USAAF Dive Bombers in Java – Part Three

The 91st Bomb Squadron in Action

February 19th sealed the fate of the Allied campaign in the Dutch East Indies. On this day, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Darwin in Australia, Kupang in Timor and Den Pasar in Bali. By landing troops in Bali and Timor, they severed in one stroke the last Australia to Java life-line and prevented any further fighter ferry operation. Java was now encircled and isolated, apart from a shaky air route to India and a single open port (Tjilatjap) at its south coast.


1st Lt. (later Captain) Harry Galusha

When news came that a strong Japanese invasion fleet was heading for Bali, the 91st Bomb Squadron was placed on alert. Its 7 A-24’s, parked in revetments on the east and west side of the field, had been bombed-up and waiting all morning. Then, at 12.45 pm, an air raid alarm sounded and the squadron was ordered to fly for an hour to the south of the field. Suddenly, someone shouted to Galusha and Summers, “Take off; you’re on your own!” and off they went, with T/Sgt. H.A. Hartmann and Pvt. Mackay riding backseat as gunners. Once airborne, the two pilots circled aimlessly for a few minutes.


According to Walter D. Edmonds in “They Fought With What They Had”, those on the ground heard the following conversation
Galusha: “Shall we go over Bali way and see what we can see?”
Summers: “You’re the man with the wife and kids – let’s go!”
For once they were in luck. The clouds thinned out over Den Pasar and revealed (what they thought) were a transport and a destroyer. They peeled off at 11.000 feet to carry out the first dive bombing attack in the history of the US Air Force.
Post-war research shows that their targets were the Sasako Maru and the Sagami Maru, both armed transport ships of resp. 7180 and 9264 grt. Sasako Maru suffered only minor damage from near misses but Sagami Maru was heavily damaged by a direct hit in her engine room, probably planted there by Captain Harry Galusha.

sagami_maru by Ueda Kihachiro

Sagami Maru in 1942, painting by Ueda Kihachiro

Before Japanese fighters could be scrambled, the A-24’s had disappeared back into the clouds. All the way back to Malang, both pilots worried over what ‘Higher Authority’ might say about this unauthorized caper. They need not have bothered. When two hours later, a Navy PBY (erroneously) reported that both ship had sunk, the whole squadron went into Malang that night and celebrated with a large (and wet) dinner at Toko Oen. And ‘Higher Authority’ said precisely nothing and later duly decorated them.
February 20th dawned on the largest integrated USAAF operation to be undertaken in Java at that time. Its principal object was to dive-bomb any Japanese ships and shore positions on Bali. The 7 tired A-24’s were sent off and 16 P-40’s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron would fly top cover. For good measure 3 LB-30 heavy bombers had been thrown in to do some high level bombing as well. The P-40’s formed a protective umbrella at 14.000 feet over the A-24’s and the LB-30’s flying slightly lower, with Backus leading and Ferguson and Launder for wingmen, Galusha had Tubb and Hambaugh on his wings and Summers was ‘Tail-End Charley. When they arrived over Den Pasar harbor, they found two ships moored at the quay while four more Japanese warships were coming in.

f11f6f8d95534b781cf3adc0d9655962Galusha peeled off and went after the moored ships. At least 30 A6M Zero’s were scrambled from the nearby airfield and a fierce dogfight developed with the escorting P-40’s. This left the bombers a relative freedom to attack; Galusha dove at the moored vessels while Backus went for the incoming ships. And Summers picked what he thought was the largest incoming warship of them all. Unlike the day before, the alerted Japanese defenses now threw up an immense amount of AA fire and two A-24’s fell victim to it.

