On Mar. 21, 1962 a B-58 Hustler from the U.S. Air Force erupted in flames as a large, bright red capsule shot out of it, carrying a passenger to safety. But the passenger wasn’t a pilot, and the plane wasn’t crashing. The event was a test of the B-58’s experimental ejection capsules and the occupant of the capsule was a bear.
The Air Force had been struggling to figure out a safe way for pilots to eject at supersonic speeds. Initially, they had tested new ejection seat designs by hiring people they recruited out of unemployment lines to act as test dummies.
The Air Force soon switched to using live animals for the tests, including six bears and a chimpanzee. At first, the bears and other animals tested ejection seats and capsules on rocket sleds. Once the Air Force was relatively sure of the design, they began flying the aircraft and ejecting the animals at altitude.
The animals were given drugs and rigged with sensors before being placed in the ejection capsules.
Most were fine, if a bit loopy, when they landed.
There was one fatality among the animals during testing. One bear had a brain condition that wasn’t detected prior to the flight and the physical strain during the ejection killed the animal. Two other bears suffered minor fractures and bruising during their flights.
Unfortunately, the Air Force needed to be sure that there were no hidden injuries before they returned to human subjects and ordered autopsies, which resulted in the deaths of the animals that had otherwise survived testing.
In July 1965, then-Commander Jeremiah Denton was shot down over North Vietnam while piloting a carrier-based A-6 Intruder. He and his bombardier/navigator, Lieutenant (junior grade) Bill Tschudy, spent the rest of the Vietnam War in captivity, housed in a number of different prison camps as a POW, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
As the commander of his attack squadron based on the USS Independence, Denton was leading 28 planes on a bombing mission. He and Tschudy had to eject over Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam and were immediately captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
A few months into their captivity, Denton was forced to lead 49 other prisoners of war on what became known as the “Hanoi Parade.” The NVA marched the POWs through the streets of the North’s capital at Hanoi while North Vietnamese civilians brutally beat them as they moved.
That same year, Denton was forced to be part of a North Vietnamese propaganda campaign. His captors made him do a public interview with a Japanese reporter. He would be remembered for the rest of his life for what he did next. During the interview, Denton dotted out a secret message while on camera. He spelled T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code by blinking his eyes. Pretty brave for a POW at his captor’s mercy.
The reporter then questioned his support for the war, to which Denton replied, “I don’t know what is happening, but whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
Denton’s secret message was the first time a POW was able to communicate with the outside world. It also confirmed for the first time that American prisoners in Hanoi were being tortured. Denton and the CIA both believed the NVA didn’t catch Denton’s message until 1974.
He and many other American POWs were locked up in separate rooms in the same building. Denton’s group was notable not only for its rank (many officers were held together) but for the prisoners’ resistance to torture and to their captors. These prisoners were held in nine-foot by three foot, windowless concrete rooms for the duration of their captivity.
He was released in February 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, when all American POWs in Vietnam were repatriated to the U.S. For seven years and seven months, Denton endured long stretches of solitary confinement and brutal mistreatment from his NVA captors. He spent at least four of those years in solitary. Once back in uniform and with Americans, now-Captain Denton spoke to the press shortly after leaving the plane:
“We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”
He would later write a book about his experience as a POW. Denton retired from the Navy in 1977 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1980, “The Admiral from Alabama” became the first Republican from Alabama elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
The future Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson was a young lieutenant facing court-martial in August 1944 for refusing to give up his seat on a bus near Camp Hood, Texas, while training as a tanker.
The segregation situation at Camp Hood was arguably one of the worst for black service members in the country. The civilian buses contracted to work the routes onto and off of post were fully segregated as were nearly all of the base facilities. While there for training, Robinson had fairly regular confrontations with other officers over racial issues on the base.
Robinson was assigned to a black armored unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, as a second lieutenant. He was one of the few black officers in a unit with mostly white leadership.
On July 6, 1944, near the end of a two-year training pipeline, Robinson took a seat on a civilian bus next to a white woman on Camp Hood and the driver ordered him to move to the back of the bus.
Robinson refused and the military police were called to arrest him. While waiting for the MPs and again at the camp’s provost marshall office, Robinson was called “nigger” by both civilians and military personnel whom he outranked.
Angry from his treatment and frustrated at the rampant discrimination on the post, Robinson refused to wait in the provost marshal’s office and was escorted to the hospital under guard and under protest.
The prosecution did not charge Robinson for his actions on the bus, but they did charge him for disrespecting a military police captain and for disobeying an order from the same captain.
His trial opened on Aug. 2 and ran for 17 days. Bates testified that Robinson was an outstanding officer. Bates even told the military panel that Robinson was traveling on the bus on July 6 at his request. Robinson had reported to a civilian hospital for a medical evaluation to see if he could ship out to Europe with the 761st.
Meanwhile Robinson’s defense attorney, Capt. William A. Cline, managed to highlight inconsistencies in the prosecution’s witness testimonies and prove that Robinson’s actions only took place after he was repeatedly disrespected by lower-ranking soldiers.
Gunner Cpl. Carlton Chapman of the 761st Tank Battalion poses in his M4 Sherman tank near Nancy, France, Nov. 5, 1944. (Photo: National Archives)
The defense won its case and Robinson was freed. Rather than fight to rejoin the 761st or train with the 758th, he decided to accept the Army’s assessment that he should be medically retired from service due to a bone chip in his ankle that sometimes caused the joint to seize up.
