Heavy bombers support US Army’s attack into Germany

Each task force had one flail tank. As the flail tanks crested the hill, they passed through our infantry line directly into the minefields. Although the tanks had to contend not only with mines but with an extremely soggy field, they made an initial good showing. The flying chains detonated several mines, and the explosions created additional craters. But finally, due to the combination of the muddy fields and the fact that the horsepower needed to turn the flail took too much power away from the tracks, both flail tanks became mired in the mud.

Boeing B-17F radar bombing through clouds over Bremen, Germany, on Nov. 13, 1943.
Boeing B-17F radar bombing through clouds over Bremen, Germany, on Nov. 13, 1943.
Vertical aerial photograph showing six Handley Page Halifaxes flying over the blazing target area during a daylight attack on a rail centre north of the River Rhine.
Vertical aerial photograph showing six Handley Page Halifaxes flying over the blazing target area during a daylight attack on a rail centre north of the River Rhine.

With the British in the north completing the capture of Walcheren, and the Canadians rolling up the Scheldt estuary, the US forces further south were impatient to get going again after the supply problems began to ease. Now they would head across the Roer river to the Rhine itself.

Omar Bradley, commanding US 12th Army Group, was waiting for the beginning off the attack with Courtney H. Hodges, both of them as frustrated with the rain as Patton was becoming. They were both elated to find the sun shining on the morning of the 16th November so that the visibility was good enough for heavy bombers from England to launch the attack:

At 12:45 air thundered in on schedule. Twelve hundred bombers of the Eighth Air Force flying in box-tight formations, an equal number of RAF heavies, flying dispersed in the manner of night bombers.

To prevent a repetition of the short drop at St. Lo [in July], we had posted jeeps with vertical radio beams to mark the front lines by radar. For visual guidance to the target a line of barrage balloons with cerise panels aflixed to their backs had been hoisted 1,500 feet into the air. For added insurance the 90-mm. AA guns marked the front with a line of colored flak, 2,000 feet below the bombers.

Only two clusters of bombs fell behind our lines, the result of faulty bomb racks. One “friendly” casualty was reported; it was nothing more than a minor wound.

But though the air bombing had shattered an enemy division and churned up the neighboring terrain, it failed to tear a hole in his line through which our infantry and tanks could be pushed on to the Rhine. The German had skillfully laid out his defenses in depth behind a carpet of mines and field fortifications. With his back to the Rhine, he now fought for each grubby crossroads village as if it were the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Meanwhile Goebbels had warned von Runstedt’s troops in the Rhineland that this was a fight to the finish, a fight in which weakness would bring defeat and eventual exile to the Siberian labor camps.

As the enemy fell back he left a trail buried in rubble, for he held grimly to each position until we pulverized it. When G-2 interrogated an intelligent young officer of the Wehrmacht to ask if he did not regret this unnecessary destruction of his homeland, the PW shrugged and replied, “It probably won’t be ours after the War. Why not destroy it?”

See Omar N. Bradley: A Soldier’s Story.

On the ground Belton Y. Cooper with the 3rd Armored Division was watching the launch of the offensive from Hill 287, where P-47 dive bombers followed up after the heavy bombers and then the tanks went in:

Simultaneously with the heavy air strike, the ninety battalions of field artillery opened up, concentrating particularly on the villages.

Combat Command B assembled just south and west of hill 287. As the task forces proceeded over the crest of the hill and passed through our infantry lines, they were exposed to the full effect of the German minefields.

Each task force had one flail tank. As the flail tanks crested the hill, they passed through our infantry line directly into the minefields. Although the tanks had to contend not only with mines but with an extremely soggy field, they made an initial good showing. The flying chains detonated several mines, and the explosions created additional craters. But finally, due to the combination of the muddy fields and the fact that the horsepower needed to turn the flail took too much power away from the tracks, both flail tanks became mired in the mud.

They made excellent targets and were soon knocked out. The second tank in each column had no choice but to go around the flail tanks and continue the attack. A tragic domino effect followed.

The first tank proceeded around the flail tank and made its own way for several yards before striking a mine and becoming disabled. The next tank bypassed the first tank and tried to go its own way for several yards, then it struck a mine and became disabled.

This process continued until eventually one tank got through the minefield and proceeded with the attack. The next tank behind it tried to follow the same path, and sometimes it would get through the minefield successfully. However, by the time the third tank tried to come through in the same tracks, the soft ground would mire the tank so deeply that it would stick, in spite of the “duck feet” we had bolted on the track connectors.

All the stuck tanks became sitting ducks for the murderous German anti-tank fire. The Germans continued to fire at the tanks until they set them on fire. When the crew tried to bail out, they immediately came under concentrated automatic weapons fire.

These brave tankers knew that the tanks would be at an extreme disadvantage in the muddy minefields, but they pressed on with the attack. This was one of the most courageous tank attacks of the entire war. It started with sixty-four medium tanks, and we lost forty-eight of them in twenty-six minutes.

A proportional number of soldiers died in this terrible fight. By nightfall, Task Force 1 had reached the vicinity of Hastenrath after taking tremendous losses. One column started out with nineteen tanks, including a flail, and ended up with four by the end of the day. The other fifteen were lost in the minefield.

The surviving tanks were further exposed because the infantry had a difficult time coming forward to support them. The minefields were also heavily infested with anti-personnel mines. These were deadly to the infantry, who were under extremely heavy small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire.

See Belton Y. Cooper: Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II

Men of 2nd Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders hitch a ride on a flail tank, 22 November 1944
Men of 2nd Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders hitch a ride on a flail tank, 22 November 1944

The cold hard wet slog continues across Holland

Another time a heavy German gun pinpointed us, and began to drop enormous shells around Company Headquarters, ranging us carefully. Craters were steadily torn up, slowly creeping closer, until they were straddling us. Our croft was not strong. At length we fled, and in the nick of time, tumbling from the cellar with no dignity at all, map-cases flapping, wireless headphones flying; the lot of us. The next two shells were direct hits. The croft caved in on itself and the cellar ceiling gaped at a smudgy November sky. The big gun stopped…

Infantry and carriers of the 15th (Scottish) Division
Infantry and carriers of the 15th (Scottish) Division, during the assault on Liesel, Holland, 2 November 1944.
Churchill tanks of 4th Grenadier Guards near Liesel-Meijel, 1 November 1944.
Churchill tanks of 4th Grenadier Guards near Liesel-Meijel, 1 November 1944.

Robert Woollcombe wrote a noted memoir of his service with Kings Own Scottish Borderers as they crossed north west Europe from France to Germany in 1944-45.

In November 1944, they, like a large part of the British Army, were still stuck in Holland, where he recorded his general impressions:

The burnt villages dotted back, the riddled church spires, and here a burnt-out tank with the whole turret knocked cleanly off and deposited some yards away by one frightful blow from a powerful gun.

The miles of signal cable stretching rearwards through the slush. The ubiquitous Redcaps on traffic control at every churned crossroads. A German motorcyclist, mistaking his way, careers slap up the road to Deurne village into a column of our troops moving up to take their turn in the trenches, and crashes from his machine.

Here a heavy lorry that has skidded into a ditch at a wild angle; the driver and his mate sitting near by, marooned on a petrol tin, chewing sandwiches. A crew from the Reconnaissance Regiment huddled in the shelter of a grey armoured car in their thick waterproof overalls, their goggles pushed up, brewing tea.

The blinding flashes of the big guns at night, and the eerie, unwavering beams, far back, of Monty’s Moonlight; and patrols, creeping over the marsh and dykes, cursing it at the skylines.

The new O.C. “A” Company sticks his face with glinting spectacles in the top window of our croft to observe a spandau position. Instantly a vigilant shower of bullets rattled through the roof — he swore afterwards that he had seen them coming – and he spun from the ladder on which he was standing and crashed to the floor, his finger snicked as though by a penknife.

For a moment I thought he was dead, and was bending over him when another burst came through the tiles. There was a tap where a bullet grazed a couple of inches from my brain, leaving a slight dent in my steel helmet.

Another time a heavy German gun pinpointed us, and began to drop enormous shells around Company Headquarters, ranging us carefully. Craters were steadily torn up, slowly creeping closer, until they were straddling us.

Our croft was not strong. At length we fled, and in the nick of time, tumbling from the cellar with no dignity at all, map-cases flapping, wireless headphones flying; the lot of us. The next two shells were direct hits. The croft caved in on itself and the cellar ceiling gaped at a smudgy November sky. The big gun stopped…

We had thrown ourselves into a section of large concrete drainpiping, conveniently half-buried in the kitchen garden by the original civilian occupants of the place, to form a shelter against the day when the war might sweep over them. It was uncomfortable, dark, and you could barely stand upright, and all curves – but safe.

Inside there was a desperate smell, and a Dutch family, who were in fact the rightful owners of the now-destroyed croft.

We bundled them and their personal belongings, from food to pieces of furniture, on to the Company carrier and evacuated them. The carrier looked like something from a Chaplin reel, only not so funny.

We then found it necessary to empty our new abode of various utensils full of excreta and urine. The family, with small children, had been hiding there for about a fortnight.

There were a few clear days, but most of the time it was raining, with mud and slush being mashed up everywhere and the weather growing colder.

See Robert Woollcombe: Lion Rampant: The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from D-Day to the Rhineland

Contemporary newsreel of British in Holland with section on specialist amphibious transport:

A despatch rider pushes his motorcycle along a flooded road in Holland, past an artillery tractor which has got stuck in a ditch, 8 November 1944.
A despatch rider pushes his motorcycle along a flooded road in Holland, past an artillery tractor which has got stuck in a ditch, 8 November 1944.
German prisoners captured by 53rd (Welsh) Division in Holland, 17 November 1944.
German prisoners captured by 53rd (Welsh) Division in Holland, 17 November 1944.

Rum and Mules over the mountains of Italy

Mules were lying everywhere, their kicking had shot the loads off all over the place, and one mule, I remember, had fallen into a disused slit-trench with only its saddle supporting it on either side of the hole. We started to sort all this mess out, first collecting our own men and leading them on to firmer ground, and then by grabbing any Italian we saw and forcing him to follow. Finally, after what seemed an age we got under way again, and I still had the rum!

A 75mm howitzer of 461 Battery, 85th Mountain Regiment, Royal Artillery, on the Monte Di Rontana, 2 February 1945. The guns were firing at German positions in Isola. A mule train with Basuto muleteers bringing up ammunition can be seen in the background.
A 75mm howitzer of 461 Battery, 85th Mountain Regiment, Royal Artillery, on the Monte Di Rontana, 2 February 1945. The guns were firing at German positions in Isola. A mule train with Basuto muleteers bringing up ammunition can be seen in the background.

Whether it was in ships crossing the remote fringes of the Pacific or in the high mountain passes of Italy, huge armies of men, many times larger than forces on the front line, were devoted to bringing up ammunition and supplies. The war could not go on without them.

The Mule Corp in Italy had the manpower of more than five divisions, and more than 30,000 mules, was a vital part of the supply chain.

Sergeant J. Tuvey describes what the movement of an individual mule train over the mountains of Italy actually involved during November 1944:

We gathered at the mule point at Appolinare in the afternoon. Captain C. E. Cullen was in charge of our train, which consisted of forty mules, twenty Italian muleteers, five British soldiers, and myself. We loaded the animals with mortar bombs, machine gun ammunition, rations, wireless spare parts, etc., and, most important of all, rum!

There was another mule train also waiting near by, which was to leave before ours. In addition there were several other mule trains at Sassaleone which were to use the track to Ripiano as well, so timing was of the utmost importance.

We started about 1605 hours. Great, heavy clouds hung overhead, and any minute we expected our daily downpour. Far in front we could see the other mule trains crawling like ants over the mountains. The going was very hard in the mud, but we were making fairly good progress, and I had high hopes of eating in Ronchi by 1930 hours.

No one spoke, and the only sounds were the jangling of harness and the squelching of mud. Then suddenly, things began to happen. It was just about dark and the rain was starting, when there was a short whistle and a “crump”, then another, then another, and we realised that the first mule train was being well and truly “stonked”.

Captain Cullen immediately halted the column and we took the opportunity to adjust our gas-capes as the rain was sweeping down in great gusts. The shelling didn’t last long and in a few minutes we had started, bending forward against the rain.

Immediately we began to descend into Ripiano valley, I realised that nothing we had gone through so far was going to compare with what was to come. The mud got thicker and deeper, until in parts it reached up to my thigh. As darkness was now well and truly upon us, black as ink, I couldn’t see farther than the mule in front of me.

First one mule, then two, get stuck in the mire, and in their frantic efforts to free themselves they threw their loads. One man who got waist-deep in the ooze was pulled out minus his boots, socks, and gaiters. I, at the rear had only a vague idea what was going on from the shouts and yells.

I had previously fallen over the dead bodies of both Germans and Americans at the top of the ridge; what with those and the driving rain now worse than ever, coupled with the terrific job of getting one foot in front of the other.

I realised that the Italian muleteers wouldn’t stand very much more and would be deserting at any moment. I decided to go forward and give Captain Cullen a hand. By great luck I soon stumbled into him and he told me that he was going to try to find an alternative route. Many of the mules were now belly deep in the mud, and in the pitch darkness and rain it was impossible to know how many we had lost.

As I was floundering around trying to reorganise our column, I was suddenly confronted by a mule train coming the other way. In vain I tried to stop it running into ours. They just merged, and to add to the confusion the original train, which had set out before us, had now collected its scattered forces and was even now up to the rear of our lot.

So there were about a hundred mules and men, feet deep in mud, in a horrid tangled mess on a pitch-black night in driving rain. To this was added the fear of further shelling. It was just then, when things looked really grim, that I had my second stroke of luck. I stumbled into Captain Cullen once more, who told me that he had found a new way down the hill to the stream in the valley.

