On this day – The Battle of the Ruhr begins – 5 March 1943

S Sugar 467 Squadron RAAF

On this day 75 years ago the Battle of the Ruhr began, a five month campaign of strategic bombing during the Second World War against the heavily defended Ruhr Valley, the industrial heart of Nazi Germany.

The campaign bombed 26 major Combined Bomber Offensive targets including the Krupp armament works at Essen, the Nordstern synthetic oil plant at Gelsenkirchen and the Rheinmetal–Borsig plant in Düsseldorf.

Bomber Command Badge

The British bomber force that took part came from RAF Bomber Command and consisted mainly of the twin-engined Vickers Wellington medium bomber and the four-engined Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax (a famous example ‘Friday the 13th‘ from 158 Squadron RAF is shown below) and Avro Lancaster.

 

Friday the 13th

RAF Bomber Command operations were conducted at night with the use of newly developed navigational and blind bombing aids like Oboe, H2S and Gee. The force was also supported by the newly formed 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group RAF (under the command of Australian Air Commodore Don Bennett DSO) to mark the route and aiming points to guide the main Bomber force to the target.

8 Group RAF

The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) was responsible for the daylight bombing campaign and used two 4-engined bomber aircraft, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (shown below) and Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

B-17-5

The German defence consisted of anti-aircraft artillery (also called “flak”) and day and night fighters. The Kammhuber Line (a section of which is shown below) used radar to identify Allied bombers and then controllers directed day and night fighters onto the bomber stream.

Kammhuber_Line_Map_-_Agent_Tegal

During the battle RAF Bomber Command estimated that 70% of the aircraft lost were due to German fighters. British aircrew called the area ‘Happy Valley’ or the ‘Valley of no Return’.

piotr-forkasiewicz-battle-of-berlin-04

The Battle of the Ruhr severely disrupted German industry with steel production falling by 200,000 tons, leading to the armaments industry facing a 400,000 ton shortfall. This disruption resulted in the Zulieferungskrise, or sub-components crisis, with monthly armaments production failing to increase between July 1943 and March 1944.

Bomber Command Memorial

RAF Bomber Command losses during the Battle of the Ruhr were estimated at 4.7% over the 43 attacks with 18,506 sorties flown. Some 5,000 aircrew were lost. In 2012 the Queen unveiled the RAF Bomber Command Memorial (shown above) on Piccadilly at Green Park in Central London. It commemorates the sacrifice of 55,573 aircrew from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries of the Commonwealth who lost their lives during the war serving in Bomber Command.

One of my favourite military artists is Piotr Forkasiewicz with some of his imagery shown above. You can see his portfolio of work and purchase prints here: http://peterfor.com/albums/31856

You can find out more about Australian aircrew’s experiences in the Battle of the Ruhr here: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E213

You can find out more about the Bomber Command Memorial here: https://www.rafbf.org/bomber-command-memorial

On this day – The loss of HMAS Yarra (U77) – 4 March 1942

HMAS Yarra Canberra Times 14 March 1942

On this day in 1942, HMAS Yarra (U-77) was lost defending a small allied convoy south of Java against overwhelming odds.

A ‘Grimsby class’ sloop, HMAS Yarra was launched at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney, in March 1935 and commissioned the following January. Displacing more than 1,000 tons, she was over 80 metres long with a beam of 11 metres and armed with three 4-inch anti aircraft guns, four 3-pounder guns, a quadruple .5-inch anti aircraft machine-gun, and depth charges. She had a top speed of 16.5 knots and a complement of 151.

HMAS Yarra‘s initial war service was in Australian waters, on patrol and escort duties. In August 1940 she left for the Middle East. In April 1941 she escorted a convoy from Bombay to the Persian Gulf followed by service again in the Mediterranean in November-December 1941.

With the outbreak of war with Japan, HMAS Yarra left the Mediterranean for now Indonesian waters, arriving in January 1942. She carried out escort and patrol duties, including the successful rescue of over 1,800 survivors from the troopship Empress of Asia, which was sunk along with many other ships in the convoy BM 12 off the southwest coast of Singapore.

On 27 February 1942 orders were given to clear all remaining allied ships from Batavia (now Jakarta). At about midnight HMAS Yarra and another sloop HMIS Jumna sailed escorting a convoy to Tjilatjap.

HMAS Yarra II

Arriving off Tjilatjap (modern day Cilacap) at 11am on 2 March 1942, the ships were warned not to enter harbour. HMAS Yarra was ordered to take the convoy, which consisted of the depot ship Anking, the tanker Francol and the motor minesweeper MMS 51, to Fremantle in Western Australia while HMIS Jumna sailed for Colombo. No time was to be lost, as powerful Japanese naval forces were known to be operating in the waters south of Java.

Steaming south east at an average speed of 8.5 knots, HMAS Yarra and her convoy made steady progress during the night of 2-3 March 1942.  The following morning two lifeboats were sighted and HMAS Yarra picked up survivors of the Dutch merchant ship Parigi, which had been sunk by the Japanese two days earlier.

At 6.30am on 4 March 1942, the lookout in HMAS Yarra sighted a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron to the north-east consisting of the IJS Atago (pictured below), IJS Takao and IJS Maya, each armed with ten 8-inch guns, and two destroyers.

IJS Atago

Immediately the commander of HMAS Yarra, Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin (pictured below) made a sighting report, ordered the convoy to scatter and, placed his ship between them and the enemy, laying smoke and preparing to engage.

Robert Rankin

HMAS Yarra was out-gunned and out-ranged. Against such odds her task was hopeless, yet she kept fighting even as her convoy was overwhelmed and sunk, ship by ship.

Anking received many hits before sinking 10 minutes later. By that time HMAS Yarra was also on fire and listing heavily to port. MMS 51 was on fire and sunk by close range automatic gunfire from one of the Japanese cruisers. The Francol was also hit many times but still remained afloat, finally sinking at about 7.30am. HMAS Yarra, shattered by numerous hits, was the last to go.

HMAS Yarra 2

Soon after 8.00am, Lt Cdr Rankin ordered abandon ship. Minutes later he was killed when an 8-inch salvo hit the bridge. HMAS Yarra‘s end, which came after close-range shelling by the two Japanese destroyers, was witnessed by 34 survivors on two rafts.

HMAS Yarra Ships Crest

After sinking HMAS Yarra the Japanese cruisers made off to the north-east, picking up one boatload of survivors from Francol as they departed. A collection of boats, rafts and floats was left scattered over a wide area. Before dusk a passing Dutch vessel, Tawali, rescued 57 officers and men from Anking. However, in spite of frantic signals, she failed to sight two Carley floats containing 14 men from MMS 51. For the next two and a half days they drifted about until picked up by the Dutch steamer Tjimanjoek on 7 March.

Meanwhile Yarra’s men, their numbers sadly reduced by wounds, exposure, and thirst, continued to drift helplessly. On 9 March, 13 of the sloop’s ratings were picked up by the Dutch submarine KlL. Of HMAS Yarra‘s complement of 151, 138 (including the Captain and all of the officers) were killed in the action or died subsequently on the liferafts.

Rankin crest

In commemoration of Lieutenant Commander Rankin’s leadership commanding HMAS Yarra (II), the sixth and final Collins class submarine (commissioned in 2003) was named in his honour (HMAS Rankin (SSG-78) is pictured below).

HMAS Rankin at Beuaty Point TAS

On the 4th of March 2014, the then Governor General of Australia, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce AO, CVO presented the current HMAS Yarra (IV) with the Unit Citation for Gallantry (UCG) (insignia shown below) in commemoration of the loss of her predecessor.

Unit Citation for Gallantry

You can find out more about HMAS Yarra (II) here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-yarra-ii

You can find out more about HMAS Rankin here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-rankin

You can find out more about the presentation of the Citation here: http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Mar2014/Events/890/Brave-crew-recognised-for-extraordinary-acts-of-gallantry-in-1942.htm#.WlLvzFWWbIU

On this day – The Battle of the Sunda Strait – 28 February 1942

HMAS Perth Sunda Strait.JPG

The naval Battle of the Sunda Strait began on this day 76 years ago.

Sunda Strait lies between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. On the night of 28 February-1 March 1942 it was the location for a fierce naval battle between the Australian modified Leander class light cruiser HMAS Perth (shown above during the battle) and the American Northampton class heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), and a numerically superior Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) task force.

Following the disatrous Battle of the Java Sea the day before, late on 28 February 1942, USS Houston and HMAS Perth received orders to sail through Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java.  They departed without any escort at 7pm under the command of Captain Hector Waller (shown below), the Commanding Officer of HMAS Perth.

Hec Waller

At 10pm that night the Japanese invasion convoy of over 50 transports was entering Bantam Bay near the north west tip of Java. The convoy was escorted by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla (8 destroyers) and 7th Cruiser Division (3 cruisers).

USS-Houston-And-HMAS-Perth-Stood-Tall-At-the-Battle-Of-Sunda-Strait-1

 

At 11.15pm the Japanese destroyer IJS Fubuki sighted the allied Cruisers halfway across Bantam Bay. In the ferocious action that followed both HMAS Perth and USS Houston (shown below) were sunk with the loss of 1,071 sailors lives. Japanese losses were two Transports and a minesweeper.

USS Houston Sunda Strait

The Captains of both Allied ships were among those lost. Captain Albert Rooks of USS Houston was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

You can find out more about HMAS Perth II here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-perth-ii

You can find out more about USS Houston here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Houston_(CA-30)

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/

Customs and Traditions – Naval Pennants

HMS Ocean

With HMS Ocean (L12) entering Portsmouth for the final time late last week flying her paying off pennant, before she is decommissioned and transfered to the Brazilian Navy, it is worthwhile looking at the naval tradition of flying pennants.

A pennant is a flag that is larger at the hoist than at the fly, and can have several shapes, such as triangular, tapering or triangular and swallow-tailed.

In the days of chivalry, knights carried pennants on their lances, just as men-of-war flew pennants from their masts. During the conflicts of the thirteenth century, when merchant ships were commandeered and placed in command of military officers they transferred their pennants from their lances to the mastheads of the ships they commanded. The tradition continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars when the Royal Navy adopted the style of pennants used today.

Today the pennant is hoisted on the day a warship or shore establishment commissions and is never struck until the day of decommissioning. Onboard ship the pennant is flown at the masthead, for which reason it is also commonly referred to as a ‘masthead pennant’. In the Royal Navy (RN) today there are two types of pennant – a ‘Commissioning pennant’ and a ‘Paying off’ pennant.

In the RN the commissioning pennant (shown below) is flown continuously in every ship and shore establishment in commission unless displaced by a senior officer’s Rank flag. The masthead pennant is a cross of St George in the hoist and a white fly.

1920px-Royal_Navy_commissioning_pennant_(with_outline).svg

It is the custom in many navies for a ship which is ‘paying off’ to wear an extremely long commissioning pennant, which is normally at least the length of the ship, and the length of which reflects the length of service. HMS Gloucester (D96) is shown below flying her paying off pennant in 2011 when she decommissioned.

HMS Gloucester Paying Off Pennant

The term ‘paying off’ refers to the fact that RN ships formerly ‘paid off’ each time they returned home after a commission overseas. The ship’s sailors were not paid until the ship returned home, to avoid desertion.

In the US Navy (USN) the commissioning pennant is ‘blue at the hoist, bearing seven white stars; the rest of the pennant consists of single longitudinal stripes of red and white’. Like their RN cousins, ships of the USN fly the commissioning pennant from the moment of commissioning until the decommissioning ceremony. The commissioning pennant of USS McInerney (FFG 8) is shown below.

100831-N-8590G-010

The US Navy has no tradition of flying a paying off pennant before decommissioning. US Navy ships maintain a separate tradition of flying a ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant when returning from a deployment to their home port. The dimensions of the pennant are not prescribed by regulation, but the customary practice is one white star for the first nine months of continuous service outside the US, plus another for each additional 6 months. The overall length of the pennant is one foot for each member of the ship’s company on duty outside the United States for more than 9 months, but not to exceed the length of the ship itself. Below is a picture of USS George Washington (CVN-73) flying her 297 foot ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant returning from deployment in 2015.

USS George Washington Homeward Bound Pennant

On this day – Australia’s worst peacetime naval disaster – HMAS Melbourne (R21) and HMAS Voyager (D04) collide at night off Jervis Bay

HMAS Voyager

On this day in 1964 what is considered to be Australia’s worst peacetime naval disaster occurred 20 nautical miles off Point Perpendicular near Jervis Bay in New South Wales, when at 8.56pm the Majestic class aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) and the Daring class destroyer HMAS Voyager (D04) collided at night during manoeuvres.

At the time HMAS Melbourne was performing flying exercises and HMAS Voyager was performing plane guard duties, positioned behind and to port (left) in order to rescue any aircrew if a plane was forced to ditch.

HMAS Melbourne following Voyager collision

After a series of turns effected to reverse the course of the ships HMAS Voyager ended up ahead and starboard (right) of HMAS Melbourne. Voyager was then ordered by Melbourne to resume plane guard position, which involved turning to starboard, but then she came around to port. The crew on the bridge of HMAS Melbourne thought that Voyager was zig-zagging and would turn to starboard and resume her correct position.

At 8.55pm both ships began desperate avoiding manoeuvres but a collision was inevitable. One minute later the bow of HMAS Melbourne (travelling at about 22 knots) struck behind the Bridge and Operations Room of HMAS Voyager, effectively cutting the ship in two.

Over the coming hours, frantic efforts were made to rescue the crew of HMAS Voyager, with helicopters from both HMAS Melbourne and Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra, as well as five Minesweepers and two search and rescue boats were dispatched from the shore establishment HMAS Creswell, moving to the scene to pick up survivors.

HMAS Voyager Crest

Sadly, of the 314 crew on board HMAS Voyager, 82 were killed, most of whom died immediately or were trapped in the bow section, which sank after 10 minutes. HMAS Melbourne was damaged, but suffered no fatalities.

CPO Rogers GC DSM

One particular crew member of HMAS Voyager showed great bravery and sadly lost his life as a result. Chief Petty Officer Jonathan Rogers DSM, a Welshman and Second World War Royal Navy  veteran, along with 50 other men, was trapped in the sinking forward part of the stricken destroyer.

Recognising that he was too large to fit through the escape hatch, he organised the evacuation of those that could escape, then led his trapped comrades in a prayer and hymn as they met their fate. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross (GC), which is now held by the Australian War Memorial.

CPO Rogers GC DSM Medal Collection

Following the disaster two Royal Commissions were held in 1964 and 1968. The first Royal Commission ruled that the collision was the fault of HMAS Voyager’s bridge crew and also blamed the Commanding Officer of HMAS Melbourne, Captain John Robertson and two other officers on that ship. Robertson resigned after the first Royal Commission, rather than accept a shore posting to HMAS Watson (in effect a demotion) and was widely seen in the media as a scapegoat for the incident.

In 1967 a second Royal Commission was announced following increasing pressure from the public and the media, including claims made that the Commanding Officer of HMAS Voyager, Captain Duncan Stevens (who had died in the tragedy), was a heavy drinker and unfit for command. The second Royal Commission came to that finding and absolved Captain Robertson and the two other officers from HMAS Melbourne, of any blame.

You can find out more about HMAS Voyager (II) here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-voyager-ii

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