Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Volcano with no Flames

In the late 1800's there was a revolution in explosive technology. Dynamite was invented in 1867. Up until then black powder had been the main explosive, alongside nitro-glycerine. Dynamite was safer than either of these two explosives. The logical thought follows, why not use it as a shell filling? A nice big bang without the problems of the earlier explosives. The trouble is "safer" isn't the same as "safe". Dynamite could still be detonated by the jolt of firing it from a gun, meaning it would explode in the gun barrel with disastrous effects. However, in 1883 Edmund Zalinski, an ex Union Army artillery man, demonstrated a gun that could fire dynamite filled shells. He managed this feat by using compressed air that was piped into a gun barrel to achieve a much smoother acceleration, which made it safer. Although air weapons had seen previous use in the form of the Girandoni rifle, with its air bottle, the Zalinski gun needed a large air tank storing air at 1000psi. This necessitated a powered compressor, at the time the only form of compressor available was a steam engine. This meant the Zalinski gun was limited to fixed fortifications or, as would soon be shown, warships. 
A battery of Zalinski guns, at San Francisco

In 1886 USS Vesuvius started undergoing construction, at the William Cramp and Sons shipyard. She was launched in 1888 and commissioned two years later. She looked a bit like a steamer or yacht, but she was fast for her time managing 21 knots. Her battery of three 15 inch dynamite guns were fixed in position, facing forwards. The arrangement meant she was rather front heavy. This wasn’t helped by the fact the ship had to be pointed at her target, to give you an idea of how unworkable she was for ship combat, she had the largest turning circle in the entire US Navy at the time. Range was set by the amount of air fed into the guns and their pressure. However, she did have a very shallow draught, and because of this it allowed her to travel up rivers to cities across the US, where she was used for propaganda. The idea of the guns was seen as revolutionary at the time, and because of this she received some fame as a wonder weapon that would alter the balance of power. In truth the navy knew she wasn't that effective with a limited range, unwieldy and with no real protection. 
Her guns could fire a 500lb charge of dynamite to a range of one mile, however a smaller 100lb shell could be fired out to 2.3 miles. The smaller shell was loaded into the gun with wooden sabots. 
USS Vesuvius
Despite these defects she was to see action. During the American Spanish War the US Navy blockaded a cruiser squadron in Santiago. The plan was drawn up that USS Vesuvius would conduct a shore bombardment. She took on two guides who had visited the area before, and after spending the day lurking behind the blockading squadron she moved cautiously forward. She reached the mouth of the harbour and discharged three rounds blindly towards the enemy harbour. To the sailors of the blockading force it sounded like a giant was coughing in the darkness, but there was no muzzle flash to give away her position. 
The forts defending the harbour fired a few shots at random into the night. The first shell struck a ridge line that lay between the enemy harbour and the USS Vesuvius. The second impacted at the base of the ridge line, the third hurtled over the ridge and splashed into the harbour. The detonations would rattle windows up to five miles distant and throw debris at least 200 feet into the air. 
Her job completed the USS Vesuvius retreated in reverse, at her top speed. She passed a light ship that was trying to get out of the line of fire at such speed it seemed like the light ship was still at anchor. For eight nights she conducted these bombardments. Although she never hit anything of importance her shells arriving without warning did have a negative morale effect on the defenders. 
Another scheme involving her was also hatched. It was suggested that the large explosions from her guns could clear the mine fields surrounding the harbour and allow the US blockading force to enter. This idea was quickly binned as the US ships would have the enter the harbour line astern behind the USS Vesuvius, and if she were sunk the entire plan would be impossible, and the squadron would be exposed to the enemy fortifications. 
When the US forces pushed into Santiago the Spanish resistance crumbled, and the cruiser squadron was forced to make a breakout attempt, and it was utterly crushed.
Battle of Santiago Bay, as the Spanish squadron comes out, you can see the headlands that the USS Vesuvius had to shoot over.
The USS Vesuvius never fired another shot in anger, although she did damage one more ship. After she was converted to a torpedo testing ship she managed to torpedo herself in 1915, and had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking. In 1922 she was decommissioned and sold for scrap. 
If you want to see plans and more pictures of the ship, including the internals, visit this page.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dragon Surprise

