Saturday, August 14, 2010

C-47 Adventure in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria


Bill flies by C-47 Transport to the 82nd Airborne’s New Base in Kairouan, Tunisia

After his assignment to Service Company 505 , Bill said he trained for the next month at the 82nd Airborne’s base in Oujda, French Morocco. The conditions there were nearly unbearable with the heat, wind blown sand, bad food, swarms of flies, disease, impossible training schedules, and a thieving Arab population almost destitute from the ravages of war.

I’ll write more about Bill’s time in Oujda in future posts. Right now I’d like to share another story I recently finished researching.

On June 24, 1943 General Ridgeway ordered the Division to move 680 miles (~ 1090 km) east to Kairouan, Tunisia. A top secret base was to be built there for staging operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily scheduled for July 9, 1943.

It was more than a relief to Bill when he and 10 other men from Service Company received orders to transport a kitchen by C-47 transport aircraft to the new base in Tunisia. After a month of the searing heat combined with the poor conditions any change was eagerly welcomed. Some men even joked rather seriously that they actually yearned for combat as an escape from the hell of Oujda.

Bill didn’t say if he knew his mission was part of the preparation of the new base for an invasion. He probably could have guessed as much in light of the Division’s current state of readiness and with all the rumors circulating about an imminent invasion of perhaps Greece, Sicily, Sardinia, or even the Italian mainland.

The 505 left for Kairouan over the period of July 1 – 2. A few men flew by C-47, but most travelled by the 40 & 8 trains or by truck. Bill’s C-47 left during this time, along with other air transports carrying the men and materiale needed to construct the basic amenities at the camp ahead of those travelling in the slower trains and trucks.

Since Bill was a Rigger he  needed to arrive early to help construct the rigging sheds and prepare them for packing and maintaining parachutes. The other 10 men aboard with Bill were likely a mixed group of Service Company troopers including cooks, riggers, carpenters, medics, and so on. 


View Oujda - Kairouan Flight Path in a larger map
C-47 Flight Path from Oudja, Morocco to Kairouan, Tunisia


Map 1 shows the flight path Bill’s plane took. Flying time was only going to be six hours instead of the 72 hour train or truck ride for the rest of the 505. Bill and his comrades couldn’t believe their luck at hitting a jackpot like this. After the unpleasant train journey from Casablanca to Oujda a plane ride to the new base was in high demand and they knew there were other equally skilled men who could have easily filled their privileged seats.

I don’t know how many C-47 aircraft were used in the operation. Bill’s was just one of many planes tasked with transporting a plethora of materiale to Kairouan.  However, the real essence of this story is what happened to Bill during the trip.


Emergency in the Altas Mountains

Bill said his plane was loaded with kitchen equipment including stoves and so on. He said that when the plane got to the Atlas Mountains it didn’t have enough power to get over them. Bill didn’t say why the plane was low on power. His description of a lack of power indicates that it probably developed engine trouble and couldn’t gain or maintain its altitude. 

There was an officer on board the plane and he ordered the men to jettison the kitchen equipment to lighten the plane. The troopers dutifully followed the orders, but the plane was still unable to gain sufficient altitude to clear the range. The situation was getting dire with the plane in danger of crashing into the mountainside so the officer ordered the men to put on their parachutes and bail out.

Bill didn’t mention what happened to the plane, but he and his party parachuted out and landed safely in the mountains at around 6,000 feet (~1828 m). There was some snow present and he said it was very cold.

He and the other men from the plane climbed down the mountains to a railway. He didn’t say how long the journey lasted, nor whether they flagged down a train or walked to a station and caught one . In either case they later were aboard a French train bound for the port city of Tunis in Tunisia.

Bill said the French “as was their custom” had stocked the train with plenty of wine. Consequently he and his companions had a very happy journey. He recalled that the trip was made difficult by the train’s rudimentary ventilation system. When they passed through tunnels smoke and soot from the engine stack billowed into the railway cars and he frequently had to put a wet handkerchief over his face to get air.

This story leaves us with a mystery as to the location of the emergency bailout and the fate of the C-47 and her crew of two pilots.

A Summary of the Facts

The only indication Bill gave of the location of the bailout was:

  1. The mountain range was between Algiers and Tunisia;
  2. They jumped landing at an altitude of about 6,000 feet (~1828 m) in some snow; and
  3. They managed to climb down the mountains to a railway and caught a train to Tunis.


Location: Tell Atlas Versus Aures Mountains

Looking at the maps of Algeria and Tunisia, there are only two mountain ranges that reach a height of 6,000 feet (~1828 m) or above.

The Djurdjura National Park, Algeria in the Tell Atlas Range fits the height description well with a top range consistently 5905 – 6820 feet (~1800 - 2080 m) and a high point of Mount Djurdjura 7572 feet (2308 m).

The other range is the Aures Mountains of Algeria – the most eastern of the Altas range. Its highest point is Djebel Chelia 7,638 feet (2,328 m). The average of its high plain area is roughly 5,250 – 6560 feet (~1,600 – 2000 m) with higher peaks and plateaus above this.

As is shown in Map 2 below, all of the Tell Atlas Range including the Djurdjura region (the shaded square in the middle of the map) is too far to the north of the Division’s flight plan to be a candidate location of reasonable likelihood. If Bill’s plane had a good reason it might have first flown to say Algiers or another destination on the coast and then onto Kairouan. In this case it could have flown over the Tell Atlas Range. However, transporting a kitchen wouldn’t be reason enough for such a significant deviation from the standard course set for the 82nd Division’s transports.


Cities of Algiers and Bejaia appear above the Djurdjura National Park  (highlighted square)
Oujda – Kairouan Flightpath (blue line)

One remote possibility is that the plane got into trouble mid way through the flight and had to divert to an airfield on the northern side of the Tell Atlas Mountains – in the vicinity of Algiers or Bejaia (See Map 2 above). When it reached the Tell Atlas in the Djurdjura region (see shaded square in map 2) it would have then encountered the 6,000 foot mountains that Bill described with the possibility of snow even in the Summer. Unable to clear the range, the men would have bailed out on the south side of the mountains. Since there was no railway line to the south, to catch a train in this area they would have had to climb north over the mountains to reach the nearest tracks between Algiers and Bejaia. It would have involved an arduous trek lasting several days if not weeks. With little to no food and water they would have faced the very real possibility of death in the rugged terrain.

Luckily, there is a much stronger candidate location for the incident. If you look at the planned flight path, Bill’s plane flies straight through the Aures Mountain range in eastern Algeria (See Map 3 below and Map 4 for an enlarged view).  The height of these mountains fits Bill's description of what happened perfectly. 


View Aures Mountains in a larger map
The flight path from Oujda, French Morocco to Kairouan, Tunisia cuts precisely through the heart of the Aures Mountain range.

View Aures Mountains Flight Path in a larger map


Aures Mountains, Closeup

A Little Matter of Snow

Bill talked about landing in some snow. There is snow in the Aures mountains in winter time. I can’t find any reports of snow there in the summer at the time of Bill’s flight. It is possible in the higher elevations as it does snow in Summer in the Tell Atlas Range which are of the same height.


CheliaAures Mountains

Snow on the Aures Mountains

Source: Wikipedia Commons

A Train to Tunis

Bill said he and the other men climbed down the mountain and found a railway. His plane was coming into the Aures range from the west. If his plane could not climb over the mountains they would have bailed out somewhere on a western or northwestern facing slope. Using a 1935 French Algerian railway map (see Map 5 below), if one climbs down from the western or northwestern side of the range and walks towards the west, the first thing you will run into is a railway running north-south. 


Algerian Railways 1935


French Algerian Railways Circa 1935

Source: United States Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative In the West by George F. Howe, OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMYWASHINGTON, D.C., 1957

This railway runs directly through the town of Biskra which is to the south and west of Bill’s flight path through the Aures. (See Map 6 below and Map 5 above). It was the only railway line in the area during the War.



View Biskra, Algeria in a larger map


Biskra, Algeria site of 1935 Railway line running North-South


Biskra is a place name on the 1935 French railroad map so it must have had a railroad station. If the men came out of this range from the northwest or west they would have run into the railroad to the north of Biskra. It is quite likely they saw the railroad and the town of Biskra from the air before they jumped.

From their mountain top vantage point they might have been able to see them again periodically and adjust their decent to intercept the rail line using the most direct route. Food and water would have been serious concerns in this survival situation.  Available time to reach help would have been limited to no more than a few days without aid in the harsh Aures terrain and climate. With the knowledge that the railway headed north out of the town they could have followed the tracks south to Biskra (which was a distance of perhaps 15 miles or 25 km from their bailout point) and caught a train there or flagged one down on the way.


Train Journey Back to the New Base at Kairouan

The 1935 French railway map shows how they could have travelled from Biskra to Tunis via Constantine. At Tunis they could have reported to an American unit to make arrangements for their return to base. It would have been easy to reach Kairouan by taking trains from Tunis along the coast to Sousse, before making their way inland to Kairouan by truck. Map 7 below shows a similar modern day route between the cities. 


Biskra – Constantine – Tunis – Sousse – Kairouan

What Happened to the C-47 Plane?

Bill did not say what happened to the C-47. However, a crash must have been imminent because all 10 paratroopers were ordered to bail out after failing to clear the mountains by jettisoning the cargo. It’s logical that the pilots would have bailed out too and that the plane crashed into the high Aures Mountains.

Sooner or later it would have been discovered by the poor Berber inhabitants of the region and picked clean of artifacts.

However, the airframe of a C-47 is heavy and difficult to disassemble. So perhaps there is something left of Bill’s crashed plane with fragments of WWII era stuff on board. There’s probably some Berber shepherd who knows where it is. It’s likely to be somewhere along the 505 flight path on the  high Aures plateau around 6,000 feet (~1,830 m) as highlighted on Map 8 below. It’s an area 15x18 miles wide (25 x 30 km) and about 15 miles (25 km) north east of the railway line and the town of Biskra.


View Emergency Bailout/Crash Zone in a larger map


Showing Possible Bailout and Crash Area above 6,000 feet


C-47 aircraft flying over Southern France, 1944

C-47 "Skytrains"

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

C-47 General Characteristics

  • Crew: 3
  • Capacity: 28 troops
  • Payload: 6,000 lb (2,700 kg)
  • Length: 63 ft 9 in (19.43 m)
  • Wingspan: 95 ft 6 in (29.41 m)
  • Height: 17 ft 0 in (5.18 m)
  • Wing area: 987 ft² (91.70 m²)
  • Empty weight: 18,135 lb (8,226 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 26,000 lb (11,793 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 31,000 lb (14,061 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2× Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90C Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW) each

C-47 Performance

  • Maximum speed: 224 mph (195 kn, 360 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3,050 m)
  • Cruise speed: 160 mph (139 kn, 257 km/h)
  • Range: 1,600 mi (1,391 nmi, 2,575 km)
  • Ferry range: 3,600 mi (3,130 nmi, 5,795 km)
  • Service ceiling: 26,400 ft (8,045 m)
  • Climb to 10,000 ft (3,050 m): 9.5 min

Source: Wikipedia

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2010 All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing read, this is a great blog. This is the same level of detail my brother loves. He runs - a specialized WW II tour company. I just spent a week with him on his latest tour of Normandy taking marketing photographs before returning back home to Austin.