Quotulatiousness

December 18, 2014

Admiral Grace Hopper

Filed under: History, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

The US Naval Institute posted an article about the one and only Admiral Grace Hopper earlier this month to mark her birthday:

The typical career arc of a naval officer may run from 25-30 years. Most, however, don’t start at age 35. Yet when it comes to Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, well, the word “typical” just doesn’t apply.

Feisty. Eccentric. Maverick. Brilliant. Precise. Grace Hopper embodied all of those descriptions and more, but perhaps what defined her as much as anything else was the pride she had in wearing the Navy uniform for 43 years. Ironically, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper — “Amazing Grace” as she was known — had to fight to get into the Navy.

Grace Brewster Murray was born into a well-off family in New York on Dec. 9, 1906. She could have followed what many of her peers did during those times: attending college for a year or two, getting married then devoting their lives to their families and volunteer work.

Instead, Grace’s path would be less traveled. Encouraged to explore her innate curiosity on how things worked, a 7-year-old Grace dismantled all of the family’s alarm clocks trying to put them back together again. Rather than banishment from the practice, she was allowed one to practice on.

[…]

When she joined the WAVES in December 1943, Lt. j.g. Grace Hopper was 37 years old. Williams noted that after graduating at the top of her class of 800 officer candidates in June 1944, Hopper paid homage to Alexander Wilson Russell, her great-grandfather, the admiral who apparently took a “dim view of women and cats” in the Navy and laid flowers on his grave to “comfort and reassure him.”

Hopper was sent to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University under the guidance of Howard Aiken. The Harvard physics and applied mathematics professor helped create the first Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), better known as Mark I. He ran a lab where design, testing, modification and analysis of weapons were calculated. Most were specially trained women called computers. “So the first ‘computers’ were women who did the calculating on desk calculators,” Williams said. And the time it took for the computers to calculate was called “girl hours.”

What happened next put Hopper on a new path that would define the rest of her life, according to a passage in the book Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists in the U.S. Navy during World War II also by Williams.

On July 2, 1944, Hopper reported to duty and met Aiken.

“That’s a computing engine,” Aiken snapped at Hopper, pointing to the Mark I. “I would be delighted to have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangent by next Thursday.”

Hopper was a mathematician, but what she wasn’t was a computer programmer. Aiken gave her a codebook, and as Hopper put it, a week to learn “how to program the beast and get a program running.”

Hopper overcame her lack of programming skills the same way she always tackled other obstacles; by being persistent and stopping at nothing to solve problems. She eventually would become well-versed in how the machine operated, all 750,000 parts, 530 miles of wire and 3 million wire connections crammed in a machine that was 8-feet tall and 50-feet wide.

December 17, 2014

Carrying The Load – London Midland & Scottish Railway Documentary

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Published on 20 Apr 2012

London Midland & Scottish Railway educational film that explains the role played by the railways during World War Two.

December 11, 2014

London’s Transport System During World War Two – 1941

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Published on 31 Mar 2013

Filmed after the start of the Blitz, ‘City Bound’ is an exploration of the daily commute into London from the suburbs in 1941.

‘Between half past five and ten o’clock each morning five million people are moved from home to work by London’s transport system. Before this can be done, underground and overground transport must be cleaned and refuelled. Then from the outer ring of London, past green fields and suburban gardens, the move into London begins. Trains, motor omnibuses, and electric trams bring hundreds of thousands into the centre of the city, to work in the shops, offices, and factories of the largest city in the world.’
(Films of Britain – British Council Film Department Catalogue – 1941)

December 10, 2014

Orwell at the BBC

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

The most recent issue of Intelligent Life looks at the brief interlude of George Orwell’s career while he was working at the BBC during the Second World War:

Orwell spent a mere two years (1941-43) at the BBC, which he joined as a talks assistant in the Indian section of the Eastern Service. No recording survives of him giving a talk, which is perhaps fitting; for what is most striking about his essays and journalism is the tart, compelling timbre of his voice. The critic Cyril Connolly, an exact contemporary, thought that only D.H. Lawrence rivalled Orwell in the degree to which his personality “shines out in everything he said or wrote”. Any reader of Orwell’s non-fiction will pick up on the brisk, buttonholing manner (“two things are immediately obvious”), the ear-catching assertions (“the Great War…could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented”) and the squashing epithets: “miry”, “odious”, “squalid”, “hideous”, “mealy-mouthed”, “beastly”, “boneless”, “fetid” and — a term he could have applied to himself — “frowsy”.

Orwell might well have damned this new honour too. In his studio on the edge of the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire, Martin Jennings, the sculptor working on the eight-foot likeness, told me that Orwell had made some disobliging remarks about public statues, thinking that they got in the way of perfectly good views. The bronze Orwell will look down on the comings and goings of BBC staff who, returning his gaze, can read some chiselled wisdom from his works on the wall behind him. The Financial Times recently called Orwell “the true patron saint of our profession”, another tribute he would probably resist. “Saints”, he warned, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

Why Orwell? His time at the BBC was ambivalent at best. As students of 1984 soon discover, the novel’s dreary, wartime ambience and the prominence of propaganda owe much to his BBC experiences; Room 101, where Winston Smith confronts his worst nightmares, was named after an airless BBC conference room. “Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum,” Orwell wrote in his diary on March 14th 1942, “and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless.”

One answer to “why Orwell?” is because of his posthumous career. Five years before his death in 1950, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, D.J. Taylor, “still a faintly marginal figure”. He had published seven books, four of them novels, none of which put him in the front rank of novelists, two of which he had refused to have reprinted. He was acknowledged as a superb political essayist and bold literary critic, but his contemporary and friend Malcolm Muggeridge, first choice as his biographer, frankly considered him “no good as a novelist”. It was only with his last two books, Animal Farm and 1984 (published in 1945 and 1949), that Orwell transformed his reputation as a writer. These two books would change the way we think about our lives.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

December 8, 2014

The Luftwaffe attack at Bari in 1943

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Patrick K. O’Donnell discusses one of the Luftwaffe‘s most deadly attacks and why most people have never heard of it:

Americans remember December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day, but most Americans have never even heard of the “Little Pearl Harbor,” which occurred in Bari Harbor, Italy, on December 2, 1943. More than 100 Luftwaffe bombers mounted a surprise attack on Allied ships moored in the harbor. Their bombs sank or rendered inoperable 28 of these ships. Nearly a thousand Allied troops were killed or wounded. along with hundreds of civilians.

Unbeknownst to those in the port, one of the ships carried liquid death in its belly. The American freighter John Harvey was secretly carrying mustard agent, in violation of international agreements that banned its use. President Franklin Roosevelt had covertly ordered the shipment of 100 tons of mustard agent to Italy for retaliation in the event that the Germans used chemical warfare against the Allied troops. The incident was covered up and remained a secret for decades.

When the German bombs hit the John Harvey, the ship’s hold immediately exploded with devastating violence, killing all those who knew about the mustard [gas]. Deadly liquid and gas flew high into the air and then slowly settled back down into the harbor, coating everything and everyone in the vicinity. Casualties would mount over the coming days and weeks as the agent slowly and painfully claimed the lives of many who had survived the initial attack.

Mustard gas was one of the nastiest relics of the attempts to break the trench lines during the First World War. Wikipedia says:

The sulfur mustards, or sulphur mustards, commonly known as mustard gas, are a class of related cytotoxic and vesicant chemical warfare agents with the ability to form large blisters on the exposed skin and in the lungs. Pure sulfur mustards are colorless, viscous liquids at room temperature. When used in impure form, such as warfare agents, they are usually yellow-brown in color and have an odor resembling mustard plants, garlic, or horseradish, hence the name. Mustard gas was originally assigned the name LOST, after the scientists Wilhelm Lommel and Wilhelm Steinkopf, who developed a method for the large-scale production of mustard gas for the Imperial German Army in 1916.

Mustard agents are regulated under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Three classes of chemicals are monitored under this Convention, with sulfur and nitrogen mustard grouped in Schedule 1, as substances with no use other than in chemical warfare. Mustard agents could be deployed on the battlefield by means of artillery shells, aerial bombs, rockets, or by spraying from warplanes.

December 7, 2014

QotD: December 7, 1941 – the truth is stranger than fiction

Filed under: History, Japan, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! recently. That movie is supposed to be the most historically accurate and truthful ever made about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an entertaining and informative movie packed with good performances and some of the most spectacular plane crashes and stunts on an airfield I’ve ever seen.

And at the same time, the sequence of events that led up to the Japanese attack were almost inconceivable. The level of incompetence, stupidity, bad luck, mistake-making, and almost deliberate failure to let the Japanese attack be so successful defies imagination. This was one of those legendary sequences where truth is stranger than fiction.

When the radar crew (which stayed longer than their night shift required) spotted the incoming Japanese planes, they were mistaken for B-17s being delivered to the airbase and the radar station was told “yeah? Well don’t worry about it.”

When intelligence services using cracked Japanese codes figured that an attack was imminent, they were unable to radio Hawaii about it because the atmospheric conditions were bad. So they sent a telegram, which was shelved for eventual delivery because it wasn’t marked “urgent.”

On and on it went, delays, mistakes, confusion, circumstances, almost a perfect set of events that if you read about them in a book you’d complain was too contrived and unbelievable. That would never happen! you’d cry and close the book in disgust.

But that’s what really happened.

Christopher Taylor, “TORA TORA 9-11″, Word Around the Net, 2014-09-10.

December 5, 2014

Ross Perot (of all people) and one of the earliest real computers

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

At Wired, Brendan I. Koerner talks about the odd circumstances which led to H. Ross Perot being instrumental in saving an iconic piece of computer history:

Eccentric billionaires are tough to impress, so their minions must always think big when handed vague assignments. Ross Perot’s staffers did just that in 2006, when their boss declared that he wanted to decorate his Plano, Texas, headquarters with relics from computing history. Aware that a few measly Apple I’s and Altair 880’s wouldn’t be enough to satisfy a former presidential candidate, Perot’s people decided to acquire a more singular prize: a big chunk of ENIAC, the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.” The ENIAC was a 27-ton, 1,800-square-foot bundle of vacuum tubes and diodes that was arguably the world’s first true computer. The hardware that Perot’s team diligently unearthed and lovingly refurbished is now accessible to the general public for the first time, back at the same Army base where it almost rotted into oblivion.

ENIAC was conceived in the thick of World War II, as a tool to help artillerymen calculate the trajectories of shells. Though construction began a year before D-Day, the computer wasn’t activated until November 1945, by which time the U.S. Army’s guns had fallen silent. But the military still found plenty of use for ENIAC as the Cold War began — the machine’s 17,468 vacuum tubes were put to work by the developers of the first hydrogen bomb, who needed a way to test the feasibility of their early designs. The scientists at Los Alamos later declared that they could never have achieved success without ENIAC’s awesome computing might: the machine could execute 5,000 instructions per second, a capability that made it a thousand times faster than the electromechanical calculators of the day. (An iPhone 6, by contrast, can zip through 25 billion instructions per second.)

When the Army declared ENIAC obsolete in 1955, however, the historic invention was treated with scant respect: its 40 panels, each of which weighed an average of 858 pounds, were divvied up and strewn about with little care. Some of the hardware landed in the hands of folks who appreciated its significance — the engineer Arthur Burks, for example, donated his panel to the University of Michigan, and the Smithsonian managed to snag a couple of panels for its collection, too. But as Libby Craft, Perot’s director of special projects, found out to her chagrin, much of ENIAC vanished into disorganized warehouses, a bit like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lost in the bureaucracy

An ENIAC technician changes a tube. (Photo: US Army)

An ENIAC technician changes a tube. (Photo: US Army)

December 1, 2014

The Soviet tank that won the war in the East

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Paul Richard Huard looks at the tank that took away the Panzer’s reputation for invincibility, the T-34:

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

T-34/85 at musée des blindés de Saumur (via Wikipedia)

The T-34 had its problems — something we often forgotten when discussing a tank with a legendary reputation. The shortfalls included bad visibility for the crew and shoddy Soviet workmanship.

“They were good, but they were not miracle weapons and they had their faults,” writes Philip Kaplan in Rolling Thunder: A Century of Tank Warfare. “But the T-34, for all its faults, is now often referred to by tank experts and historians as possibly the best tank of the war.”

World War II German Field Marshall Ewald Von Kleist was more succinct. “The finest tank in the world,” is how he described the T-34.

The origins of the T-34 are simple enough. The Red Army sought a replacement for the BT-7 cavalry tank, which was fast-moving and lightly armored for use in maneuver warfare. It also had Christie suspension, one reason for the tank’s increased speed.

But during a 1938-to-1939 border war with Japan, the BT-7 fared poorly. Even with a low-powered gun, Japanese Type 95 tanks easily destroyed the BT-7s. Tank attack crews also assaulted the BT-7s with Molotov cocktails, reducing the Soviet tank to a flaming wreck when ignited gasoline dripped through chinks between poorly welded armor into the tank’s engine compartment.

[…]

By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had produced nearly 60,000 T-34 tanks — proving the point that quantity does have a quality all of its own.

At first, the Germans were at a loss when it came to countering the threat the T-34 posed. The Germans’ standard anti-tank guns, the 37-millimeter Kwk36 and the 50-millimeter Kwk 38, couldn’t put a dent in the Soviet tank with a shot to its front.

That left the Germans with a limited set of tactics. German tankers could attempt flank shots with their guns. The Wehrmacht could lay mines. Soldiers risked their lives in close assaults employing satchel charges and Molotov cocktails.

In what could be called an act of desperation, the Germans even used modified 88-millimeter anti-aircraft guns to stop attacking T-34s with direct fire.

November 13, 2014

It was the tank that won WW2 in the west … and a deathtrap

Filed under: History, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

Last month, Paul Richard Huard did a brief tribute to one of the iconic tanks of the Second World War, the M-4 Sherman. It was not a good tank, but it was good enough (if you ignore the survivability of the crews):

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

M4A1 Sherman tank at Canadian Forces Base Borden (via Wikipedia)

The M-4 Sherman was the workhorse medium tank of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps during World War II. It fought in every theater of operation — North Africa, the Pacific and Europe.

The Sherman was renown for its mechanical reliability, owing to its standardized parts and quality construction on the assembly line. It was roomy, easily repaired, easy to drive. It should have been the ideal tank.

But the Sherman was also a death trap.

Most tanks at the time ran on diesel, a safer and less flammable fuel than gasoline. The Sherman’s power plant was a 400-horsepower gas engine that, combined with the ammo on board, could transform the tank into a Hellish inferno after taking a hit.

All it took was a German adversary like the awe-inspiring Tiger tank with its 88-millimeter gun. One round could punch through the Sherman’s comparatively thin armor. If they were lucky, the tank’s five crew might have seconds to escape before they burned alive.

Hence, the Sherman’s grim nickname — Ronson, like the cigarette lighter, because “it lights up the first time, every time.”

Commonwealth units were allocated a proportion of Sherman tanks with the original 75mm or 76mm main gun replaced by a British 17-pounder anti-tank gun that gave Sherman Firefly tanks nearly the same punch as German Tiger tanks (and better than Panthers). There weren’t enough to go around, so they were parcelled out to allow a few Fireflies per troop or squadron. The 17-pounder gun also lacked a high explosive round for use against thin-skinned or unarmoured targets, so including one or two Fireflies among a group of conventionally armed Shermans was a good trade-off.

Sherman Firefly on display at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

Sherman Firefly on display at Bovington Tank Museum (via Wikipedia)

November 11, 2014

Mark Knopfler – “Remembrance Day”

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:11

A Remembrance Day slideshow using Mark Knopfler’s wonderful “Remembrance Day” song from the album Get Lucky (2009). The early part of the song conveys many British images, but I have added some very Canadian images also which fit with many of the lyrics. The theme and message is universal… ‘we will remember them’.

In memoriam

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

A simple recognition of some of our family members who served in the First and Second World Wars:

The Great War

  • A Poppy is to RememberPrivate William Penman, Scots Guards, died 1915 at Le Touret, age 25
    (Elizabeth’s great uncle)
  • Private David Buller, Highland Light Infantry, died 1915 at Loos, age 35
    (Elizabeth’s great grandfather)
  • Private Walter Porteous, Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917 at Passchendaele, age 18
    (my great uncle)
  • Corporal John Mulholland, Royal Tank Corps, died 1918 at Harbonnieres, age 24
    (Elizabeth’s great uncle)

The Second World War

  • Flying Officer Richard Porteous, RAF, survived the defeat in Malaya and lived through the war
    (my great uncle)
  • Able Seaman John Penman, RN, served in the Defensively Equipped Merchant fleet on the Murmansk Run (and other convoy routes), lived through the war
    (Elizabeth’s father)
  • Private Archie Black (commissioned after the war and retired as a Major), Gordon Highlanders, captured at Singapore (aged 15) and survived a Japanese POW camp
    (Elizabeth’s uncle)
  • Elizabeth Buller, “Lumberjill” in the Women’s Land Army in Scotland through the war.
    (Elizabeth’s mother)
  • Trooper Leslie Taplan Russon, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, died at Tobruk, 19 December, 1942 (aged 23).
    A recently discovered relative. Leslie was my father’s first cousin, once removed (and therefore my first cousin, twice removed).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army Medical Corps (1872-1918)

QotD: The Canadian tradition of military neglect

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Canada is an unmilitary community. Warlike her people have often been forced to be; military they have never been.

Repeatedly, during the French regime, Canadians took up arms in defence of their country. Twice during Canada’s early history as a British colony her people joined with British forces in defending the soil against attack by the neighbouring nation. On many occasions in later times there was danger of renewed war with the United States. Later still, when a happy evolution had put an end to such apprehensions, Canada’s increasing involvement in world politics led her to take a minor part in the South African War of 1899-1902 and a much larger share in the World War of 1914-18. None of these episodes proved sufficient to convince Canadians that there was a close connection between their nation’s welfare and the state of her military preparations. Fortunately for the country, there were always some people in it who interested themselves in such matters and sought to maintain a degree of active military spirit; but they were always a small minority.

For generations, Canadian governments and parliaments, and certainly also the public at large, appeared to be convinced that it was time enough to begin preparing for war after war had broken out. It would be easy to demonstrate the country’s traditional dislike of peacetime armaments and unwillingness to spend money upon them, and to give examples of how on many occasions the sudden appearance of a crisis led ministers and legislators to take, hurriedly and belatedly, the military measures for which in more peaceful moments they had seen no need. But it is not necessary to labour the point; nor need we here attempt to account fully for the country’s unmilitary outlook, which has certainly been due in great part to the happy accident of a political and geographical situation that, placed formidable barriers, in the shape of distance, ocean spaces and the power of great friendly nations, between Canada and potential aggressors. It is enough to say that not until the years following the Second World War did the Canadian people and their government show themselves ready to spend, in time of peace, money enough to maintain national armaments commensurate in any degree with the position claimed by Canada in the world.

It is a remarkable fact that the First World War, which affected Canadian development so fundamentally in so many ways, had almost no long-term influence upon the country’s military policy. In that war, the most important episode in Canadian history until its time, 628,000 Canadians served and 60,000 lost their lives. Canada intervened on a large scale on European battlefields, and her troops were recognized as being among the most formidable on the Western Front. Nevertheless, when the emergency was over the country reverted lightly and confidently to her earlier traditions, and reduced her armed forces to a level of insignificance almost as low as that of 1913.

C.P. Stacey, Six Years of War, 1956.

November 2, 2014

Cast for Dad’s Army film

Filed under: Britain, Media, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Forces TV has details on the cast members in the in-production movie based on the old British TV series Dad’s Army:

The cast of the new Dad’s Army film has been revealed in the first official photos from the film set. Prominent UK acting talent have signed up including Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta Jones, Sir Tom Courtenay, Sir Michael Gambon and Blake Harrison from the Inbetweeners.

Dads Army movie

The film version of the classic sitcom is being filmed in Yorkshire and features Zeta-Jones as a glamorous journalist who becomes suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

The original series ran from 1968 to 1977 with a film being made by the original cast in 1971.

November 1, 2014

World of Warships previews aircraft carriers

Filed under: Gaming — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:36

While I probably won’t have enough spare time to add World of Warships to my gaming habits, I’ve been interested in watching the development of the game. Here’s their latest reveal, the aircraft carrier class:

Published on 30 Oct 2014

Wargaming gladly announces the release of the third episode of World of Warships developer diaries series. This video is dedicated to aircraft carriers, the most unique type of vessels in World of Warships. Enjoy!

October 29, 2014

Charles Stross – Communist and post-communist Britain, history that didn’t happen

Filed under: Britain, History, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:25

Charles Stross wanders in a Britain of today in a world where Stalin won World War 2, taking all of western Europe into the control of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s:

Here’s a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes — so discussion of precisely how the British People’s Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).

Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister — you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later — as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.

What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People’s Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.

However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.

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