Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Brooklyn Against the U-boats.

A bit more than 71 years ago, on August 7, 1943, a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura aircraft took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn at 4.30 in the morning to investigate a report of a u-boat sighting some 300 miles off the Virginia coast around Norfolk, Virginia. Visibility was excellent and the sea was calm with light swells. The Ventura and its crew belonged to the Navy’s Bombing Squadron VB-128, and the squadron’s tasks included anti-submarine patrolling along the Eastern Seaboard.

Following the United States’ entry into the Second World War, German u-boats began attacking shipping along the Eastern Seaboard. The United States was ill-prepared to defend its sea lanes against the Kriegsmarine, which conducted several operations against targets in American waters from 1942 and onwards, including seven attacks against targets anchored in the New York harbor. The u-boat men called this the “Second happy time” (the first such time was had in the Atlantic in 1940-41) or the “American shooting season.” The results were convincing: between January and August 1942, German u-boats sank 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons for the loss of only twenty-two u-boats. Thousands of lives were lost, mainly merchant mariners, and the United States had to find a way to defend the vital sea lines against the u-boat menace as burning ships dotted the East Coast sea lanes. However, the U.S. response was slow, and it took several months before even convoying was introduced, while cities refused blacking out their lights due to business reasons. The U.S. Forces available to defend the sea lanes were also initially inadequate in terms of training, organization, tactics, quantity and technology.

As the war progressed, the U.S. defenses became more apt at countering the u-boat scourge, and the defenses were also bolstered by British air and sea units. The German operations were scaled down in July as the u-boats sought easier targets further south. Nevertheless, u-boats were to engage targets along the East Coast up to the end of the war. New York City had also expanded the defenses of its waterways, and Naval Air Station (NAS) New York Floyd Bennett Field was a very important part of these defenses, being the base for several operational units. It was also en embarkation point for newly manufactured naval aircraft. The build-up of Navy and Coast Guard forces based at Floyd Bennett Field started even before the U.S. entered the war, and it was officially dedicated as a Naval Air Station on June 2, 1941. Aircraft from NAS NY saw action for the first time on May 1, 1942, when an aircraft sighted a periscope and attacked the target off Fire Island.

As 1942 turned into 1943, Floyd Bennet Field was the base for Squadron VS-34 with twenty-one floatplanes and Squadron VB-128 with twelve Lockheed PV-1 Venturas as well as eleven Coast Guard aircraft. The United States Army Air Force also operated patrol aircraft, albeit from Mitchel Field in Hempstead on Long Island.

The Captain Marvel unit badge of VB-128. It was re-designated as VPB-128 on October 1, 1944

The Lockheed Venturas of VB-128 were bomber and patrol aircraft developed from the civilian Lockheed Lodestar. It was a two-engined aircraft that entered service in December 1942, and it was a fast and rugged aircraft, although somewhat demanding for the pilot to fly. It had a crew of six, a cruise speed of 230 mph, a range of 1,660 miles and it was armed with six machine guns as well as bombs, torpedoes or depth charges.

The Lockheed PV-1 Ventura.

Squadron VB-128 was established on February 15, 1943, and it had been flying various anti-submarine missions throughout the year as part of Fleet Air Wing 9, although without actually sinking an enemy vessel. This particular Ventura (Aircraft P-9, BuNo 29909) was piloted by Lieutenant (jg) Frederick “Ted” Cushing Cross, who was born on July 8, 1917, in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. Cross had enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve on March 22, 1941. Following aviation training, Cross was posted to a bombing squadron at DeLand, Florida, before ending up at Floyd Bennett Field with VB-128.

As Cross and his crew of two flew south, they used the air-to-sea radar on board the Ventura to look for the possible enemy u-boat, and after some time in the air an echo was noticed on the radar screen. They had found their target, in this case the u-boat U-566.

