The tale of the Russian terrorist ship, and why you have to buy the book

Back in mid-February 1873, Auckland newspaper editor David Leckie revealed the dramatic story of a secret Russian cruiser whose crew had taken over a British warship in Auckland harbour, with the help of a ‘submarine pinnace’, and was holding the city to ransom.

David Leckie - sometimes also spelt Luckie - Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

David Leckie – sometimes also spelt Luckie – Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Their agent of terror was ‘deadly water gas’ invented by ‘the late General Todtlieben’, which had rendered the crew senseless. Then the Russian terrorists had pointed the British guns at the city, taken leading citizens hostage, and ’emptied the coffers of the banks’.

It was an outrageous act of terror, and half Leckie’s readers believed him. Though anybody reading it aloud would have known they were being pranked, because apart from the silly name of the German inventor (‘Deathlove’), Leckie also dubbed his Russian terror warship (wait for it) the Kaskowiski.

His actual aim was to raise awareness of New Zealand’s vulnerability to the Russian Bear – the Bad Guy de Jour of the 1870s. The ‘Great Game’ – Britain’s tussle with Russia over Afghanistan – was afoot, and with it risk of war. New Zealand, just emerged from the ‘New Zealand Wars’, was a far-flung outpost of Empire, and feeling vulnerable. And so New Zealand’s long naval story –  a story that extended to the furthest corners of the globe – began.

I’ve covered that story – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, just re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime.

New Zealand’s naval defence has always faced a weird paradox. As a small island nation, we’re not particularly vulnerable to invasion. But our over-water interests stretch far into blue waters – along our trading routes, into the regions given us to protect. Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxWe first confronted the problem in the 1870s – and it’s dogged New Zealand ever since. The key issue, as always, is figuring out ways of paying for the navy needed to do the work. The historical solutions, for decades, were entwined with New Zealand’s sense of self, and of its place in the wider British Empire of the early twentieth century. And that, as much as the exciting stories of battles in the First and Second World Wars – is what Blue Water Kiwis is all about.

Blue Water Kiwis was originally published in late 2001, a couple of years after I proposed it. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Blue Water Kiwis: cover reveal!

I’ve got some exciting news – my book Blue Water Kiwis, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, is being republished as No. 3 in a new military series by Intruder Books. Here’s the cover.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 px

bluewaterBlue Water Kiwis was first published in 2001 by Reed NZ Ltd, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s founding – though the book itself was about a good deal more than that, tracing New Zealand’s naval story from the early 1870s. I received a good deal of support from the RNZN.

The new edition marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It’s being released for Kindle initially, and follows the two earlier titles in my re-released military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here.

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here. And watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why VE Day counted for less than the Marshall Plan

Last week’s anniversary of Victory in Europe day – the seventieth – provoked a good deal of moment-marking around the world. But there has been one thing missing from commentaries – one thing that became increasingly evident during the days and weeks that followed the Nazi capitulation on 8 May 1945.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorating Soviet Generals, Berlin, 12 July 1945. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorating Soviet generals, Berlin, 12 July 1945. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Europe was in a mess. Whole families had been torn asunder – ripped apart by the fighting, by the horrific crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazi regime, by the war itself as it surged through and over their homes, villages and farms.

For all the debate over the Allied bombing campaign – which had not much affected German war production – Germany had been bombed flat in places, or torn by war – or both. By May 1945, some 5,000,000 homes had been destroyed; and in West Germany the shortage was exacerbated by the 12,000,000 refugees who had surged west to avoid being caught up in the Soviet controlled regions.

Allied commanders were worried about potential post-war Nazi resistance – the ‘Werewolf’ movement – which they feared might find sanctuary in hidden Alpine valleys, terrorising both civilian Germans and the Allied occupation forces for years after the surrender.

In the middle of this the wartime alliance crumbled. New Zealand soldiers encountered the nascent Cold War as early as the beginning of May, as they surged into Trieste and ran headlong into Tito’s Communist forces. And as the weeks went on it became clear the wartime alliance – which, at the best of times, had been a rogue’s alliance, one that Churchill in particular did not trust – was crumbling. Stalin had his own aims and ambitions, and they did not include further close friendship with the West.

What to do? In 1919, Germany had been soundly punished for its First World War crimes – deeds often no less hideous than those perpetrated in 1939-45. But reparations and humiliating armistice terms had served merely to provoke. The problem, as Lord Robert Vansittart observed in 1944, was the ‘Reich’ mentality that had first sprung into life in the 1870s. The Nazis were merely the latest expression of it; and as far as Vansittart was concerned, it was this that had to be dealt with, if Germany were to return as a responsible world citizen.

