Italo Balbo was a charismatic Fascist, a re-knowned aviator in his own right. He had led two transatlantic expeditions of Italian flying boats that were magnificent advertisements for Italian air industry and the new ‘modern’ Italian state.
Italo Balbo’s plane was shot down by Italian guns as he came in to land at Tobruk in North Africa just moments after a British air raid on the Italian base. Balbo was known to have reservations about the alliance with Germany, to have opposed the anti-semitic policies that followed as a consequence and to have a realistic appreciation of the capabilities of the Italian armed forces that was at odds with the usual Fascist rhetoric.
Subsequent conspiracy theories have suggested that he had argued with Mussolini over the North African strategy and was assassinated as a consequence. There is no evidence to suggest that these arguments were leading to any exceptional rift between the ‘Il Duce’ and his commander in chief in the field. There is evidence to show that Balbo was planning to start the invasion of Egypt in July, plans that were now delayed. Furthermore it would have been extraordinarily difficult to engineer a ‘friendly fire’ assassination taking place co-incidental with a surprise British bombing raid.
Contemporary Italian newsreel of Italo Balbo personally leading a bombing mission:
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.
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.
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 !”
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.
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 …
On 18 October 1944 a USAAF B24H Liberator 42-50347, “F” from the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group based at Tibenham in Norfolk was on a familiarisation flight across Britain. On board were a total 24 U.S. servicemen, many of them “replacements” who had recently arrived in Britain. On the 27th September the 445th Bomb Group had suffered devastating losses when 30 out of 37 planes had failed to return from a raid on Kassel, Germany. In the middle of the afternoon, while the plane was over the Wirral, near Liverpool, the plane exploded in mid air killing all those on board. The cause was never officially established.
It was not an unusual occurrence. A large proportion of deaths and injuries in the wartime airforces were attributable to “accidents”. Nor was it an especially unusual event for those living in Britain. Earlier, during the blitz, people had been very familiar with aircraft crashes. Although casualties were unusually high due to the number of men on board, at least on this occasion nobody had been hurt on the ground. On the 23rd August 1944 another Liberator crash had killed 61 people, including just 3 crew, when it hit the village of Freckleton, not so far away. See the Freckleton Disaster for more.
A local resident was one of the eye witnesses:
About 3.45pm I was in the upstairs back bedroom of my house, which looks out towards Landican. I heard an aeroplane making a zooming noise close by and saw an aeroplane flying at an ordinary height towards Storeton village. When the plane got into line almost between Storeton and Landican village it turned to the right very suddenly. I had the bedroom window open by this time, but I did not hear the sound of the engine.
Almost immediately, I heard a noise similar to an engine back firing. At the same time, the plane seemed to hover in the air and immediately the wings fell apart from the plane together with numerous objects. The body of the plane at once fell flat to the ground and then there was a terrific explosion which sent up thick black clouds of smoke and flames.
Another eyewitness was a local Anti Aircraft artillery officer:
I heard almost overhead an explosion similar to a shell burst, and the sound of an aircraft as in a dive. I immediately left the Control Room to ascertain what the trouble was, and on my way out a further explosion took place.
I saw the plane, which was travelling in a westerly direction, and pieces were breaking away. The plane was flying at a height of approximately 1,000 feet and was roughly 300 yards away from me when I saw it. The most part of the starboard wing and also part of the port wing was broken. The fuselage appeared to be broken just behind the trailing edge of the wing.
It was impossible in the short space of time to identify the aircraft, except that its tail was similar in design to that of a Liberator. A limited amount of smoke was coming from the aircraft and the cause of it appeared to be the engines, only two of which could be clearly identified. The plane dived to the ground veering slightly to port all the time. Just before it hit the ground, a further explosion seemed to take place. This was not absolutely certain as the distance involved was then some 1,500 yards from my position of observation and this explosion may have taken place as the aircraft hit the ground
Crash sites and the collection of souvenirs were a particular fascination for schoolchildren.
Eileen Roberts was a ten year old schoolgirl:
On arriving at the scene we were stopped by men in uniform guarding the site. Not to be outdone, we walked into the adjoining field where my brother spotted an orange; we didn’t get many of them in wartime so he picked it up. But then he threw it down again right away. The orange was tightly held in a human hand! At that moment one of the guards came over and told us to ‘Get off home or else!’
We needed no second telling. It was two very subdued little children who trudged home. When we did get home, it was to find our mother in a panic looking for us. No, we didn’t get counselling, but I got a severe telling off, a smacked bottom and sent straight to bed – after all I was 10 years old and should have known better.
Bruce Tasker was an older schoolboy at the Wirral Grammar School:
The weather was rainy with lowering clouds. Being used to Liberators coming and going, we did not look up until we heard a dull boom, and saw a ball of smoke in the sky over the Storeton area, with bits and pieces of aircraft fluttering to the ground”.
As curious schoolboys we peddled to Landican Lane, negotiating the rough terrain, eventually coming upon bits of metal strewn everywhere, with an engine burning in a field on one side of the lane, and the white tail fins in a field on the other. Stopping at the railway bridge, we could see an entire gun turret lying to our right and parties of soldiers in football kit carrying stretchers looking for remains and placing them in a line under parachutes for concealment.
Several bodies were half embedded in the soft soil, having clearly fallen from a height. We left the scene quite soberly. Several days later the police visited our school and others in the area warning against possessing live ammunition. Apparently, every single dangerous round of half inch calibre ammunition had been removed from the gun turret, and it was believed that schoolchildren were responsible.
Another account suggests that a schoolboy had been accidentally shot in the leg while a group of them were trying remove the percussion caps from the machine gun bullets. It was this that prompted the police to call on schools warning boys against taking souvenirs from crash sites.
The cause of the crash was not established by the official investigation, although the possibility that it was struck by lightening was considered. The aircraft was considered to be in sound mechanical condition, although an officer who had recently flown the aircraft suggested this was incorrect. Ralph Stimmel felt that the aircraft suffered from an unusually strong smell of gasoline, apparently a fairly common problem on Liberators:
The item that bothers me most is the statement that the plane had no gas leaks. It most certainly did I am afraid that the investigating body put a bit of spin on the report.
For a complete account of the known facts see 39-45war.com, including a list of the casualties.
The minesweepers had led the way for the D-Day invasion in June, when senior Naval commanders anticipated heavy losses from German shore batteries. Losses, not just to minesweepers but to all Naval vessels, had proved to be much lighter than expected throughout the whole campaign. The minesweepers continued to play a vital role in keeping the sea lanes clear for the heavy cross Channel traffic that supported the Allied invasion force.
Signalman Lawrence Fitton describes the work of the minesweepers off France in the summer of 1944:
As you know all things went well although jerry tried his hardest to delay us. Then our day consisted of minesweeping and at night keeping a good lookout for bombers laying more mines around us, but all nights didn’t pass easily and jerry found himself being forced back he brought all sorts of foul inventions into play.
Mines disguised as buoys and motor boats pilotless and full of high explosives. This occurred so often with night raids and E. Boat raids that the nights became nights of terror and when day came we could sleep in peace.
This continued until it was decided to storm Le Havre by sea. So it came about that we were detailed to sweep the entrance to the harbour. At first we were met with heavy gunfire but, towards the end of the week we had the upper hand and we started to get a little bolder and go closer inshore.
Tragically the largest single naval loss during the Overlord campaign came not as a result of German action.
Lieutenant‑Commander Johnson was on HMS Britomart on Sunday 27th August:
The second lunch had been cleared away and the wardroom table was covered with signals awaiting their turn. All officers not on the bridge ‑ and this included the warrant engineer and even the sweep deck officer ‑ were in the wardroom deciphering the mounds of signals that kept pouring in.
We had our heads down to this task when two great explosions shocked the entire ship by their power and violence, smashing, shattering, shuddering. My immediate thought was that we had been mined for’ard, but three seconds later, before we had time to collect ourselves, two more explosions sounded under the quarterdeck on the port side, muffled as though underwater.
The ship lurched over to starboard and rolled back to settle with a ten degree list to port, the officers’ cabins and alleyways having flooded instantly. Luckily in the wardroom we were all sitting either on the bulkhead settees or in low armchairs, not at the table, for at this moment cannon fire raked the wardroom just above table level, smashing right through the ship.
We bundled out on deck only to fall flat on our faces when greeted by a second bout of fire from an aircraft streaking past to starboard ‑ we were horrified to see that it was an RAF Typhoon. It wheeled round some distance astern and flew past us again ‑ our gunner on the after Oerlikon let fly until. No. 1 yelled to him to stop. We also recognized two other planes in the distance by the easily discernible white bands on their wings.
The realization that we had been attacked by friendly aircraft came as a great shock. A double shock, for any attack at all had seemed most unlikely with us steaming in the middle of a minefield, where no U‑boat could venture, and with the air completely dominated by Allied planes.
The account of Signalman Lawrence Fitton continues:
Then came the grand finale over the horizon came six allied planes and we being close inshore it was quite natural for them to mistake us for enemy vessels. Therefore after a few mistakes in positioning friendly shipping they attacked. I had only just come off watch and drunken my tot of rum, when a terrific explosion lifted us off the floor, or as we say deck, and flung me and my pals from one side of the ship to the other. We had been hit with a salvo of rockets from a typhoon.
In the space of a few seconds I was on my feet and running for top deck. On reaching it I saw several of my mates, chaps like myself who only a short time ago had been sunbathing, lying scattered about in huddled heaps. As the order to abandon ship was given I looked up and saw several of our own planes diving down. Too late I dropped down and when I stood up I was surprised to find I was covered all over in blood and having as yet felt no pain whatsoever.
Next I found myself in a motor boat leaving the ship. This means of transport was apparently too good for me, for when the planes had attacked they had riddled the motor boat, and we soon found ourselves sinking. Still not despaired I kicked off my shoes and commenced swimming, but I soon found myself without lifebelt and I realised it must have been punctured anyhow.
To add to this jerry started firing 9.2 heavy calibre shells at clusters of boats and also we were in an unswept part of the minefield, but after about 90 minutes of clinging to wreckage and attempting to swim, because by now the salt was in my wounds, I was eventually picked up and rushed by high speed launch to a hospital ship, from there to England, hospital and home.
But often I think of my pals who not so fortunate as me were either crippled or dead. That is why I find myself in no position to grumble at being away from home as throughout it all I managed to come up smiling and thank God for allowing me to live when better men died.
HMS Britomart and HMS Hussar were sunk, HMS Salamander was so badly damaged she would be scrapped and there were casualties on other ships that had suffered strafing. In total 117 sailors were dead and 153 injured.
It was all the result of poor communication. Naval officers had circulated the orders for the close inshore work by the minesweepers but the routine copy to Flag Officer British Assault Area was not sent, the officer responsible was new in post and his supervising officer did not notice the error. To compound matters the Royal Navy shore based radar was out of action on the morning of the 27th August – so the ships were not immediately spotted moving into the area and no questions were raised.
It was so improbable that German ships would be operating in broad daylight in this area that even the RAF officers who sent on the raid questioned their orders:
Operations Record Book No 263 squadron
The target of this operation was 5 ships off Etretat. 6 ships were located at the given pinpoint sailing S.W. 4 were probably destroyers and 2 motor vessels. Owing to doubt as to identity, controller was asked 4 times whether to attack and was told that the ships fired coloured lights, Controller said no friendly ships in area and ordered attack. The squadron claims salvo on one destroyer and on a second ship. There was some light flak.
These accounts are from a much wider selection of official reports and personal stories at Halcyon Class, which examines the incident in more detail.
After many delays, mainly caused by inclement weather which restricted flying, the Allies were now poised for a breakout in Normandy. The British in the east continued to engage the bulk of the Panzers, while the Germans were making every effort to transfer some across to face the Americans, where they anticipated new problems.
Now Omar Bradley decided that he needed the extra support of the heavy bombers to blast apart the German lines facing his sector. He flew to England to confer with the Allied Air commanders over their direct intervention on the battlefield. A plan was developed for 1,500 heavy bombers and 350 medium bombers, supported by 350 fighter bombers to pulverise 5 square miles of countryside.
However the weather continued to conspire against the Allies, when the attack was launched prematurely on the 24th.
This is the account of German medical sergeant Walter Klein:
On the morning of 24 July 1944, I just came back from the dressing station to the position when we were attacked by artillery. Our anti-aircraft platoon had two dead, three severely wounded.
My own company, the heavy company of Kampfgruppe Heintz, lost only one man. With the help of two stretcher-bearers and the medical unit of the neighbouring company, we went back to the dressing station, to bring the wounded there. We arrived there at about 0900 hours.
At 0915 hours there was such strong air activity over the combat line that we had to take the St Lo — Vire road to get back from the dressing station to the position. We had the prescribed insignia, and knew that the American aviators would not fire on us.
Over the sector held by my company were approximately 18 to 25 Lightnings, which were firing systematically on every hedge. Our position was situated in a wooded sector. We left the road to reach the position and took a sunken road. It was 1100 hours. According to orders I had to report back to the company command post, but on the sunken road I found five wounded parachute gunners of the 5th Para Division, injured by a splinter bomb.
What happened during the following hours was terrific. By our calculation, 1,000 to 1,200 bombers took part in the attack The effect was devastating; all our anti-aircraft guns and artillery were destroyed. Tanks that tried to get away were destroyed by pursuit planes.
When a wave of planes had passed, one could hear the crying of the wounded and shouting for help of medical personnel. I had just the time to carry one of my comrades, who had been wounded badly in the thigh, into the dugout when a second wave started bombing.
It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.
At 1930 I brought the last wounded to the dressing station. The unit had moved to another position. The general opinion of my comrades and even the officers was that, if the enemy made another attack, it would be our end. Only one heavy weapon was left and it only had six rounds of ammunition. Of our heavy trench mortars only two were left.
The St Lo front had suffered very much from this attack. Worse than the loss of weapons was the effect that the attack had made on our morale.
On 25 July, the Americans started to make the breakthrough. At daybreak, as on the day before, innumerable pursuit planes and artillery-spotting planes were over the battleeld. Almost every rifle pit was shelled. At 1400 hours, when I accompanied some wounded to the dressing station, I found that American tanks were already driving along the St Lo — Vire road.
However if things were bad for the Germans they were also bad for the American 30th Division, who were on the receiving end of a good proportion of bombs that fell short. John Adams was one of the men in the trenches who narrowly escaped:
the attack was scheduled for July 24, 1944. However that morning dawned with overcast skies so the attack was postponed until July 25, 1944. Several squadrons of heavy bombers which had already left their bases in England did not get the word. We were expecting our planes to come in on a parallel course to the road and we had marked our front with reflective panel. Every allied vehicle had been repainted with a large white star which should be visible even at a high altitude. We were told the bombers would not bomb within 250 yards of the road. That’s not the way it happened!
I remember it as clear as things I did yesterday. I heard the sounds of the planes coming and was out of my hole cheering them on. Two things were wrong – one, they were not the fighter bombers we were told would come first; second, they were coming in on a perpendicular course which meant they would fly right over us. Some one called for us to get in our holes that bombs were being released. 300 heavy bombers dropped seven hundred tons of explosives with one salvo falling in the area I was in. Its hard to describe the noise and how we felt. The first blast pitched me around in my hole. I blacked out with the next blast.
When I came to it was all over, a medic was wiping blood off my face. he said it was hard to tell whether the blood was just from my nose or a trickle from my eyes or ears. he was marking me for transportation to the Hospital but I told him the attack was called off and I needed to account for my men and I could go later. The was, as it ended up I was still there to take what was left of the 3rd platoon into the attack the next day.
The 120th Infantry – my regiment had had 25 men killed, 131 wounded and thousands of men shaken up. I was one of those badly shook up but still going. I can’t remember anything until the morning of July 25. My guess is that I was exhausted and went to sleep.
See DonChesnut for John Adams’ full account, written in a letter to his grandson.
Given the huge quantities of explosives that were brought across the Atlantic and then transported around Britain, it seems remarkable that there were not more accidents during the war.
One exception is the trainload of USAAF bombs being sent from Immingham to the air bases in Cambridgeshire. There were around 400 tons of bombs on board plus more wagons full of detonators. As they approached the small market town of Soham:
… the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window. Although he could see but nine to twelve inches, into the left-hand rear corner of the first wagon above the rear of his tender Ben saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.
The flames were spreading rapidly as if taking hold, unaccountably, of inflammable material. He sounded his whistle to alert the guard and stopped the train gently, taking about three minutes, for any jolt could have proved disastrous.
Having stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps he urged his fireman, James Nightall, to get down to uncouple the burning wagon from the rest, advising him to take a coal hammer in case the coupling was already too hot to handle.
Jim leapt to the task, released the coupling and climbed back on the footplate within a minute and Ben sped the engine and its fireball away, aiming to get it into the open country. 140 yards forward into the station, now illuminated by the burning wagon, he slowed down to shout to the signalman, Frank ‘Sailor’ Bridges: ‘Sailor – have you anything between here and Fordham! Where’s the mail!’
