May 4, 1943 Death by Chocolate

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

In a Spanish dictionary, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you’ll get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement, resulting in hideous infection to the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle, before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in a way that blew the face off the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line, connecting the swing of a door with a hidden grenade at your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move to get to it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped upon or moved in any way, can be rigged to mutilate the unwary, or kill. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but the “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war, he thought, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been a true leader of world-historical proportion, during the darkest days of the war.  To take the man out, just might cripple one of Hitler’s most virulent adversaries.

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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So it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister, by booby trapped chocolate placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German agents operating inside the United Kingdom were discovered by British spies, the information sent to MI5 senior intelligence chief, Lord Victor Rothschild.

Lord Rothschild, a scientist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family immediately grasped the importance of the information.  On this day in 1943, Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins:

“Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish went on to be a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his posters, “Laurence”.  Dozens of wartime drawings were quietly forgotten and left in a drawer, for seventy years.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses, meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now but his work lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.  Perhaps to be shown one day, in some public archive or museum.

Taken together, Laurence fish’s illustrations represent a precise and hand drawn record of an all but forgotten part of the most destructive war, in history.

 

Feature image, top of page:  Booby trapped “Bangers & Mash” tin,  compliments of Herr Hitler’s bomb makers.  H/T IrishTimes.com

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April 27, 1941 The Guinea Pig Club

The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

The attraction of taking flight in time of war is unmistakable.  For a lad of nineteen, twenty, twenty one, he is a latter-day knight at the prime of his life, mounting his steed of steel to do battle with evil.  Life seems indestructible and without end at that age, except, reality is shockingly different.  Of a group of 100 RAF airmen in the early phase of World War Two, a mere twenty escaped being killed, captured or incinerated alive.

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Flying Officer Desmond “Des” O’Connell was just nineteen when he joined the British Royal Air Force, in 1938.

O’Connell was assigned to RAF Limavady in the north of Ireland in the early months of World War Two, around the time the Capital Battleship Bismarck cleared the Kiel Canal and emerged into the Baltic Sea. On this day in 1941, Desmond O’Connell and six other flyers were assigned to find and take out the German warship.

The twin engine Whitworth Mark V ‘Whitley’ medium bomber never had a chance, overloaded as it was with extra crew, tanks full of fuel and bombs. The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and clipped the mountains outside of Limavady before striking the ground, and breaking apart.

Desmond O’Connell miraculously survived as did the rest of the crew, but his ordeal had just begun.  Soaked with fuel and suffering a skull fracture, he was crawling on his hands and knees when the fire caught up.   He remembers peering through the flames at his hands, as pieces came off of his gloves.  But those weren’t gloves.  The flesh was burning from his hands.

Archibald Hector McIndoe took to medicine at an early age, earning the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, at only 24. Dr. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and, unable to find work, joined in private practice with his great uncle, fellow Kiwi Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery by this time, made famous through his work in the Great War as “The Man who Fixed Faces“.

Dr. McIndoe was a talented surgeon:  confident, precise, and quick on his feet.  Under Harold Gillies’ direction, Archibald McIndoe became a leading figure in the field of plastic surgery.

With the outbreak of WW2, Dr. McIndoe took a position at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he headed up a center for plastic and maxillofacial surgery. A trickle of patients from the “Phoney War” period soon turned to a flood, during the Battle of Britain.

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The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

Dr. McIndoe treated no fewer than 649 of these men, not only Brits but Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.  There were Americans and French, Czechs and Poles.  Each man required dozens and sometimes hundreds of surgeries over agonizing years.  Sausage-like constructions of living flesh called “tubed pedicles” were “waltzed” up from remote donor sites on patient’s own bodies, to replace body parts consumed by the war.

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To be rendered hideous and unsightly in service to one’s nation, a subject of horrified stares, is more than most can bear.  McIndoe understood as much and his treatment methods threw convention, out the window.  Inmates were treated not as patients or objects of pity, but as men.  They wore not the ‘jammies or those degrading hospital johnnys with their asses hanging out but their own clothing, and even uniforms.  They had parties and socialized.  Those who were able went “out on the town”.  They were the “Guinea Pig Club”, they socialized, threw parties.  More than a few relationships were formed with nurses, many ended in marriage.

“Others met women from East Grinstead, a place the ‘guinea pigs’ referred to as ‘the town that never stared’”. H/T nzhistory.govt.nz

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Dr. McIndoe was knighted in 1947 and passed away at only fifty nine, but his work lives on in the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) for which he once served, as president.  The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, and continues to conduct research into new methods of wound management, to this day.

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The Guinea Pig Club turned seventy-five years old in 2016.  Most of those early RAF members are gone now, but the organization lives on.  Today, new members come from places like the Falkland islands.  And Iraq.  And Afghanistan.

 

Feature image, top of page:  A scene from the 2012 play “The Guinea Pig Club”, depicts the agonies of WW2-era RAF airmen, treated for severe burns

 

A Trivial Matter
“Until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters”. H/T HistoryExtra.com

April 25, 1915 ANZAC Day

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire. 

Europe was unprepared for what was to come in September 1939.  Wags called the eight months ending in May 1940 the ‘Phoney War”. The “Sitzkreig”. The outbreak of the “Great War” was different in August 1914, as war exploded across the European landmass. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four-day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23 only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons. In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity over the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War.

A million men were transported by all sides to the ancient textile town of Ypres, “Leper” to the Dutch and “Wipers” to the Tommies, for the purpose of killing each other.

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75,000 men from all sides lost their lives in the month-long apocalypse at Ypres while, all along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

With stalemate on the western front in early 1915, Allied powers considered opening an offensive in another theater. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Central powers by this time, against whom Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas was asking for help in the Caucasus. A Naval expedition was decided upon to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara and taking Turkey out of the war.

Despite misgivings, naval bombardment opened on the Dardanelles on February 19, 1915. A month of French and British shelling failed to force the straits and Allied planners fell back on amphibious invasion.  The table was set for the eight month disaster known as the battle of Gallipoli.

489,000 French and Commonwealth troops were fed into the abyss, including some sixty five thousand Australians and New Zealand forces collectively known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. or ANZACs.

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire.  Commonwealth forces fought heroically, thousands of individual stories including the famous “Six Before Breakfast”, pre-dawn actions leading to as many Victoria Crosses.   Despite all of it, the landing was a fiasco, stranding thousands of men, vehicles and vast quantities of stores on the beach.

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The traffic jam, was horrendous.  With the water behind them red with blood, ANZAC forces attempted to force the high ground despite determined fire from Turkish forces under Mustafa (Atatürk) Kemal.

A bold strike designed to knock the Ottomans out of the war became a stalemate, the blood soaked campaign dragging on for eight months.

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By the end of 1915, Commonwealth forces suffered some 302,000 casualties.  While the Gallipoli campaign made little difference in the course of the war, the actions of the ANZACs left a powerful legacy.    In time, this date became that rarest of days, a solemn day of remembrance shared by two sovereign nations, a part of the national identity of both countries.

With the beginning of WWII, ANZAC Day became a day to commemorate the lives of Australians and New Zealanders lost in all wars, the meaning of the date broadened to include those killed in all military operations in which the two nations have been involved.

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Gallipoli Landing, April 1915

ANZAC Day was first commemorated at the Australian War Memorial in 1942 but, due to government orders preventing large public gatherings in case of Japanese air attack, this was a small affair with neither march nor memorial service.

For the wounded, the dead and the maimed of that day one hundred four years ago today, ANZAC Day remains an occasion for solemn remembrance, from that day to this.

April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

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As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

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Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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March 27, 1794 Quasi War

On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

Imagine you consider yourself to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, national politics have shifted to the point you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution as such by your government.

And your personal convictions have never so much as wavered.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-’94 “Reign of Terror” alone, including King Louis XVI and Queen consort, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.

OSS-FrenchRevolutionMythsThe monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves in a state of war.

France was the American patriot’s strongest supporter during America’s revolution, yet the US remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “l’ancien régime”, not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it and executed its King.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships in the act of trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French 1st Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 American civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

In 1796, the French Republic formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, he who lends his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

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The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded money before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans blanched.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large “loan” to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” espoused by revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class enjoyed the chaos.  One British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on laughing from a nearby hilltop.

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Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, the failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date beginning the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.  Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

At this point, the United States had no other means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for purposes of customs enforcement.  On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

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American military involvement proved decisive.  Before armed intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost.  That one, was later recaptured.

By the turn of the century, the naval power of the English speaking nations brought about a more agreeable negotiating position with the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War, asserting American rights and ending the alliance with France.

The entangling French alliance of 1778, was dead.   The Napoleonic Wars would be fought entirely on European soil.

 

A Trivial Matter
Between 1803 and 1812, the Royal Navy’s manpower needs greatly exceeded voluntary enlistment.  5,000 to 9,000 American sailors were forcibly “impressed” (kidnapped) into service, becoming a major casus belli for the war of 1812.

February 21, 1431 Joan of Arc

History has a way of demonstrating the truth of Taylor Owen’s adage on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.”

The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, pitting an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs, on the other.

Europe was not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death at this time, as the scorched earth tactics employed by the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.

Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.

For the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet, this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield achievements. Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help Charles gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.

The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. She dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.

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History has a way of demonstrating the truth of Taylor Owen’s adage on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days after Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.

Time after time, Jeanne found herself excluded from war councils.  Yet she managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and achieving one victory after another.

Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French.  Jeanne herself was shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles.  The Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon. The French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.

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Several more Armagnac victories followed. On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne at his side.

Despite her loyalty, Charles’ support began to falter.  Court favorite Georges de La Trémoille convinced the King that Jeanne was becoming too powerful. An archer pulled her from her horse during the siege of Compiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.

The town gates closed, leaving Jeanne on the outside.  She was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.

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Some 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man.

The judge’s representatives were dispatched to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations. Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”.

This Bishop Cauchon must have been some piece of work. The report so angered the man, he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.

Joan_of_arc_interrogationJean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.
Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated. Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.

Here’s an example from Jeanne’s third interrogation: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”  The question was a trap. Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her. “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

After fifteen such interrogations, Jeanne’s inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined. She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold. Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.

joanstilkestakeThe death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.

When the fire died, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body. No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more, so no one could collect the relics. Her ashes were then cast into a river.

Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled: “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”

Her executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said he “Greatly feared to be damned”.
An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, later declaring her a Christian martyr.

Jean d'Arc execution

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920. It was small consolation for this child who had been set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

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February 14, 1945 Firestorm

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path. 

The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German armed forces spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.

Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April, if the major cities to the east were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”

With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.

Dresden_montage
Long described as “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a treasure of art and architecture.

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience, of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained but forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star, he was forced to wear on his coat. It was now Victor’s task to hand out official letters, ordering those who remained to report for “deportation”. There wasn’t one among them, who didn’t understand what that meant.

Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).  The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden, would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.

dresden-bombing (2)

The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators, their red glare providing something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came 200,000 incendiary or “fire bombs”.

This thing was just getting started.

dresden

The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations, were getting underway.  By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air.  You could see it from the air, for five hundred miles.

That’s when another 529 Lancasters, dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons, of bombs.

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.  A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires.  Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and back into the flames.

Lothar Metzger was ten at the time.  He brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.

dresden-bombing (3)

For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known.  Refugees and military forces in the tens of thousands were streaming through the area at this point in the war.  Estimates range as high as 200,000.  The number if true, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.

360-degree-panorama-display-depicting-city-dresden-aftermath-allied-firebombing
360° panoramic view of Dresden, following allied firebombing.  H/T International Business Times
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