Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Britain, Avulcular: The Last V-Bomber Flies its Last Flights

It”s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Britain, England really, was a world leader in aeronautics. Once, they were manufacturing not one, but three state-of-the-art nuclear bombers, the Vickers Valiant, the Handley-Page Victor, and the last flying example, the Avro Vulcan. The Valiant was a stop-gap, in case the Victor or Vulcan, which included much risky technology like the Vulcan’s delta wing and the Victor’s scimitar planform, failed. The Victor flew for decades as a tanker, and the Vulcan was the last dedicated long-range pure bomber — nuclear and conventional — of the RAF.

If you have not seen a Vulcan fly, you still can — this summer — before the last flying example is grounded for good.

The UK tech website The Register can’t address this without Gawker-style ignorant snark:

[The Falklands War Black Buck ultra-long-distance raids were]  the close of the Vulcan’s story with the RAF. And yet there was much affection for the old V-bombers, despite the fact that they had only provided a credible deterrent for a few years and had otherwise been undistinguished. This affection was nurtured by the RAF, which continued to have a taxpayer-funded Vulcan display unit until 1992 – ten years after the Vulcan retired as a fighting aircraft, almost a quarter-century after Polaris had rendered the V-force obsolete, and 32 years after the V-force had ceased to be credible in its primary mission.

Yeah, the bombers can’t get through missile defense. Pilots are obsolete. Robotic weapons are the future. Well, they were certainly the future when Sir Duncan Sandys wrote the White Paper that sounded the death knell of the British aerospace industry in 1957, and almost sixty years later, we’ve had Linebacker II and the ’67, ’70, ’73, ’82 and ’86 Middle East wars, two Arab WMD facilities erased from the map by the IDF AF despite the latest Russian/Soviet air defense gear, Desert Storm, and OIF, and today’s Sir Duncan wannabees are teling us that robotic weapons are the future.

Dude, where’s my jetpack?

After the RAF retired its Vulcan display flight, a nonprofit formed to maintain the plane in taxiable condition. (Yes, the British aero scene is so pitiful that people get excited to see vintage aircraft moving on the ground. But then, the US would never allow a nonprofit to adopt any postwar bomber, and our much larger nuclear alert force has no flying survivors, so who are we to bag on the Brits?)

Even after this the Vulcan To The Sky Trust came into being, and the old RAF display plane XH558 returned to the skies once more in 2007.

Now, however, the grand old warhorse of the skies is finally retiring for good. A group of companies that provided support and skills to keep XH558 going made the decision that they could no longer afford the costs associated with keeping the Vulcan in the air, especially as most of the parts no longer existed and airframe hours were becoming a major concern.

XH558 is not off to the scrap yard however, but to her new home at the Vulcan Aviation Academy where the next generation of engineers can learn their craft.

Until then, you can see, hear and feel XH558 in action on its UK farewell tour.

via Goodbye Vulcan: Blighty’s nuclear bomber retires for the last time • The Register.

Do read all three pages, as the Vulcan’s early history is very interesting.

We Honor Few Soldiers on the 4th of July

And this is the original Declaration, showing the ravages of time. But this is the document with the original signatures, not the copies most have come to know. (NARA).

And this is the original Declaration, showing the ravages of time. But this is the document with the original signatures, not the copies most have come to know. And yeah, it embiggens. (NARA).

The American Revolution was not without its military heroes, from brave, doomed Nathan Hale to bookworm turned artillerist Henry Knox, from John Stark of “Live Free or Die” fame to Israel Putnam, “Ol’ Put,” whose wartime effect comes up with completely different numbers if you’re counting battlefield success or the acclaim of his own troops. Each is interesting, and there are many more like them, men who helped us win our independence from the mother country by force of arms.

And then there are the heroes of the Continental Congress, the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Venn intersection of the two sets turns out to be very small. Only one of the signatories of the Declaration, Delaware’s Caesar Rodney, listed his occupation as “military” (.pdf)  at the time of the Declaration — and he listed that secondarily to his main gig as a plantation owner.

The somewhat battered American tradition of separation of brass and state was a birth condition. Militarily, the greatest of the founders was certainly Washington, who had experienced service in the French & Indian War. But he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, even though he was well known to the men meeting in Philadelphia, especially the powerhouse Virginia delegation (Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lee). Like Jefferson and John Adams, many of the signers were lawyers, which goes to show that America was born in original sin. Merchants and planters were well represented, and there were two physicians (New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett and Matthew Thornton were both doctors).

Connecticut sent two lawyers, not Putnam; New York sent two merchants, not Benedict Arnold. Massachusetts sent four merchants and two lawyers, one of whom was also a scientist — Robert Treat Paine, one of three whose names are on the document, the others being Franklin (secondary to printer) and Jefferson (secondary to planter).

While many of the Signers subsequently served in the militia (they were, after all, prominent men and community leaders), and a few in the Continental Army, none seems to have been killed or wounded (one did get whacked in a duel with another Continental officer). None seems to have distinguished himself on the Field of Mars, except for Henry Lee. But, in another sense, all of them had won distinction enough by scribing their names on the foundational document of our Republic.

We have plenty of holidays to honor military heroes, of the Revolution and of the subsequent wars. Let today be a day to honor those visionaries who envisioned a more perfect union. Even the lawyers!


