Nazi guided weapons wreaked havoc on the beaches

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.


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