Remembering the wars that never ended

The New Zealand Wars were fought over a generation from 1845 until the early 1870s. Despite the tendency to pin their closing curtain on the last pot-shots fired after the fleeing terror leader Te Kooti A Rikirangi Te Turuki in 1872, reality was not so sharp.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my latest book on the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand of the early 1870s was in a state of turbulent peace. The war in the Waikato of 1863-64 had been a sharp British victory against the Waikato/King Country from a military perspective – but had not been pursued to a final conclusion. The reasons were largely political and economic. Wars were expensive. In order to attack and defeat around 2000 Maori toa (warriors), the British had deployed 10,000 men of their best regiments, gunboats, artillery, naval forces and marines. From the perspective of the Imperial government in London, New Zealand was a sideline. By late 1864 they had taken the declared territory. Maori were unwilling to continue fighting; and even at the height of their Imperial power, the British did not fight wars of annihilation. And so both peoples stood aside.

But they were not at peace, and that was as true in the early 1870s as it had been a decade earlier – even though the separate brush-fire wars of Te Kooti and Titokowaru had essentially ended by then. That was why Matamata resident Josiah Firth built a concrete tower on his property. Today, we know the wars were over. At the time, Firth didn’t.

What happened? My take on it is that Maori switched the focus of combat from the battlefield to the courts and parliament. The drive was led by Ngati Kahungunu, the people of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay). It was warfare of a different kind; an acknowledgement that the colony was there to stay – but that there were still ways of resisting the intrusion. That left the King Country as a semi-independent state; but the government resolved that too. By the early 1880s, key King Country leaders, including  Tawhiao, were prepared to talk peace. But the real enforcement of it did not come until later in the 1880s, when the Main Trunk Line was quite deliberately pushed through the King Country.

I first published that interpretation in 2006, and you can read my latest discussion of it in The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History. Available now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Remembering ROMBUS and days of future passed

They were heady days, the 1960s. Back then nothing seemed too big to engineer on Earth. Or off it.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog's Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

Apollo 11 departs by Saturn V. Public domain, NASA.

When the moon race began in 1961, humanity had barely begun to step into space. But the job was done – twice. The Soviets had a serious programme, but started late, were under-funded, and work was divided between rival bureaux. Then Sergei Korolev died. With him died any chance of their N-1 moon booster working. The US equivalent, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V, won the day.

Both derived from technologies von Braun pioneered in the 1930s. The Saturn V was a direct descendant of the V-2, with the same arrangement of  traditional rocket engines and massive fuel tanks.

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS leaving for Mars, 9 May 1986. Public domain, NASA.

What that added up to was weight. It’s why a conventional single-stage rocket can’t make orbit with useful payload; too much mass is taken up in structure. Von Braun’s Saturn V managed a mass-ratio of 22 because it had three stages. The problem was that each stage was discarded after one use. Costs were astronomical.

However, they weren’t the only way ahead. In 1964, Douglas Aircraft engineer Philip Bono proposed a ‘plug nozzle’ engine that did away with the combustion chamber and complex cooling systems. Fuel (liquid hydrogen) was stored in jettisonable external tanks, with the oxidiser (liquid oxygen) inside the booster.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing, late November 1986. Public domain, NASA.

Bono called it ROMBUS – Reusable Orbital Module-Booster & Utility Shuttle. The design he and his associates came up with was enormous, with a launch mass of just over 6,300 tonnes. That was nearly twice the mass of a Saturn V, but the mass-ratio available in ROMBUS was good enough to fly to orbit in one hit, dropping external tanks along the way. What’s more, it could re-enter using the plug as a heat shield, pumping residual fuel across it as a coolant. And fly again, up to five or six times per booster. It was a different approach from carpeting the bottom of the Atlantic with dead Saturn stages.

Bono calculated that ROMBUS could put 450 tonnes into low Earth orbit, nearly four times that of Saturn V. The Moon was within reach of the system – and then Bono came up with a plan for flying one of his colossal boosters to Mars and back.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the huge ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit. Public domain, NASA.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit, September 1987. Public domain, NASA.

Bono estimated that ROMBUS could be flying by 1975 and drop launch costs to $12-per-pound to orbit, in 1964 terms. That compared wonderfully with the $150/pound of Saturn. Development costs were estimated at nearly $4.1 billion in 1964 dollars, this when the entire Apollo project was budgeted at $18 billion.

