Sunday, 20 November 2016


Nazi German aerial technology during World War II left the world, and especially the Allies, in awe. At a time when our Allies relied on piston-driven combat aircraft, the Germans had a jet stealth fighter/bomber made of wood, a jet fighter, a rocket fighter, an unmanned flying bomb, and an intercontinental missile that broke the sound barrier several times over. Impressive, to say the least, right?

But in every above case, it was too little, too late, at least for the Germans. Taking the atomic bomb aside, had Adolf Hitler’s masterminds brought some of these weapons into the war sooner or had they been given more hours to perfect their creations, the Germans may have won the war and sued for peace. As a result, we would see a different world today.

What were these highly advanced pieces of machinery?

Horten HO IX glider-version line drawings (US Public Domain)

Designed by brothers Reimer and Walter Horten, the Horten Ho-229 V3 was the first flying wing aircraft powered by jet engines. Three prototypes were built. The first, in glider form, flew March 1944. Then came the jet-propelled version made of a steel fuselage with plywood coverage. With its dual turbojet engines capable of a combined 4,000 pounds of thrust, it weighed 20,000 pounds overall. It was expected by the Luftwaffe to carry a bombload of 2,200 pounds for 620 miles at a whopping speed of 620 miles per hour and use two 20mm cannons to defend itself.

The Luftwaffe hoped that the aerodynamic shape of the Horten 229 with its thin leading edges would allow it to escape English ground-based radar, at the same time cut its air-time in half over the English Channel, compared to previous German aircraft, forcing the English into sheer panic when scrambling their own fighter-interception aircraft. Near the end of World War II, an advancing US Third Army unit discovered one of the two propelled prototypes--the other one crashed during a test flight a few weeks before--in a German hangar outside Dusseldorf.

In July 1945, it was shipped secretly to America where it sits today in a closely guarded army compound outside Washington, DC. Ironically, the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth bomber, which first flew in 1989, looks very similar to the Horten Ho-229 V3.

Captured Messerschmitt Me 262 in United States, 1946 (US Public Domain)

Unlike the Horten 229, the Messerschmitt Me 262--the world’s first real jet fighter--went into production, although late in the war: 1,400 were produced (in single-seat fighter, photo reconnaissance, light bomber, and two-man night-fighter versions). The 262 in fighter form was a marvel to fly, according to German ace Adolf Galland, and the only turbojet fighter that made an impact during World War II. The dual engines, with 1,980 pounds of static thrust each, took it to max speeds of well over 500 miles per hour, 100 miles per hour faster than the top-of-the-line props at that time.

With its swept-back wings, the Me 262 appeared to be right out of a Buck Rogers comic book. It first saw combat in mid-1944, had a surface ceiling of 37,000 feet in pure fighter form, and was fitted with four 20mm cannons in the nose. The only drawback: Due to this new technology, the jet engines had to be overhauled after only 20 hours or so in the air. In all, the Me 262 tallied more than 450 Allied aerial kills, while losing approximately 100.

Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet seen through USAAF P-47 Thunderbolt fighter camera
(US Public Domain)

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-powered fighter was a radical design and a very deadly machine: to Allies as well as to the German pilots who braved flying her. The fuel was the scary part of it: a combination of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine/methanol.  Test-flown in July 1944, it reached 702 miles per hour, making it faster than the speed of sound. Over 370 of these tailless monsters with a short, stubby fuselage were built for the sole purpose of intercepting the daylight American bomber streams over German territory.

When taking off, the Me 163 pilot would jettison the landing gear and climb to 39,000 feet--well above the bomber streams--in only three minutes! Then he would dive into the formations. Due to its short fuel range (only 25 miles), the pilot could make only two passes at best, having to aim and fire the two 30mm cannons in split seconds before heading back to base. This is where matters got extremely tricky.

Without a landing gear, the pilot used a skid to land on a grass field. Trouble was, he had to land the Komet nice and easy, just right, with no yawing, or the rocket fuel could ignite, blowing him and his craft to smithereens. Many Komets were lost this way. Anywhere from 10-15 kills were reported by Komet fighter pilots, while losing, perhaps, 10—the latter number done by Allied fighters following the Komets back to base and blasting them out of the sky before they could land.

