Tag Archives: WW2

Spy in the sky – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit in the Second World War

Today we have satellites travelling in orbit around the earth which can take incredibly detailed photographs of what is happening on the ground below, an invaluable aid to intelligence agencies everywhere. Surprisingly, Britain also had its own sophisticated ‘spy in the sky’ during the Second World War. Blue painted Spitfires armed with cameras instead of guns took tens of millions of aerial photos over enemy territory, ten million of which survive today and are stored in archives in Edinburgh.

Spitfire mk11
Danesfield House

The centre for this reconnaissance was RAF Medmenham based at Danesfield House 60 miles west of London, a Base rivalling the code-breaking Bletchley Park in its secrecy; and it was here that one of the most important stories of the war unfolded. With the clever use of a simple stereoscope the workers at Medmenham were able to scrutinise the spy photographs and bring every building and fold in the land to life in 3D. This enabled them to measure the height and width of objects and so gave a more accurate picture of their targets. Operatives at the Base assessed railways, factories, shipyards, and buildings; and they were always on the lookout for something ‘unidentified’, searching for anything unusual which might have a bearing on the course of the war.

The Photo Interpreters (PI’s) at Danesfield House were tasked with providing up to date and incredibly accurate information about the movements of the German war machine – during the war 80% of Britain’s intelligence came from photo reconnaissance and interpretation. The most important example of the work done at RAF Medmenham was Operation Crossbow which identified and hunted down something which had never been seem before – Hitler’s mysterious ‘V-weapons’, the new pilotless drones and rockets which could potentially have led to Germany finally winning the war.

Air reconnaissance really ‘took off’ in 1940 when the RAF created a special wing – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and the secret of its success was its adapted Spitfires. These planes were painted a pale blue to be camouflaged against the sky at 30,000 feet, which was the perfect height for taking the photographs. The guns on the reconnaissance Spitfires were replaced by cameras but pilots didn’t worry about this as they had a cruising speed of 365 miles an hour and knew that no German plane would be able to catch them for most of the war, not until the Germans produced their jets in 1944 were the Spitfires in any real danger of pursuit. The planes from RAF Medmenham, flown by both British and American pilots, were able to cover great distances which allowed them to reach Berlin, they even photographed the entire Ruhr in a single mission. These pilots were incredibly skilled in flying alone, navigating to their target where they had to fly a straight and level course to prevent distortion of the photographs which were taken of targets out of sight directly beneath them. To achieve this they would roll the plane on their initial pass above the target to identify the key features, and then come in for a second pass when they took the pictures. Each plane had five very large cameras which were able to identify and photograph something as small as a man on a bicycle from 30,000 feet. To ensure the best quality images the cameras had to be heated at altitude whilst the pilots in their cockpits were left to endure the freezing cold for 5 hours at a time. Once the planes arrived back at base the PI’s took over.

The analysis of the aerial spy photos was three-phased. Stage 1 – as soon as the plane landed the films were developed and the negatives viewed. If something needed acting on immediately (say within about 24 hours) for example shelling or bombing a bridge where German troops were crossing, these would be given priority. Stage 2 – the photos were then developed; it seems almost impossible to believe, but 36 million prints were made during the war. The priority pictures were dealt with and the rest sent to Medmenham where the PI’s identified any targets which would need to be dealt with during the next week. Stage 3 – items which were more long term, factories or dams for example, were dealt with last.

Scrutinising and interpreting the photographs was not an easy task and PI’s were often recruited from professions where people were used to working precisely and in detail – many mathematicians, geologists and archaeologists were recruited from Oxford and Cambridge universities. As well as these skills a PI needed to think laterally and creatively and so staff were recruited from Hollywood with their artists eye for detail, some actors were also employed at Danesfield House, including Dirk Bogart. Around 150 women worked with the men as PI’s, helping to both identify targets and assess the damage inflicted in bombing raids to see if they had been successful or if the RAF needed to go back again.

Other countries had their own ‘spy planes’, but what made Medmenham unique was the way that they processed the information by taking ordinary 2D photos which had been shot in an overlapping sequence and looking at them through a stereoscope to create a 3D image. The pictures overlapped each other by 60% to give a very detailed image which the PI’s became experts at interpreting. It was this expertise which identified something strange in May 1942. A reconnaissance Spitfire pilot had seen something unusual at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast where he photographed a new airfield which had three large concrete and earth circles beside it. A great deal of attention was paid to the photographs, but no one could identify what the circles were, and after concluding that they might possible have something to do with sewage the pictures were shelved.

The story of Medmenham and Peenemunde might have ended there if it had not been for a curious incident in March 1943 when two German generals who had been captured in North Africa were bugged talking at Trent Park Military Prison. They were discussing a new secret weapon, a rocket which would soon be targeting England and would probably change the course of the war. On 23rd June 1943 the RAF spy planes were sent out to scour Germany and northern France to see if they could find any evidence of these weapons. Hundreds of photos were analysed by the PI’s who were told to look for tubes which could fire missiles at Britain from France – a daunting job when no one at that time had any idea what a missile site might look like. One keen-eyed PI spotted a tube on its side in one of the strange circles at Peenemunde, and with this knowledge they went back over previous photos and found a picture of one of the rockets in an upright position; thanks to their 3D technology they were able to work out the height of the object from its shadow – an impressive 14m.

Peenemunde

Churchill’s chief scientific advisor Lord Cherwell refused to believe that Hitler had the technology to build such weapons so Medmenham needed to get more detailed information than could be seen from their simple 3D stereoscopes, what the needed was a Wild photogrammetric survey machine used for land surveys to get the detail needed to convince Cherwell. The problem was that the Wild machines were only available from Switzerland (a neutral country). Squadron Leader Ramsey Matthews arranged for a Swedish intermediary to buy two Wild A6 machines which were then shipped through Germany to Sweden before being flown to England. It was now possible to use the machines to analyse photos and get a greater understanding of Peenemunde, measuring the rockets and test sites with incredible accuracy so that scale models could be built, models which were convincing enough to persuade Cherwell that Hitler did indeed have a secret weapon.

Wild A6

Spy planes were sent out again and brought back more alarming photos from St Pol in northern France where they had found huge concrete bunkers and had no idea what they were for. Photos from 30,000ft didn’t help so pilots were sent in at just 30m high to get detailed close-up images; PI’s correctly identified these massive concrete structures as rocket launch sites. If Hitler was to be thwarted something needed to be done, and fast.

Aftermath of the Peenemunde raid

On 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy Peenemunde. The raid did very severe damage putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly some of Germany’s most important rocket scientists were killed in the raid. The missile sites in northern France were then bombed as well even though the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof. The only bomb that could touch them was the 12,000lb Tall Boy and the even bigger Grand Slam bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs created a mini-earthquake which caused the huge domes to shift on their foundations (although not destroy them) effectively putting the sites out of action.

La Coupole at Helfaut-Wizernes

After the air-raids Hitler moved his V-weapons programme deep into Germany and Poland so that it could not be hit by the Allies again, so Medmenham turned its focus to finding launch sites in northern France – the ramps for the VI’s hidden in woodland were difficult to spot but, with perseverance, 96 sites were eventually identified by the PI’s, and on 1st December 1943 a V1 rocket was identified on a ramp for the first time. This was one more piece to the puzzle and the Photo Interpreters looked back at the 96 sites in northern France and were able to correctly identify them as V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth, and London. More importantly, VI’s fired from these sites would also be able to reach the proposed beachheads for the Allied invasion of Europe, for D Day to be successful the launch-sites would have to be wiped out before any invasion force set out – Operation Crossbow was planned to bomb the V1 sites, beginning on 23rd December 1943.

V-1 ready for launch

From early 1944 Medmenham was given a second focus – to help invasion planning by monitoring German activity in northern Europe, and every platoon commander on D Day had maps of minefields and defences in the area he was attacking, all supplied by RAF Medmenham. When the first V1’s began to land on London just days after D Day in June 1944 the PI’s again put all of their energies into looking for the launch-sites which had been moved from the woodlands and were now even more cleverly concealed in factories and amongst buildings. As the Allied invasion forces advanced they overran the V1 emplacements, and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944. One day later the first V2 travelled from mainland Europe at supersonic speed, coming out of nowhere with no warning to crash into Chiswick in London with devastating consequences. There was no defence against the new threat as V2 launch sites were mobile and so difficult to spot in time. Thankfully the Allied forces had already advanced to a point where the launch sites were soon pushed back out of range of England.

In a few short months Hitler’s V-weapons killed about 9,000 people in England, who knows how many more would have died and how much longer the war would have gone on if not for the work of the air reconnaissance at RAF Medmenham. And Operation Crossbow.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT © IWM (CH 16105)/ ALLIED CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT, 1941-1945. (CH 16105) Flight Lieutenant H H Williams demonstrates the Wild A5 ‘Stereo-autograph’ plotting machine to press visitors at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. A vital piece of photogrammetric equipment, the Wild A5 produced accurate maps from stereoscopic pairs of photographs, and was in constant use at the CIU and ACIU throughout the war. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196665
Advertisements

‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’ – the world’s first jet propelled missiles

It was 75 years ago today that the world awoke to a new age as the first V1 rocket fell on the city of London.

We are all used to the term ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, and prior to the Second World War the only weapon which could have been called that was the gas used in the trenches during the First World War. The shells used to deliver the gas were of a conventional nature, but what the Germans later developed was something completely different so that when Hitler’s new weapons rained down on London for the first time in 1944 they were almost incomprehensible in their sophistication and power. What were they? And where did they come from?

In 1939 the Oslo Report alerted London to the development of new and very advanced weapons in Germany, but the report wasn’t taken seriously – if Britain couldn’t build such weapons then obviously Germany would be incapable of it too – and it was a number of years before the threat of missile weapons aimed at Britain from the continent was recognised by the Allied powers. It was on 29th September 1943 that Albert Speer publicly promised retribution against the mass bombing of German cities, saying that the Nazis now had a new ‘secret weapon’; Hitler intended to deploy thousands of these weapons, and if he had succeeded he would almost certainly have destroyed the city of London.

Wernher von Braun at Peenemunde Army Research Centre

Research and development of the ‘secret weapon’ was carried out in a purpose-built facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, which was the biggest research centre in the world between 1936 and 1945 and the first ever missile test site. With brilliant scientists like Wernher von Braun Germany was way ahead of the Allies in missile technology, and by 1942 they were making good progress with the test launch of the first V1 missile. Then, on 3rd October 1942, the Germans launched the first V2 rocket into the stratosphere at supersonic speed, changing the face of warfare for ever. The ‘V’ in their name stood for Vergeltungswaffen meaning‚ ‘revenge weapon‘, and Hitler hoped that they would be in place in time to punish Britain for the destruction of German cites and turn the tide of the war in his favour.

V2 launch Peenemunde

Allied spy planes had already identified Peenemunde as a key site in Hitler’s weapons development programme, and on 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy the facility. The raid was very successful, causing severe damage at the site and putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly from the Allied point of view some of the most important scientists involved in the project were killed during the raid, a loss which could not be replaced. As well as Peenemunde, the Allied spy planes had also identified a huge concrete bunker at St Pol in northern France, and an even bigger one in a quarry at Wizernes, 40km from the English Channel. They were not sure what these structures were for but knew that they must be vitally important to the Germans (they were actually intended launch sites for the V-weapons). These missile sites in northern France were bombed following the raid on Peenemunde, and although the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof the foundations were damaged by ‘near misses’ which made some of the sites inoperable. The only bomb that could touch the massive concrete structures was the 12,000lb ‘Tall Boy’ and the even bigger ‘Grand Slam’ bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, the mastermind behind the ‘Bouncing Bomb’.

Nordhaousen V2 faclity © IWM (OWIL 64335)

The Germans could not afford the losses caused by the Allied bombings and so the V-weapons programme was relocated to the forests of Blizna in Poland and the Hertz mountains of Germany. A mountainside just outside the small town of Nordhausen was turned into an underground factory to make V-weapons, the tunnels were so long and deep that it was hard for the allies to bomb them, and impossible for them to know what was happening inside. The SS were put in charge of the V-weapons programme at this critical stage and they conscripted 60,000 slave labourers to work there, housing them in the concentration camp at Dora. The tunnels stretched for 21km, and the conditions for the workers were terrible. Until the spring of 1944, prisoners were mostly kept underground in unstable tunnels, deprived of daylight and fresh air. The mortality rate was higher than at most other concentration camps with prisoners who were too weak or ill to work were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Mauthausen camps to be killed. In 1944, a compound to house forced laborers was finally built above ground level south of the main factory area, giving the workers some relief from the atrocious conditions underground. Once full production of the missiles began towards the end of 1944, the Dora-Mittelbau concentration/work camp had a prisoner population of at least 12,000.

As the final elements of the V-weapons were put together work went ahead to create launch sites in northern France with many hidden ramps being created in woods. These were V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth and London; the Germans planned to use these sites to launch up to 2,000 V1’s every day.

V1 ready for launch

The V1 was a small pilotless winged bomb which carried 1 ton of high explosives and was powered by a jet engine which enabled it to travel at a maximum speed of 400 mph with a maximum reach of 200 miles (this distance decreased in poor weather conditions). A pre-set magnetic compass together with a gyroscopic auto-pilot helped it to find and maintain its course, while at the front of the flying bomb was a small propeller which measured the distance covered and shut the power to the engine when the pre-set distance had been reached, hopefully over its target. The first V1 landed on London on 13th June 1944, a week after the D Day landings. After 15th June around 100 V1’s were being launched against Britain every day, and the ‘Doodlebug’ or ‘Buzzbomb’ as they were called (named after the sinister sound they made) brought terror to the streets of London. When the sound of its engine stopped people ran for cover as the flying bomb fell from the sky. This new terror became known as ‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’.

Rescue after the first V1 13th June 1944 © IWM (HU 44273)
40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun watching for V1 rockets © IWM (H 39407)

Thousands were killed in the V1 attacks and the British fought back with everything they could. There were massed anti-aircraft guns on the south-east coast of England, and RAF pilots would either shoot down or tip over the flying bombs to force them off course. V1’s flew straight and level so they were relatively easy to take out once sighted and many were shot down before they reached their target. Of the estimated 8,000 or 9,000 launched anti-aircraft guns shot down over 1,800, a similar number were brought down by the RAF, and 200 were destroyed by barrage balloons. The greatest single loss of life caused by a V1 killed 121 people when a flying bomb landed on the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks during a service.

D Day had started just days before the launch of the first V1, and as the Allies advanced through northern Europe they soon overran the V1 emplacements in northern France and Holland. The launch sites were steadily pushed further and further back until England was no longer within their reach and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944.

V2 labelled nach England, to England © IWM (BU 3238)

The Baby Blitz was not, however, over. The following day, 8th September 1944, the first V2 crashed into Chiswick in London with devastating effect. At 14m high it was a streamlined rocket as tall as a four-storey building. Its engine burned a mix of liquid oxygen and alcohol-water, and it was the first missile to reach the edge of space before falling at supersonic speed, ensuring that it came out of nowhere with no warning, delivering its payload of 1 ton of high explosive at a terminal speed of 2,386 mph. The first V2 took an estimated 5 minutes to fly the 200 miles from its launch site in the Hague to London, and there was no defence against it. As the V2 explosions came without warning, the government initially attempted to conceal their cause by blaming them on defective gas pipes which had been damaged by earlier bombing. But as more and more of the missiles landed on London the public were not fooled and soon began referring to the V-2s as “flying gas pipes”.

V2 damage 8th September 1944 © IWM (HU 88803)

By October the offensive was relentless. A particularly devastating strike was on 25 November 1944 when a V-2 exploded at the Woolworth’s store in New Cross Road, killing 168 people and seriously injuring 121 more. It was difficult for Military Intelligence and the RAF to take out these missiles at source as launch sites were not fixed. The Germans would pour an innocent looking concrete slab then, just before launch a truck would arrive with the rocket, set up, fuel it, launch it and drive off. The continued Allied advance through Europe allowed them to overrun these sites, and this is what saved London with the last V2 falling on the city on 27th March 1945. The final death toll of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen project was discovered when Dora camp was liberated and thousands of dead slave workers were found stacked outside the underground tunnels, the SS had not even bothered to bury them.

Liberation of Dora, a surviving prisoner lying amongst the corpses

Germany’s V-weapons caused over 30,000 casualties in England (9,000 deaths, the rest wounded) and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Yet despite this, the overall destruction they caused was less than the Blitz of 1940-1941. In fact, more slave labourers died making the V-weapons (an estimated 20,000) than civilians were killed during the offensive.

But the successful creation of the V-weapons had ushered in a new type of warfare. The Americans and Russians rushed to grab this new technology and the scientists who had created it with Werner von Braun eventually going on to be one of the lead scientists on the American Saturn 5 project which took man to the moon.

Jim Radford ‘The Shores Of Normandy’

Jim Radford

Thursday 6th June marks 75 years since the Allies invade northern Europe on the beaches of Normandy. The largest seaborne invasion in history was supported by the Mulberry Harbours, and the most moving memorial to those who built the harbours and stormed the beaches is made by Jim Radford, who was just a boy sailor aged 15 when he sailed to Normandy.

Jim has written a song about his experiences; it has been re-recorded for this anniversary and is racing up the charts towards number one.

Please take the time to read this article, and to listen to him singing of the day this boy became a man. I can think of no more fitting tribute to those who gave so much on 6th June 1944. https://www.heart.co.uk/news/who-is-d-day-veteran-jim-radford-and-whats-his-son/

The Hollywood actress who could have shortened the war.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jew born in Vienna on 9th November 1914, is better known to the world as the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar. As a child she was interested in acting and theatre, but she also had a passion for inventing things and at the age of 5 she was able to take apart and rebuild her old-fashioned music box. Her father was a banker who loved Hedy’s intellectual curiosity and interest in technology and would happily spend time explaining to her how things worked. Hedy grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world and began her acting career in Europe where at the age 16 she went to a film studio and got a walk on part. The young actress became world famous when she appeared naked in a film called Ecstacy which was banned by Hitler and denounced by the Pope. When she was 19 Hedy married a munitions tycoon, Fritz Mandl, who was allied with the Nazis even though he was Jewish; it was not a happy marriage. By 1937 it was clear that war would be inevitable; Jews were being systematically denied their rights which led to the death of Hedy’s father from stress and worry. Hedy left her husband and escaped to England with her mother where Hedy met the film director Louis B Mayer and went to Hollywood to work for him.

Hedy’s life in America was not easy; she made a range of films from the excellent Algiers to others which are best forgotten, she also struggled to find happiness in her private life. The one constant was her love of inventions, and after filming all day she would work on her latest invention at night. Hedy met and became friend with Howard Hughes who helped here with some of her equipment and offered his scientists to help her with anything she needed. Hedy actually helped Hughes to design the wings for his fastest planes.

Life was hard for Hedy knowing that her country was at war and the US was neutral. Her mother was still in London and planning to go to America which worried Hedy as the Atlantic crossing was incredible dangerous with German U-boats causing havoc amongst

George Antheil

the shipping. Hedy’s creative mind came up with the idea to help those making the Atlantic crossing by improving how radio-controlled torpedos worked. These new torpedos were not particularly effective as the enemy were able to jam their signals and send them off course, Hedy thought that if the launch boat could communicate with the torpedo once it was on its way and make it change direction to follow the target then the German U-boats would no longer have such a great advantage. The problem was how to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. With a leap of creativity Hedy decided that the ships should constantly change the frequency of the signal to the torpedo in order to confuse the enemy, something she called frequency-hopping. With such a system the enemy would only be able to jam a split second at a single frequency and so the signal would get through. In 1939 a new remote-controlled music radio had been invented by Philco and Hedy realised that this could be the answer she was looking for. Why not hop around frequencies in the same way that you could hop between radio stations, constantly sending the changing signal to the torpedo in a way which would be totally secret. It was a perfect solution but Hedy didn’t know how to put it together.

This is where her friend the composer George Anthiel came in. George came up with the idea which would make Hedy’s concept work using the same system as that used by pianos which play themselves – the rolls activate piano keys so why couldn’t they activate radio frequencies in both the torpedo and the ship? The idea was for two rolls of card with holes in them (similar to those used by the pianos) to start at the same time and run at the same speed so the ship and torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern of frequencies; there were 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano, and it would be impossible for the enemy to jam these all at the same time as it would require too much power; it would also be almost impossible to crack the system as each pair of rolls could be uniquely created using a random pattern. George and Hedy took their idea to the National Inventors Council in 1941, and the Council put them in touch with a physicist at Cal Tech called Sam Mackeown, who was an expert on electronics. On 11th August 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, Lamarr’s married name at the time. George and Hedy took the invention to the navy but they rejected it, and the US government seized her patent in 1942 as the ‘property of an enemy alien’.

Hedy selling war bonds

Unable to contribute to the war effort through her invention Hedy, the ‘enemy alien’, worked for the government selling war bonds and sold around $25 million worth (equivalent to around $343 million in todays money), she also spent time entertaining the troops.

After the war Hedy’s acting career was varied, and she never found happiness in her love life. In 1969 she wrote to a friend asking if he could find out what happened to her patent. By this time her idea of frequency hopping had been put into use in military communications – all the US ships used during the Cuban crisis of 1962 used frequency hopping radios. Hedy realised she should have been making money from this but was told that the patent had expired in 1959 before the navy began to use the idea, however there is evidence that they gave the idea to a contractor and it was used long before the expiry date. In about 1955 frequency hopping was used to develop a sonobuoy used by the US navy to detect submarines – once a submarine was detected signals from the sonobuoy were passed to a naval airplane and back to the ship – the system was totally secure, and the developer has even paid tribute to Lamarr’s invention which he used for the sonobuoy, and also for surveillance drones which were developed to be used over Vietnam.

Sonobouy

It was not until May 1990 that Forbes magazine became the first member of the mainstream press to write about Hedy’s invention.  In 1997 Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the fields of arts, sciences, business, or invention have significantly contributed to society.

Hedy Lamarr died on 19th January 2000, and never lived to see herself and George inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The Hollywood actress with a love of inventing had come up with an idea which could have given the Allied navies the upper-hand over enemy U-boats and, perhaps, helped to shorten the war. Now, more than 70 years later, Hedy’s invention is used in satellite technology including US nuclear command and control; and you carry it in your pocket too, for GPS, wifi and Bluetooth all owe their origins to the Hollywood actress who often bemoaned the fact that the world knew her for her beauty whilst she believed that brains were always more important than looks.

Sonobouy used in the search for Flight MH370

 

Cavalry, tanks, and a German propaganda coup

The cavalry charge at Krojanty on the first day of the Second World War is widely described as the last cavalry charge in modern warfare. The story goes that the Poles came across advancing German tanks and bravely charged them, pennants flying, sun shining on their swords and lances; an out of date and backward country taking on the mechanical might of a modern army. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L Shirer even described the charge as ‘Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught’; it is an evocative image of the Polish upper class, a well-educated fighting elite, sacrificing themselves in the defence of their homeland against Nazi Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. But is it really true?

charge-savoia-cavaleria
The Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last cavalry charges of WW2

Many may be surprised to know that horses, which had always played an important role in warfare, continued to do so during the Second World War. The German Army still had around 500,000 in 1939, and almost 2.7 million in service by the end of the war; in two months during the winter of 1941-2 179,000 horses died of exhaustion and cold on the Eastern Front. The majority of these horses were used for logistical purposes, but cavalry had not disappeared altogether. Some cavalry units still used lances and sabres, but most were now mounted infantry able to get quickly from one place to another where they would dismount to use more modern weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. There were cavalry units attached to a number of armies – the French, British (particularly the Sikh sowars who led the last British sabre charge of the war on the Burma Frontier), Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Rumanians, and Italians, as well as the Germans and Poles.

In 1939 Poland had 11 cavalry brigades which made up 10% of the army and were intended to be used as mobile reserves, and far from Krojanty being the last cavalry charge there were at least 14 such engagements by the Poles during the first month of the war,* most of them successful. So why is the Krojanty charge so famous and so misrepresented?

Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Eugeniusz_Swiesciak
Eugeniusz Swiesciak

The action, which was part of the wider Battle of Tuchola Forest, took place near the village of Krojanty on the evening of 1st September 1939. A group of German infantry were resting in the forest and Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz (who had fought in the cavalry during the First World War and knew from experience that the element of surprise would be vital in any attack) ordered Commander Eugeniusz Świeściak of the Pomeranian Uhlans to initiate a charge in one of the very first engagements of the Second World War. The Germans were unprepared and taken completely by surprise, quickly retreating before the Polish cavalry. But the attacker’s upper-hand was short lived as German armoured reconnaissance vehicles deployed from the forest road and opened fire; as the horsemen retreated Świeściak and a third of his 250 men were killed, Colonel Mastalerz was killed trying to save them. The charge had been successful though in that it slowed the German advance and allowed other units of the Polish army to make an orderly retreat in front of the advancing Germans.

Hitler youth magazine
Hitler Youth magazine perpetuating the story

The following day a number of German and Italian reporters visited the battlefield where tanks had now arrived and were deployed near the dead Polish cavalrymen and their mounts. An Italian Journalist named Indro Montanelli jumped to conclusions and sent a report saying that the Poles had been cut down whilst attacking the German tanks. It would have been easy enough for the Germans to deny this, but they quickly saw the propaganda value of the story and ran an article in Die Wehrmacht, a propaganda magazine in Germany, implying that the charge demonstrated how strong and sophisticated the new German army was and how weak and ill-prepared were her enemies. At the end of the war the story was reinforced by the Soviets to show how the poor Polish peasants had been failed by a decadent aristocratic class. As Germany and Italy had the only reporters to visit the site this propaganda myth continued to be perpetuated even up to the 1990’s.

There seems to have been only one instance of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks, and this happened entirely by accident at Mokra. In the middle of the confusion and smoke of battle Captain Hollak suddenly found himself and his unit riding directly at the flank of a German column, with little choice and before the enemy had time to react he led his men at the gallop through the German tanks and seized the high ground. Two days later Mokra was lost to the advancing Germans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The monument to the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at Mokra

There were a number of other small cavalry charges in different theatres of the war during World War 2 whilst Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique used cavalry into the 1970’s; the Americans used horses in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and the 61st Cavalry unit is still a part of the Indian Army today.** So the importance of the horse during warfare continues, and the Charge of Krojanty rather than showing a last brave cavalry charge as the past gave way to modern warfare should probably be seen more as an enduring testimony to the power of propaganda.

**(I believe this is the only non-ceremonial cavalry unit in a modern army but would be interested if anyone can tell me otherwise).

*Polish cavalry charges during the first month of the Second World War:

  • 1st September 1939 – the battle of Krojanty
  • 1st September 1939 – against a small group of the 4th Panzer Division in Mokra
  • 1st September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Janów
  • 2nd September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Borowa Góra
  • 11th September 1939 – Polish cavalry attacked German infantry at Osuchowo
  • 11th – 12th September 1939 – Polish cavalry recaptured the village of Kaluszyn
  • 13th September 1939 – Polish cavalry were repelled at Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 13th September 1939 – A second charge retook Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 15th September 1939 – A polish charge at Brochów
  • 19th September 1939 – Polish cavalry cleared the way for the army to retreat from Wólka Weglowa
  • 21st September 1939 – A Polish charge halted a German assault at Łomianki
  • 23rd September 1939 – Polish cavalry retook Krasnobród (German cavalry was also involved)
  • 24th September 1939 – A Polish cavalry charge initially halted a soviet advance at Husynne before being stopped by tanks
  • 26th September 1939 – 2 Polish charges forced the Germans to withdraw from Morańce

How RADAR helped to win the war

It is always an advantage in battle to know what the enemy is up to. In the past the military relied on observers and spies to supply this information, but during the twentieth century technology began to play a more important role allowing the Allies to identify enemy planes, ships and submarines from a greater distance through the use of radar (Radio Detection and Ranging). Planes were first used in war for reconnaissance (1914-18) but as they became bigger and faster it became clear that planes were the weapons of the future and the threat of bombing of civilian centres grew, in 1932 Stanley Baldwin (the British Prime Minister) said that ‘the bomber will always get through’. To try to combat this scientists and technicians turned to radar.

christian-hc3bclsmeyerjpg.jpg
Christian Hülsmeyer

It was in the 19th century that Michael Faraday and James Maxwell predicted that radio waves existed. In 1886 Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments which proved this to be the case and the first primitive radar system, in which radio waves were sent out and reflections from distant objects detected, was patented by German engineer Christian Hulsmeyer in 1904. Little was done to develop this use of radio waves until the late 1930’s when the threat of war led to at least eight countries – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—independently developing radar. Britain’s air-defense radar system (known as Chain Home) was in place before the Second World War actually began as the government was aware of the very real threat from the German Luftwaffe, and during the next six years of conflict scientists and engineers found dozens of ways of using the simple and yet highly adaptable radar.

Chain_home
Chain Home

A committee set up by th British government in the 1930’s to consider the problem of air defence originally come up with the idea of using electromagnetic waves to develop a ‘death ray’, thankfully Robert Watson-Watt convinced them that this was a bad idea and to concentrate on an aircraft detection system instead! He recognised the importance of being able to see planes from a distance and follow their course in overcast weather or at night. Rapid progress was made as Watson-Watt used what he called his ‘third best principle’ – the best is usually unattainable and the second best unavailable until too late – this meant that they went with the ‘third best’ option and devised a system which worked with two antennas, one for transmitting and one for receiving, as they still had to develop a single antenna to do both. By 1939 a chain of eighteen radar stations was set up to cover the south and east coast of England. Chain Home, as it was called, used fixed transmitters to send out a broad beam of radio pulses to detect planes which were approaching at 1,500 – 2,000 feet; the stations were positioned on cliffs and high ground to give them a greater detection range and they could ‘see’ planes up to 200 miles away. The system was further developed in 1940 with the introduction of a new ground-based radar which could detect low-flying aircraft and ships. This was called Chain Home Low and differed from Chain Home by using a rotating aerial to transmit a narrow beam, rather like a searchlight. It could detect aircraft flying at 500ft from 110 miles away and display the information on a circular screen similar to modern radar displays. Stations could be set up on cliff tops, but if the coastal area they were protecting was low lying the transmitter and receiver would be mounted on towers 200 feet high.

radar operatorWomen in the WAAF worked in these radar centres. When a signal was received from approaching aircraft it was displayed on a green cathode ray tube. This showed the pulse sent out by the transmitter moving in from the edge of the screen with the target aircraft positioned in the centre. The screen could be calibrated for anything up to 200 miles which enabled the operator to ‘zoom in’ on the approaching craft. The radar operator would move a cursor over the position of the aircraft and the information was automatically sent to a calculating machine along with further information which enabled it to work out the plane’s height as well as position. This information was then sent to the mapping room with a large table on which the planes were positioned, a visual aid which made it easier for non-technical officers to direct the defending planes.

Chain Home was a massive step forward in air defence but it did have its problems. As the stations faced out to the sea contact was lost with enemy aircraft once they crossed the coastline, and Chain Home Low could not help either as it was difficult to distinguish between planes and signals from the ground. So the Observer Corps was given the job of watching the skies with tradition means (binoculars) and plotting enemy aircraft formations. Another problem was that although Chain Home picked up signals from approaching aircraft the signals could be misinterpreted and so inaccurate information about enemy strength and height could be passed to Air Command which meant that British fighter pilots could be put in dangerous situations, but the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks as the pilots no longer needed to conduct continuous air patrols.

The first serious use of radar came during the Battle of Britain when Chain Home was able to intercept approaching German bombers and fighters. It was even possible to ‘see’ the enemy at night with Air Interception (AI) (which allowed fighter planes to fly directly towards enemy bombers at night), Ground Control Interception (GCI) and the Plan Position Indicator (PPI), all thanks to radar; it was also possible for searchlights to use radar to help target planes for the anti-aircraft guns.

proximity-fuze-diagram
Proximity fuse

There were a number of other developments in the use of radar during the Second World War:

  • Proximity fuse – a tiny radar set built into each artillery shell to trigger detonation when the shell was close to its target. By the end of the war 22 million had been produced and were particularly effective when used by anti-aircraft artillery.
  • IFF – Identification Friend or Foe, which enabled Allied planes to identify each other using radar signals.
  • H2S – an Air Interception system which could display a map of the ground below in an aircraft.
  • Gee – a system of navigation which let bombers know their exact position at any time on their journey to Germany. Without Gee the 1,000-bomber raids would never have been possible.
  • Oboe – a positioning system which allowed two bases back in England to pinpoint planes when they were directly over their target; Oboe made it possible for precision attacks on munitions factories in the Ruhr and on missile bases on the north coast of Europe.
  • ASV – a Coastal Command aircraft carrying an ASV device could use it to pinpoint a U-boat on the surface; in conjunction with a similar device on destroyers and corvettes the Allies were finally able to defeat the German submarine menace which threatened to starve Britain into submission.
Frankreich, Radargerät "Würzburg"
Wurzburg

We often forget that Germany had its own effective radar systems on their bombers during the first months of the war. They also positioned their “Würzburg” system on the north coast of France to detect approaching aircraft. So why did radar seem to be much more successful for the Allies than the enemy? This can be put down, in part, to the attitude of those in positions of power with the Battle of Britain being a prime example. On 15th August 1940, at the height of the Battle, Reichsmarschall Göering decided to halt attacks on Chain Home stations; his reasoning was that “It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked so far has been put out of action.” Unlike Göering, however, ACM Dowding recognised just how important radar was and what a benefit it would be if fully integrated into air strategy. The fact that the Germans stopped targeting the radar stations strengthened the British defence and played a critical role in the final victory of the Battle of Britain. As Sir William Douglas commented, “I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won… if it were not for the radar chain”.

radar towers.jpg

V For Victory – the sign which Churchill appropriated from the Belgians

victor de laveleyeWe have all seen photos of Winston Churchill giving his famous ‘V for Victory’ sign during the Second World War, but we actually have Belgian tennis star Victor de Laveleye to thank for this iconic sign. de Laveleye competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games for Belgium, but he was also a politician who served as Minister of Justice in 1937. As the Germans pushed west in 1940 de Laveleye fled to Britain where he was put in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Belgium and soon became the symbol of free Belgians everywhere. On 14th January 1941 Laveleye asked all Belgians to use the letter ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry to fight the invaders because, he said, ‘V is the first letter of Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish, like the Walloons and the Flemish who today walk hand in hand, two things that are consequences of each other, Victory will give you Freedom’. He went on to say that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [will] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” The Belgian people willingly adopted the sign and the letter immediately began to appear daubed on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France, and other parts of Europe, a symbolic act of defiance against the Nazis.

håkon_7._malt_i_veien
Resistance graffiti on a road in Norway the V sign cradeling the initials of King Haakon VII

churchill v signWinston Churchill realised how successful this symbol was in uniting people against Hitler’s regime and decided to use it during a speech in July 1941 when he said that ‘The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Churchill continued to use the sign as his ‘signature gesture’ for the remainder of the war.

Soon after Churchill’s broadcast Douglas Ritchie at the BBC noticed that the Morse code for V was three dots and a dash ( …_ ) which was the same as the rhythm for the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC used it in its foreign language programmes directed at occupied Europe for the rest of the war. It was not long before the rhythm was used as a symbol of defiance in Europe, one which people could tap out almost anywhere.

In Germany Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was infuriated by the ‘V campaign’, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried to argue that because ‘V’ was the first letter of the German word ‘viktoria’ and the musical representation was from a symphony written by a German composer then it was really a symbol in support of the Nazi’s final victory and was a sign of the conquered population’s support of Hitler, but of course no one believed him. To try to bury the use of the symbol by the resistance the Germans started using the ‘V’ themselves, even the Eiffel tower had a ‘V’ with the slogan ‘Germany is Victorious on All Fronts’ underneath.

the eiffel tower during the nazi occupation, 1940
TheEeiffel Tower during the German occupation of France

churchill reverse v sign

 

When Churchill first used the ‘V’ sign he sometimes did it with palm facing in until it was pointed out to him that this had a rather rude meaning for the working classes; from then on Churchill made a point of holding his hand palm outwards. Of course, the sign appealed to many people precisely because of its ‘double entendre’ meaning – with a simple movement of the wrist they could indicate a belief in victory and also tell Hitler where to go!

poster

 

 

 

 

America also took the ‘V’ sign to heart and it appeared in numerous places, including on this poster from the War Production Board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four years after de Laveleye first urged the use of the ‘V’ sign the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe, and months later came Victory against Japan, but by that time the iconic Second World War symbol of defiance had become so embedded in the minds of the people that it is still used today.

ve day
The ground crew of a Lancaster bomber return the ‘V for Victory’ sign projected into the sky by a neighbouring searchlight crew on VE Day.

There are some interesting pictures of the use of the ’V’ sign during the Second World War in this video