Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Tank Turret Rotation in WWII

a rollin foxholeLet’s adumbrate about tanks again. Fascinating things, although we always took Willie and Joe’s words to heart: a movin’ foxhole attracks th’ eye. (Alas, the only version of that classic we could find does not embiggen). Anyway, our interest has been more, shall we say, historical curiosity than professional.

To put it another way, we’re all about studying them, but we’re just as glad we spent our career under the sky and stars rather than under some inches of cold-rolled.

The nature of tank war is the nature of all war, in general, with some specialized details particularly adapted to the idea of fighting a mobile machine, and units of these mobile machines.

In armored warfare as in any other, the ability to fire the first shot is the guarantor of life. The ways you can get the first shot include:

  1. Seeing the enemy first. This has some impact on tank equipment as well as tactics. Some tanks are ill-equipped for observation in a 360º plane, making them very vulnerable for an off-axis attack. Of course, the crews train to fight the tank they have, and will develop methods to minimize this weakness.


    T26 Pershing named “Fireball”. The 88mm mantlet penetration killed the tank and two of the five crew. Germany, 1945. They probably did not see the Tiger 100m ahead that hit them, but they were backlit by a fire. The Tiger also hit their muzzle brake with another shot.

  2. Concealment and firing from ambush. As many an infantry school instructor has crowed to students at once excited and aghast: “Ambush is murder and murder is fun!” This rewards a tank that can fire from concealment, without making a lot of noise that alerts the enemy’s dismounted scouts, without a lot of movement to betray the position. In addition, there are great advantages in the defense to be able to fire from a hull-down position. (And to a small turret, which complicates the enemy’s target solution).
  3. Outranging the enemy through superior accuracy or terminal ballistics. The components of accuracy are optic, gunner, gun, and integration. While it’s obviously important to hit the enemy first, it’s also important not to hit the enemy at a range beyond that where you can kill him. Otherwise, you’ve exposed yourself and blown your first-shot advantage for nothing.
  4. Getting on target faster. Here optics — including a good field of view for the gunner — and superior speed and control of main gun aim are the objective. If your turret slews very fast, that’s good, but not if the fast slew can’t produce fine control.
  5. Having more tanks, so that the enemy was servicing another target when your first shot kills him. This is a production and reliability play, but also rewards commanders for ingenuity in bringing their forces to bear in greater numbers at a decisive point.

The next best way to win the fight was having the first effective shot because your tank was harder to hit (or, harder to kill). This is clearly a less desirable position to be in than the one where you drop your tungsten calling card into the enemy’s brisket when he still was unaware you were there.

By World War II (and still today, apart from some unusual vehicles in both cases) the design of a tank was stabilized as a rear-engine vehicle with a rotating armored turret carrying primary and (most) secondary armament. The gun was placed on target in elevation by the gunner raising or lowering the barrel, and in azimuth by the gunner (with direction and sometimes assistance from the commander) slewing the turret.

Caught in the open: fate of many a tank and crew.

Caught in the open: fate of many a tank and crew.

In a textbook illustration of the principle of convergent evolution, WWII tanks of all nations were more alike than they were different. But different nations’ main battle tanks rotated their turrets differently — and some were effective despite a much slower rotation than their peers, which seems illogical.

  • British and Russian tanks rotated electrically. If you ever owned a ’60s British car, you have to have some sympathy for the grimy crews and mechanics struggling to keep the ancestor of Lucas electrics humming. British tanks used spade grips for the controls to rotate the turret. The British had a mode switch which let the gunner control traverse on a “coarse” or “fine” setting. The T-34 used electric for coarse and manual for fine traverse. The T-34/76 used separate wheels for electric and manual, attached to the same traversing gear. In the T-34/85, though, the same handle was used as a lever for electrical control and a crank for manual — ingenious! Rather than explain a T-34’s system, which used the same controls for manual and electric traverse, we’ll let the Military Veterans Museum show you in this 1-minute video:

