Imperial Russian Air Force in 1916 Part II

The German seaplane base on Lake Angern posed a threat not only to the aviation presence on Runo Island but also to the passage of Russian naval vessels in the gulf. The Russians responded quickly. Using the radio unit on Runo, the navy ordered the Second Bombing-Reconnaissance Squadron to send several bomb-loaded M-9s over the enemy seaplane station to see how much damage they could inflict. Joining Seversky for the perilous honor of attacking the Germans in August were lieutenants Diterikhs and Steklov, each of them accompanied on the right side of the M-9’s cockpit by a sergeant mechanic-observer who manned a single rotating machine gun. As in the case of the FBAs of the previous year, bombs were installed left and right of the hull and next to the pilot and sergeant. The flight from Runo to the gulf shoreline adjacent to Lake Angern went smoothly enough. As the three flying boats approached the enemy’s air base, however, their noisy, clattering Salmson engines warned the Germans of their arrival. Russian pilots and crews ignored the ground fire from small arms and at least one antiaircraft cannon as the three M-9 pilots focused on dropping ordnance on several station sheds.

The end of the successful pass over target resulted in gains and setbacks for the Russians. The good news was that although a number of German bullets and shell fragments had struck the M-9s, the aircrafts’ thick planked hulls had served as protective cocoons for pilots and sergeants; no metal fragments punctured the flesh of crew members. The bad news contained multiple parts. Lieutenant Steklov had to abandon the small detachment and flee to the northeast; an exploding shell had pocked-marked a radiator that then spewed out steam. Steklov would be saved. The M-9 carried two elongated radiators, one on each side of the liquid-cooled engine. The second intact radiator bought Steklov a few precious minutes of flight before the overheated engine froze and turned his flying boat into an unpowered glider. Fortunately for him, his motor enabled him to reach the gulf, where he was able to glide far enough from shore to be picked up safely by a Russian gunboat. Meanwhile, Diterikhs and Seversky circled back toward the enemy, intending to use their M-9 machine guns to damage the unmanned German seaplanes. But the pilots and sergeants soon discovered that their combat mission had actually just begun. Russian planes were entering a new and very dangerous phase of battle.

When the M-9s approached the German base, some seaplanes already had taken off to confront the Russians. Soon Diterikhs and Seversky faced a flight of seven Albatros planes with crews eager to seek revenge for the damage caused by Russian bombs. Thus began one of the great, epic air battles of the Eastern Front, which continued for at least an hour. It was prolonged in part because of the machine gun setups on the two opposing types of aircraft. With motor and propeller in front, the Albatros biplane was pulled through the air. The pilot sat behind the engine and behind the pilot sat the observer, who operated the machine gun from the second cockpit. But the only clear firing view for the German machine gun was in the arc between the two open sides of the seaplane. Firing straight ahead would kill the pilot, and even a slightly slanted forward aim would potentially destroy the struts and wire braces that supported the wings. By contrast, the M-9 crew sat in front of the engine and propeller, which pushed the craft through the air. As a result, the M-9 machine gun swiveled and the crew had a clear shot at anything in the 180-degree arc from side to side in front of it.

Besides being badly outnumbered by enemy planes, the Russians faced another problem. Due to the high drag produced by the hull, two radiators, and the Salmson engine, the M-9 had a top speed of only 110 kmh (about 68 mph). The Albatros C.Ia, with wheels for landing gear, flew 142 kmh (about 88 mph), but substituting pontoons for wheels, as the designer did, reduced the plane’s speed. Nevertheless, German seaplanes remained somewhat faster than Russian flying boats. Diterikhs and Seversky understood only too well that the odds were against them in guns and speed; a frontal attack against multiple German aircraft would be suicidal. Instead the Russian pilots initiated a flight of movement and maneuver that appeared to be an aerobatic dance in the sky. The pair wove their flying boats synchronously, in and out, with tight crossovers, creating an imaginary chain that proved difficult for the Germans to penetrate. Without the benefit of radio communications, German attacks lacked any type of logical coordination. Individual Albatros aircraft moved forward and back, exchanging gunfire with the M-9s. Seversky’s plane took more than thirty hits in the running gun battle, but the M-9 hull preserved its occupants, and all control surfaces remained functional.

The Germans were not so fortunate. Their designers had used wooden veneer as the covering for the Albatros fuselage. Bullets penetrated the covering and exposed the crew to deadly fire. As the aerobatic chain moved the air duel away from the enemy base and into the gulf toward Runo Island, Seversky’s M-9 shot down two of the German planes. All seemed to go well for the Russians until Diterikhs’ machine gun jammed, leaving the Grigorovich defenseless. When an Albatros moved forward to finish off the M-9, Seversky abruptly and fearlessly changed the heading of his plane to a collision course with the Albatros, but his object was not to initiate the taran. Instead, his machine gun opened fire, smashing bullets into the fore and aft cockpits, killing the crew and sending the Albatros into the Gulf of Riga. Seversky’s brazen action and the appearance of several more M-9s from Runo helped remind German pilots that their planes were low on fuel and they needed to return to their base at Lake Angern.

As might be expected, the one-legged aviator gained promotion to senior lieutenant (starshii leitenant). Tsar Nikolai II, in his role as commander in chief (glavnokomanduiushchii) of the Imperial Russian Military, awarded Seversky the Gold Sword as Knight of the Order of Saint George. It was Imperial Russia’s highest decoration and is sometimes equated with the top U.S. military decoration, the Medal of Honor. Seversky certainly demonstrated courage worthy of the decoration. Subsequent scouting reports, however, revealed that the Germans on Lake Angern quickly recovered from the M-9 bombs and the loss of the three Albatros aircraft. The enemy seaplane base posed a threat to Russian naval vessels, especially in providing air intelligence reports about Russian ships to German submarines in the Gulf of Riga. Regardless, the Baltic Fleet recommended that Stavka ask the EVK to conduct a significant bombing operation against the German seaplane station. The first thing the EVK did was to send a single Il’ia Muromets on a reconnaissance flight to the enemy base.

The plane’s commander, Lieutenant Vladimir Lobov, and his crew enjoyed a very successful intelligence run over the German air base. Sharp photographs clearly outlined sheds, hangars, barracks, and other facilities. A half-dozen Albatros aircraft took off and tried to intercept the Russian four-engine plane, but the bomber’s crew fired so many Lewis machine guns that the German aerial attack failed completely. On September 4, 1916 (N.S.), four Il’ia Muromets aircraft left the Zegevol’d Aerodrome near Pskov under the command of Lieutenant Georgii I. Lavrov. The detachment flew to Lake Angern and dropped seventy-three bombs on the German station, which housed seventeen seaplanes. Observers on the Russian aircraft confirmed the destruction and fires that consumed aircraft, hangars, and various structures. Multiple machine guns on the four reconnaissance-bombers suppressed enemy antiaircraft fire from the ground. As the Russians headed back to their aerodrome, they noted that columns of smoke were rising where the German seaplane station had been. The four large planes suffered no damage and returned safely from their mission to Zegevol’d.

The Il’ia Muromets aircraft assigned to the Stan’kovo Aerodrome near Minsk were equipped with less powerful, British-made Sunbeam engines that had a tendency to reduce the performance of the large reconnaissance-bombers. There was one IM Kievskii model that carried better Argus motors. In the summer and fall of 1916, the detachment carried out numerous bombing and photographing missions on behalf of the Russian Second, Tenth, and Fourth armies. With EVK aid these armies close to the center of the Eastern Front maintained a fairly stable combat line against the enemy. In order to distract the Germans in the north from a planned Russian offensive, the EVK decided to put on a show of force by sponsoring a major air attack against the headquarters of a German reserve division near the town of Boruna, just below the Russian offensive. The attacking force comprised four Il’ia Muromets planes and sixteen Morane-Saulnier French fighters, built by the Russian Dukh Company. The planes took off separately on September 25, 1916 (N.S.). Unfortunately, both the plans and their execution failed. The fighters missed linking up with the bombers and three of the larger aircraft never reached the target. One of the three Il’ia Muromets planes encountered German fighters supplied with explosive ordnance. An intercepted radio message later revealed that the Germans had lost three of their planes in the air battle; however, enemy bullets exploded one of the Russian bombers’ fuel tanks. The plane crashed, killing the entire crew, including its commander, Lieutenant Dimitrii K. Makhsheiev. Only the IM Kievskii completed the mission in triumph; overall, the show of airpower miscarried miserably.

Meanwhile, the offensive against the German forces on the Russian Northwestern Front simply failed. Occasionally, the Russian armies, under the leadership of General Aleksei N. Kuropatkin, nudged enemy troops back a short distance. Kuropatkin, the officer corps, and conscripted soldiers lost heart over Russia’s ability to defeat Germany. The Kuropatkin debacle was in sharp contrast to the performance of the four armies on the Southwestern Front commanded by General Aleksei A. Brusilov. After a crushing artillery barrage on June 4, 1916 (N.S.), Brusilov’s forces successfully attacked soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A major ingredient in the spectacular advance of the Brusilov offensive involved the EVK squadron that operated close to the Russian Seventh Army, which had spearheaded the attack against enemy troops. Led by Staff-Captain Aleksei V. Pankrat’ev, the EVK detachment photographed and secured important intelligence on the disposition of Austrian units and artillery. Performing two missions a day, the large planes also bombed railway stations, railroad beds, warehouses, and towns occupied by enemy soldiers. When the Russians occupied new territory, ground troops saw first-hand evidence of the destruction caused by Il’ia Muromets aircraft and heard tales of how Austrian troops abandoned in panic their positions after a Russian bombing run.

In action by single-engine planes, it should come as no surprise that Russia’s top two ace pilots flew in the very active Southwestern Front, where aviation and aviators were held in high esteem by Brusilov, the front’s offensive-minded commander. As noted earlier, in 1915 a type of Russian fighter aircraft emerged that employed a machine gun in the front of a pusher-type aircraft. A Grigorovich M-5 flying boat of 1915 also could carry that weapon, and in 1915–1916 a machine gun could be placed on the top wing of a Nieuport biplane that was pulled through the air by its propeller. The formal creation of fighter detachments with six aircraft each took place in March 1916 under Order No. 30, signed by Tsar Nikolai II. By August of that year, there were a dozen fighter squadrons, one for each of the twelve Russian armies. The use of such detachments could not begin to protect all aircraft that performed reconnaissance missions over enemy forces; nevertheless, on the Russian Southwestern Front, the country’s second-highest ace pilot, Vasili I. Ianchenko, was credited over time with sixteen enemy kills.

As a youth, Ianchenko studied mathematics and mechanical engineering at the Saratov Technical School, graduating in 1913 at age nineteen. His enthusiasm for airplanes prompted him to take flying lessons, and when war broke out, in 1914, he volunteered for military aviation service. Interestingly, because he had entered the army from the lower-middle class, failed to attend a military school, and had begun army life as a private (riadovoi), he never attained a rank higher than ensign (praporshchik). Over the winter of 1914–1915 he attended ground school at the Saint Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. Once he completed the aeronautics course he received orders to travel by train south to the Sevastopol’ Aviation School. In the spring and summer of 1915, he finished military flight training there on the French-designed, Russian-built Morane-Saulnier monoplane. That fall he transferred to the Twelfth Air Corps Squadron, where he demonstrated such outstanding skills as a pilot that he received orders to attend an air school in Moscow where he learned to fly an advanced Morane-Saulnier fighter. After finishing that course early in 1916, he went to a squadron in the central regions of the Eastern Front. Ianchenko flew ten combat missions, but after hearing about the tsar’s order he requested transfer to Russia’s first formal fighter detachment—the Seventh Fighter Squadron, attached to the Russian Seventh Army. He joined what proved to be a busy squadron, preparing for the Brusilov offensive. Between April and October 1916, he flew eighty combat missions and became one of Russia’s most decorated pilots.

Russia’s top ace pilot was Aleksandr A. Kozakov, who had amassed twenty confirmed kills. Somewhat older than other pilots, he was born in 1889, the son of a nobleman. He attended military schools in his youth and graduated from the Elizavetgrad Cavalry School. The junior lieutenant (kornet—cavalry rank) spent his first years in a horse regiment, but transferred to aviation as a senior lieutenant (poruchik—cavalry rank) in 1914. After completing ground school and flight training in October, he was assigned to the Fourth Corps Air Squadron, north of Warsaw, where he flew the two-seat Morane-Saulnier monowing reconnaissance plane. Near the end of the 1915 Great Retreat he was promoted to staff-captain (shtabs-rotmistr—cavalry rank) and appointed to head the Russian Eighth Army’s Nineteenth Corps Air Squadron on the Southwestern Front. Early in 1916, on his own initiative, Kozakov had a Maxim machine gun installed on the top wing of his Nieuport 10 biplane. After multiple kills, he became the leader of the three Russian Eighth Army Corps aviation detachments that formed the First Combat Air Group. To protect the Eighth Army’s recent victory in the skies over the Austrian city of Lutsk, a major railway hub, the combat group received special Nieuport 11 and SPAD SA.2 fighters imported from France.

Austria hoped to regain Lutsk and destroy or damage railway facilities, so Kozakov and the First Combat Air Group engaged numerous Austrian fighter and scouting aircraft. The Austrian Brandenburg plane actually had been designed by a German, Ernst Heinkel, and originally was built in Germany by the Hansa und Brandenburgische Flugzeug-Werke. Moreover, Germans often piloted the “Austrian” airplanes. The Russians’ effort succeeded. In 4 months, they captured 417,000 Austrian prisoners, 1,795 machine guns, 581 artillery pieces, and 25,000 square kilometers (15,500 square miles) of territory, according to an enthusiastic account of the Brusilov offensive written 15 years later by Russian general Nicholas N. Golovine (an anglicized version of Nikolai N. Golovin) in The Russian Army in the World War. None of the Allied powers could match the success of the Russian attack. The Austrian military nearly collapsed; it had to end its own offensive against Italy by transferring 15 divisions to the Eastern Front. Germany, fearful that the Austro-Hungarian Empire might sue for peace, sent 18 divisions from the Western Front and 4 reserve divisions that had been housed in Germany in order to bolster Austrian forces and keep them in the war.

Airpower made an observable contribution to the success of the Brusilov offensive. The EVK used extensive photography to reveal fully the enemy’s defensive order of battle. The Russian Southwestern Front employed 17 squadrons, comprising 90 pilots and 88 single-engine aircraft. (The last two numbers clearly illustrate the Russians’ chronic problem of not having enough pilots and planes to operate the expected standard of 6 airplanes per squadron.) Nonetheless, Russian fighters hampered the ability of Austrian air reconnaissance to identify the point of Russian attacks; the fighters also tried to protect Russian aircraft that carried out intelligence-gathering missions. This combination of scouting and EVK photography enabled Russian artillery to suppress and destroy the opponent’s defenses and to cause more damage with fewer cannon. During the breakthrough period of the Russian advance, the 17 air squadrons carried out 1,805 combat missions. Peak activity occurred in August 1916, when pilots completed 749 flights under battle conditions. By October the Brusilov offensive stalled, partly because of Russian casualties, autumn rains, and the fact that the Austrian line of defense had been greatly strengthened by the large number of new Austrian and German military divisions. Finally, the static nature of the Southwestern Front in the fall of 1916, coupled with the long-term stability of the Northwestern Front, explains the rapid expansion in the number of balloon detachments that year. By December there were some 73 balloon observer stations in 13 balloon divisions operating from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Although balloons often were subjected to enemy gunfire, they played an important role in observing activity in the forward lines of German and Austrian troops.

The achievement of Russian armies in advancing into Austrian Galicia was more than matched by the power and work of the Black Sea Fleet in checking the Central Powers and turning the sea into a Russian lake. First, the fleet continued to send hydrocruiser task forces and their shipborne flying boats to intervene and disrupt the transit of coal by attacking Turkish steamers and sailing ships. The effort proved so thorough that at times Turko-German ships, including the Goeben and Breslau, lacked the fuel necessary to steam into the Black Sea. By December 1916 the Russians had sunk or captured more than a thousand Turkish coastal craft. On one of the hydrocruiser visits to Zonguldak the following February 6 (N.S.) fourteen Grigorovich aircraft dropped thirty-eight bombs on the ex-German collier Irmingard—the largest vessel to be lost to an air attack in any theater of battle during the Great War. Second, task groups repeatedly bombarded the Bulgarian port of Varna. On August 25 (N.S.) the aircraft carriers Almaz, Aleksandr, and Nikolai sent nineteen planes into the harbor to bomb German submarines.

Finally, in 1916 the army-dominated Stavka finally decided to take a step that it had refused two years before. Vice Admiral Andrei A. Eberhardt, an aggressive commander, had wanted from the beginning of the war to prepare the Black Sea Fleet for amphibious operations should the Ottoman Empire become a member of the Central Powers. Even though Stavka had mistakenly predicted that the Turks would remain neutral, the army did not want to commit a substantial number of soldiers for waterborne military action. What we now call “if history” is fiction, of course, but if the Russian army had approved the preparation of amphibious troops with the Black Sea Fleet, such a force might have collaborated with the Allied attack at Gallipoli. British and French warships bombarded the peninsula in February 1915 and later landed troops there. A major amphibious assault by Russian soldiers disembarked from the Black Sea near Constantinople might have led to the occupation of the Turkish capital, knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and brought Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania into the conflict on the side of the Allies. Black Sea ports would then have been opened to safe and copious trade and the entire chemistry of the war would have been altered.

The Black Sea Fleet and its hydrocruiser task forces housing flying boats also assisted the Imperial Russian Army in its Caucasus campaign against the Turks. The navy and its Grigorovich aircraft interrupted, captured, or sank Turkish ships that carried troops and supplies eastward to the front against Russia. When an army-sized Turkish relief force under Vehip Pasha marched along the northern coast of Anatolia, Russian war vessels and aircraft harassed the troops and damaged supply columns, leaving the relief force no option but to retreat. Then, in March 1916, Stavka finally agreed to an amphibious operation against the Ottoman Empire. The dreadnought Rostislav, gunboat Kubanets, 4 torpedo boats, 2,100 soldiers (shipped on 2 transports), and 3 flat-bottomed minesweepers entered the small Atina harbor. Just behind Turkish lines, the amphibious exercise caught Russia’s enemy in a surprising pincer that enabled the Russian Army to advance westward into the Turkish port of Rize on March 6 (N.S.).

The Black Sea Fleet became heavily involved in augmenting Russian troops and supplies for the Caucasian Front. On April 7 (N.S.) approximately 16,000 Cossack soldiers were shipped to Rize on 36 smaller transports, with 8 flat-bottomed Elpidifor craft for the amphibious coastal landing stage. The substantial number of infantrymen had the protection of a dreadnought, 3 cruisers, and 15 torpedo boats. Three hydrocruisers holding 19 flying boats accompanied the naval task force. Aircraft provided a reconnaissance screen against German submarines and Turko-German warships. The additional troops enabled the Russians to stall and then defeat a serious Turkish counterattack. By April 19 (N.S.) the Russians had pushed the enemy westward and occupied the major Turkish port of Trabzon (anglicized as Trebizond). In the second half of May and early June, the Black Sea Fleet then used two convoys to transfer to Trabzon the 123rd and 127th infantry divisions, which included more than 34,000 men. Once again hydrocruisers used cranes to unload M-9s to the sea—planes that then flew scouting missions to help protect the convoys from enemy ships and U-boats.

