Photographical journey through the Allied snipers of World War II. Most are British and, or Canadian Snipers using the British Lee Enfield.
The first photograph shows a sniper demonstrating his camouflage (note: German Waffen-SS Camo Pattern: named unofficially “Early Plane Tree”) at a sniper school in a French village, July 27, 1944. The lesson here was probably “Know Your Enemy” to demonstrate how German Snipers were clothed.
A sniper applying camouflage face cream at a sniper school in a Normandy village, July 27, 1944.
A British sniper takes aim through the telescopic sights of his rifle on the range at a sniper training school in France, July 27, 1944.
Snipers training at the same sniper school as the photographs above, somewhere in a French village, July 27, 1944.
A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, January 14, 1945.
A British sniper, Private Sutcliffe, seated at a window of a house in Caen watching for enemy snipers through telescopic sights.
A camouflage suit for a sniper of the British Army.
A sniper from C Company, 5th Battalion, The Black Watch , 51st (Highland) Division, in position in the loft space of a ruined building in Gennep, Holland, February 14, 1945.
A sniper from the Seaforth Highlanders takes aim from behind a carrier as 15th (Scottish) Division troops deal with German resistance in Uelzen, April 16, 1945.
Lance Corporal A P Proctor, a sniper with 56th Division, cleaning his rifle, November 24, 1943.
Canadian Sniper, Pte. L. V. Hughe in World War II.
Sergeant H.A. Marshall of the Calgary Highlanders Sniping Platoon. Kapellen, Belgium.
Image Credits: Imperial War Museum and Canadian War Archives under C.C. License
Today, plastic explosives are a given. But 50 years ago, they were the latest in demolition technology. One of the most notable, of course, is C4.
Officially, it is called the M118 demolition charge, and was called Flex-X back then. Prior to the introduction of Flex-X, explosives had to be secured to what the engineers wanted to blow up.
C4, though, was more like Play-Doh or used chewing gum in that it could be stuck to whatever needs to go away.
The explosive had some other advantages as well. It could be used underwater, which means that divers could plant it on a pier without having to surface and risk being seen.
The explosive was also very insensitive. The video below shows troops dropping a weight on the Flex-X to no effect. It wouldn’t even go off when shot by multiple rounds from a M14 service rifle or when tossed into a campfire.
It also took much less time to set up – almost 60 percent less – when compared to earlier explosives, thanks to that Play-Doh/chewing gum consistency. That would save the lives of the engineers, who would spend less time away from cover.
Cold weather had little effect on the explosive’s ability to stick to whatever needed to be blown up. Other explosives needed to be taped or otherwise secured to the target.
It’s the little things in life that make life worth living. During World War II, those little things literally made life worth living, allowing American GIs to survive in situations they may not have otherwise. It helps that they also wreaked havoc on the enemy.
Even as late as 1945, as the United States’ “island hopping” campaign was in full swing, the Americans weren’t too keen on night fighting. With some exceptions, notably U.S. Army Rangers in Europe, the Americans didn’t operate at night until the development of early types of night vision. The game changer in the Pacific was the .30-caliber T3 Winchester carbine with infrared night sight.
Other belligerents in the war had different policies. The Soviet Union, for example, was just fine fighting at night, a fringe benefit of having so many people to throw at the enemy. The Red Army was like the U.S. Postal Service: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed those couriers of death from putting rounds downrange.
On the Axis side, the Germans pretty much had to move at night, otherwise Allied air superiority would strafe them into oblivion. Japanese troops loved night combat, and they were very, very good at it.
Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater used night combat tactics to even the score against larger, better equipped forces. Sneakily infiltrating enemy camps and slitting throats was a favored method of not just taking out enemy troops, but also causing mass fear among the ranks.
Night attackers were usually carried out by small Japanese units to achieve some objective. Surprise and secrecy was their key to success in these operations. Infantry assaults were often conducted with no artillery support, as the units normally targeted the enemy’s softest points. The main strategy for a Japanese night assault was to close with the enemy as fast as possible and overwhelm them in hand-to-hand combat.
As the war ground on and Japanese combat veterans were replaced by raw recruits, the Americans gained the upper hand in night fighting. Early warning systems such as microphones became used in the field, along with other warning devices. But nothing took a toll on the Japanese like the infrared night sight.
In late 1943, American scientists were studying ways to shine infrared light on objects in the dark while developing a telescope device that could see the infrared light. They were able to develop a six-volt, rifle-mounted scope that could illuminate objects up to 70 yards away, visible only through the telescope.
It took two years to perfect the technology, build it onto an infantry weapon and get it to the front lines, but they did it. By the time the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines were ready to invade the island of Okinawa, the Japanese nighttime advantage was lost.
The Battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest battles of the entire Pacific War. It took an estimated 250,000 American troops to dislodge more than 70,000 Japanese troops and 40,000 Okinawan draftees. Though the battle for the island took around three months, the fighting took a heavy toll on the Japanese – partly due to the infrared scope on the Army’s T3 carbine.
When Japanese night infiltration was effective, it was often due to inclement weather, such as monsoon-level winds and rains.
Infrared technology for small unit combat continued into the Korean War, mounted on other .30-caliber rifles, eventually evolving into the helmet-mounted goggles enjoyed by U.S. troops and their allies today.
Seventy-five years ago in Bastogne, Belgium, German soldiers captured American Pfc. Marold Peterson of the 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division. Peterson escaped from the work camp where we was held prisoner, only to be captured again and killed by Hitler Youth.
Sgt. Travis Paice, the great-grandson of Peterson, said it is surreal to be in Bastogne where Peterson lived his last moments.
“Maybe he was standing right where I stood,” Paice, a soldier with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, said.
Paice is one soldier with family ties to the World War II Battle of the Bulge who participated in the 75th anniversary commemoration ceremonies and parade. Sgt. Coleton Jones of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101 Airborne Division, is another.
US infantrymen crouch in a snow-filled ditch, taking shelter from a German artillery barrage during the Battle of Heartbreak Crossroads in the Krinkelter woods, December 14, 1944.
(Pfc. James F. Clancy, US Army Signal Corps)
Jones’ great-uncle Ed Jones was a Sherman tanker with the 10th Armored Division during World War II. While Jones is unsure of his great-uncle’s rank, he heard stories growing up about his service from his father and uncle. During the Battle of the Bulge, three of Ed Jones’ tanks took extreme damage.
On his last time evacuating a Sherman tank, he took shrapnel from a German stick grenade in his leg and was captured as a prisoner of war. He was missing for about four months until a Canadian HAM radio operator intercepted a message from the Germans including the locations of POWs from both American and Allied forces.
“It’s amazing to feel like I am walking in his footsteps,” said Jones of walking through the streets where his great uncle served. “To see Bastogne and where he was is a sobering feeling.”
On December 14, 2019, American and Belgian soldiers, along with members of the Bastogne community and World War II veterans, marched in a parade through the town center. Guests of honor, including Prime Minister of Belgium Sophie Wilmes, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and the US Ambassador to Belgium Ronald Gidwitz threw walnuts from the balcony of the Bastogne City Center into the crowd.
The nut throwing, or “Jet de Noix,” commemorates Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s famous response of “Nuts” when petitioned by the Germans to surrender.
Anthony C. McAuliffe, left, and then-Col. Harry W.O. Kinnard II at Bastogne.
(US War Department)
Both Jones and Paice said they felt a great sense of pride knowing their unit has lineage to World War II and the Battle of the Bulge.
Paice had the opportunity to fly his great grandfather’s flag at the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne. He plans on gifting the flag to his grandfather, who is also a veteran.
Before arriving in Bastogne, Paice was given documents by the Army which provided an account of his great grandfather’s capture. He brought these documents with him as a reminder of what his family had endured. While Paice said the documents do not go into much detail, it is just enough to be harrowing.
“I never knew him, and my grandfather never knew him, but to get, somewhat, a little bit of closure was a little surreal,” Paice said.
Sgt. Coleton Jones of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101 Airborne Division, center, meets reenactors at a community event at the Bastogne Barracks in Bastogne, Belgium, December 14, 2019.
(US Army photo by Sgt. Erica Earl)
Paice said the most emotional part of his great grandfather’s history is knowing that American soldiers liberated the prisoner camp Stalag IX-B, also known as Bad Orb, the day after he was killed in his effort to escape.
According to Army documents, soldiers in that prison were starved, with many men weighing only between 70 and 80 pounds when they were rescued.
As soldiers lined up to prepare for the parade, there was a mixture of snow, rain and harsh winds as temperatures dropped, but participants acknowledged that was nothing compared to what Soldiers who had gone before them endured.
