A Curated Weekly Review of Interesting Historical Occurrences
This Week in History: A daring raid, the invention of the mouse, and the dark side of the moon
Your Lost Battalion Dispatch
The Lost Battalion Dispatch #43 for the Week of April 23, 2023
HMS Vindictive After the Zeebrugge Raid
The Zeebrugge Raid took place on April 23rd, 1918. It was an attempt by the Royal Navy to block access to the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge in Flanders, which the Imperial German Navy was using as a base for U-boats. The defenses of the port were formidable. Attempts to close it by long-range bombardments by heavy guns and an overland campaign had failed or been aborted. However, as U-boat losses to British shipping increased, the Admiralty conceived a daring and complex plan to put it out of action. The critical weakness of the port was its lock gates and the narrow channel that led out to sea. The lock gates allowed access to the Bruges Canal even at low tide. If they were destroyed and the channel was blocked, the U-boat fleet would be severely limited in its ability to sortie from or return to base. On the other hand, the attackers were hindered by the same difficult conditions, and mines deployed to limit access to the channel. Only the right combination of wind, weather, and tide would allow the Royal Navy to accomplish the mission.
A plan was made to attack on April 2nd, but conditions proved unfavorable, so it was on April 23rd that an all-volunteer force made the daring attempt. The canal entrance was protected by a mole armed with shore batteries and machine-gun nests. A diversionary attack on the nearby port of Ostend was designed to draw the German defenders away from this crucial position. At Zeebrugge, a force of three blockships filled with concrete was to be sailed down the narrow channel into the entrance of the Brugess canal. One was to ram the lock gates, and the others were to scuttle themselves in the channel. Simultaneously, two old submarines, HMS C1 and HMS C3, filled with explosives, were to be towed into a position where a crude autopilot system could guide them into the piers of the viaduct that connected the defensive mole with the mainland, where they would explode, cutting off access to the German defenders housed in barracks on shore. A large number of destroyers were deployed to cover the operation. The cruiser HMS Vindictive led the attack, covering the approach of two commandeered civilian ferriesloaded with 200 sailors and a battalion of Royal Marines that were to land and disable the mole’s defenses so the block ships could skirt the mole and get into the channel leading to the locks unmolested Smoke screens were to be laid by fast motorboats to obscure the blockships from Germans shore batteries. They were also tasked with taking the crews off the blockships after they were scuttled.
It was a complicated plan, and complex plans are prone to go wrong. Just as Vindictive approached to cover the landing, the wind shifted, blowing the smoke screen away and exposing her to German fire. She was forced to land in the wrong place, denying the assaulting troops aboard support from the heavy machine guns she mounted. Nevertheless, the Marines disembarked from their ferries and stormed the mole, suffering heavy casualties.
The tow rope on C1 broke, and she ran aground, failing to complete her mission. C3 continued the mission alone. Her commander did not trust the autopilot system, so he and his skeleton crew stayed aboard. After setting the fuses, they escaped in a motor launch only to find the engine didn’t work, so they had to row like mad while under fire from the sentries on the viaduct to escape the floating bomb they had just set off. Several were wounded but could get away and enjoy seeing a large portion of the bridge pinwheeling into the sky. They also observed a troop of German reinforcements bicycling toward the mole ride headlong off the broken bridge into the sea.
The failure of the smoke screen also exposed the block ships and the destroyers attempting to protect them by engaging the shore batteries. Only two blockships managed to get into the canal entrance. The blockship intended to ram the lock gates was damaged by fire from shore batteries and became entangled in antisubmarine nets in the channel, forcing her to be scuttled before reaching her target.
HMS Vindictive stayed on station while under heavy fire for over an hour as the Marines fought on the mole and were evacuated. However, she was so severely damaged that one of the ferries had to tow her away. While covering the withdrawal, the destroyer HMS North Star was hit repeatedly by shore guns and sunk.
Eight Victoria Crosses and numerous other medals and mentions in dispatch were awarded for bravery during the action. The British suffered 227 killed and 356 wounded. The Germans suffered only 24 casualties.
The raid was initially reported as a great success, but the Germans were soon able to dredge a new channel around the block ships that allowed U-boats access to the port, albeit only at high tide.
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Aneas Flees the Sack of Troy Painted by Frederico Barocci in 1598
April 24th, 1145 BC, is the traditional date for the fall of Troy. After a nine-year siege and several battles, the Greeks seemingly abandoned their siege of the city, leaving behind a large wooden horse, a sacred animal of the Trojans, as an apparent gift. Despite the warnings of Cassandra and the priest Lacoon, the Trojans took the horse into their walled city and then engaged in a night of wild revelry to celebrate their victory.
Unfortunately, the wily Odysseus and a pick band of warriors had hidden themselves inside the hollow horse statue. At midnight they emerged, overwhelmed the guards, and opened the gates. The Greek fleet had been hidden only a short distance from the city. They returned and rushed into Troy. After fierce fighting, the Trojans were overwhelmed. The city was sacked, and the king, Priam, was killed.
According to one legend, Aeneas and several other survivors escaped and, after a long journey, founded the city of Rome.
Australian and New Zealand troops, ANZACS, stormed the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey on April 25th, 1906. French and British troops also landed at another sector. Thus began the deadliest campaign of World War I outside the Western and Eastern fronts. The campaign, championed by Winston Churchill, could have been an outstanding success and driven the Turks out of the war, but poor planning and execution, along with an underestimation of the Turkish military capability, turned it into a bloody stalemate.
During the initial stage of the campaign, the Allies made slow but steady progress, but their efforts needed to be quicker. Then, as Turkish reinforcements poured in, all hope of a quick victory vanished. Instead, the expected battle of maneuver devolved into bloody trench warfare.
Poor logistical planning left the Allies short of ammunition. A Turkish submarine sank the battleship HMS Goliath, partially negating the Allied advantage of off-source naval gun support. Over several months, a series of offensives and counter-offenses left both the ANZAC and Franco-British forces confined to a narrow sector around their beachheads.
On December 15th, the ANZAC sector was evacuated, having suffered over 36,000 casualties. The Franco-British beachhead was finally abandoned on January 9th, 1916. British, Irish, and Indian troops suffered over 78,000 losses during the eight-month ordeal. The French lost 27,000.
The ANZACs most strongly felt the disaster of the Gallipoli Campaign. April 25th is remembered to this day in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC Day. The Syndey Cenothap was erected as a monument to the dead in 1927. Dawn services are held there every year and in other places. In the 1980s, it became popular for Aussies and Kiwis to make a pilgrimage to the Galliopi beach on ANZAC Day. Over 10.000 attended the 75th-anniversary remembrance there.
Sydney Cenotaph: Lest We Forget
Electron Microscope Image of DNA
In a rare twofer for the date of April 25th, the Dispatch would also like to recognize the publication of the article “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” on April 25th, 1953, by Francis Crick and James Watson. It described the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. This revelation has had far-reaching consequences for science. The paper noted, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
Everything from genetically modified plants that can resist drought and disease to human gene therapy stems from this discovery. Forensic scientists use techniques derived from Crick and Watson’s work to solve crimes. In addition, the science of Bioinformatics allows specific gene mutations to be detected, which can help doctors diagnose and treat previously untreatable medical conditions.
Although Crick and Watson are the names famously known for the discovery, Rosalind Franklin was also associated with the project. Franklin’s work at King’s College, University of London, just 75 miles away from the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge, where Crick and Watson labored, helped inspire Watson and Crick. Her skill in X-ray crystallography was crucial to the discovery. She was not especially impressed with Crick and Watson’s theories, but without her work, the two would never have made their discovery.
Sadly Franklin died in 1958 before the Nobel Prize for the discovery was awarded to Crick, Watson, and New Zealand biophysicist Maurice Wilkins whose work was deemed to have laid the foundation for Crick and Watson’s breakthrough. Since, at the time, Nobel Prizes could not be awarded posthumously, Rosalind Franklin never received the honor she was due.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive into the relationship between these scientists and the technical details of the discovery, watch this video.
Ruins of Guernica After 1937 Aerial Bombardment
Pablo Picasso’s Painting Guernica
On April 26th, 1937, amid the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town of Guernica was subjected to aerial bombardment by the German Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviaaione Legionaria under orders from Fransico Franco’s Nationalist government. The town was being used as a communication and transport hub by the rival Republican (Communist) government backed by the Soviet Union. It was one of the first aerial bombardments to attract international attention. While the town was a legitimate military target under international laws of warfare, many considered the bombing an atrocity. Most of the casualties were civilians. Basque sources claim 1654 people died, while local historians put the number at only 153. British analysts reported 400 civilian deaths, while Soviet archives double that number.
The incident became a major propaganda tool for the communist forces and outraged the European public. Franco’s propaganda machine proposed that the Republicans had deliberately burned and dynamited the town as part of a scored earth policy. The theory found favor in conservative British newspapers. The Germans also denied bombing the city, claiming their airforce had only targeted a bridge over the Mundaca River nearby to cut off the retreat of Republican forces as the Nationalists advanced toward Gurenica.
The bombing became the subject of an anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso, which the Spanish Republic commissioned, and a symbol of the civilian suffering caused by military conflict.
The Original Xerox Mouse
The Xerox PARC lab unveiled the computer ‘mouse” on April 27th, 1981. The now ubiquitous computer input device was one of many Xerox innovations to be appropriated by Apple and Microsoft. The failure of Xerox to recognize the value of this and other inventions, such as the Graphical User Interface, ethernet, and the personal computer, can be attributed to a lack of vision on the part of the company’s leadership. They worried about the expense of developing new technology and didn’t see how any of these initiatives could replace the printing of black words on white paper. As a result, Xerox ceased to be an independent company in 2018 after a long, painful decline.
On April 28th, 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon by the rock group Pink Floyd reached the number one position on the US Billboard Album Chart. The album was recorded in the famous Abbey Road Studios beginning in 1972 and was released on March 1st, 1973. It utilized many experimental techniques with multi-track tape loops and analog synthesizers. Credit for the unique sonic signature of the recordings can, in part, be credited to engineer Alan Parsons.
The record catapulted Pink Floyd to international fame. It is certified 14 times platinum in the UK, meaning at least 5,295,696 albums were sold there. With over 45 million album sales worldwide, it is the fourth best-selling album in history. It also holds the record of 741 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 200 Chart. It finally fell off this list in 1988.
When the chart rules were changed in 2009 to allow older albums to be relisted, it again surged into the top 200. This week it sits at number 185, having been on the chart for 979 weeks. It shows no signs of dropping off the chart anytime soon.
Watch the official documentary about the making of the album here.
Album Cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon
The last Oldsmobile rolled off the Lansing, Michigan assembly line on April 29, 2004, marking the end of 107 years of vehicle production. The Olds Motor Vehicle Company was founded in Lansing by Ransom E. Olds in 1897. In 1901 it produced 635 cars. During 1903 and 1904, it was the top-selling automobile manufacturer in the United States. The 1902 to 1907 Oldsmobile Model R was the first massed produced car, made on the first automotive assembly line, an invention incorrectly attributed to Henry Ford. Ford’s innovation was a moving assembly line. The Olds assembly line was static. Each car remained in one place while workers moved from one car to the next to perform their single assigned task.
General Motors purchased the company in 1908, but the brand lived on. In 1940, Oldsmobile was the first manufacturer to offer a fully automatic transmission. The last pre-war vehicle rolled off the assembly line on February 5, 1942. During World War II, the company produced large-caliber guns and shells. Automobile production resumed on October 15, 1945. A very slightly modified 1942 model served as the company’s 1946 offering.
In 1949 Oldsmobile pioneered the “Rocket” engine, an overhead valve “V8” cylinder design that produced far more power than the “straight 8” designs of the time. That year Old’s drivers won five of the eight races in the fledgling NASCAR series.
In the 1960s, Oldsmobile produced the first turbocharged engine, the first modern front-wheel drive car (1966’s Toronado), the Vista Cruiser station wagon (notable for its glass roof), and the Oldsmobile 442 muscle car (so named for its 4-barrel carburetor, 4-speed manual transmission, and 2 exhausts). Actor James Garner drove a modified 442 in the Baja off-road rally.
Oldsmobile peaked in 1985 when it sold 1,066 122 cars, but by 1993 sales had fallen off to just 402,963. Attempts to rebrand Oldsmobile as an upscale competitor to imports like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus met with mixed success. In 2000, GM announced plans to shut down the Oldsmobile division. The last production car was an Alero GLS 4-door sedan. All the Olds production line workers signed it, and it remained a museum piece until it was sold at auction for $42,000 in 2017.
The First Oldsmobile and the Last Oldsmobile
You Can’t Recreate the Zeebrugge Raid with Brawling Battleships
But you can have a cracking good time with up to five of your friends blasting away with World War I’s “Castles of Steel.” Check out this review on YouTube and then buy your copy here.
About the Lost Battalion Dispatch
This weekly newsletter is brought to you by Cher Ami, the homing pigeon whose heroic flight helped bring relief from a barrage of friendly fire to the First Battalion, 308th Infantry of 77th New York Infantry Division and alerted high command that over 500 American troops were holding out against all odds while surrounded in the Argonne Forest during World War One.
At Lost Battalion Publishing we take inspiration from the historical Lost Battalion that never gave up, never lost hope, and persevered despite a series of devastating setbacks.
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