Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Paratroops vs. Tanks, 1945

C-47_transport_planes_release_hundreds_of_paratroopsThe little-studied and nearly forgotten last airborne operation of World War II, Operation Varsity, eventuated along the Rhine River on March 24, 1945. The participants had no way of knowing it, but they were six weeks from V-E Day and the end of the War in Europe. That end happened for many reasons, in part because the Western Allies forced the Rhine in March. (But had the Allies been held or thrown back, the Germans still would have lost, because the Red Army was coming from the East in any event).

Both sides came to the Rhine fight with Operation Market-Garden in Holland and Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (called “The Battle of the Bulge” by the Americans in its path) in the Ardennes fresh in mind. One was an Allied fight, one a German, but both were ambitious offensives that fell far short of their goals. The American division that would be tabbed for Operation Varsity,  the 17th Airborne, had come in at the end of the Bulge to hold the cleared salient to Bastogne open, and to push the Germans back. They knew what fighting against German armored counterattacks would be like. The Germans holding their side of the river knew that the Allies had as many as four paratroop and glider divisions opposite them, and they knew just how weakened their units were by the endless meatgrinder of combat (one division was down to 4,000 men, counting walking wounded; that was about what the 17th was short after the Ardennes casualties, but the American unit got replacements).

One thing everybody knew: paratroops were overmatched by tanks. The Germans expected the Allies to land by night and planned to crush them by tanks at first light. The paratroops knew they needed to kill tanks. The problem was: it takes a hard hit by a heavy shot to kill a tank, and things that fired hard-hitting heavy shots tended to be bulky and heavy — not something you could jump out of a C-46 or C-47 with.

In the Ardennes, along Dead Man’s Ridge northwest of Bastogne, a paratroop sergeant named Isidore Jachman had engaged a German tank formation with the only organic AT weapon the airborne infantryman had, the 2.36″ (~60mm) Rocket Launcher (aka Bazooka).

M1-M1A1 2.36 inch bazooka

Jachman engaged two tanks, killing one and forcing a German retreat, but enemy fire killed Jachman, who became, posthumously, 17th’s only Medal of Honor recipient prior to Varsity. His citation:

For heroism January 04, 1945 at Flamierge, Belgium. When his company was pinned down by enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire, two hostile tanks attacked the unit, inflicting heavy casualties. Staff Sergeant Jachman, seeing the desperate plight of his comrades, left his place of cover and with total disregard for his own safety dashed across open ground through a hail of fire and seizing a bazooka from a fallen comrade advanced on the tanks, which concentrated their fire on him. Firing the weapon alone, he damaged one and forced both to retire. Staff Sergeant Jachman’s heroic action, in which he suffered fatal wounds, disrupted the entire enemy attack.

57mm and halftrack

57mm and halftrack prime movers.

The AT armament of the paratroops would be carried by gliders. By 1945, the inadequate 37mm gun (called by the British the two-pounder) was retired and the standard gliderborne airborne-unit AT gun was the 57mm, a good weapon for 1941 but hopeless against 1945 main battle tanks; the British users called it the six-pounder. (British and American guns had different carriages but the same tube).

In other American units, the prime mover for the 57mm AT was a half-track or a 1 1/2 ton Dodge 6×6 truck. The glider units had to make do with jeeps as prime movers. Carrying a sufficient ammo supply was a problem, and the gun and the jeep each needed their own Waco or Horsa glider.

An American AT gunner in another unit remembers this weapon:

My platoon was three 57mm Anti-Tank guns. A squad of 10 men for each gun. This gun was a reworked British “6 pounder”, so called because it fired a 6-pound projectile. Our version had good ballistics. A muzzle velocity of about 3000 fpm. It would penetrate 2 inches of armor plate and ricochet with killing velocity about 50 times. It sure didn’t look very impressive. The gunner had to kneel or sit to look though the sight.

A British 6 pounder (57mm) showing the crew's kneeling position.

A British 6 pounder (57mm) showing the crew’s kneeling position.

His crew got a lucky hit on a Panther that let them barrage the tank and drive the crew out of it.

We had gotten our kill!  That hole in their defense had to be covered by adjoining Panthers.  Later a Bazooka team got another one. …  At least we were no longer kidded about our “Little Pea Shooter”.  Most didn’t consider the 57mm much of a weapon.

The 57 had definite limits when engaging modern tanks.  But it was far more accurate and longer-ranged than the bazooka!

British forces had another option. Two batteries that airlanded on Varsity had three troops each with 6-pounders and one with 17-pounders. The 17-pounder was a high velocity 76.2mm weapon. This was, much more than its 6-pounder sibling, an effective AT weapon, but it was a lot bigger — by the time it, and its crew and prime mover were all lined up, it was a 17 thousand  pound logistical nut to crack. They could only deliver these by the gigantic General Aircraft Hamilcar glider. And glider delivery was always risky. Two Glider Pilot Regiment Sergeants, Peter Young and Neville Shaw had one of these heavy guns in a Hamilcar that didn’t get off its departure runway. Young:

Our load was a 15-hundredweight truck and a 17-pounder antitank gun, with a crew of eight soldiers, 70 rounds of ammunition, and spare petrol. The total weight was around 17,800 pounds.

We have the distinction of completing the shortest flight. On take off, the Halifax [tow plane] got into a tangle in the slipstream of the aircraft in front and cast me off. There was no choice but to put down in the overshoot. There was a spare loaded glider, but it was decided not to use this.1

Shoulder patch of the now-forgotten 17th Airborne Division.