Mules were lying everywhere, their kicking had shot the loads off all over the place, and one mule, I remember, had fallen into a disused slit-trench with only its saddle supporting it on either side of the hole. We started to sort all this mess out, first collecting our own men and leading them on to firmer ground, and then by grabbing any Italian we saw and forcing him to follow. Finally, after what seemed an age we got under way again, and I still had the rum!

On reaching the river at the bottom of the hill, we again ran into further trouble. The rope across was still there, but the first step that Captain Cullen took into it covered his thighs. We managed to pull him out and I suggested a good swig of rum. This did the trick, for he made the other side first time. Then after endless trouble we got every-one else across and got to Ripiano without further incident.

There, we started to sort out the mules with the machine gun kit and those with the mortar kit, as Captain Cullen had still to go down the valley to Ronchi with the latter.

You can therefore imagine our astonishment when we found that we had six mules over and above our original number! The Italian muleteers had simply decided to follow the main party wherever it was going.’

This account appears in Brian Harpur: Impossible Victory: A Personal Account of the Battle for the River Po

Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.
Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.

A US Army patrol sets out to get prisoners

As the squad leader, I was next, a buck or staff sergeant, carrying an M1 rifle, bandoliers, grenades, and a knife. At this period during World War II, there was little chance that today’s infantry squad leader had come off the boat with the same grade. A squad leader directed and led eleven men. He was combat experienced and had come up through the ranks, by attrition.

An American patrol in the Hurtgen Forest in late 1944.
An American patrol in the Hurtgen Forest in late 1944.

In early October 20 year old Private William Meller had arrived on the borders of Germany and joined I Company, 110th Regiment, 28th Divison as a rifleman. The bitter struggle for the Huertgen Forest was now fully engaged and casualties were mounting. By mid November Meller was Sergeant Squad Leader. He would be taking on even more responsibilities during the next month, before he found himself in the Ardennes in mid December.

For the moment, he like all the men around him were concentrating on surviving. The orders to participate in an 11 man patrol to go out and get prisoners on the 13th Novemember were unwelcome:

There was one thing above all others that an infantryman did not want to hear, and I had just heard it. Very seldom did we catch an enemy sentry by surprise or capture the enemy without someone getting hurt.

Meller describes the composition of the patrol:

We began the patrol formation with two scouts out front. They carried M1 rifles with ammunition bandoliers over their shoulders, and hand grenades. Their job was to lead the patrol and keep it out of trouble. Usually this job fell to first—class privates.

These men commanded respect, and they deserved it. They knew where we were going and would find the best way to get us there. They were the eyes and ears and signaled the leader upon contact with the enemy or when reaching the objective. They reminded me of books I had read about Daniel Boone and how he made his way in the wilderness.

Sometimes the scouts even looked like Daniel Boone. They usually drew enemy fire. This was a dangerous job. Scouts were valuable. When they’re skillful, they’re invaluable. So much depends upon their skill and judgment. We’ve lost many of them.

The platoon guide came next with an M1 rifle, bandoliers, and grenades. Sometimes he followed in the rear. He was the equivalent of an assistant platoon sergeant; they worked closely together. A guide was a staff or technical sergeant who had come up through the ranks. If he had been around for a while, he was a blessing.

Next was the platoon leader, a first or second lieutenant, depending on his longevity. He carried a carbine, a Colt .45, and grenades. The platoon leader was supposed to give the orders and the sergeant saw that they were carried out. The platoon leader and the platoon sergeant were closely allied.

The platoon sergeant was really the key, as he usually had all the combat experience and general know-how. He did his hest to keep the officer out of trouble, which also kept us out of trouble. We learned to depend upon the platoon sergeant.

Infantry platoon sergeants were technical sergeants, highly regarded and worth their weight in gold. He carried an M1 rifle, bandoliers, and grenades. He was our backbone; don’t leave home without one.

The reason for this was simple: a platoon sergeant came up through the ranks. By the time he had earned five stripes, he had had combat experience and been around for some time. He had already heen a squad leader and understood the duties. He had also been a rifleman and knew the hazards. Just the fact that he was still alive spoke for itself.

On the other hand, infantry replacement platoon leaders were usually fresh off the boat with little or no combat experience. They didn’t really know how to stay alive, but they were supposed to lead forty men. When a platoon leader was new, he was a detriment and ripe for the casualty list. If he hung on, he was promoted to company commander. Either way it was a high-turnover job.

As the squad leader, I was next, a buck or staff sergeant, carrying an M1 rifle, bandoliers, grenades, and a knife. At this period during World War II, there was little chance that today’s infantry squad leader had come off the boat with the same grade. A squad leader directed and led eleven men. He was combat experienced and had come up through the ranks, by attrition. Today, we had no assistant squad leader. The combat infantry division was built from the base of competent squad leaders.

The radioman, a private, stayed close to the platoon leader, carried a Colt .45, and hoped he wouldn’t have to use it.

A first—class private or corporal carried a Browning Automatic Rifle. This is a heavy, cumbersome weapon that makes considerable noise when fired. It poured out .3O—caliber bullets similar to a light machine gun. Because of the noise it creates, it often drew enemy fire.

For this reason, some soldiers were reluctant to carry the BAR. But the firepower of this weapon was most welcome in a combat squad. When the enemy heard that noise, they knew exactly what it was and, more so, where it was. This in itself was dangerous. The ammunition carrier, a private, handled the bulky ammunition clips for the BAR man. He also carried a Colt .45 or M1 rifle and was ready to take over if the BAR man went down, which they often did.

In the rear followed any number of riflemen the platoon leader designated. These riemen were privates. They carried M1 rifles, bandoliers, and grenades.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

This may have been how the average US soldiers approached battle. It was not the way of James Spurrier Jr, who was known to the US Army as Junior J. Spurrier because of the way he had filled in his enlistment form in 1940.

On 13th November Spurrier earned a reputation as a “One Man Army” and a Medal of Honor for his role in capturing the town of Achain almost single-handed:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy at Achain, France, on 13 November 1944.

At 2 p.m., Company G attacked the village of Achain from the east. S/Sgt. Spurrier armed with a BAR passed around the village and advanced alone. Attacking from the west, he immediately killed 3 Germans. From this time until dark, S/Sgt. Spurrier, using at different times his BAR and Ml rifle, American and German rocket launchers, a German automatic pistol, and handgrenades, continued his solitary attack against the enemy regardless of all types of small-arms and automatic-weapons fire.

As a result of his heroic actions he killed an officer and 24 enlisted men and captured 2 officers and 2 enlisted men. His valor has shed fresh honor on the U.S. Armed Forces.

US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.
US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.

Operation Catechism – the Tirpitz is finally sunk

Just then Flying Officer Eric Giersch the rear gunner called out, ‘I think she is turning over.’ I turned back to port to have a look and sure enough she was, so back we went again. This time we flew in at 50 feet and watched with baited breath as Tirpitz heeled over to port, ever so slowly and gracefully.

