Wednesday, April 29, 2009

War in the Western Desert

Italy had entered the war against France and Britain on June 10, 1940, following German successes in the west and she seemed likely to exploit her strong position in the Mediterranean. In September, Italian troops in Libya advanced to the Egyptian frontier, but in December a British attack not only overran Italian frontier positions but took the port of Tobruk and drove deep into Libya. In February 1941, however, German troops began to arrive, and soon, under their aggressive commander, Erwin Rommel, pushed the British back. For more than eighteen months the war in the Western Desert was to ebb and flow between El Agheila and El Alamein. A pile of captured weapons (above) marks the scale of the Italian defeat, January 1941.

A long column of disconsolate Italian prisoners (below) winds its way into captivity.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The “Desert Fox”

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel — the “Desert Fox” — was perhaps the most famous German Field Marshal of World War II. He was a highly decorated officer in World War I, being awarded the Pour le Mérite for his exploits on the Italian front. In World War II, he further distinguished himself as the commander of the "Ghost Division" during the 1940 invasion of France. However, it was his masterful leadership of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the North African campaign that established the legend of the Desert Fox. He is thought by many to have been the most skilled commander of desert warfare in the war. He later commanded the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion at Normandy.

Rommel is considered to be a chivalrous and humane military officer, in contrast with many other figures of Nazi Germany. His famous Afrikakorps was not accused of any war crimes. Indeed, soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been largely treated humanely. Furthermore, orders to kill captured Jewish soldiers and civilians out of hand in all theatres of his command were defiantly ignored.

He was suspected of involvement in the failed July 20 Plot of 1944 to kill Adolf Hitler. Because of his great prestige, he was allowed to commit suicide.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Italians in North Africa

The Italians had a quarter of a million men under Marshal Balbo in Libya. Balbo was shot down by his own anti-aircraft guns over Tobruk and his successor, General Graziani, advanced cautiously to the Egyptian frontier where he prepared a line of forts. On December 7, 1940, Major General O'Connor began a large-scale raid on the forts with his Western Desert Force of 31,000 men. On December 9, the forts were taken and the coast road was cut between Sid Barrani and Buq-Buq behind them. O'Connor converted the raid into a sustained advance, overrunning the whole of Cyrenaica and taking some 130,000 prisoners.

The desert was often rocky, and at night its temperature dropped. These British troops (above) in a defensive position at Bardia on December 31, 1940 are wearing greatcoats.

Below, a photo taken December 10, 1940. An Italian strides off into captivity with his dog.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Living with “The Blitz”

As the nightly German attacks over London continued, the city’s Underground railway stations were used as air raid shelters (above). The authorities disapproved of the practice at first, but then did what they could to make them more comfortable, and life underground soon developed its own culture. These Londoners are sleeping on the escalators in one London tube station.

In a mimicry of death, shop dummies lie on the pavement (above) after a London department store was hit.

At the height of the Blitz, most of the 1,500,000 people serving in the various fire, civil defence, shelter and casualty organizations were part-time volunteers. Here a rescue party (below) — with the double R designation on its steel helmets — removes a Blitz victim from rubble.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Blitz

The Blitz — an abbreviation of Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) — was the name given to German attacks on British cities in 1940-41. London was bombed by accident on the night of August 24, and the RAF responded by bombing Berlin the following night. In early September, Goering unwisely shifted the Luftwaffe's main effort from airfields to cities, and “Black Saturday,” September 7, saw the first major raid on London. When the Blitz ended in May 1941, over 43,000 civilians had been killed and great tracts of ancient cities and industrial centres devastated — but popular resolve had not been broken.

The Blitz did not just hit London and major provincial cities like Bristol and Liverpool. Here Churchill inspects bomb damage (above) in little Ramsgate.

On November 13, German bombers struck Coventry in the midlands, destroying not only twelve armaments factories but also part of the city centre and the 14th-Century cathedral (below).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Luftwaffe Grounded

Spectators at the wreckage of a Dornier Do 17, shot down in England on August 12, 1940. Between July 10 and October 31, the Luftwaffe lost some 1,294 aircraft to the RAF's approximately 788 aircraft.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Heinkels Over London

One of the war's classic photographs (above): A Heinkel He 111 over Wapping, England on “Black Saturday,” September 7, 1940 — the first day of the offensive against London. 300 tons of bombs were dropped and about 2,000 civilians killed or seriously injured.

Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Thurz at the controls of a Heinkel He 111 bomber (below).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hurricanes in Britain

British R.A.F. pilots relied on hard-working ground crews. Here the wing-mounted machine guns of a Hurricane Mk 1 (above) are re-armed: great care is taken to avoid jam-inducing kinks in the belted ammunition.

Two Hurricanes from 501 Squadron (below) scramble from Hawkinge, August 16, 1940. Although the Hurricane was slower than the more modern Spitfire, it nevertheless played a distinguished part in the battle.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Barrage Balloons in Britain

In 1938, the British Balloon Command was established to protect cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports and harbours. Balloons were intended to defend against dive bombers flying at heights up to 5,000 feet, forcing them to fly higher and into the range of concentrated anti-aircraft fire — anti-aircraft guns could not traverse fast enough to attack aircraft flying at low altitude and high speed. By the middle of 1940 there were 1,400 balloons, a third of them over the London area.

While dive-bombers were devastatingly effective against undefended targets, such as Guernica and Rotterdam, they were very vulnerable to attack by fighter aircraft, and their use by Germany against Britain with its effective Royal Air Force was rapidly discontinued. Balloons proved to be of little use against the German high-level bombers with which the dive-bombers were replaced, but continued to be manufactured nonetheless, until there were almost 3,000 in 1944. They proved to be mildly effective against the V-1 flying bomb, which usually flew at 2,000 feet or lower but had wire-cutters on its wings to counter balloons. Two hundred and thirty-one V-1s are officially claimed to have been destroyed by balloons.

Many bombers were equipped with devices to cut barrage balloon cables. Britain used large numbers of balloons, so Germany developed the most capable cable-cutters. Their systems consisted of small C-shaped devices attached to the leading edge of the wing. When a cable entered the device after sliding down the wing, it triggered a small explosive charge that drove a blade through the cable. British bombers were also equipped with cable-cutters although the Germans used few barrage balloons.

The British added two refinements to their balloons, "Double Parachute Link" (DPL) and "Double Parachute/Ripping" (DP/R). The former was triggered by the shock of an enemy bomber snagging the cable, causing that section of cable to be explosively released complete with parachutes at either end; the combined weight and drag bringing down the aircraft. The latter was intended to render the balloon safe if it broke free accidentally. The heavy mooring cable would separate at the balloon and fall to the ground under a parachute; at the same time a panel would be ripped away from the balloon causing it to deflate and fall independently to the ground.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Watching the Skies Over Britain

The Operations Room at RAF Bentley Priory, Fighter Command's headquarters is seen above. Symbols representing squadrons are moved across the map, while senior officers in the gallery above control the battle.

Civilian volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps (below) reported the numbers, direction and type on incoming enemy aircraft. Here an observer plots the height of a German formation.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Preparations for Invasion

The German invasion of Britain could not succeed without air superiority, and on July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe began to attack shipping in the English Channel. A week later Hitler issued orders for “Operation Sealion,” and in August, bombers struck airfields of the R.A.F.’s (Royal Air Force) Fighter Command. Both sides consistently over-estimated the number of enemy aircraft destroyed, but the R.A.F. was never as badly weakened as the Germans supposed — and while German pilots who parachuted were captured, their British counterparts could fight on. In early September, German efforts were fatally handicapped by Luftwaffe head Herman Goering’s diversion of resources to bombing cities, and “Sealion” was postponed on September 17th.

A Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) operator in England plots targets (above). Primitive radar was heavily dependent on skilled users.

German preparations for “Operation Sealion” included experiments with amphibious tanks (below).