Shoulder patch of the now-forgotten 17th
Airborne Division.

In the American forces, there was no formal anti-tank organization, unlike the British unit’s. Instead, the 17th’s 155th Anti-Aircraft Battalion picked up anti-tank duty, and the weapons to go with it. (This may have been because of the weakness of the Luftwaffe by March 1945). Oddly enough, the unit had a mix of British 6-pounders and American 57mm, but since the tubes and ammo were the same, the mixture had no practical effect.

But a new wonder weapon came to the battalion less than two weeks before showtime: the 75mm Recoilless Rifle.

Exactly two of these newfangled gadgets replaced six-pounders, one in each of two batteries. One of the crewmen, Corporal Eugene Howard, remembers:

It looked a lot like a fancy bazooka. It had a 7 foot long rifle barrel mounted on a yoke, with a pin on the bottom of the yoke to fit onto a .50-caliber machine gun tripod. The rifle weighed about 175 pounds and the tripod weighed about 65 pounds.

75mm rifle

M20 RCL sightThe gun was fitted with a new electronic sighting device that made it more accurate than the sight on the 57 mm [recoilless rifle]. In one respect it was like a bazooka: when the gun fired, a blaze of hot gases came out the rear of the gun with an equal force to the projectile coming out the muzzle. It had an effective range of about 1,500 yards.

The jeep was modified to carry the gun. The tripod mount was secured to the floor of the back section of the Jeep. A cradle for the barrel was welded to the front bumper of the jeep. One of the advantages of the gun was that it could be fired from the jeep. It could even be fired with the Jeep moving. Since we did not have to pull the 57-millimeter we would get a jeep trailer to haul ammunition. This meant we could haul more ammunition than we could for the 57-millimeter.2

Howard found the 75mm recoilless rifle worked well. The first time they were called on to use it, they killed a “self-propelled 88” (probably actually a 75mm StuG-III). Then they got the jeep into defilade, and began running the 75 against German vehicles, troops, and even an OP in a church steeple.

But that’s another story. What Howard and his gunner Pete found out was that the 75mm was an effective tank buster, within its limits, and they set a trend in paratroop AT weapons that lasted until the missile age. (Indeed, Russian and Chinese factories still produce much improved, larger caliber lightweight recoilless rifles).

Notes

  1. Wright, p. 68.
  2. Wright, p. 9.

Sources

Wright, Stephen L. The Last Drop: Operation Varsity, March 24-25, 1945. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Australian Army Journal

AustralianFlagPressed for time, we won’t say much about this, but the Australian Army Journal website not only has the current edition, but it also has a great archive, with lots of interesting articles for the professional (or armchair) soldier.

The articles in the Vietnam-era Journal are of particular interest to Americans; Australian volunteers shared that less than delightful set of experiences with some of their Yank (or as they might say, “Septic”) contemporaries.

It’s very enlightening to look at tactical, operational and strategic problems through the eyes of professional soldiers from a friendly but very different country. And with the archives on this site, you can get that perspective on almost any period.

The archival issues are all .pdf files, which makes it a slam-dunk to handle them.

Today in History: Hitler Attacks Stalin, 75 Years Ago

Proving that there is no honor among dictators, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany attacked their sworn allies, Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941, 75 years ago today. The German code name was Operation Barbarossa, invoking the nickname of the great German leader, Frederick I Barbarossa (an ill-fated king who led the ill-fated German contingent in the missed-it-by-that-much Third Crusade).

Barbarossa went all Germany's way -- at first. Here, an obsolete Soviet T-28 at roadside in Lemberg (now Lvov).

Barbarossa went all Germany’s way — at first. Here, an obsolete Soviet T-28 abandoned roadside in Lemberg (now Lvov).

It was a betrayal of Iscariot proportions (not that Koba the Dread was exactly Jesus Christ). Revisionists claim that Stalin was planning to attack the Germans ,and was pre-empted, but the historical record makes it pretty clear that wasn’t the case. Stalin not only didn’t see it coming, he slapped down those in his intelligence organs who did.

Donald Steury of the Agency reviews some books on the subject, including What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, by David Murphy, and says:

In something of a surprise, Murphy reprints two secret letters from Hitler to Stalin that he found in the published Russian sources, hitherto unknown in the West. In these, the Führer seeks to reassure the Soviet dictator about the scarcely concealable German military buildup in eastern Europe. Hitler confides to Stalin that troops were being moved east to protect them from British bombing and to conceal the preparations for the invasion of the British Isles. He concludes with an assurance “on my honor as a head of state” that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union. Some may question the authenticity of these letters, but they are difficult to dismiss out of hand. Assuming they are genuine, they add to what is perhaps the most bewildering paradox of the Soviet-German war: Stalin, the man who trusted no one, trusted Hitler.

And a few paragraphs later, Steury adds:

Gorodetsky’s argument dovetails nicely with the story told by David Murphy. Murphy massively documents the in-pouring of intelligence from all over Europe and even Japan, warning of the German military buildup for invasion. Insofar as this intelligence was used at all, it was to avoid any action that might be seen as a provocation. German aircraft were allowed to fly reconnaissance missions deep into Soviet territory; German troops were allowed to violate Soviet borders in search of intelligence. All this was intended to remind the Germans of the depth of Soviet resolve, while demonstrating that the Soviet Union was not about to attack. Moreover, Stalin was absolutely convinced that Hitler would attempt nothing until he had resolved his conflict with Great Britain. He was encouraged in this preconception by a well-orchestrated German deception operation—including the two letters to Stalin—that was, at least in part, personally directed by Hitler. Thus it was that Stalin was able to ignore the massive military buildup on his borders and to dismiss every warning of a German attack as disinformation or provocation, right up until the morning of 22 June.

In describing how intelligence was collected and reported to Moscow, Murphy chillingly documents what it meant to be an intelligence officer under Stalin by following the careers of three men. NKVD foreign intelligence chief, Pavel Fitin, whose agents reported on German plans for BARBAROSSA right up to the attack, served throughout the war, but was in disgrace afterward. Ivan Proskurov, an air force officer and head of military intelligence during 1939–40, insisted on telling the truth to Stalin. He was shot in October 1941. Proskurov’s successor, Filipp I. Golikov, suppressed or altered intelligence reporting that did not meet the Soviet dictator’s preconceptions. He prospered under Stalin.

That’s life in  dictatorship, whether it’s Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Chavez’s: suck up and move up. Stick up and get hammered down.

When the weather changed, so did German fortunes in the East....

When the weather changed, so did German fortunes in the East….

Arthur Chrenkoff notes that:

…history showed once again that trusting and trying to appease a warmongering dictator is not really a smart long-term policy.

Even if you’re a warmongering dictator yourself. Considering how paranoid Stalin was — he’d just orchestrated the Yezhovshchina and all the great purges, and hollowed out his own party’s loyal middle management — the one time he chose to trust a guy, he picked Adolf freaking Hitler. And got a poke in the eye for his pains. That had to have shaken even Koba’s self-confidence.

As Chrenk notes, this led to:

by far the bloodiest stage of the bloodiest conflict in human history. Some 17 million of men (and a few women) under arms were to perish on both sides in the great meat grinder of the Eastern Front, in addition to over 20 million civilians.

It was also, as Hitler’s professional generals feared at the time (and as Steury notes in his book review, linked above), a complex error that that would lead to the “10,000-year Reich” being ground under the treads of Allied tanks about 988 years ahead of schedule.

Thing from the Vault: Barnett Enfield (Real, or Darra Adam Khel?)

Some of you who have hung out with us have seen this long gun and its cousins, and heard the story of how it came to catch a C-17 ride home wearing a GI souvenir tag, and palletized in a purpose-built wood box with a number of its brethren. Exactly how and why your humble blogger became the FFL Type 02 (Pawnbroker) equivalent for a remote and allegedly Taliban-infested valley is a story to be told face to face, but suffice it now to say that such a thing happened, and a variety of antique oddities lounge about Hog Manor in consequence thereof.

afghan_enfield_01_-_16_overview

We are about the furthest thing you can imagine from expertise on British black powder guns, so our answer to the question in the title is more a matter of supposition and deduction than it is of confidence. But we believe the rifle to be a Pashtun copy, made at some unknown time by hand, probably by the gunsmiths of the Adam Khel tribe in their home city, Darra Adam Khel.

Some of the reasons are: the light-colored no-name wood of the stock; the uncertain-looking brass parts, which look more like they were cast by cottage industry than by a mid-19th Century industrial plant; the spiral seam in the barrel, where it was made by hand-forging a rectangular bar in spiral form around a mandrel; the flimsy sheet metal piece opposite the lock; the weird heads, threads and alignments of the screws.

afghan_enfield_01_-_22_spiral_seam_in_barrel

On the other hand, the engraving is clear and without misspellings. Since many Darra gunsmiths are illiterate in any language, you frequently see mirror-image letters and other wierdness in inscriptions. The lock date (1869) is much too late for a P53 Enfield, but it could be a P59, a similar musket made in smoothbore strictly for the use of native troops in British India. So it could be a P59 that has, over the last near sesquicentury, become the host to many repaired and replaced native parts.

afghan_enfield_01_-_19_lockplate_area

Click more to see some more of the uneven and sometimes crude construction, and many character-rich repairs, of this venerable firearm.

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A Place with Two Names

The small town of Weipert was, in the German tradition, built up in the center, enough to have an urban feeling even though the population peaked at barely 12,000 souls. When the sun shone on the mountain town, the cobblestones gleamed, because the people pursued cleanliness and order. You could sometimes see a shopkeeper scrubbing the sidewalk in front of his small shop, which was a sign that everything inside was as clean as it could get. These souls spoke the German language, worshipped in the German Catholic Church, and were in all the usual small-town occupations, plus one: gunmaking. Gunmaking began here because iron ore, wood for fires and water power were all handy, and even the city crest came to be surmounted by a smith, dual-wielding hammers:

Nr.33 Weipert Wappen

Several of the kingdom’s most talented gunsmiths made their home here, who were gunsmiths already at the time people started having family names. All the way to the turn of the 20th Century, son followed father into the trade. At the end of the 19th, the most successful of these family firms even banded together to form a joint-venture factory and compete for military orders from the faraway capital. This was like the Liège gunsmiths around that time, when they formed FN; the Weipert smiths weren’t that successful, as the nation assigned rifle production to a pair of massive state arsenals, but the arsenals outsourced some parts to the makers of Weipert.

The names of some of the smiths of Weipert are footnotes to gun history. Late in the 19th Century, it was a hotbed of repeater pistols, manually actuated, magazine fed forerunners of the coming wave of semiautomatic pistols. Gustav Bittner finally had this more-or-less sorted out with a delightfully steampunk firearm that also has a Winchester-meets-Obrez vibe.

Bittner Repeating Pistol, (7.7mm?) cased with tools, ammo and en-bloc clips, from Forgotten Weapons. We believe this pistol to be in the personal collection of Horst Held.

A beautifully case-hardeed Bittner Repeating Pistol, (7.7mm?) cased with tools, ammo and en-bloc clips, from Forgotten Weapons. This is SN 192, sold by Julia two years ago; we’ve seen numbers from single digits to high 300s.

Bittner was one of those names. So was his competitor (and partner in the joint venture), Gustav Fükert. (No giggling please, the name does not share the meaning of its English false cognate. It’s just a German name. Pronounce FOOK-ert with FOO like in “fool” and you’re artillery close).

gustavfukertadvertin1883

(The Fükert ad and a lot of information about the family and the firm can be found in this forum thread).

Before German orthography — spelling — was standardized, it was sometimes spelled Fückert. In fact, generations of Bittners and Fückerts made guns in Weipert, and kings and emperors collected their guns, like Fückert’s Kronen-Drilling (“Royal Three Barrel”). Fükert made some damned pretty guns. (There are some beautiful images in this thread — if you like such guns, keep scrolling and don’t neglect the following pages — but we couldn’t get them to save).

Weipert had its own proof house until 1918.

The German Hunting Gun Society notes that:

Although Weipert had fewer gunmakers than Suhl, Zella Mehlis, Ferlach or Liege, very fine hunting guns were made here. The first gunmakers guild was formed in 1734.

The society identifies the following as Weipert or nearby smiths:

Bartl, Josef
Bittner, Gustav
Bittner, Joseph
Diemelt, Anton
Fükert, Gustav
Fükert, Johann
Gahlert, Alfred
Gahlert, Vincent
Hoffman, Josef Jr.
Morgenstern, Wenzel & Son
Ritter, Josef
Schmidl, Norbert
Schmidl, Eduard
Thiele, Rudolf
Thiele, Xaver

Of these firms, only Morgenstern is known to have survived the war and produced sporting arms into the late 1940s, before his assets were nationalized into the Lověna Prague firm circa 1948. Because Weipert, you see, isn’t Weipert any more. It was always known by two names, the other being the Czech name, Vejprty. And thereby hangs a tale.

Weipert/Vejprty is right on the border of Germany and Bohemia — once a kingdom of its own, usually a vassal of or subordinate to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the westernmost province of the Czech Republic. In the age of empires, no one really expected national borders to align with ethnic groups’ distributions, but by the 19th Century, the forces of nationalism threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire (arguably the most successful multinational, multicultural state in history, certainly in European history). Of course, it was nationalism within the Empire that struck the match that lit the fuze of the Great War — which ended the Empire.

After the War, in which the Bittner/Fückert/etc factory produced parts for Steyr, Weipert was a part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. Its people were among many, many Germans in the new state, and by the 1930s, with the German population convinced they were suffering more than Czechs and Slovaks from the consequences of the Depression, the Germans turned to nationalism — German nationalism.

In the parliamentary system in interwar Czechoslovakia, there were numerous parties, including German parties that mirrored the political landscape in Germany — socialist parties, conservative parties. In the 1930s, the Sudeten German Party (SDP) rose as an analogue of the Nazi party in Germany, and became the most popular party among the German population of Czechoslovakia. The ethnic Germans welcomed the bloodless seizure of the Sudetenland and then the remainder of Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1938, and under the Nazi Reichsprotektorat they prospered.

By late 1944 the shoe was on the other foot, and the Deutsche Wehrmacht was retreating. Many ethnic Germans followed the Army back to Germany. Those that remained found that the new Czechoslovakia was done with having a German minority, and remaining Germans were expelled in a case of tit-for-tat ethnic cleansing.

Weipert was, for all intents and purposes, no longer in existence by that name. It is now known only by its Czech name, Vejprty, and the Czechs that made up approximately 6% of the prewar population are now functionally 100% of the population. Perhaps the cultural dislocation was inevitable, after the disloyalty of the German citizens; but one of the losses is the gunmaking culture of Weipert, which was completely erased. The factory stands in ruins.

Nr.34WeipertFabrik

And to the best of our knowledge, there is no gunsmith, nor even a gun shop, there today. As a Czech might say, To je škoda — that’s a pity.

Footlocker Find: Exercise Cards

One of the joys of being a pack rat is that occasionally you find a forgotten treasure that you saved when almost nobody else did. One of them is this exercise TOC card from, if memory serves, exercise REFORGER 81.

exercise_cards exercise_cards02

Exercise Cards are used to identify exercise participants, sometimes for the play of the problem, and sometimes for local authorities, In the 1980s, Federal German authorities were used to foreigners running around their country with rifles. Every fall, REFORGER (which was a test and demonstration of REinforcement of FORces in GERmany) brought most of US Army Europe out of the field and brought a lot of US Army not Europe over for a few weeks of hard training and at least a couple nights of revelry.

Cards were issued to our Fort Devens-based team by the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, who isolated us at and launched us from Bad Tölz that September. As the team LNO, your humble blogger also had an exercise TOC (tactical operations center — buzzword for command post) and Isolation Area access card. You can see a faint blue ink notation LNO at the top of the obverse of the card (left). The Trojan Horse crest, with lightning bolt and wings, is the original 10th SF Group beret flash; rejected by the Army Institute of Heraldry, it remained (and remains) an informal but powerful symbol for SF elements in Europe, in 1981 the 1st Battalion at Tölz. The signature at the bottom is, we think, that of Captain Arthur Muschamp, the S1 (personnel officer) of the battalion, whom we all recall as a native-fluency speaker of German, and a great guy. The reverse of the card has a box where a mugshot, a number, or color-coded access strips could be placed, and a drawing of the Special Forces shoulder patch. No tab yet (it wasn’t invented).

Here’s another card from the dim and distant past. This is a Fieldcraft Exercise card from Special Forces Operations & Intelligence Course, Special Warfare Advanced Skills Division, in 1988-89. This is a more typical exercise card in that it includes contact information for “real world” emergencies.

exercise_cards01

Two small alterations have been made to these cards, for security purposes. Your Humble Blogger’s Social Security Number, then used by the Army as a universal identifier, has been erased, and the radio frequencies have been similarly erased, in case our Russian friends still have the tapes somewhere. (The phone numbers were published in the base phone book, so we let them stand).

exercise_cards03

We wouldn’t be shocked to see further exercise cards surface over the next months and years. God knows we had enough of them.

Curse You, 8th Air Force!

In the course of writing the “Czech Book,” (which is, predictably, taking more time and money than budgeted), we were trying to pin down the involvement of the mighty Škoda Works of Pilsen in small arms manufacture (specifically handguns, as that’s the first volume). To our surprise the company’s involvement was minor, but we teased it out.

The Skoda Works, end of the 19th Century. The Central Administration Building is the one on the left corner of the main plant rectangular area.

The Skoda Works, end of the 19th Century. The legend notes it;s an iron and steel works and artillery factory. While the Central Administration Building is called out in 20th Century aerials, we can’t find it here; it may not have been built yet. It housed engineers, designers, draftsmen, accountants and managers, and, of course, the lost archives.

We had to tease it out, because there’s an archival problem. There’s an archival problem, because of our fellow Americans. Here’s an excerpt from the not-yet-forthcoming book to set the stage:

In 1886 the company began producing armaments. It would not be fair to say it “dabbled” in arms, because the firm was much more committed than “dabbling” connotes. Almost immediately, Škoda products included battleship turrets, complete; naval, coastal, siege and field artillery; and even some machine guns, the awkward (and initially, gravity fed) Salvator-Dormus.

The decision to manufacture armaments and specifically heavy guns was a cold, calculating business decision.

Emil Škoda, the guy whose name was on the factory, noted that Steyr had a lock on small arms, and the Vienna Arsenal could make small and medium artillery pieces and naval guns, but the Austrian generals and admirals chafed at having to buy their field artillery and pre-dreadnought main batteries from Krupp in Essen, Germany. Opportunity knocked, and Emil flung the door wide. Soon the Škoda Works was making all kinds of war materièl.

Still, Škoda was not exclusively or even primarily an armaments producer. In the period before the First World War, the firm’s production included machinery of all kinds, large castments used in such famous ocean liners as the Normandie and Titanic, generators for hydroelectric plants, locomotives and more.

Regardless, it was Škoda artillery that gave the Czech race a reputation as armorers. Škoda guns were used all over in World War I, armed the Czechoslovak Republic after the war, and sold to many nations in Europe and beyond. After the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia, Škoda guns rolled with the Wehrmacht and the Škoda Works itself earned a place on the Allied bombing target list. Mostly, it survived until two great daylight raids at the very end of the war…

In fact, Patton’s point elements were rocketing toward Pilsen when the factory came up Number One on the 8th Air Force Hit Parade. After a first, small shot on 17 April 45, the bombers came back hard on 25 April.

The Czechlands had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich as the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen u. Mähren, and benefited from bitter German experience with an incredibly effective Luftschütz or Civil Defense program. They also benefited from the Czech Service of the BBC announcing that a massive American bomber stream had departed for Pilsen. (They could do this by April 45: what Luftwaffe was going to stop them?). The weather was good, and unlike the 17 April raid that mostly blew up workers’ housing, the 25 April raid devastated the plant. Between 2/3 and 3/4 of it was destroyed by a rain of 300+ HE bombs and 4000+ incendiaries.

The Luftschütz provisions worked: the human casualties were few: six dead, three missing (certainly also dead, but bodies not recovered) and four wounded.

Of course, it wouldn’t be aerial bombing if some of it didn’t miss, and the workers’ housing area called Karlov was so completely destroyed there would be no attempt to rebuild it. But the workers were not home; at 10 AM, they were packed in the shelters under the plant grounds, and they survived.

But among the 55 buildings destroyed or damaged by the raid was the Central Administrative Building. Czech historian Michal Prášil would later write:

Later estimates of the damage were 12 billion contemporary crowns. From today’s historical point of view the destruction of the central administrative building with the main archives represented an irreplaceable loss. Only because some historical materials were duplicated in satellite archives, can we write about Škoda’s history today. But a great amount of information and data concerning this largest arms manufacturer of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of the prewar Czechoslovak Republic, and of the Protectorate were lost forever.1

While we’re noting ironies here, returning to our in-process draft, we note:

It was almost eight months before the furnaces could be restarted and the first postwar batch of steel run. After the war, the Škoda works returned to peacetime pursuits. Executives attempted to interest the post war Czechoslovak army in a new batch of heavy cannon, but they never made the sale.

It is ironic that the bombing destroyed a factory that was already essentially out of war production. Work been shut down by a shortage of fuel, feedstocks, and raw materials, and the destruction of the transportation system that would be required to deliver more.

It’s a pity that such a man-made disaster (to use a Presidential locution) was visited on an occupied nation mere days before its liberation. At the time of this devastating raid, Adolf Hitler had less than a week to live, and his Thousand-Year Reich less than two. One understands that the 8th Air Force had to prosecute the war right up until the closing bell, but really, couldn’t they have found something in Germany to blow to smithereens? (By 25 April 45, maybe not. Most anything of value in Germany had American, British or Soviet soldiers standing on it by then).

The loss of the cannon production halls may not have been a big deal, with peace about to break out and enough war surplus on hand to arm the next thirty years’ worth of wars. After all, Škoda couldn’t get their own country to buy heavy cannons again a couple of years later. But as historians, we’ve got a bone to pick with that bombardier who lined up his Norden on the Central Administration Building and let fly.

Curse you, 8th Air Force!

Some Small Arms Ranger History from American Rifleman

ranger lozengeThis past Monday, there was a great American Rifleman article by Martin Morgan, whom we don’t know but respect already based on this one article, on The Forgotten Guns of D-Day. We expected these guns to be obvious ones, because AR is a magazine for the widest possible range of gunny interests, and sure, some of them were, like the FG42 carried by counterattacking German Fallschirmjäger. But others were not (how did a John Browning design with a jawbreaker Polish name…? You’re going to have to Read The Whole Thing™).

Morgan even taught us Ragnar history that we didn’t even know that we didn’t know, including a truly bizarre use of an oddball gun that we tend to associate only with the LRDG and SAS in the Western Desert, and a critical use of the butt end of an M1 Thompson. A taste:

On D-Day, a force of 225 men from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion was given the special D-Day mission of landing four miles west of Omaha Beach at a place called Pointe Du Hoc. After coming ashore, the Rangers would have to scale 100-ft. tall cliffs to conduct an assault against one of the most threatening German gun batteries in lower Normandy. Established in May 1942, Heeres-Küsten-Batterie Pointe Du Hoc was a position armed with six French-made 155 mm breechloading rifles. The guns had been captured in 1940 and subsequently placed in German service with the designation 15.5 cm K 418(f). At Pointe Du Hoc, they were mounted on concrete traversing tables that extended their maximum effective range, improved their already impressive accuracy, and transformed them into formidable anti-ship weapons. The Ranger mission on D-Day, which was commanded by Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, had the objective of preventing the guns from firing on the fleet.

At 7:10 a.m., Rudder’s force landed, scaled the cliffs, and swiftly pushed the enemy back from the battery area. That is when the Rangers discovered that no guns were mounted at the point. Instead, timbers had been placed on each of the six concrete traversing tables to present the false appearance that the battery remained armed. The Rangers also found two casemates for heavy artillery at Pointe Du Hoc, but they were still under construction and their guns had not yet been mounted. In late April, the Germans removed the guns from the point to a position almost a mile to the south, but the Rangers did not know that at the time. After they secured the battery position at the point, the Rangers moved on to the next phase of their mission, which was to set up a roadblock on the Vierville/Grandcamp road. While doing this, they put out flank security for the roadblock and quickly stumbled across the guns concealed along a hedgerow-enclosed lane. First Sergeant Leonard “Bud” Lomell and S/Sgt. Jack Kuhn then used thermite grenades to destroy each gun’s traversing and elevation mechanisms. After that, Lomell used the buttstock of his M1A1 Thompson to smash the sights for each gun. Although not designed for such a purpose, the Thompson nevertheless proved effective. Those 155 mm guns-among the deadliest guns of D-Day-never fired a shot in opposition to the Normandy invasion.

M1A1 Thompson from RIA

Overnight on June 6 and 7, the Germans launched a series of powerful counterattacks that pushed the Rangers back to the point. By the time vehicles from Omaha Beach linked up with Rudder’s force at Pointe Du Hoc on June 7, the Rangers had suffered 135 casualties, mostly during the German counterattacks on the night of June 6. In the aftermath of the intense battle, one particular memorial to a fallen Ranger was raised amid the craters and debris at Pointe Du Hoc. A U.S. M1 helmet was placed on top of the handgrip of a Vickers K Gun, the muzzle of which was stuck into the soil. Although a British design chambered for the .303 British cartridge, K Gunswere mounted on the ends of extending ladders that were, in turn, mounted on DUKW amphibious trucks. The plan was that the DUKWs would swim up to the beach, then roll up to the base of the cliff at Pointe Du Hoc and extend the ladders so that the K Gunscould provide suppressing fire while the Rangers conducted their assault on the battery. Because of its blended hand grip/trigger and 60-round pan magazine, the K Gunwas anatomically well-suited for the mission in ways that the M1918A2 BAR and the M1919A4 .30-cal. machine gun were not. Of course, the Rangers could not expect to be resupplied with .303 cartridges, but they were not planning to use their K Gunsbeyond the morning of June 6, anyway. When the ammunition ran out, it would be all over and the K Gunswere to be discarded as the battle pushed inland. That is why a British automatic weapon can be found among the spent shell casings and exhausted smoke grenades at Pointe Du Hoc in the American sector of the invasion area.

We already told  you, but we’ll tell you again, go Read The Whole Thing™. In fact, read anything by Martin K.A. Morgan there. We don’t know his background, or anything about the guy, but he’s great at presenting historical guns in human context and that’s rare and worthwhile.

We enjoy writing about guns (and in previous lives, computers, cars, and aircraft), but in the end every story is a people story. Morgan gets that and his story isn’t the usual dry Guns of This Event one that’s all about the engineering with scant attention to their human masters.

 

The Ride in the Boats Seemed the Worst Thing

From_the_Landing_Craft_Assault-_we_watched_the_'planes_dive-bombing_near_Le_Hamel,_D_Day,_6th_June_1944_Art.IWMARTLD4277The ride went on, and on. They had rehearsed this — more than once. One of the rehearsals had even turned into a bloodbath of its own when E-Boats, grey barracudas that  got in among the landing ships.

(One of those grey barracudas — numbered S-130 — miraculously survived the war, was captured at Cherbourg, was used to run spies into the Occupied Baltic States during the Cold War, became a founding unit of the Bundesmarine and miraculously survived all that and a neglectful yacht owner, and is under rebuild by an Englishman, Kevin Wheatcroft, who reckons it will cost him a spectacular £5,000,000 to restore S-130. Here’s a reality show with some character selling Kevin the parts he needs for his e-Boat, but remember this is all a parenthetical digression; we’ll be coming back to our young private, for that is what he was, afterward; or you can come back to the video later, and go straight ahead to his story.

And that concludes our E-Boat (which the Germans called S-Boote, Schnellboote, “Fast Boats”) digression, except to note that they were so powerfully engined, that their displacement hulls could outrun American and British planing hulls, while handling much heavier seas; and they were so powerfully armed that a fight against several British torpedo and gun boats at once was just about a fair fight.)

He might or might not have known about the E-Boat threat; certainly the men responsible for delivering him and his mates were worrying about it. At the end of the day, the cordon of boats and ships and, especially, aircraft had kept the E-Boats, who were deadly but few, kept the enemy vessels away, and only a couple of pilots dared strafe the beach. But if you were down there, in the well of the flat-bottomed, poorly handling Higgins boat, unable to see out, unable to see a horizon to put your visual orientation in line with your vestibular and prioperceptive orientation, time would pass very slowly.

The boat battered its way through the waves, lurching and rolling, motoring in circles as gunfire and aircraft roared overhead. No one worried about protecting hearing in 1944, and fifty or sixty years later, the few who were not dead would be as deaf as so many sticks of wood. But nobody in those boats was thinking about his prospects living to 1994, or 2004; he was hoping to live to see June 7th.

In time, the boat no longer steamed in a circle, but in a straight line: the formation, which had been the point of all that circling, was formed. And closing the shore, the formation shifted, as planned, to line abreast.

Down below the gunwales of the boats, the men might have thought themselves protected, but bullets and shrapnel found the boats’ sides no obstacle: they were made of one or two sheets of marine plywood. A survey firm has tracked debris fields that are believed to be tens and dozens of these boats, unlucky boats that did not get ashore, whose men might have burnt, or drowned, or been rescued to go ashore again after the battle of the beach. Luck was in the draw of the cards, or it wasn’t.

The men had an expression: When your number’s up, it’s up.

Some men knew who piloted their boats — there were American sailors, British sailors, perhaps some Free Europeans, and even men of the US Coast Guard engaged in this duty — but he didn’t. The private just wanted it to be over, even as something told him that what came next might be so much worse that he’d just want to be back in the boat, seasick.

The boat lurched left and right, dodging not shells but debris in the water. The boat coxswain would do this several times this day, if he and his boat survived, coming back to the wasted shore several times to the day, he would return each time without any of the first-timer’s comforting illusions. At least he had the boat to steer; he had something other than the horror and his own mortality to occupy his mind. The gunners had no targets; they looked on, trying to make themselves small, wishing for something to shoot at. A man at the bow had to wait for the order to drop the ramp.

Army Art D-Day

If the private could have seen out, he’d have seen blazing ships and boats, and nothing at all ashore, as smoke obscured the beach where his fellows fought and the headlands where his enemies poured fire on him. His was not the very first wave; in his sector, his fellows who wore “The Blue and the Gray” of the 29th Division (so called because it was formed by National Guard units with Yankee and Rebel heritage alike) and landed in the first wave had been all but exterminated.

Not quite at the shore, the boat struck something. The private never knew what, but two miserable hours in the boat was over, and the next kind of miserable hours were upon him. The ramp dropped and the men charged off into chest deep water. Some fell, and some of them got up. The cox yelled a “Good luck!” and the private yelled back, “You too!” and they never saw one another again. Each one’s world shrank abruptly to his own small element. The adrenaline dump left a state of exhaustion in its wake… doing anything was impossibly hard.

(c) Portsmouth Museums and Records Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Portsmouth Museums and Records Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Two minutes of eternity later he lay behind the debris of a blown-up beach obstacle — seemingly fearless men were going up and down the beach dynamiting the things — and listened to the occasional tink of a small-arms bullet hitting the other side. Here was death. In time he urged himself up and away: first to the scree, then to the headland dunes with a small group. He was not with his fellows, who were God knows where, but with other guys he’d fallen in with, some from other companies and regiments, and some whose shoulder bore the Red 1 of the 1st Infantry Division.

After an unhorsed tank corporal who’d been leading was hit, they were waiting for someone to take charge, and he’d had a belly full of waiting, so he just started telling guys what to do. They seemed receptive to the direction, but for whatever reason, they obeyed him. He earned their trust, even as some of them died trusting him. He wasn’t stupid or foolhardy, and his group was one of the many that came through the dunes, flanking the murderous bunkers, seeing how the Aryan Superman looked with his hands up and eyes downcast.

Sometime during the day his uniform dried, but the salt and sand chafed him terribly. As they tried to consolidate what was left of the 115th and 116th Infantry Regiments the next day, he was an Acting Platoon Leader with a platoon of five effectives and four walking wounded, counting himself.

A month or so later the third wound sent him back to the rear. He was commanding a company with no one else from D-Day remaining in it; none of his privates would have believed he’d left England a private himself.

He would retire as a Colonel and imbue his family with a drive towards military service. And while there are soldiers with illusions about military service, he specialized in shattering those, albeit gently.

He has gone to his reward, a private man of a different kind, and no doubt he is looking down with a degree of disapproval that a soldier whose path just barely crossed with his is telling his story. He was clear, “I just did what had to be done.”

Update

We’re advised (by PJ Media’s Debra Heine) that Google didn’t recognize D-Day. Hey, no surprise. They never do. But we don’t do search, so it’s evens, right?

Winchester Revolvers

Big-Book-Western-Oct-1949-600x802Ever read a Western like this? And want to throw it?

Bart swung out the cylinder of his six-gun.

“Six-gun,” he laughed to himself. “More like ‘Four-gun,'” because that was all that was left in his Winchester: four .44-40 rounds. He’d been shooting, and reloading, and shooting, and his belt loops were empty. Four lousy rounds; that was it. It was just enough, if he made no mistakes, to get him out of this jam.

He did not have time to miss his fine Colt rifle, back in the scabbard where he’d hitched Thunder at the other end of town. He had to settle it with the Hardy brothers’ gang for once and for all, and it was just him and his Winchester ’77 and the few rounds he had in it.

“Bob Hardy! Frank Hardy! Tommy Swift! This is your last chance. Come out and you live to see the judge in Dodge City.”

Frank Hardy shouted back something unprintable. Bob laughed that annoying high laugh of his. “Come and make us, law man. If you can.” The robbers all laughed.

Bob Hardy was known to carry this exact Winchester pistol, and he probably wasn’t out of bullets.

Bart gritted his teeth. The revolver clicked in his hand. He was going in.

No, there wasn’t ever a Winchester revolver, at least not that hit the market. But there was a Winchester revolver that was developed and almost hit the market. It was strangled in its crib, but it had several advanced features for its day, and was designed by a designer of some note. If Winchester had not cut a deal with Colt not to encroach on each other’s markets — a deal that was legal under 19th Century law, but that anti-trust laws of the early 20th would ban — the “Winchester revolver” might not be a valid reason to throw the above Western across the room. (The rest of the writing, perhaps).

Winchester Wetmore-Wood Revolver. Borchardt involvement possible but unknown.

Winchester Wetmore-Wood Prototype Revolver. Swing-out cylinder, single-action, .44-40. Borchardt involvement possible but unknown. Now at the Cody Museum.

At least four prototypes revolvers were built at Winchester by itinerant designers Hugo Borchardt in 1876-77. Borchardt is probably best known for his pioneering auto pistol and for working with Sharps to improve that company’s rifles.

Here are some more Winchester Prototypes:

Display from the Cody Museum

Display from the Cody Museum

This pistol was sold by Rock Island, with Winchester documentation, in 2013. You might say it was for the advanced collector,

This pistol was sold by Rock Island, with Winchester documentation, in 2013. You might say it was for the advanced collector,

Left side of the same gun

Left side of the same gun

Period picture of SA variant, source: the same Rock Island auction.

Period picture of SA variant, source: the same Rock Island auction.

The Winchester prototypes include such advanced features as the swing-out cylinder mentioned above, and double action. John Walter shows four of these revolvers in his book Luger (pp. 40-41) as examples of Borchardt’s work; the Cody Museum calls the one illustrated here, one of the ones in Walter’s book, a “Wetmore-Wood” revolver, according to a brief piece in Outdoor Life. The same author Ashley Hlebinsky, writing in Guns of the Old West, notes that Winchester built some pocket revolvers under contract (and got stuck trying to sell them when the buyer stiffed them), and has more details on Winchester’s halting and incomplete revolver development.

Anybody know what book this page is from? Found online in a Cowboy Action forum.

Anybody know what book this page is from? Found online in a Cowboy Action forum. The same two revolvers are shown in Walter’s Lugers as Borchardt work.

Dime-Western-Magazine-February-1943-600x817The Colt-Winchester negotiations that Hlebinsky seems to think apocryphal are described in more detail in some Colt sources.

For most people, Winchester revolvers are an interesting sidelight in firearms development, one that tied up a lot of talent for a few years in a dead end (or maybe, to use the Western term, a dry gulch). Unless you have the money to outbid the museums and well-heeled Winchester collectors when these things come up as once-in-a-lifetime auctions, then, the only place you’re going to find a Winchester revolver is in a badly written Western?

As to what happened to Bart? You know how this story ends, you’ve seen it before: he put down Frank Hardy and Tommy Swift like the mad dogs they were, then faced Frank Hardy, out of ammunition. Frank Hardy dropped his Winchester, to finally settle it man-to-man. At the end of the ten-minute fistfight, Frank was hogtied on the back of his own horse, and Bart was ready to lead him to Dodge City and another date with a rope — after, of course Bart got his kiss from Betty Sue, who decided Bart wasn’t a loser after all, and would probably do OK raising Frank’s kids.

Roll credits.