The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
A Royal Navy photograph taken during an earlier attack.

On 12th November thirty two RAF and RAAF Lancaster bombers left England in the early hours of the morning, arriving over Norway at low level. All the aircraft had been modified to accommodate the the Tallboy bombs that they carried, and all had the specialist Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight that enabled them to aim the bombs with pinpoint accuracy from the altitude that the bombs needed.

It was the ninth attempt by the RAF to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, the twenty-fifth by British forces – including actions by Royal Navy aircraft and midget submarines. The ship had been hit by bombs before – but they had not been able to penetrate the four inch thick deck armour.

At 0930 the Lancasters began to rise to bombing height, 14,000 feet, and in doing so revealed themselves to German radar. German fighters at Bardufoss should have been in a good position to intervene but for some reason they did not appear. One factor was that the Luftwaffe had not been informed that the Tirpitz had recently been moved to a new location.

Wing Commander Willy Tait led the attack:

She was a black shape clearly seen against the clear waters of the fjord, surrounded by the snow-covered hills, which were glowing pink in the low Arctic sun. A plume of smoke rose slowly from the big ship’s funnel.

When the force was about ten miles away the peaceful scene changed suddenly; the ship opened fire with her main armament and billows of orange-brown smoke, shot through by the flashes of the guns, hid her for a moment and then drifted away.

At 0941 the first of 29 Tallboy bombs was released, from 14,000 feet they accelerated to 750 mph (1,210 km/h), approaching the speed of sound, for maximum damage on impact. Eight minutes later it was all over.

One 12,000 pounder apparently hit the Tirpitz amidships, another in the bows and a third towards the stern and there were also two very near misses which must themselves have done serious underwater damage. These displaced sandbanks that had been dredged to prevent the ship keeling over.

The last significant German naval threat to arctic convoys had at last been conclusively neutralised. Around a thousand German sailors were trapped below decks, doomed to a watery grave.

A special 463 Squadron RAAF movie-Lancaster captained by Flight Lieutenant Bruce Buckham DFC RAAF was the last aircraft on the scene, they went in low, despite the shore batteries which remained in action after the Tirpitz herself had ceased firing:

We flew over it, around it, all about it and still it sat there with dignity under a huge mushroom of smoke which plumed up a few thousand feet in the air.

There were fires and more explosions on board; a huge gaping hole existed on the port side where a section had been blown out. We had now been flying close around Tirpitz for 30 minutes or so and decided to call it a day, so we headed out towards the mouth of the fjord.

Just then Flying Officer Eric Giersch the rear gunner called out, ‘I think she is turning over.’ I turned back to port to have a look and sure enough she was, so back we went again. This time we flew in at 50 feet and watched with baited breath as Tirpitz heeled over to port, ever so slowly and gracefully.

We could see German sailors swimming, diving, jumping and by the time she was over to 85° and subsiding slowly into the water of Tromso Fjord, there must have been the best part of 60 men on her side as we skimmed over for the last pass.

That was the final glimpse we had as we flew out of the fjord and over the North Sea. After a 14-hour flight we landed back at Waddington where the interrogation was conducted by Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane. When asked how it went, my one remark was, ‘Well we won’t have to go back after this one; Tirpitz is finished’

These account appears in Martin Bowman: Bomber Command: Armageddon (27 September 1944 – May 1945) v. 5: Reflections of War .

Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels. Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels.
Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF

Contemporary newsreel:

Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 'KC-D', at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 ‘KC-D’, at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.

Hitler faces the collapse of German industry

An extensive search showed that high production of armaments could in fact be continued, but only for a few months more. Hitler accepted a last “emergency or supplementary program,” as we called it, with a calm that seemed truly uncanny. He did not waste a word on the obvious implications, although there could be no doubt what these were.

Albert Speer at a ceremony to encourage armaments workers earlier in 1944.
Albert Speer at a ceremony to encourage armaments workers earlier in 1944.
Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.
Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.

Few could now rationally believe that Germany could last much longer. With the Allies on or approaching the German borders, in both the east and west, Germany itself was under almost constant bombardment from the bombers. Even if many of the secret weapons programmes had moved underground and continued production, the basic necessities of coal and fuel were in such short supply that it was undermining the whole economy.

Among the the critical targets that had recently been successfully put out of action was the Dortmund Ems canal, a long term objective for the RAF.

Hitler did not need rational assessments, however, and they were unwelcome to him. All he needed was people to keep their faith in him. One of the few men who had come close to becoming his friend, Albert Speer, Armaments Minister, discovered how Hitler now preferred the unwavering zeal of his deputy, Karl-Otto Saur:

On November 11 a new note of alarm entered my frequent memoranda on shutdowns in the fuel industry. For more than six weeks, traffic to and from the Ruhr area had been blocked.

“It is self-evident, given the whole nature of the Reich’s economic structure,” I wrote to Hitler, “that cessation of production in the Rhine-Westphalian industrial area is intolerable for the entire German economy and for a successful conduct of the war… The most important armaments plants are reported on the verge of going under. Under existing conditions there is no way to avoid these shutdowns.”

Denied fresh supplies of Ruhr coal, I continued, the railroads were rapidly exhausting their stocks of coal, as were the gas works; oil and margarine plants were on the verge of shutdowns, and even the supply of coke to the hospitals had become inadequate.

Things were literally moving rapidly toward the end. Signs of total anarchy loomed before us. Coal trains no longer reached their destinations but were stopped en route by Gauleiters [the Nazi regional commanders] who confiscated it for their own needs. The buildings in Berlin were unheated; gas and electricity were available only during restricted hours. A howl arose from the Chancellery: Our coal authority had refused to let it have its full consignment for the rest of the winter.

Faced with this situation we could no longer carry out our programs, but only try to produce parts. Once our remaining stocks were used up, armaments production would cease. In drawing this conclusion I underestimated – as no doubt the enemy air strategists did also — the large stocks of materials that had been accumulated in the factories.

An extensive search showed that high production of armaments could in fact be continued, but only for a few months more. Hitler accepted a last “emergency or supplementary program,” as we called it, with a calm that seemed truly uncanny. He did not waste a word on the obvious implications, although there could be no doubt what these were.

Around this time Hitler, at a situation conference, commented in the presence of all the generals: “We have the good fortune to have a genius in our armaments industry. I mean Saur. All difficulties are being overcome by him.”

General Thomale put in a tactful word: “Mein Fuhrer, Minister Speer is here.” “Yes, I know,” Hitler replied curtly, annoyed at the interruption. “But Saur is the genius who will master the situation.”

Oddly enough, I swallowed this deliberate insult without any perturbation, almost indiiferently. I was beginning to take my leave of Hitler.

See Albert Speer: Inside the Third Reich

Hitler had not been photographed  in public since the July bomb plot, when images proving he was still alive were swiftly released.
Hitler had not been photographed in public since the July bomb plot, when images proving he was still alive were swiftly released.

USS Mount Hood and crew lost in massive explosion

I was coming up the ladder from below decks when a tremendous blast threw me against the bulkhead and partially down the ladder… my first thought was that we had been hit by a torpedo. Got topside in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds, just in time to see the initial smoke and flame of the Hood’s explosion. I was mesmerized by what I saw next… the column of smoke rose straight up, and “mushroomed” at the top… a complete preview of how the A-bomb looked a year later. Within one or two minutes a terrific wave rocked the ship.

USS Mount Hood (AE-11) off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, on July 16, 1944. She is painted in camouflage Measure 32, Design 18F.
USS Mount Hood (AE-11) off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, on July 16, 1944. She is painted in camouflage Measure 32, Design 18F.

Exactly a year after being named after a volcano in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, the USS Mount Hood was lying at berth off Manus island in the Admiralty Islands north of New Guinea. With around 4000 tons of different types of ammunition aboard, USS Mount Hood had travelled from Norfolk, Virginia via the Panama Canal to the Pacific, bringing munitions for ships that would be supporting the Philippines campaign.

She was busy this morning, men were in the process of moving ammunition in all five of her holds, but there was time to run 18 men into shore at 0830. Just 20 minutes later the remaining 249 men on the ship would be disappear in a cloud of smoke.

The explosion of the USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands on November 10, 1944. The smoke trails are left by fragments ejected by the explosion. The explosion was not due to enemy action; its cause has never been determined. The USS Mindanao (ARG-3), which lay about 300 m away, was heavily damaged by this explosion and 180 of her crewmen were killed or injured. The Mount Hood had been a new ship, commissioned on July 1, 1944.
The explosion of the USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands on November 10, 1944. The smoke trails are left by fragments ejected by the explosion. The explosion was not due to enemy action; its cause has never been determined. The USS Mindanao (ARG-3), which lay about 300 m away, was heavily damaged by this explosion and 180 of her crewmen were killed or injured. The Mount Hood had been a new ship, commissioned on July 1, 1944.

At 0850, local time, on 10 November 1944, USS Argonne lay moored to a buoy in Berth 14, Seeadler Harbor. The USS Mount Hood (AE-11) (Ammunition Ship-11) was 1,100 yards away. USS Argonne’s captain, Commander T. H. Escott:

At the time of the explosion, I was standing outside my cabin… in conversation with the executive officer. By the time we had recovered our stance from the force of the explosion, and faced outboard, the area in the vicinity of Berth 380 (where USS Mount Hood had lay moored) was completely shrouded in a pall of dense black smoke. It was not possible to see anything worth reporting. A second or so thereafter, fragments of steel and shrapnel began falling on and around this ship.

Some 221 pieces of debris, ranging in size from one to 150 pounds, were recovered on board, totalling 1,300 pounds. Several other pieces caromed off USS Argonne’s port side into the water alongside, and others landed on YF-681 (Freight Lighter-681) and YO-77 (Oil Barge -77), the latter alongside delivering fuel oil at the time.

USS Mindanao (ARG-3) (Internal Combustion Engine Repair Ship-3), suffered heavily, moored in a berth between the disintegrating ammunition ship and USS Argonne. Riddled with shrapnel, USS Mindanao suffered 23 killed and 174 wounded in the explosion. USS Argonne suffered casualties, too, as well as the destruction of a 12-inch searchlight, five transmitting antennas broken away, and steam, fresh-water, and salt-water lines ruptured… as well as extensive damage from concussion.

USS Mount Hood (AE-11), smoke cloud expanding, just after she exploded in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Photographed by a photographer of the 57th Construction Battalion, who had set up his camera to take pictures of the Battalion's camp.
USS Mount Hood (AE-11), smoke cloud expanding, just after she exploded in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Photographed by a photographer of the 57th Construction Battalion, who had set up his camera to take pictures of the Battalion’s camp.

D.D. Haverley was among a party of 30 Torpedomen waiting to go ashore from the USS Rainier to be assigned to other ships:

I was coming up the ladder from below decks when a tremendous blast threw me against the bulkhead and partially down the ladder… my first thought was that we had been hit by a torpedo. Got topside in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds, just in time to see the initial smoke and flame of the Hood’s explosion. I was mesmerized by what I saw next… the column of smoke rose straight up, and “mushroomed” at the top… a complete preview of how the A-bomb looked a year later. Within one or two minutes a terrific wave rocked the ship.

As I watched the mushroom cloud, I became instantly aware of large and small objects falling from the sky, landing in the water, some very close to us. I can not speak for the thoughts of the skipper of our ship, but suspect that he felt that the harbor was under attack, wanted to get the hell out of there, and wanted to dump us 30 Torpedo men ASAP… we were ferried to shore at once.

About the time we got to shore, the first small craft with casualties started to come in… do not recall if it was raining, but do recall that there was “red mud” everywhere. The utter chaos was a scene from hell.

Initially I thought that because the 30 of us were “ammo savvy”, that was the reason we were immediately pressed into service… the reality was, that here were 30 strong backs that were badly needed.

As the various types of small craft arrived at the beach for the next few hours, it was our job to carry the individual metal “litters” up from the beach, to a growing line of ambulances. Each litter held a body, or parts of a body…as we got near the first ambulance, a corpsman checked each litter, quickly determining the ones that held a “live” body… those were taken to the next waiting ambulance. The corpsman would say “he’s dead, over there” or “in the ambulance”.

Those that were dead or contained only body parts, were laid out three abreast, and soon piles were made with three litters laid crosswise, and three high.

After a few hours in the tropic heat, someone initially decreed that a bulldozer should dig a deep and long trench for burial purposes, basically one big “mass grave”, and the bull dozing began. It was at this point a Chaplain (I do not know his name or denomination) stepped in, and with God-given fury , he stopped the concept of a mass grave and demanded INDIVIDUAL graves for each and every body.

He prevailed, and, there were a number of Japanese prisoners of war on the island who were forced to dig the individual graves. All I could think when I heard that, was “GREAT ! HOW APPROPRIATE !”

Explosion of USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Small craft gathered around USS Mindanao (ARG-3) during salvage and rescue efforts shortly after Mount Hood blew up about 350 yards away from Mindanao's port side. Mindanao, and seven motor minesweepers (YMS) moored to her starboard side, were damaged by the blast, as were the USS Alhena (AKA-9) (in the photo's top left center) and USS Oberrender (DE-344), (top right). Note the extensive oil slick, with tracks through it made by small craft.
Explosion of USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Small craft gathered around USS Mindanao (ARG-3) during salvage and rescue efforts shortly after Mount Hood blew up about 350 yards away from Mindanao’s port side. Mindanao, and seven motor minesweepers (YMS) moored to her starboard side, were damaged by the blast, as were the USS Alhena (AKA-9) (in the photo’s top left center) and USS Oberrender (DE-344), (top right). Note the extensive oil slick, with tracks through it made by small craft.

This was the subsequent account of CDR Chester Gile, USNR,Ret., published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Feb., 1963:

Conversations must have been choked off in mid-word, gestures interrupted in mid-air, thoughts ended at mid-point. One moment she was a ship teeming with life, humming with activity. Seconds later, she was a vast black billowing bier which momentarily marked the spot where 350 US Navymen perished without a trace.

Mount Hood was anchored in approximately 35 feet of water. The force of the explosion blasted a trench in the harbor bottom, reported by divers as 1000 feet long, 200 feet wide and 85 feet maximum depth. In the trench was found the largest piece of the ship’s hull- a piece less than 100 feet in it’s longest dimension. Destruction was complete. Nothing was found after the explosion except fragments of metal which struck other ships. There were no bits of human remains, no supplies of any kind, nothing that had been made of wood or paper, with the single exception of a few tattered pieces of a signal notebook, floating on the water several hundred yards away.

The flying fragments from Mount Hood smashed into some 30 other ships and harbor craft bringing the total casualties to nearly 1000 killed or wounded. Some of the harbor craft simply vanished with all hands…

For some unknown reason, Mt. Hood had been anchored in the midst of the ships of the Seventh Fleet Service Force. Casualties to other vessels would have been minimized if the ammunition ship had been spotted at an isolated location a few miles down harbor, off the ammunition supply depot at Lugos, the customary anchorage for ships of this type. Somebody was at fault for designating an anchorage for Mount Hood so near to the other ships.

For more from these and many other accounts see USS Mount Rainier. Includes a transcript of the subsequent official investigation, which simply attributed the accident to “rough handling” of ammunition, without being able to be any more specific.

This account is from David Greenroos a 16 year old Navy man on the USS Mindanao:

Our last anchorage was Seeadler Harbour in the Admiralty Islands, not too far from New Guinea. This was one of the world,s largest natural harbors. I once counted 400 large ships, cruisers, battleships, freighters, troopships, etc. that were anchored briefly in the harbor, preparing for the invasion of Japan. The harbor was relatively empty when the Mt. Hood blew up. If it had blown up while the harbor was crowded, the death toll could have been ten or twenty thousand or more.

Many times, my buddies and I would look over at the Mt. Hood, and we could discern that it flew the ammunition ship flag with the E on it. In fact, we called it the E-11. We often remarked to each other that that ship was illegally parked, according to navy regulations, because an ammunition ship is supposed to be anchored thousands of yards away from other ships. We often felt very uneasy because it was there week after week.

On the morning of the explosion, I had started to work early with a new helper who had been assigned to me. His name was Italo Skortachini, an Italian kid, from New York, I think. There were six minesweepers tied alongside our ship for routine maintenance and repairs, and I was on the outermost of these minesweepers, and Italo was holding a heavy piece of metal for me to weld on a damaged railing of this minesweeper. When the blast happened, I was temporarily knocked unconscious for a second or two. I know that it was very brief because debris hadn,t started falling from the sky yet.

The blast was so strong that it blew off most of my clothes except my underwear, including my shoes. The first thing that I saw was half of Italo’s body on one side of the deck and the other half on the other side. It could have been the sheet of metal that he was holding for me that cut him in half. When I got to my feet, the captain of the minesweeper came out of his cabin and was looking toward my ship, and a flying piece of steel came through the air and impaled him like a spear to the cabin wall, It was in the center of his chest., and he gasped a little bit and then seemed to die.

Debris began to fall from the sky at this time. A large artillery shell fell on the deck, right at my feet, just as a crew member of the minesweeper came up from below. All of the minesweepers were made of wood, so as not to attract magnetic mines as the ship went about its work clearing minefields. The shell did not penetrate the heavy wooden deck of the minesweeper, and just lay there at our feet. I looked at him, and he looked at me. He asked, “Should we run?” I said, “Nobody can run that fast if it blows up. Let’s throw it overboard.” And that’s exactly what we did, expecting to be blown to bits at any second. Meanwhile, he said that there were dead men below, the ship had split open, and we were starting to sink. There were dead and dying and drowning people all around us at this point.

Read the full account at http://ussrainier.com/greenroos.html.

Salvage and rescue work underway on USS Mindanao (ARG-3) shortly after the USS Mount Hood (AE-11) blew up about 350 yards (320 m) away. Note the heavy damage to Mindanao '​s hull and superstructure, including large holes from fragment impacts.
Salvage and rescue work underway on USS Mindanao (ARG-3) shortly after the USS Mount Hood (AE-11) blew up about 350 yards (320 m) away. Note the heavy damage to Mindanao ’​s hull and superstructure, including large holes from fragment impacts.

An improvised method of clearing the German ‘Schu’ mine

During this battle we had to deal with a quarter of a million mines, the worst of these was the Schu mine which was made of wood and could not be detected. These mines were causing a continuous stream of casualties with horrific injuries. The accepted way to find these mines was to crawl along on hands and knees prodding the ground in front with bayonets. Under heavy fire, an unpleasant task, coupled with the loss of those of us, who unfortunately, prodded them in the wrong place and paid with our lives.

The Schu-mine 42 (Shoe-mine), also known as the Schützenmine 42, was a German Anti-personnel mine.  It consisted of a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram (7.1 oz) block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator.  A slot in the lid pressed down on the striker retaining pin, sufficient pressure on the lid caused the pin to move, releasing the striker which triggered the detonator.'
The Schu-mine 42 (Shoe-mine), also known as the Schützenmine 42, was a German Anti-personnel mine. It consisted of a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram (7.1 oz) block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator.A slot in the lid pressed down on the striker retaining pin, sufficient pressure on the lid caused the pin to move, releasing the striker which triggered the detonator.’
A mine-detecting part of 3rd Division at work, 25 November 1944. The leading man is wearing special protective clothing and 'skis' to spread his weight on the ground.
A mine-detecting part of 3rd Division at work, 25 November 1944. The leading man is wearing special protective clothing and ‘skis’ to spread his weight on the ground.

After the bitter struggle for Overloon and Venray, the British still confronted a determined German defensive position west of the Meuse River. The advance slowed as the British tried to replace heavy casualties and then became a miserable slogging match for the remainder of November.

The Germans had by now ample time to build their defences. While Hitler was placing his faith in his miracle weapons – the V2 continued to hit London and Antwerp – some of the simplest technologies were to prove very effective in establishing defensive positions.

Royal Engineer Brian Guy describes how their tactics evolved in the field:

We were now battering at the gates of the German homeland on the Dutch side of the border in the Limburg area, and had to set about breaking his hold on the vital Dutch/German border areas. What follows is a recollection of one of the hardest fought, bloodthirsty, and sometimes, for us, very peculiar episodes of the war in North West Europe.

This battle took place in driving rain amongst the muddy tracks that wandered through the dense conifer woods and over the Molen Beek, this little stream that had been mined on the banks and even under the water, and at the same time was under heavy shell and mortar fire.

Sometimes, sadly, whole groups of men were blown to pieces. During this ferocious fighting, our guns at Oploo made the ground tremble beneath our feet. But by now Overloon and Venraij lay safely in our hands, taken against fierce resistance. Meanwhile we had to deal with a new type of mine: we called them Rigler mines.

Under heavy fire we cleared them by the thousands, and not knowing what to do with them, we stacked them up in ditches or on top of the ground criss-crossed in stacks. With an officer on a motor bike, I made my way down from our battle area to where they were clearing the thickest of these mines and on the way we had to run over a dead Gennan who was lying in the deep-rutted sand tracks. We could not avoid him, the sand ruts were very deep.

When we got there the officer told one of the men to take a mine off away from the rest and see if it was booby trapped. We had turned round and were on our way back to our own area of the fighting when, from behind us, came a gigantic explosion. We yanked the bike around and went back but the whole area was devastated, swept clean of all life.

All those that had been present had disappeared. Sadly, as happens in these circumstances, we put wooden crosses there in the knowledge that later, when they were to be buried in a proper place, there would be noth- ing for the burial squad to find.

During this battle we had to deal with a quarter of a million mines, the worst of these was the Schu mine which was made of wood and could not be detected. These mines were causing a continuous stream of casualties with horrific injuries. The accepted way to find these mines was to crawl along on hands and knees prodding the ground in front with bayonets. Under heavy fire, an unpleasant task, coupled with the loss of those of us, who unfortunately, prodded them in the wrong place and paid with our lives.

How to counter this carnage? Then someone came up with the idea of getting an ordinary garden roller which we did. We welded spikes around the roller barrel, then a soldier would push this roller in front of him, and when it went over a Schu mine, it would blow up and the garden roller would fly up in the air on its specially elongated handle, and then drop down again.

To protect the soldier, he had a cut down gas mask over his eyes with long gauntlet gloves and a woven rope protector strapped round his groin.

Just try to imagine a full scale, ferocious war going on, with heavy aitilleiy and mortar fire and, in the middle of it all, a lonely soldier pushing a garden roller across the battle field and in not too much of a huny, in case he went too quickly and missed detonating the mine. I was one of those lonely soldiers.

And this was demonstrated in front of Field Marshal Montgomery’s second in com- mand, Air Vice Marshal Tedder.

The outcome of all this was, a short entry in the company’s war diaries, stating simply: “The garden roller experiment was a washout.” In fact, it worked surprisingly well, but could not cope with uneven ground.

Shortly after this episode Brian Guy was seriously wounded and flown back to England, eventually being discharged with a 100% disability pension. This account appears in Charlotte Popescu (ed):War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War.

A sapper of No. 1 Dog Platoon, 277th Field Park Company, Royal Engineers, with his dog 'Nigger', Bayeux, 5 July 1944. The dogs were used to hunt for mines, especially the all-wooden 'Shoe Mine' which was otherwise undetectable.
A sapper of No. 1 Dog Platoon, 277th Field Park Company, Royal Engineers, with his dog ‘Nigger’, Bayeux, 5 July 1944. The dogs were used to hunt for mines, especially the all-wooden ‘Shoe Mine’ which was otherwise undetectable.
A Bren gunner of the 8th Royal Scots at Moostdijk, Holland, 6 November 1944
A Bren gunner of the 8th Royal Scots at Moostdijk, Holland, 6 November 1944

Patton’s Third Army resumes the attack – towards Metz

I woke up at 0300 on the morning of November 8, 1944, and it was raining very hard. I tried to go to sleep, but finding it impossible, got up and started to read Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks. By chance I turned to a chapter describing a fight in the rain in September, 1914. This was very reassuring because I felt that if the Germans could do it I could, so went to sleep and was awakened at 0515 by the artillery preparation.

Eisenhower and Patton confer together in October 1944.
Eisenhower and Patton confer together in October 1944.
The men of US 3rd Army deal with the mud of Lorraine, October 1944.
The men of US 3rd Army deal with the mud of Lorraine, October 1944.

The town of Metz lies on the French German border, and had lain within both countries during the preceding century, and had been heavily fortified by both countries. The Germans had occupied it in 1940 and it had again reverted back to German territory. Now Hitler saw it as a fortress city to be defended to the death, a major obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany.

After the U.S. Third Army had raced across France they had suffered a frustrating time as the Allied supply lines stretched out and they lacked the fuel and the ammunition to push forward. Once they were ready to go again they faced another frustration – the wet climate of north west Europe’s winters. The scene was set for a miserable and bloody confrontation, one that would continue to frustrate the Army commander, George S. Patton:

I woke up at 0300 on the morning of November 8, 1944, and it was raining very hard. I tried to go to sleep, but finding it impossible, got up and started to read Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.

By chance I turned to a chapter describing a fight in the rain in September, 1914. This was very reassuring because I felt that if the Germans could do it I could, so went to sleep and was awakened at 0515 by the artillery preparation.

The rain had stopped and the stars were out. The discharge of over seven hundred guns sounded like the slamming of so many heavy doors in an empty house, while the whole eastern sky glowed and trembled with the flashes.

I even had a slight feeling of sympathy for the Germans, who must now have known that the attack they had been fearing had at last arrived. I complacently remembered that I had always “Demanded the impossible,” that I had “Dared extreme occasion,” and that I had “Not taken counsel of my fears.”

At 0745, Bradley called up to see if we were attacking. I had not let him know for fear I might get a stop order. He seemed delighted that we were going ahead. Then General Eisenhower came on the phone and said, “I expect you to carry the ball all the way.”

Codman, Stiller, and I immedi- ately drove to the Observation Post of the XII Corps, but there was so much artificial fog and smoke from the pots covering the bridges that we could see little. At about 1000, fighter-bombers appeared in force and attacked the known enemy command posts. The day was the brightest and best we had had for two months.

I visited the Headquarters of the 80th, 35th, and 26th Divisions and also saw General Wood. By dark that night every unit was on its assigned objective for the day; unfortunately it started to rain.

See George S. Patton: War As I Knew It

Bombing of Metz, Germany  by USAAF - Mission #226, 12 August 1944 Photo taken from: B-17G #42-97781 The '8' Ball MK III 359BS — Altitude: 20,200 feet, Time: 10:46:30 Pilot: 1Lt Lewis M. Walker
Bombing of Metz, Germany by USAAF – Mission #226, 12 August 1944
Photo taken from: B-17G #42-97781 The ‘8’ Ball MK III 359BS — Altitude: 20,200 feet, Time: 10:46:30
Pilot: 1Lt Lewis M. Walker

USAAF Lightnings vs Soviet Yaks over Yugoslavia

I rushed to the airfield. I was running as six American planes swept low over the ground and attacked our Yak-9s, which were taking off. Before reaching the operations office I saw duty aircraft squadron commander, Hero of the Soviet Union, Captain Alexander Koldunov (subsequently twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Air Chief Marshal, Chief of the Air Defense Forces – Deputy Minister of Defense of the USSR), soar aloft with two others.

Early P-38s are shown over California.
Early P-38s are shown over California. France’s Army of the Air was so impressed by Lockheed’s new fighter that it ordered 500 of them in 1940. In an era when “destroyer” or heavy fighters, such as the Me-110, etc. were looked upon as the “heavy cavalry” of the sky, particularly for low level work, the P-38 seemed tallor-made. But it was the turbosupercharged P-38 built for high altitude performance that proved the big fighter’s worth. Unfortunately for early Lightnings, shortages of superchargers kept that important addition off the engines of the Initial production runs and when the British tested their first export P-3Bs, Models 322-16s, they did so without supercharging and the results were mediocre. As a result, production orders for the RAF were cancelled.

On the 7th November the Soviet Army was advancing rapidly near the city of Nis, then in Yugoslavia, now part of Serbia. What happened next, and why, is the subject of a number of different and varying accounts. No doubt both sides tried to keep the matter as quiet as possible at the time, rather than hand a propaganda victory to the Germans.

What is clear is that US Lightning fighter bombers attacked the Soviet ground troops and were themselves then attacked by the Soviet airforce. The number of casualties on both sides varies according to different accounts, but around 30 Soviet troops and airmen died, including General G.P.Kotov. The number of planes shot down in the dogfight above Nis also varies considerably between each account – but several US and Soviet planes were shot down.

It is, apparently, the only occasion in which US and Soviet planes have been in direct combat with each other. Despite all the subsequent provocations and incidents of the Cold War, they never actually fought each other.

Some accounts suggest that the US planes had been invited to provide air support for the Soviet troops but the Soviet advance was so fast that they were 100 kilometres away from where the Americans expected them to be. Other accounts suggest that the US planes navigation was out by an embarrassing 400 kilometres and they made their attack in entirely the wrong location.

Soviet commanders on the scene were not immediately able to understand the situation. This is the account of deputy commander of Squadron 707th Attack Aviation Regiment, 186th Assault Aviation Division, Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel Nikolai Shmelev:

“Morning dawned serene November 7. Enveloped in a light haze city of Nis was decorated with red flags and banners. Aviators of our regiment columns entered the spacious parade ground. Taking the report, Colonel Shevrigin gave the command: “At ease!”.

The deputy commander for political affairs Sivud went into the middle order and ordered the 1st and 3rd Squadron deploy to the middle of the flanks and formed a sort of letter “C”.

“Comrades” Solemnly began Lt. Sivud. “Today, the entire Soviet people celebrate the 27th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist …”

“Run!” interrupted someone . “Fascists dive on our airfield!”

Everything, as if on cue, turned their heads to the south. Because over the mountains flew a large group of aircraft. Some of them had fallen into a dive. I heard muffled cries. One after another, over the airfield the others dived.

“Disperse! In the shelter!” Ordered Shevrigin.

“Tell headquarters!” Ordered Lt. Lopatkin.

“I do not understand” Sivud said as we ran together to the slit trench near the fence. “40 planes! Where did they come from?”

And not only Basil – we were all surprised and puzzled. After all, everyone knew that in our area of ​​the war there were no Nazi aircraft. And then – a whole armada! Suponin, Orlov and I watched from the slit trench, under a tree. They were near to the airport – about two kilometers away. We saw how they dived, one after another, and continued to dive, approaching our parked aircraft … And here they are already very close.

“So it’s not the Germans, the Americans! Allies!” Shouted our pilots, when the aircraft became clearly visible, and we saw the insignia of the US Air Force. Yes, it really was the American “Lightning”.

That morning, the deputy commander of the 866 th Fighter Regiment 288th Fighter Air Division, Major Dmitry Crude (later Hero of the Soviet Union) was standing on a nearby mountain. Visibility was perfect, and he admired the endless stream of infantry, marching in the song with a brass band. “And suddenly we heard solemn sounds” recalled the Major, “the roar of planes. Where are they? What, enemy aircraft on this sector of the front? We can not be absolutely sure there are none. So it’s American planes!

What do our allies want ? The first impression was that they were, on their own initiative, providing air cover for our troops, although this was not needed .”

Meanwhile, another group of planes formed a circle over the city, the other was the call for the bombing. The road shrouded in smoke. Our soldiers waving red flags, white patches, signalling the aviators that they were attacking their allies. But all the bombs fell and continued to fall.

I rushed to the airfield. I was running as six American planes swept low over the ground and attacked our Yak-9s, which were taking off. Before reaching the operations office I saw duty aircraft squadron commander, Hero of the Soviet Union, Captain Alexander Koldunov (subsequently twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Air Chief Marshal, Chief of the Air Defense Forces – Deputy Minister of Defense of the USSR), soar aloft with two others.

I ordered the whole regiment to take off. I managed to repeat several times: “do not open fire! Signal that we are allies. But the Allies shot down another one of our aircraft. The pilot managed to bail out …”

“Look, our “hawks” have soared!” Dmitry Suponin happily pushed me in the side (ground-attack pilot Nikolai Shmelev complements the story of the deputy regiment commander). In the air our group soared away. Landing gear up, our fighters dispersed at maximum speed from the earth and climbed straight up. They immediately went into action. The first pair off attacked the enemy aircraft. To help them, two more aircraft joined in, and soon the whole regiment took off. …

“The air battle flared up even more. The Americans were dropping bombs, first tried to defend himself. But, unable to withstand the onslaught of our fighters, they went into a formation to better cover each other with fire front guns, and went out towards the city.

One of our “Jacobs” promptly dived from a height on an attacking plane and opened fire. 37-mm cannon shell exploded in the center section of the “Lightning” and, burning like a torch, fell to the ground. The Yak slipped forward, but immediately came under fire from another bomber. Machine-gun fire got into the cockpit of the fighter and the nose, he abruptly went down and crashed. Killed by some of our military friends. My eyes filled with tears …

This account appears in Russian at NVO.NG.RU.

Apparently the original documents relating to the incident remain classified in both countries.

Soviet Yak-9s in flight. 'The pilots who flew it regarded its performance as comparable to or better than that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3/A-4.'
Soviet Yak-9s in flight. ‘The pilots who flew it regarded its performance as comparable to or better than that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3/A-4.’
A Yak-3 from Regiment Normandie-Niemen, the French Airforce unit that flew alongside the Soviets on the Eastern Front, in flight. 'The Yak-3 was a forgiving, easy-to-handle aircraft loved by both rookie and veteran pilots and ground crew as well. It was robust, easy to maintain, and a highly successful dog-fighter. It was used mostly as a tactical fighter, flying low over battlefields and engaging in dogfights below 13,000 ft'
A Yak-3 from Regiment Normandie-Niemen, the French Airforce unit that flew alongside the Soviets on the Eastern Front, in flight. ‘The Yak-3 was a forgiving, easy-to-handle aircraft loved by both rookie and veteran pilots and ground crew as well. It was robust, easy to maintain, and a highly successful dog-fighter. It was used mostly as a tactical fighter, flying low over battlefields and engaging in dogfights below 13,000 ft’