WWII

Heroes & Villains - Franz Von Werra

The Luftwaffe's Lion-Taming, Escapist Fighter Ace!

My first H&V of the year. I'm going to be trying out some slightly different formatting for this one. If I decide I like the formatting, I may go back and revamp some older entries. First off, I'm going to dress up my articles with sensational (but true) headlines. Like a 50's stag mag. 50's stag mags knew how to get attention and interest.

Franz Von Werra and Simba inspecting his Bf 109 E-4. They're checking out the MG FF/M cannon in the wing. I believe this was taken in August of 1940. (That's just an educated guess, however)

Franz Von Werra and Simba inspecting his Bf 109 E-4. They're checking out the MG FF/M cannon in the wing. I believe this was taken in August of 1940. (That's just an educated guess, however)

Franz Von Werra joined the Luftwaffe in 1936, and qualified as a fighter pilot by 1938. Upon the formation of the fighter group Jagdgeschwader 3 , he was assigned as an officer, and flew combat over France, scoring 4 kills by the time the invasion was over.

Von Werra maintained a reputation as an eccentric upper-class playboy. His squadron had a pet lion named Simba, and photographs of the man often feature this mascot. He often returned from missions with wild tales of impossible feats and odds. His penchant for tall tales earned him the nickname Baron, a reference to the fictional Baron Münchausen, who also spun tall tales of adventure and achievement. On August 28 of 1940, he returned from a sortie claiming to have downed 9 RAF Hurricanes after getting separated from his squad.

Another picture with his lion cub. I wonder if it was concerned that the British Spitfire would turn out to be more than a match for the Bf 109 E series.

Another picture with his lion cub. I wonder if it was concerned that the British Spitfire would turn out to be more than a match for the Bf 109 E series.

Soon, Von Werra would have an opportunity to make his facts much more impressive than his fiction. September 5th, 1940, The Bf 109 E-4 "Black >" of Stab II./JG3 (Von Werra's fighter) crash landed in Kent.

The exact circumstances aren't entirely clear, but here's what I've determined. Von Werra's plane was damaged (possibly by friendly fire, possibly by P/O Bennions of the RAF), causing him to drop altitude over the Kent district of England. An RAF pilot named Gerald Stapleton reported engaging a wounded fighter matching Black >'s description in that area, forcing it down in a field outside Marden, Kent. Also according to Stapleton, Von Werra was apprehended by an unarmed cook who had been manning a searchlight.

British soldiers at the "Black >" wreck. That's an annoying name, but I'm pretty sure that's how the name is supposed to be written.

British soldiers at the "Black >" wreck. That's an annoying name, but I'm pretty sure that's how the name is supposed to be written.

Actually, the Brits got some great photos out of this wreck and I'd hate to have them go to waste.

"Commander, an extensive review of the wreck turned up suspicious amounts of pussy hair. We'll be wanting to let the folks at Bletchley know about this."

"Commander, an extensive review of the wreck turned up suspicious amounts of pussy hair. We'll be wanting to let the folks at Bletchley know about this."

The Brits put Von Werra's smug ass to work at Maidstone Barracks, digging ditches. He attempted to overpower a guard with his pickaxe, and was moved to a slightly more prison-y location, Grizedale Hall

Everywhere in England is castles. Even their homeless shelters are castles. Hell, this image is proof that even their goddamned prisons are castles.

Everywhere in England is castles. Even their homeless shelters are castles. Hell, this image is proof that even their goddamned prisons are castles.

The Brits, in their eternal quest to be upper-class weirdos, apparently allowed the prisoners at Grizedale to have an escorted walk each day. Von Werra collaborated with the other prisoners to block the guard's view while he slipped away. And it worked! Briefly. After an extensive search, the Home Guard found him in a ditch and dragged him back to prison. This time, he was sent to Camp 13 at Derbyshire.

Seriously? I wanna go to British war prison.

Seriously? I wanna go to British war prison.

From Camp 13, Von Werra participated in an escape attempt with four other prisoners. They created fake IDs and paperwork to leave the country, and then built a tunnel out of the camp. The plan worked, and all five of them escaped the camp. Four were quickly recaptured, but Von Werra was unaccounted for.

For his part, Von Werra had convinced a local train driver that he was a Dutch pilot, Captain Von Lott, and he needed some help getting back to his unit. During the journey, they were stopped by the police and questioned, but the cops failed to realize the passenger with the heavy accent might have been the person they were looking for.

