Excerpted from The Field Artillery Journal, May 1944, By Maj. Edward A. Raymond, FA
Organic air observation for artillery has come into its own after trial in Africa, Sicily, and Italy. The development of its use throughout the three campaigns is an interesting tale from the professional point of view, and it is a tale of courage, skill, and determination on the part of observers and pilots well worth the telling.
On 9 Nov 1942 three “flying jeeps” took off from an aircraft carrier 40 miles at sea for the racetrack at Fedala. This was not a combat mission, as the pilots (Capt. Alcorn, Capt. B.A. Devol, Jr., Lt. Butler, and Lt. John R. Shell) had not had contact with their battalions. They had been sent from Fort Sill to Camp Pickett, Virginia, to join the 3d Div, and upon reporting were sent, with field bags as their only personal luggage, to Norfolk, Va. They left on the destroyer USS Dallas for Bermuda and there went aboard the USS Ranger. They found three old L-4Bs in poor condition, tied up on the rafters of the hangar deck. Upon installing SCR-610 radios which they had with them, it was discovered that only one would work.
They took off on D-day with some qualms. When they got close to shore they were fired upon by ships of our navy (including a cruiser, several destroyers, and several troopships) but were not hit. When they got over the shore our ground forces opened up on them.
By that time the three planes had separated. Capt. Alcorn was shot down, but escaped with his life—but had to return to America on account of his injuries. Lt. Butler, with Capt. Devol as passenger, made it to the racetrack safely. Lt. Shell was forced down by heavy machine gun fire in the middle of an infantry regimental area, but landed without injury to himself or his plane. He sent word to units near the racetrack that he was coming and took off again. This time he was fired on once more, but made it. A major from the Div Arty was at the racetrack to meet him; upon sighting the plane he mistook it for an enemy aircraft and fired his Tommy gun, fortunately without effect. The Air OPs stood by at the racetrack until the surrender of the French.
In Tunisia Lt. DeWitt of the 1st Armd Div flew the pioneer combat mission. During the winter and early spring only a few “grasshoppers” were used for fire missions. In that mountainous country terrestrial observation was very good and other types of missions were urgently needed. One of these was reconnaissance to check whether tanks or other vehicles were friendly or hostile. Due to dust this was often hard to determine from the ground, yet delay was dangerous.
Division and corps commanders used their artillery planes extensively for front line reconnaissance, even to the extent of going up as observers themselves. One divisional artillery commander relied on his planes for preliminary position and route reconnaissance. This offset to some extent a lack of aerial photographs which was felt throughout the North African campaign. Convoy checks and camouflage checks were also useful, and at critical junctures courier service proved invaluable.
It was in the battles of El Guettar, Mateur, and Bizerte that the Air OP completely silenced its scoffers. The enemy was past master of camouflage, but observers were able to pick up gun flashes from the most perfectly concealed positions. It became increasingly true that hostile firing ceased when our planes were in the air.
A major general who acted as a War Department observer for the initial landing in Sicily noted the following in his report: “There was one young field artilleryman in the —th Div who flew his Cub plane off the deck of an LST (landing ship, tank) at daylight on D-day and reconnoitered the beach and the country beyond it. A runway of some kind had been laid on the deck and he managed to get his plane off. He landed on the beach and delivered valuable information to the proper people.” (A later report is to the effect that naval gunfire was also effectively directed by this same officer.)
Capt. B.A. Devol, Jr., tells us more: “A flight deck, approximately 70 yards long and 12 feet wide, was designed and built by Capt. Carlson, —th Engineers. The framework was built mainly from 4′′×6′′ timbers; this framework was anchored to the deck by a series of wire braces fastened to the tie-down anchors on the deck of the ship. The floor of the flight deck was made of steel matting such as is used by the Engineers for airplane runways and roads. The runway extended down the center of the ship from the bridge, and at the same height as the floor of the bridge, to the bow and over the top of the bow’s 3” gun. A slight rise in the runway started about 3⁄4 of the way down, running up to the bow of the ship (approx. 3′ vertical). By trimming the LST, adding ballast to the forward tanks, the first 3⁄4 of the runway was slightly down hill and the last 1⁄4 level. The initial flight was made without trimming the ship.
“Our initial flight was made on July 4, 1943. The tail of the plane was placed in flying position to enable the pilot to see the runway at all times. A white strip painted down the center of the runway aided the pilot in keeping his plane centered on the runway. A braked wheel take-off was made; the plane held on the deck until the end of the runway was reached. There was about a 10 m.p.h. wind blowing, plus about 9 knots speed of the ship (which was headed directly into the wind). This gave approximately a 20 m.p.h. wind blowing down the flight deck. Flying speed was attained about 3⁄4 of the way down the runway. No trouble was experienced in holding the plane straight on the deck.