Jones said if he could say something to his great uncle, it would be “thank you.”
“Thank you for paving the way for us and giving everything for our values, our freedoms and our allies’ freedoms,” Jones said in heartfelt appreciation to both is late great uncle and veterans of World War II.
This article originally appeared on United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.
In the early 1800s, the iconic trouser’s front flap (crotch area) or “broadfall” had 15 buttons before it was modified 90-years later to have just seven, allowing the manufacturer to reduce the amount of material.
At least, that’s what Navy recruits tell each other during basic training — but that wasn’t the real intention.
In the early 1800s, the iconic trouser’s front flap (crotch area) or “broadfall” had 15 buttons before it was modified 90-years later to have just seven, allowing the manufacturer to reduce the amount of material.
Reportedly years later, the broadfall was enlarged for various reasons including that many sailors didn’t have enough room down there, so the Navy listened and added the extra material and six buttons.
Pro tip: Many sailors have their trousers tailored to remove all the buttons and replace them with Velcro strips to grant easier access to the goods. They then resew the buttons to the outside flap, with uniform inspectors being none-the-wiser.
Communism was not the best experiment for the Russian people. If they had known that the revolution against the Tsar and the Imperial government was going to lead to decades of rule by the repressive Soviet Regime, they might have thought twice.
Of course, when you take a look at the life of a common Russian before the October Revolution, you can kind of understand why they took their chances with the Bolsheviks.
Submit to the present evil, lest a great one befall ye.
6. Russian peasants were serfs for 600 years.
European feudalism in the 11th century bound poor peasants to work the land for their noble masters. Until Tsar Alexander II abolished the practice in 1861, the common Russian was essentially a slave to the imperial aristocracy. Working the land for someone else meant very little time for subsistence farming – and that the Russians were always just one bad season from starvation.
Russians were practically enslaved from the time of the First Crusade until the start of the American Civil War.
5. The people never forgot the “bloody Sunday” of 1905.
Russian people, upset at the low standard of living and scarcity of food, staged a series of strikes around the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Led by an Orthodox Priest — and completely unarmed — the demonstrators aimed to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II, demanding things like working hours, wages, and improved conditions.
Instead, the Russian Imperial Guard slaughtered them, firing into the crowd and killing or wounding 1,000. The Tsar agreed to share power with the state Duma, a parliament. But the revolution was coming.
4. World War I didn’t help.
The Russian military before World War I was large, but led by ineffectual generals and filled with obsolete technology. To make matters worse, the conditions in the field were as deplorable as the working conditions in the factories on the home front. Paying for the war left the Russian economy in shambles as food prices soared.
The economic trouble compounded the calls for higher wages and better working conditions. Soldiers would join workers in forming the “soviets” that would help oust the Tsar from power when the time came.
3. The Tsar was already out of power.
As a matter of fact, by the time the Bolsheviks seized power in October, the entire Romanov family was already captured by the government. The October Revolution came eight months after the February Revolution when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and his brother declined power.
The government ended up in the hands of the Duma and a lawyer named Alexander Kerensky in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and in small councils across Russia, called “soviets” at the local level. It was during this period of shared power that the old and new order clashed and vied for power.
2. It sparked a civil war.
It was the only time the American Army and the Red Army fought in an official battle between the two. Shortly after the October Revolution, the new government made peace with the Central Powers still fighting World War I, as it became embroiled in a Civil War that pit Red Russians (the Bolsheviks) against White Russians (an amalgamation of monarchists, capitalists, and social democrats).
Soldiers and sailors from all across the empire chose sides as Red Army formed and took on conscripts. Former Tsarist officers defected back and forth between the Red Army and its White Resistance. There was also a non-ideological Green movement that had the support of the peasants, but not were reluctant to actually fight.
1. The U.S. invaded Russia.
In order to reopen WWI’s Eastern Front, the Allied Powers landed a number of international units in Russia, to both keep the peace and bolster the White Army to keep Communism from spreading to Europe, if possible. The Americans were deployed in the Siberian city of Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic Circle.
Dubbed the “Polar Bear Expedition,” the Americans joined a British contingent who attempted to fight their way to link up with the Czechoslovak Legion, which held the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Great War ended before any significant headway could be achieved and the Allies eventually left Russia altogether.
In November 1918, David Lloyd George’s name was on everyone’s lips. He was the wartime prime minister who led the nation to eventual victory after four long years of bitter and bloody conflict. Yet despite this fact, a century later, as the war’s end is being commemorated worldwide, it would appear that there is very little recognition of the man. Compared to how Winston Churchill is praised the world over for his role in World War II, Lloyd George has a much lower profile.
A proud Welshman, Lloyd George originally made his name as a politician for his anti-war stance as an arch opponent of the Boer War. But by late 1914 he was acting as a human dynamo in transforming Britain and its empire into a modern state of industrialised warfare. He ensured that the war was financed and avoided economic ruin in his role as chancellor of the exchequer. Then, as minister of munitions, he helped supply the guns, tanks, aircraft and ammunition that kept Britain in the war. His introduction of the naval convoy system in April 1917 — which enabled ships to travel across the Atlantic protected by naval escort — helped win the war at sea and avoid a nation starving.
David Lloyd George.
The Welsh wizard
As prime minister after 1916, his fire and zeal were central to leading a coalition government that not only held the nation together but, in the process, modernized the core executive in Britain, and brought in a system of Whitehall government that is still used today.
Known as the “Welsh wizard“, because of this ability to keep the country unified, Lloyd George’s magic touch became apparent almost on a daily basis. He managed to balance domestic problems and the war with an almost unparalleled political mastery. Against a backdrop of developing civil war in Ireland and industrial and labour disputes on the home front, Lloyd George kept Britain fighting long enough for the arrival of the Americans, who were key to victory on the Western Front. While other nations faltered or buckled — including Austria — Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on the opposing side — he kept Britain and its empire steadfast and in the game.
The key to Lloyd George’s success was that he could be so adjustable and accommodating in what he set out to achieve. He sought to put the best people in charge, whether they be military or civilian, such as the secretary to the war cabinet Maurice Hankey, avoiding static hierarchies and burdensome bureaucracy, such as in his redevelopment and expansion of Britain’s armaments industry. This was something which contrasted him sharply with the military generals running the German War machine, where Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenberg avoided wider engagement as both sought to dominate the war effort.
David Lloyd George with Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson at the WWI Paris peace conference.
By the 1918 election, Lloyd George very much felt that it was even more important for the post-war nation to come together under him as prime minister in one united coalition. He also passionately supported a customs-free Europe and wanted Britain to play a central role in shaping Europe’s future, ensuring peace and prosperity. This he did — alongside US president Woodrow Wilson, Italian prime minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau — with the Treaty of Versailles the following year. It was at this peace summit that Lloyd George created a realistic rather than punitive peace with Germany — which was desired by France — or the distancing of themselves from an active role in Europe like the USA.
Not all of his ventures were so successful, however. Some of his work on new territories (protectorates) — Palestine and Iraq, for example — only worked to store up future problems. The same was true of his attempts to solve the Irish question, which were often done in a brutal and controversial fashion and have led to a century of conflict and division. It has also recently been uncovered that he met with Hitler in 1936 before going on to call him the “greatest living German“.
But whether you love him or loathe him, Lloyd George’s key role in fighting — and winning — World War I cannot easily be underestimated.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: An earlier story posted at WATM on this subject claimed that only seven women had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After readers notified us that our list was incomplete, we decided to post a new story with the additional information about women who received the Distinguished Flying Cross. A heartfelt thanks to all our readers for keeping us honest and accurate!
Women make up a smaller percentage of the military than men, but they have proven themselves throughout history to be brave, competent, and heroic. Take these sheroes for example:
1. Col. Andra V.P. Kniep
When then Capt. Andra Kniep took off for a mission in her A-10 over Afghanistan on March 5, 2002, she had no idea she was about to accomplish a most unlikely feat — receiving two Distinguished Flying Crosses in two days.
On that first day, Kniep coordinated and led deadly night attacks against Taliban vehicles and positions, destroying numerous enemies. Once the nearly eight hour mission was completed, she then led her element to a “remote, unfamiliar, classified location” for recovery, according to her Distinguished Flying Cross citation.
The next day Kniep once again led her element against the enemy, this time taking control of the Operation Anaconda airspace. Kniep successfully coordinated attack elements using multiple platforms totaling fourteen aircraft. Due to her exceptional ability all elements in the congested airspace were able to complete their missions and support coalition ground forces. For her actions on March 6 she was awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross.
