Sunday, 5 November 2017

Queen of the Drones

We tend to think of drones as the ultimate early 21st century technology, but they go back much further than that - the picture at the top of this post is from a set of late 1930s cigarette cards and shows the Queen Bee remote controlled plane.
In fact the Queen Bee was designed as a target, not as a weapon itself. After all, how do you train the crews of AA guns and fighters without a target? And how many volunteers are you going to get for that, even for towing a target? The plan was to shoot NEAR the drone, not AT it, but accidents happen.
So, the Queen Bee actually first flew in 1935. It could be flown manually, and this was the case for the first trials, but an unmanned version was flown at the 1935 Farnborough Airshow.
The basic design was based on the hugely successful two seater trainer, the Tiger Moth, with the same engine, wings and undercarriage, but with a wooden rather than metal fuselage. The radio control machinery sat in the rear “pilot” cockpit. Over 412 were built between 1935 and 1943, many for the Fleet Air Arm and supplied as float planes with catapulting points so that they could be launched from ships (the Queen Bee based on HMS Australia had a dummy pilot, named “Fearless Fred”!). One advantage of the wooden construction, apart from being much cheaper, was that they were more buoyant when it came to recovery at sea.
The Queen Bees were surprisingly capable, with a top speed of 104 mph and a range of 300 miles. Controllers could be in another aircraft, on a ship, or just on land. One consequence of the introduction of remote controlled drones, and therefore “realistic” targets, was to show how awful contempory AA defences really were. Reportedly, Queen Bees could be flown up and down in front of the Fleet without getting a scratch, and during a demonstration in front of the King the drone had to be, allegedly, deliberately crashed to spare the Navy’s blushes. Nonetheless, intensive training with Queen Bees in the Mediterranean fleet in 1936 reportedly improved confidence against the expected threat, Italian Savoia Marchetti 81 bombers conducting a “Pearl harbour” style pre-emptive attack on Alexandria. Queen Bees were also sent to Singapore, crated and by ship. Tragically, although they were used from at least 1939 onwards for target training, the Pacific Royal Navy was woefully under prepared for Japanese air attacks. Perhaps the relatively slow and steady Queen Bees generated a sense of over confidence.
Although never intended as weapons of war as such, it is tempting to imagine how they could have been used if Operation Banquet had been activated, the plan to throw everything that could fly, including Tiger Moth trainers, against a German invasion of Britain. A Queen Bee loaded with explosive would make an awfully big bang.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Austrian Rocket Men, Part 1

Early days
The armies of the early 19th century had infantry, cavalry and cannon, like their Napoleonic predecessors. But some had another arm entirely, rockets. And few had more than the Austrians. 
The British were the first of the Napoleonic powers to really incorporate rockets into their forces, following their experiences in India. It took a little tinkering, but by the time of the siege of Copenhagen over 300 rockets were ready to fire into the city, setting about 2/3 of the city alight. This obviously made a huge impression on the Danes, who started their own rocket research, but also on the Austrians.

By the next year, the Austrian army had rockets, of a sort, but apparently they were not very good, and the army commander, Archduke Charles, suggested that they ask their allies, the British for help. The British though were reluctant to give up the secrets of their new wonder-weapon, and in fact the Austrians went to the Danes, sending an engineer, Vincenz Augustin, with an offer of political support at the upcoming Congress of Vienna in return for technical help. How much this helped Denmark is debateable as they lost formerly Swedish Pomerania to Prussia at the conference, but the Austrians had enough to set up a rocket factory at the Austrian army arsenal in Wiener Neustadt, and within 2 months they had assembled 2,400 rockets, and even set up a special Corps with dark green uniforms. The Corps was sufficiently advanced to serve in the Hundred Days campaign, present at the siege of the fortress city of Hunigue, though not actually used.

 Vincenz Augustin (in 1850)
Augustin seems to have been quite a strong character, and his rocket corps expanded after the war, with improved designs. Signal rockets developed could be seen over 40 leagues away, and by November 1820 there were two artillery batteries, one of heavy “12 pdr” rockets and one of “light” 2 inch types. Each battery had 6 firing frames, and an additional 6 in reserve. At this time the corps was based at “Raketendorf”, 6 miles from Vienna.

Despite being desperately inaccurate compared to cannons, rockets did have some advantages. For one thing they were cheaper, a contemporary comparison was 8 guilders per shot from a 12pdr howitzer vs 4 guilders per shot from an equivalent rocket. They were also much lighter, an important consideration given the roads of the time, and packed quite a powerful punch, and when the target was large, such as during a siege, they could be very effective as shown by the siege of Copenhagen above. Last, but not least, they looked awfully impressive, and against poorly trained troops they could be much more frightening than their actual battlefield effect would suggest.

On active service 1820-1829
The rocket corps had their first taste of active service in 1821, when they formed part of the Austrian army which marched the length of Italy at the request of the Neapolitan king Ferdinand to “restore order”. Apparently the rocket troops were still not completely trained and had to practice on the journey down. The batteries played major roles in the battles of Androdocco and Aquilo, and the storming of the monastery of Monte Casino, but were too late for the decisive battle at Rieti. A report in the Monthly Magazine of June 1826 suggests the effect was mainly psychological, causing the rebels to run away, but it also stresses the importance the Austrians gave to their rockets, and the care they took that the designs were kept secret, and how the public were kept away from the factories and stores at Raketendorf. In the years after the Neapolitan expedition the corps was expanded to 4 batteries, 2 light and 2 heavy, each of 12 launchers.
It was not just the army who were interested in rockets, the Austrian navy were too. Historically the Austrians hadn’t bothered much with a navy, but that changed after they inherited the Venetian navy after the Congress of Vienna. A separate depot for rockets was established in Venice and almost all the vessels in the, admittedly not large, fleet were equipped with rockets. According to the Monthly Magazine, the rockets could be attached to pre-existing cannon, but again the details were kept quite secret.
Increased maritime trade bought the Austrian Empire into conflict with the almost continuous piracy and slave raiding from the Muslim North African States. Almost all the European States, and even the USA, were forced into retaliatory attacks on the Barbary Coast during the early years of the 19th Century, and Austria’s turn came in 1829. An Austrian vessel was seized by Moroccan pirates/privateers and vessels were dispatched to bombard Moroccan towns on the Atlantic coast and mount an attack on Larache on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, burning several Moroccan ships. Rockets were apparently useful for this kind of bombardment warfare. 
The Guerrierea at Sidon (centre)

A similar expedition took place in 1840, but this time in conjunction with the Royal Navy, in support of the Ottoman Empire against a breakaway Egypt. A British squadron with the Austrian 48 gun frigate Guerrierea bombarded Sidon and Beirut and then attacked the city of Acre. A small Austrian/ British/ Ottoman landing party, under the command of the Austrian Archduke Friedrich, landed and took the Egyptian citadel. During this campaign, an Austrian rocket troop had been landed to support 3 battalions of Turks and a battalion of Royal Marines attacking Egyptian forces outside Sidon.
So far rockets had proved useful, but the major test of the rocket corps, and the whole Austrian army, was to come in 1848 ......

Further reading
Mario Christian Ortner. Die Entwicklung moderner Kriegsraketen im19. Jahrhundert. (In German).
Progress on the continental production of Congreve Rockets. The Monthly Magazine. Apr 1826. Google Books.
The war in Syria. Commodore Sir Charles Napier, K.C.B. 1842. Project Gutenburg.

Monday, 25 September 2017

In the Missouri Artillery

Benjamin Von Phul was born on May 21st 1840, in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Henry Von Phul, a successful St Louis business man and steam boat owner, whose ships included the Henry Von Phul, mentioned by Mark Twain. He was also nephew of the painter Anna Maria Von Phul.

In May 1861 Missouri was deeply divided between Union and Confederate supporters, and this was especially so in the city of St Louis. St Louis also had another complication, over half of the population was composed of recent immigrants, mainly Germans who had fled the unsuccessful revolts of 1848, and who were therefore both often politically inclined and non-English speaking. Relations between the German immigrants and the Missourians were not always good, and this was to have an effect on what happened next.  It must presumably have had an effect on the Von Phuls, despite Henry being born in the US in 1784, in Philadelphia, the son of an immigrant from Westhofen.

Henry Von Phul
The state government had voted to stay in the Union, or rather to be neutral in any civil war, but the Governor, Claiborne Jackson, favoured the Confederacy, and he assembled the State Militia, including Benjamin Von Phul, in a camp near St Louis, Camp Jackson with the aim of seizing the arsenal in St Louis, which had the largest collection of arms and ammunition in the state. Unfortunately for them, the local Union commander, Nathanial Lyon, had heard about this and surprised them in their camp with a joint force of Union troops and pro-Union militia, containing a majority of German soldiers. The would-be Confederates were captured and marched into St Louis where a crowd assembled and started haranguing the Union militia, and somehow this led to shooting, with 28 of the crowd being cut down. This in turn led to several days of rioting, and rumours that the Germans planned to massacre the Missourian population of St Louis, rumours that were taken so seriously that many wealthy St Louis fled to Illinois, or the interior of St Louis, depending whether they were pro- or anti-Union. The rioting only died down when Union troops arrived from out of state.

The Camp Jackson Massacre

Ben Von Phul had been captured at Camp Jackson with the rest, but was exchanged and joined Guibor’s Missouri Battery of the State Guard. Guibor's Battery officially entered Confederate, as opposed to Missouri, service in early 1862 and was combined with Montgomery Brown's Louisiana Battery on June 30, 1862. Benjamin rose to the rank of First Lieutenant.

Flag of the Guibor Battery, presented in January 1863
Artillery at the time was in a state of transition, with quite a few types and sizes, with size generally being defined by the weight of the ammunition, such as 10 pdr, 20 pdr etc. One of the commonest types was the Parrott rifled cannon, invented by an American, Captain Robert Parker Parrott. Despite only being patented in 1861 it was used extensively by both sides in the Civil War. Although Parrotts were still loaded down the muzzle like previous cannons, they were rifled inside and made of a mixture of cast and wrought iron, making them much more accurate, if more fragile.
 Parrott gun at Vicksburg

In February 1863 the now Captain Von Phul was placed in charge of a battery assembled using men from Brigadier General David Frost’s Brigade, at Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the defence scheme for Little Rock. The battery was attached to Frost’s Brigade and initially consisted with one bronze 24 pdr, and two 6pdr Parrotts, but by the end of that month the battery had six guns and 70 men at Fort Pleasant, guarding the river approach to Little Rock.

In June, a section of the battery together with two other batteries accompanied a small mixed force under Col. Clark, a fellow Missourian and veteran of the siege of Carthage and battle of Pea Ridge. Their mission was to attack Union shipping on the Mississippi. On June 22nd Von Phul’s battery and the two others attacked a convoy of the Union Gunboat Little Rebel (!) and three transports. The forward battery of the Little Rebel was knocked out and one of the transports, the Prima Donna (who named these ships?) was severely damaged. Clark's command then moved south and attacked another convoy, damaging several transports. They then returned to Fort Pleasant, and then joined the defences of Little Rock on Aug 17th. But by mid September the Confederates had to abandon Little Rock following defeats at Helena and Bayou Fouche, and fall back to Washington, Arkansas.
In November Von Phuls Battery was at Camp Bragg, Arkansas, before being formerly disbanded in December. By this stage it included two 12 pdr Howitzers and two 10pdr Parrotts. Raids on shipping on the Mississippi were still going on, and Benjamin’s father’s ship, the Henry Von Phul, was severely damaged by Texan troops in December.

The Henry Von Phul
In April 1864 Von Phul was wounded south of Little Rock in the pyrrhic Confederate counterattack through the mud at Jenkins ferry. 

And in April 1865 Confederate forces surrendered. Life went on. Still only 27, Benjamin married Martha Lape from Mississippi, who was 22, on 3rd September 1867 in Jefferson Missouri.  In 1880, Benjamin and Martha Von Phul and their three children, Genevieve, Henry and Ben Jr. were in St Louis, where Benjamin was working as a real estate agent.
Benjamin died on December 18th 1909, in St Louis, Missouri.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

To war for Missouri

Mathias Buss was born in Pennsylvania in about 1834, destined to be one of the Northern states in the American Civil War. But by 1860, according to the Federal census, he was living in Carthage, Missouri, working as a brick mason. Carthage was a new town, only founded in 1842, but by 1860 it had over 500 residents. Importantly for future events, Carthage is in the deep south of Missouri.

One year after that census Missouri was at war. Missouri’s position in the Civil War was complicated. Unlike say, Georgia, the Missouri State Government actually voted to stay in the Union. But many of the population supported the Confederacy, especially after heavy handed intervention and the massacre of civilians by a Union force under General Nathanial Lyon. The pro-Confederates, including the Governor, withdrew to the south of the state in 1861, where a successful general of the US Mexican war, Sterling Price, was appointed commander of Missourian forces. Meanwhile, the Union started recruiting troops from the north of the state. Thus, Missouri contributed troops to both sides in the Civil War. 

The initial clashes took place between Union troops and Missouri State Guard units, supported increasingly by troops from other states. Mathias is recorded as being at the following;

Cole Camp – June 19th 1861. 350 Missouri State Guard attacked and routed about 500 Union militia in their camp and routed them. The Missouri State Guard were poorly equipped, at least at the beginning. Many reportedly used a white flannel arm band as uniform, whilst one major effect of the battle at Cole Camp was to equip them with another 350 muskets.

Note that there was in fact a battle at Carthage in July 5th 1861, where the Missouri State Guard beat a (smaller) Union force, but Mathias is not recorded as being there. This was the first proper Missourian victory, and gave a great boost to morale, increasing pro-Confederate recruitment. 

Wilson Creek – August 10th 1861, near Springfield Missouri. Twelve thousand Missouri State Guard and Confederate troops, mainly from Arkansas under Price beat 5,400 Union troops under Lyon, including some Union Missouri regiments.

 The Battle of Wilson Creek

Lexington – September 12th to 20th 1861. 15,000 Missouri State Guard under Price defeated 3,500 Union troops garrisoning Lexington.

 The Battle of Lexington

Elk Horn/ Pea ridge – March 7-8th 1862. Near Leetown, Arkansas. Despite their successes the previous year the Missouri forces, still technically independent of the Confederate army, were pushed back into Arkansas. In March the 15,000 pro-Confederate forces, consisting of the Missouri State Guard, Confederate forces mainly from Arkansas and Texas, and an Indian Brigade of Cherokees and Choctaws, counter attacked 12,000 Union troops. Despite some early successes including a massed cavalry charge, the Confederate forces were driven off, ending any chance of a return to Missouri. Missourian forces spent the rest of the war fighting outside their state, and Missouri itself degenerated into civil war.

There was then a pause allowing Price to organise the Missouri State Guard into official units of the Confederate army. By April 1862, Mathias was in the 4th Missouri Regiment of the Confederate army, First Sergeant of F company. The 4th carried the Van Dorn battle flag.

Siege of Corinth  - April to May 1862. This was by far the largest battle Mathias had been involved in. One hundred twenty thousand Union forces attacked the strategically important town of Corinth, Mississippi, on the Mississippi river. The garrison of 65,000 Confederate troops was forced to retreat after a month long siege, but most managed to withdraw safely.

Battle of Iuka - Sept 9th 1862. A mixed force of about 3,000 Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana troops was defeated by 4,500 Union and withdrew south.
On Nov 7th 1862, the 1st and 4th Missouri were combined, presumably due to heavy casualties, with Mathias now  First Lieutenant in Company B. Later he was to become captain of company B.

Mathias ‘s next, and last, battle took place in May next year. The 1st/4th Missourians were now in Mississippi, part of the Confederate forces attempting to hold the Union before the fortress city of Vicksburg. On May 17th they were part of a force of 5,000 troops ordered to hold the bank of the Big Black (!) River, or rather a bayou in front of the river, behind rough defences of logs and cotton bales. Unfortunately, the Union troops out flanked them, charging into an inexperienced brigade from Tennessee and breaking them. The Confederates broke and fled back to the Big Black River, some got back across the bridge there, but many drowned in the river or were captured.

And that was it for Mathias, the last battle he is recorded as fighting in. He certainly survived, but possibly he was one of the 1,700 taken prisoner. The 1st/4th Missourians fought on without him. They fought in the Atlanta Campaign, were part of Hood's operations in Tennessee, and became part of the forces defending Mobile. Only a remnant surrendered in May, 1865. 

But Mathias survived. In the 1870 census he is living with a young wife, Lucy, a Virginia girl 10 years his junior, and with two young children, Elizabeth (2) and James (1). Working again as a brick mason. And life went on. In 1881 he gave away his daughter to be married, to a Charles Jones in Bates, Missouri. And in 1900 he passed away, and was buried in the Confederate cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri, a long way from where he was born, but in the state he had lived most of his life, and had fought for.