This post has been corrected to note that Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee did indeed distinguish himself in battle after the Declaration. He led what today might be considered an SOF cavalry unit.

The Rise and Fall of the Halftrack

As a kid in the sixties, you couldn’t get away from ’em. Turn on Combat with Vic Morrow, and there’d be one in every few episodes, hauling American infantry up to the point where they’d start walking. A couple years later, The Rat Patrol stuck German Balkankreuz symbols on them and made ’em the bad guys. Around that time, they made the TV news, too, carrying long columns of hard Israeli troops to victory over Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians with more modern weapons. Our cousin’s friend Charlie even owned one and drove it on parades — and to winch State Troopers out of snowbanks in blizzards. The White M3 half-track troop carrier, and its variations, were everywhere. It, and its foreign competitors, had considerable mindshare and were intensively developed from about 1930 through 1945, but none were made after war’s end. By the time the Israelis stormed Jerusalem, the armies that developed the halftracks and used them in WWII were all out of them — they’d surplused them, and when there were no surplus takers, towed them onto gunnery ranges, where the bones of a few remain.

Why did half-tracks go from invention, to ubiquity, to obsolescence in 15 years? Why did they hang on another 20 in places like Israel? These are interesting questions, and the answers begin in World War I.

World War I Prime Movers’ Limitations

While everyone thinks of World War II as the first mechanized war, the forces of all nations saw the potential of internal-combustion motive power early, and they all built thousands and thousands of prime movers. (Germany, Britain and the US were experimenting with artillery tractors even in the 19th Century). None of these was quite like the ones that would be used in the next war. There were several ways to put power to the ground, and by 1918 several competitive ways were in use. These included:

  1. Full-tracked vehicles like the US Holt (later Caterpillar) tractor;
  2. Steel-tired wheeled vehicles
  3. rubber-tired wheeled vehicles. In 1918 this often meant solid rubber tires.

Each of these vehicles came with its own set of pros and cons. Grossly simplified:

  1. Full-tracked vehicles had superior off-road and broken-field mobility, important in the morass of the Western Front. But they were slow, had high fuel consumption per unit of work, were prone to breakdown and demanding of high maintenance (even more than other 1918 machines), and the metal tracks interacted harshly with prepared (especially macadam) roads. The complexity of the steering arrangements was a key factor in shortening tracked prime-mover life.
  2. Steel tires had fair mobility (expecially given all-wheel-drive, a new development) but had some of the same problems with roads.
  3. Rubber-tired vehicles had the worst traction of the bunch, especially given the early 20th Century’s skinny (and often solid) tires.

Every army that employed powered prime movers, which certainly included the British, German, French and US, knew two things by Armistice Day: motorized prime movers sure beat horses or laying railroad track, and they wanted a vehicle that combined the cross-country mobility of the Holt tractor with the lower maintenance of conventional tracks.

The half-track idea was simple and logical: use the tracks for power, and wheels for steering. In fact, before Holt worked out differential steering, the earliest Holt tractors had a single wheelbarrow-like “tiller wheel” out in front. Semi-tracked steam tractors had existed even earlier, but the internal combustion engine made it possible to make one light and efficient enough for military purposes.

A French engineer named Leon Kégresse took the idea and ran with it. He was working for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and so the first halftracks were Russian vehicles; he developed a kit that could be fit to touring cars, adding a suspension with small road wheels and return rollers, and a large driving wheel and idler wheel, driving a continuous rubber track with or without metal grousers. The contraption was steered by front wheels, or, given Russian winters, skis. After the Revolution, Lenin used such a vehicle, but Kégresse left Russia. The Putilov factory, which built Austins under license, made an armored vehicle based on an Austin truck chassis with Kégresse running gear and home-grown armored skin. These saw combat in the Civil War and in the Soviet-Polish war.

Putilov Kégresse knocked out and captured by the Polish forces. It is named "Ukrainets" ("Ukrainian") and bears the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" It looks like the Poles read the label and delivered plenty of power to the thinly-armored machine.

Putilov Kégresse knocked out and captured by the Polish forces. It is named “Ukrainets” (“Ukrainian”) and bears the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” It looks like the Poles read the label and delivered plenty of power to the thinly-armored machine.

Information and the image of the Polish-zapped Putilov is from this Polish link and this one (which have a ton of data on these rare combat vehicles)  via Axis History Forum.

Interwar Development of Halftracks

The three biggest halftrack developers were France, the USA, and Germany, and each took a slightly different approach. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, backed away from its early enthusiasm for halftracks.

France developed and showed off several generations of Citroën halftrack, based on Kégresse’s improvements to his own design. Like all things Citroën, it was somewhat weird and woolly in its industrial design — it worked, but it wasn’t like anything the other powers put together. The vehicles were used in some celebrated explorations, like in Africa and in this ill-fated one in Canada, now represented by a beautifully restored halftrack:

France was one of the earliest adopters of the halftrack, with a Citroën model being standardized in 1923 and other Citroën and Panhard models following.

The M23 Citroën with its Kégresse drivetrain.

The M23 Citroën with its Kégresse drivetrain. FMI see the chars-français web site (French language).


The interwar French Army lagged its peers in mechanized-force development, and they never standardized an armored troop-carrier version of the Citroën. The armored versions, like this one, were more like half-tracked armored cars; they were discontinued a few years before the war. La Belle France had the Maginot Line, so why worry?

The USA licensed Kégresse’s patents and designs and from about 1930 worked through many iterations before arriving at the familiar White halftrack. It was a lightly armored box with pretty standard American truck running gear, except for the Kégresse-derived tracks and suspension.

Original caption: Treads for Army halftracks, fresh from the curing press of a large Ohio tire plant [BF Goodrich, Akron OH]. Grooves are buffed on the ends of the track section." Office of War Information official photo by Alfred Palmer.

Original caption: Treads for Army halftracks, fresh from the curing press of a large Ohio tire plant [BF Goodrich, Akron OH]. Grooves are buffed on the ends of the track section.” Office of War Information official photo by Alfred Palmer.

Almost 50,000 of these vehicles were made in many variants, and they were delivered to many US allies, including France and the USSR during the war, and many smaller nations postwar. The most common versions were troop carriers — with a single small door in back and no overhead cover, the M2 and M3 halftracks — and self-propelled light anti-aircraft vehicles, especially the quad .50 version, the M16 halftrack.

The Germans were initially determined to pursue versatility.

They made vehicles which could convert from wheeled to half-tracked; Krupp, Dürkopp and Horch all made experimental vehicles. These included machines that could operate on road or standard-gauge railways, and also machines that could run on wheels but then lower tracks like an airplane’s landing gear, and then raise them to revert to wheel drive. The Reichswehr term for it was “R/K Schlepper” for Rader/Ketten Schlepper,” in English, Wheel/Track Transporter.


This is the Maffei K/R Schlepper design. Note the similarity of the trackes to the Kégresse design. From Spielberger, p. 56.

Maffei made one about the size of a US WWII 3/4 ton truck or weapons carrier, that achieved series production. Except, this was series production at Reichswehr production totals: 24 vehicles. Here are pictures of the Maffei MSZ 201 in street (wheeled) and off-road (half-tracked) modes. The tracks stowed above the rear wheel wells.


MSZ 201 set up for road travel. Spielberger, p. 58.


…And for cross-country travel as a half-track. Spielberger, Ibid.

By 1933 the Germans were done fooling around with these modified Kégresse designs, and had developed an interleaving suspension that would be used on all their combat and support halftracks, as well as on some of their best tanks.

1933 interleaved design prototype.

1933 interleaved design prototype.

In the end, the Reichswehr and later the Wehrmacht developed a wide range of vehicles based on this principle, from ultra-light halftrack motorcycles to massive tractors, and a parallel line of armored combat halftracks. While the US standardized on one chassis, the Germans built several different size-optimized chassis.

The Soviet Union, undergoing a cataclysmic process of forced industrialization with an emphasis on heavy and military industry, also developed prime movers, but they went for full-tracked or fully-wheeled vehicles. They experimented with halftracks — after all, it was originally a Russian thing — but they didn’t find them as reliable as their robust tractors based on tank running gear. During the war, they’d receive and use thousands of Whites via Lend-Lease, but they never saw any of the Lend-Lease weapons as anything but a wartime stopgap.

The End of the Halftrack

The US and Russia developed high-speed, reliable artillery tractors from a basis of tank automotive components. These full-track vehicles had superior off-road mobility to halftracks. With proven components in the parts bin, designers no longer feared differential steering and halftracks would be all over as military vehicles.

Surplus ones fought on. Indeed, the Israelis still have some on hand. But when the Jewish state developed its own infantry fighting vehicle, they went with a full-tracked configuration.

The half-track may not be entirely dead, but it seems to be pining for the fjords. The concept of tracked propulsion and forward steering faded from military inventories, but it did get a new lease on life — in the snow, thanks to Canadian manufacturer Bombardier. But that’s another story.

The Best is the Enemy of the Good, and the Bren X

The Bren X or Bren 10 was a Jeff Cooper brainstorm at the peak of the old Colonel’s celebrity (and his powers). It was based on what Cooper considered the best designed and executed service pistol of the era, but updated for a new round he considered perfect (instead of the stock 9mm, which he disdained). The gun was made with care in a US factory, of the materials Cooper insisted on (Steel and Stainless Steel, none of those lightweight alloys).

It received fawning reviews in every corner of the gun press, except where the reviews crossed the line from “fawning” into “slobbering.” And commercially? It failed. Royally. Resoundingly. Resonatingly. It failed like the Edsel, New Coke, and John Carter. Actually, it failed worse than those: Ford, Coca-Cola, and Disney are still with us, but the Bren Ten killed Dornaus & Dixon, the company that cut the metal to make real Cooper’s conceptual design.

But unlike the Edsel, New Coke and John Carter, the Bren Ten didn’t suck. Now that it’s no longer the cutting-edgiest thing out there, but a period piece, here’s Larry A. Vickers giving the rundown on the gun’s development, versions, and strengths — and weaknesses.

And yeah, there are still Bren 10s around (or Bren Xs to spell it as D&D did) with no magazine! (Mec-Gar or a forerunner made the mags… but somebody botched the Italian export paperwork and for all we know they’re still in a bonded warehouse somewhere in Lombardy).