In July 1916 Vice Admiral Aleksandr V. Kolchak replaced Eberhardt as commander of the Black Sea Fleet. It would be nice to say that Eberhardt deservedly retired with honor, but the reality is that in both government and military, administrators and officers often engaged in politics and infighting to gain preferred appointments. Nevertheless, as a rear admiral Kolchak had been an excellent chief over the Baltic Sea’s destroyer force, and he clearly valued aircraft now. While Eberhardt had established naval air stations at Batum, Rize, and Trabzon, Kolchak tripled the number of airplanes in some cases. On September 11 (N.S.) he dispatched flying boats to bomb the Bulgarian port of Varna as well as the Eukhinograd German submarine base. In August he also began secretly laying hundreds of mines around the Bosporus and later Varna; the minefields were constantly augmented, so that in essence the Central Powers were denied access to the Black Sea. It would be eleven months before the Breslau dared to steam through the Bosporus. Finally, Romania’s entry into the war as a member of the Allies in 1916 led to that country’s defeat by a German-Bulgarian-Turkish army under Mackensen. On December 16, 1916 (N.S.), Romania’s main port of Constanta also was mined. The only Turkish vessels remaining in the Black Sea were smaller sailing ships berthed in lesser ports along the coast of Anatolia.

The Air War: Burma 1943-5

Art by Romain Hugault

During the 1941–2 campaign in Burma the Japanese Army and Navy Air Forces had swept from the skies the Royal Air Force’s older fighters and bombers, which simply could not compete with the newer types of Japanese aircraft. The main Japanese fighter, the Ki-43, could even outperform the Hurricanes that made up the RAF’s main fighter force before November 1943. In that month the first Spitfire fighters arrived in Burma and the situation changed. Over the next three months they destroyed a hundred Japanese planes while losing only five pilots.

At the end of 1943 the Japanese still had 370 planes in Burma but their numbers were beginning to decline. Ki-43s were still the main type in service with the Japanese, and they were to soldier on alongside newer types until 1945. Most new types of Japanese fighter were increasingly sent to the Pacific as Burma had a much lower priority. The other dominant Japanese fighter in 1941–2 was the Zero, which was flown mainly by the Navy Air Force. Few of these were seen over Burma, but they were being outclassed in other theatres anyway. Their weaknesses were revealed by the US pilots of the Flying Tigers Squadron over Burma in 1942. Many of these pilots passed on the knowledge they had picked up in action, and the Zero saw little service. In 1943 a few were seen over Burma escorting bombers and some took part in several strafing missions in May 1944.

Japanese pilots were admired by their public as the ‘Samurai of the Sky’ and most followed the traditional Bushido Code. This old-fashioned attitude worked against the Japanese air crews in several ways. One result of it was the pilots’ dislike of using cloud cover during attacks as it was regarded as dishonourable. Many pilots did not check that their machines were serviceable before taking off, regarding such checks as beneath them, and the province of the ground crews. However, the often-quoted belief that Japanese pilots refused to wear parachutes was a myth. Parachutes were issued and the official line was that they should be worn, although it was not strictly imposed. The pilots’ rationale for not wearing them was more a matter of practicality than part of some suicidal Samurai code. Some pilots found the parachutes constricting and said that without them they felt part of their aircraft. Others cited the fact that even if they were to parachute from their stricken planes, there was little if any chance of rescue. There was no such thing as air sea rescue in the Japanese air forces and a pilot who landed in the sea was on his own.

By 1944 the Japanese 4th Air Brigade in Burma was made up of four air regiments: the 50th with Ki-43 fighters, the 10th with Ki-45 ground attack planes, the 8th with Ki-48 medium bombers and the 14th with Ki-21 medium bombers. The 7th Air Brigade also comprised four air regiments: the 81st with Ki-46 reconnaissance planes, the 31st and 21st with Ki-43 fighters and the 64th with Ki-44 fighters. There were also two regiments with Ki-21 medium bombers. In October 1944 the Japanese were still receiving limited air reinforcements but their strength was reducing by 10 per cent every month. By November 1944 the Japanese had only 125 planes, their number further reduced by April 1945. As the last phase of the fighting in Burma began, there were only fifty Japanese aircraft still operating there.

On the Allied side the situation in 1942 was dire, with few RAF airfields in usable condition. The first priority was to repair damaged air bases in India and to build new ones, with 150 being constructed by the end of the year. During the 1942–3 Arakan campaign the RAF was still using outdated planes, with eight squadrons of Hurricane fighters and two of Blenheim light bombers. Blenheim bombers were described as ‘museum pieces’ and had been obsolete since 1940. Regardless of this, they had to struggle on until newer aircraft could be delivered to Burma. Until the arrival of the Spitfires the RAF had to make do with Hurricanes and Kittyhawk III fighters, with a few Spitfires that had to be used for reconnaissance only. Spitfire Mk V fighters arrived in Burma in the autumn of 1943 and were followed in the new year by Mk VIIIs.

In November 1943 there was only a single RAF transport squadron available to supply the whole of the 14th Army. In addition, there were two USAAF troop carrier squadrons that were available to support the Chinese Army in India, known as X-Force. Transport planes were the most important air element in the Burma campaign and the shortage of them was a constant problem. Louis Mountbatten tried to beg, borrow or steal C-47 Dakotas from anywhere that he could. Crucially, he managed to get on loan seventy-nine C-47s from the Mediterranean theatre, plus another fifty-nine diverted from their duties transporting men and supplies over the Hump. The transports were available through the US Air Transport Command, which received a windfall when seventy C-47s were found lying idle on airfields in Trans-Jordan. These planes were snapped up before they could be claimed by the planners organising Operation Overlord. Mountbatten asked in May 1944 to be allowed to retain the transports from the Mediterranean, or twenty planes along with the fifty-nine taken from the Hump airlift.

At the beginning of 1944 the RAF and Indian Air Force had four squadrons (the 1st, 28th, 34th and 42nd) of Hurricanes at Imphal and Palel, plus two squadrons of Spitfires (the 81st and 136th) and one of Beaufighters (the 176th) at Kangala and Sapam. During 1944 the RAF received welcome support from the USAF No. 1 Commando Group, which was made up of a hundred light aircraft, thirty Mustang P-51 fighters, twenty Mitchell B-25 medium bombers and thirty transports including twenty C-47 Dakotas. There were also six Sikorsky helicopters – a new type of aircraft that was usually used to evacuate casualties. In addition, 150 gliders were delivered to the commando group in preparation for the large-scale landing of troops behind enemy lines. The commando group was formed to support General Stilwell’s Chinese expeditionary forces fighting in northern Burma from 1943 to 1945. By December 1944 the main Allied air support was provided by the thirty-seven squadrons of 221 Group RAF. There were five squadrons of B-24 medium bombers, two squadrons of Thunderbolt fighters and two squadrons of Mustang fighters operating from Arakan. There were also fourteen squadrons of ground support planes, including two squadrons of Beaufighters, two of Mosquitos and two of Thunderbolts. Operating from Khumhirgram and Wangjing were four squadrons of Thunderbolts and four squadrons of medium bombers.

As the fighting in Burma went on, the Allied pilots began to gain enough experience to take on their ‘superior’ Japanese counterparts. By August 1943 pilots had also learned the skills that were necessary to fly over the jungle and to fly in the severe weather conditions of the monsoon season. In addition, they began to receive material assistance due to the Allies’ superior technology. They had the advantage of an efficient meteorological service which could provide them with accurate weather forecasts up to 1,000 miles away. By 1945 Allied aircraft losses resulted mainly from accidents and crashes, not enemy aircraft. Many planes crashed due to the adverse weather conditions encountered in the Burma theatre. For example, one Beaufighter squadron which had a particularly high attrition rate lost seventy-five air crew over an eighteen-month period.

Flying Circus


Richthofen’s Flying Circus, by Nicolas Trudgian

An elite German fighter unit in World War I.

World War I was the first time aircraft were used in combat against each other. Before then the United States had used aircraft in scouting roles, and when World War I broke out, it was scouting that was the primary job of airmen on both sides. The need to stop aircraft from flying over one’s own armies brought about the development of fighter aircraft. By early 1915, some six months after the war’s inception, Roland Garros mounted a machine gun on the nose of his Morane airplane and bolted steel plates to the propeller to deflect whatever bullets failed to pass through. He was shot down behind German lines, and his idea was improved upon by a Dutch aircraft engineer, Anthony Fokker, who developed the interrupter gear. This allowed bullets to pass through the empty spaces of the propeller while interrupting the flow of bullets when the propeller’s blades passed in front of the machine gun. The Fokker E-1 was the first widely used fighter aircraft, and for a while it devastated British and French aircraft.

The life of an airman proved tantalizing to many, especially those who had spent time in the mud of the trenches in northern France. One such soldier who transferred to the air service was a German aristocrat named Manfred von Richthofen, for the cavalry to which he originally was assigned was rapidly becoming obsolete. Richthofen learned to fly reconnaissance planes, with a cameraman in the rear seat to photograph enemy positions. This proved too tame for his temperament, and he learned to fly the Fokker E-1. His early experience in the aircraft was not positive, but he underwent fighter training and quickly improved. In the spring of 1916 he was assigned to a Jagdstaffel, a German fighter squadron, which at full strength numbered 16 aircraft.

