Yesterday, I found out that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov has died. He was not well-known. In fact, he died in May, but the news only came out by chance, and even then, news outlets didn’t pick it up immediately.
Many people owe their lives to him, but few realise it. Petrov was on duty at a Soviet nuclear warning centre in 1983 when the alert sounded. Satellites had detected US nuclear missile launches. He should have picked up the phone and alerted his superiors. At the time, the West lived in fear of a Soviet first strike, and the East likewise lived in fear of a Soviet first strike. Had Petrov picked up the phone, as his training dictated, the Soviet high command would probably have launched their own nuclear missiles, believing that they were simply defending themselves. The West would have responded to what was apparently a long-feared Soviet first strike, and the greatest nightmare scenario of the Cold War would have come to pass.
Petrov should have reported the missile launch. That was his job. That was what he was trained to do. But he didn’t. He picked up the phone and reported a system malfunction. He didn’t know at first if he’d made a terrible mistake, but as the minutes passed and no nuclear detonations were reported, he realised that he had done the right thing.
The Soviet military didn’t prize initiative, but on that September morning, Stanislav Petrov showed incredible initiative and courage, and in doing so, he averted nuclear war.
The five finalists are Sitting Ducks by Lisa Blower; Potters: A Division of Labour by John Lancaster; A Ray of Light: Reinhard Heydrich, Lidice and the North Staffordshire Miners by Russell Phillips; Arnold Bennett’s Grand Babylon Hotel edited by Rando Saloman and What Must Happen by Jeffrey Wainwright.
Broadcaster and journalist Samira Ahmed will present the winner with a £500 cheque at a ceremony at Keele University on 1st September. Following the prize presentation, Samira will deliver a lecture entitled “What Arnold Bennett can tell us about Brexit Britain”, as part of a two-day celebration of the author.
In March, my wife and I spent a week in the Czech Republic on holiday. Whilst there, we visited Lidice, and I think I now understand Sir Barnett Stross a little more. It always puzzled me slightly that he kept close ties to Czechoslovakia, even after the communists took over. He had no sympathy for the communist regime, and used his position as chair of the British-Czechoslovakia Society to highlight their human rights abuses. Yet his connection to what could be considered an enemy country caused some controversy, and may have harmed his political career.
Visiting Lidice had a big impact on me, and I think I now understand, at least a little more. Seeing the area, and videos of some survivors, brought home the enormity of what had happened there. I suspect Stross never believed he had done enough, either for the dead or the survivors. In the face of such an outrageous atrocity, there are two basic reactions. Either you metaphorically throw your hands up in the air, despairing that nothing is enough to put things right. Or, you do as much as you can, and keep doing more. It will never be enough, but you can always do more.
I believe Stross had the second reaction. I doubt he ever felt that he’d done enough, and so he was always looking for ways to do more.
If you’d like to do a little to help revive the memory of Lidice, Stross, and the miners, please support my thunderclap. Click on “Support with Facebook”, “Support with Twitter”, or “Support with Tumblr” to support using your preferred social media account. It will cost nothing, but will help to spread awareness on the 75th anniversary of the Lidice massacre.
I’ve set up a Thunderclap to help raise awareness of the Lidice atrocity, and the work of the North Staffordshire miners to rebuild the village. To encourage people to support it, I’ve set up a Rafflecopter giveaway.
One winner will win a copy of A Ray of Light, in paperback, audiobook, and ebook formats.
Four runners-up will each win an ebook copy of A Ray of Light.
The Arnold Bennett Literary Prize has announced the short list for its inaugural year, and I’m proud to say that A Ray of Light is one of the ten books on the list. The winner will be announced in September.
This new prize is administered by the Arnold Bennett Society in partnership with the Sentinel newspaper. This is its first year, and it will be awarded every year from now on.
A Ray of Light tells the story of Lidice, a Czech village that was completely destroyed in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. North Staffordshire’s miners raised the equivalent of over £1million to rebuild the village.
For some time, I’ve been planning to introduce my nine year old son, Doug, to wargaming. He likes playing board games, including some aimed at adults, and he’s interested in history. We’ve now played a few games, and so I thought I’d write about the lessons I learned, to help anyone else wanting to introduce youngsters to the hobby. I’ve seen many complaints that there aren’t enough young people getting into the hobby. If you want to encourage younger people into wargaming, these notes might help.
One of the things that finally kicked me into trying a game with Doug was being able to get some very cheap die-cast WWII AFVs. I’m not normally a fan of soft plastic, but I use soft plastic figures and artillery pieces with Doug. I strongly recommend only using die-cast or soft plastic. Doug’s careful, but accidents are much more likely with youngsters, so fragile models really aren’t a good idea. In our case, Doug has a four year old sister, who can also cause accidents, even if she’s not playing.
If you use markers, aesthetically pleasing ones are better than plain ones. I use Litko acrylic markers that look like little explosions – little touches like that will go a long way to keeping children interested.
First, of course, you’ll need some rules. I’d planned to write some simple rules of my own, but then I happened to buy a copy of One Hour Wargames by Neil Thomas. They looked ideal, and so we tried a couple of games using the WWII rules. One thing that became quickly apparent is that the rules need to be extremely simple, much simpler than what I’d intended to write. Very few existing rule sets will be simple enough. Scenarios also need to be quite simple. If it’s too big, the child won’t be able to keep track, and will struggle to make decisions. Again, Neil Thomas’ book has a lot of useful, small scenarios included, which are ideal for this. Even then, children might need help working through potential tactics and options.
I’ve also played Memoir ’44 with Doug. This is a board wargame that uses soft plastic models on a hex-based board. The rule book suggests some slight modifications to simplify the game further when playing with young children. We played this simplified version of the rules, and Doug had no trouble understanding them. Memoir ’44 works well, but it uses cardboard counters as terrain, and if the table gets knocked, they can get dislodged. Small blobs of blu-tack can help, but that makes it longer to set up and take down. Make sure you play the scenarios in order. They start very simple (the first one, “Pegasus Bridge”, only has infantry) and gradually increase in complexity, adding other unit types.
When playing, I found it helped if I explained to Doug what I was doing and why. In Memoir ’44, for example, an infantry unit can move one hex and fire, or two hexes and not fire. So, I’d say something like “I’m just moving this unit one hex, so that it can fire”, or “I don’t want to fire with this unit, so I’ll move it two hexes.”
I took Doug to Barrage 2016, our local wargame show. Despite not having any money to spend, he was interested in looking at the traders stands, and asked questions about the models on display. Possibly unsurprisingly, a Warhammer 40,000 game took his interest, and he spent some time talking to the players and asking questions.
He also talked to the players of a WWII game, and played the German attackers in James Morris’s Fort Vaux participation game. He lost, but enjoyed it all the same. At one point he split the dice he had into two groups, telling me that the ones showing sixes were his “lucky dice”.
Children can be much more unpredictable than adults, which can be frustrating sometimes, but can also be challenging and interesting. Games with kids can be fun, and if they enjoy it they may eventually grow up to be adult wargamers, and that has to be good for the hobby as a whole.
All in all, we’ve both enjoyed the games we’ve played. I’m hoping that Doug will continue to enjoy playing, and as he gets older I’ll introduce him to larger scenarios and more complex rules.
Last week, The Sun ran a story about how the CIA wanted to force Britain to hand over the Falkland Islands to Argentina and force British citizens living there to relocate to Scotland. The Daily Mail published a similar story.
At best, the stories are sensationalist. At worst, they’re deliberately misrepresenting the truth. The document was obviously written after the Argentinian invasion, and after the British task force sailed to reclaim the islands, but before the ground war began. At this point, the USA was trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. From America’s point of view, two of their allies were fighting each other, and not unreasonably, they wanted to find a peaceful solution that both would accept.
Both stories were based on a recently declassified memo. It’s clear that the memo was written as a possible way to resolve the dispute peacefully. Despite the newspapers’ claims, the author doesn’t suggest that repatriated islanders must go to Scotland, it actually says that any that wish to should be allowed to relocate to “the UK or elsewhere under British sovereignty”. Scotland is merely mentioned as a likely choice due to its similarity to the Falklands.
What the memo writer missed was the change in the British attitude to the Falklands. The memo states that the British were prepared to hand over sovereignty to Argentina, and that they had been for some time. Before the invasion, that was true. As recently as 1980, the British Minister of State had put a proposal for transfer of sovereignty to the Islanders. The invasion changed that. Suddenly the British government was determined to keep the islands, and so the proposals had no real chance of being accepted by the British.
The memo offers an interesting insight into American assumptions and attitudes at the time, but it’s not a smoking gun, however much tabloid journalists would like to believe otherwise.
The CIA did not try to force Britain to hand over the Falklands to Argentina – Click to tweet
Today is Remembrance Day in the UK. I have a red poppy, and I shall be observing the two minute silence at 11:00. For me, Remembrance Day is a time to remember everyone that has been harmed by war. Any war, any nationality, civilian, military, whatever. That’s a lot of people, and so each year I focus on a particular group during the silence.
My dad served on HMS Ceylon during the Korean War. He was on duty, somewhere off the coast of Korea, when he found out his first son had been born. Family legend has it that every man of his mess saved their rum ration for him, and he drank them all when he came off duty.
Thankfully, my dad didn’t suffer from PTSD, but he was never able to talk about the war, either. It was only after he died that we discovered the crew of HMS Ceylon had saved the lives of a group of Korean orphans. I don’t know why he never told us about those children, but it saddens me that he was never able to tell his family that he’d been involved in such a good deed.
At 11:00 today, I shall spend two minutes thinking of my dad and the Korean children that were saved by him and his shipmates. Who will you remember?
During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact armies studied the disposition of rivers in western Europe. It concluded that they would have to cross water obstacles up to 100m wide every 35 to 60km. Every 100-150km, they would encounter a water obstacle between 100m and 300m wide. Every 250-300km they would encounter one that was wider still. In a war in western Europe, the Warsaw Pact armies expected to advance an average of 100km per day, leading to a significant number of river crossings. Since there was no guarantee of securing bridges intact, the Warsaw Pact put a great deal of emphasis on their ability to cross water obstacles. A range of equipment was created to bridge gaps or ferry vehicles over rivers. Echographs were developed, that could quickly measure water depth and river width. Many light armoured vehicles could swim. Main battle tanks carried snorkels that allowed them to wade through water up to 5m deep.
It seems likely that the armies of the Warsaw Pact preferred not to snorkel main battle tanks, and that ferries or pontoon bridges were preferred. None the less, a 1971 British Army intelligence report stated that the Soviet army considered it “a practical operation of war” (Army Technical Intelligence Review, April 1971). Every tank crew was fully trained in snorkelling. Training took place on purpose-built sites, with good facilities. Emphasis was placed on giving the crew confidence in their ability to snorkel well and safely.
Training was split into two phases. The first phase, lasting up to two months, concentrated on preparing the crews to operate tanks under water. Training covered swimming, diving, carrying out procedures underwater whilst wearing escape masks. There was a good deal of safety training, which helped with crew confidence and morale. Rescue operations were practised on simulators. Crews were not allowed to move onto the second phase until they had passed the first phase.
In the second phase of training, the crew got the chance to put their skills to the test. A five-meter deep lake would be used to practice driving underwater. Initially, drivers would drive 90m underwater, progressing to 150m as their skills improved. At least some sites also had facilities for blind driving, with the driver guided only by the tank’s gyro compass. After passing this second phase of training, crews would join their units.
Sealing and preparing a tank for snorkelling could take as little as 15 minutes. Older tanks took longer, up to half an hour. This would be done in a concealed area 3-5km from the river. When the tanks got to within 1-2km of the river, snorkels would be fitted. Tanks crossed at slow speed, in a column formation, with a 30m gap between vehicles. Drivers would not change gear or stop while in the water. Once across, the tank would have to stop while the crew removed the waterproofing. Until this was done, the turret could not be traversed or the gun fired. If a tank stalled in the river, the crew would flood it before escaping through the hatches.
An alternative method of snorkelling was to use winches to pull unmanned tanks across. A pair of armoured recovery vehicles would set up on the far bank with a pulley block and anchoring unit. Up to three tanks could be pulled across the river simultaneously. Using this method, 10-tank company could cross a 200m wide river in 35 minutes, assuming the tanks had already been sealed. The crews would cross separately, in amphibious vehicles such as APCs, or on boats.
Snorkelling was not to be carried out under fire, and in some cases, simply wouldn’t be possible. The entry bank had to be less than 25º, the exit bank less than 15º, and the current no more than three metres per second. In winter, drifting ice could damage the snorkel. The river bottom had to be reasonably firm, and free of boulders and craters.
Many lighter AFVs were amphibious, and could swim across water obstacles. All APCs from the BTR-50 onwards, and all IFVs, were fully amphibious. The BRDM series of reconnaissance vehicles, and even some self-propelled artillery and AA vehicles could swim. Most of these were propelled in the water by their tracks, although some used water jets, which gave a better performance in the water.
Water obstacles would only be crossed under fire as a last resort. In these cases, a great deal of artillery would be called upon to support the operation. If at all possible, helicopter troops would be landed on the far bank, and attack simultaneously with the crossing. Tanks would stay on the near bank to provide covering fire, while amphibious armoured vehicles swam across. Once a bridgehead was established, tanks and other vehicles would snorkel or be ferried across. These would then continue the advance, while engineers worked to build more permanent bridge crossings over the obstacle.
Soviet estimates found that two-thirds of the river obstacles they would encounter in Europe were less than 20m wide. This led to the development of vehicle-launched bridges capable of quickly crossing these gaps. The Polish army developed a tracked bridge, which was pushed into place by a tank. Small numbers of a T-34 based bridging tank were delivered to the Soviet army in 1957. This was soon superseded by the MTU-54, also sometimes referred to as the MTU or MTU-1.
In 1955, the MTU-54, a bridge layer based on a T-54 chassis, was introduced. The MTU-54 mounted a simple 12.3m bridge, carried horizontally on top of the vehicle. Unlike later vehicles, the bridge was not folded for transit. A chain drive mechanism moved the bridge forwards to launch, before being lowered into place. This method had the advantage of keeping the silhouette low whilst launching the bridge. The MTU-54 could bridge an 11m gap, and had a load capacity of 50 tonnes. Launch time was three to five minutes, and recovery can take place from either end.
Unusually, it was fitted with a DShKM machine gun, mounted in the centre of the vehicle. This had to be removed before launching the bridge. Later vehicles were fitted with a deep wading snorkel, NBC protection, and automatic fire supression system.
From 1967, the MTU-20 became the primary Soviet tank-launched bridge. This mounted a bridge on a T-55 chassis. In order to allow a longer span length whilst maintaining a low silhouette when launching, the ends of the bridge folded back when in transit. When launching the bridge, a stabiliser at the front was lowered. The ends of the bridge were then unfolded and the bridge rolled forward, before being lowered into place. The MTU-20 had a span length of 20m, with a load capacity of 60 tonnes. Launching the bridge took five minutes, recovery from either end took between five and seven minutes. Both launching and recovery could be carried out while the crew remained inside the vehicle. It was fitted with a deep wading snorkel, NBC protection, and automatic fire supression system.
The non-Soviet Warsaw Pact armies showed a preference for the more common scissor bridge design. Poland and East Germany jointly developed the BLG-60, which mounted a 50 tonne, 21.6m scissor bridge on a T-55 chassis. The bridge was launched by being lifted up to the vertical, then unfolded and lowered over the gap. This design gave a quicker launch time than the Soviet designs, at the expense of a very high silhouette during launch. The BLG-60 was fitted with NBC protection and a deep-wading snorkel. An improved version, the BLG-67, was introduced in the late 1970s.
Czechoslovakia also built its own bridge layer, the MT-55A. Like the BLG-60, this mounted a scissor bridge on a T-55 chassis. A front spade stopped the vehicle being tipped over by the weight of the bridge. Launch time was two to three minutes, recovery time five to six minutes. Both tasks could be carried out from inside the vehicle. It could span an obstacle of up to 18m, and load capacity was 50 tonnes. It had a gap measuring device and inclinometer to help with finding a suitable site for the bridge. Other equipment included infra-red night vision equipment, snorkel, automatic fire extinguisher, and NBC protection. Unusually, the Soviet army adopted the MT-55A, albeit in small numbers.
Initially, the scissor bridge carried by the MT-55A had circular holes in the sides of the bridge. Later models had solid sides. Multiple bridges could be combined to span larger gaps.
In 1974, a new bridge layer entered service, the MTU-72. These were made from existing T-72 tanks with the turret replaced with a bridge-launching mechanism. The bridge was of cantilever design, similar to that on the MTU-20, but made of an aliminium alloy. The 20m bridge had a load capacity of 50 tonnes and could span a gap of up to 18m. A second bridge could be launched from the first one to span a gap of up to 35m. Launching the bridge took three minutes, recovery eight minutes. Both launching and recovery could be carried out while the crew remained inside the vehicle.
A blade is fitted to the front of the hull, which is primarily intended to stabilise the vehicle during launching and recovery. It can also be used as a bulldozer blade. A deep wading snorkel, NBC protection system, fire suppression system, and thermal smoke generation unit are also fitted.
Amphibians & Ferries
The K-61 tracked amphibious ferry was introduced in 1950, a direct result of wartime experience with DUKW amphibious lorries supplied by the USA. It remained in Soviet service until the late 1960s. It was fully tracked, and based on a light AFV chassis, but was not armoured. The K-61 could carry eight wounded on stretchers, 40 fully-armed infantry, up to five tonnes of equipment, a lorry up to 2.5 tonnes, or an artillery piece.
Loading is done via ramps at the rear. Vehicles can be simply driven on, and a winch is provided for loading heavy equipment such as artillery pieces. It is driven through the water by a pair of propellers, at a speed of up to 10km/hour.
The PTS-M was introduced in 1966, as a replacement for the K-61. Larger than the K-61, it also had an amphibious trailer, although this was found to be of little use except in very calm waters. A more powerful engine meant that it could carry a greater load, 7.5 tonnes on land and 15 tonnes on water. Rear ramps are used to load cargo, with a winch for loading heavy non-motorised loads. An infra-red searchlight and infra-red driving lights were fitted.
The PTS-2 was a much improved and modernised version of the PTS-M, introduced in the late 1970s. It had a new suspension, derived from the MT-T artillery tractor. A pair of propellers drive the vehicle in the water. Load was the same as the PTS-M. The cab is fitted with NBC protection.
The GSP heavy amphibious ferry was introduced in 1959. A single ferry was made up of two distinct units, one left and one right. The two units were mirror images of each other, and not interchangeable. Before entering the water, a trim vane was erected at the front of the hull. The two units then entered the water separately and linked up. Once linked, the pontoons, which were inverted while in transit, were swung upright, and the treadways deployed. It was important that the pontoons were both unfolded together, to avoid overbalancing the whole. Assembly time was 6-10 minutes.
The ferry had hydraulically operated ramps at each end, allowing vehicles to be driven on at one end and off at the other. Maximum capacity was 52 tonnes, enough to carry a main battle tank. It was reported that tanks could fire their main armament whilst on the ferry, in good conditions.
The vehicle itself was tracked, with a suspension similar to the PT-76 light tank. It had infra-red driving lights, although these were only for use on land. The hull and pontoon was lightweight steel filled with plastic foam. The foam increased bouyancy and reduced vulnerability to enemy fire. Propulsion in the water was provided by four propellers (two per vehicle), mounted in tunnels under the hull. Maximum speed in the water was 8km/hour.
Initially known to NATO as the ABS(T), the PMM-2 was introduced in 1974 as a replacement for the GSP ferry, and possibly the PMP pontoon bridge. It is based on a BAZ-5937 chassis. Two aluminium folded pontoons are mounted on top, with entrance ramps. As the vehicle enters the water, the pontoons are hydraulically unfolded to either side of the vehicle, with the vehicle itself forming a centre section. It is propelled in the water by water jets.
As a ferry, units can be used individually (40 tonne capacity), in pairs (80 tonne capacity), or in threes (120 tonne capacity). A single vehicle can be used as a bridge, to span gaps of up to 17m. Up to ten vehicles can be combined to span larger gaps, with no need for bridging boats.
Most river crossings would have been assault crossings from the march, at sites that were only lightly defended, if at all. Reconnaissance patrols of up to platoon size, operating up to 50km ahead of the main body and equipped with specialised equipment, would find suitable sites. When a crossing site had been selected, a forward detachment, two to three hours ahead of the main body and avoiding contact with the enemy, would secure the site. A typical forward detachment would consist of a motor rifle battalion with an attached tank company and artillery battalion. Amphibians, ferries, air defence, anti-tank and chemical defence units would also be attached. Heliborne or occassionally airborne troops could also be used in this role.
If the crossing site was defended, the attack would be carried out with significant artillery and air support. River crossings got priority for air support, and were considered particularly vulnerable to enemy air attack. Air defence assets would be deployed close to the crossing site, and would cross the river as soon as feasible to extend their coverage.
The crossing itself would be carried out by APCs or IFVs swimming across the river, supported by tank and artillery fire from the near shore. A few tanks may have crossed in the first wave, but most would provide fire from the near bank and cross later. Artillery and anti-tank units would cross immediately after the infantry to provide support in holding the bridgehead. Tanks would cross using ferries, snorkelling, or bridges.
In the event of war in Western Europe, the Warsaw Pact expected their armies to advance quickly. The rivers of West Germany could not be allowed to slow the advance, and so considerable effort was put into developing equipment for their engineers. This equipment was simple, rugged, and supplied in significant quantities. Both peacetime exercises and experience in Afghanistan demonstrated that Soviet combat engineers were an effective force.
The ZSU-57-2 entered service in 1955, providing the Warsaw Pact armies with a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun that could accompany the advancing armies.
The hull is based on a lightened T-54 chassis. The armour is much lighter and it has four road wheels instead of the T-54’s five. Two air-cooled 57mm S-68 guns are fitted in a large, boxy, open-topped turret. 300 rounds of ammunition are carried, in a mix of armour-piercing, fragmentation-incendiary, and fragmentation, all of which had tracer. A tarpaulin cover is provided for protection against inclement weather.
The turret has powered traverse and elevation. Unlike the later and more successful ZSU-23-4, the ZSU-57-2 has no radar. This effectively means that it’s use is limited to clear weather conditions. It has optical sights (initially with no rangefinder, though a rangefinder was later added), which are configured to allow use in a secondary role as a ground support vehicle. Maximum effective range of the guns is around 4,000m. Armour thickness is between 8 and 15mm, and the vehicle has a top speed of 31mph, with a range of 260 miles.
Obviously, this is the last of the AFV Alphabet series. It was interesting to research and write, I hope it was also interesting to read. My thanks to Tim Gow for the inspiration.