Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Biggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Some of the Biggles short stories, particularly those set during the First World War, are excellent and inventive literature. The Biggles novels, on the other hand, are usually formulaic pot-boilers. Reading them can be like watching the same play over and over again with different scenery. That’s certainly true of the four novels collected here: Biggles in the Baltic (1939), Biggles Sees It Through (1940), Biggles Flies North (1941) and Biggles in the Jungle (1942).

Each has the same plot: Biggles and his comrades Algy and Ginger face a ruthless and cunning enemy, are captured and imprisoned, escape, and ultimately triumph. Sometimes they’re captured and escape more than once. Little else varies but for the landscape, the name of their enemy and the nature of his ruthlessness and cunning. In Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles Sees It Through it’s the Nazi Von Stahlhein; in Biggles Flies North it’s a crook called Brindle McBain and in Biggles in the Jungle it’s a crook called The King of the Forest.

I’ve never managed to finished Biggles in the Baltic, because it’s so dull. There’s little memorable in any of the others apart from a bar scene in Biggles Flies North in which McBain puts a bullet through Biggles’ cup of Bovril and Biggles puts a bullet through McBain’s bottle of whiskey. All the same, reading the middle two novels of this collection has been one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life, because I carried out a simple experiment I’d been meaning to try for some time.

What did I do? I read the the novels upside-down. That is, they were upside-down, not me. I simply turned the book through 180° and read the lines of text right-to-left and from the bottom of the page to the top. It was hard work: from being a fluent, fast and careless adult reader I was transformed into a slow and stumbling learner again. I had to spell some words through letter by letter. I made mistakes and jumped to wrong conclusions about the word I was trying to decipher. It was hard work and the stories were a lot more interesting than they would have been if I’d read in the usual way. They were also more frustrating: when Biggles & Co. were captured or otherwise in difficulty, I couldn’t get to the bits where they escaped or overcame the difficulty as quickly as I wanted to.

And I was much more aware of the acting of reading – its strangeness and its power. Or perhaps you could just say that I was aware of the act of reading. It wasn’t easy and automatic any more. But it might have become so if I’d continued the experiment for long enough. My skill at upside-down reading improved even over the course of two Biggles novels. Something was happening inside my brain: I was re-learning to see words as Gestalts and not as sets of individual letters. Would I ever read upside-down as easily as I normally do? In time, perhaps. I doubt I’ll ever try to find out, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and I may try it again if another suitable book comes my way.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Sympathetic SinnerThe Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

Read Full Post »

Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

Read Full Post »

Jet and Rocket Aircraft of the Third Reich by Terry TreadwellRocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich, Terry C. Treadwell (Spellmount 2011)

War accelerates technology. Aircraft entered the First World War in 1914 as little more than powered kites that fell apart easily, didn’t carry weapons and barely figured in military strategy. By 1918, they were fast-climbing, power-diving sharks of the air equipped with machine-guns and bomb-racks. They had also become central to military strategy.

As this book describes, technology was also accelerated by the Second World War. But it happened most obviously on the German side. The Allies began and finished the war using propeller-driven aircraft. The Germans began with props and finished with something extra: jet aircraft like the Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) and rocket aircraft like the Me-163 Komet. The ingenuity and technological sophistication of these aircraft aren’t the only astonishing things about them. The odds against which they were developed and put into service are astonishing too.

The Third Reich was being hammered by British and American bombers from the west and relentlessly ground down by the Red Army in the east. Fuel, parts and pilots were in ever-shorter supply. But both the Schwalbe and the Komet saw active service. Other aircraft described here, like the Bachem BA-394 Natter (Viper) and the Heinkel He-178 Volksjäger (People’s Fighter), didn’t get that far. An unofficial name of the He-178, the Salamander, is a clue to why. The Volksjäger was commissioned in late 1944 and by then the Reich was on fire. In legend salamanders are said to dwell in fire and flourish there. The He-178 didn’t flourish, but Terry C. Treadwell delivers this verdict: “Despite the dead ends and final defeat, Ernst Heinkel had made a major contribution to the world of jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft” (pg. 122).

