War, Wolf and Who
Some time ago a series of my articles were published in a regular monthly column linking a set selection of dates in history. The series was popular. I'm busy coordinating the articles into book form. As today is 14 April, here are a number of linked events for that date plus three other April dates. To avoid repetition, I've simply indicated the relevant date in brackets.
The three dates for this article are:
1, 14, 23 and 30 April
April has a close connection with warfare, as an unusually large number of wars have started or ended in April and many military leaders have been born in April. Just a few wars that started/ended in April - American Revolution started (Paul Revere’s Ride: April 18-19, 1775) American Civil War (started April 1861, Ended April 1865) and the Second World War (Germany Surrendered in April, 1945).
The latter had a lot to do with the massed forces of the Allies but it was also highly relevant that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide the day after they were married in their Berlin bunker (30).
As a precursor to the Normandy landings, the Allies needed to penetrate the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ and the success of the Allied landings in Sicily depended on a British Intelligence ploy to get the German High Command to shift its forces to Greece. Operation Mincemeat was devised in which the submarine HMS Seraph surfaced off the Mediterranean coast of Spain in 1943 and released a dead man into the sea (30). ‘Major Martin’ was carrying papers showing false invasion plans for Greece. This event was immortalised by the film The Man Who Never Was and was one of the greatest wartime hoaxes ever. It fooled the Nazis, which was the point. [An excellent book, by the way...]
Which was appropriate in the month of April Fool’s Day. Sadly, not all things that happened on this day (1) were foolish or funny.
In 1924 Hitler was sentenced to jail for five years (1) for his participation in the Beer Hall Putsch (essentially, treason), though he only spent nine months there – long enough for his world-shaking ideas to gestate in the form of his book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). And on the same day seven years later, the newly elected Nazis organised a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany, ushering in a series of anti-Semitic laws which eventually culminated in the Holocaust.
A disaster on a vastly smaller scale than the Second World War was the sinking of the British steamer SS Atlantic (1) off Nova Scotia, killing 547 in 1873. Thirty-nine years later RMS Titanic struck an iceberg (14) and sank the next morning.
The same day that the iceberg was struck so was Abraham Lincoln (14) - by a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
Two years later the president’s namesake William Lincoln patented (23) the Zoetrope, a machine which shows animated pictures by mounting a strip of drawings in a wheel and rotating it. And in 1894 the ubiquitous Thomas Edison demonstrated the kinetoscope (14), a device for peep-show viewing utilising photographs that flip in sequence, a precursor of movies.And seventy-five years later to the day (14) at the Academy Awards there was a tie for best actress between Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. Another Oscar winner was Rod Steiger (for In the Heat of the Night in 1967) – he was born on the same day (14) in 1925, sharing the same birthday with Julie Christie (1941), who appeared with him in Dr Zhivago, and Sir John Gielgud, though twenty-one years younger than the illustrious thespian.
On the same day (14) in 1986, that actor who never won an Oscar but became president – Ronald Reagan - ordered bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya, killing sixty people, in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub where a US serviceman was killed.
Yet nature still manages to kill more people than man ever could: on the same day and year as Reagan’s raid (14), 2.2lb hailstones fell on a district in Bangladesh, killing 92. Apparently, these are the heaviest hailstones ever recorded. Bangladesh suffers regularly from natural disasters and April in 1991 was no exception (30) when a tropical cyclone killed about 125,000 people.
Meteorologists can actually save lives these days though this science was in its infancy in 1865 when Robert Fitzroy died (30). He was the captain of HMS Beagle and took Darwin on his trip to the Galapagos where he developed his theory of evolution. Fitzroy became an admiral and was the first to issue ‘weather forecasts’ – and the sea area Finisterre was renamed after him in 2002 for the shipping forecasts. [See my blog on the novel about Fitzroy here]
Definitely less devastating than the Asian tsunami, a modern instance when forecasting didn’t save lives, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1946 near the Aleutian Islands caused a tidal wave that struck the Hawaiian islands (1) and killed 159. Many commentators lay the blame for natural disasters such as these on modern industrialisation. That famous ecologist, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and founder of the modern environmental movement, died (14) in 1964.
The ecological movement has become legitimate these days and has followers worldwide. The same can be said for Esperanto, the constructed language invented by Ludovich Lazarus Zamenhof (14) who died in 1917. He introduced it under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto, hence the name. His intention was to create an easy-to-learn neutral language to supplement other languages, not replace them. It currently has two million speakers.
Certainly Esperanto might have been useful for Columbus if it had been invented in 1492 when he was given his commission of exploration (30). Little did he realise what he’d set in motion. Some 311 years later, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for fifteen million dollars (30).
That’s not a lot of money for such a massive amount of land. The French have probably regretted it ever since. Talking of money, the first UK decimal coins were introduced this month (23) in 1968 in anticipation of the big event three years later.
Decimalisation certainly made calculations easier – especially on the computer which was in its infancy in those days. In fact, the Apple Computer company was formed in 1976 by Jobs and Wozniak (1). Things moved apace after that, of course, yet it was twenty-five years (23) before Intel introduced the Pentium IV processor.
It’s doubtful if modern synthesised music would have been invented without computers. And one of the most famous composers in this field is Morton Subotnick, who was born (14) in 1933 [and it’s pure coincidence that my name is submerged in his!] A composer of the more traditional sort was Georg Friedrich Handel, who died (14) on Subotnick’s birthday in 1759. Two composers with the name Sergei were born in April: Rachmaninoff (1) in 1873 and Prokofiev (23) in 1891.
Prokofiev is famous for many compositions, notably though Peter and the Wolf which has echoes of old vampire stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Sarah Michelle Gellar was born (14) in 1977 and none of the vampire characters would have been possible without the discovery of blood circulation by William Harvey who was born (1) in 1578.
Another William is the first Dr Who, William Hartnell, who died (23) in 1975 though he’s now destined to be remembered for all Time.
Science fiction author Anne McCaffrey, creator of the series of books about the Dragons of Pern, was born (1) in 1926, the same day as the silent movie star of the Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, in 1883. Another actor who featured in science fiction films – Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – was Buster Crabbe, who won Olympic gold medals for swimming in 1928 and 1932. He died this month (23) in 1983.
It would be remiss not to mention that England’s patron saint, St. George, was murdered in 303 AD because of his strong faith (23) and that both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes died on this day in 1616. One wonders what Darwin would have thought about prolific author Edgar Wallace who was born (1) in 1875, the same year as another prolific author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among many other books, Wallace wrote To Have and To Hold (which starred William Hartnell), The Four Just Men and King Kong, which has been remade into a state-of-the-art feature film by antipodean Peter Jackson. Fellow New Zealander Dame Ngaio Marsh was born (23) in 1899 and wrote about Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
The two Edgars - Wallace and Rice Burroughs