacy over the crisis. The sheer weight of international thought and effort being applied to the matter of ending the war in Angola and introducing some mutually acceptable roadmap toward Namibian independence seemed, at times, to be so much more than the sum total of its parts. Bilateral talks had been underway in Cape Verde since December and seemed, by January, to be yielding the possibility of a ceasefire based on a South African proposal that Cuban and other foreign troops be withdrawn to above the 14th parallel, about 150 kilometres north of the border. This, however, would have left the MPLA more or less unsupported against UNITA in the key southeast of the country. (UNITA was not party to the proposal.) The Angolans countered with the suggestion that a demilitarized zone 50 kilometres deep be created that would, by extension, have had to include UNITA for it to be effective. Rumours continued to circulate, generating some degree of cautious diplomatic optimism, but only some. In reality, the military option remained the most attractive to both sides, with each grappling for some definitive advantage on the battlefield to improve their negotiating position.

Therefore, at times in secret and at times very much under the full glare of international perusal, the war went on. Far beneath the surface, however, as far as Pretoria was concerned at least, was the growing interdependency of South Africa and UNITA. While there may have been considerable official secrecy surrounding this policy, in practical terms it had become more or less common knowledge.

As the year progressed and as international diplomacy limped from one blind alley to another, press speculation began to dwell more frequently on the extent of combined operations underway between the SADF and UNITA. The Angolan news agency Angop claimed on 12 August 1983 that eight SAAF aircraft – four Canberras and four Impala ground-strike fighters – had repeatedly bombed and destroyed the small but strategically important rail and communication centre of Cangamba in the southeast Moxico Province. Although little more than a scattering of thatch and iron-roofed buildings some 500 kilometres north of the South West African border, Cangamba included a functional airstrip that was seen by both UNITA and the MPLA as being of vital strategic importance, and from where the Angolans were tactically able to launch air assaults against Savimbi’s main force concentrations in the southeast. At the time, the MPLA was defending the settlement against a determined and bitter effort by UNITA to gain control of it.

The SADF dismissed the Angolan claim as fanciful but the Angolans persisted, speculating further that SADF troops still garrisoning Xangongo and Ongiva had been massively reinforced, and repeatedly claiming that South African troops were active in Moxico Province in eastern–central Angola in direct support of UNITA. And while all of this had a clear histrionic ring to it, there was no doubt that something was afoot in the region – a region that South Africa obviously had no direct strategic interest in – and no less clear that somehow or other South African was involved.

UNITA certainly had by then grown into a significant force in east and southern–central Angola. This gave it practical control about 25 per cent of the whole country, almost the entire southeast quadrant, with an additional operational presence on a more or less continuous basis in another 50 per cent. This fact, even at the time, was tacitly acknowledged by the central government in Luanda and broadly acknowledged elsewhere. By then, UNITA claimed to have some 35,000 trained and semi-trained fighters in the field. It was well supported by such African states as Zaire and Zambia and, of course, South Africa, with more covert but nonetheless influential support emanating from the United States.

Direct South Africa military support for UNITA – military advisers in the wonderfully opaque political language of the time – offered a clear and tangible strategic benefit for South Africa. In the first instance, UNITA’s military adventures diverted and preoccupied FAPLA and, to an increasing degree, SWAPO too, relieving the SADF of the need to directly defend the Eastern Front, or the long Caprivi–Kavango border region. In certain quarters it was speculated that perhaps South Africa now needed UNITA more than UNITA needed her.

This fact was not, of course, lost on Savimbi, who certainly did capitalize on it frequently by petitioning Pretoria for material and military assistance. Such requests would usually be followed by the SAAF providing VIP air transport for Savimbi to visit either Pretoria or Cape Town, which would then be further followed by a top-secret signal to the SADF detailing the practical assistance that was to be provided.

In the matter of the battle for Cangamba there have been many conflicting reports on the extent to which South Africa was involved. According to UNITA’s own version, after six months of starving out the 3,000 MPLA defenders, Savimbi began the battle on 3 August 1983 by shelling the town with some of the Sovietmade 76mm artillery pieces that had been captured three years earlier. He then sent in several battalion-strength detachments of semi-conventional troops as well as irregulars and ‘commandos’. Over eight days of heavy fighting UNITA suffered serious losses from mines and strafing from MiGs and Mi-8 attack helicopters operating from Luena and against which UNITA could offer little in the way of practical defence. But by mid-August, the defences of Cangamba had been so comprehensively compromised that more than 100 surviving Cubans were airlifted out by helicopter. Cangamba was finally taken on 14 August at a heavy cost in UNITA and MPLA/Cuban lives.

Although no mention of the fact is made in the preceding account, according to Brigadier-General Dick Lord, Savimbi did indeed request active South African assistance in the battle, claiming that, although the area around the town had been cleared, the MPLA HQ itself remained occupied and functioning and that without immediate help the likelihood was that UNITA would soon need to withdraw. Bearing mind that the scene of this battle lay significantly outside of SWAPO’s and South Africa’s sphere of activity, the request was received with caution. Direct South African involvement could hardly have been construed as anything other than an overt intervention in the Angolan civil war. A meeting of high-level South African sectorial commanders was quickly convened and the matter subjected to much discussion.

