Category Archives: Politics

The End of the War in Europe and Moscow

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the end of the Second World War was celebrated by the Soviet Union in their capital city, Moscow. It was May 8th 1945.

The Soviets well remembered conquering Berlin. Flying their aircraft at will over the capital of the Evil Empire:

Everybody was friends (some more than others) :

On May 2nd 1945, the Red Army had flown their flag from the highest point in Berlin, the Reichstag building:

There was, of course, plenty of argument about who performed this iconic act. The photograph itself was taken by Yevgeny Khaldei using a flag sown together by his uncle:

Officially, the two men who carried out this dizzy feat were Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov. Others state that the man who raised the flag was Alyosha Kovalyov. Yevgeny Khaldei, the photographer, supported this man as the actual flag raiser but aided by Abdulkhakim Ismailov and Leonid Gorychev (who is mentioned elsewhere as Aleksei Goryachev). The very same problems of identification had happened elsewhere on a previous occasion:

Back in Moscow, there were searchlights:

There were fireworks:


And in Red Square, there were vast numbers of soldiers of the Red Army on parade:

Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union rode a white horse across the slippery, wet cobbles of Red Square, without problems, thank goodness:


Red Army soldiers brought in German banners and then they threw them down on the ground in disgust and triumph:

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And just for once, just for a few weeks, until minds were re-poisoned, everybody was friends and they all smiled big smiles and saluted each other until they grew tired of it:

And then, like little children, they played on the grass in the park and drank vodka nicely together and they danced. Oh Comrade, how we danced……

 

 

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We love you Stalin, we do, we love you Stalin, we do, we love you Stalin……

I found this picture when I was looking for illustrations of Napoleon for the blog posts about the great man I did a little while back. In actual fact I never used it:

That pose of the hand inside the coat was considered quite normal and ordinary at the time of Napoleon, but it was used 140 years later by people who were far from normal and ordinary:

The Russian means “Glory to the Great Stalin!”

All things considered, I think that this is the best Stalin poster I found, though. Here it is:

The Russian means “Thank you, Beloved Stalin for a Happy Childhood!”

Runner-up was the uncaptioned:

That would look just wonderful on the back wall of one of Nottingham’s fast food shops.

“Thank you, Beloved Stalin for some Happy Fish and Chips! “

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The Day from Hell (2)

Last time, I told you about Jack Ketch’s abilities as the King’s Executioner. He was useless. Absolutely useless. All that happened to him, though, was that he was promoted.

If you are in management, always give  the important  jobs to the most useless people. It will make your own performance look so much better. Ketch was the man tasked with executing the Duke of Monmouth:

The Duke of Monmouth knew all about Jack Ketch’s reputation for incompetence. They were all assembled, up on the scaffold and ready to go, when the Duke walked over to Ketch and said:

“Here are six golden guineas for you, Ketch. Do not hack me to bits as you did with Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you even more gold if you do the work well.”

“No problem, your Dukeness” replied Ketch, picking up his axe to begin the ghastly deed.

Monmouth ran his almost royal finger over the edge of Ketch’s axe. He was not a happy man. The axe wasn’t really that sharp. It was certainly not as sharp as the knife he’d had at breakfast. And it didn’t cut his finger at all.

Ketch began his work.

One slash of the axe. It missed. Just a little nick on the neck. Monmouth actually got up from the block and gave Ketch a dirty look.

Second go. Whoops, missed again. Sorreeeeeeeee !

Third attempt.

“Don’t worry, Duke. I’ll get you next time.”

Next time.

“Sorry, I don’t know where I’m going wrong. It was all right yesterday at rehearsal.”


That made four goes. How many more were needed?

Well, at least four more large swings of the axe. Ketch made a grand total of eight attempts at killing the Duke. And there were even some witnesses who talked of double figures.

And was the Duke dead? Well, no, not quite. Not yet. The neck was still not severed and the Duke was still moving about on the planks of the scaffold.

Ketch flung his axe down. The crowd was not happy. But they knew the rules.

Either the job was finished and the crowd went home happy or they themselves would ensure that at least one person went home dead. And that one person would be either the Duke or it would be Ketch. They really were not that bothered.

Lucky then that Ketch was carrying a penknife in his pocket. “Bear with me”, he shouted to the crowd, “I’ll get him this time.”

And he began sawing the Duke’s head off with his penknife. Eventually, he did it.

Here’s the close up. Look at the knife. Eight inches? Ten? :

The Duke of Monmouth was now, as requested by the King, in two completely separate pieces.

Ketch showed the two pieces to the crowd:

And then some slack jawed local of an assistant piped up with something he should have said to Ketch about an hour before:

“Jack!! Jack !!!  Don’t forget the drawing.”

“What drawing?”

“Well, Jack, they haven’t got an oil painting of the Duke anywhere in England so there’s a man here who needs to draw the Duke before you cut his head off.”

“Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

Was Ketch beaten? Hell, no. They sewed the Duke’s head back on to his body (which was not considered a serious breach of the Two Pieces Rule) and the artist then drew a quick sketch. When he had finished, Ketch took out his trusty penknife and cut the Duke’s head off (for a second time, presumably) and the Two Pieces were sent off for burial and/or display.

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Now THAT was a bad day.

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Incidentally, the oil painting is still in the National Portrait Gallery. They insist on calling it the “Portrait of a Man Sleeping” but they’re wrong, very, very wrong:

Just look at that piece of cloth tucked neatly around his neck. Surely it covers second rate stitching done at speed.

This is not a Man Sleeping.

This is the Duke of Monmouth.

But unfortunately, he has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace!

No no he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’!

NO  ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-DUKE OF MONMOUTH!!

Jack Ketch died in November 1686. He went on to be mentioned in three different novels by Charles Dickens. He also gave rise to the Rock/Punk/Metal/ super group entitled “Jack Ketch & The Bilge Rat Bastards”.

I could not have written this blog post without the description of events supplied by Lord Macaulay in his “History of England”.

 

 

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The Day from Hell (1)

Have you ever had the day from hell? When more or less everything that could go wrong, did go wrong?

Do you ever think that you struggle to hold down your job? Do you ever think that you are absolutely useless and it’s only a matter of time before your ineptitude is discovered?


Well, trust me, you will never approach the levels achieved in the 1680s by Jack Ketch, the King’s Executioner:


On July 21st 1683, Jack attempted to execute Lord Russell. The story comes from  the incomparably named “Great B#stards of History: Famous Illegitimate Children Who Went on to Achieve Greatness”. That title was the winning entry in the “Book Title of the Week” competition last week. Here’s Jack:

“Ketch wielded the axe with such lack of simple dexterity that the victim suffered horrifically under blow after blow, each excruciating but not in itself lethal. The gory display created such outrage that Ketch felt moved to write and publish a pamphlet in which he excused his performance with the claim that Lord Russell had failed to “place himself as was most suitable” and that he was therefore distracted while taking aim on his neck.”

Blame anything. Blame anybody. The victim. The bad weather, A loudly barking dog. My little brother. Never admit you are a total incompetent.

Two years later, on July 15th 1685, Ketch was given the job of lopping off the head of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” as they say. The execution of Lord Russell was a smooth job, slickly done, compared to what would happen with the Duke of Monmouth. But Jack Ketch could not turn down this opportunity for a comeback.

This was the big one. The climax of his career. Tower Hill in London. Thousands and thousands of people watching. And big money if he did it right.

I’ll tell you very soon exactly what happened.

 

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In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (2)

When I wrote the first part of my review of the book “In for a Penny, In for a Pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command” written by Howard Hewer, I had never written a book review before, so I suppose I can now say “Welcome to my second book review”.

Last time I mentioned how the author talked about his experiences in the RAF in Britain, but how he was then transferred to the Middle East, bombing the Germans and Italians with Vickers Wellingtons:

In actual fact the Wellington was probably the best bomber used in this theatre of war in the early years. At least they weren’t using these Bristol Bombays as bombers:

And they weren’t forced to use these biplanes as bombers, for want of any aircraft at all (which did actually happen!):

Howard Heyer describes how the anticolonial attitudes encountered in England continued in the Middle East when he is posted to RAF Kabrit near the Suez Canal:

At Kabrit, the Station Commander lived in a “sumptuous two storey permanent house”. The officers were all billeted in nice wooden houses next to the Officers’ Mess but the sergeants lived elsewhere, in the desert, sleeping on straw mattresses in tents outside the camp. The single shower was just a pipe with no showerhead and the water was heated by the sunshine. The food wasn’t very good either with the buns at Christmas dinner containing not caraway seeds but weevils, regarded by the rather cynical diners as a valuable source of protein. Here is the author, in the middle of the crew of five:

When the time came for introductions, the commander of the base, Squadron Leader B, singled the two Canadians out from the rest and said:

“I see that two of you are Canadians. I’ll tell you right now that if we have any trouble with you, it’s the high jump for both of you.”

Howard is flying combat missions at such long range that they need to land their aircraft at airstrips in the desert both on the way to the target and on the way back. That doesn’t prevent the station commander, who doesn’t fly in combat, stopping his car as he drives past Howard and telling him off for having a button which is not shined properly. Such attitudes eventually lead to a mutiny.

On January 29th 1942, Squadron Leader B had a notice put up ordering:

“All aircrew are to report, properly dressed, to the Station Warrant Officer’s Office at 1300 hours”.

Every member of aircrew had already “been on Ops” in the previous week and in some cases, the night before:

In such cases, men are supposed to have a whole day’s rest with no reporting anywhere. The fact that the Station Warrant Officer has the nickname, “Louie the Rat”, probably sums up the attitude of the 50 men who assembled. He told them to draw rifles for rifle drill. They told him that sergeants only carry side arms so they don’t do rifle drill. Louie then gave them the message from Squadron Leader B that the men were all slack and they all needed smartening up.

At the first command of “Order Arms”, an Australian gentleman told Louie a convenient place to stick his rifle and threw his gun to the floor. He was immediately placed under close arrest and marched off to the Guard Room followed by 50 or so angry sergeants of all nationalities who demanded to be placed under close arrest as well.

And the account goes on from there for another couple of pages. Again, something I have never heard of before, and, like the Cranwell Riot, unknown to Google as well. The book does have a good summary of the situation though, one which could have been applied to a good many RAF bomber squadrons during this period…

“…a long period of minor abuse and lack of caring, a condition of “negative leadership.”

And what’s “negative leadership”?

Well, it can perhaps be summed up in the words of the officer who welcomed the crews to RAF Marham, right at the beginning of the book…

“Well chaps, the glamour period is over. Casualties in this command have been high, and they are on the rise as we make more and more flights further into Germany. I must tell you then that many of you will not be with us a few weeks or a month from now. Good luck to you all.”

Unbelievably, this officer was outdone by the Squadron Medical Officer:

“I hope it doesn’t happen to any of you, but in the event that you find yourself trapped in a burning aircraft with no chance of escape, best to get things over with in a hurry. Lean directly over the flames, open your mouth and inhale strongly. The fire should scorch the lungs and cause almost instant death, much preferable to burning slowly. Well good luck chaps.”

The Bomber Command men, all volunteers, of course, and a huge proportion of them from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, still got on those planes and did their jobs, often at the expense of their lives. The book concludes on a more positive note:

“I have never considered myself a brave man. But I was put into the company of brave men, and I could not very well have let them down.
I don’t believe I did.”

And my overall verdict? It’s a book very well worth a look especially if you can pick up a copy with a bit of history!

One final point I would like to make is that I had a minor operation on my hand recently and for that reason I will not be able to reply to any of your comments in the immediate future. If you do want to make a comment, by all means please do so, but I will not be able to write any replies until after December 6th as a minimum. After this date, with luck, I should be back in business.

 

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In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (1)

I haven’t written a book review before, but last week I was quite struck by this particular book, entitled “In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command” written by Howard Hewer. It is by no means a new book. My copy was published in 2000 and I bought a used copy from Abebooks. It was from a bookseller in Toledo, Ohio and the book had been a Library Copy from Greater Victoria Public Library at 735 Broughton St, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3H2, Canada.

With used library books, especially foreign ones, I always spend time wondering where the book has been, who borrowed it, what their lives were like and so on. I was most intrigued to find a till receipt still inside, detailing the book’s being taken out at precisely 10.41 am on June 16th 2001. Who read it? Did they enjoy it? And most exciting, did they get it back to the library on time by June 30th?

The book tells the story of a young Canadian who joins up and then spends the war in the RAF, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. He is in Bomber Command where casualties, of course, were enormous. There are, really, any number of such books. Some are written to be exciting, some to be poignant and some as detailed historical records. This one is a little bit different and tells the story from the point of view of a Canadian:

I just did not realise that the British would drag innocent young blokes half a world away from their homes to do their fighting and then insult them for their pains…

“We encountered the ‘colonial label’ usually with some snide remark. We grew restive and increasingly rebellious.”

Their reactions were pretty easy-going though, compared to one group. The Aussies:

“erupted in a near riot and refused to appear on parade or in class…Things reached a climax one day in the mess hall. This day the food was particularly inedible and one Aussie grabbed his plate and flung it against the wall just as an RAF air commodore walked through the door…this was not an isolated incident”.

Indeed, he speaks of the Canadian involvement in the “Cranwell Riot”, calmed only by the intervention of Canadian diplomats and Canadian officers. This may be what is being referred to in “The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew 1939-1945” by Allan D English (page 120) but I haven’t read that book yet. I could find nothing about the episode on the Internet.

We visited Cranwell in May 2010. It was a dull rainy day but here is the main building:

The gates are typical architecture of the time:

They are decorated with the superb badge of the RAF:

I read a lot about the RAF in World War Two but this book presents so much that is new to me. One intriguing footnote tells of the author’s neighbour in 1995 who told him of a fairly amazing incident. The Irish, always pretty anti-English at that time, were supposedly allowing U-boats to refuel in Cork Harbour, so, in late 1942 or early 1943, the RAF sent a force of 8 Blenheims to bomb the harbour “most bombs purposely landing in the bay.”

Well, I’ve never heard this before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some 20,000 Irishmen from the Republic were in the British forces, but there were a good few who were very sinister in their activities. In his book, “Clouds of Fear”, Roger Hall alleges that more than one RAF flyer was killed by Irish parachute packers who deliberately sabotaged their parachutes. The men murdered this way included a young man from the High School but that is, as they say, a story for another day.

Bombing Cork, even Blenheims would have been safe from the Irish Air Corps, who used Lysanders:

And the Fairey Battle:

Going back to Howard Hewer’s book, when he was posted to the Middle East, I was really surprised to hear for the first time, of the practice in North Africa of bombing targets which were so far away that the aircraft had to refuel both on the way there and on the way back. The book discusses the conditions at these stopover sites “situated on dried up salt lakes…We carried our bomb load from base, and had to land fully and lethally loaded…we slept on the floor of the aircraft in winter, under the wings during the summer months…we were not issued with sleeping bags…” Presumably, the advent of B-24 Liberators would have helped to phase out these stopovers which were unavoidable with the Wellingtons:

The Liberator had a much better range. Here is one of the first that the RAF received:

Next time, I’ll carry on with Howard Hewer’s adventures in Egypt. There are many more stories about the RAF officers that I had never heard, but they all have that ring of truth.

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1937: The Clouds of War (2)

Last time, it was the height of summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton was only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he set off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they got there, it was the late afternoon on a glorious summer’s day.

Even in the 1970s, this was an isolated country area, far, far away from the hustle and bustle of so-called civilisation. In the late 1930s, it must have been even quieter. Nothing except for the gentle humming of the bees, the whirr of the swallows’ wings, the buzzing of the grasshoppers and colourful butterflies fluttering by. A very peaceful, idyllic and rural place indeed. The boys duly set up their canvas tent, taking care to position all of the many guy ropes carefully. They followed their Boy Scout training and carefully cut a piece of turf from the grass at the side of the track, before they started their camp fire.

The_Hadrian's_Wall_Path_follows_a_'green_lane

It was a warm, calm, summer’s evening. Bats scythed through the still warm air. Large white and grey moths fluttered where butterflies had fluttered during the day. There was one bright star. Or was it a planet? Then a second star. And then a third. The night grew darker. The stars formed into patterns. The Plough. The Milky Way. Sparks flew up from the fire and disappeared into the darkness:

fire

I once saw a poster which said:

“Everything is going so well. Everything is perfect. But don’t worry. Some bstard will come along and spoil it.”

On this occasion the idyll was interrupted by the arrival of the local police constable on his bicycle. In later years, Fred was to wonder just why he was up there a thousand miles from the nearest police station and three light years from the nearest house. Had they stumbled upon his still? Did he have a secret girlfriend? Or a secret boyfriend? Did he like following teenage boys out to isolated areas?

Anyway, he sportingly told the four boys that despite their status as Boy Scouts and Ovaltineys they would not, under any circumstances whatsoever, be allowed to camp there overnight, as there were many, many important laws and many, many important byelaws which completely forbade such evildoing.

He sportingly told the four boys too, that they could finish their meal, just this once, before they left and went home and did not ever come back there ever again, even as old men. If they did, they would finish up in the galleys.

Will they refuse to obey him? Will they rise up and slay this bourgeois lickspittle?

We’ll see next time.

 

 

 

 

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