The Royal Engineers prepare for D-Day

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.
Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.
The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.
The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.

Following the disaster at Dieppe in 1942 the British had become very wary of making an opposed amphibious landing.

They were now developing a range of new specialised tanks for use in the invasion of France. Correctly known as AVREs – Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers – they became more popularly recognised as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ in tribute to the man responsible for developing them, General Sir Percy Hobart.

As the name suggests the various tanks were operated by the Royal Engineers, although the drivers were men from the Royal Tank Regiment. Each was designed to deal with a particular problem such bridging a tank ditch, or destroying mines with flails and they included the Duplex Drive – DD – swimming tanks used by both British and American forces on D-Day.

Captain Tony Younger was then a young officer with the Royal Engineers and in the early days of 1944 was ordered to test one of these variants, a tank equipped with a Petard Mortar:

We were told to embark and carry out an assault landing on a narrow beach just below Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The novelty of this occasion was that we were told to fire our main armament, the Petard, against the sea wall there, to see if we could knock it down and then drive our tanks up over the rubble and move inland against an imaginary enemy.

I should explain that the Petard was a short (80 yard) range weapon which carried the formidable amount of 26 lbs of high explosive. A wall of anything greater than 5 feet in height is a complete obstacle to a tank and many such walls existed behind the beaches in France.

So the idea was to explode some Petard shots against the wall to smash some part of it to rubble. Then, hopefully, tanks could mount what had been an obstacle and carry the battle farther inland, instead of being stuck on the beach, as they had been on the Dieppe raid.

We knew all about this in theory and here at last was a chance to try it out in practice. The exercise went well; we were landed at the correct place and we succeeded in making ramps which the tanks climbed up. The Petard was very inaccurate, so we had to fire more rounds that we expected, but by the time we left we felt a new confidence in the weapon.

A curious sequel to this training exercise happened several years later when I was serving in Burma. I received a huge bill, addressed to me personally, for the repair of the damage caused by the unit under my command to the sea wall at Osborne during the war.

Some civil servant must have spent months in tracking me down. Anyway, I replied that I had been told to carry out this exercise and that I was just obeying orders and I heard nothing more about it.

However, a few years after that I had a house on the Isle of Wight and I had a look at the wall, to find that it was just as we had left it, with gaping holes made by our Petards.

Tony Younger went on to become a Major General. See Tony Younger: Blowing Our Bridges: A Memoir from Dunkirk to Korea Via Normandy.

The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on "Blue Beach". Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier's head
The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on “Blue Beach”. Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier’s head

Flushing out ‘the Japs’ in the jungle of New Britain

Retreating at first into the jungle of Cape Gloucester, Japanese soldiers finally gathered strength and counterattacked their Marine pursuers.  These machine gunners pushed them back.
Retreating at first into the jungle of Cape Gloucester, Japanese soldiers finally gathered strength and counterattacked their Marine pursuers. These machine gunners pushed them back.

The campaign on New Britain continued. The thick tropical jungle was almost as much of an enemy as the Japanese. The veterans of the US First Marine Division had jungle fighting experience from their time on Guadalcanal. This did not stop the Fifth Marine Regiment getting into a fire fight with the Seventh Marine Regiment as both units probed into the dense vegetation.

Here it was rarely possible to see the enemy that was firing at you. Romus Burgin had joined the 1st Marine Division as a replacement but he had picked up a few ideas from the Guadalcanal veterans:

We all finally caught up with a large body of Japs dug in along the far side of a stream we came to call Suicide Creek. They were screened behind brush, and every time we tried to wade across, they just cut us to pieces. We lost a lot of good men there.

Jim Burke and I were holed up some distance to the right of where the Seventh Marines were trying to cross. There was a small break in the trees, hardly big enough to call a clearing, and we’d set up a five-gallon water can with a canteen cup on top. I got thirsty and walked over to get a drink, all the time watching out for myself.

After I put the cup back on top of the water can and ducked back, Jim went over for a drink. He was just reaching for that cup when there was a shot and the cup flew off into the brush. I felt something hit my sock just in front of my ankle. I looked down and there was a fragment of bullet stuck there, still hot.

Jim took three steps straight back and turned to me and grinned.

“I don’t think I’m that thirsty,” he said.

We knew whoever had fired at us was above our heads, somewhere in the trees, most likely tied in, as we’d learned from the Guadalcanal veterans. We crouched there for a while scanning the branches but all we could see was a green wall of foliage.