Huyser [Brigadier ‘Bossie’ Huyser, commander of Western Air Command] attended this meeting and listened to all the arguments for and against. When negotiations reached stalemate Huyser jumped into the whirlpool with both feet and said, “Give authority to the SAAF for one airstrike and UNITA will take Cangamba!” Silence greeted his career-jeopardizing announcement but, after consideration, the authority was given.

With this, the reputation of the SAAF was on the line as, no doubt, was the personal reputation and future career prospects of Brigadier Bossie Huyser himself. However, with minute planning and the hope of a fair wind behind it, Operation Karton went into effect early in the morning of 14 August, utilizing Buccaneers and Canberras from 3, 12 and 24 squadrons. The attack succeeded in what has since come to be regarded as one of the most effective and well-executed operations of its kind undertaken at any time during the war. Within a few hours, the final walk-in took place and Cangamba was in UNITA hands. The negative result – for there always seemed to be one of these, often the same one – was an immediate and significant escalation in the amount and sophistication of Soviet replacement weaponry shipped to Angola and channelled to the front, as well as the arrival in the country of an additional investment of several thousand Cuban troops.

In the short term, however, the UNITA position in the southeast had been buttressed and the SADF could return its attention to dealing with a new arc of SWAPO/FAPLA brigade positions established north of the Shallow Area since the completion of Operation Protea, and located variously at Cahama, Cuvelai, Caindo in the north of the Cunene Province and Mulondo in the adjacent Huila Province. Intelligence soon began to seep south that PLAN intended to launch its heaviest infiltration thus far into South West Africa as soon as the 1983/84 wet season commenced. To counter this, the SADF began planning for Operation Askari, a follow-up to Operation Protea and perhaps one of the most important major combined external operations of the war.

Operation Askari was earmarked for launch in mid-November 1983, unusual timing, bearing in mind that it would correspond more or less with the onset of the wet season and all the difficulties associated with mounting a mechanized operation in southern Angola in the teeth of the annual rains.

It is worth noting in this regard that the cycle of war in the region tended to correspond more or less with seasonal variations of rainfall and drought. The tropical/subtropical weather system of southern Africa follows a pattern of summer rainfall – often in a short and a long phase – occurring annually between late November and February/March and a dry winter season that peaks between the months of June and September. During the wet season, heat and humidity levels tend to be high while veld conditions are lush with rich ground cover and heavy tree foliage, and with a tendency also for there to be large expanses of shallow standing water in alkaline pans known locally as shonas.

Since the earliest days of European activity in the region, it has always been understood that the dry winter season is the time for warfare and ambulation. Wheeled transport is feasible on untreated road surfaces only at this time, while cool conditions and a paucity of disease-carrying parasites such as mosquitoes and tsetse flies render human and animal movement much more practical. During the wet summer months, however, the opposite has always been true: bushveld conditions become impossible for the movement of livestock and wagons, and in later years motor vehicles, while high levels of humidity and rain tend to see correspondingly high levels of lethargy, discomfort and disease, particularly among non-natives.

It therefore made perfect sense for SWAPO units to disperse into the countryside and begin the long overland journey south from its forward bases as the rains set in. For them the principal hazard was malaria, but certainly not limits on vehicle transport, since a bulk of the journey would be undertaken on foot and, besides which, any limitations on SADF capacity to mobilize would always be an advantage. Perhaps a greater advantage than this was the large expanses of standing water scattered across the bushveld, without which long-distance deployment over an otherwise parched and arid landscape would have been suicidal. Flooded shonas also offered the opportunity for small groups of guerrillas moving through any given area the opportunity to obscure their tracks by hopping from one flooded pan to another, with the additional advantage of regular downpours washing away what tracks they did leave. Moreover, thick savannah woodland of the type common throughout southern Angola would usually be bare of foliage in the dry season, but heavily canopied during the rains which helped in the matter of concealment both from ground patrols and from the air.

Conversely, for the SADF, large mechanized columns became an utter liability in the rough and undeveloped conditions of southern Angola during the wet season, which meant that the style of operations during this period was likely to be limited to containment, tracking and follow-up foot patrols in the border area.

At the onset of the dry season, however, most SWAPO units would be recalled from the field for what was termed ‘rehearsals’ which saw them concentrated in bases, perfect circumstances for the launch of large-scale offensive operations to deal with them in numbers.

The planning for Operation Askari also went ahead against these and other difficulties, among them international pressure, as well as a great deal of concern in Pretoria regarding another bout of re-armament in Angola in the aftermath of the most recent destruction wrought in Cangamba. The arrival in Luanda had been observed of at least ten Russian cargo ships packed to the gunwales with everything from T-62 battle tanks to helicopters and high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Cuba shipped over 5,000 fresh troops, bringing the total based in Angola to a South African estimate, probably conservative, of 25,000.


At more or less the same time, United Nations Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar undertook a lightning familiarization tour of the affected countries, spending two days in Pretoria before flying north to Luanda where he was personally received by Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, and later introduced to Sam Nujoma, whom he referred to on the steps of the presidential palace as “the representative of the Namibian people”. This, of course, all combined to increase the sense in Pretoria that the entire negotiated process was stacked against South Africa, which was probably not the case in practical terms but in moral terms it certainly was.

Likewise, the threat of a more direct Soviet intervention on the side of Angola appeared to be growing as the scale and severity of South African operations grew. Demands for the removal of the semi-permanent garrison of South African troops in Xangongo and Ongiva were also frequently being heard, not least from the Americans who, as much as they did not want to commit troops to the theatre themselves, also did not want the Soviets to have any excuse to do so. It was impossible, of course, to hide the fact that the South Africans were planning something. The pace of air reconnaissance flights over any given area in Angola could always be regarded as fair warning of that, and as South African aircraft began to appear with greater frequency in the skies over southern Angola in preparation for Operation Askari, Moscow issued a quiet warning to Pretoria that an expansion of the war, such as might be about to take place, would carry with it a significant risks for South Africa.

The warning came in the form of a written dispatch handed to South African diplomats – the precise venue for this is not known but it was probably in Washington or at the United Nations – by their Soviet counterparts, to be passed on to the government in Pretoria. While it was stressed in the dispatch that the contents of the message should not be regarded as a threat, it was nonetheless pointed out that the continued occupation of Angolan territory by South Africa and ongoing support for UNITA were unacceptable to Moscow. Moreover, it was stated that the desired withdrawal of Cuban troop from Angola as a precondition for the extraction of South African troops from South West Africa would not take place. The USSR, it was pointed out, was tied to Angola by an agreement of friendship and cooperation and could be expected to provide what support was required by Angola for the protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Needless to say, Pretoria rebuffed this threat, which it clearly was, while the final planning and preparation for Operation Askari went ahead. The South Africans were nonetheless rattled by the exchange. The offensive aspects of the plan were as a consequence modified, with the main objective once again being to disrupt and destroy SWAPO’s logistics, deployment and supply capability, but this time the emphasis was placed on a strategy of isolating military strongpoints and applying threat and attrition in the hope that enemy forces would suffer a collapse of morale and desert without the necessity of a full confrontation. The operational plan was finally approved in four phases:

Phase 1: Deep penetration Special Force reconnaissance followed by SAAF air assault on the Typhoon/Volcano base located near Lubango, taking place between 1 November and 30 December 1983;

Phase 2: Offensive reconnaissance operations and the isolation of Cahama, Mulondo and Cuvelai, extending from 16 November 1983 to mid-January 1984. The aim of this was to cut off enemy communication and logistic lines in what was known as the Deep Area, or all areas of Angola which were of operational interest to South Africa but not within the defined Shallow Area. This, it was hoped, would demoralize and terrorize SWAPO defenders to the extent that they would abandon their positions and withdraw northward;

Phase 3: Commencing at the beginning of February 1984, to establish a dominated area from west of the Cunene River, through Quiteve, Mupa, Vinticette and eastward through Ionde;

Phase 4: The final curtailment of hostile incursions into South West Africa, internally if required.

The three principal targets of Operation Askari were located in a wide arc within what was classified by FAPLA as its 5th Military Region. Cahama, one of the main proposed targets, lay 150 kilometres northwest of Xangongo on what at the time was a good road, while Mulondo, another key target, was located a little farther than this, perhaps 200 kilometres from Xangongo, but also on an accessible arterial route. Cuvelai lay farther north still but was considerably more remote on the eastern perimeter of the derelict Parque Nacional da Mupa.

A heavy Special Force reconnaissance insertion, one of the largest so far in the war, was done at a number of points behind enemy lines in order to gather the necessary tactical intelligence on enemy strengths and dispositions upon which detailed planning could be made. What was reported back in general terms was that FAPLA was at brigade strength at Cahama, Mulondo and Cuvelai – with a brigade in this context being somewhere between 600 and 1,000 men. In addition, each town was well defended by an extensive network of bunkers as well as a great deal of razor wire, minefields and artillery. Of particular concern to the flying crews were the well-integrated anti-aircraft defences that included a brace of SA-8s and SA-9 missile systems as well as 14.5mm and 23mm guns. However, the entire configuration, in keeping perhaps with the Soviet doctrine that inspired it, was clearly defensive in intent, suggesting that there was only a very limited potential for any direct offensive action on the ground.

What was also ascertained – although separate reports differ on this fact – and notwithstanding a handful of Cuban and Soviet advisers in situ, was that no meaningful foreign element to PLAN/FAPLA forces was in place. A Cuban regiment was based at Jamba, however, and a second at Matala, both in the Huíla Province north of the main focus of SADF attention.

Offensive action against Cahama began in mid-November with an initial deployment of Special Force reconnaissance teams to cut logistics and communication lines and to generally attempt the isolatation of Cahama while the SAAF carried out strikes against identified targets within the defensive perimeter. The strategy was to rattle and exhaust defending forces prior to the additional psychological stress of realizing, with the arrival of the main mechanized force, that a major South African attack was imminent.

This preliminary softening-up had a limited effect, as Brigadier-General Dick Lord commented in his history of the SAAF in the Border War, From Fledgling to Eagle, because a garrison such as that entrenched in Cahama, fortified by the sense that it had beaten the Boere back on previous encounters, was hardly likely to be overawed by the offensive efforts of a handful of Recces and the attentions of the SAAF against its well-constructed trench and bunker system. It was not until the forward advance of Task Force X-Ray, comprising mainly 61 Mechanized Battalion and attached artillery, and with a SAAF MAOT attached, appeared in mid-December that the real pressure began to be applied. (See appendix for a first-hand account of a SAAF officer serving as MAOT for 61 Mechanized Battalion during Operation Askari.)

