Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dam Busters

617 Squadron RAF was formed in March 1943 to attack the Mohne and Sorpe dams, which provided water to the industrial German Ruhr region, and the Eder, which helped keep canals at navigable depth. A special bomb was developed for the mission by Barnes Wallis. Dropped from low level, it bounced on the water before sliding down the dam wall. On the night of May 16-17, the Mohne and Eder dams were both breached, but although loss of life and industrial dislocation were considerable, the damage was short-lived. Above, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, commander of 617 Squadron, is seen boarding his Lancaster. Eight of the nineteen bombers were lost.

The Barnes Wallis 9,250 Ib (4,195 kg) bouncing bomb slung below a British Lancaster bomber.

The breached Mohne dam four hours after the raid.

Guy Gibson, photographed near RAF Scampton on 22 July 1943. Awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for military valour, Gibson was killed the following year at the age of 26.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Pacific — 1943

In early 1943, Australian troops, fighting in dreadful conditions, extinguished the Japanese beachheads of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda Point on New Guinea. The Casablanca conference that January suggested that one-third of Allied resources should be deployed against Japan, but the British felt unable to agree to a fixed formula. The U.S. Joint Chiefs agreed a broad strategy, with MacArthur and Admiral William F. Halsey pushing on through the Solomons and along the New Guinea coast, while Nimitz “island hopped” across the central Pacific towards Japan.

An Australian forward post (above) near Sanananda, less than thirty yards from the Japanese. The robust and reliable .303 Bren was the light automatic weapon in British and Commonwealth infantry sections.

Australian infantry, assisted by a Stuart light tank, during the final assault on Buna.

The battle for Buna sorely tried the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division, which had not been trained for jungle warfare and was poorly equipped: it lost almost ninety per cent of its strength from battle casualties and sicknesses. But it was a disaster for the Japanese: this photograph shows Japanese bodies on the shoreline.

Japanese prisoners were very rare. These, both badly wounded, were taken when Gona fell.

After expelling the Japanese from southern New Guinea, the Australians moved northwards. In September 1943, the Japanese strongholds of Lae and Salamua were taken. Here U.S. paratroops jump into the Markham Valley in an effort to block the Japanese escape from Lae.

New Zealanders had already played a distinguished part in the war in the Western Desert, and added to these laurels in the Pacific. Here, New Zealand troops (in their distinctive "lemon-squeezer" hats) land from U.S. landing craft on Vella Lavella in the Solomons.

Rabual, on the island of New Britain, was a powerful Japanese air base. It was so heavily defended that a decision to capture it was reversed at the Quebec conference in August 1943, and it was so badly hammered from air and sea that the Japanese substantially scaled it down. Here a U.S. aircraft attacks with a white phosphorus incendiary bomb.

On November 1, 1943, the Americans landed on Bougainville, strategically placed between MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s areas of operations. The Japanese held a tiny part of the island to the very end of the war, but most of their positions had been taken in this sort of knock-down drag-out fighting: a flame thrower scorches a Japanese bunker while riflemen give covering fire.

Almost all Japanese preferred suicide to surrender. These infantrymen on Tarawa have shot themselves in the head, using a toe to pull the trigger.

This essence of the war at sea: a Japanese torpedo-bomber is hit by short-range fire from a U.S. carrier, December 4, 1943.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Katyn — 1943

When Poland was divided between Russia and Germany in 1939, over 180,000 Polish prisoners of war fell into Soviet hands: officers were segregated in special camps. In April 1943, the Germans discovered a mass grave in Katyn forest near Smolensk, later found to contain the remains of 4,400 Polish officers, and accused the Russians of mass murder, summoning an international team of experts to investigate the crime. Although the Russians long blamed the Germans for the atrocity, in 1990 they at last admitted responsibility.

The victims had their hands wired behind their backs (above) and had been shot in the back of the head. This evocative photograph sums up the fate of tens of thousands of victims of mass murder during the war.

The German-sponsored international experts (below, all but one from Axis or occupied countries) examining of the bodies of Katyn. When the London-based Polish government in exile suggested an impartial International Red Cross investigation, the Russians broke off diplomatic relations.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Battle of the Convoys

Churchill wrote that the only thing that really worried him was the submarine menace. The Battle of the Atlantic reached its crescendo in 1943, when operations in North Africa drew escorts away from the Atlantic, and Britain depended utterly on the main North Atlantic convoy routes at the very time that German submarines, concentrated in “wolf packs,” redoubled their efforts, paying particular attention to the narrowing gap in mid-Atlantic left uncovered by land-based aircraft. ULTRA proved decisive, enabling escorts to find submarines with accuracy: the Germans lost 47 in May alone. Sinkings continued, but the battle was won by the end of the month.

Above, the Torch convoy at sea, November 1942. The convoy was kept under an air umbrella that reduced the risk of attack, but demands imposed on convoy escorts by the demands of North Africa were to influence the Battle of the Atlantic.

Arctic convoys ferried supplies to Russia. Here the cruiser HMS Belfast is at sea in northern waters, March 1943.

Most British warships relied on multi-barrelled automatic “pom-poms” for close defence against aircraft. This air spotter, binoculars at the ready, watches for hostile aircraft.

The cruiser HMS Sheffield, on the same convoy as the Belfast, has both forward turrets trained to the beam to avoid damage to their canvas blast screens. Nevertheless, one turret roof was torn right off by a wave.

Depth-charges dropped by a Canadian corvette ship. The Canadians, short of modern equipment and adequate destroyers, had a particularly hard war in the Atlantic.

A U-Boat commander at his periscope. German submarine crews had a horrifyingly high casualty rate: 40,900 men served in submarines during the war, and 28,000 perished. Admiral Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, lost both his sailor sons, one in a submarine.

The last moments of a freighter, seen from a submarine. From January to May 1943 Allied shipping loses averaged 450,000 tons per month.

U625 sinking after depth-charge attack by a Sunderland of 422 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, March 10, 1944.

This U-Boat, attacked at periscope depth by a Sunderland, was brought to the surface by depth charges and then sunk.

Merchant seamen scramble aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Firemen “Bonny” Bartell and “Snowy” Foster, both of Canning Town in East London, come up for a breather on a North African Convoy, July 1943.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

North Africa — 1943

The North African campaign had a sting in its tail. In January 1943, Arnim mounted an offensive, catching ill-equipped French divisions off guard and going on to shake the Americans. Rommel, forced steadily westwards by Montgomery's advance, put in an attack of his own, inflicting a sharp defeat on the Americans at the Kasserine Pass in February. The Allies then reorganized their chain of command, forming the 18th Army Group, comprising both armies (Anderson's 1st and Montgomery's 8th) fighting in Tunisia. Axis forces were gradually compressed into a pocket round Tunis, and the last of them surrendered in mid-May, leaving 238,000 prisoners in Allied hands.

The Mareth Line, based on prewar French defenses in southern Tunisia, was held by Rommel's old army, now renamed the 1st Italian army under General Giovanni Messe. Montgomery's first attack, on March 19, failed, but a hook round the desert flank forced Messe to pull back. Here (above) a 4.5-inch medium gun bombards the line.

On March 6, Rommel turned on Montgomery at Medenine, but, using information from ULTRA, Montgomery was ready for him and the attack was easily repulsed. These Gurkhas are using their distinctive weapon, the kukri, near Medenine, but this shot comes from a sequence that suggests that it was staged for the camera.

This, in contrast, is a real photograph of the Medenine battle, showing a German Mk III Special knocked out by 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, part of the anti-tank screen deployed by Montgomery as a result of ULTRA.

The end in Tunisia. An American intelligence officer interrogates two prisoners. Two French soldiers, once more on the Allied side, are in the background.

Roosevelt, in North Africa for the Casablanca conference, took the opportunity to visit troops in the field, the first President since Lincoln to do so.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Operation Torch

Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, was launched in November under the command of the unknown U.S. Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Allies tried to ensure French co-operation, and in the event resistance was patchy in quality and quantity. Fortuitously, Admiral Darlan, Marshal Petain's deputy, was visiting his sick son in Algiers, and was persuaded to order a ceasefire. The Germans swiftly sent troops to Tunisia, and the Allied advance bogged down with the rains of early winter.

Although the Vichy government repudiated Darlan's ceasefire, Hitler was furious and invaded the Unoccupied Zone of France. A German force had orders to seize the French fleet at Toulon, but the French activated a well-prepared plan and the fleet was scuttled by its crews in the nick of time. Here damaged and sunk cruisers and destroyers can be seen (above) through the smoke of burning heavy cruisers.

American troops, part of the Central Task Force, on their way ashore by landing craft at Oran. It was thought that the French would be less likely to engage the Americans than the British, still mistrusted because of the attack on Mers-el-Kebir and the fighting in the Levant.

With Allied convoys at sea, sailors could be told their destination. Here Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough explains forthcoming operations to officers and men aboard his flagship.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Strategic Air Offensive

In 1942 the strategic bombing offensive against Germany was substantially increased. The 1941 Butt report, which showed just how inaccurate night bombing actually was, encouraged the introduction of area bombing of German cities. Sir Arthur Harris took over as Commander-in-Chief of the RAF's Bomber Command in February. He quickly ordered fire-storm raids on Rostock and Lübeck, and then, in May, mobilized his second line and training aircraft to mount the first thousand-bomber raid, on Cologne. RAF armourers are seen fusing bombs (above) prior to loading them aboard a Short Stirling at RAF Waterbeach, near Cambridge, April 30, 1942.

The caption to this German photograph of the gutted Lübeck cathedral described the raid on the city as “a new crime against civilization.” It helped inspire the German Baedeker raids, so called because the official announcing them declared that the Germans would attack all building marked with three stars in the Baedeker guidebook.

On the night of May 30, the first thousand-bomber raid was launched on Cologne. The top picture shows a rubber factory at Deutz, on the east bank of the Rhine, before the raid, and the lower picture shows it afterwards.

The four-engined Avro Lancaster came into service in early 1942. Although it was generally used at night, this
photograph shows a low-level daylight raid on the Schneider armament works at Le Creusot on October 17.

Another daylight attack, this by Lockheed Venturas, Douglas Bostons and de Havilland Mosquitos on the Philips radio valve works in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, December 6.

German flak and fighters imposed a steady toll on bombers. Here a Vickers Wellington of the Polish 301 (Pomeranian) Squadron, lies in the mud of a Dutch estuary.