Tuesday, April 30, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: Gliding Away

For I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth....


This should have gone up on 4/22 (if not 4/20), but I've had it in mind to do something with Notre Dame for a while, and by the middle of last week, I was also in the middle of that one, and you see where that went. 

22 April 1943 is the day of the Holy Thursday Massacre. Per Wikipedia, 21 of 27 Messerschmitt Me 323s were shot down attempting a resupply flight from Sicily to Tunis. According to Njaco at WW2Aircraft. Net, this is not quite what happened:

"The Holy Thursday Massacre came on the heels of the Palm Sunday Massacre which involved [the shootdown of 24] Ju 52s. ...
[On 22 April, 1943] [t]he Luftwaffe again tried to supply the forces in Tunisia. . . 10 Ju 52s of Kampfgruppe zbV 106 took off from Pomigliano at 06:40 hours bound for Tunis. The formation was led by Staffelkapitaen Oblt. Biedermann. the Junkers were supposed to fly with a group of 14 Me 323s which took off from Pomigliano at 07:10 hours with the maximum available fighter escort. . . .
....The fighter escort of 39 Bf 109s assembled over Trapani at 08:30 hours. Another 35 fighters were supposed to fly out from Tunis to meet the formation. At 08:35 hours, the formation overflew the island of Marettimo, west of Sicily and descended to a height of 20 to 50 meters above the sea. The specified route [was followed by the Ju52s, but not the 323s, which deviated for unknown reasons.] Most of the escort fighters which had taken off from Sicily stayed with the Ju 52s . . . . This splitting of the fighter force meant that the Giganten had only 36 escorts instead of the planned 104.
....The SAAF sent out 38 P-40s, covered by a[n] SAAF Spitfire squadron and additional flights of British and Polish-manned Spitfires. . . . [at] 09:25 hours, two large groups of Allied fighters began attacking the Me 323s between Cap Bon and the island of Zembra. Conditions were hazy. The first group of Allied fighters engaged the Bf 109s of II./JG 27 which were flying at an altitude of about 2400 meters, and forced them away from the transports. This allowed the second formation, which was larger and made up mainly of P-40s of the SAAF to attack the Giganten. . . ..The Allied fighters estimated the size of the Me 323 formation at 20 aircraft instead of the actual 14. Once attacked, the Me 323s took evasive action . . . . the Me 323s were shot down one after another . . . fighters from JG 27 . . . claimed 2 Kittyhawks [and a Spitfire].
.... . .  All 14 transports with 700 drums of fuel were shot down, [along with 7 fighters; only 19 of 138 shot down survived]. . . .
..  According to Me 323 pilot, Oblt. Ernst Peters, from the end of November 1942 to 22 April 1943, KGzbV 323 had transported 15,000 meteric tons of equipment to Tunis and Bizerte in approxiamately 1,200 sorties. Among the items delivered: 309 trucks, 51 medium prime movers up to 12 tonnes, 209 guns up to 150mm caliber, 324 light guns, 83 anti-tank and AA guns, 42 AA radars including'Wurzburg Riese' and 96 armoured troop carriers and self-propelled guns

Credit to Njaco where credit is due. There were 14 aircraft in the flight, not 27, and all were shot down, not 20 of 27. I would add that the Allied aircraft were from 1, 2, 4 and 5 Squadrons SAAF.  Or,  "shot down." 

If you  haven't heard of the Me323 before, here's today's stoner moment:

Per Wikipedia
Another view from the same source:

They sent men up in that? Yes, they did.

In the interwar years, when fervent enthusiasts were willing cargo into the skies with all of the enthusiasm of a Mars Direct flack, it was not uncommon to hear about "air trains," consisting of tugs pulling gliders, or even chains of gliders. After all, if transport aircraft were unaccountably lagging, say, pursuit, why not use the planes that were being built to tow the ones that you just knew could be?

So when the Germans suddenly decided that it would be awesome to have a plan to invade Britain, in case the Royal Navy just went away**, it was not unnatural that they would ask for systems to capitalise on the recently demonstrated effectiveness of their glider assault forces. They were hardly the only air marshals to go down that road, although perhaps the specification for the Me321, a unit that was capable of lifting an 88mm and its prime mover was going a bit far.

On the other hand, as the entry for the Il-32 above, says, once it became clear to the Red Army staff that no sufficiently-powerful tug was likely to become available for the Il-32 due to a shortage of the specified engine, they cancelled the programme. Did that stop the RLM? 

No. It did not.

Per Wikipedia, this 27,300lb (empty) glider with a 180ft wingspan, capable of carrying 130 troops or equivalent, was rushed into service in spite of needing the simultaneous towing efforts of 3 Bf110s, harnessed into a "troika," which I assume is the German word for "You want me to fly like that? Are you fucking insane?," although Collins-Klett does not confirm this. Although in defence of the German Air Ministry, it wasn't as though there were many other uses for the Bf110 on offer.

Fortunately for Bf110 pilots, however, the Ministry had an alternative materiel plan that soon came to fruition. They had Heinkel fuse two He111s at mid wing, inserting an engine at the joint to create the 5-engined He111Z, which, granted liberal provision of RATO  units, could lift an Me321. It also had many, many other uses, such as carrying a single V-1 midway across the North Sea to wreak Volkisch vengeance on the corrupt aristocrats of England.

Although targetting might have been an issue. "Sheffield's that way. Go!" 

In an intermittent flash of candour, the Wikipedia article notes that the He111Z's operational history was "minimal." Yet that did not stop the RLM. Or the lads in Regensburg, who were quick to realise that if your glider can't get off the ground, it is because it doesn't have enough power! The obvious solution, then, was to build a powered glider. Are you beginning to see why I'm tempted to create a "Drug Humour" tag for this post? (I won't, though, because then I'd have to edit my last post to link to this.)

So, obviously, they threw 4 Gnome-et-Rhone GR14Ns on the design, because, hey, why not? There was a shortage of German engines, so why not use French engines? Well, fascinating fact: if you collapse the basis of interstate trade with France by using currency manipulation to hide domestic inflation, you cannot then miraculously restore that trade, even if you invade and conquer a country and try to force them to work for you. Which is the long way round of saying that the Germans never got their promised supply of GR14Ns. I am also struck by the fact that the GR14Ns that were supplied to Messerschmitt were rated at 1164hp at takeoff. Because if Gnome-et-Rhone had been able to deliver GR14Ns at this rating a little earlier, France would not have had to render anything to their German conquerors.*** 

Not that this unakcnowledged power boost to the Gnome-et-Rhone design mattered very much. The four-engined powered glider version wasn't. A powered glider, that is. It still needed its troika of Bf110s to get off the ground, although once in the air it could perhaps cast off its towlines and proceed. Clearly the only solution to this was to upgrade the plane into a six-engined version. And there you have it. The Me-323.

Per Wikipedia, the Me-323 required two pilots and a pair of flight engineers, who sat in little cubbies at either wing root, manually controlling the engines (that is, twiddling the carburettor screws with little extenders), subject to instruction by the pilot-captain. That particular part of the design was not novel --it was one of the reasons for the Messerschmitt "big wing" in the first place, and the little bump in the middle of the Catalina's parasol wingspan is a flight engineer cabin with a similar purpose. What is a little Rube Goldbergish is that there were two of them, but, again, it is not hard to understand given that the plane had an optimistic Vmax of 174mph, a cruise speed of 135mph, and an (unspecified) stall speed that was unlikely to be even as low as half the cruise speed. This is not a plane that you want making an excursion from its flight envelope, and that probably explains, as much as anything, the severity of the Holy Thursday Massacre, as well as the commander's decision to deviate from the flight plan in the first place. Flying across the wind was probably dangerous, and the "evasive manouvres" would have just resulted in the aircraft stalling into the drink. 

Did I mention that they were flying at 150 feet? No. Did I mention that, on account of the He111Z being such a success, Messerschmitt created a Me323Z, with the wings of two Me323s fused in the middle and an extra-engine section added to create a 13(?) engine double plane? It broke up in the air on its first test flight, although the Wikipedia article goes on to make excuses for this.

So, yeah. 4/20 and all that. 

None of this well-deserved and heaping ridicule on a misguided aviation development has as yet shed any light on why the Germans and Italians went to such lengths to maintain their foothold on the African continent. Notice just how much air power is being diverted from the Russian theatre to maintain this air bridge. The inference that one could reasonably draw is that Africa was strategically important, something I throw out as the 70th anniversary of the end of the North African Campaign rushes towards us, accompanied by the usual discussion of how North Africa/El Alamein/The Invasion of Sicily-Italy/the Meditteranean were all pointless strategic sideshows when the real war was supposed to be the invasion of France, and it was all down to Winston Churchill being dumb or drunk or some such. 

