Here is more information about flying saucers and little green men, following on from “Misunderstandings (3)”. The beginning of fear of exterrestrials can be dated from Orson Welles' radio production of H G Wells' “War of the Worlds” in 1940. The incident that sparked off the pseudoscience of Ufology was the so-called “Roswell Incident” that supposedly took place at the Roswell Air Force base in New Mexico in 1947. A flying saucer crashed just outside the base. The authorities' initial attempt to pass this off as a weather balloon was unconvincing. I guess that the grainy and jerky photographs of an autopsy being carried out on an “alien”, were the authorities' second line of defence. More recently these photographs were dismissed as “a student prank”. That seems very unlikely. What put an end to experiments with flying saucers was probably the successful development of the Hawker Harrier in Britain. If you think about it, a flying saucer would have been maintained off the ground throughout its flight entirely by its jet engine, while the Harrier is maintained in flight by the normal operation of airflow over and under the wings. There is no comparison in efficiency.
A much more disturbing idea has been hinted at in recent television programmes: namely, that the Nazis exploded the first nuclear bombs. Clearly German scientists had been thinking along those lines as is attested by their establishment of centrifuges in Norway designed to separate “heavy water” or deuterium from normal water. The eventually successful attempts to sabotage the plant and to destroy stocks of heavy water, without regard for civilian lives, indicates to us, as it would have done to the Nazis, how important our authorities regarded the matter. If (and it is only an if) the Germans developed the idea, the bombs would have been constructed in an underground facility just outside Linz in Austria. Two tests would seem to have been carried out in the Thuringerwald in early 1945. Fortunately for London the Soviets overran both areas. Stalin's apparent lack of interest when Truman told him about the existence of a new and terrible weapon would, therefore, not only be because he had spies in Los Alamos but because he had direct access to German research and development.
Talking, if we must, about Nazis, let us turn to the Schicklgruber story. Hitler originated from a small village outside Linz where, as in many villages before the invention of the bicycle, inbreeding was rife. His father's name had been Schicklgruber, being his father's mother's surname. In his later years, however, Hitler's grandfather, called Hitler, legitimated the union and from then on Hitler's father was lawfully called “Hitler”. The Schicklgruber story was an Austrian joke, meaning that Hitler was the bastard son of a village idiot. Comedians who had told the joke did not prosper after the Anschluss. There is another facet to the Schicklgruber joke, though, which I picked up in Namibia of all places. The German for “septic tank” is Sichergrube, near enough to raise a laugh, surely.
Given the permanent importance of the Second World War to life subsequently, it continues to surprise us how little we have known about it. The Americans think it started in December 1941 with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. The British think it started in September 1939 with the German (and Soviet) invasion of Poland. The Chinese, though, justifiably think it started in 1937 with the Japanese invasion of China and the “Nanking Incident”, which is what the Japanese still call, to the utter rage of the people of China, the mass murder of the civilians of China's southern capital. From the point of view of the western allies, one of the most important battles of the War was the Battle of Khalkin-Gol in August 1939. Yet who has heard of it? This is the battle in which a Japanese army invaded Soviet territory from Manchuria and were decisively defeated by Zhukov and driven out. This, therefore, is the reason why the Japanese government decided not to attack the Soviet Union in 1941, as Hitler would have wished, but turned their attentions to the United States instead. In turn that enabled Zhukov to be brought back safely to defend Moscow in the winter of 1941-42. His Siberian troops, wearing skis and dressed entirely in white, drove the Germans back two hundred miles when the temperature hit minus 40. Flesh stuck to bare metal in those conditions, and the Germans' zinc uniform buttons turned to powder. (Pers. comm., I have spoken to Germans who were there.)
Many aspects of the War remained secret or undescribed for a long time. It is thought that the British successes in breaking German ciphers were kept quiet for years for operational reasons. The Colossus computers, built by Tommy Flowers in Neasden, were supposedly scrapped by Attlee's government and no more was heard of them. Actually two were moved to GCHQ at Cheltenham. It would appear that the Soviets, having captured some of Hitler's state of the art Lorenz encryption/decryption machines, built their own and used them subsequently. No doubt the Colossus machines were kept busy after the War. Additionally, the British Government very kindly furnished newly independent governments with Enigma machines for their foreign embassies. Those would be the reasons for continuing secrecy about what might have been considered as of purely historical interest.
Following on from this, in 1987 a renegade MI5 officer, Peter Wright, published “Spycatcher”, causing a massive scandal. His main objective, apart from raising money to make up the pension that he considered he had been cheated out of, was to demonstrate that Sir Roger Hollis, his boss, had been a Soviet agent. Officially nobody believes that. It is clearly the case that Hollis ran with the fox and hunted with the hounds on numerous occasions. Yet that seems to be what spies actually do, and an outsider can put all sorts of interpretations on clandestine behaviour. Margaret Thatcher was horrified, and massive efforts were instigated all round the world to prevent publication. There can have been no better way of signalling to the Soviets that this book contained important secrets. (My copy came in the diplomatic bag: I will say no more about that.) Apart from the Hollis business, which was by then ancient history, I read the book with an eye to working out just why the Prime Minister acted so drastically. Most of the stories in it, though not known to the general public, would have been familiar to the foreign government agencies concerned. The one thing that stood out was “Venona”, that is, the practice of submitting recorded Soviet communications traffic to repeated analysis by ever improving computer systems. The IBM 360 represented a step change; then Cheltenham acquired one of the first Cray-1 supercomputers. If I am right, the book told Soviet intelligence that it could not rely on the continued secrecy of its communications. Thus agents might have been “blown” for years. As indeed they were. The Soviets could not place any trust in their laboriously constructed intelligence networks.
A story of quite a different kind, but with a wartime background, concerns a small English town that sent a delegation to France as part of a town twinning arrangement. The delegates were seated with their hosts at a municipal banquet. Monsieur le maire rose to make a speech of welcome, adorned with a tricolour sash and flanked by a bust of Marianne representing the Republic. And this is what he said:
“Hoots! It's fucking braw tae welcome a' yiz fuckers tae oor wee toon!”
The English visitors were astonished. As well they might be. The explanation is quite interesting, and it relates to another piece of wartime history that is not as well known as it should be. After the German invasion of France in 1940, most British troops were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk. A few thousand, like my father, were taken off from St Nazaire. But the 51st Highland Division had been stationed further inland to help the French man the Maginot Line, and the German advance was so swift that the Highlanders were cut off. With some French troops, they made a valiant stand at St Valéry hoping to be rescued by the Royal Navy. Weather conditions were against any rescue, they ran out of ammunition, and they had to surrender. The French mayor had been one of those captured with the Scots, and he spent the rest of the War in the same prisoner-of-war camp. There he set about learning his companions' language. One can imagine the glee with which the Highlanders (really mainly from Glasgow) instructed the funny foreigner in the niceties of polished English discourse.
Quite recently I was taken to see the tomb of Herbert Henry Asquith in Sutton Courtenay churchyard, not far from the great man's family home. I was horrified to see that it bore the inscription “Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister of England 1908-1916”. Actually, Asquith was the first Prime Minister to bear that title in public documents. The first Prime Minister is always listed as Sir Robert Walpole, who was in office from 1721 to 1742. It is said that King George I, being stupid, could not speak good enough English to preside over the Cabinet, so that he was forced to find someone else to manage his government. Here is yet another misunderstanding. English was George's fourth best language. He spoke excellent French as did the rest of the government ministers. The reason for Walpole's appointment, nominally as “First Lord of the Treasury”, was to secure the support of the House of Commons for government business. Such is still the case. Anyway, the point that I am trying to make is that Asquith was not, repeat not, Prime Minister of England. The reason for that is simply that England had ceased to be a political entity in 1707 as a result of the Act of Union. Asquith was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Not England.
I have hinted in previous essays that Columbus did not discover America. I am well aware that pre-Columbian theorists tend to include the same people who were fooled by the Roswell Incident. My interest, though, derives from a different source. In Funchal Botanical Gardens, Madeira, there is a series of rather attractive illustrations in blue tile illustrating important milestones in Portuguese maritime history, not least, of course, the discovery and settlement of Madeira itself. The illustration depicting the first landing on the coast of America, presumably Brazil, is dated to the 1430's. (Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492). We all know that Bartolomé Dias rounded the Cape in 1488. How did he manage that? Did he follow the coastline of Africa round to Lagos and continue hugging the coast southwards? If he had tried that he would have done a perish, as the Australians say. Try sailing against the Benguela current with a steady strong wind blowing towards the Skeleton Coast. The name says it all. The direct route, if you don't have an engine, is to call in at Belém, or Recife, or Rio, load up with fresh water, then aim south. Coming back is easier. The wind and tides will take you to Rio.
Here is a story for music lovers. One night in Vienna, around 1800, the night watch arrested a vagrant who was rotating in the street and bawling his head off. He was duly put in a cell overnight. When the superior officer came in the morning to review the events of the previous night, he found this vagrant in a cell and said “It's only Herr Beethoven”. The mistake was rectified at once, and the great man was released with profuse apologies. My interpretation is that it was not a mistake at all. Beethoven had been making a nuisance of himself. In response to public complaints, the head of the Watch devised a plan to dissuade Beethoven from composing in the streets while causing the least fuss and bother.
A similar story relates to Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Earl of Cranborne, soon to become Third Marquess of Salisbury and eventually Her Majesty's Prime Minister. In 1866 he was ejected from the casino at Monte Carlo for being habillé en épouvantail, dressed as a scarecrow. Even today, it is the custom of the British aristocracy to wear suits that they inherited from their fathers and grandfathers. When I last saw the previous Duke of Marlborough he was instantly recognisable because of the suit that he was wearing. By the way, Salisbury's nephew Arthur Balfour's rapid rise through political offices gave rise to the popular saying “Bob's your uncle”.
Here is a story for my Irish descendants, who might be less than happy at having had as an ancestor one of Oliver Cromwell's officers. My father's family came from Blackrod, which is within walking distance or a cart ride from Bolton. In 1644 Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Charles I's cousin and best general, committed the Massacre of Bolton. Much was made of this in Parliamentary propaganda, and historians still take sides according to which side they think they would have supported getting on for four centuries ago. The minimum number of persons massacred was 78, which is the number of persons listed in the parish burial records. The maximum is 2000, based on parliamentary publications. Both numbers could be correct, though. The register perhaps only lists local citizens. The larger number would include the remnants of a defeated army that sought to take refuge in Bolton. I would suggest, though, that of the seventy-eight some might easily have been friends and relations of the people of Blackrod, and of the 2000 some might even have been denizens of Blackrod itself doing their weekly shopping. In junior school, our textbook portrayed prince Rupert as a dashing hero, while the Roundheads were dour, and hated Christmas. In a census I was the only one in the class to confess to preferring the Roundheads. It was only later that I discovered that I am descended from one.