Like all young fighter pilots in the German air service, he idolized the “aces,” men who had shot down at least five enemy aircraft. The leading aces, who rapidly became national heroes, were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelman, both assigned to No. 62 Squadron. When Immelman was killed, the German government wanted to keep Boelcke alive for morale purposes and so assigned him to behind- the-lines tours. When in August 1916 he returned to command the newly formed Jasta 2 (“Jasta” being an abbreviation of Jagdstaffel), he chose Richthofen as one of his pilots. Boelcke was regarded as the first serious theorist of fighter tactics, and Richthofen learned from the master. The British had been pioneering aggressive fighter tactics, but with the development of newer and faster German aircraft, the Germans took control of the air in the latter part of 1916.

By 1916, the war on the ground had turned into such a stalemate that there was a desperate need for heroes to maintain public morale. It was the fighter pilots who came to fill that role. The French press first in-vented the concept of the “ace,” which the commanders of the Allied air services at first resisted. The British in particular stressed teamwork over individual accomplishments, but the ace concept took on a life of its own. The French were the first to develop an elite squadron, called Le Cignones (the Storks); each aircraft had a stork painted on its fuselage in a different pose. This gave each pilot his individual marking while also promoting unit esprit de corps. The Germans followed suit to an extent: Flight leaders began to paint parts of their aircraft bright colors in order to be better seen by the pilots flying with them.

Jasta 2 underwent a major change after Boelcke was killed in a flying accident October 1916. In December the unit was renamed Jasta Boelcke. Richthofen was improving his skills and by the end of 1916 had shot down 15 enemy aircraft. January 1917 he was given command Jasta 11, and took delivery of the newest the German fighter aircraft, the Albatross D. III. Jasta 11 had yet to score any victories in air-to-air combat, and Richthofen set about whipping his men into a first class squadron. As squadron commander, he had followed the general practice identifying his plane with bright red paint on the wheels and the tail section. Soon, painted his entire aircraft a bright red. This was to serve a number of purposes. First, he made himself easily identifiable to his own pilots. Second, although he had experimented earlier in his career with camouflage and the German air service was also looking into the idea, his own flamboyance would not allow him to purposely remain inconspicuous. Third, he hoped that his becoming famous as an expert fighter pilot would make the red plane strike fear in his enemies. Soon, his entire squadron painted a portion of their own planes red, and the brightly colored planes came to be called the Flying Circus. Later, all the aircraft the Jasta were painted solid red.

Richthofen’s Jasta 11 came into its own in April 1917, by which time the Albatross D. III had become the standard aircraft the German air service. Nothing the British or French had could match the Albatross, and the month came to be called by Allied airmen “Bloody April.” In this month, Richthofen became Germany’s highest-scoring ace, surpassing the mark of 41 kills set by his mentor Boelcke.

Both the Allies and the Germans developed increasingly faster and more maneuverable aircraft as the war progressed, and neither side was able to maintain superiority over the other for long. No matter what planes the Allies introduced, however, Richthofen continued to increase his score. Although wounded in combat and forced at another time by the high command to take leave, he rested only as long as he was required to do so. Combat seemed to have become an addiction with him. He and his squadron grew in notoriety-both inside Germany and out-and he was undoubtedly the best-known soldier in Germany. His younger brother, Lothar, flew with him and took command of the Jasta on Manfred’s infrequent departures, and the family tie was one more item for the press to play up.

By April 1918, Manfred von Richthofen was the highest-scoring ace of the war, with 80 Allied aircraft confirmed destroyed. He had been promoted to command Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Group 1). On April 21, however, he was killed in combat in circumstances argued to this day. Credit for bringing down the Red Baron, as he had come to be called, went at the time to Captain Arthur Royal “Roy” Brown. Brown attacked the scarlet Fokker Dr. 1, the triplane Richthofen made famous, as it lined up on a British pilot on his first mission. Richthofen did not bring the enemy plane down quickly as he had become famous for doing, and he was shot down for flying too long in one direction. Richthofen’s plane landed behind British lines and the smoothness of the landing seemed to indicate a wounded pilot. Richthofen, however, was dead with a single bullet through his chest. It has since been argued that he was killed in flight by an Australian machine gun crew firing from the Allied lines on the ground. However he died, he was treated to a funeral with full honors by the British Royal Flying Corps.

Jasta 11 continued to operate under the command of Lothar von Richthofen, but he was never the public figure his brother had been. Manfred left behind the Air Combat Operations Manual, which de- scribed the necessary tactics for handling the larger Fighter Group he commanded at the end of his life. Ironically, it was the final dictum of that manual that he violated when he was shot down: “You should never stay with an opponent whom, through your bad shooting or his skillful turning, you have been unable to shoot down, the combat lasts for a long time and you are alone, outnumbered by adversaries.” Manfred von Richthofen also left a legacy of intensity, dedication, and professionalism that fighter pilots ever since have striven to emulate.

References: Bickers, Richard Townshend, Von Richthofen: The Legend Evaluated (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996); Gibbons, Floyd, The Red Knight of Germany (London: Cassell, 1932); Richthofen, Baron Manfred von, Der Rote Kampfflieger (Berlin: Ullstein, 1933).


Tunisian Air-bridge




Palm Sunday Massacre

The patrols failed to intercept any formations of transports on the afternoon of the 18 April. In the evening, the Ninth Air Force’s 57th Fighter Group sent out all of its squadrons, including the 314th Squadron of the 324th Fighter Group, under its command. The 57th had already flown unproductive sorties in the afternoon. Still, 47 USAAF P-40s arrived in the sweep area with 12 Spitfires from No. 92 Squadron RAF. The Spitfires flew high cover at 15,000 ft (4,600 m) while the P-40s stayed at around 4,000 ft (1,200 m). Soon enough, a large formation of 30 Ju 52 were reported by Allied pilots at an altitude of only 1,000 ft (300 m) flying north east on a return flight. Actually, the numbers were 65 Ju 52s, 16 Axis fighters and five Bf 110s. As the Allied fighters began their attacks, the passengers fired machine guns out of the Junkers windows in desperation to fend off the attack. In the air battle that followed, six P-40s and a Spitfire were shot down. The Americans claimed 146 victories, which was later reduced to 58 or 59 Ju 52s, 14 Macchi C.202s and Bf 109s and two to four Bf 110s. Actual German losses were 24 Ju 52s along with 10 fighters. It is also possible some Italian fighters were shot down as well. Along with the 24 Ju 52s destroyed, another 35 were damaged and managed to crash-land all along the Sicilian coastline. The battle became known as the “Palm Sunday Massacre”. The German fighter casualties amounted to nine Bf 109s and one Bf 110.

Although the Allies held air superiority by this time, Luftwaffe transports were operating with impunity during darkness. In order to prevent this, Allied Air Forces, the RAF—in conjunction with the United States Army Air Force (USAAF)—was ordered to conduct an aerial offensive against Axis air power by day and night in order to prevent them supplying and withdrawing resources. Owing to bad weather and the need to gather intelligence, the operation, codenamed “Flax”, did not begin until 5 April. Although the Axis put up determined resistance and large scale air battles took place, the Allied Air Forces succeeded in destroying the aerial link between Axis-held Sicily and Italy. During the course of the interdiction operation, an air battle known as the 18 April Palmsontag Massaker (“Palm Sunday Massacre”) took place, in which the German Junkers Ju 52 transport fleets suffered heavy losses over Cape Bon, while evacuating Heer forces escaping from the Allied ground offensive Operation Vulcan. The air operation continued until 27 April, when it was officially terminated. The operation was successful in destroying Axis logistical support. Along with the attempted airlift during the Battle of Stalingrad, Operation Flax inflicted such grievous losses on the German transport fleets they were unable to recover thereafter.

As early as 9 November, it was reported that reconnaissance reported that 40 German aircraft had landed at Tunis, and on 10 November British photographic reconnaissance showed around 100 German aircraft of various types on the airfield. On 10 November, the Italian Air Force sent a flight of 28 fighters to Tunis. Two days later an airlift began that would bring in over 15,000 men and 581 short tons (527 t) of supplies, backed up with transport ships that added 176 tanks, 131 artillery pieces, 1,152 vehicles, and 13,000 short tons (12,000 t) of supplies. By the end of the month they had shipped in three German divisions, including the 10th Panzer Division, and two Italian infantry divisions. On 12 November, Walther Nehring was assigned command of the newly formed XC Corps, and flew in on 17 November.

On 8 November, Operation Torch landed allied forces to the west of Tunisia in Algeria (at Oran and Algiers) and Morocco (at Casablanca).

By 10 November French opposition to the Torch landings had ceased, creating a military vacuum in Tunisia and Lieutenant-General Anderson immediately ordered 36th Infantry Brigade group, which had been the floating reserve for the Algiers landing, eastward by sea to occupy the ports of Bougie, Philippeville and Bône and the airfield at Djedjelli preliminary to advancing into Tunisia. Allied planning staff had previously ruled out an assault landing in Tunisia because of a lack of sufficient troops and the threat from the air. As a result, Anderson needed to get his limited force east as quickly as possible before the Axis could build a defensive critical mass in Tunis. The Allies had available only two brigade groups and some additional armour and artillery for an attack on Tunisia. Nevertheless, they believed if they moved quickly, before the newly arrived Axis forces were fully organised, they would still be able to capture Tunisia at relatively little cost.

Tunisian officials were undecided about whom to support, and they did not close access to their airfields to either side. As early as 9 November there were reports of 40 German aircraft arriving at Tunis and by 10 November aerial reconnaissance reported 100 aircraft. Two days later an airlift began that would bring in over 15,000 men and 581 tons of supplies. By the end of the month they had shipped in three German divisions, including the 10th Panzer Division, and two Italian infantry divisions. On 12 November, Walther Nehring was assigned command of the newly formed XC Corps, and flew in on 17 November.

Operation Torch

In July 1942 the Allies agreed that proposed relatively small-scale amphibious operations to land in northern France during 1942 (Operation Sledgehammer which was to be the precursor to Operation Round-up, the main landings in 1943) were impractical and should be deferred. Instead it was agreed that landings would be made to secure the Vichy territories in North Africa: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and then to thrust east to take the Axis forces in the Western Desert in their rear. An Allied occupation of the whole of the North African coast would open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping thus releasing the huge capacity required to maintain supplies round the circuitous route via the Cape of Good Hope.

Because of the nearness of Sicily to Tunisia, the Allies expected that the Axis would move to occupy the country as soon as they heard of the Torch landings. In order to forestall this, it would be necessary to occupy Tunisia as quickly as possible after the landings were made. However, there was a limit to how far east the Torch landings could be made because of the increasing proximity of Axis airfields in Sicily and Sardinia which at the end of October held 298 German and 574 Italian aircraft. Plans were necessarily a compromise and Algiers was chosen for the most easterly landings. This would ensure the success of the initial landings in spite of the uncertainty of how the incumbent French forces would react. Once Algiers was secured, a small force, the Eastern Task Force, would be projected as quickly as possible into Tunisia in a race to occupy Tunis, nearly 800 miles (1,300 km) distant along poor roads in difficult terrain during the winter rainy season, before the Axis could organise. The Allies realised that an attempt to reach Bizerta and Tunis overland before the Axis could establish themselves represented a gamble which depended on the ability of the navy and airforce to delay the Axis build-up. The Tunisia Operation was to be under the overall direction of headquarters British First Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson.

The Axis campaign in North Africa was characterised by a lack of supplies and an inability to provide any sort of consistent concentrated logistics support to their forces in the field. The failure to pay attention to logistical considerations was one of the primary reasons that Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel could not win a decisive breakthrough against the British 8th Army throughout 1941—1942. Rommel, at points, had recognised Malta as a serious obstacle to Axis logistical lines between Axis-held Europe and their forces in North Africa. Malta lay across their lines of communication and, despite being under siege for two and a half years, it remained an active base for Allied naval and air forces to interdict Axis supply lines for much of this period. Yet Rommel failed to apply enough pressure on the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command, OKW) to launch a planned invasion of the island, Operation Herkules. Although Malta became largely ineffective as an offensive base in mid-1942, later that same year the Allied offensive from Malta became increasingly effective. The Axis defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein and the Allied landings, Operation Torch, in Western North Africa, threatened to crush the Axis from both East and West. The Germans responded by sending reinforcements to Africa through Vichy-held Tunisia, but by the start of 1943 they were suffering increasing shipping losses to Malta’s forces. Some respite was won for the Axis when the Allies lost the “Run for Tunis” in part owing to rapid German reactions and the difficulty in supplying their armies through the poor Algerian infrastructure. By early 1943, the Axis had numerical superiority in aircraft; 690 to the Allies’ 480.

But for the Axis, the effectiveness of the interdiction campaign from Malta caused a chronic shortage of Axis munitions and fuel for long-lasting operations in Africa. By April 1943, the Allied armies had pushed the supply-starved Axis forces to the northern tip of Tunisia, near its capital Tunis. Despite the desperate situation, the OKW continued to send in significant reinforcement and supply tonnage to the besieged Axis forces by air. To prevent prolonged resistance, the Allies, now aware of the German supply timetables through the use of British Ultra, organised and launched an aerial offensive to destroy this vital logistical link. It was due to begin in the last week of March 1943, but bad weather over Tunisia meant that it could not begin until 5 April.

The situation in the air, on land and at sea was gradually deteriorating. Axis supply ships had suffered heavy losses between Cape Bon and Sicily. A total of 67% of all losses were to Allied aircraft. Theo Osterkamp was appointed Jagdführerflieger Sizilien (Fighter Leader Sicily) to fly over the area, nicknamed “Death Row”, by Axis shipping. On 7 April 1943, the organisation was given 148 fighters for these operations. The Luftwaffe reorganised its forces in Tunisia as well. Hans Seidemann was appointed Fliegerkorps Tunis (Flying Corps Tunisia) with three commands, Fliegerführer Tunis (Flying Leader Tunis), Mitte (Middle) and Gabès, after its headquarters′ location. Siedmann had the equivalent of 12 Gruppen (12 Groups) and maintained around 300 fighters until mid-April. The German fighter defences also benefited from rudimentary radar supported early-warning network.

Generalmajor (Major General) Ulrich Buchholz—Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) of KGzbV 3—was appointed Lufttransportführer II, Mittelmeer (Air Transport Leader II, Mediterranean Sea) on 15 January 1943. His forces were organised under the Naples-based KGzbV N (N for Neapel, or Naples) and the Trapani-based KGzbV S. KGzbV S had to make two missions a day, KGzbV S only one. The formations would be between 80—120 aircraft strong. Operations were to be flown at only 150 ft (46 m) in altitude, arriving around noon in order to operate during the Allied “lunch” period. The units—operating mostly the Junkers Ju 52, brought in 90 tonnes daily and the giant Messerschmitt Me 323s brought some 30 tonnes with their fewer numbers. The logistical effort was made using Indian prisoners of war, who helped unload supplies. The operational method usually involved escort fighters picking up the formation on route. Only one fighter aircraft for every five transports was made available owing to various shortages. The Naples units were met near Trapani, and on the return leg fighters, including Zerstörer, escorted them home. The end of the airlifts at Stalingrad and in the Kuban allowed the expansion of Axis transport aircraft to 185 by 10 March. By the beginning of April, it rose to 426. The force flew much needed ammunition and fuel to the Axis armies in Africa

The Augsburg Raid


The Augsberg Raid by Gordon Sage. The painting was commissioned by the Sergeants’ Mess at RAF Waddington (where it now hangs) for the 60th anniversary of the raid. The artist consulted with Bert Dowty on the details.



The Augsburg raid of 1942 was one of the most daring and heroic missions ever undertaken by RAF Bomber Command.

8 Nettleton's Augsburg crew 1942

Nettleton’s crew after the raid on Augsburg.

On 17 April 1942 an audacious daylight bombing mission was flown by RAF Bomber Command against the MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg, in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half of Germany’s output of U‑boat engines. The raid was notable for two main reasons: it was the longest low‑level penetration ever made during World war II, and it was the first daylight mission flown by the Command’s new Lancasters in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.

Because of the havoc wrought by Hitler s U‑boats the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets, but there was a problem. Getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles over enemy territory, and the MAN factories occupied a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids then available, 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, in early 1942 the Lancaster arrived. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters could reach Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German early‑warning radar. Also, Lancasters flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below on their vulnerable underbellies. With the new aircraft, the idea of a deep‑penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected.

The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron, based at Waddington and six from No. 97, stationed 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 moment.

Training for the mission began on 14 April 1942 and for three days the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1000‑mile flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. Speculation ran high over the nature of the target. To most of the experienced 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 17Apri1, and saw the long red ribbon marking their attack route on the map stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Even an attack on a major battleship would have been preferable to this.

Flying south to their departure point on the coast, the Lancasters were to cross the English 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’ flight track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammersee, a large lake to the west of Munich and about 20 miles south of Augsburg.

As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out and create a three‑mile gap between each section Sections would then bomb from low level, in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 10001b bombs The ordnance would befitted with 11‑second delayed‑action fuzes, which would give the bombers time to get clear, and would explode well before the next section arrived over the target. Take‑off was to be at 1500 hours. This meant that, if all went well, the first Lancasters would reach the target at 2015, just before dusk. They would thus have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the danger areas along the Channel coast on the homeward flight.

The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron were to form the two leading sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, and with good reason‑about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. No 44 also contained 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-haired 25‑year‑old, who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock‑steady in an emergency.

At three o’clock in the afternoon of 17 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was rudely shaken by the roar of 24 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 due east, at Woodhall Spa, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Sherwood, were also taking off.

Each section left Selsey Bill bang on schedule, the sea a blur below the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant Sandford, Warrant Officer Crum, and Warrant Officer Beckett. The sky was clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the Perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the French coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.

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 shell-bursts 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.

Then, near Evreux, the Lancaster formation was spotted by enemy fighters. A Messerschmitt Bf 109 came streaking in, singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster (in 44’s second section) 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 30 more Messerschmitts pounced on them like sharks 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 realised that its defensive armament consisted of. 303in machine gun:, however, they began to press home their attacks skillfully, coming m from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700yds, At 400yds, the limit of the 303’s effective range, they broke away sharply and climbed to repeat the process.

Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from a wing of his aircraft as cannon shells hit a fuel tank. Seconds later the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down Spewing burning fragments, the shattered Lancaster 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 then 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 1000‑pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheat field and dewed 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 going 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 nicely, and there would only be a very charred carcass left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.

Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out on the long walk through Occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.

With Beckett and Crum gone, only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left of the three Lancasters m the second section. Sandford, a quiet lover of music who amused his colleagues because he always wore pajamas under his flying suit for luck, was one of the most popular officers on No 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting for his life. In a desperate bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high‑tension cables. But the Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cart-wheeled and exploded, killing all on board.

The enemy fighters now latched onto Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right 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‑ditch 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 his crew.

There were now only two Lancasters remaining in the 44 Squadron formation‑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 serious 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, a miracle happened. Singly, or in pairs, the enemy fighters suddenly broke off their attacks and turned away. They were probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt disappearance meant that Nettleton and Carwell were spared, at least for the time being. But they still tied more than 500 miles 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 saw no 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. This task grew considerably more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and the Lancasters had to fly through turbulent air currents boding up from the slopes.