U-566 was a Type VIIC u-boat, the most common type in service with the German Navy. The U-566 had been commissioned on April 17, 1941, and she had conducted five war patrols before being taken over by her current commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Hans Hornkohl. On August 7, 1943, Hornkohl was leading the tenth war patrol of the U-566, and he may have had reason to feel somewhat satisfied: his crew had just sunk the gunboat USS Plymouth off Virginia only two days before, on the evening of August 5. Of the crew of 155 officers and men, 70 were killed by the single torpedo that sent the gunboat to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Kapitänleutnant Hans Hornkohl

On August 7, Hornkohl was still sailing in the same general area, in this case off the Delmarva Peninsula, when Cross dove down to attack the u-boat. Hornkohl may have been surprised, or he may have simply decided to slug it out with the attacker, but instead of diving to escape the attacker, he ordered the crews of his 20mm anti-aircraft guns to engage. The results were quite satisfactory, and the Ventura dove into a steady stream of cannon fire. One shell hit and shattered the right engine of the Ventura, causing a fire. Cross himself sustained mortal injuries, probably as a result of being hit by splinters from exploding shells, while his co-pilot and radio operator also were wounded. Yet, Cross continued his attack, even he was in excruciating pain. He dropped four depth charges across the bow of the U-566, although the charges failed to explode. They were possibly not armed properly, or perhaps dropped from too low an altitude. While Cross struggled to keep the damaged Ventura in the air, he soon realized that he had to ditch the aircraft, and he made a Realizing that he couldn’t keep the Ventura in the air, Cross made a perfect emergency landing in the ocean “within 15 miles of 37-35N; 71-20W.” The three wounded aviators managed to leave the Ventura, but Cross succumbed to his wounds and slipped out of his life preserver. The co-pilot and radio operator were rescued by a PBM aircraft some five hours after ditching. Frederick C. Cross was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

The crew of U-566 must have been elated to fight off an enemy aircraft (misidentified as a B-25 Mitchell, by the way), but they would have yet another encounter with VB-128 that day, when Lieutenant (jg) Joseph H. “Blackie” George, the son of a Georgia Senator, encountered the u-boat. George was born on November 1916, in Vienna, Georgia, and he became an aviation cadet in the US Navy Reserve as early as October 11, 1938 after having spent some time in both the Georgia National Guard and in other positions within the US Navy Reserve. He served with VP-83 when he was transferred to VB-128 on February 18, 1943. On August 7, 1943, George took off on an antisubmarine patrol flight. After “several minutes”, the aircraft was ordered to 37-35N; 71-20W to “investigate the area and stand by a plane which had landed to pick up survivors of another plane which had been shot down by an enemy submarine.” The last report from George simply acknowledged receiving this message. It may seem odd that there are no further reports from George, but if this was due to atmospheric circumstances, procedures or just negligence is impossible to know.

What happened was that at 6.15 pm, George’s crew spotted the U-566. He dove down to attack, and once again the u-boat crew responded with anti-aircraft fire, hitting the Ventura repeatedly as the aircraft dropped a stick of four depth charges. One actually hit the U-566, but it bounced off the u-boat before exploding. By then the Ventura was burning, and it crashed into the ocean some 1,200 meters from the u-boat. There were no survivors.

The U-566 did speed towards the crash site, but a Ventura from VB-126 and a Mariner from VB-211 appeared, forcing the u-boat to dive away from the scene after an exchange of gunfire for depth charges. Back at Floyd Bennett Field and VB-128, the evening must have been quite somber.


Michael Gannon. Operation Drumbeat: the dramatic true story of Germany's first U-boat attacks along the American coast in World War II

John C. Stanaway. Vega Ventura. The Operational History of Lockheed’s Lucky Star

The Veteran’s Memorial Hospital’s report on Marcus George (Report 80-6)

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Kaiser's Rockets

In April 1916 the Le Prieur rocket  – named after French Lieutenant (N) Yves Paul Gaston Le Prieur - was introduced against observation balloons in the skies above Verdun. The rocket was fired from aircraft such as the Nieuport fighters, SPAD VIIs and Sopwith Pups. The rockets were mounted at an upwards angle on the struts of the biplanes, and they were fired sequentially when the aircraft was diving towards the target. Each rocket contained 200 grammes of black powder, and the rockets were fired electrically at ranges between 100 and 150 meters. The accuracy was dismal, but the weapon was used until incendiary machine gun ammunition became available.  


 Le Prieur rockets mounted on a Nieuport at Cachy in 1916 (

The Le Prieur rockets were, of course, noted by the Germans, and future spaceflight pioneer Rudolf Nebel (March 21, 1894 – September 18, 1978) conducted experiments with a German version of an air-to-air rocket. Nebel, who by the way has no connection with the Nebelwerfer of World War Two fame, was born in Weißenburg, Bavaria, but he joined the royal Prussian Jagdstaffel (Jasta) 5 in 1916. Nebel claimed to have come up with an idea for air-to-air rockets while being hospitalized after being wounded in an air battle. Once he recovered, he "cadged several lengths of stovepipe and a supply of large signal rockets such as used by the infantry" from a pioneer depot. It should be noted that although Jasta 5 was formed on January 21, 1916, it wasn’t mobilized until August 21, when it deployed to Bechamp near Verdun. It should also be noted that neither Nebel’s hospitalization, nor his claims of aircraft shot down can be verified by other sources, and it seems as if Nebel may have been prone to embellishment. Many years later he was evaluated by the SS of the Third Reich, and that organization deemed Nebel to be “untrustworthy,”

At some point during the late summer or early fall of 1916, possibly before the mobilization of Jasta 5, Nebel mounted four improvised rocket tubes – two on each side - on the wing struts of a Halberstadt D.II, a single-engine fighter plane. The signal rockets were inserted into the tubes, and according to Nebel himself, the device was field-tested when he took off on a defensive patrol as twenty-five British aircraft attacked the airfield. Nebel attacked the enemy aircraft head-on and claimed to have fired his contraption at a distance of 100 meters from the enemy formation. This supposedly made one British pilot so scared that he made an emergency landing behind the German lines, while Nebel landed just 20 meters behind the British aircraft to capture the pilot. Nebel also claimed that he conducted the same experiment a week later, this time succeeding in blowing off the propeller of an enemy aircraft, thus causing it to crash. According to Nebel himself, he also conducted rocket experiments with an Albatros D.III, but a rocket exploded prematurely, injuring Nebel and leading to further trials being prohibited. If this experiment really took place, it may have been in 1917, considering that the Albatros D.III wasn’t introduced until December 1916.

On October 16, 1916, a German Raketentrupp equipped with a Halberstadt D.II armed with with four Le Prieur-type rockets mounted on each of the outer struts went to the 1. Armee for more formal experiments in engaging observation balloons with rockets. However, problems with the ignition system led to the end of the rocket experiments after two weeks, and the Raketentrupp returned to Berlin.
These photographs of the rocket-armed Halberstadt were taken at Doberitz, either during display or evaluation. (

Rudolf Nebel continued to fly for Jasta 5 for quite some time. He scored an unconfirmed victory over a D.H. 2 on March 11, 1917, and another unconfirmed victory over a F.E. 2b on April 26. Meanwhile, Heinrich Gontermann, also of Jasta 5 and a future ace, did some experiments with Leuchtkugelpfeile (“flare arrows”) ins the spring of 1917. These “arrows” may have been stick-stabilized signal flares, and on April 8 Gontermann claimed that he had “…an unsuccessfull attack on a balloon around 6 p.m.” The balloon did catch fire, and accurate anti-aircraft fire forced Gontermann to break off the attack. At the end of his report Gontermann said that he “will try to attack the balloons the next time with self-made Leuchtkugelpfeile”. In a letter to his parents dated 15 April 15, 1917, he wrote that a balloon attack with these rockets had been successful on April 13 when he flamed a French balloon at 7.40 p.m near St.Quentin.

In early 1918, Leutnant Rudolf Nebel was transferred to Kest (Kampfeinsitzerstaffel) 1b. He was apparently not regarded as a particularly efficient combat pilot, but other talents and experience led to him commanding Kest 1b until May 1, 1918, when he took command of Kest 1a (later renamed Jasta 90) for the rest of the war, flying Fokker D.VIIs in mainly home defense missions. On September 7 his unitg engaged twelve D.H. 9s over Bühl, and he landed with 29 bullet holes in his Fokker, although three D.H. 9s were brought down.

Following the war, Rudolf Nebel earned an engineering degree and continued to pursue his passion for rocketry. He was very active in the VfR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt, the Association for Space Flight). He was also associated with right-wing veterans’ organizations such as Stahlhelm. He did not, however, get along with German Army, and when offered a position as rocket researcher for the army, he declined. The job was instead given to a young Werner von Braun. He continued his rocket advocacy after the end of World War Two and up to his death. 

(Left) A 1932 publication on rocketry written by Nebel. (Right) Flyer for the VfR (