2. Lt. Col. Kim Campbell
On April 7, 2003, then-Capt. Kim Campbell, piloting an A-10, was part of a two plane sortie flying close air support over Baghdad. When a call came over the radio of troops in contact, Campbell and her wingman responded. After numerous gun and rocket runs supporting the troops on the ground, Campbell’s aircraft took heavy fire.
As she fought with her stricken aircraft, it hurtled towards Baghdad and she faced the possibility of ejecting into hostile territory. Luckily, the A-10 has triple redundancy in its controls, and though both the hydraulic systems were inoperable, the manual reversion system was still functioning. Using this system “of cranks and cables,” Campbell said she was able to “fly the aircraft under mechanical control.”
On the same day of Capt. Campbell’s heroics, Capt. Tricia Paulsen-Howe and the rest of the crew of a KC-135 aircraft flew their unarmed tanker into harm’s way. According to the Air Force, Paulsen-Howe and crew entered hostile airspace to assist in the combat search and rescue mission of a downed F-15 north of Baghdad. They provided critical refueling assets during the operation. For their bravery the entire crew were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
4. Col. Tracy Onufer
Col. Onufer had been an officer aboard Air Force Special Operations aircraft including the AC-130H and AC-130U flying combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently serving as the Vice Commander of the 352nd Special Operations Wing and according to her Air Force biography is the recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions overseas.
5. Capt. Lindsay Gordon
Capt. Lindsay Gordon was serving as an AH-64 Apache pilot with the 101st Airborne Division when she and Chief Warrant Officer David Woodward were called upon to support an exfiltration of a Ranger element in contact.
When 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopters extracting the Rangers came under heavy fire, Gordon maneuvered her Apache into harm’s way to draw fire. Gordon and Woodward’s action were credited with saving numerous lives and aircraft. For their actions they were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Alaska-class cruisers are often seen as a waste of resources. At first glance, it is easy to see why. The United States only completed two out of the six planned vessels. One more was launched, but never finished. All three that managed to reach the water were quickly in reserve and then scrapped. But these ships were quite an achievement – a mini-battleship that gave good service during their brief careers.
Much of the issue was timing. According to data in Volume Fifteen of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, “Supplement and General Index,” the lead ship, USS Alaska (CB 1) was not commissioned until June 17, 1944, 11 days after the D-Day landings. The second ship, USS Guam (CB 2), was commissioned on Sept. 17, 1944. These ships didn’t have much left to fight by the time they got to the front lines.
Their primary purpose was to kill Japan’s heavy cruisers in a surface action. The Japanese had three classes of heavy cruiser intended for front-line service: The Myoko, Takao, and Mogami classes each packed ten eight-inch guns, and at least 12 610mm torpedo tubes for the Type 93 Long Lance torpedo.
According to Fleets of World War II, the Alaska-class cruisers were armed with nine 12-inch guns and 12 five-inch dual-purpose guns. NavWeaps.com notes that these guns, the 12″/50 Mark 8, had a maximum range of 38,573 yards. By comparison, the Long Lance torpedo had a maximum range of 32,800 yards.
That is a difference of three miles in favor of the Alaska-class cruisers. In essence, a Japanese heavy cruiser would be making a run of about three miles under fire before it could get within the maximum range of its torpedoes. In the roughly six minutes they would be making that run, an Alaska-class cruiser could get off anywhere from 15 to 18 salvoes.
The Alaska-class cruisers ended up helping to defend the fleet against Japanese planes. Both vessels helped escort the stricken USS Franklin (CV 13) after she suffered horrific damage during the invasion of Okinawa, and later took part in Operation Magic Carpet, the return of American troops home after World War II. These ships were sold for scrap in the early 1960s, never carrying out their primary mission of killing enemy heavy cruisers, but these mini-battleships still did their share during the war.
For the last several days, Hurricane Harvey has dropped an estimated 50-inches of rain, putting several Texas towns underwater.
Countless Americans are braving the weather conditions, driving massive trucks out to help their fellow flood victims by transporting them and what belongings they can muster to local shelters until this natural disaster clears.
One Twitter video has been recently making rounds of a massive Cadillac Escalade lifted up on enormous tires pulling a nearly submerged medium sized tactical truck from a flooded residential area.