In this regard, it is worth noting that Cahama had been heavily and consistently bombed during earlier operations – particularly during Operation Protea – although it had never been targeted with a view to being taken or occupied, which had always tended to be interpreted by the enemy as a tactical loss, with much subsequent propaganda mileage being made out of this fact by the defenders who consistently claimed that they had driven off the Boere.

Another point worth mentioning in regard to the assault on Cahama is the fact that it was known prior to the launch of Askari that among the anti-aircraft armaments deployed around the target was the vehicle-mounted and radar-supported Soviet SA-8 missile system, a highly mobile, low-altitude, short-range, tactical surface-to-air missile system that until then had not been deployed outside of the USSR. The capture of one of these was the objective of a high-priority side operation codenamed Fox. This operation involved coordinated ground and air bombardments undertaken in such a way as to force the southward movement of the mobile batteries in order that an SA-8 could be isolated by ground forces and snatched. The operation failed, although an older SA-9 system was captured in Cuvelai which, even though not precisely what was hoped for, was nonetheless an important acquisition and of significant intelligence interest.

In the meanwhile, prior to the advance of Task Force X-Ray, comprising mainly 61 Mechanized Battalion and attached artillery, on the outskirts of Cahama, it successfully overran the small defended town of Quiteve against almost no resistance. This prompted an unsuccessful probe north by a detached company of Task Force X-Ray to begin the process of isolating Mulondo. This caused some grumbling from SAAF command as it required the unscheduled diversion of air resources to support the advance which reduced the cover available elsewhere. Brigadier-General Dick Lord:

This diversion of the original Askari plan had repercussions on the air plan. Support had to be flown for ground forces in that area, thus utilizing aircraft hours and weapons set aside for the Cahama and Cuvelai battles. It had a further tactical disadvantage in that the element of surprise we had hoped to gain from our attack on Cahama was lost. After our Mulondo strikes the entire air defence system of southern Angola was placed on the highest state of alert.

Cahama, meanwhile, was now subjected to an unrelenting artillery bombardment during the day and night/day aerial attacks delivered by Impala and Canberra formations that lasted throughout the second half of December. In the midst of these raids a flight of Buccaneers was diverted briefly to attack SWAPO/FAPLA forward training and logistics bases near the town of Lubango on the main road north of Cahama.

The combined effect of weeks of intense attrition applied to Cahama certainly did affect morale among the defenders, as had been hoped, with radio intercepts confirming this fact, and had the operation been allowed to continue it would certainly have succeeded. However, all SADF operations around Cahama were abruptly ordered to cease by 31 December, largely as a consequence of international pressure being brought to bear against the South African government to withdraw its forces from Angola. This had the melancholy effect of allowing the FAPLA 2nd Brigade in Cahama to observe one morning, to their unutterable relief, the mighty SADF 61 Mechanized Battalion breaking the siege and leaving the area, with the predictable result that yet another defeat of the Boere was hailed by FAPLA. Similarly, the combined offensive plan against Mulondo was discontinued.

In the midst of the Cahama siege, however air assets were once again diverted when a Sector 20 SADF deception force was attacked and five members killed during an unscheduled diversionary strike at a position close to the town of Caiundo, more than 200 kilometres east of the main combat zone. The SAAF had not been informed of this aspect to the operation and therefore had not factored in any contingency for dealing with this sort of emergency. Air activity was now spread even more thinly, with attack aircraft being diverted to Caiundo from both Cahama and Mulondo in the midst of the campaign to suppress both. Caiundo remained a focus of air activity for the remainder of the life of Operation Askari, itself ultimately not being captured and contributing to the similar marginal failures at Cahama and Mulondo.

At 14h05 on 27 December 1983, the aerial bombardment of the final key target, Cuvelai, north of Xangongo, began. This followed a week or more of photo-reconnaissance flights which had warned the defenders of the town well in advance that something big was imminent. The aerial attacks continued for the next few days, after which Task Force Delta-Fox, a battle group comprising mainly territorial Citizen Force soldiers, was sent in to engage a SWAPO HQ and logistics base located five kilometres northeast of the town. To its horror, the group came under attack from the FAPLA 11th Brigade, reinforced by two Cuban battalions, and utilizing T-54/T-55 tanks for the first time in their correct mobile role. Task Force X-Ray was immediately reassigned to assist and in a mere 16 hours was extracted from its activity around Cahama and redeployed overland to the outskirts of Cuvelai. This epic forced march is described in part by Captain Charlie Wroth in the appendix. There a combined ground and air assault commenced on 3 January 1984.

Supporting air operations began with a determined and coordinated series of strikes aimed at all known AAA and artillery sites. The first wave comprised ten Impala jets followed by four Canberras. The combined load of bombs delivered on the target was 60 120kg bombs, 18 350kg bombs, two 460kg bombs and 600 deadly anti-personnel alpha bombs, followed by a second wave of Impalas dropping 32 250kg bombs. Each pilot was equipped with an up-to-date aerial photograph of his intended target and a high degree of accuracy was achieved.

This was confirmed on completion of the air attack by an intercepted radio call from the Angolan commander pleading for help from his HQ in Lubango, claiming that 75 per cent of his artillery had been taken out by the SAAF. If this was even partially so then this certainly would have ranked highly among SAAF actions during the war. Dick Lord, remarking on this fact, commented that: “This airstrike, together with the Cangamba attack, ranks arguably as the two most successful airstrikes flown by the SAAF throughout the history of the war.”

During the air operation an Impala piloted by Captain Joe van den Berg was clipped in the tail by an SA-9 missile, completely destroying the right side tail-plane and elevator. A combination of skilled piloting and controlled elevation loss allowed the aircraft to land safely at the recently resurfaced airstrip at Ongiva.

The SAAF, meanwhile, continued to fly in support of ground troops moving in on Cuvelai, with Alouette pilot Captain Carl Alberts winning the Honoris Crux for marking gun positions under heavy fire, evading, so the story is told, four simultaneously fired RPG rockets. After labouring through the extensive minefields surrounding the town, and losing a Ratel to a T-55 hit that resulted in the death of ten men, ground forces entered Cuvelai to find that both SWAPO and FAPLA had fled, later running into 32 Battalion stop groups positioned south of Tetchamutete where a handful were killed and many more captured. Eleven enemy tanks were taken out during the battle, with an estimated 324 Angolan and Cuban lives lost.

It need hardly be said that Operation Askari stirred up a ferment of hyperbolic but hardly exaggerated pleas on the part of the Angolans and gales of outrage from the international community. All of this the South Africans deflected with as much stone-faced denial as was possible, but with, nonetheless, a finger on the pulse of the wider international reaction to gauge the point at which the operation would need to be brought to a close.

Mopping up was still underway in Cuvelai when news reached Pretoria of a dispatch between SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma and UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar, pleading for the latter to arrange a direct ceasefire between the SADF and his own forces in order to “contribute meaningfully to an early ceasefire agreement”.

This was obviously done under pressure from the reeling Angolans and as such was something of a red herring. There had been throughout the liberation period in recent African history many similar incidences where pleas such as this were simply used as an opportunity for rearming, regrouping and the reoccupation of territory defined as demilitarized by any ceasefire agreement. It was simply a fact of the times.

Phase 3 of Operation Askari, the establishment of a dominated area between the Cunene and Cubango rivers and as far north Tetchamutete, had been achieved, although the area west of the Cunene remained broadly hostile. The success of Phase 4 – the halting of the annual SWAPO incursion – is subjective, and can be measured only in terms of insurgent and SADF deaths in the area of border operations in the weeks and months that followed. An incursion in 1984 did take place, so SWAPO activity was certainly not halted, although it was undoubtedly a less ambitious penetration than had originally been planned.

By 15 January, the last of the raiding forces had crossed back into South West Africa where the planners and commanders of the operation could step back and ponder what really had been very mixed results. On the whole, however, Askari was deemed a success, in particular when measured using the yardstick of enemy losses and the accumulation or destruction of astronomical quantities of war booty. (It was frequently remarked, obviously, but not wholly fallaciously that, under a general and increasing arms embargo, the Soviets remained the largest supplier of arms to South Africa. Indeed, South Africa did make practical use of many articles of captured hardware in the form of vehicles, artillery and some aircraft.) Also, of course, another significant blow had been delivered to the logistical and deployment capability of SWAPO which, although diminishing the organization’s short-term effectiveness on the battlefield, it did nothing to significantly alter the overall trajectory of either the situation or the pace and intensity of the war.

In fact, the South Africans had much to reflect upon as 1984 dawned that must at the time have seemed quite depressing. South African troops in the battle for Cuvelai had for the first time encountered tanks used in their correct mobile capacity and, although still not deployed with quite the level of skill necessary to defeat a force on a par with the SADF, it still marked a turning point on the battlefield that would no doubt develop further. It was also evident that Angolan, Cuban and Soviet commitment to the defence of Angolan territory had been markedly more aggressive during this operation than at any previous time which again could be expected to increase as the situation unfolded. Lastly, there remained a residual unease occasioned by the Soviet threat of robust intervention should the South African presence in Angola ever become more overtly threatening than it had been hitherto, unease that remained strong with the ongoing South African occupation of Xangongo and Ongiva.

Soviet Naval Air in the Black Sea 1943

Il-4T 5th GMTAP, Black Sea Fleet

Pe-2 (205th series) 40th BAP, Black Sea Fleet

A-20DO 30 RAP, VVS Black Sea

Though varying in intensity, air activity was more effective and dangerous than submarine activity all through the year. Off the part of the coast held by the Soviets (with the naval bases of Poti and Batumi) it made operating increasingly difficult for the German submarines. Their main task was attacking the Soviet coastal traffic, especially that carrying supplies to the forces at Novorossiysk and Mount Myshako. When the submarines attempted to move close in- shore by night, they were picked up by intersecting searchlights stationed on the coast, and then attacked from the air, after the plane had illuminated them with a kind of star shell. They attributed their detection to the noise of their diesel engines, which must have been picked up with listening gear on the shore. By switching over to electric drive, they sometimes escaped the searchlights, but as soon as planes came they had to dive.

In this context, it should be mentioned that contrary to Soviet assertions, not a single one of the six German submarines was lost at sea to enemy action. When the Germans retreated from the coast of the Black Sea in August 1944, one submarine was put out of action by bombs dropped from the air on the naval base at Constanta. Two were scuttled by their crews at Constanta; the last three operated until their fuel was exhausted. Then their crews scuttled them off the Turkish coast.

Soviet air attacks on warships, convoys, and ports were frequent all through the year. The planes used bombs, torpedoes, and often their guns at close range. The impression on the German side was that the Russians carried out naval reconnaissance with torpedo planes for the double purpose of reconnoitering and also attacking when suitable targets were sighted. The convoys had to watch constantly for attacks by single planes with torpedoes. They generally came from the direction of the sun. In most cases, the torpedoes missed, but now and then they hit a target. A war diary (probably Admiral Black Sea) said on 22 January: “The vigorous employment of the Air Force, and particularly of aerial torpedoes, represents a substantial threat to the still inadequately protected convoys.”

Besides reconnaissance and torpedo attacks, the third task of the Soviet planes was to drop magnetic mines into the shipping channels. The results of these various activities are illustrated by the events of a few days in January 1943:

20 January: Repeated torpedo attacks by single planes on convoys along the Rumanian and Bessarabian coast. No success reported.

21 January: Air attack on Anapa with 88 bombs (war diary: “The importance of that port for our supplies is recognized”).

22 January: Attack by several torpedo planes on a convoy assembling off Sulina. Steamer Kolosvar (1,200 GRT) takes one bomb hit on her stern, is towed to the beach, and later towed into Sulina. Planes flew out of the sun, in misty weather, and launched torpedoes at an altitude of 40 meters, distance 400 meters. One plane fired its guns shortly before dropping false recognition signal (war diary, Naval Special Duty Detachment).

Verkehr mit Kleinfahrzeugen (MFP) in the Black Sea

24 January: MFP-323 [Marinefährprahm (MFP)], en route to Feodosiya towing a minesweeping coil (for magnetic mines) struck an ELM (Englische Luft-Mine, a magnetic mine dropped by plane) and sank. Only two men were rescued. In February 1943, the Soviet landing forces at Novorossiysk were strongly supported from the air. When the bridgehead near the town was cut off from the beach, planes attempted to supply it, but could not save it.

The Kerch area and the German warships there, whether carrying supplies or laying mines, were often attacked from the air. On 25 February, naval ferry barges laying protective minefields south of the entrance to the Kerch Strait were repeatedly bombed and gunned. On the same day, bomb attacks in several waves hit the town and port of Kerch. Two days later near Kerch, MFP-353 was severely damaged by bomb hits. Ten men were killed, five wounded.

Other regions were not neglected. On the same day, Italian MTBs returning from a night operation against the traffic under the coast between Tuapse and Gelendzhik were repeatedly attacked by planes, but suffered no damage. Off the southern tip of the Crimea, a single plane attacked a convoy of towed barges with bombs and guns, but the gunfire of the escorting MFPs prevented it from doing serious damage. On 1 March, the supply traffic across the Kerch Strait was again the target of several attacks. After a direct bomb hit on her stern MFP-176 was a total loss. MFP-273 was severely damaged. On 9 March, MFP-371 (without cargo) struck a mine near Kerch and sank with her entire crew. The necessary minesweeping operations hindered the ferry traffic across the Strait. In the foIIowing weeks, bomb attacks and minelaying in the Kerch Strait were continuous. On 22 March, a motor barge carrying ammunition blew up after a bomb hit; MFP-331 and a tug were damaged.

In themselves and in comparison with what was going on in other theaters of war, these events seem no more than mere incidents. However, they added up, and the scale of operations was· different here. Except for the few Rumanian destroyers, which never undertook offensive operations, there were no large warships at the disposal of the Axis powers, and very often, no planes for reconnaissance and protection. The Soviet Navy was fully aware of this situation and did its best to damage the supply traffic and the German-held ports. Submarines and particularly airplanes were its weapons.

In the following months, Sevastopol was bombed many times. Some ships were damaged; one used as accommodation for the crews of the MFPs was sunk (not three transports, as the Soviets claimed). At sea, there were so many attacks that only a few examples can be given. Apparently, the tactics differed considerably in quality. On 31 -March, in an attack on the escorted minelayer Grafenau (a converted steamer), two torpedoes were dropped from a height of 80 to 100 meters, but they expended themselves on the surface. Then in a second pass, two more were dropped, this time from a height of 20 to 30 meters. The torpedoes were outmaneuvered and one plane was shot down. On 10 April a war diary observed: “The fact that no losses occurred in most of the aerial and bombing attacks on supply steamers is to be attributed to the circumstance that those attacks were not carried out vigorously enough, and that the relatively heavy antiaircraft fire forced the attacking planes to turn away too soon.”

This was noted after an unsuccessful attack on a convoy with towed barges west of Feodosiya. But it was also noticed that combined attacks of the Soviet planes improved. On the same day an attack of this kind on the tanker Prodromos (800 GRT) was carried out with unusual tactical skill. While two bombers came in at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 meters, two others attacked from the direction of the sun at a height of only 100 meters. At first, they dropped bombs on an escorting gunboat but missed; then they dropped five bombs close to the bow of the tanker. Just when the ship turned to port to avoid the bombs two torpedo planes made a surprise attack from starboard and dropped three torpedoes at a distance of about 500 meters. All the torpedoes jumped high out of the water: one was a surface runner. Only by skillful maneuvering did the tanker escape bombs and torpedoes. Then the planes attacked again with their guns, in three waves closely following each other.