But the gun didn’t die because it was bad. If anything, too many sincere guys worked too hard to make it the Absolute Best at Everything that they forgot that logistics count even for the individual gun buyer. He has to find ammo, holsters, and yeah, spare magazines. Or his firearm is not a defensive tool but an awkward and oily paperweight.

A lot of things have changed since 1983. (For one thing, more effective defensive ammo has rendered the “puny” 9mm respectable again). As Larry points out, modern polymer, striker-fired guns have diminished the wonder of an SA/DA gun that can be carried cocked-and-locked (Condition One for you old Cooperites). We still like our CZ — the model for the Bren Ten — but we’re no longer riding the crest of the Cool Guy wave. (We’re old, and stout… hey… like Larry). It’s a fact that the hot gun of today becomes the museum piece of tomorrow and the forgotten weapon of the year after that.

But if you’re going to call yourself educated, you owe it to yourself to learn about all those has-been hot guns, as well as today’s hot numbers. Maybe the Bren Ten is only playing on the gun equivalent of oldies stations, but it still has a catchy hook.

Bubba Retros a Rifle

This thread in Imgur (and there’s a matching discussion on Reddit) shows the whole process of Bubba attempting to alter a modern AR receiver to more closely resemble a Vietnam War early Colt Model 603, often erroneously referred to as an XM16E11. He didn’t go all the way with it, opting not to reprofile the buffer tower and pivot pin areas, both of which were extensively reinforced in later AR lowers.  He did wind up with a decent-looking 50-footer:

Bubba AR

As you might expect, a Dremel2 was involved.

Bubba AR Dremel 02

What could possibly go wrong? Hey, it’ll buff out.  And it’s nothing a couple of rattle-cans of Rustoleum grey primer won’t cover.

Well, almost cover:

Bubba AR spraypaint

Lesson learned, by this Bubba:

Bubba AR Filing

Use a file next time!

His further lessons learned:

Sub /r/RetroAR.

Build retro rifles.


Be happy.

One of his reasons for doing this was that an NDS lower (which comes with all the profiling correct) was too much money. But on the positive side, he’s done non-irreversible damage to a cheap, generic AR lower, and he’s learned a lot. And if he’s like most Retro AR enthusiasts, every time he looks at that rifle it’s going to bug him until he gets around to improving it some more.

So maybe it’s possible for Bubba to educate himself clean out of Bubbahood. He’s learned, at least, that it’s easier to feel what you’re doing with a file than a Dremel, and that an ordinary Joe can take a piece of aluminum and bend it to his will.


  1. The label XM16E1 was used prior to the M16A1 type classification being approved, and was not related in any way to the change from a partial fence to a full fence lower receiver, which actually happened almost two years earlier, so you do see the XM16E1 roll mark on full-fence lowers.
  2. DREMEL: Device Removes Excessive Metal Electrically, Lummox.

Reenacting Waterloo

In case you’re wondering why 19th-Century (and 18th-Century) cavalry  feared a British square, here’s a look at a reenactor version:

The battles are scripted, but only to an extent. It is impossible to plan how a cavalry charge will turn out while the melees often descend into something akin to a rugby scrum. In previous re-enactments, it is said, over-zealous French units have taken it upon themselves to try and win.

via Portable loos and Belgian officiousness: When ‘war’ breaks out at the Battle of Waterloo, 2015 – Telegraph.

We’ve always thought of reenactors as something specifically American and Civil War oriented. It turns out there are a lot of European reenactors doing Napoleonic battles, which have just had their bicentennial.

The “French” may include people from all across the EU (and beyond) who enjoy portraying French soldiers of the 1st Empire, and the “British” include everybody who wants to be part of Wellington’s victory — including a designated “Wellington,” just as the French have their own “Napoleon,” and specific role players as other generals in the complicated coalition battle.

Cambridge Map of Waterloo


Even playing at soldiering can be pretty hard, and there’s often deaths — especially among the, er, more seasoned reenactors — and hospitalizations. This year’s Waterloo was no exception, being the figurative Waterloo for one Canadian reenactor — sadly, not from Waterloo, Ontario.

The entire report in the Telegraph is insightful, curious and perceptive, and seems to take these reenactors at face value, rather than take a superficial scan of the event and deliver the supercilious mockery that credentialed Acela Corridor journalists would. So hie yourself hence and Read The Whole Thing™.

Gee, if only Napoleon had had the insight of the brilliant men in suits in the Pentagon, he could simply have mobilized a regiment of female Chasseurs and driven Wellington from the field. (There actually are women reenactors, but they play camp followers and/or courtesans).

A Forgotten German SOF Unit

Ever heard of Bataillon Ebbinghaus? They really were a thing — briefly.

Before World War II, special operations were more the bailiwick of ad hoc, temporary elements, what the British precisely called “mobs for jobs,” than they were assignments to permanent special operations forces. A war would break out, some Robert Rogers would raise a regiment or even a company of special-purpose forces.


Purportedly von Hippel with men of Bn Ebbinghaus, Silesia 1939. Note civilian clothes, deniable weapons (ZB-26, MP.18-I), Nazi armbands.

In the gear-up to what would become World War II, the German forces took this approach in raising a unit of Polish-speaking irregulars. Writes Mike Bennighof, PhD, on a wargame page:

Theodore [sic] von Hippel, a veteran of the German campaign in East Africa during the First World War, lobbied long and hard for special deep penetration units that would sabotage bridges and other communications nodes ahead of a German advance. The army allowed Hippel to form a special battalion known as the “Ebbinghaus” unit. Hippel recruited Polish-speaking Germans from either side of the border, Poles resident in Germany and Freikorps veterans. And according to some of his detractors, a fair number of petty criminals. They went into action during the German invasion of Poland in September 19391.

Von Hippel at his desk. The German Aaron Bank?

Von Hippel at his desk. The German Aaron Bank?

Throughout the war, German forces would use units like this, often successfully on the Eastern front. They had less success in the West, where they created a lot of confusion during the Battle of the Bulge but wound up defeated in detail. (Most of the English-speaking, American-uniformed infiltrators were captured, given a summary court-martial, and shot).

Bennighof suggests that the original Batallon Ebbinghaus from the Polish Campaign was not an unalloyed success:

Though there are some unsourced claims that the Ebbinghaus Battalion “performed magnificently” (without giving any details of this magnificence), Polish records give a much different story. The battalion assaulted the Polish factory complex at Slask in Silesia, and were intercepted by local police and army reservists. After an intense firefight, half of the saboteurs were killed2.

One online source suggests that Ebbinghaus was successful in “seizing the bridges over the Vistula” as well as the Silesian factory attack3, but there’s no way to trace it back to a primary source.

Having had their prejudices about special operations confirmed, the army high command dissolved the Ebbinghaus unit. But the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, saw an opportunity. He transferred Hippel to military intelligence and ordered him to form a new unit, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (800th Special Purpose Training and Construction Company). Hippel formed the unit around the Ebbinghaus survivors at a barracks in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, and his company became known as the Brandenburg company.

Recruiting and training focused on language ability and cultural knowledge, to allow saboteurs to pose as enemy soldiers and civilians. Overwhelmingly, preparations focused on the Soviet Union despite Germany’s supposed alignment with the Communist state, reflecting Canaris’ virulent anti-Communism. Canaris eased Hippel aside as the unit began to show real promise4.

So by 25 Oct 39, Ebbinghaus was no more, and the unit was Brandenburg until, after the murder of its sponsor Canaris, it was converted to a conventional unit and expended in combat.  Here’s another excerpt mentioning it:

The German high command allowed Hippel to form a battalion to do what he had proposed–sabotage the enemy’s ability to respond to German attacks by capturing roadways and bridges ahead of the main force and securing strategic targets before they were demolished. Known as the Ebbinghaus battalion, the battalion did a superb job in the Polish campaign, despite their excellent performance they were disband soon after. However this excellent performance didn’t fail to go unnoticed, and Admiral Canaris(who at the time was incharge of the Abwehr)gave Hippel the opportunity to form a unit like the Ebbinghaus group for the Abwehr.

On October 15, 1939, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company No. 800), which consisted primarily of the former Ebbinghaus volunteers, was officially founded in Brandenburg [an der Havel near Berlin], where it would take on the shorter name of Brandenburg Company5.

One wonders what sources lie behind the tales, and what was the (probably prosaic) origin of the original name. The only official source we have found is a photo of von Hippel with caption and a few brief paragraphs (.pdf) in the Bundesarchiv, who say the photo came from his personnel file in the archive — a file that ends with his 1943 capture in Tunisia.

One site gives Bataillon Ebbinghaus credit for “prevent[ing] the destruction of Vistula Bridges and sabotage of factories in Silesia” during the Polish campaign6.

But the naming enigma remains. Who, or what, or where was Ebbinghaus that gave this early unit its name? And where, in something as thoroughly explored as the history of Nazi special operations forces, is the history of this brief mob-for-a-job?


  1. Higgins, p. 9.
  2. Bennighof.
  3. Uncredited.
  4. Bennighof.
  5. Lew.
  6. Uncredited.



Bennighof, Mike. Retrieved from:

Bundesarchiv. Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel. Retrieved from: and:

Higgins, David R. Behind Soviet Lines: Hitler’s Brandenburgers Capture the Maikop Oilfields, 1942. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2014.

Lew, Christopher. The Brandenburg Commandos – July ’96 World War II Feature. Retrieved from:

Uncredited. The Brandenburg Commandos: Germany’s Warrior-Spies, n.d.. Retrieved from:

Various. Theodor von Hippel. Axis History Forum. Retrieved from:


The post has been edited. Thanks to a comment by our one banned commenter, an error in the date of the Higgins book has been corrected. He’s still banned though — sorry ’bout that. -Ed.


Friendly Fire Pearl Harbor

An F4F Wildcat doesn’t really look like an A6M2 Zeke. The first has a “fastback” turtledeck behind the cockpit, mid-wing and high tail, squared-off tips of wing and tail, and a barrel fuselage; the second, a “bubble” canopy artfully constructed of flat plexiglass, a low-mounted wing and tail, gracefully rounded surface tips, and a tapered fuselage.

That is, unless you’re an antiaircraft gunner. And there, the troubles of VF-6 from USS Enterprise began, on the evening of 7 Dec 41.

While the Navy had suffered the most casualties of any service that day, and the smoke still rose from the instant gravesite of nearly 2,000 souls that was USS Arizona, Naval Aviation had made it through the day without losing a single  fighter pilot. (A lot of planes had been destroyed where they sat; the pilots, like most of their Army Air Corps opposite numbers, hadn’t gotten into the air to oppose the raid. But the pilots lived).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

That luck was about to change, even as the Japanese raiders, hundreds of miles away, steamed for home at high speed. A flight of six from Fighting Six on Enterprise, which was returning to Hawaiian waters from a sortie to Wake Island, had flown off and were expected at Ford Island Naval Air Station. Ray Panko of the Pacific Air Museum at Ford Island writes:

With LT(jg) Francis F. “Fritz” Hebel in the lead, the flight approached a blacked-out Oahu, the only light coming from fires of the morning attack. Wingman ENS Herbert H. Menges flew alongside Hebel. Following were ENS Gayle L. Hermann and ENS David R. Flynn and a final pair consisting of ENS James G. Daniels III and LT(jg) Eric Allen, Jr.

On Ford Island, Enterprise CAG LCDR Howard L. “Brigham” Young had flown in on an SBD scout bomber earlier in the day, into the middle of the attack. He was able to land on Ford Island’s runway and sprint to the control tower. There, he tried to contact Enterprise, but the tower’s weak radio signal could not reach the carrier. Young climbed back into his SBD’s back seat to use the aircraft’s radio, communicating with Enterprise to apprise Admiral Halsey of the situation. That evening, Enterprise notified Ford Island six aircraft from VF-6 would be landing. Young and other personnel sent out the word to hold fire, and then Young waited in the control tower for the Wildcats.

Around 2100 hours, the flight finally arrived. They had flown nearly to the east end of Oahu’s southern shore before determining where they were. They turned around and approached Ford Island from the south, passing over Hickam Field. Hebel radioed that they would make a circuit around the island, landing from the north. Young in the control tower told them to come straight in, but Hebel either could not hear Young or decided to ignore him. Hebel repeated he was making a pass, and Young, once again, tried to get him to fly straight in.

Lieutenant Commander Young, having been on the ground through much of the raid and all of the aftermath so far, must have been totally in tune with the jumpy, angry spirit of the defenders.

As the flight passed by Ford Island, a few scattered shots were fired and then the floodgates opened. Although the word had gone out that the Wildcats were coming, every gun on the island seemed to open up. The museum’s own Dick Girocco, who was in Hangar 56, said the “sky was lit up like daytime” and the sound was deafening.

This is reminiscent of the fate of the paratroop transports that passed over the invasion fleet at Sicily, except that the transports were even easier to hit than a formation of fighters. These and other friendly fire incidents are why all Allied aircraft were painted with gaudy stripes for D-Day — and why the troop carriers flew around the Cotentin Peninsula and inland, in order to drop their paratroops without ever overflying the Normandy invasion fleet. The lesson was taken on board by Allied planners, but only after it had been written in blood.

Everyone in the flight realized they were in trouble. Flight leader Hebel was able to break away from the carnage and make for Wheeler Field, but when he arrived, he was greeted with another barrage. His aircraft crashed; Hebel died of head injuries the next morning.

Hebel’s wingman Menges crashed into the Palms Hotel near the Pearl City Tavern. No one in the hotel was injured, but Menges died instantly in the crash. He became the first Navy fighter pilot to die in the war.

Hermann was hit 18 times as he tried to escape. His flight came to an abrupt end when a 5-inch naval shell hit his engine. The shell failed to explode, but it knocked the engine out of the plane. The Wildcat fluttered down tail-first to crash on the Ford Island golf course….

Flying next to Hermann was Flynn, who was able to break away from Ford Island’s crossfire. He headed toward Barbers Point, but had to bail out, landing in a cane field. Army security personnel tried to shoot him, imagining he was a Japanese paratrooper. Flynn’s cursing convinced them otherwise.

Allen was hit immediately. He bailed out, but was hit by a .50-caliber shell on the way down, his parachute only partially opened. Allen swam through oily water to minesweeper Vireo (AM-52), but died of severe wounds the next day.

The last pilot, Ensign James G. Daniels III, survived by turning off his lights, diving to the deck, and essentially sneaking up on Ford Island. To hear about his narrow escape and subsequent career in the Navy, do go Read The Whole Thing™.

Hermann, by a miracle, survived despite being trapped in his falling-leaf Wildcat all the way to the ground. Even though only one pilot (Menges) was killed outright, five of the six were shot down, and Hermann, Flynn and Daniels were the only members of the six-man flight to be alive 24 hours later.

After surviving all that, Hermann was killed in a flying accident a few days later.

Daniels went on to an extremely distinguished career and reached high command in the Navy.

A Classic Curse

GilgameshIf you have ever been cursed by certain kinds of people, you may have had to stop to marvel at their ingenuity. These groups known for cursing include the bog Irish, very senior NCOs and petty officers, and Middle Easterners of all kinds.

