South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 528
May 2021

Contact: Charles Whiteing
Telephone: 031 764 7270
Mobile: 082 555 4689

Following a long adjournment since March 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, the first meeting in 2021was held on the 12th of May, albeit in a new venue and time slot. The original venue at the Natal University, is for various reasons no longer available. In addition, there had been a sentiment expressed by members that meetings held at night are no longer a safe option due to security concerns. The new venue is the St Cyprians Church Hall in Umbilo Road, Umbilo, with meetings to be held at this venue on the second Saturday of the applicable month. There is ample parking with a car guard in attendance. The required Covid disciplines were in place, including taking of temperatures, recording of names and the seat spacing.

The Chairman, Charles Whiteing, welcomed all present before calling on those in attendance to be upstanding in a minute’s silence in memory of fellow committee member Maj. Dr John Buchan who recently passed away.

The DDH speaker Roy Bowman was called on to present his talk on, “WESTERN APPROACHED TACTICAL UNIT”.

By January 1942, the U-Boats were the scourge of the Atlantic with the loss of munitions, food supplies and the loss of lives. Winston Churchill queried with Sir Charles Little, the Second Sea Lord, if the existing anti-submarine tactics and strategies were competent in addressing the problem. He in turn discussed their options with Cdr. Gilbert Robert and Admiral Sir Cecil Usborne in his capacity as anti-submarine consultant to the First Sea Lord. Roberts was tasked with setting up an analysis team named the Western Approaches Tactical Unit or WATU. There was initial resistance from Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Western Approaches O.C. but allowed Roberts to establish the unit in Derby House, Liverpool. His initial task was to ascertain the modus operandi of the U Boats and consulted Cdr. “Johnny” Walker who had developed a tactic to counter nocturnal tactics when the convoy escorts, on the signal “Buttercup”, would change course inwards while firing star shells to illuminate surfaced U Boats around the convoy.

At the outset, the WATU was extremely basic lecture theatre with its tactical tables and brown lino floors which had been demarcated into squares,with ship models representing the convoy vessels.

The war games rules and processes were established, to represent real life circumstances, tactical procedures and communications. The room was later “redesigned,” insofar that RN escort commanders would only be able to view the layout through restrictive screens which, with restricted vision, represented the actual scenario of what limited available intelligence was available to them. Brown chalk lines represented the course of the U Boats, but these were unseen by the players.

Roberts small staff comprised CPO Raynor, followed by WRENS Elizabeth Drake, Jane Howes, Jean Laidlaw and Nan Wailes. They were trained in all aspects of ASW tactics but soon mastered the required skills to run the analytical wargames. Roberts first challenge was to establish how the U Boats attacked and evaded the convoy escorts. Following a series of “wargames”, it was revealed that the attacking submarines were not outside but in fact were operating within the convoy. Roberts contacted Sir Max Horton, C-in-C RN Submarine Command who being a WW1 sub veteran; confirmed it would be a tactic he would apply himself. Based on this concept, Roberts set up a wargame to counter this enemy tactic. The various options were examined throughout one evening with Roberts assisted by his able WREN team. The findings established that a U Boat`s best option was attacking the convoy astern. He acknowledged that Cdr. Walker had devised a tactic that addressed the problem of additional attacking U Boats and that when confronted by an RN escort vessel; would probably submerge and surface astern of the convoy. The tactic to be employed would require the escorts to fall back in line astern after the initial U Boat attack and employing an ASDIC sweep would in turn attack the submarine.

The following day, Roberts demonstrated the concept to Sir Percy Noble with an exercise representing U boats attacking convoy HG76. One of the WRENS Officers nicknamed it operation Raspberry with Sir Percy Noble viewing the WATU in an extremely positive light. Henceforth, WATU officers would be regular visitors to the Operations Room with escort officers having to attend the course and Cdr. Roberts promoted to Captain. Altogether about 5000 officers attended the WTU courses being guided and tutored by the young WRENS. The courses looked at all aspects of ASW with the young officers participating in the war games. The effective WATU tactics effectively reduced the efficacy of the U Boat attacks through not waiting for the Germans to develop counter measures.

In November 1942, King George VI visited WATU and was delighted with the display Roberts and his team demonstrated and volunteered to attend the course himself. Counter measures at this stage included the Hedgehog defence and 10cm radar systems. As U Boat losses increased, Admiral Doenitz introduced a new weapon; the acoustic torpedo that had a guidance system which locked onto its targets which in September 1942 was used against convoys ONS.18 and ON.202 as had been identified by Bletchley Park.

By wars end, the staff of WATU comprised eight male officers with thirty-six WREN officers and ratings.

Among the numerous officers who had passed the course was HRH Prince Phillip of Greece and the future author of “The Cruel Sea”, Nicholas Mosarrat, who it's thought based the title of his book on Robert's summary at the end of each course with the words ”It’s the war of little ships, and lonely aircraft, long patient and unpublicised, our two great enemies – the U Boats and the cruel sea.”

At the end of 1943, Roberts was summoned to Buckingham Palace where he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He was accompanied by a WREN officer and a WREN rating as he intended sharing the honour with representatives ofhis remarkable team that helped the Western Approaches Tactical Unit win the Battle of the Atlantic.

After his detailed presentation,there was a Q&A period with the speaker addressing questions from those present.

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The Chairman then announced a short break, followed by the regular raffle draw.

The Main Talk titled “The B17 – the Flying Fortress” was given by the Chairman Charles Whiteing.

Supported by a graphic Power Point presentation, it was identified that until 1942 the European bombing campaign had been conducted at night by the RAF using among others the Lancaster heavy bomber. Following the entry of the USA in the war, their USAAF was represented by the Eighth Air Force in the UK with a bombing campaign of occupied countries in daylight. The B17 Flying Fortress was like the RAF Lancaster; a high altitude heavily armed bomber; targeting the German industrial, transport and communication infrastructure. On take-off they formed up in huge aerial “boxes” and trailing tell tail contrails making them highly visible to German anti-aircraft fire (FLAK) and Luftwaffe interceptors. Statistically the B10's alone were responsible for 640,000 tons of bombs dropped during their raids. The downside of daylight raids was represented by the fact that of the 12,531 B17's flying; 4,754 were lost due to combat accidents. The crews of all US aircraft bomber types had to complete 25 operations before returning to the USA; 95 000 never returned.

The efficacy of attacks on targets by this aircraft prompted US General Carl Spaatz to pass the comment “without the B17, we might have lost the war. The bomber was built by Boeing with initial service in 1938. It had a maximum speed of 287mph with a maximum range of 2,000 miles. It was powered by four Wright air cooled radial engines which remained in production until the 1950's. It was armed with 13 x 50 calibre machine guns, had a crew of eight and had a bomb capacity of 17,600 pounds. To offset the weight of the fuel, not more than 4,000 pounds were carried.

The theory with the box formation concept was that in formation, each bomber would be able to protect each other with crossfire when attacked by German aircraft.

In the early stages of the air campaign, the bombers flew without fighter escorts, and only later were Mustangs, Lockheed Lightnings, Spitfires, Thunderbolts and the Mosquito fighter bomber introduced. The singled engine aircraft had been fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks to increase their range. The Mosquitoes were used in a Pathfinder role ahead of the bomber streams and were also responsible for dropping “Window”, the code name for strips of aluminium used to confuse German radar, the Luftwaffe as well as the size of the bomber group and its subsequent target destination.

The defence of each B17 included machine guns located in the nose (a.k.a. the chin), two waist turrets, upper turret, rear turret and the ball turret located on the underside of the aircraft. Head on German fighter attacks later resulted in the fitting of a “chin” turret which was standard fitment of the B17G of which 8600 were built. The most dangerous position was the Ball Turret which crews described as a “monstrous little chamber” from which escape was virtually impossible with few volunteers for this location. He sat in a foetal position on a canvas sling with his feet located in heel placements. The rotation of the turret was operated by handles within the confined space which made the wearing of a parachute by the gunner impossible.

The Flight Deck was located high up surrounded by the thinly armoured fuselage. The pilot and co-pilots seats were armour plated and arranged in an armchair position. The cockpit was located between the four engines. There was an astrodome and a small chamber in front of the cockpit to accommodate a navigator and the bombardier.

Losses of aircraft during these daylight raids were high. An example being the raid on the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt on 17 August 1943 and the Messerschmidt assembly plant at Regensburg which accounted for a total loss of 60 aircraft from a total of 376 B17's.

By 1943 the newly developed Norden bomb sight had been fitted to the B17 bombers which improved accuracy. However, in June 1944, the USAAF forces were focused on the bombing of strategic targets in France and Germany to facilitate the Allied landings in Normandy. Each aircraft carried Mandrel Radar Jamming Equipment and “Window” to provide a huge anti radar screen to conceal the Allied landings from the German early warning radar systems. The bundles of “Window” aluminium strips were physically dropped by the crews en route to their designated targets. The German Freya Radar and Lichtenstein Radio Beacons tracked the bomber streams to alert FLAK and Luftwaffe units. The anti-aircraft weapons included a network of 88mm and 155mm guns located around strategic targets. These FLAK (Flug Abwehr Kanonen) batteries were initially manned by Luftwaffe personnel but later due to manpower shortages by the Hitler Youth.

The ME 110 German night fighters mounted upward firing cannon known as “Schrage Musik” or “Slanting Music.” The purpose was to fly unseen beneath a bomber and fire upwards into the body of the aircraft. German aircraft development was far advanced for it's time and included a jet powered aircraft called the Natter which was armed with rockets in its nose with the pilot and aircraft parachuting back to earth after the attack. Other futuristic aircraft included the brilliant ME262, the ME 162 Komet and the Heinkel Arado 234. However, in the closing stages of the war these aircraft with their incredible speed were a case of “too little too late.” The success of the Allied bombing campaign by 1945 had the Germans turning to totally unconventional methods of defence. In January 1945, Hitler had agreed to the forming of a last ditch “Rammkommando” squadron flying ME 109's with young volunteer pilots ramming the bomber formations. A total of 2,000 pilots volunteered who were trained at an airbase at Stendal near Berlin. The operation was code named “Training Course Stendal”, where pilots were trained to ram the American bombers to disable it, and to then bail out of their aircraft, as it was not to be a suicide mission like the Japanese Kamikaze. On 7 April 1945, the only mission was flown resulting in the loss of eight B17's and two B24 Liberators, against the loss of thirty-one ME109's of which twelve which shot down by escorting Mustangs, three by their own FLAK, five crash landings and eleven lost to unknown causes. This heralded the demise of the Luftwaffe day fighter arm in the twilight days of the Third Reich.

There were however examples of chivalry when on 20 December 1943, a B17 flown by Lt Charles Brown was returning from a raid in his badly shot up aircraft named “Ye Olde Pub.” The plane had been reduced to two running engines, jammed turret guns and injured crew members. Suddenly Brown noticed a German ME 109 flying parallel to them on his right-hand side, about three feet from their starboard wing tip. Brown ordered his engineer to man the only operating mid upper turret. On seeing this, the German pilot saluted and rolled his plane away. The B17 continued and managed a wheels down landing at the Seething Air Base in East Anglia. The aircraft had been so badly damaged that it was later described by a technician as a “flying wind tunnel designed by a Swiss cheese manufacturer.” Following an article he wrote in 1989 he wrote for the German Pilots Association, Charles Brown was contacted by Lt Franz Stigler, a former Oberleutant, who had flown the ME 109 in question. Remembering the incident, he said the B17 was like a blood-stained sieve with the crew tending the wounded and the pilot struggling to fly it. He said it was the most badly damaged aircraft he had ever seen that was still flying. He had initially flown his ME109 in front of the B17 to guide it to turn back and land in Germany. As this was ignored, he decided to escort the bomber over the North Sea, and then flew away; a decision that could have resulted in his court martial or execution by his superiors. At a 379th Bomber Group Association Reunion, Brown and two of his remaining crew members met Stigler who was the honorary guest with Brown and Stigler remaining friends thereafter.

On an amusing note, there was a bet wagered between American General Bedell Smith who was Eisenhower's chief of staff and British General Montgomery. Bedell Smith said that if Monty advanced on the town of Sfax by 15 April, he would present him with a B17 for his personal use. This was in fact achieved by the 8th Army and Monty insisted that a bet was a bet and Smith reluctantly provided a B17 that was financed, crewed and maintained by the Americans for Monty's flights between Africa and England.

Should one attend an air show in the UK nowadays, you made be fortunate to see a flying example of this iconic B17 aircraft known as “Sally B’ which was the “star” of the TV series “We'll meet again” and the film “Memphis Belle.” She was built in California in 1944, and she is maintained by a team of volunteers in memory of the 79,000 USAAF airmen who died during the war.


Dr Graeme Fuller delivered the Vote of Thanks to both speakers.

Charles Whiteing announced that the next meeting will be held on the 12th of June at the same venue.

Dr Graeme Fuller will be delivering a memorial lecture on “The Life and Times of Ken Gillings”

We are looking for speakers for either a DDH slot (20 minutes) or a Main Talk (45 minutes) on a topic of military history they would like to share with the members and preferably supported by a Power Point presentation. There are a number of existing speakers who would be in a position to assist you in your presentation.

We also have some vacancies to join the committee so please contact me accordingly.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Whiteing

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South African Military History Society /