Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Halloween is an annual holiday, celebrated each year on October 31, that has roots in age-old European traditions. It originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Around the world, as days grow shorter and nights get colder, people continue to usher in the season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1.
By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday.
All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.
Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.
Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague some celebrations in many communities during this time.
By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.
Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.
The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.
On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.
Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. It began as a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and malevolent, and our customs and superstitions are scarier too. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages, when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into black cats.
We try not to walk under ladders for the same reason. This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptians, who believed that triangles were sacred (it also may have something to do with the fact that walking under a leaning ladder tends to be fairly unsafe). And around Halloween, especially, we try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road or spilling salt.
But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and the living instead of the dead.
In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday—with luck, by next Halloween—be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.
In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.)
Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband.
Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.
Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.
Of course, whether we’re asking for romantic advice or trying to avoid seven years of bad luck, each one of these Halloween superstitions relies on the goodwill of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly.

Source: http://www.history.com

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Rome’s Greatest Enemies – Five People Who Fought Back Against the Empire

At its height, the Roman Empire spanned huge swathes of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Their military prowess, groundbreaking use of strategy and enormous technological advancements allowed them to become a seemingly invincible force. However, there were many instances of individual men and women who tried to stand up to the might of Rome, rallying their countrymen behind them. From daring uprisings to cunning acts of treachery, here are five of Rome’s greatest enemies.


When we think about Rome’s enemies, it’s hard not to come up with one name right away – Hannibal of Carthage. Although – like so many adversaries of the Empire – Hannibal was eventually beaten, his incredible campaign has become one of the most well-known on this list. With a huge army at his back and a remarkable number of elephants in his ranks, he led the Carthaginian forces through the Alps, entering Rome’s territories from the north.
With a shrewd approach to strategy and a powerful military at his disposal, Hannibal posed a real threat to Rome, and won numerous engagements before the tide finally turned against him. Rome worked hard to stall and delay his advance, while slowly weakening his army through numerous small harrying attacks.
Eventually, as the stalemate dragged on, Hannibal withdrew, returning to Carthage to defend it from an imminent attack by Roman general Scipio Africanus. There, at the battle of Zama, Hannibal was decisively defeated, and he fled into exile. Even after he was vanquished, however, the Carthaginian leader is remembered as one of Rome’s greatest and worthiest foes.


Roman Britain was plunged into chaos when the warrior queen Boudicca instigated a bloody uprising. Her husband Prasutagus ruled East Anglian people of the Iceni, and had been allowed to live in peace by the powers of Rome. However, after his death, the Imperial authorities decided that they wanted to control the region directly, and began seizing land and property previously held by local tribes. After confronting them, Roman soldiers flogged Boudicca and her daughters were raped, sparking outrage amongst the British peoples.
Neighboring tribes joined their cause, and the rebel army launched a brutal assault on the occupying Romans. Several key cities and commercial hubs were attacked and burned to the ground, while their occupants were slaughtered. Eventually, in 61 AD, Boudicca’s revolt came to a sudden end at the Battle of Watling Street. A small group of Roman soldiers managed to use the terrain and their own tactical prowess to decimate the much larger rebel army. Seeing her followers massacred, Boudicca retreated and ended her own life shortly afterward with poison. Despite her tragic end, she is to this day considered one of the most courageous enemies of the Empire.

Attila the Hun

Had it not been for a particularly bad nosebleed, history might have taken a very different turn. Attila was the leader of the Hunnic Empire. This union brought together Huns, Alans, Ostrogoths and many other groups in one confederation, and during Attila’s lifetime he managed to make enormous inroads into Roman-occupied territory, particularly in Eastern Europe. After an attempted assassination attempt, backed by the Roman authorities, Attila was infuriated and pushed even harder into Europe. The Hunnic forces drew steadily closer to Rome itself, and things looked grim for the capital.
Attila’s armies eventually entered the Italian peninsula itself, but there a major problem presented itself. Rome had suffered through a particularly bad harvest the year before, and this had been made even worse by the initial ravages of the Huns. This meant that the invading army had little access to resources and food, and could replenish their supplies as they advanced. Attila withdrew, and died soon afterwards. On his wedding night, the man who almost conquered the heart of the Roman Empire suffered a sudden nosebleed and choked to death on his own blood.


Although his insurgency ended in defeat at the Siege of Alesia, Vercingetorix is remembered as a bold military leader and a great unifier for his countrymen. Julius Caesar had pursued a strategy of “divide-and-conquer” in Gaul, sowing descent and separatism amongst the local tribes. Some factions he favoured over others, supplying them with extra resources and financial support, and for some time he was able to keep the Gauls subdued. As a result of this, when Vercingetorix tried to instigate a revolt, he was cast out of his tribe. He managed to gather support elsewhere in the country, however, and soon launched a number of attacks on Roman-occupied cities and settlements.
Although Rome had an edge in numbers and equipment, Vercingetorix used his native terrain to his advantage. Whenever this wasn’t enough, he would retreat swiftly from the Roman advance, burning the crops as he went to and depriving his enemies of any fresh resources. In the end, however, he was unable to gain significant ground against the Romans, and was forced to withdraw to the city of Alesia. Here, in the autumn of 52 BC, Vercingetorix surrendered, to avoid any more of his countrymen dying. Some of his followers were allowed to live, although many more were put to death. The rebel leader himself was held prisoner in the city of Rome, only to be executed six years later.


Once a friend to Rome, Arminius became a hated enemy of the Empire after he betrayed them in the battle of Teutoburg Forest. Although originally from Germania, he was raised as a captive of the Romans, and as such received a military education, citizenship and a title of nobility. After years spent training to be a Roman commander, he returned to his native land and put a devastatingly effective plan into action. He sent word that a rebellion was breaking out, and requested help. Rome sent a large detachment of men through Teutoburg Forest to aid the man they thought of as one of their own.
The line of soldiers was stretched out as the moved through the trees, leaving them vulnerable, and Arminius chose this moment to spring a deadly trap. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Roman soldiers died there, including their general Varus, who threw himself on his own sword. Rome was outraged by the betrayal and attempted to stage numerous counterattacks, but the Battle of Teutoburg Forest became a turning point in history, and they never manage to reclaim the Germanic territories.

Source: https://www.warhistoryonline.com

Seeking eternity: 5,000 years of ancient Egyptian burial

The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. (Margaret Maitland)

Evidence of ancient Egyptian belief in life after death emerged as early as c4500 BC. Over the following millennia, the Egyptians’ preparations for eternal life changed significantly, with different styles of tombs, evolving mummification practices, and a wide variety of funerary objects. 
Egypt’s dry climate, secure geographic position, and wealth of resources means that we have been left with an abundance of evidence about burial practices. In the early 19th century, Europe’s race to uncover ancient Egyptian mummies and treasures amounted to little better than tomb looting. However, recently the archaeological recording of burials and a systematic approach to their study have made it possible to make sense of Egypt’s changing funerary traditions.
An upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial, charts the development of burial in ancient Egypt, and examines one of the first tombs to be excavated and recorded in detail: a tomb that was used and reused for more than 1,000 years.

An eternal holiday

The ancient Egyptians saw the afterlife as a potential extension of their lives on earth – but an idealised version, almost an eternal holiday. Preparations for the afterlife are first evidenced in prehistoric Egypt (c4500–3100 BC) by the placement in burials of pots containing food and drink for the deceased. Through this period an increasing number of provisions were placed alongside the dead, such as stone or pottery vessels, eye makeup palettes, flint tools, and beads. 
In this early period, the dead were buried in pits, usually laid facing west, towards the setting sun. Throughout ancient Egyptian civilisation, the sun held particular importance. To reach the afterlife, the Egyptians hoped to join the sun god, who set every evening and was reborn at dawn each morning on his eternal journey. The pyramids built to house the tombs of Egyptian kings evoke the descending rays of the sun – a stairway to heaven – and were often given names with solar associations, such as ‘King Snefru Shines’. The Great Pyramid was named ‘The Horizon of King Khufu’. 
Some of the earliest detailed information about Egyptian beliefs comes from the first funerary texts, inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers in royal pyramids around 2400–2250 BC. These were magic spells intended to protect the king’s body, and to reanimate it after death in order to help him ascend to the heavens. Some spells were intended to be recited at the funeral, while others were written in the first-person, to be spoken by the deceased king addressing the gods. 
These pyramid texts reveal that, as well as wishing to join the sun god, the deceased hoped to become like the god Osiris. According to myth, Osiris was the first king of Egypt. He was the first person to be mummified and brought back to life after death, thus becoming ruler of the afterlife. This dual system of afterlife beliefs, relating to both solar and Osirian rebirth, was to characterise burial through the rest of ancient Egyptian history.

Inside the tomb

The tomb itself was intended help magically transform the dead into a semi-divine being like Osiris. Pyramids and royal tombs even had associated temples in which the king would be worshipped as a god after his death. Wealthy individuals had a decorated tomb-chapel – a public part of the tomb above ground, separate from the actual burial chambers – where relatives could visit to remember the deceased, and priests could make offerings and recite prayers. 
In prehistoric burials, bodies were sometimes preserved naturally through the dry heat of the desert sand. The earliest active attempts to preserve human bodies involved wrapping the dead in resin-soaked linen, but the first real mummification took place during the pyramid age, or Old Kingdom (c2686–2134 BC). The body was dried using natron, a naturally occurring mixture of salts, and wrapped in linen. Sometimes the internal organs, the parts most likely to decay, were removed and mummified separately. The Egyptians believed that a person’s soul had the potential to leave the body to enjoy the afterlife, but it needed the preserved body as a resting place to return to each night.
During the Middle Kingdom (c2030–1800 BC), the funerary spells originally written inside royal pyramids began to appear on the coffins of priests and high officials. God of the afterlife Osiris also grew in importance. Rectangular coffins were slowly replaced by anthropoid coffins that depicted the deceased holding royal regalia, transformed into Osiris to ensure their resurrection. Wooden models depicting food and craft production were initially introduced to burials to magically provide for the dead and transfer their wealth and status into the afterlife. These developed into funerary figurines called shabtis, initially intended to act as a substitute for the deceased, in case they were called up by conscription to perform physical labour in the afterlife.
A major change in royal burial came In around 1530 BC, after a period of foreign occupation, when Egypt was reunified under the rule of a king from Thebes. Burial traditions in Thebes favoured rock-cut tombs in the cliffs on the west bank of the Nile, so royal pyramids were abandoned in favour of tombs hidden in the Valley of the Kings.
This period, the New Kingdom (c1550–1069 BC), marked the height of the ancient Egyptian empire. The civilisation was extremely wealthy; a fact reflected in the hundreds of tombs constructed by officials opposite the capital city of Thebes. In addition to magical items produced specifically for burial, such as coffins, canopic jars, and shabtis, the prosperous now wanted to take their wealth with them. They filled their tombs with all the beautiful things that they enjoyed in life, from jewellery to furniture. Another new innovations of this time was the Book of the Dead, a collection of magical spells developed out of the texts written inside royal pyramids almost 1,000 years earlier. For the first time, these spells were written and illustrated on papyrus scrolls, shrouds and amulets for the wealthy to take with them to the afterlife.

A change in fortune

As Egypt lost control of its empire and became politically unstable (c1069–650 BC), the country fractured between the north and south and eventually succumbed to foreign rule. This change in fortune meant that people looked to cut costs in their burials – the people of Thebes could no longer afford to build new tombs and fill them with lavish burial goods. Since wood was scarce and expensive, a new form of mummy-case made from linen and plaster (cartonnage) was invented. Old tombs were reused and recycled. A number of objects excavated in the tomb featured in our exhibition reveal that it was reused by several individuals during at least two different time periods between 800 and 650 BC.
With widespread tomb looting and reuse, Egyptians worried that organs stored in canopic jars might become separated from the body. The integrity of the body was important, so internal organs were mummified individually and then returned to the body. Canopic jars were technically no longer needed, but some people still made solid dummy canopic jars for the sake of tradition and symbolic protection.
Objects from daily life were generally no longer placed in the tomb; instead the focus was entirely on magical items made specifically for burial. Originally just one single shabti figurine had been placed in the tomb, but this number quickly grew (as quality decreased significantly), eventually becoming a workforce for the afterlife.
Over time, funerary objects like shabtis and canopic jars began to disappear, and even coffins became rare. By the time Egypt became part of the Roman empire in 30 BC, burials were focused entirely on the body itself; the most commonly used burial items were shrouds and either a mask or classical-style portrait placed over the face of the mummified person. The realism of classical portraiture may have appealed to those wishing to preserve the body and bring the dead back to life: in a portrait, they appeared alive again. On the other hand, traditional practices invoked ancient magic: gilded mummy masks aimed to make the dead semi-divine, based on an age-old belief that the skin of the gods was made of gold.
The final reuse of the tomb featured in our exhibition was by an important Egyptian family who lived under the last pharaonic ruler Cleopatra and witnessed the conquest of Egypt by the first Roman emperor. The burials of the high-official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat can be dated specifically to 9 BC, by inscriptions on their funerary papyri. Unlike the earlier standardised Books of the Dead, these were personalised with vignettes about the couple, attesting to the virtuous lives they had led. The new Roman influences in this era are evident in the gold and copper wreath Montsuef’s body wore over a traditional gilded mask, a classical symbol of victory re-interpreted as a symbol of triumph over death.
Montsuef’s funerary canopy is an amazing object – completely unprecedented in the history of Egyptian burial. Yet other elements of it are entirely traditional, such as its Egyptian temple shape, royal cobras and winged sun-disk motifs. Like other objects from this period, it demonstrates how much Egypt was being transformed by external influence, but also just how determined the Egyptians were to hold onto their traditions in their pursuit of the afterlife. While shrouds decorated with ancient Egyptian symbols were produced until around the late third century AD, with the introduction of Christianity to Egypt, followed by Islam, burial practices that had lasted thousands of years were finally abandoned. Nevertheless, the ancient Egyptians still live on today, given eternal life through their extraordinary burial objects.

The final reuse of the tomb featured in our exhibition was by an important Egyptian family who lived under the last pharaonic ruler Cleopatra and witnessed the conquest of Egypt by the first Roman emperor. The burials of the high-official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat can be dated specifically to 9 BC, by inscriptions on their funerary papyri. Unlike the earlier standardised Books of the Dead, these were personalised with vignettes about the couple, attesting to the virtuous lives they had led. The new Roman influences in this era are evident in the gold and copper wreath Montsuef’s body wore over a traditional gilded mask, a classical symbol of victory re-interpreted as a symbol of triumph over death.
Montsuef’s funerary canopy is an amazing object – completely unprecedented in the history of Egyptian burial. Yet other elements of it are entirely traditional, such as its Egyptian temple shape, royal cobras and winged sun-disk motifs. Like other objects from this period, it demonstrates how much Egypt was being transformed by external influence, but also just how determined the Egyptians were to hold onto their traditions in their pursuit of the afterlife. While shrouds decorated with ancient Egyptian symbols were produced until around the late third century AD, with the introduction of Christianity to Egypt, followed by Islam, burial practices that had lasted thousands of years were finally abandoned. Nevertheless, the ancient Egyptians still live on today, given eternal life through their extraordinary burial objects.
Source: http://www.historyextra.com

Britain's island weapon: Malta in the Second World War

Squadron Leader JJ Lynch sits in his Spitfire in April 1943 after shooting down

Dusk, Saturday, 24 May 1941. Some 40 miles east of the southern tip of Sicily, the crew of a lone British submarine, Upholder, were preparing to attack an Axis convoy of four troop ships and five destroyers. The odds were stacked against them: there was quite a swell, which made both observation and balance difficult, they had just two torpedoes left, and their ASDIC – or sonar – was out of order. Worse still, if they did attack, the chances of being caught by the destroyers was high.
Despite these handicaps, Upholder’s 29‑year-old commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander David Wanklyn, decided to press home the attack. His plan was to make the most of the fading light and get as close as possible. So, despite the sea sluicing against the periscope, they manoeuvred towards the convoy steaming towards them. Upholder was now so close, she was almost rammed by one of the close-escort destroyers. With the second in command, Lieutenant ‘Tubby’ Crawford, frantically trying to keep the submarine steady, and with Wanklyn preparing to fire, another of the destroyers suddenly loomed in front of the periscope. Rapidly diving, they avoided collision by a hair’s breadth.  
They were now inside the destroyer screen, a decidedly unhealthy place to be, but despite the danger, quickly pressed home the attack. No sooner had they fired point-blank at the largest troop ship, the track was spotted and the alarm signalled. It was too late for the Italian ship, which was struck with a massive explosion and began to sink rapidly.
Immediately diving, the crew of Upholder now faced a harrowing ordeal.  Avoiding the depth charges of five determined destroyers steaming after them at 10 times their own speed required nerves of steel. 
 They were depth-charged 37 times over the next 20 minutes, the submarine often shaking and rolling with the blasts. “It was,” Crawford admitted, “a little hairy.” Somehow, they avoided their attackers, and when, several hours later, they finally surfaced once more, the sea was clear. Only an oily smell hung on the breeze, all that remained of the 18,000-ton Conte Rosso. Of the 2,729 troops on board, 1,300 had perished with the ship.
Upholder now set sail for Malta. The Conte Rosso was the third enemy vessel they had sunk during that patrol, and Wanklyn was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action. A year on, when she left Malta for the last time, Upholder had accounted for some 119,000 tonnes of enemy shipping.  
It was this harrying of Axis shipping throughout much of the north African campaign that made Malta such a vital outpost. The Upholder was part of the Malta-based 10th Submarine Flotilla, and although never more than 14 in number, these submarines, along with RAF bombers, two Fleet Air Arm squadrons, and the Malta-based cruiser and destroyers of Force K, caused havoc among Axis supply lines to north Africa.
Malta is a small island – smaller than the Isle of Wight – but it lies at the very heart of the Mediterranean and just 60 miles south of Sicily. This made it a key strategic asset for the British, but at 840 miles from Alexandria and over 900 from Gibraltar, it was also isolated and vulnerable. Before the war, both the RAF and army believed Malta was untenable, and only the Royal Navy, who since Nelson’s day had used it as the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet, believed it worth holding on to.  The navy’s view held sway, but in the event, the Mediterranean Fleet moved to Alexandria before Italy entered the war in June 1940.
At that moment, with France almost beaten and Britain facing up to possible invasion, few believed Malta could hold out; certainly, in June 1940, the island’s defences were minimal to say the least, with woefully few guns and just a handful of obsolete biplanes. 
Fortunately for the British, Italy’s war leaders regarded a seaborne invasion as unfeasible at that time, and her navy and air force lacked the will or determination to press home the attack.  As Britain held firm against the Luftwaffe at home, so the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, urged Malta’s reinforcement. More anti-aircraft guns and Hurricane fighter planes had strengthened the island’s defences considerably by the end of 1940. Italy had missed her chance.

Luftwaffe flies in

The Luftwaffe briefly joined the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, on Sicily as Germany prepared to send troops to north Africa for the first time. Yet for much of the rest of 1941, attacks against the island were largely left to the Italians. 
Malta in 1941 was undoubtedly a tough posting, with supplies and equipment always short and the defenders battling with now obsolete Hurricanes and the claustrophobia of a small, sun-scorched island. Yet the missed opportunity of the previous summer really came to haunt the Axis as Malta-based submarines, aircraft and ships sunk critical amounts of shipping.
A major problem for the Axis was that, unlike the Allies, the amount of shipping at their disposal was both finite and rapidly diminishing. The Conte Rosso was one of the largest ships sunk in the Mediterranean; Axis ships became smaller and less efficient. There were no vast shipyards in Italy or Greece pumping out merchant vessels as there were in Britain, the United States and the Dominions. 
Field Marshal Kesselring, who became German commander-in-chief south in November 1941, quickly realised that logistics held the key to victory in north Africa. He also recognised that Malta’s offensive power had to be neutralised, and fast, or north Africa would be lost. So he ordered Fliegerkorps (Air Corps) II to be transferred to Sicily where, alongside the Regia Aeronautica, it launched an intensive blitz the like of which had not been seen before. From January to April 1942, some 18,000 tonnes of bombs fell on Malta, more than on London during the entire Blitz. Malta became the most bombed place on Earth.
By the beginning of May 1942, the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been forced to leave the island, not one bomber remained capable of operations, and much of the harbours lay in ruins. Hitler had authorised plans for an invasion of the island, but now, as fortunes turned in favour of Rommel and his Panzerarmee Afrika, he prevaricated, as he had so often done before. Rommel preferred reinforcing victory with an all-out dash to the Suez Canal; Kesselring urged invading Malta first. Rommel, the man of the moment, won the argument. 
It was a catastrophic error. Historians have often tried to belittle Malta’s role, pointing out that the island cost more to maintain than it was worth. This is nonsense. The Allies could afford to do so, and strategically had to – something Britain’s war leaders realised with renewed determination in the first half of 1942. Mark V Spitfires were hastily sent to the island, commanders of higher standing and calibre such as Lord Gort VC and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, hero of the Battle of Britain, were posted to the island. In August, the most heavily defended convoy of the entire war was sent to Malta. 
The price was high, but it was worth it, as German records of shipping losses reveal. Even in June 1942, Malta showed her incredible resilience and speed of recovery as aircraft from the island once again sank crucial amounts of fuel, ammunition, vehicles, rations and even replacement cranes for Axis-held ports.  
These losses continued as the summer rolled into autumn. In August, Rommel lost more than 40,000 tonnes of fuel; in October, that figure was 30,000 tonnes. As Malta’s strength grew once more, so that of the Axis forces in north Africa waned. Bogged down at Alamein with horribly over-extended supply lines, Rommel’s plans were savaged by the supplies ending up on the bottom of the sea. 
Malta’s position also ensured that Axis shipping was forced to take a circuitous route to north Africa, which meant using more fuel and time in getting there. From Malta, Allied reconnaissance aircraft could reinforce the information garnered from German Enigma traffic and so help ensure the code-breakers were not discovered. 
The island was also a staging post for the RAF operating throughout the Mediterranean, and later, the fighter-base for the invasion of Sicily. There would have been no invasion without fighter cover, so the recapture of Malta would have been a prerequisite before any Allied assault on southern Europe.
In other words, Malta was worth more than the sum of its parts. The loss of Malta would not only have denied Britain a crucial offensive base, it would also have handed that capability to the Axis. 
History has accentuated the defence of Malta and her stoic fortitude in resisting one of the most intense aerial assaults of the war. And yet it was her offensive role that played such a crucial part in the Allied success in north Africa. In this, little Malta punched way above her weight.  

The ordeal of Malta

From the start of the siege of Malta, getting supplies through to the island was difficult. Some could be delivered by air, but this accounted for a very small proportion. Realistically, nearly all had to come by sea, and that meant the Mediterranean, which, in all other regards, was closed to British merchant vessels. 
Life was tough on the island in the first 20 months of the siege, yet it was as nothing compared to the summer of 1942. Bombing destroyed flour mills, roads, electricity and water supplies, so that not only was food and water scarce, it was also extremely difficult to distribute. Documents from the chief medical officer on Malta, Dr AV Bernard, have recently been discovered on Malta and they show a bleaker picture than has been traditionally understood, and reveal a quite apparent sense of desperation. “The flushing of lavatory pans after urination to be prohibited,” Bernard orders in one document from May 1942. “Where necessary urinals to be flushed twice a day by a person detailed for such duty.” 
But a month later, an even harder instruction was being issued. “Drinking and washing of hands under running taps to be absolutely prohibited and stringent action taken against offenders.” Washing hands, as we know, is the very basis of medical hygiene, yet such was the shortage it was considered better to risk the spread of disease than use more water than was absolutely necessary. In the second half of 1942, Malta was struck by a series of polio, TB and dysentery epidemics.

Could Britain have done more?  Probably not, although there was one dark stain on the island’s leadership. In March 1942, three ships safely reached Malta, yet despite the critical importance of the supplies they brought, no plan was put in place to use service personnel to help with the unloading. And, despite poor weather and low cloud, for two whole nights, no unloading took place at all. When the skies cleared, the Luftwaffe returned, and sank all three. Just 5,000 tonnes out of 26,000 were eventually salvaged. The next convoy in June failed, so that it was not until the Pedestal convoy in August – the most heavily defended convoy of the entire war – that Malta received any meaningful resupply again. 
Poor planning had led to the catastrophe of the March convoy and Malta’s leaders – the three service chiefs, governor and lieutenant-governor – were to blame. Governor Dobbie was fired soon after, and Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd replaced in July – and not before time.
Source: http://www.historyextra.com

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dunkirk: 6 big questions on a remarkable rescue mission

Three aircraft of No 218 RAF Squadron in flight over northern France

1 Did Hitler let the British get away?

The German order of 23 May to halt the advancing panzers has led to a claim that Hitler deliberately allowed the British to escape – the idea being that avoiding humiliation would make them more willing to accept a peace deal that would free him to turn his attention to the east. This is utter nonsense.
First, it does not make sense. Capturing most of the trained strength of the British Army would have provided a weighty bargaining chip. Second, the claim does not reflect what happened: only one of the two advancing German armies halted (and only for two days, pushing on when it became clear that an evacuation might be under way). The other pressed on and the Luftwaffe continued to attack. If this was an attempt to allow the BEF to escape, it was distinctly half-hearted.

Third, there is a perfectly adequate explanation for the halt order. The German armoured forces were stretched after a long advance and needed a pause to recover, to allow infantry and supplies to catch up, and to prepare for the next stage of the campaign, pushing for Paris and fighting the large French forces to the south. Some German commanders were nervous that their progress had been too good to last, influenced by a minor British counterattack near Arras on 21 May, which raised groundless fears that a larger Allied counterstroke might be imminent. What’s more, Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe, insisted that his force could mop up the remnants of the encircled Allied forces.
Given the understandable assumption 
that their enemies were cornered with nowhere to go, why take a risk pushing on? Even the British did not believe that a large-scale evacuation was feasible, so why would the Germans? 
The decision to halt was a grave error that greatly assisted the British, gifting them time to continue their withdrawal and to strengthen the defences around Dunkirk. This does not mean that it can only be explained by a conspiracy theory.

2 Did the RAF let the army down?

Some of the troops who fought in France bitterly criticised the RAF, not least for what they saw as its lack of effort over Dunkirk. Jibes referring to the ‘Royal Absent Force’ stung – and were quite unjustified.
Many of the RAF’s aircraft were obsolescent and, even alongside its French counterpart, it was badly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. Squadrons from Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm did what they could to resist the onslaught, suffering terrible casualties that saw entire squadrons wiped out. But their activities were often out of soldiers’ sight. 
The troops’ wish to see friendly aircraft overhead was understandable but misconceived. Supporting aircraft might be better employed striking enemy land forces elsewhere, or intercepting their aircraft some distance from the bridgehead. There was also a need to find a balance between committing squadrons to the Battle of France and keeping enough back to defend Britain.
One legitimate criticism is the charge that the RAF placed far too much emphasis on strategic bombing. At this stage, this was far short of achieving what its proponents claimed, and meant that other areas (particularly aircraft co-operating with the army and navy) were short of resources.
However, despatches written by Lord Gort and Bertram Ramsay – high-ranking officers in the army and navy respectively, who were in a better position to appreciate the full picture than the infantry being bombed at Dunkirk – are striking. Both paid tribute to the sacrifice of the RAF, without which the evacuation would have been impossible.

3 Who were the brains behind the operation?

Two men stand out. General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, deserves enormous credit for his calmness in a confusing and disastrous situation, in which he displayed a remarkable ability to grasp what was happening. He turned down a series of flawed proposals for counterattacks, which his French allies were quite unable to carry out, in favour of pulling back towards the coast. Then, when news came of the imminent collapse of Belgium, he took swift action to redeploy his forces, filling a gap through which the Germans would otherwise have poured. 
Bernard Montgomery, a division commander at Dunkirk and future hero of 
north Africa, was not generally free with praise for others. But, in his memoir, he wrote of Gort: “He was a man who did not see very far, but as far as he did see he saw very clearly… It was because he saw very clearly, if only for a limited distance, that we all got away at Dunkirk.”
The other key individual was Bertram Ramsay. Despite officially being on the retired list, at the start of the war Ramsay was appointed Vice-Admiral Dover, a critical command given its position on the English Channel. At Dunkirk, Ramsay proved the merits of that appointment, overseeing, with consummate professionalism, what the Dictionary of National Biography calls “the largest seaborne evacuation ever attempted”. 
Ramsay showed an ability to put together and lead a team in the most trying circumstances, mastering detail yet also able to delegate. Later in the war, he led the 
planning for the D-Day landing. Having rescued the army from the continent, it 
was appropriate that he masterminded its return four years later.

4 How important were the ‘little ships’?

The ‘little ships’ are central to how Dunkirk is remembered and portrayed. They were the more than 700 privately owned vessels that participated in the evacuation, including motor boats, sailing ships and vessels towed across the Channel. They represented the full range of seafaring activities of the nation, including fishing trawlers, cockle boats, yachts, lifeboats, paddle ferries, pleasure cruisers, a fire tender, rubbish barges and vessels owned by the Pickfords removals company. The names tell a story of their own: Lord Collingwood and Lord St Vincent served alongside Yorkshire Lass, Count Dracula and Dumpling.
Their limited capacity for passengers was outweighed by the priceless advantage of a shallow draft, which allowed them to go close inshore to 
pick up the waiting soldiers. 
The image of civilians answering the call to help save the beleaguered army is undeniably a compelling one. It was subsequently exaggerated, just like the contribution of ‘the Few’ in the Battle of Britain. Yet, just like that later example, there was more than a 
kernel of truth to the story.
The little ships’ contribution needs to be put in context. They carried few men all the way home, rather being used to ferry them out to the larger ships. Many were manned by civilian crews, yet there was also a good sprinkling of naval or naval reserve personnel. 
But Churchill’s ‘mosquito armada’ did play an important role. Many 
men would not have got home without them – and they paid a high price, coming under constant attack from the Luftwaffe and having to brave mines, fast tides, fog, and waters cluttered with ever more wrecks. More than 100 were lost, including many that were unidentified. The little ships deserve their place in history.

5 Was Dunkirk really a miracle?

The events of Dunkirk are often described as miraculous. While the fine weather was a remarkable stroke of luck – especially the calm seas, without which evacuation from the beaches would have been impossible – the explanation is for the most part more mundane. The Germans made a major 
mistake in pausing their advance, thereby 
easing the pressure on the bridgehead. While the Royal Air Force was not able to provide air superiority, it did enough to prevent the Luftwaffe from making the operation impossible. Ship losses were high but not sufficient to stop the evacuation. 
The BEF and the French army deserve far more credit than they usually get, for the determined and disciplined way that they fought their way out of the closing trap – while short of food and ammunition, against an enemy with air supremacy, and through roads choked with refugees – and then defended the ever shrinking perimeter long enough for the evacuation to take place. Most of all, though, the operation depended on the effective use of sea power. 
The Royal Navy had inflicted heavy losses on its German counterpart during the Norway campaign a few months earlier. This prevented the Kriegsmarine from interfering with Operation Dynamo (and also denied Germany any real option for invasion in late 1940). The Royal Navy, with great assistance from the merchant navy, then proved able to improvise a remarkably successful evacuation, despite near constant air attack.
Civilian and naval crews (albeit far more of the latter) went back time and again, in difficult circumstances, to bring the defeated army home to fight another day.


6 If the evacuation had failed, would Britain have lost the war?

While the outcome of Operation Dynamo was as great a relief to the government as it was a boost to popular morale, what was its real significance? Some historians have argued that its impact has been exaggerated, that Britain would have fought on 
regardless. This is plausible; the RAF would have been no less ready to fight the Battle of Britain, while the Royal Navy would have been equally well placed to prevent any German 
attempt at invasion.
But Britain’s situation in the summer of 1940 was dire. The defeat and occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium were followed by the collapse of France, Britain’s main ally. Germany was effectively allied with the Soviet Union, Italy now joined their side in the war, and any US entry was a long way off. Worse still, Germany controlled the coastlines of France and Norway, putting it in a far better position to wage war at sea. Britain’s survival was in genuine doubt.

But imagine if Britain had seen another 200,000 troops taken prisoner, losing the bulk of its trained army and the nucleus for its later expansion. This would have represented another heavy blow to its ability – and, crucially, willingness – to face the difficult years to come. At best, the successful campaigns in north Africa and the Mediterranean would have been far more difficult to fight, allowing Germany to invade the Soviet Union earlier, with better prospects for success. Material support from the US would have been slower to come – if it came at all. 
We’ve also got to consider that, while Churchill was resolute about fighting on, his position was far from unassailable. It is conceivable that, if Dunkirk had ended in disaster, his administration could have been toppled and replaced by a government willing to seek the best peace it could negotiate. Dunkirk therefore has to be seen as one of the key turning points of the war. 
Source: http://www.historyextra.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How Did The Vikings Honor Their Dead?

View of Viking burial site Anundshog, in Vasteras, Sweden. (Credit: Rose-Marie Murray/Alamy Stock Photo)
Vikings made their bloody but brief mark on history hundreds of years ago through their nomadic lifestyle and wild practices of raping, pillaging and conquering anything or anyone who crossed their path. These nomads were often seen as savages as they traveled throughout Europe, but the Vikings held a high regard for the life (and death) of their fellow Norsemen.
So how did they honor their dead? Nailing down the exact rituals of Viking funerals is difficult, as they kept few written accounts of their lives and deaths, but thanks to a few remaining accounts, and archaeological remains that have been found throughout much of Europe, it’s possible to resurrect some of their funeral traditions.
Most Vikings were sent to the afterlife in one of two ways—cremation or burial.
Cremation (often upon a funeral pyre) was particularly common among the earliest Vikings, who were fiercely pagan and believed the fire’s smoke would help carry the deceased to their afterlife. Once cremated, the remains also might be buried, usually in an urn.
For both cremated remains and bodies, burial locations ranged widely, from shallowly-dug graves (often used for women and children) to burial mounds that could hold multiple bodies and groupings of mounds or “grave fields” that served much the same role as cemeteries.
In Norse mythology, boats symbolized safe passage into the afterlife on the same vessel that aided their travels in life, so they played a key role in funeral rites. Some grave mounds were built to resemble ships, with stones used to outline the vessel’s shape. For other high-ranked Norsemen, the honors went a step further, and they were buried with their actual boats.

But these types of elaborate boat funerals weren’t reserved for just men. One of the most extravagant boat burials honored two women, who likely died around 834 A.D. Known as the “Oseberg ship,” it’s one of the most well persevered Viking artifacts. While the Vikings were known for the craftsmanship that went into their vessels in general, the size and detail of the Oseberg was exceptional. Seventy feet long and nearly 17 feet wide, the ship had 15 oars on each side, a pine mast more than 30 feet high, and was spacious enough to fit 30 people.
But contrary to popular belief, funeral boats were rarely sent out to sea, likely because the cost of building these legendary longboats was prohibitive. So it’s unlikely that there were many ships that were set sail and then set ablaze by fiery arrows shot from the shores.
Regardless of how the body was disposed of, a few rituals remained almost constant. The body was draped in new clothes prepared specifically for the funeral, and a ceremony was held featuring songs, chants, food and alcohol. Tributes and gifts, known as “grave goods” and usually of equal value to the deceased’s status, were buried or burned along with the recipient. These goods ran the gamut, from weapons to jewelry to slaves. One Viking site in Flakstad, Norway, contained multiple bodies (some decapitated) in a single grave. Based on analysis of their diets and DNA, it was determined that they were likely slaves, who had been sacrificed to spend eternity with their former masters. Women were often taken in as sex slaves as part of Viking culture, so the idea that they would be sacrificed with their master is feasible.
Largest burial site in Scandinavia has over 600 graves dating back to the Germanic Iron Age and the Viking period. Each circle of stones designates a burial site for man who had merit in the community. North of Alborg, Denmark. (Credit: Ted Spiegel/Getty Images)
And according to a report based on accounts from the Middle Ages-traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan, one instance of the funeral of a Viking chieftain included a sacrificial female slave who was forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol, with large amounts of alcohol, then raped by every man in the village as a tribute to the deceased. From there, she was strangled with a rope, stabbed by a matriarch of the village (known as the Angel of Death), then placed in the boat with her master and set on fire.
Source: http://www.history.com