But Frank was ahead of him, having not received the mail train and having requested another engine to tow the detached wagons away. Ben had crossed to the fireman’s side to talk to Frank who was waiting on that offside platform with a full fire bucket hoping, forlornly, to douse the flames, putting his life at risk like the others to avert disaster.
He had no moment to answer or act. The earth shattered in one enormous blast, smashing him to the floor mortally wounded. Less than seven minutes had elapsed since Ben saw the fire. At approximately 1.43am. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, went up as one, reducing the station to rubble, killing Jim Nightall outright, blasting Ben Gimbert some two hundred yards away.
The whole account in ‘But For Such Men As These’ by Anthony Day, used to be available at http://www.soham.org/index.php/history/soham-railway-disaster.It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.
The destruction caused by the 5 tons of bombs that exploded was considerable, completely demolishing the railway station, and left everyone realising how narrowly they had escaped the blast from the full trainload of 400 tons. Nevertheless the line was vital to the war effort and men were drafted in, reopening the line by the evening of the same day.
The driver, Benjamin Gimbert, and the fireman James Nightall were awarded the George Cross:
As an ammunition train was pulling into a station in Cambridgeshire, the driver, Gimbert, discovered that the wagon next to the engine was on fire. He immediately drew Nightall’s attention to the fire and brought the train to a standstill. By the time the train had stopped the whole of the truck was enveloped in flames and, realising the danger, the driver instructed the fireman to try to uncouple the truck immediately behind the blazing vehicle. Without the slightest hesitation Nightall, although he knew that the truck contained explosives, uncoupled the vehicle and rejoined his driver on the footplate.
The blazing van was close to the station buildings and was obviously liable to endanger life in the village. The driver and fireman realised that it was essential to separate the truck from the remainder of the train and run it into the open. Driver Gimbert set the engine in motion and as he approached a signal box he warned the signalman to stop any trains which were likely to be involved and indicated what he intended to do. Almost immediately the vehicle blew up. Nightall was killed and Gimbert was very severely injured.
Gimbert and Nightall were fully aware of the contents of the wagon which was on fire and displayed outstanding courage and resource in endeavouring to isolate it. When they discovered that the wagon was on fire they could easily have left the train and sought shelter, but realising that if they did not remove the burning vehicle the whole of the train, which consisted of 51 wagons of explosives, would have blown up, they risked their lives in order to minimise the effect of the fire. There is no doubt that if the whole train had been involved, as it would have been but for the gallant action of the men concerned, there would have been serious loss of life and property.
The war produced a seemingly insatiable appetite for ammunition of every type. The Ordnance factories expanded dramatically and became major employers for women, just as they had in the First World War. Although dominated by women a few men remained.
Arthur Bywater had tried to join the RAF at the beginning of the war but had been refused because of his expertise with ordnance. He was to rise to the occasion when an explosion killed one female worker early on the 22nd February 1944.
The citation for his award was remarkably brief, for reasons of wartime security, when little could be said about munitions factories:
The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: — Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater, Factory Development Officer, Ministry of Supply Factory.
For outstanding heroism and devotion to duty when an explosion occurred in a factory.
London Gazette 26th September 1944
The most complete account of this incident comes from his obituary:
On February 22 1944, in one of the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Kirby, in Lancashire, 19 operatives, most of them women, were at work on the last stage of filling anti-tank mine fuzes. Each operative was working on a tray of 25 fuzes, and in the building at the time there were some 12,000 stacked on portable tables, each holding 40 trays, or 1,000 fuzes.
At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.
The superintendent arrived with Bywater, his factory development officer. It seemed quite likely that the damaged fuzes, and others which could be faulty, might cause an even larger explosion. The high wind at the time, or any vibration, could set off further detonations over an area of half a mile.
Bywater cleared the building so that the maintenance crew could shore up the walls. He then volunteered to take on the dangerous task of removing all the fuzes to a place of safety where they could be dealt with.
Having selected some volunteers, he started at once. Bywater and his colleagues worked for three days moving the fuzes to a position close to the exit and then transporting them to a site about a mile away, where they were destroyed. By the end they had removed 12,724 fuzes from the factory.
