Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first fourteen chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane and establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt; the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare and the role of airpower in the Union’s victory in the American Civil War; the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson alliance; the dawn of commercial flight in America; how the Civil War shaped military aviation technology and doctrine in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the birth of the famous Merlin engine and Henson’s experiments with trans-Atlantic flight in the final days of his life; the first successful trans-oceanic aircraft flights; the wave of bankruptcies that overwhelmed the aviation industry in the late 19th century; the Wright brothers’ creation of the first practical all-metal monoplane; the crucial role of airpower in the First World War and Russia’s 1917 October Revolution; the birth of the jet engine; Nazi Germany’s launching of the world’s first artificial satellite; jet combat operations in the early years of the Second World War; the Battle of Pearl Harbor; and the beginning of Anglo-American cooperation in the fields of rocket science and atomic fission research. In this segment we’ll review the role of jet fighters at Wake Island and Stalingrad; recall the introduction of the first American ICBRs1; and see how jet warplanes paved the way for the Normandy and Bagration campaigns of 1944.
Wounded predators can be very dangerous when cornered, and in the spring of 1942 this was certainly true where the Imperial Japanese Navy was concerned. Despite having sustained a hideous defeat at Pearl Harbor Japan still retained at least two front- line carriers and dozens of smaller ones, and it had a number of carriers of all classes under construction in its shipyards as it strived to keep pace with its most dangerous wartime foe, the United States.
Also, despite repeated vehement demands for his resignation, Admiral Yamamoto had been retained as commander-in-chief for the the Combined Fleet-- not only thanks to his keen strategic mind but also because the Imperial government wanted to give him the chance to avenge the insult that the defeat at Pearl had done to his honor. As the target for his next major naval campaign he chose Wake Island, one of the most important links in America’s Pacific defense chain.
Before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had harbored ambitions of sending their army and navy to sweep down through southeast Asia to seize British, Dutch, and American territorial holdings in the region; some of the more optimistic members of the Imperial Army general staff had even dared to entertain the notion of following up their southeast Asian conquests with an invasion of Australia. But the catastrophic blow which the Imperial Navy’s carrier force had sustained at Pearl Harbor compelled the Japanese high command to switch to a largely defensive strategy, meaning that many of their plans of conquest for southeast Asia had to be tabled-- or even abandoned altogether. Wake Island represented what might be Japan’s last chance to turn the tide of the war in its favor.
The destruction of four IJN carriers at Pearl left Admiral Yamamoto seriously shorthanded as far as his main carrier force was concerned, posing a serious problem for his proposed Wake Island strike. Another problem was that for every light carrier the Japanese had, the Americans possessed an almost equal number of light carriers of their own. But the biggest problem, one that Yamamoto didn’t even know existed, was that US intelligence had long ago cracked Japanese naval and diplomatic codes and could anticipate his possible moves far in advance-- sometimes almost before Yamamoto himself had thought of them. In fact, just about every decision Admiral Kimmel had made since the Battle of Pearl Harbor had been based on the understanding that the IJN, having endured an intolerable setback at Oahu, would sooner or later try to avenge the insult by hitting the Americans elsewhere.
But it would take a major stroke of luck for Kimmel to know for sure that Wake was Yamamoto’s next target. That stroke came courtesy of his signal intelligence staff, which in March of 1942 intercepted a top secret Japanese cable that made reference to a location called "AF". Playing a hunch, and acting on a suggestion by one of his fellow admirals, William F. Halsey, Kimmel arranged for the commander of the Wake Island garrison to transmit a false radio message saying the garrison was low on fresh water; a few days later Kimmel’s staff intercepted a communiqué from Imperial Navy headquarters in Tokyo to IJN ship commanders reporting that "AF" was experiencing a fresh water shortage. Having gotten this confirmation that Wake would be the focal point of Yamamoto’s next major campaign, Kimmel assembled a carrier task force under Halsey’s command and deployed it to Wake to ambush Yamamoto’s attack force when it arrived.
The American carrier force at Wake was commanded by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a hard-driving Texan with a gift for strategic thought who’d been advising Admiral Kimmel on carrier operations since the Battle of Pearl Harbor. Nimitz, who would eventually succeed Kimmel as US Pacific Fleet commander-in-chief, would use scout planes to keep track of the Japanese flotilla’s approach towards Wake Island; once Yamamoto’s strike force had closed to within striking distance of the island, Nimitz would bring his own carriers forward in a sweeping pincers maneuver and hit the Japanese with a series of massive air strikes that he hoped would finish what Pearl Harbor had begun-- the annihilation of the IJN main carrier fleet.
Nimitz himself would direct the northern arm of the pincers; the southern arm would be led by a Nimitz protégé, Adm. Raymond F. Spruance. In between them, shore-based US Marine Corps fighter squadrons would dash up towards the center of the Japanese battle line and eliminate those targets which hadn’t already been taken out by Nimitz’s and Spruance’s air groups. A group of submarines patrolled the waters off Wake’s southern coast, ready to torpedo any Japanese ships that tried to make a break for home.
Long before the Battle of Pearl Harbor, the United States had been working daily to expand its aircraft carrier fleet; on both the East and West Coasts, American shipyards had been going full blast trying to ensure the US Navy would have an adequate supply of both main and light carriers if and when Uncle Sam went to war with the Axis. At least three of the six American light carriers that would see action at Wake had already been in active service with the US Pacific Fleet for at least a year by the time the United States declared war on Japan. In the end, however, the Battle of Wake Island would be decided not by who had the highest number of aircraft carriers in the battle zone but by which side made the most effective use of their carriers.
At daybreak on April 8th, 1942 a land-based scout aircraft sighted Hiryu, the Japanese attack force’s designated flagship, approaching Wake Island from the west. That was the signal for Nimitz and Spruance to begin closing their pincers on the IJN flotilla, for the shore-based Marine Corps jet squadrons to start taking off from Wake’s main airfield-- and for the IJN task force to deploy its own planes to oppose the impending American air strikes.
The resulting showdown was the most intense air and sea battle waged in the Pacific since Pearl Harbor. True to form, the Japanese pilots fought with a fanaticism that astonished their American counterparts. "They came at us like rabid dogs." one US Navy jet pilot would later recall. "Those buzzards weren’t going to stop until they were dead or we were."2
And before the smoke had cleared the death toll on both sides would in fact be quite substantial. Within two and a half hours after Hiryu was initially sighted, the Japanese and the Americans had each lost a light carrier and a combined total of 70 planes had been destroyed or severely damaged in air battles between the Japanese and American jet squadrons. By 9:15 AM the Zukaiku, the second main carrier in the Japanese attack force, was listing seriously to starboard and its crew was battling a sizable onboard fire-- ominous news for Yamamoto, particularly given the Imperial Navy’s urgent need for experienced aircrews at that time.
But the American main carrier fleet would not emerge entirely unscathed from the Battle of Wake Island either; at 11:30 AM the Japanese submarine I-57 managed to penetrate the screening picket guarding Spruance’s task force and launch a torpedo salvo at the USS Yorktown, scoring two direct hits to her stern and another to her midsection. Forty-five minutes later, Yorktown’s captain had to order his crew to abandon ship. At about 12:40 PM, Yorktown’s boilers exploded and she sank to the bottom of the Pacific with a quarter of her combat jet inventory still on board.3
At 2:26 PM Wake’s Marine Corps fighter contingent would avenge Yorktown’s demise with a punishing salvo of rocket fire against the hapless Zukaiku; the rocket strikes set off a series of crippling internal explosions that tore Zukaiku apart. Within minutes she sank with all hands on board, leaving Hiryu as the only main carrier remaining in the IJN task force. By 4:00 PM American air strikes had sunk two more Japanese light carriers and a third had been heavily damaged by torpedoes from American subs. At 5:10, the Hiryu’s captain instructed what was left of the Japanese task force to retire westward to their home bases with all deliberate speed. The Battle of Wake Island was over, and with it Japan’s best hope for seizing the initiative from the Allies. Though a long stretch of hard fighting still lay ahead in the Pacific war, Japan would from this point forward remain on the defensive until the war ended.
Before the United States and Great Britain signed the Glasgow Memorandum, progress in US intercontinental rocket development efforts had been measured by baby steps; after the memorandum, it would be measured by vast strides. Many of the British scientists and technicians who came to America to work with the staff of the Manhattan Project had previously been part of the research and development team that produced the Vanguard, and their insights into the problems involved in creating a working intercontinental ballistic rocket would be of immeasurable help to their American counterparts.
After the first Vanguard launch these experts would gain additional experience that would be relevant to the Americans’ quest for a working ICBR; by the time Yamamoto mounted his ill- fated attempt to raid Pearl Harbor, Britain and Germany had been waging what Edward R. Murrow called "a war of the rockets"4 for nearly a year, blasting each other’s cities, industrial plants, and military outposts with medium-range and long-range rockets. This campaign had been slow to get going, hampered on the German side by petty personal squabbles within Hitler’s clique; on the British side by an overoptimistic belief conventional manned RAF bombers could subdue Germany alone before it became necessary to use rockets on a large scale; and on both sides by the gremlin that plagues all military operations, bureaucratic red tape. Once the German and British rocket offensives got going, however, they gave a startlingly clear demonstration of just how devastating ballistic rockets could be as an instrument of war.5 By the time the Anglo-German rocket campaign reached its peak in the autumn of 1942, 80 to 100 German rockets per day would be raining down on London with an equal number of British rockets being fired at Berlin.6
The first contingent of British rocket experts sent to the United States to assist the Manhattan Project arrived in mid-July of 1942 at a remote California location designated as "Area 51" by the War Department. For security reasons, activity at both the White Sands engine complex and the Cape Canaveral launch facility had been suspended by presidential directive and would remain so until the end of the Second World War; Area 51 would now serve as the nerve center for both engine development and launch testing operations in the American rocket program.7
One of the first tasks the British advisors performed at Area 51 was to study existing American intercontinental rocket designs and assess their viability as strategic weapons. Although most of those designs were judged wanting in some aspect or another by the advisors, there was one type which met with their unequivocal endorsement: the Lexington, a two-staged machine named after the Massachusetts town that was the site of the American Revolution’s first battle and also the corporate headquarters of the company that had invented the new rocket. In early October of 1942 US and British rocket science experts gathered at Area 51 to monitor themaiden test firing of the Lexington’s prototype.
The dummy warhead carried in the second stage fell about ten miles short of its intended target in the Arizona desert; aside from that, however, the Lexington’s maiden test launch went just as the Anglo-American rocket team had hoped it would, and efforts were soon underway to improve the new ICBR’s range and accuracy.
Thousands of miles away, in a city on the banks of the Volga named after Hitler’s chief ideological archnemesis, a new breed of Russian jet pilots was frustrating the German 6th Army’s bid to extend the Nazi empire into the Caucasus. The fight for the town of Stalingrad was, in Winston Churchill’s words, the "hinge of fate" on which the course of the war in Russia would turn-- and the MiG flyers flying attack or CAP missions in support of Vasili Chuikov’s 62nd Army were doing their best to guarantee that hinge turned in the USSR’s favor.
General Chuikov himself made liberal use of his personal Mil Mi-1 helicopter to inspect the progress of his troops’ attacks on the German 6th Army and make morale-boosting visits to his field commanders. Indeed, after having long disdained the helicopter as "an overgrown toy", to quote Stalin’s notorious phrase, the Red Army had embraced the use of helicopters in warfare like a lover. As liaison craft they could go places which weren’t accessible to more conventional types of vehicles; as scouts, they were highly useful for low-level observation of German troop movements; in a medical role they were called on more than once to deliver drugs or wounded men to Red Army field hospitals; and some particularly inventive Russian soldiers even found out that they could use the Mi-1 to make grenade attacks on German foxholes.
At first, the grenade attacks were devastatingly effective; the practice eventually had to be abandoned, however, after a number of Mi-1s were brought down by Wehrmacht infantrymen who’d learned from experience that a properly aimed rifle shot could cripple the helicopter’s engines or kill its pilot. This did not stop the Red Army from continuing to use the Mi-1 in liaison or medical functions for the rest of the Second World War, or from deploying it in a scouting function until the swifter and more maneuverable Mi-3 was introduced into service in the spring of 1944.
But it would be the Il-3 Buran8 that symbolized Russian air power at Stalingrad. The ugly yet powerful attack jet harried the Germans at every opportunity, bombing von Paulus’ supply lines and knocking out any flak or artillery positions that had the bad luck to be in their flight range; when Hermann Goering began his ill-advised attempt to keep the 6th Army supplied by airlift, Il-3 squadrons struck at the airstrips used by his transport planes until they were smoldering craters. By January of 1943, when what was left of von Paulus’ army was hopelessly trapped in the ruins of Stalingrad and on the verge of final defeat, the Burans were averaging at least one sortie every ten minutes.
The final Buran mission of the Stalingrad campaign took place on February 2nd, 1943, when one flew von Paulus and his top aide Wilhelm Adam to 62nd Army headquarters to sign the final papers confirming the German 6th Army’s surrender to the Soviets. Hitler was beside himself when he heard the news; in later years, as the Third Reich edged closer and closer to its final downfall, he could often be heard denouncing von Paulus as a traitor and wishing his plane had crashed on its way to the surrender.9
In the late spring and early summer of 1943, the balance of power in the jet war between the Allied powers and Germany began to shift in favor of the Allies once and for all. Constant jet and rocket bombardment of critical German military and industrial targets was having a telling effect on the Third Reich’s ability to make war-- though that effect wasn’t always obvious. In North Africa, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was critically short on all manner of vital supplies thanks to interdiction raids by Malta-based RAF jets on Axis convoys; in Sicily, USAC jet squadrons were pounding German and Italian defenses across the island as Allied troops fought to gain a toehold there in advance of a future amphibious assault on mainland Italy; on the Eastern Front, Red Air Force jets made a substantial contribution to the Soviet victory at the battle of Kursk; on the German home front, the 1-2 punch of USAC daylight strategic jet bombings and RAF nighttime strategic jet attacks was eating away like acid at the Reich’s industrial base; at sea, Allied naval commanders were making progressively more effective use of the partnership between aircraft and helicopter to kill U-boats; and on all fronts Allied fighter squadrons were bagging German jets in growing numbers.
Hitler’s chief European Axis partner, Italy, was becoming increasingly dependent on German-built aircraft to supply its air force’s need for front-line combat jets; Allied bombing, however, was making it steadily more difficult for Germany to meet that need. And in any case, when the Mussolini regime was overthrown in July of 1943 the prevailing sentiment among the cabinet of new Italian prime minister Pietro Badoglio was that Italy should cut all ties with Berlin as fast as it possibly could. So after the Badoglio administration signed the final surrender accord between Italy and the Allies in September of 1943, the United States and Great Britain started to replace Germany as the chief foreign suppliers of military jets to the Rome government. Mussolini’s new puppet regime in German-occupied northern Italy did get some Bf-257s, but not enough to make a significant difference in the final outcome of the war in Europe.
It would be in the spring of 1944 that the jet war in the European theater entered its most critical and intensive chapter yet. At camps throughout southern England, troops and personnel were being massed for the long-awaited Allied invasion of German- occupied western Europe, code-named Operation Overlord; in parts of the Soviet Union liberated from the Nazis, the Red Army was preparing its Bagration offensive to drive the Wehrmacht out of the USSR for good. Although the strategies for the two campaigns differed in many respects, they shared a common premise: before ground operations could succeed, first air superiority had to be achieved over the Germans. Accordingly Luftwaffe jet bases in northern France, in the Ukraine, and in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were subjected to daily saturation air strikes during the first six months of 1944. Other targets were not neglected, however; the RAF and the USAC bombed German bases and fortifications along France’s northern coast while the Red Air Force attacked Wehrmacht and SS troop concentrations all along the Eastern Front.
Allied rocket batteries also did their share to soften the Germans up in advance of Overlord and Bagration; transportation, supply, and command/control facilities throughout German-occupied Europe were subjected to ever more frequent rocket strikes and the Allies further escalated their already fierce rocket campaign against Germany proper. The spring of 1944 saw the Western Allies mount their famous "Big Week" rocket offensive against Berlin and the Soviets fire nearly 250 rockets a day at the German capital.
At dawn on June 6th, 1944 hundreds of American, British, Free French and Commonwealth combat jets took off from airfields in southern England and crossed the English Channel to provide air cover for the troops who would be storming ashore on the beaches of Normandy. Now, at last, the Allied Supreme Command in London would know for sure if the Allied jet and rocket strikes against German bases in northern France had accomplished their mission...
To Be Continued
1Intercontinental ballistic rockets.
2Quoted from The Three-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morrison’s seminal account of American naval operations during World War II.
3I-57 wouldn’t last much longer itself; on June 4th, 1942 it was sunk with all hands by an Allied anti-submarine patrol.
4Quoted from Murrow’s evening newscast of January 16th, 1941.
5For a glimpse of how the course of the Second World War might have been affected if Germany or Britain-- or both --had started rocket bombardment sooner, read the classic Kenneth Macksey book Final Countdown: The Anglo-German Rocket War of 1939 or Jonathan North’s essay "Steamer Overhead!: The German Rocket Blitz on London, April 1940" in the Peter G. Tsuoras book The Von Braun Options: Alternate Decisions of the History of Rocket Science(copyright 2010 Greenhill Books).
6But as we’ll see later on these stats, impressive though they might be at face value, pale in comparison to the massive numbers of rockets exchanged between the Germans and Soviets on the Eastern Front or the prodigious amounts of medium-range and long-range rockets fired by the Americans against Japan from the summer of 1943 onwards.
7Area 51 stood on the site of what is today Vandenburg Air Force Base.
8Russian for "snowstorm"; the plane’s nickname was derived from the white paint used to camouflage it on winter operations.
9What made the surrender particularly galling for Hitler was that just two days earlier, he had promoted von Paulus to field marshal in the hope it might motivate him to commit suicide rather than, as Hitler saw it, "disgrace" Germany by letting himself be taken prisoner.