Initially, efforts were made to hobble any German recovery, restricting raw materials imports and ensuring the new German government did not re-arm. But with an ‘iron curtain’ falling over Europe – as Churchill put it – this clearly wasn’t a long-term answer. With France still only hobbling to its feet, and with Communist revolt threatening in Greece – particularly after British aid failed in 1947 – the British and United States needed a strong West Germany to help deter Soviet ambition. After the Berlin crisis in 1947, US President Harry Truman and his advisors looked for new answers. And they found them in the immense ‘Economic Cooperation Act’, signed into law on 3 April 1948, by which the United States embarked on a massive ‘European Recovery Programme’, also known as the ‘Marshall Plan’ after US Secretary of State George Marshall.

The plan was not welcomed by the Soviets, who did not want German recovery in any form. And in its original form this Act was designed to not merely pour money into rebuilding a shattered Germany –  that support was also available to the Communist states of the emerging Eastern bloc. Stalin refused it, realising that this aid would undermine his own control of those nations. But in the West, US money was gratefully accepted – some $13 billion worth (about $150 billion in 2015 money) between 1948 and 1952. Sixteen countries, including Britain, received funding.

The Marshall Plan was not the only factor behind German recovery during the 1950s and 1960s. But it was a significant one; and for all the overt political reasons behind it – the need to undermine Stalin and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev – it was still a complete contrast to the humiliating Versailles terms that had been imposed over Germany in 1919. In a social sense, this act of building Germany up was almost certainly one of the factors behind the practical ‘de-Reiching’ that followed.

By the 1960s, when a new generation grew to adulthood, Germany had clearly stepped away from its dark history. That transformation was underscored in 1985 when the President, Richard von Weiszaecker, referred to the 1945 defeat as a ‘liberation’; and again, just this year, when the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called on the Japanese to confront their own past – just as Germany had.

This, then, was where things went in the years and decades after the war ended – and that general direction, guided in part by the Marshall Plan, was surely more crucial in terms of defining the broad shapes and patterns of history, and of our world today, than the specifics of which single day the conflict ended in 1945.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

When ethics overcome history

Another iconic building in my home town, Napier, New Zealand, bit the dust a while back. The Williams building – 103 years old – survived both the devastating 1931 earthquake and fire that followed.

Panorama I took of Napier's Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far left.

Panorama I took of Napier’s Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far right.

Now it’s gone down before the wrecking ball. And a good thing too. You see, it apparently only met 5 percent of the current earthquake-proofing standard. Ouch. Surviving the 1931 quake and retaining its structural integrity were, it seems, two different things.

The Williams building. Click to enlarge.

The Williams building going…going… Click to enlarge.

It’s the latest in a succession of quake-risk demolitions around the city. A few structures – such as the Paxie building, centre in the photo above, or the old State Theatre (where I first saw Star Wars in 1977) have been gutted and the facades preserved. But original ‘deco’ buildings of the 1930s are limited to a couple of city blocks. A single heritage precinct. When I was a kid, deco filled the town.

....and gone....

….and gone…. Click to enlarge

I know, I can hear the howls of protest now. ‘But – but – you’re interested in history…how can you support knocking it down?’

Easy. History is more than the artefacts it leaves anyway, but the real calculation is more immediate. A few years back, Napier’s Anglican Cathedral hall was also under threat of demolition, in part because it was a pre-quake masonry structure. The Historic Places Trust approached me, wanting me to put my authority and repute as a nationally known historian behind their effort to have it listed and legally protected. I was well aware of that history, of course. But I knew the building was a quake risk –and I hadn’t been given any engineering reports on which to base the professional opinion I was being asked to provide by Historic Places.

The biggest horror story of the 1931 quake was the way a doctor had to euthanise a badly injured woman who was trapped in the ruins of the cathedral – the only way to save her from being burned alive by advancing fires. In was an appalling moment. The decision tore at him for the rest of his life.

I wasn’t going to endorse saving a building where that might happen again. Risking human life or preserving a historic building? It’s a no-brainer, really. So while it was sad to see that building go -and sad, since, to see other structures like the Williams Building disappear – it’s really not a hard choice. What would you do?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

My sneaky crusade to play “Louie Louie”, and why it failed

Jack Ely died last week. Jack who? The guy who sang “Louie Louie” for the Kingsmen, back in 1963. His rendition was so garbled the CIA investigated the song for seditious content. Which was a bit of a waste because actually, there’s nothing to the lyrics of ‘Louie Louie’. I mean – nothing. They’re moronic. So’s the music, which is a three-chord ostinato riff.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths. Hard to play ‘Louie Louie’ on as it’s monophonic.

It’s a few years now since I went on a crusade to sneakily play it on famous public instruments – you know, the glockenspiel in the clock tower at Brugges, (No!), the 200-year old piano in the commander’s house at Port Arthur, Tasmania (No!), and so on (No! No! No!).

And yet – and yet – Berry’s little ditty’s gone down as one of the enduring classics of the rock era. It’s been covered by just about everybody – Motorhead, Black Flag, The Troggs, Led Zepp, and somewhere in my dusty CD collection I’ve even got the funk version Stanley Clarke and George Duke released in 1986.

The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ is the exact same I-IV-iv chord progression. So is Frank Zappa’s ‘Plastic People’, but with one extra note. And so is Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Socks Spirit’. Played backwards, it turns into Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ or the opening riff to ‘Joy To The World’ (same chords in reverse order).

How come? Well, the clue’s in the fact that a 35,000 year old bone flute, dug up a little while ago in Europe, is quite capable of playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. It didn’t have to be, but the cave-dwelling types who made it put the stop-holes in exactly the right places to play music built around today’s twelve-tone scale. And the theory is that this isn’t coincidence. Humans, arguably, are hard-wired to like music built around those pitches.

Richard Berry’s three-chord anthem, in short, hit the spot. The lyrics – which, truth be told, are a vapid story of some guy named Louie trying to get back to Jamaica to reunite with his girl – didn’t matter a jot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Do Nazi super soldiers have non-Nazi parts?

The other day somebody found my blog with a search string that I just had to commemorate in the title of this post.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...

Zombie Robo Hitler? Well, it could be. This is from Id’s 1992 shooter ‘Wolfenstein 3D’. Which wasnt actually 3D, but hey…

The present tense worried me. Does somebody out there, you know – know something? I’ve always suspected that the Nazi leadership might have escaped in April 1945, perhaps using one of their atomic Luftwaffe UFOs, and even now are lurking in a secret Antarctic base, plotting a hideous revenge on the world.

Before we know it, their deranged super-soldiers – led, naturally, by zombie robo-Hitler – will be surging northwards to unleash new horror on the world. My worry is that my country, New Zealand, is likely to be in their way. I mean, the Nazis have had it in for us ever since the battle at Minqar Qa’im.

As for how many parts of their super-soldiers are ‘non-Nazi‘? Well, that depends on whether they decided to sub-contract to the cheapest third-party manufacturer, maybe a factory somewhere that sweat-shops T-shirts, evil atomic-powered knee joints, domestic appliances, biscuits, evil nuclear death ray projectors and so on.

The fact that outsourcing to the lowest bidder increases the chance of robo-Stormtroopers shorting out 38 seconds after the inevitable “Hände hoch, Neuseeländer schweine!” doesn’t alleviate my unease. The Nazis re-defined evil. Yet nobody has bothered to go looking for that secret Antarctic base. In fact, people laugh uproariously or look at you funny if you suggest it. But suppose it’s true? I mean, nobody’d care if they occupied Dipton. But if they get further north? It’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Wrapping up war remembrance with a mystery

I thought I’d close my coverage of New Zealand’s commemoration of our landing on Gallipoli, 100 years ago, by revealing a curious point. We don’t know how many Kiwis fought there.

Gapa Tepe, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. The beach at Kapa Tepe, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. McKenzie, Fiona, fl 2004 :Photographs relating to Charles and Christina Andrews. Ref: PAColl-8147-1-08. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The beach at Kapa Tepe, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. McKenzie, Fiona, fl 2004 :Photographs relating to Charles and Christina Andrews. Ref: PAColl-8147-1-08. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The official figure of 8556, which seems to have been plucked out of a quick add-up of some numbers in one report, is almost certainly wrong. Efforts since to identify the actual number have tripped up over double-counting – men wounded early in the campaign who returned later.

What we do know is that 7447 Kiwis were killed or wounded during the eight-and-a-half month campaign. Of these, 2779 were killed. They were not the first soldiers to die for New Zealand, and nor were they the last, but it was this campaign – and the date of landing – that came to symbolise all New Zealand’s war dead.

Curious but true. And that, folks, is it on matters military. For a while anyway. Watch this space for regular writing posts, science, humour and more, coming up.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015