Nazi guided weapons wreaked havoc on the beaches
This heretofore littleknown story of air-delivered, radio-controlled missiles versus naval ships in World War II is a precursor to naval war in the 21st century from which lessons can be learned. In 1943, the Allies were surprised by unexpected and supremely effective German airstrikes against shipping in the Atlantic and, later, off Sicily, at the Salerno and Anzio beachheads in Italy and off Normandy. German scientists, engineers and the Luftwaffe had put together a system that, had they had more of them, might have turned the tide of war, especially in the Mediterranean and maybe at Omaha Beach. It was a war of airmen against sailors, but it was also a battle between Nazi scientists on one side and American and British “boffins” on the other.
While it was a surprise to the sailors in merchantman and naval ships, the Allied scientists had been alerted by way of intelligence and communications signals work. Even before the first attacks, experts in England and at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington were working hard at developing ways to defeat the new threat. They just weren’t quite in time for the first attacks, and great numbers of men and cargo were lost; however, tactics and techniques were eventually developed, and in just a year from the first strikes, the German systems were completely defeated. Martin Bollinger’s “Warriors and Wizards” is the story of how that was done.
The research accomplished to source this book is impressive. Thirty-six pages of notes attest to this; but one need not wade through them all. The author has weighed and distilled his facts and presents them in a most readable and, essentially, chronological format. It’s an important chapter in both the history of World War II and the yet-to-be-completed history of the development of guided weapons.
As long ago as the mid-1920s, several nations built and flew radio-controlled aircraft. In fact, the United States Navy did that in 1925. Signals and control mechanisms left much to be de- sired, however; the necessary sophistication had to await development in other fields. By early 1943, the German scientific and engineering establishments were able to do just that.
The Luftwaffe first put their guided bombs to use against merchant shipping in the Bay of Biscay. Convoys bound for the Mediterranean with no air support and only antisubmarine ships to support them were easy prey. Besides, by 1943, the Allies had been successful in tamping down the U-boat threat, and the Germans wanted to find some other way to stem the tide of men and materials heading for Africa and southern Europe.
The first guided bomb was launched from a twin-engine Heinkel 177, configured to carry the Fritz-X glide bomb that carried 700 pounds of explosive. The bomb’s only “propulsion” was the force of gravity, but it could be guided from the launching aircraft by means of a radio signal; a “bang-bang” system that could move spoilerlike controls up or down, right or left. It also had a flare in the tail to give the controller a better perspective. A singular disadvantage was that it could only be used in clear air.
A later development was launched by the twin-engine Dornier 217, the Hs 293, which carried its own rocket for propulsion. It was still guided by a crewman in the launching aircraft but, understandably, its circular error probable was vastly better, and it had a greater range. Because of its propulsion, it could also be launched from a lower altitude, under the clouds, for example, than could the FritzX.The weapons came as a surprise to commanders and mariners alike and, “(f)or a period of almost exactly one year, these German glide bombs [. . . ] terrorized naval and merchant sailors.”
The weapons “exploded suddenly on the scene in August 1943 [. . . ].” One horribly successful mission led to the loss of 1,045 U.S. service members on board one ship, the transport Rhona, a loss not well-known even today. Even worse, the recently surrendered Italian battleship Roma was sunk with the loss of 1,352 sailors.
These losses and more caused the English boffins and the NRL scientists to accelerate their efforts, of course. Based on intelligence collected from the fleet under attack, from at least one prisoner and from analysis of pieces of recovered German equipment, they did come up with several control-signal-jam- ming systems. Unfortunately, even as it is today, the game of electronic warfare is never-ending. Come up with a defense, and the foe comes up with another way, and on and on.
Yet that cat-and-mouse problem has to be worked; rather like cyberwar today. Fortunately, other systems came into play along with the electronic. Fighters deployed from Corsica and newly won Italian fields to intercept the launch aircraft. Army Air Force bombers hit hard at the bases from which the launch aircraft flew, and ships learned that quick maneuvering and effective anti-aircraft fire could often defeat the glide bombs, especially when the jamming gear worked right. In the end, the Germans ran out of aircraft, ran out of trained crews and ran out of usable airfields and had insufficient guidance systems with which to overcome Allied electronic warfare and carry out the glide-bomb missions. With all of that, the glide-bomb phase of the war petered out.
The glide-bomb campaign is not without lessons for the 21st century, however. As potential enemies develop more and more sophisticated guided weapons, the techniques for defeating them have not changed. They may have longer range, bigger warheads and more complex guidance, but, in the end, they will be defeated by interceptions early in their flight, destruction of the places from whence they launch, and deception of and interference with their guidance systems.
The story of that one year of terror on the seas and the complex efforts to defeat it can be complex in itself. Yet, Mr. Bollinger puts it all together clearly and logically. The extensive notes, reflective of exhaustive research are impressive, and the bibliography is extensive. The only complaint one might have is that he does, in fact, get bogged down in details on some of the more technical aspects. On the other hand, one of the more interesting chapters is the epilogue — a rather “Where are they now” story. If I were to read “Warriors and Wizards” again, I would read the epilogue first. The book is a recommended read for anyone concerned with 21stcentury warfare.
Truth in advertising: Not only is Martin Bollinger a professional management consultant, but he also serves as a member of the board of directors of the Naval Historical Foundation along with the reviewer.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn resides in Alexandria, Va. and is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.