Monday, April 25, 2016

Heinkel He 115 Seaplanes - Best Combat Seaplanes of World War II

The Heinkel's He-115 was the Best Combat Seaplane of World War II

Heinkel He 115
Heinkel He 115B-1 - coastal pilot group 506.

The Heinkel He 115 was the best combat seaplane of World War II. We've all seen pictures of humongous sea-going planes - those are flying boats. Seaplanes aka floatplanes were designed for offensive activities to which flying boats were generally unsuited. Many seaplanes exhibited high performance qualities. In fact, the famous Supermarine Spitfire was derived from racing seaplanes (and at one time an effort was made to convert it back into one). The Japanese also had very capable seaplanes that were serviceable as fighters (Nakajima A6M2-N (Navy Type 2 Interceptor/Fighter-Bomber), Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū). Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to the Heinkel He 115; it is one of those mystery planes that you read about in the literature, but may have a hard time visualizing.

Definitional Issues: Best What?

Spruce Goose
Yes, this is a flying boat, not a seaplane, but I am making a point here. The H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose" was the largest plane that could float that was built during World War II (and ever built, in fact). It was capable of flight during the war and intended as the first of a fleet of air transports. Arguably, it was the greatest technical achievement in the broad class of planes that could both float and fly. However, this immense plane never saw combat, did not actually fly until 1947, and never entered production. The sole example survives on display at McMinnville, Oregon. If you consider prototypes to be WWII combat planes, then you also must consider the Spruce Goose to be one - but that makes no sense.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: this article addresses the best combat seaplanes of the war. I include "combat" because World War II is defined by the fact that combat occurred during it. By "combat," I include only planes that actually engaged in fighting (and were not just perhaps shot at).

There were several larger seaplanes and many larger flying boats in the world at various times during World War II that some might consider "better." These included but are not limited to:
  • Loire-Nieuport 10 (prototype only, destroyed in 1940)
  • Junkers Ju 52/3m (conversion for minesweeping, never saw combat)
  • Douglas C47C Skytrain (attempted conversion, apparently never used, never saw combat)
  • Cant Z-506 (Trimotor, used a few times as a bomber then relegated to reconnaissance and rescue) 
  • Cant Z-511 (prototypes, never saw combat)
  • Blohm & Voss Ha 139 (pre-war passenger plane built in limited quantities and used occasionally for transport/minesweeping)
  • Hughes H-4 Hercules (a flying boat prototype completed by 1944, never flew during the war and never saw combat).
However, these larger seaplanes/flying boats were mainly prototypes, conversions, transports or essentially just airline passenger planes with military markings. If you want to define the question of best seaplane broadly and not include "combat," then by all means pick one of the seaplanes on the list if you wish. If you feel that "seaplane" is a meaningless distinction, pick the Spruce Goose as the best plane that could float during the war (if you are only interested in size and ability to float). You could also define the question of "best" to include only planes that went on missions, or actually flew during the war, were not conversions, were designed to include armament, or whatever distinction you want.

There were some conversions of famous fighters that produced mixed results. These included but were not limited to:

  • Supermarine Spitfire
  • Japanese A6M "Zero"

Of these, the only worthwhile combat plane was the Zero conversion, designated A6M2-N ("Rufe"). Beginning in December 1941, 327 of these were produced. The A6M2-N, however, had a large central float that prevented it from carrying torpedoes or bombs. Strictly used as a fighter, it was mediocre and no match for Allied fighters carried on aircraft carriers, though it did come in handy in remote areas.

The point is that how you define the question will give you different answers, because all of these planes had different attributes. If you are looking for the seaplane that had the most impact on the war, the choice is pretty clear.

The Heinkel He-115 is my answer to the question of best combat seaplane of World War II, but it might not be yours because you may define the question differently. But the He 115 was a seaplane, it was big, many were built, it proved deadly against shipping targets, and it was used quite a bit to great effect in combat. During the early years of the war, the Heinkel He 115 made a big difference in the battles around the British Isles.

Buick Y-Job
 The 1938 Buick Y-Job. It had hidden headlights, power windows, and a power top that disappeared under a hard tonneau. It undeniably was the best American car of 1938. However, it was not a production car and was simply a one-off prototype for the private use of its designer. The answer to "Best car of 1938" if you get into an online fight about it? You're cheating if you pick the Y-Job, but you'd be correct.

Not to belabor this too much, but saying that one of these other planes was the best combat seaplane is a bit like saying that the best car of 1938 was GM design chief Harley Earl's Buick Y-Job. The Y-Job was a phenomenal one-off concept car, decades ahead of its time. The Y-Job, however, never entered production and is forgotten except by car historians. Like the Y-Job, the seaplanes listed above were limited-production experiments, or not designed for the military at all. The majority never saw combat like the Heinkel He 115, the best combat seaplane of World War II.

Okay, that's my reasoning.

Heinkel He 115
An experimental Supermarine Spitfire on pontoons. These never saw action. Sure, you can call this conversion a World War II seaplane if you wish, and the basic plane itself certainly was immortal. However, the conversion really was nothing more than a gimmick and only a few were attempted. 

The Heinkel He-115

Okay, on to our seaplane. The Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) had a huge deficit in aircraft to make up in the 1930s as Germany re-armed. It knew that the Reich would need planes of every type, so, along with everything else, it put out a tender for a twin-engined general purpose floatplane. Blohm & Voss, which had begun as a shipyard, and Heinkel Flugzeugwerke, which was more a straight aircraft-design firm, both submitted proposals. B + V submitted the Ha 140, and Heinkel the He 115.

Heinkel He 115
A Heinkel He 115 in 1937, apparently the first prototype.
The RLM decided that both were acceptable, and paid for three prototypes of each. The Heinkel prototype was in the air by August 1937.

Heinkel He 115
KMS Scharnhorst and a destroyer escorted by an He 115 on anti-submarine patrol, most likely in the Arctic going after a convoy to Murmansk.

The 3-seater Heinkel's performance was so good that in early 1938, the RLM, in somewhat of a surprise given Blohm & Voss' experience and reputation, chose the Heinkel design. The Heinkel prototype came out almost perfect right from the start; it began setting international records for floatplanes and reached a maximum speed of 328 km/h (204 mph). Those were not quite fighter speeds, but they were astounding for a general purpose floatplane.

Heinkel He 115

The initial armament was two 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 15 machine guns, one in the nose and one in the dorsal position - at that time, machine guns were still considered sufficient for fighters. Later, after some wartime experience, the He 115 began sprouting other guns: 15 mm or 20 mm MG 151 cannon facing forward, and rear-ward firing machine guns in the engine nacelles. The design was good enough that it could be upgraded over time. The He 115 also was adapted to carry torpedoes and amall (250 kg, 550 lb) bombs. The He 115 was powered by two 960 PS (947 hp, 720 kW) BMW 132K nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engines, probably chosen because radial engines were in disfavor due to their size and thus were readily available.

Heinkel He 115

One of the priorities for the Luftwaffe early in the war was seeding British harbors such as the Thames estuary with mines. It also was used in anti-shipping roles against the Arctic convoys, where it excelled, and for reconnaissance and transport.

Heinkel He 115
A He 115 captured by the Allies.

However, one thing it was not good at was tangling with top Allied fighters: this was amply demonstrated as early as 21 October 1939. On that day, a dozen He 115s attacked a British convoy in the North Sea. Defending Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires from No. 46 Squadron soon arrived, and four of the Heinkels became casualties. In the far north, however, where the Allies had no air cover in the absence of carriers, the Heinkel remained deadly. He 115s were responsible for much of the destruction of Convoy PQ-17 in July 1942.

Heinkel He 115
A German Heinkel He 115B of 1./Küstenfliegergruppe 206 on a crane.

The Heinkel He 115 was very well-respected abroad. The Norwegian Ministry of Defence ordered a dozen of them, and six were delivered before Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. Eventually, the Germans seized most of them.

Heinkel He 115

Four of the Norwegian He 115s escaped to Great Britain, where they were enlisted by the Royal Air Force to carry out leaflet operations over Norway. However, this operation was cancelled because of certain Luftwaffe opposition, and eventually the Heinkels were used in special operations both in Norway and in the Mediterranean region.

Heinkel He 115

One of the Norwegian He 115s was flown to Finland right after the German invasion. It served there to good effect until lost on 4 July 1943. The Heinkels were extremely valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations in areas with lakes, which pretty much covered the entire northern sphere of operations. The Swedish Air Force also operated a dozen Heinkel 115s, and these remained in service there until 1952.

Heinkel He 115

The Bulgarian Air Force also used some He 115s. The B/C series was the dominant version, and had increased bomb capacity, greater fuel capacity, and additional armament. However, though there were a number of variants, the basic He 115 design remained virtually unchanged throughout its life, and the different model numbers only differentiated planes oriented for specific purposes such as mine-laying, torpedo attack and the like.

Heinkel He 115
An Allied Pilot's view of a Heinkel He 115 that he just shot down in 1943.

There were 138 He 115s built, but all were destroyed during the war or shortly afterwards. Collectors being collectors, though, they began searching for recoverable wrecks. An A-2 was recovered in Russia, but is in private hands in France and has never been displayed. Its condition is unknown. A wrecked He 115 is known to be located at the bottom of the Lake Limingen in Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. There it sits until and unless someone has the inclination and, more importantly, the money to recover it.

Heinkel He 115
The He 115 B-1 Werknr. 3896 was recovered from Hafrsfjord in Norway on 2 June 2012. It was part of 1 Staffel, Seefernaufklärungsgruppe 906 (No. 1 Squadron, 906 Maritime Reconnaissance Group), known until February 1941 as Küstenfliegergruppe 906 (906 Coastal Aviation Group), Luftflotte 5. It is always chilling when the Luftwaffe symbol breaks the surface.

There is one He 115 that is known to be in fairly good shape. A He 115 B-1 was recovered by a museum located just a few miles from the actual underwater wreck site, located at Hafrsfjord, Norway (near the main He 115 base at Stavanger) on 12 June 2012. That plane sank on 26 December 1942 after a bad landing ripped off the left float. Unfortunately, it is not complete because the Germans were able to recover the engine and the remaining float. However, what is left is in good condition considering that it sat on the bottom of the ocean for 70 years. The recovered He 115 sits in a tank of fresh water at the Flyhistorisk Museum, Sola, Norway to leach out the ocean salts. No decision has been made as to whether to restore it or simply display it as-is.

"Are you seriously questioning that mine is the biggest?"


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Driving With Hitler

Hitler a Gearhead?

Adolf Hitler cars
Notice how the rear-view mirror (not standard equipment in the 1930s) is tilted in Hitler's direction, not the driver's. That is probably the photographer's (Heinrich Hoffmann) decision, to get a view of Hitler.
There is an entire class of odd or just unexpected pictures of Adolf Hitler driving or being around cars.

Adolf Hitler cars
 Hitler in his Mercedes, apparently at the Berghof. Credit: C&TAuctions/BNPS.
Adolf was a huge car guy. He was familiar with all the usual metrics such as horsepower and so forth which would become preoccupations of hotrodders in the 1950s and 1960s.

Adolf Hitler cars
Hitler loved to ride shotgun.
Hitler would have his driver race down narrow roads through rural Germany in the 1920s in a car with a rotating warning light, like on an ambulance.

Adolf Hitler cars

However, here's a factoid: Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany and proud gearhead, never had a driver's license.

Adolf Hitler cars

While Hitler himself did not drive, he didn't need to. Once he could afford a car after World War I, he always had a driver. This gave him a chance to do some recruiting when the opportunity arose.

Adolf Hitler cars

Hitler knew cars, particularly German ones. Hitler greatly preferred Mercedes vehicles over BMWs - in fact, privately he called BMWs "junk."

Adolf Hitler cars

In fact, while in Landsberg Prison after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, one of Hitler's big projects (besides writing Mein Kampf) was arranging a car loan for when he got out of jail. Surviving documents attest to this.

Adolf Hitler cars
1933 photo of Hitler with an unknown driver. This must have been some sort of ceremonial occasion where Hitler's usual chauffeurs were not used.
His main chauffeurs were Ernst Johann Haug, Emil Maurice, Erich Kempka, Josef "Sepp" Dietrich and Julius Schreck.

Adolf Hitler cars
Here is a sequence of clips from a film of Hitler riding through crowds.
Hitler was incredibly particular about his chauffeurs and rarely consented to be driven by anybody but the men named above. There were lots of little "extras" if you drove Hitler, sort of like being the Chamberlain to a medieval prince.

Adolf Hitler cars

Hitler also remained extremely loyal to his drivers - not only was Maurice rumored to be romancing Hitler's girl Geli Raubal, but he also turned out to be Jewish.

Adolf Hitler cars

Despite these issues, Hitler made Maurice an honorary Aryan and even kept him in the SS with a special dispensation. This undoubtedly saved Maurice from incarceration in a camp. This doesn't excuse the millions of people that Hitler disposed of in concentration camps, it just shows that Hitler could be kind to his drivers.

Adolf Hitler cars

Sepp Dietrich became an SS General despite knowing virtually nothing about the military. Those long drives gave Dietrich plenty of time to cultivate a relationship with the future Fuehrer. So, obviously, driving Hitler was not bad for your own career prospects in the Third Reich. Remember, it's not what you know, by who you know.

Adolf Hitler cars Hermann Goering
Hitler and future Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in front of Hitler's touring car (courtesy Blaine Taylor, "Hermann Goering: Blumenkrieg, from Vienna to Prague 1938-39").
Hitler used his cars for more than just driving. Above, he is shown with Hermann Goering in front of Hitler's Mercedes-Benz 770K Grosser open touring car. Hitler used the car as a reviewing stand on Adolf Hitler Plaza every year between 1933-38.

Adolf Hitler cars
Hitler enters Memel, March 1939.
Being Hitler's driver was like being a keeper of the royal privy in the Renaissance. It was a ticket to good things and probably a thrill to be around the man who held all the power.

Adolf Hitler cars
This is from 1931. Just a guy in the seat ahead... but look at the rear-view mirror. Could it be... Adolf Hitler?
Hitler's photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, obviously posed the picture above since the rearview mirror is tilted in Hitler’s direction. Drivers didn't really use rearview mirrors in the 1920s and 1930s very much anyway.

Adolf Hitler cars
Here, Hitler demonstrates that he is decades ahead of his time by checking his VW for that special little emissions device. Yup, it's in there.
Hitler, of course, is credited with coming up with the VW Beetle. Yes - Adolf Hitler literally designed the original Volkswagen Beetle. Who knew that the Fuhrer was a gearhead?

Adolf Hitler cars
One of the very few times when Hitler is upstaged in a photograph.
Did Hitler have a racing car? You betcha!

Adolf Hitler cars

The racing car deal was not just for show - Hitler took a great interest in them, but there is no evidence that he ever drove one (if he could drive at all). Hitler was always an enormous car enthusiast and his chauffeur, Kempka (shown below in the SS uniform in the middle), said, “his knowledge of car engines surpassed even that of experts.”

Adolf Hitler cars
Oh, how history could have been changed...
The amazing machine below is the Formula 1 Silberpfeil (silver arrow), a Mercedes racing car.

Adolf Hitler cars

Hitler liked Mercedes cars and inevitably used one in parades. However, just because a company was German did not mean that he was a fan. Hitler once called BMW cars “junk.” When his architect, Albert Speer, bought one, Hitler privately sneered, but never mentioned it to Speer’s face. The top German brass like Hermann Goering had a personal fondness for Fords, in fact.

Adolf Hitler cars

Speaking of engines, below Hitler is inspecting what appears to be a BMW V-12. How many Fuhrers go on the shop floor to look at car engines?

Adolf Hitler cars
German car giant BMW admitted only recently to feeling “profound regret” for the “enormous suffering” it caused by using slave labor to fuel Adolf Hitler’s killing machine. The laborers built engines like this.
Hitler liked to inspect new military vehicles, too. Below, he is getting a good look at a Schwimmwagen - an amphibious jeep. One can just read his expression as "What is this crazy thing?"

Adolf Hitler cars
Hitler is checking out an amphibious Schwimmwagen. He doesn't appear overly impressed. They were handy vehicles at times but tended to leak. That's not good when you are sitting in a heavy piece of metal floating on water while crossing a deep river.
Below is the iconic shot of Hitler, from his Mercedes, giving the Hitler salute as he drives through crowds. This actually was a quite uncomfortable position, but Hitler literally could maintain it for hours on end.

Adolf Hitler cars
That appears to be Rudolf Hess in the back finding it all quite amusing.
Hitler used cars as props constantly. When there was absolutely no reason to be in a car, when it would have been easier to just get out and walk over somewhere - Hitler would stand in the car instead, as in the shot below.

Adolf Hitler cars
Hitler standing in a car in Wilhelmshaven for the launching of the battleship Tirpitz, 1939. It was considered more "prestigious" in those days to sit in the back of the car, but Hitler always preferred to ride shotgun.
Below is how you make an entrance: ranks of motorcycle cops, rows of military guys, and a red carpet to some BLM girls waiting to give you flowers. The big-ass car, of course, is the center of the entire tableaux.

Adolf Hitler cars
Guys, this is how you impress the ladies.
Below is a rare shot of Hitler driving with President Paul von Hindenburg right after being appointed Chancellor. This is a rare instance of Hitler sitting in the back seat.

Adolf Hitler cars

Hitler loved toy soldiers (for real), and he also loved toy cars. It is very rare to find any photos of Hitler where he appears as gleeful as in the shot below.

Adolf Hitler cars
Ferdinand Porsche shows Hitler and Goering the new VW Beetle.
Below is another shot, apparently from the same event.

Adolf Hitler cars
This is April 20, 1938 - Hitler's birthday. Ferdinand Porsche, Robert Ley, and Adolf Hitler are looking at a model for der Käfer, the VW. The Bug was patterned on Hitler’s original design (see below for more about that). Love how Hitler is patting the model of the car "Ah, the soft Corinthian leather." That looks like Ribbentrop on the left doing his absolute best to look interested.
Okay, one more time. Hitler's birthday would not be complete without a visit from the car guys. Below, it is now April 20, 1939, and yet, it's time to look at the VW again.

Adolf Hitler cars
The automobile engineer and designer Ferdinand Porsche (in suit) presents Adolf Hitler with a model car during celebrations for Hitler's 50th birthday, Berlin, April 1939.
Below, Schreck and Hitler at the 1933 Berlin car show. Hitler attended this event every year until the outbreak of the war.

Adolf Hitler cars

Hitler liked to go to car shows. It was a chance to review technology, it attracted all sorts of foreign journalists... and he just liked cars. Above,  it is February 17, 1939, in Berlin, and Adolf has chosen to visit the Berlin Car Show. The big three of the party left to right: Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler. Viktor Lutze is on the far right. Viktor Lutze, incidentally, was the commander of the SA, the brown-shirted Party paramilitary force which was marginalized after the purge of 1934. Goebbels in his diaries described Lutze as a man of "unlimited stupidity."

Driving Hitler
A good view of Hitler in his Mercedes, September 1933.
On May 1, 1943, Lutze suffered a car accident due to careless driving. He died during surgery the same day. Despite the weakened state of the SA, Hitler ordered an elaborate state funeral for Lutze and ordered his senior leaders to be very careful during driving. It always got back to cars.

Driving Hitler
Hitler's arm must have hurt after giving the Hitlergruß (Hitler salute) down that long line of troops.
Below, it is 1933 and Hitler is at... the car show. Where else?

Adolf Hitler cars

Below is Hitler at the 1938 Berlin car show. What's fun about these pictures is seeing how poorly Goering sometimes feigns being interested when Hitler's back is turned. Incidentally, at that show, the Germans demonstrated the first helicopter, but Hitler is all about the cars.

Adolf Hitler cars
Hermann Goering also liked cars, but he liked to drive them, not examine them.
Hitler's obsession with cars could be painful. Below is a visibly sunburned Hitler in September 1933. The day before, Hitler had stood in an open car for 3 hours in extremely hot temperatures. Leni Riefenstahl commented several times in later years how easily Hitler sunburned because of his very fair complexion. Hey, being the Fuhrer could be hard work!

Adolf Hitler cars
A badly sunburned Fuehrer, perhaps from a long drive.
Hitler was a backseat driver even though he liked to ride in the front seat. He usually had a map on his knees throughout all his journeys, even though (as Linge later wrote), “he knew every street and little village throughout Germany. The map, therefore, was superfluous.” But, it undoubtedly made him feel better. He also had his drivers go very fast when not in some ceremonial parade. It's a wonder that he never was involved in a car wreck, and it would have been funny if a motorcycle cop tried to pull Der Fuehrer over. Well, maybe not funny for the cop.

Adolf Hitler cars
Adolf Hitler in an open car during the opening of the first section of Frankfurt / Main Heidelberg motorway near Darmstadt,1935.
Hitler wasn't just about cars, he was also about the roads that he drove on. He did not just authorize and build the autobahns - he very ostentatiously celebrated their completion with ceremonial drives down completed sections. The people were impressed.

Adolf Hitler cars
carrying the King's car into the mountains of Nepal.
Hitler also knew how to impress kings with cars. Above in 1940, Nepali men are seen carrying the 1938 Mercedes Benz that Adolf Hitler gifted to Tribhuvan of Nepal. It had to be carried to the capital in the mountains by teams of men as there were no roads suitable for the car leading to the city.

Adolf Hitler cars

And here we take our leave of Hitler and cars with this shot of him looking in awe at the view - traveling in a cable car 5300 feet to the top of the Predigstuhl in Bad Reichenhall (near Berchtesgaden). Since its first run on July 1, 1928, the Predigstuhlbahn is the oldest large-cabin cable car in the world that is preserved in its original form and operates year-round. And Hitler rode it. I know, not the kind of car you were thinking of... but a car nonetheless.