Archive for the ‘Heroes’ 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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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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dr richard beeching, british railways board, reshaping of british railways, railway line closures

Dr Richard Beeching, former ICI director and first Chairman of the British Railways Board, holding his 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways. Beeching had not been asked to look into the social and economic value of the railways, but to find the means to make the railways pay.

In March 1963, a report The Reshaping of British Railways written by Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Rail, was published by the then British Railways Board. The report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of railway line for closure, that is 55% of stations and 30% of route miles, with the objective of stemming the large losses being incurred during a period of increasing competition from road transport.

This was at a time when roads and cars were the future; rails and trains were the past. And it didn’t help that the Transport Minister in the Tory administration at the time, who had opened the first section of the M1 motorway in November 1959, and who appointed Beeching, was Ernest Marples. Marples was a businessman with rather too many fingers in an ever-meatier road construction pie, being previously managing director of the road construction firm Marples Ridgway. By the bye, even though his department was awarding road building contracts to his ‘old’ firm, he still held shares in the company until he was forced to sell them, but he sold them, in secret, to his wife. His political career came to a bizarre end in 1975 when pursued by the taxman, Marples did a flit to Monaco by the Night Ferry owing the Inland Revenue £10 million.

The cuts in the network were driven by a mistaken hypothesis: that cutting the network sufficiently would yield a ‘profitable railway’. But British Railways had little real information as to where its costs were actually being incurred; a large share of which were interest charges and a sizeable bureaucracy. Further, the branch lines that were closed had been feeder routes for the remaining main lines, and traffic on these lines fell disastrously. In the four years following the Beeching report, the route mileage of the railways fell from 14,000, to 11,000 in 1967 (though since 1950 about 3,100 miles had already been closed), but the cuts failed to achieve their objective, and BR’s losses continued to increase.

british railway network, dr richard beeching, railway line closures

This is what the BR network would have looked like by the 1980s, had a second phase of Beeching’s closures gone ahead. The faint lines are major through routes that would have closed. Creative Commons Licence/Cronholm144

Fresh thinking was urgently needed: how do you put the UK’s road and rail infrastructure on an equal financial footing and get long distance heavy freight traffic off the roads? However there was an anti-railway and pro-road culture amongst senior civil servants in the Department of Transport, which was headed by David Serpell, the Permanent Secretary. Reducing the costs of the railways by further cuts to the railway network were seen as the only answer. It was Serpell who much later in 1983 was to write an infamous report on railway finances for Margaret Thatcher, which included an infamous Option A, which would have cut the railway network to a mere 1,630 miles.

In 1968, Dr Stewart Joy, an Australian economist, was recruited to advise Barbara Castle, the Transport Minister in the Labour administration, on implementing a pro-rail policy of subsidising unprofitable railway lines. The Cambrian Coast Line which ran from Machynlleth in mid-Wales to Pwllheli in the north, and which had survived the Beeching cuts, had been selected as the first line to be looked at in a cost-benefit study of these unprofitable lines.

This is where Reginald Dawson, who in 1960 had been appointed a principal civil servant in the Ministry of Transport at the age of 38, comes into the story.

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In the Independent today, there’s a story of a supermarket checkout assistant at the Sainsbury’s Crayford store in south-east London being ‘hailed as a heroine after striking a blow for modern manners by refusing to serve a shopper who was talking on her phone’. Speaking after the incident, the shopper, Jo Clarke, a property manager, said about the checkout assistant ‘I couldn’t believe how rude she was. When did she have the right to give me a lecture on checkout etiquette? I won’t be shopping there again. I’ll go to Waitrose instead’

Not suprisingly, Sainsbury’s felt obliged to apologise to the customer saying that it was not company policy to refuse service to people on mobile phones, and gave Ms Clarke vouchers to compensate for her treatment. But social media sites and internet forums were enraged that the store had caved in, and the public appeared to be rallying round the checkout worker.

One could say a great deal about this incident, and its irony, but what struck me was the checkout assistant being hailed as a heroine.

Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, Postman's Park, City of London

Tablet erected in memory of Alice Ayres in the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, Little Britain, City of London.
This is one of 54 memorial tablets erected on a covered wall in the park, as a record of ordinary people who died saving the lives of others and who might otherwise have been forgotten.

A hero or heroine  in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, the son or daughter from one immortal and one mortal parent. Later, hero, or heroine, came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice – that is, heroism – for some greater good of all humanity. This definition originally referred to martial courage or excellence, but extended to more general moral excellence. In a dictionary, the first definition is invariably one that defines hero as a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life. But there are other definitions: someone who fights for a cause, someone who can be looked up to for their actions, a person noted for special achievement in a particular field, or who is idealized for possessing superior qualities in any field, or just someone who an individual admires or idolises very much. And of course the main character in a story, play, film, who is usually good, is often portrayed as a hero who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end.

Myself, I prefer the hero who is brave in the face of danger or adversity, who fights for a cause for the benefit of others, as opposed to someone who is successful in their field, or who has influence, wealth, or fame. In the latter case, musicians, singers, sports people, TV personalities, royalty, are often idolised by fans and commentators and described as heroes, as are some inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, unorthodox business people, and populist politicians. But to me, none of these groups are being brave in the face of danger or standing up for a cause with little regard for the consequences.

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Christine Granville, Polish-born, British Second World War secret agent

Christine Granville, Polish-born British WWII secret agent

Over 140 agents from the highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) died in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. The SOE was formed in July 1940 on the direct orders of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, who wanted a clandestine army ‘… to set Europe ablaze’. If captured, these agents faced severe interrogation, and possible torture and execution. Over 60 women served in the SOE.

In Kensal Green Cemetery in west London is the grave of one of the women who survived the war, Christine Granville (born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland), who became celebrated for her daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France. She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded, and began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville in 1941, a name she legally adopted on naturalisation as a British citizen in December 1946. Skarbek was one of the longest-serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents, and she was awarded the George Cross in 1944, and the Croix de Guerre in recognition of her contribution to the liberation of France.
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