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Archive for December, 2013

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The most deadly enemy of the battleship was the aeroplane

Posted in Aviation, Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, Weapons, World War 2 on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about ships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Pearl Harbour, picture, image, illustration

Pearl Harbour by John Keay

At the end of the First World War, the German high seas fleet sailed into Scapa Flow and sank itself. A whole herd of super sea-monsters rolled over on their iron-plated flanks and died there in the Orkneys.

It was an omen!

The mark of death was already upon the whole breed of super giants. As long ago as 1918, all dreadnoughts were doomed.

Looking back in time it is easy to read the signs that marked the doom of this majestic and terrible breed of fighting machines.

But in 1918, it was not so easy to foresee the short-lived future of the giant battleship. Indeed, it was still necessary for any nation with overseas life-lines to maintain impressive battle fleets.

So more dreadnoughts were built between the two world wars. From the slipways of Great Britain came H.M.S. Nelson and Rodney, King George V, Duke of York, Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Hood. Although restricted by the Versailles peace treaty, Germany produced the small pocket-battleships Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer and started work on the immensely strong and heavily armed Bismarck and Tirpitz, both much bigger than any warship then built in Britain. Between 1937 and 1942, Japan completed the largest battleships ever built, the 72,000 tons (laden) Yamato and Musashi. French, American and Italian shipyards were busy too.

The battlefleets of the world were being prepared for action, but very rarely would any of these formidable battle wagons fire at each other in anger. Many of them would see action, and many of them would be dreadfully battered before plunging like flaming iron coffins to the bottom of the world’s deepest oceans.

Of the 32 dreadnoughts lost by the nations taking part in the Second World War, only six of them were sunk by the direct action of gunfire from other warships. H.M.S. Hood sank within three minutes of a shell from the Bismarck finding its way into an ammunition magazine. The old French battleship Bretagne was sunk by the British Navy at Oran to prevent her falling into German hands, and the Japanese lost two battleships and a battle cruiser to shellfire in the Pacific.

The German Scharnhorst was straddled by a salvo from Duke of York’s 14-in. guns but was finished off by torpedoes from cruisers and destroyers . . . and it was this weapon, the torpedo, that was to hasten the slaughter of the iron battle giants.

The torpedo, an underwater weapon, is usually thought of as the killing arm of the submarine, as indeed it has been since the Germans sent their U-boat fleets out to sink merchant ships in the First World War. They used the same tactic, with harrowing effect, during the Second World War. But only three dreadnoughts, H.M.S. Royal Oak, Barham and the Japanese battle cruiser Kongo fell victims to underwater attack.

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The murderous Borgias – one of the most infamous families of all time

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about Italy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Cesare Borgia, picture, image, illustration

Giorgio the boatman watches Cesare Borgia overseeing the dumping of his brother's body in the Tiber by C L Doughty

In the early hours of the morning, one July day in 1497, Giorgio the waterman sat alongside his boat on the banks of the River Tiber. The moon was up, yet the streets of Rome were parched from the heat of an unusually hot summer’s day. Giorgio could not sleep and lay on the ground, full-length, gazing idly across the dark waters.

Out of the shadows two men appeared, walking cautiously along the path beside the river. They stopped some distance from Giorgio, peering right and left before beckoning quickly into the darkness behind them. Giorgio judged it wise to remain quiet and unobserved. He knew it did not pay to be curious: too many cut-throats and assassins roamed the streets at night. Even as the thought crossed his mind, four more men appeared, one richly clad and riding a white horse.

The party stopped at the river’s edge and Giorgio was close enough to see the limp corpse of a man draped across the horse’s back. Close enough, too, to hear the man on the horse addressed by another as “Your Eminence.” The body was tumbled to the ground, its legs and arms grabbed by two men, who swung it back and forth a couple of times and then tossed it far out into the river. After a moment a dark object appeared, floating on the surface. Again a voice spoke, muted but clear enough to be overheard. “‘Tis the Duke’s cloak, Your Eminence.” Then the men took stones and threw them at the cloak until it sank out of sight. In a moment all the figures had disappeared back into the shadows and the waters were still. “Your Eminence” – twice had Giorgio heard the words – and this was the title of a cardinal of Rome!

When Giorgio finally plucked up courage to report what he had seen to the police there was already a hue and cry in Rome over the disappearance of Giovanni, Duke of Gandia. Giorgio’s story spread quickly to the Vatican and to the ears of Giovanni’s father, Pope Alexander VI. He ordered the Tiber to be dragged. Two hundred fishermen scoured the river’s depths with nets and poles for several hours, until a body was found, jammed against the sewage pipes, pierced with 14 dagger-thrusts and its throat slit.

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Guernica was obliterated to showcase the Nazi war machine

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about the Spanish Civil War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Guernica, picture, image, illustration

German Junkers bombed Guernica to demonstrate the will and power of the Nazi regime

German bombing planes roared over the Spanish coast from the Bay of Biscay.

Beneath them slid a panorama of fields and villages, of farms and towns, of people scratching a living from the hard soil or quietly going about their business.

A few miles from the coast, they began approaching a small country town of a few thousand inhabitants called Guernica. At that time, it was just a name on the map to most people – those who did not live there.

The squadron leader shouted some terse orders over his radio to the other planes. “Target ahead. Open bomb hatches!”

As the planes roared over the little Spanish town, 4,000 bombs dropped from the German aircraft and exploded in a mighty holocaust of destruction.

After that, there was not much of Guernica left – or of its population. And Guernica, from being a place hardly anybody had heard of, shot into the world’s headlines.

The date was 27th April, 1937, and the Spanish civil war had been on for less than a year.

Why had Guernica been destroyed? It was completely undefended; of no military importance at all. And why were the Nazis involved? This was a civil war to overthrow a government to which there was a great deal of opposition. It was called the Popular Front and it was composed of Liberals, Socialists and a few Communists, who took office after an election in 1936.

Almost at once, there had been a military revolt. General Francisco Franco led a Moorish army across to Spain from Morocco, which then had a Spanish zone in north-west Africa. They were supported by another force brought down from the north from around Pamplona and Saragossa. Their target was Madrid, the capital, and Guernica was certainly not in their path.

The uprising was almost the signal for a miniature world war to begin, a kind of rehearsal for the Second World War due to start a few years later in 1939. Germany and Italy sided with the rebels with arms, ammunition, bombing planes and soldiers in the guise of trained “volunteers”. Towns like Guernica were bombed by the Nazis to intimidate the Spanish government and to let the world know that Germany could be a terrifying enemy. But the destruction of Guernica was a disaster that did not further the rebels’ cause.

Russia showed herself on the side of the government. It sent munitions and, through an international Communist organisation, formed an International Brigade of anti-Fascist volunteers from other lands. Fascism is a policy which puts the control of a country into the hands of one man, a dictator.

This is what Franco eventually became after the rebel armies had fought their way through to Madrid, besieged the city and driven the government to Valencia. Franco claimed that he was the head of the real government of Spain, and was immediately recognised as such by Portugal, Germany and Italy.

The war dragged on until early in 1939, when Madrid fell.

The corporal from Corsica who became Napoleon I, Emperor of France

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Coronation of Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France; (inset) Napoleon watches Moscow burn before his ignominious retreat; pictures by Andrew Howat

The great hall looked more like a disturbed ant-heap than a council chamber of the new Republic of France. It was difficult to believe that these angrily shouting men, rushing hither and thither, were solemn councillors meeting to debate the affairs of the country.

It had all begun when a short, dark little man, speaking French with a foreign accent, had arisen to make certain suggestions about a change of government. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and he had entered the council chamber believing himself to be a kind of national hero. Over the past four years he had fought a number of brilliant battles against the enemies of the new-born Republic but though the French were grateful, and accorded him high honour, they were deeply suspicious of any attempt to alter their government.