The German Air Force was very interested in the cargo of the tanker. As a consequence, on her next trip three days later, the Prodromos was escorted for the first time not only by gunboats, but also by fighter planes.

All through April attacks continued, most of them unsuccessful. In the first half of May, very low visibility protected the convoys. On 18 May, the 88th Anapa convoy was first attacked near Anapa by a submarine with two torpedoes, which expended themselves on the surface, then three hours later by four bombers and four fighters with bombs and guns. The convoy suffered no serious damage.

On 19 May, the 89th Anapa convoy of four MFPs was attacked by seven or eight planes with bombs and guns when it approached its destination. MFP-309 and MFP-367 with cargoes of ammunition and guns took a number of bomb hits and sank when the ammunition exploded. The survivors were picked up by MFP-126, which was also damaged, and MFP-144, which escaped unhurt. Two of the attacking planes were shot down. But half the convoy was wiped out! This showed clearly how dangerous attacks on this vital supply line could be.

Little is known about the situation of the Soviet Naval Air Arm regarding material and supplies, or personnel, training, and losses. It can be assumed that the number of planes increased considerably in the course of the year, as it did in the Baltic. According to a report of the 1st German MTB [Motor Torpedo Boat] Flotilla, new types of planes and equipment were being used by the Russians. From the late fall of 1942 on, Anglo-American convoys traversed the Barents Sea almost without loss and carried great amounts of war material to Murmansk. After the Axis powers lost North Africa in the spring of 1943, the passage through the Mediterranean was free, and supplies went to the Persian Gulf and from there unhampered to the Soviet forces.

1st MTB Flotilla reported:

20 May 1943. Moonlit night. Very fast planes, apparently Mosquitos, attack the flotilla returning from the Caucasus coast (where the MTBs had operated against the coastal traffic), followed by 8-10 bombers. Attack tactics: In the approach the planes, firing 2 guns, come to within 25 meters of the boats and drop 15 to 20 fragmentation bombs when pulling up. They also drop 4 to 6 light bombs (about 30 kg) which are suspended under the wings. When withdrawing they fire with 3 or 4 machine guns rigidly mounted in the tail, or in some cases with movable machine guns. MTB 8-72 received 15 hits, all of them 20-mm armor-piercing shells. 8-49 also hit, developed a big cloud of smoke. Two men slightly wounded, both 20-mm AA guns hit; but remained serviceable. The radio operated only on emergency power. Hits in 2 tanks in compartment No. 6 and- holes below the waterline, repaired by damage control group. A two-engined plane is hit several times by shells from the 20-mm guns of 8-72 while making its approach. One landing gear is extended, parts of the other fall into the water beside the MTB. The plane steadily loses altitude and plunges into the water about 1,000 meters away. Fighter protection is requested. One ME-110 (German fighter) does not manage to find the flotilla until the afternoon. 8-49 is brought in despite severe damage.

The same unit reported on a day attack:

4 June 1943. No casualties or damage by dive attack out of the sun by 3 YAK-4s, 12 bombs dropped. When defensive fire is opened, one man parachutes out of a plane and is taken prisoner. One hour later two Douglas Bostons drop bombs from an altitude of about 1,500 meters and fire their guns when withdrawing. MTB 8-26 damaged by bomb fragments, 2 men seriously wounded, 3 slightly. One plane shot down. One hour later another attack by 3 Douglas Bostons, which dropped 18 bombs but missed. Aircraft fire again as planes withdrew.

The attacks on the convoys to the port of Anapa continued. On 27 May, the 97th convoy was attacked. MFP-328 was sunk. In the immediate vicinity of the port, MFP-332 with a cargo of 80 tons of gasoline for the Air Force was attacked by 16 bombers. and fighters and caught fire. She was beached and burned out; her crew was saved. Six of the attacking planes were shot down by antiaircraft fire and fighters. Three days later, all nine bombers attacking an Anapa convoy were shot down by antiaircraft guns of the ships and by fighters. During the month of May 1943, the Soviet Naval Air Arm undertook about 120 attacks on ships at sea and on ports and unloading places.

On 3 June, a convoy entering Akmechet was attacked by bombers, whose target was evidently the tug Hamburg. The ship was damaged and had to be beached, but was able to leave after five days. Immediately afterwards, the port was heavily attacked. According to the war diary of the Naval Special Duty Detachment the reason probably was that the tug looked similar to “Ship 19,” a ship specially equipped for submarine hunting, which had had a brush with a sub- marine a few days earlier.

During the air attacks on the convoys a new kind of aerial torpedo was observed that ran on the surface and detonated after a certain distance. It was supposed that these torpedoes were meant to damage shallow-draft vessels like the MFPs, which were difficult to hit with normal torpedoes (war diary of the 3rd Flotilla of motor minesweepers). There is no proof, however, that they were not simply defective.

Attacks continued all through the summer against the same targets. On 5 June, the MTB base at Ivan Baba suffered heavy casualties and considerable destruction when hit by bombs. On 12 June off Feodosiya five bombers attacked a convoy composed of two steamers protected by two Rumanian gunboats and two MFPs. The planes flew out of the sun and were discovered too late. Three bombs hit the steamer Birgit (1,970 GRT) forward-she sank slowly, bow first.

