Monday, October 20, 2014

From Now On, No More Defeats: Until the Morning Sun

Kim Carnes in the heat of the Battle of Berlin. Victory for the men and women of the air defence command of the German land, defeat for Bomber Command going "crazy in the night." Under the winter moons, Bomber Command lost 2,690 men, another 1000 POWs, seven percent of all of Bomber Command's wartime casualties. On 30/31 March 1944, 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and nine Mosquitos (795 aircraft in total) were vectored on Nuremberg. Ninety-five were shot down. Air Chief Marshal Harris claimed that the losses were acceptable, and Max Hastings mistakenly echoes him, but, incredibly, it was not true. With the full effort of Britain's industrial might behind it, Bomber Command would have to give up its attack on Berlin because it was running out of planes in spite of a monthly output of 250 heavy bombers. That is an unimaginable production run for a heavy bomber both from the perspective of 1924 and of 2014, but it was not enough in 1944. Bomber Command flew shorter missions and enjoyed lighter losses through the spring and summer, gathered its strength, sand came back to "reap the whirlwind" in the Third Reich's last winter. Gloating over the failures of their own nation, a breed of British historians has relished the comparative success of the American daylight offensive, which apparently proves that Britain has too many public schools or something. (Jesus, guys, high school's over.) Actually, the American daylight formula would soon itself fail before the  falcons of Japan, and while I started this post with the thought that --somehow-- I could give a lapidary summary of the failure of airborne remote control gun defences in World War II, it seems like that might be a bit much here

In the heroic version of the myth of Curtis LeMay, it would be that incredibly young general officer, a man of "mixed French and English ancestry" out of a civil engineering  programme in the rusticated Old Northwest who would recognise that, in the special conditions of Japan only, and totally not in Germany, night area bombing was the right way forward for the B-29 force only. You will find the short discussion in the Wikipedia biography of LeMay. Essentially, area bombing was wrong in Europe, where the USAAF did not do it, and right in Japan, where it did do it. The "about face "executed by United States Strategic Bombing Survey says little good about its scholarship, and much about the need to revisit our assumptions. AA defences, and even somewhat less-than-efficient interceptors, in the end, worked --in daylight. It was losses that forced 20th Air Force into the arms of the night, not the wooden, conflagration-prone houses of Japan.  Ultimately, it was also about training hours. Bomber Command was as reluctant to embrace daylight flying in the summer of 1944 because its crews lacked training in formation flying. Eighth could never have shifted to a night bombing offensive in 1943 because it lacked night flying training, and its aircraft were not equipped for it.  Both problems were fixed, at least in the context of 20th Air Force, but a long prewar learning curve that ultimately taught that night bombing was an operational necessity because defences can't see at night is obscured. 

Enough of that, though. The long nights of winter have returned with the lonesome October. The winter-swollen Rhine carries its gold to the sea, and only the Combined Bomber Offensive can range beyond it. Germany will burn until Germans end this war. The boys who look down on the world from their planes that carry images of Hollywood starlets on their noses only want to go home, and Germany isn't letting them, so Germany must be punished. It is an impatient, angry and futile impulse. Germany will not surrender, not until enemy soldiers march into their hometown in a perverse catharsis, a black catharsis, of the wounded passions of 1918. On the other hand, the bombing is intended to stop factories and shut down railways, even if our eyes are fixed on more horrifying results.

On December 19, 1944, cut off on the High Fens in the Forest of Arden, where the old border runs between the Duchy of Luxembourg and the Prince-Archbisophric of Trier and the Wild- and Rhinegaviate of Salm, the 442nd and 443rd Regiments of U.S. 106th Infantry Division surrendered. Six thousand men passed into German captivity, including a former college student turned infantry private, Kurt Vonnegut. He was being held in underground meat cold storage facility Shlachthof Funf in the city of Dresden on 13 February of 1945, when the Combined Bombing Offensive united to destroy the main line of communications supporting the German forces which have just launched a dangerous counterattack against 1st Ukrainian Front's attack into Lower Silesia. Unable to form properly trained infantry cohorts after a long war's brutal casualties, the Red Army needs all the help it can get. 

Whether it needs the help described in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is another matter.  The novel, rich with the Zeitgeist of 1969 (the year after Curtis LeMay was defeated in his campaign for the Vice-Presidency for an avowedly segregationist third party) is, as I understand it, defensibly understood as the  autobiography of a man completely dislocated by the  experience of the destruction of the city of Dresden by fire in three raids between the nights of 13/14  and 15/16 February. (So cliched has Dresden become as an emblem of that horrifying winter that Max Hastings uses the attack on Darmstadt on 11/12 September in his Bomber Command. A great many Darmstadts add up to more than one Dresden.)

Before the pinnacle of his fame in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut had the usual struggling writer's career. A job as a technical writer at GE's upstate New York works provided the inspiration for his first novel, which was terrible, but still worth some attention, though not so terrible that it did not inspire a striking tattoo. (At least according to Google Search. I'm not sure I see the connection, but anyway...)

Taylor Public Library
Player Piano presents us with a portrait of technologically-driven unemployment in the world of  1950s conformity. Working at GE, Vonnegut heard about a new computerised numerically controlled milling machine that would replace the machinist who had formerly cut the elaborate shapes of the turbine rotors for GE's new jet engines, and jumped into a future where, in factory after factory, the experts came one day, recorded the motions of the expert machinists, and then replaced them with black boxes controlled by punch cards, In this future,  Illium, New York, is divided into neighbourhoods of unemployed, redundant labourers, and upper middle class managers and engineers, who live in a postwar, suburban paradise, because they have jobs. (But with a catch! Palate cleanser.) There's a revolution, as Random House promises, but it fizzles out, and also the Aga Khan talking to the giant computer in the Carlsbad Caverns that actually runs America, although my memory supplies few non-hazy details. It's been a while.

It's also technical nonsense. CNC milling machines do work, but without close supervision from actual machinists, they just produce "scrap at high speed." David Noble's account of the collapse of this first post-work utopia, might not be prophetic of future techno-utopian dreams, but he does underline the extent to which deskilling can turn out to be a social artefact. Who cares if you get rid of the actual machinists if you get rid of their job description and wages? 

As I said before, my first plan for this posting was going to go into detail on the automatic turret problem --which bears very directly on the CNC machine tool problem-- and contrast it with the other way of escorting bombers to their target, 100 Group's electronic warfare aircraft. That, I now think, is rather much as substance, even if it will do for peroration. Technology is doing, and most successful, to this point, in an agonistic setting, and new technology is emergent, not synthesised. That's an elaborate way of saying that when Bomber Command returned to the fight in the fall of 1944, it was with new weapons, forged in electronics workshops and wielded by 100 Group, and that these weapons were sufficient to carry the night bombers across Germany. It also goes to show that the "CNC" revolution that Vonnegut thought he recognised in 1952 was already being overtaken by a digital one, and that it is the"engineers and managers" of Illium, who dreamed of being promoted to Pittsburgh, who were on the verge of becoming obsolete, while the machinists who opened up the black boxes and reprogrammed them to work were glimpsing a future that would work. It is awesome, and there's probably some kind of social commentary here on how the apparent social stasis of the 1950s turned out to be the parent of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, and even that the most dangerous social moment of the era was not the conformity of suburbs (red-lining racism aside) but rather the moment when Revolution was socialised as a middle class lifestyle.

I have already covered the core of 100 Group: a squadron of B-17s carrying the enormous Airborne Cigar jammer, and intruder night fighters equipped with air interception radar. Intruder fighters are a persistent, and persistently failing concept of the war years. Fighters cannot spend that much time in the air, and they have a great deal of difficulty finding their targets. A.I ought to solve that problem, but, practically, there is too much stuff up there. This invites a technical solution: a more powerful, shorter wavelength radar with as many filters as you can cram in to get rid of the more egregious noise, all feeding into as much user interface as 1944 can support.

Which is not very much: 
This little gadget is what 1944 calls a "user interface." It makes sense of the data coming from the radome built into the nose of the fighter 

and fed through these
which are tied together by a junction box of pure, horrified jury rigging

to finally give the squigly lines on those little screens that the operator is being tasked with turning into useful data. (Source: Peter Verney, and below.) This, combined with MONICA and PERFECTOS completed the "avionics" suite of late war intruder night fighters.I am going to say it again: this is a pretty big advance on 1939, when a VHF radio set was still on its way for these fighters. (Which is interesting, because the MONICA tail-warning radar was a serious misstep in the bomber force, and, of course, was key in its further developed form to what was originally supposed to be the remote-controlled tail armament of the B-29 and the casemate rear guns of the B-32.)

Finally in its longterm inventory, 100 Group had 192 Squadron, which flew "signals reconnaissance" equipped with BAGFUL, an "automatic recorder for all received communications frequencies," using chemically-treated paper tape of the same kind used in Admiralty Fire Control Tables, antisubmarine, and even mine detection sonar equipments. However, while planes and technology fell under 100 Group, the products of it, the recording tapes, belonged to the intelligence establishment, so that in practice 192 Squadron did its own thing, with 100 Group receiving back that information which was useful for the specific purpose of spoofing the Air Defence of the Reich. Although another source describes it as an L-band receiver for recording Wurzburg emissions only.This sounds more technically feasible, and we may be confusing BAGFUL with ARI 5533 BLONDE, a ground-deployed recorder which used "photographic means" to record "all signals within a pre-set band."

The expansion of 100 Group had much to do with the introduction of "heavy jamming." MANDREL, a sufficiently light equipment that it was originally carried by Boulton Paul Defiants, could be carried in some numbers by a heavy bomber, but JOSTLE, which, with its large coolant jacket and 8 kW power demand is really only going into a B-17 or B-24. (Wikipedia says 2.5kW, but this is the difference between supplied and RMS emitted power. As pulse emitters, these equipments had much higher peak outputs than that averaged over a full cycle.) 100 Group was especially enamored of the American types because their intruders could fly 5000 ft above the bomber stream, greatly reducing enemy harassment.  JOSTLE's jammed German VHF radio transmissions. In the air this forced them back to HF W/T. On the ground, potentially, it removed radio control of armoured forces. A late edition of JOSTLE was first used as EW support for the army during the Battle of the Bulge.

Next up was jamming of German night fighter radar, for which there was deployed PIPERACK, "[u]sed for jamming enemy AI radar systems in the frequency range 95-210 Mc/s; extended to 63-93 Mc/s by a later modification to include the frequency range of the enemy SN2 AI radar. A typical aircraft installation of PIPERACK used between 2-6 AN/APT-1 transmitters and AM-14/APT amplifiers. ARI 5699 PIPERACK was heavily based on US sub-systems, notably the APT-1 otherwise known as DINA." (John Stubbington.) PIPERACK was more-or-less the acme of airborne jamming systems. A screen of 100 Group PIPERACK-equipped support aircraft created a cone of radar invisibility within which the bomber stream could not be intercepted by German night fighters.

Alfred Price once estimated that 100 Group saved 1000 aircraft in the last year of the war. Despite that, it doesn't get the attention it deserves. This has been formulated (by Peter Verney, above), as an issue of postwar censorship, and of course the example he cites, the AI Mk X/Mk XV, which continued in service on the Meteor Night Fighter until 1960, is an example of an equipment that still had to be secret years after the war's main outlines had been shaped in the literature by the rush of postwar histories. Especially considering that the AI Mk X was just a British version of the  SCR-720, A Bell Telephone Lab/MIT Radiation Laboratory equipment with an improved scope with faster refresh rate that allowed operators to pick out chaff.  As with so much of the late-war/postwar British equipment, the very real over extension of domestic industry had forced reliance on American equipment, which would not be overcome until the coming of a new generation of British-designed avionics for the V-bombers and their contemporaries, with the GREEN SATIN and the RED STEER and all their colourful ilk. It turns out that the operator's manual is now available online.  Don't forget to toggle the on switches in the right order, or you'll destroy the crystal! Anyone up for the old EE joke about how electrics work on smoke, which is why they stop working when you let the smoke out? When you do, please do not follow the first aid instructions in this manual.  (This is not what you call a "user friendly" beta.) 

Yet, that said, all the information that I am sharing with you here has been available for a generation or more. Alfred Price gave us the first full, insider's picture in 1967, with Instruments of Darkness, a veteran of the postwar signals branch, Price's grasp of technical writing and air warfare has made him a name to conjure with in the field of World War II aviation history, but Instruments is an enthusiast's book, not a comprehensive treatment. Thirty years on, all the details you want are readily available from enthusiasts eager to share what they know. 

As I have said before, the most obvious follow on to all of this is the rise of the "stereo" and rock-and-roll in the 1950s. It is a wideranging revolution with many parents, almost too trivial and irrelevant for serious discussion in spite of the continuing, driving role of sound quality in information technology. Again, there is no proper synthetic history of the relationship between electronic warfare in its full intensity and the overtaking of analog by digital computing. It all looks almost accidental. There's a reason for that. Not to be too unkind to the non-electrical engineers (myself of course included) who have tried to write about this technology, but we're not, you know, electrical engineers. It's pretty complicated stuff. That's why I tend to focus on the maintenance angle. It might be a bit mysterious how it all works, but we've all experienced electronic gizmos going wrong. First, three miles above Berlin; next, in the rec room. All dry runs, if I'm right, for Woodstock. 

Peace and love, baby. Well, except for the poor citizens of Dresden. 

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