As the Allies advanced on all fronts in World War II, the United States needed a new weapon. It had to be able to protect Allied troops while being powerful enough to break through the German defenses at the Siegfried line and land on the Japanese mainland.
The Army built two prototypes of a super-heavy, super armored tank for just that purpose in 1945 – and then lost one of them almost as quickly.
Toward the end of 1944, American war planners knew the war was coming to a close. They were looking at how they would be able to smash through the vaunted defenses of the Siegfried Line that blocked their path into greater Germany.
Nazi Germany’s Siegfried Line was a 300-mile line string of fortifications along the German border that was filled with bunkers, “dragon’s teeth” tank traps, pillboxes for machine guns and anything else that might slow or stop an enemy advance.
Meanwhile, they were also preparing for the final invasion of the Japanese mainland. The year 1945 would bring them to the doorstep of mainland Japan, after the fall of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Japanese resistance had been extremely strong almost everywhere the Americans fought them.
For both these reasons, the United States decided it needed an equalizer. It decided that this equalizer would come in the form of a massive tank, the T28 Super Heavy Tank.
Concepts for super heavy tanks were nothing new. Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were already developing their own versions of massive tanks for the war. The American version came in at 95 tons, with 12-inch armor plating, and a massive, fixed 105mm turret as a main gun. This behemoth was powered by a Ford V8 engine that could only move at a top speed of eight miles per hour.
Originally planning to build five, the full order had to be cancelled as the war had ended by the time the first working prototype was completed in the Fall of 1945. Still with two in the arsenal, the Army decided it would test the ones it had.
The tests did not go as well as the Army had hoped. The first T28 was scrapped after an engine fire heavily damaged the tank during its first trials at the Yuma Proving Grounds. The second T28 fared much better but the program was scrapped anyway. Army planners had already created two newer, more versatile tanks without making it super heavy.
Then, everyone, including the Army, forgot about the T28. Literally. As tank concepts continued to evolve and more and better tank programs were rolled out in the 27 years following World War II, the Korean War, and even the Vietnam War, the T28 sat abandoned in a field.
By the time someone discovered the massive World War II-era super heavy tank in a Fort Belvoir field in 1974, it was covered in brush and bushes had grown up around the tank. No one really knows if it had been there the entire time or where it could have been if it wasn’t there the entire time.
It was soon moved to the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor at Fort Knox in Kentucky, as the remaining T28 prototype had really just become a museum piece in the intervening years. The Vietnam War was over, the Army was in its second generation of main battle tanks with the M60 Patton tank, and Japan and West Germany were now American allies.
The T28 was moved from the Patton Museum at Fort Knox to Fort Benning in Georgia in 2010.
It was like trying to hit a needle in a haystack, kill a fly with a sledgehammer, or whatever analogy you prefer for using brute force to apply surgical precision in the middle of a swirling ambush.
By analogy and history, the attack on Dragon’s Jaw is a bizarre mismatch of weapons to mission. It is another hard lesson for U.S. air power in the ’60’s. Several decades of evolving doctrine and aircraft development have led the U.S. Air Force in a different direction from how air wars will actually be fought in the future. Instead of long range strategic nuclear attack, tactical precision anti-insurgent strike is the emerging mission. The U.S. will continue to learn that hard lesson on this day.
By any measure this is an impressive air armada: Sixty-six advanced supersonic fighters and strike aircraft from America’s “Century Series”. The main strike package is 46 Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs with massive bomb loads. The defensive escort is 21 North American F-100 Super Sabres holstering a covey of air-to-air missiles. The strike and escort fighters are supported by an enormous number of tanker, surveillance, rescue and reconnaissance planes. They all have one objective: to kill “The Dragon”.
The Dragon is the Thanh Hóa Bridge, near the geographic center of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese nicknamed the bridge “Hàm Rồng” or “Dragon’s Jaw” since its massive steel and concrete construction seem like a row of sturdy teeth set in the mouth of a deadly dragon. The Dragon itself is made up of one of the most sophisticated integrated air defense networks on earth modeled closely after the most sophisticated, the Soviet Union’s.
Ironically, if this same task force had been attacking the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons their results would have almost certainly been better. That is the mission these aircraft were actually designed for. But the Dragon is a small, critical target, and an elusive one. Even though it’s not an all-out nuclear war with the Red Menace, the Dragon must be slayed in the ongoing proxy war that is Vietnam.
The Thanh Hóa Bridge would be a tough target to hit even without an advanced, integrated network of radar guided anti-aircraft guns, SAMs and MiGs surrounding it. The bridge has only a single one-meter wide railroad track on its deck. It is 540 feet long and 54 feet wide at its widest point. From the attack altitude of about 10,000 feet it is difficult to see well at high-speed.
The flight of F-105 Thunderchiefs break into sections of four aircraft each. Today they are armed with 750 pound “dumb” bombs. The day before a nearly identical strike also failed to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw when the Thunderchiefs attacked with crude AGM-12 Bullpup guided missiles and 750 pound dumb bombs. The AGM-12 missiles, an early attempt at “smart” weapons, failed significantly. Remarkably, even though some of the 750 pounders did hit the bridge, they had little effect. The first attempt at breaking the Dragon’s Jaw on April 3rd failed spectacularly. The bridge proved sturdier than expected, the weapons less precise than hoped.
(US Air Force photo)
Having abandoned the AGM-12 Bullpup missiles from the day before the F-105 Thunderchiefs would strike with only dumb bombs today.
The F-105 was originally designed to carry a nuclear weapon enclosed within its streamlined fuselage using an internal bomb bay. It was supposed to attack a target from low altitude at Mach 2, “toss” the nuclear weapon at the target in a pop-up attack, and escape at twice the speed of sound.
Today the big F-105 “Thuds” lug a junkyard of dumb bombs under their sleek swept wings and below their sinewy Coke-bottle curved fuselage. The yardsale of external bombs and bomb racks creates enormous drag on the needle-nosed “Thud”, slowing it to below supersonic speed and making it vulnerable.
As predictably as a firing line of advancing redcoat soldiers facing off against Native American insurgents in the Revolutionary War, the Thunderchiefs returned the very next day, marching across the aerial battlefield in broad daylight. The North Vietnamese had been ready the day before. Today they were angry, battle hardened and ready.
According to historical accounts ranging from Air Force Magazine to Wikipedia, four of eight lightweight, nimble, subsonic MiG-17s (NATO codename “Fresco”) of the North Vietnamese 921st “Sao Do” (Red Star) Fighter Regiment led by North Vietnamese flight leader Trần Hanh visually acquired an attack formation of four F-105Ds at 10:30 AM.
The Thunderchiefs were just starting to drop their bombs and already committed to their attack run. Flight leader Trần Hanh ordered his wingman, Pham Giay, to cover his attack on the F-105s. Hanh dove in through light cloud cover, achieving complete surprise. He opened fire on the F-105 with his heavy 37mm cannon at extremely close range, only 400 meters. Having attacked from above and behind in a classic ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) scenario, Hanh preserved energy and positioning. The hapless F-105, piloted by USAF Major Frank E. Bennett of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, was pummeled by the MiG’s cannon shells. It erupted in a comet of plunging fire and hurtled downward toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Major Bennett did not survive.
A small, nimble, lightweight fighter had just gotten the better of a large, heavily loaded fighter-bomber despite having a substantial escort from F-100 Super Sabres. The Super Sabre fighter escort was out of position to respond to the MiG-17 ambush. A brutally hard lesson in the future of air combat was in session.
The melee continued when another North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot reportedly named “Le Minh Huan” downed a second F-105D, this one piloted by USAF Capt. J. A. Magnusson. Capt. Magnusson reportedly radioed that he was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin after being hit. He struggled to maintain control of his heavily damaged Thunderchief as he tried to escape North Vietnam. Capt. Magnusson was forced to eject twenty miles from the island of Hon Me, and was eventually listed as missing in action, then killed in action after a 48-hour search turned up nothing.
Painfully, the U.S. Air Force confirmed they had lost two F-105s and pilots in the second attack on the Dragon’s Jaw. Even worse, the bridge remained intact, a straight, iron grin at the futile attack of the Americans.
After the failed F-105 strikes and aircraft losses the Americans were desperate to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw bridge. Author Walter J Boyne wrote in Air Force Magazine that the U.S. developed a bizarre, massive pancake-shaped bomb weighing two and a half tons and measuring eight feet in diameter but only thirty inches thick. The gigantic, explosive Frisbee was dropped from the back of a lumbering C-130 Hercules transport and was intended to float down river toward the bridge where it would be detonated by a magnetic fuse. Several of the weapons were actually dropped, one C-130 was lost.
The bridge remained intact.
Early laser guided bombs were also employed against the Dragon’s Jaw with modest success. An attack on May 13, 1972 by a flight of 14 F-4 Phantoms used early “smart” bombs and actually knocked the bridge surface off its pilings, briefly rendering it inoperable and forcing repairs.
But the bridge still stood.
Attacks on the Dragon’s Jaw continued until October 6, 1972. A flight of four Vought A-7 Corsair attack aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) was finally successful in breaking the bridge in half. They used the AGM-62 Walleye guided bomb and 500-pound Mk.84 general purpose “dumb” bombs. The bridge was finally severed at its center piling.
Author Walter Boyne wrote about the final strike, “At long last, after seven years, 871 sorties, tremendous expenditure in lives, 11 lost aircraft, and a bewildering array of expended munitions, the Dragon’s Jaw was finally broken.” The key lesson from the brutal campaign to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw was that tactics and equipment need to be adaptable and precise in the modern battlespace.
(US Air Force photo)
The F-105 Thunderchief was an impressive aircraft, but was forced into a brutal baptism of fire over Vietnam during an era when air combat was in transition. As a result, the F-105 suffered heavy losses. The history of the aircraft went on the include an unusual accident with the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds. On May 9, 1964 Thunderbird Two, an F-105B piloted by USAF Captain Eugene J. Devlin, snapped in half during the pitch-up for landing at the old Hamilton Air Base in California. The Thunderchief only flew in six official flight demonstrations with the Thunderbirds.
Interestingly, and perhaps ominously, the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II shares a remarkable number of similarities with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief used in the raid on the Dragon’s Jaw in 1965.
According to author Dr. Carlo Kopp, the F-35A dimensions are oddly similar to the F-105. But among several critical differences is the wing surface area, with the F-35A having larger wing surface area and the resultant lower wing loading than the F-105. Other major differences are the F-35A’s low observable technology and greatly advanced avionics, data collecting, processing and sharing capability. Finally, the F-35A is purpose-built for a wide range of mission sets, whereas the F-105 was predominantly a high-speed, low-level nuclear strike aircraft poorly suited for conventional strike.
Lessons learned from the F-105 strike on the Dragon’s Jaw, the success of the nimble, lightweight North Vietnamese MiG-17s and the need for better precision strike capability are now deeply ingrained in U.S. Air Force doctrine. But revisiting this story is a vital part of understanding the evolving mission of the air combat warfighter and the high cost of failing to adapt in the constantly evolving aerial battlespace.
There is a special and unofficial award for colonels who are most willing to take the fight to the enemy that is quietly passed between senior Marine Corps officers — the colonel rank insignia originally worn by Maj. Gen. Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, a veteran of World War II who also served during World War I and Korea.
The Marines held out throughout the night, saving Henderson Field. Edson, who spent most of the night within yards of the forward firing line, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He also earned a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and two Legions of Merit for his World War II service.
In 1951, Edson was a retired major general. He went to the promotion ceremony for one of his former subordinate officers, Lewis W. Walt. Walt was scheduled to receive his promotion to colonel, and Edson gave him the wings that Edson had worn as a colonel.
Since then, Edson’s Eagles have purportedly graced the shoulders of some of the Marine Corps’ finest colonels.
“For 60 years, the passing of Edson’s Eagles has been unusual for its informality and privacy, honoring ‘the same mystical blend of intelligence, dignity, innovation, and raw courage that were the hallmark of their original owner,’ ” according to a story by the U.S. Naval Institute.
The most famous is undoubtedly Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis who wore Edson’s Eagles as a colonel from 1995 to 1997, rose to the rank of four-star general after leading Navy Task Force 58 in the Afghanistan Invasion and the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq — and is currently President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense.
Marine Lt. Gen. William M. Keys wore Edson’s Eagles after proving his mettle in Vietnam. On March 2, 1967, he led his company headquarters against a superior enemy force to save his rifle platoons during an engagement. Then on March 5, he engaged in hand-to-hand combat against the North Vietnamese while conducting a counterattack.
Other notable recipients of Edson’s Eagles include Gen. Paul X. Kelley, 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps; Col. John Ripley, a Force Reconnaissance Marine famous for his actions at a bridge near Dong Ha, Vietnam; and Gen. James T. Conway, the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps.