This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

On August 22, 1914, France launched 15 ill-fated assaults against German lines from France to Belgium, resulting in battles which, combined, cost 27,000 French lives and an unknown number of German deaths in a single day of fighting. On that day, there were more fatalities than the British experienced in the first day of the Battle of the Somme and more than the U.S. suffered in the Battle of Antietam in the Civil War.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

 

The Battle of the Frontiers, as it would come to be known, began in August, 1914, but historians disagree about the exact date on which it started in earnest. Basically, the French forces mobilized in early August to arrest Germany’s quick progress westward, setting off a series of smaller clashes as the armies maneuvered for position.

By August 22, France’s armies were in position and the command wanted to push forward, always advancing. A general assault was ordered, and French forces pressed against their German counterparts in fifteen distinct locations. French forces attempted to use old-war tactics in a new, industrialized state of war, and it didn’t go better for France than for anyone else in World War I.

French troops tried to force wedges between German armies that had machine guns in defensive positions, tried to conduct bayonet charges against enemies behind cover, and kept sending wave after wave of troops when the first few attacks didn’t work.

Possibly the fiercest of the fighting came at Rossignole when the French 3rd Colonial Infantry Division ran into the entire German 6th Army Corps. The French forces fought bravely with officers leading from the front, but outnumbered and in dire straits, the division was whittled down to virtually nothing.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
(Imperial War Museum)

 

Of the division’s three generals, two were killed and one was injured and captured. The commanding general, thought to have gone mad during the battle, simply waded into the worst of the fighting until he was shot dead. Some of the division’s units lost all but a handful of their officers, and the more conservative estimates for French soldiers killed at Rossignole say up to 7,000 perished. Some estimates are 50 percent higher.

But while Rossignole was fierce, Charleroi to the north was nearly as contested and featured much larger groups of men, resulting in even more casualties. France’s 15 divisions at the Charleroi were reinforced by three from Britain, and higher headquarters thought it was a sufficient force to pit against a suspected 18 German divisions.

But the French commander on the ground thought the Germans had twice as many men or more. He protested his orders, but was sent forward anyway on August 21. The French force and their British allies attacked a German force of 38 divisions which held key bridges and other features that the French needed to take to be successful.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
(Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0)

 

Because of the French belief at the time that it was always better to be on offense, they sent division after division into the meat grinder. Thousands more Frenchmen, as well as large numbers of British and German troops, were lost in the bitter fighting.

By the time the sun set on August 22, approximately 27,000 French troops had died along with tens of thousands more British and German troops, making it more costly fighting than the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where Britain lost almost 20,000 soldiers. And, like the Somme, the full battle would rage for weeks more.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

In all, the Battles of the Frontiers resulted in over half a million casualties in a single month of fighting. The painful lessons learned would all too slowly cause both sides to rethink their tactics and strategy, but years of trench fighting and pointless cavalry charges and bayonet assaults against machine guns would be needed before truly modern tactics were adopted across the board.

Unfortunately for those who sacrificed their lives for France in that bloody month, the large collection of smaller battles are mostly forgotten when held up next to gargantuan fights, like the Battle of the Somme, where over a million men were killed, wounded, and captured in just under five months of fighting.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
One of the bloodiest battles in history. (French National Library, Public Domain)

 

Of course, there are some ancient battles where larger numbers of troops were reported killed in a day or a few days of fighting, but the numbers are not always considered reliable. One day of battle, which may have been even larger and more deadly than August 22, 1914, was the day in 216 B.C. when Carthage and Rome fought the Battle of Cannae. There, Hannibal managed to encircle a much larger Roman force and kill nearly all of its troops.

Carthage reportedly lost as many as 6,000 men while the Romans, if the reports are accurate, lost over 50,000, who were either killed or committed suicide on the battlefield.

Articles

This was America’s first anti-aircraft cruiser

Today, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser is the epitome of a vessel designed with the primary purpose of protecting capital ships from an aerial threat.


With the Aegis fire control system, two 64-cell Mk 41 vertical launch systems, and a pair of five-inch guns, among other weapons, the Tico can handle just about anything the enemy has that flies.

But this wasn’t the only cruiser designed to primarily confront the aerial threat. That honor falls to the cruiser USS Atlanta (CL 51), which was commissioned 17 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Atlanta was also designed to serve as a scout or a flotilla leader for destroyers, but her main battery of 16 5-inch/38 guns gave her a powerful anti-aircraft armament.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
USS Atlanta (CL 51) in 1942, coming up to USS San Francisco (CA 38). (US Navy photo)

The Navy originally ordered four of these cruisers, but doubled the total after the start of the war. Three slightly modified versions, known as the Juneau-class cruisers, were later acquired, but not finished until after the war.

According to the “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,” the USS Atlanta saw action in the Battle of Midway, the invasion of Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. In that last battle, she was heavily damaged by both friendly and enemy fire, and ultimately had to be scuttled.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
USS Juneau (CL 119) during the Korean War, during which she sank three North Korean torpedo boats. (US Navy photo)

Other than the second ship of the class, USS Juneau (CL 52) — best known as the vessel that the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, perished aboard — the rest of the Atlanta-class cruisers survived the war.

The USS Reno (CL 96) did have a hell of a fight for survival after being torpedoed in November 1944.

The last Atlanta-class cruiser to serve in the United States Navy was the USS Juneau (CL 119), the lead ship of her sub-class that was completed in the months after World War II.

Ironically, the only action Juneau saw outside of shore bombardment was a naval battle on July 2, 1950, sinking three North Korean torpedo boats.

Articles

This is how hedgerows made the invasion of Normandy a living hell

What was the worst thing about being a soldier assigned to the invasion of Normandy? Probably the beaches with Nazi machine guns raining hell down, right?


Well, some historians make a pretty good case that it was actually the French gardens and farms that spread throughout Normandy.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
The hedgerows of the Cotentin Peninsula. (Photo: Public Domain)

While American farms and yards are split by fences — split rail fences in the early days and mostly barbed wire by the World War II years — the farms in Normandy were split by ancient hedgerows.

Originally built by the Romans, the hedgerows were mounds of dirt raised in irregular patterns that served as fences between plots of land. Irrigation ditches with raised sides provided water to all the fields and animals.

Over the hundreds of years since the dirt mounds were raised, thick, tall growths of plants had turned the ditches into tunnels and raised virtual walls of up to 16 feet on top of the mounds.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
Normandy, France, July 15, 1944. (Painting by Keith Rucco for The National Guard)

These wall of vegetation were thick and seemingly impossible to quickly cut through. And the hedgerows were everywhere, an aerial photo of a typical section of the battlefield showed over 3,900 hedged enclosures in less than eight square miles.

Each of these enclosures was a virtual fortress, and the Germans had spent months preparing their defenses. They practiced moving through the hedges, selected areas for machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and practiced firing from trees into nearby enclosures.

Perhaps most importantly, they had planted stakes near the most likely routes of American troops and had mapped the locations of the stakes by coordinates, allowing defenders to quickly and accurately call fire onto the advancing Allies.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
Advancing through an opening in the hedgerows was risky at best. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Compounding the problem was the irregular shape of the enclosures. The rows weren’t laid out in a proper grid. Instead, they were roughly rectangular as a whole, but with a variety of sizes even among adjoining fields. And all of these fields were connected primarily by thin wagon trails that wound through the irregular enclosures.

All of this combined to form a defender’s paradise and an attacker’s hell. In the first days of the Battle for the Hedgerows, American troops would assault an enclosure at full speed, attempting to use velocity and violence of action to overwhelm the defenders. German machine guns pointed directly at these openings cut them down instead.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
(Photo: U.S. National Archives)

While the German defenses in the hedgerows greatly delayed the American advance, the Allies did eventually find a way to breakthrough. At first, armored and infantry units had worked largely independent of each other. The tanks had tried to stay on the move to avoid German anti-tank weapons and artillery while the infantry had slowed down to try and avoid ambushes.

But Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III, an armor soldier from New Jersey, figured out the fix. He welded a bar across the front of the tank and added four metal prongs across it. The prongs acted as plows and cutters, allowing the tanks to push through the hedgerows, destroying the obstacles without exposing any of the tanks’ weak points.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
(Photo: U.S. Army)

This allowed the tanks to cut new routes for the infantry while reducing their own vulnerabilities as well. The Allied soldiers began engaging in a true combined arms manner with tanks opening the way and infantrymen advancing just behind.

The infantry would help quickly knock out anti-tank weapons while the tanks could help destroy fortified machine gun nests and cut through hedgerow after hedgerow.

To see what the American GIs had to fight through, check out this video:

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Persian Immortals became masters of psychological warfare

War is just as much a psychological battle as it is physical. If you’re able to convince your enemy that they have no chance of surviving before the first drop of blood is spilled, you’ve already won. No warriors in history have embodied this concept better than the Anausa or, as they’re more commonly known, the Persian Immortals.

Even their very name, “Immortal,” is a part of the mind tricks they played on their enemies. In order to keep up the image of being unkillable, they wore matching uniforms and hastily recovered their dead or wounded, fueling the illusion that none fell in battle. But that barely even scratches the surface of the psychological warfare the Persians employed to conquer 44 percent of all humanity at the height of their power in 480 B.C.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

As over-the-top as the rest of the film was, this is an entirely accurate scene. The rest of the movie though? Ehhh…

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

As with many early civilizations, much of the history of Achaemenid Empire (to Empire for which the Immortals fought) has been lost to time. The history we do have comes from the Greek scholar, Herodotus. Though he opposed Persia, he kept detailed battle plans of the Immortals and those that faced them.

One such example happened to make its way into the 2006 film, 300. A Spartan at Thermopylae scoffed at a Persian envoy who said their arrows could “black out the sky” by replying, “then we’ll fight in the shade.” That wasn’t just a boast — that actually happened.

The Immortals were well aware that their arrows were inferior to Spartan steel. So, instead of making them stronger, they made more of them so that every archer could unleash them in one, rapid moment, literally blacking out the sky with arrows.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

“Cats! Our only weakness!” – Some Egyptian, probably.

(Ancient History Museum)

Another example of the ferocity of the Immortals was when the Persians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. The Persians knew that the Egyptians were faithful to the Egyptian Goddess of Cats, Bastet. To the Egyptians, any harm done to a cat was considered great sacrilege.

Knowing this, the Persians simply drew cats on their shields and let loose a bunch of cats onto the battlefield. This alone was enough to make many Egyptians immediately surrender. When the other Egyptians manned their catapults, the Persians would let them know that they had cats with them — and that unleashed the artillery could mean killing a few felines.

If the Immortals didn’t have enough time to prepare for an individual opponent, they’d resort to their shock-and-awe cavalry, armed with sagaris, or long axes. The lightweight ax made it easy for Immortals to twirl them over their heads and swing fast enough to make an enemy’s blood splash far enough back to intimidate their foes.

At the Battle of the Granicus in 334 B.C., Alexander II of Macedon was nearly scalped by an Immortal cavalryman named Spithridates. His ax sliced clean straight through Alexander’s helmet and was just millimeters away from being a fatal blow.

After that moment, Alexander swore to the destruction of Persia. He studied their tactics and instructed his men on how to counter their advances. This took away the Persian’s edge in battle, and Alexander, from then on, took on the moniker of “the Great.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why Americans are twice as likely to die in hostage situations

While the United States was celebrating its 100th birthday on July 4, 1976, four Israeli C-130 cargo planes landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, cargo bay doors already open. A black Mercedes and a parade of Land Rovers screamed out of two of the planes, headed for the old passenger terminal. Armored personnel carriers exited the other three.

There were 106 mostly Israeli hostages being held by pro-Palestinian hijackers and supported by the Ugandan army under dictator Idi Amin being held here. The hostages were coming home.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

If anyone’s coming to rescue you, you want it to be the IDF.

The raid on Entebbe airport was one of the most daring hostage rescues of all time. The Israelis flew in some seven planes under the radars of many hostile countries, landing at an enemy airport, pretending to be the caravan of a brutal dictator, and risking an all-out war to save Israeli citizens, losing only three and only one of the Israel Defence Forces commandos. The Israelis even destroyed 11 Ugandan fighter aircraft on the ground in retaliation. In three years, Amin would be deposed.

Airplane hijackings dropped dramatically after this incident and a number of Western countries vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, especially the United States. The U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists as a matter of policy.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

This resulted in a number of American hostages dying at the hands of ISIS.

In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 1,200 Westerners from some 32 or more countries have been captured by terrorists and held hostage by militant groups and pirates, demanding ransom or some other concession. Americans made up 20 percent of those hostages taken since 2001 and half of those were killed by their captors. The reason for this is the policy of not giving concessions to terrorists or anyone else who might take citizens hostage.

The United States believes giving in to terrorist or other militants’ demands for ransom or some other concession would just make Americans a more tempting target for those who would take hostages, allowing terrorists to perpetually self-finance through hostage-taking. As it is, Americans are twice as likely to die in captivity by their captors while countries who pay ransoms – Germany, Spain, France, Austria, and Switzerland – are more likely to have hostages released.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

But citizens of those countries are not taken hostage in disproportionate numbers because taking hostages is risky and not as profitable as other ventures for terrorist groups, such a narcotics, black market oil and arms sales, and human trafficking. Civilians more likely to be kidnapped are those who are already in unstable areas. Three-quarters of Westerners taken by al-Qaeda and ISIS were freed. Only two of those were Americans.

Since a new hostage policy was announced in 2015, where the U.S. coordinates agencies to secure the release of hostages, six have been released, and none died in captivity. The only hitch is that none were held by foreign jihadist groups.

It should be noted that the Carter Administration held negotiations with Iran for the hostages taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Not one of the hostages were killed, and they were released on the last day of the Carter Presidency – all without firing a shot.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why 3 naval battles can claim to be history’s largest

There are a lot of articles that talk about the “largest naval battle,” but they don’t always agree on what battle that is. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, with nearly 200,000 participants and 285 ships, comes up often, but that isn’t the largest number of participants or ships that have clashed at a single point in history. So what’s really the largest naval battle?


The big issue is that it’s hard to define what, exactly, is the proper metric for determining the size of a battle. While land engagements are nearly always measured by the number of troops involved, naval battles can be measured by the number of ships, the size of the ships, the number of sailors, total number of vehicles and vessels, or even the size of the battlefield.

Here are three naval battles with a decent claim to “history’s largest.” One by troops involved, one by ship tonnage and area that was fought over, and one by most ships that fought.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

A French map of the movements involved in the Battle of the Red Cliffs.

(Sémhur, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Battle of the Red Cliffs—850,000 troops clashed on river and land

The Battle of the Red Cliffs is likely the largest amphibious battle of all time with estimates of the troops involved going up to 880,000 with up to 800,000 marching under the Chinese General Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan stood up a small navy and army opposition that numbered around 50-80,000. The whole fight took place in 208 AD.

If it sounds like the allied force would get railroaded, realize that they were the ones with better ships and they had hometown advantage. They sailed their ships through the rivers, likely the Han and Yangtze, set them on fire, and managed to crash them into Cao Cao’s fleet. Cao Cao’s men on the river and in camp burned.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

A Japanese destroyer withdraws from the Battle of Leyte Gulf while under attack from U.S. bombers.

(Naval History and Heritage Command)

Battle of Leyte Gulf—285 ships clash over 100,000 square miles

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is what usually pops up as the top Google search for history’s largest, and it’s easy to see why. The fighting took place over 100,000 square miles of ocean, one of the largest battleships in history sunk, and 285 naval vessels and 1,800 aircraft took part. Of the ships, 24 were aircraft carriers.

It was also a key battle strategically, allowing the U.S. to re-take the Philippines and further tipping the balance of power in the Pacific in World War II in favor of the U.S. and its allies.

One odd note about Leyte Gulf, though, is that it’s often accepted as its own battle, it’s actually a term that encompasses four smaller battles, the battles of Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engano, and the Battle off Samar.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Painting depicts the Battle of Salamis where outnumbered Greek ships annihilated a Persian fleet.

(Wilhelm von Kaulbach, public domain)

Battle of Salamis—over 1,000 ships

At the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC during the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persian fleet of 800 galleys had penned 370 Greek triremes into the small Saronic Gulf. The Greek commander managed to draw the Persian fleet into the gulf, and the more agile Greek ships rammed their way through the Persian vessels.

The Persians lost 300 ships and only sank 40 Greek ones, forcing them to abandon planned offensives on land.

(Note that there are conflicting reports as to just how many ships took part in the battle with estimates ranging up to 1,207 Persian ships and 371 Greeks, but even on the lower end, the Battle of Salamis was the largest by number of ships engaged.)

If you had a battle in mind that didn’t make the list, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily out of the running. The Battle of Yamen saw over 1,000 ships clash and allowed the Mongol Yuan Dynasty to overtake the Song Dynasty. At the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 902 American aircraft fought 750 Japanese planes. The Battle of Jutland, the only major battleship clash of World War I, makes many people’s lists as well.

Hell, Wikipedia has a page that lists nine naval battles as potential contenders for world’s largest.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a Boy Scout built a nuclear reactor out of common household items

Imagine looking out your window to see an eerie green glow resonating from your neighbor’s shed. Or seeing government trucks being loaded with barrels marked radioactive by men dressed in hazmat suits outside your home.


The residents of Golf Manor, Michigan, don’t have to imagine it, because in 1995, a young teenage boy built a nuclear breeder reactor in his mother’s potting shed, an idea he came up with while working on his Atomic Energy merit badge in attempt to earn Eagle Scout status.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
Offering an Atomic Energy badge seems like a bad idea.

It wasn’t until David was interviewed for an article in Harper’s Magazine that the entire story was told. Even investigators from various federal agencies were shocked to find out some of the details.

At an age when most adolescents are consumed with sports, friends, or dating, Hahn spent his free time conducting chemical experiments. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he had several chemical spills and even created an explosion that rocked their tiny house and left David “lying semi-conscious on the floor, his eyebrows smoking.”

Even his scout troop was not immune to his scientific curiosity. David once appeared at a scout meeting, “with a bright orange face caused by an overdose of canthaxanthin, which he was taking to test methods of artificial tanning.” Then there was the night at camp where his fellow scouts accidentally ignited a pile of powdered magnesium he had brought to make fireworks.

There’s no question that David was increasingly bold in his attempts to learn more about the chemical compounds of our world, but even with the goal in mind to build a nuclear breeder reactor, you have to wonder how he obtained the radioactive elements.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

David worked a series of jobs at fast-food joints and grocery stores after school to finance his experiments. He admitted to Harper’s that he used several aliases and a string of mail communications with individuals working for agencies that control nuclear elements. None were as helpful as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where David was able to engage the agency’s director, Donald Erb.

Erb provided David with a list of contacts who provide commercial sale of some elements and how to harvest others. David broke apart smoke detectors to obtain americium-241, commercial gas lanterns provided him thorium-232, and with the help of a Geiger counter, he found an antique luminous clock that contained a vial of radium paint used to keep the clock face glowing. He even purchased $1000 worth of batteries to extract the lithium.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

After several attempts to create energy, David was finally successful but he soon learned that his small reactor was producing so much radiation that it was spreading through his neighborhood. Unfortunately, his safety precautions only consisted of wearing a makeshift lead poncho and throwing away his clothes and shoes following a session in the potting shed. So he took apart the reactor.

Stashing some of the more radioactive elements in his house and the rest in his car, he was later found by the police after a call was made about a young man trying to steal tires. The police opened his trunk to find an array of scientific materials and a tool box locked with a padlock and sealed with duct tape. The police were rightly concerned about the box, and after David advised that it was radioactive, they were worried he had a nuclear bomb.

While being questioned by the police, David’s parents became afraid that they would lose their house, so they ransacked his room and his “laboratory” and tossed everything they could find. This left the authorities with nothing but what was in the car.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
Looks like he got that atomic energy badge (top left).

“The funny thing is, they only got the garbage, and the garbage got all the good stuff,” Hahn told Harper’s.

David never went back to his experiments and later served four years in the U.S. Navy – including service aboard the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He also briefly served in the Marine Corps before returning home to Michigan. In 2016, David died from alcohol poisoning – not from exposure to radiation.

Though David Hahn is gone, the small town of Golf Manor will never forget their “Radioactive Boy.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Buried in a casino wall, a dark secret from Romania’s Communist past

BUCHAREST — When she was growing up in a small town in southern Romania, Laura Voicila was stigmatized by her father’s past.

In 1949, as the communists tightened their grip on the Eastern European country, Nicolaie Voicila, 17, was arrested and later sentenced to four years of hard labor for “plotting against the social order.”

His crime was joining a literary club at which members discussed the relatively new communist regime led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and hoped it would disappear.


The high school student was one of the thousands the communists incarcerated in prisons and labor camps after World War II, often simply because they had fallen afoul of the communist regime.

There are no universally accepted figures, but a 2006 presidential commission established to study the communist dictatorship said more than 600,000 Romanians were sentenced for political crimes between 1945 and 1989. Thousands died from beatings, illness, exhaustion, cold, or lack of food or medicine.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

The secret note with political prisoners’ names written in charcoal that was found inside the casino wall.

Early Days Of Communism

Andrei Muraru, a historian and adviser to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, told RFE/RL that in the early 1950s some 100,000 prisoners were sentenced to hard labor on a project called the Black Sea Canal, a 70-kilometer waterway connecting the Danube to the Black Sea. It was also known as the “Canal of Death.”

Voicila toiled there, transporting heavy loads of rock before he was sent to work restoring a casino, an architectural monument to art nouveau in the nearby port of Constanta that had been bombed by the Germans during the war.

He didn’t talk much about those experiences after his release — actually being forbidden from talking about his imprisonment — and his fear of discussing those hard times lingered even after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed during the 1989 Romanian Revolution.

But he did tell family members that political prisoners had scribbled notes and buried them in the walls of the casino.

“When I was growing up, Dad told us: When they renovate the casino, go there and find the documents,” Laura Voicila told RFE/RL.

“Under communism, we discussed things very quietly and never in public,” she said. “Dad listened to Radio Free Europe and I would say ‘Dad, what are they saying in Germany (RFE was based in Munich from 1950-1995)? I even remember the jingle [that went with the news].”

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Nicolaie Voicila in the 1960s after his release from prison.

Secret Note

At school in the town of Gorgota, Laura had top grades, but her father’s past meant she suffered discrimination.

“My teacher told me: ‘You should be the class leader, but we can’t make you one,” she said. “[My father] told me to study and to leave the country if I wanted a chance [in life].”

Laura kept the story about the hidden notes in the back of her mind, until one day in May this year.

Her mother called saying she had seen on the news that restorers had unearthed a scrap of paper hidden in a wall of the casino that was signed by political prisoners.

“When my mom heard a note had been found, she said ‘You have to go and see it.’ She was moved to tears. It was a moment of moral reparation for her [after nearly 70 years]. People saw [the note] was there and it was real,” she told RFE/RL.

In mid-May, after Romania lifted a state of emergency imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Laura went with Apollon Cristodulo — the son of Ion Cristodulo, an architect and political prisoner in charge of restoring the casino — to Constanta to see the note firsthand.

The note — a scrap of paper torn from a cement sack with the names of 17 political prisoners written in charcoal and dated December 31, 1951 — is not much in itself, were it not for the dire circumstances that it was created under and its historical importance.

“It was found rolled up in a ball by a stained-glass window restorer. He was looking for some old shards of glass in the wall and he came across the paper. He felt there was something [special] about it,” Apollon Cristodulo said on July 23.

“It was miraculous that this note was found,” he said. “I wrote about the [hidden note at the] casino many years ago, but nobody believed it; they thought it was just a story, a legend…. But now everything I’ve written has come true.”

Cristodulo’s father died in 1991 aged 66, his health damaged by the harsh years of detention.

“His heart, liver, and lungs were all shot. He died after his fourth heart attack,” Cristodulo told RFE/RL.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Laura Voicila and Apollon Cristodulo outside the casino in Constanta on May 19.

Romania’s Political Prisons

Muraru, the former director of the governmental Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, secured the first ever prosecutions of former prison commanders in Romania.

Alexandru Visinescu, who was in charge of the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison, was sentenced in 2016 to 20 years in jail for the deaths of 12 prisoners at the institution. One year later, Ioan Ficior received the same term for crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of 103 prisoners at the Periprava labor camp. Both have since died serving their sentences.

Muraru said the fact that the detainees managed to write the note was remarkable.

“This is a rare piece of testimony because prisoners didn’t have access to paper or pencils, but…there was less supervision and the presence of ordinary workers and more humane figures who could provide them with something to write with, and that made it possible for this scrap of paper to be secreted away and put [in the wall],” he told RFE/RL.

“It took decades for the traumatic memory of communism to finally settle,” he added.

Alexandra Toader, the current director of the institute said: “After 70 years, we have material confirmation of what happened [at the casino].”

She said the Securitate communist secret police conducted excavations at the casino in 1986 and may have found other documents which were archived, something Cristodulo also thinks is likely.

“We have 26 kilometers of Securitate archives, a sea of documents; but I’m not sure whether they are digitized or documented,” Toader told RFE/RL.

The institute will hold an exhibition at the casino “dedicated exclusively to this episode,” she said. “Hopefully we can obtain objects they used, letters they wrote to their families, their tools.”

Researchers are investigating the estimated 100 prisoners who worked on the casino, tracking down biographical information to try to find out what happened to them.

“Most prisoners were there for the flimsiest of reasons and they were there for years on end regardless of their age,” Toader said. “It was a pretext to get rid of the so-called ‘enemies of the people.'”

Cristodulo told RFE/RL that the documents about the Black Sea Canal are still classified by the secret service.

“There were 100,000 people who carried out forced labor…the documents need to be declassified,” he said.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Architect Radu Cornescu, Apollon Cristodulo, and Laura Voicila (left to right) at the shell wall inside the casino where the secret political prisoner note was found.

Harsh Conditions

Nicolaie Voicila, who died in 1999 at the age of 66, dreamed of becoming an architect but the communists wouldn’t let him complete his education. He managed to qualify as a sub-engineer and became the manager of a cement site, forever inspired by the work he had done with the architects on the casino.

But he was traumatized his entire life by his past as a prisoner.

“He wasn’t allowed to speak or write down what happened and he thought they’d come and get him, so he had a lack of trust,” Laura Voicila said. “He didn’t trust people. He thought maybe a neighbor would find out about his past and he’d be in trouble.”

He did tell us that when he worked on the canal, prisoners were beaten “and others [were forced] to eat feces,” she said.

“Prisoners had to transport rocks and they’d walk along a 30-40 centimeter piece of wood over the canal with a wheelbarrow full of rubble. And if a prisoner fell off, nobody bothered to rescue him,” Laura Voicila said.

“There are many human bones buried in that canal,” she said.
Muraru added that it is known as “the Romanian Siberia.”

Disappointment

The collapse of communism failed to bring the changes that Nicolaie Voicila and many others had hoped for.

“He realized the old communists had come to power and he lost hope he’d ever see real democracy,” the 42-year-old Laura Voicila, who runs a family fruit and vegetable supply business, said.

“He saw miners attacking anti-government protesters in 1990 and he said: ‘You see? People are being beaten and killed. It’s still the same old people.'”

It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Andreescu, the head of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Constanta.

Andreescu was a political prisoner for five years because he joined a youth organization that wanted to “free Romania from the Russians and their demands, such as making Russian a mandatory language at school and learning the history of the Soviet Union,” he told RFE/RL.

“We are free, but far from what we dreamed of and what we had hoped for in 1989.”

As head of the Constanta branch, Andreescu said: “It’s very important we have this proof [of the note from the casino], even if there are just a few names. They show the ugly past of the Romanian people, when people had to perform forced labor under all kinds of conditions.”

He added: “They are witnesses, even if they are buried in a wall.”

A Warning

Toader says it’s important that Romania knows its past.

“This subject is still largely unknown in schools and books, and detainees didn’t speak of their detention; even their memoirs are truncated out of fear or an attempt to forget,” she said.

“This is very relevant for the young generation, as some are nostalgic about communism,” she said in an interview at her Bucharest office.

“Extremes can’t be allowed, neither left nor right. The rule of law must prevail.”

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

England’s strike plane that could have been

Several countries have planes that torture aviation aficionados — airframes that showed so much potential but never made it to the field due to complicated politics, technical failures, or other reasons unknown. For the United States, it’s the XB-70 Valkyrie, A-12 Avenger, or the YF-23 Black Widow. For Canada, it is the Avro Arrow interceptor.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
One plane that might have been: The A-12 Avenger. (U.S. Navy graphic)

The United Kingdom has one as well. It’s called the TSR.2, although it never got an official designation because this plane barely got off the drawing board and into prototype stage. Which is a shame, because the Royal Air Force was looking at a strike plane that would have made the Tornado seem second-rate.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
An XI(B) Sqn Tornado GR4 training for deployment to Afghanistan. Among its weapons load is a Brimstone missile on the lower left portion of the fuselage. (British Ministry of Defence photo)

The U.K. was developing the TSR.2 with aims to replace both a now-legendary plane, the English Electric Canberra, and their V-bombers (the Vulcan, Valiant, and Victor). One of the primary objectives of this project was to counter the rise of the surface-to-air missile, which took center-stage in the world’s consciousness when a SA-2 Guideline shot down a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
A Romanian SA-2 Guideline is launched during an exercise in 2007. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Petrică Mihalache)

The plane that emerged from years of development was the TSR.2. According to MilitaryFactory.com, it had a two-man crew (a pilot and weapons officer), was designed to have a top speed of Mach 2.35 (it hit 835 miles per hour in test flights), could carry up to 10,000 pounds of bombs, and had a maximum range of 2,877 miles.

After a test flight, the plane was deemed ready for production, and the line had 23 airframes in various stages of completion before politics intervened. To be specific, the Labour Party won elections and quickly proceeded to cancel the TSR.2.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history
The engines of the TSR.2. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Paul Simpson)

To learn more about this plane that could have been, watch the video below. Do you think the TSR.2 could have succeeded?

 

(Curious Droid | YouTube)
MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the only country in South America to send troops to the Korean War

While the Korean War Battles of Old Baldy, Triangle Hill, and Geumseong may not be the first battles that come to mind when we think of the Korean Conflict, for Colombia, they were certainly important. Like their Brazilian neighbors in World War II, the Colombians saw the importance of stemming the advance of an aggressor as essential to the world’s collective security. Three Colombian frigates along with more than 5,000 troops saw action alongside their U.N. allies there.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

A Colombian veteran returns home from the Korean War.

While the country’s then-President, Laureano Gomez, was also looking for economic support from the West, the Colombians were also eager to remove the pro-German brush that had painted them during the Second World War. By 1951, for the first time in 127 years, Colombia was fully engaged in the fighting on the Korean Peninsula, attached to the U.S. 7th and 24th Infantry Divisions.

Over the course of the rest of the war, Colombia would send battalion after battalion over to fight, numbering more than a thousand men each. They were eager to prove Colombia’s bravery to the rest of the world, like the Turkish and Ethiopians before them. They were unlike any Colombian soldiers who came before them, but when returning home, they found a cold indifferent world.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford meets a Colombian Korean War veteran at the Korean War Memorial, Headquarters of the Military Forces of Colombia.

Their service went largely unnoticed when they returned home. Colombians rejected many of the ideals the Korean War veterans held as they fought to earn their respect in the halls of the U.N.. They suffered the way many veterans the world over suffer after their wars end. While abroad and fighting, they found themselves honored and beloved by veterans from every nation they fought. When they came home, they found it was hard to win over their own nation.

They received no benefits, no pension. Many wounded veterans would come home and one day die without so much as a thank you from the nation for which they were willing to give their lives.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Colombian Army veterans.

Eventually, the Colombian government would relent and offer a pension to Korean War veterans who could prove they were indigent. By then, many of those fighting men were well into their 60s and 70s. Some of those veterans were never recovered and remain in Korea to this day. The unit also suffered 213 dead and 567 wounded. They were the last force to arrive but the 9th largest to join in the effort to keep the South free. Still, the men who fought there don’t hold regrets about going.

“It was a really extraordinary experience,” said General Álvaro Valencia Tovar. “I never regretted going, despite the hardships suffered during war, the bitter winter we lived through there…resisting subzero temperatures, but that was all part of a chapter in my life that I’ve always regarded with great sympathy and with pleasant memories.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Nazis had a nuclear reactor in World War II

The Germans were the first to propose nuclear science, and some of their top minds advanced the field in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s why it’s probably a little surprising that America had the first functioning nuclear reactor. And the first bomb. But the Nazis had not just one nuclear program, but three. And one of the teams had an honest-to-god reactor ready to go.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Enriched uranium

(Public domain)

The German nuclear program had two major prongs. There was a weapons program that was begun in 1939, but the shortage of scientists quickly short-circuited the effort. Later that year, a new team was re-assembled to study the wartime applications of fission. The possibility of a bomb was foremost, for obvious reasons.

But, despite Germany’s preeminence in the scientific side of nuclear endeavors, it lacked certain necessary materials like heavy water, water with radioactive hydrogen isotopes, to moderate the reaction. WATM has written before about the heroic lengths that Norwegian resistance members and British special operators went to frustrate Germany’s heavy water theft from Norway.

America, meanwhile, started its nuclear effort with about 1,000 tons of uranium, quickly got another 3,000 tons through a deal with the Belgian government, and began uranium production in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The American government would buy millions of tons over the course of the war from the Congo and other places. It also produced its own heavy water and used graphite as a moderator.

But Germany did get some of its own uranium. It actually has large reserves of its own, it’s just tricky to mine and refine.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

American soldiers dismantle a German nuclear reactor after World War II. The reactor never achieved a sustained reaction because the Germans never put enough of their uranium cubes in one spot.

(Public domain)

But when it came to using all these materials to make a proper bomb, Germany made a math error that ended its real efforts. See, British scientists were pretty sure they could make a device work with between 5 and 12 kg of enriched uranium (about 11 to 26 pounds). But Germany thought they needed tons of enriched uranium for a single bomb, thanks to the aforementioned error.

So Germany sidelined its bomb efforts but remained interested in nuclear reactors. Remember, its industry relied on imported or stolen fuel to run its factories, and its primary naval arm was submarines that had to slip under British blockades and patrols with limited fuel stores to do their work after they got into the Atlantic.

Nuclear reactors that gave them virtually unending power in cities or at sea would transform the way they operated in the war, and so they committed their nuclear stockpile to create a reactor.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

A museum exhibit shows the uranium chandelier Germany used for their experimental reactors.

(ArtMechanic, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Germany created three teams and planted one each at Berlin, Gottow, and Leipzig. The design that the teams finally came up with centered on uranium chandeliers. Hundreds of small uranium cubes were suspended on wires in close proximity to one another, allowing their combined radiation to sustain a nuclear reaction. When they needed to shut down the reaction, they could lower the chandelier into a pool of heavy water with graphite for additional shielding.

The most advanced team was in Berlin. The reactor there had 664 cubes in its chandelier, and its scientists were actually close in 1944 and 1945 to achieving a sustained reaction, a reaction that could have kept factories humming along until the Allies broke the city.

The only problem: They needed a bit more uranium than they had. They suspected that they needed about 50 percent more cubes, and a 2009 paper says that they were probably right. Funnily enough, the group in Gottow had about 400 cubes, but the two teams weren’t allowed to talk about their work or share resources. So neither group knew that they could pool their resources and succeed in just a few weeks or months of work.

Probably for the best, though. It’s not like the world would be better off if the Nazis had managed to create nuclear power plants for the Allies to bomb as the war ended, and the reactors almost certainly would have come too late to save the Reich, anyway.

Meanwhile, the cubes were largely recovered by American forces and are now passed around as novelties in some classrooms and physicist social circles. Germany did eventually tap into its uranium mines in order to fuel reactors in the post-war world. Germany is getting out of the nuclear business, though, even the power generation part.

MIGHTY CULTURE

The Queen of England has a champion who fights for her

It sounds like a big job description: “Queen’s Champion and Standard Bearer of England.” Although these days, the title seems more ceremonial than functional, it still sounds like a big deal. Since the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, whomever holds the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, England, also has to fight for the monarch at their coronation, should a challenger arise in the middle of it.


This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke is the current champion, but this is his father, the previous champion. A World War II veteran, he died in 2015.

The Dymokes have been the standard bearers for the reigning English monarch since the mid-14th Century, and would ride into Westminster Abbey in full shining armor, on a horse, in full plumage and regalia. To repeat, they ride a horse into Westminster in the middle of a coronation. They then throw a gauntlet – they literally throw a gauntlet – on the ground and announce that whomever dares challenge the King or Queen’s right to the throne must face him in combat. When no one does, the new monarch then drinks wine from a golden cup to honor his or her Champion.

The King or Queen could not fight in such combat unless it were someone their equal who would challenge them, and that usually meant a war.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

Dope.

The tradition has taken a few different forms over the last few monarch coronations, and was left out of Queen Victoria’s coronation entirely.

And sadly, at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Champion did not get to throw the gauntlet or threaten the crowd, but he did his duty to carry the Royal Standard in the procession. When Prince Charles (or at this rate, William) takes the throne, this is a tradition we in America would like to see revived to its full former glory.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The war that forced Paris to eat its zoo

For four months from Sept. 19, 1870 to Jan. 28, 1871, the Prussian Army laid siege to the city of Paris, as part of the Franco-Prussian War. Prior to having all supply lines cut off, the French Ministry of Agriculture furiously worked to gather as much food and fuel as it could, and at the beginning, “livestock blanket[ed] the Bois de Boulogne park on the edge of Paris.”

Apparently insufficient, within less than a month, the Parisians began butchering the horses, with the meat used as you would expect and even the blood collected “for the purposes of making puddings.” By the end of the siege, approximately 65,000 horses were killed and eaten.


Within another month, by Nov. 12, 1870, butchered dogs and cats began to appear for sale at the market alongside trays full of dead rats and pigeons. The former pets sold for between 20 and 40 cents per pound, while a nice, fat rat could go for 50.

As Christmas approached, most of Paris’ restaurants and cafés were forced to close, although a few of its top eateries continued serving, albeit with a markedly different menu. And as traditional meats were becoming increasingly scarce, the formerly impossible became the actual – when M. Deboos of the Boucherie Anglaise (English Butcher) purchased a pair of zoo elephants, named Castor and Pollux, for 27,000 francs.

This might be the bloodiest day in modern military history

The enormous animals were killed with explosive, steel tipped bullets fired at close range, chopped up and sold, with the trunks being the most desirable and selling for 40-45 francs per pound, and other parts between 10 and 14.

Prized by the fine dining establishments, for its Christmas feat, the Voisin served elephant soup, and for New Year’s Day, Peter’s Restaurant offered filet d’éléphant, sauce Madère.

The elephants weren’t the only zoo animals featured on these menus, as the Voison also served kangaroo and antelope, while Peter’s also served peacock. In addition, rats, mules, donkeys, dogs and cats were also transformed by their chefs into roasts, chops, cutlets and ragouts.

Ultimately most of the animals in the zoo were eaten, with the voracious Parisians sparing only the monkeys, lions, tigers and hippos. It is thought that the monkeys were left because of their close resemblance to humans, but it isn’t clear why the lions, tigers, and hippos escaped the menu.

In any event, the siege was ended by a 23-night bombardment campaign in January, in which the Prussians lobbed 12,000 shells into the city, killing and wounding around 400 people. The Franco-Prussian War officially ended with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.