Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Khalid Elhassan - March 30, 2021

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Barnes Wallis. Surrey Live

11. Skipping Bombs Over the Water Like Stones

Technological limitations in 1943 prevented the dropping of a big enough bomb with enough accuracy to damage the Ruhr dams. A smaller bomb – if it went off against a dam wall at a sufficient depth – could destroy a dam. However, the Ruhr dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets to prevent that. Enterprising British scientist Barnes Wallis finally figured out a solution: bounce a bomb over the water’s surface and over the torpedo nets like a skipping stone until it struck the dam’s wall. It would then sink down the dam’s wall, and once at the requisite depth, explode.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Bomb skipping technique. Imperial War Museum

The surrounding water would concentrate the resulting blast against the dam, resulting in a breach. In order to get the explosive to skip on the surface, then sink along the dam’s inner wall after striking it instead of bouncing back, Wallis devised a spinning drum filled with explosives. A bomber would approach the dam flying low above its reservoir, and at the proper height and distance from the target, release the explosive drum, which a motor had set to spinning counterclockwise. The bomber’s speed would propel the drum skipping over the water surface, bouncing over the underwater torpedo nets.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Barnes Wallis and others watch a practice run with a skipping bomb. Imperial War Museum

10. The RAF’s Enterprising Aerial Commandos

Once Barnes Wallis’ rapidly rotating drum bombs skipped across the water, over the anti-torpedo nets, and struck the dam, the drum’s counter-rotation would ensure that it hugged the dam’s wall while sinking. Once the bomb reached the proper depth, hydraulic pistols would set it off, and basic physics would take care of the rest. Wallis’ science was good and his theory was sound. Next was getting pilots and aircrews with enough skill and courage to conduct the night time raid.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Skipping a rotating drum bomb against a dam’s wall. Wikimedia

24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected by RAF Bomber Command’s chief, Arthur Harris, to form and lead 617 Squadron for that and similar missions. It was essentially a unit of elite aerial commandos. Gibson’s enterprising aircrews trained in modified Lancaster heavy bombers, fitted with a motor in the bomb bay to spin the explosive drum. The drum had to be released at a height of 60 feet to properly skip on water. To determine the correct height, an ingeniously simple technique was adopted: two spotlights were placed on a bomber’s front and rear, and angled so their lights would meet at the water’s surface at a height of 60 feet.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Guy Gibson, commander of 617 Squadron and the Dambuster Raid. Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund

9. These Enterprising Raiders Began Suffering Losses Before They Had Even Reached Their Targets

Correct distance for releasing the bombs against the Ruhr dams was determined by lining up two sticks on the windshield with two towers to the sides of a dam. As the bomber flew in, the sticks would visually be to the outside of the dam towers, sandwiching them. As the bomber drew nearer, the angle between the bomber and towers would grow wider. As seen from the windshield, the towers would “move” closer to the sticks until, at the correct distance, sticks and towers lined up.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Rotating drum bomb under Guy Gibson’s Lancaster. UK National Archives

On the night of May 16th, 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, divided into three formations with separate assignments, flew out along routes chosen to avoid known flak concentrations. Losses began soon as the enterprising flyers reached Europe’s coast. Two bombers had to turn back after one flew too low and struck water, losing its explosives. Another had its radio damaged by antiaircraft fire. Soon thereafter, a third bomber was shot down, a fourth went down after striking electric pylons, and a fifth crashed after flying into power lines.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A Lancaster making its bomb run during the Dambusters’ Raid. Pinterest

8. The Dambuster Raid Caused Significant Damage and Boosted Allied Morale

Guy Gibson made his attack run against the Mohne Dam, then flew his Lancaster across the dam to draw antiaircraft fire while other bombers made their approaches. One bomber was lost and another damaged, but the dam was finally breached after the fifth bombing run. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs to the Edersee dam. It was undefended, but the angle of approach was difficult, and was made even more hazardous by fog. After repeated aborted runs, it was finally breached. The attack on the Sorpe dam failed.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The breached Mohne Dam after Operation Chastise. Wikimedia

Flooding from the breached dams killed about 1700 civilians, of whom 1000 were forced laborers. The greatest impact was the loss of hydroelectric power in the Ruhr for two weeks, as two power stations were destroyed and seven more damaged. Coal production also dropped, declining by 400,000 tons that month. The damage was temporary, however: within two months, Ruhr production was back to normal. Still, the raid boosted British morale as an impressive feat of enterprising derring-do. Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and 617 Squadron, known thereafter as the “Dam Busters”, went on to fly further successful special raids.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A 6th century BC Athenian silver obol coin. CNG Coins

7. When the Ancient Greeks Loved Tyrants

For the ancient Greeks, the word “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy. Commoners had little power in the aristocracy-dominated system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles.

Additionally, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants was usually fairer, rather than heavily stacked up to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to do better under tyrants, who usually encouraged commerce and crafts and manufactures – activities viewed as socially gauche by the aristocracy. The aristocrats also feared that such commercial activities would destabilize the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as, or richer than, their social betters.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Peisistratos entering Athens with his fake goddess. Wikimedia

6. The Poor of Athens Invited an Enterprising General to Seize Power and Rule the City as a Tyrant

An ancient Greek tyranny was often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the power of the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So when they seized power, tyrants usually adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.

That is what happened in Athens. Its path to democracy was paved by a tyranny that weakened the power of the city’s aristocrats, who had monopolized power for centuries. Athens’ poorest and most populous region, the Hill District, teemed with impoverished residents. They received little benefit from recent reforms that had averted a civil war, other than a meaningless vote. So the Hill people invited an enterprising general named Peisistratos to make himself tyrant. With their support, he marched into Athens in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made tyrant.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Peisistratos returning to Athens, this time without a fake goddess. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. If a Fake Goddess Doesn’t Work, Try Again, This Time With an Army

Peisistratos’ mummery with the fake goddess did not work. The other Athenians saw through it, and chased him and his followers out of town. In exile, Peisistratos bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece, and got rich off their proceeds. Investing his wealth in mercenaries, he returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and had himself proclaimed tyrant. Peisistratos suppressed the feuding factions, and championed the lower classes. His tyranny was a wild success.

Peisistratos exiled his aristocratic enemies. He confiscated their land holdings, broke them up into small farms, and redistributed them to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, standardized currency, and enforced the laws even-handedly. He promoted the growing of olives and grapes, encouraged commerce and craftsmen, built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified Athens. Culturally, he funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia and promoted theater and the arts. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The killing of Hipparchus. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. An Enterprising Ancient Athenian’s Scheme to Free His City From Tyranny

Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC, is known as “The Father of Athenian Democracy” for creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical era. Before that, Athens had been governed by two tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchus, brothers who had inherited the position from their father, Peisistratos. The siblings governed Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive, and well… tyrannical.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A young Cleisthenes chariot racing at the Olympic Games. Eon Images

Hippias lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined, and his descent into violence eroded the popularity the tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos. The number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew, and they included Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens. To secure Sparta’s help, Cleisthenes came up with the enterprising idea to bribe the gods.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Petitioners consulting the Oracle of Delphi. Project Delphi

3. Bribing the Gods to Put in a Good Word For One’s Cause

To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the enterprising Cleisthenes bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, Ancient Greeks had turned to the Oracle for answers, and it typically replied to petitioners with cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Once Cleisthenes bribed Delphi’s priests, however, every Spartan petitioner who showed up received the very clear and not at all cryptic answer: “Liberate Athens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.

Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. Oligarchs, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. Populists, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Cleisthenes. Wikimedia

2. An Enterprising Solution to Geographic and Nepotistic Tribalism

Cleisthenes and democracy’s supporters did not stay exiled for long. They armed themselves, returned to Athens, and the population rose up in revolt. The city’s aristocratic faction and the Spartan garrison that was there to support them soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels’ beef was not with Sparta, so they allowed the Spartans to leave and return home. The aristocratic anti-democracy Athenians were shown no similar mercy: Cleisthenes and his supporters massacred them to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy.

The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself to factionalism. He replaced it with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. That reduced the incentives for parochialism because no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Broken bits of ancient Athenian pottery, or ostra, with the names of those being proposed for ostracism. Grethexis

1. Ancient Athens Adopted a Creative Method to Get Rid of Unpopular People Without Killing Them

In addition to creating at-large tribes whose members were drawn at random from the citizens of Athens, Cleisthenes continued his enterprising reforms by creating a new council, the boule. It was a democratic body, in which all of Athens’ citizens had the right to speak and voice their opinions on public matters and the affairs of the day. Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations, and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.

Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person, whose name he wrote down on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, whom he thought was too dangerous or was becoming too powerful. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms were made in future years to transform Athens into a direct democracy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Coote, Stephen – Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero (2005)

Cracked – The Guy Who Shipwrecked on a Cannibal Island Then Took it Over

Daily News, The, April 30th, 1938 – Cannibal Capture May Open Way For Sweden in the Pacific

Ehrenberg, Victor – From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC (2010)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Muqali, Mongolian General

Encyclopedia Britannica – Peisistratos

Forczyk, Robert – Red Christmas: The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid, 1942 (2012)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Hastings, Max – Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II (2020)

O’Neil, James L. – The Origins and Development of Ancient Greek Democracy (1995)

Plutarch – Parallel Lives

SBS News, October 28th, 2019 – The Little-Known Family Story That Helped Inspire the Pippi Longstocking Books

Stroud, Rick – The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel (2012)

Wikipedia – Francesco I Sforza

Wikipedia – Operation Bertram

Wikipedia – USS Philadelphia (1799)