world war ii: north africa

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It would seem that on a number of occasions during World War II, between 1942 and 1944, the occasional need for a high altitude interceptor was met through modification of the Spitfire by ground crews working in the field. These photographs show such modified Mk IX’s and Wing Commander Dereck “Bill” Kain, likely at RAF Idku in Egypt. The aircraft were stripped down with the removal of radios, 20mm Hispano cannon, all armour and it would seem even paint. They used ‘tweaked’ Merlins, four-blade props, only one oxygen bottle and just two .50 cal Brownings, with very little ammunition. Successful interceptions were made above 45,000 feet, with one Ju 86P reported shot down at 49,000 feet.

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Violette Szabo, GC, a British subject, executed on or around this day, 5 February in 1945, was the daughter of an English father and French mother, and the widow of French army officer, Etienne Szabo who was killed in action in North Africa in 1942.

She served during World War II as an SOE agent on two missions in occupied France. It is unclear how she came to be recruited by the Special Operations Executive – although her fluency in French will have been noticed by someone.

On her second mission she was captured by the Germans, interrogated and tortured, and deported to Germany where she was executed at the age of 23, at Ravensbruck concentration camp, on or around 5 February 1945.

My great uncle Barney Old Coyote was the most decorated Native American in World War II. Flying in squadrons of B-17 Flying Fortresses over France, North Africa, Italy, Norway and Berlin, crews were under strict orders to maintain radio silence. But Old Coyote could radio messages in the Crow language back to his brother Henry’s plane, following a half-hour behind, sharing information about targets and enemy strength while baffling German code-breakers.

As a tail gunner, waist gunner and engineer riding in the top turret, Barney Old Coyote’s main job was shooting down German planes and attacking troops on the ground. He flew 72 combat missions and was awarded 17 medals. So today I thank you Uncle for the sacrifices you made for your family, tribe, and country.

The incomplete French battleship Jean Bart sailing from Casablanca to Cherbourg for repairs in 1945. On 8 November 1942, while under construction in Casablanca, controlled by the Vichy French government, the ship had a short gun duel with the battleship USS Massachusetts, before being attacked by dive bombers from USS Ranger. The confrontation became known as the Naval Battle of Casablanca. Jean Bart took seven 406 mm (16.0 in) shells but only one penetrated into an empty secondary magazine. Another temporarily jammed her only operational turret, ending the battle. A little charred but in essence undamaged, the ship was completed after the wars end, entering service for just four years.

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The Italian Invasion of Egypt during World War II

In 1940 the Italian Army landed in North Africa with 250,000 men, intent on capturing British held Egypt.  The campaign was a part of Italian dictator Mussolini’s plan to built a “New Roman Empire” in Southern Europe, the Balkans, and Africa.  Mussolini expected the Italian Army to achieve a quick victory as there were only 35,000 British troops defending Egypt.

While there were a few small skirmishes, most of the campaign involved the disorganized Italian Army getting lost and wandering aimlessly through the North African desert.  Eventually the Italian Army was forced to halt it’s advance after running low on supplies, thus ending the campaign.

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Where Gurkhas Dare — Lalbahadur Thalpa and the assault on Rass-ez-Zouai 

In April of 1943 the British Army planned a quick and decisive advance into German held Tunisia during the final phases of the North Africa Campaign.  The plan was to assault a heavily defended position called Rass-ez-Zouai, a fortified German outpost located at the top of a very steep cliff.  The assault on Rass-el-Zouai would be especially challenging, as there was only one narrow pathway leading up to the cliff, which was guarded by machine gun nests, infantry trenches, guard towers, anti-tank guns, and mortar pits.  The British would have to take the outpost quickly, or else the Germans could reinforce the position, halting the advance.

The challenge of taking Rass-ez-Zouai was left to Lalbahadur Thapa, second in command of a company from the 3rd Gurkha rifles of the Indian Army.  The Gurkha’s, a people who live in the Himalayan regions around Nepal and India, are especially noted for being brave and tough soldiers.  For centuries the Gurkha’s upheld a warrior tradition, successfully defending their small realm from those who dared mess with them.  By the 19th century, after suffering terrible casualties trying to invade Gurkha lands, the British hired them as mercenaries. Since then the Gurkha’s have served with the British Indian Army, even taking part in modern day conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the night of April 5th Thapa commanded a company of Gurkha’s on an attack on Rass-ez-Zouai.  Rather than outright assaulting the outpost, the Gurkhas conducted a silent attack, using stealth and guile to achieve their objectives.  With the darkness of the night as their ally they crept up on each guard post, machine gun pit, and infantry trench.  They were armed with bayonets and kukuri’s, large curved blade knives which were the traditional weapons of the Gurkha.  Without being seen or heard they rushed each each enemy position, silently killing the German soldiers with their knives without being discovered.  In this manner, the Gurkhas made their way up the cliff, taking out all the German guards, machine gunners, and soldiers that fortified the narrow pathway.  Incredibly the Gurkhas made their way to the top of the cliff without alerting the German garrison of their attack.

Once in position at the top of the cliff they organized their final assault on the fortified outpost. Under heavy machine gun fire, mortar fire, and grenade attacks they charged the outpost, engaging the Germans in close combat with kukri’s and pistols.  The attack was so swift and terrifying that it took only a moment for the Gurkhas to massacre the entire German garrison.  The taking of the outpost formed a bridgehead into enemy lines, from which the entire division proceeded.  Within a month and a half, the German Army was forced to retreat from North Africa.

For his leadership of the Gurkha company, Lalbahadur Thalpa was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry offered by the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. He later served honorably through the Italian Campaign, even taking part in the Battle of Monte Casino.  He achieved the rank of Subedar-Major (Sergeant Major), the highest non-commissioned rank in the Indian Army.  He passed away in 1968 at his home in Nepal.  His Victoria Cross is currently on display in the Gurkha Museum in England.