Heroes in the Darkness

The atrocities carried out under the rule of Nazi Germany showed our ability for almost unimaginable cruelty towards one another and, probably for the first time, they were carried out with scientific precision.

Plenty of people inside and outside of Germany and the other occupied countries knew, or at least suspected, what was going on, though few could or did do anything about it.

We’re familiar with some of those who did. Oskar Schindler is perhaps the most famous due to Steven Spielberg’s film, but there were many individuals and groups who risked their lives for other people, not just Jews (Wikipedia has a partial list of those who helped Jews, while the most prominent are featured in a list of the Righteous among the Nations).

It’s perhaps not unsurprising that I’d never heard of the person celebrated in an email I received recently.  Irena Sendler was part of the Polish Underground, who helped Jews throughout the war. She focused on helping children, though she also produced false documents for Jewish families before that, and managed to save at least 2,500 children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Continue reading

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Bat Bombs

I have been listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s At Home, which is superb.  I like Bryson’s work anyway and was a particular fan of A Short History of Nearly Everything.  So I am very much enjoying At Home and the insights it brings (he does like asking questions you don’t generally think of, like why do we have salt and pepper on the table, why those condiments specifically and nothing else?).  One of the bizarre historical stories that appears (to do with guano, which is about fertilization, agriculture and leads back to gardening and the humble lawn) is about the Bat Bomb.

This was an idea pioneered in WWII as a weapon to use against the Japanese.  Although many bat species are endangered today, at the time bats were around in huge numbers (several million in a large cave was not uncommon), which meant they could be used in large numbers for maximum affect without harming the population.  The idea was simple, catch a lot of bats (they were planning on releasing over a million), attach small incendiary devices to them with timers, load them onto a plane and release them over Japan near morning.  The bats would, in the approaching dawn, find a roost and then the timed devices would detonate causing mass fires.

It sounds like something cooked up by a second-rate comic book villain, but this was a real project, known to the military as Project X-Ray.  In fact, it had several test runs.  One with dummy weapons and one, for some reason, with live fire weapons at an airbase in the south-western United States.  It proved so successful it burnt down most of the new airbase and a general’s car.  The problem was it was completely indiscriminate.

In the end, while still working out the kinks, the atomic bomb (Manhattan) project came to fruition and it was decided the bat bombs were no longer needed.  There’s a book on the subject if you’re inclined to find out more.

These were by no means the only animals to be used for military means, in WWII alone there were projects for pigeon-guided missiles, anti-tank dogs and the US Navy still uses dolphins and sea lions.

Travel Guides

This article about the old and new Baedekers travel guides has some great quotes, ranging from the ludicrous:

Readers were often advised to take full evening dress, a pith helmet and a medicine chest as well as a large number of suits and dresses.

To the insulting:

Travellers a century ago were also advised how to keep out of trouble. Don’t be rude in Spain, they were advised in 1913, because it serves only to “excite the inflammable passions of the uneducated Spaniard”.

Similarly stern were the judgements on whole populations. The Italians cared little about dirt, Americans spat too much, while ordinary people were judged on a scale from docile (Egyptians) to uppity (the Spanish).

To the very old fashioned:

In a Baedeker phrase book from the 1890s, potential servants were greeted with the words: “You must be exact in the execution of my orders, and if you happen to get drunk, I shall dismiss you at once.”

Continue reading

Friends Across the Channel

Startling news, apparently the Brits could have had an alliance with France, even more shocking, the could have joined the Commonwealth and had the Queen presiding over them.

So, when Eden turned down his request for a union between France and Britain the French prime minister came up with another proposal.

This time, while Eden was on a visit to Paris, he requested that France be allowed to join the British Commonwealth.

Continue reading

The New 7 Wonders

While it sounds like some sort of gimic (“Come see the all new seven wonders of the world”) Bernard Weber has started a competition to find the new seven wonders of the world. For those who don’t know, the old seven wonders comprised of (via Wikipedia):

Wonder Date Builder Destroyed Cause
Great Pyramid of Giza 2550 BC Egyptians still standing still standing
Hanging Gardens of Babylon 600 BC Babylonians after 1st century BC earthquake
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus 550 BC Lydians, Greeks 356 BC fire
Statue of Zeus at Olympia 435 BC Greeks 5th-6th centuries AD fire
Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus 351 BC Carians, Greeks by 1494 AD earthquake
Colossus of Rhodes 292-280 BC Hellenistic Greece 224 BC earthquake
Lighthouse of Alexandria 3rd century BC Hellenistic Egypt 1303-1480 AD earthquake

Continue reading

Sandwich Spread

The flippin’ Yankees are trying to barge their way into yet another British institution and failing miserably, again. They can’t make tea and they can’t make sandwiches either (mainly because they don’t know how to bake bread).

Next they’ll be trying to claim an American stole the secret recipe for scones and that only they make true scones or that black pudding was originally brought back from the Americas by Columbus.

There are times when I think kicking the rogues out of the Commonwealth was the best thing we ever did, most of the time I’m certain of it, only a bunch of heathens would through boxes of perfectly good tea into the sea.

(Note to any US readers: please observe the heavy hint of sarcasm that threads its way through this post, the rest of the world knows you don’t get irony — it’s well documented — but I’m not so sure how well you get sarcasm either.)