So I went off to find K Company’s .30-cal machine gunner. “There’s a Jap sniper up there somewhere, Norman,” I told him. “He’s well camouflaged, but we know he’s there’

Norman set up his tripod and swiveled his gun upward and cut loose, raking the trees back and forth. Bits of leaf and falling branches showered down. There was a sudden crack and a body dropped out of the canopy and jerked to a stop about twenty feet above the ground. When we left he was swinging there upside down with his rifle dangling beneath him.

See R.V. Burgin: Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific

Part of a contemporary US Signal Corps documentary on the invasion of New Britain:


Men of the US First Marines Division at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Bismarck Archipelago, circa late Dec 1943; note jeep being used to haul supplies
Men of the US First Marines Division at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Bismarck Archipelago, circa late Dec 1943; note jeep being used to haul supplies

Malfunction leads to the tragic loss of Spitfire pilot

A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB carrying two 250-lb GP bombs on underwing shackles, prepares to take off from an airfield in North Africa. No. 152 Squadron RAF began the first use of the Spitfire as a fighter bomber in North Africa, flying "Rhubarb" sorties from Souk el Khemis, Tunisia, in March 1943.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB carrying two 250-lb GP bombs on underwing shackles, prepares to take off from an airfield in North Africa. No. 152 Squadron RAF began the first use of the Spitfire as a fighter bomber in North Africa, flying “Rhubarb” sorties from Souk el Khemis, Tunisia, in March 1943.
Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs of No. 152 Squadron RAF being refuelled between sorties at Lentini East, Sicily, as another Spitfire flies over them.
Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs of No. 152 Squadron RAF being refuelled between sorties at Lentini East, Sicily, as another Spitfire flies over them.

No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron RAF were a very experienced unit, having been flying Spitfires since they were on the front line of the Battle of Britain. They had then seen service in North Africa and Sicily. In December 1943 they transferred to India where they would soon be taking an active role in the campaign in Burma.

The 5th January 1944 would have seen just another routine training flight for 152 Squadron. Unfortunately it is remembered for a single tragic mistake or malfunction. The following letter is self explanatory:

5th january 1944 CT Cole

Courtesy of the online museum of No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, where

‘ COLE, Flight Sergeant, CHARLES THOMAS, 1316347. 152 Sqdn. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. 5th January 1944. Age 21. Son of Amy Cole; husband of Marjorie A. Cole, of Longlevens, Gloucestershire.’

is remembered in the the Roll of Honour (worth making sure your speakers are turned up before following this link).

A pilot of No. 152 Squadron RAF climbs into the cockpit of Supermarine Spitfire Mark VC, JG871 ‘L-E’, shortly after the unit re-equipped with the type, at Souk-el-Khemis ("Paddington"), Tunisia.
A pilot of No. 152 Squadron RAF climbs into the cockpit of Supermarine Spitfire Mark VC, JG871 ‘L-E’, shortly after the unit re-equipped with the type, at Souk-el-Khemis (“Paddington”), Tunisia.
Warrant Officer R E Partidge of Brisbane, Australia, (left) and Sergeant Cyril Potter of Northampton, two pilots of No. 152 Squadron RAF at Sinthe, Burma, examine the damage caused to the elevator of Potter's Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII during a dogfight with Japanese 'Oscars'.
Warrant Officer R E Partidge of Brisbane, Australia, (left) and Sergeant Cyril Potter of Northampton, two pilots of No. 152 Squadron RAF at Sinthe, Burma, examine the damage caused to the elevator of Potter’s Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII during a dogfight with Japanese ‘Oscars’.

Stalag Luft III – work resumes on ‘Harry’

An overview of Stammlager Luft III - a permanent camp for airmen - showing  the distance between the huts and the perimeter wire. the tunnel had to extend way beyond the wire
An overview of Stammlager Luft III – a permanent camp for airmen – showing the distance between the huts and the perimeter wire. The tunnel had to extend way beyond the wire for the escapers to avoid being seen by the guards when they made their exit.

In Stalag Luft III a significant proportion of the RAF PoWs continued to regard it as their duty to attempt to escape. During 1943 they had had three tunnels underway – ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, in the belief that one of them must prove successful. Tom had been discovered in September – the 98th tunnel that the Germans discovered in the camp during the war – and they had suspended their escape tunnelling activities to let the heat die down. The partially completed Dick’s planned exit point had now been built over by the Germans. So all hopes rested on Harry, which was also partially completed.

This was a truly international effort directly involving RAF officers from Britain, Canada, Poland, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Norway, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece and Lithuania. It was as much about defying the ‘Krauts’ as it was about a desire to escape, although this was an important motivation for many as well.

