When the B-17 was built, it was designed to be a formidable weapon against the enemy, namely the Nazis and the Japanese. Early on, before long-range fighter escorts came into being, B-17s had only their .50 caliber M2, the B-17s were on their own out there. Still, the B-17 was not defenseless. With those .50 caliber M2s, the crew had the ability to fire at the enemy from every direction…almost. The job of the Messerschmitt fighters was to take down the B-17s. The Messerschmitt fighter planes were designed to break world air speed records. They were also the hope of the Germans to take down the B-17s. Still, there were all those guns to deal with. Luftwaffe fighter pilots agreed that attacking a B-17 combat box formation to encountering a fliegendes Stachelschwein, “flying porcupine,” with dozens of machine guns in a combat box aimed at them from almost every direction. The biggest downfall of the B-17 bombing formation was that they had to fly straight, making them vulnerable to German flak. It was the first line of defense the Germans had when the bombers came in.
In a 1943 survey, the USAAF found that over half the bombers shot down by the Germans had left the protection of the main formation. The Germans needed a training plan. The United States developed the bomb-group formation, which evolved into the staggered combat box formation in which all the B-17s could safely cover any others in their formation with their machine guns, making a formation of bombers a dangerous target to engage by enemy fighters. The Messerschmitt fighters were fast, but they could not just fly at the formation. They would be shot down for sure. So, they looked for the bomber that had been hit and had to pull out of formation. Then they would move in for the kill. Moreover, German fighter aircraft later developed the tactic of high-speed strafing passes rather than engaging with individual aircraft to inflict damage with minimum risk. It was a way of not fully engaging the “flying porcupine.” As a result, the B-17s’ loss rate was up to 25% on some early missions. They needed something more to provide a kind of shield against the enemy.
It was not until the advent of long-range fighter escorts (particularly the North American P-51 Mustang) and the resulting degradation of the Luftwaffe as an effective interceptor force between February and June 1944, that the B-17 became strategically potent. They needed the P-15 Mustang to keep the Messerschmitts off of them. So in the end, the German training didn’t do them much good against the “flying porcupine.”
How could such a small island, sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, have such a large impact during World War II? Malta is only 95 square miles, the largest of the three islands that make up the Maltese archipelago, and it had a population of 433,082 in 2019, so imagine how small the population was during World War II. Nevertheless, the British Crown Colony of Malta was a strategic location and made a pivotal contribution to the air war in the Mediterranean during World War II. I don’t suppose they wanted to be in such a position, and considering the loss of civilian lives, 1,300 in all, they paid a dear price for the war effort.
With the opening of a new front in North Africa in June 1940, came an increase to Malta’s already considerable value. There were British air and sea forces based on the island, who were able to attack the Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe. Winston Churchill called the island an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Of course, Malta was a lot bigger, but it was in the sea, and it did have an air base, so it was like a large aircraft carrier. Churchill’s analogy makes sense in that planes could be dispatched from there and return to there as needed during fighting. General Erwin Rommel, the field command of Axis forces in North Africa, recognized its importance quickly. In May 1941, he warned that “Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.”
Being a strategic centerpiece did not, guarantee Malta’s safety. In fact, the opposite was the case. Both sides needed Malta, but only the Allies had it, so the Axis nations decided to destroy it. Between 1940 and 1942, Malta faced relentless aerial attacks by the Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force both fought to defend the island and keep it supplied. Malta was essential to the Allied war effort to disrupt Axis supply lines to Libya, and also for supplying British armies in Egypt. The German and Italian high commands also realized the danger of a British stronghold so close to Italy. Malta was a danger to the Axis nations, and they were bent on wiping it off the face of the earth. Malta had a target on it, and they began to feel like the shooting range.
Through the course of the war, Malta was bombed so many times that in the end, that in April 1942, the people of Malta were collectively awarded the George Cross by King George VI, which is the highest award for civilian courage and heroism. It is the only time that an entire nation received such an honor. The award was considered such an honor that the nations flag proudly displays the George Cross.
World War II was finally winding down. Germany had surrendered. Japan was still a problem, but they were losing their strength too. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and now it was over for Germany. I fact, it was time for celebration. So on May 8, 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrated Victory in Europe Day. The day would come to be known as V-E Day, and cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the oppressive Nazi war machine.
That was 75 years ago today that the first V-E Day was celebrated. It is hard to believe that it was 75 years ago. I wasn’t born then, of course, but over the years of researching World War II, I almost feel like those events were just yesterday. Researching World War II bought the events…good, bad, and horrific to life for me. Our men and women, as well as those of the Allies were brave and noble people. They were fighting against two oppressive regimes, both of whom had murdered their own people and the people of the nations around them. The Nazi war machine had marched through Europe, terrorizing the people around them. The Luftwaffe planes bombed many cities, taking no concern for the civilians lost. Life meant nothing to them…except for their own. Hitler was greedy for power, and wanted to bring Nazism to the whole world. Thankfully they were stopped before they could complete their reign of terror.
German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms on May 8, 1945 in Prague. The Soviets had lost 8,000 soldiers by the time of the surrender, but the Germans had lost considerably more. They laid down their arms too, in Copenhagen and Oslo, at Karlshorst, near Berlin, in northern Latvia, and on the Channel Island of Sark. The German surrender was almost complete in that final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany.
The main concern of many German soldiers was to elude the grasp of Soviet forces, to keep from being taken prisoner. About 1 million Germans attempted a mass exodus to the West when the fighting in Czechoslovakia ended, but were stopped by the Russians and taken captive. The Russians captured approximately 2 million prisoners just before and after the German surrender. At the same time. 13,000 British soldiers were released and sent back to Great Britain. Of course, there were still pockets of confrontations into May 9th, and the Soviets lost an additional 600 soldiers in Silesia before the Germans finally surrendered. Those skirmishes pushed back the V-E Day celebration until the ninth in Moscow, with a radio broadcast salute from Stalin himself, “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.” It was a great day for all the people of the Allied nations, and the people of the world, with the exception of the Germans, Japanese, and the Axis nations. Good over evil.
In the days leading up to America’s entrance into World War II, Hitler was becoming more and more volatile. It didn’t take much to set him off. On November 8, he had to move up his scheduled speech in Munich on the anniversary of his 1923 attempted coup in Bavaria because British bombers were on their way to take out a railway yard. Hitler was determined to avenge this daring offensive. The Fuhrer let his bomber pilots know that he was not “willing to let an attack on the capital of the Nazi movement go unpunished.” He immediately set about creating a plan to exact his revenge on Britain. Hitler didn’t wait very long. The chosen city would be Coventry, which is a city in the West Midlands, England…historically part of Warwickshire. The raid was scheduled for November 14, 1940, so Hitler had only 6 days to prepare for what would become the single most concentrated attack on a British city in World War II. Codenamed Moonlight Sonata, the raid lasted for 11 hours and involved nearly 500 Luftwaffe bombers, gathered from airfields all over occupied Europe. It was a brilliant moonlit night, so bright that the traffic could move around on the road without light. The Luftwaffe dropped 500 tons of high explosive, 30,000 incendiaries and 50 landmines. It was also trying out a new weapon, the exploding incendiary. The aim was to knock out Coventry as a major center for war production, but it was more than that. Hitler ordered the raid as revenge for the RAF attack on Munich.
On the appointed day, almost 500 German bombers unleashed Hitler’s fury on the British industrial city, taking out 27 war factories. Of the 568 people killed, more than 400 were burned so badly they could not be identified. Among the more than 60,000 buildings destroyed or severely damaged was the historic Saint Michael’s Cathedral. Coventry lost not only its great mediaeval church of Saint Michael’s, but it was the only English Cathedral to be destroyed in the Second World War. The city also lost its central library and market hall, hundreds of shops and public buildings, and 16th century Palace Yard, where James II had once held court. It is said that the smell and heat of the burning city reached into the cockpits of the German bombers, 6,000 feet above. More than 43,000 homes, just over half the city’s housing stock, were damaged or destroyed in the raid. The fire at the city’s huge Daimler works was one of the biggest of the war in Britain. Up to 150 high explosive bombs and 3,000 incendiaries turned 15 acres of factory buildings into a raging inferno. The people of the city were so traumatized, that hundreds wandered the streets in a daze and little children were seen trying to burrow their way through solid brick walls to escape the terrifying noise.
King George VI is said to have wept as he stood in the ruins of the burned out Cathedral, surveying the destruction. One man recalled being pursued down a street by a knee-high river of boiling butter from a blazing dairy. At one point during the night, an abandoned tram was blown over a house and into a garden. It landed with its windows still intact. At midday the next day in Coventry, it was as warm as spring and almost dark because of the effects of the firestorms. The official death toll from the night was 554, but the real figure could have been much higher with many people unaccounted for. As help poured in the next day, demolition crews had to be prevented from pulling down the Cathedral tower. They didn’t realize it had been leaning for at least 100 years. On the day of the mass funerals, fighter patrols were sent up into the skies above the city. It was thought that the Germans might try to bomb the cemetery. Following the raid, Nazi propagandists coined a new word in Germany…Koventrieren, meaning to raze a city to the ground…to Coventrate passed into the German language, meaning “to annihilate or reduce to rubble.” The raid was intended to bring complete hopelessness to Britain, but by 1947, Coventry had adopted Kiel, its first German twin city, and Dresden followed in 1956. The rebuilt Cathedral stands for international peace and reconciliation. Coventry is now the 9th largest city in England.
In any war, each side has just one goal in mind…winning. Of course, this is not just a video game or war games, but it is really a life and death challenge. In retrospect, I find it interesting to see some of the strategies the different sides use. While I cannot agree with anything the Germans did under Hitler’s rule, because Hitler was unbelievably ruthless, hateful, and cruel, there were some strategies that either he, his admirals, or his soldiers executed that were quite spectacular, though surprising in nature, because the Germans didn’t usually coordinate their efforts this well. I would never have wanted the Germans to win in World War II, because of their horrible treatment and murders of the Jewish people, but they did have a way of fighting that has captured my interest…at least on this day.
The Germans had controlled and occupied France since June of 1940. Their ships docked in French ports were drawing fire from the British. It became clear that the ships needed to escape. The German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had been anchored at the port of Brest since March of 1941, and the heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen had been there since May of 1941. They were periodically subjected to bombing raids and damage at the hands of the British. Now it was time to turn a bad situation into a successful failure, as it were. The Germans knew they were not going to hold onto France here, so now they needed to steal away in the night without getting caught.
It was decided that they would make a mad dash up the English Channel to the safety of German waters. The key here was to make the Channel Dash right under the watchful eye of the British Royal Navy without their notice. It was quite risky. Despite the watchfulness of the British submarines and aircraft, the German Vice Admiral, Otto Ciliax launched Operation Cerberus to lead the ships out of the French port, and to the safety of the German ports.
On the evening of February 11, 1942, they set their plan in motion. Accompanied by six German destroyers and twenty one torpedo boats for protection, they moved north late that evening. When daylight hit, they were joined by German planes to provide air cover as well. The air cover was led by ace pilot, Adolf Galland. He was joined by 250 other fighters in a coordinated joint effort of the German Navy and the Luftwaffe…an unusually well coordinated joint effort. The British Royal Navy scrambled to coordinate its own attack, but the late start would prove to be the undoing of the attack, because they did not realize that the escape was in progress until the afternoon of February 12th. All three of the German warships made it to a German port on February 13th, although the Gneisenau and had incurred damaged by British mines along the route. In addition to the embarrassment of the well planned escape that was carried out by the Germans, the British lost 40 aircraft and six Navy Swordfish during their confrontation. The Germans, on the other had, only lost one torpedo boat and 17 aircraft.
Nevertheless, the British would exact a revenge of sorts, when British warships sunk the Scharnhorst in December of 1944, as it attempted to attack a Russian convoy. The Gneisenau was destroyed during a bombing raid, while it was still being repaired from the prior damage, and the Prinz Eugen survived the war, but was taken over by the US Navy at the end of the war. It isn’t that I want to commend the Germans for their sneaky escape, because I don’t. They simply lived to fight…and ultimately lose, another day. It was, however, a good strategy, and I guess that even crazy dictators like Hitler, and the men he trained, could come up with an occasional good escape plan. Nevertheless, evil must not be allowed to continue, and the Germans had to be shut down, so the British, and all the other nations who stand for what is good, had to continue to fight, until Germany and its allies had no choice but to surrender. Still, February 11, 1942, the day of The Channel Dash would stand out as one of the best fights put up by the Germans, or at least, the best escape plan.