Friday, August 12, 2022

Another Debacle

(Source)
Private James Fitzhugh thought back to his latest encounter with the German army. They had been in a great position, the hull protected by an earthen berm just forward of the tank, the turret mostly protected by the same berm.

They had draped boughs from the nearby trees (olives he thought, rather ironic considering that olive branches were considered an offering of peace) over the turret. From fifty yards away it looked like a brush pile. Plausible enough, as the farmers who maintained the olive groves did gather up downed branches and pile them up for later disposal. In the middle of a fork in the road was perhaps an odd place for such a thing but as Sergeant O'Connell said, "I doubt the Jerries know how olive groves are maintained, they have none of that in the Fatherland!"

They had Kiwi infantry dug in to either side of them, the position felt like a good one.

Until the Stukas came.

The bent-wing dive bombers seemed to know exactly where to drop their bombs for maximum effect. Other than a direct hit, the men were safe within the armored walls of their Cruiser tank Mk.II. But they could hear the screams of the infantry as the bombs killed them in their rifle pits.

Corporal Fred McTavish had shouted out that he could see Jerry tanks coming down the road. "Mark 3s from the look of 'em, too big for Mark 2s!"

O'Connell had come on the intercom, "Steady lads, wait until they're at point blank range Freddie. Willie, you keep the rounds coming, we need to kill a couple of them to block the road."

Private William O'Shea stood hunched over inside the sweltering heat of the dark turret. He held the next round in his hands, ready to load as soon as the breech was cleared of the previous round. He wasn't so much worried about the German tanks, their armor was readily defeated by the 2-pounder anti-tank rounds such as the one he held in his hand, he was more worried about the German infantry.

His tank carried no high explosive rounds at all, doctrine called for using the machine guns against infantry¹, the problem was, the hull machine-gun was blocked by the very same berm that protected the hull. The co-axial machine-gun pointed where the turret pointed which would negate the use of the main gun for dealing with armor.

O'Shea was a new soldier, scarcely six months in the Forces, but he paid attention, he learned quickly and what he saw here was a recipe for disaster. Not to mention which, his ankle still hurt like Hell. They'd laced his boot up tightly to keep it stable, but truth be told, he couldn't hobble more than a few yards without assistance.

The tank shook as a near miss rattled the bones of everyone inside the vehicle. O'Shea heard one word over the intercom, from the Sergeant.

"Shit ..."


The gunner in the lead Pzkw IIIH watched as the dust from the last bomb explosion settled. What he saw made his blood run cold. "Feindlicher Panzer, direkt voraus!²" The last bomb had blown off all of the foliage covering a British tank sitting not forty meters away.

He laid the gun on the target, but he was a fraction of a second too late. He saw a flash, then the world went black.


"Hit! Second tank, to the left ten degrees!" O'Connell had watched their first round hit the German tank right below the gun mantlet. The round must have glanced down and into the turret ring as the tank immediately jerked to a halt and begin to smoke. He ignored the crew bailing out as he wanted to hit the second tank he had glimpsed to the left rear of the tank they had just killed.

"Round is up!" screamed O'Shea as he reached for a third round.

"Firing!" McTavish barked as he hit the trigger.


The Panzer commander looked down into the turret, his gunner was nearly torn in half and the driver's position was a mess of blood and viscera. He wondered where the driver was, then it struck him, his driver was still in his seat, what was left of him from the shoulders down.

He saw the interior get brighter in all the smoke when the loader opened his hatch and dove over the side of the vehicle. That's when he noticed that the bow gunner's position was sunlit, so he had bailed as well.

He tried to climb out but his left leg wasn't cooperating. Puzzled he sat back down, perhaps his pant leg was caught on something. He checked by sliding his hands down his leg, only to discover that his leg ended just below his knee.

He was thinking, the pain hadn't hit him yet, "Now what do I do?"

A second later the ammunition in the ready rack exploded.


O'Connell nodded savagely, McTavish's second round had blown the right track off of the second tank, immobilizing it. That tank's turret was now traversing to line up on his tank. He heard the gun crew go through their drill, then his blood froze when he heard his gunner scream, "HANG FIRE!"³

"Get us out of here, Fitzie!" he barked at the driver.

Fitzhugh was ready, he'd had the engine running and had kept the transmission in gear, both of his legs were sore from nearly standing
on the brake pedal. But to his immense relief the tank rolled forward, he immediately moved his levers to pivot the tank to the right where they'd be screened by the now burning German tank.

O'Connell screamed over the intercom, "Fitzhugh! What the Hell?" The sergeant had expected Fitzhugh to back out of the position, keeping their front to to Germans. Then he remembered, that bloody clutch.

"Hang on lads, I'll get us out of here, swing the turret to the rear, I can't back up!" Fitzhugh screamed his answer over the intercom. O'Connell was already swinging the turret to the rear.

Fortunately, the smoke from the burning German vehicle had masked the second German's vision, he had fired at them but the round had missed by far enough that O'Connell hadn't even noticed.


The clutch on the old beast had finally given up the ghost some thirty-five miles back and two days ago. Now Fitzhugh and his crewmates were queued up on a pier at Piraeus waiting to shuffle aboard a Royal Navy warship tied up to the pier.

They had carried O'Shea for a large part of the way until an old Greek farmer had sold them an even older donkey to carry the injured O'Shea.

One of the Kiwis with them had said that what they'd paid for the donkey was way too much, he also said that he hoped the old farmer didn't try to spend the money they'd given the man. As Fitzhugh remembered it, the crew had had ten shilling coins among them. Not even a pound!

O'Connell had pointed out that the coins were silver, the old man was smart enough to melt them down for the silver. After all, he'd managed to sell a worn out donkey which he probably couldn't have given away in normal times.

The donkey had given out some ten miles further on, but still it had helped. Still and all, he was glad that they didn't have to carry the lad any further.

Each time the men had heard engine noises overhead, they had all looked up. The Luftwaffe had been ever more active over the past few days, fortunately today was overcast, with lots of low clouds and scud. The Germans were up there, but couldn't come down.

"All right, you lot, get aboard, leave anything and everything. You! Soldier! Leave that rifle, if it ain't weightless, it ain't going aboard."

Fitzhugh turned around and watched as a burly sailor snatched the rifle from the soldier's hands and smashed it over a bollard, shattering the stock and bending the barrel. Then the sailor pitched it into the harbor.

"What the bloody Hell am I supposed to fight with now?!" the soldier screamed in frustration.

"Ain't no fighting where you lot are going, ye'll be there a week or two then it's back to Egypt where you'll be re-equipped. Now move along or stay, makes no never mind to me!"

"Where is it we're going then mate?" O'Connell asked a sailor preparing to cast off the lines holding the ship to the pier.

"An island out in the Med, Crete it's called. You'll be safe from the Huns until we can get you to Egypt. Now let's go, all of you!"

Fitzhugh nodded, Crete, he thought to himself, an odd name but one he seemed to remember from school, something about minotaurs or something.

Well, they should be safe there. After all, the Royal Navy controlled the seas. Right?




¹ See this.
² "Enemy tank, dead ahead!" (German)
³ A "hang fire" means the round in the gun didn't fire, either due to a faulty fuse/primer or a problem with the propellant. Either way, the gun didn't fire when it was needed. It will still fire, but after a delay. A misfire is when the fuse, or primer, doesn't detonate the propellent at all.

48 comments:

  1. Well, most of Crete troops got away. German paratroopers got mighty bloodied, though, taking the island.

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    Replies
    1. Most? Not really. Of 42,547 Commonwealth and Greek forces on the island, Commonwealth forces (British, Australians, and New Zealanders) suffered 3,579+ killed and missing, 1,918 wounded, and 12,254 captured. Greek forces suffered 544+ killed and missing, 5,225 captured. Which is greater than a 55% casualty rate. The German paras were never used in their intended role again (at least not on such a large scale) because Hitler (a complete military amateur) was staggered by the losses they took on Crete.

      In comparison, the German loss percentage was roughly 27%. Also, the Germans executed upwards of 500 Greek civilians on the island. It was a bloody battle, British propaganda made the Axis losses seem greater than their own, which wasn't the case.

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  2. Frying pan, fire........oh well, alive for another day. Good episode Sarge.

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    1. Keep moving, stay alive, then strike back. Their day will come!

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  3. Feet and legs ache from standing on the brake, poor Fitzhugh. But he knew to leave the transmission in 2nd gear for the reliability of dead start escape. That was a good segment Old Airforce Sarge. I can’t wait to see that scene when the movie is released (except for the infantry getting wasted by the stukas).

    Franknbean

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  4. Hey AFSarge;

    Crete.....Ruhroh Shaggy....Your muse ain't done with them yet

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    1. Not even close, she'll be keeping them on the hop for a while!

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  5. You are increasing my education by leaps and bounds Sarge. I know absolutely nothing about the Greek campaign on either side. What your writing does remind me of is how massive an event WW II really was.

    (Piraeus reminds me - Have you read Tides of War by Steven Pressfield? It covers Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War; they sailed from Piraeus, which is what triggered my memory.)

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    1. I have not read that. Sadly my knowledge of ancient warfare is pretty weak.

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  6. Crete -and disarmed - what a deal.
    And really...I can see saving the weight of an SMLE on an aircraft, but on a ship? Preposterus.
    Boat Guy

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    1. A rifle weights too much for a ship? I did wonder about that...

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    2. A rifle, no. 1 per person on the ship, possibly.
      juvat

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    3. BG - Load a thousand men on a small ship, each rifle weighs 9 pounds, a thousand rifles is then 9000 pounds. Four tons is a lot of weight, keep in mind the ship still needs to maneuver and fight. But yes, the sailor on the pier was being a bit overzealous. But if my orders were to make sure the troops jettisoned anything extra, I'd probably ditch the rifles as well.

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    4. Rob - See my earlier comment.

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    5. juvat - Weight is weight, ship, car, train, aircraft, it all adds up.

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    6. I'm thinking 5 tons is not much to a ship that's carrying people rather than crates of stuff but this is not my story & you're doing a superb job!
      I'll just sit here and read...

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    7. Cramming people where they're not supposed to be takes up space, lots of space. Anything more than a uniform takes up lots of space, too.

      The English warships were never very interior-spacious. The Brits looked upon even our Destroyer Escorts as having lots of room. The 4-pipe (WWI era) destroyers we lend-leased them were, in comparison, luxury palaces to the early WWII era Brit destroyers.

      It's like US sub policy. Our subs were big, spacious (for a sub) and designed for long range solo activity. Pert near everyone else, especially the Germans, had cramped subs. (You can see this in two movies. "Operation Petticoat" for a US fleet sub and "Das Boot" for a Nazi sub.)

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    8. Rob - The men were taken on in addition to all of the many things already aboard needed to feed the crew and fight the ship. Anything excess is bad. Rifles can be replaced, the men cannot. Also, see Beans comment.

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    9. Beans - Ah, someone who gets it. A warship has next to no extra room for anything not needed by the crew or the ship itself.

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    10. Those four and a half tons of ditched rifles gives you the weight available for 60 more men.

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    11. Sarge,
      Rifles can be replaced IF you have rifles to do so. If you do not, you have rendered those men as "combat ineffective" as if you had shot them yourself.
      The Brits gratefully accepted hundreds, if not thousands of rifles donated by American civilians after Dunkirk.
      Boat Guy

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    12. Of course few sailors of any nation in WWII were "rflemen"; before that, naval landing parties were com!on aboard ships too small to have Marine detachments
      BG

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    13. Even big ships like the Queen Mary have limits. She could transport 15,000 troops across the Atlantic in summer (there were lifeboats and rafts for 8,000). In winter, she was restricted to 10,000 troops. The effect of the bodies of more troops shifting with her roll was found to serious affect her stability in rough weather.

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    14. BG#1 - Leaving them on the beach is the same.

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    15. For warship crowding, I was looking for the account of the sub USS Angler that took 58 refugees (59 on arrival) out of the Philippines. The Brits did one better. The Brit sub HMS Torbay evacuated 130 Brit soldiers from Crete to Egypt.

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    16. Submarines can avoid contact, tougher for a surface ship. With excess personnel on board it's tougher to fight the ship.

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    17. Aerobracero, here. Hey, Beans I remember going aboard USS Drum at the USS Alabama memorial in Mobile Ala. as a teenager. I barely fit the bunks. And I am sawed off. 5'6. How in the world did tall guys like Creed Cardwell Burlingame or Slade Cutter ever manage as commanders I will never understand - just from the head bumping perspective. Sarge, these episodes are really great.

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    18. Thanks! (I've been aboard Drum as well!)

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  7. Ah, total suckage. The rule of 'No HE for the 2pdr' hamstringed British tankers and anti-tank gunners all the war long. We with our piddly 37mm had a useful gun all war long, able to fire AP, HE and Cannister.

    As to Crete, Avalon Hill had a game "Air Assault on Crete" based on the actual Crete battle. And with the game came the optional "Air Assault on Malta" which the players could play straight up without considering what happened on Crete, or with an interesting 'survivor and replacement' rule.

    Crete sucked. Malta would have been worse. Yet taking out Malta would have given the Axis the Med, and all the crucial supply lines to Africa.

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    1. I had those games, Malta was extremely critical to control the supply lines needed to feed the Afrika Korps and their Italian allies. Without it, the Med might have become an Axis lake.

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    2. 37mm cannister. The Japanese learned about that at Guadacanal at the hands of the "164th Marines" (3/164 Infantry).

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  8. Strong piece ,and an interesting photograph

    The sign says " Coffe shop - Grilled Food - Cigarettes"
    Probably a cheap coffe shop at the back of an enclosed central market place
    Something in the architecture strikes me as Southern Greek as well
    Proteus2

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    1. It's where the British fought the Germans as the country was being overrun, so definitely southern Greece.

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    2. According to locals looks like the fish market of Argos or possibly Kalamata in the Peloponnese
      Argos is mentioned in Roald Dahl's "Solo"
      Kalamata was the final evac point

      Proteus2

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    3. Nice to have the actual spot identified.

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  9. My carrier (CV 59) hit port in Crete in '91; I was told it was the first carrier there in a long time. I was a cretin--um, I mean Cretan--for a day!
    I heard that, y'all.....
    --Tennessee Budd

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    1. My story, & I'm sticking to it. It didn't have lasting effects.
      Tennessee Budd

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  10. Royal Navy controlling the seas? Some frying pan-fryer foreshadowing?

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