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Archive for June, 2011

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The Avia B534 – Czechoslovakia’s last hope

Posted in Aviation, World War 2 on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about fighter planes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

As the dark green biplane banked low over a spur of the Kremnica Mountains, its pilot, Warrant Officer Cyprich, saw a Hungarian Ju 52/3m flying beneath him just above the forests of Slovakia. Cyprich also noticed that his enemy’s gun positions were unmanned. Clearly the Hungarians did not expect to be attacked this far from the Eastern Front. Nobody had warned them about the five-day-old Slovakian National Uprising.

Warrant Officer Cyprich’s battered old Avia B534 made two firing passes, setting the Junkers’ starboard engine ablaze, but the Hungarian pilot was able to crash-land the crippled Junkers in a small meadow as Warrant Officer Cyprich swooped down and waved farewell. He had no wish to kill men who, only days before, had been his allies.

This brief air-combat over eastern Czechoslovakia took place on 2nd September, 1944, two years after fighter biplanes were thought to have ceased to fly in combat. Of course biplanes still flew non-operational missions in many countries, but that Czech-built Avia B534, in the markings of the Slovakian Insurgent Air Force, made the last known “kill” by a fighter biplane.

The Avia B534 never fought for the Air Force for which it was designed. Czechoslovakia was crushed and dismembered without a bullet being fired, and the nearest the Avia ever came to fighting for its own country was its service in Slovak markings. This one-time eastern province of Czecholslovakia became a semi-independent ally of Nazi Germany in 1939. Three Avia B534 squadrons fought under Luftwaffe command against the Soviet Union in 1941, and later Avias were used as trainers.

Then came Slovakia’s heroic attempt to throw off Nazi domination in September, 1944. This was supported by three Avias which operated from the isolated airfield of Tri Duby, a name which means Three Oaks. These trees appeared on the insignia of the rebel air force. Their hopeless struggle ended the B534’s strange career.

This story began back in 1933 when the Avia B534 first flew. It was developed from various versions of the B34, designed by Frantisek Novotny. Service trials showed the B534 to have a good turn of speed and rate of climb.

In 1936, the Czechoslovakian Air Force decided to adopt the Avia as its standard fighter. Next year the B534 beat all other fighter biplanes at an International Flying Meeting in Switzerland. But monoplanes were already showing that the days of the biplane were numbered. So were the days of Czechoslovakian independence.

The years 1938 and 1939 were tragic for that country, and they ended with the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Novotny’s little fighter now had to fight as an ally of the country that had destroyed the nation that gave it birth – at least until its two brief months of glory in 1944.

The Gordon Riots

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Revolution on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about the Gordon Riots originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Gordon riots, picture, image, illustration

The Gordon Riots, by C L Doughty

The six days and nights of lawlessness that terrified Londoners even more than the Plague and the Great Fire took place 200 years ago in June, 1780, and were incited by a nobleman, Lord George Gordon. He was the youngest son of the Duke of Gordon, and sat in the House of Commons, and from his seat there he campaigned violently against the Catholic Relief Act that had recently been passed to lift some of the age-long penalties against Roman Catholics.

It granted the mild reforms of giving Catholics the right to own and inherit land, and slightly more freedom to worship in their own way. But to Protestant extremists like Gordon, it was an open invitation to another Armada, and the methods of the Spanish Inquisition.

It was more than a hundred years since James II had been ousted by the Protestant William of Orange, but still the cry of “No Popery” could inflame the mob, and political agitators were busy spreading the rumour that the Pope was sending a foreign army to take over the state.

It was untrue, but when Gordon organized a mass meeting of the Protestant associations, calling for a repeal of the Catholic Relief Act, 60,000 people turned up at St George’s Fields, Southwark, to sign a petition. Their banners blazoned with anti-Catholic slogans, and blue ribbons in their hats, they poured across the Thames and swarmed around the House of Commons. They tried to break into the chamber itself, where Gordon managed to present the petition.

A regiment of dragoons was called in to clear the Parliamentary building. Raging and defiant, the unruly crowd stormed off and vented its rage on the houses and chapels of ambassadors from Catholic countries. Sacred vestments were torn to shreds, altar plate was stolen, and the chairs and pulpits thrown into the streets and burned.