2nd Lt. Douglas Tubb was probably hit because his A-24 never recovered from its 12.000 feet dive and went straight into the sea, taking its pilot and air-gunner Pvt. D.S. Mackay to a watery grave. 2nd Lt. Richard Launder and his gunner Cpl. L.W. Lnenicka aimed for what they thought was a cruiser. They really pressed home their attack and after scoring two hits, Launder pulled up and streaked across the harbor at 15 feet above the water. The lonely plane was raked by Japanese ground-fire that shot away an oil line. Half blinded by the spraying oil, Launder managed to escape and ditch his damaged plane in the sea, about eight miles from Den Pasar and about half a mile offshore. He and Lnenicka returned to Malang 4 days later, helped by the friendly native population to escape on foot right across Bali, and after a precarious crossing to Java in a ramshackle fishing sampan.
Five of the A-24’s made it back to Malang where Summers’ ship was found to be too badly damaged to be used again.
The next day, February 21, Captain ‘Ed’ Backus left the squadron, summoned by General Lewis H. Brereton to be his ‘aide’ on an ‘inspection trip’ to India, a sure sign that the US forces were preparing to pull out. Summers ‘inherited’ Backus’ flying wreck 41-15786.
The next three days were relatively ‘inactive’, if one did not count nine bombing raids and three strafing attacks by the Japanese. Fed up with their inactivity, Harry Galusha and Don Hambaugh decided on February 23rd to carry out a ‘moonlight raid’ on Bali and so beat the opposing Zeros (that never flew at night). The duo bombed the astonished Japs all right but getting back to Malang was quite another story, with a 400 ft. ceiling and two 8.000 ft. mountains flanking the field.
The final act of the drama came on February 27th, when word came through that a Japanese invasion fleet had been spotted 60 miles north of Java. Galusha, Summers, Ferguson and Hambaugh manned their planes, but the hydraulic system on Hambaugh’s A-24 went tits-up so he couldn’t take-off. The other three sure enough found the invasion fleet in the Java Sea, a double line of 43 troopships, protected by 15 destroyers. Despite orders to attack troopships only, Galusha flew over the whole convoy, looking for an aircraft carrier that wasn’t there.

main-qimg-4e0c21f771935824a9df8c8ee4e3afe9-cThe convoy and its escorts threw up a storm of AA fire. Even the troop ships had guns that would go up to 14,000 feet. In the end, the three pilots dived on their targets and claimed three troopships sank – a claim later revised to one.
When the three battered A-24’s safely returned to Malang, they found the field deserted except for two officers and the men of their own outfit. Evacuation orders for all USAAF personnel had come through and next morning, on February 28th, the pilots ferried their planes to Yogyakarta while all other remaining personnel was taken across the mountains in a convoy of cars.
That same night, they were all flown out to Broome, Australia, in overloaded LB-30’s and B-17’s while the three remaining A-24’s were later set afire by the Dutch ground crews.

Thus ended the operational presence of the 27th Bomb Group in Java. Of the 15 A-24’s that set out from Amberley Field, only 12 reached their destination. Here is an operational rundown.



Summary of Air Action in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, USAF Air Staff (declassified);
The 27th Reports, Various Authors;
They Fought With What They Had, Walter D. Edmonds;
Australia@War, Peter Dunn’s website
Allied Defense of the Malayan Barrier, Tom Womack

Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

USAAF Dive Bombers in Java – Part Two

One Way Ticket To Java

amberley10 41-15796

Douglas A-24-DE 41-15796 being assembled at Amberley Field, January 1942 (via Gordon Birkett)

January 1942 was a very hectic month for the men of the 27th. It was a tough job to get the hastily crated A-24’s back into flying condition; shipped off in a hurry, some of them were still caked in Louisiana mud.

Armaments officer Zeke Summers ran around cursing, because most of the essential components, such as trigger motors, solenoids, gun-mounts and sights, were missing. To make matters worse, most of the Wright R1820-32 radial engines badly needed a complete overhaul; on some of them, the compression was so low that one could easily turn the prop with one hand…
Somehow, most of the obstacles were overcome – albeit with incredible improvisations and a lot of help from the RAAF. In January 1942, three squadrons were formed; the 91st at Archerfield under Captain Ed Backus, the 16th and 17th at Amberley under Captains “Buck” Rogers, and Herman “Snake” Lowery.
As news from the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies became worse and worse, all airworthy planes were pressed into a relentless training cycle to give the crews at least some practice in dive-bombing and strafing before going into action. They also were given ‘classroom’ lectures and Lt. Lee Alverson liked Harry Galusha’s daily lectures on low flying or ‘buzzing’ so much that he decided to give the summer resort of Southport a proper first class buzz on January 29. He put on a truly impressive show but as he skimmed the sea, his prop unfortunately hit a wave and he had to crash land his A-24 (41-15809) on the beach in front of a crowd of astonished spectators.

Archerfield-2 41-15802

Douglas A-24-DE 41-15802 at Amberley, prior to departure

Then the 91st received its movement orders and on February 5th, Captain ‘Ed’ Backus and the first flight of A-24’s took off in the pouring rain. They turned north-west on the first leg of the 1975 mile trip to Darwin, duplicating the track of the P-40 squadrons via Charleville, Cloncurry, and Daly Waters. On February 6th, Lt. Harry Galusha followed with the rest of the squadron and by February 8th, fourteen of the fifteen A-24’s had arrived at Darwin.
This long flight in bad weather had been rough on the worn engines of the A-24’s. 41-15809, flown by the unfortunate Lt. Alverson and his gunner Sgt. Gaydes, had been left behind with severe engine trouble at the end of the first 425 mile leg to Charleville. Salvatore’s plane (41-15806) was grounded with an oil leak and Jacob’s A-24 (41-15794) had an engine with three bad cylinders. It was decided that Salvatore and Jacobs would stay at Darwin to repair their planes while the rest of the squadron pressed on to Java.
On February 9th a flight of 9 Curtiss P-40E fighters of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron (provisional), led by a LB-30 ‘Liberator’, took off for Kupang on Timor. Three A-24’S, flown by Captain Ed Backus, Lt. Abel and Lt. Criswell followed in their wake. The A-24’s with their worn-out engines could not keep up with the fighters and they were soon left behind. The LB30 however got lost over Timor, the fighters ran out of gas and 8 P-40’s had to crash-land wherever they could, killing one pilot.
(See: USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Five).


Captain ‘Ed’ Backus, seen here as a Brigadier General. He retired from the USAF on August 1, 1961 as Major General.

Of course, Backus, who had flown the PanAm Portugal Clipper route for seven years, had no problem to find his destination, despite the very bad weather. But when the three A-24’s suddenly arrived over Kupang, without any announcement, the Australian AA guns put up a fierce barrage. They punctured the gasoline tank on Backus’s plane, neatly removed the stabilizer on his right elevator and did extensive damage to the other planes. The Aussies apologized to the pilots with lots of beer and patched up Backus’ plane so he could fly on to Pasirian in Java the next day. But Abel and Criswell had to return to Darwin to have their badly shot-up planes repaired.
The repairs were done quickly and they were able to join the remaining 9 A-24’s of the 91st on February 11th taking off for Timor.

Guided by a LB-30 they flew straight into a stationary storm front and for large parts of the 530 mile flight they were forced to fly as low as 50 feet above the shark-infested waters of the Timor Sea. Everybody sighed with relief when they reached Kupang. The squadron took off again at dawn on February 12th. Six pilots (Summer, Launder, Smith, Ferguson, Abel and Criswell) headed for Den Pasar on Bali, five others (Galusha, Larronde, Tubb, Hambaugh, and Haines) decided to stage through Maingapore on Sumba where Haines cracked a couple of ribs when he hit a couple of mudholes and ground-looped his A-24. The plane was put back on its wheels with the help of the local population and three hours later Haines followed the others to Java. The planes staging through Bali made the trip without incident, apart from the fact that they directly passed over four Japanese destroyers that fortunately had no fighter cover. As the A-24’s did not carry bombs at that time, they decided to move on in a hurry. By three o’clock in the afternoon of the 12th all A-24’s had reached Pasirian.


The ‘Brereton Route’ – now also followed by the A-24’s

The squadron transferred to Modjokerto (near Surabaya) that same afternoon. Modjokerto was an ‘emergency field’, hastily converted from rice paddies and some planes got stuck in its mud from which they could only be hauled by main force.
For four whole days, the squadron was able to carry out badly needed maintenance, for which only two qualified mechanics were available, while the crews luxuriated in their billets, usually with Dutch households. Two A-24’s were lost during this ‘rest’ period. Larrondes’s A-24 was cannibalized for parts to repair another A-24 that Abel had nosed over and bent its propeller. After it had been repaired, he made a test flight and discovered his wheels were stuck in the ‘up’ position. Nothing would dislodge them so he ditched his A-24 near the Surabaya Naval Dockyard and was rescued by the Dutch Navy. The squadron was now down to 9 A-24’s.
In the meantime ABDA Command scratched its head about what to do with a squadron of dive bombers that had suddenly been tossed in its lap. Neither the Dutch nor the British (nor the Americans by the way) had a battlefield doctrine in which dive-bombers fitted. The result was a rather senseless shuttling across Java of the whole squadron.
This started when Captain Ed Backus was summoned to ABDA Headquarters in Bandung (West-Java). He flew there on February 15th and on February 16th he summoned the whole squadron to join him at Tjililitan Airfield near Batavia (nowadays Jakarta). He greeted them wearing Major’s bars and handing a pair of Captains bars to Lt. Harry Galusha. After spending the night in Batavia – to which purpose is not clear but the crews did not mind – the squadron was sent back to East-Java. Galusha and four other pilots were told to make for the Pursuit Headquarters at Jombang (near Surabaya), while Backus was told to take the others to Malang, 50 miles to the south of Jombang. For once, the ex PanAm captain failed to reach his destination, due to a 30 foot ceiling over mountainous terrain and he diverted into the coastal strip at Pasirian.
February 18th saw all remaining planes assembled at Malang, HQ of the bomber force commanded by Col. Bill Eubank. Eubank ordered all planes gassed and bombed up, but by now, the spares and maintenance situation was so bad that two more A-24’s had to be cannibalized to keep the other 7 flying.

Coming up Next:
The 91st in Action!


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The story of the ill-fated 27th Bomb Group

a-24-banshee“…Simply because our A-24’s have truck tires on the wheels, hand triggers on the guns, control sticks that can only move a few inches because of the armored seats, no self-sealing tanks, oil burning engines and unreliable guns, it still doesn’t mean we can’t do a dirty job…”

This phrase, uttered by a disgruntled commanding officer, accurately sums up how the first (and only) US Army Air Corps dive bomber group went into action in February 1942.

Impressed by the successful deployment of dive-bombers by the German Wehrmacht, the US Army decided to take a leaf from their book. They decided to order an Army version of the Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bomber, then in full scale production at the Douglas El Segundo factory. The 27th Bomb Group (L), was earmarked to be equipped with A-24’s and was created in February, 1940 at Barksdale Field, La. After working up, the group moved to Savannah in October 1940 for training in dive-bombing and ground strafing, with Maj. John H. Davies of Oakland, Calif., as its operations officer.


Douglas A-24 production lot at the El Segundo factory

By the time the squadron participated in the 1941 maneuvers in the East Texas-Louisiana area, the tension in South-East Asia mounted rapidly. Concerned about a possible Japanese attack, the US Government belatedly decided to send reinforcements. The 27th sailed for the Philippines by the end of October 1941 with Davies in command. The men arrived in Manila aboard USS Coolidge on November 20, 194, but without their planes. Those had been left behind on the San Francisco docks and still had not arrived when the Japanese attacked the Philippines, December 8. Unknown to the group, the ship with its planes was a part of the Pensacola convoy that had been diverted to Australia.

Except for operating a couple of tired B-18s, the men of the 27th would not fly a mission in the Philippines. A complete air corps unit was left high and dry with no airplanes with which it could fight. The “Powers that be” decided to turn the ground echelon of the Group into an infantry outfit. It became the 2nd Battalion (27th Bombardment Group) Provisional Infantry Regiment (Air Corps), fighting for almost 100 days as an infantry regiment, the only Air Force regiment in history to do so. The approx. 900 strong unit was captured in its entirety by the Japanese and forced to endure the brutal and savage Bataan Death March and ensuing enslaved captivity. Fewer than half survived the war

On December 18, 1941 Davies received the message that USAT Meigs had delivered his 52 Douglas A-24’s … but to Brisbane, Australia. After a hurried consultation with the ‘higher-ups’, Davies decided to take 20 pilots to Australia to fetch the planes and ferry them back to the Philippines. He managed to get hold of a C-39 (an impressed civilian DC2) and a clapped out Douglas B-18 ‘Bolo’ bomber.

Douglas B-18

A Douglas B-18 Bolo in pre-war livery

The group of pilots assembled at Nichols Field under the strictest secrecy, aware of the sprawling Japanese espionage network in the Philippines. They climbed aboard the C-39, that was to be flown by Fred Hoffman, with “Salvi” Salvatore as his co-pilot. They barely made it off the bomb-holed 2500 foot runway and set a course for Mindanao. When Salvatore, who never before had been in a C-39, let alone as a co-pilot, tried to shut off a cold air vent, he found that it was a gaping hole, caused by a Japanese shell. When daylight came they counted 30 such gashes in the hull. Hoffman and Salvatore battled their way through tropical storms, first to Del Monte field in Mindanao, then onwards to Tarakan in Dutch Borneo. The weather over Borneo was so bad that they had to divert to Balikpapan, much further south. They made it, with only 28 gallons of gas left in the tanks. And on they went, via Macassar and Kupang until, four days out of Nichols Field, they reached their final destination Darwin.

After a day of ‘kitting out’ (which meant getting into Australian uniforms of shorts and short sleeved shirts), and fighting the heat and mosquitos of Darwin, they got permission to board  a  Short “C Class” flying boat (A18-10 – ex Qantas ‘Centaurus’), that would take them down to Brisbane. The cabin had been stripped bare of all seats and amenities so the Americans had to make themselves comfortable on the hard wooden floor. They took off in the early morning hours and travelled for two whole days in sweltering heat until they finally landed in the Brisbane River on the evening of December 24, 1941.
A convoy of six taxi cabs delivered them to Lennon’s Hotel  and as they heaped bags, gasmasks, tin helmets and pistols in untidy piles onto the sidewalk, one G.I. Colonel, Johnson by name and C.O. of the Brisbane area, happened along. His expression at seeing U.S. insignia’s on what had once been clean Aussie uniforms and now mere greasy filthy rags (after two days of rough living on the floor) was indescribable. He immediately demanded of Major Davies an explanation of this “non-regulation” attire and was promptly set right by a “diplomatic” explanation.


An A-24 ‘Under Construction’ at Amberley Field, January 1942

Next day, after a rather “wet” party on Christmas Eve, the squadron went out to hunt for their planes. They had been unloaded at the Brisbane docks and when inspected, the A-24’s were found to be in rather a bad way. Instruments were bad, engines using oil, tires defective, and numerous other things were wrong. Packed carelessly, or in a hurry, the control cables were not anchored, making the job tougher still. And the armament was a total mess. Here is a fragment from Major Davies official report:

“…The parties responsible for providing armament supplies and equipment for the A-24 airplane should be charged with criminal negligence. Without delicate machine shop work, neither the front guns nor the rear guns will fire. No bombs will fit the racks without adding another lug. No sights were sent and no solenoids. By using improvised methods one airplane has been rigged to fire the forward guns…”

Despite all this, ‘Bob’ Ruegg took off from Amberley on December 29 in 41-15816, the first A-24 and probably the first American warplane assembled on foreign shores by American crews. Soon, a sizeable number were flying, waiting only for armament before they were ready for combat. The 7th Bomb Group was the assembling force and though they had been working on Flying Fortresses for a year, they soon had the A-24’s mastered.
As with the P-40’s, the pilots were the major headache. Most of them had few, if any, flying hours on the A-24. A pilot training program was hastily improvised, covering such items as basic flying practice, dive bombing, gunnery, navigation and enemy aircraft recognition. Unfortunately, only a few hours could be spent on each topic.
Time had already ran out for a ferry to the Philippines and Java was chosen as the next destination that needed help badly. It was decided to form three A-24 Squadrons, Nrs. 91, 16 and 17, all under command of Major John Davies.


Bombing up an A-24

Movement orders for No. 91 Squadron came on February 3, 1942;

SUBJECT: Movement Orders and Instructions.
TO : Commanding Officer, 91st Bomb Sq., Archer Field, Qld.

  1. The 91st Squadron with 15 A-24’s, fifteen Officer pilots and fifteen enlisted men will move to Surabaya, Java, Feb. 4, 1942 or as soon as possible thereafter.
  2. Route out: Archerfield – Charleville – Cloncurry – Daly Waters – Darwin RAAF Field. At Darwin you will contact the C.O. American Air Unit (Captain Connelly) and request a signal be sent to the commanding General American Air Forces in Java announcing your presence and request information as to your exact destination in the NEI and the route thereto. You will send departure and arrival messages commencing at Archerfield to include number of airplanes and personnel.
  3. You will take advantage of the pursuit squadron due to depart Amberley Field, Feb. 5, 1942, for the purpose of fighter protection en-route north from Darwin. Their destination is the same as yours and use of this unit for this purpose has been granted.
  4. You and the C.O. of the pursuit squadron will arrange for the type of protection best suited for this purpose at Darwin. Do not leave Darwin without this fighter protection unless so directed by the Commanding General American Air Forces in Java. Notify this department at Amberly field upon departure from Darwin.
  5. Air Force Melbourne states sufficient Navy type bombs for A-24 bomb racks available at your destination.

Major, Air Corps, Commanding.

And so the 91st went to war.


Coming up next:
The 91st in Java


Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, Uncategorized, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lancaster Mk.X – A Flying WW2 Icon

One of Ontario’s best kept secrets is its magnificent Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
Located just outside Hamilton, it houses a glittering collection of warbirds. And its crown jewel is the beautifully maintained Lancaster Mk. X, one of the worlds two Lancaster’s still flying!

The museum’s documentation gives the following information:
The Avro Lancaster is probably the best known British bomber of the Second World War. Thousands of Canadian airmen and ground crew served with RCAF and RAF Lancaster squadrons in England, during the war. By late 1944, the Canadian No. 6 Group of Bomber Command operated thirteen squadrons of Lancasters in the war against Germany. At home, thousands more Canadians worked at Victory Aircraft in Malton (Toronto) to produce 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs, between 1943 and 1945.


The Lancaster X in its pristine glory. Because of her squadron code, volunteers have started to nickname her ‘Vera’ , but the flight crew frowns upon this…

After WW II, about 230 Lancasters served with the RCAF in several roles including, Arctic reconnaissance, maritime patrol and as a bomber. The Lancaster was ceremonially retired from the RCAF at Downsview (Toronto) in April 1964. In total 7,377 Lancasters rolled off the production lines in Britain and Canada, during WW II. Today, 17 Lancasters survive around the world, but only two are in flying condition.


January 1952 at Trenton; a collapsing landing gear caused extensive damage

The Museum’s Lancaster Mk. X was built at Victory Aircraft, Malton in July 1945 and was later converted to a RCAF 10MR configuration. In 1952, it suffered a serious accident and received a replacement wing centre section from a Lancaster that had flown in combat over Germany. It served as a maritime patrol aircraft, with No. 405 Squadron, Greenwood, NS and No. 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Newfoundland for many years and was retired from the RCAF in late 1963.
With help from the Sulley Foundation in 1977, it was acquired from the Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich, Ontario, where it had been on outside display. Eleven years passed before it was completely restored and flew again on September 24, 1988. The Lancaster is dedicated to the memory of P/O Andrew Mynarski and is referred to as the “Mynarski Memorial Lancaster”. It is painted in the colours of his aircraft KB726 – VR-A, which flew with RCAF No. 419 “Moose” Squadron. Andrew Mynarski won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, on June 13, 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down in flames, by a German night fighter. As the bomber fell, he attempted to free the tail gunner trapped in the rear turret of the blazing and out of control aircraft. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash and lived to tell the story, but sadly Andrew Mynarski died from his severe burns

The museum’s Lancaster flies during the summer months. Those of you who wonder what it’s like to fly in a real WW2 vintage bomber can book a ride. You’ll be airborne for an hour but you’ll probably have to raid your piggy bank; flights are priced at Can $ 3.500 per seat.

Whenever you are in the greater Toronto Area, do yourself a favor and visit the museum. It is opened all year round (except on X-mas) and easily accessible via highways 403 and 6.

171017_Lanc_3Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
9280 Airport Road
Mount Hope, ON
L0R 1W0


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Trial by Fire

The Experimental Units of the Condor Legion


The Spanish Civil war broke out on July 17, 1936 and the Nationalist leader, General Francisco Franco almost immediately asked Germany for direct support in the form of transport planes to ferry “loyal” troops from Morocco to Spain. Adolf Hitler decided on July 26 to support his rebellion, justifying this decision by arguing that he was saving Europe from “communist barbarism”. On July 27 he sent 30 Junkers 52s from Berlin and Stuttgart to Morocco. Over the next couple of weeks the aircraft transported over 15,000 troops to Spain, tilting the balance in favor of the Nationalists.

It immediately dawned on Hitler and his Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe leadership that providing military aid to the Nationalist Army would give them the opportunity to test out commanders, weapons and tactics.
Germany started to supply war materiel to the Spanish Nationalists in July 1936 under the code name “Operation Feuerzauber” (Magic Fire) and in its wake a “Sonderstab W” (Special Staff W) was set up in Berlin to direct the experimental projects. Prototypes of future frontline aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf-109, Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka”, the Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do 17 were rushed to Spain to be tested against the Republican opposition.



Heinkel 112 V9 flown by Oberleutnant Harro Harder, here at La Cenia


Other types to be tested were the Heinkel 112 (runner-up in the 1933 fighter competition won by the Bf-109) and the Junkers 86 bomber.
The tests were carried out by “Versuchs Staffeln” (Experimental Squadrons) VJ88 (fighters) and VB 88 (Bombers) and this book follows their actual operations in detail. The summarized “information bulletins” allow the reader to follow the operations of the various squadrons on an almost daily basis and a number of firsthand accounts are also included in the text. The book is lavishly illustrated with many hitherto unpublished photographs and contains a series of full color drawings of the various types in Spanish Nationalist color schemes.
It is a pity the authors have not added some maps as background information since the text is replete with references to “… the Vizcaya Campaign…” and “… the Battle of Brunete…” etc.
What I also miss is a chapter “Lessons Learned.” The Luftwaffe sent a considerable number of pre-production aircraft to Spain and the accumulated frontline experience must have had great influence on their subsequent development and production. There are some glimpses of this, such as the successful testing of a 20mm cannon armed Heinkel 112 (The “Kanonenvogel”) against Republican armored cars and tanks or the withdrawal of the Junkers Ju-86, due to the dismal failure of its Jumo 203 diesel engines.



One of the Ju-86’s in Spain, arguably one of the ugliest aircraft ever designed. I still wonder how even an experienced pilot could land this big plane on such a clumsy, knock-kneed undercart.


On the whole, the authors have done a very good job in clarifying an obscure period of aviation history. A must for all those interested in this particular period and for model builders looking for authentic photographs and color schemes.

Originally published by Galland Editorial Books in 2013 titled: “Unidades Experimentales de la Legion Còndor.”
Published 2017 by Frontline Books, Pen&Sword Ltd.
ISBN 978 1 4738781-4
94 Pages (Illustrated)

Posted in Aircraft, Book Reviews, Luftwaffe, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘Coming Down in the Drink”

“Coming Down in the Drink” is the (slightly misleading) title of an Irish airman’s full-blown war-time flying record. The book covers most of his life, from the bleak days of his youth in County Kilkenny, all through the 2nd World War, his service in the peacetime RAF and his subsequent civilian career.

PENSW_BrennanJohn Brennan emerges from this book as a sturdy, independent individual who ran away from home at 16 years of age, was successful in a number of civilian jobs in the late 1930’s and enlisted as an airman in the RAF during the summer of 1940. His preference was to be an air-gunner but, as a result of the twisted military logic that sometimes sends experienced truck drivers to a cook’s school, he ended up being trained as a wireless operator.

The book follows John through his training and his posting as a Sergeant to an operational squadron flying Vickers Wellingtons in the North African desert. It provides the reader with a graphic view of the desert war, as well as the dangers and mishaps that occurred during that hectic time.
Teething troubles with a new, Merlin powered version of the Wellington that caused loss of life, sand storms and maintenance problems in the desert and of course enemy action. During this tour, John becomes a member of the ‘Goldfish Club’ as his Wellington has to ditch near the African coast and the crew has to paddle to safety.

At the end of his ‘desert tour’ (40 operational missions as an air-gunner / wireless operator) John is posted to an OTU in Kinloss (Scotland). Frequent crashes caused by the combination of bad weather, mountainous terrain and inexperienced aircrews make this assignment nearly as lethal as fighting the enemy. In November 1943 John is promoted to officer. His two years of instructing end in mid-1944 and he is assigned to an operational bomber squadron equipped with Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. He completes a second tour of twenty missions in March 1945, surviving raids on heavily defended targets in Germany and France. John is awarded the DFC in September 1945.

The book is well written and gives a personal view of the war, interspersed with statements by John. It is also very detailed – down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft mentioned in the narrative. I recommend this book to those who are deeply interested in the history of bomber command.

Published by Pen & Sword Aviation (
ISBN 978 147389153 1
190 Pages

Reviewers note on “The Goldfish Club”.

C. A. Robertson, the Chief Draftsman at the PB Cow & Co., (manufacturers of air-sea rescue equipment), decided to form an exclusive club for airmen who owed their lives to their life jacket, dinghy, etc. The club was formed in November, 1942 and named The Goldfish Club: gold for the value of life, and fish for the water. Each member was presented with a heat-sealed waterproof membership card and an embroidered badge. Uniform dress regulations prohibited the wearing of the Goldfish Club badge on British and American uniforms but many RAF & USAAF airmen placed their badge under the flap of their left hand uniform pocket.

Posted in Book Reviews, WW2 Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New cover for “The Odyssey”

I am proud to announce the launch of “The Odyssey” with a new cover, designed by Daniela Colleo.   (


The Java Gold Series

Follow a few desperate men in their quest for a cargo of pure gold that got lost at the outbreak of the Pacific War. A riveting tale that takes the reader to three different continents and through one of the most violent periods of human history. A story that will keep you turning pages, packed with deadly action, drama, intrigue and romance .

Look at “The Books – Java Gold Series” for more information
or just go to to secure your copy!

Posted in Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, My Books, Pacific War, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment