Archive for the ‘Military History’ Category

eric winkle brown, university air unit, edinburgh, naval test pilot

Young Eric Brown, aged 18, in the uniform of the University Air Unit at Edinburgh where he learned to fly.

No one ever had to say ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, but how test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown survived 50 years of flying is remarkable. The only Allied pilot to fly the Komet, a Nazi rocket-powered death trap of an aircraft, he said it was ‘like being in charge of a runaway train’. Captain Brown, born in 1919 in Leith, Scotland, died last Sunday, 21 February, aged 97.

Brown’s claim to unsought fame was that he flew 487 different types of aircraft and made 2,407 aircraft carrier landings, both world records that will never be repeated. He was the most decorated pilot in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The newspapers have been rightly generous in their praise of Captain Brown, the Telegraph and the Independent being just two. Here are the highlights of his spectacular flying career.

Brown’s father, Robert, had served in the First World War as a balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Brown said that he first flew in a bi-plane at the age of eight whilst sitting in his father’s lap. While still at school in Edinburgh, Brown accompanied his father to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His father’s RFC background led to them to meeting the boastful Hermann Göring, the chief of the newly-formed Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force), and Ernst Udet, a senior Luftwaffe officer, both First World War aces. Udet took the young Brown for a flight and declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and that he must learn to fly.

At the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, Brown, a fluent German speaker, was an exchange teacher in Munich. He was arrested by the SS and briefly imprisoned, but was escorted in his MG sports car to the Swiss border. Back in Britain, he applied to join the RAF bu concluded that ‘there was no rush for my services’. So instead Brown enlisted in the FAA, the branch of the Royal Navy that operates naval aircraft.

eric winkle brown, naval test pilot, fleet air arm, second world war

Brown (dark uniform) with fellow test pilots in the 1940s.

After training, his combat flying began in 1941 as a fighter pilot flying off HMS Audacity, the world’s first auxiliary carrier (a captured and then converted German banana boat) protecting Clydeside-Gibraltar convoys. There were no below-deck hangers so the six aircraft had to stay on the deck. Brown received his first decoration, the DSC, for his bravery and skill in defending a convoy during a heavy and sustained air attack by enemy aircraft. On 21 December 1941 the Audacity was torpedoed by a U-boat whilst escorting convoy OG76. Brown was one of the only two aircrew who survived.

In 1942, he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough where he became chief naval test pilot in 1944, flying up to seven allied aircraft a day, including the Soviet MiG-15. One test was for Brown to dive a propeller-engined Spitfire at a staggering Mach reading of 0.86 (more than 600mph). Brown performed the first landing on a carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, a Sea Mosquito, on HMS Indefatigable in March 1944, and the world’s first landing of a jet aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, on the HMS Ocean in December 1945.

eric winkle brown, me163, komet, naval test pilot, second world war

A Messerschmitt ME163 Komet of the type flown by Brown. The first test flight of the ME163 was in July 1944. It had a phenomenal rate of climb and speed. With only a few minutes flight duration, and with highly inflammable propellants, it was a very dangerous plane to fly. Brown wrote of his flight ‘there was so much to get wrong and virtually no escape route’.

Ten days after the German surrender in May 1945, Brown was at an airfield in Schleswig-Holstein in north-west Germany testing the ‘Komet’, the rocket-powered fighter Messerschmitt 163, the only rocket aircraft ever to have been operational. The Nazis had begun deploying the plane during the last year of the war. Brown was completely fascinated by the tiny and lethally dangerous plane. Only RAE pilots were exempt from flying the planes, but only for a time, and Brown took his chance, despite the reservations of the German ground crew. Once the fuel in the plane had been used up, Brown glided the plane back to the airfield.

In April 1945, Brown, on account of his fluent German, was asked to help with translation at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Allied interrogations of Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant of the camp and his assistant. Brown later wrote ‘Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine’, adding that Grese was ‘the worst human being I have ever met’.

Brown also interviewed many Germans including Hermann Göring, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft designers. But the interviews were brief, his part was limited to aviation matters, due to the need to begin the Nuremburg Trials. He was present at the interrogation of Heinrich Himmler, head of the entire Nazi police force including the Gestapo, who, under forged papers, had called himself Henrich Hitzinger.


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greater spotted woodpecker, drumming noise, woodland

The loud call or distinctive ‘drumming’ display of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, particularly in Spring, ensures that woodlands are not free of noise.

If you were asked where the quietest place in Britain was, what would be your answer? You might say it all depends. Where there is least noise? Where there are no sounds of human activity? Are caves or disused mines included? But what about the weather; it can be noisy anywhere. The wind, the rain, and storms. And the sea is not silent, with the slamming of the waves against the cliffs. Neither is wildlife quiet, especially the screeching and chirping of birds. If you allow for the sounds of nature and look for places far away from human activity, then there must be hundreds of places in the highlands of Scotland that would qualify, and the same goes for a lesser number of places in mid-Wales, RAF training flights allowing. No, the quietest place must be all about remoteness from the racket made by us humans, and that must include flight paths of civil aircraft. If the highlands of Scotland and much of mid-Wales are excepted, then finding the quietest spot in crowded England might be more of a challenge.

anechoic chamber, salford university, quietest room

The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, a room within a room built on rubber springs, is lined from floor to ceiling with soft foam wedges which absorb any vibrations in the air.

The quietest place ought also to be somewhere that can be visited, that isn’t private or unduly dangerous. So the further reaches of the many cave systems or abandoned mines in Britain should be discounted. And deadly silent man-made places such as the University of Salford’s ‘anechoic’ chamber (meaning non-reflective of sound), which is so quiet that you can hear the sound of your blood circulating in your head, or the quiet room at the British Standard Institute laboratories in Hemel Hempstead, where apparently fire alarms are tested; these places surely don’t qualify.

Mapping Tranquility

In March 2005, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a report Mapping Tranquility that sought to define and identify not the quietest places, which as discussed above, are not what they seem, but the places which were the most tranquil. England was divided into 500m by 500m squares and each square was given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquillity. It was hoped that this ambitious project would help safeguard the English countryside from future development. The top ten factors that people said represented tranquillity were:

1. Seeing a natural landscape
2. Hearing birdsong
3. Hearing peace and quiet
4. Seeing natural looking woodland
5. Seeing the stars at night
6. Seeing streams
7. Seeing the sea
8. Hearing natural sounds
9. Hearing wildlife
10. Hearing running water

As a result of the survey, the CPRE in 2006 created a national tranquillity map based on the 500m by 500m squares, and they said that the most tranquil place in England was in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. But the exact spot was kept secret, to keep it tranquil.

You can download the tranquillity map here, and see what else the CPRE has to say about tranquil places here.

The Most Tranquil Place

kielder mires, quietest place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is a map of the approximate location of the Kielder Mires National Nature Reserve, in which, somewhere, lies the ‘quietest place in England’. © Ordnance Survey

However since then, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics Engineering from the same Salford University, and a presenter of many popular science documentaries on television and radio, has gone to England’s most tranquil spot. The CPRE told Professor Cox which 500m by 500m square in the Kielder Forest had been identified as the spot, and he went there, trekking along forester’s tracks and wading through a mile and a half of peat bog.

In January 2014, the most tranquil place in England was described as a hillock in the Kielder Mires, two hours walking distance from the nearest human settlement, a Victorian grouse shooting lodge, and ten miles from the village of Gisland. As well as its distance from human habitation, the distance of the place from flight paths, was a key factor in making it the most tranquil spot.

The Kielder Mires 

bellcrag flow, border mires, peatland, most tranquil place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is Bellcrag Flow, one of the border mires in the southern part of Kielder Forest, typical of what you might see in the ‘most tranquil place in England’. Border Mires are areas of peatland up to 10 metres deep which have developed on the site of shallow lakes since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. © Les Hull / Creative Commons Licence

The Kielder Mires are formed of two deep peat mires known as Grain Heads Moss and Coom Rigg Moss. The mires are part of a collection of more than 50 recognised peat bodies known as the Border Mires which are mostly located within the boundaries of Kielder Forest. These blanket mires are rare globally, as they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing. The mires in Kielder are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations. For these reasons the Kielder Mires been designated as a National Nature Reserves (NNR), a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site, that is wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty signed in 1971.

So Professor Cox became the first person to knowingly visit this most peaceful spot, though humans must have struggled through the mires unknowingly many times over the last 10,000 or more years. Later, Cox wrote in his book Sonic Wonderland – A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, that ‘I had previously thought of asking the CPRE if I could publish the location of the quietest place, but I realised this would be a bad idea’.

But in the 1950s, something was going on less than six miles away that had the potential to shatter the peace of the Kielder Mires.


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imitation game, alan turing, benedict cumberbatch, bletchley parkThe Golden Globes and the BAFTAs are behind us, and the Academy Awards ceremony for the best films in 2014 will be held this Sunday 22 February. Leading with the way with the most nominations for an Oscar are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel with nine nominations each, followed by The Imitation Game with eight nominations.

I saw The Imitation Game and I thought it was a stirring and persuasive film, particularly its portrayal of the last few years of the life of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing following his prosecution in 1952 for homosexual acts, and his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954. However the statement in the film credits that the film was ‘based on the true story’ stretched the claim to the limits of its meaning. There were so many inaccuracies in the film, particularly those that served to exalt Alan Turing’s role in the Second World War to quite ridiculous heights – as if that should have been necessary considering his genius and pivotal role – that the film is a sad distortion of history. For the film to have received eight nominations, including that for best picture and best adapted screenplay, says a lot about the superficiality of our emotions and our disregard for the truth. The quote from Mark Twain ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better’ is most apt, and The Imitation Game is a dashing good story.

Bletchley Park and Ultra

bletchley park, mi6, gc&cs

The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ at Bletchley Park in August 1938 was the cover for a visit by members of MI6 to see whether it would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence work by GC&CS.

The Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing played a key role in the allied victory in the Second World War in the cracking of German radio messages, or signals, which had been enciphered using Enigma machines. This decipherment yielded high-grade German military intelligence, dubbed Ultra, from ‘ultra secret’, which had a dramatic impact on the course and duration of the war. (Strictly speaking when one letter is substituted by another to make a message secret, it is a cipher, not a code, which is when letters or symbols are used to mean whole words or phrases. Therefore when codes or code breaking are spoken of it is usually ciphers and decipherment that are being referred to).

Turing started working part-time at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire in September 1938. Bletchley Park was the central site during the war of the government’s secret code and cipher school (GC&CS). Every one of the 12,000 staff who had ever worked at some point at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and the government continued to enforce their silence long after the war was over. This was mainly because Britain’s code-breaking success had to remain secret during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but also because Enigma machines were still in use around the world and Britain wanted to be able to read this signals traffic. Therefore the relatives of the staff at Bletchley Park never knew more than that they had done some kind of secret war work, or were told a cover story about clerical or statistical work. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the war referred to the staff at Bletchley as ‘The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’. It was only with the publication of Frederick Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret in 1974, some thirty years later, that the public began to learn of the secret of Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game

alan turing, cambridge university, universal computing machine, turing machine

In 1936, Alan Turing (23 June 1912–7 June 1954) was a shy, eccentric student at Cambridge University, but he conceived in his ‘universal computing machine’ the basic principle of the modern computer, that is, controlling the machine’s operations by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computer’s memory.

In the film, the Second World War has just broken out, and the British intelligence agency in September 1939 recruits Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing to join a team at Bletchley Park who are attempting to decipher Enigma messages sent by the German military, that cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. Turing wants to build a machine to help crack the messages, but the head of Bletchley Park, Commander Alastair Denniston opposes this. Turing appeals to Winston Churchill for funding and is put in charge of the team. Turing sacks two members of the team, and recruits Joan Clarke, with whom he subsequently becomes engaged.

Turing successfully builds the machine – which he names Christopher after one of his childhood friends – that deciphers the messages. The deciphered messages, called Ultra, are used by the team to warn Britain’s armed forces of Germany’s detailed war plans, thus shortening the war. Some years after the war, Turing is prosecuted for indecency (at a time when homosexual acts were illegal) and he accepts chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He deteriorates physically and mentally with few people knowing of his crucial role.

The screenplay was written by American screenwriter and author, Graham Moore and was said to be based on the 527 page biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. The main characters in the film and the actors who played them are Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), and the other members of the team, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and Jack Good (James Northcote).

So what was wrong historically with the screenplay?

Characters in the Film

Turing’s social difficulties – he is brusque, arrogant and narcissistic, he doesn’t understand jokes, he avoids eye contact – are exaggerated in the film to the point of depicting him as being on the autistic spectrum. While it is true that Turing had his share of eccentricities, Turing had friends and was viewed as having a sense of humour with good working relationships with colleagues.

gordon welchman, cryptanalyst, alan turing, bletchley park, bombes

Like Turing, Gordon Welchman decrypted German messages, and they both worked on the re-design of the code-breaking machines called Bombes, but Welchman doesn’t appear in the film.

Hugh Alexander plays Turing’s boss at the start of the film, though he never was in real life. Turing joined Bletchley Park in 1938 before the outbreak of war and Alexander didn’t arrive until 1940 as until then he was head of the John Lewis research department. A better counterpart to Turing would have been Gordon Welchman, who was in charge of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park breaking German army codes, when Turing was in charge of Hut 8 breaking German naval codes. The two also worked together designing the code-breaking machines, called Bombes. But Welchman doesn’t appear in the film perhaps because Turing would not then appear so pre-eminent. Turing did not get involved in organisational matters at Bletchley Park. Welchman was the man who realised the necessity of setting up staff into three shifts to handle intercepts 24 hours a day. Hugh Alexander eventually took over the running of Hut 8 from Turing, and eventually became head of cryptanalysis at Bletchley.

Turing originally worked on the naval Enigma on his own and he does break it. He was joined by Tony Kendrick and Peter Twinn, who are not featured. Clarke, Alexander, Good and Hilton only joined later, in that order.

The film sets up Denniston, the operational head of Bletchley, as an antagonist to Turing, portraying him as an overbearing rigid officer bound by military thinking and eager to shut down the decryption machine when it failed to deliver results. Denniston’s grandchildren have said that the film takes an ‘unwarranted sideswipe’ at their grandfather in showing him as a ‘baddy’. He was a gentle man with a completely different temperament than the one portrayed in the film. There is no record of the film’s depicted interactions between Turing and Denniston.


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The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said in 1905 ‘those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it’. This concise thought (or aphorism) has been much quoted and has been re-phrased as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’. The meaning then is that one should look back in history to see the mistakes that were made and avoid repeating them.

But like many subjects such as science, sociology, archaeology and so on, facts are open to interpretation, and in the case of history, it is the job of the historian to research the facts and put forward an argument for the whys and wherefores of events from the past. But what if the facts themselves are distorted? Does this diminish the worth of history? Two quite different instances come to mind, of how history can be twisted.

first world war, joan littlewood, richard attenborough, musical film, satire, music hall, tommies

Oh! What a Lovely War was a musical film directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the stage musical of the same name developed by Joan Littlewood as a satire on the First World War at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. The title was a popular music hall song written originally in 1917. Many of the songs were the witty and cynical ones sung by British soldiers, ‘Tommies’, during the war. The film was released in 1969 and the cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article about the First World War published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove wrote of the government’s efforts to restore the importance of history in the school curriculum and give children ‘a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.’ and in referring to the war he said that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. He said:

‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled   Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

In particular Gove criticised Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian, for arguing that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think that they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom.Gove argued that whilst the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, it was a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the aggressively expansionist war aims of Germany and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. He said that it was also a noble cause, that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order. Gove added that:

‘Evans’ case is more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

Unfortunately Gove in acting as the scholar shows his ignorance of history and his own preference for myth-making. In saying that the war was a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, which was ‘fought by men to defend the western liberal order’, he forgets that one of Britain’s main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, whose brutal autocracy was far more ruthless than that of Germany’s authoritarian Kaiser Wilhelm. And what was the western liberal order? Germany was certainly more democratic electorally than Britain. 40% of adult males in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918, whereas every adult man in Germany had the right to vote since before the start of the conflict, and the largest political party, the Social Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed annexations and the militarism of the German elites.

british empire, queen victoria, global power, london, exploitation, first world war

This map shows the British Empire in 1901 on the death of Queen Victoria. By this time, Britain had been the foremost global power for more than a century and London was the economic capital of the world. This was derived in large measure from the exploitation of the natural resources and cheap labour in its colonies. The empire reached its largest territorial extent in 1922, though because of the impact of the First World War it was no longer the only major industrial or military power.

The German elite was certainly expansionist, they envied Britain and France with their vast colonies overseas. By the early 1900s, Britain had become the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. It was ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Germany wanted its ‘place in the sun’. But were these British colonies, dominions, protectorates, and mandates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. For example, in the period 1896-97, about five million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain. In the period 1901-02 in British concentration camps in South Africa, 28,000 Boer people died from starvation, 22,000 of them children, which is about 10 per cent of the Boer population, and about 20,000 black people died in other camps. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in south-east Asia became part of French Indochina between 1887 and 1893, France’s motive being to exploit the countries’ resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations, with millions of people forced to work long hours for wages that were pitifully small in debilitating conditions for the benefit of their French overlords. Up until the First World War, and beyond, thousands upon thousands of native people died through malnutrition and disease on the plantations.


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Bob’s your uncle

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is a typically English phrase not heard that often these days. It’s something that you say after you have explained how to do something, to emphasize that it will be simple and successful eg. ‘You put the plug in here, press that switch, and Bob’s your uncle’ or ‘Just put on the stain remover, leave it for an hour and Bob’s your uncle, the stain’s gone’.

There are a number of theories as to where it comes from, but no one is sure of its origin. Here are the most plausible three.

lord salisbury, prime minister, bob's your uncle, queen victoria, king edward VII

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative politician, was Prime Minister three times during the reigns of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is often said to derive from the supposed nepotism of the 20th Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury – family name Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil – who appointed a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s. Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, but his early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work. Incidentally, by 1900, Salisbury’s cabinet was nicknamed ‘Hotel Cecil’ reflecting his aloofness and its aristocratic composition, a number of whom were relatives. Hence having an Uncle Bob was a passport to a good job. Since the very word nepotism derives from the Italian word for nephew, the association here seems more than apt.

Unfortunately, the phrase isn’t recorded until at least the 1920s, and if public indignation at Lord Salisbury’s actions had been great enough to provoke creation of the saying, why didn’t it appear the newspapers, or in a satirical magazine of the time such as Punch?

Another possible, but less exciting, theory has it that it derives from an old slang phrase ‘all is bob’ meaning that ‘all is well’, everything is safe. This goes back to the 17th century and it is listed in a dictionary of the time. From the 18th century on, ‘bob’ was also a common name for somebody you didn’t know. Though these may have contributed to the genesis of the phrase, there seems little reason to connect them to ‘Bob’s your uncle’ other than that they both contain the word ‘bob’.

The third possible source is the music hall. There is record in a newspaper of a musical revue at the King’s Theatre in Dundee, Scotland, called Bob’s Your Uncle in June 1924.  And the expression was in the lyrics of a song  Follow Your Uncle Bob published in 1931, which was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde, a celebrated music hall artiste.

Though we can’t be sure, given the difficulty with the first two, this classically English expression may well be Scottish, and derive not from 10 Downing Street but from Dundee.

Tail-end Charlie

rear gun turret, tail end charlie, raf, bomber aircraft, second world war

The rear gun turret of a RAF bomber of the Second World War. The turret was made of Perspex and metal, and could rotate through 180 degrees. Once in the turret at the beginning of a mission, the gunner stayed there until the aircraft returned to base.

Likewise ‘Tail-end Charlie’ is not heard much these days. It referred to the gunner that was in a gun turret at the rear of RAF bomber aircraft in the Second World War. He had the unenviable role of being holed up in the ‘tail’ of the bomber for up to ten lonely hours fighting intense cold, scanning the sky’s for enemy aircraft attacking from the rear. The rear-turret gunners were in the most vulnerable position on the plane. The life expectancy of a Second World War rear gunner varied but was never high, mostly about just five sorties (missions).


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Like the London Underground, the Paris Métro has its share of interesting or unusual station names: Campo-Formio, Dupleix, Europe, Glacière, Invalides, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, Malesherbes, Oberkampf, Poissonnière, Pyramides, Rome, Stalingrad. The names of historic figures or battles are far more common than they are in London. Are the French more international in outlook and do they have a greater sense of history than we have in Britain? Authors, intellectuals, revolutionaries, military men, and even scientists, are prominent. There is a station for Robespierre but no station for Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc).

pont de passy, seine, bir-hakeim, battle, free french

In 1948, the Pont de Passy over the Seine was re-named Pont de Bir-Hakeim to commemorate the Battle of Bir-Hakeim, fought by Free French forces in Libya in 1942. Bir-Hakeim métro station is off-camera to the right

In you have ever been to Paris, you will likely have been to the Eiffel Tower. And if you have gone there or left there by metro, you will have used the elevated station close to the left bank of the Seine that is nearest to the tower: Bir-Hakeim. In fact the sign on the station walls says ‘Bir-Hakeim – Tour Eiffel’. It’s an unusual name. Is it the name of an Arab leader? To me it has the feel of Egypt or somewhere else in the Middle East about it. Well it is the name of an abandoned oasis in the Libyan desert in north Africa, the former site of a Turkish fort located at the crossroad of Bedouin paths. But to France it is the place where its pride was restored after its humiliating defeat by Nazi Germany in June 1940 in the Second World.

bir-hakeim, paris métro, battle, free french, france

This plaque at Bir-Hakeim métro station translates ‘At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has never ceased fighting’

For fifteen days in 1942, a Free French force of 3,700 soldiers under General Marie Pierre Koenig and vastly outnumbered by 45,000 attacking German and Italian forces led by General Erwin Rommel, defended the site from 26 May to 11 June. This allowed the retreating British Eighth Army to escape the annihilation that Rommel had planned, and to gain time to reorganize and subsequently halt the Axis advance at the First Battle of El Alamein in July. The full story of the battle can be read here. Koenig’s report after the battle said that 1,200 men were killed, wounded or were missing. (more…)

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earth's rotation, coriolis effect, clockwise, anti-clockwise, atmosphere, ocean, hemisphere

Due to the earth’s rotation, the Coriolis force deflects the atmosphere, oceans, and large objects on the surface of the Earth in an anti-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere

You may have heard that water flowing down the plug hole in a sink or bath always swirls anti-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, and that this is due to the Coriolis effect.

The Coriolis effect (or Coriolis force) was first postulated by the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis in relation to the behaviour of water wheels in 1835, but so far as the Earth is concerned, it is the deflection of the atmosphere and the oceans, and large objects on the surface of the Earth, due to the earth’s rotation around its axis. Cyclones, and jet streams in the upper atmosphere, are two of the more obvious phenomena caused by the Coriolis effect, but the effect also causes certain types of waves to form in the oceans. However because the earth spins relatively slowly, the apparent force that its rotation generates only becomes significant over large distances or long periods of time.

paris gun, first world war, bombardment, coriolis effect, trajectory

In the First World War, the Paris Gun was used to bombard Paris from a range of about 120 km (75 miles). Because of the distance, the Coriolis effect had to be taken account of in the calculations of the trajectory.

The Coriolis effect became important in external ballistics for calculating the trajectories of very long-range artillery shells. The most famous historical example was the Paris gun, used by the Germans during the First World War to bombard Paris in 1918 from a range of about 120 km (75 miles). The distance was so far that the Coriolis effect was substantial enough to affect trajectory calculations. Incidentally, the shells of the gun reached a height of 40 kilometers (25 miles, 131,000 ft) and were the first man-made objects to reach the stratosphere.

However, the direction in which water flows down a plug hole is not influenced by the Coriolis effect, which is tens of thousands of times weaker than other factors such as the existing disturbance in the water, the angular momentum that causes the initial vortex, and the shape of the bowl.

bart simpson, anti-clockwise, coriolis effect

Bart Simpson notices that the water flows down the toilet in an anti-clockwise direction

Despite this, popular entertainment has maintained interest in the Coriolis effect. Bart vs. Australia, the sixteenth episode of the sixth season of The Simpsons, starts with Bart Simpson noticing that the water in his bathroom sink always drains anti-clockwise (counterclockwise in the USA). Bart does not believe Lisa, his sister, who explains that this is due to Coriolis effect, and that in the southern hemisphere the water drains the other way round. To confirm this, Bart makes phone calls to various countries in the southern hemisphere, ending up with a call to Australia. Here a little boy, who lives in the outback, confirms, having also checked with his neighbours, that the toilets and sinks are all draining clockwise. The plot continues with Bart being sued by the boy’s father for the cost of his six-hour ‘collect’ call, with Australia indicting Bart for fraud, the USA wanting to send him to prison to placate the Australian government, Bart having to make a public apology in Australia, and so on.

However in 1962, Ascher Shapiro, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, USA, was able to demonstrate the Coriolis effect on draining water, and this was later repeated by scientists in Sydney, Australia.  But this was only achieved by using a perfectly circular bath 1.8m in diameter  and 15cm deep, and by allowing the water to stand for 24 hours so that any currents from filling would die down. A small outlet, on the outside, meant that the water took about half an hour to drain away. Under these conditions, the Boston researcher reported a tendency for water to swirl anti-clockwise (viewed from above), whilst the scientists in Sydney described seeing water swirling clockwise.

So to observe the Coriolis effect at home, you would need a large but shallow circular bath, and one that’s not affected by any vibration or disturbance, as well as plenty of time.

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