When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1940s

Unsinkable Ship

1942: Habbakuk was the code name for a secret British project to build a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier. The project never got beyond research and the early stages of development, but if the vessel had been constructed, it would have been twice as long as the Queen Mary. Even more remarkable was the intended construction material – a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp. In essence, Habbakuk would have been a gigantic iceberg with a flat top to serve as a flight deck. The ice, of course, would have made it unsinkable; the wood pulp was for reinforcement.

Source: Georgina Ferry, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (2007), pp. 98–110

Suspicious Activity

1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted Donald Keene’s Japanese studies at Columbia University. Japanese in the United States were classified as enemy aliens, and the day after the attack, New York police detained Keene’s teacher, Tsunoda Ryūsaku. Japanese residents were suspected of gathering information about American defence facilities, although the most serious evidence against Tsunoda seems to have been that “he had been observed taking long walks without a dog”.

Source: Donald Keene, The Blue-Eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology, ed. J. Thomas Rimer (1996), pp. 8–9

Deadly Device

1940: In Warthegau, Polish territory annexed by Germany in 1939, Herbert Lange’s Sonderkommando used a large van fitted with a sealed chamber to eliminate mental patients. To allay suspicion, the side of the vehicle carried the logo of a well-known German coffee company – “Kaiser’s Kaffee-Geschäft”. Once the patients were loaded, carbon monoxide was piped into the chamber.

Source: Patrick Montague, Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp (2012), pp. 21–30, 64, 199–211

No More Coups

1949: Costa Rica avoided the military coups that plagued Latin America during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s by the expedient of disbanding its armed forces. The country’s 1949 constitution decreed: “The Army as a permanent institution is abolished.” (“Se proscribe el ejército como institución permanente.”)

Source: www.servat.unibe.ch/icl/cs00000
_.html

Dog Lover

Mohandas Gandhi at the age of 7

1948: Balding head, wire-rimmed spectacles, moustache, shawl draped over one shoulder – Mohandas Gandhi was much photographed in his later years, which makes it difficult to visualize him as a perky youngster roaming the streets of Porbandar, in western India. His elder sister Raliat remembered him being as “restless as mercury”, unable to “sit still even for a little while”. When she took him for walks, he would approach animals and try to make friends with them. “One of his favourite pastimes was twisting dogs’ ears.”

Source: Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Early Phase (1965), p. 194

Original Computer Bug

1947: When Harvard University’s Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator started playing up on 9 September, operators discovered a moth trapped between the points of a relay. “Bugs” had bothered machines before; this was the first recorded instance of a “computer bug”.

Source: www.jamesshuggins.com/h/tek1/first_computer_bug.htm

Colloquial Arabic

1946: J. Spencer Trimingham’s Sudan Colloquial Arabic catered to the “needs of the government official or missionary in learning and speaking the language”. One imagines classrooms of clerics primly reciting Trimingham’s dialogues:

Father: What’s the matter with Ahmad sitting alone and sulking (lit. stretching his mouth)?

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Gold Rush

1945: When investigators visited the site of the Treblinka extermination camp, they found the entire area pitted with deep holes, where local people had come with shovels and spades to dig for the remains of inmates, hoping to unearth gold teeth or other valuables missed by the camp guards and Sonderkommando.

Source: Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (1987), p. 379

Papal Prejudice

Pius XII, painted by Peter McIntyre

1944: In a brief dispatch to London on 26 January, the British minister to the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, reported a conversation he had had earlier in the day with Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Pope Pius XII’s secretary of state. Maglione had expressed the pope’s desire that “no Allied coloured troops would be among the small number that might be garrisoned at Rome after the occupation.” Not that the Holy See drew the colour line, the cardinal had hastened to explain, but “it was hoped that it would be found possible to meet this request.”

Source: The Historian, Winter 2002

Beetles Over Britain

Colorado beetle, photographed by Scott Bauer

1943: The wartime activities of the Colorado beetle have gone largely unnoticed, though they were allegedly used in a crude form of biological warfare. German planes dropped beetles on the Isle of Wight to destroy the potato crop, only to be foiled by the secret deployment of schoolchildren to round up the pests. (Though how the Third Reich hoped to alter the course of the war by targeting a pint-sized island off the south coast of Britain, and why the kids didn’t immediately blab the whole story, is beyond me.)

Source: Jennifer Davies, The Wartime
Kitchen and Garden (1993), p. 129,
but see also www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/
spru/hsp/documents/CWCB33-Garrett.
pdf

Truth And Lies

1941: William Marston claimed that, while still a psychology student at Harvard, he had been the first person to measure blood pressure as a means of lie detection. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he lobbied unsuccessfully for the use of the polygraph in court cases. In 1941 he created the comic-book heroine Wonder Woman, who used a magic lasso to ensnare criminals and to extract confessions.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Polygraph

Cannon Fodder

1940: The American broadcaster William Shirer found it difficult to read the minds of Berliners thronging the Unter den Linden on Easter Sunday afternoon. “Their faces looked blank. Obviously they do not like the war, but they will do what they’re told. Die, for instance.”

Source: William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934–1941 (1941), p. 241

Promise To Be Good

1947: After dusk on 7 April, a search party of coalminers recovered the body of 4-year-old Glyndwr Parfitt from the River Afan in south Wales. The boy’s hands and feet had been tied with bootlaces. The police charged a 9-year-old playmate with murder. When questioned, he admitted the killing but promised, “I won’t do it again.”

Source: David James Smith, The Sleep of Reason, p. 5

Hyperinflation

1946: In July, hyperinflation in Hungary reached a monthly rate of 13,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Put another way: prices doubled every 15.6 hours. By the time the pengő was replaced by the forint at the beginning of August, the Hungarian currency was so devalued that the dollar value of all the Hungarian bank notes in circulation amounted to just one-thousandth of one cent.

Source: www.cato.org/zimbabwe; Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), p. 87

Direct Hit

1945: “Command post moved to Potsdamer Platz station,” a German officer noted on 27 April as Soviet troops fought their way into the centre of Berlin. “Direct hit through the roof. Heavy losses among wounded and civilians. . . . Terrible sight at the station entrance, one flight of stairs down where a heavy shell has penetrated and people, soldiers, women and children are literally stuck to the walls.”

Source: Tony Le Tissier, Berlin Then and Now (1992), p. 226

Tom, Dick And . . .

1944: On 24 March, in what was dubbed the “Great Escape”, 76 Allied prisoners of war scrambled to freedom through a tunnel under the perimeter wire of Stalag-Luft III. A year earlier, the prisoners had begun work on three tunnels: one had been discovered by the Germans, one had been abandoned, and one had been successful. Their code names were Tom, Dick and Harry.

Source: Anton Gill, The Great Escape: The Full Dramatic Story with Contributions from Survivors and Their Families (2002), p. 106

Farewell Flight

1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2

Maize Monopoly

1942: In European colonies, white settlers used their political clout to reshape economies for their own benefit. Discrimination was thinly disguised. Kenya’s chief native commissioner described the colony’s monopoly on the marketing of maize, introduced in 1942, as “the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt”.

Source: Paul Mosley, The Settler Economies: Studies in the Economic History of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia 1900–1963 (1983), p. 100

Unexpected Visitor

Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy and self-appointed peace envoy

1941: In May, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Scotland on what appears to have been a misguided peace mission. Hess baled out of his aircraft and parachuted down near a cottage where David McLean, a ploughman, lived with his mother, Annie. The ploughman checked the airman for weapons, and then escorted him to the cottage. Mrs. McLean, meanwhile, had responded to the excitement by making a pot of tea. Hess politely refused the tea but asked for a glass of water.

Source: Roy Conyers Nesbit and Georges van Acker, The Flight of Rudolf Hess: Myths and Reality (1999), pp. 70–1

Culinary Expertise

1940: Clement Freud began his culinary career as a trainee chef in the “huge dank dark” kitchen of the Dorchester Hotel. The vegetable cook was an elderly Frenchman, a heavy-drinking garlic chewer who garnished dishes by stuffing his mouth with chopped parsley and spraying it through the gaps between his teeth. This technique, Freud reported, was “particularly effective with new potatoes, where the evenness of his aim made the dish look impressive”.

Source: Clement Freud, Freud Ego (2001), pp. 35, 36

Nobs And Spivs

1949: Visiting Cannes, on the Riviera, Nancy Mitford found herself hobnobbing with a sizeable contingent from the British working class with their “Rolls Royces & luxury yachts – the black marketeers I suppose”.

Source: Nancy Mitford, The Letters of Nancy Mitford: Love from Nancy, ed. Charlotte Mosley (1993), pp. 233–4

“Comme Les Autres”

1948: Charles de Gaulle’s tender love for his family contrasted sharply with the cold dignity he displayed towards the public.

De Gaulle was especially devoted to his second daughter, Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome. She was different from de Gaulle’s other children, different from other parents’ children, and de Gaulle loved her all the more because of it. Anne reciprocated his love; sometimes she squeezed his cheeks so hard she left red marks and the only word she could apparently say properly was “papa”.

At the age of 20, she caught pneumonia. Her body hadn’t the strength to fight the illness, and she died on 6 February. At the graveside, de Gaulle consoled his wife, Yvonne: “She’s like the others now.” (“Maintenant, elle est comme les autres.”)

Source: Jonathan Fenby, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (2010), pp. 90–1, 337–8

Culinary Queen

1947: Marooned in a provincial English hotel with dispiriting winter weather outdoors and dispiriting food indoors, Elizabeth David’s mind wandered to memories of southern sun, colours and flavours. Writing about Mediterranean cookery offered a way of escape.

The memories and words tumbled out: “The saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion or tiger-striped, and those long needle fish whose bones mysteriously turn green when they are cooked.”

Source: Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), p. v

Wells’s Sex Appeal

1946: How did H.G. Wells become the Don Juan of 20th-century English literature? How did a short, rather portly man with a receding hairline, a tired moustache and a squeaky voice attract a string of lovers that included the writers Rebecca West and Elizabeth von Arnim, the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and the Russian baroness Moura Budberg?

“Fat and homely” was the way William Somerset Maugham described Wells, and he once asked Budberg what it was that attracted her to him. His smell, she said; his body “smelt of honey”.

Source: Andrea Lynn, Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells (2001), pp. 19–21

Dangerous Driver

Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris photographed at his desk

1943: The area bombing of German cities and the people in them was inextricably linked to Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command. Harris was very energetic, very forceful, very blunt. When stopped late one night for driving his Bentley at high speed, the policeman rebuked him: “You might have killed somebody, sir.” To which Harris replied: “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), p. 135