Technical issues relating to the plug nozzle would likely have taken some solving. Still, we can imagine the what-if scenarios. Project Selena looked towards a 1000-person lunar colony by 1984, and – providing ways could be found of stopping the cryo-fuels from boiling off during the 800-day mission – Project Deimos would have landed six astronauts on Mars by November 1986.

Bono’s huge rocket was a vision of its age – a vision of the 1960s, a vision of the era before humanity lost the dream, when anything seemed possible. But it never came to pass – and I can’t help thinking that today, that vision simply isn’t there.

What happened?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why the Bismarck myths were – well, myths

As we saw in the previous post, the German battleship KM Bismarck has been subject to its fair share of mythology. Much flowed from exaggerated claims about Bismarck’s characteristics. In fact the only real advantage of Bismarck was size.

Bismarck after completion in 1940.  Click to enlarge. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-04-1-26.

Bismarck after completion in 1940. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-04-1-26.

In the 1930s, battleships were limited to standard displacement of 35,561 tonnes (35,000 long tons) by international treaties dating to 1922, to which Germany was party via the Naval Agreement of 1935. At British insistence this was defined with specific consumables aboard. The only way to get around Treaty limits was by cheating, and Bismarck flouted the rules by a wide margin. Bismarck’s standard displacement was 42,321 tonnes, full load 45,928 tonnes and extreme battle load 50,933 tonnes. The real limit faced by her design team, led by Hermann Burkhardt, was the width of the lock gates on the Kiel canal, through which Bismarck was required to pass.

On the deck of the Bismarck.  Note the doubled secondary battery, 150- and 110-mm guns above. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-05-3-39

On the deck of the Bismarck. Note the doubled secondary battery, 150- and 110-mm guns above. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-05-3-39

SMS Baden, the 1913 design to which German naval architects looked when planning Bismarck. Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R17062

SMS Baden, the 1913 design to which German naval architects looked when planning Bismarck. Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R17062

The Germans didn’t have access to data available to the British from WWI battle experience and subsequent experiments. But in any event, German philosophy remained that of WWI. Although Bismarck followed trend in higher speed – 136,000 shp/29 knots without forcing – her design was WWI-era, with a low sloped armour deck,  optimised for short-range battles. The deck was thin – maximum 120 mm, against the maximum 232 mm adopted by the British in their contemporary King George V, over the magazines.

Bismarck's triple-propellor arrangement and cut-away stern. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-30-5-34A

Bismarck’s triple-propellor arrangement and cut-away stern. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-30-5-34A

One of the design team, Heinrich Schulter, wasn’t happy with the extent of Bismarck’s belt armour, which didn’t extend far enough below the waterline, but couldn’t enlarge the ship to support more. In the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Prince of Wales hit Bismarck below the armour, causing substantial flooding.

Part of the reason why Bismarck ran into that armour limit – despite being well over the legal displacement figure – was because the design was inefficient. The main armament followed Baden of 1913, eight 380-mm (14.96-inch) guns in four double turrets. This wasted displacement by comparison with battleships that used triple and quad turrets. Other retrograde features included a displacement-wasting double secondary battery of 150 mm (surface) and 110 mm (AA) guns, when other navies were adopting single batteries with dual-purpose weapons.

Another down side was the decision to provide triple screws, which resulted in a cut-away stern, causing loss of reserve buoyancy as well as vulnerability to whipping – oscillation of the hull girder under explosive forces. This was evidenced in Bismarck’s case by the fact that the stern suffered structural failure and broke off at Frame 10, probably as the ship sank, after suffering torpedo damage the day before.

Bismarck soon after completion. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-13-5-09.

Bismarck soon after completion. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-13-5-09.

Plus sides included underwater subdivision – 22 major compartments – and the usual German attention to construction detail. Some structural members were ‘Wotan Weich’ steel, high-tensile steel that combined armour and structural characteristics. The technique originated in the US and had been developed by the Carnegie Steel Company in 1910, but was hugely expensive. The British were sparing with their equivalent, ‘D’ steel, for that reason. Indeed, only the US navy was able to enjoy much use of high-tensile steels in ordinary construction.

The upshot was that Bismarck was a tough-built ship, but otherwise very average by world standards, with less fire-power than many contemporary battleships. The Germans knew it too; they built two ships to Bismarck design, but then moved on to a larger and more heavily armed ‘H’ type. The outbreak of war prevented any of those being completed.

