By WWII standards, Lancasters were capable of great precision. Equipped with ground-mapping radar, by 1944 they could bomb at night with higher accuracy than American bombers could during the day. In the runup to D-Day, Lancasters accurately bombed communications and transportation targets such as bridges and rail yards.
In addition to strategic bombing, Lancasters were used by 617 Squadron, “The Dam Busters”, immortalized in the book and movie of the same name. 617 Squadron flew Lancasters in special operation aerial attacks, such as breaching the Ruhr dams in 1943. Lancasters flown by 617 Squadron also sank the battleship Tirpitz in 1944 with 12,000 pounds “Tall Boys”, and were used in Operation Manna towards the war’s end, a mercy mission that dropped food into Holland to avert widespread starvation.
28. The Nineteenth Century Was Rife With Terrorism
We tend to think of political terrorism as a modern phenomenon, one that emerged in the twentieth. In reality, political terrorism has roots going all the way back to ancient Judea, when Jewish radicals such as the Zealots and Sicarii engaged in widespread terrorism to free themselves from the Romans. Relatively more recently, modern political terrorism as we know it has its roots in the nineteenth century, when numerous radical groups set up shop and turned to violence in a bid to achieve political ends.
One such was the Russian Empire’s Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will”. An underground revolutionary organization, People’s Will sought to overthrow Russia’s Tsarist autocracy by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They are best known for their assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and for being the forerunners of even bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations in the following decades.
People’s Will had its genesis in radical student study circles in the 1870s, that sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were soon repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. That led to a rethink, a consensus that only revolutionary violence could overthrow Tsarism, and the adoption of more clandestine and aggressive tactics – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.
The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization that advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials. However, it stopped short of viewing terror as a means of political struggle against the government. People’s Will splintered off from Zemlya I Volya when it was nearly wiped out by the secret police in 1879, following a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar. People’s Will emerged from the wreckage. From the start, it was more radical, and viewed terror as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation.
From the outset, People’s Will called for violence and announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government. It issued a proclamation declaring a death sentence against Tsar Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. The group established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.
People’s Will tried to kill the Tsar in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, planting a bomb in his palace, but he was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. Amid mounting repression, including the hanging of People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to kill the Tsar.
On March 1st, 1881, People’s Will finally got their man. Waiting in ambush along a route taken by the Tsar every week, a People’s Will assassin threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. A shaken Tsar emerged from the carriage, and a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him crossing himself as he surveyed the damage. Shouting “it is too early to thank God!“, the assassin threw another bomb, this one landing and going off directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. A third assassin lurked in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb if the first two had failed, but his explosives were unnecessary.
The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime, and drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance. It transformed the Russian Empire into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Surviving veterans of People’s Will, who began emerging from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.
24. Winston Churchill Wanted to Fight the USSR Soon as Germany Surrendered in WWII
The Big Three allied leaders of WWII, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, were anything but a harmonious bunch. However, they stuck together long enough to beat their common enemies, before the pretense of amity finally collapsed, and things went from wartime friendship and warmth to Cold War wariness and hostility.
In 1945, as WWII drew to a close in Europe, Churchill was exasperated by Soviet intransigence regarding Eastern Europe, which Stalin sought to transform into a Soviet empire. Britain had gone to war to defend Polish independence, but at the war’s end, Stalin was riding roughshod over the Poles. He kept the third of Poland he had annexed in 1939 in cooperation with Hitler, and reduced what was left to a Soviet client state, lacking freedom and independence. Churchill saw it as a matter touching British honor, so he ordered his generals to draw up plans for an attack on the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered. The goal was to push them back to the USSR’s borders, or at least force them to treat Poland fairly.
Churchill’s generals presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what they thought of the Prime Minister’s idea. Two versions were offered, an offensive and a defensive one. The offensive envisaged a surprise attack on the soviets in July, 1945, intended to force Stalin to give Poland a “fair deal”. The defensive envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent.
The Soviets had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. They outnumbered the British and Americans in Europe 4:1 in men, and 2:1 in tanks – and superior tanks at that. The Allies had an advantage in the air, but even that was subject to challenge, as the Red Air Force by 1945 had formidable fighter and ground attack arms. Moreover, the Soviet military by 1945 was not the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded. It had grown into a veteran and battle-hardened force, that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Allies had faced.
In a nutshell, Churchill’s generals concluded that it would be ill-advised to attack the Soviets. Far from being a pushover, the Red Army in 1945 was dangerous, vicious, and very big. If war broke out, it was more likely to end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, rather than getting chased back to the USSR.
More importantly, the generals informed Churchill, that Britain on her own stood no chance against the Soviets, and the US had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. Standing up for Poland was a matter of honor for Churchill, but not many shared his views. Few in the British government, and fewer still in that of the US, thought Poland or Eastern Europe were worth an even greater war against the Soviet Union than the one they had just concluded against Germany. Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered WWII in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Presented with the preceding, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.
21. That Time We Passed Tactical Nukes Around Like Skittles
During the Cold War, the US military deployed tactical nuclear warheads by the thousands. Alarmingly, those weapons, whose battlefield use during a conventional war could easily have escalated things into a nuclear Armageddon, were entrusted to personnel way down the chain of command. Basically, it was a situation where a jittery lieutenant, or even a corporal, could have kicked off a chain of events that concluded with the extinction of humanity.
The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a smoothbore recoilless rifle that fired a W54 warhead – a tactical nuclear explosive with a yield of up to 1 kiloton. To put that in perspective, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons, respectively. The M-28 version of the Davy Crockett could fire its warhead up to a distance of 1.25 miles, while the later M-29 version had a range of 2.5 miles. Developed in the 1950s, over 2000 Davy Crocketts and their launch systems were deployed with US ground forces in West Germany and Korea from 1961 to 1971.
The Davy Crockett was notoriously inaccurate – although pinpoint accuracy was not a priority, considering its warhead. The Davy Crockett’s deadliness stemmed more from its radioactivity than from its explosive yield. Its warhead produced an instantly lethal dose of radiation within a 500-foot radius, and an incapacitating and likely fatal dose within a quarter-mile radius. As such, the weapon was more of a broad area radiation dispenser than a surgical smart bomb.
In addition to the long-term contamination hazard, the weapon was dangerous to its own users. There was always the risk that the firing team, and other NATO personnel in the vicinity, would themselves fall victim to radiation from their own side’s tactical nuclear warhead exploding 1.25 miles away from the point of firing (the maximum range of the M-28 atomic gun), to 2.5 miles distant (range of M-29 version).
The Davy Crockett’s greatest danger however was the fact that it was deployed at all, and deployed very low down the chain of command at that. The weapons system was under the physical control of three soldiers roaming the battlefield in a Jeep, who, in practice, would have been able to fire a nuclear weapon at their de facto discretion, whether authorized or not. Shockingly, it took ten years before the Pentagon decided that it might be unwise to give a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal, the discretion to fire the opening shot in what might quickly escalate into a global nuclear holocaust.
The West Germans in particular were enthusiastic about deploying the Davy Crockett with their ground forces. However, they were turned down by the US because the manner in which they proposed to incorporate the weapon into their defensive strategy would have made its use nearly automatic as soon as war began. That was undesirable, because it would have eliminated NATO’s option to fight without using nuclear weapons and risking an escalation from tactical nukes in the battlefield to a nuclear Armageddon.
18. Far From a Romantic Antihero, Jesse James Was a Stone Cold Murderous Psychopath
Nineteenth-century outlaw Jesse James (1847 – 1882) is often depicted as a romantic antihero. He was anything but. Born and raised in a part of Missouri that had strong Southern sympathies, he joined pro-Confederacy guerrillas at the start of the Civil War.
He attached himself to bands led by psychopaths such as “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill, who committed sundry atrocities and war crimes during the conflict. Atrocities and war crimes in which Jesse and his elder brother Frank took part. Jesse was twice wounded during the war, the second occurring at the war’s end, when he was shot in the chest by Union cavalry as he tried to surrender.
After recovering from his wounds, Jesse James and his brother Frank joined a gang led by one of their former guerrilla commanders. In 1866, they robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri, during which robbery an innocent bystander was killed. A few months later, they killed a jailer while freeing imprisoned fellow gang members. In 1867, the gang killed the mayor of Richmond, Missouri, along with two others, during a bank robbery.
In 1868, Jesse and Frank teamed up with Cole Younger to rob a bank in Kentucky, and with him formed what became the James-Younger Gang. In 1869, Jesse gained notoriety when he murdered a cashier during the course of a robbery, after mistaking him for the man who had killed his former guerrilla commander, “Bloody Bill’ Anderson. The gang then went on a spree, robbing stagecoaches, trains, banks, and county fairs, from Iowa to Texas, and from West Virginia to Kansas.
During the period of his early crime spree, Jesse James allied with the editor and founder of the Kansas City Time, which opposed Missouri’s Republican governor. The newspaper then took to falsely portraying Jesse as a Robin Hood figure driven by ideals, and not just greed and bloodthirstiness. In reality, there is no evidence that the gang had ever shared its loot with any outside their immediate personal circle. Nonetheless, the portrayal fell on receptive ears, particularly in the pro-Southern parts of Missouri.
The Pinkerton Agency was hired to go after the James-Younger Gang, but when two of its agents were killed, the agency’s founder, Allan Pinkerton, turned it into a vendetta. During a raid on the James household soon thereafter, a bomb was thrown that killed one of Jesse’s brothers, and severed his mother’s arm.
In 1876, Jesse James and his gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, but it ended catastrophically when armed townspeople resisted. After a shootout and pursuit, only Jesse and his brother Frank escaped, while the rest of the gang were killed or captured. The brothers then went to the ground in Tennessee, where Frank settled down to an honest living. Jesse, however, returned to crime, forming a new gang in 1879.
In 1881, the brothers left Tennessee for safety reasons, and soon thereafter Frank moved to Virginia. For protection, Jesse asked his sweetheart’s brothers, Charley and Robert Ford, to move in with him. It was a bad choice, as Robert Ford had been negotiating with Missouri’s governor to betray Jesse. In 1882, while Jesse was dusting a picture hanging on a wall, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head.
14. Did the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Really Harm the Soviet Union?
It is taken for granted by many that the then-surprising 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, AKA the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed a week before Germany invaded Poland, was calamitous for the USSR. Stalin turned out to be disastrously wrong in trusting Hitler to honor the agreement, and in stubbornly ignoring warnings of impending German attack in 1941.
However, the fault for the ensuing disaster lay with Stalin, not with the Pact. As seen below, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in itself actually ended up serving Soviet interests, and while the Soviets did not make the best use of it, they were still better off for having signed it.
13. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact From a Soviet Perspective
From a Western and Polish perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was calamitous. But from a Soviet perspective, it made good sense. The Western Powers had demonstrated their unreliability during the Munich Crisis, exhibiting greater distaste for dealing with Stalin than with Hitler. The Soviets made solid offers to defend Czechoslovakia, but the Poles refused them permission to march through Poland to reach Czechoslovakia, while Britain and France negotiated halfheartedly and ended up appeasing Hitler.
After Munich, the USSR had something to offer both sides. The Germans negotiated seriously and made attractive offers, while Britain and France did not. In the meantime, the Poles, looking at the only force physically capable of coming to their defense, were astonishingly shortsighted in refusing the Red Army permission to enter their territory.
12. How the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Benefited the Soviets
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939. Moreover, the Pact, which gave the USSR nearly half of Poland, pushed the Soviet borders hundreds of miles westwards, giving the USSR that much additional buffer.
Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within 10 miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans would have launched their invasion from a start line hundreds of miles further to the east and closer to the Soviet capital. The same effort that ran out of steam within sight of the Kremlin, would likely have pushed far beyond had it started hundreds of miles closer to Moscow.
