Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stanislaw Skalski and His "African Circus"

Wg Cdr Skalski with Air Mshl Coningham (pictured left) and General Kazimierz Sosnkowski (pictured right).

Stanislaw Skalski was born on 27 October 1915 in the country village of Kodyma. Completing Pilot Training School in 1938, Stanislaw was ordered to the 142nd Fighter Squadron in Torun. On 1 September 1939 he downed a German Hs 126 reconnaissance aircraft at 5:32 a.m (after his own interview's relation). A note of interest - - if Wladyslaw Gnys had not destroyed two Do-17s at 5:30 a.m. (as some sources claim), but instead at 7:00 a.m. (as Gnys himself reported), this would mean, that Skalski scored the FIRST victory of WWII! In September 1939, Skalski reached "ace status", by personally downing 6 German aircraft (1 Ju 86, 2 Do 17, 1 Ju 87, 2 Hs 126), plus 1 Hs 126 shared with another pilot. Furthermore, he damaged another three planes (1 Bf 109, 1 Hs 126, 1 Ju 87). Skalski flew his last sortie with his P-11c on 16 September. The next day he fled the country, as did several other Polish pilots, to Rumania, and from there to fight in France and England.

On 12 August 1940, 2/Lt Skalski joined 501st Squadron RAF (commander S/Ldr H.A.V. Hogan) and took part in the "Battle of Britain". Stanislaw Skalski's part in the combat of 5 September 1940, was very dramatic. Early in the morning, 501 Squadron took off to attack a large group of German aircraft. In first attack Skalski managed to hit a He 111 bomber, and set its right engine on fire. Following this, the Polish pilot shot down one of the escorting Bf 109s. The pilot of the Bf 109 bailed out. A few minutes later, as Skalski flew alone at 8000 meters altitude, he made a surprise attack on another Messerschmitt. With success! But in turning to his map to note the area of the victory, his own aircraft was hit by a well-aimed burst of fire. The shells slammed into the fuel tanks and the "Hurricane" immediately caught fire. Skalski bailed out from his diving fighter and parachuted to the ground. Severe burns kept him in a hospital for six weeks. During the Battle of Britain, Skalski shot down a total of six German planes.

Following the combat death of Capt. Ozyra on 29 April 1942 (in the same battle, Maj. Marian Pisarek was also killed), Capt. Skalski was given the command of the Polish 317 Squadron for five months. On 1 October 1942 317 Sqn was given a new commander, Capt. Zbigniew Czajkowski, and Skalski's African career began.

The Polish Fighting Team (PFT), popularly called "Skalski's Circus", was made up of the best Polish fighter pilots. All fifteen of them volunteered and Capt. Stanislaw Skalski was their commander. After a month’s transition, the Polish pilots arrived at Bu Grara airfield (250 km west of Tripoli) on 13 March 1943. They at first became part of 145 RAF Squadron (commanded by S/Ldr Lance Wade) as the "C" Flight. The call code of 145 Squadron was "ZX" and the aircraft of the Polish Flight received the individual code numbers "1" to "9".

Operational duty for the PFT began 17 March 1943. The first combat missions were in "Spitfire" Mk Vc trop fighters, but after a week the unit was re-equipped with new "Spitfire" Mk IX (while other flights of the 145th still flew the Mk V!). On 28 March 1943, the PFT drew its first blood. The flight led by Skalski encountered a group of Ju 88's escorted by Bf 109Gs of II./JG 77. No fighter planes were shot down on either side, but Skalski and Lt. Horbaczewski claimed killings of two Ju 88s.

On 2 April 1943, four Polish "Spitfire" pilots from 145 Squadron attacked 16 Bf 109s of II./JG 77 and claimed three Messerschmitt 109s shot down, one of them by Skalski. The record of II./JG 77 'Herzas' shows: the Bf 109s attacked a formation of Douglas Bostons escorted by "Spitfires", and Feldwebel Alexander Preinfalk claimed one Boston shot down (his 64th victory). Oberleutnant Heinz Dudeck's Bf 109 G-6 was the only German loss. Dudeck belly-landed and escaped the wreck unhurt. He was taken care of by some local Tunisians who fed him milk and ten raw eggs! On the Polish side the "Spitfire" piloted by Lt. Arct was damaged, but he was able return to base.

Two days later, the Polish fighters attacked a group of Ju 88s accompanied by Bf 109s. The German escort prevented them from attacking the bombers, but Skalski and Capt. Krol each downed one Bf 109. Lt. Martel claimed one 109 damaged. Next day, Lt. Horbaczewski scored a single Bf 109, but his "Spitfire" was heavily damaged on the mission. On the afternoon of 6 April, Lt. Sporny and Sgt. Malinowski destroyed two Bf 109s.

On 18 April 1943, the Polish Team of 145 Sqn ('C' Flight) sustained its only loss, as F/Lt Wyszkowski, lagging behind a formation, was bounced from the sun by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 - Rotte of 7./JG 53 'Pik As'. Unteroffizier Georg Amon shot down the "Spitfire". Wyszkowski crash-landed in enemy territory and was taken prisoner by the Germans. This was AmonŤs first victory. Two months later (on 25 June 1943, vividly accounted in Johannes Steinhoff's book 'Die Strasse von Messina'), when JG 53 was based in Sicily, the Luftwaffe's Fighter General Adolf Galland (visiting Sicily at that time) personally ordered Amon to be court-martialled for 'cowardness'; Galland claimed that Amon had deliberately turned away from combat to avoid confrontation with B-17s. However, the general confusion on Sicily at that time saved Amon from the court-martial. With a total of nine victories, Amon was shot down by AA over Germany on 2 April 1945 and was taken prisoner by the Allies.

On 20 April 1943, the "Spitfires" of 145 Squadron made a surprise attack on a mixed formation of German and Italian fighters and claimed to have shot down nine, of which the Polish pilots claimed three Bf 109s and three Macchi Mc-202 "Folgores". That day, I. and II./JG 53 'Pik As' lost a total of five Bf 109 Gs in aerial combat. At least one - piloted by Leutnant Rolf Schlegel - was shot down by Spitfires.

On 22 April 1943, the entire 244 Fighter Wing with 145 Squadron acting as top cover attacked a formation of six-engine Me 323 Gigant of TG 5 escorted by Italian fighters and the Messerschmitt 109s of JG 27, JG 53 and JG 77. The P-40s of 7 Wing, SAAF, also took part in the attack, claiming the destruction of 31 Me 323s! Transportgeschwader 5 lost sixteen Me 323s. The Polish fighter pilots, led by F/Lt. Pniak, engaged the escort and claimed five Bf 109s and one Mc-202 shot down. In II./JG 27, three Bf 109s were lost: Leutnant Schlechter was shot down over sea and was saved by air-sea rescue, while Feldwebel Rudolf Lenz and Unteroffizier Heinz Golletz were missing. The only claims by II./JG 27 were made by Leutnant Schneider - two P-40s (his first and only victories in the war). JG 53 'Pik As' had one Bf 109 shot down: Leutnant Friedrich Fiebig of 6. Staffel bailed out with injuries. I./JG 77 'Herzas' suffered no losses, while one of its pilots - Leutnant Heinz-Edgar Berres claimed one "Spitfire" (his 43rd victory).

On 6 May 1943, "Skalski Circus" fought its last aerial combat. On this occasion, Skalski and Sgt. Sztramko downed 2 Bf 109s. On 13 May 1943 the war in Africa was over. During two months, the Polish pilots had shot down a total of 26 German and Italian planes. Capt. Skalski scored 4 aircraft, but the most successful of the unit had been Lt. Eugeniusz Horbaczewski been, with 5 confirmed victories.

After the Flight was disbanded, Capt. Skalski did not leave this theatre of war. As commander of 601 Squadron RAF "County of London", he took part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy. He returned to England in the end of 1943.

During period 13 December 1943 - 3 April 1944, Major Skalski commanded the 131 Fighter Wing (Polish Squadrons: 302nd, 308th, 317th, till October 15th, 1944 - Ist Polish Fighter Wing). On 4 April 1944 (remaining in this position until 3 August 1944) he was appointed commander of the other Polish Fighter Wing - the 133th (Polish Squadrons: 306th, 315th and British 129th). On 24 June 1944 Skalski, leaded the whole Wing, scored two air victories in a battle over Rouen. Altogether, Polish fighters claimed 6-1-4 enemy planes in this action, but unfortunately they lost Sgt. Adamiak from the 315th Squadron, when his "Mustang", FZ157, crashed in the St. Croix/Beaux area (north-west of Dreux).

Stanislaw Skalski was the most successful Polish ace of WW II, with a record of 22 confirmed victories, 1 probable, and 1 damaged enemy aircraft. Three times he was awarded the British DFC, and he received many other medals. Following his return to Poland after the war, he was imprisoned by the Communist regime in 1949, on a charge of espionage for the West. He spent 6 long years in a jail, waiting for execution. That was his "reward" from the communists, a fate he shared with many other Polish soldiers returning from the West for their heroic and sacrificing duty. In 1956, Skalski was finally released from prison.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Assault on Levita

The survivors of the enemy convoy sunk on 7 October were landed on Stampalia, where the LRDG had M2 patrol. A small naval craft (the Hedgehog) dispatched from Leros to bring back ten prisoners of war for interrogation, called with engine trouble at Levita, about twenty miles to the west of Calino. A party sent by motor launch to the assistance of the Hedgehog found only a smoldering wreck and was fired on from the island. As the possession of Levita was considered essential to the Navy, and as it would be useful as an observation post, the commander of 234 Brigade ordered the LRDG to capture the island. Major Guild and Captain Tinker urged that a reconnaissance should be made before the assault force was landed, but permission to do this was not granted.

It was decided to attack with forty-eight men under the command of Captain J. R. Olivey, the force including twenty-two from A Squadron under Lieutenant J. M. Sutherland, and the remainder coming from B Squadron. Sutherland's patrol (R2), was withdrawn from the coastal battery on Mount Scumbardo, in southern Leros, and was joined by a few men from R1 and T2 patrols. The B Squadron party included Y2 and part of S1 patrol. In case the enemy should be occupying both ends of Levita, B Squadron was to land to the west of the port, which is on the south coast, and A Squadron to the east. The objective was to reach the high, central ground over- looking the port.

The landings were to be made from two motor launches in small, canvas boats, but as these had been punctured in air attacks, the troops had to patch them with sticking-plaster before they could practice rowing in them. The force had four infantry wireless sets for inter-communication between the two parties and with the launches, and a larger set for communication with Leros. When they were about to leave at dusk on 23 October, however, it was discovered that the A Squadron set had not been netted in with the others.

Most of the men were violently seasick before they reached Levita. It took A Squadron a long time to float the canvas boats from the tossing launch, but they eventually got away and landed on a very rugged coast, where the men rescued as much of their gear as they could from the rocks and dragged it up a cliff face. Sutherland told his wireless operator to try to get in touch with Olivey, but at no stage was he able to do so.

After disembarking the two parties, the motor launches were to shell a house thought to be occupied by the enemy in the center of the island. Instead of shelling this building, however, they concentrated on an old hut on a ridge in front of A Squadron. When the shellfire ceased, Suther- land's party moved towards the ridge and discovered nearby the burnt-out hull of the Hedgehog. They then came under machine-gun fire from the rear, presumably from somewhere near their landing place. This kept them pinned down on bare ground until they were able to get together and rush the gun position, which they captured with a dozen prisoners. Trooper H. L. Mallett was severely wounded and died despite the efforts of the medical orderly (Private B. Steedman) to save him.

Although they again came under machine-gun fire, A Squadron continued to advance and secured the ridge before daylight. They flushed the enemy out of the hut, but did not occupy it because it was in a vulnerable position. Trooper A. J. Penhall was mortally wounded, but Trooper R. G. Haddow, although severely wounded in the stomach, recovered as a prisoner of war. Several other men received minor wounds.

At the first streaks of daylight, three or four seaplanes began to take off from the Levita harbor. The New Zealanders, who overlooked the harbor from the ridge, opened fire, and for a moment it seemed that Trooper L. G. Doel had put one seaplane out of action with his Bren gun, but it moved out of range and took off after some delay. When the seaplanes came overhead and began to strafe, the men returned the fire, but as their bullets only bounced off harmlessly they decided not to waste ammunition.

Having met no resistance on landing, B Squadron was within 500 yards of the enemy head- quarters by dawn and could hear fighting on the other side of the island. Had Sutherland been able to make contact with Olivey by wireless, he would have advised him of his position, and B Squad- ron could have gone ahead without fear of firing on A Squadron. The Germans, who received reinforcements during the day, isolated the New Zealanders on the ridge with air attacks and machine-gun and mortar fire, while they encircled and captured most of the B Squadron party.

Having disposed of B Squadron, the enemy was then able to employ his full strength against A Squadron, which was holding three positions on the ridge. Sutherland had with him the wireless operator, the medical orderly, the wounded, three or four other men, and the German prisoners. Sergeant E. J. Dobson was in charge of a party in a central position, armed with a Bren gun, a Tommy gun, and some rifles, and farther away on high ground, Corporal J. E. Gill had the third party. Trooper J. T. Bowler, who went down to the landing place for water, and a man who attempted to deliver a message from Gill to Sutherland, were not seen again and were presumed to have been killed. The enemy eventually overwhelmed Sutherland's force, but Gill and three men avoided capture for four days by hiding among some rocks. They were unable to attract the attention of a launch that circled the island and, as they were without food and water, had to give themselves up to the enemy.

With instructions to evacuate the force from Levita, the commanding officer of the LRDG (Lieutenant-Colonel Easonsmith)* arrived by launch during the night 2425 October, but found only Captain Olivey, the medical officer (Captain Lawson), and seven men of B Squadron at the rendezvous. Olivey returned with Major Guild the following night to search for the missing men, but found nobody. The LRDG lost forty men on Levita.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Marder III in Africa

From around May 1942 a small number of Marder IIIs were brought into the desert. This was the version with a Russian 76.2mm gun on a Panzer 38t chassis. These increased in numbers.

There were about 60-66 shipped in total, in theory 30 each to the 2 PzJgr Abts (33 & 39) in the 2 Panzer Divisions (3 companies of 9 + 1 HQ) and 6 for the PzA Afrika Kamfstaffel (Army HQ Defence Group). The latter got the first 6 vehicles that arrived at start of Gazala (May 1942). However as all the rest did not arrive together (i.e. they shipped from about July 1942 to November 1942) it's unlikely either Abt got enough to get to full strength at any one time...

Some sources suggest that some Marders also went to PzJgr 605 when were serving with 90th Light Division at the time, but I have not seen anything conclusive and believe this is erroneous as there are no references to Marder IIIs with 90th Light.

By El Alamein, there were probably Marder IIIs.

At the Second Battle of Alamein the estimate would be 4-6 Dianas and 6-12 PzJgr I's (as above), plus about 40 Marder III's. There were definitely as least 3 Marder III's still in the PzArmee Afrika Kampfstaffel, as they served alongside the 5-6 captured Stuart Tanks in that unit.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

7.62cm FK36(r) auf Panzerjager Selbstfahrlafette Zugkraftwagen 5t (Sd Kfz 6) - Diana

Surprisingly enough, the SdKfz 6 was modified only slightly during its service career. Most were produced as standard tractors with seating for the artillery detachment that could be covered by a canvas tilt, but there were also three weapon-carrier variants. The first was the 7.5-cm Slf L/40.8 and never really got past the prototype stage; it was an attempt to produce a mobile 7.5-cm (2.95-in) gun for use with cavalry units, and at least three prototypes were produced between 1934 and 1935. The type was never placed in production, but at least one was captured during the fighting in North Africa. Then there was the model known as the 'Diana' or 7.62-cm Pak 36(r) auf Panzerjäger Slf Zugkraftwagen 5t, an attempt to mount captured Soviet 76.2-mm (3-in) guns in a high armoured superstructure built onto the rear of an SdKfz 6. This superstructure was open and rather high and the gun was placed on the vehicle complete with its wheels and attenuated trails. The gun was the Soviet Model 1936 which was used as a dual anti-tank/field gun. Only nine were produced and again one was captured in North Africa by the Allies. The third SdKfz 6 weapon-carrier was the SdKfz 6/2, which mounted a 3.7-cm (1.456-in) Flak 36 anti-aircraft gun on an open platform behind the driver's position; the sides folded down to act as a working platform for the gun crew. The first of these variants was produced during 1937 and most of them went to the Luftwaffe. They had a crew of seven and were widely used.

During the initial phases of operation Barbarossa, the Germans captured huge numbers of the Russian 76.2mm M1936 field gun. Designated 7.62cm FK36(r) or FK296(r) by the Germans, it was issued in large numbers to Panzerjager detachments, unmodified and using Russian ammunition. In late 1941, an attempt was made to self-propel this heavy anti-tank gun, by mounting it in an armoured box on the rear of a five ton semi-track. Nine such conversions were sent to Africa.

Served with the 605th Panzerjagerabteilung in North Africa. Six guns were delivered in January, and three in February 1942. They were prominent in the battle of Gazala in May/June 1942. 

The Germans started with Panzerjager Is, 47mm Czech guns on Pz I chassis.

These equipped the self-propelled gun companies in the 605th Panzerjager. In late 1941 through to May 1942 a total of 9 "Dianas" were supplied. These were captured Russian 76.2 guns mounted on an Sdkfz 6 half-track, with a thin armoured box enclosing the chassis. There were a very small number of experimental Self-Propelled 75mm Panzerjagers but these mostly broke down. From around May 1942 a small number of Marder IIIs were brought into the desert. This was the version with a Russian 76.2mm gun on a Panzer 38t chassis. These increased in numbers.

By Alamein, there were probably Marder IIIs, the remaining Diana's were captured after the battle so possibly 1 or 2 were around.

605th PzJgr Abt and in theory a Platoon of 3 went to each of the 3 companies (officially it was supposed to be 1 coy of Dianas and 2 coys of PzJgr Ib's). The Companies were originally 1 HQ Pz.I and 3 Platoons of 3 PzJgr Ib each, but by Gazala  only about 18-20 of the PzJgrs remained and none of the Pz.I's. As the Diana's arrived they reinforced each company in turn, although 1 source suggested they did end up consolidated in a single company. By 2nd Alamein there were still about 6 Dianas and 12 PzJgr Ib's operational.

Note that the Diana was not like the Marder III, it had a standard Russian 76.2mm field Gun installed, not the modified/rebored one that fired PaK40 type ammo at a higher velocity... it's fire power was therefore about the same as (or a little better than) the US 75mm in the Grant...

Chassis Nos.: 3001-3617 9 converted in late 1941
Crew: 5
Engine: Maybach HL54TUKRM
Weight (tons): 10.5
Gearbox: 4 x 2 forward, 1 x 2 reverse
Length (metres): 6.33
Width (metres): 2.26
Speed (km/hr): 50
Height (metres): 2.98
Range (km): 317
Armament: One 7.62cm FK36 (r) L/51.5
Traverse: 30° left 30° right (hand)
Ammunition: 7.62cm pzgr 39, pzgr 40, Spgr 39