After a rebellious Christmas and New Year, in which they had once again provoked the Germans with their insubordinate enjoyment of illicitly brewed liquor, the escapers were eager to get back to tunnelling. Ken Rees was amongst them:

[O]n 4 January, Johnny Bull was called to an X Organisation Committee meeting. He came back into the room, an excited grin on his usually sombre face, and announced that Roger had decreed that operations should begin again.

The idea was that the goons would be far less suspicious of any tunnel-making activity in the harsh Polish wintertime, when the ground was frozen. Roger wanted to blitz Harry, and complete it in a couple of months, but with snow on the ground, the problem of sand dispersal was even more difficult. And with the new American compound on the west side, the only real option was to go north.

This time there wasn’t to be even a hint of any sand to set the goon [German] search-teams in motion. Roger asked the Committee to go away and see if they could come up with any ideas.

I believe it was Fanshawe whose inspired idea it was to use the theatre. The theatre had been built by kriegies; its walls went right down to the foundations, and without any trapdoors in the walls, the ferrets [German soldiers employed to ‘ferret out’ suspicious activity] could not search the large space beneath the floor of the sloping auditorium.

The theatrical crowd were less than happy with this solution; if the theatre were shut a great source of morale would be gone with it. But the SBO [Senior British Officer] declared that escaping was the priority, and after making sure that the theatre was indeed suitable, he gave orders that it could be used.

It was now up to Fanshawe to make the plans for transporting the sand from Harry to the theatre, a distance of about 200 yards. There was also still a useful length of tunnel in Dick which could be filled up, but it was decided to use that as a standby only. Communication between the blocks was allowed up to 10 pm, when we were all locked into our respective blocks.

During this time, as just before lockup it was after normal working hours, there was only one ferret on duty in the entire compound, so it seemed the best thing to use the long winter hours of darkness to transport the sand.

It now became more important than ever that the officers detailed to look after the various ferrets on duty should divert them from the ‘danger’ areas, if possible, even to the length of entertaining them in their rooms. Any difficulties depended on which ferret it was.

The sand was to be carried under greatcoats in sacks slung around the neck, but much larger sacks than the ones used before down the trouser legs. We really were going for broke.

Each sack weighed about thirty-five pounds. Fortunately, the entrance to Hut 104 could not actually be seen from the goon-boxes, which speeded things up considerably. The dispersal rate went up, too, whenever the tame ferret on duty was safely settled with his illicit coffee and fags in a room somewhere else.

First thing each morning the route used by the penguins the night before was inspected for any traces of sand in the snow-covered ground. I believe that on the best nights we got rid of almost four tons of sand, which represented about thirteen foot of tunnel.

The theatre was a real godsend. Twelve kriegies in two shifts of six worked under its floor, one team run by Jimmy James, the other by Ian Cross. When the penguins arrived at the theatre, they would empty the sand from their sacks through the trap. The sand was then hauled in aluminium wash-basins with ropes attached along channels to an area where it would be packed down.

See Ken Rees: Lie in the Dark and Listen.

Rob Davis’s site at http://www.elsham.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/gt_esc used to have much more background information on the Great Escape. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

The two foot square tunnel
The two foot square tunnel was just big enough for a man lying down to be pulled along on one of the trolleys. At 336 feet long, there was a lot of sand to be excavated and disposed of.

An unusual tank duel on the Eastern Front

Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings.  Rudel may be the pilot,1943.
Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings. Hans Ulrich Rudel may be the pilot, 1943.

In the Ukraine Hans Ulrich Rudel continued to lead an apparently charmed life. As a Stuka pilot Rudel had been in the thick of the action on the Eastern Front since Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By 1943 he had already claimed over 200 Russian tanks destroyed and had been awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross by Hitler, an award reserved for the most exclusive group of Nazi heroes. Yet he was still only part way through his wartime career which would leave him with a record of combat that would would surpass practically every other pilot, from both sides, in the war.

In the early days of January 1944 he was party to a remarkable tank ambush:

In the course of our operations during this period we witness a most unusual drama. I am out with the anti-tank flight south and south-west of Alexandria; after firing off all our ammunition we are homeward bound for Kirovograd to refuel and re-munition for another sortie.

We are skimming the almost level plain at a low altitude half way to Kirovograd and I am just above a dense hedgerow. Behind it twelve tanks are on the move. I recognise them instantly: all T-34s heading north. in a twinkling I have climbed and circled round the quarry. Where on earth have they come from? They are Soviets beyond all doubt.

