Category Archives: History

James Holland reviews Dunkirk

History writer (fiction and non-fiction) James Holland reviews Dunkirk, and asks, does historical accuracy matter? This is a great piece, although long. In reality, the “Little Ships” that were the heroes of Dunkirk were a big part of the legend, but only a small part of the actual rescue effort. But still, at least it happened. Hollywood has done a lot worse with history.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. From this review, I am both intrigued and disappointed to learn that the size of the spectacle was limited because director Christopher Nolan has an aversion to CGI. It’s funny when you realize that the movie was still converted to digital for distribution.

A minor nit:

Tom Hardy’s pilot also seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition – I counted around 70 seconds’ worth in all – when in reality Spitfires and Hurricanes both had 14.7 seconds in which to shoot down enemy aircraft.

This is very common in nearly all action movies. The typical machine gun doesn’t have nearly as much ammunition as you’d think. This should be less forgivable in historical movies, in that much of the audience expects to learn what it was actually like.

Field Marshal von Rundstedt on the Invasion of Normandy

Another anniversary: This time it’s the 73rd anniversary of D-Day — the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

It’s no surprise that the German army would have produced a report on the invasion. And it’s no surprise that the Allies would get their hands on a copy, and translate it into English. What’s neat is that the Navy has one on their website. It is dated June 20, 1944, and from the office of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, then Commander-in-Chief in the west.

I—Four facts which must be emphasized:
(1) The enemy’s complete mastery in the air.
(2) The skillful and large-scale employment of enemy parachute and airborne troops,
(3) The flexible and well-directed support of the land troops by ships’ artillery of strong English naval units ranging from battleship to gunboat.
(4) The rehearsal of the enemy invasion units for their task; most precise knowledge of the coast, of its obstacles and defense establishments, swift building up of superiority in numbers and material on the bridgehead after just a few days.

Opposed to this stands the quality of the German soldier, his steadfastness and his unqualified will to fight to the fast with army, navy and air force.

All three branches of the service have given their best and will continue to give it.

There is, of course, a lot more at the link. No major surprises in the report, but it’s always interesting to see source documents.

As for von Rundstedt, he was dismissed in July but recalled a few months later.

Nice cars finish last

From 1944:

Grin and Bear It — Feb 15, 1944*

Civilian car production stopped within two months after December 7, 1941. But this joke works even better today with self-driving cars on the horizon.

John C. Dvorak writes that self-driving cars will be too polite. They’ll be programmed to obey the rules while pedestrians and regular drivers will take advantage. It’ll be like an American driving in Sicily, not really understanding the nuances. Dvorak doesn’t say this, but I could imagine somebody hacking an aggressiveness into their own computer.

But maybe not: These cars will also be recording everything. Memory storage will be cheap. They might very well call the cops automatically.

* There was once a time when it was permissible to make fun of women drivers. Nowadays, they can only make fun of men drivers.

Two Eras

Via Rand Simberg (from whom I snagged this title) and StrategyPage, a USAF F-22 Raptor flying beside a restored P-51 Mustang painted in Tuskegee Airmen colors:

USAF F-22 Raptor aircraft assigned to Tyndall Air Force Base flies in formation with a WWII-era P-51 Mustang, April 22, 2017 over Panama City Beach, Fla. The aircraft flew in support of the opening ceremony of the Gulf Coast Salute Airshow at Tyndall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Couillard)

If you’re expecting the P-51 to have a bubble canopy, this was the original design. Glass-making needed more improvement before they could have shapes that were still distortion-free. They added the bubble canopy with the P-51D.

The F-22 is actually further back than it appears. It’s about twice the length of the P-51.

Notice the golden tint in the F-22’s canopy. While this is similar to the EA-6 Prowler’s gold canopy, which protects its crew from electromagnetic waves, here it also adds to the F-22’s stealth by scattering any radar reflection.

Doolittle Raid: 75th anniversary


The Doolittle raid was 75 years ago today. 80 men in 16 B-25 Mitchells took off of the USS Hornet (CV-8) on April 18, 1942 to attack mainland Japan.

The Navy has a good write-up here. (These U.S. military histories are an important resource.)

Of the 16 B-25s: “15 crashed in occupied China, where the Japanese inflicted brutal reprisals against the Chinese populace in Chekiang province. One B-25 landed intact at Vladivostok, where the Soviets interned it and its crew.”

The reprisals were indeed brutal.  The Chinese paid the biggest price of all.

Of the Raiders, 3 were killed in combat, 8 captured (of which 3 were killed, and one died in captivity).

The Soviets were unwilling to release the crew they recovered until the end of the war. While that may seem strange now, they were not at war with Japan. To send them home would risk them being seen as participants. (A few years later, they disassembled and duplicated the B-29 from one that they got that way.)

USS Hornet got back safely, but did not survive the year. The one currently on display in Alameda, California, is the USS Hornet (CV-12), which was commissioned the next year.

Poison gas

As part of the epigraph I used to lead my novella The Time Bridge at Orion, George Orwell wrote, “Poison gas, the machine-gun, the submarine, gunpowder, and even the crossbow were similarly denounced in their day.” This was about the V1 missiles being fired on London at the time.

It is interesting that Orwell put poison gas in the same category as these other weapons. That was war. You do what you need to do. He was very practical about it.

Some people like to think of WMDs as being out of bounds, never to be used — ever. They wish to think the same of torture. But in reality, WMDs are merely being reserved for whatever may be the most dire of emergencies. Treaties on poison gas say “never” but history says something else. People will do what they feel they need to do.

This shouldn’t apply to Assad. He had other options. His recent use was probably just a test to see what the price would be. All of these boundaries will shift when Iran has nukes. The restraints on chem and bio warfare may then be loosened as well.

This may become a much more dangerous world.

H. L. Mencken on anarchists

The last round of Berkeley riots reminded me of this quote from H. L. Mencken:

“To the average American or Englishman the very name of anarchy causes a shudder, because it invariably conjures up a picture of a land terrorized by low-browed assassins with matted beards, carrying bombs in one hand and mugs of beer in the other. But as a matter of fact, there is no reason whatever to believe that, if all laws were abolished tomorrow, such swine would survive the day. They are incompetents under our present paternalism and they would be incompetents under Dionysian anarchy. The only difference between the two states is that the former, by its laws, protects men of this sort, whereas the latter would work their speedy annihilation.”

You may have seen it around. Glenn Reynolds posted it several years back on Instapundit (no relation to his source), and still finds it well worth an occasional requote. But I hadn’t seen it after the Berkeley riots.

This comes from Mencken’s The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1913), which may be found at Project Gutenberg. That passage fits the Black Bloc to a tee. I can’t help but think that the surrounded paragraph could almost fit the backstory of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where their society had been rescued (or taken over) by military veterans.

H. L. Mencken is generally remembered today for his observations and quotes that had been collected over time. It is remembered less that he opposed the New Deal and U.S. involvement in World War II. He was definitely not a fan of FDR. He had stopped writing his columns before the war, but you can find a few quotes from his later years. I had almost used one for a chapter epigraph in One Thousand Years. Another of his quotes is tentatively set for use in my upcoming sequel. (More on that later.)

Why they burn

Berlin book burning May 10, 1933 — (from image in U.S. public domain)

Berlin book burning May 10, 1933

Do you remember why Ray Bradbury’s firemen burned books? I thought of this again when I saw that the free speech advocates over the pond at English Pen were screening the movie version of Fahrenheit 451.

I confess to being skeptical whether they’ll get to the original reason, but maybe they will. Their announcement quotes from the book:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.” — Ray Bradbury

Like most people, I’d forgotten Bradbury’s reason until The Observer’s Ryan Holiday reminded us of the real reason we need to stop trying to protect everyone’s feelings:

If you’d asked me what it was about before last week, I would have told you: “Firemen who burn books.”

And if you’d asked me why on earth they did that, I would have answered just as confidently: “Because a tyrannical government wanted them to.”

There is a trend afoot to conveniently remember the works of authors like Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley as warnings against distant totalitarianism and control. But this only scratches the surface of what these books are about.

Note that he said “conveniently remember.” That trend has only gotten worse. Or better, depending on your point-of-view.

Bradbury’s society did not burn books because of the government. Holiday quotes the book:

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? … Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, to the incinerator.”

It’s the people rioting in the streets that want your books burned. Perhaps it’s not so much that Bradbury saw this coming but that it has often been this way.

It was the German Student Union that organized burning books with the SA brownshirts in Nazi Germany.

Raumpatrouille: 1960s German SF

Raumpatrouille (Space Patrol) was a seven-episode German science fiction show in the ’60s. The style was somewhat reminiscent of the movie Forbidden Planet.

YouTuber Rewboss gives a short but thorough explanation for English speakers:

The show is well worth a look. The first episode is here. Be sure to turn on the subtitles for a translation.

This is what people in the ’60s thought the future would be like. Expect more than a few scenes to be unintentionally funny. The dancing in the background reminds me of SNL’s Sprockets, which adds to the charm.

All seven episodes are available on YouTube. Some videos don’t have the English subtitles, but there is an alternative if you look around.