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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.

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Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

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Beginnings: Crop Duster a Winner; Japan Attacks Russia and Britain; Bloody Mary is Beheaded; Elizabeth II Becomes Queen

As the badge on today’s post says, Crop Duster: A Novel of WII is an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Writers Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards for Mainstream Fiction.  This is a long-winded way of saying that Crop Duster is regarded at one of the five best of over a hundred submitted books in this category.  It’s also a Notable Book in Shelf Unbound’s Self-Published E-Book Awards for 2014 for Page-Turners. Find out what the judges see is so great about Crop Duster today.  Available in paperback and E-book at fine booksellers everywhere.


On the night of 8 February 1904, Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur with torpedoes from four destroyers.  A Russian protected cruiser (Pallada) keeled over and sank, and two battleships (Retvizan and Tsarevich ) were damaged.  An indecisive daylight action the next morning damaged vessels on both sides, but the Japanese had the advantage of being able to sail out of range of the Russian shore batteries, while the Russians were trapped in port by the strong Japanese fleet.

As the opening battle of what would come to be called the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur was a template for Japanese conflict initiation for the next fifty years: strong attacks with little warning followed by relentless pressing of the advantages of surprise.  While the Japanese attacks in 1904, 1914, 1932, 1937 and 1941 were expected in a general sense, their location often was not.  The 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore after two months of attacks all around the Pacific Rim was forewarned, but the British had never expected an attack from landward along the Malay Peninsula.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan at War, 1941-1945 probes the Japanese mindset reaching back to before the Tokugawas. Available in hardback, paperback and PDF.


Two distantly related events, ironically, are marked in early February.  Mary,Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587, an unfortunate victim of a dynastic feud begun in prehistory, for all intents and purposes.  The Stuart throne of Scotland dated from the 14th century (or 12th, for purists) in a country that had the poor luck of being weaker than most of her neighbors but stronger than her closest kin.  Britain had the sense to try to “civilize” the traditionally tribal Scots off and on for centuries, while Scotland allied with France and was used as a cudgel against Ireland in between periods of independence.  Mary’s poor timing that she would reign while Elizabeth I sat in Windsor, but was lucky enough that Elizabeth would be childless, so that her son would inherit the throne of England.

Nearly four centuries later, Elizabeth II,oldest daughter of George VI would be proclaimed queen on 6 February 1952.  She would be the first British monarch for over a century who was not also empress of India. She is at this writing the longest reigning British monarch in history.


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“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.

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America Bombs the Reich

By later standards the first USAAF bombing of Wilhelmshaven on 27 January 1943 was not a lot, but it was something.  B-17 Flying Fortresses from parts of the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group (H) hit the small port city on the Jade River, hitting mostly industrial plants where they hit at all.  Bombing accuracy, much to the disappointment of the Americans, was never stellar.  They would make up for it later with sheer numbers.

These early efforts, like the 15th Squadron’s 4 July 1942 raid on a Dutch Luftwaffe field in borrowed aircraft, were mostly symbolic.  The Americans taking the war to the enemy, like Jimmy Doolittle’s military stunt bombing Japan 18 April 1942 showed, could be disconcerting,  It also boosted morale for the military as much as the home front.  For a generation that had been told that strategic bombing would be able to prevent the kinds of deadlocks that characterized WWI, this was heady stuff.

By the end of 1943, the USAAF had bombed Germany more than a hundred times, and the Luftwaffe showed no signs of deterioration…on the outside.  Internally, the Luftwaffe had good morale, but the physical and mental strain on its pilots was beginning to tell.  Goering spoke of a “plague” as early as 1942 that killed many new pilots in accidents that more experienced men might have avoided.  But the Americans had lost nearly a third of their aircraft and crews in September and October of 1943…their morale was not nearly as good as their opponents, and never would be.

Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a story about Americans and Germans flying over Europe in that tumultuous year.  Available in paper and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.


As the Soviet juggernaut pressed ever onward to Berlin, the 332nd Rifle Division reached  partly dismantled and almost entirely evacuated concentration camps near Oswiecim, in southern Poland on 27 January 1945.  Eventually, the Allies would find evidence of nearly two million deaths and the Auschwitz/BIrkenau complex, with warehouses full of the pitiful possessions of the inmates.  No one before believed the wild tales coming out of the area.

Even today the sheer numbers of the Nazi’s “final solution” strains credulity.  There is a cottage industry of deniers (author David Irving among them) of the extermination of probably close to 12 million people (a little over half were Jews; the rest just got in the way) as a matter of state policy.  The British who liberated Belsen in Germany in April 1945 couldn’t believe it, either.

Though this writer has never been to Auschwitz he has been to Belsen, where many of the evacuees from Auschwitz were liquidated.  That was bad enough, though a fraction of the size of Auschwitz.   But not believing does not change the evidence, nor the testimony of the survivors.  Just as strategic bombardment gained evidence of success with practice, technology and numbers, so too did the accounts of the survivors of the death camps gain credulity.

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Crop Duster a Finalist on Bookbzz

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce that John D. Beatty’s Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a finalist in the Bookbzz 2015 Prize Writer Competition.  Starting on 1 February, readers will be able to vote on their favorites.  Go to http://bookbzz.com/crop-duster-novel-world-war-ii-john-beatty/ starting 1 February for both professional and fan reviews and to vote on your favorites.

John D. Beatty, sole proprietor of JDB Communications, LLC, is a professional writer of more than forty years experience in military science and in industry. He retired from the US Army Reserve after 27 years of service.  He is the author of Crop Duster: A Novel of World War II; The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War; and What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at Warm 1941-1945, and other pieces of military history.   He lives and works in Wisconsin.

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The Best Book Nobody’s Buying but Everybody’s Reading

JDB Communications’s latest book, Crop Duster: A Novel of World War Two, has received rave reviews from everyone who’s read it, but apparently no one’s buying it.  Even more baffling, Amazon shows more “used” copies for sale than have actually been sold over the counter…some as far afield as Great Britain.

Mighty good trick for a print-on-demand book that has only had a few domestic sales.

But enough whining.  This blog is intended to entice you, my good readers, to buy JDBCOM books and articles.  Today, we talk about Crop Duster, JDBCOM’s first foray into book-length fiction.

If what interests you is action, suspense, romance, drama, light comedy and a page-turning read, then Crop Duster is for you.  Imagine B-17s and FW-190s mixing it up high over Germany amid murderous flak, deadly cold, and screaming metal.  See in your mind’s eye a firestorm rising over Hamburg, a crippled JU-88 wafting through the fog onto an English field; a fuel-starved Fortress with no rados pounding through an Atlantic storm with a beautiful VIP aboard.

Yes, you’ll find all of that and more in Crop Duster.  Available in paperback and E-book wherever fine books are sold.