Saturday, July 23, 2022

German WWII Tanks And Tank Killers

Panzers In Service Of A Doomed Effort

German Maus Panzer VIII being examined by Soviet soldiers after World War II.
A German Maus II, reassembled in Moscow after World War II, is being examined. It is now on display at the Kubinka tank museum. While a favorite of video game designers, only two or three were built, there is no evidence they were ever used in combat, and the only workable one was blown up by the Germans before it could be captured. I have a page about the Maus with lots of photos here.

Here we take an overview of German armored fighting vehicles of World War II. But first, a little history, because history greatly affected the development and use of panzers. This background is necessary to understand how and why German armored vehicles were used.

Tanks as we know them today were first introduced by the British during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. These were used as "breakthrough" vehicles, paving the way for more vulnerable infantry. They had an immediate impact, being able to cross "no-man's land" between trenches despite the intense defensive fire and even cross over trenches with their long tracks.

The Germans were keenly aware of the effectiveness of tanks but were incapable during the war of producing their own. They only built a very small number of their own, and their most effective armored vehicles became captured British models basically with only new paint jobs.

First photo of British tank going into battle, 1916.
"The first official photograph was taken of a Tank going into action, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15th September 1916. The man shown is wearing a leather tank helmet." The tank is  Mark I. Note the "rudder," or steering wheel, at the back. © IWM Q 2488.

During the interwar period, the German military had a long enforced rest during which its officers had plenty of time to study tanks and develop their own. Generals Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel became renowned experts in this new type of warfare and developed tactical doctrines for their use.

World War I captured German tank.
A captured German tank during World War I. New Zealand official photograph.

The Reich's tank doctrine as of 1939 was bewegungskrieg, or “War of Movement.” The British media quickly slapped the name "Blitzkrieg" (lightning war) on this during the fall of France in 1940. German tanks gained a fearsome reputation even though the basic doctrines of bewegungskrieg were not more generalized than simply rolling tanks out in front of infantry; the doctrine instead relied on close radio communication between army commanders, the Luftwaffe, and the artillery army to produce a coordinated assault of which tanks were simply one relatively small part. This all-arms approach proved devastating against Allied forces that generally had separate units for different classes of weapons with little communication between them.

To place things in perspective, during the Battle of France in April-June 1940, the composition of the German Panzerwaffe were as follows: 278 Panzer IVs, 349 Panzer IIIs, 955 Panzer IIs, 523 Panzer Is, 106 Panzer 35(t)s, and 228 Panzer 38(t)s. This was an impressive number for the time, though dwarfed by the thousands of tanks on both sides at later battles such as Kurk and the Allied breakout from Normandy.

World War II German Panzer II and then Panzer I tanks..
Denmark - German Panzer II and Panzer I on parade in front of a tank commander's headquarters at Horsens on Jutland, April 1940 (Stolzenberg, Federal Archive Picture 101I-754-051N-23).

Except for the Mark IIIs and IVs and perhaps the Czech-built Panzer 38(t)s, Germany’s panzer force wasn't that impressive in these early days. It primarily was composed of light armored fighting vehicles not much better than armored cars. Even the French-built Char BI and Char BI bis tanks were arguably comparable, though they had their own deficiencies such as poor heavy use of petrol. certainly outclassed. 

However, it is a mistake to overlook the early WWI German panzers. The Wehrmacht started with no tanks, and it needed a lot. It could be more of the smaller tanks in a quicker period. The smaller tanks even had some minor advantages - they were smaller targets, they used less fuel, and they were easier to train on. But, most importantly, they were available and they worked. If World War II taught anything about weapons, it was that a working weapon that was on the scene was better than some more advanced one that was not.

Captured French Somua 35 May 1940.
A captured French Somua 35, May 1940 (Heinz Boesig, Federal Archive Picture 101I-127-0399-12A).

The French SOMUA S35 was new, but it was quite a formidable weapon for the time. The German Mark III, arguably the backbone of the Panzerwaffe in 1940, had a smaller-caliber gun than the French tanks, and the Panzer Is and IIs were no match. The British Matilda II tank was slow but otherwise could hold its own with the German panzers. The best advantage the Wehrmacht had was in the sheer number of their armor, with the British in particular having completely inadequate numbers of armored vehicles. 

Part of the German doctrine was to use the panzers as the spearhead, or schwerpunkt, against the weakest point of the opponent's line. This "point of concentration" would hopefully produce a breakthrough or rupture of the enemy’s line, to be followed immediately by faster (but lesser armored) moving motorized infantry. To ensure proper coordination, these infantry units (panzergrenadiers)  typically formed an intrinsic component piece of the panzer division. The typical panzer division was composed of 2 panzer battalions and 1 motorized infantry battalion with its own self-propelled artillery for support. 

That wasn't all. Panzer divisions also carried with them recovery vehicles that could retrieve disabled tanks. These specialized transporters were mobile workshops that could either repair the panzers even on the field of battle or (more likely during the early campaigns) lead them onto a train headed back to Germany. 

Since communication was an irreplaceable part of German doctrine, its tanks had to have radios. It took the Allies a surprisingly long tie to appreciate the importance of equipping each panzer with its own radio set. The real advantage of the early German victories lay in this excellent communication between panzers, enabling the overall commander to more effectively direct the division to critical points on the field when they were most needed. 

Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 87 Stukas over Poland 1939
Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 87 Stukas flying over Poland on a mission, 1939 (Heinrich Hoffman, Federal Archive Picture 183-1987-1210-502).

This appreciation of the power of communication meant that the Wehrmacht was far better integrated as far as its different services went. The Luftwaffe was designed around a vision of it being an extension of the German Heer (army), able to coordinate its attacks with panzers columns. The panzer divisions would radio circling Junkers Ju-87 Stukas to identify targets blocking the advance on the ground. 

