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Subject: ‘Weapons’

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The Cuban Missile Crisis was about not losing and saving face

Posted in America, Communism, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Politics, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about the Cold War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Russian nuclear missile,  picture, image, illustration
Russian nuclear missile on a military parade in Red Square

On Sunday, 14th October 1962, a warm autumn day, an American U-2 plane returned from a reconnaissance flight over western Cuba. Rolls of negatives from its camera were rushed to processing laboratories and then to an interpretation centre where specialists peered at the blown-up photographs frame by frame.

By the next day, they had identified a launching pad, a series of buildings for ballistic missiles and a missile itself on the ground. At breakfast on Tuesday, John Kennedy, the American president saw the photographs They supported the reports of his intelligence agents, in Cuba and confirmed his worst fears. The Russians were installing nuclear weapons in Cuba.

How had the missiles come to be there? Since the revolution in Cuba which had brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba’s links with the East had grown stronger, while Castro himself had said of America: “Understanding is impossible.” But why should the Russians, who had never before placed nuclear missiles in another country, install them on an island many thousands of miles away from Russia, lying next to their main adversary, and governed by an avowed enemy of the United States?

It had been done as a trial of strength. For some time, a group of Russian leaders had been convinced that the Americans had become too rich, too soft and too liberal to fight; and that the Soviet Union could safely use its utmost nuclear force against them. Krushchev, the Soviet leader, did not agree with this view but he had to put it to the test. That was why he decided to install over sixty missiles with a range of up to 2,000 miles, right under the Americans’ noses.

This would double the Soviet potential striking force against America, and if America took no action in return, she would lose face throughout the world, particularly in other places, such as Berlin, where there was open confrontation between East and West.

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Stirling’s Raiders were officially called L Detachment S.A.S.

Posted in Africa, Bravery, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 2 on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about the Second World War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

Stirling's Raiders,  picture, image, illustration
David Stirling leads 'Stirling's Raiders' against German and Italian air forces in North Africa by Graham Coton

Hobbling on his crutches, the 6 ft. 6 in. Scottish subaltern presented himself at the main entrance of Middle East Headquarters in Cairo one July morning in 1941, only to be told that no one could enter without a pass. He moved away, waited until the sentries were busy with the occupants of a staff car, then left his crutches against a tree and slipped through a break in the barbed wire. “Stop that man!” roared one of the sentries, but by that time David Stirling, Scots Guards, attached to No. 8 Commando, had disappeared through the front door of H. Q.

Moving as fast as his back and leg injuries would allow – he had been in a parachute accident – he found a door marked Adjutant General and marched in. The major within not only told him to clear out, but reminded him that they had met before when Stirling had slept through his lectures on tactics!

So Stirling decided to aim higher and gatecrashed General Ritchie, Deputy Chief-of-Staff, Middle East, who liked the look of his unexpected guest and asked what he wanted. It turned out that the lame lieutenant wanted to destroy the German and Italian air forces on the ground!

Stirling had become convinced that as modern war was now so mobile, small groups operating behind enemy lines and destroying planes, ammunition dumps, repair shops and vehicles could achieve more than most air attacks. Ritchie liked the idea and summoned in his assistant, who turned out to be the fuming major that Stirling had just left. The major hoped he could arrest the young upstart, but instead found himself being ordered to help him. Ritchie passed Stirling’s plans on to the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck, who liked them so much that he ordered the giant Scot to recruit six officers and 60 men and set up a training camp.

He collected his volunteers and soon proved his point by two “attacks” on an R.A.F. base and a naval vessel, using dummy bombs and then ringing up the next day to ask for them back! One of his men, Lieutenant Jock Lewes, invented a combined explosive and incendiary bomb for their raids, a time bomb which weighed under a pound, but could knock out a plane. A single soldier could carry 24 of them.

Stirling’s men were known as L Detachment S.A.S. – Special Air Service – which would make the Germans think that there were British parachute troops in the North African desert.

Even David Stirling’s quick brain did not at once stumble on the right method of transport for his men. Their first operation used planes to get them near their target and then the men dropped by parachute, but the raid failed because too many men failed to rendezvous after the drop. So it was decided to team up with the Long Range Desert Group, a reconnaissance unit, who could take them by truck exactly where they wanted to go and pick them up again after their raids.