11. Did the Soviets Owe the Western Powers and Poland Anything in 1939?
As the Soviets saw it, they owed the Western Powers and Poland nothing. The Western Powers were viewed as capitalist foes. Soviet leaders remembered that Britain and France had tried to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution in its cradle, and had sided with the Whites against the Reds during the Russian Civil War. As to the Poles, they had fought a war against the Soviets only two decades earlier, and the USSR still had outstanding border claims against Poland.
The Germans offered to satisfy those claims, while the British and French offered little. Seeing how they were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying in a war against Germany, it seemed like chutzpah to the Soviets for Germany’s foes to offer so little in exchange for the high price the USSR would pay for siding with them. So they opted for benevolent neutrality with Germany.
Homer is the name ascribed to the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, ancient Greece’s national epics about the closing stages of the Siege of Troy and its immediate aftermath, and the centerpieces of Greek literature and culture. They are arguably history’s most influential poems. They shaped not only ancient Greek culture, which viewed the epics as sources of moral and practical instruction, but also exerted an outsize influence on Western culture in general.
Homer was not a contemporary of the Trojan War, believed to have been fought sometime between 1260 – 1180 BC, but lived hundreds of years later, in the eighth century BC. Greek tradition has it that Homer was a wandering blind bard from Chios in Ionia, a region of former Greek settlement on the western coast of modern Turkey. Scholars doubt that the epic poems were actually the work of a single author, as opposed to the outcome of a process spread over generations, and to which numerous poets contributed.
9. The Poems Ascribed to Homer Were Composed Hundreds of Years Before His Birth
Homer’s poems were first composed during a centuries-long period of societal and cultural collapse known as the “Greek Dark Ages” in which literacy vanished. They were transmitted orally for generations, until writing was rediscovered. Composed to be memorized and sung, the poems utilize a formulaic style and structure that relies heavily on stock phrases and repeated verses that lend themselves to memorization.
Memorization was further eased by reliance on a number of fixed phrases to express ideas in similar parts of verse. E.g.; referring to Odysseus with the single word “divine”, two worded “many counseled”, or three worded “much-enduring divine”. The choice depended on where “Odysseus” was inserted in a verse, and how much space was left in that verse that needed filling to make it come out in the desired hexameter. In essence, once a bard learned the limited number of stock phrases, he need not memorize the entire poem, such as the 16,000 verses of the Iliad, but only the key words. Once a particular word is mentioned, the singer need simply select from the limited number of appropriate stock phrases, depending on where in a verse the key word is mentioned.
8. Katanas Were Not Folded Thousands of Times, Nor Could They Cut Through Machine Guns
Thanks to Hollywood and assorted works of history, fiction, and historic fiction, the Japanese katana is probably the world’s most recognizable sword. It is a single-edged curved sword, with a long handle for two-handed use that features a square or circular guard, and a slender blade usually measuring two and a half feet in length.
Katanas are among the finest cutting weapons in history, and were used by Japanese samurai since feudal times, with the earliest recorded mention in the historic record dating to the twelfth century. Many legends have sprung around katanas, from the forging process by master sword smiths who hammered and folded the blade’s metal over a thousand times, to katanas that cut through machine guns during WWII. Unfortunately, as seen below, those are just legends.
Katanas are the product of natural evolution. They started off as hefty “great swords” that grew thinner, lighter, and more agile over time in order to meet the demands of emerging combat styles that were increasingly reliant upon speed. They became popular with samurai because the ease and swiftness with which they could be drawn was a decided asset for the newer and faster-fighting styles. They were collectively dubbed kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting, in which the issue was often settled within seconds, and reaction time spelled the difference between life and death.
Katanas, coupled with a smaller sword, were thrust, sharp edge facing upwards, through the bearer’s obi – a sash wrapped tightly around the samurai’s waist. The configuration was known as daisho, and it identified the wearer as a samurai – the only people authorized to tote paired swords. Wearing the katana in the daisho style facilitated a speedy draw, ideally allowing samurai to draw and cut down opponents in a single fluid motion. An entire martial art, Iaido, was dedicated to the speedy retrieval of katanas from their scabbards.
Katanas are made from tamahagane steel. It is produced by traditional Japanese smelting processes that result in layered steels with varying carbon concentrations, that are welded, folded, and hammered out to reduce impurities. A katana needs a sharp and hard edge. However, steel that is hard enough for a sharp edge is brittle, while softer steel that is not brittle will not take and retain a sharp edge.
Katana makers solved the dilemma by using four metal bars: a soft iron bar to guard against breaking, sandwiched by two hard iron bars to prevent bending, and rounded off with a steel bar to take the cutting edge. The result was a sword that had a hard enough blade with a sharp cutting edge. However, contra many a WWII tall tale, no katana was ever hard enough, or sharp enough, to cut through machine gun barrels.
5. Katanas Were Not Folded Anywhere Close to a Thousand Times
The four metal bars of which katanas were made were heated at high temperatures, then hammered into a long bar that would become the blade. Contrary to myth, samurai blades were not folded thousands or even hundreds of times – that much folding would be counterproductive, and render the steel useless for a sword. Instead, katana blades were folded between eight to sixteen times.
When the sword was sharpened, the steel took a razor-sharp edge, while the softer iron prevented the blade from breaking. Well-crafted katanas became prized heirlooms, passed down generations of samurai families for centuries. Magnificent specimens of centuries-old katanas can be seen in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan.
4. Germany’s Tiger Tanks Were Actually a Bit of a Flop
During WWII, few weapons struck as much terror into the hearts of British, American, Soviet, and other allied soldiers, than the prospect of coming across a German Tiger tank. So intimidating were they that the term “Tiger Fever” was coined to describe the panic that sometimes gripped Allied soldiers when they thought a Tiger tank was in the vicinity.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the Tigers were a bit of a flop. They were over-engineered – or more accurately poorly engineered. They were plagued with bugs, and often spent more time in the repair shop than on the front line. They were also expensive and hard to produce, consuming resources that could have been better spent on more effective weapons.
The Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or the Tiger I, entered service in 1942. It was a heavy tank whose main assets were thick armor that its common adversaries could not penetrate except from close range, and a powerful 88mm gun that could wreck its foes from prodigious distances. That gave Tigers an extensive safe standoff distance within which they were practically invulnerable. They were scary, and exerted a powerful psychological hold on their enemies’ imagination: few if any Allied tank crews relished the prospect of coming across Tigers.
On the other hand, Tigers were heavy, slow, guzzled fuel at prodigious rates, had a limited range, and were difficult to transport. They were also notorious for their mechanical unreliability and propensity to breakdown, and became immobilized when their overlapping wheels got jammed with snow and mud. They were also expensive to produce and difficult to manufacture, with only 1300 built during the war – a number lower than the typical monthly production figures of Soviet T-34 or American Sherman tanks.
When Tiger tanks worked, they were terrifyingly good. Fortunately for Germany’s enemies, the Tigers often did not work, and there were too few of them to make a difference in the war’s ultimate outcome.
On the Western Front, where the Allies lacked powerful armor capable of taking out Tigers, other than up-gunned Sherman Fireflys and M10 tank destroyers, Tigers maintained their superiority until war’s end. But on the Eastern Front, that superiority was increasingly challenged by T-34/85s, IS-2s, and IS-122s whose guns could destroy Tigers from various ranges.
In 1944, Tiger I production was discontinued in favor of the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, more commonly known as the Royal Tiger or Tiger II. 492 were manufactured by the war’s end. Weighing 77 tons, the Royal Tiger replaced its predecessor’s thick flat armor with thicker sloped armor that was significantly more difficult to penetrate.
Royal Tigers were exceptionally well protected. From January to April, 1945, they were credited with destroying over 500 tanks on the Eastern Front, at a cost of only 45 Royal Tigers, most of them destroyed by their own crews to prevent their capture after they broke down or ran out of fuel. On the downside, Royal Tigers suffered most of their predecessors’ mechanical problems plus a few more, and were even slower, capable of only 9 to 12 m.p.h. cross country.