On 17 June, 18 planes attacked a convoy of towed barges near Kerch. One barge was hit and sank after its cargo of ammunition exploded. As it drifted burning, six planes attacked it with 30 bombs. On 19 June, a group of German artillery carriers and RA-motor minesweepers bombarded the port of Yeysk on the Sea of Azov. Six Russian planes attacked them repeatedly at low altitude. They opened fire at a distance of about 1,000 meters; the motor minesweepers answered with all their guns at 500 meters. According to the Ger- mans’ observation the Russian pilots had not the nerve to fly into that hail of fire. Their own gunfire, which at first was well aimed, became inaccurate. One of the Russian planes was shot down.

On 25 June, the 123rd Anapa convoy was attacked just outside the port by twelve bombers covered by six fighters. The defense was prepared: German fighters were in the air and shot down six of the attacking planes. The convoy did not suffer any damage. On its way back, it was attacked again. This time there were no fighters present. MFP-142 was hit and her cargo of old uniforms caught fire. She was towed back and the fire was extinguished.

During June 1943, Soviet planes repeatedly mined the shipping channel at the mouth of the Danube.

On 7 July, Feodosiya and Yalta were attacked from the air. At Feodosiya fourteen planes dropped 50 to 60 bombs. One harbor defense boat was sunk; a slip with a Rumanian gunboat on it was damaged; beyond this only some buildings were hit. Yalta was bombed by five planes. MFP-144 was damaged and had to be beached; a fishing cutter sank. Yalta was attacked again on 19 July – motor minesweeper R-33 sank.

On 13 July, the 140th Anapa convoy was attacked by seven bombers with bombs and guns. The planes evidently were armored, for the 20-mm. antiaircraft shells were deflected. The bombers came in twice, at an altitude of no more than 300 to 400 meters. Nevertheless, they damaged only one MFP slightly. One bomber was shot down.

Three days later, the 142nd Anapa convoy was attacked by nine bombers and three fighters. They came in very low, only 100 to 150 meters high, dropped 80 to 100 small and medium bombs and fired their guns during the approach and the retreat. Some men were killed or wounded by fragments. The only direct hit sank an unmanned landing boat towed by a steamer. The antiaircraft guns of the escorting MFPs brought down two planes; German fighters accounted for another six.

On 26 July, the 152nd Anapa convoy was attacked by 15 bombers with about 80 bombs and the usual gunfire. None of the ships was damaged; one man was killed, one wounded. Then the planes were intercepted by German fighters, which brought down ten of them. This was probably the reason why another group of 21 planes sighted to seaward of the convoy did not attack.

The war diary of the Sea Commandant Caucasus for July 1943 remarked:

The steadily increasing bomb attacks in the last three months on naval ferry barges (MFP) and convoys with tows, bound for Anapa and Temryuk, and in the Kerch Strait, were mainly carried out by armored ground attack planes, against which the 20-mm AA guns were able to score successes only when the planes were in a favorable position and when armor-piercing ammunition was used. The MFPs scored 6 kills, mostly with their 75-mm guns. The fighter cover now available in this area brought down 28 of the attacking planes in July.

In August, there were several attacks on Anapa convoys (Nos. 163, 166, and 167), but they caused only minor damage, and no losses.

S-Boot S-47 [sister ship of S-46]

S-Boot S-28

On 24 August, 1st MTB Flotilla reported:

Attack by 4 bombers and 6 fighter-bombers in continuous independent passes with aircraft weapons, rocket bombs and fragmentation bombs. One plane fires a type of rocket which explodes at an altitude of 100 to 150 meters and scatters an incendiary composition (not phosphorus), which started some fires on the forecastle of MTB S-46, but they could be extinguished with water.

On the same day, the senior officer of the flotilla reported an un- successful night attack on his unit:

Star shells over the boats. One plane fires a green flare, then aircraft weapons. Ten minutes later attack with bombs, at least 10 to 15 drop among the boats. After another ten minutes renewed bombing, 5 hits on MTB S-28. Only the insufficiently shielded exhaust of the airplanes can be made out, at first with the night glass, then with the naked eye against a cloudless starry sky. Estimated altitude between 500 and 800 meters. Half an hour later, again bombs and aircraft weapons fire.

The Russians apparently employ sea reconnaissance planes with locating gear (radar). They fire green flares after identifying the MTBs. These flares home in the bombers, and they maintain contact even after the bombing attack is ended.

On 29 August 1943, the same unit reported:

First wave of planes replaced by new ones so that on an average 10 to 12 planes participate in the attack, which they carry out in close order. Getting in position at an altitude of about 1,000 meters, the enemy dives to about 50 meters over the water. Armament: 20-mm guns, 27-mm guns, and slow-firing 37-mm gun. Result: Maximum speed of the MTBs reduced to 20 knots by hits mostly of 20-mm guns. More or less severe damage on boats. Request for fighter protection, especially urgent since 4 boats are to be employed again on the same day.

These detailed reports are cited to give a picture of Soviet air activity in this theater of war. In the beginning of September 1943, its tempo changed as the over-all situation on the Russian fronts compelled the German armies to fall back here, too. At the same time, the Russians felt strong enough to take the offensive. The German decision to retreat across the Kerch Strait and the Soviet decision to attack along the Black Sea coast coincided.