  • Germans used a hydraulic system, driven by power take-off from the main engine. This was a mechanically simple and reliable system, but it had a key deficiency, as we’ll see. The Germans used foot pedals to slew the turret — left pedal went left, right pedal, obviously, right. The gun was then laid with final precision using a manual handwheel.
  • American tanks used a hydraulic system, but drove it electrically. Instead of a PTO from the main powerplant, like a tractor, the hydraulic system was energized by a pump driven by an electrical motor. Also, only the Americans applied stabilization gyroscopes to tank main armament, beginning with the M4 Sherman (on the early Sherman, in elevation only). This gave the tank a rudimentary shoot-on-the-move capability, and perhaps more usefully in tank fighting, reduced the amount of displacement needed to get on target after moving. When hydraulic system production threatened to constrain tank production, some American tanks were fitted with an electrical system also. The electrical substitute system was designed to have similar performance. American tanks used hand controls to slew the turret, and a foot pedal to fire the armament.
  • Most Japanese tanks had manual traverse only. Indeed, some light tanks and tankettes simply had a machine gun turret where the gunner moved the turret by leaning on the machine gun! While Japanese artillery and naval guns often featured bicycle pedals for traverse, the larger tanks had crank wheels to traverse the turret for coarse position. For fine position, the gun itself usually had a few degrees of traverse, and separate hand wheels. While Japanese naval optics led the world, their tank and AT optics lagged, as did most other aspects of tank development. Late in the war, electric traverse was incorporated in the Chi-Ha and Chi-Nu tanks; early Chi-Has, the bulk of those encountered by the Allies, were manually operated.
  • Some early and light tanks of many nations had manual rotation, and almost all power-rotating turrets had manual as a back-up. For example, the Panther had not only the gunner’s fine-tuning handwheel, required because of the lack of precision in the hydraulic system, but also a hand-lever for the gunner and a separate wheel for the loader. Having backups like this was important, because reliability of the systems on WWII tanks was not all that great. Engines, which were often modified or derived from aviation engines, lasted a few hundred hours before an overhaul was required, and hydraulic or electric motors were scarcely more durable. The tanks used at the peak of the war in Europe were war babies, designed once combat was underway and designed and manufactured with all due haste. They hadn’t had a long debugging cycle. Wartime memoirs are full of tales of operating with one or more systems degraded.

While in theory any system can be engineered to give you any rate of rotation, the German approach of shaft-driven hydraulics had a weakness: the turret could only power-traverse if the main engine was running. For the fuel-critical Germans, this was always a problem. This approach also meant that the speed of rotation depended on engine speed. You only got full-speed rotation at full throttle; at anything less, it was degraded.

How fast could turrets rotate?

The vaunted Panther tank had, in its first iteration (Panther Ausführung D), one of the slowest-turning turrets in the war, taking a full minute to traverse 360º. The gearing on the turret was changed in the Ausf. A, the next version, and all subsequent Panthers, giving the tank a competitive 15-second full-circle. But that didn’t last; a November, 1943 decision to govern the engine to a lower max RPM reduced slew rate to 18 seconds on Panthers from that point forward — if the crews didn’t learn about and adjust the governors. This was done to try to increase engine reliability: more Panthers were being lost to breakdowns than to Allied gunfire.

What’s interesting is that even though the early Panther turret was quite slow, it was still fast enough to track all but the fastest-moving tanks. All greater speed than a circle-a-minute buys, then, is ability to change targets, or get on a sighted target, faster.

The American system spun a Sherman turret 360º in fifteen seconds, too. The system in the M36 tank destroyer had the same performance, also. (Not surprising as the automotive  gear in the tank destroyers was lifted from the Shermans).

The undisputed slewing champ of WWII tanks was the Russian T-34, which could bring its turret all the way around in 12 seconds.

We couldn’t find any credible information on the slew or traverse rate of Japanese tanks.

The final lesson in all of this brings us back to convergent evolution: despite the different approaches taken by the major tank producers of the era, their performance was roughly similar (excluding the lagging Japanese, who deemphasized tank development and production because of their limited production capacity, and overwhelming naval requirements).


Directorate of the Armored Forces of the Red Army. T-34 Tank Service Manual. Translator unknown. Retrieved from:

Green & Green, Panther: Germany’s Quest for Combat Dominance. pp. 107-120.

Military Intelligence Division. Japanese Tank and Anti-Tank Warfare. Washington: War Department,  1 Aug 1945. Retrieved from: (bear in mind that as a wartime intelligence document, this is not fully-processed history!)

Zaloga, Steven J. Japanese Tanks 1939-45. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2011.

Zaloga, Steven J. M4 Sherman vs. Type 97 Chi-Ha. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2012.

Why More Guns Survive from the Civil War than Vietnam

It’s this simple:

civil war take home guns June_1965


So that’s who we have to thank: Brigadier General Dyer, and of course, Secretary of War Stanton.

Of course, in 1865 even the Washington nabobs believed implicitly that free men had a right to own guns. In Reconstruction, that was interpreted to include freed men, as it should have been.

By 1965, the nabobs’ descendants had come to believe that free men with guns were a threat to their safety, and more importantly, for a Washington nabob, their power. And the Washington nabobs’ farm teams in their state capitals had stripped that right from the descendants of the freedmen, on whose behalf the entire Civil War was fought.

(Gun licensing and permitting laws in the United States were, in the South, Jim Crow laws; in the north, as in New York’s Sullivan Law, they were aimed at Irish and Southern European immigrants).

Hot Ivan-on-Ivan Action!

Soviets at Hungarian BAse

The image isn’t from Chernobyl, but from a reminder that the US military isn’t the only one that’s a shadow of its former self: a photo essay on an abandoned Soviet base at Nagyvaszony in western Hungary. The mighty Soviet Army fled, beginning in March, 1990, as the Hungarians planned their first free elections; it was pretty clear that no plausible election outcome would lead to a continued welcome for the folks who called themselves “fraternal Socialist brothers” but kept a mailed fist poised to strike their “hosts” since a violent Soviet invasion in 1956 ground a flowering of freedom underfoot.

(The 1956 Revolution tried to overthrow a Quisling government set up by Soviet WWII hero, and de facto Reichsprotektor in Hungary, Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov. Fascist Hungary was a Nazi ally during the war, and the Hungarian forces had enthusiastically participated in the invasion of Russia. Knowing what retribution was coming as Russian prisoners, the Army ignored a surrender signed by their government and fought pretty much to the last man and last round alongside the Germans. So the Soviets came by their hostility to Hungarian aspirations honestly).

Writing about environmental problems at former Soviet bases, Reiniger and Horvath give us an idea about the size of the former Central Group of Forces in Hungary:

As a result of the government agreement of March 19, 1990 concerning the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Hungary, 100,000 soldiers, 25,000 weapons and more than 560,000 tons of war equipment were withdrawn between March 10, 1990 and June 10, 1991. In accordance with the agreement , And assessment of the environmental damage caused by the Soviet troops was undertaken. The assessment was managed by the ministry for environment and regional policy between September 21, 1990 and June 10, 1991.

There were 171 garrisons, 340 settlements, 6,000 major buildings and 46,000 ha of land to be surveyed.

Former Soviet bases. Nagyvaszony is in the second grid square in from the western tip of Hungary.

Former Soviet bases. Nagyvaszony is in the second grid square in from the western tip of Hungary.

One thing that the authors of the dry chapter in an environmental tome didn’t note was that, on their way out, the Soviets demanded that the Hungarians pay $800 million for the buildings and things they left behind on their polluted bases — their “investment in Hungary.” The money was probably actually intended for the “retirement fund” of General Matvei Burlakov. The Hungarians, needless to say, didn’t pay.

The buildings, some of which are shown in the above-referenced slide show, were useless:

There are buildings that the Soviets built secretly, in violation of Hungarian building codes – barracks where the toilets are holes in the floor, apartment blocks where several families shared one kitchen at the end of a corrdidor. These, the Hungarians say, are simply unusable, and will probably have to be bulldozed.

”They call them communal apartments, but they can not be considered homes,” [Hungarian Deputy COS] General [Antal] Annus said.

After 1956, the Soviets never developed enough trust in their Hungarian subjects again to allow their troops and their families to live off base.

Little Moscow lies in ruins. Once a Soviet base where the Red Army may have kept a stockpile of nuclear weapons, the abandoned facility today looks like a set for a post-apocalyptic film.
The barracks, similar to prefab apartment blocks found across eastern Europe, still hold outmoded kitchen appliances and wrecked furniture. Many of the military installations are rusted and moldy. A large painting of a red flag covered with the faces of communist icons Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin provides one of the few dashes of color.

Located in a wooded area near the village of Nagyvazsony in central [sic] Hungary, the base nicknamed “Little Moscow” by locals was one of four nuclear storage facilities in the country. It was abandoned by the Soviets in March 1990, shortly before Hungary’s first post-communist elections. Historians say there is no documentation on whether the Soviets ever stored nuclear weapons there.

via Former Soviet base now a ghost town.

The image of the knife-fighting Russian privates is from a slide show of photographs by Darko Vojinovic (a Serb? Croat?) of the Associated Press, and they all have that fascinating aspect of ruins. The possible nuclear bunkers are two ammo bunkers on one side of the base.

It would be trivial to find out whether nukes had been stored there — every place we’ve ever had access to and documented Soviet nuke storage has come up hot on a Geiger counter. Soviet weapons are not remotely as well-shielded as Western ones, and you have to wonder about whether the long-term health of the guys that worked on them is any better than that of the guys we subjected to nuclear atmospheric tests in the 1950s and early 60s, or the doomed heroes of Chernobyl who gave their lives to fight the fires and install the carcass on the failed reactor.

(It’s interesting to study the Chernobyl nuclear accident, not just in isolation but compared with the Three Mile Island accident in the United States and the Fukushima accident in Japan. Each mishap seems to have characteristics that reinforce the impression one has of national character. Or, perhaps, everybody in the world is messed up, just in different ways).

These abandoned Soviet bases, both in the former slave states of Eastern Europe and in the former USSR, are reminders that, while the US’s power has declined, Russian power has, also. While Russia has preserved more of its nuclear forces, its general purpose forces in all realms — air, naval, and the greatest might of the former USSR, ground forces — have shrunken in capability as well as size. One thing Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is loved for in his own country is his strenuous efforts to rebuild the lost capability symbolized by this closed base, and especially by the other Vojinovic photo, showing a stray dog and a cardboard cut-out guard:

cardboard guard


The cat, or the importance of the smallest indicators

It is a tradition in the great militaries of the world that between wars, sniping becomes a neglected art. It’s neglected because it’s hard, because training for it is costly, and because the principal product of your snipers, actionable intelligence, is little appreciated in the peace time army.

The following story from the First World War illustrates all the reasons this art should not be neglected.

—————————————— I ——————————————

THE two snipers of the Royal Midlandshires, the shooter and the observer, were comfortably in their post. The shooter was longing for a cigarette, which regulations forbade lest the enemy – two hundred yards away – should see the smoke issuing from the concealed loophole; but the observer, Private William Entworth, was studying the parapet opposite.

Suddenly he spoke: “Line of water-tower. Red sandbag. Left. Two feet.”

WWI enfield sniper

Pattern 14 Enfield rifles were adapted with telescopic sights for British snipers. The British program was a reaction to German sniper successes. This rifle was sold by a British dealer recently.

Saunders’ eyes picked up the water-tower in the distance, ranged to the parapet, found the red sandbag, then swung to the left of it. Yes, something moving. He cuddled the stock of his rifle, and brought the pointer in the telescope to bear. Then slowly he began to squeeze the trigger.

“Don’t shoot.”

Entworth was only just in time.

“Why not, ole son?”

sleeping cat“It’s only a cat.”

“A ’Un cat! ’Ere goes.”

“Come off it. If you get shootin’ cats outer this post Mr. Nowell’ll – Besides, it’s rather a nice-lookin’ cat. Tortoiseshell colour. We ’ad one in Ferrers Street ’e reminds me of. … There, ’e’s climbin’ up on the bloomin’ parados, curlin’ round and goin’ to sleep just as if there wasn’t no war. Shall I enter ’im?”

“Wot’s the good?”

“Dunno. Shows we was awake. ‘Time 11.25 Ac. Emma. Cat (tortoiseshell) at K 22.C.35.45. Action taken: None.’” So wrote Private Entworth with laborious pencil. As he finished a voice sounded outside.

“Who’s in there?”

“Private Entworth. Private Saunders.”

“Shut the loopholes. I am coming in.”

“Well, seen anything?” questioned Mr. Nowell, the Sniping and Intelligence Officer of the Battalion.

“They’ve been working on the post at K.22. D.85.60.”

“Seen any Huns?”

“Only a cat, sir. I’ve entered it in the log-book. It’s sunning itself on the parados now, sir. Line of water-tower. Red sandbag.”

“Yes, I have it,” said Nowell, who had taken the telescope.

“Shall I shoot ’im, sir?”

“Why should you?”

“’E probably kills rats and makes life brighter-like for the ’Un, sir, by so doing. There’s a glut o’ rats on this sector, sir.”

british_unit_war_diary_page_wwi“The cat looks very comfortable. No, don’t shoot, Saunders. Entworth, give me that log-book.” The officer turned over the pages. “I wonder if anyone has ever seen that cat before? Hullo, yes. Private Scroggins and Lance-Corporal Tew two days ago in the afternoon. Here’s the entry: ‘3.40 pip emma K.22.C.35.40. Cat on parados.’”

Nowell’s eyes showed a gleam of interest. “Note down whenever you see that cat,” said he.

“Yes, sir.”

“And keep a bright look-out.”

“Yes, sir.” Once more the loopholes were shut, and Nowell, lifting the curtain at the back of the Post which prevented the light shining through, went out. His steps died away along the trench-boards.

“Think we’ll see it in ‘Comic Cuts’” (the universal B.E.F. name for the Corps Intelligence Summary). “‘At K.22.C.35.45, a tortoiseshell-coloured he-cat.’ I don’t think!” said Saunders.

“Shouldn’t wonder. The cove wot writes out ‘Comic Cuts’ must ’a bin wounded in the ’ed early-on. Sort o’ balmy ’e is.”

—————————————— II ——————————————

Meantime we must follow Mr. Nowell down the trench. He was full of his thoughts and almost collided round a corner with a red-hatted Captain.

“Sorry, sir,” said he, saluting.

“Righto! my mistake. Can you tell me where I shall find the I.S.O. of this battalion?” asked the Staff Officer.

“My name’s Nowell, sir. I am the Sniping and Intelligence Officer.”

“Good. I’m Cumberland of Corps Intelligence.” Nowell looked up with new interest. He had heard of Cumberland as a man of push and go, who had made things hum since he had come to the Corps a few weeks back.

“Anything you want?” continued Cumberland. “You’ve been sending through some useful stuff. I thought I’d come down and have a talk.”

Nowell led the way to his dug-out. He had suffered long from a very official Corps Intelligence G.S.O., whom Cumberland had just replaced. Under the old regime it never really seemed to matter to the

This RE. 8 was typical of Great War reconnaissance planes.

This RE. 8 was typical of Great War reconnaissance planes.

Higher Intelligence what anyone in the battalion did, but now Cumberland seemed to take an interest at once. After a quarter of an hour’s talk Cumberland was taking his leave. “Well,” said he, “anything you want from Corps, don’t hesitate to ask. That’s what we’re there for, you know. Sure there isn’t anything?” “As a matter of fact there is, but I hardly like to ask you.” “Why not? “It’s such a long shot, sir.” “Well, what is it?” “I’d like aeroplane photos taken of K.22 squares C. and D. opposite here. New photographs, sir.” Cumberland was about to ask a question, but looking up he caught the slight flush of colour that had risen in Nowell’s face. “Righto,” he said easily. “We rather pride ourselves on quick work with aeroplane photos up at Corps. I’ll have the squares taken to-morrow morning if visibility is pukka. And the finished photos will be in your hands by five o’clock. Good afternoon.” Cumberland strode along the trench, and Nowell stood staring after him.

“Never asked me what I wanted ’em for,” he muttered. “Taken in the morning; in my hands by afternoon. Why, in old Baxter’s time such efficiency would have killed him of heart-disease. Well, let’s hope that cat’s playing the game, and not leading a poor forlorn British Battalion Intelligence Officer to make a fool of himself.”

—————————————— III ——————————————

The next afternoon the aeroplane photos duly arrived, together with a note from Cumberland:

“Dear Nowell,

“Am sending the photographs of K.22.C. and D. taken to-day, also some I have looked out of the same squares which were taken six weeks ago. It would appear from a comparison that a good deal of work has been put in by the Hun round C.3.5. It looks like a biggish H.Q. I have informed C.R.A. who says it will be dealt with at 3 pip emma to-morrow, 18th inst.

“C. Cumberland,

“Capt. G.S.”

—————————————— IV ——————————————

It is five minutes to three on the following day, and the bright sun which has shone all the morning has worked round behind the British position.

In the morning two gunner F.O.O.’s have visited the trenches, compared certain notes with Mr. Nowell, and gone back to their Observation Posts on the higher ground. Nowell himself has decided to watch events from the O.P. in which was laid the first scene of this history. He hurries along to it, and calls out: “Who’s in there?”

“Private Saunders. Private Entworth, sir.”

“Shut the loopholes. I’m coming in.” He goes in.

6_inch_30_cwt_howitzer_muzzle_view_IWM_Duxford“Move along, Entworth, and I’ll sit beside you on the bench and observe with my own glass. Get yours on to the spot where the cat was. Got it? Right. Two batteries of 6-inch Hows. are going to try and kill that cat, Entworth, in a minute and a half from now. Zero at three o’clock. Nice light, isn’t it?” At these words of Nowell’s several thoughts, mostly connected with his officer’s sanity, flashed through Entworth’s rather slow brain, but long before they were formulated Nowell rapped out:

“Here they come.”

Sounds just like half a dozen gigantic strips of silk being torn right across the sky were clearly audible in the Post. At the same instant through the watching glasses heaps of earth, tin, a stove-pipe, were hurled into the air. There were other grimmer objects, too, as the shells rained down.

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Nowell having gone, Private Entworth was speaking, though his eye was still glued to his glass.

“Direct’it right off and right into a nest of ’Uns. There was ’ole’Uns and bits of ’Uns in the air, I tell yer, Jim Saunders. Loverly shooting, ’twas! I doubt there’s anything at C.35.45. left alive. There is, tho’! By ––– there is! There goes that ruddy-coloured cat over the parados like a streak, and what ’o! for Martinpunch!”

—————————————— V ——————————————

And finally an extract from “Comic Cuts,” the Corps Intelligence Summary of the next day:

“A cat having been observed by our snipers daily sleeping on the parados of a supposedly disused enemy trench at K.22.C.3.4. it was deduced from the regularity of its habits that the cat lived near-by, and – owing to the fact that the German trenches at this point are infested by rats – probably in a dug-out occupied by enemy officers. Aeroplane photographs were taken which disclosed the existence of a hitherto unlocated enemy H.Q., which was duly dealt with by our Artillery.”

Hesketh-Prichard, H. (2012-07-01). Sniping in France: With Notes on the Scientific Training of Scouts, Observers, and Snipers (Kindle Locations 1760-1833). Tales End Press. Kindle Edition.

About Sniping, a Few Observations

  • Sniping is ultimately a psychological operation.
  • This is not the best-known sniper memoir (that would be MacBride’s, probably) but as Hesketh-Price stood up and ran the sniper school, it carries considerable weight.
  • As this story shows, the whole book is well written and is a fun, fast read.
  • This story is the best capsule illustration we know of why a sniper’s greatest worth to you is not in his trigger pulling — however good he is at that.
  • Count on the British to have no qualms about blowing large quantities of “Huns” away, but take delight in the survival of the little Hun cat.

The British only developed a sniper school and culture under pressure from German snipers. Like most democracies, Britain would let this tribal knowledge fade out during periods of protracted peace. And have to learn it all over again under pressure from German snipers within a couple decades.

The Past: Lecture on Survival, Evasion and Escape, 1970s

The following film of a live lecture appears to date to the 1970s. (Ignore the placeholder picture, which seems to be some posed nonsense, and ignore that fact that the idjit who posted it to YouTube thinks it’s SF-related). It’s definitely post-1973 as they refer to the experiences of returning Vietnam POWs. The lecturer, Capt. Arthur, a Medical Service Corps officer, wears the combat field medical badge, suggesting he is a Vietnam veteran, but he’s too young to be 15-20 years out of combat, which rules out most of the 1980s. In addition, he’s wearing the men’s khaki Class B uniform, which went out of service in October, 1981. A woman in the class is wearing one of the oddball 70s womens’ uniforms that went out sometime between 1980 and 81.

While YouTube bills this as an SF class, it is no such thing. As the podium reveals, this was a lecture period from the Army Medical Institute of Health Sciences, and CPT Arthur refers to “all of us in AMEDD” — the Army MEDical Department.

In the late 1970s, Col. James N. “Nick” Rowe revitalized SERE training in the Army. Prior to Rowe’s creation of the SERE course, a handful of men went to Air Force or Navy survival training and came back to pass the lessons on. Afterwards, Rowe’s course became mandatory for SF officers and NCOs, and later still became a must-pass gate in the training pipeline.

Survival, Evasion and Escape doesn’t come up until about 16 minutes in, and Resistance is never covered (as it never was, before Rowe). At about 19 minutes he displays a blood chit, part of an escape kit. At about 24 minutes, he explains why stealing a weapon is a bad idea for an evader. At 30 minutes or so, there is a discussion of the display of the Red Cross, something that has remained a subject of discussion or argument to date. Right after that, there’s a discussion of whether it does medical personnel a disservice to train them on the Geneva Conventions when so many of our opponents don’t honor them. This was, to us, the most interesting moment in the whole thing.

We had never thought about the situation medical officers were in, when captured; they’re supposed to have a special status called “retained,” and be allowed to treat their wounded. In Vietnam, one doctor was captured, and we learned from this lecture that he was treated no better than other POWs. This seems to have been the norm on the Eastern Front in WWII, on both sides, as well.

This video is a glimpse of what passed for Survival, Evasion and Escape training in the Army, and even in SF, before Rowe. And it’s still about what you’ll get in much of the Army today: an earnest and well-prepared officer delivering a briefing on the Code of Conduct in a classroom environment. It’s also a glimpse of what Death By PowerPoint looked like in the decade before PowerPoint’s invention.

It’s also a glimpse of the earnest belief that many in Big Green still have in the laws of land warfare and those laws’ protections of noncombatants such as medical officers. The last enemy we fought that even paid lip service to these rulebooks was Nazi Germany, a lifetime ago. Every subsequent enemy has made less attempt to honor the conventions than the one before him.

Forgotten Weapons on the Development of the 1911

Through blind luck, the current Rock Island Premier Auction has one of every major variant of Browning-Colt production (even, very low production) pistol from the earliest Model 1900 “sight safety” locked-breech pistol through the 1911, 1911/24 Transitional, and 1911A1 issue pistols. These are three of the oldest: a 1900, a 1900 converted to 1902 (lacking any safety whatsoever), and a 1902 military (square butt and lanyard ring).

early_coltsThrough blind luck and directed expertise, but mostly directed expertise, Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons noticed this, and used those pistols — and a Savage 1907, one of Colt’s competitors — to do an impromptu video on 1911 developmental history.


Except… it’s not least bit impromptu. It’s a real pro job! A half hour plus of awesome gun history. Go thither and enlighten thyself.

And you’ll know what you’re looking at when you encounter one of these, somewhere down the road:


It’s the granddaddy of them all, the “sight safety” pistol that Colt just called the Colt Automatic Pistol — after all, in 1900 it was their first and only one — and that collectors call the M1900 Sight Safety. The name comes from the safety, which was the rear sight: with the hammer cocked, it can be rotated down to block the firing pin.

Normally, we’d embed the video, but we’d really like you to go check out Ian’s presentation, because he also links to each pistol’s page at the RIA auction. At RIA, each pistol’s page also includes links to other vintage Colts.

To Kick off the Christmas Season, the Truce of 1914

By this time 100 years ago, the Western Front was the abattoir it would remain for another four years, and it had already claimed a million lives, the flower of the youth of Germany, France, and Britain. But history does record that imperfectly and spontaneously, here and there along the line, the opponents met, unarmed, in a spirit of the peace of the season.  Sometimes, British and German officers formalized a local truce; other times, frontline soldiers just decided to take a day off from shooting one another.

That is the factual basis of the Sainsbury’s ad, above; 3 minutes 41 seconds.

Here’s Sainsbury’s explanation of the history, heavily reliant on primary documents (diaries and letters) and historians to interpret them. This video runs 3 Minutes 18 seconds:

Sainsbury’s people are proud of their efforts on the ad:

Although the events we show in our ad are fictional, we’ve tried to make the details as accurate as possible. Everything from the insignia on the men’s uniform to the depth of the trenches is based on historical fact.

It seems like a lot of money to spend for an ad, but Sainsbury’s, a British chain, always goes all out; a couple years ago they made a 48-minute film of slices-of-British-Christmas-life with the help of Ridley Scott, which couldn’t have been cheap.

MIA Mysteries in the Paradise of Palau

bentpIt’s a paradise now, for sport divers, despite being one of the more remote locations in the world. But in World War II, it was pure hell for the Japanese who garrisoned it, and for the Americans who attacked them.

A chance encounter with a wing panel and engine from a shot-down Liberator led Pat Scannan to a livetime of effort to help bring the missing home — starting with the crew of that lost B-24. The first part of the plane he ever saw — a bent prop — gave its name to the Bent Prop Project, which now has ties to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which has the military’s responsibility for the missing, and works with the professional oceanographers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UCSD and the University of Delaware.  We first saw this video from GoPro two weeks ago.

Since then, Anderson Cooper and 60 minutes have featured the Bent Prop Project. So is uncharacteristically late to the story.

The Bent Prop Project recommends the book Vanished by Wil Hylton, which has been sitting in the To Be Read pile for a while. Maybe it’s time to promote it up.

For more information:

Disclaimer: the blog’s principal author has a small investment in GoPro. That’s not why we saw their video, or why we like it, but we’re trying to be transparent here.

UPDATE: the link to the Bent Prop Project was wrong, the correct link is .org, not .com. Our apologies to the Bentley Family, and our thanks to the emailer who corrected us. You know who you are.

What’s the Opposite of “Advanced”?

We leave answering the question as an exercise for the reader after watching this video, about 15 minutes long. Here you see the 1989-90 contenders for the Advanced Combat Rifle, a program that would have replaced the issue M16A2 rifle which was still being fielded into some low-priority units, replacing 20-25 year old M16A1s, at the time.

The video begins with a rather sloppy three-minute history of American infantry weapons (you’ll cringe at the assertion that the first Army bolt-action was “made by Krag-Jorgensen,” or that the 1903 Springfield “wasn’t much better than the Krag.”  The video also makes a curious claim — one not seen in the doctrinal literature — that the M16A2 had an effective range of 550 meters.

The reason for the program is explained: the actual combat accuracy of the rifle in soldiers’ hands degrades far below its mechanical potential. So the ACR program was hoping to double the real-world effectiveness of the individual weapon.

The four vendors trying to grab the contractual brass ring were:

  • AAI, with a flechette-firing M16 cousin, complete with early ACOG;
  • Colt, with a product-improved M16, including an adjustable carbine-like stock, four-position selector, duplex (two-bullet) ammunition, and an available Elcan scope (similar to the model later adopted as the M145 machine-gun optic);
  • H&K, with an Americanized version of their ill-fated caseless G11; and,
  • Steyr-Mannlicher, with an oddball AUG derivative firing polymer-cased rounds with flechette projectiles.

At about 10 minutes in, the video presents the modifications made to Buckner Range on Fort Benning to evaluate the novel weapons.

In the end, none of them was sufficiently superior to the issue M16A2, or sufficiently well-developed already, to justify further development.

We thought for sure we’d put this video up before, but while we’ve talked about some other boneheaded procurement events — like in this post on the Objective Family of Weapons two years ago — we don’t appear to have actually done it.

Vietnam Combat Jumpers to be Honored

For a long time, their exploits were secret. Some of the leaked out. Some of them got written up. There was never any book-length treatment1, nor any official recognition, beyond well-deserved valor awards for some participants, and

The new commander of US Army Special Forces Command aims to fix that:

army_1star_flagBrigadier General Darsie D. Rogers
Commanding General
1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) (Provisional)
cordially invites you to attend a

Recognition Ceremony
to honor
Members of Operations-35
for their
Actions in Combat during the War in Vietnam

on Friday, the fifth of December
at nine o’clock

John F. Kennedy Auditorium
3004 Ardennes Street, Fort Bragg, North Carolina

There were a number of RT jumps. Some static line, some HALO. There is a chapter in Plaster’s SOG that covers them, but we think John would admit, not completely. Teams we know of that made jumps include:

  • RT Asp
  • RT Auger
  • RT Florida, 11/70 (first HALO)
  • RT Alaska, 5/71
  • RT Wisconsin, 10/71

Some of the combat-jump team leaders included Garrett Robb, Babysan Davidson, RJ Graham, and Billy Waugh.

There were also other units that conducted combat jumps, including Marine Reconnaissance units, but they weren’t part of SOG. Some SF combat jumps were not SOG related (for example, jumps by Mike or Mobile Strike Forces).


1. There has also been no treatment of the development of HALO, either, and only a few of the developers (Jim Hauck, who welded up the 1st O2 console and was one of the record-jump jumpers of the early 60s, springs to mind) are still with us and available for interviews.  Mil History Grad Students, need a PhD thesis?