Christmas 1934 – First KLM Transatlantic Flight

The swan-song of Fokker airliners with KLM

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The ‘Pelikaan’s very successful mail flight to the Dutch East Indies triggered the idea of enlarging the airmail network to the Dutch dominions in the West-Indies and South-America. The idea of a special mail flight to commemorate the 300 year ‘relationship’ between the Netherlands and Curacao popped up and a special mail flight was planned for Cristmas 1934.

It proved to be a real challenge. Contrary to previous flights this one had to be carried out mostly over the ocean. Range and reliability would make the difference to success or abysmal failure.

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A standard Fokker FVXVIII (PH-AIS, named ‘Snipe’), was taken out of regular service and overhauled by the KLM Rotterdam ground crew at Waalhaven airfield. The plane was drastically modified; all passenger seats were removed and all windows taken out and taped over with linen. The Pratt & Whitney Wasp C1 engines were replaced by a more modern version (T1D1) with adjustable propellers, something remarkable at that time.
KLM Technical services worried about the range; the longest stretch – between the Cabo Verde Islands and the South-American coast would be over 3.500 km, way beyond the standard FXVIII range. Luck was with them; moldering away in one of the Waalhaven hangars was an old Fokker FIIIb that had belonged to a bankrupt German pilot Alexander R. Adrian who had planned to make a world tour in it. He had ordered 7 fuel tanks from KLM but, unable to pay his debts, the plane had been seized by his creditors. The tanks were installed, increasing the ‘Snipe’s range to 4.600 km.

Communications were another headache; it was long before transatlantic navigation aids such as LORAN became available. The problem was solved by installing a new, powerful radio installation aboard and by diverting a Dutch submarine (K. XVIII) and a KNSM passenger liner (S.S. Stuyvesant) from their courses to act as navigational aids during the transatlantic flight.

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The crew: Van der Molen, Hondong, van Balkom, Stolk, in front of the ‘Snipe’

In the evening of December 14, a large crowd had gathered at Amsterdam Schiphol airport to wave the plane off, despite sleet, high winds, low cloud and poor visibility. Captain Jan Hondong, Co-Pilot Jan van Balkom, Flight mechanic Leen Stolk and Radioman Simon van der Molen took off at 00.10 am December 15, 1934 with a payload of 26.521 letters and packages aboard. They followed a course via Marseilles and Alicante (Spain) and touched down at Casablanca (Morocco) at 13.00 hrs that same day. The next leg, Casablanca to Porto Praya (Cabo Verde Islands) was completed at 12.00 on December 17, 1934.
Leen Stolk had a day to have a real good look at his engines and, finding nothing amiss, the crew departed from Porto Praya December 19, 1934, at 19.00 local time. Six hours later, they passed over the Dutch submarine, exactly on course. They landed at Surinam’s ‘Zanderij’ airfield on December 20 at 12.45 local time, after a flight of 15 hours and 5 minutes. After a day’s rest they continued their flight via Venezuela (now carrying two passengers, sitting on the fuel tanks) to Curacao where they landed in the afternoon of December 22, 1934.

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Epilogue.
This extraordinary flight of 10.488 km lasted 7 days, 19 hours and 20 minutes with a total flight-time of 54 hours and 27 minutes but it never received the acclaim the ‘Pelikaan’ flight got.
First, because the record breaking Douglas DC2 ‘Uiver’ crashed near Rutbah Wells on December 20, 1934, leaving a deep sense of disaster with the Dutch population.
Second, because the airplane never flew back to Holland but stayed with KLM West Indies, preventing the public to celebrate like they had done after other great KLM flights
And last: the costs!
KLM Accounting shows that the total costs of this flight, with a drastically modified airliner that could not carry passengers on this type of route, were a stunning 32.342 Dutch guilders. The total airmail revenue was 27.398 guilders.
When KLM’s hard-nosed managing director Albert Plesman looked at these figures, he decided there and then to switch to Douglas products in order to turn KLM into a profit making enterprise…

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The 1933 Christmas Mail Flight to Java (and back)

A marketing stunt saved by a standard KLM airliner…

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It all started with a contract Albert Plesman, KLM’s ambitious managing director, had negotiated with the Dutch PTT as soon as the first scheduled service to the Dutch East Indies was started on October 1, 1931. The contract stated that KLM would annually carry at least 500 kg mail to the colony on the other side of the world.

The airline would do this at a flat rate of 42.50 Dutch Guilders per kg and would undertake all reasonable efforts to cut delivery time to 2 weeks (compared to at least six weeks for sea-mail).
The reverse side of the coin was that the Dutch PTT had to undertake all necessary marketing activities to generate this annual quantity. This turned out not to be too easy (airmail, at 36 cents a letter was six times as expensive as ‘normal’ mail), so a special committee (Snelpost Indië / Express Mail Indies) was installed. This committee decided that fast, dedicated mail carriers were the way to go and announced a competition to determine which airplane would perform the shortest roundtrip, from Amsterdam to Java and back, to deliver the 1933 Christmas Mail. Two Dutch firms, Fokker and Pander entered the competition. Fokker, as a long established builder of airliners entered its newly designed F.XX.

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The Postjager taking off during the 1934 Melbourne race. The ill-fated airplane crashed and burned at Allahabad

The other contender, Pander, was a well-known Dutch firm that wanted to enter the airplane market (They were best know for producing excellent furniture!)
Pander took up the challenge with their newly designed S4 Postjager (Mail Rusher), a tri-engined airplane purely designed to carry mail. It left Amsterdam on December 9, 1933, bound for Java but never got past Taranto, Italy, where it stranded with a severe engine failure.
Humiliatingly, the mail it carried was taken by car to Brindisi (Italy) and flown from there to Cairo by Imperial Airways in one of their seaplanes.

Fokker F.XX PH-AIZ Zilvermeeuw

The Fokker FXX., the first Fokker airliner with a retractable landing gear. Only one was ever built and it was sold off by KLM in 1936 to a front-organization of the Spanish Republicans. This unique aircraft served through the civil war and was destroyed in a crash in Spain in 1938

Next to leave for Java, on December 18, 1933, was Fokker’s brand-new F.XX,, It was confidently announced that the plane would be re-routed via Cairo to pick up the Postjager’s mail. But when the crew ran up its engines before departure, the center engine came to a rattling halt with a fractured crankshaft. The highly publicized mail-rush to Java was in jeopardy of becoming a tremendous fiasco.
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But KLM’s Albert Plesman never batted an eyelid; he ordered the crew to grab the older (and 50 km/hr. slower) Fokker FXVIII PH-AIP named Pelikaan (“Pelican”) and be off.
And that is exactly what they did. After the 187 kg mail had been hurriedly transferred, Captain Iwan Smirnoff, co-pilot Piet Soer, flight mechanic Sjef Grosfeld and radioman Cor van Beukering left Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for what would become one of the most famous KLM flights ever.

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The ‘Pelikaan’ crew in a KLM propaganda photo.  Seen from left to right: Smirnoff, Soer, Grosfeld and Van Beukering

They thrashed out some kind of flight plan during the first leg of their flight from Amsterdam to Marseilles (France). From there they continued without stopping via Athens, Cairo, Bagdad, Karachi, Bangkok and Singapore to Batavia (Jakarta) and touched down at Tjililitan airfield on December 22, 1933. The flight of nearly 15.000 km (9.923 miles) had been done in 100 hours and 44 minutes, unheard of at that time.

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The arrival of the ‘Pelikaan‘ at Tjililitan, Batavia on December 22, 1933.

After a few days rest the crew left Batavia on December 27, 1933 and followed the same route back to Amsterdam where they arrived 100 hours and 33 minutes later on December 30, 1933, having shaved-off 10 minutes of their record outbound flight-time. Over 20.000 cheering spectators welcomed them at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. And the name “Pelikaan” instantly became a household word in the Netherlands.

 

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A postcard, originally sent by the ill-fated ‘Postjager’ and later picked up by the competing ‘Pelikaan’; one of the stamps says ‘Bandoeng 22/12/33″. Directly upon arrival, the mail had been rushed by car from Batavia to the Bandung post office.

 

 

 

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The Other Side: The Nakajima A6M2-N

The Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero’s Bastard Brother

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Nakajima A6M2-N’s lined up, probably in Tulagi Harbor

Why would a hard-nosed organization (as the Japanese Navy certainly was) bother with ordering an airplane which performance was reduced to about 20% of its land and carrier-based version?

This question seems baffling enough until one looks at the size of the Japanese ruled or dominated part of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on the planet.
In the spring of 1942, the Japanese armies had conquered the Philippines, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. They were fighting their way into Burma and down to New-Guinea and its adjacent island groups. By that time, the Japanese dominated area was almost all that lay west of a line going straight north to south, from the Aleutian Islands to Rabaul. And though the Japanese Navy was equipped with no less than 12 aircraft carriers, they were not enough to secure such an immense area.

Another problem was the scarcity of suitable landing strips the Japanese forces needed during their island-hopping campaign. To solve this problem, the Japanese Navy fell back on a tradition already established in Japanese military aviation. They decided to use seaplanes in areas from which land based aircraft could not operate. They only had to look for either sheltered coastlines or lagoons and, if the water was calm enough, seaplanes could take off and land. There was no need for runways or carriers, just smooth waters and enough space to pitch tents for aircrew and ground crews.

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When in 1940 the Japanese navy initiated the design of a new interceptor seaplane (the Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu, or ‘Rex’), the need was also expressed for a stopgap aircraft and the Nakajima company was instructed in February 1941 to develop a float-equipped version of the excellent Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero naval interceptor.
Nakajima’s engineers added a large float beneath the fighter’s fuselage to allow the aircraft to operate from water while it housed a 330 liter fuel tank. Stabilizing floats had to be added beneath each wing. To counteract the negative effect of these floats on the aircraft’s aerodynamic properties, a new vertical tail plane had to be fitted to help to compensate for this. And a significant amount of strengthening and stiffening had to be added to the original lightweight design. The final result was a fighter which was not only slower and possibly less maneuverable, but also had a shorter range.

The ‘Rufe’ entered service with the Japanese Navy in 1942; in addition to the prototype another 326 examples entered service until production ceased in September 1943. From the Aleutians to the Solomans and to the Marshall Islands, the ‘Rufe’ was well known by allied aircrew in certain areas of the Pacific. It not only became a regular and unpredictable menace to allied bombers but was also used to attack light shipping and ground targets with its cannons and two 60kg bombs. ‘Rufe’s were able to break up enemy bomber formations and its pilots claimed a respectable number of kills. NA2/C Eitoku Matsunaga shot down 8 aircraft whilst flying the ‘Rufe’ and its replacement – the Kawanishi N1K1. Warrant Officer Kiyomi Katsuki claimed 16 kills during the Second World War; seven of these were scored whilst flying seaplane fighters.
However, despite some notable successes the ‘Rufe’s combat record was chequered. At a time when the more capable A6M2 was struggling against a newer breed of allied fighters, the float-hindered ‘Rufe’ was in an even worse position. On top of this, seaplanes stood little chance when violent tropical storms tore through the Pacific. An estimated 10% of all ‘Rufes’ were destroyed by storms.

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A single ‘Rufe’ was discovered by the French forces when they returned to Indochina. They repaired the seaplane but it crashed on take-off for its first test flight.

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Combat over the Mediterranean

A birds-eye view, at masthead level

P&S_MED_CoverMany books and stories have been published about the fight in the North-African desert, the defense of Malta and the ultimate turning point of Alamein. Few books, however, have been dedicated to the hard slogging war over the Mediterranean and the coasts of Greece and Italy. And even fewer have given us a feeling for “how it was” by their pictures and photographs.

This book is an exception. It is based upon a veritable trove of gun camera stills and other pictures left behind by Wing Commander Dennis Ormonde Butler DFC, (“Dob”) , commanding officer of 252 Sqn. RAF. These pictures are all taken between 1942 and 1945, during the long and hard fight against Axis ports and shipping in the Mediterranean.

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September 17, 1943 – 252 Sqn. attacking  a three-ship convoy carrying troops from Piraeus to Rhodes. Shown here is the 3.754 ton coaster Paula under attack by RAF Beaufighters

Chris Goss, himself an ex RAF wing-commander, has compiled an excellent set of sometimes stunning pictures and has completed them with relevant information from the squadron’s operation record book. This information and these pictures, often taken (literally) at masthead level, provide the reader with a unique insight of what that bitter fight has been.
I recommend this book to all those who want to learn kore about combat over the Mediterranean, especially from the airman’s perspective.

Combat over the Mediterranean
Chris Goss
Pen &Sword – Frontline Books
Softcover, 154 pages
ISBN 978-1-47338-943-9

 

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Lt. Sam Marett & the Seversky P-35

An unsung hero and a forgotten plane.

On December 10, 1941, the US Far East Air Force in the Philippines was still reeling from the disastrous Japanese attacks on Dec. 8 and 9. Two thirds of its heavy bombers had been destroyed on the ground and its remaining fighter force had been nearly halved.

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A Seversky P-35A landing in bad weather at Iba Airfield, Luzon

What remained of the battered fighter and bomber squadrons had been dispersed to emergency fields, some of them lacking even the most basic items such as food, water and toilet facilities. As was the case with the pilots of the 34th Pursuit Squadron; they spent a foodless and nearly sleepless night at the primitive San Marcelino field.  They took off before dawn and flew their 16 remaining Seversky P-35’s back to Del Carmen airfield, only to find orders to attack a Japanese invasion fleet off Vigan in north Luzon with all possible speed. And speed was not their P-35’s best thing.

The hump-backed looking plane had won the fighter fly-off completion in 1936. But production and deliveries had been so slow that the USAAC decided to order 210 Curtiss P-36’s, the runner up in the 1935 /36 competition. On receiving this news, Alexander P. de Seversky became afraid of his production pipeline ‘drying up’ and started to look for lucrative foreign contracts. He was so ill-advised as to secretly close a contract in 1937 with the Imperial Japanese Navy for a two-seat version of the P-35 (designated 2PA-L and A8V1 by the Japanese).  Because of the strained relations with Japan, this sale was extremely unpopular. The State department put him in their ‘black book’ and pressured the Army not to place any further orders with his firm.

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Confiscated Swedish P-35’s in 1940

De Seversky must have been rather slow on the uptake because he also sold 2 of the 2LP-A’s plus a production license to Soviet Russia. Just before he was ousted as chairman of his company, he negotiated an order with the Swedish Flygvapnet for 120 single seat EP-1’s (the export version of the P-35) with two wing-mounted .50 cal. guns. Half of this order had been delivered in 1940 when an irate US Government placed an embargo on all combat aircraft sales, except to the United Kingdom. They confiscated the remainder of the 60 EP-1’s coming off the production line, redesignated them P-35A and sent them off to the Philippines. There, they were intensively used for training and by the time war broke out, most of them were in bad shape, with worn out engines and wobbly guns.

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But it was all the 34th Pursuit Squadron had that fateful day. After refueling at Del Carmen the two fights of P-35A’s took off and pressed north. It was more than most engines could stand and fighter after fighter had to return. When the squadron arrived over Vigan, Squadron Commander Lt/1 ‘Sam’ Marett’s flight was down to five planes and his wingman Lt. ‘Bill’ Brown’s flight consisted of two. There was no sign of enemy fighter planes so they all swooped down to attack the Japanese fleet. They riddled many of the small landing barges with their .303 and .50 cal. guns and so badly damaged the transport Oigawa Maru that it had to be beached to save it.
Marett had singled out a warship and pressed home attack after attack. His final attack, carried out at masthead level and through a storm of anti-aircraft fire, proved to be fatal. His target, the “7-GO” class minesweeper “W-10” blew up under him with an enormous explosion that tore off one wing of his P-35, sending it crashing into the sea.

Sadly enough, his exploit has been eclipsed by the publicity around Captain Colin P. Kelly’s supposed bombing and sinking on that same day of  the battleship Haruna. Post-war records revealed however that his attack only slightly damaged the cruiser Natori

I therefore decided to bring one more unsung hero to a wider attention. May he rest in peace.

Lt/1 Samuel Marett was posthumously awarded the DSC.  The citation reads:
Marett, Samuel H. 1st Lt - Vigan 10dec41First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Samuel H. Marett (ASN: 0-22854), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-35 Fighter Airplane in the 34th Pursuit Squadron, 24th Pursuit Group, FAR EAST Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 10 December 1941, during an air mission against Japanese surface vessels at Vigan, Philippine Islands.
On that date, First Lieutenant Marett was Pilot of a P-35 fighter in an attack on Japanese shipping and landing parties at Vigan, Philippine Islands. Following bombing by heavy bombers, Lieutenant Marett lead his squadron through a hail of anti-aircraft fire to strafe the enemy vessels and landing parties. In the performance of this mission, one of the enemy vessels exploded, destroying Lieutenant Marett’s aircraft and killing him instantly. First Lieutenant Marett’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat, at the cost of his life, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Far East Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 48 (1941)

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Pearl Harbor’s Legacy

1941_Pearl HarborToday, 76 years ago, the Japanese Naval Air Force delivered the opening blow in the war that would set the whole of the Pacific and Indian Ocean ablaze. In a daring attack that only lasted one hour and 15 minutes, the Japanese airmen sank or badly damaged 8 battleships and 11 other vessels, killed 2403 persons  and wounded an additional 1178. At a cost  of 29 aircraft, 5 midget submarines and 129 men.

But traumatic as this attack was, it was only the beginning of a carefully orchestrated assault on what the Japanese military rulers called the “Southern Resource Area”, the incredibly rich British and Dutch dominions of Malaya and Indonesia.  With the American Navy removed as a threat, the invasion of Malaya started that same day (the 8th of December on the other side of the dateline). Singapore was bombed during the night of December 8 while at the same time, the first Japanese troops went ashore at Kota Bharu on the Malayan east-coast.

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“Blitzkrieg by Bicycle”; Japanese soldiers on commandeered bicycles on their way down the Malayan peninsula

In the Philippines, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had alerted the senior commanders. General Lewis H. Brereton had scrambled his P-40 fighters and urgently asked General MacArthur for permission to send his bombers against the Japanese airfleets in Formosa (Taiwan). Scholars are still discussing the inexplicable 4-hour delay between this request and MacArthur’s reaction. By the time he finally approved the request, the P-40’s had landed to refuel, the Philippine airfields were under Japanese air attack and the US Far East Air Force lost about two thirds of its fighters and bombers.

 

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A burnt-out P-40 at Wheeler Field, Philippines

From then on, the whole Allied effort to halt the Japanese forces was a lost battle. They were outmaneuvered and outfought by a numerically and technologically superior enemy that also had established air superiority. It took the Japanese forces 55 days to capture Malaya and most of the Dutch East Indies and force Singapore to surrender. It took them another three weeks to capture Java and demand the capitulation of all Dutch and Allied forces. The fight for the Philippines dragged on until May 12, 1942 when the last US forces on Mindanao surrendered.

 

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 General Sir Archibald Percival Wavell (centre) on his way to the surrender ceremony at the Ford Factory at Bukit Tima, Singapore

The real legacy of Pearl Harbor is the momentous side-effect of these staggering victories. In one stroke, the colonial powers that had reigned in South-East Asia for centuries were exposed as being too feeble to defend themselves. And what was left of ‘white’ prestige was swept away when captured westerners were locked up in camps after being ignominiously marched through the centers of major cities, ridiculed and derided by a handful of Japanese guards.
With the foreign rulers locked up behind barbed wire, the flame of independence that had been smoldering for years suddenly leapt up. Within a few years, the British, Dutch and French empires in the east were gone, swept onto history’s rubbish heap. They were replaced by a flock of new nations, trying to find their feet while coming to terms with a whole new balance of power.
Decemberarc_boxset_ebook 7, 1941, was a pivotal date in world history. To commemorate this, I and seven other authors have teamed up to commemorate this by writing an anthology of short stories that all have one thing in common: the date.
But they are located all over the world and  show the reader a wide variety of what it means living in a world at war.
My contribution is “A Rude Awakening”, a short story that plays in Singapore at the eve and the first days after the Japanese attack. The unbelievable complacent attitude of the British. A rigidly class based society throws garden parties and dines sedately, disregarding the slowly growing number of warning signals.

 

Suddenly, the underestimated enemy ferociously attacks and the myth of invincibility is shattered forever. This book is available from Amazon as e-Book and in softcover
Interested?
Here’s the link!
https://www.amazon.com/Pearl-Harbor-More-Stories-December-ebook/dp/B01M4L8HGT

 

 

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70 Years ago – The Berlin Airlift

P&S_Berlin_1Almost 70 years ago, relations between the four powers that had defeated the Germans rapidly deteriorated. Disregarding the agreements reached during the 1945 Potsdam conference, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s dictatorial leader, had decided that the Russian army had beaten the Germans and therefore, Germany and whatever it still possessed, belonged to the USSR. Between 1945 and 1947, the Allied efforts to reconstruct the German economy made little headway, mainly due to this hostile and inflexible Russian attitude.

During that period, the Soviet Union brought one east-European country after another into its ‘sphere of influence’. And after the February 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Western powers saw a similar fate looming over Berlin and ultimately Germany. To prevent this, they went forward with the introduction of the Marshall Aid and the launch of the new German ‘Deutschmark’, two programs the Russians were fanatically opposing.  Their reaction was the Berlin blockade, which resulted in the first full-scale confrontation between the superpowers and bringing the world close to a new, global conflict.
The blockade started in earnest on June 21, 1948 and lasted until May 12, 1949. All road and rail connections between Berlin and West-Germany were severed. Three air-corridors were all that remained, through which enough supplies had to be transported to feed and warm a city of 2.6 million inhabitants.

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A Royal Army soup-kitchen in devastated Berlin

The blockade lasted 323 days. During that period, the USAF, RAF, RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF and RSAAF flew a staggering 278.000 sorties. They carried 2.1 million tons of supplies (of which 1.5 million tons  was coal) into the beleaguered city, despite fierce interference by Russian fighters and ground troops. There were over 730 recorded Soviet harassment incidents and 25 fatal accidents, costing 83 lives.

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Berliners standing on the rubble of their city watching a C47 coming into Tempelhof Airfield

Gerry van Tonder gives us a very clear and well-illustrated overview of what the blockade and the airlift really meant. He describes in detail the abysmal living conditions of the population and how they circumvented their worthless currency by creating the ‘cigarette’ economy. He provides an insight in the political situation of those days and the problems the Allied commanders had to cope with, especially the outright obstruction and harassment by the Soviets.
The airlift itself is described in considerable detail, highlighting the logistical and technical problems that had to be solved to bring off this unprecedented airborne effort.
I recommend this book to all of you interested in aviation history and the early days of the cold war

Berlin Blockade – Soviet chokehold and the great Allied airlift 1948 – 1949
Gerry van Tonder
Paperback, 128 pages
Pen & Sword Military
ISBN 978 1 52670 826 7

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