At the Sharp End

This was the runner up for last week’s Memorial Day edition of Metal Monday.  Like Five Finger Death Punch, Avenged Sevenfold has done a lot to support members of the Armed Forces by putting in their time with tours.  “Danger Line” is a pretty intense song about a soldier’s last moments and the chaos of combat, and I’ve used it as background for several scenes in Aries’ Red Sky.

Metallica Does the Tenth Plague

Heavy metal, as a genre, often gets a bad rap for being nothing but screaming and guitar riffs.  As I’ve alluded to when discussing several other bands, there’s often a lot of higher concept work involved.  As one of the undisputed “Masters of Metal,” it’s pretty much unsurprising that Metallica has quite a few songs that deal with particular topics, covering everything from the ravages of war (“One”) to suicide (“Fade to Black”).  However, one of their classics stems from when Metallica got a little Biblical…

The Strategic Bombing Campaign Part V: The North American Barndoors

This is a continuation of

Barndoors (a.k.a., Airframes)

As bad as the pilot differential was, Adolf Galland might have still been able to cobble together a defense even with tired airframes and exhausted pilots.  That is, Galland might have been able to do it if Germany’s numerous strategic miscues hadn’t come home to roost with a vengeance. coming home to roost with a vengeance.  This manifested first in   First, as can be imagined by the discussion about 10,000 biplanes, the Nazi leadership had been completely unable to fathom just how utterly pissed off the American people were in 1941 when Japan decided “Sunday Morning Banzai” was the best way to tag Uncle Sam into the conflict.  Perhaps because he’d seen Nazi Germany’s Byzantine, back-stabbing, barnyard fornication of an excuse for war production, Adolf Hitler had no idea what a shrewdly prepared industrial machine looked like.  If he had, the Fuhrer may not have considered President Roosevelt’s goal of 10,000 airplanes a month laugh-worthy propaganda.

Unfortunately for Adolf Galland in particular and Germany in general, President Roosevelt had been anything but joking when he’d demanded that number of his advisors.  While U.S. War Production in World War II would require a book (or two) in and of itself, let’s just say there are advantages to being able to literally turn on the lights and run things 24-7-365.  Things like straight up turning a car manufacturer into an airframe manufacturer that could churn out some of the most complicated machines of the period.  (This would be like Chrysler churning out B-1s now.)  Nor was Ford the only automotive concern that suddenly got into the airplane business, as General Motors also began turning out aircraft (albeit mostly naval airframes).  Backed by the United States’ populace’s willingness to sacrifice as well as America’s decision to replace drafted male workers with women, this intense focus on producing aircraft finally began to pay dividends in late 1943.

The above is not to suggest the above process was seamless.  The U.S. never quite sustained the “10,000 aircraft a month” goal with regards to combat airframes.  However, a simple statistic will tell the tale of just how utterly screwed the Germans were.  In 1943, the Germans produced a grand total of 10,898 fighters.  They would produce another 26,326 in 1944, with the majority of these being in the back half of the year once Albert Speer got some people’s minds right.  In contrast, the United States alone produced 23,988 and 38,873 fighters, then added an additional 29,355 and 35,003 bombers respectively.  Yes, not all those aircraft went to Europe (*cue video montage of Japanese pilot being tossed through the metaphorical frame with two black eyes and a bleeding nose* ).  However, there’s also that little matter of over 100,000 British and Soviet aircraft that aren’t in this discussion either yet were, like a bully’s associates, also keeping the pressure on the Jagdwaffe.  Overall, America was cooking on all industrial cylinders.

Almost as important as its ability to produce entire aircraft was America’s ability to produce ancillary equipment (drop tanks, oxygen tanks, machine guns, etc.) in huge numbers.  8th Air Force squadrons had plenty of spare parts up to and including entire end items.  Groups that returned with damaged aircraft usually had replacements on hand within 24-48 hours, with the original aircraft being sent to the depot for repair.  Tired airframes were either replaced by planes of the same type or, increasingly, newer models (e.g., P-47Ds with P-47D-25s).   Said newer models increasingly had improvements (e.g., illuminated gunsights, water injection, better propellers, power-boosted controls, etc.) that gave them marked advantages.

Given all these factors, it should be unsurprising that American squadrons, unlike their German counterparts, actually matched their paper strength.  As for the numbers of these squadrons, the 8th Air Force alone began fielding 2-3 times the squadrons of Jagdwaffe Gruppen stationed in the West.  Said German fighters also were forced to contend with, as mentioned above, the RAF and, beginning in May 1944, the 9th Air Force.

The second part of the airframe equation, and where this section gets its name from, was that German leadership could not conceive of the speed or breadth of Allied technical advances.  Allegedly, when told that the Americans were about to field a fighter that just might have the range to penetrate all the way to Berlin, famed aircraft designer Willi Messerschmitt allegedly replied, “That’s utter nonsense.  Such an aircraft would have to be big as a barn door.”  The legend goes on to say that Messerschmitt and Adolf Galland were at a test facility just west of Berlin in spring 1944.  Upon having a flight of P-51 Mustangs show up over a test field and proceed to shoot up the place, both men took shelter in a slit trench.  After a particular close strafing run,  Adolf Galland allegedly turned to Willi and sarcastically remarked, “Those are some particular fine barn doors over our heads.”

Whether or not this happened, the fact remains that the P-51 Mustang, while not the end all be all of piston fighters that it’s often portrayed as, was a prime example of Allied ingenuity.  Continuing on a theme, the Mustang is a book (or 20) in and of itself.  As this is a blog, I’ll just hit the highlights.  The P-51 started off as a British contract that became an American attack aircraft.  Destined for the dustbin of mediocrity, some North American Aircraft engineer basically said, “Hey, let’s put a Merlin engine in that thing.”  A ridiculously short amount of testing later, the Army Air Force realized if it put a pair of massive drop tanks on the airframe, the resultant fighter had extremely long range.  As in, enough range to escort B-17s to Berlin, fight German interceptors to a standstill, then return to England.

The Luftwaffe was suddenly in deep trouble.  Although both of its main fighters had little difficulty with the P-38 at altitude and could simply wait for the P-47 to run out of gas, the Mustang was an altogether different monster.  It was faster than most models of the Fw 190 and Me-109 at high altitude.  When one factored in the difference in industrial quality by this stage in the war (this discussion of engine manifold pressure tolerances is instructive) as well as the number of hours on German airframes, the differences became even more marked.  Its battery of 4 (later six) .50-caliber machine guns was lethal enough to see off both of its likely opponents.  While the Mustang‘s in-line engine was vulnerable to battle damage due to its glycol coolant, its airframe was strong enough to absorb a great deal of battle damage.

Rushing the P-51B into production, then to the 8th Air Force, the USAAF prepared itself to visit great violence upon the Luftwaffe in its lair.  The first encounters with P-51s in early 1944 were just a harbinger of things to come for the German fighter arm.

Notes: Featured image is from Piotr Forkasiewicz.  Please go check his amazing work out.  Sourcing is from the numerous books found in my historiographical paper.

The Strategic Bombing Campaign Part IV: Biplanes, Barndoors, and Badasses

It’s been awhile.  Sorry about that, there was a little matter of a dissertation, a book, and an anthology.  For those who are new to the blog, I regularly talk about air warfare as a category, starting with 1914 and moving up through World War II so far.  Last time I talked about daylight bombing, the US Army Air Force had just had its head stove in over Schweinfurt, Adolf Galland was enjoying an apocryphal stogie and actress, and things were looking bleak for the concept of daylight bombing raids in January 1944.

Spoiler alert, the Americans turned things around.  Within six months, the Jagdwaffe would be trapped in a corner getting the living crap pummelled out of it, the Allies would launch an invasion of Continental Europe that saw the Germans able to put less than ten (some sources say only two) sorties over the six beaches, and Wehrmacht soldiers would make up bitter jokes about the Luftwaffe’s camouflage (“If it’s green, it’s British.  If it’s silver, it’s American.  If it’s invisible, it’s one of ours.”)  How did this happen?  Well, that’s pretty simple…it’s a story of Biplanes, Barndoors, and Badasses.  Except, in order to avoid giving people concussions, I’m going to do this as a three-part series of posts.

Biplanes (a.k.a., Aircrews)

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  “Wait, didn’t you start the World War II series off by making fun of the British for still flying biplanes?  How the hell are we almost 4.5 years into World War II and suddenly this is a plus?”  Okay, fine, maybe you’re not thinking that because it’s been like forever since I made that post, but it’d be a good question.  The answer is that biplanes, specifically over 10,000 Stearman 75s, were the primary trainers for United States’ armed forces.  Know what you can do with over 10,000 biplanes? Start the process that would lead to just shy of 200,000 pilots being trained between January 1941 to August 1945.  While not all of these would fly for the 8th and 9th Air Force, enough of them did that by January 1944 the USAAF’s pilot strength in the UK had actually almost doubled compared to January 1943.

Even worse for Galland specifically and Germany in general was that these pilots were not random rubes that had been dragged off the street and thrown in a cockpit after a few hours (but enough about Japan’s training).  America’s training program was rigorous, with pilots going through multiple stages of navigation, blind flying training, aerial gunnery and, especially with fighter pilots, tactics training.  By January 1944, the first generation of American fighter had already started transitioning back to the States to impart their hard won knowledge to the next generation of fledglings expected to do battle with the Axis.  These trainees, in turn, were taken under the wing of experienced hands like Gabby Gabreski, Robert S. Johnson, Don Blakeslee, and various other aces who had taken their licks in 1943 and were ready to return the favor to the Jagdwaffe once the notoriously bad European winter weather cleared.  With over 300 hours of flight training before his initial combat mission, an American ETO pilot was highly-trained, highly-motivated, and very proficient in the general operations of his aircraft.

By contrast, the Jagdwaffe, despite its victories, was like a sharpened blade being ground down by constant abuse.  By virtue of the constant pressure being applied on the Eastern Front, Mediterranean, and RAF tactical forces in Northwestern Europe, the Germans were never really able to rotate any aces back to provide instruction.  Even worse, fuel shortages curtailed the German flight program to almost half the number of hours it had been prior to 1943, which was in turn half of the new American pilots’ 300 hours.  New Jagdflieger were expected to receive their blind navigation training mostly with their gaining units, a process largely akin to teaching someone to drive a  at the Daytona 500.  While being shot at by random crowd members.

Unsurprisingly, this ended poorly in the first half of 1944.  Losses due to “operational” (i.e., non-combat) crashes began to steadily climb as the calendar flipped from January to February.  Already at depleted numbers thanks to the sheer odds involved in charging heavy bombers spewing thousands of rounds of ball ammo, squadrons began to struggle to keep their formations at 100% due to Hans the Neophyte pranging his Fw 190 or Me-109 during basic operations.  The fighters themselves, due to the wear and tear of extended use, were also starting to perform like tired race horses.  Although new models were being introduced, they were still mostly modifications of the same airframes rather than new designs.  The inability to field fighters of the next generation, coupled with poor pilot quality, would come back to haunt the Jagdwaffe, as American technological advancement was not standing still.

Notes: Featured image is courtesy of an airplane group from the EU.  Sourcing is from the numerous books found in my historiographical paper.

Metal Monday Returns!

*coughs on dust*  So it’s funny going back and finding the number of times I’ve tried to update the “Metal Monday” program.  I will say, in the dark ages of trying to get things done, that became one of the “things that could go away.”

So we’re going to try and do this again.  😀  First up, Evanescence’s “Even In Death”

As some of you may recall from earlier posts where I provided a playlist, this is one of my favorite all time songs.  I think of it often when I’m putting a character through a period of loss and grieving, as it seems to perfectly capture that initial period where it’s hard to grasp the person is actually gone.  I’d imagine this goes for people lost at sea and in space given the lack of a body for closure.  So, yes, this was playing for much of Aries Red Sky.  😀

 

The Butcher and the Hamburg Delusion (Strategic Bombing Campaign III)

So when last we mentioned the British, they were busy creating the world’s first man made firestorm over Hamburg. Now, if I left it at that, you’d have the impression the British had broken the code, enjoyed success, and basically wondered why the Americans were being stubborn. Well, in the name of Monica, Nuremberg, and Window, I’ll explain why Hamburg was pretty much a one off that did more harm than good. Sure, Operation Gomorrah killed a lot of Germans and hindered U-boat production for a bit, but did not appreciably shorten the war in and of itself. Even worse, like a gambler who makes a big score at a table then does not immediately leave, Sir Arthur Harris did not realize the uniqueness of the situation.  Subsequently, Bomber Command burned through a lot of its crewmen between August 1943 and March 1944.

First, one needs to do a little reading on firestorms. Understand that these phenomena are largely dependent on ignition sources, fuel, and atmospheric conditions. In other words, it’s not coincidence that both Peshtigo and the Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same night, nor that the Great Kanto Earthquake was followed by a firestorm. Get the right band of weather, have a whole bunch of fires start at once, and add a good steady breeze? Well, there will be large helpings of “long pork” and psychologically scarred citizenry regardless of whether it was “all natural” or involved “artificially enhanced airborne deliveries.”

Second, Hamburg was a case of the RAF catching the Germans “on the wrong foot” in their scientific chess match. The German system for night fighter defense, as discussed previously, relied heavily on ground-based radars. To grossly simplify things, the majority of these radars operated on Frequency X. The British figured out, through a mixture of study and coincidence, that if you cut reflective materials to a certain length for a given frequency, they would produce a false echo. Throw hundreds of these packets out the bomb bay, it tended to make ground radars useless due to excessive “snow” on the screen. No ground radars, and all but your most capable night fighter pilots would be left trying to catch fleeting targets in pitch blackness.

The date on this discovery is given as 1941 and 1942 by differing sources, with the honors being about even. The British, in typical nondescript code word fashion, called the foil “Window.” (The modern variant is called chaff.) If you’re thinking, “Uh, what the hell were they doing for a year plus?!”, remember that the Luftwaffe was still paying regular visits to British locales at night. Indeed,not only were they bombing cities, they were also pulling tricks like following Lancasters back to their bases, shooting up a couple bombers in the pattern, then dropping a couple bombs on their way out for good measure. Fighter Command was understandably not keen on getting their own radars blinded when the Germans reverse engineered Window, gave it some badass Teutonic nickname, and proceeded to wreak havoc across Southern England.

By July 1943, however, everyone could agree the Germans were pretty tapped out on the offensive operations front. Something about “More Russians than we ever imagined” and “Whoa, the British seem to be as good at flying night fighters as we are!” (Oh Hans, you have no idea. Wait, sorry, getting ahead of myself.) Moreover, the British realized their radars were a different frequency and would be largely unaffected by Window. So, with a nervous wince and crossed fingers, Fighter Command blessed off on opening a “Window” for Sir Arthur Harris “Pyres and Pyros” service (“Now delivering to all of Germany…)

The third factor for Hamburg was both technological and geographical. Sometimes what your realtor tells you about location, location, and location is true. In this case, being a port city with an easily identifiable harbor and distinct coastline just as your opponent is perfecting night radar means your location sucks. In a “Honey, are the neighbors opening an unregulated graphite reactor underneath their crack house?”-way.

Exacerbating this was the issue of Bomber Command’s Pathfinder Force, after some major growing pains, starting to come into its own. Bomber Command, in its usual way, only belatedly decided to give the blokes who marked the targets the best aircraft possible in the Mosquito and Lancaster.  The former was so fast it was difficult to catch in the marking area.  The latter could carry more marking materials and loiter in the area longer.  The marking materials themselves includes improved flares and pyrotechnics with greater visibility and duration. Finally, the Pathfinders figured out that having a “Master Bomber” remain over a target and direct traffic greatly aided navigation for later bombers in the stream.  As previously discussed, this all came together over Hamburg…then never really did so again for the rest of the war.

“Well why did they never pull this off again, James?”

One, the weather never cooperated.  While, yes, Dresden was a thing, it was far from the shock effect and carnage delivered at Hamburg.  Once one gets past Dresden, it’s arguable whether there was another significant fire storm in Germany for the rest of the war.  Second, even when the conditions were right, the Germans took extensive passive measures to reduce the aftereffects of British bombs.  No, there was no real economic way to reinforce and reconstruct German cities so that the bombs did less damage.  However, there were numerous ways to prevent said damage from feeding the fire beast.  Perversely, conducting minimal repairs to housing and other non-essential buildings created impromptu firebreaks that prevented the rapid spread of flame necessary to generate a true firestorm.

Finally, the Germans greatly strengthened their night defenses post-Hamburg.  Production and conversion of the Ju-88 night fighter variants increased to cope with the higher performing Lancaster.  The Germans also introduced the He-219 Uhu, a dedicated night fighter that possessed heavy armament and decent speed.  Additional flak defenses, searchlights, and means of coordinating fighter attacks on the bomber streams all contributed to preventing Bomber Command from bringing together the necessary components to bomb the Reich out of the war.

That’s not to say Bomber Harris tried.  Indeed, Harris tried mightily.  Like a powerful brawler who believes he has his opponent lined up for a final flurry, Harris repeatedly flung Bomber Command at Berlin from November 1943-March 1944.  Despite landing several steady blows, Bomber Command itself was increasingly bloodied by the German defenses.  Even as the German night fighter force was ground down by simple attrition, Bomber Command’s losses approached 6 percent, or a full 3 percent higher than either the RAF or USAAF considered sustainable.

The crowning folly of Harris’ persistence was the Nuremberg Raid on the night of 30/31 March 1944.  Due to poor meteorological analysis, a rigid command structure, a long flight, and recent changes to German tactics, things started out bad then got worse for Bomber Command.  With the bright moonlight and highly visible contrails providing a “Here they are!” arrow to the RAF bomber stream, the Nachtjagdflieger gathered like sharks chasing a pod of bleeding dolphins.  When all was said and done, over 100 of 700 RAF bombers dispatched were lost.  Without the use of RAF intruders (Fighter Command Mosquitos and Beaufighters operating over German bases) to harry the Luftwaffe’s night fighter force, things likely would have been far worse.

With more crew casualties than the Battle of Britain in a single night, the RAF was simply incapable of sustaining these loss rates in either the short or long term.  Fortunately for Bomber Command’s crews, even Sir Arthur Harris had bosses.  With Operation Overlord looming, Bomber Command was ordered to concentrate on transportation targets in France and the Low Countries.  Rather than landing the subsequent knock out blow he had so desperately sought, Harris found his own forces stunned and bleeding in its respective corner pondering what had gone wrong.  Fortunately, events in the daylight strategic campaign would serve to mitigate the German defenses by the time the RAF resumed its strategic offensive.

 

(Featured image is “Nuremburg Nightmare” from Piotr Forkasiewicz.  Please go check his amazing work out.)