Napoleon had made a mistake, the first serious mistake in a highly successful career. The government at that time was composed of five men, called the Directors. They were good men, worthy men, said Napoleon, but they knew nothing about military matters. What was needed was a strong man who could defend France and provide a firm government.

He got no further than that. The councillors exploded with rage.

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Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquis of Worcester, harnessed the power of steam

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Royalty, Science on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about science first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Marquis of Worcester, picture, image, illustration

The Marquis of Worcester invented a machine that roared, rumbled and gurgled and scared away a gang of marauding Roundheads when a servant shouted "Run, the lions are loose!"

From the ramparts of Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, the Marquis of Worcester watched a small force of Roundheads approach. There seemed little he could do to prevent the enemy from entering and plundering his home, or even to stop them from dragging him away to stand trial as a Royalist supporter of King Charles I.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Worcester had pledged himself to uphold the monarchy, and the king had commissioned him secretly to raise armed forces in Ireland and on the Continent of Europe to do battle with the Commonwealth armies.

In 1645 he signed a treaty on Charles’s behalf with the Irish Catholics, but elsewhere his mission failed.

When the plot was discovered, Worcester was disowned by the king, who denied that he had ever contemplated using foreign mercenaries to fight against his own people. Worcester’s only hope was flight from England, and he was in the midst of hurried preparations to embark for France when the Roundheads appeared.

As well as being a Royalist nobleman, the marquis was also a mechanical inventor of some brilliance, and his ingenuity now gave practical aid to his loyalty. He had constructed a system of hydraulic engines and wheels to convey water from the moat surrounding the castle to the top of its great tower.

Such a contraption was unheard of in his day, and as can be imagined, it made a considerable noise when it was operated. The marquis resolved to try and startle the Roundheads by confronting them with a display of his engineering works. He gave orders for them to be set in motion.

“There was such a roaring,” he wrote afterwards, “that the poor, silly men stood so amazed as if they had been half dead – and yet they saw nothing.”

The wheels clanked and turned, the waters roared and gurgled. Then one of the marquis’s servants, showing great resource and powers of imagination, came running towards them, shouting: “Look to yourselves, my masters, for the lions are loose.” Whereupon the startled Roundheads tumbled over each other in their efforts to escape.

That, at least, is the legend attached to the Marquis of Worcester’s fortunate escape from the hands of his enemies. It may well have been true, for he was one of the most remarkable amateur scientists ever to have lived, and it is probable that he actually made the first steam engine to be built since the days of Hero of Alexandria, some 2,000 years before.

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Charles VII owed his crown to bold commanders and to Joan of Arc

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about the Hundred Years War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Burning of Joan of Arc, picture, image, illustration

Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, by Pat Nicolle

The worthy merchant of Paris was wedged tight in the huge crowd. He stared up resentfully at the friar who harangued them from a platform high above. Lunging menacingly over his listeners, wild eyes burning fiercely in his gaunt face, the dark-robed preacher warned them that the evils which they endured would not pass until they had put aside worldly things and turned to God. The merchant snorted; as if repentance could bring down the price of corn. As long as Paris had to supply the troops around Orleans, prices would remain high. Still, the English must soon starve the city into submission and then there would be peace. It was 1429, and, like many people in England and France, the merchant was weary of war.

In 1422 Charles VI of France and Henry V of England had died within months of each other. In accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, Henry’s infant son Henry VI had been proclaimed king of England and of France. But no one had been deceived. The new dual monarchy would last only as long as England could retain her alliance with the powerful dukes of Burgundy. In effect the old kingdom of France had been divided into three: the Duke of Bedford ruled as Henry’s regent in the north and west; Duke Philip the Good governed the lands of Burgundy in the east; while Charles, the Dauphin who had been disinherited at Troyes, had formed an illegal government at Bourges and drew support from the old Armagnac faction and its homeland, the south.

Charles was a young man of unattractive appearance and unimpressive demeanour who had been content for some years to stay sulkily but passibly under the thumb of his greedy favourite George de la Tremouille. Nevertheless his rule was unlawful and his court a rallying-point for those who wished to break away from English rule. He had to be crushed. Thus in the summer of 1428 the Duke of Bedford had despatched an army to strike at the heart of the Dauphin’s territory; in October, the siege of Orleans had begun.

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The discovery of radium

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, History, Science on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about science first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

The Curies, picture, image, illustration

Marie and Pierre Curie with their ‘cauldron’ of liquid pitchblend by Peter Jackson

Marie Curie could not sleep that night. She kept thinking about the liquid she had poured into a small dish, which she then put on a stand of the workbench in the miserable tumble-down shed she and her husband used for a laboratory.

Had the liquid dried into crystals of the mysterious element she was searching for? She could stand the suspense no more.

It was long past midnight. She wakened her husband and together they left their tiny home in the slum quarter of Paris and went back to their laboratory.

“Don’t light the lamp,” said Marie Curie, as they entered and closed the door after them.

From the corner of the room where the workbench stood came a faint blue speck of glowing light. Trembling with excitement, Pierre Curie lit the gas lamp. The speck of light from the dish disappeared. All that could be seen was one-tenth of a gramme, or about one five-hundredth of an ounce, of greyish-white salt-like crystals.

The crystals were a new element that no human being had ever seen before. The Curies decided to call the element radium, from the Latin word radius, meaning a ray, because it gave off rays of light. They had found an element which was to be widely used in industry and medicine. They had made a real breakthrough.

Pierre Curie (1859-1906) was a French scientist, and his wife Marie had been born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw, capital of Poland, in 1867 and later went to study in Paris at the Sorbonne University.

There she met Pierre, who was a Professor of Physics and in 1895 they married. Pierre was already a famous scientist. Together they studied radio-activity in the element uranium. The year of their marriage had been notable for the discovery of X-Rays by the German, Wilhelm Rontgen. A French scientist named Becquerel had been trying to find out more about these rays using a lump of ore containing the element uranium.

One evening when he finished work he wrapped the uranium ore in a piece of paper and put it in a drawer where there were some photographic plates. These were carefully protected against light by several wrappings of black paper.

Some days later he unwrapped the plates and saw in the centre of each a network of veins as if glow-worms had run across the plate. It was just as though a light had got to the plates and taken a photograph!

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The age of great iron naval fleets began with the Battle of Tsu-Shima

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about battleships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Super-Dreadnoughts, picture, image, illustration

Japanese, French, Russian and Italian Super-Dreadnoughts (from left to right) by G H Davis

The first battle between ironclad steamships was a slow and ponderous duel between the Merrimac and the Monitor. It was fought during the American Civil War in the placid estuary waters of Hampton Roads. The Merrimac, for the South, was the hull of a burnt-out frigate with a heavily timbered “shed” built on the main deck. This was covered with a double layer of 2 in. thick iron plates. Every 15 minutes or so, if she were in the right position, she could fire a broadside of explosive shells from her 9 in. cannons.

These burst with little or no effect against the heavily-armoured revolving turret built on the Yankee Monitor, a floating raft with an armoured deck a mere 2 ft. above the water line. In return, the Monitor’s solid cannon balls did no more than bang and bounce off the sloping sides of the Merrimac.

The only real damage done to either ship happened when the Merrimac deliberately rammed the Monitor.

As a result, ship-builders the world over put rams on the bows of their battleships for years to come.

Yet, strange to relate, only once was any large warship sunk in battle by deliberate ramming. During the battle of Lissa (in the Adriatic), fought between the Italian and Austrian navies, the Austrian armoured ship Ferdinand Max, travelling at 11 ½ knots, rammed and sank the Re D’Italia.

The Re D’Italia had been stopped by her own captain before being rammed, and this made her an easy target for Admiral von Tegetthoff in the Ferdinand Max.

In spite of all the experts’ advice, other captains in other battles found it almost impossible to ram a moving enemy vessel on the high seas. In the course of their wild, high-speed ramming manoeuvres, captains were almost as likely to collide with friend as foe, and one unlucky Peruvian captain in 1879 missed the enemy and rammed a reef instead, so sinking his own ship!

In those days, the 12 in. was the big gun of the ironclads. A warship would usually have four, sometimes six, mounted in pairs. They had a range of about 6,000 yards and could be fired once every 15 minutes. Gunsights and range-finding methods were very inaccurate and the big guns depended on “lucky hits” at long range. In an attempt to beat off an enemy intent on ramming, it was thought necessary to cram the decks with as many smaller, short range, quick-firing guns as possible.

Some of these small guns could fire as many as 15 rounds a minute, but they could not penetrate armour. Their object was to batter superstructure and exposed deck fittings, and to cause fires.

For a long while, the world awaited battle proof of the usefulness of the big gun over the smaller quick-firer. Was it better to hope for a lucky hit at long range, or to brave the enemy’s big guns and to sail in close and batter him with your own small armament?

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The largest eggs in the world were found in the Gobi Desert

Posted in Animals, Dinosaurs, Historical articles, Prehistory on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Protoceratops eggs, picture, image, illustration

A female Protoceratops fighting to protect her eggs

In the summer of 1922, a party of scientists, led by Robert Chapman Andrews, an explorer, were slowly making their way in trucks and cars across the great Gobi Desert of Outer Mongolia.

They were members of the American Central Asiatic Expedition, whose object was to make a natural history survey of the Gobi.

A thousand miles of desert salt basins, lone scrub and rolling ridges make up the Gobi, which has always been a formidable barrier to exploration. The ancient caravan trail could only skirt the fringes of this vast wasteland. It was not until the end of the last century that men dared to leave the caravan routes to explore the unknown interior.

The American expedition had travelled 800 miles into the Gurban Sayhan district of South Gobi, when they came to some sandstone cliffs known as the Flaming Cliffs of Djadochta.

As the scientists tumbled from their vehicles to begin surveying, little did they know what momentous discoveries lay ahead.

Searches along the face of the cliffs led, before long, to the discovery of the bones of a 7 ft. dinosaur, unknown at that time. Later it was to be recognized as the now world-famous Protoceratops, the ancestral grandsire of all the mighty horned dinosaurs.

Exciting as was this discovery, it was soon overshadowed by a member of the expedition who found three petrified eggs sticking out of a sandstone ledge. Under the shelf, the ends of two more were spotted. The whole slab of weathered sandstone contained a nest of dinosaur eggs, 13 in all. They had been laid in two layers, like turtle eggs, their rounded ends facing inwards. There they were, looking as they must have done when the female Protoceratops had left them buried in the sand 95 million years earlier.

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Suffragettes were nothing less than female freedom fighters

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 20 December 2013

This edited article about Women’s suffrage first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Suffragettes, picture, image, illustration

Suffragettes montage

The women of Britain were seething with fury. Waving banners and shouting angry slogans, they smashed shop windows, slashed at paintings in art galleries, started fires in pillar boxes and even turned empty buildings into flaming wrecks.

Politicians were shouted down at meetings, and the women even chained themselves to railings outside important buildings to get publicity for their cause.

Never before had Britain’s women been so impassioned or rebellious. And never since have they banded together so determinedly to battle for their rights.

Even imprisonment did not dampen their ardour, for there they refused to eat and had to be released before they starved to death.

But the most shining example of the courage shown by these women came in 1913. Then one of them, Emily Davidson, flung herself in front of a horse as it ran in the Derby, and died under its flying hooves.

The cause which brought forth this sacrifice was a powerful one.

What was it? Why were the women in Britain behaving in this way?

The clue could have been obtained from the slogan on the sunshades of a group of women parading peacefully in Hyde Park, London. This declared, “No vote, no tax,” and it meant that the women would not pay taxes if they were not allowed to vote.

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