Well, almost all kinds. Do Jews utter vile and imaginative curses and imprecations? Our impression is that they do not; instead, a wronged Jew may be a man of great faith in God, but he rather sensibly gets even in the here and now and doesn’t bother the Deity with his mundane requirements in re revenge. Meanwhile, the others who have shared his particular arid corner of the planet seem content to call down the wrath of God, Allah or Aton the Sun Disk as their faith specifies. And they often do it with more than their share of color.

We’ve been listening to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale from the cradle of civilization, and were struck by a curse that Enkidu, friend of the protagonist, King Gilgamesh, lay upon the woman who seduced him and despoiled his innocence:

He then cursed Shamhat, the priestess of Ishtar1.

“Shamhat! I assign you an eternal fate. Curse you with the ultimate curse; may it seize you instantly as it leaves my mouth.

Never may you have a home and family. Never caress a child of your own! May your man prefer younger, prettier girls2. May he beats you as a housewife beats a rug. May you never acquire bright alabaster, or shining silver, the delight of men. May your roof keep leaking, and no carpenter fix it. May wild dogs camp in your bedroom. May owls nest in your attic. May drunkards vomit all over you. May a tavern wall be your place of business3. May you be dressed in torn robes, and filthy underwear. May angry wives sue you. May thorns  and briars make your feet bloody. May young men jeer, and the rabble mock you as you walk the streets!

Shamhat, may all this be your reward for seducing me in the wilderness, when I was strong, and innocent, and free.”

Now that’s a curse.

Now we know where the Arabs and Persians get it from. How did it work out, though?

Bright Shamhas, the Protector, heard his prayer. Then from Heaven, the voice of the god called out, “Enkidu, why are you cursing the priestess Shamhat? Wasn’t it she who gave you fine bread, fit for a god? And fine beer, fit for a king?  Who clothed you in a glorious robe, and gave you splendid Gilgamesh as your intimate friend?

He will lay you down on a bed of honor. He will put you on a royal bier, on his left he will place your statue in the seat of repose; the princes of the earth will kiss its feet. The people of Uruk will mourn you, and when you are gone he will roam the wilderness with matted hair, in a lion’s skin.”

When Enkidu heard this, his raging heart grew calm. He thought of Shamhat, and said, “Shamhat, I assign you a different fate. My mouth that cursed you will bless you now. May you be adored by nobles and princes.

Two miles away from you, may your lover tremble with excitement;

One mile away, may he bite his lip in anticipation;

May the warrior long to be naked beside you, may Ishtar give you generous lovers whose treasure chests brim with jewels and gold; may the mother of seven be abandoned for your sake.”

So all the effort put into that curse, and Enkidu just took it back. (Spoiler: then, he croaks).

It’s interesting to see in the very ancient tale of Gilgamesh some of the pathologies that still roil the middle east, long after the last icon to Uruk’s forgotten gods has been cloven (or if lucky, hauled off two centuries past to the British Museum) and the last temple pulled down.


  1. The Epic previously explains that one duty of the priestesses of Ishtar was to have sex with as many men as possible. Enkidu has a week-long romp with Shamhat immediately prior to this bit of the story. But by losing his virginity, Enkidu lost some supernatural powers, including the ability to converse with wild animals. (Hey, we didn’t write this story and expect you to believe it, take it up with some long-dead priest of Uruk).
  2. A well-targeted curse against any woman of a certain age, as that’s what men generally do.
  3. He is implying here that Shamhat, priestess of Ishtar, is no better than a common bar whore.

Quick Kill — Useful Skill

The Quick Kill instinctive shooting method that was once taught in the US Army remains a  useful combat skill. It has been supplanted in the training world by improved sights and a focus on extremely rapid use of sights, but we believe it still has a place in the training and combat world.

It’s faster to show than to explain this skill. Unfortunately, there are few quick kill videos digitized at this point, and none fell readily to hand.

Quick Kill traces its roots to the “trick shooters” of the 20th Century, men like Ed McGivern who had so mastered firearms that they could pretty much hit anything with anything — fast. In the 1930s through the 1950s there were many articles on what was then called “point shooting” or “hip shooting,” driven in part by the stylized cowboy acts of the era. A technical/training book called Instinct Shooting by Mike Jennings appeared in 1959 and sold mostly out of ads in the back of gun culture magazines. Frank Connor, an author of many shooting and hunting articles, espoused similar techniques, as did “Lucky” McDaniel who brought the skill to the Army.

The Army initially called this Quick Fire, but in the second generation of the unofficial training document had progressed to calling it Quick Kill. This was not something that was just taught to Special Forces: it was part of infantry training for several years, as the peacetime training base of a large and slow-moving army reluctantly assumed a war footing during Vietnam.

There were three phases to Quick Kill, which was, during its brief life, normally the second phase of Basic Rifle Marksmanship training, after the trainees were taught to clear, disassemble, maintain, reassemble, and function-check the service rifle, but before they were taught such marksmanship fundamentals as sight picture, trigger control, and steady-hold factors. Those three phases were:

  1. Firing with an air rifle with no sights. This was a block of three hours of instruction. Initially these were just Daisy BB guns stripped of sights. Later, the Army’s own Training and Audiovisual Support Centers (one on every post, they made and supplied training aids) made one by glass-bedding a Daisy in an M14 stock.
    Quick Kill TASC

    US Army photo from the David Albert collection.

    Later still, a special Daisy that was mocked up to resemble an M16, but with the sights blanked off, was made. Any of these modified Daisys are extremely rare today. This one was sold by Rock Island Auctions in 2011:Rock Island Daisy Quick Kill rifleThere are at least a couple of variations of this air gun, which is not surprising, as they were locally made in individual TASCs. There were probably rudimentary plans, possibly just a single undimensioned sketch. One thing they have in common is lack of any actual sights.

    Quick Kill M16BB

    Photo from the David Albert collection.

  2. Firing with a service rifle with blanked-out sights. For the M14, a “training rib” was created that did this and provided a shotgun-like “sight picture” (although the rifle was held well below the sight line in this training).
  3. Firing with the service rifle, but not using the sights. Three distances were used: 15, 30 and 50 meters.

Yes, in the late 60s and early 70s, your basic grunt learned to hit stuff with his rifle, then he learned to use the sights. Heresy, today. But a look at old AARs shows that our guys generally won the meeting engagements with their conventionally-trained PAVN opponents, so it might just be heresy that works.

The whole program consumed one or two training days for a basic training company. After that, the troops would move on to aimed fire. Initial controlled studies showed that trainees who experienced Quick Kill performed better at marksmanship, even at longer ranges, than those who had not. Instinctively, that seems a paradoxical result. The scientists speculated that increased self-confidence may have been at work.

A later survey showed that, yes, Quick Kill-trained soldiers had greater confidence in themselves and their weapons than soldiers who had not had that training. In the absence of any other logical theory as to why Quick Kill training improves hit probability at 300 meters, the confidence factor has to be the tentative conclusion.

In 1969, the Army and George Washington University researchers conducted another study on Quick Kill training (one of many sponsored by the Army’s Human Resources Research Organization, HumRRO), to see if money and time could be saved. Some groups continued to have three hours of air rifle training before moving on to a real rifle; some had only an hour and a half (this was not deliberately part of the experimental design, but the schedule happened to short some trainees; the social scientists welcomed this “found data” and incorporated it in the study). For the study’s sake, some training companies had the phase in which an attached rib is used to encourage instinctive firing deleted, and others retained it. The test showed conclusively that the Army was getting training value out of the air rifle and rib training: the groups that had the full training shot better than the ones that got the bowdlerized version. On the other hand, the test showed that they could make some changes to target ranges and reduce the number of rounds fired in the live-fire block of instruction, without compromising marksmanship quality. The key was reducing them together: if you reduced the round count while taking out one of three target distances (they went with 20 and 50m), there was no effect on training quality; if you reduced the round count, but stayed with 15, 30 and 50m, performance declined.

Remarkably, all trainees in this experiment at Benning were still being trained, even at this late date, with the obsolete M14 rifle. (Of course, National Guard units were still armed with WWII era weapons like the M1 rifle and M1919A6 light machine gun).

Quick Kill suffered the fate of many other Army innovations of the 1950s and 1960s — it became tainted by association with the lost war in Vietnam, and the Army banished it from its collective memory.

From time to time, someone tries to “rehabilitate” Quick Kill, as we suppose we’re doing with this post. The thing is, it works. You can train to hit targets at combat ranges without sights, and we firmly believe you should. (Think you’re hot stuff? Put some tape over your sights and run a Dot Torture or three. Spend a whole training session on it — and tell us if you don’t get better at it). Of course, the Army’s safe, simple, cheap starting mode — an airgun — is a great way to begin practicing Quick Kill.

Some more formal ranges, especially indoor ranges, won’t let you try this. They have their reasons. Your first few rounds will go unexpectedly high or low, but you will be surprised how quickly you can get on “minute of man” from a low position (pistol held centered at about chin height, long gun tucked below the armpit) or even from the hip. As with any practical shooting practice, start low and close in (if backstop permits; don’t do this if you’re shooting up on an indoor range or with an unknown range fan). When you’re hitting at smell-his-halitosis distances, then move the target back.

This skill does not replace aimed fire, but it supplements it in a potentially lifesaving way.

The facts are: you can learn to shoot accurately at short to medium distances without sights, with a lot of ammo, and a lot of practice. (But less than you might think it would take). Those mid-20th-Century guys, whether they were actual warriors or matinee idols, who blazed away with Colt .45s or Thompsons from the hip, are not as entirely incompetent as today’s training wallahs seem to think they are. In fact, today’s trainers are as stylized in their own way as the Western movie gunfighters of the 1950s were in theirs.

Here are some sources of more information.

Jim Keating describes some of the history on a nearly unreadable (gray text on black background, circa 1990) website, and will sell you manuals or training. He learned QK as a ROTC cadet in the 1960s.

Here is the 1971 version of the instruction “Training Text” (a document with less weight than a fully-doctrinal field manual). We apologize for the poor scan, it’s what DTIC had. The document describes a systematic and deliberate system of drilling rapid-fire point shooting just like the service drills any other soldier skill.

TT 23-71-1-Principles-of-Quick-Kill.pdf

Here’s one of the 1969 studies. There are more to be found on NTIS and DTIC.

Olmstead-Jacobs HumRRO 14-69 Quick Kill.pdf

This website has more detail, developed by David Lambert. Some of the photographs used above appear to be from Mr Lambert’s collection and we have revised this post to give him credit: