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Uncle Ryland’s death – the historical prospective

November 26th, 2016 Comments off

Jennie (Eugenia Kiesling) wrote this on 11/22/16 in response to the to the post about Uncle Ryland. ( http://allyall.org?p=410 ) She teaches military history at the West Point:

For those who are interested (and don’t already know as many of you do), I offer some military history to put my great uncle Ryland’s death into context.  In particular, I think that the report that he flew a “liaison” mission deserves some explanation for those unfamiliar with the nature of artillery “liaison” operations.   This story may be distressing to those who do not know it, but getting the details about war right is important to me.

Ryland enlisted in the artillery, and artillery was the most important component of US Army Ground Forces in World War II.  In that war the US Army acquired guns with remarkable range, accuracy, and rate of fire, but its greatest advantage over the Germans was the development of fire control systems for coordinating the fire of dozens of guns on a single target.   The problem with which field artillery officers wrestled before the war was that there is no point in having sophisticated fire control systems and guns capable of hitting a target ten miles away unless one can see the target, observe where the shells are landing, and adjust fire accordingly.  The problem of artillery observation is exacerbated by the fact that armies conceal targets worth hitting; moreover, howitzers, the guns with the longest ranges, fire at a high trajectory for the purpose of landing shells behind high ground.

During the 1930s, some visionary artillery officers acquired small aircraft and private pilots’ licenses in order to test the idea of artillery spotting from the air.  As a result of their private experiments, during the war the Field Artillery Branch commissioned a military version of the Piper Cub aircraft, designed the L4 Observation Aircraft, for artillery spotting.  The advantage of the L4, familiar to those of  us who have skydived from the Piper Cub, is that they can fly very slowly, allowing for a good view of the ground.   It was Ryland’s job to fly the plane low and slow and close to German lines so that his observer could see where our artillery shells were landing.  It is a sad truth that without brave men flying unprotected aircraft, all of the destructive power of the US Field Artillery would have been impotent.

On 4 July 1944, when Ryland was preforming that crucial artillery spotting role, his plane was hit by a shell from an American 155mm howitzer.   The after action review concluded that the density of US shells was so great that American pilots would be safer flying over German lines, and for the rest of the war our pilots flew their observation missions closer to their targets and further from their own guns.  Like so many wartime death’s Ryland’s was a fluke in the sense that no one was aiming at him.  Unlike many soldiers, he was doing a specific task he knew to be essential to our military operations.   His death created a change in doctrine that probably saved other lives.  But it is very sad story.

The information about Ryland comes from Edward Raines, Eyes of the Artillery: The Origins of Modern US Army Aviation in World War II, a book that wondered into my office many years ago.  I asked Raines whether he knew anything more about the episode, but he did not.

Incidentally, while writing this I am snacking on a dish of yoghurt and frozen cherries, a dessert idea I owe to another uncle, Malcolm McCorquodale, which I often eat with fond thoughts.

Love, Jennie