Wow. US Marines in Tripoli. Who would have thought? But I don’t mean the Marines are in Tripoli or Libya now. They were there in 1804. Why? An American frigate, USS Philadelphia, had been captured by the Barbary Pirates and brought into Tripoli harbor, which the pirates controlled. In February of 1804, a band of American sailors and US Marines, led byLieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN, made a daring night raid and set the USS Philadelphia afire which destroyed the ship. Thus the line in the Marine Hymn “…to the shores of Tripoli.”
The US Eighth Airforce was not the only contingent in the bombing campaign against the Axis powers in Europe. Starting in June 1942, the US Ninth Airforce deployed bombers to North Africa. Their initial mission included assisting the desert campaign of the British 8th Army against Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps, attacking Axis shipping in the Mediterranean, and bombing Axis occupied ports in North Africa. As the war progressed, their mission expanded to include attacking targets in Italy and the Balkans.
One famous aircraft from the Ninth is the Lady Be Good. On 4 April 1943, she left Soluch Field in Libya for a bombing raid on Naples (the plane and crew’s first mission) and never returned. She successfully bombed Italy during the raid and was assumed to have crashed at sea on the return flight. What made the Lady Be Good famous is that her wreckage was discovered in 1958, 440 miles Southeast of Soluch Field. Apparently, the automatic direction finder on the B-24 was not working properly and she missed the airfield in the darkness.
The case of the Lady Be Good highlights some of the major challenges facing bomber crews during this time – those of navigation, visibility, and coordination. The bombing raid on Naples was beset with problems from the beginning as high winds and low visibility kept the Lady Be Good from joining the main bombing formation. Bad visibility forced them to bomb the secondary target which separated them from the main bomber group.
Being separated from the main formation caused special difficulties in navigation because a group of very highly trained navigators were assigned to the lead planes and everyone else “followed the leader.” The lead aircraft were also equipped with ground radar which could “see” through the cloud cover. This enabled the lead navigators to get a very good outline of the ground below, particularly bodies of water, large cities, and other big features which assisted them in knowing their position.
The safety of a bomber flying alone was in the hands of its navigator. If, like Lady Be Good, the plane was flying at night, the navigator had to be skilled at celestial navigation. This is a hard skill to master. Think of being in a blacked out bomber which would be vibrating like hell from the four droning engines, trying to see through the night clouds to find a star. Then you had to identify which star it was, get a star sight with your sextant, and then, without a calculator, make a series of complex mathematical computations. It was very difficult to do and with one false step one could easily end up off course by 400 miles.
Here are a collection of photos from the Lady Be Good and her wreckage:
[Images courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force.]
Nazi Germany invented the prototypes of most modern weapons and equipment in use today including night vision goggles, the assault rifle, swept-wing jet aircraft, the ballistic missile, and the cruise missile. When one reads modern criticism of Allied war efforts against Nazi Germany as being too extreme and going too far such as the bombing of Dresden et al, it is worth remembering how dangerous the Germans were.
Hitler kept promising German soldiers and civilians that “miracle weapons” would soon be deployed and turn the war around. The V-1 was the first of these weapons and it was a miracle. We had nothing like it. Fortunately, the V-1s went into production before the kinks were worked out. Close to 10,000 of these missiles were fired at Great Britain, almost all launched from bases in German occupied France since the missile only had a range of 125 miles/200 km. Of those 10,000 launched, 2,512 malfunctioned and either didn’t get off the launch ramp or crashed on takeoff. 7,488 crossed the English coast and of those 3,957 were shot down and 2,419 hit Greater London.
As ineffective as the V-1 was in fulfilling the hopes the Nazis placed in it, the missile did kill 6,184 people in the UK, mainly civilians. Another 17,981 people in Great Britain, also predominately civilian, were wounded.
Defending against it required new tactics which had to be developed on the fly. One defense against the cruise missile was putting up an intense anti-aircraft barrage for the V-1 to fly through. But this took several months to set-up since thousands of anti-aircraft guns had to be re-deployed. Eventually this proved the most effective defense, stopping almost 80% of missiles as they crossed the coast but it took an average of 2500 shells to knock down a single V-1.
A second defense was having fighter aircraft shoot them down. But the V-1 was fast, over four hundred miles an hour (640 km), and only a handful of fighters were fast enough to catch it, the Spitfire being one. The German missiles also flew low to the ground at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Regular machine gun bullets just went through them and didn’t do much damage. The best way to stop one was to fire several twenty millimeter rounds at the warhead which contained slightly less than 1,870 pounds of explosive (850 kg). One small problem: if you got too close and hit the warhead, the explosion would bring down both your plane and the V-1.
A Supermarine Spitfire (right) using its wing tip to topple a V-1 flying bomb (left).
Finally, there was one other way to bring a V-1 down although it wasn’t done that often because it was a heart stopping maneuver performed by RAF fighters. The pilot would close on the V-1, usually diving down on it to build up speed, then come alongside. In a delicate ballet which required extraordinary courage, the pilot would ease his starboard wing under the stubby port wing of the V-1 (or vice-versa) until the two wings were no more than six inches apart. At that instant, the pilot would bank his plane to port which would cause his starboard wing to rise, hit the underside of the V-1’s port wing, and flip the missile over. This had the effect of completely disabling the missile’s guidance system and it would crash.
(All statistics from: The Oxford Companion to World War Two.)
The progeny of the primitive V-1 are the far more modern cruise missiles fired from from Allied ships in the Mediterranean at Libya. Here are some very cool US Navy official photographs of some of those launches:
Italian dirigibles bomb Turkish positions on Libyan Territory. The Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912 was the first in history in which air attacks (carried out here by dirigible airships) determined the outcome.
In 1911 the Kingdom of Italy attacked the Ottoman Empire in what is known as the Italo-Turkish War and seized most of modern day Libya. Unexpectedly, the Italians introduced a new concept in warfare: they dropped a bomb from an airplane; in this case on Turkish troops. Dropping bombs from aircraft during wartime had never been done before.
[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]