“After the initial flight an 8” side wall was placed the length of both sides of the runway. This made the total width of the runway, between walks, about 10′.
“Four planes were being carried on the carrier for this operation. In addition, 4 more were disassembled and loaded on 2 1⁄2-ton cargo trucks, long wheel base. Of the four planes on the LST carrier, 2 were placed in the flight deck and 2 on the top deck of the ship. A ramp was built from the top deck of the ship to the flight deck. The two planes on the top deck of the ship were easily pulled up the ramp to the flight deck. The planes were loaded on the ship by means of a crane.
“One of the airplanes had been equipped with a public address system and radio, the other 3 with radios. Two of the planes (the one equipped with the PA system and another) were to be used by the Force Commander to keep contact with the landing boats and beaches, and keep him posted on the movements of our troops. The other two planes were flown immediately ashore to be used as the division artillery commander saw fit.
“One landing field will normally be picked, prepared, and marked on each beach to receive the planes from the carrier.”
Several factors made Air OP flying over the island of Sicily both difficult and hazardous. The terrain itself was rugged and the air over it was unstable. Landing strips were few, and far behind the lines. It was often necessary for the planes of more than one division to operate from the same landing strip. The headlong rush of our troops caused rapid changes in the front and also in the direction of effort. These difficulties did not prevent the artillery pilots and observers from doing good work and lots of it, but they did give rise to some experimental tactics along the northern coast which proved to be highly successful.
The procedure was to fly out to sea several thousand yards, far enough to avoid ack-ack and small arms fire, then to fly parallel to the beach until nearly opposite—or opposite, or even beyond—the enemy installations. Observation was possible up the numerous valleys which came down to the sea, and it was possible to observe the road and railway which ran behind the enemy front lines. When observing, planes had a natural tendency to edge in close to the beach, and in the aggregate they drew a great deal of rifle, machine gun, and light AA fire, and some 88-mm high burst adjustments. Numerous attacks were made by Me-109s and FW-190s in numbers up to 6, and some attacks were made by Ju-87s and He-111s. Only once during the Sicilian campaign was an Air OP attacked by a single plane. It is a tribute to the evasive tactics taught at Sill that the artillery planes escaped in every case. Caught over the water they were in an extremely embarrassing position indeed, but with their slow speed and maneuverability they were relatively safe when they reached the mountainous terrain along the shore. They could execute much closer contour flying than their fast, heavy opponents. In Sicily enemy aircraft were not persistent in their attacks on artillery planes, and in all but one case dropped the fight after making a single pass.
The lack of regularly organized Forward Observer Sections in FA battalions to handle FO missions, which amount to some 75–80% of all observed fires, has led to a consistent shortage of observers for the Air OPs. In mountainous country landing strips are rarely found in the battalion area, and are commonly 10 miles to the rear. Even when forward observers are available from battery personnel, they are not usually available on short notice. In Tunisia and Sicily it was frequently necessary to send up two pilots together, one to fly and the other to observe. This put too many eggs in one basket, but was a necessary makeshift measure.
An example of a Sicilian mission is given by Lt. E.R. Smartt, a pilot who acted as observer on the mission:
“In extremely broken country along the northern shore of Sicily a 155-mm howitzer battalion position was taken under fire by German artillery. In the rough terrain there were no alternate positions except far to the rear. The forward observers were unable to spot the enemy. Casualties were rising. The situation was serious. S-3 radioed to the small landing strip along the beach, several miles behind our own guns. ‘Battalion position being shelled badly. Take off immediately to locate enemy battery and adjust fire.’ S/Sgt. Moody and I had been standing by and started immediately. We went up the coast, keeping several hundred yards out to sea. As we approached a point abreast of the battalion position we checked communications. Then, almost before I could realize what I was seeing, several bright flashes appeared from some woods across a dry river bed. They showed white in the strong sun, which stood behind the advancing plane. They were several yards ahead. I made a quick estimation on my map. ‘Coordinates 41.5—60.5.’ At that location I reported ‘Enemy battery. Request battalion.’ From FDC came ‘Roger, adjust Baker.’ The cannoneers had scrambled out of their fox holes and loaded the pieces. ‘Battery has fired.’ And I replied ‘Roger… 400 right, repeat range,” and on the next volley, ‘100 left, 100 short, fire for effect.’ The guns gave me what I asked for. Meanwhile I spotted another flash some distance away so sensed the effect ’50 left, 50 over,’ and gave ‘Repeat fire for effect.’ Another concentration came down. The enemy did not fire from that position again.”
At one stage in the campaign a combat team was landed near Cape Orlando, in rear of the enemy. The planes of the artillery battalion of the combat team were in the air virtually all day long, the day of the assault. The staff sergeant pilots and the observers would take off from behind our main positions, fly out to sea, and up the coast to where the landing was in progress. Then they would come in close, establish communication, adjust fire, and keep the situation under observation. From dawn to dusk these pilots returned to their landing strip only to refuel. During the day Cape Orlando was dive bombed first by our planes, then later by those of the Nazis. Dogfights were going on and the Air OPs were confronted by enemy fighters more than once.
A naval reconnaissance mission was flown by a pilot from a division which was sweeping along the coast of Sicily in a hot pursuit action. An unidentified naval force was reported off shore, making for a point behind the American advance. The Division Commander started to make appropriate dispositions and sent out an Air OP. The pilot was not a specialist on naval silhouettes and had to fly his defenseless light plane very low and close to see whether the convoy was friendly. It was.
The situation in Sicily called for some other special missions. There were communication hops, on which “grasshoppers” contacted by radio artillery observers who had accompanied infantry elements forward beyond the range of their 610s. Sometimes the airplane radio relay was of great value. “Grasshoppers” linked the photo lab of an air reconnaissance squadron to the corps counterbattery office, obtaining prints for the artillery hours before they would have been delivered by road.
Air OPs located forward elements, watched for counterattacks, reported on the condition of roads and bridges, took oblique air photographs to speed reconnaissance, or just kept an eye on the enemy in general. Probably 3⁄4 of the artillery combat missions in Italy were of reconnaissance type, and it is estimated that well over half the missions flown, of all types, brought back information of operational value to artillery units.
The Italian campaign started off similarly to the Sicilian operation, except that lack of wind made take-offs from LCTs [landing craft, tank] dangerous and caused the loss of a plane.
1st Lt. A.W. Shultz, Air Officer, 3d Div Arty, states that it is necessary here to fly most of the time at about 1,000′, sometimes at 1,500′, and sometimes even at 2,000′. “We pick up flashes and adjust by using adjacent terrain features. Sometimes we pick up smoke and fire area concentrations, occasionally at traffic on roads. Our usual targets are enemy gun batteries. Sometimes we have been able to pick up SP guns [self-propelled artillery], and I think we destroyed one. We have had good luck in picking up German AA guns [anti-aircraft].
“Our records show that 1 observer flew on 20 different days between 11 Oct and 17 Nov. The longest time in the air for an observer was 5 hours, during which time he fired 4 missions; the shortest was 40 minutes. The average mission takes approximately 1 1⁄4 hours; it takes about that long to locate a battery and fire a mission.
“The following figures may be of interest: 1 observer during October flew on 22 days, 9 days from 1–17 Nov. Another observer 17 days in October, 6 between 1–17 Nov. Another observer, 21 days in October, 11 between 1–17 Nov. Five missions in 1 day was the greatest number flown by any observer; the average is about two. We find that we run in streaks as to the number of targets located. Sometimes we will be attacked while on a flight and have to come down in a hurry. On a good day in 4 or 5 hours you may be lucky and pick up a bunch of targets. Observation is better on a hazy day than on a bright day, as you can see artillery flashes better. Dawn and dusk are the best times to observe.”
In order to obtain the best observation the Air OPs sometimes fly deep into enemy territory. They are always fired upon by enemy ground troops and often by antiaircraft guns as well. Initially pilots flew ahead until they drew hostile fire, and then operated just outside the danger zone. Jerry soon learned to hold his fire and let the planes come well into his positions before opening up. Now the pilots simply accept the operational risk. They report two ways of escaping ground fire: one is to dive toward the ground and fly away at low altitude, the other is to fly a zigzag course away from the fire. The enemy has learned to adjust with artillery on a point over which a plane is accustomed to fly. When it comes near, 10 or 15 air bursts are then fired in the vicinity. The countermeasure is to use different courses on each mission.
So successful have the Air OPs become that the Germans have been much impressed by them. One PW [prisoner of war] stated that every time he saw an Air OP plane his blood would would boil because it was an insult to have that little defenseless box “bobbing around in the air and be unable to take any measures against it. Whenever the Cub plane puts in an appearance, guns are silenced and all personnel (infantry and artillery alike) remain quiet in the hope of escaping detection and the rain of steel that always follows discovery. The only effective measure against the Cub is the pursuit plane. We have a plane (Storch) similar to the Cub, but it has never been seen in Italy.”
These comments are not entirely accurate: 2 Storch planes have been shot down on the Italian front, and the reader will have realized that AA fire is a constant danger to pilots when they are forced to fly over the enemy’s lines. These inaccuracies, however, do not detract from the fact that the PW took our “grasshoppers” seriously, and genuinely feared them. Similar testimony is accumulating all the time, and the remarks cited here can be considered typical.
One countermeasure adopted by the Nazis has been the frequent bombing and shelling of landing strips. Careful camouflage and dispersion of planes is essential and personnel should have slit trenches and fox holes prepared at all times. Contour approaches and take-offs at landing strips are becoming increasingly important to keep their location secret as long as possible.
Another measure has been the launching of an air offensive against the light planes, using fighters in pairs. This is being countered by sending up Air OPs in pairs also—one to execute the mission, the other to act as lookout and give warning by radio. It has proved successful for the warning plane to fly at a lower altitude than the observing plane, to detect enemy planes that might be attempting to come up underneath the Air OPs.
One means of eluding enemy interception is night flying. This has become common on moonlight nights. Relatively large objectives (such as towns or road bends) are chosen, or hostile battery positions near some distinct feature. One counterbattery shoot caused an explosion that pushed the plane 100 feet higher in the air. Homing planes are lighted in by 8 or 9 men holding flashlights. It is extremely difficult to detect Cub planes from above at night, and to date enemy fighters have not interfered with these missions.
RELIEVING THE MAROONED
Lt. M.J. Strok, Fifth Army Air OP engineering officer, designed a parachute-dropping apparatus to supply troops marooned on a mountain in rear of Venafro. It was perfected and tested by the 3d Div. There are two types of loads: one is 2 water cans tied together, the other 72 cans of C rations. OD [olive drab green] blankets are used as parachutes, so that the ‘chute itself is a useful article when it reaches the ground. Drops are made from a height of 3–400′. If the drop is to be made in close proximity to extreme front line elements, a plane will go up first and adjust and fire concentrations including some smoke for screening purposes. Then the drop is made. It takes about 10 seconds for packages to reach the ground.
At a height of 400′ the dropping point is 40′ short of the desired point of landing. The parachute opens after the package has fallen about 100′. The package with water cans weighs 90 lbs., that with rations 65 lbs. One blanket ‘chute is used for the water package, two for the rations; two ration bundles are dropped together, each with its own ‘chute, and fall separately. The rations are placed in 105-mm fiber ammunition cases. Regular bomb releasing devices (for light fragmentary bomb) have been secured from the Air Forces and welded beneath the L-4 plane. The dropping kit alters flight characteristics to the point of becoming dangerous unless the plane is piloted with great care. It is hoped that this device will not be used to excess or in bad flying weather.
The first loss of life of an artillery pilot in the air occurred when the Germans broke through at Kasserine Pass. Rather than burn his plane and retire on foot, Lt. Stewart took off directly toward advancing tanks and infantry. Lt. Barney had just flown out successfully, although losing his windshield by artillery fire in the process. Stewart was shot down by machine guns at virtually point-blank range. A party led by the Air section mechanics tried to beat back the Germans and reach the burning plane, but failed. Through Geneva it was learned that Lt. Stewart was a prisoner in Italy, and a later message reported that he had died of wounds in the prison camp.
It was hard to find suitable landing fields in Sicily. One field obliged the pilot to take off with the prevailing wind toward the sun. S/Sgt. Wellborn was operating under these conditions one day and his plane failed to clear a century plant. His right landing gear struck the plant and was driven back into the fuselage, severing all stick controls. The pilot climbed to about 200′ and attempted a rudder turn into the field. The rudder would not work. Far out at sea the plane “spun over the top” into approximately 25′ of water. The pilot received a gash over his right eye and the observer received lacerations of the left ear; both were stunned. Two other members of the section swam out and rescued them, pushing empty water cans for floats.
A staff sergeant, flying with an observer over enemy territory, was hit in the leg by small arms fire. The pilot succeeded in landing his plane in our lines just before he fainted.
S/Sgt. Joseph J. Grady was flying 1st Lt. Melvin M. Smith as observer. Both were seriously wounded by enemy AA fire. Though unable to use his right arm, Sgt. Grady brought his plane in to a good landing.
While a technician was working on his plane’s radio S/Sgt. James T. Smith, Jr., was suddenly confronted by an Me-109 which came around a mountain at very low altitude and opened fire. Sgt. Smith flipped his plane over to dive and one wing of the enemy fighter smashed through a wing of the Cub. Neither American survived the crash.
Capt. Baetjer, with his brigade executive as passenger, was flying generally northwest from Battepaglia. While gaining altitude to clear the mountains he was attacked by 3 Me-109s. His engine was shot out. It was necessary to pancake into a tree on landing, but both officers escaped with injuries. S/Sgt. C.M. Atkinson, flying a plane directly behind Capt. Baetjer at the time of the attack, got off scot free.
During an enemy air raid on 12 Nov a corps artillery observation plane was hit by American AA fire. About 100 holes were later counted in wings, fuselage, and tail, yet the plane was not seriously damaged and landed easily.
S/Sgt. J.G. Fry (pilot) and 2d Lt. Carl Ashline (his observer) came in with 70 holes in their plane—holes put there by our own flak while the Air OP was being chased by two enemy fighters. The medics dug an AA fragment from Lt. Ashline’s back. Sgt. Fry picked a piece of jagged steel from the shoulder of his flying jacket.
Lt. Floyd Leming, pilot, and Lt. Robert Savage, observer, were forced to bail out of their plane when an enemy fighter shot off the wings. Both officers apparently drifted down behind enemy lines.
S/Sgt. Pauksta was flying a major on a conduct-of-fire mission. S/Sgt. Stegall and S/Sgt. Crosby were in a lookout ship. The two planes were attacked simultaneously from above by 2 Me-109s. S/Sgt. Pauksta’s plane was hit by a 37-mm shell; the left strut was damaged and holes were torn in the fabric. S/Sgt. Stegall’s plane was hit with .50-cal. MG [machine gun] fire in the wing, but no serious damage was suffered. When the Me-109s attacked, the Cubs dived and were able to recover, from the dives and elude the Germans. As the two Cubs pulled out, however, two more Me-109s, which were at a lower altitude, made another attack. Again the artillery planes were able to outmaneuver their assailants and escape. Both Cubs returned immediately to their landing strip, without damage to personnel.
Near the scene of this double-decker dogfight S/Sgt. Martin was flying on another mission. The first two Me’s to pick on Pauksta and Stegall next turned their attention to him. He outmaneuvered the Germans by flying toward the center of the circle they were making in their attack, gradually working down his altitude and edging over toward the American lines. So dumbfounded were our ground troops that they never even drew a bead on the attackers—but the threat of their fire was enough for the Nazis, who finally let Martin go rather than follow him within .30-cal. range of the ground.
S/Sgt. H.G. Waddell, with his mechanic, T/3 R.D. Cannon, were attacked by an Me near Alano. Their plane was damaged but did not crash.
Sgt. Norman B. Baylor experienced a narrow escape. Attacked by 4 enemy fighters while adjusting fire, he was forced to dive his ship behind a mountain on the enemy side of the lines. This foiled the fighters, but the enemy AA opened fire on his plane almost immediately. With a bullet hole through one cylinder, Sgt. Baylor coaxed the plane around the mountain and made a forced landing inside our lines. Working under enemy fire, the ground crew saved the plane.
S/Sgt. E.V. McClelland was shot down near Rocca Evandro. Four Me-109s came in just behind a flight of Spitfires. Two attacked from above and two from below. McClelland made a crash landing on the side of a mountain with the tail surfaces of his plane on fire. He was not seriously injured.
Besides naval spotting and counterbattery missions, Air OPs have done successful work in hasty registration, in surveillance of scheduled fires, in destruction of enemy materiel, truck parks, and dumps of various sorts, and have brought down numerous concentrations on enemy personnel. This is the type of mission the Air OP was meant to do. These are primary missions.
The mountainous terrain encountered so far has usually made the Field Artillery School practice of flying over friendly artillery positions at 600′ to 1,000′ impracticable, even though this remains the ideal solution. Risking trained pilots and observers and their planes over enemy lines or at considerable altitudes can only be justified by operational necessity. If risks are necessary in order to carry out primary missions, however, these risks must be run.
Secondary uses of Air OPs are being cut down in the Fifth Army, in order that the battalions will have air observation when required. In critical stages of a landing, in a rapidly moving situation, or when units are operating on wide fronts, secondary missions are often of such great value to the whole command as to outweigh the interests of the Field Artillery. If corps liaison squadrons are ever provided by the AAF, it will have been the artillery Air OPs which proved the value of light planes to division and higher commanders.
Air OPs have not only done all that those who planned them hoped they would—they have done vastly more as well.