Bywater gave instructions that he was to be given any fuzes that looked defective, and 23 were passed to him. On each occasion, he made his colleagues take cover while he removed the fuze and put it into a tray well away from the others. He then placed the tray on a rubber-tyred flat trolley and, with one colleague carrying a red flag 50 yards ahead, and another 50 yards behind, he slowly pushed the trolley to the destroying grounds.
There he personally laid out the fuzes in specially prepared pits. He placed sandbags on each of the pits and connected the electrical detonator and gun cotton primer. Not until he was certain that the operation had been made as safe as possible did he delegate to his colleagues the task of destruction, which went on for seven days a week for a month.
One fuze, Bywater judged, was in such a sensitive condition that it was too dangerous to be carried to the destruction site. He knew of two instances in which men trying to handle such a fuze had been blown to pieces. But to destroy the fuze inside the factory would cause enormous damage.
Selecting a location a short distance from the building, Bywater had an iron safe placed there with plenty of sandbags around it. Then, having sent all his colleagues out of the danger area, he carefully picked up the fuze, tip-toed across the grass and gently placed it in the safe. The sandbags were piled on, everyone withdrew out of range and the fuze was detonated.
In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the original explosion at the factory had been accidental, caused by a defective striker. A faulty design in the stamping machine which marked the fuze heads with the lot numbers and dates of filling had damaged the striker stems.
Read the full obituary at the Daily Telegraph which includes an account of how Bywater earnt a George Medal for his role in evacuating the factory following another explosion later in the year. Arthur Bryant became the only civilian to earn both the George Cross and the George Medal.
General Mark Clark, commanding the Allied 5th Army in Italy, now faced a difficult situation. It had been impossible for the Cassino front to break through to join up with the Anzio beachhead as had been hoped. There was now a developing stalemate at Cassino and the Anzio beachhead looked increasingly like it was going to come under threat itself, rather than threatening the Germans in the rear.
As he set out for Anzio in a fast PT boat for the short trip up the coast, he was not aware that the Allied fleet was becoming rather nervous about the activities of German E boats, their fast motor boat. No message had been broadcast to the ships in the area of his imminent arrival:
The next morning, January 28, I went down to the mouth of the Volturno before dawn to embark by P.T. boat for Anzio.
… the situation at Anzio was becoming critical. The enemy air-raids and shelling had caused heavy damage, and there were rumours that German torpedo-boats were roaming along the coast to attack our shipping.
Everything went all right, however, until we were about seven miles south of Anzio, still travelling in semi-darkness. There the AM 120, a U.S. minesweeper, challenged us. Lieutenant Patterson, commander of our P.T., ordered green and yellow flares to be fired, and we flashed the designated signal on the blinker to identify ourselves as friendly.
Until that moment I had managed to get out of the wind by sitting on a stool beside the skipper, where the bridge of the boat gave me some protection. However, just before the AM I20 challenged us I got up and moved slightly to one side. The captain of the minesweeper apparently misread our signal, or perhaps it was just that everybody along the coast that dark and windy morning was trigger-happy.
Anyhow, the minesweeper fired on us, cutting loose with 40-mm. and five-inch shells. Their marksmanship, unfortunately, was pretty good. A number of shells struck our P.T. boat, and the second one went right through the stool on which I had been sitting.
The skipper was wounded in both legs and fell to the deck. I heard a shell explode below-decks. There was confusion throughout the boat, and several men were knocked from their feet, two of them fatally wounded.
I picked up a Very pistol which some one had dropped, and again fired the correct signal to identify ourselves as friendly, but the firing from the minesweeper continued. I fired it again, with no result. By that time I had had a chance to look round. I saw that all three naval officers on the boat and two naval ratings were casualties. There was no one at the wheel, but Ensign Benson got to his feet, despite leg-wounds, and swung the boat round.
I knelt down by the skipper, who couldn’t get up from the deck, and said, “What do we do?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “Well, let’s run for it,” I said. Then I held him up so that he could see what was happening and direct the movements of the boat. We ran for it, with shells still spattering around. So did the other P.T. boat accompanying us, although it escaped damage.
By the time we were clear our deck seemed to be littered with casualties and running with blood. One of the figures that had been knocked to the deck turned out to be Gervasi [Frank Gervasi, a war correspondent], who was groggy and soaked with blood down the front of his uniform. I began helping him get his jacket unbuttoned; we had to dig clear down to his bare skin before either one of us realized that he wasn’t wounded, but merely covered with somebody else’s blood.
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: