One of the most notable parts of being on the home front of World War II was rationing. A lot of stuff was rationed – stuff we take for granted, like gas, sugar, coffee, and food. Part of this was because Axis advances cut off the supplies of some materials, like rubber (the Ames Historical Society notes that 90 percent of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies). But a big part was the fact that the scale of the American build-up required a major shift in using America’s industry.
So, how did it work in the United States? Well, there was a government agency, the Office of Price Administration, that handled the rationing. The rationing didn’t hit right away. Tires were rapidly restricted, simply because what rubber was available was needed for military vehicles and aircraft. Gas rationing, in fact, was intended to help conserve tires, and started in some states in May 1942. This was a month after the Doolittle Raid. Even though the Untied States had turned the tide in the Pacific by December, the gas rationing was extended nationwide.
The real day-to-day impact came with the food rationing. In 1943, the United States began to ration the canned foods. Part of this was to ensure the military had plenty of the canned food (which formed the basis of the C-ration). But it also cut down on metal consumption – after all, you need a lot of metal to build a Navy that would have almost 6,800 ships by Aug. 14, 1945.
When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 15, 1945, the rationing ended. You can see a video showing how the system was explained to Americans in 1943, using a cartoon by Chuck Jones (famous for drawing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) below.
Every object, planet or person traveling through space has to contend with the Sun’s damaging radiation — and the Moon has the scars to prove it.
Research using data from NASA’s ARTEMIS mission — short for Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun — suggests how the solar wind and the Moon’s crustal magnetic fields work together to give the Moon a distinctive pattern of darker and lighter swirls.
The Sun releases a continuous outflow of particles and radiation called the solar wind. The solar wind washes over the planets, moons and other bodies in our solar system, filling a bubble of space — called the heliosphere — that extends far past the orbit of Pluto.
Magnetic Bubbles on the Moon Reveal Evidence of “Sunburn”
Here on Earth, we’re largely protected from the damaging effects of the solar wind: Because the solar wind is magnetized, Earth’s natural magnetic field deflects the solar wind particles around our planet so that only a small fraction of them reach our planet’s atmosphere.
But unlike Earth, the Moon has no global magnetic field. However, magnetized rocks near the lunar surface do create small, localized spots of magnetic field that extend anywhere from hundreds of yards to hundreds of miles. This is the kind of information that needs to be well understood to better protect astronauts on the Moon from the effects of radiation. The magnetic field bubbles by themselves aren’t robust enough to protect humans from that harsh radiation environment, but studying their structure could help develop techniques to protect our future explorers.
Research using data from NASA’s ARTEMIS mission suggests that lunar swirls, like the Reiner Gamma lunar swirl imaged here by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, could be the result of solar wind interactions with the Moon’s isolated pockets of magnetic field.
(NASA LRO WAC science team)
“The magnetic fields in some regions are locally acting as this magnetic sunscreen,” said Andrew Poppe, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who researches the Moon’s crustal magnetic fields using data from NASA’s ARTEMIS mission along with simulations of the Moon’s magnetic environment.
These small bubbles of magnetic “sunscreen” can also deflect solar wind particles — but on a much smaller scale than Earth’s magnetic field. While they aren’t enough to protect astronauts by themselves, they do have a fundamental effect on the Moon’s appearance. Under these miniature magnetic umbrellas, the material that makes up the Moon’s surface, called regolith, is shielded from the Sun’s particles. As those particles flow toward the Moon, they are deflected to the areas just around the magnetic bubbles, where chemical reactions with the regolith darken the surface. This creates the distinctive swirls of darker and lighter material that are so prominent they can be seen from Earth — one more piece of the puzzle to help us understand the neighbor NASA plans to re-visit within the next decade.
May Day was a big deal in East Germany. As a matter of fact, it was a big deal in all of the Communist Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War era. It was, after all, a day for celebrating workers around the world. Since Communist countries were supposed to be a worker’s paradise, it stands to reason they would take a day off from shooting dissenters and waiting in lines to watch a few parades.
And those parades were
It was because everyone was preparing for May Day that Wolfgang Engels was able to escape from East Germany.
The wall began construction in 1961.
Engels was born in 1943 in Düsseldorf, Germany (what would have been West Germany just a few years later), but his Communist mother took him to East Germany after the end of World War II. As a young man, he was drafted into the Army of the new German Democratic Republic, what we know as East Germany.
The young soldier was a believer in the new ideology as a young man. He called his upbringing “thorough” and “socialist” and noted his mother even worked for the Stasi. It wasn’t until much later in his service that someone managed to convince him that things were not all they were made out to be.
But one of his first assignments as a newly-minted East German was to help build the Berlin Wall.
A Soviet-built East German BTR-152, like the one Wolfgang Engels drove through the Berlin Wall.
He soon felt terrible about what the wall became. Not just the barrier between the Iron Curtain and Freedom, but a symbol of the ideological struggle of the Cold War — and he was on the wrong side. The GDR was not the Germany he thought he knew.
After two years, the pressure was getting to him. Suddenly, well before his defection, he was accused of trying to cross the border illegally. He and two friends were looking for a concert in a cafe near the border wall. The group was found and unable to explain, to the guards’ satisfaction, what they were doing and so they were manhandled and mistreated. It drove the reality of East Germany home to him.
In reality, the thought of crossing the wall hadn’t occurred to him until his East German superiors put the idea in his head. But attempting to flee came with a stiff fine, two years’ jail time, and maybe even a bullet to the head. Still he remained determined — and even asked random passersby to come with him, but no one took him up on the offer.
His plan to escape was simple enough. He would steal an armored personnel carrier, drive to the most famous wall in the world (at the time at least), and then drive right through it. That’s exactly what he did, but it was nice of him to stop a couple of times and ask if anyone wanted to come.
The armored personnel carrier came from the preparations being made for the upcoming May Day parade. It was a BTR-152. A six wheeled, Soviet-built vehicle whose top could open upward, luckily for Wolfgang Engels. When the workmen went off to lunch, Engels started up his new vehicle, garnering little notice in a military-run city.
He had roughly 100 meters — the length of a football field — to gather enough velocity to crash through a single layer of cinder blocks less than ten feet high. Unfortunately, Engels’ APC didn’t fully penetrate the Berlin Wall and he was soon stuck in his vehicle — and stuck in the wall. East German border guards began to open fire on the BTR-152 and Wolfgang Engels. He decided it was time to book it.
He left the relative safety of the vehicle and tried to climb away. Ensnared in barbed wire, he was shot at close range while attempting to flee. Twice — once in the back and once in the hand. The second bullet tore through his body, in then out.
Luckily for him, West German police officers from a nearby watchtower fired back at the Eastern border guards, providing much-needed cover and time for Engels. But really, it was time enough for a group of revelers at a nearby bar to come out and help pull him out of the wire and into the freedom of the West. They formed a human ladder, freed him from the wire, and brought him over. They carried his unconscious body back to the bar, closing up the blinds.
“I came to on top of the counter,” he says. “When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it.”
He ordered a cognac.
Wolfgang Engels was sent by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he recovered from a collapsed lung for three weeks.
He wouldn’t see his mother again until 1990, after the fall of the wall. He learned the East Germans were planning to abduct him and charge him with desertion before the wall fell. As for the soldier who shot him, Engels is just grateful he didn’t turn his AK-47 on automatic.
A lot of American troops find something to love about cultures they discover during their service. One World War I veteran left Ohio and discovered the magical history of Medieval Europe amid the fighting and squalor of the trenches. When he returned to the rolling hills next to Ohio’s Little Miami River, he decided to build that magic in his own backyard. Literally.
Complete with sword room.
Just north of Loveland, Ohio sits a structure that has no business standing in the American midwest. Harry D. Andrews began constructing a full-scale replica of the castle where his medical unit was stationed in Southern France. It was built brick-by-brick by Andrews himself on land he acquired from buying yearlong subscriptions to the Cincinnati newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, taking stones from the Little Miami River, and even using bricks formed from milk cartons.
It took him 50 years to complete the project.
Though it has come to be known as Loveland Castle, the building began its life as Chateau Laroche – French for “Rock Castle” – and Andrews was a huge fan of the Medieval Era of European History. As the Castle Museum’s website reads:
[It was built as] “an expression and reminder of the simple strength and rugged grandeur of the mighty men who lived when Knighthood was in flower. It was their knightly zeal for honor, valor and manly purity that lifted mankind out of the moral midnight of the dark ages and started it towards the gray dawn of human hope.”
Loveland Castle via Instagram
Harry D. Andrews was born in 1890 and served as a medic in France during World War I. While “over there,” he contracted spinal meningitis and was declared dead. Except that he was very much alive and in hospital at the actual Chateau La Roche in southwest France. It would take him six months to recover. By the time he was declared alive, the war was over, and his fiancée was married to someone else. So Andrews stayed in Europe and toured the castles. He never much cared for modern war and believed the weapons used by knights in the Medieval Era were much more fair to a fighting man.
That’s when Harry Andrews gave up on women and dedicated his life to recreating the Medieval Era right there in his native Ohio. As he built the castle, he also constructed a year-round hotbed garden, a secret room, and wrote a book about immigration. As a lifelong Boy Scout leader, he donated the castle to his scouts when he died in 1981. Called the “Knights of the Golden Trail,” they guard the castle to this day.
At the outbreak of World War II, a British engineer named Dr. Barnes Wallis sat in his office and wondered what he could do to make the war end sooner. He probably thought long and hard about all sorts of rational things he could do, until he finally decided to weaponize earthquakes.
The goal was to create a weapon that could deliver a large explosive package deep into the earth near the foundations of target buildings. The explosion would then create a shockwave that moved through the earth and shifted the buildings’ foundations.
Initial designs called for a 20,000-pound bomb released from 40,000 feet that would break the sound barrier on its decent.
When Wallis initially presented his plans to British military leaders, he was blown off. There were no planes capable of getting a 20,000-pound payload off the ground, let alone up to 40,000 feet.
Bouncing bombs skipped across the surface of the water, successfully bypassing anti-torpedo nets and destroying German dams at the Möhne reservoir, the Eder river, and the Sorpe river. When the bouncing bombs were successful, British generals were open to revisiting Wallis’s earthquake bombs.
New British bombers, the Lancasters, were capable of carrying a 12,000-pound weapon up to 18,000 feet. Wallis revised his designs to fit the bill, and the first earthquake bomb was created.
Dubbed the “Tallboy,” the bombs were first used to collapse a railway tunnel near Saumur in western France on June 9, 1944, stopping a Panzer unit from attacking Allied troops moving east after D-Day. The bombs worked perfectly, shaking the mountain and collapsing a portion of tunnel.
The bomb would also be used to destroy sites used to manufacture and launch V-1 rockets, submarine pens, canals and viaducts, and the massive battleship Tirpitz. A total of 854 were dropped during the war.
After the success of the Tallboys, the RAF purchased an even larger earthquake bomb designed by Wallis. The “Grand Slam” was a 22,000-pound behemoth that worked on the same principle as the Tallboys. It was tested against a bunker in England in March 1945 and then used against nine sites in Germany.
The new bomb was so big, the planes carrying it had to have their bomb bay doors removed because the bomb was larger than the closed bays. The massive Grand Slam was used against viaducts, bridges, and submarine pens to great effect.
If you happen to ever find yourself slated to have society as a whole decide it would be best if they killed you, the silver lining is that in many parts of the world where this is still a thing, the last meal you ever eat is likely to be significantly better than the ones you’ve been consuming up to that point in prison. So how did this rather odd meal tradition come about and is it actually true death row inmates can get anything they want to eat?
To begin with, while it’s commonly stated that the whole idea of the last meal request came about due to Christ’s famed last supper, there doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence of this.
So how did the tradition actually start?
While history is absolutely littered with various cultures having feasts associated with death, such as the public feast for Roman gladiators the night before their potential date with death, called the coena libera, it wouldn’t be until slightly more modern times where we start seeing those being executed widely granted such a courtesy en masse. Once this did start to become a thing, in the early going, while wealthy individuals slated for execution, as ever, could generally request whatever they wanted any time, and were even often allowed servants to attend them as they awaited their execution, common things granted to the poor before their execution seem to have been at best a swig of some alcohol or the like.
Things began to pick up steam considerably on this front around the 16th century, however. Or, at least, things appear to have. It is entirely possible that such courtesies were widely granted before this to even the poor, with documented evidence of it simply not surviving. On that note, things like the printing press’ invention in the 15th century began making documented history of rather mundane events like the executions of random Joe Citizens more, well, documented. Thus, it may or may not be coincidence that accounts of such courtesies started to pop up more and more around the 16th century and progressing from there.
Whatever the case, by the 18th century, particularly in places like England, such practices were definitely around and relatively common. For example, in London it was common to allow the condemned to enjoy a meal with various guests, generally including the executioner, on the eve of the execution. Further, there is record of Newgate Prison death row inmates being allowed to stop at a pub on their march to their death at the Tyburn Fair gallows. At the pub, they would typically share drinks with their guards and executioner.
Over in Germany, perhaps the best documented case of the food practice around this time was that of Susanna Margarethe Brandt of Frankfurt. On January 14, 1772, Brandt, a poor servant girl, was executed for allegedly killing her newborn child. Eight months before this murder, she’d become pregnant by a journeyman goldsmith who she never saw again after they had sex. She subsequently successfully hid her pregnancy all the way to the eighth month when she gave birth secretly and alone in a laundry room on August 1, 1771. Unfortunately, when the baby came out, whether because newborn babies are insanely slippery or she just failed to realize it was about to drop, it fell from her and smacked its head against the stone floor. The child then, according to her, wheezed momentarily and then ceased to breathe. Brandt subsequently panicked, hid the baby in a stable and fled the scene. However, having no money or means to support herself, the next day she returned to Frankfurt where she was eventually arrested for murdering the child. Whether she did or not, and even if it would have survived anyway given it was premature, is a matter of debate even today, but she was nonetheless convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.
Shortly before her execution, however, she was the guest of honor at what has been dubbed the “Hangman’s Meal”- a rather large feast prepared for the condemned and various officials who had condemned her. If you’re curious, the meal in this case supposedly was “three pounds of fried sausages, ten pounds of beef, six pounds of baked carp, twelve pounds of larded roast veal, soup, cabbage, bread, a sweet, and eight and a half measures of 1748 wine.” Of course, the young Susanna reportedly ate none of it, merely drinking a little water as the officials feasted around her. Not long after, her head was lopped off.
Moving over to the United States where the idea of the “last meal” is perhaps best known today, it would appear this tradition did not initially jump across the pond when Europeans began setting in the Americas. Or, at least, surviving accounts of executions don’t seem to mention such courtesies, with some exceptions usually having to do with drink or something to smoke. For example, in 1835, the New York Sun reported shortly before his execution, murderer Manuel Fernandez requested and was granted a bit of brandy and some cigars, courtesy of the warden at Bellevue prison.
As the 19th century progressed, this sort of thing became more and more reported, as did eventually the practice of granting last meal requests, which by the early 20th century became quite common.
This all leads us to why. Well, as far as more historic cases, such as the early known instances in Europe, it’s generally hypothesized that people did it as a way for officials and executioners to more or less say to the prisoners “We’re going to kill you, but it’s nothing personal.” In essence, offering a bit of kindness to the condemned before their death with the prisoners themselves seemingly appreciating the courtesy, at least when it came to the alcohol.
On that note, it’s widely reported from this that the practice was instituted as a way to ensure the ghosts of the executed would feel friendly towards their condemners and executioners and thus not come back and haunt them, but we couldn’t find any primary documentation backing such a notion.
Whether that’s true or not, moving on to more modern times, the underlying reason why prison officials started doing this is not any better documented and there doesn’t ever seem to have been any laws requiring it, for instance. It’s just something people did on their own and the idea spread, presumably thanks to the media’s then love of reporting everything about the last hours of those being executed, and the general public eating it up across the nation.
Whatever the case, law professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore, co-author of Cold (Comfort?) Food: The Significance of Last Meal Rituals in the United States, posits of all this,
Last meals may be an offering by the guards and prison administrators as a way of seeking forgiveness for the impending execution, signaling that ‘it’s nothing personal.’… There are standard operating procedures that put up a wall between guards and prisoners, but nevertheless, there is a fondness between them… The last meal as a tradition is really a way of showing humanity between the caregivers of people on death row who are completely powerless and who come to care about these people — they feel complicit, and conflicted. The last meal is a way to offer, in a very, very small way, a show of kindness and generosity.
On this point, she also notes from her research, “The most generous meals correlate to the states that execute the most people — except for Texas…”
Texas, of course, having executed about 1,300 people in the last two centuries and trending the opposite of everyone else- actually increasing the number of executions in recent decades. For reference here, they’ve conducted 562 executions (almost half their couple century total) since 1982- apparently doing their best to adhere to the supposed 13th century Papal decree at the Massacre at Béziers, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” This translates to, “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” Or to put it in the form that is apparently Texas’ state motto- “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” (Joking asside, Texas’ state motto is actually the single word- “friendship”, owing to the fact that the name of the state derives from the Caddo word for “friends” or “allies”.)
On the note of Texas, last meals, and being friendly, in 2011 Senator John Whitmire very publicly pushed for an ultimately got the special meal requests for those about to be executed abolished, at least officially. He noted of this, “It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege… enough is enough… If you’re fixing to execute someone under the laws of the state because of the hideous crime that someone has committed, I’m not looking to comfort him… He didn’t give his victim any comfort or a choice of last meal.”
That said, proponents on the other side of that argument generally state that part of the point of offering such courtesies is to demonstrate that while the state is killing someone on behalf and with the express consent of the public as a whole, if it’s not done in a humane way, the public and the state are no better than the person being killed. As Professor Kathy Zambrana of the University of Florida sums up, “It comes down to how do you treat one human being when you’re about to take someone’s life.”
History professor Daniel LaChance of Emory University further chimes in, “These last meals — and last words — show the state is democratic and respects individuality even as it’s holding people accountable. As horrible as the deed they’ve been convicted of [is], the person still has some kind of dignity that we’re acknowledging.”
As to what drew the ire of Senator Whitmire to come against the then almost century old Texas tradition of the last meal, it was the meal request of death row inmate Lawrence Russel Brewer, who was sentenced to death for taking part in the rather horrific and senseless racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr in 1998. So what did Brewer ask for? A couple chicken fried steaks, a triple decker bacon cheeseburger, a beef and cheese omelet, fried okra, a full pound of BBQ, a half loaf of bread, three fajitas, and a meat lover’s pizza. For dessert, he requested a container of Blue Bell ice cream and peanut-butter fudge. To wash it all down, he asked for three root beers.
When the time came, however, he ultimately ate nothing.
This all brings us to whether inmates can actually request and receive basically anything they want. While the media widely reports this is the case, including with this specific example of Brewer, this isn’t correct at all. In fact, in the vast majority of cases where inmates request something elaborate like this, what they actually get is just a simple, one-person version of it.
As famed “death row chef” Brian Price, who prepared well over 100 such meals, states, “The local newspaper would always say they got 24 tacos and 12 enchiladas, but they would actually get four tacos and two enchiladas… They only get items in the commissary kitchen. If they order lobster, they get a piece of frozen pollack. They quit serving steaks in 1994. If they order 100 tacos, they get two or three.”
That said other states and prisons sometimes do it differently. For example, in nearby Oklahoma, they allow the meal to be purchased from a local restaurant if desired, though capping it at … Other states that allow similar, such as Florida, are more generous, allowing for a budget of .
Of course, as you might have guessed from all we’ve said so far, those actually involved in making or acquiring the last meal may or may not pitch in if they so choose to go beyond. For example, in Cottonport, Louisiana, when one unnamed death row inmate requested lobster, the warden at the Angola prison, Burl Cain, went ahead and paid for a full lobster dinner, with Cain then dining with the inmate. You see, much like many historical instances of this sort of thing, before Cain’s recent retirement, he would always extend an invitation to the condemned to have their last meal with him and sometimes other select guests.
Of course, as with Susanna Brandt and Lawrence Brewer, it’s quite common for death row inmates to forgo eating their “last meal”, as the whole impending death thing generally leaves many without an appetite. To try to get around the problem, the so-called last meal is sometimes not actually the last meal at all, with it generally designated the “special meal” by prison officials. Even when it is literally the person’s last meal, it is usually scheduled far enough ahead that they might still be able to eat, but not so far away that they’ll have to go an extended time without eating before their execution. For example, in Virginia the rule is the meal must be served at least four hours before the execution. In Indiana, they go even further with the special meal often coming a few days before the big show, in a time when the person can actually enjoy it on some level.
For those who don’t have an appetite, they often share. For example, in places like Florida, in certain cases family or friends may be allowed to enjoy the meal with the condemned. Some inmates instead donate it to others. For example, in 1951, Raymond Fernandez, one of the “Lonely Hearts Killers” along with his lady love Martha Jule Beck, made a request that his meal be given to another inmate to enjoy.
On a similar note, in the early decades of this tradition in Texas, it was relatively common for the condemned to order and be given large portions of food for their special meal precisely so they could have enough to share with every other inmate on death row in the prison. This extra food request was usually honored by prison officials because it was seen not just as a mercy, but something that helped keep all those on death row in line directly before executions.
That said, not all inmates have trouble eating. Perhaps the most famous case of this was murderer Rickey Ray Rector. After committing two rather senseless murders, he attempted to kill himself by shooting himself in the head. However, he ended up living through the ordeal owing to shooting himself in the temple- a common way to kill one’s self in the movies, but in reality very survivable if medical aid is nearby, with the person effectively having just given themselves a lobotomy.
Despite his rather deficient mental faculties as a result of the whole bullet through the brain thing, Rector was controversially sentenced to death. The issue became even more of a media sensation after the fact when it was learned that while he happily ate his last meal, he chose not to eat the pecan pie that he got with it. Why? He told the guards he was “saving it for later.”
Once again showing the humanity of the guards involved, they went ahead and saved the piece of pie just in case there was a last minute stay of execution.
This all brings us to what prisoners actually usually request for their last meal. While exact fare is rather diverse (for example in one case a person simply requested a “jar of pickles” according to the aforementioned Brian Price), if categorizing this into groups, it often comes down to either things you’d find at McDonald’s or KFC (or literally McDonald’s or KFC meals in many cases), something fancy, or a favorite home cooked meal from the person’s childhood or the like.
As for the first two categories there, it’s noted that the vast majority of death row inmates come from rather impoverished backgrounds, and thus often go with favorite food items they are accustomed to and haven’t gotten while in prison- things like fried chicken, cheeseburgers, french fries, and soda, or the like. That said, some go the other way, picking foods they couldn’t really afford when in the land of the free, or may have never even tried at all, like lobster or filet mignon. As for favorite home cooked meals, the aforementioned Brian Price states when he prepared these meals, he always did his best to make it just as the inmate described, or even potentially getting a specific recipe from the condemned’s loved ones.
Regardless of what camp one goes with, some choose their last meal not on what they necessarily intend to eat, but rather to make a statement.
As for such statements, going back in time a bit in 1963, murderer Victor Feguer requested nothing more than a single solitary unpitted olive for his last meal. He then requested the seed be buried with him in the hopes that it would grow an olive tree as a symbol of peace and rebirth.
On a similar note, one Jonathan Wayne Nobles, who apparently had been on drugs since he was 8 years old living in foster homes, as an adult murdered two women while high on a cocktail of substances. In prison, however, he got off the drugs and became a devout Catholic and, not just model inmate, but model person. As one example, at one point he attempted to save the life of a random woman he heard about who was dying from kidney failure. However, while he did successfully find a doctor willing to perform the procedure to take one of his kidneys out and give it to the woman, it ultimately turned out the pair were did not have matching blood types and the woman died. Doubling down, Nobles later attempted to have all his organs donated after his execution, but this request was denied as Texas did not allow death row inmates to donate their organs. Going back to his last meal request, he simply asked for the Eucharist (communion).
To end on a lighter note- well… relatively speaking…- in the 1940s Wilson De la Roi, who murdered a man while in prison, was slated to be killed via a somewhat newly minted poison gas chamber in San Quentin. When asked what he wanted for his last meal, he merely requested a bunch of indigestion tablets. When asked why, he stated that he felt sure he was soon to have rather severe case of gas…
The “Charge of the Light Brigade” has become shorthand for a military disaster, especially one that is filled with heroics but is still a catastrophe. In the actual Charge of the Light Brigade, approximately 670 men rode into the teeth of Russian artillery because their officers didn’t understand their orders and didn’t want to talk to one another.
Yes, one of history’s most famous military failures was caused by officers who couldn’t get along.
The Crimean War was fought by Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire against Imperial Russia between Oct. 1853 and Mar. 1856. The Battle of Balaclava in late 1854 took place in a mountainous area. Two valleys, known as the North Valley and the South Valley, ran east-to-west across the battlefield and were split by the Causeway Heights which contained a road.
The road was key to the movement of supplies and communications for the allied forces and the Turks were constructing redoubts to guard it. On Oct. 25, the Russians attempted to capture the road and the incomplete redoubts. A large cavalry force bore down on the Turks who retreated soon after.
The British commander, Lord FitzRoy Somerset, the First Baron of Raglan, saw this take place from his headquarters to the west of the valley. Lord Raglan sent orders for British infantry to move from the hills into the valley and for the British cavalry, who were camped in the valley, to move against the Russian cavalry.
The British cavalry Heavy Brigade under Lord George Bingham, Earl of Lucan, managed to turn the Russian attack and even sent the Russians past the Light Brigade, but the Light Brigade failed to attack the exposed Russians. The Russian cavalry dropped back to the abandoned Turkish redoubt and began attempting to capture the naval guns positioned there.
The British senior commanders were angry that the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord James Brudenell of Cardigan, had failed to attack and were worried about the potential loss of valuable cannons. Lord Raglan sent orders for the cavalry to attack the Russians before the Russians could carry away the guns. Since the infantry was still making its way to the valley, the cavalry would be on their own.
Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.
This would have been a valuable use of cavalry in what was an accepted practice at the time. Cavalry riding against artillery would have been able to close the gap between themselves and the enemy guns quickly, giving the enemy just enough time for one or two shots from the cannons. Once the cavalry reached the guns, they could have cut the gun crews to ribbons with their sabers.
Even better for the British, these were Russian cavalrymen retreating with Turkish guns. Chances are, they wouldn’t have attempted to fire the cannons at all, abandoning them or dying in their attempt to remove them.
But, Lord Raglan worded his orders with the assumption that Cardigan knew the Turkish cannons were being carried away. From their positions on the valley floor, neither Cardigan nor Lucan could see the former Turkish positions. When the order to attack came, they didn’t know what Russian guns they were being told to attack.
This is where a quick conference between the commanders or clearly written orders would have saved everything. But Raglan and Airey provided unclear orders and the courier who carried the orders may have indicated the wrong target for attack. Cardigan and Lucan, the two cavalry commanders, hated each other. (Cardigan had married Lucan’s sister but the couple later separated, embarrassing Lucan.)
So, Lucan simply passed the order to Cardigan and the cavalry mounted for an attack. Instead of attacking the retreating cavalry and regaining the Turkish naval guns, Cardigan led the Light Brigade into the North Valley in an attempt to attack Russian artillery at the eastern end of it.
The attacking cavalrymen made it most of the way through the valley in two ranks before the Russians opened up with the 30 cannons in the main battery. Immediately after those cannonballs punched holes through the lines, additional Russian artillery placed on either side of the valley fired into the still-charging cavalrymen. Then, Russian infantry that was formed in ranks on the hill added musket fire to the mix.
The Heavy Brigade was behind the Light and realized that the attack into the Northern Valley was a mistake. Lucan turned the Heavy Brigade around as the Light Brigade continued charging in. Despite heavy losses, the Light Brigade made it to the Russian guns and infantry ranks and began slicing through their enemies.
Surprisingly, the Charge of the Light Brigade was costly but initially successful.
They pushed past the cannons and forced a massive retreat of panicked Russians.
The Light Brigade formed up and were preparing to kill the rest of the gun crews and advance when they realized that the Heavy Brigade had not followed them in. Without the Heavy Brigade, the British were vastly outnumbered. With the Russians forming up for a counterattack, the Light Brigade was forced to retreat back through the valley.
The retreat of the Light Brigade was soon interrupted by Russian cavalry attacks that attempted to hold them in the valley. As the horsemen on each side clashed, Russian artillery crews that had withdrawn from their guns returned to position and began firing grapeshot and cannon into the Light Brigade, killing more men and horses.
Luckily for the English, the French cavalry took it upon themselves to attack Russian positions on the north side of the valley, reducing the cannon fire coming down.
Still, of the approximately 670 men who rode forth with the Light Brigade, 110 were killed and 160 wounded. The brigade also lost 375 horses and the Turkish guns were captured from the hills and later paraded by the Russians in Sevastopol.
The joke came on Aug. 11, 1984. Reagan was in the middle of a re-election campaign, and so he had a big announcement planned for his weekly radio address to America. He was going to be at his ranch in California, and so he asked National Public Radio engineers to do the address from there. They agreed.
But they weren’t the only ones who had heard the remarks. The audio was already being sent to some of the radio stations that would broadcast the remarks, and those stations were recording the feed in case they missed the start of the presidential address.
And not all of them were part of the agreement to hold recordings not meant for broadcast. Someone leaked the audio.
Most of the world got that it was a joke and the punditry class took on its typical role of either condemning or praising the remarks. Most condemned, especially in those countries in Europe that Russia’s missiles could reach. The Soviet Union was also predictably, not a fan.
But one group of Soviet soldiers weren’t entirely sure that it was a joke. There were reports of a low-level Soviet commander putting his troops in Vladivostok on a wartime footing on August 13, in the belief that America really was going to war with the Soviet Union.
In November 1978, 909 members of a fanatical cult died — killing themselves and their children using a cyanide and Valium-laced grape drink — to make a political statement: they would die on their own terms in a “revolutionary suicide.” It would be the largest single loss of civilian life until the September 11th terror attacks.
The People’s Temple, as the cult was called, was founded by Jim Jones, a former monkey salesman and self-ordained minister in 1950s Indianapolis. He later moved the church to California. There, the size of the cult grew to around 20,000.
With that growth, Jones became a public figure and fled to the South American country of Guyana to escape the negative press surrounding the People’s Temple. Jones faced accusations of financial fraud and child abuse and sought to escape what he thought was the persecution from U.S. intelligence agencies.
More than 1,000 members went with him.
Jones and his cult founded Jonestown, an agricultural cooperative on 4,000 acres of poor soil and limited access to fresh water. Temple members worked long days and were punished for disobeying Jones’ orders. They were allowed limited contact with friends and family. Jones even confiscated their passports.
Toward the end of the Jonestown experiment, Jones became inceasingly paranoid as his mental state broke down. Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate allegations that his contituents’ loved ones were actually hostages there. People’s Temple members asked to return home with the Congressman, who took them back to his plane.
That’s when tragedy struck.
After arriving at the airstrip that took Congressman Ryan to the People’s Temple collective, Jones’ armed thugs gunned down the contingent, along with members of the press and some of the defectors. At the same time, Jones was distributing the poisoned punch (which was actually Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid, as the saying goes) to the cult members.
An aerial view of the bodies of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. U.S. Army personnel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina (NC), are placing the remains into body bags. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Nov. 20, 1978.)
There is evidence that those who didn’t want to imbibe were forced to drink the punch. Jones himself was found dead with a bullet in his head, among the other 900+ bodies.
Within hours of learning about Congressman Ryan’s death, the U.S. State Department received assistance from the 437th Military Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Charleston C-141 Starlifters led what would be “the most unusual airlift operation since the Berlin Airlift.”
Col. Bruce M. Durvine, vice commander of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing, and members of the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron carry boxes of plastic body bags to an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter for use in the evacuation of bodies from Jonestown. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Jonestown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Air Force Combat Controllers were the first American forces on the ground, securing the airstrip area, providing security, and operating the airspace. The Starlifters had to be staged more than 150 miles away from the dirt airstrip where Ryan’s body was found because they were too large for the field.
The military Aeromedical Evacuation Team repatriated eight wounded survivors from the area. It wasn’t until November 20th that Guyanan Defense Forces could reach the Jonestown Compound. The small contingent was overwhelmed by what they found there and asked the Americans to take over.
A U.S. Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter from the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron stands by to assist in the removal of the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jonestown victims’ bodies were to be airlifted to Dover Air Force Base, but first they had to be moved by three HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters to the Starlifter staging area. There were so many bodies, the Air Force ran out of remains transfer cases.
U.S. Army UH-1 Iroquois helicopters are loaded aboard a C-141 Starlifter aircraft for transport back to their home base in the Canal Zone. The helicopters were used during humanitarian relief efforts following the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
“Stacked like cordwood,” the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition. It took 30 helicopter sorties carrying 30 bodies each to get the remains to the Starlifters for transport. Each C-141 could handle 81 remains cases — as long as they were stacked on pallets.
The stench of death in the helicopters was so bad, they were deemed medically unsafe. Task Force personnel who handled the bodies burned their clothing on the runway at the end of the mission.
U.S. military personnel place a body bag containing the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy in a coffin for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Pedro J. Gonzalez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jeff Brailey, the Army medic who entered Jonestown, wrote a book about his experience, “The Ghosts of November.”
Aircraft carriers are the largest warships on the sea, and the U.S. Navy’s carriers are considered the world’s most elite. They’re so big they have their own ZIP code, and their reach and technological sophistication are unrivaled across the world.
On this date 96 years ago, the first aircraft carrier – the USS Langley – was commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier had been converted from the collier USS Jupiter, which was the Navy’s first surface ship propelled by electric motors.
The Wright connection
Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting was the Langley’s executive officer. He was a submarine commander turned aviator who was one of the last to take personal training from famed aviator Orville Wright, one of the two brothers credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first airplane.
The Langley was named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor who eventually became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also a massive aviation enthusiast. Ironically, Langley had the same spirit as the famed Wright brothers, but never quite had their success. He built his own airplane that he tried on several occasions to launch off ships.
While he didn’t succeed, he did inspire the Navy’s desire to launch and land aircraft from ships at sea. Sailors took up where he left off.
USS Langley’s career
The Langley was built primarily for testing and experimentation for seaborne aviation in the Pacific. It became the test platform for developing carrier operation techniques and tactics, notably helping the Navy learn to better land and launch aircraft more quickly.
Fifteen years after its commissioning, in 1937, the Langley was reclassified as a seaplane tender because newer aircraft carriers were available. It stayed stationed in the Pacific to support seaplane patrols and aircraft transportation services during the early months of World War II.
On Feb. 27, 1942, the Langley was transporting U.S. Army P-40s off the coast of Indonesia when it was attacked by nine Japanese dive bombers. The escorting destroyers surrounding the carrier tried their best to help, but it wasn’t enough. The Langley’s crew was ordered to abandon ship, and the escort destroyers eventually torpedoed the Langley so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
More fun facts
• Despite being an aircraft carrier, the Langley didn’t have a control tower – now known as “the island” – as the modern-day carriers do.
• It was nicknamed the “covered wagon” because its flight deck, which covered the entire ship, resembled a giant canopy.
• The first plane launch from the flight deck of the Langley was Oct. 17, 1922. The first landing was nine days later.
At 8:00 p.m. on February 27, 1943, nine Norwegian commandos trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) left their hideout in the Norwegian wilderness and skied several miles to Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant.
All the men knew about their mission was the objective: Destroy Vemork’s “heavy water” production capabilities.
Each man carried a cyanide capsule to take if they were captured and wore a British Army uniform so if they were killed and their bodies found, the Germans might spare the local civilians from reprisal killings.
Their mission would be one of the most successful in special-operations history, and it contributed to one of the Allies’ most important goals in World War II: Preventing Nazi Germany from developing nuclear weapons.
The race for an atomic bomb
Within months of the discovery of nuclear fission on December 17, 1938, the military potential of nuclear power became clear, and the race for an atomic weapon was on.
In April 1939, Germany started its nuclear-bomb effort, known informally as the Uranverein, or “uranium club.” It included some of the best scientists in the field, including the men who discovered nuclear fission and Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg.
During their research for a nuclear reactor, the scientists discovered that deuterium oxide, known commonly as “heavy water” because it has a heavier molecular weight than regular water, performed well as a moderator, enabling control over the fission process.
There was only one place in the world capable of producing heavy water on an industrial scale: Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant in southern Norway. The plant’s main purpose was to produce ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer; heavy water was actually a byproduct.
In January 1940, German officials asked to buy all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water stock and if it was possible to increase the plant’s monthly output 10-fold to meet German demand.
This caught the attention of the French, who were experimenting with nuclear physics themselves and pursuing heavy water. Worried about German intentions, agents from the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military-intelligence agency, secured all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water for France on March 9.
It was only a temporary setback for the Nazis. Exactly a month later, Germany invaded Norway and occupied it by early June. Vemork, now under German control, was forced to increase heavy-water production.
Operations Grouse and Freshman
The Allies, unaware of the German nuclear program’s progress, were increasingly worried that Germany may be ahead in the race. Vemork’s heavy-water production was known to be important to the program, and that alone was a good enough reason to take action against it.
Working with the Norwegian Resistance, the SOE created a plan for two teams to be dropped into Norway.
The first, codenamed Operation Grouse, was made up of four SOE-trained Norwegian commandos who would parachute into Norway, conduct reconnaissance, and secure a landing zone for a 34-man team of British commandos, codenamed Operation Freshman, who would land in two gliders and then assault the plant and destroy the 18 electrolysis cells that made heavy water.
On October 18, 1942, Grouse was launched. The team spent the next few weeks trekking to Freshman’s designated landing site, reaching it on November 9. On November 19, Operation Freshman was launched.
But Freshman was a colossal failure. Mechanical difficulties and bad weather caused one of the bombers and the glider it was towing to crash, killing the flight crew and a number of commandos. The second glider’s cable snapped when the bomber towing it aborted the mission, causing it to crash as well.
Survivors from both gliders were found by the Germans and executed as per Hitler’s Commando Order. Forty-one men were lost, security at Vemork was increased, and the Grouse team was stranded and had to fend for itself.
Vemork was still a priority target for the Allies, and a new plan, with a stealthier approach, was developed.
A team of six Norwegian commandos would be dropped into Norway to link up with members of the Grouse team. They would infiltrate the plant, destroy the heavy-water production room with explosives, and escape into the night.
Codenamed Operation Gunnerside, the team parachuted into Norway on February 16, 1943, and linked up with the Grouse team on February 22. On the night of February 27, nine members from both teams set out for Vemork, with one member remaining behind to communicate with the British.
Upon arrival on the outskirts of the plant, they saw that the bridge, the only direct way into the complex, was heavily guarded.
The team had to descend a 328-foot cliff, cross a frozen river, then climb an almost 500-foot cliff before arriving at a fenced railway gate that led into the rear of the complex. They got there at 11:45 p.m. but had to wait for the guards to change shift, eventually cutting their way through the fence after midnight.
Once inside, the team split into two groups. Five commandos took covering positions outside the barracks, bridge, and main gate, while the other four entered the plant. Inside, they encountered only a Norwegian employee, who didn’t resist or raise the alarm.
Explosives were set in the target room, which was in the basement. The team evacuated and waited for the explosion. Because the room was so far underground and the walls were so thick, there was hardly any noise when the bombs went off, allowing the whole team to escape before the Germans found out what had happened.
The operation was a resounding success. The commandos destroyed the electrolysis cells and over 500 kg of heavy water. They managed to escape without firing a single shot or taking any casualties.
The Germans repaired the damage by May, but subsequent Allied air raids prevented full-scale production. Eventually, the Germans ceased all production of heavy water and tried to move the remaining supply to Germany.
In a last act of sabotage, a Norwegian team led by one of the Gunnerside commandos sank the ferry transporting the remaining heavy water on February 20, 1944, although at the cost of 14 Norwegian civilians.
The operations helped foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions, and the Nazis never built an atomic bomb or a nuclear reactor. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945, two months before the US’s bigger and better-resourced Manhattan Project tested the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945.
You would think that nuclear weapons testing and tourism wouldn’t go together. But in fact, tourists who went to Las Vegas to watch the nuclear tests helped fuel the growth of that city in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, the United States carried out over 150 nuclear weapons tests above ground. Some of these tests – particularly the large-scale thermo-nuclear bomb tests like the 1954 Castle Bravo test, which had a 15-megaton yield – were carried out in the Central Pacific. Not exactly accessible to tourists, but well out of the way (an important consideration considering the power of the bombs).
However, in Nevada — where the explosions and subsequent mushroom clouds were visible from Las Vegas — These tests gave that rapidly-growing city’s economy a surprising boost. Many tourists traveled to Vegas hoping they’d see one of these tests take place.
Of course, today, we know about the after-effects of all those explosions, including fallout that leads to cancer and other medical issues for people who were downwind of the nuclear blasts.
Back then, it was seen as just a fancy fireworks display for Sin City residents and tourists on the United States government’s dime. In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was ratified. That ended the era of above-ground testing, and limited the blasts to underground.
The U.S. continued to carry out underground nuclear tests until 1992, when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty curtailed nuke blasts. That treaty, however, has still not been ratified by the Senate. Check out this video from the Smithsonian Channel to learn more about Sin City’s nuclear tourism boom (pun intended).
In the game series Fallout, one of the weapons most coveted by players is a portable mini-nuke launcher that, as you might imagine, is capable of destroying basically anything it touches. It fits perfectly within the game’s theme of roaming across the apocalyptic wasteland, dispensing wanton destruction.
Bethesda, the developers behind Fallout, weren’t just pulling something out of thin air when they designed the digital weapon. In the late 1950s, when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets was lurking around the corner, the U.S. actually created a functioning mini-nuke launcher of their very own.
It was called the M-29 Davy Crockett Weapon System. And the reason it never really made it out of initial testing was because it was probably the most poorly designed weapon system the U.S. military ever thought would work.
The Davy Crockett was a recoilless, smooth-bore gun, operated by a three-man crew, that fired a nuclear projectile. In theory, this weapon gave a small squad the ability to decimate enemy battalions with an equivalent yield of 20 tons of TNT — or roughly the same firepower as forty Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The maximum effective range of the Davy Crockett was about a mile and a half. Anything within a quarter-mile radius of the explosion would receive a fatal dosage of radiation. Anything within 500 feet of the epicenter of the blast would be completely incinerated.
It was so portable that it could either be attached to the back of a Jeep or given to paratroopers for airborne insertion. The weapon technically worked, but not without a bevy of significant problems.
The first major flaw was the aiming. The launcher was flimsy when compared to the immense weight of munitions, so it was prone to toppling over at any moment. It had an unreliable height-of-burst dial, so accurate detonations were nearly impossible. It also didn’t have an abort function, which meant that as soon as it was fired, it’d have to detonate.
To make matters worse, the previously stated half-mile kill radius was only accounted to instant death by radiation. As we’ve learned, being downwind of a nuclear blast almost certainly meant death — maybe not right away, but eventually. So, the three-man crew firing the Davy Crockett, who had at most one mile of safety, could only fire and pray that the winds didn’t turn against them.
For more information on why mini-nukes were an awful idea, check out the video below: