Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant

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A Führer conference in May discussed the heavy air attacks and noted the loss of a pair of Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant transports near Alghero, Sardinia.

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

A development of the Messerschmitt Me 321 heavy glider, the Me 323 Gigant (Giant) was the largest transport aircraft of the war. They were first deployed in the Mediterranean, where they helped establish German and Italian forces in Tunisia in the wake of Allied victories in Operation TORCH and at El Alamein. These aircraft took on even greater importance as the Italian merchant fleet dwindled in the face of Allied naval superiority in the central Mediterranean.  

Months later, when the Allied navies sealed the Sicilian Strait, these same transport aircraft attempted to maintain an air bridge between Europe and Tunis. They paid a dear price for their efforts. On 22 April 1943, a formation of 27 fully-loaded Me 323s was nearly wiped out when its Bf 109 escort was overwhelmed by seven squadrons of Spitfires and P-40s. Twenty-one of the transports were lost at a cost of just three P-40s.

The German transport fleet (Ju 52s and Me 323s) played an important role during Operation Husky. They airlanded the 1st Parachute Division in Sicily just in time to thwart General Montgomery’s push to Catania and Messina. The transport crews took another thrashing for their efforts and the Germans withdrew them after losing 10 percent of the force to RAF Spitfires on 25 July 1943. By the end of 1943, the Allies had decimated the German transport force and air mobility ceased to be a meaningful Luftwaffe capability.


Specifications (Me 323 D-6)

Type: five-seat heavy transport with accommodation for 130 troops or 10 to 12 tonnes of equipment

Powerplant: six 868kW (1180hp) Gnome-Rhône 14N-48/49 14-cylinder two-row radial engines

Performance: maximum speed 285km/h (177mph); ceiling 4,000m (13,123ft); range 800km (500 miles)

Weights: empty 27,330kg (60,260lb); maximum take-off 43,000kg (94,815lb)

Wingspan: 55.2m (181ft 0in)

Length: 28.2m (92ft 4in)

Height: 10.5m (33ft 3.5in)

Armament: multiple 7.92mm (0.30in) MG 15, MG 81, or 13mm (0.51in) MG 131 machine guns


me-323

The following Luftflotte 2 units flew the Me 323 Gigant during Operation HUSKY:

  • Transportgeschwader (TG) 1
    • III/TG 1
  • TG 2
    • III/TG 2
  • TG 3
    • IV/TG 3
  • TG 5
    • I/TG 5
  • II Fliegerkorps Transportstaffel
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Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Junkers Ju 87 Stuka

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Made famous by its part in the Blitzkrieg that led to early German victories in 1939 and 1940, the Junkers Ju 87 was designed as airborne artillery for the army. Even during its early successes in the war, the Stuka was highly vulnerable to enemy fighters. By mid-1943, modern Allied fighters like the Spitfire V, VIII, and IX made the Ju 87’s mission hazardous without air superiority.  

Stukas — short for the German translation of dive bomber — adorned with black crosses were a common sight above Malta and in the Western Desert in 1941-1942. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) also flew various models of the Ju 87 during these campaigns. During its defence of Sicily, at least one Italian dive bomber unit flew the aircraft. These obsolete warplanes were part of the Axis force tasked with the impossible mission of stopping the Allied invasion.


Specifications (Junkers Ju 87D-1)

Type: two-seat dive-bomber and close support warplane

Powerplant: one 1044kW (1400hp) Junkers Jumo 211J-1 12-cylinder inverted-Vee engine

Performance: maximum speed 410km/h (255mph); climb to 5000m (16,405ft) in 19 minutes 48 seconds; service ceiling 7300mm (23950ft); range 1535km (954 miles)  

Weights: empty 3900kg (8598lb); maximum take-off 6600kg (14,550lb)

Wingspan: 13.8m (45ft 3in)

Length: 11.50m (37ft 9in)

Height: 3.88m (12ft 9in)

Armament: two 7.92mm (0.31in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the leading edges of the wing and one 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable two-barrel rearward-firing machine gun in the rear of the cockpit, plus an external bomb load of 1800kg (3968lb)


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The following Regia Aeronautica units flew the Junkers Ju 87 during Operation HUSKY:

  • 121 Gruppo Tuffatori
    • 237 Squadriglia
Book News

YouTuber Features ‘Eagles over Husky’

Eagles over Husky is on YouTube! 

The Military Aviation History channel features the book in its latest video. It’s a great script, including accounts from Johannes Steinhoff, a Luftwaffe ace who experienced the Allied onslaught first-hand. For Steinhoff, Operation Husky was the moment he realized that the tide had turned, and Nazi Germany was on an inevitable road to defeat.

Check the video out below!

Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Supermarine Walrus

Beyond Courage (Book Cover, Grub St)
The rescue of W/C W. G. G. Duncan Smith DSO DFC by a Walrus of 284 Squadron, 2 September 1943, off the Italian coast, whilst being attacked by Me109s of JG 52 (Barry Weekly)

The Supermarine Walrus owes its existence to R.J. Mitchell, the same aeronautical engineer who designed the Spitfire in its early stages.

In the early days of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, the Royal Air Force’s air-sea rescue (ASR) capabilities were small. The air fighting above Malta was serviced by motor launches, while most of the air fighting in the Western Desert occurred over land. That all changed with Operation Torch and Operation Husky.

In February 1943, No. 283 Squadron became the first RAF ASR squadron in the western Mediterranean. In anticipation of the invasion of Sicily, No. 284 Squadron formed in the United Kingdom and transited to Malta just in time for the assault. Both units flew the Walrus. With Allied aircraft flying to targets in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy from North Africa, Malta, and Pantelleria, these ASR crews would be busy during the campaign.

In fact, according to Beyond Courage, aviation historian Norman Franks’s book on Walrus squadrons in the Mediterranean, these squadrons made 36 rescues (of Allied and Axis aircrews) between the end of fighting in North African and the end of fighting in Sicily. It must have given Allied aircrews some confidence to know that if they went down over water there was a chance of rescue.


Specifications

Type: 3-4 seat amphibious reconnaissance aircraft

Powerplant: one 510kW (680hp) Bristol Pegasus VI radial engine

Performance: maximum speed 215km/h (135mph) at 1450m (4750ft); range 965km (600 miles); service ceiling 5650m (18,500ft); rate of climb 318 meters per minute (1050ft per minute)

Weights: empty 2220kg (4900lb); maximum take-off 3650kg (8050lb)

Wingspan: 14m (45ft 10in)

Length: 11.45m (36ft 7in)

Height: 4.6m (15ft 3in)

Armament: two or three 7.7mm (0.303in) Vickers K machine guns, plus 600lbs of wing-mounted equipment.


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The following Northwest African Coastal Air Force units used the Supermarine Walrus in the invasion of Sicily:

  • No. 283 Squadron RAF
  • No. 284 Squadron RAF

 

Rants

Lazy History: Operation Husky in Call of Duty: WWII

Ragusa, Sicily
12 July 1943

Artillery thundered in the distance as the Sicilian town of Ragusa awoke. A salvo of shells screamed overhead and began crashing to earth around the town’s major intersections. Operation Husky – the Allied invasion of Sicily – had started mere days before. The shells were from a battery of the Royal Devon Yeomanry, a British artillery regiment supporting the advance of Captain Dick Dillon’s Bren Gun Carriers from the Royal Canadian Regiment’s support company. In hopes of securing the quick surrender of a suspected Italian garrison, the Canadians entered the town under the protection of a white flag. They were surprised to find a company from the 45th US Infantry Division emerging from the protection of improvised shelters. The town had already fallen. There was no ‘Battle of Ragusa’ in 1943. [1]

Now, 75 years later, the developers behind Call of Duty: WWII, a first-person shooter video game, have devised their own Battle of Ragusa. It’s part of the game’s second expansion pack, The War Machine. The pack includes a new War Mode map called Operation Husky (see the video below to watch the gameplay). In War Mode opposing teams – one on offence and one on defence – vie for control over various objectives in a linear narrative:

As an Allied participant in Operation Husky in Call of Duty: WWII, you’re a soldier in the town of Ragusa, Sicily. Your mission is to retrieve key intel to initiate a bombing of enemy forces.

Or you might find yourself on the flipside of that equation as an Axis soldier, trying to stop the Allied advance, as they try to complete their mission. [2]

There is a series of objectives for the Allied forces to complete. They must first retrieve the intel at one location, transmit it at another, and then take to the skies to defend a fleet of B-17 Flying Fortresses as they make for objectives in Palermo and Naples.

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There’s a problem, though. The aircraft the game has players fly in this latter phase are not accurate to Operation Husky. Allied pilots find themselves in the radial-engine P-47 Thunderbolt complete with Normandy invasion stripes. In the summer of 1943, the Allied air forces in the Mediterranean had yet to operate the P-47. More likely escorts for American heavy bombers would be Spitfires, P-40 Warhawks, or P-38 Lightnings.

The markings on these aircraft are also wrong. The Allies did not use the white and black invasion stripes closely associated with D-Day in Normandy during the invasion of Sicily. Rather, lessons learned in Sicily and in subsequent amphibious landings led to the adoption of these recognition stripes. Furthermore, the US Army Air Forces roundel on the P-47s in the game is not the same roundel used by American aircraft in mid-1943. For Operation Husky, US aircraft roundels consisted of a white star with a blue background all within a yellow circle.

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The Axis fighter force consists of historically accurate Messerschmitt Bf 109s, albeit in camouflage that looks more at home in northern Europe. The problem is that the game developers got lazy. Call of Duty: WWII’s single-player campaign focused on the war in Europe from D-Day onward. They’ve simply ported these skins over rather than make a reasonable effort to reflect historical accuracy.

Does any of this matter? Or is Call of Duty: WWII just software coated in a historically-themed coat of paint?

I think it matters. It matters because the developers made a commitment to honour the past. They did so in this promotional video (which I’ve embedded below) that talks up the developers’ focus on authenticity. I’ve taken the liberty to pull a few quotes:

“There is this respect and honour you have to pay to – not only the people – but to the places.”

“This isn’t a fictional war, so it’s really important that we communicate to the player to have a strong understanding of what happened and what the time was like.”

“Recreating that for the player so that they have some understanding of the sacrifices that were made.”

“We’re delivering an experience that’s as powerful as it can be, but it’s also respectful of the sacrifice that real people made in saving the world.”

If this is the commitment they’ve made, why are players flying P-47s in Operation Husky?

The answer is lazy history. It isn’t hard to get things right. Call of Duty: WWII isn’t a film project in which there may be a limited budget to hire one of the few P-38s or P-40s that still fly. Game developers can create whatever they want. This is especially true when the game they are working on brought in over $1 billion in revenue last year.

If game developers and their publishers are just applying a historically-themed coat of paint, they could at least use the right colours.

Rant over.


Notes

[1] Mark Zuehlke, Operation Husky: The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10-August 7, 1943 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), p.165.

[2] Kevin Kelly (ed.), “New Intel on Operation Husky, Call of Duty: WWII’s New War Mode Map,” Playstation.Blog, April 3, 2018, https://blog.us.playstation.com/2018/04/03/new-intel-on-operation-husky-call-of-duty-wwiis-new-war-mode-map/.

Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Junkers Ju 52

The performance of the transport crews is beyond praise. Even though they had succeeded in getting their planes with the urgently required load safely into the cauldron, while refuelling, unloading, and reloading, they were exposed to uninterrupted bombing and low-level attacks. If they survived these they had to face the return journey which was no less dangerous than the fly-in. Landing at last in Sicily, they were often raided on their airfields.

– General Adolf Galland, quoted in Eagles over Husky

 

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The Flying Legends Junkers Ju 52 F-AZJU

 

In the winter of 1942-1943, the Luftwaffe stretched its logistical capabilities to the breaking point. On the Eastern Front, the Russians had surrounded the German 6th Army at Stalingrad while the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa and the retreat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Libya and Tunisia also required attention. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring promised Hitler that Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52 transports — supplemented by bombers — could keep the 6th Army supplied. In reality, the Luftwaffe could only supply a fraction of the 700 daily tons required.

At the same time, Ju 52s were busy building up a large German and Italian army group in Tunisia. Months later, when the Allied navies sealed the Sicilian Strait, these same transport aircraft attempted to maintain an air bridge between Europe and Tunis. They paid a dear price for their efforts. The Allied air forces destroyed 400 Axis transports and 32 fighters at the cost of just 35 Allied fighters.

The German transport fleet played an important role during Operation Husky. They airlanded the 1st Parachute Division in Sicily just in time to thwart General Montgomery’s push to Catania and Messina. The transport crews took another thrashing for their efforts and the Germans withdrew them after losing 10 percent of the force to RAF Spitfires on 25 July 1943. By the end of 1943, the Allies had decimated the German transport force and air mobility ceased to be a meaningful Luftwaffe capability.


Specifications (Junkers Ju 52)

Type: three-seat transport with accommodation for 18 troops, 12 litters, or freight

Powerplant: three 544kW (730hp) BMW 132T-2 nine-cylinder radial engines

Performance: maximum speed 286km/h (178mph); climb to 3,000m (9,845ft) in 17 minutes 30 seconds; service ceiling 5,900m (19,360ft); range 1,305km (811 miles)

Weights: empty 6,500kg (14,328lb); maximum take-off 11,030kg (24,317lb)

Wingspan: 29.20m (95ft 10in)

Length: 18.90m (62ft)

Height: 4.52m (14ft 10in)

Armament: one 13mm (0.51in) or 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable rearward-firing machine-gun in rear dorsal position, provision for one 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable machine gun in forward dorsal position and one 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable lateral-firing machine gun in each of the two beam positions.


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The following Luftflotte 2 units flew the Junkers Ju 52 during Operation Husky:

  • Transportgeschwader (TG) 1
    • III/TG 1
  • TG 2
    • III/TG 2
  • TG 3
    • IV/TG 3
  • TG 5
    • I/TG 5
  • II Fliegerkorps Transportstaffel
The Eagles

Flight Lieutenant Tom Hennessy

One of the great things about Remembrance Day is that it gives veterans an opportunity to share their stories with an interested public. Back in December, I came across an article in the London Free Press published just before Remembrance Day. It detailed the life of Tom Hennessy, a 95-year-old Spitfire pilot from the Second World War. As I read his story, I came across the section where Mr. Hennessy described his experience during Operation HUSKY, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Tom Hennessy. (MORRIS LAMONT, The London Free Press)
Tom Hennessy in his RAF uniform. He started the war as a sergeant and finished as a flight lieutenant. (Morris Lamont, The London Free Press)

Having spent parts of the last five years completing Eagles over Husky, my book on this very subject, you might guess my reaction. I was blown away! I’d read memoirs written by those who had taken part in the air battle, and I’d even met a Canadian army veteran of the campaign, but I’d never gotten the chance to speak with an airman. I had to make this happen.

I began by reaching out to the journalist, Norman De Bono, who graciously provided me with Joyce Hetherington’s email. Joyce is Tom Hennessy’s wife. In turn, she connected me with Tom via email. I didn’t hear back immediately, but Joyce urged me to be patient. I gave her my phone number, and a week or so later I got a call from Tom. Once I realized who I was talking to, a grin creased my face for the remainder of the day!

Last Saturday we managed to meet up for an interview. Tom and I spent nearly two-and-a-half hours talking about his experiences during the war. He also had a lot of questions for me. As a sergeant pilot in Malta, he didn’t have much time for the bigger picture. His job was to fly his Spitfire and bring it – and himself! – home in one piece. Now he’s interested in learning more about the broader context of his wartime service. As Tom said,

It’s only when you, or when I come back or something and we talk like this that you think of other things. You just do your job and what you’re supposed to be doing. I was supposed to fly a Spitfire and do what I was told. That’s what you did. You didn’t get into who’s running it or who’s telling you to do these things. You go ahead and do them.

When the interview started he poured into his first wartime experiences – joining the Royal Air Force in Belfast, Northern Ireland, wearing a civilian suit to train in pre-Pearl Harbor Oklahoma, USA, his first solo in Spitfires over England, and his first operational sorties over Northern France. These sorties were called Rhubarbs. Using low cloud, RAF fighters and fighter-bombers would cross the English Channel and then drop below the cloud layer to hit anything that moved – railway locomotives and rolling stock, enemy troops and vehicles on roads, or aircraft at Luftwaffe airfields. As it turns out, low flying is one of the themes of Tom’s story.

Copy of WWII spitfire pilot Tom Hennessy.
Tom on the roof of his billet in Malta, an old three-story house in Medina. (Hennessy Collection)

In autumn 1942, Tom found himself headed overseas once again. Instead of a civilian suit, he was given khakis and a pith helmet, indicating he was headed somewhere warm. A transport ship took Tom from Greenock to Gibraltar, where he waited as part of a reinforcement pool. Eventually, he was selected to join the RAF garrison on Malta and joined No. 249 (Gold Coast) Squadron at Krendi aerodrome. At that time, he remembers that only three Spitfire squadrons were defending the island.

Some months into his time on Malta indications were that something big was afoot. As Tom recalls, “and then the business started. There was going to be an invasion sometime, somewhere in Europe, southern Europe. It could have been any place; we hadn’t a clue.”

Tom and his mates knew something was up because of the massive buildup of aircraft on the island. In June 1943, Spitfire strength on Malta increased from five to 23 squadrons as the Desert Air Force joined the island’s fighter garrison. “They used to say if they bring any more squadrons into Malta it’s going to sink,” Tom remembers.

He says, after returning home on the eve of the invasion on patrol between Malta and Sicily, “I remember coming home from that night [and] there wasn’t a thing. The Mediterranean was like a lake, and there wasn’t a boat to be seen anywhere.” He also remembers how the routine changed for Operation HUSKY. Typically, the squadron operated with two flights in shifts. Each flight would be on duty for 24 hours at a time, meaning nearly 24 hours off. For HUSKY it was different. Tom recalls being woken up at 3 AM on 10 July 1943 for a briefing with Squadron Leader Eric Norman ‘Timber’ Woods. Only then did Tom and his mates learn for certain that the target was Sicily and that a massive invasion fleet had assembled off the coast of Malta overnight. They were to be ready at pre-dawn in case 249 Squadron was called on to support the invasion. The next weeks saw Tom and his mates flying offensive sweeps near the invasion areas and escorting fighter-bombers, bombers, and shipping around Sicily.

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The Isle of Capri is the island to the south of Naples at the top-centre of this map. (Map drawn by Mike Bechthold)

Tom recalls one mission vividly. Sometime after the fall of Palermo (22 July 1943), he and three other members of his squadron were ordered to fly from Malta to a beach near the city. The Americans had built a temporary landing strip on the beach using perforated steel planking (PSP), more commonly known as the Marston Mat. This was some great technology, but it took pilots some getting used to. Tom remembers that “when you landed on them you’d think the aircraft was falling to pieces. The noise was incredible – BANG!”

As ground crew refuelled their Spitfires, the four British fighter pilots were treated to some welcome American hospitality. “We always liked to land on American stations”, Tom recalls, “because they were well looked after. On the beach here in Sicily we had grapefruit, eggs, and bacon – oh, geez – and we sat on the beach!” They finished breakfast and climbed back into their Spitfires, each full of petrol and with bombs slung underneath the wings.

From there they took off and set a course for Capri, a small island off the Italian coast near Sorrento and Naples. Their target was a German radar station that was picking up Major General James H. Doolittle’s Strategic Air Force bombers as they approached Italy from bases in North Africa. To avoid being picked up by radar, the four-Spitfire flight flew their course down at wave-top level. They bombed and strafed their target successfully and returned home.

Tom wasn’t exactly sure when this attack took place. As he said in our conversation about when he arrived in Malta, “You know the years better than I do. You’re the historian; I just drove the things.” Naturally, placing this mission in its proper context is one of my next research tasks.

Copy of WWII spitfire pilot Tom Hennessy.2
Tom in the cockpit of his Spitfire situated in what looks to be a blast pen. Notice that the squadron identifier (T) and aircraft identifier (M) form Tom’s name with the RAF roundel. (Hennessy Collection)

There’s a whole lot more that Tom has to offer. His story takes him to mainland Italy serving with the Balkan Air Force over Yugoslavia in support of Tito’s partisans. It also takes him to Egypt, where he helped train fighter pilots before they joined operational squadrons. After the war in Europe ended he even made it to India and began training to fly off carriers and survive in the jungle. Thankfully, the war in the Pacific ended before Tom got back on operations.

Perhaps more important is his message:

The only message that I leave with [young people] is that there’s nothing good about war. It’s so easy to glamourize it, but there’s nothing good about it. Nothing good … I travelled the world… I travelled from Oklahoma to India and all that kind of thing, but at what price?

I’m so honoured that Tom has chosen to share his story with me. He’s so engaged and wants to learn about my research. He is open to using my skills to help fill some of the gaps in his memory and his perspective. I left some of No. 249’s operations record books (ORBs) with Tom. He was excited to read the names of his mates alongside his own on various missions flown from Malta. As Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine says to Captain Louis Renault in the final scene of Casablanca (1942), “Tom, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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A selfie with Alex (the author), Joyce & Tom. (Author’s Collection)