Not one of us has a round of ammunition left. We must therefore let them rumble on. Who knows where they will get to by the time we can return with fresh ammunition and attack them.

The T-34s pay no attention to us and proceed on their way behind the hedge. Further north I see something else moving on the ground. We fly over at low level and recognise German comrades with Panzer IV tanks. They gaze up at us, thinking of anything but the nearness of an enemy and a possible skirmish.

Both lots of tanks are travelling towards each other, separated only by this tall line of bushes. Neither can see the other because the Soviets are moving in sunken ground below a railway embankment.

I fire red Very flares, wave and drop a message in a container in which I inform my tank colleagues who and what are coming in their direction three kilometres away, assuming they both keep to the same course. By dipping my aircraft towards the spot where the T-34s are travelling at the moment I tip them off to the nearness of the enemy. Both parties drive steadily on.

Circling low we watch for what is going to happen. Our tanks halt at a point where there is a gap of a few metres in the hedge. At any minute now they may both be suddenly surprised by the sight of the other at point blank range. I wait tensely for the second when both will get the shock. The Russians have closed down their turret-tops; perhaps they suspect something from our astonishing manoeuvres.

They are still rolling in the same direction, travelling fast. The lateral distance separating the two parties is not more than fifteen or twenty metres.

Now! The Russians in the sunken ground have reached the gap and see the enemy in front of them on the other side of the hedge. It takes exactly two seconds for the first Panzer IV tank to set his opposite number on fire at a range of twenty metres; bits and pieces pepper the air. In another few seconds — up till then I have not seen a shot fired from the rest of the T-34s — six Russian tanks are ablaze. The impression is that they have been taken completely by surprise and have not yet grasped what is happening even now.

Some T-34s move in close under cover of the hedge, the rest try to escape over the railway embankment. They are immediately picked off by the German tanks which have meanwhile got a field of fire through the gap.

The whole engagement lasts one minute, it is in its way unique. Without loss to ourselves every one of the T-34s has been destroyed. Our comrades on the ground are proudly elated at their success; we are no less delighted. We throw down a message of good wishes and some chocolate, and then fly home.

See Stuka Pilot: The War Memoirs of Hans-Ulrich Rudel

A German picture of captured T-34 tanks, somewhere in Russia in early 1944.
A German picture of captured T-34 tanks, somewhere in Russia in early 1944.
Panzer IV in the snow, somewhere in Russia, January 1944.
Panzer IV in the snow, somewhere in Russia, January 1944.

US Marines at Cape Gloucester are dive bombed

Marines hit three feet of rough water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Taken by Sgt.Robert M. Howard, December 26, 1943
Marines hit three feet of rough water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Taken by Sgt.Robert M. Howard, December 26, 1943

On New Britain the Marines had landed on the 26th December at Cape Gloucester. It was the second amphibious landing for the 1st Marines, veterans of Guadalcanal. Now the aim was to take the nearby Japanese airfield, with the ultimate objective of taking the main Japanese base at Rabaul.

Milton Royko was an artilleryman with the Marines. Shortly after they arrived they saw a solitary U.S. B-17 bomber over their positions, unusual in itself since they usually went in force direct to their targets. From the way it was weaving about it was eventually discovered that it was a captured plane, being used by the Japanese to photograph their positions. The next time it appeared it was shot down. However it was not the end of the episode:

As a result of this on January 2nd, probably close to midnight we had a devastating dive-bomber attack on our positions and it was quite an experience.

Navar and I had been a little way from the gun position when we got the condition: “RED”. Our radar had picked up some incoming dive-bombers. You could always tell the Japanese bombers as they had a different sound to their engines and we ran over to our gun section. Everyone was in the slit trench and Navar and I couldn’t get in for lack of space. The bombs were starting to fall very close. Navar dove into a small shallow foxhole about the size of a coffin and eight or nine inches deep and I went into the one next to it. One of the bombs fell precisely on the fire control center hitting a large tree killing four of our guys and injuring two of the others.

[Paul Stigall was one of the men hit. Part of his skull ripped off he now has a steel plate in his head as a result of that attack. Jim Moore, had a huge chest wound. We met them at a reunion in California. They healed well and were OK so we had a lot to remember and talk about.]

There were a couple of others wounded and during that little episode our Corpsman ran around treating these people and exposing himself to a considerable amount of danger. He was later evacuated because he had been a Corpsman on Guadalcanal and it was discovered that he was a morphine addict because he had been wounded and since he had access to the morphine he was taking it during the entire campaign until they discovered it and sent him home.

The dive-bombing attack continued for about an hour and we were being hit pretty hard in front of us and around us. Number two gun got a bomb hit into a tree directly next to the gun. Fortunately, no one was hit but the tree was pretty well shattered. That was about as close as you could get and then Navar and I had just dived into the fox holes when a Daisy Cutter hit into the kunai patch area to the side of us, probably twenty five or thirty yards away. The sound was just tremendous causing great pain in the ears. I could feel the fragments from the bomb passing over us hitting trees. The air was full of the acrid smell of powder burning and tree branches falling down on top of us. After that one hit there was a deadly silence. For a moment I had thoughts that I had been hit and was dead. Lying there just a few seconds I finally yelled to Navar and he yelled back that he was OK!

The dive-bombing continued but then they were starting to drop bottles, which they had tied together and as they came down they made a shrieking noise like a bomb so we had a night full of excitement. The accuracy of their attack made it plain that that B17 that had been circling overhead had been taking aerial photographs and had our gun positions pin pointed pretty well.

The sound of the attacks were violent in addition to the exploding bombs around us, there was the high pitched sound of the dive bombers coming down and pulling out and then the bombs dropping. They always sounded like they were going to hit you dead center. You wondered if that was where it was going to land. In addition to all of that, there was the sound of our anti aircraft guns just blazing away throughout the attack. I don’t think that they got any of our planes. I guess it’s hard to hit a dive-bomber especially at night.

When we awakened in the morning at first light we were dazed and exhausted and a little bit demoralized because we could see the damage around us. I walked over to Number Two gun with someone else and talked to some of our guys there. A tree was exactly next to the gun and it was a miracle that no one was hurt. The tree was really splintered. The bomb must have hit right into the tree and most of the fragments probably went up or else the guys were just in a positions where they weren’t hit and either was the gun. The biggest demoralization of that night was the fact that they had hit the fire control center and killed some of our people and wounded several others.

The experiences of Milton Royko as a United States Marine Corps artilleryman were originally available at http://www.firemission42.com – Fire Mission ’42. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

Marine mortar in action. Supporting the attack on Cape Gloucester, Marine mortarmen behind their riflemen buddies, form a bucket brigade line to pass the ammunition as they fire into Japanese positions with their 81mm mortar.
Marine mortar in action. Supporting the attack on Cape Gloucester, Marine mortarmen behind their riflemen buddies, form a bucket brigade line to pass the ammunition as they fire into Japanese positions with their 81mm mortar.

Hope and dread for the New Year in Berlin

Berliners now knew that the air defences could not prevent the widespread destruction of their city.
Berliners now knew that the air defences could not prevent the widespread destruction of their city.

Many people were hoping that 1944 would bring a better year. For many it did not seem an unrealistic prospect that the war would be over by the end of the year. An Allied victory now seemed inevitable, although there was much uncertainty as to how that would come about.

Ursula von Kardorff was a young journalist working in Berlin. She had already lost one of her two brothers on the frontline. Berlin itself was increasingly looking like a battlefield itself as more and more building were destroyed by the bombing. She moved in circles where many young officers were anti Nazi, although she knew very well how careful they had to be in expressing such sentiments. Her diary, if ever discovered by the authorities, would have seen her sent to a concentration camp at the very least:

Berlin, 1 January 1944

1943. The worst year of my life. Jurgen’s death, the raids, people rendered homeless by bombing, so that the Germans now wander around as homeless as the Jews, loaded down with the same kinds of sacks and bundles. At least it relieves one of some of one’s guilt, and that is a comfort.

‘This must be a better year.’ I write that down again in my diary as a motto. If only the war could end this year and we could be freed from that monster Hitler I should never ask for another thing for the rest of my life.

Last night I saw Barchen home at two in the morning because she was too frightened to be alone in the subway which leads from the Savignyplatz station, where a man was shot dead before her very eyes a few days ago.

We said goodbye by the light of our torches and I was walking home alone when suddenly a ruined house collapsed, just behind me, with a terrifying crash. My hat was blown off, and if it had happened a second earlier I should have been buried. All the same I was not at all frightened, I don’t know why.

I imagine that the climax of the war will be reached in the spring and that if we, here in Germany, do not do something soon to change the situation radically we shall be finished by the autumn. By then the Russians will be here.

See Ursula von Kardorff:Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945

Earlier German propaganda pictures of a Flak tower in Berlin.
Earlier German propaganda pictures of a Flak tower in Berlin.