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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Mud FeudTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

Sycamores and SatanDanger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams, James Owen (Abacus 2010; paperback 2011)

Four to ThreeNailed to History: The Story of Manic Street Preachers, Martin Power (Omnibus Press 2010)

Blue is the KillerEye Bogglers: A Mesmerizing Mass of Amazing Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Carlton Books 2011; paperback 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Trench by Stephen BullTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

This is a detailed history of trench warfare in World War One, from the early days of improvisation and error to the later sophistication of flame-throwers, phosgene and tanks. One thing that stayed constant was slaughter: the war involved hundreds of highly intelligent men devising ever better ways of mincing, mashing and maiming bodies and minds. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches then put those ideas into operation:

The infantry battalion soon included grenades of many types, new machine guns and snipers, catapults and light mortars. The Engineers adopted gas, flame and other examples of frightfulness. … For some this was the start of a new age, when, as Ernst Jünger put it, “the spirit of the machine” took possession of the battlefield and new leaders were born. (Conclusion, pg. 255)

But artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front”, Stephen Bull concludes in chapter one, which examines “The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack”. That problem arose from an important and overlooked point he makes in the introduction: “trenches were designed to, and did, save lives” (pg. 8). Wars are won more by ending lives, not saving them, so each side sought to overcome the protection offered by trenches to the other side. Gas was one solution; tunnelling to lay explosives was another. And the tank was, in a way, a mobile trench. It wasn’t decisive in this war, but it was indirectly responsible for one of the war’s most memorable photographs: New Zealand troops “holding a German ‘T-Gewehr’ anti-tank rifle” in a “captured German emplacement near Grévillers, 25 August 1918” (ch. 9, “The Tank”, pg. 215).

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle


The grins and the gun are included here with many other photos and illustrations: churned mud, stagnant pools and tree-stumps (pg. 99); a “male Mark IV tank ‘Hyacinth’” stuck in a ditch (pg. 201); a “German NCO and his Soldatenkunst [trench-art]” on brass shell cases (pg. 88); laughing British troops wearing captured German helmets (pp. 146-7); a “louse hunt” conducted by “Württembergers of the 123rd Grenadier Regiment ‘König Karl’” (pg. 189); a “bullet-riddled steel loophole plate” (pg. 155); a canvas-and-steel “dummy tree” used for artillery observation (pg. 198); and gas-masks for horses and dogs and a “gas-proof pigeon box incorporating air filters” (pg. 137). Bull discusses the Western Front from all three perspectives – Anglophone, Francophone, Teutophone – and describes how the three groups both fought and thought in distinct ways:

Interestingly many pictures of German soldiers in the latrines exist, whilst British sensibilities make this subject something of a rarity. George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps – no stranger to hardship or death – professed himself shocked by such exhibitions. (ch. 1, “Trenchtown”, pp. 76-7)

The three groups looked distinct too: the faces and expressions differ both between the big nations and within them. But one photo could be of any nationality and from almost any war of the past hundred years: “Snipers of the US 168th Infantry” wearing camouflage hoods and garments “in May 1918” (pg. 163). They look both anonymous and ominous and though the photo is black-and-white, it might have been taken in the Second World War or in Iraq or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. What happened in the First World War carries on now and learning about any war tells you something about all wars. But trench-warfare will probably never return on this scale and if you want to understand what it was like, this is a good guide.

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Danger UXB by James OwenDanger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams, James Owen (Abacus 2010; paperback 2011)

“Unless I got clear, I had exactly twelve seconds to live.” It’s not difficult to make a book on bomb-disposal an interesting read. And a disturbing one:

As we stepped over the rope, there was a vivid flash and a deafening explosion. The houses seemed to rock, and above the bomb site there appeared a red haze, changing to a moving pattern of red and black smoke from which descended debris, human fragments and a dew of blood. (ch. 10, pg. 151)

James Owen describes how the disposal of UXBs – Unexploded Bombs – wasn’t as dangerous as it was popularly supposed to be, but it took a special kind of psychology and courage and it was a job where practice did not make perfect. Fuzes – “the spelling used by engineers to distinguish the complex initiating mechanism of a bomb from a simple fuse or delay such as the cord in a stick of dynamite” (ch. 1, pg. 3) – evolved to become more dangerous as the war went on. An experienced bomb-disposer encountering a new type of fuze suddenly wasn’t experienced any more.

And old types of fuze could behave in unpredictable ways. They could seem harmless and not be. The tools of a bomb-disposer’s trade could also turn against him, like the liquid oxygen used to freeze the battery of the deadly new “Y fuze”, which was specifically designed to kill anyone attempting to remove it:

Two days later [Major Cyril] Martin went to a house where another Y fuze was lying at the bottom of a deep and ill-ventilated shaft. It was being frozen by Frank Carlile, the officer who had brought in the first example, and he had just begun to extract this one when he was engulfed in flames. The highly oxygenated atmosphere had spontaneously ignited a substance in the shaft, which then started to belch fire. … Carlile was terribly burned, but by August he was back on duty. Later that month he was killed by a fuze that exploded at a bomb dump at Horsham. He was forty-two. (ch. 17, “Y Fuze”, pg. 265)

So he was old for a bomb-disposer:

Up came the bulk of the bomb until it was suspended a couple of feet above the hole. It began to swing a touch freely and Blaney stepped forward to cushion it with his hands. As he did so, it exploded.

In the evidence that he later gave to a military inquiry, [Staff-Serjeant (sic)] Fox noted that the bomb could not have been in a more lethal position. In a microsecond it was transformed into a searing blast of noise, light and heat that tore outwards at supersonic speed, clawing at flesh, pulverising bone, annihilating all in its path. Max Blaney and Richard James died instantly, as did Charlie Roberts, Lance-Corporals Doug Mills and Stan White, Sappers Joe Maycock and Ted McClaren, and Drivers John Pickering and John Lauchlan. Most of the men were in their twenties. (ch. 1, “Danger UXB”, pg. 7)

That was on Friday 13th December 1940. The early year is significant, because an important lesson was still being learnt: bomb-disposal should endanger as few people at a time as possible. The ideal is one man against one mechanism, not a crowd. That way, only one man dies if it goes wrong. But often that ideal wasn’t possible: bombs had to be dug for, lifted or pulled into new positions. Disposal required brawn as well as brain. Bullshit too, in some cases: bomb-disposers got involved in propaganda, sometimes for the service they represented, sometimes on their own account. Bob Davies, dubbed “the hero of St Paul’s” for supposedly saving the cathedral from an enormous UXB, received the George Cross from the King in the same week of February 1942 as he was “placed under military arrest” for “fraud and dishonesty of the gravest kind” (ch. 16, “Conduct Unbecoming”).

Success in war is sometimes owed not to courage, but to psychopathy. Psychopaths don’t mind inflicting violent death and don’t fear suffering it. Perhaps that explains Davies, who reminds me of a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Put Out More Flags (1942), set at the beginning of the war:

“You’ll be in more danger crossing the Atlantic than staying in London,” said Basil. “There won’t be any air raids on London.”

“For God’s sake don’t say that.” Even as she spoke the sirens wailed. Poppet stood paralysed with horror. “Oh God,” she said. “You’ve done it. They’ve come.”

“Faultless timing,” said Basil cheerfully. “That’s always been Hitler’s strong point.”

Poppet began to dress in an ineffectual fever of reproach. “You said there wouldn’t be a war. You said the bombers would never come. Now we shall all be killed and you just sit there talking and talking.”

“You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about in odd places you know.” (Put Out More Flags, 1942)

Basil Seal was right: an interesting composition appeared when a V1 – the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen or “Vengeance Weapons” – struck a trolley-bus “crammed with home-going workers” in 1943:

“The roof and upper deck, together with the passengers, was blasted away. Standing passengers on the lower deck also were flung against the fronts of houses on the other side of the road. The lower deck passengers were all dead.” Although many of the victims had been decapitated, they were still sitting down, as though waiting for their fares to be collected. (ch. 19, “Hitler’s Last Hope”, pg. 281)

But the quote beginning this review is from someone who almost certainly wasn’t a psychopath: sub-lieutenant Jack Easton, who had worked as a solicitor before the war. He’s describing what flashed through his mind when he heard the “whirr” of a parachute mine arming itself for explosion. He had less space to get clear than his companion, Ordinary Seamen Bennett Southwell, which was why he ducked behind a “brick air shelter” rather than sprinting down the street like Southwell. It’s also why he survived: Southwell’s headless remains weren’t found till six weeks later (ch. 11, “For Gallantry”, pg. 167).

Parachute mines and an “1800-kilogram bomb” nicknamed Satan were two of the biggest challenges faced by bomb-disposers; the two-kilogram butterfly bomb was one of the smallest. And most cunning:

One of the first anti-personnel cluster bombs, it was dropped from containers that held two dozen of the coffee-jar-sized devices. As they fell, their cases fell open, forming a pair of rudimentary hinged wings that rotated in flight like a sycamore seed. This armed the device by twisting out a spindle as it twisted to earth.

The tactical intent behind its use was to cause deaths and injuries among those rushing to put out fires started by the incendiaries with which the Splitterbombe was dropped, so hindering efforts to fight the flames. The butterflies weighed just two kilos and their disc-like wings would become caught up on telephone wires, roof gutters and tree branches, waiting to be triggered. (ch. 18, “Butterflies”, pg. 270)

The butterfly bomb was small, cheap and highly effective, whereas the V2 was just highly effective. The V-weapons are described at the end of the book: the V1, a subsonic pulse-jet, was frightening because it announced its own arrival; the V2, a supersonic rocket, was frightening because it didn’t; the V3, a kind of super-cannon, was never completed. Explosives are one of the most horrific weapons of war but also one of the most interesting. The story of bomb-disposal combines engineering, chemistry and electronics with psychology, surrealism and violent death, which is why this is such a memorable and disturbing book.

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