Treadwell seems to know his subject and navigates the complicated history of test-flights, modifications and specification changes with assurance. His introduction to the book begins in “A.D. 1232, during the Mongol siege of the city Kai-fung-fu”, which was where the “first recorded use of a rocket” took place. He discusses the development of rockets, then devotes the first chapter to the “Messerschmitt Me 163B ‘Komet’” (pp. 19-69). Even today the Komet seems like something out of science fiction: a bat-winged rocket-plane powered by highly dangerous chemicals – C-Stoff and T-Stoff – that would “ignite on contact with the skin” (pg. 41). That’s why the pilots and ground crew had to wear protective gear: a photo caption on pg. 48 describes “Leutnant Fritz Kelb wearing his asbestos flying suit climbing into the cockpit of his Me 163B”.

It was a tight fit there, because the Komet was a tiny aircraft. And it was probably more dangerous to its own side than to the enemy. Test-pilots fractured their spines and lost their lives trying to correct its failings. Hanna Reitsch, the famous “Nazi aviatrix”, nearly died when she crash-landed a Komet in 1941, for example. Hitler and Göring sent flowers to her hospital bed and “critics of the Me 163 projects saw their chance of having the programme stopped” (pg. 38). However, another test-pilot for the Komet, Rudolf Opitz, “demonstrated the Me 163B with take-off dolly attached to the satisfaction of all concerned” and the programme continued.

The Komet was still being flown as a glider at that stage. Adding an engine added more complications, more dangers and more delay. The “first operational sortie” wasn’t until 13 May 1944, when Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte tried to shoot down two P-47 Thunderbolts. But the Komet’s speed got in his way: he was chasing the Thunderbolts and about to fire when “the left wing suddenly heeled over and the whole aircraft began to shake violently” (pg. 52). Then the engine “flamed out”: Späte had “inadvertently touched the ‘Sound Barrier’, as it was later to be known”.

That exceptional speed was apparent again later in the month:

Another encounter took place on 31 May 1944, this time between a photo-renaissance Spitfire and a Komet from No. 1 Staffel. The Spitfire pilot was at 37,000 feet and about to make his first run over the target, when he noticed a white trail some 7,000 feet below and about a mile away. The Spitfire pilot climbed his aircraft to 41,000 feet and saw the tiny aircraft just 3,000 feet below him and about 1,000 yards away. The sudden realisation that the tiny machine had climbed around 8,000 feet in the same time that the Spitfire had climbed 4,000 feet was quite disturbing. The only description the pilot could give of his potential adversary was that it appeared to be all-wing and travelled exceptionally fast. (ch. 1, pg. 54)

If Allied bombs were turning Germany into a hell of high explosive, then bats were rising out of that hell. While its fuel lasted and its rocket engine functioned, the Komet was uncatchable, but like the Me-262 the Me-163 was highly vulnerable when landing:

As he ran out of fuel and glided into land, the P-51 Mustang attacked and hit the little rocket plane. The Komet made a perfect landing, but when the ground crew got to the pilot they found the pilot, Feldwebel Herbert Klein, dead in the cockpit with a bullet hole in his head. The bullet had passed right through his seat armour. (pp. 68-9)

That was in January 1945, when the Third Reich was close to final defeat. In February, the Luftwaffe High Command “ordered that production of the Me 163B cease”. As Treadwell notes, of the 364 Komets built, “only 70…ever saw combat”. Like its celestial namesake, the Komet blazed briefly and then faded to black. It was an astonishing aircraft built and flown in atrocious conditions and a worthy choice for chapter one.

Chapter two is devoted to an even stranger aircraft: the Bachem Ba-349 Natter, a vertical take-off rocket-plane designed to fly, attack a bomber formation, then fall apart in mid-air and descend to earth on parachutes. The first manned test-flight killed the pilot, Oberleutnant Lothar Siebert, but the programme continued and ten Natters were eventually “assigned to an operational air defence site at Kircheim, east of Stuttgart” (pg. 82). The pilots waited more than a week to intercept a “heavy bomber formation”, but encountered an “American tank unit” instead. The Natters were destroyed “to prevent them falling into the hands of the Allies” (pp. 83-5). Three were nevertheless captured intact elsewhere, lasting proof, as Treadwell puts it, that “ingenuity could be born of desperation”.

The remaining eight chapters of the book describe more ingenuity and more desperation: the near-suicidal Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, a piloted version of the pulse-jet V1 Doodlebug; the Arado Ar-234, “regarded as the world’s first pure jet bomber”; the Junkers Ju-287, with its revolutionary swept-forward wings; and so on. The tenth and final chapter is about the most important aircraft of them all: the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, the “twin-engined jet fighter” that might have altered the outcome of the war if it had been delivered sooner and in greater numbers. The Reich might have won or forced a truce, rather than being battered into unconditional surrender.

But because the Me-262 is more important, it’s received much more attention from historians of military aviation and Treadwell is right to leave it till last. It’s the most attractive aircraft here too: Schwalbe, Swallow, is an appropriate name. Despite its deadliness – at least when its engines worked and its airframe held together – the Me-262 doesn’t seem to belong with the sinister, bat-like Me-163 and the stub-winged, embryo-like Ba-349. Those are alchemical aircraft, born of fire, blood and flesh-eating chemicals. They belong to the final days of the Third Reich and aeronautically speaking they’ve stayed there. Rocket aircraft never became routine and captured Me-262s were the great prize carried off at the end of the war by the Americans, Russians and British.

So the strange and sinister come first, the significant comes last. That’s the way readers of this book will want it. The prose here is functional rather than polished, but that suits the subject and there’s a well-judged balance of text and photos. Rocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich is an excellent introduction to those aircraft, describing both highly advanced technology and age-old politicking, as the Luftwaffe and SS compete for control of aviation in a collapsing empire. Bombs fall, cities die, and bats rise out of hell in a way that is still fascinating and disturbing more than seventy years later.

Read Full Post »

The Wooden Horse by Eric WilliamsThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

This book is about much more than ingenuity, effort and escape: it’s about existence. First published in 1949, it tells the story of three British prisoners of war who found an especially ingenious way to overcome the anti-escape restrictions of Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland). The perimeter fence was a long way from the huts and the Germans were using seismographs to detect any sound of digging. Solution? Simple: start a tunnel beneath the open sky while men jump up and down around you to cover the sound of your digging.

But how on earth do you do that? The title of the book supplies the answer: build a wooden vaulting horse, knock it over a few times to show the guards that it’s innocently empty, then hide inside it the next time it’s carried out and start digging. The excavated soil is carried back in the horse when the vaulting session is over and the entrance to the tunnel is concealed with a trapdoor. This means that Eric Williams and his companions, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, were using a disguise even before they escaped. They go under other names – Peter Howard, John Clinton and Philip Rowe – in this book, which is written like a novel in the third person. That allows Williams to use interior monologues, to switch locations and perspectives, and to be more descriptive than he would have been in a straight history. The Wooden Horse is full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations:

Peter leaned on the window-sill. It was late spring. Beyond the wire he could see the pale fronds of a silver birch graceful against the dark background of the pine forest […] a cascade of delicate green, almost yellow in the morning sun. […] Under the wire the sand was moist with dew and dew sparkled on the barbed wire. The long green living huts looked washed and cool, uncluttered as yet by the thousand prisoners who would soon spread their restlessness throughout the camp. He refused to think of the biting flies that would swarm into the hut and plague them as the day warmed up. (Part one, “Inside”, ch. 1, pg. 22)

He crossed to the trapdoor and lowered himself into the space under the hut. The sand felt cool to his hands and the air was musty and full of the odour of pinewood. He crawled towards the edge of the hut and lay waiting until John joined him. “After the next beam,” he whispered. “Then we’ll make a dash for the sand pit.” […] Peter looked up at the sky. It was the first time he had been out-of-doors at night since he was captured. There were no clouds and the heavens were trembling with a myriad stars. (Ibid., ch. 2, pg. 45)

The sheet of thin card the Escape committee had provided was almost as thick as that on which the pass was printed. He cut two pieces of the right size; cutting them carefully with the razor blade and metal ruler on the glass top of the dressing table, forgetting even the ultimate aim of his work. He would be absorbed for the rest of the afternoon and would finish the job with aching eyes and stiff shoulders; but rested and in some way renewed by the intensity of his concentration. (Part two, “Outside”, ch. 1, pp. 208-9)

There’s an important phrase in that final paragraph: “the ultimate aim”. What is it? Like the object it’s named after, The Wooden Horse is carrying more than it seems and in the end readers will find themselves in the same position as the German guards at Stalag Sagan. Just as there was much more to the vaulting than the guards realized, so there’s much more to the story of three prisoners and their escape than you first realize. The final page of The Wooden Horse will cast everything that’s gone before in a new light. It’s a memorable book about deception and disguise that is itself deceptive and wearing a disguise. A story set in a particular narrow time and situation is really about something much wider. You’ll learn a lot about life in a German POW camp in the Second World War, but you’ll also learn things about yourself. This is an existential book, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s humour in something serious, like the “ghosts” in the camp:

At some time in the early days the prisoners had managed to confuse the German nominal role, so that there were fewer of them on the books than were in the camp. These supernumeraries went into hiding at appell, and were kept in reserve to take the place of any prisoner who had escaped or who wanted for some reason to disappear. The life of a ghost was not a happy one. Not being on the roll he could draw no rations and even his letters from home had to be addressed to another prisoner. (“Inside”, pg. 85)

There are also glimpses of horror. When they escape to a Baltic port and try to find a ship for neutral Sweden, they see starving Russian prisoners being used as slave labour. “Escaping was still a sport to us,” says Eric Williams in an introduction he wrote in 1978. To the Russians it was an impossibility: they were too weak to attempt it, too far from home to consider it. And home was full of horror too. Wars are engines of cruelty and destruction, but even at its height the Second World War didn’t destroy everything or crush everyone. The Wooden Horse was made truly famous by the film, but the book has much more than the film. Sand, sun and trembling stars: after Williams broke out of Sagan, he broke into history and wrote a classic not just about escape, but about the essence of life.

Read Full Post »

Sub-Machine Gun by Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. WilliamsSub-Machine Gun: The development of sub-machine guns and their ammunition from World War I to the present day, Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. Williams, (Crowood Press 2011)

There’s a special fascination to beautiful things that inflict pain, suffering and death. Like military aircraft, guns can be very beautiful. There’s an additional power in their ingenuity. For many decades, very intelligent gun-designers have racked their brains for better ways to wreck brains, bones and bodies:

Wounding effectiveness is generally measured by the size of the wound channels created in ballistic gel, which is designed to replicate the characteristics of flesh. This can, of course, only give an indication of the real results, since bodies are not composed of homogeneous material but contain organs of varying toughness, voids and bones; nevertheless the gel does allow comparative testing under controlled conditions. Two different channels are created when a bullet passes through the gel: the most important is the permanent channel, which is what the name implies – the track of destroyed material. Other things being equal, this determines the rate of blood loss, which is the main incapacitating mechanism. The other is the temporary channel, which is the much wider volume disturbed by the shockwave from the bullet’s passage. This is less serious, although it can still have some effect. (“Ammunition Design”, pg. 53)

As you’ll see here, bullets can be beautiful too. This book is about a weapon designed to combine maximum firepower with maximum portability: the sub-machine gun (SMG), which is a “fully automatic shoulder gun firing pistol ammunition” (Introduction, pg. 8). An SMG is a way for one man to massacre many men at high speed. That’s what makes the SMG frightening and fascinating. But the one man has to have an advanced industrial civilization behind him. This book is explicitly about SMGs, but implicitly about HBD, or human bio-diversity. Or rather: the lack of it. The nations listed in part 2, which describes sub-machine guns manufactured everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, are all populated by highly intelligent light-skinned races.

But there’s diversity among the light-skinned: the huge nation of China gets seven pages, the tiny nation of Switzerland gets eleven. Europeans are innovators, Asians are adopters and adapters. But the United Kingdom does poorly by comparison with Switzerland too. Snobbery and stupidity help explain that: “Until the start of World War II the British military had practically ignored SMGs, referring to such weapons as ‘gangster guns’” (pg. 260). Once the war started, the military tried to repair its error, first with the Lanchester, “a very close copy of the German Schmeisser MP.28”, then with the Sten, “one of the crudest and most cheaply made, but the simplest and most effective guns of World War II” (ibid.).

The next nation in the list is the origin of “gangster guns”: the USA, the biggest and most important arms-manufacturer of them all. From the elegant Tommy-gun, made world-famous by Hollywood, to the stubby Kriss Super V, American sub-machine guns have been giving the world a lot of bang for not-so-much buck since the First World War, when the “noted ordnance expert” John T. Thompson “set up the Auto-Ordnance Corporation … in order to fund the development of automatic guns” (pg. 272). The “Annihilator” was released in 1919, but the Tommy-gun became famous under more sardonic names like the “Chicago typewriter” and “Chicago piano”. That’s what the British army didn’t like. The war changed their minds and by 1940 Britain couldn’t get enough of the Tommy-gun, in part because “many of them were lost en route, due to German submarine attacks” (ibid.).

Submarines are another fascinating weapon, but they’re a team effort from start to finish. SMGs involve teams of designers and manufacturers, but the collective effort is focused through an individual, the man who carries the SMG and fires it. He can be a soldier or a bodyguard, a gangster or a policeman, an assassin or a gun-enthusiast. The portability and power of the SMG are attractive in all those roles. This book would appeal to everyone who plays one of them. It discusses all aspects of the annihilator, from armour-piercing ammunition and the cost of manufacture to silencers and stocks.

It illustrates everything too. Some of the early SMGs are like works of art, some of the modern ones are like alien artifacts, so you can see evolution and innovation over nearly a full century, as manufacturers around the world compete to sell slaughter. The manufacturers range from the infamous to the obscure: even I had heard of Kalashnikov, Heckler & Koch and Uzi, but what about STAR, Cugir and Husqvarna? Unfortunately, not all of the photographs and weapon-summaries are dated, but that’s the only flaw I could see. Sub-Machine Gun is a book by experts aimed at enthusiasts. And what explains the appeal of the SMG? It’s summed up in the section devoted to “Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic”, another small region of Europe that’s big in armaments. In the 1960s, it produced the Scorpion SMG. Sub-machine guns are small, but they have a deadly sting.

Read Full Post »

No Empty Chairs by Ian MackerseyNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Flight is beautiful, death is ugly. But they’ve always gone together. It was worst in the early days. Aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century was very dangerous: designers, engineers and pilots were still learning and their mistakes were often fatal. It took courage simply to get in a plane and take off. Flying and fighting demanded more courage still. This book describes how aerial combat began in the First World War. At first aircraft were used for observation, not for offence, but soon pilots started taking pistols and rifles aloft and shooting at each other. Next came machine-guns and inventions that allowed pilots to shoot through the propeller. Planes got faster, sturdier and more reliable. As they got less dangerous, they got deadlier.

Like the Second World War, which began with prop-planes and ended with jets and rockets, the First World War accelerated the technology of aviation. The first planes were like giant kites with engines attached. They could fall apart if flown fast or handled roughly. By the end of the war, acrobatics were not just routine, but essential. One thing didn’t change: the brains and bodies of the men who had to fly the fast-evolving planes:

Flying in unheated, open cockpits with inadequate clothing as high as 24,000 feet in winter temperatures approaching minus 50 degrees Centigrade, made worse by propeller-driven wind chill, they suffered such intense cold that the foul-smelling whale oil they smeared on their faces couldn’t prevent icicles forming on their noses or frostbite from peeling skin off their cheeks. […] In the frenzied manoeuvres of dog-fighting they were subjected to extraordinarily high G-forces that caused them to black out and sometimes burst vessels in their eyes. They got ruptured eardrums from the abrupt pressure changes in swooping dives of thousands of feet. They were afflicted by vertigo and airsickness that had them vomiting in their cockpits; by agonising gas-filled bowels that could be relieved only by releasing copious blasts of wind. On the ground most of them lived unhealthy, largely sedentary lives and, unsurprisingly, they drank and smoked heavily. Twenty-four-old pilots often began to look forty. (ch. 26, “The Spent Capital of Courage”, pg. 265)

And often died before they were twenty-five. Although casualties among ground troops were far higher, there were far more more men fighting on the ground, so the odds against survival were worse in the air. During “Bloody April” in 1917, the “average life expectancy of a subaltern [novice pilot] had shrunk to eleven days” (ch. 27, “The Working-Class Heroes”, pg. 272). All fighting men risked bullets and high explosive in the war, but there were horrors unique to the different branches of military service. Soldiers could drown in fetid, freezing mud; pilots could burn alive in a plummeting aircraft. That’s why some of them continued to take pistols aloft: to shoot not the enemy but themselves if their planes began to burn.

The only other way out in that situation was to jump out and fall to one’s death. Parachutes were never issued to British pilots and were used only late in the war by the Germans. The legend is that they were deliberately withheld to discourage cowardice and the “unnecessary abandonment of aircraft”. But Mackersey says that no order to that effect has ever been discovered and convincingly argues that the blame rested with official inertia, ignorance and lack of imagination.

The pilots themselves didn’t lack it. They often dreamed of their own deaths. The “Irish working-class ace” Mick Mannock (1887-1918) had nightmares about dying in a “flamerino”, his apotropaic nickname for a death-fall in a burning aircraft. As Mackersey laconically says: “One eventually claimed him” (ch. 28, “Flamerinoes”, photo section). Perhaps Mannock let himself die, consciously or otherwise: the strain of risking death can begin to seem worse than death itself. Guy de Maupassant explored that idea in his story “A Coward” (1884) and Mackersey provides a real example: a flight commander who was ordered to lead a “low-level bombing raid on an enemy aerodrome”. He had an “excellent chance of surviving” and would win the Military Cross if he succeeded. But he refused the order and, threatened with a court martial, shot himself through the head (“Waning of the Spirit”, pg. 307).

Drink and debauchery were less extreme responses to Himmelangst, “heaven-fear”, as great fear is called in German. This is one of the more unusual footnotes to children’s literature in English:

Lieutenant William Earl Johns of 55 Squadron, later (writing under the name Captain W.E. Johns) to become celebrated as the creator of the immortal pilot adventurer James Bigglesworth, the hero of more than a hundred Biggles books for boys, found himself in a hospital in France suffering from both syphilis and gonorrhoea. (ch. 19, “They Also Served”, pg. 201)

The Biggles books were bowdlerised after their early appearances in an adult aviation magazine, but are an excellent guide to the exhilaration and horror of air-combat. And also to the daily lives of British pilots, who constantly played practical jokes and ran competitions with each other and other squadrons. Mackersey devotes a chapter to “The ‘Bloody Wonderful Drunks’” (pp. 181-9), violent, hard-drinking parties in which furniture and crockery were destroyed, joints strained and limbs broken: “A puzzled American pilot attached to No. 85 Squadron commented: ‘These Englishmen sure have a funny idea of a party. They want to smash everything.’” (ch. 18, pg. 187).

This was an extension of life at public school and university, where many of the pilots had been before being taught to fly by stuttering, shell-shocked instructors and thrown into combat. Did the Germans behave in a similar way? Mackersey doesn’t say, but he describes the careers of the German aces Oswald Boelcke, Erwin Böhme, Max Immelmann and, most famous of all, the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. All four died in combat, like the British aces Albert Ball, Arthur Rhys Davies, Eric Lubbock and James McCudden. These men foresaw their own deaths and continued to fly. Their courage and skill won them permanent fame as Knights of the Air, flying far above the mud, filth and mechanized slaughter of the trenches.

But Mackersey also discusses the wives, girlfriends and families of the aces. He covers every aspect of aerial combat in the First World War, from fighters and balloons to Zeppelins and bombers, from pilots and observers to mechanics, instructors and aircraft designers like Anthony Fokker (1890-1939), the Dutchman whose expertise was turned down by the British and French before being accepted by the Germans. No Empty Chairs is a detailed history of a fascinating and horrific period, when the heavens turned hellish and a beautiful invention was put to some very ugly ends.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

World Wide Wings – The Big Book of Flight, Rowland White

Mud FeudTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull

Read Full Post »

World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Read Full Post »

The Big Book of Flight by Rowland WhiteThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Aircraft are like birds: varied. And, like birds, the most beautiful are often the deadliest. Freight-carriers usually look like it, but even helicopters and flying-boats can look good. This book covers the lot, from the deadly XB-70 Valkyrie, a beautiful jet “designed to carry 25 tons of nuclear bombs at three times the speed of sound” (pg. 234), to the dumpy Ekranoplan, a huge flying-boat whose remains are “rusting away in a dry dock in the Russian Caspian sea-port of Kaspiysk” (pg. 269). Rowland White discusses every aspect of aviation: not just props, jets and gliders, but balloons, parachutes and rockets, plus call-signs, airport codes and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. His writing is enthusiastic and intelligent and the book has a solid and fashionably old-fashioned design, like something a flight-obsessed schoolboy might have got for Christmas in the 1950s.

If he had, he would have been pleased: The Big Book of Flight mixes text, photographs, line-drawings and Patrick Mulrey’s beautiful double-page oil-paintings, which capture the speed and steel of aircraft and the vastness and solitude of the sky. I like the “Project Cancelled” sections too, about interesting planes that never made it into service. Web-sites about flight aren’t physical, fingerful fun like this and the heft of the book underlines the paradox of flight: how does something heavier than air get up and stay there?

Take the “swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat” shown surging aloft, jets glaring, from the deck of an aircraft-carrier on page 210. If it hit the water that stretches away to the horizon, it would sink like a stone. It’s metal, after all: solid in a way birds, with their fractal feathers and hollowed bones, have never been. But it stays aloft and plays aloft, all 70,000 lb of it. This isn’t magic: it’s engineering. Metal jet-fighters obey the laws of physics just as birds and balloons do. And jet-fighters obey the laws of genetics too, because aircraft are as much products of genes as bones and feathers are. Evolution has taken many routes to flight, but before Homo sapiens arrived they were all direct ones: genes coded for wings, light bodies and fast metabolisms. That’s how birds, bats and insects got aloft. The human route was indirect: our genes coded for higher intelligence and we invented our own wings to carry bodies that were never designed to fly.

But more than intelligence was required. The early history of flight is littered with crashes and corpses:

German engineer Otto Lilienthal published his seminal Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889 at the age of 41. He flew his first glider two years later. Over the next five years he made some 2000 flights, accumulating just five flying hours. Still, the “Glider King”, as he was dubbed, had flown longer and further than anyone else in history. But on 9 August 1896, during his second flight of the day, his glider stalled. He crashed to the ground and broke his back. Two days later, like so many previous birdmen, he died from his injuries. (“Dreams of the Birdmen: Icarus and His Successors”, pg. 15)

Before he died, Lilienthal told his brother that “sacrifices have to be made”. His work and sacrifice were an inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright across the Atlantic in America. But their genes hadn’t evolved in America: flight was mastered by a peculiarly north-western European combination of high intelligence and daring. This book doesn’t explicitly discuss genetics, but it’s there on every page, from the German Otto Lilienthal at the beginning to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner near the end. Baumgartner claimed “Joe Kittinger’s record for the highest, fastest skyfall with a jump from 128,100 feet (24 miles)” in 2012 (pg. 236).

The American Nick Piantanida had preceded them in the 1960s. First he was a pilot, boxer and rock-climber, then he became a skydiver. His attempt to claim the freefall record killed him: he “suffered an explosive decompression at an altitude greater than any other reached by a human being”. Like Lilienthal, he survived his crash-landing but died in hospital. Success in aviation has been won by the sacrifices of the same group that sacrificed for success in mountaineering. Flight can be seen part of the same Faustian quest.

Read Full Post »

Small Arms 1914-45 by Michael E. HaskewSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

Aircraft can be beautiful without being deadly. Guns are sometimes beautiful, always deadly. This is a book about death-machines designed to be used by a single individual: pistols, rifles, machine-guns, flame-throwers, rocket-launchers. It’s part of series called the Essential Weapons Identification Guides and covers every major army, conflict and theatre between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Second. And some minor ones too. There are photographs and drawings of the weapons, technical specifications, occasional cut-away guides and scenes of the weapons in use, like “a rare photograph showing Axis troops manning a Maschinengewehr Solothurn 1930 (MG 30) somewhere on the Eastern Front” (pg. 135).

I found the contrast between the totalitarian and democratic armies interesting. German soldiers during the Second World War look disciplined and highly competent; American soldiers look sloppy and insubordinate. It’s natural soldiers versus decadent conscripts: the German military were out-gunned and out-numbered, never out-classed. The stern, purposeful faces of the “Soviet partisans” on page 135, who are armed with the “super-reliable 71-round-drum-magazine PPSh-41 submachine gun” in Belorussia, 1943, reminded me of this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy had refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine gun, and a model helicopter. At six – a year early, by a special relaxation of the rules – he had joined the Spies, at nine he had been a troop leader. At eleven he had denounced his uncle to the Thought Police after overhearing a conversation which appeared to him to have criminal tendencies. At seventeen he had been a district organizer of the Junior Anti-Sex League. At nineteen he had designed a hand-grenade which had been adopted by the Ministry of Peace and which, at its first trial, had killed thirty-one Eurasian prisoners in one burst. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, ch. 4)

Orwell’s satire was based on an unpleasant reality: as the technology to enhance life advances, so does the technology to destroy it. War is a serious business and this is a book for people who are serious about war and its weaponry.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »