Famous Squadrons – 450 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – ‘The Desert Harassers’

450 Sqn RAAF Operation Bowler

450 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was formed on 16 February 1941 at RAAF Williamtown near Newcastle in New South Wales as the first Australian squadron established under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).

450 Sqn Kittyhawks

Nicknamed the ‘Desert Harassers’, the Squadron was one of the most famous RAAF units of the Second World War and derived its nickname from taunts made by the German propaganda broadcaster ‘Lord Haw Haw’ who, during the squadron’s operations in the Western Desert branded it a band of “Australian mercenaries whose harassing tactics were easily beaten off by the Luftwaffe”.

450 Sqn crest

Motto: ‘Harass’

Battle Honours: 10

  • South-East Europe 1942-1945
  • Egypt and Libya 1940-1943
  • El Alamein
  • El Hamma
  • North Africa 1942-1943
  • Sicily 1943
  • Italy 1943-1945
  • Gustav Line
  • Gothic Line
  • Syria 1941

450 Sqn Bombing up a Fighter Bomber

450 Squadron’s war ended with the surrender of German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945. It was disbanded at Lavarino in Italy on 20 August 1945.

450 Sqn Plaque

The 450 Squadron ‘number plate’ was inadvertently given to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) after the Second World War. Although Canadian squadrons were numbered from 400 to 449 during the war, an unusual twist of history resulted in the number 450 being allocated to a Canadian heavy transport squadron. Nevertheless, Canada received permission to adopt the number and 450 Heavy Transport Helicopter Squadron was formed at RCAF Station St. Hubert, Quebec on March 29, 1968. Whilst the Squadron inherited the 450 number plate it did not inherit the above Battle Honours.

You can find out more about the 450 Sqn RAAF Assocation here: http://www.450squadronraaf.org.au/

On this day – German forces surrender to the Russians at Stalingrad – 2 February 1943

Stalingrad Von Paulus Surrenders

On 2 February 1943 the remaining German forces defending Stalingrad surrendered, ending one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.

It was a pivotal victory for the Soviets who, after two years of being pushed back by Nazi forces, turned the tide and changed the course of the war in eastern Europe.

Two years previously, in June 1941, the Nazi’s unilaterally terminated the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and launched Operation ‘Barbarossa’ invading eastern Poland. They advanced deep into Soviet territory and occupied some of the most economically important regions of the Soviet Union including Ukraine, and inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces.

The German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and the subsequent Soviet winter offensive in December 1941 pushed German forces back.  The winter of 1941-42 proved to be the coldest of the twentieth century with temperatures as low as -45 degrees centigrade (-49 degrees F).

In June 1942 the Germans launched a second major offensive in the east aimed at the industrial city of Stalingrad and the oil rich Caucasus. Like in their earlier offensive in 1941, German forces advanced quickly and entered the city of Stalingrad in September 1942 having destroyed most of the city with aerial bombing and artillery bombardment.

German advance to Stalingrad

In November 1942 the Russians launched a major counteroffensive, Operation ‘Uranus’ which encircled the 250,000 men of General Friedrich Paulus’s German 6th Army. Over the next two months the encircled German forces faced bitter winter conditions and starvation. In January 1943 the Soviets offered General Paulus the opportunity to surrender, which Hitler refused to accept.

Stalingrad map

On 30 January 1943, a day before the German surrender, Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Field Marshal, as in German history no previous Field Marshal had surrendered to the enemy.

Stalingrad September 1943

By the time of the surrender of the remaining German forces defending the city on 2 February 1943, only 91,000 soldiers of the German 6th Army remained. Following the end of the war, only 5,000 of those men returned alive from Soviet prisoner of war camps. In captivity General Paulus became a vocal critic of the Nazi’s and settled in East Germany after the war.

Today you can visit modern day Volgograd and see the massive 85 metre tall statue of ‘The Motherland Calls’ on the hill at Mamayev Kurgan overlooking the city. The statue was unveiled in 1967 to commemorate the battle and at the time was the largest statue in the world. It remains the tallest statue in Europe and the tallest statue of a woman in the world.

Stalingrad Memorial 2

You can find out more about ‘The Motherland Calls’ statue here: https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g298537-d5770796-Reviews-The_Motherland_Calls_Sculpture-Volgograd_Volgograd_Oblast_Southern_District.html

 

 

On this day – Queen Victoria approves the introduction of the Victoria Cross (VC) awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’ – 29 January 1856

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s (and some Commonwealth countries) highest award for gallantry for members of the Armed Forces, was officially constituted by warrant on this day in 1856.

Since that time the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals have been awarded since the Second World War.

As of 2018, there are six (6) living recipients of the Victoria Cross, three (3) living recipients of the Victoria Cross for Australia and one (1) living recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. They are:

  • Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC, 210 Sqn RAF (awarded  for his actions in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1944)
  • Sergeant Bill Speakman VC, Black Watch attached to King’s Own Scottish Borderers (awarded for his actions in Korea in 1951)
  • Captain Rambahadur Limbu, VC, MVO, 2nd Battalion, 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles (awarded for his actions in Borneo in 1965)
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Payne VC, AM, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (awarded for his actions in South Vietnam in 1969)
  • Corporal Willie Apiata VC, New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2004
  • Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, VC, CNG, 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (awarded for his actions in Iraq in 2005)
  • Corporal Mark Donaldson VC, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2008)
  • Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Dan Keighran VC, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Joshua Leakey VC (shown below), 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2015)

Joshua Leakey VC

The largest collections of VCs in the world are held by the Ashcroft Collection in Britain (established in 1986) which now contains 210 medals and the Australian War Memorial, which has 69 medals on public display.

You can find out more about the Ashcroft Collection here: http://www.lordashcroftmedals.com/

You can find out more about the AWM collection here: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/vic_cross

 

 

 

On this day – The Battle of Monte Cassino begins – 17 January 1944

Monte Cassino Cemetary

The battle of Monte Cassino officially began on this day in 1944.

Also known as the ‘Battle for Cassino’ or the ‘Battle for Rome’, it was a costly series of four assaults by Allied forces over the first five months of 1944 on Axis defensive positions along the Gustav Line, with the objective of breaking through and capturing Rome.

Italy Defensive Lines 1943-44

The Gustav Line ran across Italy from just north of where the Garigliano River flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast in the east.

Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529, overlooked the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido river valleys. It was key terrain, whose ownership was decisive for the outcome of the battle as it completely dominated the surrounding area and Highway 6, which ran through the nearby town, leading directly to Rome.

Cassino

Following the Axis surrender in North Africa in May 1943, the Allies launched Operation ‘Husky’, the Invasion of Sicily, in July 1943 spearheaded by the US 7th Army (under command of Lieutenant General George Patton) and British 8th Army (under command of General Bernard Montgomery). Over six weeks the Allied amphibious and airborne operations were successful, leading to the removal of Benito Mussolini from power, and the cancellation of a major German offensive against the Russians at Kursk, in order to divert German forces to Italy.

Invasion of Sicily 1943

In early September 1943 the Allies followed up this success with the Invasion of continental Italy, with British forces landing at Reggio (Operation ‘Baytown’) and US forces (now the 5th Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark) landing at Salerno (Operation ‘Avalanche’).

Invasion of Italy 1943

In October 1943, Hitler was persuaded by Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, that the defence of Italy should be conducted as far away from Germany as possible. This would make the most of the natural defensive geography of Central Italy, whilst denying the Allies the easy capture of a succession of airfields.

Kesselring was given command of the whole of Italy and immediately ordered the preparation of a series of defensive lines across Italy, south of Rome. Two lines, the Volturno Line and the Barbara Line, were used to delay the Allied advance so as to buy time to prepare the most formidable defensive positions, which formed the ‘Winter Line’, the collective name for the Gustav Line and two associated defensive lines on the west of the Apennine Mountains, the Bernhardt Line and Hitler Line.

The ‘Winter Line’ proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the Fifth Army’s advance on the western side of Italy. Although the Gustav Line was penetrated on the Eighth Army’s Adriatic front, and Ortona captured, blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December caused the advance to grind to a halt. The Allies’ focus then turned to the west, where an attack through the Liri valley was considered to have the best chance of a breakthrough towards Rome.

Map-2-Salerno-to-Cassino-largeThe ‘First Battle of Cassino’ launched on 17 January 1944 involved 5th US Army attacking along a 30 kilometre front, with the British X Corps crossing the Garigliano River below its junction with the Liri River near the coast.

The US II Corps would then follow on 20 January 1944 with the main thrust in the centre, crossing the Garigliano River eight (8) kilometres downstream from Cassino. Simultaneously, the French Expeditinary Corps would continue its ‘right hook’ toward Monte Cairo, which was the hinge to both the Gustav Line and Hitler Line.

Map-4-The-crossing-of-the-Garigliano-large

The initial attack by the British X Corps was successful but they could not make a decisive breakthrough. The initial success of their operations caused a lot of concern for the Germans and resulted in the deployment of two Panzergrenadier Divisions from Rome to reinforce the German line.

Map-5-Bloody-River-largeThe central thrust, an opposed river crossing over the Garigliano River by US 36th Division on 20 January 1944 was a costly failure due to well dug in German defensive positions and a lack of sufficient armoured support.

Map-6-USII-Corps-on-the-Massif-largeOn 24 January 1944 US II Corps again attacked across the flooded Rapido River valley north of Cassino with the 34th US Division and French colonial troops. Flooding made movement very difficult, particularly for armour and it took eight (8) days of heavy fighting to establish a foothold.

Map-7-The-French-Attacks-on-Belvedere-largeThe French assault on the right made good initial progress against the German 5th Mountain Division. However by 31 January 1944 their attack had ground to a halt.

The task then fell to the US 34th Division to fight south across the hilltops near Monastery Hill. Despite tough conditions and fierce fighting, by early February the Americans had captured positions no more than half a kilometre from the Abbey itself.

On 11 February 1944 after a final unsuccessful three (3) day assault on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino, exhausted US forces were withdrawn, with some battalions losing 80% of their strength.

Three further attempts were made by Allied forces to capture Monte Cassino, the final attempt by the Polish Corps in May 1944 being successful.

 

Events – Some 2018 Commemorative events for your diary

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2018 will see a number of commemorations take place mostly relating to significant events that occurred in the final year of the First World War. I will write about each of these in this blog in due course.

April
– 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Villers Bretonneux (Tuesday 24 April 2018)

May
– The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic (Sunday 6 May 2018)

July
– 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Hamel (Saturday 7 July 2018)

August
– 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Amiens (Wednesday 8 August 2018)
– 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Mont St Quentin (Friday 31 August 2018)

November
– 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice with Remembrance Day commemorations throughout Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and United States (Sunday 11 November 2018)

You can find out more information below:

http://www.defence.gov.au/events/centenaryofanzac/ProgramOfEvents.asp

http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/ww1-centenary/

http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/world-war-commemorations

https://ww100.govt.nz/national-ceremonies

http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/