V-1 Flying Bomb cutaway (US Public Domain)

Londoners during the war were well-acquainted with the unmanned V-1 Flying Bombs, the forerunner of the American-built Cruise Missile. They called them “Buzz Bombs” and “Doodlebugs” for the pulsating sound the single jet engines made when they flew over the city at low-altitude. I know of an ex-Londoner who told me that when they saw V-1s overhead, they would wait and listen for the jet sound. As long as they could still hear it, they were OK. When it stopped, it had run out of gas and would drop out of the sky. At that point, you had better dive for cover and fast.

The V-1 was actually the first guided missile, containing an auto-pilot system aboard. A range of 160 miles, it would fly 350-400 miles per hour at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 feet. Weighing 4,740 pounds, it carried a 1,870-pound warhead of a TNT/ammonium nitrate fuel combination. They were first launched from Calais, France--22 miles across the Channel from Dover, England--on June 13, 1944, exactly one week after the successful Allied D-Day landings at Normandy.

In all, about 9,500 Flying Bombs were fired at southeast England, sometimes as many as a hundred a day. Near the end of 1944, once the Allies had overrun the Calais sites, the Germans fired an additional 2,450 at Belgium from other sites. In total, 4,260 V-1s were destroyed by Allied fighters, anti-aircraft fire, and stationary barrage balloons that were braced to the ground by cables. Destruction on London alone, where 2,400 V-1s were fired upon, saw 6,100 people killed and 17,900 injured.

United States Army cutaway of the V-2 (US Public Domain

Talk about terror: There was no defense against the V-2 Rocket, the brainchild of brilliant German engineer Wernher von Braun, a rocket and jet propulsion expert. The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It was massive: 45 feet long and weighing 27,600 pounds. Propelled by a mixture of ethanol, water, and liquid oxygen, the V-2 reached an altitude of 55 miles and a speed of 3,580 miles per hour as far as 200 miles away before descending and heading to its target at an impact speed of 1,790 miles per hour. The 2,000-pound warhead contained the same explosive mix as the V-1 Flying Bomb.

What made the V-2 Rocket unique was its overall speed. Because it flew several times faster than the speed of sound, it would hit the ground and explode, then people nearby would hear the sound of the engine descending from the sky. The rocket’s speed cut down on casualties and the destruction zone area as it would bury itself deep into the ground before detonating. V-2 launching began September 1944. Over 3,000 missiles were fired on London, and Antwerp and Liege in Belgium. Over 2,500 civilians and military personnel were killed, and another 6,000 injured.

Following the war, all of these German inventions fell into the hands of the Allied military. Wernher von Braun, in particular, along with his entire rocket team, surrendered willingly to the advancing American forces before the Russians caught up to them. In the next two decades, von Braun and his German associates contributed mightily to the US Space Program by putting the first man on the moon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016


Robert Redford starring in The Natural (courtesy TriStar Pictures)

Many of us have seen the baseball flick, The Natural. But if you haven’t, you should catch it, whether a sports fan or not because it has a great storyline. Based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, this outstanding baseball-drama-mystery came to the silver screen in 1984 with a star-studded cast featuring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Darren McGavin, Joe Don Baker and Kim Basinger. It has to be one of my favorite sports movies. By the way, Redford looks exceptional with a bat in his hands--a real pro. He revealed later that for the movie he modelled his swing after that of Boston Red Sox slugging great Ted Williams.

For those of you who haven’t seen the TriStar Pictures film, here’s a rundown in a nutshell: The hero is Roy Hobbs--played by Redford--a young man of considerable baseball talent. As a kid, he carves his own bat--which he calls “Wonderboy”--from a tree that had been struck by lightning on his farm. As a 19-year-old, in 1923, Hobbs is a promising left-handed pitcher who had been asked to tryout with the major league Chicago Cubs.

On way to Chicago by train, he meets a confidant, chubby bore of major league ball player named “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker) and a sensual woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). Incidentally, the Whammer and his physique bears an uncanny resemblance to Babe Ruth. At a stop along the way, after a dare, Hobbs strikes out the bragging hitter on three pitches. Ms Bird  then becomes obsessed with Hobbs. After the train reaches Chicago, Bird entices Hobbs to her hotel room where she shoots him in the chest. Then she jumps out the window. Hobbs’ career appears over…

The screen jumps ahead 16 years to where the 35-year-old Hobbs is signed by the fictional major league New York Knights. As a mysterious unknown rookie, he quickly makes his presence felt in a positive way as a middle-aged slugger with a bad ball team. In short, Hobbs’ hitting leads the Knights to the National League pennant on the last day of the season. Of course, there’s highs and lows along the way and a love interest with beautiful Kim Basinger--influenced by his gambling uncle--who tries to lead him astray.

Most of the field scenes were filmed at the old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and one distinct scene at Buffalo’s All-High Stadium to depict Chicago’s Wrigley Field. There, Hobbs smashes the right-field clock with one of his home run blasts. Both venues have since been torn down. The Natural took four Academy Awards and one Golden Globe.

Bill Jurges 1933 Goudey Gum card
(US Public Domain)
So, where did author Bernard Malamud--who was not a baseball fan--get the inspiration for his 1952 novel? Actually, from stories surrounding two major leaguers who had been stalked by women about as looney as the fictitious Harriet Bird. The first player was fiery shortstop Billy Jurges, a defensive specialist who played for the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants from 1931-1947. The second was quality first baseman Eddie Waitkus, a Cub, Philadelphia Phillie, and Baltimore Oriole from 1941-1955.

In his rookie season, twenty-three-year-old Jurges fell madly in love with the stunning Violet Valli, a baseball groupie and sometimes-showgirl. When Jurges broke off the relationship a year later, Valli confronted the player on the morning of July 6, 1932 at Hotel Carlos in Chicago, a few blocks north of Wrigley Field. They argued, then she pulled out a loaded .25-caliber gun. During the struggle, Jurges was shot twice: one bullet went off a right rib, coming out his right shoulder, while the other ripped flesh clean off his left-hand little finger. A third bullet struck Valli in her left hand, lodging six inches up her arm and breaking her wrist. Jurges decided against pressing charges against her, and a year later married another woman, a good move on his part. The Cubs won the pennant in 1932 with former-Yankee Mark Koenig replacing Jurges at shortstop for a few weeks and jolting the Cubs’ pennant surge during the Jurges recovery period. The Cubs won two more pennants in 1935 and 1938, with Jurges and second base partner Billy Herman playing significant roles in a top-notch infield, while Valli went on dabbling in show business here and there across the country, along with enticing young men with her charms.

Eddie Waitkus 1950 Bowman Gum card
(US Public Domain)
Going back to his minor league career, Eddie Waitkus made everything look easy and was known as “a natural.” Hey, just like the movie! How about that! And he threw and batted left, the same as Robert Redford. A decorated World War II hero--four Bronze Stars--who saw heavy fighting with the US Army in the Pacific, Waitkus returned to America to play exceptional ball, at the plate and at first base for the Chicago Cubs. One of his biggest fans was 19-year-old, six-foot brunette Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who enjoyed seeing him live at Wrigley Field, without getting to know him or even so much as meeting him on the fly by asking for an autograph. All was fine and dandy until Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1948 season.  Then Steinhagen snapped.

Unable to see her obsession--Waitkus--as much as she had done previously, Steinhagen booked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel on June 13, 1949, during a Philadelphia Phillies road trip to Chicago. By then, Waitkus was having the time of his life, enjoying a .306 season with his new club. Using the alias of a former high school classmate whom Waitkus had known, she left a note at the front desk for the player to meet her at her hotel room. When Waitkus arrived and walked into the room, Steinhagen removed a .22-caliber rifle from the nearby closet and shot him in the chest, very close to his heart.

Coming to her senses as Waitkus lay bleeding on the floor, Steinhagen called the front desk on the room telephone. When a member of the hotel staff approached, she was found cradling the player’s head in her lap. Nearly dying on the operation table more than once, Waitkus returned to the playing field for the first time since the shooting on August 19 for “Eddie Waitkus Night” at Shibe Park, Philadelphia where he was smothered in gifts by adoring fans and associates. Although in uniform that one occasion, he didn’t suit up again until the following spring, ready to resume his baseball career. In 1950, he played the full 154-game schedule, hit .284 and was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year. He experienced a few more major league seasons until the mid-1950s, although he wasn’t quite the same again after the shooting.

Never charged with attempted murder, Steinhagen did, however, end up in a mental hospital for three years before considered sane enough to leave in 1952--ironically, the same year that Bernard Malamud’s publisher released The Natural.