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USS Nautilus – the world’s first atomic-powered submarine

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships, Technology, Weapons on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about the USS Nautilus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

USS Nautilus,  picture, image, illustration
USS Nautilus

In 1870 Jules Verne wrote about a mighty submarine that could cruise thousands of leagues under the sea. He called it the Nautilus.

On January 21st, 1954, at a Connecticut shipyard the dream of Jules Verne came true. As Mrs Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the dark green hull of the Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered submarine slid into the water.

Nautilus is 300 feet long, displaces 3,000 tons and cost £10 ½ million to build. Her atomic power can carry her round the world without refuelling.

And her speed is in excess of 20 knots.

When the cheers of the launching ceremony died away Nautilus went to work. Soon she was breaking records and in 1957 came a voyage of exploration as exciting as any that man has known.

The brief of her captain, Commander William Anderson, was to explore beneath the ice packs of the North Pole. The rasp of the diving alarm sounded and for the first time Nautilus edged under the ice.

Somewhere in the ship a juke-box was playing. Off-duty members of the crew relaxed in their almost luxurious quarters.

In the mess another group were eating dinner. Meanwhile in the control room, Commander Anderson wondered what they would find below the ice.

It wasn’t long before the answers to questions that had been puzzling scientists for many years began to arrive. By means of a sonar machine scientists on board were able to form a very good picture of what the ice overhead was like.

A sonar machine is a device that picks up sound and so enables the navigator to detect the presence of any objects outside his ship. This he does by listening for the echo made by an object in the path of a beam of sound.

First they found that it was a huge, ever-moving mass of varying thickness. It was made up of floes ranging from a few feet to ten or twelve feet but not often more.

The North Pole ice-pack is interspersed here and there with small lakes, little more than cracks in the surface.

After cruising for some time beneath the surface Commander Anderson decided to attempt to bring Nautilus to the surface in one of these cracks.

It was, as he put it, rather like “threading a needle.”

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The Black Prince won his spurs at the Battle of Crecy

Posted in Bravery, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the Battle of Crecy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Battle of Crecy,  picture, image, illustration
Battle of Crecy

The day after the battle of Crecy King Edward III of England walked with his sixteen-year-old son, Edward, between the bodies of the French and English dead on the battlefield and said:

“What think you of battle, eh? Isn’t it a grand game?”

Strange question! But this was the year 1346, the medieval age of chivalry, and niceties like disliking the act of killing at sixteen years of age were unheard of.

And young Prince Edward, despite his age, had certainly killed plenty on that battlefield. The Black Prince they called him, from the black armour which he always wore. At Crecy Frenchmen learned to hate this tall, handsome youth, Englishmen to admire him.

As no other battle belonged to one man, Crecy was the Black Prince’s battle. . . .

It began on July 11, 1346, when the king sailed to France with an army of 12,000 men, most of whom were bowmen. The object was to protect English possessions in France which King Philip of France was threatening, although pretty soon it degenerated into an English plundering expedition across the north of France.

At this a French army, four times as strong as the English, not unnaturally began to give chase. At one point they nearly got close enough to pull the English tail as the impertinent invaders just scraped across the River Somme in the nick of time. Then the English marched to the village of Crecy, a tiny place with a windmill.

“We will wait for them here,” said King Edward simply.

The king’s scouts soon reported that they were waiting for a huge army – an army at least four times as big as their own. And that Philip of France had hoisted above his banner the notorious Oriflamme flag.

The Oriflamme was a French standard that signified that no prisoners would be taken and that no conditions of surrender would be accepted – in short, that the enemy could expect no mercy. Philip of France evidently felt that he was in a position to dictate thus.

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Fortifications are still built despite the power of Nuclear bombs

Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about fortifications first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Allies attack bunker,  picture, image, illustration
Allied soldiers attack a steel and concrete anti-aircraft gun site with a flamethrower

As the dazed German soldiers scrambled up from their deep concrete bunkers a terrifying sight met them down the barrels of their guns. The sea seemed covered with landing-craft beyond which lay the big ships, their sides twinkling with flashes of gunfire as they sent salvos of shells high overhead to pound the rear defences of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

For the men manning the pill-boxes and strongpoints along the beaches of Normandy on that 6th day of June in 1944, the threat was more immediate. Even as the roar of the bombers died away and the dust of their bombardment still hung in the air, Allied infantry swarmed ashore and amphibious tanks churned across the open beach. Those Germans who could still stand, fought back with the courage of desperate men, manning their tiny fortresses to the last.

Hitler had said that the Allied invasion must be stopped at the beaches. He boasted that where a German soldier once stood, no other soldier would ever stand again. He would allow no army to drive the Germans from their newly-conquered lands. But his much vaunted Atlantic Wall, part of the Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) which had been built to defend Hitler’s new lands, was neither complete nor capable of resisting an attack like the one which the Allies launched in 1944.

Two years earlier, in 1942, Field Marshal von Runstedt, the man who had led Germany’s blitzkrieg attack on France, was put in charge of defences. It was a strange choice of commander. The Fuehrer put his faith in concrete and steel to meet the threat of an Allied invasion, but Runstedt had already outflanked France’s Maginot Line of static defences back in 1940. He was hardly likely to have much faith in fortresses like those which he had himself defeated.

The French Maginot Line and Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had much in common. In 1930 France started to build a line of fixed defences along her German frontier. The Maginot Line was certainly a strong line of defence. Some of its forts were sunk 200 feet in the ground with subterranean living quarters, stores, communications centres and railways. In addition, the air pressure was kept high to stop poisonous gas from seeping in.

All that could be seen on the surface were steel turrets and acres of concrete. Around and between the main forts were minefields, tank traps, barbed wire and communications trenches. It was an amazing piece of engineering, but it had one outstanding flaw – it simply was not long enough.

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The Western Front was one long siege with two trench systems

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons, World War 1 on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about modern warfare first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 570 published on 16 December 1972.

The Trenches,  picture, image, illustration
A British trench on the Western Front by Andrew Howat

It took many years of suffering before armies learned just what a difference the new weapons made to siege warfare. At a time when soldiers still dressed in bright colours and most people thought of war as a gallant succession of cavalry charges, trench warfare was hardly likely to stir the popular imagination. There was certainly nothing very picturesque about an army grubbing in the ground like moles!

In the early 1860s the American Civil War had proved that the new fire-power could only be countered by trenches, breastworks and rifle pits, but Europe’s professional soldiers refused to learn from a war that they regarded as having been fought by amateurs.

Plevna changed all that. There, in what is now Bulgaria, Osman Pasha defended the crumbling Turkish Empire from the growing might of Russia. Though Turkey was called The Sick Man of Europe, she was served by tough soldiers and skilful generals. On June 3rd, 1877 the Russian artillery opened fire on the fortress-city of Plevna. The Russian bombardment was particularly intense against an isolated but strongly entrenched outwork known as the Grivitza Redoubt. After hours of shelling the Russian assault began. The crack Penza Regiment led the way followed by the Kosloff, 17th, 18th, Tamboff and Galitz Regiments.

They reached the redoubt to meet a devastating barrage of small-arms fire as the grim-faced Turks rose up from behind their battered earthworks. Thousands died and the Russian attack was a costly failure – earthworks and rifles had won the day.

Everyone learned the lesson except the British who had to endure a sharp lesson of their own from the sharp-shooting Boers of South Africa. Accurate Boer rifle fire repeatedly broke up well disciplined British attacks. Yet in the end the British did learn and went even further than their foes, using barbed wire and block houses to defeat the mobile Boers.

Meanwhile the nations of Europe were experimenting with new types of fortress. The Franco-Prussian War had already demonstrated what heavy artillery could do to the old citadels of Europe, just as effectively as Osman Pasha’s stand at Plevna had proved the power of massed rifle fire against infantry assault.

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Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the master of siege warfare

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Sebastien Vauban first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.

Sebastien Vauban,  picture, image, illustration
"You are Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban? You were responsible for the defence of the Argonne towns?" asked the Royalist Commander; picture by Pat Nicolle

As the last embers of civil war died in France in 1653 the Prince of Conde, leader of the rebels, fled to Spain leaving the Royalists under Cardinal Mazarin to mop up any remaining resistance. It was a tough fight, particularly in the Argonne region north-east of Paris where a group of little towns put up a stout defence against the Royal forces.

When the towns finally fell the prisoners were brought in, each fearing the worst.

“You!” bellowed a tough looking guard at one of the prisoners. “Yes you! The Commander wants to see you – personally.” A young officer stepped from the ranks of captives. His heart sank. He knew that the victorious Royalists had good reason to hate him, he had caused them much loss in men and materials.

“You are Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban? You were responsible for the defence of the Argonne towns?” asked the Royalist Commander as he sat behind his desk in the HQ tent. “Explain your conduct. Why did you take up arms against your king?”

Young Vauban was only twenty, and of course he was scared.

“I have the honour to serve in the Prince of Conde’s own regiment. My commander ordered me to defend those towns and I did so to the best of my ability. As to the success of our defence. I have always been interested in fortification and so, perhaps, I put more thought into it than might be expected from a mere rebel.”

The Royalist officer noticed the irony in Vauban’s reply but ignored it. He had a plan of his own and wanted to talk to Vauban alone. The other officers left.

Some time later the Commander came out of the tent with young Vauban and announced, “Meet Monsieur Vauban who has enlisted in the King’s service. I feel that his talent as a builder of walls and ditches may serve our Royal Sovereign well.”

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Gunpowder challenged castle builders in the Renaissance

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Science, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about castles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Artillery castles,  picture, image, illustration
Artillery Castles: the simplest was Camber Castle (top), made up of a 12-sided structure with a central tower, whilst Deal Castle (centre) was more complicated and built on three levels; (bottom) the round castle at Dover; pictures by Pat Nicolle

“Who is this man?” snapped Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes of the Order of St. John.

“His name is Roger, Sire. He is an English sailor,” replied one of the knights. “He has a scheme to destroy the Turkish assault bridge.” At this the Grand Master pricked up his ears. Though he was a busy man organising the defences, d’Aubusson was particularly interested in anything that could stop another Turkish attack on the St. Nicholas Tower, the northern outpost of Rhodes’ defences.

For months the Turks had hurled themselves with incredible courage and ferocity at the walls of Rhodes. Their cannon had smashed ramparts, towers and battlements. Once they had tried to take the St. Nicholas Tower and this time they were planning to float across an assault bridge. But how did they intend to do it? Roger the Englishman had the answer.

“Sire, the Turks brought an anchor in secret across the harbour last night. They have now passed a rope through it and tomorrow they will haul their bridge across on the rope.”

“Two hundred crowns if you can get rid of that anchor!” boomed the Grand Master. And two hundred crowns Roger earned the following night, for he was a fine swimmer. Yet the Turks were not so easily deterred. They concentrated a barrage of artillery fire on the St. Nicholas Tower while thirty ships towed the bridge across. With ships, shouts, giant cannon and janissaries the Turks once more attacked. The walls of Rhodes crumbled – but the Knights of St. John drove back their fanatical foe until after three months of siege the Turks retreated.

The shattered fortress of Rhodes had survived, yet all Europe knew that this Christian victory had been won because the knights were as fanatical as their foes. The weakness of their fortifications in the face of artillery fire was plain for all to see.

During the 15th century Italy was in the front line of the war against the Turk. Then in 1494 Charles VIII of France rampaged through Italy and gave the Italians yet another reason to improve their defences. One of the best Italian fortification engineers was Michele San Michele and in 1520 it was he who came up with an entirely new idea – artillery bastions which he designed for the defences of Verona.

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Siege warfare could destroy entire towns and cities

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Royalty, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about Mediaeval fortified towns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

Carcassonne,  picture, image, illustration
A picture history of the mediaeval French walled city of Carcassonne by Pat Nicolle

A sudden bell sounded over the silent city of Calais. For a while it seemed to be ringing for the dead. Calais was utterly silent. Then there was a murmer. You could not tell where it came from – then there was a shout, and then another. A woman cried out in a high pitched voice, a man bellowed to his neighbour, doors creaked open, hurrying feet rang on stone steps. People came out of their houses, poured into the streets.

“What news? What news!” they shouted to each other as they rushed along towards the main square in the middle of Calais.

They were a pitiable sight – old people with faces drawn and yellow, little children in the last stages of starvation, women clinging to their husbands in fear and hope, and men, once proud and strong but now walking with the uncertain steps of those whose bodies cry out for food. The people of Calais were starving.

For almost a year since September 1346 the French city of Calais had defied an English army under Edward III. It had been a long and terrible siege but now the commander of Calais’ garrison, Sir Jean de Vienne, had news from the English camp.

A silence fell on the citizens as they stood before their grim faced leader. Then Sir Jean spoke.

“The English King is angry. Our resistance has cost him much in men and money, yet we have won terms from him, though they are hard. Our city must submit to the English. We, the knights and squires, must go as prisoners to the enemy camp. But . . .”, Sir Jean looked at the fearful faces all around. “. . . six of your leading citizens must also go to the English King dressed for their own execution, wearing only their shirts, and with ropes around their necks. They shall take with them the keys of Calais.”

For a moment there was a horrified silence, then the richest man in Calais, a proud man whose once wide waist had given little clue to his courage, stepped forward. His name was Seigneur Eustache de Saint Pierre. Five other rich merchants followed him and with their self-sacrifice Calais was saved.

As it turned out, those six brave burghers of Calais did not die. Edward of England would have executed them but his kind-hearted wife, Queen Philippa, softened his heart. That siege had a happy ending. Most sieges did not! They were bitterly cruel and often dragged on for years. The reason was simple – fortifications were getting too good for the siege weapons then available.

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America court-martialled her most visionary military patriot

Posted in America, Aviation, Ships, Weapons, World War 1, World War 2 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

William Mitchell in WW1,  picture, image, illustration
William Mitchell and the bombers of World War I by Graham Coton

The ex-German submarine, U-117, could be seen lying at anchor as the mist rose off the calm waters beyond the Virginian coastline. Near the sub – but not too near – were ships of the United States Atlantic Fleet, and on the decks of one of them, the Henderson, were Congressmen, Government officials, admirals, generals and observers from foreign countries, all staring at the once-sinister sub.

Suddenly, everyone looked skywards. The best American bombers, fragile and out-of-date, were heading for their target. For the first time, aircraft were going to try to sink a ship. Actually, there were four targets, only one of which was to be attacked that June day in 1921. The others, due for later assaults, included the “unsinkable” veteran of the Battle of Jutland, the battleship Ostfriesland.

The planes were led by Brigadier-General William Mitchell who had had the “ridiculous” idea that ships without air cover could be sunk by planes. Service chiefs thought him mad, though he was a war hero and was now Assistant Chief of Military Aviation of the U.S. Army, and therefore a man to whom they had to listen. But now they were lined up to enjoy his anticipated downfall.

Instead, in a matter of minutes, twelve small bombs had sent the U-boat to the bottom. But this great moment in the history of warfare was dismissed by one admiral with a sneering, “It proves nothing. Our guns could have sunk it in half the time!”

This was the beginning of a saga which resulted in the greatest prophet in the story of military flying being court-martialled and disgraced, and then to die shortly before his theories were proved right in the most dramatic way imaginable.

“Billy” Mitchell had joined the army in 1898. Later, he met the Wright Brothers, who, in 1903, achieved the first manned, powered flight, and he became keenly interested in flying. In the First World War, which the U.S.A. entered in 1917, he was the first American to fly over enemy lines.

He had an uncanny vision of the shape of aerial warfare to come, visualising a whole division of soldiers being dropped by parachute from 1,200 bombers. In fact, he was 20 years ahead of his time.

Yet even if his advanced ideas could not be put into practice, the air attacks he organised were great successes. But he ended the war convinced that the U.S. Army Air Force had been betrayed. Despite huge sums granted it, only 196 planes, many of them “flying coffins,” had reached France by the end of the war.

More urgent was the future. After several years of campaigning which did not even convince the brighter brass hats, he at last got permission for his demonstration.

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