Improvisation also became critical to German success during the Battle of France. French General Charles de Gaulle surprised Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division with British Matilda II and French tanks south of Arras. For a time, the German position was desperate, but then Rommel reached into his bag of tricks and unleashed the division’s attached antiaircraft company. It used its small number of  88 mm antiaircraft guns as field artillery by simply lowering the gun barrel parallel with the ground. Astonishingly, this proved devastatingly effective, and thereafter the "88s" became renowned as tank killers. They could destroy enemy tanks with a single shot on the field. This gun became so effective that it was later used as the gun mounted on the Mark VI Tiger and the King Tiger much later in the war. This eliminated the gun's major failing, that it was completely unprotected and a delicious target for Allied gunners when anywhere near the Front.

As the war progressed, the Germans doubled down on their early success with the panzer arm and continually upgraded existing tanks, and developed new models. It was this process that earned the panzers a reputation for lethality and overall quality. The development later in the war of the Mark V Panther, Mark VI Tiger, the King Tiger, and several variants of self-propelled guns and/or “tank killers” like the STUG III, Jagdpanther, and the Jagdpanzer IV were much more effective in every way than the panzers of 1939 and 1940. Unfortunately for the Germans, however, by the time these panzers entered combat, the tide of war had turned. The "Blitzkrieg" was no longer a new innovation, and the Allies had learned all of Wehrmacht's operational tricks.

The development of the Tiger tank reflected this change in circumstances. It was a heavy tank type originally designed for effecting breakthroughs in enemy lines as part of the schwerpunkt. The days of big advances, however, were over, and the Tigers had to adapt to a more defensive role for which they were never designed. In this, they were moderately successful, but their design was overkill for defending static positions. Up-gunned (75 mm) Mark IV models and even mobile artillery such as the StuG series of turretless guns were much more cost-effective, though at times (such as the rescue of trapped German forces at Cherkasy in Ukraine) the Tigers still proved indispensable.

Germany’s WWII Panzer Types & Self-Propelled Tank Killers/Assault Guns

Panzer I.

Panzerkampfwagen I

When the Reich began re-arming in the mid-1930s, it had to start somewhere. The Panzer I was already, from a purely technical aspect, obsolete by the start of the French campaign. One of the subtle lessons of World War II, though, was that "obsolete" weapons (such as biplanes) could still be effective. 

The Panzer Is were used en masse and helped to produce victory by overwhelming the Allied defenses. The Panzer Is were withdrawn from front-line formations thereafter but still used for a time as reconnaissance vehicles and on secondary fronts. The main armament: 20 mm cannon. An example is shown above.

Panzer II

Panzerkampfwagen II

Like the Mark I panzer, the Mark II panzer was also technically obsolete by the start of the French campaign. It also was used effectively, however, and played a particularly useful and extensive role as a reconnaissance vehicle. Its chassis was used to make various self-propelled gun vehicles with various levels of success. Main armament: 20 mm cannon. An example of a Mark II is shown below.

Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III

The Panzer III is one of the most underrated tanks of World War II, with its light completely outshone by later tanks. It originally was designed as Germany’s main battle tank, and it actually was quite effective in this role. It remained significant well into the Russian campaign. The panzer’s chassis was sturdy and reliable and was used for excellent armored variant types, most famously the StuG III. Its main drawback was that it could not accommodate the large guns that became necessary as the war progressed, but it still packed a punch. Main armament: Originally a 37 mm cannon later up-gunned to a 50 mm gun.

Panzer IV

Panzerkampfwagen IV

Another pre-war tank, the Panzer IV is the first German tank to achieve legendary status. It originally was envisioned as the Mark III’s companion with a larger 75 mm short barrel firing high explosive anti-personnel ordinance designed to kill off infantry in high concentrations. In February 1941, Hitler insisted against the Heer's objections that Panzer IVs be up-gunned with more effective long barrels for the upcoming Operation Barbarossa. This extremely far-sighted decision became critically important later in the year.

The Panzer IV was the mainstay of the panzer force (panzerwaffe) throughout the war, getting the job done when possible while the flashier Tiger and Panther stole its thunder. Collectors, though, appreciate the Panzer IV and they sell for millions of dollars in good condition.  Main armament: Both a short and long barrel 75 mm gun.

Panther.

Mark V Panther

This was the first of Germany’s next-generation panzers. It was designed rapidly after the panzers ran into the Soviet T-34 and found it to be a confoundingly effective opponent. In fact, some in Germany just suggested copying the T-34 from the ground up, but German manufacturing processes would not allow that, and neither would German pride. 

Officially, the Panther was described on paper as a "medium tank," but Hitler required modifications, so ultimately it weighed in at 49.4 tons - making it anything but medium. As a result of these last-minute changes and inadequate stocks of durable metals that could withstand the additional strain imposed on delicate transmission components, the Panther had continual drivetrain problems. These were never satisfactorily resolved, and they were compounded by the fact that the Panther was over-engineered. Drivers had to learn to "baby" it and not make sudden stops, starts, or turns in order to prevent another endless delay on the roadside waiting for parts.

More Panthers wound up left on the side of the road due to mechanical issues than were destroyed in combat. However, to its credit, the Panther is still acknowledged by many as the best tank of WWII. True to its origins as an antidote to the T-34, the Panther became only one of two panzer types to employ sloped armor. Main armament: 75 mm gun. I talk more about the Panther here.

Tiger tank.

Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger

Without question, the Tiger tank was WWII’s most celebrated “heavy” panzer (roughly 55-60 tons). Arguably - and there are a lot of arguments on both sides for this - the Henschel-designed Panzer VI was the best tank of the war. Hitler chose Ferdinand Porsche to compete in a design competition - Henschel won, while Porsche also was awarded a contract to build 90 tanks of his losing version that became the Ferdinand/Elefant tank destroyer.

Designed at the same time as the Panther, it also developed issues because Hitler required upgrades that were never in the original design. Early variants had an underpowered engine that was prone to overheating…especially the two dozen that were sent to North Africa after the Allied Torch landings. The design incorporated overlapping and interleaved wheels that were adopted from half-tracks. While these made for a stable gun platform that could fire accurately while moving - unusual for tanks of the time - and other advantages like good off-road performance, it also caused a maintenance nightmare. The interleaving, among other things, were quite susceptible to jamming from mud and ice - and there was a lot of both of those in Russia. The design eventually reverted to just overlapping wheels, as off-road performance became less important as the war rolled west into more urban built-up areas. 

Anti-magnetic "Zimmerit" paste produced by Zimmer & Co. in Berlin was applied, giving a distinctive rough appearance, but eventually abandoned late in the war because it required an additional day to apply and the Reich simply didn't have the time. Most teething issues were ironed out relatively quickly after the Tiger I first entered service in August 1942. 

The Tiger's biggest problem was that there weren’t enough of them to stem the Soviet tide that began pushing west after 1942. Only 1,347 or so units were produced during the war compared to 35,120 Soviet T-34s and 48,950 T-34-85s. The Tigers were good, but they weren't good enough to overcome odds like that. Main armament: 88 mm gun. I talk a lot more about the Tiger with plenty of photos here.

King Tiger aka Tiger II.

Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B King Tiger

Developed in 1943, this heavy beast (up to 75.5 tons) incorporated all the things learned about armored warfare previously to make a true state-of-the-art tank. More than any other tank, the King Tiger was the culmination of German armored vehicles, incorporating lessons learned from the Tiger I (no interleaved wheels) and the Panther (sloped armor). One of the reasons the Tiger II was so good was that it was not a rushed wartime weapon - design and testing actually began in the late 1930s to fill the hole in the panzer lineup for a heavier tank than the Panzer IV. It usually came in around 69.5 tons, but with fewer design compromises than the Tiger even though it weighed only about 15% more.

This was Germany’s only panzer besides the Panther to incorporate sloped armor. The Soviet T-34 basically introduced sloped armor, and the T-34's success resulted in it gaining an outsized reputation,  but sloped armor imposed various tradeoffs (such as space available within the tank) that were not all beneficial. The initial production of 40 King Tigers had an underpowered engine which was upgraded to a more powerful engine (V-12 Maybach HL 230 P30 gasoline - all panzers ran on gasoline, btw) for the remaining production run. Many still felt it was underpowered, but based on all the testing done it was more than sufficient for what it had to do. King Tigers did not have to be fast, they just had to get to where they were going.

This panzer incorporated some of the first electronically assisted gun sights like the Panther tank. The King Tiger really didn’t have long enough service life - only about 489 were built - to iron out the usual teething issues associated with new tanks. It replaced the Tiger I in the production lines and was a worthy successor. Armament: 88 mm (8.8 cm KwK 43). I talk more about the King Tiger here.

Damaged Elefant in Italy, April/May 1944
Elefant in Italy April/May 1944 (Robert Vack, Federal Archive Picture 101I-313-1004-25).

Ferdinand/Elefant Tank Destroyer

When the Wehrmacht finally realized what it was up against in the Soviet Union, it quickly organized a competition to design a heavy tank. The main competitors were Henschel, which had a lot of experience building tanks, and Porsche, which had virtually no such experience. Unsurprisingly, Henschel provided the more efficient vehicle - the Tiger - while Porsche came up with a design that was less like a tank and more like an artillery piece. It also was extremely heavy at about 70 tons, which made it slow and unwieldy. While inferior in the intended role of a breakthrough armored vehicle, the Porsche design still was fearsome and usable. Thus, the Wehrmacht decided on an "all of the above" strategy and ordered about 90 of them.

The Ferdinands, as they were called after the name of the Porsche CEO (and Hitler crony), were rushed into service at Kursk in July 1943 and actually did fairly well. However, they received a bad reputation that was exaggerated by post-war writers due to a lack of secondary armament (machine guns) that Porsche, being inexperienced in this field, did not realize were important. So, stories surfaced of Soviet soldiers creeping up on them and pouring gasoline in their engine vents to set them on fire and so forth.

The main point in their favor, though, was that they mounted Krupp's newly developed 88 mm (3.5 in) Panzerjägerkanone 43/2 (PaK 43). This made them more effective as artillery pieces advancing behind the front rather than, as at Kursk, being used at the tip of the schwerpunkt. Once used properly, they came into their own and acquired a fearsome reputation as a defensive weapon with a probably exaggerated kill ratio better than just about any other Wehrmacht armored vehicle.

While Porsche's lack of experience with tanks was obvious and had baleful consequences, its experience making cars for decades provided some subtle advantages in the engine and suspension areas. The Ferdinands continued providing support fire for retreating Wehrmacht troops, proving much more effective in this role, until being recalled to Germany early in 1944 for modifications (such as the installation of MG-34 machine guns for defensive purposes). They then were sent south to Italy, where they remained in service for as long as they lasted. Because of their distinctive appearance, the troops started calling them "Elefant," and eventually, on 1 May 1944, this became their semi-official name (they actually were the Panzerjäger Tiger (P), but nobody called them that). 

The Elefant is the most maligned German armored vehicle, but wrongly so. Despite being prone to mechanical breakdowns as with the Panther - a common situation for World War II tanks on both sides, particularly Soviet ones - the idea that they were ineffective and extremely vulnerable is simply false. While they were all built in early 1943, a company of them lasted until the very end of the war. They saw action on the Oder Front and, finally, defending the Zossen Wehrmacht headquarters (sort of the German Pentagon) south of Berlin in late April 1945. I talk a lot more about the Elefant with photos here.

Sturmgeschütz III (StuG III)

Even though they looked similar, the Sturmgeschütz III assault gun series was developed on a completely separate track from the panzers. Rather than being designed as a "breakthrough" weapon like panzers, the StuG was intended to fulfill the need for mobile artillery that could keep up with the troops. During the German spring 1918 offensives that are now largely forgotten, one of the main drawbacks was that the infantry outran its artillery support, which had difficulty crossing over captured trenches and other rough battle-scarred terrains.

The advantage of the StuG was not that it was superior to panzers because it had a fixed gun and other drawbacks. Instead, it was that it was cheap and plentiful and could accomplish 80% of what a comparable panzer could at maybe half the cost. They were with the common infantry, providing help on a daily basis, whereas panzers were usually kept in separate units often under the control of the highest authority (Hitler himself often directed Tiger and Panther employment instead of local commanders). Here we get into the issue of the theory that hindered use, as Germans recalled their WWI experience and viewed panzers inherently as forming the spear of the schwerpunkt - which, admittedly, they were designed for and very good at - whereas artillery pieces like the StuG, though quite similar, were viewed differently and thus could be allowed to be used just any old way. In a way, because they were less notorious and revered, StuGs thus were allowed to be more effective in their natural infantry-support role than the panzers could be in theirs.

Being cheap and cost-effective, the StuGs were Germany's most-produced (over 13,500 units made) tracked armored fighting vehicle. As an example of their efficiency, eventually, they were built simply using the already proven Mark III chassis rather than being designed from the ground up, which would have required time and expense that simply wasn't available. There were multiple variants from Ausf. A through G as the Wehrmacht refined the design into an efficient killing machine, but the final design was pretty much set by 1942.

Not having a turret, while otherwise a "drawback," actually had some advantages other than cost. One of these was that the StuG could carry a larger gun than a comparable Panzer III. It was a highly versatile vehicle armed originally with a short 75 mm gun barrel designed for the high explosive anti-personnel ordinance. Later variants used the long barrel 75 mm gun (7.5 cm StuK 40 L/48) that was used in the up-gunned Panzer IV from 1941 on. The assault gun’s low profile made it harder to target than other panzer types in the field, again endearing it to its crews.

The German tank experts were not stupid - they appreciated the value of the StuG. When Hitler, rocked by the defeat at Stalingrad, brought renowned panzer expert Heinz Guderian back as Inspector General of Armored Troops, on 1 March 1943, he demanded and acquired control of the panzer arm - but was stunned and saddened to learn that, in his appointment order, the StuG series had been reclassified as artillery and thus was out of his control. His control over events thus was dramatically reduced even though at face value he had received a significant role.

Main Armament: long/short 75 mm gun barrel.

Sturmtiger in 1944 WWII
Sturmtiger.

Sturmtiger Assault Tiger

There weren't very many Sturmtigers built, but those that entered the battle made a big impression. Officially designated the Sturmmörserwagen 606/4 mit 38 cm RW 61, they were based on the late models of the Tiger I, with the same Maybach HL230 P45 V-12, water-cooled gasoline engine, hull, suspension, and many other aspects. It had sloped (at 47° from vertical) frontal armor (note: this was not a tank, but an assault gun) and additional plating that pushed its weight up to 68 tons.

The most noticeable aspect of the Sturmtiger was the 380 mm RW 61 rocket launcher L/5.4 main weapon, with an additional 100 mm grenade launcher thrown in for kicks. The barrel is big enough for someone to crawl inside it, something Allied soldiers who came across one after the war liked to do. Various shells were used, with one being 376 kg (829 lb), with a maximum range of up to 6,000 m (20,000 ft). So, the Germans could park one of these four or five miles from the target and pound away.

The genesis of the weapon was a need for a mobile gun that could destroy buildings, which was needed in Stalingrad. Only about 18 were completed, with the first delivered in August 1944. At least one immediately went into action to quell the Warsaw Uprising of September 1944, and it was effective in leveling the city. As with other massive German artillery pieces, the Sturmtiger could not carry much ammunition, with space for only 14 of the massive shells. They were so heavy that a loading crane at the back of the vehicle was standard equipment. There is a Sturmtiger on display at the Deutsches Panzermuseum. I talk more about the Sturmtiger here.

Hummel in Russia early 1944
A Hummel in the Soviet Union January/February 1944. Note the open tailgate (Wehmeyer, Federal Archive Picture 101I-278-0898-04).

Hummel Self-Propelled Gun

The Hummel was sort of an advanced StuG. It was designed later and, like the StuG, used available parts to save time and design expense. In this case, it used a "Frankensteined" combination of the available chassis parts of the Panzer III (driving and steering systems) and Panzer IV (suspension and engine). The main difference from the StuG was that it mounted a much larger gun, the massive 15 cm sFH 18/1 L/30. Ironically, the main drawback of the Hummel was that the gun was too big and thus the vehicle was not able to carry enough of the large shells required for combat. So, a completely separate complementary vehicle without the main gun, the Munitionsträger Hummel (literally, ammunition-carrying Hummel), was built to accompany them.

The Hummel was effective, and 700 were built along with 150 of their ammunition-carrying sidekicks. Hitler eventually decided they needed a more serious and warlike name - Hummel means "bumblebee" - and so on 27 February 1944 ordered that they be referred to by the far less catchy official name of Panzerfeldhaubitze 18M auf Geschützwagen III/IV (Sf) Hummel, Sd.Kfz. 165 - minus the "Hummel" part. Speed: 42 km/h (26 mph) - roughly the same as the StuG III.

Jagdpanther Sd.Kfz. 173 

The Jagdpanther was probably Germany’s best tank killer of the war. Unfortunately, this vehicle’s high price limited its overall success with only 415 units produced. Like the StuG series, its design made use of another proven platform, being built on the Panther’s chassis. This also meant that it inherited the Panther's issues, being excessively overengineered and having various mechanical issues. The Panther proved more difficult to convert into an assault gun/tank killer compared with the STUG III/Mark III conversion. However, its sleek design made it quite survivable for its crew. Main Armament: 75 mm gun.

Conclusion

As shown above, the Wehrmacht designed a variety of armored vehicles to fill a variety of niches. The panzer series was designed as a breakthrough weapon, whereas the StuG, Hummel, Elefant, and Jagdpanther were more artillery pieces. The Wehrmacht also had some vague plans for gigantic fantasy tanks that would have had guns of the same caliber as on battleships, but these never got beyond the talking stage.
In addition, there also were some even heavier pieces such as the Karl Gerät 1 "Thor," but here we begin moving too closely to pure artillery pieces with minimal mobility. The most versatile of them all was the StuG II, which could be used in both roles, and that is likely why more of them were built than any other German armored vehicle. 
Overall, it was an impressive group of vehicles. However, the German economy had difficulty producing them all in sufficient quantities. In military parlance, there was too much "dispersion of effort." Germany likely would have been better served by focusing on fewer types of armored vehicles and producing more of the most efficient types.


2022

Friday, February 25, 2022

Did the Germans Try To Take Murmansk?

An Unexpected Roadblock Led To Critical Failure In Finland

Finnish ski troops at Petsamo, April 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Finnish ski troops at Petsamo, 14 April 1942 (SA-kuva).

Did the Germans try to take the northern Soviet ports during World War II?

Taking the northern Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk was a priority Axis goal during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa. In fact, the failure to take them was the first sign that Operation Barbarossa might not be quite as easy as Hitler and his generals thought.

Finland was never technically an ally of the Reich, despite all appearances. While it declared war on 25 June 1941, Finland more appropriately is classified as a co-belligerent. To the Soviets, of course, this was a distinction without a difference. German land and air forces operated from Finnish territory and the Finnish armed forces coordinated in grand strategy versus the USSR. To the Allies, it looked like the Germans and Finns were working hand-in-hand (and this almost caused the US to go to war with Finland, though it never did).

However, the distinction between “ally” and “co-belligerent” actually made a huge difference in operations. Marshal Carl Mannerheim, the leader of the Finnish military and de facto head of the entire war effort, increasingly showed an independent streak that irked the German high command. This had a major impact on the war effort in the Arctic theater.

It is common knowledge that the Wehrmacht’s main front at the beginning of Barbarossa had three main prongs: Army Groups North, Center, and South. Completely overlooked by many people was the separate effort further north in Finland. In some ways, though, this theater became the most important of all as the war dragged due to its economic impact.

General Eduard Dietl in Finland, July 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
General Eduard Dietl, one of Hitler's favorites due to his success at Narvik in 1940, is seen during Operation Platinum Fox in July 1941 (Witt, Federal Archive Picture 183-B16420).

This was because the Soviet Arctic ports were the gateway for Lend-Lease supplies to flow into the Soviet Union. The flow of goods along the railway from Murmansk to the south needed to be eliminated to cut off these vital supplies. This could most effectively be accomplished by taking the ports themselves, which were tantalizingly close to the Finnish border (at least on the maps Hitler relied on, which did not show how rough the intervening ground was).

The Germans knew this potential issue before the war began and wanted to “nip it in the bud” in the opening days of the offensive. So, they sent two divisions, the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions, to Kirkenes on the Finnish side of the border. Called Mountain Corps Norway, these two divisions were to first secure the nickel mines near Petsamo and then take Murmansk. This was a huge buildup for such a remote location and their presence took the Soviets completely by surprise. The overall operation toward Murmansk was Operation Silver Fox.

The first part of the operation went off flawlessly. The troops took the Kolosjoki nickel mines, badly needed by German industry, without a hitch. This was Operation Reindeer (Unternehmen Rentier). Led by perhaps Hitler’s favorite general, Eduard Dietl, the mines were secured within a week and remained in German hands until late 1944.

German soldiers in Lappland in 1943 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German soldiers in the far north, 1943 (Theobald, Federal Archive Picture 101I-103-0943-13).

Dietl then began the second, more critical phase of Silver Fox, codenamed Platinum Fox, about a week after the start of Barbarossa. Ferdinand Schörner, a no-nonsense general (later field marshal) known as "the butcher" who famously said “The Arctic does not exist!” when his troops complained about the cold, also made his name in the theater.

However, the Soviets now were alerted to the situation and realized the danger of losing the railway. Even as his fronts further south collapsed, Stalin directed just enough troops up the railway to slow down and eventually stop the Germans well short of Murmansk. The Wehrmacht, it turned out, had issues with the Arctic weather and the rugged terrain, whereas the Soviets had learned bitter lessons from the Winter War. These battles, incidentally, were the furthest north in the entire conflict.

German coastal artillery at Petsamo during World War II worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Gun emplacement at Petsamo, Finland, 1942-43 (Grub, Federal Archive Picture 101I-103-0908-06A).

Stymied in their frontal assault, the Axis then shifted the effort a little further south to cut off the railway. The Arctic ports, after all, would lose most of their value without the railway to ship supplies brought in by ship to the main front. This attack, directed through Salla and Kestenga toward the railway at Loukhi and Kem, required close cooperation between the Finnish and German militaries and came quite close to success.

However, Mannerheim already was getting concerned about the Wehrmacht’s slowing pace of advance on the main front and rising Finnish casualties. The Germans tried to “order” him to bolster his attack toward the railway, but he flat-out refused. They also tried to have him attack Leningrad from the north, but on 31 August 1941 Mannerheim refused. 

This was a little-noticed but critical turning point in the entire war. From then on, Mannerheim only made a pretense of attacking and ordered his troops to stop at very clearly defined lines, usually at the original (pre-Winter War) border (or wherever the Finns thought the borders should have been all along). So, Mannerheim repeatedly had his troops stop well north of Leningrad, for instance, and at the Svir River despite the fact that they could have advanced further (especially on the Svir). 

At Leningrad, the Finns did some shelling of the outskirts of the city (which the Russians make a big deal about but accomplished little) and some half-hearted “show” attacks that had no hope of breaking the Soviet defenses. It was all just to placate the Germans without actually putting more Finnish lives at risk than was absolutely necessary.

Finnish troops near Kestenga, 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Finnish troops near Kestenga on the road to the Murmansk railway at Loukhi during Operation Platinum Fox, 17 November 1941 (SA-kuva).

The Germans had limited resources in the remote Finnish areas that were accessible only along snowy trails and it was very difficult to bring more forces and supplies in. Without an extreme Finnish effort, the attacks toward the ports, the railway, and Leningrad bogged down. This failure began a long and convoluted series of German requests that Mannerheim make strong attacks to the east, with Mannerheim repeatedly refusing (in a very courteous way).

Mannerheim’s favorite excuse was to say he would be happy to attack east - once Leningrad had fallen. Since Hitler refused to allocate sufficient forces to take the city, and Mannerheim refused to attack it himself, he had a perpetual “out” in terms of attacking elsewhere. The German forces in Finland were completely dependent on Finnish supply services, so they had no way to compel Mannerheim to do more, and he was happy just to hold what he had obtained in the opening weeks of Barbarossa.

General Ferdinand Schorner, April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ferdinand Schörner, April 1941 (Scheerer, Theodore, Federal Archive Picture 183-L29176).

The final strategy was to bomb the ports, and at this they had some success. However, the Luftwaffe effort in the far north was dispersed between attacks on the ports and on the convoys themselves, and these attacks (primarily by Stukas) had no strategic impact. The Germans even resorted to trying to bomb hillsides to cause landslides because geologists had told them the ground was unstable, which must have confused the Soviets as to why they were dropping bombs in the forests.

So, yes, the Axis did attempt to take the ports and bomb them. It also attempted to cut them off and make them useless. All these efforts failed, and the front turned into garrison warfare with no real effect on the outcome of the conflict.

Finnish border patrol at Petsamo, July 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com.
Finnish border patrol trooper at Petsamo, July 1942 (SA-kuva).


2022

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Have Aircraft Carriers Sunk Ships Since World War II?

Post-War Sinkings at Sea

Grumman A-6E Intruder worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Grumman A-6E Intruder was accepted for service in 1963 and was in service with the United States Navy and Marine Corps between 1963 and 1997. They were involved in several sinkings of enemy vessels during that period. This photo was taken on 23 November 1981 (National Archives 6364507).

Aircraft launched from ships that sank other vessels was fairly common during World War II, especially in the Pacific Theater of Operation. However, since then it hasn’t happened that often. There are always details about the incidents that deviate them from classic airstrikes such as at the Battle of Midway. However, when the situation called for it, naval aviation was able to deliver results several times during the post-war era.

So, here we look at incidents since World War II when carrier-launched aircraft sank ships.

The major powers that deploy aircraft carriers haven’t really engaged in heated conflicts with any maritime powers since World War II. In my view, that alone sets WWII apart from all later conflicts. Seapower is the hallmark of a Great Power, and military conflicts at sea between Great Powers have been extremely limited since WWII.

However, on occasion, aircraft carriers have sunk enemy shipping. Usually, these incidents are one-offs and relatively minor, involving gunboats or with inconclusive results.

I’ll just list a few examples to give a gist of the kinds of actions that aircraft carriers or vessels carrying aircraft (times have changed, not only aircraft carriers carry aircraft these days) have taken against enemy shipping since World War II. There are probably more, but any other such incidents would be along these same lines.

Royal Navy Westland Wasp worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Royal Navy Westland Wasp (Mike Freer).

During the Falklands War in 1983, aircraft launched from Royal Navy vessels badly damaged the Argentinian submarine ARA Santa Fe. The submarine was hit by missiles and depth charges but barely made it back to port, where it was abandoned and eventually sank. The asterisk to this incident is that none of the British vessels were actually aircraft carriers, but naval aircraft such as Westland Wasp and Westland Lynx helicopters launched from naval vessels did the damage.

USS Ticonderoga burning in January 1945 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
USS Ticonderoga, shown here burning in January 1945, sank ships both during and after World War II. As shown above, she survived kamikaze attacks during WWII. It was one of several WWII carriers to participate in the Vietnam War (US Navy)

Aircraft carriers have been involved in collisions that resulted in ships sinking. USS Wasp (CV-17) collided with destroyer USS Hobson on 26 April 1952, sinking Hobson and causing 176 deaths. On 10 February 1964, Australian light aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (launched during World War II) rammed and sank the RAN destroyer HMAS Voyager, which had cut across its path. Voyager sank with 82 deaths. Melbourne also collided with US Navy destroyer Frank E. Evans on 3 June 1969. While Evans did not sink, 74 sailors died. In each instance, the aircraft carrier sustained damage to its bows but returned to port for successful repairs.

In the early days of the Vietnam War in 1964, USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) had several incidents with North Vietnamese shipping. The (North) Vietnam People's Navy attacked some US destroyers, so the Ticonderago launched rocket-armed F8E Crusaders that sank a handful of North Vietnamese gunboats. Ticonderoga and Constellation then launched airstrikes against the NV bases and destroyed/sank 25 gunboats. During the winter of 1965–66, Ticonderoga sank more enemy shipping during a general interdiction campaign.

In May 1972, the Midway, Coral Sea, Kitty Hawk, and Constellation laid naval mines off North Vietnamese ports such as Haiphong. Exactly how many ships sank from the mines is unclear, but it’s hard to believe there weren’t any victims. The ships also participated in Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II later that year which undoubtedly sank some ships in port.

French-built patrol boat worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A French-built a La Combattante IIa-class FACM Guided-Missile Patrol Craft (PTG) (Source: Jebulon).

In Operation Attain Document in March 1986, U.S. Navy aircraft and ships of the Sixth Fleet entered the Gulf of Sidra (off Libya) and met with Libyan attacks. Aircraft carriers USS America, Coral Sea, and Saratoga were involved. Essentially, it was a dispute over territorial waters and freedom of the seas. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi then sent in attacks to prevent the U.S. ships from entering the Gulf. Following unsuccessful Libyan missile strikes and air attacks, Grumman A-6E Intruders from VA-34 (USS America) and VA-85 (Saratoga) sank a Libyan French-built La Combattante IIa-class patrol boat using Harpoon missiles and cluster bombs. A-6Es from VA-55 of Coral Sea then badly damaged a Libyan corvette and patrol boat. Saratoga A6-Es of VA-85 later sank a Libyan corvette, ending the battles.

Grumman A-6E Intruder worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Grumman A-6E Intruder (USS Lexington).

During Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, fighting between U.S. and Iranian forces began after a US ship, the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf. As part of retaliatory actions around an Iranian oil platform, A-6Es from VA-95 flying from USS Enterprise sank two Iranian speedboats. Later, two A-6Es responded to a missile attack from the Iranian frigate IRIS Sahand. They sank it using Harpoon missiles. Other A-6Es later responded to attacks from another Iranian frigate, IRIS Sabalan, by dropping bombs on it. They disabled the Iranian ship and forced it to be towed to port. After some more unsuccessful Iranian missile firings, the battle ended. This was the largest carrier action since WWII.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, USS Ranger (CV-61) conducted a general suppression campaign against Iraq. In addition to hitting many land targets, the ship’s Grumman A-6E Intruders sank enemy shipping in port.

While these operations may not seem particularly dramatic, they got the job done and sent some steel to the bottom.

USS Ranger CV-61 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
USS Ranger CV-61.

2021

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Why Weren't There Survivors of HMAS Sydney?

A Silent Tragedy

Sailors of HMAS Sydney worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Sydney crewmen in Alexandria, Egypt, sometime in 1940. Can't wait to get back to Down Under far from the war where it is safe! Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial.

Why didn't anyone survive the sinking of HMAS Sydney?

The sinking of HMAS Sydney on or about 19 November 1941 was one of the great tragedies of World War II that has received the least attention. I sometimes see people claim that World War II wasn’t actually a “world” war because “nothing happened in the Indian Ocean.” Well, in fact, quite a bit of combat happened in the Indian Ocean, with the biggest clash of all being between Sydney and German raider Kormoran.

One of the reasons the action has received so little attention outside of Australia is that nobody from Sydney survived to tell the tale and the German survivors weren’t all that keen to talk about it and were in POW camps for five years. Not only did nobody survive Sydney, for the longest time it was believed that not even a single body was recovered. Sydney just disappeared.

That wasn’t terribly unusual during World War II. Of course, it happened quite often with submarines sunk by depth charges, where the men had no chance to escape. Probably the most famous example was U-47, which disappeared in March 1941 with the famous Günther Prien aboard. That was just one example of dozens and dozens of submarines that disappeared with all hands.

HMAS Sydney worldwartwo.filminspector.com
HMAS Sydney 1940 in the Mediterranean. Source: Australian War Memorial 301473.

Submarines may seem like a special case. After all, they’re often caught underwater to begin with. However, it also happened with many, many surface ships, including both naval and commercial ships.

Ships sunk with few survivors included USS Juneau, with only ten survivors out of 697 crewmen, and German heavy battlecruiser Scharnhorst, with 36 survivors out of 1986 crewmen. Destroyer USS Jarvis had no survivors out of 233 crewmen early in the Guadalcanal campaign.

There were literally hundreds of naval vessels sunk during World War II with no survivors. Hundreds of ships. That's right, hundreds of ships with no survivors.

Sailors of HMAS Sydney worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Crewmen of HMAS Sydney at Alexandria, Egypt, 1940. Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial. 

So, HMAS Sydney had a lot of company in having none of its 645 men survive. It’s all conjecture, but there are several likely causes for the lack of survivors.

Survival at sea requires you to jump over numerous obstacles. Each one, individually, may not seem like much when we’re reading about it 80 years later, but each obstacle whittles down the number of people who can then try to hurdle the next one. It’s a pretty grim cut-down process.

First, the sinking happened around midnight. Tough to get your bearings in the dark, with no lights in an endless sea. Not easy to spot anything to grab onto.

And, there wouldn’t have been much to grab onto anyway. We’re all familiar with how warships look. What’s not obvious until you think about it is that there isn’t a lot of floatable material on deck. Cruise ships are lined with lifeboats on the “boat deck” - cruisers don’t have boat decks. There will be a launch or two, some rafts, and that’s it.

It’s not like everybody would have been standing around on deck waiting for the right time to jump into the water. They would have been below, fighting fires, manning pumps, trying to get the engines to work.

Sailors of HMAS Sydney worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Sailors of HMAS Sydney while serving in the Mediterranean, 1940. Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial. 

When discovered in 2008, Sydney was found to have sunk after its bow snapped off. Since the bow was found near the rest of the vessel, that probably precipitated the final plunge (as with RMS Titanic). The ship then sank vertically, which would have been quite fast. It’s not easy to climb ladders and stairs when they’re horizontal. People normally topside in the superstructure was killed during the battle, so the survivors of the battle are mostly below the waterline - not a good place to be in a sinking ship.

And that ship, your home perhaps for years by now, the place you knew like the back of your hand and could "walk through blindfolded," is now suddenly alien territory. It is trying to kill you, with nothing where you expect it to be. Oh, wait, that corridor isn't there anymore because a shell destroyed it, better go to Plan B!  Maybe that corridor you used to walk down in ten seconds is now vertical - hard to climb up steel plating. You have to think through every move - where you used to turn left, which way do you go now to get to the surface, and which exit (that you normally don't use very often) is still going to be above water? - and thinking things over with the sea surging in isn't a good plan.

Able Seaman Thomas Clark of HMAS Sydney, who made it to a carley raft but then found the real struggle had only just begun worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark hurdled all the obstacles and made it to carley raft. Having survived a brutal Darwinian cut-down process, this enabled him to wait out endless days and nights with no food or water, waiting for help that never came. Source: Royal Australian Navy via Quadrant Online.

There aren't a lot of openings to the outside in a cruiser to crawl through. There is a set number of exits with no skylights or anything like that where you might get out to safety. Heavy watertight doors will be closed and they open at funny angles that may be against gravity. Water is coming in at random places from shell and torpedo damage. And the lights have failed and there’s total darkness and things have fallen in your way that you have to crawl over. And you’re exhausted from manning the pumps for hours. "Don't tell me it's impossible, lads, you either get 'er done or we all die." And a dozen other sailors, your mates, are in the same corridor blocking your way as the precious seconds tick by. Some of them are dead or dying, maybe calling out for help - do you stop to aid them?

And getting out of the dying ship is only the beginning. So, a small number of lucky sailors would have found their way topside. Avoid getting pulled under from the suction! They would have been struggling in the water in pitch darkness. The sea undoubtedly was covered in oil, perhaps some of it on fire, which makes swimming difficult. You hear voices of dying men crying out for help or just, well, crying out because they know what's coming next.

Carley rafts during World War II worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Carley floats were stored in out-of-the-way places and designed to float free in the event of a really bad day. Source: Legion Magazine.

Okay, well, you can handle all that, right? You're out, you watch that dark shadow of the ship slide under a few meters from you, it's nice, warm water because it's summertime Down Under. All's good, you're the lucky one, the clever one, the overachiever who got out! Wasn't so hard! They should have taught those other blokes who didn't get out what's what! At that point, you just tread water and wait for daylight. Look for one of those rafts that you never noticed during your daily routine, what were they called again - oh, sure, carley rafts. With the sun will come the rescuers because that’s what always happens in the movies, right?

Well, the crew of Sydney didn’t get off any distress messages because the Kormoran’s very first salvo destroyed the bridge, killing the bridge crew and likely terminating the radio apparatus. So, nobody even knew that the Sydney had been sunk for five days. A search wasn’t even begun until 24 November and lasted only through 29 November. The men in the water (and there were likely some from Kormoran, too, though miles away from the Sydney men) were probably all dead before the first ship left a harbor or the first plane took off to look for them.

Map of Sydney location and where the only body was found worldwartwo.filminspector.com
May of Sydney sinking and where the carley float was found about three months later.

The men in the water wouldn’t see any rescuers at dawn or at any other time because it’s a big ocean and things get lost there very easily. I’m sure you’ve heard about that Malaysian plane, MH 370, that disappeared in 2014. When someone asked me then how long it would take to find it, I said “never.” I compared it to flying a helicopter over the United States looking for a plane that had crashed but you had only the vaguest notion of in which state it might have happened. “Look in the Midwest first.” Yeah, good luck with that. Incidentally, there are many WWII plane crashes that have never been found, too.

But anyway, the men would have been struggling in the water not just until morning, but for one endless day after another. As far as they were concerned, they would be struggling in the water for eternity, getting thirstier, hungrier, weaker, and more sunburned until they finally just accepted it or drank some water ("it can't be as bad as they say") or drowned in the waves.

Some, injured during the battle, would have succumbed quickly. Sailors fighting fires in the bowels of the ship or in the engine room wouldn’t have been wearing much (it would have been hot as Hades below decks), hence had little protection from the cold at night and the burning sun during the day Water sucks the heat out of you much faster than air. Others would have lasted a day, some two days, maybe a few for longer. But each day would have been another obstacle, and notice what I said above about obstacles. No food, no potable water, no shade from the sun beating down on you… it’s not a pretty picture even if you do somehow make it to a raft.

Wreckage of USS Indianapolis worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Wreckage of USS Indianapolis from a National Geographic documentary. Source: Television Business International.

The experience of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 will give you chills if you read about it. There were many, many men struggling to survive in the water after it was torpedoed just after delivering an atomic bomb for special air mail delivery to Japan. They grouped together, holding onto each other to survive until rescuers came.

And then the sharks came.

So, the number of survivors of the Sydney was dropping constantly for a variety of factors. There’s one more fact that will make the point. The wreck was discovered about 222 km west of Australia. Okay, so maybe some men would have somehow swum to shore or drifted there, right? You know how wreckage always winds up ashore, some of them should have made it. Well, if they were champion endurance swimmers with perfect preparation, perhaps. But there’s one last fact you need to know before you reach that conclusion: 

the currents in that part of the Indian Ocean sweep in a counterclockwise circular pattern away from Australia and toward Africa. They head north, then west. Not toward land. Even if you made landfall before making the big left turn toward Africa, it would take months - months - to see land in the distance. And, it's not easy to see land far away when you're bobbing in the water.

That’s why bits of the wreckage of MH 370, which could have crashed within a few miles from the Sydney’s wreck for all we know, are still being found in South Africa and on islands off the African coast. Thousands of nautical miles away. And it took months, even years, to get there.

German raider HSK Kormoran worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German raider Kormoran, which sank around the same time as HMAS Sydney after their battle (Federal Archive Image 146-1985-074-27).

A fair question is how there were 318 survivors of Kormoran’s 399 -man crew but none from Sydney. Well, it was the luck of the draw. The crewmen on the German raider realized early on that their ship - never built to survive gun battles and thus not expected to take punishment from a cruiser and survive - was going to sink. So, they abandoned the ship early on in good order. That apparently wasn’t the case with the crew of Sydney. And things would have been easier for the Germans after the sinking, too. A converted merchantman would have had plenty of stuff lying around that would float and give men something to grab onto to keep themselves from drowning. The Kormoran even had lifeboats, helpful as a part of the disguise of being an Allied merchantman.

Even then, with the Germans being questioned, it wasn't clear what happened. The German survivors didn't see the Sydney sink. They all had different stories based on the bits of information they did know. Among other things, they didn't know the precise position of the battle. And then, the Germans didn't know how long it took Sydney to sink or which direction it went in (south by southeast, it turned out). The currents by then already had five days to work their magic and take the survivors far away from that location in some random direction anyway.

Carley raft from HMAS Sydney worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A carley float from HMAS Sydney that didn't save anyone. Source: Naval Historical Society of Australia.

Days passed with nothing for the survivors to look at but the endless sky. The few sailors nearby that kept you company would have drifted away during the nights, so eventually you were all alone. Hard to spot a single man with no bright clothing or other clear identifiers in the middle of the ocean. Even if you somehow had a flare gun, there aren't a lot of passing ships because you weren't on a freighter on a normal trade route. You were just out there in some random place in the middle of nowhere.

Being adrift after your ship sinks or your plane crashes is one of the worst ways to die. You have plenty of time to think things over and often not a thing you can do to avert the inevitable unless you get lucky and someone happens by and spots your head slightly above the waves.

A passing tanker finding the Germans five days later was the first indication to the authorities that there had even been a battle. Nothing happened in the Indian Ocean during the war, right, so why would there have been a battle? Maybe if the tanker had found Sydney survivors in the water, the losses would have been more even. The Germans got lucky - some even made landfall on their own, in their boats - and the Sydney sailors didn't. Luck of the draw.

This is all just cold, hard reality, and the same thing could happen to any of us at sea.

To show how World War II still haunts the world, just last week - 19 November 2021 - Australia announced that a body found in a carley float near Christmas Island on 6 February 1942 was, as long thought, a certain crewman from Sydney. He was identified using DNA testing of relatives. The sailor, Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark, had two shrapnel wounds to his head, one in his left forehead and one above and behind his left ear that destroyed his skull. How he ever made it into a raft is a miracle in itself. Men in the water would have had wounds, too. It's never a pretty sight after a fierce battle.

Even a lucky sailor who somehow made it to a raft couldn’t make it over all the final obstacles. The men in the water had no chance at all.

Carley raft in a South African museum worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A carley float in a museum in South Africa. One of these helped one sailor from Sydney die slower. Source: Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

2021