They finally reached the Ammersee and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down again into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead of them 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 them course, following the line of the river to find then 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 continually hitting the Lancasters, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the eight 1,000lb bombs fell from their bellies. Nettleton and Garwell 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.

The Lancaster pilots had battled their way through against appalling odds and had 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 realised 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 pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. All he could do was to try and hold the bomber steady as she sank.

A long, agonising minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. 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, Flight Sergeant R. J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the escape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.

As Nettleton turned for home, alone now, the leading section of No. 97 bore in across the hills towards Augsburg. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any anti‑aircraft position they could see. The bombers were flying so low that, on occasion, they dropped below the level of the roof tops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.

They almost made it, all three of them. But then 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 the bomber 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 of the section, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely to base.

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 hit and caught fire, but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached his target the 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 below.

Deverill’s aircraft was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish it 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 Wing Commander, and the following year he was flying his second tour of operations. But sadly, death and John Nettleton were destined to keep a long‑delayed rendezvous. On the night of 12/13 July 1943, he was shot down over the English Channel by a German nightfighter and killed while returning from a raid on Turin.

Tragically, the sacrifice of seven Lancasters and 49 young men on the Augsburg raid had been in vain. Many of the delayed‑action bombs failed to explode, and the effect on production at the MAN factory was negligible. Never again would the RAF send out its four-engined bombers on a daylight ‘extreme danger’ mission of this kind.

Fate sometimes plays strange tricks. Some 40 years later, a Vulcan jet bomber carried out the longest‑range bombing mission in the history of air warfare, against Stanley airfield in the Falklands. That Vulcan, and its crew, belonged to No. 44 Squadron.

THE AUTHOR Robert Jackson is a professional aviation historian and the author of over 50 books, including The Royal Air Force in Action.


Operation Tonga Part I

Supermarine Spitfire PR.XI

ERWIN ROMMEL (1891-1944). German Field Marshal. Rommel, commander of the German Afrika Korps, inspecting the German position at the Atlantic Wall near Fecamp, Normandy, France. Photographed 17 January 1944.

The Mark XI PR Spitfire relied on speed and agility for protection. Travelling at 400 miles per hour, the aircraft, which flashed low over the Merville Battery at 1,000 feet, had been ‘cottonized’. By stripping out their guns and radios, the weight of their airframes had been reduced to allow them to carry a configuration of photographic reconnaissance equipment. The sortie that flew over Rommel and his party were fitted with F.24 cameras with fourteen-inch focal lenses, which enabled them to take low-level oblique-angle photos. The aircraft could also carry F.52 cameras with larger lenses to take vertical pictures from altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, but the mission they flew over the Merville Battery required greater detail and that meant going in low.

Each Spitfire carried one sideways-looking F.24 mounted in a porthole behind the cockpit on the port side of the fuselage. Producing a five-by-five-inch negative, each exposure provided a coverage of 1,667 by 1,667 yards of ground. Once enlarged, the negatives produced a 1:12,000 scale image, with sufficient detail to pick out a single man, or a group of men running for cover. But it wasn’t just the scale that was important. Two additional F.24s, with smaller five-inch lenses, were fitted under the wings and angled towards each other so they could take overlapping photos of the same target. When consecutive photos were viewed with a stereoscope, they gave a three-dimensional effect, akin to looking at a still from a modern film with 3-D glasses.

Achieving the 3-D effect depended on the interval of exposures between frames being matched against the speed of the aircraft. Consequently, flying a low-level ‘dicing’ mission to get the necessary detail was a tricky and intricate business that required skill and entailed risk, as, lacking height, the pilots were more vulnerable to enemy aircraft above them and flak below them.

To capture the right image, the pilots’ navigation had to be spot-on; even a small deviation from the pre-planned flight path could lead to missing the target by several hundred yards. Flying close to the ground at high speed, the lead pilot had little time to line up his aircraft and aim the camera by aligning a tiny black cross etched on the blister of his bubble canopy with a small black strip painted on his aileron. At the same time he had to mentally calculate his speed and adjust the camera control box on his joystick to ensure it was set at the right exposure to start taking the pictures.

Trusting that his wingman was with him, the aviator glanced at his airspeed dial, checked his bearing and then focused on the crosshair and target alignment. He thumbed the camera control switch as the terrain of green fields and hedgerows flashed past beneath him; at the moment when all three points of reference lined up, he flicked the switch on his control column and the cameras started taking photographs at one-second intervals.

Surprise was also an important part of the aircraft’s protection and the pilot put more faith in it than in the single sheet of armoured plating in the back of his seat. He knew he had to get the alignment right first time. There would be no second chance. He had to bounce the target and get in and out fast, before the anti-aircraft gunners had time to react and fill the air around him with flak. If he missed the target, or his photos were not of the right quality, he would not be allowed to revisit the target for several days.

The pilot in the lead Spitfire was concentrating too hard to realize that the gunners of the single 20mm 38 Flak gun at the battery had failed to get their cannon into action against him or his wingman. He hoped he had got what he wanted as he flicked off the camera control switch and pulled back aggressively on his joystick to begin climbing hard for altitude.

The danger was far from over. The pair of reconnaissance aircraft may have been too fast for the crew of the 20mm gun mounted on the cookhouse bunker of the battery, but they still had to run the gauntlet of the nearby anti-aircraft positions stationed along the coast if they were get home safely with the information they had captured. By now the Germans were alerted to the presence of enemy fighters in the area and thick black puffs of exploding flak and tracer marked the air as the Spitfires pulled up steeply to reach a height of 5,000 feet to give them a chance of evading enemy fire as they crossed the coast. This is where the two-stage supercharged Merlin 60 engine, with its excellent climb rate, did its business.

The engines screamed for power, calling on the maximum performance of their 1,560-brake horsepower to get their aircraft out of trouble. Both pilots fought against the crushing effects of the G-force, as the horizon dropped away below them and their airframes surged upwards. They were not out of it yet. As the blood began to drain to their lower extremities, they struggled to remain focused. The need to keep scanning the skies above them and the rear-view mirror for enemy aircraft was paramount, as was checking that the aircraft’s fuel gauges, oil pressure and heading were all still good.

Within an hour of clearing the coast the two aircraft were back at their base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As their props feathered and wound down at their stands on the apron of the airfield, the ground crews of the squadron’s photographic section were already waiting to meet them. While the crews switched off their engines, unstrapped and climbed out of their cockpits to head for debriefing by the intelligence officer in the operations room, the magazines of the cameras were being unloaded. The film was taken to a requisitioned manor house in the neighbouring village of Ewelme, where it could be developed. Within forty-eight hours the negatives had arrived at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire for detailed analysis.

Medmenham was a sister organization of Bletchley Park and specialized in photographic intelligence and interpretation. Much of the work they conducted was in 3-D using a stereoscope. The stereoscope was a bi-optical viewing device, akin to a pair of magnifying spectacles mounted on a small four-legged metal frame. When positioned over an overlapping air photograph, it gave the 3-D image. Being able to view captured images in three dimensions was crucial, because it brought the enemy landscape and installations they studied to life, and allowed the interpreters to examine features of an object, such as the angles of shadows, to make assessments about the height of a particular structure or weapon types. It was a monotonous and painstaking task, but the photographic intelligence work at Medmenham was instrumental to the planning of D-Day in assessing enemy dispositions, strengths and capabilities.

In the run-up to the invasion, the teams of interpreters at Medmenham would study and file reports on 16 million photographs of enemy-occupied territory. It was an immense undertaking and the interpreters worked round the clock to provide those charged with planning D-Day with vital information. The majority of effort was concentrated along the coastline between Calais and Cherbourg, but no one area received particular attention so as not to give away the intended location of the invasion.

The stereoscope was Medmenham’s secret weapon; while the British and Americans worked in three rather than two dimensions, the Germans did not. Scouring the prints of the Merville Battery for every detail, the interpreters could give an appraisal of the progress of the casemates’ erection, noting that two had been completed and that two remained under construction. They could also provide an estimate of the thickness of the concrete protection, pick out the detail of perimeter defences and compare the progress of the work against later photographs. This was all important information, but the study of the photographs could not confirm the calibre of the guns at Merville. It was a vital piece of missing detail, as the position of the battery and the frantic work being conducted to improve its defences were of profound concern to the man responsible for planning the Allied invasion of France.

By January 1944, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan had been working on the planning for D-Day for several months. At a meeting in Washington in May 1943 the Combined British and American Chiefs of Staff had taken the final decision to invade Nazi-occupied north-west Europe and had set a provisional date of May 1944. Morgan had been selected as the Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Command. As COSSAC, he and a small team of Anglo-American officers were responsible for the joint planning of the largest, most complex combined arms operation ever to be mounted. They had decided to codename it Operation Overlord and had also decided that it would take place in Normandy.

COSSAC’s detailed planning had identified the advantages of landing in Calais, but their work also confirmed that it was heavily defended. The disaster of Dieppe highlighted the need to avoid landing in areas of main enemy troop concentrations and had been reinforced by the experience of Allied landings in Sicily and Italy. German troop dispositions in Normandy were more thinly spread and could be more readily isolated by bombing the bridges over the Seine, which the bulk of German reinforcing units would have to pass across. Intensive reconnaissance and intelligence analysis had also confirmed that the gently sloping beaches along the Cotentin Peninsula were suitable for a landing and were within the range of Allied fighter cover. Additionally, the terrain and inland road network were suitable for the logistic build-up of a beachhead and subsequent breakout towards Paris.

While Normandy offered clear advantages to Morgan and his planners, it also had its problems. One was a matter of logistics. Cherbourg was the nearest major port most suitable for the subsequent logistical build-up behind the main beach landing, but its heavy defences precluded a direct assault from the sea. This was overcome by the simple, but ingenious decision to take a port with them in the form of the Mulberry portable harbours and by laying fuel pipelines under the Channel. But the issue of neutralizing the gun battery at Merville was an altogether thornier problem, which could not be overcome by the application of physics and science alone.

On the other side of the River Orne from the Merville Battery lay the small seaside resort of Ouistreham, where the mouth of the river flows into the Bay of the Seine and the beaches of Normandy start their long curve west along the flat shelving shoreline of the Cotentin Peninsula towards Cherbourg. Codenamed Sword by the Allied planners, the beach at Ouistreham was at the eastern end of the Allies’ chosen landing area. It was also where the left-hand British assault division would touch down on the morning of D-Day.

Given their position, the guns at Merville were capable of sweeping the entire length of the beach with artillery fire. Drawing on the lessons from Dieppe, where British and Canadian troops had been caught out in the open shingle as they disembarked from their landing craft, Morgan and his team were in no doubt of the devastation that a well-defended battery could wreak on troops struggling to get ashore on Sword. Additionally, the position of the guns meant that they would be capable of engaging ships out to sea as well as the slow-moving landing craft as they ran into the beach.

Although it had not been confirmed by photo reconnaissance, the COSSAC planners suspected that the guns were 150mm-calibre field howitzers. While none of the artillery pieces had been captured on camera, when viewed under a stereoscope the shape and shadow at the rear of the casemates indicated that large entrances were being constructed. If they were naval ordnance, the guns would have been bolted permanently inside the bunkers and would have no need of large rear entrances. Consequently, photographic interpretation suggested that the casemates were designed specifically to take field guns, which could be manhandled in and out of the concrete shelters.

Given the extraordinary lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the guns, it was logical for the planners to deduce that they would be one of the heavier and more valuable Wehrmacht field types. The largest standard field gun the Wehrmacht possessed was schwere or ‘heavy’ Feldhaubitze 18. It had a calibre of 150mm and could hurl a shell weighing sixty pounds over ten miles, a distance that brought every inch of Sword Beach within range and meant that vessels could be engaged several miles out at sea.

While the Allies placed a heavy emphasis on PR aircraft to gain intelligence on the Atlantic Wall defences, they were not their only source of information on the preparations being made on the other side of the Channel. The build-up of German troops at the beginning of 1944 and the frenetic building activity had not gone unnoticed by the French Resistance. Eugène Meslin was the Vichy government’s chief engineer in Caen and was responsible for handling relations with the Todt Organisation. Meslin was also the head of the Resistance’s intelligence section at their western headquarters based in the city and his job meant that he was ideally placed to conduct the principal Resistance task of spying on the German coastal defences and reporting on their progress to the Allies. Through his network of fellow engineers and artisans working for the Germans on the defences, the details of every pill-box, wire entanglement and gun emplacement were being reported back to London by Meslin’s outfit.

Louis Bourdet was a member of Meslin’s network and had been subcontracted to work on the gun position at Merville. When completing electrical work at the battery he had managed to slip his hand into the mouth of one of the guns. Once his shift had finished, Bourdet raced home and measured the span of his hand with the aid of a piece of paper and a ruler. The ruler showed 120mm and the information was duly fed back to London. The Germans did not possess 120mm-calibre field guns, but the measurement of Bourdet’s hand suggested that the guns in the casemates were definitely larger than the Wehrmacht’s other standard-issue field howitzer, the smaller leichte or ‘light’ Feldhaubitze 18, which had a calibre of 105mm.

Mirage IIICJ No. [7]68


MIRAGE IIICJ, No.768, Avraham Salmon, 119th Tayeset, Tel Nof Air Base, Six Day War, 1968 On this aircraft, pilots of 119th Tayeset gained a total of eleven kills between 1967 and 1970. Among them was Abraham Salmon, Israel’s second most successful fighter ace with 14.5 kills to his credit, four of which were in this bird. Two of them were flamed on June 8th, 1968.

Martin Pospisil

Jet fighters in which pilots have achieved ten or more kills, are relatively few in the world. Even among aircraft in the Israeli Air Force (Heyl Ha’Avir), some of which were involved in a large number of dog fights, there were only seven that surpassed this number. Included in the seven are Mirages IIICJ No.58 and No.59 (13 kills), No.68 (11), No.62 and No.79 (10), and two IAI Neshers numbers 10 (13 kills) and 61 (12). In the shadows of the better known Mirage Nos 58 and 59 is Mirage No. 68 that was lost in a crash in 1973. In the cockpit of Mirage 68, sat several aces who contributed to its success including: Israel’s second leading ace Avraham Salmon, with 14.5 kills, Asher Snir Israel’s third leading ace with 13.5 kills, and Amos Amir with seven kills.

Mirage IIICJ No. 68 one of 72 single seat Mirage IIICJs and four two seat Mirage IIIBJs delivered to Israel and was assigned to No.119 Tayeset Ha’Atalef (Bat Squadron), stationed at Tel-Nof. The Mirage IIICJ was given the Hebrew name ‘Shahak’ (Skyblazer) due to its very inspirational Mach II performance and highly polished metal finish.

First known combat use of Mirage 68 came in Operation ‘Moked’ (Focus) which was launched by the on June 5th, 1967. During that operation which culminated in the Six Day War, Heyl Ha’Avir sent majority of its fighter, attack and jet trainers to attack airfields and other targets in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The waves were composed of several formations of threes and fours. Shahak equipped units were also earmarked for protection of the airspace over Israel.

Operation Moked’s first wave of attack, 119 squadron formation ‘Lintel’ took off from Tel Nof air base at 0727h, and was comprised of Oded Sagee (Shahak 80), Arnon Lapidot (Shahak 68), Eelan Hight (Shahak 79) and Itamar Neuner (Shahak 19). The formation reached their objective, Cairo-West air base at 0800h. Using 500kg bombs, they destroyed the airstrip, one bomber (a Tu-16 or Il-28), two MiG-21s and two decoy MiG-17s.

The same formation (‘Lintel’), with a slightly altered roster – Oded Sagee (Shahak 79), Shlomo Egozy (Shahak 19), Eelan Hight (Shahak 80) and Itamar Neuner (Shahak 68), took off at 0948h as part of the second wave of attack on Egyptian air fields. This time the target was the distant Egyptian airfield at El Minya. In this attack the formation cratered the runway and destroyed between six and eight Il-14s on the ground. The third wave of Israeli aircraft switched its focus to Syrian and Jordanian air bases, even though some of them were initially directed for attacks on Egyptian targets. The change in plan affected Formation ‘Floor’, flown by Avraham Salmon (Shahak 07), Omri Afek (Shahak 79), Ja’akov Agassi (Shahak 41) and Menachem Shmul (Shahak 68), originally assigned to attack Gardak in Egypt, and was diverted to Jordan’s Base H-5 at Amman. Again, the aircraft dropped 500kg bombs on the runways and in subsequent attacks, hit aircraft on the ground, and base equipment.

Shahak 68’s final mission of Operation ‘Moked’ came in the fourth wave with Formation ‘Fence’. This was flown by Eitan Karmi (Shahak 68), Giora Romm (Shahak 43), Eliezer Prigat (Shahak 20) and Asher Snir (Shahak 32), and they attacked the Syrian Base T-4. The formation was jumped by two Syrian MiG-21s, which were shot down by Giora Rom and Asher Snir.

A big day for our subject Shahak came on June 8th (the fourth day of the war), when two Egyptian MiG-19s were flamed by Avraham Salmon over the Sinai Peninsula, and the second pilot in the formation to down another MiG-19 was Menachem Shmul (Shahak 78). Avraham Salmon thus opened his own account, and also that of Shahak 68.

The Six Day War ended on June 10th, but the situation in the Middle East didn’t quiet down much. Air to air combat engagements erupted as soon as replacement fighter planes were transferred from the Soviet Union to Egypt. Mirage fighters of 119th squadron began engaging Egyptian MiGs in air to air combat as soon as July 15th, 1967. On that day, two Egyptian MiG-17s were downed by Asher Snir (Shahak 85), and a MiG-21 by each of Ran Ronen (Shahak 83) and Eliezer Prigat (Shahak 68). From October 21st, 1967, tallies rose in the so-called War of Attrition, which didn’t end until August, 1970.

An interesting kill was gained in the cockpit of Shahak 68 by Reuven Rozen on April 14th, 1969. For the first time in the history of the Heyl Ha’Avir, a kill was gained using the American air-air missile, the AIM-9B, known in the Israeli Air Force as the ‘Barkan’ (Thorn), and the victim was an Egyptian MiG-21. These missiles were pressed into service by the Heyl Ha’Avir a short time prior, as a component of the purchase of the American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, known in Israel as the ‘Kurnass’ (Sledgehammer). Combat with Egyptian MiG-21s was also in the cards on May 21st, when a group of them attempted to infiltrate over Israeli held areas of the Sinai. Opposing them was the pair of 119 squadron Mirages; Asher Snir (Shahak 68) and Eliyahu Menachem operating out of the Sinai forward base of Refidim. This pair was quickly joined by another pair of 119 squadron Mirages lead by Ran Ronen (Shahak 03) and Reuven Rozen (Shahak 58) who took off out of Tel Nof. During the ensuing combat, three of the Bat squadron pilots downed a MiG-21 each (Ronen, Snir and Rozen) and a fourth MiG-21 was downed by a Hawk anti-aircraft battery.

Over the next year, Shahak 68 raised its total by another four kills, which were progressively added by Amos Amir, Asher Snir, and two by Avraham Salmon.

Mirage 68’s final documented kill came on July 30th, 1970, when Asher Snir took part in the trap to down Soviet flown MiG-21MF pilots operating out of Egypt. The 119th squadron was represented by Amos Amir, Asher Snir (Shahak 68), Avraham Salmon (Shahak 78) and Avraham Gilad. From the total of five Soviet MiG-21MF’s downed, the pilots of the Bat squadron accounted for 2.5.

Bat squadron Mirage operations ended in October 1970 as the squadron began reequipping with the F-4 Phantom II. 119 squadron personnel that opted not to continue on to operate and fly the Phantom were distributed among the remaining Shahak units – the 101st and 117th squadrons. Shahak 68 was assigned to the No. 117 Tayeset Ha’Silon Ha’Rishona (First jet squadron) based at Ramat David. Mirage 68 was lost on January 9th, 1973, when, during a low level flight it crashed into the Sea of Galilee killing the pilot Ran Meir.

Sources: Shlomo Aloni: Israeli Air Force – Tayeset 119, AiDOC 2007 Shlomo Aloni: The June 1967 Six-Day War, Isradecal Publications 2008 Shlomo Aloni: Israeli Mirage and Nesher Aces, Osprey Publishing 2004 Yoav Efrati: Colors and Markings of the IAF, Isradecal Publications 2005 Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my sincere thanks for their help with photographs and in the preparation of this article to Yoav Efrati and Ra’anan Weiss of Israel.

Japanese Eagles against American Cobras


P-39/P-400 Airacobra – Opponents over New Guinea.

Martin Ferkl

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the Pacific war began. In conjunction with that attack, Japanese invasion forces also turned their attention to the shores of the Philippines and Indochina. The American and British forces were caught unprepared, and the Japanese also held a technical and tactical superiority. Progress was very rapid, and in a matter of several months, they were quite literally knocking on the door of the Australian continent, thousands of kilometers from their homeland.

After the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, the lightning fast expansion was slowed. The road to Australia for the Japanese was blocked by Port Moresby. After unsuccessful landing attempts, whose failure was ensured by the cruel defeat in the Coral Sea, the attempt was made to take the target over land, and the complicated conditions of the New Guinea jungle and the Owen Stanley mountain range proved to be insurmountable.

As a result, the Japanese continued to press air attacks. These were made from bases along the north-eastern shore of New Guinea at Lae, Salamaua, and especially later from Buna.

The brunt of the combat with units equipped with the Airacobra was carried out in 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force, notably by two units – the Tainan Kokutai1 and the 2nd Kokutai, besides the vanguard role played by the 4th Kokutai. This was a mixed unit with fighters and bombers in its inventory.

The unit arrived at Lae, just several days after the base was secured by Japanese ground forces on March 11th, 1942. Attacks on Post Moresby began immediately, and Lae had seven Reisens2 available. There was a reorganization of the unit on April 1st, with the 4th Kokutai becoming exclusively a bomber unit, and her fighter assets were formally turned over to the Tainan Kokutai. On dividing the aircraft, pilots were also reassigned accordingly. Tainan Kokutai is without question, the best known unit within the Japanese forces operating during World War Two. Out of its ranks came the greatest number of aces, including Saburo Sakai, and the most successful Japanese fighter ace of all time, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa. New Guinea was reached in April, 1942, and the unit arrived at Rabaul by the transport ship ‘Komaki Maru’, and then proceeded by air to Lae on April 17th. On April 25th, there twentyfour Reisens at Lae. From April to the early August, the unit conducted 51 raids on Port Moresby. Claims of victories were, as they were all over the world, more or less exaggerated. According to the pilots, there were 246 enemy aircraft shot down (of which 45 were probables). Other victories were claimed during combat directly over the bases at Lae and Buna. The majority of the opponents were identified as P-39s, which, in a maneuvering dogfight with a Zeke, had no chance. They themselves lost twenty aircraft to various causes, including crashes.

The turning point came with the American landings at Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942. Tainan Kokutai dedicated all of its strength to the liquidation of the landings, and the battle for Port Moresby, while Australia took a back seat. The unit began using Rabaul as its base, since it was closer to Guadalcanal than Buna.

In the battle over New Guinea, the unit was replaced by the 2nd Kokutai. It was formed on the last day of May, 1942, as a mixed unit operating both fighters and bombers. After two months of equipping and training, this unit set out on the transport converted to escort carrier ‘Yawata Maru’, and headed southeast. Primarily, the unit was committed to fighting in the New Hebrides. The Japanese never did reach these islands, and the 2nd Kokutai landed at Rabaul in mid-August. The first meeting of these pilots with Airacobras came on the 24th of August on an attack on Rabi, southeast of Port Moresby. The Japanese, with no losses to themselves, claimed nine kills, two of which were probable. Further attacks followed on the 26th and 27th of August, but this time with the loss of two bombers and six Reisens (four from Tainan Kokutai). Attacks on Port Moresby continued by the 2nd Kokutai flying from Buna up to September 8th, and then came operations in support of counter offenses in an attempt to push the Americans back from Guadalcanal.

On November 1st, 1942, came a reorganization of the IJNAF, affecting the units in question, with Tainan Kokutai becoming the Kokutai 251, and the 2nd becoming the Kokutai 582.

Further combat, where units flying the Airacobra were met, came during Operation ‘I’ (in Japanese I-go Sakusen). This operation, personally overseen by the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the head of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, took place between the 7th and 14th of April, 1943, and its goal was to regain the initiative in the southwest Pacific. Within this operation, the Japanese undertook massive attacks on Post Moresby (April 12th), and Milne Bay (April 14th). The entire venture ended in failure, despite minimal losses, Yamamoto was killed several days later thanks to the breaking of encryption codes and P-38s waiting for him as a result, and the Japanese forces found themselves strictly on the defensive, which eventual led to final defeat.

Over 1943, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force also began to commit to New Guinea. Fighter units equipped with the Ki-43 Hayabusa (dubbed ‘Oscar’ by the Allies) and the Ki-61 Hien (‘Tony’), as well as bomber units equipped with light bomber Ki-48 (‘Lily’) and Ki-49 Donryu (‘Helen’) heavy bombers. These units suffered greatly at the hands of American fighters, notably the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt.

Getting back to the most intensive fighting that occurred during the spring and summer of 1942 involving the Airacobra, claims by the two best known fighter aces of the Tainan Kokutai, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Saburo Sakai, included quite the list of the P-39. Nishizawa claimed 21 confirmed P-39 kills plus five probables between May 1st and June 25th, 1942. His best results came over Port Moresby on May 17th, when he claimed five Airacobras confirmed and one probable. Sakai claimed 22 confirmed Airacobra kills and one probable between April 11th and August 2, 1942. He also could boast about downing five P-39s in one day, on June 16th. Although these numbers are evidently inflated, there is no doubt that the Zeke in the hands of a capable Japanese pilot, had a definite advantage. The Japanese fighter pilots were aware of this fact and did not consider the Airacobra in the same league. The skies over New Guinea were not much safer even in 1944, when the Japanese air forces presented no great danger. Between January and August, the 71st TRG3 lost a minimum of nine Airacobras over the space held by the enemy.

The Reisen, aka Zero

The Mitsubishi A6M, better known as the ‘Zero’ and ‘Zeke’, are known to even those that have little or no interest in the events that defined the far east and southwest Pacific wars. During the service career of these aircraft, they were called the ‘Reisen’, which is short for Rei Shiki Kanjo Sentoki, or Carrier Based Fighter Aircraft Type 0. Airacobras had the opportunity to go into combat against three versions of the Reisen – A6M2 Model 21, A6M3 Model 22 and the A6M3 Model 32.

The most interesting of these was the A6M3 Model 32. It decended directly from the A6M2 Model 21, and differed in the installation of the more powerful Sakae 21, and a redesigned wing with a wingspan shortened by 1.0m (3 ft).These changes were intended to improve certain characteristics, notably speed at medium altitudes. This did happen, as the speed increased to 545 km/hr at 6,000m, as opposed to 533km/hr at 4,550m. There were some penalties to pay, such as turn rate which the Japanese pilots preferred, and range, which put Guadalcanal at the limit of the Model 32’s reach, but did allow it to take part in important operations over the island. At the end of 1942, the designers returned to the original span, a better turn rate, and greater fuel carriage, bringing on the A6M3 Model 22. The armament remained the same, consisting of two 7.7mm machine guns in the fuselage, and two 20mm cannon in the wings. The production run of the Model 32 lasted from June, 1942, to the end of the year, and yielded a total of 343 aircraft.

The first unit to receive the new machine was the 2nd Kokutai, which was the first to take the type into combat over New Guinea in August, 1942. Progressively, other units took delivery as well, including Tainan Kokutai, and with front line units through 1943.

The shortened wing span and the clipped wing changed the silhouette of the type significantly. The difference was significant enough to misidentify it as a new type altogether, and allocate it a new reporting name, ‘Hap’, and later, ‘Hamp’. ‘Hap’ was used in the American code system until the intervention of General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, who was not particularly pleased that his name was associated with lists of shot down aircraft. When it was realized that the ‘Hamp’ was a version of the Reisen, the code name was dropped once and for all, and ‘Zero’ and ‘Zeke’ were used.

Notes: 1) Kokutai – Air group equivalent to a regiment 2) Reisen – Japanese designation for the fighter that is historically remembered as the ‘Zero’ and ‘Zeke’. 3) TRG Tactical Reconnaissance Group – US Army Air Force unit dedicated to tactical reconnaissance.