June 22, 1807 The Chesapeake-Leopard affair

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”


The Napoleonic Wars took place between 1799 and 1815, pitting a series of seven international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée.  The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with both sides.  Within a ten-year period, the fledgling United States had become one of the world’s largest neutral shippers.

In 1807, two third-rate French warships were penned up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blockaded by a number of English warships outside of the harbor.

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The American frigate, USS Chesapeake

London born Jenkin Ratford was an English sailor who deserted the British Navy and defected to the neutral United States.  This story might have ended better for him had he not run his mouth, but that wasn’t this guy.  Ratford couldn’t resist taunting British officers, boasting of his escape to the “land of liberty”

The USS Chesapeake was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise with Ratford aboard when she emerged from Norfolk, Virginia.  Her decks were laden with supplies and stores of every kind and her guns, unwisely stored.  Chesapeake was nowhere near combat ready when she was approached by the HMS Leopard on June 22.

The Chesapeake’s commander, Commodore James Barron, was unconcerned when Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, asked permission to board.  Lieutenant John Meade of Her Majesty’s Navy presented Barron with a search warrant.  Barron declined to submit, and the officer returned to the Leopard.

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Humphreys then used a hailing trumpet and ordered the American ship to comply, to which Barron responded “I don’t hear what you say”. Humphreys then fired two rounds across Chesapeake’s bow, followed immediately by four broadsides.

Chesapeake fired only a single shot before striking colors and surrendering.  Humphreys refused the surrender and boarded, taking Ratford and three American born sailors with them when they left.

There was but token resistance, and yet the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” left three American crewmembers dead, and 18 wounded.

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

The English court found all four guilty of desertion and hanged Ratford by the fore yardarm of his former vessel, HMS Halifax.  The three Americans, David Martin, John Strachan, and William Ware, were sentenced to 500 lashes.

With the puny American navy deployed to the Mediterranean to check the Barbary pirates, President Jefferson’s options were limited to economic retaliation.  The Embargo Act of 1807 intended to extract concessions from France and Great Britain, instead had the effect of imposing crippling setbacks on some industries, while others railed against government interference in the private economy.  Many conclude that the only solution, lay in violence.

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Political cartoon depicting merchants harassed cursing the “Ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment,  amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships.  In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

Despite being wounded, Barron was blamed for the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair”.  A court-martial suspended him from service for five years, without pay.   Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the presiding officers at the court-martial. In 1820, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, killing his fellow Commodore over his comments concerning the 1807 incident.

Undergoing a refit in Boston Harbor in 1813, USS Chesapeake was challenged to single combat by Captain Philip Broke, commanding the British frigate HMS Shannon.

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United States Naval Captain James Lawrence was eager to comply, confident in the wake of a number of American victories in single-ship actions.

It was a Big mistake.

All of Boston turned out that June day, to watch the fight.  Cheers went out across the docks and from scores of private vessels across Boston Harbor, as Chesapeake slipped her moorings and glided out of the harbor.

Boston authorities reserved dock space in expectation of a prize.  The arrival of a captured British frigate, was a foregone conclusion. Rooftops, hills and trees from Lynn to Malden and Cohasset to Scituate were crowded with spectators, come to watch the show.

The tale of the Battle of Boston Harbor must be a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that USS Chesapeake ended her career as the British frigate HMS Chesapeake, before being sold for scrap, in 1819.  Two-hundred years later, the ship’s timbers live on.  Part of the Chesapeake Mill in the historic village of Wickham, in Hampshire, England.

A Trivial Matter: British manpower needs expanded exponentially following defeat at the battle of Saratoga and impending hostilities with Napoleonic France. Regular army enlistment swelled from 48,000 to 110,000. The Recruiting Acts of 1778 and 1779 alike reaffirmed the necessity of impressment. Some recruits went so far as to chop off their own thumb and forefinger of the right hand making it impossible to handle musket or sword, to avoid impressment.

June 18, 1815 Waterloo

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but he made the same mistake that Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset. General Winter.

For months Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered Moscow itself in September, with the Russian winter right around the corner. He expected capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

Grand Armee Retreat from Moscow

Finally there was no choice for the Grand Armée, but to turn about and go home. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman River on June 24. By mid-December there were fewer than 70,000 known survivors.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King, Louis VXIII. That would last 111 days, until Napoleon reappeared at the head of another army.

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The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815.  Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his rule.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under the Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

Waterloo, Chateau

It rained all day and night that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon while Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of Napoleon’s grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge.

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Fighting was furious around Wellington’s forward bastions, the walled stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haie Sainte on his left.  Eight times, French infantry swarmed over the orchards and outbuildings of the stone farmhouses, only to be beat back.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most of the French reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. 9,000 horsemen in 67 squadrons charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

Waterloo_Cavalry

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000-man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never before defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

Infantry Square

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver and then fall back.  Retreat broke into a route, someone shouting “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannonballs fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the leg. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was complete. Bonaparte was once again captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  He died there in 1821.

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million, at a time when the entire world population was about 980 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

May 4, 1943 Counter Measures

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities.

In the Spanish language, 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. Like the common mess tin at the top of this page, modified to mangle or kill the unsuspecting soldier. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you 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 result in hideous infection for the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle…just 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 such a way as to blow off the face 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 connected the swing of a door with a hidden grenade, by 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 over to get it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. 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 an “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 the man believed, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a true leader of world-historical proportion during the darkest days, of the war.  Taking the man out just might cripple one of Hitler’s most potent adversaries.

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

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Churchill was known to have a sweet tooth and so it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister. A booby trapped chocolate bar 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 saboteurs were discovered operating inside the UK, the information sent to British Intelligence.

Lord Victor Rothschild was a trained biologist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family. During WW2, British Intelligence recruited him to work for MI5, heading up a three-member explosives and counter-sabotage unit. Rothschild immediately grasped the importance of the information and the need to illustrate Nazi devices to communicate, with other intelligence officers. 

We live in an age when computers are commonplace but that wasn’t the case, in 1943. ENIAC, the first electronic computer wouldn’t come around yet, for another two years. Photoshop was definitely out of the picture and yet, high quality illustrations were needed and quickly, and they had to come from a trusted source. Donald Fish, one of Rothschild’s two colleagues, had just the man. His son.

On this day in 1943, Lord 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 would one day become a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his work, “Laurence”. 

From the pen and ink technical drawings of the war years to the brightly colored travel posters of his post-war career, Laurence Fish was a gifted and versatile artist.

In 1943 that was all for some time in an unknown future, a time when dozens of wartime drawings were quietly left in a drawer and forgotten, for seventy years. For now a world had a war to win and Laurence Fish, played a part.

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 and his name all but forgotten 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. Thanks to her we can see this forgotten piece of history in her husband’s work, last shown in an exhibition last year over the weekend of September 18 – 19.

And a good thing it is. The man has earned the right to be remembered.

March 24, 1944 The Great Escape

“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability”. Group Captain Ramsey (played by James Donald), senior British officer at the prisoner of war camp in the 1963 film The Great Escape, addressing the German commandant.

Stalag Luft III in the province of Lower Silesia was a German POW camp, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 US Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

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Model of the set used to film the movie The Great Escape

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound, while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike. Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.  There was no shoring of the tunnel, except at the entrance.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

Harry

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.  Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Roger Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in WWII history. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with 200.

Vintage KLIM Powdered Whole Milk tin can - circa 1940

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Six hundred prisoners were involved in the construction.  200 with sacks sewn under greatcoats made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, disposing of soil as Tom, Dick and Harry were excavated.  30′ down and only 2 ft. square, the three tunnels extended outward for a football field and more.

These “penguins” were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” originally planned exit point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  73 years ago – March 24,  1944.

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Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point none were left in camp.

The escape was doomed, almost from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse had to be repaired.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  It was over when guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground.

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

Harry Entrance

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  two Norwegian and one Dutch pilot.  Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were carried out.  

General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  He was later involved with the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and executed on March 21, 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the war.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

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Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, he said he was fairly certain he’d been passed over for execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Today, Dick Churchill, age 97, is the only man among those 76, still left alive.

January 31, 1918 The Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in. The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

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Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, only one of which ever caused damage to a German U-boat, and that was a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

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HMS Fearless

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 men.

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage along with the Scout Cruiser, HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February 5 and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

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The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and to deprive the propaganda bonanza, to the Germans. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story had passed on.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years before there wasn’t a German, in sight.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Just the black and forlorn humor, of men at war.

January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

December 24, 1814 I’ll have the Miss Piggott Special

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Infamous “crimps” like James “Shanghai” Kelly were happy to help, with both problems.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

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“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling away the groom. I can’t imagine the bride was too pleased but, good news. In 1835 the practice was limited to a single impressment per man with a maximum term of impressment, of five years.

Such “pressing” often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

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The American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a casus belli for the war of 1812, a conflict ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed this day, in 1814.

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Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping men to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You also didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Today the area from North Beach to Jackson Square in San Francisco, is ‘Frisco’s’ Chinatown. During the Gold Rush era this was the infamous Barbary Coast, a raucous red-light district of taverns and whorehouses where fewer left, than than ever came in.

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Happy to help with both problems James “Shanghai” Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house on the Barbary Coast. This character once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath and widely publicized a free booze cruise, to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

The Laurel & Hardy short film “Live Ghost” (1934) is about the practice, of crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold them all for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

Crimping 3, Bunko Kelley
James “Bunko” Kelley

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued well into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

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San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, also happened to be, a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. This “ferocious old harridan” would maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door and serve them her “Miss Piggott Special,” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with either laudanum, or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall to the waiting mattress, below.

(From left) Colonel Jack Gamble, Miss Piggott and Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday June 18, 2014. (photo by Beck Diefenbach / Madam Tussauds)

Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided that thing at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, if you’re ever at Miss Piggott’s place. Look out for that trap door.

December 1, 2013 The First Full Day of Forever

Something sacred and wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it, at the time.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the end of World War One. Before they had numbers. “The Great War”. The “War to end all Wars”. There is barely a piece of 20th century history, you cannot trace back to that conflict.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would be no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would remain in this alternative universe, mere fields. The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would today run all of China, and not some communist cabal.

In Flanders Fields

The modern boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife are nothing new those conditions would exist in a very different form, if not for those boundaries.

World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in human history (WWI ranks only number 5), was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.

He was off, by something like 36 days.

It’s hard to know how any of us can be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, how we can know where we want the country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been. It’s a principle reason to study, history. It’s why I believe something wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it.

In the summer of 2013, over 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”. There those children collected samples of the sacred soil from those fields of conflict.

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The soil was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. 70 sandbags were transported to London and brought to Wellington Barracks, the central London home to some of the most elite regiments in the British military, regiments dating back to the time of the English Civil Wars who gave so many of their own, to the soil of Flanders Fields.

There at Wellington Barracks next to Buckingham Palace a garden was being built. The soil of the Great War would nourish and support that garden, planted to be made ready for the following year, and the solemn 100-years’ remembrance of the War to end all Wars.

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That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.

I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our own future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and brought it to that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our shared history alive, and never let it fade into some sepia-toned remnant of a forgotten past.

November 5, 1605 Remember Remember, the 5th of November

The plan was to decapitate the English state, blowing up King James I along with much of the nation’s religious and political leadership. The Gunpowder Plot would end in failure, and a rhyme known to British school children, from that day to this.

The Tudor King Henry VIII began to take control of the English church in 1533, barely 16 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Protestant Reformation was barely underway. With life and eternal damnation at stake both sides would come to regard the other, as heretical.

Henry fell out with Pope Clement VII over the latter’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. By 1540, the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome was complete.

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English Catholics became increasingly marginalized for the remainder of Henry’s reign, and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who died in 1603 without issue. There were several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers in Europe and England, including a failed plot to poison Elizabeth I and the assassination of French King Henry III, who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic, in 1589.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded the “Virgin Queen” in 1603, to the great disappointment of English Catholics. The moderates among them favored James’ and Elizabeth’s cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman believed to harbor Catholic sympathies. More radical Catholics looked to the infant daughter of Phillip II of Spain, the Infanta Isabella.

There were already at least two plots to remove the King from office, when James discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had secretly received a rosary from the Pope. James responded by denouncing the Catholic Church, ordering Jesuit and all other Catholic priests to leave the country. He re-imposed “recusancy fees”, which had earlier been implemented by Elizabeth. The sum of such fines soon rose to £5,000 a year, equivalent to well over £10 million today.

Among those who believed that ‘faith need not be kept with heretics’, regicide seemed the only way out.

The “Gunpowder Plot”, also known as the “Jesuit Treason”, was inspired by Robert Catesby, a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”.

In league with about a dozen others, Catesby planned to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, killing King James and his Privy Council along with untold MPs and government records. The plan was to spark a popular revolt in the Midlands ending in the installation of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Catholic head of state.

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Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting for the King of Spain in the Netherlands by this time, was placed in charge of the explosives.

In those days, goods of all kinds were transported in kegs. The movement of even a large number, was perfectly ordinary. Anticipating the State Opening of Parliament on July 28, 36 kegs of powder were moved to an undercroft on the 20th, a small room beneath the House of Lords. There was a metric ton of the stuff, enough to destroy the parliament building and everything around it, for a radius of 100 meters.

And then the plague reared its head and with it the fear, of gathering in large numbers. Parliament was postponed, until November 5.

Others were brought into the plot. That was probably it’s undoing. As the day approached an anonymous letter came to light, warning of the plot. Two separate searches on the evening of the 4th revealed the gunpowder barrels, hidden under sticks and coal. Guy Fawkes was discovered nearby carrying a length of slow burning fuse, called a match.

Fawkes was defiant at first saying there was enough powder, to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains“. Days of torture lay in wait, beginning with shackles and increasing in severity until finally, his body was “broken” on the rack. In January, all but two of the 13 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Those two had died in the attempt to flee and these, were dug up and decapitated. Fawkes himself, weakened by torture and weeks of confinement in the tower of London, even now managed to jump from the scaffold and break his neck, and thus to spare himself the ordeal of being emasculated and disemboweled before his own dying eyes.

Guy Fawkes Mask

So it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.

A stylized version of the “Guy Fawkes Mask” came to be in the 1980s, with a comic book series and its later film adaptation, “V for Victory”. The story depicts a vigilante effort to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future, Great Britain.

Since that time, groups ranging from the hacker/activist group Anonymous to Occupy, even radical Libertarians have used the Guy Fawkes mask. A symbol of protest against out of control, tyrannical government, political and banking institutions.

November 4, 1781 Divas

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1760 declaring that, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. It was his reassurance that, unlike his father and grandfather before him, George III would rule, as an English King.

Kings George I and II were in fact Hanoverian and as such, did not speak English. At least not, fluently. Queen Victoria, that most quintessentially British of monarchs was in fact of German ancestry and spoke German, as a first language. George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ascended to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in August 1714, the first of the British Kings, from the House of Hanover.

The German composer George Frideric Händel was well known by this time, in German and Italian opera. He became Kapellmeister to the German prince in 1710, “Master of the Chapel Choir”. Chorale works Händel composed around this time for Queen Anne and the young and wealthy “Apollo of the Arts” Richard Boyle made it almost natural, that Händel would settle in England.

George I enjoys the River Thames with George Frideric Händel, in 1717

In Italian opera, a prima donna is the leading female singer in the company, the “first lady” opposite the male lead or primo uomo. Usually (but not always) a soprano, prima donne could be demanding of their colleagues with grand and sometime insufferable personae both on- and off-stage. Opera enthusiasts would divide into opposing “clubs” supporting or opposing one singer, over the other. The 19th century rivalry between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi is an infamous example despite a personal friendship, between the two singers. When prima donne detest one another pandemonium, is sure to follow.

Händel’s work was popular in Georgian era society, so much so he was given free reign to hire his own performers. One such was Francesca Cuzzoni, a fiery soprano with the reputation as being among the greatest, of 18th century divas. Unkindly described by one opera historian as “doughy” and plain, a “short, squat” performer she nevertheless sang, with the voice of the angels. Widely regarded as one of the finest Sopranos in all Europe Händel hired Cuzzoni, in 1722.

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

On rehearsal for her London debut, Cuzzoni became furious over one aria claiming the role was written, for someone else. She refused even to perform when Händel, a great bear of a man physically picked the woman off the ground by her waist, and threatened to throw her out a window.

Problem solved.

Francesca Cuzzoni, by James Caldwall

Francesca Cuzzoni went on to become a smashing success, for four years the undisputed Queen, of the London opera. In 1726, Händel sought to capitalize on this success and reached out to his Italian agents, for a second Star. So it was the mezo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was hired, for the following season.

Younger and considerably more attractive than the older Cuzzoni the pair had been rivals, back in Italy. Notwithstanding, Händel and other composers wrote a series of operas featuring a two-female lead taking great care to give the two, equal prominence.

You know where this is going, right?

Faustina Bordoni pastel, in 1724

Baroque opera loved nothing more than a love triangle and the two were often cast, as rivals for the affections of one man. The degree to which the two divas’ professional rivalry bled into their personal lives is a matter of some discussion but the behavior of their fans, is not.

The “clash” between the two soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began to take up sides enthusiastically egged on, by the press. Society ladies would dress in the respective fashion of their particular heroine and hiss and catcall, at the appearance of the other.

Things got out of hand during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte. Fights broke out among the audience when Cuzzoni turned and unleashed a torrent of Italian invective, at her rival. The pair hurled insults at one another. You know the words. These two, knew ALL of them them. Verbal combat soon became physical the performance, be damned. The scene beggars the imagination. A wild west bar fight in stalls and stage alike as two divas tore at each other’s costumes, and pulled each other’s hair.

In the end, the two were physically dragged from the stage their performance, abandoned.

Theater management canceled Cuzzoni’s contract. King George would have none of that and threatened to withdraw their allowance, and that was the end of that. The two divas kept an uneasy truce for the following season, but something had to give.

In the end, Faustina Bordoni was offered a guinea more for the 1728 season. One schilling, one pence. Predictably, Francesca Cuzzoni threw a tantrum and immediately resigned, and returned to Italy.

Faustina Bordoni lived on to a happy and prosperous old age and died on November 4, 1781. No so Francesca Cuzzoni who faded into poverty and obscurity eking out a living it is said, making and selling, buttons.

Back in 1728, theater management dearly wished the whole sorry mess would just go away. No such luck. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was a smash hit that season, “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” satirizing Italian opera with its perpetually feuding heroines Polly Peachum, and Lucy Lockit.

Hat tip “Rival Queens” featuring Simone Kermes, and Vivica Genaux

September 30, 1946 Goobers

The British taxpayer still held a ration card a year after the war while his government owed a crushing 270% of the entire economy to its former colony, across the Atlantic. The answer to both problems became one of the greatest government boondoggles, of the colonial era.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft, the Prime minister began to speak. The piece of paper Neville Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to the east, had been sated.

The cataclysm of the War to end all Wars was as recent on September 30, 1938 as the horrors of 9/11 is, to our own time. Now, a world could breathe a little easier. It was “Peace in our Time”.

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Unlike the participants in this tale we know, how the story ends. World War 2 was all but foreordained. The world was an altogether different place on this day in 1946, a burned and broken thing struggling to emerge from the greatest catastrophe, in human history.

European GDP would triple between the end of the war and the turn of the century but, on September 30, 1946, a continent lay on its back.

At one point during the war, every major power on the European continent was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain stood alone against the onslaught, aided by heroic contributions by individuals from Poland to Jamaica and massive economic support, from the United States.

A study by the World Bank once reported, national debt exceeding 77% to have a deleterious effect, on a nation’s economy. For every percentage point over that number, the situation gets worse. On this day in 1946, Britain owed fully 270% of its GDP, to the US.

Still a colonial power in 1946, Great Britain looked to her assets overseas to help settle those debts and hit upon one of the great hare-brained ideas, of the modern era.

During the late 1940s the British government tried to create vast plantations in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) for growing groundnuts (peanuts).; (add.info.: East African Groundnuts Scheme. .

They would grow goobers, in Africa.

Goober peas, monkeynuts, groundnuts or ground peas. Whatever you call Arachis hypogaea, microfossil and starch grain analysis dates the peanut back some 8,500 years to the Zaña mountains, of Peru. The Incas used peanuts as sacrificial offerings as early as 1500BC and entombed them, with their dead.

Today, worldwide peanut consumption amounts to some 42,600,000 tons making goobers the most popular nut on the planet by a factor of ten compared with the next nine nuts, combined.

East Africa was a German colony in 1914 under the military command of one Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika. The Lion of Africa, a German patriot who detested the upstart führer so much he once told Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act. Only he wasn’t that polite.

Vorbeck returned to Deutschland a hero, the only German commander during all world war one, to be undefeated in the field. So it was that Britain took control of Tanganyika, as a League of Nations mandate.

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Which brings us back, to goobers. Peanuts and peanut butter were important parts of Armed Forces rations, during both world wars. Following WW2 the Labor party of Prime minister Clement Atlee faced what economist John Maynard Keynes called “financial Dunkirk”.

With the British population still on food rations in 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, came up with a scheme to produce food and cooking oils, in Tanganyika.

Warnings of too much clay in the soil and too little rain fell on deaf ears as did 5,000 years of African experience, in farming their own soil. John Wakefield, former director of agriculture in Tanganyika led the delegation, that April. Three months work produced a favorable report. It didn’t hurt that the area contemplated was largely unpopulated solving the problems up front, of relocation.

There might be a reason nobody lived there but none of them noticed that.

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Some 3¼ million acres were designated for peanuts, an area the size, of Connecticut. European “Experts” soon discovered they had underestimated what the legendary British explorer Henry Morton called “an interminable jungle of thorn bushes…mile after mile of damn-all“. Former Labor politician Allen Wood wrote, “In patches the thickets of scrub are impenetrable. A rhinoceros can force a way through, a snake can wiggle through but no size or shape of animal in between, except a bulldozer“.

Early land clearing met with a maze of rubbery tree roots so thick as to defeat the efforts of all but bulldozers and even those broke down, within days. Towering baobab trees of a kind known to live 6,000 years and more were impervious, even to that. Even if you did knock one down you still had to deal with Volkswagen-sized hives, of African honey bees. Ever hear of “Killer bees”? Yeah. Those are what results when you “Africanize”, the North American variety.

With farm equipment in short supply in post-war Europe, Sherman tanks were retrofitted by the score at the Vickers corporation and converted to monstrosities known as “Shervicks”.

Even today you can ask someone, what animal kills more humans than any other, in Africa. It’s a great trivia question the answer to which, is the mosquito. Malaria, Dengue fever, sleeping sickness…entire textbooks have been written of mosquito borne diseases in this region to say nothing, of poisonous snakes.

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At the end of two years land clearing was 90 percent short, of projections. Peanut production was less than half of what was purchased as seed, in the first place.

And here’s where that clay comes in. During the dry season the soil becomes as hard as asphalt. Regular plows had a life expectancy of five hours in that stuff. With a miniscule percentage actually planted one worker claimed “Nothing but pneumatic drills and dynamite could get the nuts out“.

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Devices were attached to engines and operators were paid according to the time the engine was running. It wasn’t long before tractors were found running in ditches while their operators were off, drinking.

During the four year life of the Great Tanganyika Groundnut Boondoggle only one year brought enough rain, to sustain a peanut crop. Those groundnuts actually produced cost six times to grow, what they were worth. Making matters worse, many men abandoned family farms to the lure of high wages contributing to severe famines in 1947, 1949 and 1950.

A last ditch effort was made to save the whole trainwreck planting sunflowers, instead of goobers. At least those could be harvested above ground but even that failed, due to lack of rain. The plug was pulled after four years, about the time it took conservative politicians to quit hollering out “Groundnuts“! every time a Liberal rose up, to speak.

The whole boondoggle cost 36 million pounds equivalent to a Billion, today. Not a single British taxpayer ever received so much as an increase, in margarine rations.

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