Let's just take that as read, let the point wait on a reasoned discussion of shipping and grand strategy, and laugh at the funny aeroplanes instead.

*Hope I don't get into trouble for this. From Rap Genius.specifically a page for Mac Miller's Loud. It's from Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke, in case you are all unliterated.

**True stories: I have seen, on the gaming table, in a mid-iteration of Third Reich, the Gemans drop a parachute division on Scapa Flow from Norway, eliminating the entire Home Fleet and then allowing a few Panzer Divisions to strategically rebase there, then conquer the British Isles on the next turn. In a play-through of Hitler's War, the British player decided not to "deploy" the Royal Navy one turn, and the German player reacted by sending a single troopship to invade and conquer India. Because, it was explained to me, that's  a perfectly reasonable simulation, and if the British player wanted to avoid it, he could have just chosen not to use the "undeployed" option. Such incidents led me to suspect that the sympathies of wargame designers --among others-- can sometimes tend towards the unhealthy.

***When bench-tested at Rechlin, the GR-14 was a 39L displacement 14-cylinder, two-row radial engine weighing 595kg (1,309lb) and delivering 1050hp at 2480 rpm at takeoff; 1010hp at 2360rpm at 1500 meters (4900ft). This is credible, or even low for the displacement. Rechlin gives 900hp at 2375rpm takeoff for the 32.7L Armstrong-Siddeley Tiger VIII, while the Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp (30L, 14 cyl,) was also yielding 1050hp, albeit at 2700rpm, while Wikipedia gives the BMW801D, a 41.2L 14 cylinder two-row radial 1539hp at 2700rpm at takeoff. This is comparing engines captured in 1940 with engines rated in 1943, and BMW had to overcome significant cooling problems to push the 801D to this power yield, but it is not as though Gnome-et-Rhone engineers were slouches, either. The point remains that had the 14N been developed for power instead of low lifecycle maintenance costs, the Bloch MB151 would have been as competitive in 1940 as the FW190 was in 1944.


  1. The Germans deployed W├╝rzburg Riese to Tunisia? Wow. I didn't know that.

    Now I really wonder if I need to know more about the Tunisia air battles - it was almost the last time the Germans had air superiority over a major land battle, after all, and presumably the Allies got something right! Was there an interesting EW story?

  2. Axis air superiority was a pretty important part of the Kasserine battles. I would think that Tunisia would been a pretty important test of the Allies' ability to keep EW assets moving forward with the forward edge of the battle area....

    But I don't know anything about it. I suspect that we're coming up on Boring Stuff again --the technological history that no-one talks about --in this case, mobile diesel generators. Hopefully this new book on British army communications will shed some light. For my part, a quick check of Angwin and Hickman's contribution on army telecom to JIEE 93, the special number that relieved most of the pressure for quick publication of wartime self-congratulation shows ...nothing.

    That being said, the Brits did have a mobile radar set in 1939, which was used to plug Stuka-induced holes in Chain Home in 1940, which was related to the prefab stations erected at Malta, Singapore and Pearl Harbor. (Now there's some endorsements right there.)

    I think performance was pretty underwhelming over land, but it would have picked up medium altitude supply flights over the narrows pretty easily once in range. Drug-induced hallucinations flying at 150ft, not so much.

    Also of note, Shores and Ring, Fighters Over Tunisia, available in the libraries of rich grognards and fantastically complete research libraries everywhere.

  3. I seem to remember reading that the Me321 was the only aircraft that Hanna Reitsch refused to fly a second time because it was too dangerous...counting the Me163 and the He162.

  4. She was just being all girly on account of it the pilots needing to be able to bench 250 just to shift the rudder. (I assume. I mean, I'm just making this up, but it sounds truthy to me.)

    That's because the 321 was a real man's plane. The kind of plane Hamilton Fish IV would have flown. The kind of plane designed straight off the cover of Popular Science by someone who'd just snorted an entire issue of Amazing's worth of John Campbell Jr.'s grease pencils, someone who read Spinrad's Iron Dream in a single sitting and didn't get the joke.

    1. That was certainly part of the problem; she flew it around the circuit on the trim tabs. But I think the catastrophic mid-air between two thirds of the troika schlepp didn't help either.

      Mind you the tank in the back helped to drag the thing out of the field she force-landed it into after losing the tow without having to build a road.

  5. Yeah, hard to believe that someone would come out of that thinking that the 321 was impractical.

    It's that kind of mind that holds back the world's four-engined biplane carrier planes.