All this had taken place on a Friday, and on Saturday the authorities congratulated themselves that the disturbance was over; but they had badly misjudged the situation, and on Sunday the mob was out again in force. By now any semblance of control by the political agitators had been lost, and every scoundrel and criminal in the city was out in the streets spoiling for a fight.

More chapels were burned and then the houses of prominent citizens were attacked and looted, including those of the most hated Bow Street magistrate and of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. It was said afterwards that the judge had been more distressed by the loss of the text of one of his speeches, than of all his treasures.

After two days of this unchecked pillage, the mob started looking for fresh prey and the cry went up, “To Newgate, to Newgate!” And they created terror that dwarfed any that had engulfed London before.

The governor of Newgate Prison bravely faced the mob and refused to open the gates. But it did not take 10,000 violent men long to break down the iron-bound doors, and surge in to release the prisoners. Many of these men had been arrested during the previous couple of days, but others lay weighed down with chains awaiting execution.

Once all the cells were emptied, burning torches were flung into them and soon the whole building was ablaze. Delirious, the mob surged off to fire the other London prisons, the Fleet, the King’s Bench, Bridewell and the Clink. They then attacked the Bank of England, and several other important public buildings.

Watching the destruction was Lord George Gordon, who sat in his coach outside Newgate and bowed his head graciously whenever someone in the crowd yelled his name. But even when he tried to call a halt after about four days, it was as hopeless as trying to stop a flood, as the few soldiers who attempted it soon discovered.

Worse even than the destruction of the jails followed when the crowd broke into a distillery, and, after bursting open the casks, allowed the liquor to flow out into the streets. Men, women and children lay in the gutters lapping up the fiery spirit, and when a drunken rioter threw a torch into the gutted building, the flow became one of liquid fire and dozens were badly burnt.

Only after the riots had lasted a week did King George III order the army to intervene, and hundreds were shot down before calm was restored. Then came retribution as 135 ringleaders were arrested. Of these, 21 were hanged at Tyburn, and many others transported to Australia. Lord Gordon was tried for treason and “maliciously waging war against His Majesty”, but his defending counsel secured his acquittal. Instead of receiving the death penalty, Gordon went free.

Later he went completely insane, and was committed to the rebuilt Newgate for libel and sedition. In prison he became a convert to Judaism and spent his time writing religious pamphlets and learning music; he was especially interested in the bagpipes. He died “of a delirious fever” on 1st November, 1783, still a prisoner.

Popular fallacies:Diogenes lived in a barrel

Posted in Historical articles, Oddities, Philosophy on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about fallacies originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Diogenes, picture, image, illustration


Anyone who has heard of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, knows at least one other fact about him – that he lived in a tub.

Well – he may have lived in a tub, but we have no reason to believe that he did. His main principles were that happiness is attained by the simple satisfaction of simple needs: what is natural must be honourable: conventions contrary to these basic ideas are unnatural.

When Seneca came to write the biography of Diogenes, some three hundred years after the subject’s death, he observed that “a man so crabbed ought to have lived in a tub like a dog.” This opinion found its way into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as fact: “Diogenes. A noted Greek cynic philosopher (about 412-323 BC) who, according to Seneca, lived in a tub” – a classic piece of fallacy-making.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Posted in Leisure, Music on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about jazz originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Improvisational invention has always been the standard by which jazz players are judged, particularly among themselves, and in the early days of the new music techniques were jealously guarded. Cornetist Joe Oliver would hide his fingers with a handkerchief when playing: Jelly Roll Morton, the pianist who claimed to have “invented” jazz, occasionally played with his fingers out of sight beneath the piano lid and frequently mis-labelled compositions to confuse the competition.

In this competitive atmosphere, it is a wonder jazz was ever recorded: laid down on disc for anyone to study and copy. In fact the band that achieved the distinction of making the first jazz record had perhaps less to hide than giants like King Oliver. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was one of a number of white New Orleans bands that copied rather than innovated. What set them apart was Livery Stable Blues, recorded in February, 1917, and released on the 7th March, 1917.

The members of the ODJB – drummer Tony Spargo, trombonist Eddie Edwards, cornetist Nick LaRocca, clarinettist Larry Shields and pianist Henry Ragas – had a genius for publicity, if for nothing else. They were not the first jazz band, they were not even the first white jazz band, nor the first band to move out of New Orleans and up north. But they saw the possibilities of the gramophone record, and they took their music to Chicago, New York and, in a triumphant tour, to London. To a number of people and for a considerable length of time, the ODJB represented all of jazz.

Amundsen preferred the Arctic

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about polar exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Amundsen, picture, image, illustration

Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, by Luis Arcas Brauner

Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest men in the field of polar exploration – yet he failed in his main ambition, which was to lead the way for the first time to the North Pole. The American, Robert Peary, after 15 expeditions north, finally claimed to have reached the Pole in April, 1909.

Amundsen, crushed by the news, nevertheless continued his preparations for an expedition. When he sailed, in June 1910, only his brother knew that the south pole was now his destination. On the 14th December, 1911, after an overland trek of 53 days, accompanied by four men, four sledges and 52 dogs, he reached the South Pole. With funds from this dramatic journey he returned to his first love, the Arctic, which he went on to explore by land, sea and air. In 1926 he became the first man to cross the north pole by dirigible.

Scott, meanwhile, reached the South Pole to find Amundsen’s debris. Along with the Norwegian flag, Amundsen had left a tent containing a note for Scott, wishing him a safe return and asking him to deliver a letter to King Haakon, and three reindeer bags containing nuts, socks and, ironically, British navigational instruments.

Scott and his party died, tragically, on their return journey. Amundsen was lost over the Arctic Seas on the 18th June, 1928, while taking part in an air-sea rescue attempt.

Cortes conquers Mexico, land of gold

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about cities of gold originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Cortes, picture, image, illustration

Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, by Severino Baraldi

To the iron-hard Spanish soldier-explorers who had conquered Mexico and Peru nothing seemed impossible. No tall tale of fabulous treasure seemed too far fetched to be true. How could anything be beyond them? Had not Hernando Cortes with a mere 500 men brought the Aztec Empire of Mexico tumbling down and turned it into New Spain? Had not Francisco Pizarro, with less than 200 men, toppled the even vaster Inca Empire of Peru?

So when the news broke in Mexico City, the capital of New Spain, that there were golden cities to the north – the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola – it was thrilling, but hardly surprising.

Besides, it tied in with ancient legends. These dated back several centuries to a time when most of Spain and Portugal was in the hands of the Moors, the fierce invaders from North Africa. Seven bishops and some of their flock sailed across the Sea of Darkness and reached the Blessed Isles, so the story went. Reaching a particularly lovely island they called Antilia, the exiles built seven golden cities for the seven bishops.

When Spaniards reached the New World in the 1490s and early 1500s, they hopefully named a group of islands the Antilles, but found little gold in them. So – they argued without any evidence – the cities must be on the newly discovered mainland.

Mexico finally fell to Cortes and his army in 1521, and from 1528 onwards the hunt for the cities was on. That year 300 men sailed from Cuba to Florida on the mainland – and disappeared. Not a word was heard of them for eight years, but meanwhile the search had begun in other directions.

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The special effects of makeup

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

hunchback, picture, image, illustration

The hunchback of Notre-Dame was played by the versatile Lon Chaney. Picture by Arthur Ranson

Since the early days of the cinema, special effects have played an essential part in the art of film-making. The first silent films were little more than theatre plays photographed with static cameras, but as filming techniques and cinè equipment improved, it became obvious to the directors that the medium lent itself to creating illusion.

Trick photography and special effects with make-up, costumes and ingeniously designed sets attracted the public, and box office receipts grew.

At first, the trick effects were crude improvisations by the director, his small crew or the actors. However, in a short space of time, specialists were employed and departments set up in each studio to cope with the work.

Initially, film-makers concentrated on make-up and costumes, as complicated technical and processing apparatus were still in their infancy.

Without sound, the cinema had to intrigue its audience visually, and the ideal subjects were horrors or fantasy stories with grotesque characters in sinister settings.

The most highly acclaimed exponent of make-up in the silent era was Lon Chaney, who had studied the art when working in the theatre and brought it successfully to the screen.

Chaney devised and applied his own make-up, often taking hours in front of the mirror to get exactly the right result. His characterisations of the Phantom of the Opera and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame are good examples of his brilliant work, for not only did he create them facially, but also physically.

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Malta gains her independence

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about Malta originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

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Independence Day in Malta is celebrated with a firework display, by Angus McBride

At 11 a.m. on April 1, 1979, the British destroyer HMS London weighed anchor beneath the pale gold walls of her Valetta berth and led a troop carrier from the Grand Harbour of Malta, thus ending an association with Britain of nearly 180 years.

It was the climax of a weekend of farewells to the British. The night before fireworks lit up the night sky above bunting-clad streets where merrymakers danced the hours away. The dawn brought mixed emotions. Many elderly islanders cherished fond memories of British rule. They were quietly proud that their tiny speck in the Mediterranean had earned the George Cross for defying Germany’s air attacks in the last war.

Then British convoys braved a curtain of fire and bombs from the Luftwaffe’s screaming Stukas to reach the island with much needed supplies. In April, 1942, alone the Germans dropped 16,000 tons of bombs on Malta causing heavy casualties and damage.

Yet the long association with Britain meant little to the Maltese who grew up after the war. The idea of independence inspired ready support from them. Their wishes were granted in 1964, to be followed 10 years later by the creation of an island republic within the Commonwealth.

The aftermath of independence heralded an era of uncertainty until, in 1976, the Nationalist Party government of Dr Borg Olivier, which had maintained friendly ties with Britain for many years, was defeated by the Labour Party led by Dom Mintoff.

The new prime minister campaigned relentlessly to rid Malta of all vestiges of the British presence. And so, on that historic day in 1979, the British Navy finally left Valetta harbour, once so crowded with British warships. Mr Mintoff sought foreign investment to cover the loss of the money paid by Britain and Nato for the use of bases on the island, which had been worth about 30 million pounds a year. China and Libya are among countries which have provided technical or financial aid.

One steady source of income for the island comes from tourism. Anyone visiting the city of Valetta and looking at the view across the Grand Harbour will be vividly reminded of the battles that took place there in the past and of the courage and determination possessed by the Maltese people.

The ubiquitous rodent

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about British wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

harvest mice, picture, iamge, illustration

Harvest mice

It was night-time. The grocer had shut his shop, turned out the lights and gone home. Now, almost invisible in the gloom, a grey shape stole out from its hiding-place and scurried over to the sack of potatoes left on a table. Nibbling through the material, it soon found the vegetables inside and bit hungrily at one potato, then another, then another. Soon potatoes rolled out of the torn sacks and onto the floor.

When the horrified grocer surveyed the destruction next morning, he soon knew who the “thieves” had been. Marauding mice had been responsible, and they had left their droppings everywhere as a calling card.

Mice do a great deal of damage to human property. They certainly seem to eat almost anything, but it is their teeth, rather than their appetites, which cause the problem. Mice have an insatiable need to gnaw.

All rodents – which in Britain include mice, rats, squirrels and voles – have two pairs of long front teeth, or incisors, which are especially adapted for gnawing. They are well coated with enamel and never stop growing as long as the animal lives. A rat’s incisors can grow twelve centimetres a year, if they are not constantly worn down. By gnawing on hard things, the rodent keeps it teeth down to size – and as sharp as chisels. The British red squirrel has no difficulty in gnawing a hole right through the hard shell of a nut, while we humans take a risk every time we crack even relatively soft nuts with our teeth.

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Benjamin Franklin and electricity

Posted in Historical articles, Science on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

This edited article about electricity originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Franklin, picture, image, illustration

Benjamin Franklin demonstrates lightning is simply electricity, by Peter Jackson

Electricity was known in one form to the ancient Greeks, who discovered that when amber was rubbed with a dry cloth, small particles of material were attracted to it. In fact our word “electricity” comes from the Greek word, elektron, which means “amber”. It was the American, Benjamin Franklin, who gave the names of positive and negative to the two forms of electrical charge. And the distinction between conductors and insulators was formulated in 1729 by another scientist, Stephen Gray.