Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wonder Weapon

I received an intriguing letter from a reader who is researching the use of early surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems by the Germans during World War II. Here's a digest:

Dear Mr. Puttre,

I just stumbled on to your excellent blog through your post on WWII ECM/RCM/ELINT missions flown by LTC. Roger Ihle with the 15th AF. I am doing research for a book on the 15Th AF's Sunday 17 December 1944 mission to the synthetic oil refineries at Odertal (Kozle, Poland). Aboard Col. Keese's B-24 (484th BG), radio operator Sgt. Herb Weinstein (German-speaking, A-2 Intelligence) was operating a "special" receiver in a small compartment in the aft bomb bay. Weinstein's monitoring of German fighter frequencies enabled Keese to contact P-51s of the 5th Sq, 52nd FG prior to a major attack by FW-190A-8s of JG300. The trailing 461st BG had no such equipment and suffered ten out of twenty-six B-24s shot down.

In addition, an after action report from the 485th alleges that they had six B-24s damaged by Nazi SAMS @ 1414 hrs @ 12,000 feet near the center of the Nagykanizsa Oil Triangle in southwestern Hungary on 17 Dec. 1944. The following day, the 2nd BG (B-17s) claimed they were attacked by Rheintochter SAMS over Wiener Neustadt. On the same date, a lone 451st B-24G "Shady Lady" went MIA about thirty miles from where the 485th alleged to have encountered the SAMS.

I've also came across a blurb that a Guy D. Carnine (B-24 pilot, 8th AF, 392nd BG) claimed the white contrail of a Nazi missile missed his wing by a couple of feet.

Author Leonard Mosley in his 1976 biography, Lindbergh, says that that CAL [Charles A. Lindbergh] was a member of a US Naval Technical Mission in Europe commanded by Henry Adam (Packy) Schade that arrived at GAF HQ in Zell am See, Austria, on 18 May 1945. Dip Ing Helmuth Schelp, chief aide to Adolf Baumker (CO of German AF Experiemntal Institute Nuremberg), handed CAL a two-inch thick report on the German rocket/missile program since the 1930s. That report, #373-45, recounts that the Germans launched 75 SAMS and brought down 70 four-engine bombers. (I was around Nike-Hercs in the late 1960s, and the number of hits sounds too high). I made snail-mail contact with Richard Keech of San Luis Obispo, CA. Dick is a retired NAA employee and remembers reading the original German file in the late 40s/early 50s.

Would you have any data or leads about Ferret B-24s or B-17s collecting "trons" from German SAMS etc?

John D. Bybee
Vermont, IL

Interesting stuff. If anybody has any thoughts about how Mr. Bybee might collect additional information for his book, please leave them in the Comments section.

Mr. Bybee has also provided scans of documents and photos he has collected during this research. I have posted these images here. Of particular interest is a reference to the firing of "rockets" from the ground at B-24s in an after-action report. The missiles cited in the attack were Rheinochter SAMs, although most sources say that this missile never became operational. There are references to operational uses of the Wasserfall SAM, however, and even to claims of "decisive victory" when 50 or so missiles were launched at US bombers. The Wasserfall was the basis of early Soviet efforts to develop SAMs and was instrumental in the development in the US Nike system.

It is also worth noting a conclusion in a US Naval Technical Mission report that the Germans had poured enormous resources into brilliant technical accomplishments but then failed to capitalize on them.

Magic weapons are a compelling component of lore, from the dawn of civilization through the present. Magic weapons materialize in the real world in the form of wonder weapons. That the builders of wonder weapons sometimes imbue with their creations with war-winning powers is typically little more than wishful thinking. During World War II, influential leaders of the German war effort were heroic believers in the fate-reversing, if not war-winning, powers of a parade of wonder weapons, including jet fighters and bombers, super tanks, and inertially guided rockets -- including SAMs. Many of these weapons came as rude shocks to the Allies and were very effective in the battlespace, but all ultimately failed to stem the tide of the Third Reich’s demise, because they were deployed in too few numbers. Some have pointed out that the engineering and manufacturing resources expended on these wonder weapons actually hastened Germany’s defeat.

If the myths of our ancestors -- and even our fathers -- tell us anything, it is that you do not need a wonder weapon to kill the enemy. Mundane weapons will do just fine if you attend to the basics of strategy, tactics, logistics, maintenance, and sound planning. This isn’t to say that wonder weapons aren’t nice to have on hand and aren’t worth beseeching the DARPA gods for. But excessive belief in the powers of magic can lead to your undoing if you are not supplied with the basics. Everybody wants a silver bullet. But experience tells us that they are in short supply.

On the other hand, electronic warfare has often been seen as the red-headed stepchild of the military. It is consistantly underfunded, and EW platforms are almost always "high-value, low-density" assets. This was particularly true in WWII, at the dawn of EW, where many didn't see the value in "trons." Yet the anecdote that Mr. Bybee leads with demonstrating the life-saving advantage of ELINT is a reminder that sometimes wonder weapons are worth the effort.

UPDATE: Here is a post on the use of "Window," an early EW secret weapon, and its contribution to the destruction of Hamburg in WWII.


At 7:16 AM, Blogger Alex said...

You might be interested in digging into the history of the RAF's No.100 Group, set up in 1942 for electronic warfare tasks including Window (US=Chaff) dropping, Perfectos IFF spoofing, interference with fighter controllers and more. The unit's motto was, coolly, "Confound and Destroy!"

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Michael Puttre said...

Ah, good suggestion, Alex. And you've inspired me do dig up an article on Window to post. Stay tuned...

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Brendan P. Rivers said...

In response to Mr. Bybee's question about discussions of Ferret B-24s or B-17s collecting "trons," I suggest checking out The History of US Electronic Warfare, Vol. 1, by Dr. Alfred Price. It provides several first-person accounts of WWII Ferret missions, particularly in the book's sixth chapter, which focuses on B-17 Ferret missions in the Mediterranean region. In my opinion, Price's three-volume work is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the history of EW.


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