Here's how the 'Bloody Angle' turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant faced a quandary in his Overland Campaign driving towards Richmond. Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee were dug into what seemed like an invulnerable network of trenchworks and rifle pits near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. Several initial attacks had been bloodily repulsed, and even the weakest point of the Confederate line, a bulge around Laurel Hill known as the Muleshoe, seemed like an impossible nut to crack.


Grant, seeing that an assault on the Muleshoe was his best bet despite its formidable fortifications, decided try the unorthodox suggestion of Col. Emory Upton, a brash young officer who had distinguished himself earlier in the war. Standard infantry tactics of the day had long lines of infantry attacking in a wave, with reserves to exploit whatever breach happened in the enemy line.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Col. Emory Upton (Photo: Nat’l Archives)

Upton instead arranged his 12 regiments, composed of roughly 5,000 men, in one long tight column of only four ranks, with three regiments to a rank. They would charge at full speed toward the west side of the Muleshoe, without stopping to reload or help the wounded until they breached the Confederate fortifications. They would essentially function as a human battering ram.

Just after 6 p.m. on May 10, 1864, the plan went forward. With a wild yell, the column sprung from its concealment in the woods and charged over 200 yards across open ground. The enemy rifle pits studding the fortifications only had time to get off a few volleys before the Union column breached their earthworks, and they even overran the half-built second line 75 yards behind the first. Lack of coordination with supporting Union units to exploit the breach and a ferocious Confederate counterattack forced Upton to retreat, but the attack had netted over a thousand Confederate prisoners and seemed to prove that Upton’s tactics could work.

Grant was impressed with the initial success of the attack and decided to repeat Upton’s idea, but on a far grander scale and with better coordination. Over 20,000 men from Gen. Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps would attack the northern tip of the Muleshoe, each of his three divisions forming a similar long column to overwhelm a single point of the Confederate line.

The attack launched during a pouring rain on the dawn of the May 12. The Confederate troops guarding the northern point had heard the rumble of thousands of troops assembling the night before and were on alert, but the pouring rain prevented many of their muskets from firing and they were overwhelmed by the sheer force of the bayonet assault. More than 4,000 Confederate prisoners were taken and Hancock’s attack seemed on the verge of splitting the Confederate army in half, but a Confederate reserve division desperately thrown into the mix managed to stop the Union assault, which had become hopelessly tangled and confused in the elaborate fortifications. Lee himself came riding up to personally lead the counterattack, but his frantic troops, terrified that the famed general would be killed or captured, urged him back to the rear.

The supporting Union attack composed of 15,000 troops hit the northwest point of the salient 300 yards from Hancock’s attack, moving against where the Confederate fortifications formed an angle to support 2nd Corps. This 200-yard stretch of ground turned into a hand to hand slugfest in pouring rain and mud several feet deep in some points. Waves of troops fired point blank into each other’s faces and clubbed each other with muskets, with many wounded drowning in the mud. The ferocious fighting continued for over 20 hours long into the night. The survivors of the engagement later called the spot the ‘Bloody Angle.’

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Engagements at Laurel Hill & NY River, VA (By Kurz & Allison. – Library of Congress, Public Domain)

Lee had quietly begun withdrawing troops to a hasty new line in the rear, and by 3 a.m. the fighting had ended with Union soldiers too exhausted to pursue. In the abattoir of the Bloody Angle there had been over 17,000 casualties from both sides, and though there were other skirmishes in the coming days Grant eventually withdrew his battered army to the southwest to force Lee out of his fortifications, for a later battle under hopefully more favorable circumstances.

The Bloody Angle was an example of an innovative idea that had turned into a disaster when implemented on a larger scale. Attacks in long columns against heavy fortifications were too apt to get tangled up amongst enemy obstacles and their own numbers, leaving them extremely vulnerable to enemy counterattack unless supporting assaults were perfectly coordinated. Enemy defenses in depth blunted whatever initial gains could be made. Upton’s tactics, however promising, could not solve the perennial Civil War problem of the superiority of defensive firepower against the frontal assault, a problem that would loom its head again 50 years later in World War I.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Monument at the site of the attack.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Ketchup became the classic American condiment

No American cookout would be complete without ketchup. Millions of Americans douse their french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, and other cookout favorites with the condiment every day. The tomato-based sauce is even a staple for military personnel and astronauts!

Catsup, now more commonly known as “ketchup,” was a British term designated for any “spiced” sauce. The British had access to a myriad of spices from their exploits across the world. Their ketchup was made of oysters, cloves, cayenne, cherries, walnuts, vinegars, mace, and more.


Americans were the first to create ketchup with tomatoes, a crop native to North America, and an 1896 issue of The New York Tribune even declared tomato ketchup to be America’s national condiment found “on every table in the land.” The most famous tomato ketchup is the Heinz 57 variety. Apparently, founder Henry Heinz purposely created his own spelling of “ketchup” to differentiate from his “catsup”-peddling competitors.

Early tomato ketchup was made from fermented skins and cores. But these fermenting tomato leftovers could explode and burst their containers! The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, finally made this dangerous condiment safe to consume – and keep in the cupboard.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars on ketchup since the late 19th century, from manufacturing the condiment to supplying all soldiers with packets of the sauce to spruce up their rations of mass-produced food.

Astronauts even carry ketchup into outer space! NASA provides nonperishable, shelf-stable food, but crews like to amp up the products with their favorite condiments.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
The STS-79 and Mir 22 crews gather on the Atlantis’s middeck for a meal of barbecue served by the STS-79 crew. Mission commander William Readdy offers the Mir 22 crew a bottle of ketchup to use on their meal.

Wherever you are this Fourth of July, we hope you are enjoying this historic condiment on your favorite foods!

This article originally appeared on National Archives. Follow @USNatArchives on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this 1862 battle lengthened the Civil War by 2 years

In 1862, the Union Army was in striking distance of Richmond and the Union commander hoped to wrap up the entire war with just a few more engagements, but surprising aggression by the Army of Northern Virginia’s new commander would cause a Union defeat, leading to two more years of warfare.


Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

Union Gen. George B. McClellan had been making his way towards Richmond as part of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, but Gen. Robert E. Lee attacked and managed to turn the skittish McClellan south.

(James F. Gibson, Library of Congress)

In May 1862, the Union’s top officer was Gen. George B. McClellan, a railroad man turned military officer. While he had many drawbacks, his organizational skills were top notch and he had managed to fight way into position just miles east of Richmond, the political and industrial heart of the Confederacy. If he could capture the city, the Confederacy would fall apart or be forced to withdraw south to Atlanta or another city while losing massive amounts of manufacturing power.

And, the Confederacy had just fought a stalemate at the Battle of Seven Pines. Both sides claimed victory, but the Confederate commander was wounded and the Southern president promoted Gen. Robert E. Lee to the position. Lee was known for caution at this point in the war, and McClellan decided to take time to wait for good weather and reinforcements before pressing his attack home.

It was a hallmark of McClellan’s actions during the war, and it gave Lee time to order a large network of trenches dug, allowing him to defend the city with a small force while preparing the larger portion of his army for a much more aggressive move. Lee didn’t want to just defend Richmond, he wanted to attack the Union force’s supply lines, forcing a retreat.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

A sketch and watercolors depiction of the Battle of White Oak Swamp, one of the Sevens Days Battles.

(Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

The Union Army in the field was much larger than the Confederates’, 100,000 facing 65,000. But the Union Army was fighting far from home and needed over 600 tons of supplies per day, almost all of it shipped by rail and packtrain from northern cities.

On June 26, with Stonewall Jackson drawing close with an additional 20,000 Confederates, Lee struck, starting what would become known as The Battle of Seven Days or the Seven Days Battles. The forces fought five major engagements and number of smaller skirmishes over that fateful week.

Lee began his assault when the Union Army was sitting astride the Chickahominy River with a third of it on the northern side and two-thirds on the southern side. That meant that Lee could attack the northern side and potentially even destroy the railroad there before the rest of the Union forces could get into position to fight him.

But day one, known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, went badly for the Confederacy. Lee committed his forces before Jackson had arrived, and Jackson was delayed by poor navigation and exhaustion from the long march and previous battles.

On day two, Jackson once again ran into trouble and Union forces were able to regroup, forming a united front against the Confederate forces. But McClellan still didn’t press home his numerical advantage, withdrawing under the assumption that the aggressive Lee outnumbered him.

On June 28 and 29, the Confederate forces were able to launch successful attacks against the retreating Union forces, but they were unable to land a crippling blow. And so, McClellan was able to reach a great defensive position on July 1. From Malvern Hill, he could defend against any number of Confederate attacks.

In the end, the Confederacy lost approximately 20,000 men while the Union lost 15,000.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

McClellan’s failure to capture Richmond in 1862 caused the Civil War to drag on for two more years.

(Kurz Allison, Library of Congress)

But while Lee had failed at his goal of landing a significant blow against Union forces, but he had succeeded in his larger goal. McClellan had been mere miles from Richmond and on the offensive, but one week later he was driven south, begging for more troops and supplies before he would attack again. Instead, he let Lee rebuild his forces and move north, achieving another victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run and opening the door for Lee’s first invasion of the North.

Lee, previously known for his caution, had gone on the offensive despite being outnumbered, and it had saved the capital and its industry. McClellan would later lose his command, partially because of the failure to attack Richmond and his failure to attack off of Malvern Hill.

Lincoln would have to go search for his own Lee, his own aggressive general to carry the attack against the enemy, to force the initiative. It took Lincoln another few years to get him into position, but this would eventually be Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, a man known at the time for his alcohol consumption and his butchery, but now possibly known best for receiving Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, propelling Grant to a successful 1868 presidential run.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One of the pioneers of the Navy SEALs lived almost a century

It’s not widely known that Marine Corps Raiders trained operatives for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The forerunner to the CIA, the OSS would conduct clandestine resistance, sabotage, and intelligence-gathering operations all over the world. One of those operatives was a member of UDT-10, an underwater demolition team, who would play a critical role in the recapture of the Philippines during the war, then help create the foundation of maritime special operations forces for the U.S. military and the intelligence community. That operative was a sailor named Hank Weldon and he died on Oct. 5, 2018 in his San Marcos, Calif. home. He was 95 years old.


“My point of view of the war is a little different than a lot of people,” he told the Valley Road Runner in 2013. “I let them [U.S. Marines] in and left. I didn’t see a lot of action on the ground. I went in and cleared the areas for the ships,” says Weldon. “Opened the lanes for them. Took care of mines. Or eliminated markers that the Japanese were using as markers for their artillery.”

 

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Underwater Demolition Teams used surfboards to haul up to 300 pounds of explosives to shore. (Valley Road Runner)
 

That was just the beginning of a storied career in service to his country.

Born in 1923 and graduating from high school in 1942, Hank Weldon came of age at the outbreak of World War II. He played football at Villanova for two semester before joining a Navy commissioning program. It was while training for that program that General “Wild Bill” Donovan came looking to recruit strong swimmers for the OSS.

His swimming test involved pulling a manhole cover from the bottom of a pool and putting it in an empty canoe without tipping it. He passed. That’s when he was ordered to Camp Pendleton – but he had no idea what branch of the service he was actually in. The truth was, they were from all branches.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Weldon and his full UDT crew on California’s Catalina Island during their training exercises.

 

The OSS recruited men from the Coast Guard, Army, Navy, and Marines to come train with a Marine Raider battalion. When their training was complete, the unit was split up. Some were deployed to hit the beaches at Normandy, while Weldon and others prepared to hit the beaches of the occupied Philippine Islands.

Their trial by fire came when they were sent on the first underwater recon mission of World War II, gathering intelligence on the island of Yap. From there, they saw action at Palau and in five missions in the Philippines – but they didn’t lose a single man there. He even saw General MacArthur as he returned to the island nation, as promised.

When the war ended, so did Hank Weldon’s time in the military.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

But his career in service didn’t stop. He spent 26 years as a beat cop on the Los Angeles Police Department and served during some of the most dangerous times in the force’s history. He served during the 1965 Watts Riots, a six-day civil disturbance that damaged million worth of property and was the most destructive urban uprising of the entire Civil Rights Era. It took a 45-mile exclusion zone enforced by 13,000 California National Guardsmen to quell the violence – with Hank Weldon riding and holding shotgun through it all.

Some 50 years after leaving the military and the OSS Maritime unit, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Special Forces – with good reason. He helped inaugurate the use of fins in maritime clandestine operations and pioneered tactical technology, including the first rebreathers. The tactics, weapons, and hand-to-hand combat techniques he and other OSS operative learned from the Marine Raiders were passed on to other operatives throughout the war and then handed down to new special operations units thereafter.

Members of the OSS were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on March 21, 2018, and Hank Weldon was the surviving member of his OSS team, UDT-10. Weldon’s family turned down an invitation for Hank to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, he will receive a military burial ceremony at home, in the Valley Center Cemetery in California.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Air Force’s ‘candy bomber’ dropped sweets to kids without authorization

After World War II, the Allied powers divided Germany, giving the eastern part of the country to the Soviet Union and the Western part to the United States, Britain, and France. The capital city of Berlin was also divided, but in 1948, the Soviets established a blockade to ensure Germany could not reunify and rise to invade them again.


Refusing to withdraw, the Allies began to supply their sectors of Berlin with food, fuel, and necessities in Operation Vittles — perhaps best known as the Berlin Airlift.

Enter U.S. pilot Gail Halvorsen.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

After meeting some children at Berlin’s Tempelhof Air Field, he gave them two sticks of Wrigley’s gum to share and promised to bring more on his next flight. He told them they’d know it was him because he would “wiggle his wings” as he approached.

True to his word, Halvorsen collected candy rations from his fellow pilots and, on his next mission to Tempelhof, he wiggled the wings of his C-54 Skymaster and instructed his Flight Engineer to drop three parcels of the candy out the flight deck. They floated to the ground in handmade parachutes made of white handkerchiefs and, when he checked on the children later, three handkerchiefs waved back.

“Uncle Wiggly Wings” was born.

Once newspapers learned about Halvorsen’s “Operation Little Vittles,” pilots were flooded with candy donations from the United States. A humanitarian mission launched — and it continued well after Halvorsen returned home.

Also read: A brief history of the Berlin Wall, “the monument to Communist failure”

In 2014, Halvorsen had the opportunity to meet one of the children who had waited for him at the airfield fence. Christel Jonge Vos thanked her childhood hero for bringing gifts and hope during such a troubled time.

Halvorsen’s gesture — and the humanitarian mission that followed — built a bridge of healing between the American people and war-torn Germany, which paved the way for the friendship that would follow in the years to come.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The logistics behind cryptology in the U.S. Military

Since the dawn of communication, cryptology has been in place to help keep military secrets just that, secrets. But how it’s done ranges throughout history — from hieroglyphics to modern-day computer code. Based on the level of technology of the time, the country itself, and even various military branches have all used unique ways to keep their messages in code. 

The Roman Army used the Ceasar Shift Cipher as early as the 1st century, A.D., while ancient Greece hid messages “in plain sight” by a method called steganography. It was first seen around 440 B.C. by Herodotus. The Allies cracked the Enigma Code — Germany’s cryptology method at the time — to greatly shorten World War II. And in the 1970s, data encryption vastly advanced how communication was able to be hidden and protected. 

In the U.S., cryptology was heavily used in each battle or wartime event. As a way of keeping information from the enemy, notes were written in code or with secret messages. 

Revolutionary War

During the U.S. bout for freedom from the British, cryptology is said to have saved many lives, even having outed Benedict Arnold before he gave up West Point to the British. Through a secret group called the Culper Spy Ring, individuals passed along messages that were obtained by spies. Membership within the organization was secret, and even the members themselves didn’t know who was all involved. The messages were then passed after being coded into the Culper Code Book, which used 763 numbers to represent various words, names and places. The book was developed by George Washington’s spymaster, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who spied under the name of John Bolton. 

Civil War

By the time the Civil War had begun, the telegraph had been invented and was widely used as a form of communication. This allowed messages to be passed quickly among military forces. It also called in the need for code to help encrypt messages. Both Union and Confederate forces disguided their telegraph messages. Hand-written notes and vocally passed messages were also coded in order to keep communication more private. 

William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone’s electric telegraph (“needle telegraph”) from 1837 now in the London Science Museum (Geni, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Most notably, cryptology is known to have failed when female spies would flirt information out of soldiers. At the time, it was widely believed that women did not have a role in the war, or weren’t a valuable intelligence asset, so secrets were spilled without fear of consequence. 

World War I

During World War I, yet another technological advancement was made with the teletype cipher, which could de-code messages as they were received. This allowed messages to be sent much faster, as they did not require a person to manually translate the message. Instead they were sent live, decoded. 

During the Great War, British Admiral Sir William Hall’s team famously decoded the Zimmerman Telegram. A message system between Germany and Mexico, the message stated a German plan for submarine warfare and attempting to ally with Mexico for a U.S. invasion. However, rather than spill the beans, Hall kept quiet. He knew if he outed them, they would realize the source of the information leak. 

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Teletype teleprinters in use in England (Public Domain)

The Zimmerman was later used to decrypt more messages and eventually help win the war. 

World War II

In World War II, there were entire deparments dedicated to finding the meaning of hidden codes. Notably women were recruited and taught cryptology, and were sworn to secrecy about what they were doing. Their efforts, along with other countries’, soon paid off. Polish and British mathematicians decoded the Germans’ Enigma code, leading Allied forces privvy to much information. The Germans soon suspected that their messages were being read, and added another rotor — the Enigma worked by scrambling letters with these rotors — to make messages harder to decipher. 

In addition, Japanese codes were also cracked, helping bringing an end to the war. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. used a machine called the SIGABA. Working similar to the Enigma, the SIGABA had 15 rotors and no reflector device, which made it harder to crack. There were no known breaches of the SIGABA through its use, up until the 1950s. 

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
SIGABA Machine (Public Domain)

Modern day wars

With the start of Vietnam, when data became digital and could therefore be encrypted, coding messages became more complicated. And more secret. To date, there are entire departments dedicated to creating programs that keep intelligence a secret. Using binary bit sequences, security clearance levels, and countless sophisticated computer programs, and it becomes a complicated event. One that we couldn’t even guess to begin how it works … and even if we could, it’s likely that folks in suits would show up at the door. So let’s just say it’s complicated, and perhaps in several decades, we can look back and see how it was all accomplished. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

Epic tale of Rhodesian Commandos gets a reprint

It has been 32 years ever since Chris Cocks first published his acclaimed book narrating his experiences with the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). Now, five editions later, he is reprinting his masterpiece.

But it’s not just a reprint. Cocks has gone in and re-wrote the book to make it even better.


“Over the last three decades, the book has undergone around five editions with various publishers, some good, some not so good,” said Cocks “I decided, therefore, to re-write the book and take out a lot of fluff and waffle, and then self-publish.”

The Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1980) was a small but intense Cold War conflict. The Rhodesian government was faced by a Communist insurgency that had shrewdly sold itself in the international community as a liberation front aiming to end White-rule in the Southern African country.

Formed in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) was an airborne all-white unit focused on direct action operations. (Most units in the Rhodesian military were mixed, usually Black soldiers led by White officers; the RLI and the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) were some of the few all-White outfits.) Three years later, in 1964, the unit was retitled to 3 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, to better reflect its Special Operations role.

The unit was broken down to four Commandos of 100 men each and a headquarters company. The majority of the RLI troopers were Rhodesian regulars or reserves. There was, however, a significant foreign presence (Americans, French, Germans, British, Australians, New Zealanders).

“As a 20-year-old lance-corporal, I found myself in command of a troop (a platoon),” he recalls. “As a junior NCO, I never lost a man in combat, but I think that was luck. But I’m still proud of that.”

The airborne capabilities of the unit paired with its lethality made the RLI the bane of the communist insurgents. It is estimated that as part of Fire Force missions, which were introduced in 1974, the RLI killed 12,000 insurgents. At some point during the Bush War, the operational tempo was so high, that RLI troopers were conducting three combat jumps a day. Rapid deployment of troops was key to the Fire Force concept. Jumps, thus, were made at 300-500 feet without reserve parachutes. Indeed, they were flying so low that as the last jumper of the stick exited the aircraft, the first hit the ground. To this day, an RLI trooper holds the world record for most operational jumps with an astounding 73.

Chris Cocks’ book provides an original account of the Rhodesian Bush War. Several pictures breathe life into the men and their feats. The illustrations on the Fire Force are elucidating. Perhaps what sets Cocks’ book apart from similar narratives is its dual nature: a lover of narrative history will gain as much as a student of military history. (I’ve personally used Cocks’ book as a primary source for a paper that was published in the West Point’s military history journal.)

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

The cover of the latest edition.

Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, a British journalist and academic who has written extensively on the Rhodesian Bush War, said that “Cocks’s work is one of the very few books which adequately describes the horrors of war in Africa … Fire Force is the best book on the Rhodesian War that I have read… it is a remarkable account that bears comparison with other classics on war … a tour de force.”

Cocks first wrote the book in the mid-1980s. He sought to understand why so many had died (over 50,000 dead on both sides) and why Zimbabwe had fallen to Communism. “Essentially, we lost not only the war, but our country,” said Cocks. “For what? I needed to record that, somehow. To be honest, I just started writing, with no particular end point in mind. It all came tumbling out.”

This is a book worth reading. You can purchase it on Amazon.

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.


MIGHTY HISTORY

This top-secret supersonic drone was found in the Arizona desert

Most of what is lying around in the dusty expanse of the aircraft graveyards around Tucson, Arizona is readily identifiable and not entirely remarkable.

Ejection seats from old F-4 Phantoms. An old CH-53 helicopter hulk. An interesting find over there is a fuselage section of a Soviet-era MiG-23 Flogger. No idea how it got here. Other than that, it’s just long rows of old, broken, silent airplanes inside high fences surrounded by cactus, dust, sand and more sand. An errant aileron on a dead wing clunks quietly against the hot afternoon breeze as if willing itself back into the air. But like everything here, its days of flying are over.


But there… What is that strange, manta-ray shaped, dusty black thing lying at an angle just on the other side of that fence? It may be an old airfield wind vane or radar test model. But it also may be…

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
Lockheed D-21B at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
(U.S. Air Force photo)

I had only read about it and seen grainy photos of it. I know it’s impossible. The project was so secret not much information exists about the details even today. But I stand there gawking through the chain link fence as the ruins of the other planes bear silent witness. It’ like the corpses of the other airplanes are urging me to look closer. To not leave. Their silent dignity begs me to tell this story.

After nearly a minute of studying it through the fence I realize; I am right. It is right before my eyes. Ten feet away. Despite the 100-degree heat I get goosebumps. And I start running.

I quickly locate a spot where the entire fence line opens up. I skirt the fence and in a couple minutes running around the sandy airplane corpses I’m inside. There, sitting right in front of me on its decrepit transport cart and dusted with windblown sand, abandoned in the Sonoran Desert, is one of Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich’s most ambitious classified projects from the fabled Lockheed Skunk Works.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
A previously classified photo of the Lockheed D-21 drone at the Skunkworks manufacturing facility.
(Lockheed Martin photo)

I just found the CIA’s ultra-secret Mach 3.3+ D-21 long-range reconnaissance drone. The D-21 was so weird, so ambitious, so unlikely it remains one of the most improbable concepts in the history of the often-bizarre world of ultra-secret “black” aviation projects. And now it lies discarded in the desert. The story behind it is so bizarre it is difficult to believe, but it is true.

July 30, 1966: Flight Level 920 (92,000 ft.), Mach 3.25, Above Point Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center, Off Oxnard, California.

Only an SR-71 Blackbird is fast enough and can fly high enough to photograph this, the most classified of national security tests. Traveling faster than a rifle bullet at 91,000 feet, near inner-space altitude, one of the most ambitious and bizarre contraptions in the history of mankind is about to be tested.

“Tagboard” is its codename. Because of the catastrophic May, 1960 shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 high altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union the CIA and is in desperate need of another way to spy on the rising threat of communist nuclear tests. Even worse, the other “Red Menace”, the Chinese, are testing massive hydrogen bombs in a remote location of the Gobi Desert near the Mongolian/Chinese border. It would be easier to observe the tests if the Chinese did them on the moon.

The goal is simple, but the problem is titanic. Get photos of the top-secret Red Chinese hydrogen bomb tests near the Mongolian border deep inside Asia, then get them back, without being detected.

Lockheed Skunkworks boss Kelly Johnson and an elite, ultra-classified small team of aerospace engineers have built an aircraft so far ahead of its time that even a vivid imagination has difficulty envisioning it.

Flat, triangular, black, featureless except for its odd plan form as viewed from above, like a demon’s cloak, it has a sharply pointed nose recessed into a forward-facing orifice. That’s it. No canopy, no cockpit, no weapons. Nothing attached to the outside. Even more so than a rifle bullet its shape is smooth and simple. This is the ultra-secret D-21 drone.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
An Air Force photo of the D-21 mounted on the M-21 launch aircraft. The M-21 launch aircraft was a special variant of the SR-71 Blackbird. Only two were produced.
(U.S. Air Force photo)

The D-21 is truly a “drone”, not a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Its flight plan is programmed into a guidance system. It is launched from a mothership launch aircraft at speed and altitude. It flies a predetermined spy mission from 17 miles above the ground and flashes over at three times the speed of sound. It photographs massive swaths of land with incredible detail and resolution. And because of its remarkably stealthy shape, no one will ever know it was there.

Today the D-21 rides on the back of a Lockheed M-21, a specialized variant of the SR-71 Blackbird, the famous Mach 3+ high altitude spy plane. The M-21 version of the SR-71 carries the D-21 drone on its back up to launch speed and altitude. The it ignites the D-21’s unique RJ43-MA20S-4 ramjet engine and releases it on its pre-programmed flight.

Chasing the M-21 and D-21 combination today is a Lockheed SR-71, the only thing that can keep up with this combination of aircraft. It is the SR-71’s job to photograph and film the test launch of the D-21 drone from the M-21 launch aircraft.

There have been three successful launch separations of the D-21 from the M-21 launch aircraft so far. In each of these flights, even though the launch was successful, the D-21 drone fell victim to some minor mechanical failure that destroyed the drone, because, at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, there really are no “minor” failures.

Today Bill Park and Ray Torick are the flight crew on board the M-21 launch aircraft. They sit inside the M-21 launch aircraft dressed in pressurized high altitude flight suits that resemble space suits.

Once at predetermined launch speed and altitude the M-21/D-21 combination flies next to the SR-71 camera plane. Keith Beswick is filming the launch test from the SR-71 camera plane. Ray Torick, the drone launch controller sitting in the back seat of the tandem M-21, launches the D-21 from its position on top of the M-21’s fuselage between the massive engines.

Something goes wrong.

The D-21 drone separates and rolls slightly to its left side. It strikes the left vertical stabilizer of the M-21 mother ship. Then it caroms back into the M-21’s upper fuselage, exerting massive triple supersonic forces downward on the M-21 aircraft. The M-21 begins to pitch up and physics takes over as Bill Park and Ray Torick make the split-second transition from test pilots to helpless passengers to crash victims.

The triple supersonic forces rip both aircraft apart in the thin, freezing air. Shards of titanium and shrapnel from engine parts trail smoke and frozen vapor as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. There is no such thing as a minor accident at Mach 3+ and 92,000 feet.

Miraculously, both Bill Park and Ray Torick eject from the shattered M-21 mother ship. Even more remarkably, they actually survive the ejection. The pair splash down in the Pacific 150 miles off the California coast. Bill Park successfully deploys the small life raft attached to his ejection seat. Ray Torick lands in the ocean but opens the visor on his spacesuit-like helmet attached to his pressurized flight suit. The suit floods through the face opening in his helmet. Torick drowns before he can be rescued. Keith Beswick, the pilot filming the accident from the SR-71 chase plane, has to go to the mortuary to cut Ray Torick’s body out of the pressurized high-altitude flight suit before he can be buried.

The ultra-secret test program to launch a D-21 drone from the top of an M-21 launch aircraft at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, is cancelled.

The D-21 program does move forward on its own. Now the drone is dropped from a lumbering B-52 mothership. The D-21 is then boosted to high altitude and Mach 3+ with a rocket booster. Once at speed and altitude the booster unit drops off and the D-21 drone begins its spy mission.

After more than a year of test launches from the B-52 mothership the D-21 drone was ready for its first operational missions over Red China. President Nixon approved the first reconnaissance flight for November 9, 1969. The mission was launched from Beale AFB in California.

Despite a successful launch the D-21 drone was lost. In the middle of 1972, after four attempts at overflying Red China with the D-21 drone and four mission failures, the program was cancelled. It was imaginative. It was innovative. It was ingenious. But it was impossible.

So ended one of the most ambitious and outrageous espionage projects in history.

1604 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

I pet airplanes when I can. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe to be able to say I did. Maybe to try to gain some tactile sense of their history. Maybe to absorb something from them, if such a thing is possible. Maybe so that, when I am old and dying, I can reflect back on what it felt like to stand next to them and touch them. I don’t know why I touch them and stroke them, but I do.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War


The fully restored Lockheed D-21 drone at the Pima Air Space Museum outside Tucson, Arizona.

(Pima Air Space Museum photo)

The D-21 is dusty and warm in the late afternoon Arizona sun. Its titanium skin is hard, not slightly forgiving like an aluminum airplane. It gives away nothing. Silent. Brooding. After I touch it my hand came away with some of the dust from it. I don’t wipe it off.

Sometime later in the coming years, the D-21B drone, number 90-0533, is brought inside the vast restoration facility at the Pima Air Space Museum and beautifully restored. Now it lies in state, on display inside the museum.

But when I first found it sitting abandoned in the storage yard, dusty and baking in the Sonoran Desert sun, it felt like its warm titanium skin still had some secret life left in it.

This article originally appeared on The Aviationist. Follow @theaviationist on Twitter.

Articles

Yes, World War II soldiers could throw mortar rounds like grenades

A few World War II movies feature incredible scenes of troops — usually soldiers or Marines — fighting tooth and nail against an enemy until they’ve expended most of their ammo, all of their grenades, and are stuck in their final defensive position.


That’s when someone does something crazy and starts throwing mortar rounds at the oncoming onslaught. The huge bursts of shrapnel wipe out groups of the enemy forces, breaking up the attack and allowing the heroes to emerge victorious.

Skip ahead to 0:28 in this clip to see this happen:

“Saving Private Ryan” was called out by some for this scene as many thought it impossible, and “Hacksaw Ridge” features a similar scene that caused a few raised eyebrows.

But most mortar rounds in World War II could be thrown this way. It was just incredibly dangerous and rarely done.

While new proximity fuzes — those which detonate a specified distance from the surface — were developed during World War II, most mortar rounds carried impact fuzes that used the physical force of the mortar striking a rock or something to trigger the charge.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
World War II mortarmen attack German positions in 1944. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

This caused surface bursts, and most mortarmen wanted their rounds that were detonating against the surface to explode immediately. The further the main charge makes it into the ground before it explodes, the greater amount of the explosion that will be absorbed by the mud and dirt.

So weapon designers made fuzes that were very sensitive. To prevent the fuzes from exploding prematurely, designers incorporated impact fuzes with a two-step arming process. This meant a safety pin had to be removed followed by a sudden force such as the propellant exploding to fire the round from the tube.

For soldiers looking to use these mortar rounds as a grenade, they had to remove the safety pin and slam the tail of the mortar round against something solid to simulate the force of the weapon firing. After that, the round would explode from any sudden force applied to the fuze.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
An American mortar crew attacks German positions on the Rhine in 1945. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

This method of triggering, combined with the greater explosive force of a mortar, made them way more deadly than grenades.

Most grenades work using a timer, meaning that a soldier throws it and hopes that the enemy can’t grab the weapon and throw it back before it detonates.

But a hand-thrown mortar round will usually explode as soon as it hits the ground or a solid object, making it nearly impossible to throw back.

At least two soldiers used this to their advantage in World War II. Technical Sgt. Beauford T. Anderson threw mortar rounds to drive off a Japanese attack on Okinawa, and Cpl. Charles E. Kelly used mortar ammunition during his final defense of a storehouse being overwhelmed by the Germans in Italy.

This procedure comes with high risks. A round that falls short of the intended throw will almost certainly go off, potentially killing friendly troops and the thrower, and a round that is dropped after arming could go off, killing the operators. Still, for a happy few, the risk was worth the reward.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why General William T. Sherman’s battle flag was never used in combat

Battle flags were a big thing during the American Civil War. Perhaps the most famous (and now most notorious) is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Often mistaken for the official flag of the Confederate States of America, the crossed stars and bars flag was flown for Robert E. Lee’s Army – and grew more popular than the actual Confederate flag.

The Union had its own battle flags as well. In fact every general, it seems, had their own battle flag, with some more popular than others. The Army of the Potomac’s battle flag was a swallow-tailed flag featuring a golden eagle and wreath on a magenta background. 

Custer had one. Sheridan had one. So did Burnside, Breckinridge and Cumming. Even the most famous Civil War general (or notorious, depending one which side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re on) had one. Except William Tecumseh Sherman’s flag never saw any fighting. In fact he created his flag as a symbol of peace.

To quickly recap, the Civil War career of Gen. Sherman, he had a nervous breakdown early on in the war. After being relieved of military command of Kentucky, he went home to Ohio to recover. He returned to duty that same year and was eventually placed under the command of his good friend, Ulysses S. Grant.  

This proved to be the entire South’s undoing. Not just the Confederate Army and not just the Confederate States or America: for the entire South, Sherman’s return to duty was the beginning of the end. As Sherman saw successes  on the battlefields of the south, he rose in rank. When Grant took command of the Union Army, he promoted Sherman to his old job.

battle flag
General Sherman’s 23rd Corps’ battle flag, created out of shredded confederate flags (Reddit)

It was this renewed Gen. Sherman who said such famous lines like: 

  • “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”
  • “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
  • “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end.”
  • “I am satisfied, and have been all the time, that the problem of this war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory.”
  • “I regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash — and it may be well that we become so hardened.”
  • and finally: “I will make Georgia howl.”

Sherman was basically the last guy anyone would want invading their country at the almost 100,000 angry Union troops, but that’s exactly what Georgia got. He proceeded to burn down large areas of the rebel state.

Sherman’s flag wasn’t created in the Civil War, though. He commissioned it in 1880, 15 years after the war’s end when he was General of the U.S. Army. His original flags was made of blue silk and was full of symbolism meant to represent the unity between states.

It featured a flying golden eagle with a white head in the center of the flag, it’s head turned toward the olive branch in its talons, a symbol of peace between states. Above the eagle were 13 stars, representing the original 13 colonies, along with a shield covered by 13 stripes. It was a look back at the days when the country had unity of purpose. 

General Sherman died in 1891, and his flag was placed in the care of his daughter, Mary Elizabeth. She donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1918, folded in an envelope and warning the museum that it was in pretty rough shape. It stayed in the envelope until 2013, waiting for the right expert to restore it. 

This is the Smithsonian Institution, so of course they eventually found the right person for the job. Visit their website to see just how badly deteriorated it was and to see how the restoration effort preserved this part of American history.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the sad story behind the Great Buddhas of Afghanistan

There aren’t many bucket list destinations in Afghanistan, but before 2001, there were at least two man-made wonders that were revered around the world.


Built in Bamyan around the 2nd century, they were some of the largest standing Buddha carvings in the world. The Buddhist Kingdom in the “Graveyard of Empires” withstood many attacks. That was until Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban in 1996.

The region was a part of the Buddhist Kushan Empire. The Bamyan region was directly on the Silk Road and was a hub for Buddhism, with tens of thousands of monks worship at the site.

The valley was home to several monasteries. The intricate cave system throughout the cliffs were beautifully decorated and painted.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
The caves even hold some of the world’s oldest oil paintings. (Image via Digital Journal)

Many kingdoms seized control of the region, but it was the Huns who decimated the local population — but left the statues. The Mughal Empire would be the first to attack the statues in the 18th century. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Persian King Nader Afshar would both order attacks to destroy the statues.

Afghan King Abdur Rahman Khan ordered the destruction of the faces and many of the cave oil paintings. This is how they remained for centuries. Although Islam became the dominant religion, most Afghan people loved the statues — not because of faith, but because they were iconic.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
A drawing by Alexander Burnes in 1832 sparked curiosity and travel to the region. (Image via Wikicommons)

Then the Taliban took over and declared them idols.

Mirza Hussain was from the town of Bamyan and a prisoner of the Taliban at the time. He told the BBC of how they captured him.

They forced him at gun point to plant explosives in both of the Buddhas for three days straight. The statues were destroyed in March 2001 — leaving nothing but craters where they once stood.

The Taliban used the caves for arms and munitions until troops from the United States, New Zealand, and Afghanistan retook control in 2003.

Talks continue years later whether they should rebuild the statues using fragments of the old ones, to use holograms to project them as they were, or to leave them as a brutal reminder of the horrors of the Taliban regime.

(NATO, YouTube)

Articles

Israel recently buried Ran Ronen, an ace few ever heard of

Early last month, Israel buried an ace who had seven kills — more than twice as many as John Glenn — and hundreds of operational missions under his belt. He was known as Ran Ronen.


According to a report by the Jerusalem Post, Ronen, whose real name was Ran Pekker, was buried on Dec. 4, 2016, following his death after a long struggle with blood cancer. Ronen was best known for flying the Mirage III and F-4 Phantom during the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
An Israeli Mirage III at a museum. Giora Epstein scored the first of his 17 kills, a Su-7, in a Mirage III. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ronen notably gained publicity from the History Channel series Dogfights, providing interviews in two episodes, “Dogfights of the Middle East” and “Desert Aces.” In the former, he described his involvement in both escorting a defecting MiG-21 to Israel and his involvement in the attack on Ghardaka Air Base in Egypt. The latter episode, best known for relating Giora Epstein’s legendary 1-vs.-11 fight, featured Ronen’s encounter with a Jordanian Hawker Hunter.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War
A U.S. Air Force McDonnell Douglas EF-4C Phantom II aircraft (s/n 63-7474) of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 18th Tactical Fighter Wing over North Vietnam in December 1972. | U.S. Air Force photo

Ronen later became a diplomat and founded the Zahala project for youth, according to a web site outlining the reasons he received the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism in 2008.

Below are the Dogfights episodes Ronen appears in. His missions are discussed from 13:12 to 32:12 in the first video, and in the first 12:30 in the second video.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What happens when you hit an RV with a Civil War mortar

After reading the headline of this article, you might be thinking, “why?” We think it’s better to start with, “what?”

In this case, “what” is a replica of the “Roaring Meg,” a mortar used in the English Civil War in 1646 to absolutely devastate the final holdout of Royalists who resisted the Parliamentarians.


See, in mid-17th century England, there was a very spirited debate about just how much of a monarchy England should be. To make a very long story short, King Charles I and the Parliament at Westminster were prosecuting a war against Scottish forces and then Irish rebels from 1639-1641. In 1642, differences of strategy led to the King’s parliament starting a civil war against him.

Yeah, the whole thing was really messy.

The war didn’t go well for the King, and he lost entire sections of his country in 1642 and 1644. By 1646, he had only one good castle left, Goodrich Castle at Herefordshire, but it was defended by a very loyal knight. In June 1646, Parliamentarians demanded that the Royalists surrender, but were politely rebuffed.

Here’s how the ‘Bloody Angle’ turned into the worst fighting of the Civil War

Except for some missing lead, this is basically what Goodrich Castle looked like after ole’ Meg was done with it. Note that the castle builders hadn’t designed the walls and towers to have those gaping holes in them.

(David Merrett, CC BY 2.0)

So, a siege ensued. For six weeks, the Parliamentarians attacked with artillery and managed to destroy the castle cisterns and a number of other structures, but the defenses held. So, the Parliamentarian commander, Colonel John Birch, commissioned a massive mortar from the local blacksmith.

“Roaring Meg” could fire an approximately 200-pound ball loaded with about 4 pounds of gunpowder that would explode in the courtyard, devastating nearby buildings with the blast wave and shrapnel. Meg destroyed buildings and walls and, combined with the mining operations happening at the same time, forced the defenders to surrender.

www.youtube.com

Now, Meg is a historical display, but a group of men got together to see what, exactly, a replica Meg could do. Because of modern ideas of “safety,” and “survival,” and “not being horribly maimed for the purposes of entertainment,” the men decided to fire the mortar at a caravan without any explosives loaded inside the ball. Then, after getting their hit, they would place explosives with similar power into the caravan and blow it up that way.

The video is pretty sweet (even if it took them a lot of shots to actually hit the caravan, which is normal with an old-school mortar). Check it out above.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information