HMS Dreadnought and Saint Patrick’s Day 2019

As March marches along (pun intended) we must now turn to the pressing issue of this time of year: the dog poop that’s been lying latent on/in the snow since January. Oh, boy…

HMS Dreadnought, 1911 Configuration (Wiki Commons)

The construction of HMS Dreadnought in 1905 was said to have triggered the naval race which drove WWI. While the nature of the historical record makes such claims unknowable–and a matter of opinion–Dreadnought did mark the beginning of the end of surface warship development. First Lord of the Admiralty John (Jackie) A. Fisher’s “all big gun” innovation drove warships to drop their multiplicity of ordnance in favor of a single primary batter and a host of secondaries. It also made them horribly more expensive.

Warships and the facilities to keep them have always been and will always be an expensive method of national defense, but in many cases a necessity. The ships themselves are only the most visible symbols. The dockyards, storehouses, training centers, munitions factories and everything else needed to maintain the ships cost orders of magnitude more than the ships.

But Dreadnought served in a particularly expensive, volatile and innovative period. Fisher felt that a warship’s first duty was to sink other warships. For this reason, he felt that scrimping on main gun armament in favor of smaller guns was a waste of space. Dreadnought carried ten 12-inch main guns in five turrets compared to the Lord Nelson class’s two 12-inch guns. To serve these guns, she was one of the first vessels in the Royal Navy to be built with electrically-operated centralized fire control. This large number of big guns were incentive enough to drive all other major combatants to follow the big-gun philosophy. While building her wasn’t particularly expensive for the time, designing and building entire navies because of that one vessel was–and that’s what happened.

For all the innovation she drove and all the sensation she caused at the time, Dreadnought’s combat record was quite brief–in fact, she never fired a shot at an enemy vessel. Dreadnought was, however, the only battleship to purposefully sink an enemy submarine. On 18 March 1915, German submarine SM U-29 broke the surface immediately ahead of Dreadnought and Dreadnought cut the submarine in two. She spent much of WWI being refitted and repaired, was paid off in 1920 and scrapped. Very little of the ship that drove a hundred others remains.

Saint Patrick’s Day 1984/2019

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, commemorated with a parade first in Montreal in 1824 and observed in Canada as far back as 1759. The saint himself was said to have been born in Britain in the 4th century, and who returned to Ireland in the 5th to spread Christianity. He didn’t drive the snakes out: there were never any there.

But St Patrick’s day is noisily celebrated nearly everywhere, from Dublin to Yokohama to the International Space Station, primarily as a pop culture celebration and a reason to get blasted. Having an Irish heritage (my first ancestor in the New World was transported from Ireland to Jamestown in 1611) I can recall doing this more than once after I turned 18, and I can recall more than one St Patrick’s Day Blizzard growing up in Michigan.

On 17 March 1984, however, this scrivener and his bride Evelyne tied the knot in Waukesha, Wisconsin (see above). It was a sort of a compromise date. My step-brother was dying of cancer in Detroit at the time, and my step-father and my mother were shuttling back and forth between Michigan and where they lived in Florida, so I wanted to catch him on an up-cycle, and the date that became convenient was 17 March, a Saturday. It didn’t snow much that day, but it has snowed often enough on St Patrick’s Day since to make each anniversary memorable. And we’ve spent all of them together.

But five years ago today, on 18 March 2013, I had my C-3 through C-7 vertebra fused together. Didn’t snow that day, either, but it snowed a week later. I was in a brace and couldn’t do anything about it…but there it was.

So yesterday was our 35th wedding anniversary. Happy day, honey. I know you won’t read this, but I’d do it again, over and over. Love you!

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Pierre Boullet, Evgeny Dragunov, Joseph Walker and Louis Riel Day

Some days, this blog writes itself (don’t I wish).  This 20 February has a breathtaking array of events to choose from: the enthronement of Edward VI in 1547; the beginning of the US Post Office in 1792; the death of WIllie Lincoln in 1862; the orbiting of John Glenn in 1962; the election of Margaret Thatcher to lead the Conservatives in Britain in 1975.  But today, we’re going to note the birthdays of three rather notable people, and an ambiguous Canadian.

Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself.

Pierre François Marie Louis Boulle was born on 20 February 1912 in Avignon, France, and trained as an electrical engineer.  He was working in Malaya when WWII started, and joined the French Army in Indochina.  When Germany occupied France he joined the Free French in Singapore. Working as a secret agent, Boullet was captured by the Vichy in the Mekong Delta region and put in a forced labor camp for the rest of the war. After his return to France in 1949, he began to write.  Drawing on his own war experiences and those of some of his fellow prisoners, Boullet’s third book was the semi-fictional novel known in English as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, an international best-seller made into a film by Sir David Lean in 1957, which also won awards and popular acclaim (and the shortest Academy Award acceptance speech in history–Merci).  Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself. In all Boullet wrote 24 books, seven short story collections, and five nonfiction books (including one on his experiences in labor camps in the Mekong: My Own River Kwai).  Boullet died 30 January 1994, at age 81, in Paris.

In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service.

Evgeny (or Yevgeny) Fyodorovich Dragunov was born 20 February 1920 at Izhevsk, Russia, into a family of gunsmiths.  By the time of the Great Fatherland War in 1941 (what the Russians call their part of WWII) Dragunov was a senior armorer in the Red Army, known for adapting non-Soviet weapons to Soviet needs and ammunition. After the war, he went back to gunsmithing in the civilian world,  building an Olympic gold-winning rifle for the biathlon in 1950. In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service. In 1973 his design for the update of the venerable AK-74, which was not adopted for that weapon, but the trigger mechanism inspired the one in the PP-71 submachine gun.  Dragunov died 4 August 1991 at age 71 in Izhevsk.

In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963.

Joseph Albert Walker was born on 20 February 1921 in Washington, Pennsylvania. Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1942 before joining the Army Air Forces.  He flew P-38 Lightnings and the reconnaissance version, the F-5, in the Pacific during WWII, joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a physicist.  It wasn’t long before Walker was back in the cockpit, the first to fly the Bell X-1 and a number of other rocket fuel tanks with controls. When NACA became NASA, Walker was the first test pilot, and the first NASA pilot to fly the X-15. In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963. Walker was killed on 8 June 1966, flying an F-104 chase plane that collided with one of the only two XB-70 Valkyrie bombers ever built over Barstow, California.

Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling.

The third Monday in February, for some inexplicable reason, is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Louis Davis Riel is traditionally viewed as the founder of Manitoba, and his ambiguous legacy is shrouded in legend. Riel was born near modern Winnipeg in what was then the Red River Colony of Rupert’s Land –the Hudson Bay drainage of Canada–in 1844.  Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling. He drifted around Canada and the United States as far south as Chicago before returning to the Red River Colony in 1868.  Timing is everything: in October of that year he led a group of Metis that disrupted an English survey party.  Emerging as a leader not only of the French-speaking Metis (descendants of an admixture of Native Canadian and  European immigrants) but of Francophones in general, Riel led the first “rebellion” from 1868, not only disrupting the survey but claiming that the dissolution of the seigneurial land-holding system they had known for centuries would not be tolerated. After seizing Fort Garry, then losing it again, the rebellion’s leaders were arrested, tried and punished–except for Riel, who managed to escape to the US. After several years in exile, Riel returned, served briefly as a Member of Parliament, formed the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan with himself as president, and led yet another rebellion in 1885. He was captured after the second rising collapsed, tried and sentenced to hang for treason, and was hanged  16 November 1885.