Musa Qal’eh is a small town in Helmand Province, it was also home to one of the British Army's Forward Operating Bases (FOB), during the Afghanistan War. Dotted around the FOB, at some distance are several patrol bases. To the north of the footprint of control is Mount Musa Qal’eh, which the troops nicknamed Mount Doom, for a very good reason. It was Taliban country. Their territory ran from the mountains to a large wadi that runs north-west. The Taliban were forced into the mountains and away from the town in 2007 when a large force of Afghan National Army supported by British forces attacked the area. Two kilometres west of the wadi is a stone outcrop, known as Roshan Tower. On top of it sits a mobile phone mast, in a flat area no bigger than a tennis court. Due to its 130ft height it also makes a great observation point, so unsurprisingly the British put one of their patrol bases on top of it. 
A US Soldier stops in front of Roshan Tower

In September 2008 the Taliban launched a major attack on the forces stationed at Roshan Tower. For nine days the Taliban assaulted the small base. Inside it a platoon of the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment held out against the battalion strength Taliban assault. Battered by mortars and under attack the British only suffered one man wounded. The men of PWRR had been in a similar situation in Iraq, where they were surrounded and attacked in Basra for a period, so the veterans knew what was to come. 
 After the Taliban attack had been halted, the British forces stationed a Javelin ATGM platoon on top of the tower to provide covering fire out to the missiles 4.75km range. These missiles could be fired at any Taliban attack, and provide quick response covering fire for many of the neighbouring patrol bases, or any patrol outside of its base. The trouble was the Taliban could hear the launch of the missiles and take cover before the missile could reach them. 
In January 2009 the Taliban began another series of assaults. During one of these assaults, suddenly a huge jet of flame leapt from the top of Roshan Tower. Almost instantly later the Taliban positions exploded, much to the confusion and surprise of the attackers. The Taliban so in fear of this named it The Dragon. 

The UK has a long history of not fighting fair, and if the Taliban had any historians they'd know full well that there is a long list of times when the British had manhandled big guns into position on hills and positions where the enemy thought it was impossible to get these artillery pieces. The Napoleonic War, the American Civil War and the Boer War all had incidents of guns being sited in odd positions by the British. The most famous of which is of course the relief of Ladysmith from the Boer War, which resulted in the Field Gun Competition that became immortalised in the UK by its inclusion in the Royal Tournament up until 1999. 

At Roshan Tower a L118 105mm gun had been helicoptered into the base of the tower as part of the normal logistics effort by a Chinook helicopter (called a "Flying Cow" by the Afghanistani's). From there, the gun was dismantled into smaller loads, and in secrecy overnight, was lifted up the side of the tower. While the operation to lift this "light gun" that weighed nearly two tons was going on, Gurkha units mounted patrols in the surrounding area. Despite the rough surface that threatened to crumble under the weight of the gun, by dawn the L118 was camouflaged, in position on top of the mountain with a stack of ammunition. 
An Australian gunner, attached to British forces, fires the Roshan Dragon towards Mount Musa Qal’eh
A L118, fires a round at night.
The advantage of the L118 over the Javelin is that firing the gun direct contact, the shell arrives before the sound of its firing meaning the Taliban had no time to react. From firing to the shell impacting the time is a mere five seconds, when compared to the 30 odd seconds for a maximum range shot from the Javelin. Neighbouring US forces when patrolling the area were impressed by the many holes knocked in Taliban positions, and intelligence reported that the Taliban were genuinely frightened of the moment when the British army would "Bring their Dragon from its lair". 

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Tropical Holiday

Life as a historian isn't easy, especially here in the UK. You might think it sounds fun walking into an archive, leafing through an old document and finding out something new. Or flipping open a document and finding a small brown envelope, as here in the UK those normally contain either plans or pictures. But it's never that easy. First you have to sift through the catalogues of the archive, and often you'll see something that sounds like it's what you're after from a brief description, but it turns out to be about 400 tables of fume toxicity measurements (that was one of mine when I was looking at stuff for the RARDEN gun), or data about engine cooling. The latter one happened to a colleague who described it as "possibly the most boring document ever."
Equally here in the UK, documents are spread over the entire country in different archives. You might have two identical documents in two locations, and yet be missing the start and end of the story. Or one document in one of the locations might be missing page number 47 from the other document, and it contains a vital piece of information.

Add in that a lot of the UK documents have been destroyed in clean outs of various departments as they took up space. Or archives that won't let you access their documents, such as BAE's. For those of you who don't know, nearly every British armaments manufacturer has been bought up by BAE, and their archives are closed. Every historian I know of who has tried to access stuff about tanks has run head first into a solid brick wall built about a refusal to deal with those grubby ground forces types, aircraft are fine and all right, but woe betide you if you're trying to research something with armour plate on.

The above is just the situation from after the Second World War. Dare you delve further in to the pre-war period, it's like trying to work out what colour a dinosaur is. That's what this week’s article is about. I recently finally got round to reading some documents I originally saw last year at Bovington, and it illustrates perfectly the problems we face. This concerns three tanks, and so will include new material. It also concerns Philip Johnson.
One of Johnson's last tanks, the Light Infantry tank

First the man. If you look at the very early years of British tanks, from the end of the First World War up until about the mid 1920's Johnson's name will always appear. There is little known of the gentleman, and he certainly is controversial. He seems to have acted on a few occasions like J Walter Christie, or Ferdinand Porsche, in that he designed what he thought was a good idea, not what was asked of him. At the end of his career after one of his biggest excesses he was tasked with designing a common chassis that could be used for tank, amphibian, supply carrier or gun carrier variants. For once he did as he was asked. The tank variant is the most famous one that we know of today, and it was known as the Tropical Light Tank. Some secondary sources add in the designation "8-20-10" to the name.
The Light Tropical tank
What we do know about it is this, it had two turrets, offset from each other, and strongly resembling those of the Austin armoured car, although the latter were basically a tube with a roof so how much the Tropical Tank’s design owed to the Austin is up for debate. These turrets would presumably be fitted with a pair of machine guns, as it's difficult to see anything else being mounted on the openings. The automotive components we know a lot more about, a 45hp Taylor engine was linked to a four speed variable Bevel gearbox, from that to wire suspension tracks steered by Rackham steering clutches.
Austin armoured car
 On Friday the 7th of October the tank was run for well over thirty minutes in a stationary position. It sounds like the tank was lifted clear of the ground as the right hand track was running. The left hand one at this point was not connected. This was done in the presence of Sir George Buckham and Colonel Dreyer. Everything went well with this test, apart form noise from the gearbox, which it was hoped to correct later. On Tuesday the 11th it was, to use Vickers own terminology, "launched", and ran under its own power from the workshops into an adjacent yard for a short trial run. During this some defects in the gearbox came to light and were to be put right.
More trials followed on the 28th of October, but this time the tracks were shown to be inadequate and far too noisy, so further modifications were to be carried out. By the start of December the gearbox was still being a pain and had been sent back to Crayford for further work. It was hoped for a test run on the 28th and then a demonstration to the Army on the 29th of that month.

From here things get weird from the sources, hence my overly long introduction about the state of British archives. So far I've been using two sources. David Fletcher's ‘Mechanised Force’, published in 1991, and the document I alluded to earlier. The document itself isn't a primary document, and looks like something printed out in the 1980's, but seems to be notes or a transcript of reports filed from Vickers. The document itself is held at Bovington, so is likely genuine. David Fletcher though uses Bovington documents as he's based near there. So we have a quandary, especially when they start to contradict each other.
Fletcher states that the Tropical Light Tank was at Farnborough for tests and ceased running after 238 miles in June 1922.
The document however is a bit of a curiosity. First from the start of 1922 it starts referring to the tank as just the "Light tank", and stating that there are two under various degrees of construction, and refer to them as No.1 and No.2 machines. Both sections of the document are under a title that says "Tropical Light tank" and later on the document starts talking about another project that gets a different title. So what's the problem?
Vickers no1
 According to the document in June 1922 the No.1 Light tank is still being modified, and didn't get delivered to Farnborough for trials until October 1922. While it doesn't seem too critical it does make you consider two other tanks. There were the Vickers No.1 and Vickers No.2 tanks. These resembled a First World War ‘rhomboid’ tank with a domed turret on them.
According to what Fletcher writes about, the Vickers No.1 shares almost exactly some of the details of the Tropical Light Tank's history, even down to the dates, yet the document specifically says those events belong to the Tropical Light Tank. Equally the Vickers No.2 tank dates match some of the dates the document says belong to Light tank No.2. Equally another of Fletcher’s works says the Vickers No.1 tank is at Farnborough for testing on the 17th of December 1921.
Vickers no2
 So basically we have a confusing mess of secondary sources, possibly changing names, lost documents and me sitting here getting very confused. This is what a British armour historian has to deal with, and it's no wonder so little research has been done in the field, unlike those nice orderly archives that my friends working on other nations report. This is also my holiday from my job, not quite the tropical one I was thinking of.

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Pom pom Power!

When Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun in the mid 1880's it was revolutionary. Hoping success would strike twice the gun was scaled up to 37mm. This new weapon fired a one pound shell. Oddly it didn't fit in with the thinking of the period, having a terrible range and shell weight compared to a conventional gun, and a slow rate of fire and was much heavier than a machine gun, so no one could see what to do with it. Also, it was rather expensive. However, several were brought by the Boers just in time for the Boer War. There the Boers used them as light support weapons, ideally they'd smuggle one in range of the enemy, fire off a short burst then withdraw. Meanwhile the British on the receiving end had a series of small explosive shells raining down all about them and were thoroughly suppressed. The British armed forces might be averse at spending money, but when in a war and there's something the enemy have that they don't that they need, they'll pay for it. Soon the British Army had these guns in service. Troops had named them from the distinctive sound they made, the pom pom gun. The pom pom gun, like its smaller cousin, soldiered on for a number of years, and was in service until the end of the Second World War. 
Boer Pompom
 As well as an infantry gun it was fielded on naval vessels where it was to provide close in defence against steam launches mounting torpedoes. As warfare became three dimensional the pom pom gun took on its main foe; the aircraft. In British service at least this started in 1913 on the Isle of Wight. At the Needles Battery a pom pom was mounted on the drill square and fired at a kite towed by a Royal Navy destroyer out in the Solent, and just in time as well, as the First World War was right around the corner. On the 23rd of September 1914 a pom pom under command of Lt O. Hogg opened fire at an enemy aircraft. After firing 75 rounds the plane was shot down. The pom pom served on both sides of the war, primarily as an AA weapon. However, a new job was beckoning, the tank. Little Willie, the famous ancestor of all tanks was originally designed to be fitted with a turret, and in that turret the main gun was to be a pom pom gun. Another round of scaling up took place during the war, and the pom pom gun reached its final, and most common form. It was now 40mm calibre and fired a two pound shell. 
1Pdr Pompom mounted on a vessel. For most of WWII these were used as self defence guns on small ships such as coastal trawlers and the like.
 From 1923 until 1930 the 2pdr pom pom was developed by the Royal Navy to be mounted on ships to provide them with close in protection. These were most famously mounted on in quad or even octuple mounts. The idea was to put a constant wall of explosives up in the face of an incoming aircraft and hopefully drive it off, or if it barrels through the flak to kill it. On the larger mounts the guns could be fired for 73 seconds continuously before needing re-loading. In one engagement HMS Illustrious is considered to have fired some 30,000 shells, without a single gun fault.  
"At least we shot that Focker down"
 Today there is some question about the lethality of the weapon, with most of the detractors pointing towards the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and the report into it. Which contains words to the effect that a single Bofors 40mm would have been better than the 2pdr pom poms fitted. 
However this isn't entirely true, the report is talking about the effect of warding off the attackers by causing them to flinch, the pom poms had one flaw, no tracer in their shells. So for warding planes off it was largely ineffective. Equally during the same battle the pom pom's were using ammo damaged by the heat of the tropics, and the ships fire control radar was offline, again due to the heat. One of the leading gunners who survived the attack recounts how he spent the entire time racing from one gun station to the next to unjam the thing and keep the barrels going due to the faulty ammunition. Yet despite these negatives the pom poms accounted for two of the four attackers that were shot down in the incident.  
The Bofors 40mm was also heavier and required more space to operate, and for a time when ship designers spent a lot of time worrying about weight limitations these were not small concerns. 
Just to give you an idea of how big the 2Pdr shells were. Imagine sixteen of those a second coming at you.
 In between the wars the 2pdr pom pom also was mounted on a tank, and was utterly unique at the time. A small number of Vickers E type 6 ton tanks were modified with an open fighting compartment and had a single 2pdr pom pom fitted. For many years the exact story of these tanks has been missing but recent work has brought it to light. I've been wanting to write about these for some time, however someone beat me to it. I'm not going to steal someone else's work, so for the full story go here. 
In summary the Siamese Type 76 AA guns were used to help defeat a coup led by lower members of the royalty against the government ministers during the Boworadet rebellion. 

As well as the Type 76 SPAA the 2pdr pom pom served out the war arming many Royal Navy vessels, and quite a few trawlers and other small craft around the British Isles. After that the gun was replaced by the ubiquitous Bofors 40mm. 
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