There’s a very good reason why you can find spears in the history of every civilization and tribe on Earth. It’s not just because they’re simple, be it a common pointy stick or an elaborately engineered and weighted one. And it’s not only because they were relatively cheap, compared to other weapons that could be mass-produced at the time.
No, spears were everywhere because spears work.
The men and women who practice HEMA, or Historical European Martial Arts, are extremely adept at swordplay, but Nikolas Lloyd (known online as Lindybeige) wanted to see if they could hold their own with history’s most ubiquitous weapon. He equipped sword experts with spears and some with swords, and pitted them against each other to determine which is better, once and for all.
None of the people fighting in the video above are experts with spears and shields, but all are familiar with swordplay. They would be fighting against their favorite weapons.
For the swordsman to have a chance at the spearman, he must be extremely fast, but even speed may not be enough. As Lloyd points out, the head of the spear can move very, very fast itself. There is very little chance of a swordsman closing against an eight-foot spear from any kind of distance – and keep in mind; this is not an expert spearman. In the hands of an expert, there is even less likelihood that the sword will hit its target.
When up close, the spear’s length becomes a drawback, so using a shield to get closer might be the obvious solution. Shields did raise the effectiveness of the sword against the spear, but not by much. When adding to the length of swords, the spear still came out on top. Check out the video to see the which weapon ends up being the most effective in medieval combat.
Prince Charles ascended to the Swedish throne in 1697 at the age of 15 as Sweden, then one of the most powerful countries in the world, was beset on all sides by enemies and rivals that began attacking early into his reign. Unfortunately for them, the new King Charles XII just couldn’t stop winning battles, even when severely outnumbered.
Swedish King Charles XII led a series of successful counter invasions after his country was attacked by a three-way alliance anchored on Peter the Great.
(David von Krafft)
Charles’s forebears had built Sweden into a massive country for the time, consisting of modern-day Sweden, Finland, and Estonia as well as sections of Russia, Latvia, Norway, and Germany. By the time that Charles XII ascended, some small sections had been lost, especially in Norway, but Sweden still had a firm grip on the Baltic Sea.
They were wrong. The Swedish people rallied around their young king in 1700 at the beginning of the invasion, and Charles XII marched with his men to meet the threat. The first two attacks came from Poland-Lithuania and then Denmark-Norway, but both were weak and easily beat back, and Frederick IV was knocked out of the war.
The true threat would come that November when Peter the Great marched on Livonia, a Swedish province that bordered Poland-Lithuania and Russia.
Great Northern War – When Sweden Ruled the World – Extra History – #1
It’s important to note here that Sweden’s armed forces were the envy of much of Europe. Their army was known for discipline, and the navy was highly capable. But the Russian and Polish-Lithuanian forces arrived first and laboriously dug into the frozen ground to prepare for a siege.
But Charles the XII, riding high after his battlefield success against Danish troops, sailed to Narva and prepared to attack despite the freezing cold. Some of his father’s top advisers pushed hard against that plan. Swedish forces would be outnumbered 4 to 1 while fighting against a dug-in force.
Peter the Great, certain that Charles XII wouldn’t attack until his men could rest and refit from their long movement, left the battlefield to attend to other matters of state. Charles XII, meanwhile, figured his 10,000 men would perform just as well now, tired from their long march from the coast, as they would after weeks of “resting” in the snow and ice.
So, near the end of November (November 30 by our modern calendar, but the 19th or 20th by calendars in use at the time), Charles XII ordered his men into formation for an assault despite a blizzard that was blowing snow into his own men’s faces.
The advisers, again, begged Charles to back off. But then the winds shifted. For some number of minutes, the Russians and their allies would be blind while the wind was at the Swedish back. Despite the string of questionable decisions leading up to this point, he was now in perfect position to crush the primary rival attempting to break up his empire.
His men attacked, appearing like ghosts in the wind-driven snow. They fired their weapons at close range and then dived into Russian trenches, fighting bayonet against saber for control of the battlefield.
The Battle of Narva in 1700 saw Swedish forces break Russian lines despite being horribly outnumbered.
The Russians and their allies, despite outnumbering the Swedes 4 to 1, were driven from their defenses and fled east, attempting to ford a swollen, freezing river or cross one bridge near the battlefield which collapsed under the weight of the retreating forces.
Charles XII had broken Russia’s only major force, seized much of its supplies, and was well-positioned to invade the motherland before Peter could raise a new force. But instead, Charles XII wintered in Livonia and then pushed south into Poland-Lithuania, quickly driving Augustus II into Saxony, allowing Charles to name his own puppet to the Polish-Lithuanian crown.
In six years of war, Charles XII had won nearly every engagement, had knocked one of Russia’s allies out of power and crippled the second, and had forced Peter the Great to rebuild his broken army from scratch.
But all of this success had gone to the young king’s head. It was 1706, and he was now 24 and the power behind the throne of a large kingdom that bordered his own empire. Charles XII struck north with all the bravado that the early successes could muster in his young soul.
But while he was marching to victory in Poland, Peter the Great had been battling Swedish generals to the north, winning more than he lost and cutting through the Baltic provinces to create St. Petersburg on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Peter had his port and offered to give everything else back if he could keep it. Charles XII declined and headed north to re-take his coastline.
But Charles had been so successful against Russia in 1700 thanks to a bit of luck and the high discipline of Swedish troops against less experienced and drilled conscripts. By 1706, Peter had a large core of battle-hardened troops that were real rivals for Swedish forces, and he would exploit most any mistake Charles XII would make.
A portrait of Peter the Great.
Charles XII marched on Russia, and his initial thrusts were even more successful than his first forays against Russian forces. His men would hit Russian lines before the troops could even dig in, forcing Peter to pull back faster and faster.
But Peter was secretly cool with this. Remember, he just wanted to keep his fort, and he was steadily fortifying it as his men withdrew. Swedish advisers still thought they could take St. Petersburg, but it would be a hard-fought thing by the time they arrived.
But Charles would reach even further, overreaching by far. He marched against Moscow instead. The advisers begged him not to do so. It was impossible, they thought.
Peter launched a destructive defense just like Russians would do for generations after him, stopping invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. They burned bridges behind them, sent horsemen to harry the Swedish attackers, and waited for the cold to drain Swedish strength.
Peter began picking good ground to defend, but the Swedish king was still successful in battle after battle. At Grodno, Holowczyn, Neva, Malatitze, and Rajovka, Swedish forces were victorious despite often fighting outnumbered both in terms of total men and artillery strength. Some of these, like at Holowczyn and Malatitze, were decisive victories where Sweden inflicted thousands of casualties while only suffering hundreds of their own.
But Peter the Great had traded space for time. Sweden was racking up tactical victories, but his men lacked sufficient supplies as the Russian winter set in, and this was the Great Frost of 1709, the coldest winter in 500 years of European history.
Russian forces smashed Swedish troops at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.
Both sides lost forces to the cold, but disease and starvation took out over half of Charles XII’s army. Charles tried supporting a revolution by Cossacks in Ukraine to gain more troops and supplies there, but it failed, and Peter was able to pen Charles XII in, cutting him off from Swedish lines of re-supply.
At the Battle of Poltava, Charles XII tried to conduct a siege without artillery and with only 18,000 men ready to fight. Peter arrived at the fort with 80,000 men. Charles XII, unable to walk or ride because of a shot to his foot during the siege, ordered an attack anyway.
Charles was nearly captured during the fight, narrowly rescued by a Swedish major who sacrificed himself to save the king. 14,000 Swedish soldiers were captured, and Charles XII barely escaped to the Ottoman Empire, a historical rival of Russia. Charles would overstay his welcome here.
While he was stuck, Norway and Poland began war against Sweden once again, and Prussia and England joined the fray. Charles XII was killed in the trenches near Frederiksten in 1718, in some ways the victim of his own early success as a boy-king. Sweden would see its territory chipped away, much of it lost in 1720.
Britain is one of America’s closest allies and its service members are pretty impressive. One of its greatest forces is the Royal Marines, now known as commandos, who have fought on behalf of the British Crown since their original formation as the “Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of Foot” in 1664.
Since then, they’ve proven themselves in hundreds of battles and dozens of conflicts everywhere from Massachusetts to Korea to the Falklands. Here are some defining moments from Royal Marine Commando history:
1. The Royal Marines carved out their names during the battle to take and hold the island fortress of Gibraltar.
In 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a combined force of 1,900 English Royal Marines and 400 Dutch marines hit the island fortress of Gibraltar in what was the largest English amphibious assault at that point in history. A large and unexplained explosion set the attackers back but the fortress was taken with relative ease.
One of the Royal Marines’ prouder moments actually came in 1775 while fighting against the U.S. when British army regulars twice attacked during the Battle of Bunker Hill and failed to capture it. As the army melted back, the marine commander yelled, “Make way for the marines, break and let themarines through!”
The third assault, conducted by columns of marines instead of lines of British regulars, was successful and resulted in the British capturing the fortifications. But the losses for the regulars and the marines were high: 1,054 versus American losses of 400.
3. They give up half their strength to take Graspan in the Boer War
Tensions between the English and the Boers in the late 1800s resulted in two Boer Wars. In 1899, Royal Marines and other troops were sent to attack Graspan in South Africa. Intelligence screw ups led the leadership to believe that the attack would be lightly opposed.
But it wasn’t. Boer riflemen and field artillery fiercely fought off the attackers. Despite heavy losses to include the commander and other officers, the marines and their compatriots rallied for a final attack and charged with their bayonets against the Boer positions, pushing the defenders off though failing to capture the enemy artillery.
4. Marines are instrumental in blocking Zeebrugge
During World War I, the Royal Marines provided the landing parties and some of the gunners for a daring raid against the German U-Boats in Bruges. The plan called for ships to be sunk in the long canal from Bruges to the English Channel, but someone had to fight pitched battles against the German defenders on the coast to make it possible.
Yup, Royal Marines volunteered. They landed on the port’s mole with a specially modified ship, the HMS Vindictive. The marines and sailors landed on April 23, 1918, and wrought absolute havoc with machine guns and rifles, naval artillery, and flamethrowers.
5. The commandos capture an entire port as well as bridges and towns on D-Day
The Royal Marines, by this point known as (RM) Commandos, were obviously a big deal at one of history’s largest amphibious assaults. Five units landed on D-Day where their biggest job was capturing Port-en-Bessin between Gold and Sword beaches, an objective the 47 (RM) Commando completed on July 8.
The four other commando units hit targets at Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches. Two units were deployed against a gap between British and Canadian units, holding back German panzers that might have otherwise counterattacked and thrown off the invading forces.
6. Commandos capture an entire island to open a Belgian port
Walcharen was an island on the coast of Amsterdam in 1944, and Germans occupying it were making logistics challenging for Allies fighting their way to Berlin. So, the Royal Marines teamed up with Canada for Operation Infatuate, a week-long attack against the island.
The air forces breached the walls of Walcharen before the commandos landed, allowing sea water to rush in and flood most of the island. The English and Canadians fought viciously against the artillery and infantry that remained, inflicting heavy casualties while suffering their own losses until the German leadership surrendered on Nov. 8, 1944.
7. Commandos capture Port Said from Egypt
Operation Musketeer was an honest-to-God conspiracy between Israel, Britain, and France to ouster Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain’s main goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal, a strategic asset nationalized by Nasser. The plan was for Israel to initiate a conflict with Egypt. France and Britain would mediate unacceptable terms, and then they would invade.
The role of Royal Commandos was to seize Port Said through the first ship-to-shore heliborne assault in history. The two commando units involved were also backed up by a small number of tanks and armored vehicles. Their mission was successful and almost achieved its objective on the first day, but orders from Nasser kept, leading to the commandos capturing the local Egyptian commander and his staff.
Ultimately, the commandos did amazing work but political condemnation for the mission stripped France and England of most of their gains.
There are all kinds of strange ways to light up a cigarette, from blowtorches to magnifying glasses. But few people on Earth have ever used as bizarre or overkill a method as devised by a Cold War physicist: the explosion of a nuclear bomb.
On Aug. 18, 2019, a thread from Reddit’s popular “r/TodayILearned” community mentioned the story of how the theoretical physicist Ted Taylor used the blinding flash of an atomic explosion to light a cigarette in 1952.
Records of “atomic cigarette lighter” events aren’t exactly robust, but it appears Taylor was the first to come up with the idea. That’s according to the author Richard L. Miller, whose 1986 book “Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing” chronicled the event in detail.
Taylor apparently lit his cigarette during Operation Tumbler-Snapper, which was a series of test blasts orchestrated by the US military at the Nevada Test Site. The operation happened in the throes of the Korean War — a conflict in which President Harry S. Truman considered dropping the bomb (again).
Government officials code-named the test explosion or shot in question “George” because it was the seventh in a series (and “G” is the seventh letter of the alphabet). Its purpose wasn’t to light up a smoke, of course: Military researchers placed a roughly 3,000-pound nuclear-bomb design, known as the Mark 5, atop a 300-foot-tall tower in part to try out a new blast-triggering technology, according to the Nuclear Weapons Archive.
The day before the test shot, Taylor apparently found a spare parabolic (cup-shaped) mirror, according to Miller’s book, and set it up in a control building ahead of time. Taylor knew exactly where to place the mirror so that it’d gather light from the test explosion, which would release gobs of thermal energy, and focus it on a particular spot.
Next, Taylor hung a Pall Mall cigarette on a wire so that its tip would float directly in front of the focused light beam. The arrangement wasn’t too different in principle from holding out a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight on a piece of paper and light it on fire.
On June 1, 1952, Taylor and other weapons experts huddled into the bunkerlike control building near Area 3 of the Yucca Flats weapons test basin in Nevada. Then they set off the bomb.
“In a second or so the concentrated, focused light from the weapon ignited the tip of the cigarette. He had made the world’s first atomic cigarette lighter,” Miller wrote of Taylor’s setup.
‘It is a form of patting the bomb’
Taylor’s nuclear-age antics likely did not stop with him.
Martin Pfeiffer, an anthropologist who researches humanity’s relationship with nuclear weapons (and who frequently forces the release of documents related to the bomb), tweeted that a 1955 Department of Defense film appears to show the concept in action.
About 19 minutes into the half-hour movie, titled “Operation Teapot Military Effects Studies,” a narrator describes how parabolic mirrors were used to concentrate the light-based energy from nuclear explosions on samples of ceramics.
In the clip, a person’s hand holds the tip of a cigarette in a beam of focused light, causing it to smoke and ignite:
Although this looks like another cigarette being lit by a nuclear weapon, that’s unlikely.
There’s no blinding flash — a telltale effect of a nuclear explosion — and the length of time the light beam stays on-screen is far too long as well. The person being filmed probably just held out his cigarette for the videographer so as to demonstrate the concept of a parabolic mirror focusing would-be bomb energy.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine the story of Taylor’s feat spreading among his colleagues over many years and hundreds of above-ground US nuclear test shots. A few others probably tried it themselves.
In any case, Pfeiffer isn’t enamored by such stunts.
“Lighting a cigarette with a nuclear weapon … is at least in part an effort of domestication of nuclear weapons through a performance articulating it to a most quotidian act of cigarette lighting,” he tweeted. “It is a form of patting the bomb.”
That is to say: The act risks trivializing nuclear weapons, which can and have inflicted mass death and destruction. The 1945 US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, for example, led to approximately 150,000 casualties, and decades of suffering for many who survived the attacks.
Today, above-ground nuclear testing is mostly banned worldwide, since it can spread radioactive fallout, mess with electronics, be mistaken for an act of war, and more. But US-Russia relations have deteriorated to the point that each nation is racing to develop and test new nuclear armaments.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or CTBT, endeavors to ban nuclear explosions “by everyone, everywhere: on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater, and underground.” Russia has signed and ratified the treaty, but eight other nations have yet to complete both steps and bring it into effect.
The US signed on to the CTBT in 1996, but Congress has yet to ratify the nation’s participation in the agreement. There are also nearly15,000 nuclear weapons in existence today, which means the atomic-cigarette-lighter trick could, almost certainly for worse, be tried again.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
On July 31, 1917, the British guns in the Ypres salient roared to life, marking the opening of the Battle of Passchendaele. The battle would rage back and forth for over two months. Through the chaos, one amazing story emerged: A tank crew refused to give up or be captured and held out, on their own, stranded in No Man’s Land, for three days.
The reason was the unrelenting mud that created an incredibly difficult terrain for the crew.
Their story begins with 2nd Lt. Don Richardson, who was working in his family grocery business in Nottingham when the war broke out in 1914. He joined his local regiment, the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment – also known as the Sherwood Foresters – and shipped off the next year.
As Britain began incorporating tanks into its war plans, Richardson was promoted to captain and given command of a tank section. He named his own tank “Fray Bentos” after the canned meat sold in his family store.
The Fray Bentos was a British Mark IV tank. While these early incarnations of armored vehicles were slow moving behemoths capable of about four miles per hour at top speed, they were heavily armored and packed with weaponry.
The tank mounted two Ordnance QF 6-pounder guns, three Lewis guns, and had a crew of eight, each armed with their own personal weapons. On Aug. 22, 1917, the men in the Fray Bentos set off in support of an attack by the British 61st Division in the vicinity of St. Julien. Captain Richardson decided to walk alongside the tank during the advance.
After three weeks of near constant shelling and a heavy rainfall, the area literally became a muddy quagmire.
As the attack progressed, the tank took out a German machine gun position before encountering a fusillade of machine gun fire as it approached the objective. Richardson was hit in the leg and dove inside the tank.
The driver, Lt. George Hill, was then blown off his seat by a wound to the neck just as the tank got into what Sgt. Robert Missen said was “a very deep soft place” that they “went in sideways.” Richardson tried to regain control but he was too late and the Fray Bentos slid into a ditch. The Mark IV tank was prepared for such an instance however, and carried unditching beams on the roof to extract itself from these situations.
Missen and Lance Cpl. Braedy exited the tank to retrieve the unditching equipment but the Germans spotted them and unleashed a maelstrom of fire. Missen later recalled “I heard bullets hitting the tank and saw some Boche about 30 yards off firing at me, I got in again.”
Braedy wasn’t so lucky. In his attempt to attach the unditching gear, he was gunned down. His body sank into the relentless mud and was never found. The remaining men in the tank returned fire with their rifles and Lewis guns. They even managed to get some shots off from their cannons despite their awkward position.
Soon, the infantry attack stalled out ahead of the tank and British soldiers began falling back to their trenches. This left the men of the Fray Bentos completely alone and isolated in No Man’s Land. As Germans approached the tank using an old trench under the tank’s Lewis gun, the crew easily picked them off with their rifles through an opening in the cab.
Germans then tried to swarm over the tank and drop grenades inside to flush out or kill the occupants. The British tankers engaged them in close combat. One German soldier managed to get a grenade inside but one of the men retrieved it and threw it out before it exploded.
It wasn’t long before most of the crew had been wounded.
Their ordeal was far from over. For the next three days and two nights, they fought off the Germans. They even had to contend with British snipers targeting them, unsure if they were Germans trying to steal the tank.
As time wore on, the men drained the radiator and drank the filthy water in order to survive. Richardson decided it was time for them to make their escape. Missen would go first to alert the infantry to their impending return in the hopes of them not being killed by friendly fire. The rest of the crew dismantled the cannons, gathered their maps and weapons, and, despite painful wounds, prepared to crawl through the treacherous mud back to friendly lines.
Under the cover of darkness on the night of Aug. 24, more than 60 hours after they first embarked on their mission, the men exited the tank one-by-one and made their way back to British trenches. Once they encountered men from the 9th Battalion, the Black Watch, they handed over their machine guns and made their way towards the aid station.
The wounded men from Passchendaele.
Richardson was mentioned in dispatches and would later receive the Military Cross for his actions. He would return to action in a new tank, Fray Bentos II, and serve until the end of the war. Lieutenant Hill was also awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the fighting. Missen and one of the gunners, William Morrey, were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their part in the action. The other surviving gunners, Ernest Hayton, Frederick Arthurs, Percy Budd, and James Binley, were all awarded the Military Medal.
The men of the Fray Bentos were the most decorated tank crew of the First World War.
They watched for bubbles to surface as the man with a crude scuba mask swam across the basement pool of a prominent Washington hotel 75 years ago this week.
That top-secret World War II-era experiment, seeking to develop the sabotage skills of America’s first elite swimmer-commandos, was the critical opening chapter in the evolving history of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
That afternoon, covert operatives watching Christian Lambertsen’s underwater swim were focused more on whether the air bubbles would break the surface and betray his mission. Nobody saw any.
Last week, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel above Rock Creek Park, in the same room that once housed the pool, a crowd gathered to commemorate that fateful event.
They included some prominent former SEALs — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernan, and Rep. Scott Taylor, Virginia Republican — in addition to veterans of the fabled World War II espionage unit and predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Society, which sponsored the affair.
Combat historian and best-selling author Patrick K. O’Donnell discussed Lambertsen’s newly revealed story. In his 2015 book, “First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit,” Mr. O’Donnell explored what triggered Washington’s scramble for swimmer-commandos and traced it back to an incident in the waters off the coast of Egypt less than two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On the night of Dec. 19, 1941, the British navy suffered a devastating sabotage attack. A tanker and two battleships were sunk in Alexandria Harbor, the home of the British navy’s eastern Mediterranean fleet.
Perplexed British intelligence officers soon determined who did it: Six Italian swim commandos, or “frogmen,” using underwater breathing devices, had covertly infiltrated the harbor. The news rattled the British and U.S. governments.
“As a result of [the Italians’] daring attack, the balance of maritime power in that part of the world shifted, setting off an underwater arms race,” Mr. O’Donnell wrote.
Because America had no special operations units in 1942, officials turned to the OSS to create them.
Launched by the legendary Gen. William Donovan, whose statue now stands outside CIA headquarters, the OSS in its heyday deployed more than 13,000 operatives, a third of them women, in addition to four future CIA directors.
Pioneers of intelligence collection and unconventional warfare, OSS agents were, in Gen. Donovan’s words, “glorious amateurs” who undertook “some of the bravest acts of the war.” Agents quickly dove into developing underwater combat swim technology for its Maritime Unit, or MU.
Finding that the Navy lacked equipment, the OSS enlisted Mr. Lambertsen. At the time, he was a young civilian medical student at the University of Pennsylvania who had developed what he called an underwater “rebreather,” cobbled together from an old World War I gas mask, a bicycle pump, and other parts.
Mr. O’Donnell said the early secret tests on the rebreather were dicey. Once, OSS scientists filled an airtight chamber with poisonous gas, a dog, a canary, and Mr. Lambertsen.
“First the canary and then the dog fell over, as expected (they were not wearing rebreathers), but when Lambertsen leaned over to check the animals, he fell over too,” Mr. O’Donnell writes. “Fortunately, Lambertsen survived, and development of the device continued.”
Experiments continued at the Shoreham hotel because its basement pool was one of the largest in the city at the time.
Soon, the OSS and Mr. Lambertsen were supervising the manufacture of America’s first rebreather for military use, in addition to wetsuits, swim fins, face masks, motorized surfboards, floating mattresses, and even one-man submarines.
The OSS MU then kicked into high gear, recruiting a motley, street-smart, distinguished crew of lifeguards, doctors, Olympic-caliber swimmers, and surfers, a roster that included future San Francisco 49ers receiver and kicker Gordon Soltau and Marine Sterling Hayden, who went on to Hollywood fame in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” as the paranoid, nuclear-war-starting Gen. Jack D. Ripper and as Capt. McCluskey in “The Godfather.”
The unit conducted some of the war’s most perilous missions across Europe and Asia, conducting sabotage, gathering intelligence, supplying resistance movements, capturing high-value targets, and infiltrating enemy coastlines using floating mattresses.
The SEALs, which stands for “sea, air, land,” were formally established by President Kennedy in 1962. Today, they rank as some of the world’s most elite troops partaking some of the riskiest missions.
But the role of the OSS is not forgotten. The Maritime Unit that got its start in a Washington hotel pool began to formulate the capabilities of today’s SEAL teams, according to naval historians.
As for Mr. Lambertsen, he would become known as the “Father of American Combat Swimming” after coining the term “scuba.”
“The OSS Maritime Unit is a case study in innovation and American exceptionalism,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “A small group of men with hardly any funding but a lot of courage took an idea and forged a reality that lives on today.”
In 2016, after years of lobbying by the OSS Society, Congress awarded OSS veterans the Congressional Gold Medal. The society is now fundraising to build a National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations in Northern Virginia. Charles Pinck, the society’s president, said the museum’s purpose will be to “honor Americans who served at ‘the tip of the spear’ and inspire future generations of Americans to serve their country.
America’s first tank unit, known as the “Treat ’em Rough Boys,” rushed through training and arrived in Europe in time to lead armored thrusts through Imperial German forces, assisting in the capture of thousands of Germans and miles of heavily contested territory.
The tankers were vital to the elimination of the famous St. Mihiel salient, a massive German-held bulge in the lines near the pre-war German-French border.
American forces joined the war late, participating in their first battle on Nov. 20, 1917, over three years after the war began and less than a year before it ended.
America had never attempted to create a tank before its entry into World War I. So while American G.I.s and other troops were well-supplied and fresh, most weren’t combat veterans and none had any tank experience.
Into this gap rode cavalry captain George S. Patton. He lobbied American Expeditionary Force Commander Gen. John J. Pershing to allow him to establish a tank school and take command of it if the U.S. decided to create a tank unit.
Patton also pointed out that he was possibly the only American to ever launch an armored car attack, a feat he had completed in 1916 under Pershing’s command in Mexico.
The first-ever American tank unit consisted of the light tank units organized by Patton and heavy tanks with crews trained by England.
When it came time for the AEF to lead its first major operation, the St. Mihiel salient was the obvious target. Other allied forces had already pacified other potential targets, and the salient at St. Mihiel had severely limited French lines of communication and supply between the front and Paris since Germany had established it in 1914.
The tanks led the charge into the salient on Sept. 12 with two American light tank battalions, the 326th and the 327th, backed up by approximately three battalions worth of French light tanks and two companies worth of French-crewed heavy tanks.
Infantry units moved into battle just behind the tanks, allowing the tracked vehicles to crush barbed wire and open the way.
Per Patton’s design, the tank companies were equipped with a mix of heavy guns to wipe out machine gun nests and other prepared defenses and machine guns to mow down infantry that got within their fields of fire. This mix allowed for rapid advancement except where the Germans had dug their trenches too deep and wide for the Renaults to easily cross.
The American infantry attacked the remaining resistance after the tanks passed and then took over German positions.
Of course, the first American armored offensive was not without its hiccups. The French-made Renault tanks got bogged down in deep mud. While German artillery was only able to knock out three American-crewed tanks, another 40 were lost to mud, mechanical breakdowns, and a lack of fuel at the front.
Patton continued refining American tank deployments, ordering that U.S. tanks carry fuel drums strapped to the back of the tank. At the suggestion of an unknown private, he also began equipping one tank per company as a recovery and repair tank, leading to the dedicated recovery vehicles in use today.
The tank corps went on to fight in the Meuse-Argonne offensive through the end of the war, this time with their heavy tanks there to support the infantry alongside their light armored friends. All of the tanks continued to face greater losses from terrain and mechanical breakdown than they did from enemy forces.
The greatest enemy threat to the tanks was artillery and mines, but the Germans learned to place engineering barriers such as large trenches to slow down the advance, and early anti-tank rifles took a small toll.
For more than 60 years, only seven people on Earth knew that the Soviets broke U.S. military and diplomatic ciphers. One of those people was former KGB Berlin bureau chief and master Soviet spy Sergei Kondrashev. Kondrashev and his peers searched desperately for American code clerks as they came and went from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The KGB knew next to nothing about American ciphers, the code room in the embassy, or even the personnel who worked there. That changed in the early days of the Cold War.
Tennent Bagley was a CIA agent working around Eastern Europe, including Berlin. In the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he was to be featured on a German television show to discuss Cold War intelligence with former KGB agents. In preparation for the show, he met Kondrashev, his direct KGB counterpart. Kondrashev told Bagley things that the CIA never knew, including the story of “Jack,” a U.S. Army Sergeant who single-handedly sparked off the Korean War.
In 1949, the memory of World War II and the existential threat to Russia was still fresh in the mind of Soviet Premiere Joseph Stalin. Tensions with the U.S. were higher than at any time in recent memory. The Soviet Union needed a way to predict American behavior.
They thought they lucked out when Sgt. James “Mac” MacMillan, a U.S. Army code clerk in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, began dating a Soviet national, nicknamed “Valya.” Kondrashev was the intelligence agent assigned to Mac. He persuaded Mac to give him any details of the code room and of anything else he knew. In exchange, the KGB offered to set him and Valya up with an apartment in Moscow and money to start their lives.
It was only a few weeks after their first meeting that Mac defected to the Soviet Union. Kondrashev soon learned Mac’s knowledge of the American codes was limited and the Russians were no closer to breaking the codes.
The Russians watched the U.S. embassy intently. Based on the information provided by Mac, they knew what the code clerks looked like, but after Mac’s defection, the Americans were on alert. The KGB’s got lucky again when agents reported an Army clerk visiting a local apartment, staying long into the night, and then returning to the embassy a few nights a week.
They code named that clerk “Jack” and his Russian lover “Nadya.” Nadya was single, attractive, and had her own apartment. She was an employee of the U.S. embassy. Jack was also single, but was short, overweight, and losing his hair. The Russians also discovered he had a history of alcoholism and was known to be greedy. Nadya saw Jack as an opportunity to live abroad at a higher standard of living.
The KGB discovered Nadya had been approached, as an asset but the intelligence agency had more than enough contacts inside the embassy and dropped her as a contact. At the same time, they instructed the young woman to foster the relationship.
She set up the meeting between Jack and Kondrashev, who would be his KGB handler. After a number of meetings designed to assess Jack’s vulnerability, Jack began to offer useful information. Russian government code breakers also started attending the meetings. For the rest of Jack’s tour in Moscow, he met with the KGB, for which he was paid more than $100,000 and told that Nadya would be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and join him in the West.
In addition to information about the code room, cipher machines, and code procedures, Jack also gave the KGB code schedules for when the deciphering procedures would be changed, broken and used cipher parts, and a print copy of the alphabet backward and forward (along with punctuation marks). The KGB was able to reconstruct the American code machine by the end of 1949. They were now able to read all American communications destined for installations worldwide.
Stalin’s fear of a direct military confrontation with the United States guided much of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in the years following the Second World War. For years, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the Communist regime in North Korea, urged Stalin for support (read: “permission”) to invade South Korea and unify the peninsula under his rule. Stalin hesitated to give Kim the green light because he thought the Americans would rush to defend the South Korean regime.
Deciphered American military communiques convinced Stalin that the Americans would not be as willing to defend South Korea as previously thought. The secret messages revealed that the U.S. had moved combat assets to the Japanese mainland and would thus be ineffective in defense of the fledgling republic. Stalin gave Kim the go-ahead and North Korean tanks rolled across the border on June 25, 1950.
Nadya was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union due to the KGB’s fears of American counterintelligence discovering Jack. Kondrashev’s superiors in the KGB did not survive Stalin’s purges. The codes Jack divulged to the USSR were used to read American diplomatic and military communications until 1961.
Jack returned to the U.S.; his identity was never discovered as Kondrashev went to great lengths to not disclose information to Bagley that might be used to compromise Jack.
(Author’s note: Bagley documented these stories in his book, Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief.)
Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock was an enthusiastic but mischievous member of the Royal Air Force in 1968 when he found out that the British Parliament, composed at the time of members who were cutting military spending, had slashed the plans for a 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Royal Air Force. Among the list of events cut were flybys by RAF pilots. So, Pollock stole a plane and conducted his own flybys of Parliament and other locations on the day of celebrations anyway.
The buildup to the dramatic day had started innocuously enough. British pilots had been dropping leaflets and toilet paper rolls on each other for a while, partially to keep up training and partially to break the monotony of training with constrained budgets.
But the pilots taking part in these little pranks were also busy griping about their limited flight hours and the growing obsolescence of their equipment. Britain was investing in new missile technology that was cheaper than planes and pilots but left, in the pilots’ opinion, a gap in defenses. One plane after another was retired from service with no replacement.
The anxious pilots were always on the lookout for further cuts to their budgets and standing, and they learned that the 50th celebration of the Royal Air Force would no longer feature flights of most aircraft. Most of the pilots grumbled a little, but then got right back to work.
Flt. Lt. Alan Pollock was in a Hawker Hunter when he decided to take a flight down the River Thames and, eventually, through Tower Bridge.
(Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pollock, on the other hand, was ensnared by a devious idea. What if he just did a few low-level flights through London anyway? In a series of decisions that he would later blame at least partially on the dual cold medicines he was taking at the time, he grabbed a map from another aviator and sketched a tentative plan for a flight through London.
He didn’t think it would really come to anything, though. He was scheduled to fly on April 5, 1968, the celebration date of the 50th anniversary (which actually occurred on April 1). Bad weather at the destination airfield made the flight questionable until the last moment. While the men waited for the weather decision, Pollock got in a small argument with a superior and found himself feeling more maverick than normal.
When the men finally took off, Pollock was number four in a flight and watched a plane ahead of him peel off to go back past the departure airfield, likely to give them a flyby salute to celebrate the anniversary. Pollock was supposed to continue with the rest to their home field, but he saw the rest of the planes banking toward home and figured, screw it, he was going to London.
The Tower Bridge in London, the same bridge that Alan Pollock flew through in 1968 during a protest.
(Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0)
He dropped audio connection with the other pilots and signaled that his comms were messing up and he’d make his own way home. Instead, he went to the River Thames and started flying over the bridges through London.
He flew past Westminster Abbey and other landmarks in his RAF Hawker Hunter and then turned to the Houses of Parliament and did three quick passes over it. Ironically, Parliament was discussing new rules for noise abatement as Pollock surged power to his engines to make the tight turns over the building.
He turned back out over the Thames and passed over a few more bridges until he reached Tower Bridge, a famous landmark with a lower span for vehicles and a higher one for pedestrians. The opening intrigued him, and he found himself flying right through the gap in the middle of the bridge.
When he made it home and landed, his command didn’t know what to do with him, and Pollock suggested they arrest him. They did so, but Parliament didn’t want a large fuss that would call more attention to the funding cuts Pollock was reacting to with his protests.
So, instead of court-martialing him, the Royal Air Force trumped up his medical issues and discharged him for that, ending his over 10-year career. Pollock described his career in an extended series of interviews with the Imperial War Museum from 2006 to 2009. The Thames River Run was described in detail in segment 24 of 25.
When you think “cruise missiles,” the BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missile comes to mind. That’s not a surprise — the Tomahawk has been widely-deployed and launched from ships, subs, and ground launchers. Hell, there were even air-launched versions of the missile in development!
But it wasn’t the first cruise missile to be widely deployed by the United States military. In fact, one cruise missile family formed the basis of the Navy’s nuclear deterrence in the 1950s — years before the Tomahawk entered service.
That cruise missile was the Regulus. It got its start the year after World War II ended. Initially, the Navy had looked at trying to improve Germany’s V-1, but soon realized it was a dead end.
The first version of the Regulus, designated SSM-N-8, entered service in 1955. The ultimate version of the Regulus I had a range of 500 nautical miles, according to Designation-Systems.net. It could be equipped with a Mk 5 warhead with a yield of 40 kilotons or a two-megaton W27 warhead. The missile had a top speed of 600 miles per hour.
Like the Tomahawk, the Navy deployed the Regulus on both surface ships and submarines. The Navy also modified some of its aircraft carriers to launch the missile, although it was never operationally part of a carrier’s air wing. An improved version, the SSM-N-9 Regulus II, would’ve had a speed of Mach 2 and a W27 warhead with a range of 1,000 nautical miles if it ever saw the light of day, but the successful development of the Polaris ballistic missile killed that program.
The cruise missile concept made a comeback, though. Today, the versatile Tomahawk is one of the Navy’s preferred weapons for attacking enemy targets on land. The Tomahawk can look back at the clunky-looking Regulus, and see what paved the way. Learn more about the scrapped Regulus II project in the video below.