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Posts Tagged ‘Avro Lancaster’

Happy New Year!!

I hope you all had a relaxing time between the holidays and will head back to work refreshed.  I ate way more than I should have, but fortunately for me, the weather remains relatively warm…30s and 40s.  That means I can ride my bike to work and burn off some of the extra calories I packed on.

If we had been around Nuremberg, Germany on January 2, 1945, New Year’s celebrations would not have been in order.  It was on this evening that more than 500 British Lancasters flew overhead and plastered the medieval city back to, well, the Middle Ages.

The attack itself wasn’t a huge surprise to the city’s population had experienced bombing before.  During the Second World War, Nuremberg was the headquarters of one of Germany’s military districts, which alone made it an allied target of some value.  Furthermore, there was some military production going on there, particularly aircraft and tank engines.

But Nuremberg was also something of a spiritual center of National Socialism.  The Nuremberg rallies of the 20s and 30s were a pretty big deal, and numerous other Nazi Party gatherings had been held there over the years.  Like Adolf Hitler’s desire to crush Leningrad (named after the first Bolshevist leader) and Stalingrad (named after the current leader), it’s at least plausible that Allied planners might consider making Nuremberg a target for more than just strictly military reasons.

Nuremberg, already damaged by previous attacks, was devastated.  The pathfinders were very accurate in marking their targets with the aid of a full moon, and the Lancasters (though not speedy, could carry a significant bombload) did their job with fiery efficiency.  Nuremberg’s center was almost completely destroyed.  Thousands of buildings were reduced to smoldering rubble, including age-old churches, homes, museums, and the like.  More than 100,000 townspeople were left homeless, and another 1,800 were left lifeless.

This was the age of area bombing, so discrimination between military and civilian targets was pretty badly blurred.  And for many other German cities, like Hamburg before and Dresden just a month later, this is how their wars would end.

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Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that.  But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times.  The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month.  So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.

Max Hastings is a brilliant historian.  At least I think he is.  And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me.  The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader.  Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go.  Whichever, it works.

The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe.  But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view.  Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander.  For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed.  There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.

Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens.  Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding.  They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood.  Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.

The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again.  The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters.  And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload.  Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.

But it still wasn’t over.  The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF.  And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.

As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words.  “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance.  Even in war, the ends must relate to the means.  Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends.  I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target.  I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities.  But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.”  His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.

The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink.  Germany was clearly beaten.  Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east.  Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air.  The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.

In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“.  I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme.  London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it.  For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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The penultimate day in April of 1945 was pretty eventful.  Deposed Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was now one day dead (but still hanging around), German forces were in the process of ending all fighting in Italy, and there were wedding bells (well, sort of ) ringing below the Chancellery in Berlin.  Those things are pretty well-known.

But April 29, 1945 was also the start of Operation Manna, and that may be less familiar to you.  The operation was named for the food that God promised (and then delivered) to the Israelites in the Bible’s book of Exodus.  If you know that account, you now pretty much know about its Second World War counterpart.

Operation Manna actually had its roots in an earlier endeavor…Operation Market Garden (which we’ll address at some point).  Launched in September of 1944, it was a failed attempt to capture the city of Arnhem (and its bridge).  Dutch rail workers went on strike in an effort to aid the Allied forces, which caused the German occupiers to simply cut off all food distribution to the people.  And then the winter of 1944 came, which was especially nasty.  Add to that the normal destruction that came with German retreats – blown bridges, food warehouses, water and sewer systems, and dams which flooded large farming areas – and you have the petri dish from which the “starvation” culture would rapidly grow.

Operation Manna was the Allied response.  But, of course, the Netherlands was still at war at this late date, and there were negotiations with the Nazi head of the Netherlands…our friend Arthur Seyss-Irquart.  Since the Allies would be using bombers flying at very low level (a couple hundred feet), they wanted to be assured they wouldn’t be shot at while performing a humanitarian mission.  Seyss-Irquart, for his part, wanted guarantees that the bombers used were carrying only foodstuffs and not other things…like bombs.

The 29th arrived and both sides, with breath held, watched as the first two “test” planes, a pair of the ubiquitous Avro Lancasters, took off with their food parcels.  When the “mission accomplished” message came over the radio, a collective sigh of relief was raised.  De Havilland Moquitoes and Boeing B-17’s joined in and began dropping the first of more than 11,000 tons of “manna” to the starving Dutch.

It’s rather remarkable that this operation, which continued until the war ended 10 days later, was performed with basically just a hand-shake agreement between two warring armies.  There was no official ceasefire in place, which makes it something of a miracle.  Or maybe it’s just true that the way to a person’s stomach is through a little heart.

Recommended Reading: Operation Manna – A pretty solid website I found while doing a little research.

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Ok, I’ve been gone for a couple days.  As I mentioned the other day, my grandmother celebrated her birthday, the 95th of her life.  It was pretty special to be able to travel up to see her, and to see my other grandmother as well.  So needless to say, I’m a little behind, as it’s now the 15th.  But there’s a topic from yesterday that I want to touch briefly.

Last month, Denny’s decided to give a free Grand Slam breakfast to everybody who came in for one.  It was a tremendous success, with lines that were miles long (ok, not quite that long) and people who camped out overnight in February temperatures to claim a spot.

But grand slams go way back…they’ve been a part of baseball parlance since the 9-player sport was started more than a hundred years ago.  And in World War II, the military had their version, and it’s our topic of conversation for today.

In 1942, the British Royal Air Force tested and used a series of large conventional bombs, designed to blow up underground or heavily reinforced structures.  Starting at 8,000 pounds, the devices grew to 12,000 pounds the following year.  But an even bigger, badder bomb was in developement.

Called the Grand Slam, it weighed 22,000 pounds, was more than 25 feet tall (note the guy to the left of the photo), and had to be dropped from a heavily modified Avro Lancaster bomber.  And since these were extremely specialized missions, only one squadron would do.  Known as “The Dambuster Squadron” (for their missions against German dams in 1943), No. 617 Squadron was the most experienced group of flyers for the job.

The first “Grand Slam” mission was carried out on March 14, 1945.  The target was the strategically important railroad viaduct in Bielefeld, Germany.  The size of the bomb and its explosion meant that a direct hit wasn’t necessary, and “close enough” was more than enough to knock down more than 300 feet of the viaduct, rendering it completely useless.

The Grand Slams would be used several times in the War’s final months on hard-to-penetrate targets like submarine pens or against targets like the Bielefeld viaduct where a strong proximity concussion was necessary.

But these devices cost way more than “free” at Denny’s.

Recommended Activity:  Visit Denny’s and enjoy a “Slam” Breakfast in honor of the biggest of all slams.

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Sometimes we look at the immediate results of our work and think that we really haven’t accomplished all that much.  But, over time, we start to see the larger impact that our efforts have.  War is one of the great breeding grounds for such operations and I think Operation Chastise (better known as the “Dambuster” missions) is just such an example.

The rationale for the attack was understandable.  The target dams, all located on the Eder River in Germany, supplied large amounts of electricity to Ruhr Valley industries and helped maintain the canal system, an important part of  the German war effort’s transportation system.  Furthermore, the fertile farmland below the dams helped to fill the stomachs of the soldiers.

Technically speaking, the operation was intriguing…destroying dams with bombs was a real challenge.  Large MOABstyle bombs were rejected (mostly because aircraft capable of dropping them were still being modified) in favor of “bouncing bombs”.  They were bombs in a heavy drum hooked to a motor in the airplane.  The motor spun the bomb backwards prior to release (at ~500 RPM’s).  When released (on the lake-side of the dam), the backspin would skip the bomb across the water (and over German torpedo nets) and into the dam.  At that point, the backspin would cause the bomb to “climb down” the dam and then explode, thus starting the breach that the power of the water would finish.  So, pretty cool.

The plan’s execution was at least modestly successful.  Nineteen aircraft of the No. 617 Squadron, all Arvo Lancasters, took off and, in the early morning hours of May 17, 1943, began their attacks.  They successfully breached both the Mohne (shown above) and Eder dams.  The Sorpe dam (an earthen dam and therefore more resistant to the bombs) was hit twice and likely damaged, but not breached.  The Ennepe dam was also hit but not destroyed.

But the initial results didn’t look all that great.  The attacks did flood a bunch of farmland and caused a hit to the morale of many Germans.  It also succeeded in killing a couple thousand people, but most of the deaths were non-combatants and slave laborers.  And because there were no follow-up missions, the damage to Ruhr industry was minor and, just a month later, full electrical output had been restored.  And the British attackers suffered about 40% combat losses, with only 11 of the 19 aircraft returning.

The long-term effects, however, were the ones that mattered.  First, it pulled more German troops back into Germany and out of places like Italy and France, which was critical to upcoming operations there.  It also had a tremendous negative effect on German food supplies.  And finally, it helped to fortify the idea that specialty bombs had a place in the war, which led to giant bombs used in Germany with such devastating results.

Recommended Reading: The Dambusters

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