The ongoing battle between the U.S. military and insurgent bomb-makers in Iraq is hardly the first technological cat-and-mouse game in our military history. In the fall of 1943, the Germans unleashed a new weapon that threatened to reverse the U.S. Navy’s rising ascendency in the Mediterranean, as Rick Atkinson explains in The Day of Battle, his kick-ass sequel to the Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn. On September 11 over the Allied beachhead in southern Italy, Atkinson writes, “a slender, eleven-foot cylinder dropped from a Luftwaffe Do-217 bomber at eighteen thousand feet. Plummeting in a tight spiral and trailing smoke, the object resembled a stricken aircraft.”
It was an FX-1400, the world’s first operational guided bomb, steered via radio by a bombardier high above who tracked the weapon’s tail-mounted flare. The “Fritz-X” bomb in August had sunk a British sloop and earlier in September a turncoat Italian battleship. The bomb dropped on September 11 struck the cruiser U.S.S. Savannah, “punching a twenty-two-inch hole in the armored roof of turret number 3 and slicing through three more steel decks before detonating,” killing 206 sailors.
“[Vice Admiral Henry Kent] Hewitt desperately sought remedies against the glide bombs, pleading for more smoke generators from North Africa and toying with electronic countermeasures by having sailors flip on their electric razors and other appliances during an attack.” But nothing worked, and in just days Fritz-X attacks crippled two more warships. “In a few months, effective jamming transmitters would emerge from Navy research laboratories, but for the moment every man afloat felt a dread vulnerability.”