Coastal Command Maintains Constant Vigilance

Royal Air Force 1939-1945- Coastal Command

A Mosquito of the Banff Strike Wing in action in the Kattegat on 5 April 1945.

A Mosquito of the Banff Strike Wing in action in the Kattegat on 5 April 1945. There the Mosquitos discovered a convoy of seven ships evacuating Germans troops back to the Fatherland. In the ensuing attack a flak ship and a trawler were sunk, but one No 235 Squadron Mosquito struck a mast and spun into the sea, killing its crew. Losses among the embarked German troops were heavy. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

 

 

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 314) Two Lockheed Hudson Mark Is of No. 206 Squadron RAF based at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, flying at low-level over the North Sea during a reconnaissance sortie by five aircraft of the Squadron to observe the movements of German warships in the Heligoland Bight area. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205190911

 

RAF Coastal Command was known as the “Cinderella Service” since they received nothing but hand me down aircraft from Bomber Command and anyone else they could find to scrouge aircraft. The planes pictured above are Lockheed Hudson’s orignally built for the Royal Air Force.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 282) Lockheed Hudson Mark I, P5120 ‘VX-C’, of No 206 Squadron RAF based at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, on a patrol over the North Sea. This aircraft was written off in a landing accident at Bircham Newton on 20 June 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205190910

 

While useful, the planes were slow, 246 mph or 397 km/h, and range limited, 1,960 miles or 3,150 km. Keep in mind these specifications are for a properly maintained aircraft operating under good conditions. In operational service, I presume they were marked down for a range of 1600 miles. That would be 800 miles out over the ocean and 800 miles back. Even then, in bad weather, that would be pushing it.

 

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 339) The wireless operator/air gunner of a Lockheed Hudson Mark I of No. 206 Squadron RAF based at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, signals with an Aldis lamp to four other aircraft of the Squadron to ‘close formation’ while returning from a reconnaissance sortie in the Heligoland Bight area. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208466

Communications were problematic. Given the crewman isn’t on oxygen and is wearing a short sleeve shirt, the plane must be flying low and it must be summer.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 296) The interior of a Lockheed Hudson Mk I of No. 206 Squadron RAF, June 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208462

 

In the first years of the war the main task of Coastal Command was maritime patrol and reconnasiance of the seas surrounding Great Britain.  This task included attacking U-Boats, protecting Channel convoys, protecting Atlantic convoys, and occasional search and rescue.

 

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (C 3691) An airborne lifeboat is parachuted by a Lockheed Hudson of No. 279 Squadron RAF to the crew of a USAAF Boeing B-17 who had difficulty in getting into their dinghy after making a forced landing in the North Sea. 279 Squadron were based at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, at this time. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205023209

 

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (CH 7501) Sunderland II W3984/RB-S of No 10 Squadron RAAF, October 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205218958

 

The demands placed on Coastal Command were far beyond its capabilities as the pilots lacked training and the entire command suffered from a lack of aircraft and ground support. Finally, Coastal Command was placed under the tactical command of the Royal Navy in late 1940 and slow improvement began. But it took a long time.

 

THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC 1939 – 1945 (CH 7504) Allied Aircraft: A Short Sunderland Mk II flying boat of 10 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, used for reconnaissance and anti-U-boat duties Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194548

One of the mainstays of Coastal Command in the early years was the Short Sunderland flying boat. (The plane was built by Short Brothers, Ltd. ‘Short’ is not a reference to the size of the plane)

The pilots and air crew performed a monotonous mission well. There were many crews who flew thousands of hours of reconnaisance patrols and never saw anything during the entire war. The ocean is a big place.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 413) The two side-gunners in a Short Sunderland Mark I of No. 10 Squadron RAAF, mount watch from their positions by the open dorsal hatches mid-way along the fuselage, during a flight. Two .303 Vickers K-type gas-operated guns were usually fitted in these positions during operations Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208474
THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC 1939-1945 (CH 13997) Anti-Submarine Weapons: Leigh Light used for spotting U-boats on the surface at night fitted to a Liberator aircraft of Royal Air Force Coastal Command. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194543

 

From the website historyofwar.org:  “The Leigh Light was developed to solve a problem with anti-submarine radar during the Second World War. By 1941 the British had developed radar systems capable of detecting a surfaced U-boat, but interference from the surface of the sea meant that the radar signal would be lost during the final attack run.

The solution to this problem was to fit a bright light to the attacking aircraft. [A design] … by Squadron Leader Humphrey de Verd Leigh, used a controllable spotlight suspended below the belly of the aircraft….”

The blinding white Leigh light was often the last thing a UBoat kommandant saw before depth charges were dropped on top of him.

THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC 1939-1945 (CH 14001) Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Royal Air Force Liberator illuminated by a Leigh Light on the airfield at St Eval. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194544

 

“It’s the Invasion!….Ten Thousand Ships Headed Right at Me!”

the Germans on D-Day
D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23844) Landing ships and other invasion craft seen from HMS BEAGLE, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155881

“Which way are the ships headed?” 

 “Right for me!”

Major Werner Pluskat, First German to Sight Allied Invasion Fleet, informs his higher echelon headquarters of the German 352nd Infantry Division.

At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed  “straight at me.”  During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives.  *

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German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.

Dawn of 6 June 1944

 

From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:

“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”

Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”

Pluskat: “Right for me!”

Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”

“We’re being shelled!”

“Exact location of shelling?”

“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”

 Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.

Hans Christian Blech in The Longest Day

German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.

In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire. 

D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23934) The Normandy coast around Bernieres-sur-Mer, Juno assault area, with smoke rising from burning buildings during the Allied naval bombardment which preceded the landings, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155953

 

Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.

On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.

Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”

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Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June.  Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.

Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.

And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.

In an article about D-Day  in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:

“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR: OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS), JUNE 1944 (A 23977) HMS RODNEY bombarding gun positions in the Caen area as seen from the cruiser HMS FROBISHER. In support of the Normandy landings British Naval guns have been constantly bombarding enemy positions, often many miles inland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187109

 

Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.

Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.

Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.

Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.

“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.

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Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.

*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.

Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.

You can read his excellent work here:

http://www.omaha-beach.org/US-Version/352/352US.html

London Underground Saved Thousands During Blitz

london-underground-logo

a welcome sight to Londoners during the Blitz—- mainly heavy night bombing of London by Nazi Germany.

When someone is bombing you from the air then you instinctively want to get as far underground as you can and during the Nazi blitz on London the London subway system known unofficially as “the tube” and officially as the London Underground provided a safe place during the bombing. However, not all London Underground stations were very deep since they had been built by “cut and cover” method. This usually involved tearing up a street digging to the minimum depth required, putting in the concrete pieces of the tunnel then covering the “cut” with excavated soil.

children-sleepig-in-hammocks-during-blitz

ARP warden looks over children sleeping in hammocks in the underground. ARP was the abbreviation of “Air Raid Precautions,” the government’s umbrella organization which organized a series of services to help people during and after German bombing raids. (The Italian Air Force also joined their German allies several times in bombing London).

playing-cards-in-the-tube

Playing cards to pass the time. What the photographs don’t show is the stench and dirt.

At the beginning of the Blitz few Underground Stations had sanitary facilities to handle hundreds and hundreds of people. Chemical toilets were hastily installed but that wasn’t a panacea. Most tube stations smelled like public latrines and were filthy. Rats were a common site and mosquitoes and other bugs flourished in the warm environment. All of these problems were addressed but it took time and money and only later in the war were the Underground stations capable of handling huge crowds and providing them with bathrooms, etc.

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In this photograph taken in the Piccadilly Underground station men and women have commandeered the passenger cars themselves and are using them as dormitories–albeit very uncomfortable.

piccadilly-circus-platform-early-in-blitz

The lack of comforts in the early days is captured by this photograph of a platform in the Piccadilly Circus underground station. People are sleeping crammed together while others are just sitting on the dirty concrete platform. One of the reasons the platforms were dirty was the inability of London Transport cleaning crews to clean the platforms at night because of all the people. 

Memoirs from the era typically mention the stench of the tube stations and the smelled of diapers or nappies suddenly filled by a scared child. That stank. People copulated and those around them looked away. Life-threatening events tended to increase sexual desire among people. It wasn’t a great experience and isn’t something most people of the time remembered very fondly. While photographs of Londoners sheltering in the tube stations became an iconic part of the history of the war, less then 5% of the population sheltered in the tube stations during air raids. Others sheltered in place or went elsewhere.

asleep-on-platofrm

Safe from bombs but hardly an ideal environment. Water for cleaning yourself was not available in the Underground stations in the first months of the Blitz.

london-underground-blitz

Happy Londoners in posed photo showing them receiving refreshments after the “all clear” has sounded. The woman with her arm around one of her children in the left side of the photo appears to be wearing trousers which would have been very unusual in that era.

Hitler Describes America

“What is America anyway but millionaires, beauty queens, stupid records, and Hollywood?” Hitler to Putzi Hanfstaengl.

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beauty queens at the Olympic Club in San Francisco circa 1939

(photo courtesy of San Francisco Examiner Photographic Archive)

“What is America anyway but millionaires, beauty queens, stupid records, and Hollywood?” Hitler to Putzi Hanfstaengl.

source: The Eagle and the Swastika by James V. Compton

Hitler declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941. By mid-March 1945, American and British troops and British Commonwealth troops had crossed the Rhine river, the key geographical barrier in western Germany.