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

 

Crowding Disaster Kills Thousands of French at Agincourt

Above is YouTube vid of Kenneth Branagh’s magnificent, spine-tingling giving the famous “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….” speech to his men just before the battle.  Branagh, a brilliant actor played Henry V (King Harry to his men) and directed the film as well.
Henry-V-Branagh (1)
Kenneth Branagh as Henry V learns the French have withdrawn from the battlefield leaving him the victor. The King led his army in person.
Long before the countries of Europe existed more or less as we know them, huge parts of Europe and places around the world belong to various ruling dynasties. Through inheritance. marriage and clever dynastic moves, the Kings of England had come to rule a good portion of what today is modern France including the area of Normandy. In fact, Henry V controlled so much of France after the Battle of Agincourt that he became Regent of that country.
To maintain their rule the parts of France which belonged to the Royal House of the Plantagenets, the English had to keep fighting in France to maintain their rule.  The English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415 — Saint Crispin’s day is one of the great battles of history.

English long bowman at the ready

Personally led by King Henry V himself, the English beat the hell out of the French, largely due to the bravery of the English long bowmen and the incredible force of their arrows which could actually penetrate the armored suits of the French knights. At least that is the theory. No one is certain. Henry V, known as King Harry, led his noble men at arms in their suits of armor and formed them in a line four deep.
Kenneth Branagh as Henry V on the White Cliffs of Dover
The English archers were positioned on the flanks. King Henry’s deployment forced the French, who outnumbered the English by more than 5 to 1, to attack on a very narrow front of 750 yards. This had the effect of packing them together very tightly so they could hardly move and thus the French became jammed together.
English long bowman

The English long bowmen fired barrage after barrage of arrows high into the air over the mass of Frenchmen. Arrows fired high came down with tremendous force, each arrow having a sharpened iron arrowhead known as a bodkin point.

 

Bodkin1A bodkin point arrowhead. The iron part is about 4 ½ inches long.

 

Naturally, there is great historical debate over what happened at Agincourt. Experiments have been conducted which prove, or disprove, that the English arrows could penetrate French armor although the ones I have seen on YouTube and elsewhere don’t seem to account for the parabolic effect of the flight of the arrow and the additional force that would give the arrow as it fell.

While the arrows may, or may not have, been able to penetrate the steel armor of the richest nobles, they could penetrate chain mail. (Foot soldiers and lower ranking nobles on foot rarely wore more body protection than chain mail). Further, and more disruptive, the lack of protection horses had from the rain of English arrows was a “game changer.”

An armored knight on a steed was a powerful “weapons system” but unhorsed, he couldn’t move very quickly. In fact, without help, he couldn’t get back on his feet. Killing or disabling a mounted knight’s horse with a flight of arrows would hardly have been difficult.

Without his horse, a medieval knight wearing the battle armor of a mounted man, and not the lighter armor of a man expecting to fight on foot, would have been easy to neutralize since once unhorsed, his mobility was almost zero. Given the visor which covered his eyes except for a tiny slight, he would have difficulty seeing anything not directly in front of him.

An interesting theory claims that numbers of French men-at-arms who were attacking on foot were apparently killed in a classic crowd disaster. There were rank after rank of these men. When crowds press forward into a small space, the force generated begins to create a huge jam of people with more and more force being exerted by people in the back continuing to push forward. This asphyxiates those jammed into the small space who get pushed together so tightly they cannot move — or breathe. The force is also enough to break bones.

If this indeed happened to the thousands of Frenchmen on foot then while they were being jammed together so tightly they could not breath, and their armor plate was no doubt breaking the bones and spines of the men in front of them, it might explain why literally thousands and thousands of Frenchmen died.

 

Arrows fired by English longbow men could easily penetrate chain mail

According to a research paper by John J. Fruin, Ph.D., P.E.  The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters:      

Crowd forces can reach levels that are almost impossible to resist or control. Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the “trampling” reported by the news media. Evidence of bent steel railings after several fatal crowd incidents show that forces of more than 4500 N (1,000 lbs.) occurred. Forces are due to pushing and the domino effect of people leaning against each other.
AGINCOURT  WAS PROBABLY ONE OF THE WORST CROWD CRUSH INCIDENTS IN THE WESTERN WORLD

When the Frenchmen began to endure this horror, panic would have set in, which would only have increased the intense force pushing the men together as some tried to go forward and others backward. Into the midst of this panicked crowd, the English bowmen were shooting upwards of 50,000 arrows a minute. They didn’t aim at individuals. They just fired masses of arrows into the air so they would come down in an arc onto a crowd.

figure above is from Medieval Character Models. (Arrows would have gone through the chain-mail)

http://henning-kleist.de/knights_en.html

There were 5,000 plus English archers and they could fire about ten arrows a minute. They were well trained although physical exhaustion would have led to a slackening of fire after a time. If you have ever fired a bow and arrow for just a few times you become aware of the muscle power required.

Still, whatever the pack of French knights and men at arms were trying to do, they were doing it under a hail of deadly arrows. And only the wealthiest men could afford the best steel armor which could not be penetrated by English arrows. Only a handful would have been wearing armor like that. Most would have had inferior armor and chain mail which the English arrows could and did penetrate.

French casualties were said to be in the thousands against a handful of English dead and the French who survived their calamitous defeat left the battlefield in shock defeated in mind and spirit.

From Henry V. After the slaughter of the French knights and gentlemen on foot, the French herald comes and informs Henry that he has won a great victory.

KING HENRY V

I tell thee truly, herald,
I know not if the day be ours or no;
For yet a many of your horsemen peer
And gallop o’er the field.

MONTJOY

The day is yours.

KING HENRY V

Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!
What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?

MONTJOY

They call it Agincourt.

KING HENRY V

Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.

 

 

“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.

ryan1

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

Terrorist Bomb Plot Foiled by Postage Due

36 packages of dynamite rigged as bombed were mailed to prominent US officials in April of 1919. Thought to be the work of anarchists although this was never proven. For various reasons none of the people the bombs were addressed to actually reached them.

Author and historian, Tim Weiner, writing in his Pulitzer Prize winning book,  Enemies: a History of the FBI,  says: “A postal clerk in New York found sixteen of them [dynamite bombs] on the postage due shelf; the bombers hadn’t used enough stamps.”

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