Tag Archives: history

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

The Fire Court is an engaging ‘who dunnit’ set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. The fire which ravaged London in 1666 is well known, as are some of the buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren to help with the rebuilding; yet how many of us have ever taken the time to think about the aftermath of the disaster? How was it decided who owned which patches of rubble? Who would be responsible for re-building? And, above all, where would the money come from to re-build? I must admit that I have given little thought to that in the past and am grateful to Mr Taylor for introducing me to the Fire Court.

Set up by the king to untangle the complicated ownership/leases/sub-leases etc. the Fire Court was made up of a number of judges who gave their time for free to find the most equitable way to get the re-building underway as quickly as possible. Surprisingly for the 17th century there was very little corruption and the work went ahead swiftly. It is against this backdrop that the story of The Fire Court takes place.

The author has conducted an unprecedented amount of research into the Fire Court itself and 17th century London in general which immerses the reader in a city full of the rubble and ash of the fire, the dirt and smells of the Restoration, the filthy streets, the bridges and the river, the clothing and food which were a part of everyday life. He also shines light on the position of women in a society which still saw them as chattels yet where some women were already attempting to achieve a more independent role. In this realistic world we are introduced to James Marwood as he becomes embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of and therefore permission to re-build the Dragon Yard, a battle which leads to murder and through which we follow Marwood and Cat Lovett on a search for truth and their own survival. This is a well-crafted murder-mystery novel with twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to the very end, and well worth a read on so many levels.

(I was given this novel as a gift and was part-way through before realising that it is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s novel The Ashes of London but it is a novel which stands well on its own.)

The Fire Court can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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The Hollywood actress who could have shortened the war.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jew born in Vienna on 9th November 1914, is better known to the world as the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar. As a child she was interested in acting and theatre, but she also had a passion for inventing things and at the age of 5 she was able to take apart and rebuild her old-fashioned music box. Her father was a banker who loved Hedy’s intellectual curiosity and interest in technology and would happily spend time explaining to her how things worked. Hedy grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world and began her acting career in Europe where at the age 16 she went to a film studio and got a walk on part. The young actress became world famous when she appeared naked in a film called Ecstacy which was banned by Hitler and denounced by the Pope. When she was 19 Hedy married a munitions tycoon, Fritz Mandl, who was allied with the Nazis even though he was Jewish; it was not a happy marriage. By 1937 it was clear that war would be inevitable; Jews were being systematically denied their rights which led to the death of Hedy’s father from stress and worry. Hedy left her husband and escaped to England with her mother where Hedy met the film director Louis B Mayer and went to Hollywood to work for him.

Hedy’s life in America was not easy; she made a range of films from the excellent Algiers to others which are best forgotten, she also struggled to find happiness in her private life. The one constant was her love of inventions, and after filming all day she would work on her latest invention at night. Hedy met and became friend with Howard Hughes who helped here with some of her equipment and offered his scientists to help her with anything she needed. Hedy actually helped Hughes to design the wings for his fastest planes.

Life was hard for Hedy knowing that her country was at war and the US was neutral. Her mother was still in London and planning to go to America which worried Hedy as the Atlantic crossing was incredible dangerous with German U-boats causing havoc amongst

George Antheil

the shipping. Hedy’s creative mind came up with the idea to help those making the Atlantic crossing by improving how radio-controlled torpedos worked. These new torpedos were not particularly effective as the enemy were able to jam their signals and send them off course, Hedy thought that if the launch boat could communicate with the torpedo once it was on its way and make it change direction to follow the target then the German U-boats would no longer have such a great advantage. The problem was how to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. With a leap of creativity Hedy decided that the ships should constantly change the frequency of the signal to the torpedo in order to confuse the enemy, something she called frequency-hopping. With such a system the enemy would only be able to jam a split second at a single frequency and so the signal would get through. In 1939 a new remote-controlled music radio had been invented by Philco and Hedy realised that this could be the answer she was looking for. Why not hop around frequencies in the same way that you could hop between radio stations, constantly sending the changing signal to the torpedo in a way which would be totally secret. It was a perfect solution but Hedy didn’t know how to put it together.

This is where her friend the composer George Anthiel came in. George came up with the idea which would make Hedy’s concept work using the same system as that used by pianos which play themselves – the rolls activate piano keys so why couldn’t they activate radio frequencies in both the torpedo and the ship? The idea was for two rolls of card with holes in them (similar to those used by the pianos) to start at the same time and run at the same speed so the ship and torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern of frequencies; there were 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano, and it would be impossible for the enemy to jam these all at the same time as it would require too much power; it would also be almost impossible to crack the system as each pair of rolls could be uniquely created using a random pattern. George and Hedy took their idea to the National Inventors Council in 1941, and the Council put them in touch with a physicist at Cal Tech called Sam Mackeown, who was an expert on electronics. On 11th August 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, Lamarr’s married name at the time. George and Hedy took the invention to the navy but they rejected it, and the US government seized her patent in 1942 as the ‘property of an enemy alien’.

Hedy selling war bonds

Unable to contribute to the war effort through her invention Hedy, the ‘enemy alien’, worked for the government selling war bonds and sold around $25 million worth (equivalent to around $343 million in todays money), she also spent time entertaining the troops.

After the war Hedy’s acting career was varied, and she never found happiness in her love life. In 1969 she wrote to a friend asking if he could find out what happened to her patent. By this time her idea of frequency hopping had been put into use in military communications – all the US ships used during the Cuban crisis of 1962 used frequency hopping radios. Hedy realised she should have been making money from this but was told that the patent had expired in 1959 before the navy began to use the idea, however there is evidence that they gave the idea to a contractor and it was used long before the expiry date. In about 1955 frequency hopping was used to develop a sonobuoy used by the US navy to detect submarines – once a submarine was detected signals from the sonobuoy were passed to a naval airplane and back to the ship – the system was totally secure, and the developer has even paid tribute to Lamarr’s invention which he used for the sonobuoy, and also for surveillance drones which were developed to be used over Vietnam.

Sonobouy

It was not until May 1990 that Forbes magazine became the first member of the mainstream press to write about Hedy’s invention.  In 1997 Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the fields of arts, sciences, business, or invention have significantly contributed to society.

Hedy Lamarr died on 19th January 2000, and never lived to see herself and George inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The Hollywood actress with a love of inventing had come up with an idea which could have given the Allied navies the upper-hand over enemy U-boats and, perhaps, helped to shorten the war. Now, more than 70 years later, Hedy’s invention is used in satellite technology including US nuclear command and control; and you carry it in your pocket too, for GPS, wifi and Bluetooth all owe their origins to the Hollywood actress who often bemoaned the fact that the world knew her for her beauty whilst she believed that brains were always more important than looks.

Sonobouy used in the search for Flight MH370

 

Recommended Read – Lionheart by Sharon Penman

lionheartRichard I was crowned King in 1189 and set off almost immediately for the Third Crusade. This was a bloody campaign to regain the Holy Land, marked by warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. Men and women found themselves facing new sorts of challenges and facing an uncertain future. John, the youngest son, was left behind – and with Richard gone, he was free to conspire with the French king to steal his brother’s throne.

Overshadowing the battlefields that stretched to Jerusalem and beyond were the personalities of two great adversaries: Richard and Saladin. They quickly took the measure of each other in both war and diplomacy. The result was mutual admiration: a profound acknowledgement of a worthy opponent.

In Lionheart, a gripping narrative of passion, intrigue, battle and deceit, Sharon Penman reveals a true and complex Richard – a man remarkable for his power and intelligence, his keen grasp of warfare and his concern for the safety of his men, who followed him against all odds.

Most people have heard of the English king Richard I, known as the Lionheart, but do we really know the truth about the man? As with any medieval character much has been lost with the passage of time, and often much of what remains is distorted or written by those who came after and had an axe to grind. If you come to Lionheart with a background of legends then you will be expecting to read about a man who was a bad king, who put his love of battle and search for glory before the needs of his kingdom, even put that kingdom at risk for his own selfish reasons. Yet after reading this novel by Ms Penman you will most likely come away with a different view; it may be possible that Richard I is as maligned and misunderstood as that other Richard, King Richard III.

Ms Penman, who has conducted extensive research of the chronicles and first-hand accounts of the events of the Third Crusade, reveals a different Richard. Here we see a man driven by a genuine desire to retake the Holy Land for God, who knew the risks to his lands back in Europe but was prepared to accept these for the glory of God. It is true that he was a brave, almost reckless, warrior but he was also a fine tactician and general with a deep grasp of politics and human character which enabled him to bring a well-rounded approach to his plans and often a depth of understanding which his contemporaries did not see.

Surprisingly, Lionheart is not a book full of blood and gore, it takes many pages for the Crusaders to reach the Hoy Land, but it is engrossing in its revelation of the times and key people – revelations based on solid facts supported by both Christian and Saracen sources. It introduces us to a cast of well-rounded and believable characters whose weaknesses as well as strengths are fully exposed. Whilst not being the bad king that he is often portrayed to be Richard was a poor husband and probably a deeply selfish man (but that was not unusual for medieval monarchs who believed that they were the chosen instruments of God). Ms Penman also roots her novels in a realistic world which allows us to almost feel the heat and discomfort experienced by those who had never been out of Europe before, the comforts of court life, the food, the clothing worn, the terrible sea voyages undertaken.

Lionheart a is solid, detailed, character driven historical novel which delves into the political intricacies of the closing years of the twelfth century. It immerses the reader in the Third Crusade and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history, religion and the enigma which was Richard I. I look forward to reading A King’s Ransom which will bring the story of Richard to its final conclusion.

You can find Lionheart on Amazon

You can find out more about Sharon Penman here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Cavalry, tanks, and a German propaganda coup

The cavalry charge at Krojanty on the first day of the Second World War is widely described as the last cavalry charge in modern warfare. The story goes that the Poles came across advancing German tanks and bravely charged them, pennants flying, sun shining on their swords and lances; an out of date and backward country taking on the mechanical might of a modern army. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L Shirer even described the charge as ‘Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught’; it is an evocative image of the Polish upper class, a well-educated fighting elite, sacrificing themselves in the defence of their homeland against Nazi Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. But is it really true?

charge-savoia-cavaleria
The Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last cavalry charges of WW2

Many may be surprised to know that horses, which had always played an important role in warfare, continued to do so during the Second World War. The German Army still had around 500,000 in 1939, and almost 2.7 million in service by the end of the war; in two months during the winter of 1941-2 179,000 horses died of exhaustion and cold on the Eastern Front. The majority of these horses were used for logistical purposes, but cavalry had not disappeared altogether. Some cavalry units still used lances and sabres, but most were now mounted infantry able to get quickly from one place to another where they would dismount to use more modern weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. There were cavalry units attached to a number of armies – the French, British (particularly the Sikh sowars who led the last British sabre charge of the war on the Burma Frontier), Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Rumanians, and Italians, as well as the Germans and Poles.

In 1939 Poland had 11 cavalry brigades which made up 10% of the army and were intended to be used as mobile reserves, and far from Krojanty being the last cavalry charge there were at least 14 such engagements by the Poles during the first month of the war,* most of them successful. So why is the Krojanty charge so famous and so misrepresented?

Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Eugeniusz_Swiesciak
Eugeniusz Swiesciak

The action, which was part of the wider Battle of Tuchola Forest, took place near the village of Krojanty on the evening of 1st September 1939. A group of German infantry were resting in the forest and Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz (who had fought in the cavalry during the First World War and knew from experience that the element of surprise would be vital in any attack) ordered Commander Eugeniusz Świeściak of the Pomeranian Uhlans to initiate a charge in one of the very first engagements of the Second World War. The Germans were unprepared and taken completely by surprise, quickly retreating before the Polish cavalry. But the attacker’s upper-hand was short lived as German armoured reconnaissance vehicles deployed from the forest road and opened fire; as the horsemen retreated Świeściak and a third of his 250 men were killed, Colonel Mastalerz was killed trying to save them. The charge had been successful though in that it slowed the German advance and allowed other units of the Polish army to make an orderly retreat in front of the advancing Germans.

Hitler youth magazine
Hitler Youth magazine perpetuating the story

The following day a number of German and Italian reporters visited the battlefield where tanks had now arrived and were deployed near the dead Polish cavalrymen and their mounts. An Italian Journalist named Indro Montanelli jumped to conclusions and sent a report saying that the Poles had been cut down whilst attacking the German tanks. It would have been easy enough for the Germans to deny this, but they quickly saw the propaganda value of the story and ran an article in Die Wehrmacht, a propaganda magazine in Germany, implying that the charge demonstrated how strong and sophisticated the new German army was and how weak and ill-prepared were her enemies. At the end of the war the story was reinforced by the Soviets to show how the poor Polish peasants had been failed by a decadent aristocratic class. As Germany and Italy had the only reporters to visit the site this propaganda myth continued to be perpetuated even up to the 1990’s.

There seems to have been only one instance of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks, and this happened entirely by accident at Mokra. In the middle of the confusion and smoke of battle Captain Hollak suddenly found himself and his unit riding directly at the flank of a German column, with little choice and before the enemy had time to react he led his men at the gallop through the German tanks and seized the high ground. Two days later Mokra was lost to the advancing Germans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The monument to the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at Mokra

There were a number of other small cavalry charges in different theatres of the war during World War 2 whilst Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique used cavalry into the 1970’s; the Americans used horses in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and the 61st Cavalry unit is still a part of the Indian Army today.** So the importance of the horse during warfare continues, and the Charge of Krojanty rather than showing a last brave cavalry charge as the past gave way to modern warfare should probably be seen more as an enduring testimony to the power of propaganda.

**(I believe this is the only non-ceremonial cavalry unit in a modern army but would be interested if anyone can tell me otherwise).

*Polish cavalry charges during the first month of the Second World War:

  • 1st September 1939 – the battle of Krojanty
  • 1st September 1939 – against a small group of the 4th Panzer Division in Mokra
  • 1st September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Janów
  • 2nd September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Borowa Góra
  • 11th September 1939 – Polish cavalry attacked German infantry at Osuchowo
  • 11th – 12th September 1939 – Polish cavalry recaptured the village of Kaluszyn
  • 13th September 1939 – Polish cavalry were repelled at Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 13th September 1939 – A second charge retook Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 15th September 1939 – A polish charge at Brochów
  • 19th September 1939 – Polish cavalry cleared the way for the army to retreat from Wólka Weglowa
  • 21st September 1939 – A Polish charge halted a German assault at Łomianki
  • 23rd September 1939 – Polish cavalry retook Krasnobród (German cavalry was also involved)
  • 24th September 1939 – A Polish cavalry charge initially halted a soviet advance at Husynne before being stopped by tanks
  • 26th September 1939 – 2 Polish charges forced the Germans to withdraw from Morańce

How RADAR helped to win the war

It is always an advantage in battle to know what the enemy is up to. In the past the military relied on observers and spies to supply this information, but during the twentieth century technology began to play a more important role allowing the Allies to identify enemy planes, ships and submarines from a greater distance through the use of radar (Radio Detection and Ranging). Planes were first used in war for reconnaissance (1914-18) but as they became bigger and faster it became clear that planes were the weapons of the future and the threat of bombing of civilian centres grew, in 1932 Stanley Baldwin (the British Prime Minister) said that ‘the bomber will always get through’. To try to combat this scientists and technicians turned to radar.

christian-hc3bclsmeyerjpg.jpg
Christian Hülsmeyer

It was in the 19th century that Michael Faraday and James Maxwell predicted that radio waves existed. In 1886 Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments which proved this to be the case and the first primitive radar system, in which radio waves were sent out and reflections from distant objects detected, was patented by German engineer Christian Hulsmeyer in 1904. Little was done to develop this use of radio waves until the late 1930’s when the threat of war led to at least eight countries – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—independently developing radar. Britain’s air-defense radar system (known as Chain Home) was in place before the Second World War actually began as the government was aware of the very real threat from the German Luftwaffe, and during the next six years of conflict scientists and engineers found dozens of ways of using the simple and yet highly adaptable radar.

Chain_home
Chain Home

A committee set up by th British government in the 1930’s to consider the problem of air defence originally come up with the idea of using electromagnetic waves to develop a ‘death ray’, thankfully Robert Watson-Watt convinced them that this was a bad idea and to concentrate on an aircraft detection system instead! He recognised the importance of being able to see planes from a distance and follow their course in overcast weather or at night. Rapid progress was made as Watson-Watt used what he called his ‘third best principle’ – the best is usually unattainable and the second best unavailable until too late – this meant that they went with the ‘third best’ option and devised a system which worked with two antennas, one for transmitting and one for receiving, as they still had to develop a single antenna to do both. By 1939 a chain of eighteen radar stations was set up to cover the south and east coast of England. Chain Home, as it was called, used fixed transmitters to send out a broad beam of radio pulses to detect planes which were approaching at 1,500 – 2,000 feet; the stations were positioned on cliffs and high ground to give them a greater detection range and they could ‘see’ planes up to 200 miles away. The system was further developed in 1940 with the introduction of a new ground-based radar which could detect low-flying aircraft and ships. This was called Chain Home Low and differed from Chain Home by using a rotating aerial to transmit a narrow beam, rather like a searchlight. It could detect aircraft flying at 500ft from 110 miles away and display the information on a circular screen similar to modern radar displays. Stations could be set up on cliff tops, but if the coastal area they were protecting was low lying the transmitter and receiver would be mounted on towers 200 feet high.

radar operatorWomen in the WAAF worked in these radar centres. When a signal was received from approaching aircraft it was displayed on a green cathode ray tube. This showed the pulse sent out by the transmitter moving in from the edge of the screen with the target aircraft positioned in the centre. The screen could be calibrated for anything up to 200 miles which enabled the operator to ‘zoom in’ on the approaching craft. The radar operator would move a cursor over the position of the aircraft and the information was automatically sent to a calculating machine along with further information which enabled it to work out the plane’s height as well as position. This information was then sent to the mapping room with a large table on which the planes were positioned, a visual aid which made it easier for non-technical officers to direct the defending planes.

Chain Home was a massive step forward in air defence but it did have its problems. As the stations faced out to the sea contact was lost with enemy aircraft once they crossed the coastline, and Chain Home Low could not help either as it was difficult to distinguish between planes and signals from the ground. So the Observer Corps was given the job of watching the skies with tradition means (binoculars) and plotting enemy aircraft formations. Another problem was that although Chain Home picked up signals from approaching aircraft the signals could be misinterpreted and so inaccurate information about enemy strength and height could be passed to Air Command which meant that British fighter pilots could be put in dangerous situations, but the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks as the pilots no longer needed to conduct continuous air patrols.

The first serious use of radar came during the Battle of Britain when Chain Home was able to intercept approaching German bombers and fighters. It was even possible to ‘see’ the enemy at night with Air Interception (AI) (which allowed fighter planes to fly directly towards enemy bombers at night), Ground Control Interception (GCI) and the Plan Position Indicator (PPI), all thanks to radar; it was also possible for searchlights to use radar to help target planes for the anti-aircraft guns.

proximity-fuze-diagram
Proximity fuse

There were a number of other developments in the use of radar during the Second World War:

  • Proximity fuse – a tiny radar set built into each artillery shell to trigger detonation when the shell was close to its target. By the end of the war 22 million had been produced and were particularly effective when used by anti-aircraft artillery.
  • IFF – Identification Friend or Foe, which enabled Allied planes to identify each other using radar signals.
  • H2S – an Air Interception system which could display a map of the ground below in an aircraft.
  • Gee – a system of navigation which let bombers know their exact position at any time on their journey to Germany. Without Gee the 1,000-bomber raids would never have been possible.
  • Oboe – a positioning system which allowed two bases back in England to pinpoint planes when they were directly over their target; Oboe made it possible for precision attacks on munitions factories in the Ruhr and on missile bases on the north coast of Europe.
  • ASV – a Coastal Command aircraft carrying an ASV device could use it to pinpoint a U-boat on the surface; in conjunction with a similar device on destroyers and corvettes the Allies were finally able to defeat the German submarine menace which threatened to starve Britain into submission.
Frankreich, Radargerät "Würzburg"
Wurzburg

We often forget that Germany had its own effective radar systems on their bombers during the first months of the war. They also positioned their “Würzburg” system on the north coast of France to detect approaching aircraft. So why did radar seem to be much more successful for the Allies than the enemy? This can be put down, in part, to the attitude of those in positions of power with the Battle of Britain being a prime example. On 15th August 1940, at the height of the Battle, Reichsmarschall Göering decided to halt attacks on Chain Home stations; his reasoning was that “It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked so far has been put out of action.” Unlike Göering, however, ACM Dowding recognised just how important radar was and what a benefit it would be if fully integrated into air strategy. The fact that the Germans stopped targeting the radar stations strengthened the British defence and played a critical role in the final victory of the Battle of Britain. As Sir William Douglas commented, “I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won… if it were not for the radar chain”.

radar towers.jpg

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.