Thursday, July 11, 2019

ILL From MI: "Allied Strafing in World War II" by William B. Colgan

ILL From MI: Allied Strafing in World War II: a cockpit view of air to ground battle by William B. Colgan, 2010, 9780786448876.

I used to keep a file of titles to request through interlibrary loan. I rarely request books that way because so much is already available and waiting through the library system, the digital library, used books, etc. I read about Allied Strafing several years ago in a catalog from McFarland and Company. Since my reading pile was smaller I figured to try this out and the copy came from Western Michigan University

I was hoping for all sorts of fancy gun camera footage. Colgan collected quite a bit of footage but I was naive to equate "never before published!" style descriptions with "clear and sharp images". An okay book with some awkwardly written passages and you'll need to have some interest in the topic.

Anyhoo. Colgan joined the Army Air Force (AAF) during World War II (maybe before, I don't recall) and flew in both the Mediterranean and European Theaters. He continued to fly until retirement in 1973-ish with a tour in Korea and a handful of combat flights in Vietnam. Colgan focuses the book on World War Two with some introductory information and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

There are a few points that Colgan nails away at:
1. He reminds us constantly that strafing is gunfighting. Air-to-air combat and Aces have gotten the press ever since the first fights in WW1. But, strafing is by far the more dangerous mission. Pilots were driectly fighting with people on the ground. Flying down low into a target requires flying in a straight line and everyone is shooting at you - both the target and enemy near and far. And pilots would have to get in close because their wing guns would be aimed from 750 to 900 feet out. German flak wagons built on tank chassis would have four guns pounding away at AAF planes.
2. The massive amounts of damage inflicted by fighter-bombers. Aces would get the press but strafers would destroy air forces. Colgan collected a lot of primary and secondary sources for the book and some of those were battle results. One report from April 1945 records a Fighter Group in Europe destroying 11 planes in aerial combat. Strafing attacks destroyed 146 planes.
3. The dangers of flying close to the ground. Planes move fast. The wing guns are all aimed to a single point that is slightly up and into the pilot's aim point. To be most effective and use their ammunition effectively the planes would get real close before pulling out. The ground killed many pilots and trees, building, and towers were a danger. In Italy the Germans and Italians would string cables across valleys to cut planes in half. Valleys were especially dangerous because the flak guns would be firing up at them from the valley floor and down at them from the slope. There might be little maneuver room limiting the planes's approaches and exits.

Fighter-Bomber pilots were not thousands of feet in the air. The saw the bodies and body parts. The .50 caliber machine guns were armed with armor piercing ammunition that tore through most targets and could stop tanks by firing through exhaust vents - pilots could be shockingly accurate - or shooting out the bogey wheels for the tank tracks.

Pilots destroyed so, so much. Locomotives were a prime target behind the lines and the trains could not move in daylight without the engines being destroyed and the train cars shot up. Trucks couldn't move. Troops in the open would be torn apart by the gun fire. One flight of planes destroyed a locomotive in the winter. Troops bailed out of the train cars but were stuck in deep snow along a narrow piece of ground. The planes such up everything and when the flight leader called of the attacks a pilot said, "Thank God."

I should point out that in 2010 when this was published Colgan would still get annoyed when a motion picture would show a strafing attack stitching a line of bullets across the ground. Real life pilots needed to aim burst of fire into a single point. Total firing time would max out at 10 seconds or so. Pilots would many times shoot for only .5 or 1 or 2 seconds at at time - depending on the target and whether the pilot could steer the guns onto a secondary target next to the first. Shooting the dirt was a waste of limited ammunition.

According to Colgan the pilots would be amazingly accurate. Germans and Italians would hide as much as they could under trees, next to buildings, in alleyways. Once a target was spotted the pilots would line up a run, fire directly into the target, and spare any rounds from hitting a home, school, etc. I kinda wonder about that. All the bullets may have hit the target but those armor piercing rounds could to right through and ricochet all over.

1. Dang. It looks like Colgan is still alive. He'd be 99. There is a website: with the same gun camera images as in the book.
2. Gun camera film was rarely saved. The film was used by the combat pilots for review. Colgan's webpage links to a compilation video: Remember that the tracer ammunition was only 1-in-5 or 1-in-10 of the bullets going out.
3. Video interview from 2009.

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