It wasn't until he was literally in the cockpit of a fueled up British plane, running a quick check and figuring out the controls, did anyone realize he was Franz Von Werra. In the nick of time, he was pulled from the cockpit at gunpoint. The Brits were finally tired of Von Werra's shit, and decided to send him to Canada.

Once they reached Ontario, the Brits put Von Werra on a train to his new home. He and a few other prisoners hopped off the train as soon as they had a chance. Naturally, everyone but Von Werra was quickly captured and put back on the train. He was nowhere to be found.

Von Werra managed to cross the northern border of the United States and made his way to New York City, where the police planned on arresting him for entering the country illegally. I'm not making that up. However, the German embassy demanded his release, and got it. They then shipped him down south to Brazil, and from Brazil, back to the Axis forces.

In October of '41, the Luftwaffe assigned Von Werra to I./JG53, to go fight on the Ostfront. They also issued him one of the new Bf 109 F series, which he put to use downing 12 soviet aircraft (mostly bombers, but his last kill was an Il-2). Then on October 25th, Von Werra was on a practice flight when his engine failed over the North Sea. He was never seen again.

The Ostfront, where the only thing colder than the weather was the pitch black lump of ash pretending it was Stalin's heart.

The Ostfront, where the only thing colder than the weather was the pitch black lump of ash pretending it was Stalin's heart.

He would be remembered by Germany as a vain playboy, prone to telling tall tales, but who managed the skill and guile to hold up his stories.

The Brits would remember Von Werra as "The One Who Got Away".


Sources

  • Kacha, Petr. Aces of the Luftwaffe - Franz Von Werra, www.luftwaffe.cz/werra.html.
  • http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/12th-october-1956/16/the-thruster
  • https://ww2aircraft.net/forum/threads/done-1-48-bf-109e-4-von-werra-defense-of-britain-atlantic.43991/
  • https://forum.keypublishing.com/showthread.php?73749-Who-shot-down-Franz-Von-Werra
    • This one was a discussion of the circumstances that led to Von Werra getting shot down.
  • https://www.warhistoryonline.com/featured/franz-the-one-that-got-away-von-werra.html

Heroes & Villains - Ho Chi Minh - Part 1

The past century of global politics is a complex story of weird, creepy, unhealthy friendships, unlikely alliances, and shifting loyalties. 

Few people represent the truth of this claim quite as effectively as the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh was a liberator, a subjugator, a terrorist, a savior, a visionary, a censor, a philosopher, and a barbarian.

Above all else, and I write this somewhat grudgingly, Ho Chi Minh was a winner.

Ho Chi Minh, 1946. Fresh from fighting off the Imperial Japanese.

Ho Chi Minh, 1946. Fresh from fighting off the Imperial Japanese.

Nguyen Sinh Cung was born in Vietnam in 1890. At the time, Vietnam was not a sovereign nation, but rather existed as a component of what was called "French Indo-China". Vietnam was governed by an Emperor, whose government was backed by the French. Though an emperor in title, this regent was little more than an extension of French rule.

That Thanh's father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a member of the emperor's court. However, Sinh Sac was not a proponent of French colonialism, and would end up being dismissed for his displeasure with their rule.

When Sinh Cung turned 10, his father, in accordance with confucian naming tradition, re-named his son Nguyen That Thanh (Which apparently means "Accomplished")

 That Thanh's older sister, Nguyễn Thị Thanh (Also called Bạch Liên), was a clerk for the French-vietnamese military. From this position, she facilitated the smuggling of supplies to various anti-french forces within Vietnam. She was sentenced to life imprisonment when caught. There is little information available regarding her after this event. However, based on how totally fair and reasonable colonial governments were, I'm sure she was fine. (I'm guessing she died in prison under less-than-ethical circumstances)

At school, That Thanh learned French. This conflicted with his blossoming nationalist views, but he also felt that knowing French would turn out useful when resisting the colonial government. He also participated in a rally against the colonial taxes of the very poor (He should have brought this up in the 60's. Americans would have appreciated the resemblance). While this could have put his academic carreer at risk, it did not.

After a brief stint as a teacher in Pan Thiet, That Thanh joined the kitchen staff of a French steam-ship. The steamer arrived in France in 1911, at which time he tried unsuccessfully to enroll in a French university.

This rejection turned out to be a blessing, as That Thanh's continued work in the shipping industry gave him a chance to see the world. Also, for those of you noting the year, it meant he was given a chance to avoid the gigantic fucking horrifying war that France was about to be in the literal middle of.

That Thanh got a chance to see America in 1912, when his ship arrived in New York. His stay was brief, however, and by 1913, he was living in Britain, hopping from town to town and doing odd jobs.

At the end of the Great War, Ho Chi Minh participated in an effort to bring the issue of Vietnamese independence to the Versailles peace talks. This appeal was ignored, and Vietnam continued under French rule for the next 28 years. That Thanh's political views became more and more Nationalist, and his committment to communist doctrine strengthened in turn.

In 1920, he began using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, meaning "Nguyen the Patriot".

Nguyen That Thanh at a communist gathering in Paris, 1920.

Nguyen That Thanh at a communist gathering in Paris, 1920.

In 1923, Ai Quoc traveled to Moscow to enroll in a Soviet University, as well as become involved in the "Comintern", which was an organization dedicated to the proliferation of the international communist movement.. After two years of university, he became a teacher in Canton, China, where he spent another two years educating not only the locals, but also displaced Vietnamese youth.

At this point in our narrative, I think its becoming clear that once he had left Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc never got too comfortable in any single place. I think that throughout his extensive travels, he never lost sight of what his end-game was. He was going to forge some connections with the international communist community, and then he was going to return to Vietnam and start some serious shit with the Colonial French.

Ai Quoc developed an appreciation for Lenin, who had become a messianic figurehead of Communism. He believed that Lenin was someone who truly understood and elucidated the struggle of the working class versus the arbitrary elite.  Perhaps that's a fair assessment. However, to quote Nietzsche:

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you."

Were the abyss to glance at Lenin's legacy, it would blink.

In the late 20's, Ai Quoc was on the move again. He passed through Europe, moving south, skirting Africa, and finally ending up in Thailand. From Thailand, he moved back through China, then to Hong Kong, where in 1931 he was arrested by British authorities after participating in a convention that united two Communist Vietnamese organizations into a single entity.

As part of some hazy political maneuvering, the British announced Nguyen Ai Quoc's death at the time of his arrest, then quietly released him in 1933. This may or may not have been a decision influenced by French political pressure. The reason for this deception is dubious at best.

In my next installment, I will discuss Ai Quoc's return to the Soviet Union and mainland China, then his involvement in wicked-awesome resistance against the Imperial Japanese during World War II. Most importantly, I will discuss him finally amassing enough Experience Points to evolve into Ho Chi Minh, "Bringer of Enlightenment."

Sources

Trueman, C N. “Ho Chi Minh.” History Learning Site, History Learning Site, 27 Mar. 2015, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam-war/ho-chi-minh/.

--

“Who Is Ho Chi Minh? Everything You Need to Know.” Ho Chi Minh Biography, The Famous People, 17 Sept. 2017, www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/ho-chi-minh-46.php.

--

Martinez, Carlos. “Fifty Years on the Frontline: the Revolutionary Contributions of Ho Chi Minh.” Invent the Future, Invent the Future, 19 May 2015, www.invent-the-future.org/2015/05/fifty-years-on-the-frontline-the-revolutionary-contributions-of-ho-chi-minh/.

I'm obligated to note that "Invent the Future" has a very pro-communist bias. That being said, this bias, while distinct, does not diminish the quality of their articles. I believe it is important to reach out to and try to understand people I consider ideological opponents. Thus, I have seen fit to consult Invent the Future's article on Ho Chi Minh to gain a better understanding of his legacy in the eyes of someone who fully supports what he represented.

The M4 Sherman, Part 1

The US military has a reputation for making their equipment last a very, very long time. The A10 Thunderbolt II was first introduced in 1977. As of the time of me writing this, 2016, it is expected to stay in Air Force service until 2040. Since its introduction, the most significant change of any kind to the A10 has been the addition of enhanced avionics and a targeting system.

A lot of people say this plane is ugly. They are wrong.

A lot of people say this plane is ugly. They are wrong.

 

Both the M1 Abrams tank and M3 Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle were introduced in 1980 and 81 respectively. They show no signs of being phased out within the next decade.

 

My point is that we get a lot of damn use out of our equipment. Far more than other nations, which undergo significant military modernizations every decade or so. And yet, US equipment remains some of the best in the world.

 

Before the Thunderbolt II, before the Abrams, before all that, was the trend setter: The M4 Sherman tank.

You may recall this from my previous entry. This is a Sherman from the 761st tank battalion, crossing a bridge.

You may recall this from my previous entry. This is a Sherman from the 761st tank battalion, crossing a bridge.

I can’t say that the Sherman was the greatest tank of World War II. That title goes to either the Panzer V Panther, or the USSR’s T-34. I can, however, say that the Sherman was easily the most versatile tank of the war.

So you can scoop while you scope and shove while you shoot.

So you can scoop while you scope and shove while you shoot.

 

Most tanks had a singular role. Light tanks like the M22 Locust were primarily used as fire support for foot soldiers (and occasionally rolling cover).

The M22 Locust, a good example of a light tank.

The M22 Locust, a good example of a light tank.

Medium, or Main tanks, like the T-34 and Panzer IV, were armored fighting vehicles used as weapon platforms for use against enemy infantry, fortifications, and other tanks.

A T-34-85. It mounted a bigger cannon than the average T34, but you can get a good sense of scale here.

A T-34-85. It mounted a bigger cannon than the average T34, but you can get a good sense of scale here.

 

Heavy tanks, like the Tiger and IS-2, were functionally mobile fortifications, able to endure direct engagement with other tanks and fixed positions in either an attacking or defending capacity, and usually mounting a heavier cannon than its smaller peers.

Tiger 131. Captured by the British in WWII and moved back to England in total secrecy. It stars in the movie  Fury . No, really.

Tiger 131. Captured by the British in WWII and moved back to England in total secrecy. It stars in the movie Fury. No, really.

There are other classes of armored fighting vehicles, but we’ll stick with those basic 3 for now.

 

The Sherman was an oddity. Its main function was that of a main battle tank, but it rapidly became so much more. By the end of the war, the Sherman had been used as a main battle tank, a tank destroyer, a flamethrower system, a rocket launcher assembly, a recovery vehicle, an amphibious recovery vehicle, an amphibious tank, a modular bridge system, a heavy tank, a bulldozer, and a mine flail.

Sherman BARV Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle. Amphibious.

Sherman BARV Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle. Amphibious.

 

What’s a mine flail? It’s the craziest, yet most effective way to clear a mine field. I’m not joking.

 

Furthermore, a combination of lend-lease and practicality made the M4 Sherman a contender for the World War II tank used by the most nations at once. Even after the war, various models of it saw use in Korea and Israel.

 

During World War II, there were several base models of the Sherman produced, around which all those various uses were further developed. I’ll frame my explanation of the different production variants around the designations (M4A#, 75 or 76 or 105, VVSS or HVSS, W or non-W, Assault kit). All models were used from the time of their introduction to the end of the war and beyond.

The M4 was the first production model, and all the first batches were delivered to Britain through Lend-Lease. This first model’s hull was built from cast-plate panels, with the plates bolted together from the inside. This would be among the first things changed in later models. For simplicity, I’ll just cover the American models and sub-variants, and save the lend-lease and irregular models for a second post.

M4. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A1 was the first advancement, and the most immediate noticeable change was the hull. It was now constructed from a single cast piece of rolled composite steel. In addition, it was powered by a modernized engine compared to the M4.

M4A1. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A1. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A2 was built with a welded, rather than cast hull. The rear section of the hull, around the engine, was notably different from previous models. The engine itself was now a diesel-powered engine built by General Motors. Diesel was the preferred fuel on the pacific front, owing to a lack of other readily available fuels for ground vehicles.

M4A2(76)W HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A2(76)W HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A3 featured a new liquid-cooled engine, and special armor augments around various internal components.

M4A3. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A3. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

After the base designation, there is often a number contained in parentheses. This number indicates the type of cannon mounted on the tank. (75) was a 75mm cannon , firing the 75x350mm cannon ammunition. [Most of the above images show the 75mm cannon]

(76) was the improved 76mm cannon, which had better ballistic and armor piercing performance than the 75. I can’t find the ammo dimensions for the 76, and that’s kind of bothering me. [The M4A2 above is mounting a 76mm]

 (105) indicated a tank that had its cannon replaced with a 105mm howitzer. Most 105mm mounted Shermans were intended for direct infantry support and mobile artillery operations, rather than full tank operations.

M4 with 105mm Howitzer and HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4 with 105mm Howitzer and HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

 

VVSS or HVSS indicated either Vertical Volute Spring System or Horizontal Volute Spring System.

VVSS was the more common type of suspension, but it wasn’t always as reliable as crews would have liked. It provided steadfastly mediocre stability, and occasionally got tanks into trouble they couldn’t maneuver out of, like mud, and anywhere else where traction was sparse.

HVSS was not all *that* much different, but was better at weight distribution and stability while the tank was moving.

 

A W in the designation indicated Wet Stowage. This requires me to explain something about Germany’s guns first.

The most common round used by German tanks and field guns was thePzgr (panzergrenate). This was an armor piercing high explosive round. Basically, the Pzgr was a hard metal casing designed to go through armor, surrounding a fuse and explosives. After hitting a solid enough target, the fuse activated after a millisecond delay and detonated the round. The delay was such that there was very little time between a successful penetration and the detonation, and would ideally detonate the round in the middle of the target’s hull. A penetrating hit from a panzergrenate was devastating. If such a round were to pierce a Sherman by the ammo rack, it stood a good chance of igniting the ammunition being stored there, setting off a chain reaction and completely destroying the tank and anyone in or around it.

Thanks to MI5 or the OSS.

Thanks to MI5 or the OSS.

To prevent this, some Shermans were outfitted with Wet Stowage. A special casing was built around the ammo rack and filled with water. If a round penetrated the rack, it would flood the ammo with water, rendering it inert, even when the Pzgr detonated.

Finally, the Assault Kit. Though no one often called it that. Some Sherman tanks were outfitted with a secondary layer of armor around the hull and turret. These M4s were generally classed as “Jumbo” Shermans, and had E# after the M4 in their designation (M4A3E#). This augmented armor kit allowed a Sherman to withstand a direct frontal hit from a German 88mm cannon, the main gun of the feared and respected Tiger tank.

M4A3E2. Note how the ball turret in the hull appears "shrouded" by the armor plate. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A3E2. Note how the ball turret in the hull appears "shrouded" by the armor plate. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

 

Just to give an example of how one of these Sherman’s full designations would go. An M4A3 with wet stowage and a 76mm cannon, as well as a Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension, would be designated M4A3E2 (76) W HVSS. It looks complex, but it’s just made up of a standard set of indicators.

 

I’ll go into the more unusual and lend-lease variant Shermans in my next post.

Ruben Rivers of the 761st

I realized the other day that October is Black History Month. Well, except it isn’t. Black History month was back in February. But it’s Black History Month in Europe. Look it up. Personally, I think black people and black history are important year-round, but society seems to disagree. Why else would they dedicate a month explicitly to it except if they wanted to get it over with quickly? In any event, I’ve apparently started studying a particular piece of black history right around the turn of the month, so maybe it’s…. magic?

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

 

 

Anyways, today’s post is about Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers of the 761st tank battalion. In November of 1944, Ruben found himself in France, commanding an M4 Sherman against Wehrmacht emplacements and armor. An antitank mine wounded Rivers’ leg when his tank drove over it on November 16th. Undeterred, Rivers rejected attempts to pull him from combat and continued his command. By November 19th, the leg had gone from wounded to infected, and yet Rivers still refused treatment.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

 

While leading an armored advance on a town near Bougaltroff, Able company (which Rivers was leading) was engaged by Wehrmacht Jagdtigers. The Jagdtiger was a tank destroyer that featured a chassis mounted 128mm cannon. The cannon fired explosive or armor piercing explosive rounds that weighed in at just under 30 kilograms. All of this was built into a reinforced Tiger II chassis, making the Jagdtiger (when it worked) a fire breathing demon from hell.

The gunner and loader could stand up (relatively) comfortably at their positions, and the rounds were so heavy, the propellant had to be loaded separate from the warhead.

Rivers was ordered to fall back, and responded with “I see them! We’ll fight ‘em!”, he promptly charged the anti-tank position and engaged, giving the rest of A company enough time to pull back without falling under the Jagdtiger’s guns. Luck finally caught up with Rivers, however, and a Jagdtiger targeted his Sherman, prompting him to order full reverse. Too late however, two rounds sheared off the top half of his tank, killing him and injuring the rest of the crew.

Rivers would (very posthumously, 1997) receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, if not for his success against everything but Jagdtigers, then figuring out how to fit his massive goddamn balls into the commander’s hatch. The Citation is as follows:

For extraordinary heroism in action during the 15-19 November 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Sergeant Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank's fire at enemy positions through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn, Company A's tanks began to advance towards Bougaktroff, but were stopped by enemy fire. Sergeant Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Sergeant River's tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Thanks to 761st.com for images directly pertaining to Rivers.