Tag Archives: WWII

73 Years Ago Today: The Deadliest Air Raid in History, Operation Meetinghouse.

Worse than the Nuclear Strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Tokyo Fire Raid.

01:00 Hrs Local, Tokyo, Japan. March 9-10, 1945.

All of Tokyo is a funeral pyre.

Burning at over 1,100° Fahrenheit, rising flames create their own hurricane vacuum that inhales everything combustible to fuel the growing, miles-wide conflagration.

Fluttering to the ground in a wobbly topple incendiary bomblets continue to rain down from the night sky. These are not normal aerial bombs. The tiny bomblets are soft blobs of gooey, formless terror. They are E-46 chemical incendiary bombs or “fire bombs”.

The E-46s, one type of several incendiaries used in the raid, are dropped a mile above the city. They fall inside what looks like a conventional bomb casing built in Mays Landing, New Jersey. The nine retainer straps on the outside of the bomb break in unison, allowing the cluster bomb canister to open. They dispense a blizzard of 47 smaller, soft cheesecloth bags. The bags continue to tumble to earth. There is no concussive explosion or shockwave. No shattering glass. They quietly plop onto thatched rooftops and wooden buildings and begin to burn. And burn.

It is a strange, slow-motion attack. There are few thundering explosions. The air raid siren rises in volume through the night air. Then the low rumble of aircraft in the darkness overhead, the quiet pop and smack of incendiary packages bursting open and landing on rooftops as the first bomblets hit. A rising chorus of panicked screams follows as the fires begin to spread. The small fire from one bomblet quickly connects to another, then another, and then more. Soon the fires consume a city block, then the blocks of fire connect. More bags of fire land. The growing fire monster needs air to survive, and it begins a massive, city-wide yawn for oxygen to fuel its building inferno. Wind speeds pick up, pulling paper, cloth, even people into the building fire-hurricane.

Hell has come to earth.

Overhead a procession of 300 of the world’s largest strategic bomber, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, rains flaming death with no quarter. This is Operation Meetinghouse. It remains the single deadliest air raid in human history, with a higher attributed death toll than either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki nuclear strikes or the fire raids on Dresden, Germany and the strategic bombing of German cities like Berlin.

File photo from WWII shows B-29s dropping incendiary bombs during a daylight raid over Japan. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The number of Japanese deaths in the Operation Meetinghouse air raid on the night of March 9-10, 1945 is disputed. The morbid accounting estimates a “low” of “88,000” (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1945) to a high of 200,000 deaths- a fifth of a million- by Elise K. Tipton, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Over 1 million people are homeless. More will die of burns, disease and malnutrition in the coming days and weeks as every relief effort is not just stretched to the breaking point, it is shattered many times beyond it.

The stage for this human catastrophe was set years earlier, beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But the factors that converged to enable the severity of Operation Meetinghouse took years to build, like a stack of petroleum soaked rags piling up in a corner until one day…

Japan was geographically isolated. Its conquest of the Pacific region was brutal beyond measure. Prisoners of the Japanese were often tortured, malnourished and diseased. There was little humanitarian treatment of prisoners. Many island populations were forced into slavery by the occupying Japanese. During one forced-march of U.S. and Philippine prisoners from Saysain Point and Mariveles, Bataan through almost 70 miles of jungle trail to a train station at Camp O’Donnell on April 9, 1942, as many as 18,650 prisoners died, including an estimated 600 Americans. The atrocity became known as the Bataan Death March. It followed closely on the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor a few months earlier.

The aggression between the Japanese and Allied forces was easily stoked by fears of an invasion in the United States. Barrage balloons flew over west coast U.S. cities. Fears of Japanese submarines landing saboteurs on the California beaches ran rampant. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks the Japanese stoked American fear by using crude balloon bombs released from submarines in an ineffective attempt to start forest fires in the American west. Japanese-Americans were confined to internment camps for “security” but were treated humanely compared to allied prisoners of the Japanese.

Both sides leveraged the racial differences between the Japanese and the Anglo-Americans to reinforce the notion that the other side was not human, but monsters who must be destroyed. Both populations bought into the narrative that this was a titanic battle for survival, and that the loser would be annihilated. In modern terms the war was portrayed as a kind of zombie-apocalypse. Propaganda portrayed the “Japs” as miniature, soulless yellow rodents with buck teeth and babies impaled on their bayonets. The Japanese painted the Americans as pale, marauding giants bent on murder, global domination, greed and conquest attempting to drive the Japanese to extinction.

In the months and years preceding Operation Meetinghouse the Pacific island-hopping campaign by the United States gathered momentum with the invasions of Rabaul, Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, advancing across the Pacific toward Japan.

Incendiary aerial bombs were tested on mock targets at the Dugway Proving Grounds in the U.S. (Photo: Standard Oil Company Archives)

But the distances between the islands were vast, making logistics difficult and creating a constant fury of running sea battles. The U.S. was making progress though. As the succession of invasions got closer to the Japanese home islands the fighting took on an even more maniacal brutality. In February, 1945, the U.S. invaded the island of Iwo Jima, the first landing on Japanese home territory. The fighting was horrific. Over 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors died while Japanese casualties were above 20,000. Iwo Jima was only 9 square miles. The Japanese and American forces traded nearly 3,000 lives per square mile on the barren island.

If the ratio of 3,000 lives lost for every one square mile of territory regained were applied to all of the Japanese islands covering 145,932 square miles the body count could rise to… 437,796,000 deaths, an impossible number six times greater than Japan’s total population. The improbable equation suggested Japan faced annihilation if invaded.

During strategic planning meetings in the U.S. estimates of the number of Allied casualties from an invasion of the Japanese home islands mentioned numbers that exceeded one million Americans. Japanese casualties would be much higher. Japan’s total population recorded in late 1945 was 71,998,104. In Russia’s defense of its homeland from invasion by the Germans they had somehow endured a staggering 26.6 million dead according to a 1993 study by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the greatest loss of human life by any country, in any war. It was reasonable to suggest Japan may lose well over 10 million people if the U.S. attempted an invasion of the main Japanese islands prior to forcing a surrender.

In the brutal calculus of global war there had to be a discounted solution to the horrifying equation.

Unbeknownst to nearly every person in the U.S. government and military, there was a small group of women and men working on a war-ending weapon in the remote desert of the southwestern United States, but that secret weapon, a bomb that released the energy of a splitting atom, was months away and still not a sure thing.

In the interim the U.S. felt it had only one option; massive fire-bombing of Japanese cities to destroy their war manufacturing and demoralize their population, forcing capitulation. It was late February, 1945.

The March 9-10 Operation Meetinghouse fire bombing centered on Japanese defense infrastructure. The Japanese had dispersed a significant amount of defense-related manufacturing to cottage industries in the outlying areas of Tokyo and other cities. Attempting to destroy each one with precision high-altitude bombing was impossible.

The Americans had a new super-weapon capable of striking Japan. It was a gigantic, gleaming silver bomber bigger than anything seen before. The huge plane was sleek and aerodynamic, with long, narrow wings and four massive engines prone to catching fire. It’s long, cylindrical fuselage was pressurized for high-altitude flight without supplemental oxygen and the crew compartments were heated. Even its defensive fire-control system was remote-controlled. The forward gun turret was fitted with four .50 caliber machine guns, twice the number on the top turret of the older B-17. Unlike the B-17 bomber crews, crews of the new mega-bomber did not have to wear heavy, electrically-heated flight suits and rely on oxygen to stay alive at altitude. These bomber crews fought in tropical utility shirt-sleeves.

The new plane was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. My father was a draftsman and engineer for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Washington at “Plant 2” near the Duwamish River then. He worked on the top-secret development of the B-29. One of his assignments was to help draw plans for a pressurized crew tunnel through the bomb bay compartment from the front of the aircraft to the rear. He was sworn to secrecy during the aircraft’s development. Not even my mother knew what he was working on. Another project was to prepare drawings of the remotely controlled defensive gun control system.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a massive technological advancement over previous long range bombers. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The B-29 Superfortress was designed for high altitude strategic attacks. But the early high altitude airstrikes on Japan by B-29s were largely ineffective. The conventional explosive bombs did little damage on a large enough scale. Bomber crews were also wrestling with a new weather phenomenon encountered by the high-flying B-29. They discovered a consistent, ultra-fast wind aloft that ruined bombing accuracy called the “jet stream”.

In January, 1945, the commander of strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands was Major General Curtis LeMay. A somewhat controversial figure, LeMay was a pragmatist when it came to achieving military victory. It was simply a matter of lethal arithmetic. LeMay ordered the B-29s to begin bombing at night from low altitude instead of during the day. To improve aircraft performance and bomb payload, he ordered all of their defensive machine guns and their gunners removed.

LeMay’s Superfortresses would attack Tokyo on March 9-10 under the cover of darkness from low altitude, showering targets with fire bombs. Pinpoint accuracy was unnecessary. The first wave of bombers would drop their weapons to form a gigantic, flaming “X” to mark the center of the target. The rest of the Superfortresses would simply drop theirs as close as they could. The fires would do the rest.

Map of Tokyo showing areas most likely to burn during Operation Meetinghouse. (Photo: USAF Archive)

It was difficult to keep the B-29s flying. Their four huge Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines, the largest ever, were prone to catching fire. Maintenance was constant to prevent engine fires. When the heavily loaded bombers strained to take off, heaving massive bomb and fuel loads into the air, crashes were common.

Some aircraft were to launch from Tinian and Saipan, others from Guam. There were two parallel 8,500 foot runways recently built on Guam specifically to support the B-29 strikes on Japan. From this field Superfortresses of the 421st Bombardment Squadron, 504th Bombardment Group, would take-off.

Author Robert F. Dorr wrote what may be the definitive account of the Tokyo fire raid in his book “Mission to Tokyo”. Dorr wrote that while nearly all of the air crews in the B-29s on the night of March 9, 1945 were experienced veterans, many of them felt they would not survive this mission.

Major General LeMay’s order for the Superfortresses to fly without their defensive guns was not well received by crews. Robert F. Dorr wrote that the commander of one B-29 named “Lady Annabelle”, Capt. Percy Usher Tucker said, “I’m not leaving guns behind”. Other crew members said, “I’m not sure what General LeMay is thinking.” While official historical records did not indicate it, some crews kept guns and gunners on their aircraft, not putting the gunners’ names on the crew manifests for the mission.

Prior to Operation Meetinghouse, no bombing raid this large had been flown this low. Low altitude bombing missions were prone to heavy losses, as proven by the infamous Ploesti oil field raids in Romania in 1943. At Ploesti, losses of the B-24 Liberator bombers were horrendous when they flew into a maelstrom of enemy flak and the rising smoke of burning oil tanks on the ground.

While numerous historical accounts all agree that once the B-29 crews were airborne they were all-business, on take-off it was different. Most of the crew except the pilots sat idly in the dark aircraft hoping against a catastrophic engine failure with a full fuel and bomb load. One starboard gunner, Cpl. John R. Dodd, had a white-knuckle grip on his rosary. His voice came over the intercom saying, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

Oddly, the B-29s did not fly in formation on the way to Japan, but in a long, single file procession stretched out over miles and hours.

Reports differ about the lights being on or off in Tokyo that night. Some aircrews interviewed by author Robert F. Dorr told him they saw lights in the streets below. Japanese survivors say the standard air raid prevention protocols were in place, but often ignored. There was a quarter moon over Tokyo the night of the strike, so most B-29s made easy work of the long navigation to Tokyo. They arrived over the target accurately within minutes of their assigned time on target.

Few photos of the raid exist, but many survivors painted their impressions of its horrors in the years after. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The pilots handed control over to their bombardiers who steered the aircraft to the precise release points using the autopilot slaved to their Norden bomb sights. Then they dropped their bombs.

Just before 2:00 AM in Tokyo the air raid was ending. Rising heat from the conflagration below caused massive turbulence for the last waves of bombers as they arrived over Tokyo. The planes bucked wildly on columns of ascending hot air. The target below was alternately obscured by smoke or illuminated by waves of flame below. Accurate bombing was impossible. So, the planes simply dumped their lethal ordinance. Losses of B-29s over the target were moderate.

When it was over, Tokyo was destroyed.

Interviews with survivors of Operation Meetinghouse on both sides are eerie. They both say some of the same things. The day after the raid there was an oppressive silence. In Tokyo, charred survivors, many with clothes singed off their bodies, wandered listlessly back into the smoke and embers of Tokyo’s ruins to find anything they could salvage. There was little. Among B-29 bomber crews who returned from the raid there was fatigue, exhaustion and the onset of a new phenomenon that did not yet have a name, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neither side emerged from Operation Meetinghouse unchanged. Even the granite-faced General Curtis LeMay seemed sobered by the aftermath.
The B-29 crews fought with tenacity to reach their targets and strike it accurately. While the moral ramifications of the raid would be debated to this day, these crews did not have the luxury of reflection on their mission. Japan was a desperate and lethal adversary entering its death throes. There was no negotiation, no time or space for moderation.

From the altitude of 73 years that has elapsed since Operation Meetinghouse aerial bombing has evolved tremendously. While “humane” is never a word to describe aerial bombing, airstrikes have become more precise and produce less “collateral damage”, the antiseptic term coined for civilian casualties. Operation Meetinghouse was also one more straw added to the camel’s back of Japan’s resistance that was final broken by the nuclear strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year.

In retrospect Operation Meetinghouse is largely missing from popular U.S. history of WWII. Few people know it happened. U.S. history classes almost never mention it, even though it was the largest air strike in history. But remembering this cataclysmic, deadliest air strike is key to avoiding any similar repeat in the future.

One of only two currently flying Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, “FiFi”. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Like a Plot from A Clive Cussler Novel, Billionaire Discovers USS Lexington Aircraft Carrier Lost in 1942

How the Remarkable History of the WWII Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington Continues.

Silence, darkness and cold. Those were the only things surrounding the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) since she plummeted to her deep-sea grave on the sea floor two miles below the surface of the war-torn Pacific on May 8, 1942.

Until this week.

Like an improbable plot from one of Clive Cussler’s “NUMA Files” adventure novels, billionaire explorer Paul Allen and his own private fleet of deep-sea scientists used a remotely piloted submarine to discover the wreckage of the USS Lexington on Mar. 4, 2018. She lies on the bottom in 10,000 feet of water about 500 miles off the eastern coast of Australia where she sank. Photos show her deck guns still trained at a black liquid sky waiting for phantom Japanese Zeros, Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo bombers that disappeared into antiquity decades ago.

The USS Lexington’s wreck was discovered from Paul Allen’s private research vessel, the R/V Petrel, on Sunday morning at about 8:00 am local time in the Pacific. Brilliant color images of the Lexington and some of her aircraft were transmitted to the surface and shared around the world over the last 24 hours.

The crew of Paul Allen’s research vessel R/V Petrel watch video from their remotely piloted submersible as it explores the wreck of the USS Lexington last Sunday when it was discovered . (Photo: Vulcan Photo)

One of the most remarkable photos shows a beautiful, colorful Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter from U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron 3 (VF-3) that was aboard the USS Lexington at Coral Sea. The aircraft wears the “Felix the Cat holding a bomb” insignia common along with four Japanese kill markings on the right side of its fuselage below the canopy. The aircraft sits with its canopy open and its beautiful blue upper wing and fuselage and gray lower surface paint livery. It is the first time anyone has seen the aircraft since she was sent to the bottom in 1942. Despite the crushing depth, corrosive seawater and decades gone by, it remains in amazingly good condition.

Researcher Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Allen, was quoted earlier today on Geekwire.com in a story by writer Kurt Schlosser as saying that the USS Lexington was on a priority list of ships to locate by Allen’s team.

“Based on geography, time of year and other factors, I work together with Paul Allen to determine what missions to pursue,” Kraft said. “We’ve been planning to locate the Lexington for about six months and it came together nicely.”

Underwater images and video taken by the remotely operated submersible launched from the research vessel R/V Petrel also show large deck guns on the carrier along with aircraft like the F4F Wildcat and others. The advanced submersible robot camera vehicles used by Allen’s team can submerge to a depth of nearly 20,000 feet and transmit high-resolution video and navigation data to the surface.

Allen’s team also found the fabled USS Indianapolis last year. The cruiser Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine after a secret mission to deliver the first atomic bomb in 1945. The terrifying ordeal of the Indianapolis survivors became famous after it was featured in a monologue by the fictional character “Quint” in the Peter Benchley novel and movie, “Jaws”.

In 2015 Paul Allen’s team also located the wreck of the Japanese mega-battleship, “Mushashi”, sister ship to the giant Yamato battleship. Mushashi and Yamato remain the largest battleships ever constructed. Both were sunk in WWII.

The USS Lexington off Honolulu, Hawaii in February, 1933 with Diamondhead in the background. (Photo: U.S. Navy History & Heritage Command)

Significant history also surrounds the discovery of the USS Lexington making Allen’s find even more extraordinary.

The USS Lexington was the first full-sized fleet aircraft carrier to be sunk by aircraft launched from an enemy aircraft carrier in WWII. The Lexington took hits from several torpedoes and bombs launched from Japanese aircraft as it fought alongside the USS Yorktown with an opposing force of three Japanese carriers. Her deployment in the region was a critical strategic deterrent to an anticipated Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland that never came. About a year earlier the smaller Royal Navy HMS Hermes, one of the first purpose-built aircraft carriers, was sunk by Japanese dive bombers.

A Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber of VT-2 photographed in the wreck of the USS Lexington. (Photo: Vulcan Photo)

After the USS Lexington took multiple hits from Japanese aircraft on May 8, 1942, a massive explosion tore through her spaces at 12:47 PM. Gasoline vapor from the ruptured port aviation fuel tanks exploded. The giant explosion destroyed the ship’s main damage control station, but air operations continued despite the fires. Remarkably, all of the surviving aircraft from the morning’s strike were recovered by 2:14 PM.

Moments later at 2:42 PM another major explosion tore through the forward part of the Lexington, igniting fires below the flight deck on the hanger deck and leading to a power failure. Though assisted by three destroyers, the Lexington’s damage control parties were overwhelmed after a third explosion ripped through her hull at 3:25 PM. That explosion, the death blow to Lexington, cut off water pressure to the hanger deck preventing fire crews from containing the fire there. As a result, a final, enormous explosion from fuel and ammunition stored in her hold and magazines ignited an uncontrollable inferno on board.

Shortly after 3:28 PM her commander, Captain Frederick Sherman, issued the order to abandon ship. Despite multiple explosions and fires on board Lexington a remarkable 2,770 crewmen and officers were rescued. Tragically, 216 were killed in the Japanese attack on the ship and in the fire-fighting efforts that followed. The USS Lexington was scuttled (purposely sunk) by several torpedoes fired from the USS Phelps to prevent her hulk from falling into Japanese hands.

One of the final explosions on board the USS Lexington when she sank on May 8, 1942. (Photo: U.S. Navy History & Heritage Command)

The discovery of the USS Lexington’s wreck and the images made by Paul Allen’s research team provide a unique and invaluable insight into WWII history. This treasure of historical data would have likely remained lost forever if it weren’t for the wealthy investor’s remarkable drive for discovery and commitment to research.

Top image: A Grumman F4F Wildcat sits on the ocean floor in the wreckage of the USS Lexington. (Photo: Vulcan Photo)

72 Year Ago This Week: The First Ever Jet Airstrikes. A titanic failure for the Germans.

The First Ever Jet Airstrike Was a Disaster. Here’s The Bizarre Story.

When gunners spot them, they are stunned: their speed. No propellers.

From out of the northeast, rocketing down from medium altitude in a shallow dive intended to improve bombing accuracy the Germans are back again. It is one more day of airstrikes on the prize. This is the third set of airstrikes today.

But this one is different. The planes are flying much faster. And have no propellers.

The first jet airstrike in history has begun. German Arado Ar 234 medium bombers and Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter/attack jet aircraft are launching a last-ditch airstrike on this key target in a desperate attempt to halt the allied advance.

But it isn’t going well.

The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany is the most heavily defended target from air attack ever. Since the allies seized the bridge in a lightning attack a few days ago around March 7th they have emplaced more anti-aircraft guns surrounding this key bridge than any other single target on earth. In the upcoming 10 days of the German Luftwaffe campaign against the Ludendorff Bridge approximately 367 combat aircraft will attack the target. The Germans throw everything at Ludendorff, fighters, bombers, frogmen, artillery and now the secret German super-weapons, the jet bombers and fighters. The Allies claim to shoot-down 30% of the German planes. None score an effective hit on the bridge.

Bridges are a notoriously difficult target to hit with fast jets. The Germans are learning this difficult lesson for the first time in history today. The U.S. Air Force relearns it years later between 1967 and 1972 during protracted (and largely ineffective) airstrikes on the Long Biên (“Paul Doumer”) Bridge. They finally develop a new secret weapon, a “guided bomb” directed to its target by a laser beam. The Americans destroyed the North Vietnamese bridge on the first try with laser-guided bombs in 1972.

A damaged bridge

The Germans have crude guided bombs now including the “Fritz” radio-guided dive-bomb, but neither the new Arado jet bombers nor the smaller Messerschmitt jets can carry the large Fritz guided “smart” bomb.

As the hours to seize the bridge from the Allies turn into days the Germans become increasingly desperate. Luftwaffe Chancellor Hermann Göring proposes a suicide attack with bomb-laden Me 262 jets. No volunteers come forward or a technical shortcoming of the aircraft’s aiming device- or both- prevents the desperate tactic.

Göring forms a secret, special unit named the “Gefechtsverband Kowalewski”. It is an elite cadre of handpicked, jet-qualified strike pilots from Kampfgeschwader 76, the 76th Bomber Wing formerly located in Norway. The first jet attack pilots in history.

On March 13 the Germans hurl 19 of the special Ar 234 medium bombers and 30 Messerschmitt Me 262 A-2a jet fighter-bombers from II Kampfgeschwader 51 against the target. They are led by special Luftwaffe jet pilot Hansgeorg Bätcher. Bätcher led a previous (unsuccessful) March 7th mission against the Ludendorff problem and lived to tell. He knew the target well. It takes a brave man to volunteer to return, but the German situation is increasingly desperate.

Arado AR234

It will be the first all-jet airstrike on a ground target in aviation history. Even with a full complement of heavy 1,000kg bombs weighing more than a ton the bombers can press home the attack run at over 660 km/h (410 mph), a nearly unheard of speed at the time. They are so fast the American anti-aircraft units will have trouble hitting them. Speed is their primary defense. For six days the III Gruppe/KG 76 pilots attempt to hit the bridge in nine separate strikes.

First jet airstrikes illustration (author unknown)

Seated in the bubble nose of their incredibly fast Arado jet bombers the pilots have an excellent view. The sky is entirely aglow with bursting anti-aircraft shells, the thickest they have ever seen. Diving into the fiery cauldron seems like certain death. Shrapnel from the thick flak peppers the Arados and Messerschmitts. Every one that survives is damaged by flak. And whether it is the concentration of the flak or the speed of the new jet bombers or the inaccuracy of the unguided “dumb” bombs, every single bomb misses the bridge.

The jet strike is a titanic failure for the Germans.

The German losses are devastating. Seven jet aircraft, including two shot down by Allied fighters, are destroyed in that raid alone. The Americans estimate that from Mar. 7th to the 17th they have shot down 109 German planes, and likely destroyed 36 more. Total losses for the Germans now total nearly one-third of their dedicated strike force.

The Germans have developed and fielded a revolutionary new weapon, the jet attack aircraft, but they have not developed the tactics and weapons necessary to capitalize on the new aircraft’s speed and power. The early German jets are also dangerous to fly and require an absurd amount of maintenance. Jet fuel is increasingly scarce as the war continues to go poorly for the Germans.

In a last desperate measure the Germans launch a huge ballistic missile strike on the Ludendorff Bridge using their super-weapon, the V-2 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), the first of its type. But its crude gyro-controlled guidance system is so poor some missiles land on civilian villages miles away. Only one missile lands close to the bridge, missing the main span and doing no damage to stanchions on land. The missile strikes are also a failure.

While the German’s last-ditch campaign with their new super weapons fails, it heralds the arrival of the jet age and predicts the new direction of air war. They simply didn’t have all the details worked out, and the last months of a desperate war are a poor place to perfect a revolutionary new technology. Thankfully.



Flying the S.79 over the Mediterranean Sea (the Damned Hunchback vs Royal Navy in WWII)

Nicknamed “Gobbo Maledetto” (Italian for “Damned Hunchback”) for its distinctive fuselage “hump”, the S.79 “Sparviero” is one of the most famous Italian aircraft of WWII. It was originally designed as a passenger transport aircraft and was used by the Regia Aeronautica in the bomber and torpedo-bomber roles.  The torpedo bombers had a dangerous mission and suffered heavy losses during the war. S.79s had to fly at low level straight and level towards the ships before the torpedo was launched, and so were targeted by every available anti-aircraft weapon. Many were hit and were compelled to ditch in the Mediterranean Sea, and some of the most heroic actions of the Italian Air Force in WWII were performed by S.79 pilots whose courage was acknowledged by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

Recently Simone Bovi met Luigi Gastaldello, a former S.79 pilot, WWII veteran, in his welcoming house in Vicenza, Italy, where the former pilot of the Italian Air Force (32 years of service, more than 3700 hours of flying, a war on his logbook and the memories of the passage from unstable biplanes to fast jets) recalled the most thrilling missions he flew against the Royal Navy during the Second World War:

The stories from Second Lieutenant Luigi Gastaldello span 32 years of military service, from the early and staggering biplanes to the fast jets era of the Sixties, passing through the worst conflict of the last century: the Second World War, fought against the Allies. Luigi Gastaldello was born in Teolo (Padua) on March 7, 1917 and was among the youngest Italian pilots of that time, when in 1936 he achieved a civil pilot license on the monoplane Fiat-Ansaldo A.S.1, an Italian manufactured tourism aircraft which was largely used for training purposes during the Spanish Civil War. The  following year, his application to join the Regia Aeronautica (the name of the then Royal Italian Air Force until the collapse of Fascism dictatorship on September 8, 1943) was finally accepted and after a few months of training on the Caproni 133s and Breda 25s aircraft, 2nd Lt.  Gastaldello finally obtained his military flying license. After leaving Grottaglie airbase he was transferred to the 32° Stormo based at Cagliari Elmas (Sardinia), tasked with important duties of Terrestrial and Maritime Bombing. The pre-war period is relatively short and Luigi takes up his days with flying sorties on the Savoia Marchetti S-81s and, from the first months of 1939, on the recently arrived and innovative S-79 Bomber “Sparviero” (the Italian nickname for Sparrow-Hawk). The Sparviero, without any doubt one of the most known Italian aircraft of WWII, was largely involved in aerial actions against the British. This aircraft, indeed, would accompany Luigi throughout his long and brilliant career. Following his memories, I step back to the past.

Pre-War period (1938-1940)

Luigi remembers the pre-war phase as a relatively peaceful period, portrayed with intensive training flights over the Mediterranean Sea (he still remembers about flights that lasted even more than 5 hours each), and day by day he gained major skills on the long-haul navigation and a better knowledge of the new S-79. Indeed, unlikely its predecessor S-81, the Sparviero was surely more efficient but requested more effort in piloting it since it tended to be strongly instable on haul, especially when passing through moderate and heavy turbulences. During his sorties, Luigi had also the chance to fly and to receive a painstaking training from some fellows who became famous during the late ‘20s and the ‘30s (when they took part in the famous Oceanic fly-over which made some Italian air pioneers very well known worldwide).

Flying against the British

After the declaration of war of June 10, 1940 against France and Great Britain, the activities suddenly increased for the 32° Stormo.  Sardinia, where Luigi was located, quickly became a strategic waypoint for setting up aerial sorties of interdiction against naval enemy activities within a large part of the Mediterranean Sea. After more than 800 flying hours and 70 war sorties seated on his Sparviero, it is easy for Luigi to point out the most dramatic actions he participated to, that still impress him after 70 years.

Facing “Operation Hurry”

Operation Hurry (Aug. 1 – 4, 1940) was a Royal Navy operation whose main purpose was to ferry 12 Hawker Hurricane aircraft to Malta, where they were desperately needed to reinforce the island’s defences. The operation involved almost all the British warship in the Mediterranean, from both Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s fleet at Alexandria and Admiral Somerville’s Force H at Gibraltar whose aim was preventing the Italian Air Force and Navy from attacking Force H, which was escorting the carrier HMS Argus. On the first day of the Operation, 2nd Lt. Gastaldello witnessed the battle against the British. “We were scrambled from Decimomannu and headed to the Balearic Islands after being warned of the presence of a large British convoy navigating out there. We were a total of 25 planes without any fighter escort or the support of the Navy. I was flying at the head of a formation of five S-79s and in front of us there was another three ship formation led by General Stefano Cagna. I still remember it was about 3:30 pm with good visibility when we spotted out the enemy convoy around 90km off the coast of Formentera. I was able to count up to twenty ships when they furiously started to shoot, with shocking and loud explosions below us. Since we knew that British anti-aircraft cannons could generally reach the higher altitude of 4.000 meters, during that mission we kept flying at 4.200 metres, in order to remain out of their maximum reach. But at that height it was not easy for us to fly for long periods…since our aircraft were not equipped with oxygen masks at all! Approaching our target, the crew on board started the preparation to drop our load (generally only consisting of four bombs of 250kg each). I was alone in flight deck since my Commander had left his seat to move down to the central hold of the plane in order to activate the bombing pointing device. Suddenly I saw the Sparviero piloted by General Cagna in front of me, heading nose-down towards the target being hit by antiaircraft artillery and exploding in mid-air. Instinctively I pulled up my plane and doing so I managed to avoid the largest mass of debris coming all around me from the explosion, even tough some of them hit my plane. [Luigi Gastaldello still keeps jealously in his house a piece of metal fragment that was taken out from his wounded plane]. In spite of the severe damage suffered, we continued our mission and, after dropping our bombs, we recomposed the formation and returned to the base. The epilogue of our mission was the loss of three planes and many others being damaged. Instead, our damage to the enemy was relatively poor because of the inaccuracy of high altitude bombing against fast moving targets. The only successful goal we achieved was to obtain clear aerial photographs that were sent on the same evening to the Air Force Headquarters in Rome. There, the analysts realized how the aerial bombing against moving naval units brought poor effects and posed high risks for our aviators”.

Obviously this was not enough to change right away the whole bombing strategy. This came only a few months later even if the origin of such a change could be traced back to the aftermaths of the Battle of Balearic Islands. It was only from the last months of 1940 on that a new version of the S-79 was employed as a torpedo bomber.  This change of strategy in bombing enemy ships implied significant improvements: Italian pilots finally gained a better consideration from the British Naval Commanders who, from that moment on, nicknamed the new S-79 as the “Gobbo Maledetto” (Damned Hunchback).

Saved by the clouds

“Another action which is still clearly impressed in my mind is the Battle off the Galite Islands, located at 38 km northwest of the Tunisian coast and 150km south of Cape Spartivento (Sardinia)”. The battle fell within the large Operation “Tiger”, by which the British urgently sent 5 supply convoys from Gibraltar to Alexandria, in order to strengthen up the besieged forces commanded by General Wavell. The convoy was escorted by the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the cruisers HMS Renown and Sheffield and 9 battle destroyers. “It was  May 8, 1941 when we were ordered to take off from Decimomannu and had to face off some enemy naval units that were escorting a large supply convoy”. On that morning the weather was poor, with low clouds and showers. The fierce guests forced the pilots to make continuous trim corrections to maintain the right course: below the sea had a leaden look. As we approached the target, tension on board was rising. No words, only glances between the crew and the constant search for something out there, either ships or enemy fighters. “Finally, at around midday we located the enemy and immediately started to aim at a British cruiser on escort. We could not ask for a better position for an air attack: the sun on our shoulders and the naval artillery that was not even firing a single shot”. “We descended to lower altitudes but as the crew was activating the pointing device and dropped the first bomb, our target suddenly changed its course to the left. It is unnecessary  to say that our bomb splashed heavily into the water! From that moment on, the enemy artillery unleashed all their fire mouths! There were explosions everywhere around us and from the initial formation of five, only two of us managed to come back to the base. We were also attacked on our way back when a lonely Hurricane spotted us and repeatedly shot enraged bursts that fortunately missed our aircraft for no more than 5 meters. Then I immediately diverted my plane into a large and thick formation of clouds after having dropped the remaining bombs: this maneuver meant our salvation”. On that day, a Fairey Fulmar piloted by Nigel George “Buster” and accompanied by the Australian observer Sir Victor Alfred Tumper Smith managed to shot down the S-79 of Captain Armando Boetto, who perished in the incident with the rest of the crew. During the clashes, the Fulmar was also heavily hit by the Italian gunners and was forced to splashdown into the water, where his crew was later rescued by the Royal Navy. Indeed, in honor of Captain Armando Boetto, the 32° Stormo of Italian Air Force is currently named after him.

The above stories underline once again how the early bombing conducted by the Regia Aeronautica on mobile targets was ineffective. This ineffectiveness depended on various factors. It is worth to be highlighted  that during the Mediterranean Sea battles, the S-79s crews could almost only rely on their abilities. Their aircraft were not equipped with oxygen masks or radio communication. The Sparviero could transport up to 5 250Kg bombs but the crew tended to bring in action only 4 of them, in order to gain more maneuverability. The defensive armament was exclusively made of 3 12,7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns and a fourth 7,7mm Lewis located in the middle of the fuselage. Luigi Gastaldello was also witness of the poor coordination that wafted into the strategy rooms: “A few days after the Battle of Galite Island I was ordered by the Commander in Chief to be ready for a night mission: destination Balearic Islands, and our target would have been the HMS carrier “Ark Royal”. My aircraft was the only one planned for the mission, without any support by the fighters or the Navy! Fortunately, one hour before the scheduled takeoff the mission was cancelled”.


Stukas and Sicily

The war actions for 2nd Lt. Luigi Gastaldello did not stop with the S-79s. By the second half of 1941 he and his Squadron moved to Bologna to test the new Savoia Marchetti SM-84, where, in spite of the big expectations, the aircraft will turn out to be less effective than his predecessor S-79.  On December of the same year Luigi Gastaldello also flew with the 101st Squadron “Nucleo Addestramento Tiro a Tuffo” (Dive Bombing Training Unit) at Lonate Pozzolo (Varese) on the JU87s Stuka, but no significant war actions are worth to be remarked. Starting from March 1942 he moved back to Gela (Sicily) and to Ciampino (Rome) on the following month.  There,  he was enlisted in the 1st Experimental Unit, where he tested the new attack aircraft RO-57 and managed also to obtain qualifications on Macchi 202s, 205s, CR-42s and Fiat G-50s. After the establishment of the 97th Interception Squadron equipped with RO-57s, Luigi was moved again to Crotone (Calabria) on June 1943 and employed with defence tasks against the foreseen Allied invasion. “I remember on a muggy day of July at Crotone airfield, I was lining up my RO-57 on the runway ready for a desperate sortie with a single 500kg bomb, when I received the counter order to suspend the mission…maybe in Rome someone realized the inutility of throwing ourselves into the fray by facing a huge armada untenable for us”. During that summer many were the losses suffered by the 5° Stormo. On Jul. 11, the whole Squadron engaged the naval units off the coast of Augusta, destroying the steamer “Talamba” but suffering the loss of  four aircraft, including the Unit Commander Colonel Guido Nobili. Two days later another clash against the Allies was conducted by eleven Reggiane Re 2002s and brought to the damage of battleship “Nelson”. The unit was forced to retreat to Malta after having suffered heavy structural damage. Although this minimal success, a couple of Italian planes were shot down. The surviving pilots, just after their landing at Crotone airfield, also underwent a heavy bombing by large formations of US Liberators. The action caused the partial destruction of the runway and the loss of men and aircraft on ground. “I still remember a summer evening, when I was coming back to my dormitory after a bloody action founding myself alone! No one of my comrades was left after weeks of terrible battles”.

A few days before the collapse of Italian Dictatorship on September 8, 1943, Luigi Gastaldello was obliged by the events to retreat northbound to Tarquinia (near Rome), flying a Macchi 205. “It was my first time on board this new aircraft and I was not really used with the controls and gauges. Moreover our airfield had suffered many bombardments by the Allied, the last one a few hours before I had been ordered to retreat and fly away the M-205. The runway was disseminated with warning flags indicating unexploded bombs, craters and holes. This was not really a gentle takeoff! After pushing the throttle onwards I started again to breathe when my plane lifted off that damned runway!”. On September the British landed in Calabria as the pilots of the 5° Stormo were still flying and fighting. On Sept. 4 even the newly promoted Maj. Giuseppe Cenni perished during an air battle over the Aspromonte Mountains. Some witnesses on the ground spotted his lonely Re 2002 being attacked by a lot of Spitfires. He was putting every effort in order to defend himself and his plane; he grazed the mountaintops and trees combined with fast changes of maneuver, but the British were too many and Cenni’s aircraft was seen falling into a deep valley. Four days later, the armistice was signed. During the last two months the 5° Stormo had lost more than 20 pilots and almost all their aircraft. During three years of war 57 pilots had been killed in action and 73 was the total amount of destroyed airplanes.

After Sept. 8 the Italian Armed Forces collapsed and Luigi, as many others soldiers did, felt the need to meet up with his family. He then managed to reach his native town of Teolo and there, with frequent displacements helped by acquaintances, he avoided the capture and deportation by the Germans.

Still in service

After WWII the carreer as pilot for Luigi Gastaldello was far from being over. He took service at Pisa, where he obtained the qualification on Beechcraft C-45 “Expeditor” and Fiat G-12 transportation aircraft. During the fifties Luigi Gastaldello was mainly committed with night sorties and flights to test the innovative aids for instrumental navigation, but qualifications on different aircraft were still on the way: S-7, Fiat G-46, Piaggio 148, Fiat G-59, Macchi 416 and the P-51 Mustang, after this type entered in service with the new Italian Air Force. In 1959 Luigi finally moved back to northeastern Italy and there, between a liaison flight and another, he still had time to obtain his last qualification on Lockheed T-33. He retired in 1968.



The Macchi C.202 Folgore of the National Air and Space Museum

The picture shows the aircraft Macchi C.202 Folgore marked 9476 exhibited at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. The aircraft is one of the few Italian WWII fighters that escaped the conflict and, in particular, one of the two MC202 sent to USA at the end of the war to be tested. With the help of Italian Air Force and Aeronautica Macchi, in 1974 this aircraft was given to Smithsonian Institute.
The aircraft, that I had the opportunity to see in 1994, during my visit to the Museum, sports the colours of the 90^ Squadriglia of the 4° Stormo “Francesco Baracca”, when it was operating in North Africa in 1942. Even if the aircraft was perfectly restored,  the serial “9476” is not correct since the original Folgore belonged to the serie III and not serie IV and was actually marked 7796.
The pictures were taken by Simone Bovi in 2008.