Needless to say, the real story of Bismarck is one of people – and it is difficult to envisage her 210-hour sortie without thinking of the 2,065 sailors on board, young men who knew their fate – but faced it stoically, dutifully, and of whom just 117 survived. The British sailors who pulled the survivors from the storm-tossed Atlantic certainly knew the score – which for them was a simple one. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’.

A truth of war, and one that we must not forget.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

That’s the last of the military for a while. Coming up  – more writing posts, some news, and history.

De-mythologising the ‘invincible’ Bismarck…at last…

I’ve been writing a bit of military history lately on this blog, courtesy of a couple of recent anniversaries – Jutland and D-Day. I thought I’d wrap it up, for now, with a two-parter debunking some of the mythology surrounding the German battleship KM Bismarck, whose sortie into the Atlantic in May 1941 lasted just 210 hours before she was sunk by the battleships of the Home Fleet.

KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.

KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.

Part of the mythology, I suspect, flows from the fact that Bismarck and her consort, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, sank HMS Hood – largest warship in the Royal Navy. As for Bismarck – well, let’s look at the myths:

HMS Rodney's guns at full elevation. In May 1941, Rodney was the most powerful battleship in the world. Just not the fastest. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Rodney’s Mk I 16-inch guns at full elevation in 1940. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

1. Supposedly, Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the world. Bismarck was not even the fastest or heaviest-armoured German ship. The preceding Scharnhorst class was faster by a knot (more in service) and had thicker belt armour. Nor did Bismarck have the greatest fire-power by comparison with contemporary British, French and Italian battleships. Bismarck was armed with eight 38 cm SKC/34 (14.96-inch) guns firing Psgr. m. K. L/4,4 projectiles for a broadside of 6,400 kg. Setting aside rates of fire, this was less than the 7,030 kg fired by Britain’s WWI-era battleships with eight 15 inch guns – ten of which were still in service in May 1941 – and less than the 7,212 kg fired by their latest King George V class. It was way less than HMS Rodney, which had nine 16 inch guns firing a broadside of 8,360 kg. Bismarck’s final battle on 27 May 1941, thanks to break-downs in King George V’s guns, was essentially down to a ship-to-ship duel between Rodney and Bismarck between 0920 and 0954 hours. Rodney pulverised the German vessel.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).

HMS Prince of Wales – King George V class battleship that engaged Bismarck on 24 May. She was both better armoured and had a heavier broadside. (Public domain).

2. Apparently, Bismarck’s armour was special composition and proof to all shells. By the 1930s metallurgy had long since hit the limits possible with the chemistry of steel additives and processing techniques. Naval armour worldwide was based on the process invented by Krupp in 1894, and there was little to choose between variations. Bismarck’s armour was of the types used on German warships since the Deutschland of 1928. Wotan Harte n/A (‘new type’) steel was within a few percent of the quality of equivalent Allied armour. Krupp Cemented n/A face-hardened armour, used for vertical plates, was marginally inferior to US Class B armour. Wotan Starrheit (WSh) was extra-hard but brittle armour used in thin sections to protect the crew of light guns from splinters and bullets.

Bismarck’s 320-mm main belt was vulnerable to British 14-inch shells at ranges below 11,872 metres and to British 16-inch/6 CRH APC shells below 16,400 metres, and an examination of the wreck in 2001 revealed that it was penetrated. Anything that penetrated the main belt was meant to be stopped by the sloped armour deck beyond. In the final battle, two shells got into the propulsion spaces – a complete armour system failure.  Examination of the wreck in 1989 revealed that the conning tower, with its 350-mm side armour, was penetrated 25 times. The difficulty the British had was that despite the theoretical vulnerability of her armour, Bismarck was optimised for the ranges of that battle – the British guns were firing horizontally, so many shells ricochetted off the water before hitting, destroying their ability to penetrate.

Photo by Prinz Eugen gunnery officer Paul Smalenbach shows Bismarck down at the bows after suffering hits from HMS Prince of Wales that caused heavy flooding forwards and cut off access to the forward oil fuel. This damage prompted Admiral Lutjens to abort the cruise and head for Brest for repairs. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command

Photo by Prinz Eugen gunnery officer Paul Schmalenbach shows Bismarck down at the bows late on 24 May after suffering hits from HMS Prince of Wales that caused heavy flooding forwards and cut off access to the forward oil fuel. This damage prompted Admiral Lutjens to abort the cruise and head for Brest for repairs. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command

3. Allegedly, Bismarck was unsinkable and had to be scuttled. The debate reflects bragging rights. The British wanted to say they’d sunk Bismarck - avenging the loss of Hood. The Germans were as eager to claim the British couldn’t.  The controversy arose because Bismarck did not succumb to a 90-minute bombardment by two battleships and two heavy cruisers that produced around 300-400 hits. Admiral Sir John Tovey had to abandon the engagement for lack of fuel, calling for any ship with torpedoes to finish off the blazing wreck. Bismarck sank at 1039 hours, a few minutes after being struck by torpedoes from HMS Dorsetshire. The controversy erupted because at 0920 hours, just 33 minutes after the final battle began and 69 minutes before Bismarck sank, two heavy shells penetrated the machinery spaces. This prompted the XO, Hans Oels, to order scuttling charges set and fired – 6 sticks of dynamite in each engine room. However, a study by US naval analysts W. Garzke and R. O. Dulin shows the charges were not fired in every case because of water inflows into the engineering spaces caused by battle damage. Indeed, by 0930 the ship was already wallowing from the amount of water on board, some of it deliberately introduced to counter-flood after battle damage three days earlier in the Denmark Strait.

Survivors from Bismarck being pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Survivors from Bismarck being pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Ships sink for two reasons; loss of reserve buoyancy (flotation) or loss of reserve stability (rolls over or, less often, sinks by bow or stern). One of the reasons why Bismarck did not lose the latter is because the British bombarded her from both sides – evening out damage to a ship that had unusually high natural stability. Her designed metacentric height of 4.09 metres was the highest of any battleship of the 1930s, meaning she was lively in a seaway but hard to affect with asymmetric flooding. Sinkage was therefore by loss of reserve buoyancy. Analysis of the wreck in 1989, by submersible, showed the hull had not imploded, meaning Bismarck was flooded when it sank. An investigation in 2001 revealed significant underwater damage to the hull sides, including areas of missing plating, consistent with torpedo damage. In other words, the scuttling order contributed to Bismarck’s end, but was not sole cause.

Oels’ order made military sense because it meant the Germans could end a lost battle and save life. By 0930, when the order was given, the ship was wrecked, all heavy guns had been disabled (turret Caesar was knocked out at 0931) and the crew were being slaughtered by the British barrage. Unfortunately, few of those left in the water could be picked up by the British because of a U-boat alert.

In fact, Bismarck was a fairly average battleship, even by European standards. I’ll be exploring the design in the next post. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Thanks to Eric Wicklund for inspiring this post. He’s a talented writer. Run, do not walk, to read his flash fiction

Seventy years since the battle that shaped our world

It is seventy years since a friend of my family looked into the sky above his village in England and saw a cloud of aircraft fly over. And over. And over. The sky was filled with aircraft, and they were all going one way – to France.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

It was D-day, the first day of Operation OVERLORD – the Allied landing on the shores of Nazi-occupied Europe. It remains perhaps the most complex, audacious and risky military actions in the history of the world. The battle plan – two years or more in the making – relied on taking some of the strongest defences ever built in that war, and was detailed down to individual pill-boxes. Even after the landings, the lodgement was stuck in a maze of hedge-rows and ditches and there was every risk that the Germans might bring superior forces to bear before the Allies could get enough forces pushed into the lodgement.

The world we know today was shaped by events on that Normandy coast. If the Allies had been knocked off the lodgement – or if the storm that delayed the landing on 5 June had destroyed the invasion fleet – what then? Another assault could not have been staged for years, if at all. Part of the impact was surprise; Hitler, particularly, never expected them to land in Normandy. If it had failed, the Allies could have carried on their campaign in Italy, their blockade of the Axis economy and their air campaign against the German heartland. But they could not have got involved in war on the ground in northern Europe.

Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

That doesn’t mean that the Germans would have got away with it. if OVERLORD had failed, the war in Europe would still have been over by mid-late 1945 anyway, because by D-Day the Germans had already lost the war in the east. The monstrous battles around the Kursk salient in mid-1943 effectively ended any chance of the Germans fighting Stalin to a stalemate. After that the only real question was how long their commanders, tactically hobbled by Hitler’s foaming ‘no retreat’ demands, could delay the Soviet advance.

In absence of an Allied threat to western Europe, the Germans could have transferred the 50 divisions they had in the west to the eastern front. But it would have only deferred the inevitable. By this time the Soviets had around 300 divisions committed to the struggle. The Luftwaffe had lost air superiority, and that wasn’t going to change in a hurry – if at all. We can forget the ‘Luftwaffe 1946’ dieselpunk fantasy. Aside from the fact that Nazi super-science wasn’t actually all that advanced, the Germans were desperately short of key materials thanks to the Allied blockade. Particularly oil and chromium. Albert Speer estimated that war production would have to halt by early 1946, come what may, on the back of the chromium shortage alone.

If OVERLORD had failed, in short, the face of post-war Europe would have been Soviet. The spectre isn’t one of Soviet tanks sitting on the Channel coast, but of the Iron Curtain descending further west – perhaps on the Rhine – and France and likely Austria becoming Soviet puppets. The Cold War would have had a very different face – one without a strong Western Europe. And that begs questions about how it might have played out. I figure the Soviet system would still have collapsed – totalitarian systems do, sooner or later – but the detail of the later twentieth century would have been very different.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

It is 98 years, this weekend, since the Battle of Jutland – the only fleet action of the First World War. My great uncle – H. C. Wright – was in the thick of it, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion.

The battle was fought over a hectic afternoon and night on 31 May – 1 June 1916; the last shots came as the sky turned grey with the loom of dawn, and a British destroyer torpedoed and sank a German battleship.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Uncle Bert was 19 years of age, serving with the Royal Marines. Like most Marines he was assigned a place in fire-control, one of thirty-odd people in the forward transmitting station, the link between the fire control director in the foretop and the Dumaresq plotter and Dreyer Fire Control Table. Between them, these mechanical computers produced a firing solution – all with 1900-era clockwork tech. The Dreyer FCT didn’t quite work in real time, but it was an astonishing machine.

Uncle Bert couldn’t see anything down in the depths of the ship behind 12 inches of armour. For him the battle was lit by the yellow-white glow of electric lamps and consisted of enemy bearings shouted from above via his Graham Pattern 2463 Navyphone, duly passed on to the half-dozen Dreyer operators – all punctuated by the thud and rumble of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch guns, which discharged 51 rounds during the battle.

The fleets only came to blows briefly, but it was a hands-down British victory. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, out-manoeuvered the Germans twice and was only prevented from re-engaging next morning because of disastrous reporting failures by his scouting cruisers. But it didn’t matter in the longer run because the Germans ran for home – and on the grey  morning of 1 June, the British had total possession of the North Sea.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sir John Jellicoe, victor of Jutland, picnicking on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Photo: Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

That was what counted. Jellicoe’s priority wasn’t sinking enemy ships, it was keeping control of those waters – which he did, and without major damage to his fleet. It was a masterful effort.

Unfortunately the general public had been conditioned to expect a second Trafalgar – to them, only the annihilation of the German High Seas Fleet counted as victory. Incredibly, despite having won the battle in every practical sense, Jellicoe found himself under a cloud and was soon ‘booted upwards’ to become First Sea Lord, while the dashing and popular Admiral Sir David Beatty took over command at sea.

The other family connection to the battle? My wife’s grandmother worked for Jellicoe when he came to New Zealand as Governor General after the war. He was, by the family account, a very kind man – modest, quiet, caring. In some ways it was curious that someone of his stature should come half way around the world to a government position. But from the British viewpoint it got him out of the way – this man who was still being blamed, even in the glow of Allied victory, for not giving Britain its second Trafalgar.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Figuring out when a non-invasion happened

I don’t often discuss some of my historical work on this blog – that’s what my books are for.

But today I thought I’d share a snippet – the arrival of Ngati Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay. A story usually typified by their arrival at the strongest defensive point in the district, the massive double pa Otatara-Hikurangi.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the interpretative palisades at Otatara-Hikurangi, above Taradale.

A pa (pronounced ‘paa’ with a long ‘a’, which should be shown with a macron, except the symbol set on this font doesn’t have one) is a protected structure. Over 6000 have been identified from when the age of pa building began around 1500, to its end with the ‘rifle pa’ of the 1860s. They range from look-out posts to large fortresses enclosing villages. Technically, all are field fortifications – wood and earth structures, and Otatara-Hikurangi was a classic ditch-and-bank structure built on a discontinuous scarp.

The pa at Otatara-Hikurangi (pronounced ‘Oh-taa-ta-ra’) was one of the biggest in the Ahuriri district, likely built in the late sixteenth century, sited on the hill above Ahuriri harbour for a reason. You can see everything coming.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara-Hikurangi pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. This is the upper pa, Hikurangi; the adjacent Otatara pa was quarried out of existence from 1925. Click to enlarge.

The oral record tells of an ‘invasion’ of Hawke’s Bay by Ngati Kahungunu, who had been living at Mahia, a peninsula 100 km distant. They arrived under their rangitira (chief) Taraia to settle. Although portrayed as an ‘invasion’ by settler-era ethnographers, it was more a process of heke (migration) followed by settlement and intermarriage with Ngati Mamoe and other inhabitants of Ahuriri and neighbouring Heretaunga.

The thing is, nobody knows when this happened. Maori oral tradition is geared to preserve – accurately – details important to Maori. From it they can determine the relationships required to identify land right and status, among other things.

That did not suit scholars of western tradition,who were looking for dates. Such as when Taraia arrived. That was one thing the tradition did not supply, and early western guesses – based in part on genealogies – put the ‘invasion’ anywhere from 1570 to 1650.

View from Otatara looking northeast. Now Napier city.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking northeast. Now Napier city.

Archaeological work has helped, and although little has been done directly on Otara-Hikurangi, other areas have been examined. But even then, carbon dating carries built-in uncertainty which doesn’t much narrow the date of Taraia’s arrival. But I think it’s possible to get a more precise figure – deductively at this stage. I think it’s likely to have been around 1600-1603. Without detailing the calculations I made, the logic runs:

View from Otatara looking southeast - now a wine growing region.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking southeast – now a wine growing region. Click to enlarge.

1. My calculations from the genealogical record (using multiple lines) put the heke at 1600-1610.
2. Oral tradition makes clear Ngati Kahungunu moved for resource reasons; they were jammed into the Mahia region after moving from East Cape.
3. Those resources were constrained in 1601 by a double whammy; an earthquake dislocated local mussel beds, and fallout from a well documented volcanic eruption in Chile that year disrupted the growing season.
4. These pressures likely prompted the disputes over resources, documented in the oral record, that prompted the move to Ahuriri. Exactly when is unclear, but my estimate is that it must have been within a year or two.

The knock-on effects were significant – as I explained in my book Old South (Penguin 2009)the intrusion by Ngati Kahungunu pushed Rangitane south, with knock-on results that rippled through New Zealand into the South Island. The echoes helped push southern Maori together, a process still under way in the mid-eighteenth century when James Cook turned up and New Zealand’s history changed forever.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Does writing military history mean I must have read war comics?

twopeoplesIt’s coming up for eight years since my main book on the New Zealand Wars, Two Peoples, One Land, was published. It’s a book about relationships between colonists and colonised, and I’m still finding thoughts from readers and reviewers about it.

In the latest – published a while back, but new to me, a New Zealand arts commentator said he had the impression I was drawn into military history through a childhood spent reading war comics.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai – yes, THAT bridge. Neither a Commando comic nor Alec Guiness in sight.

Two Peoples isn’t really a military history, but picture the scene! Wright, the malleable child, so shallow he was helplessly conditioned into a life of military enthusiasm by stupid one-dimensional caricatures? Donnerwetter!

Of course I’d prefer people asked me for the facts instead of inventing ideas about me that fit their own prejudices.What did I actually read during my childhood? Physics texts. I kid you not. I’ve never actually read any war comics.  Though I did write a book once on the psychology of military heroism, the antithesis of schoolboy glorification.

heroesI mention all this because it reminded me that when I was a student at Victoria University, the arts faculties were filled with the breathlessly indignant youth of the post-Vietnam, post-Colonial generation, desperate to demonise warfare and any interested in it. Not warfare as it was, but warfare as they imagined it from their position of sanctimonious ignorance and emotyive anger; a shallow, polarised, cartoon caricature of the realities. A polemic that became their truth.

It was, I suppose, how this generation defined themselves – half-educated kids, away from home for the first time, raging at their powerlessness before a world they could neither understand or control. Blucher! And so they pursued their causes with the intolerant zeal of the self-righteous. Any who showed a hint of what they demonised was instantly classified with the whole of their stereotype, whether it was true or not. I suppose most of them grew up and got jobs. Für Sie ist der Krieg vorbei.

I found it curious to see the logic echoed, thirty years on, in the reviewer’s fantasy about the supposed origin of my interests. War comics – blokishness – shallow military enthusiasms. Of course. They all go together.  Essen Stiefel, Fritz!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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