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Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’

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.

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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.

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Puskás by György SzöllősiPuskás: Madrid, the Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of the World’s Greatest Goalscorer, György Szöllősi, foreword by Sir Alex Ferguson (Freight Books 2015)

When an earthquake or large meteor strikes the earth or moon, it can ring like a bell for a long time, as shock waves bounce to and fro, slowly dying out. That can happen in culture too: some events are like earthquakes that shake a formerly stable landscape. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is one of those cultural earthquakes. There was a riot at its début in Paris in 1913.

Ferenc Puskás (1927-2006) (pronounced roughly FEHR-ents PUSH-kaash) was the orchestrator of another Slavic earthquake, forty years later and about 150 miles north-west, in London. Except that Puskás wasn’t Slavic and didn’t speak a Slavic language. Hungarians and their language aren’t Eastern European in any conventional sense. Instead, they invaded Eastern Europe and overturned a Slavic tradition. Puskás and his Magyar team-mates invaded and overturned another tradition when they beat England 3-6 at Wembley Stadium in November 1953.

How could that happen? As György Szöllősi says viâ his translators Andrew Clark and Matthew Watson-Broughton, it was generally accepted at the time that “England were invincible on their own turf” (“The Magical Magyars”, pg. 60). At the return match in Budapest in May 1954 Hungary did it again. Only more so: this time the score was 7-1. Tom Finney, himself one of the all-time greats, said that it was like “cart horses playing race-horses” (pg. 61). Puskás scored twice in both games and one of those goals, created by a pull-back that sent Billy Wright sliding off the pitch at Wembley, is one of the most famous of all time.

If his career had ended after he came off the pitch in Budapest, Puskás would have sealed his place in footballing history. And it did soon look as though his career might be over. Stalin died in 1953 and increasing unrest in Hungary led to full rebellion in 1956. Bullet-holes in the parliament buildings in Budapest still show what happened next: the rebellion was brutally crushed. Puskás was one of more than 200,000 Hungarians who went into exile.

He wasn’t able to return for decades and his fellow countrymen could only whisper about the remarkable feats he performed when he managed to find a new club. It was called Real Madrid and Puskás joined Alfredo Di Stéfano to become one of its greatest ever players: he scored seven goals in two European Cup Finals for the club. His first batch was four, in the 7-3 crushing of Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960. Then he scored a hat-trick against Benfica in 1962.

Unfortunately, Benfica scored five goals and no-one else scored for Real. Even the greats don’t always win, but that hat-trick proves that Puskás could do remarkable things even in defeat. His statistics are astonishing, reminiscent of Don Bradman’s in cricket: 511 goals in 533 Hungarian and Spanish top-flight games and 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary. The former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is one of those who are still awed by Puskás: Ferguson writes the foreword to this book and says he “dodged school” in 1953 to watch Hungary play England at Wembley. FIFA now have a Puskás award for goal of the year and there’s a photo of Cristiano Ronaldo holding up a red number 10 shirt bearing the name Puskás.

Ronaldo is another great, but his challenges off the pitch are remembering where he left the keys for his Lamborghini and deciding which ear to put his diamond stud in. Puskás lived through the Second World War, then saw a team-mate, Sándor Szůcs, hanged for trying to leave Hungary, then came under sentence of death himself when he went into exile after the Hungarian Uprising. He didn’t wear diamonds, he was a diamond in the Aranycsapat, the Golden Team that was the pride of Hungary before Puskás and team-mates like Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis became unpersons as traitors to the communist state.

This biography is short and easy to read, but it would have been improved by an index and contents page. Puskás’s career would have been improved by a World Cup winner’s medal and György Szöllősi describes why he didn’t get one. He also describes what Puskás’s real ancestry was and why he censored his birthdate. Hungary is an interesting country in lots of ways and it’s still making more of a mark in Europe than its size and population might lead you to expect. Puskás put his mark on European history in ninety minutes at Wembley in 1953, but he did much more than that and this book tells you how.

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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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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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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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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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