December 18, 2012
When World War II broke out, Britain was gripped by “Fifth Column Neurosis,” an almost universal belief that the country was riddled with enemy spies, not all of them human. Ben MacIntyre writes in the wonderful Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown, 2012), “When six cows stampeded on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Scottish Hebrides, this was immediately ascribed to secret enemy activity. That the spies were invisible was merely proof of how fiendishly clever they were at disguising themselves. Even pigeons were suspect, since it was widely believed that enemy agents had secret caches of homing pigeons around the country that they used to send messages back to Germany.”
Pigeon paranoia was actually a logical response. More than 100,000 pigeons flew missions in World War I, including the heroic Cher Ami, a Black Check cock carrier pigeon, part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France. Cher Ami delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun. On his last mission, on October 4, 1918, he was shot through the breast and leg, but still managed to deliver his message—which saved 194 troops of Major Charles S. Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion.”
During World War II, some 250,000 pigeons were deployed by the British, part of a special section of MI5 headed by Flight Lieutenant Richard Melville Walker. Walker was convinced, says author MacIntyre, “that Nazi pigeons were…pouring into Britain, by parachute, high-speed motor launch, and by U-boat.” The anti-avian frenzy was so extreme that “Some experts claimed to be able to identify a pigeon with a German ‘accent.’ ”
“Animal-based espionage and sabotage was all the rage among Allied plotters,” explains MacIntyre. British Special Operations Executive agents stuffed dead rats with explosives, while the Americans worked on a plan to attack Japan using Mexican bats carrying incendiaries. But Flight Lieutenant Walker, who “flourished in that gray area between ingenuity and insanity,” says MacIntyre, gets top honors for his Pigeon Contamination Plan.
Walker disguised hundreds of British pigeons as German pigeons (by decking them out with forged leg rings and counterfeit German wing markings), and sent them off to infiltrate and take down the German war machine from within. The plan was a bust, says MacIntyre: “The Germans never detected the double-agent pigeons in their midst.”
Avian spies are still among us. In May 2010, police in Punjab, India, arrested a pigeon believed to be spying for Pakistan. (The bird was kept under armed guard in a special air-conditioned room and refused visitors.) In January 2011, Saudi Arabian officials detained a vulture, stating it was an unwitting Mossad operative. And on December 10, 2012, Sudanese officials in the Darfur region of Sudan arrested a vulture, alleging it was on a surveillance mission for Israel. (The bird’s leg tag was marked “Israel Nature Service” and “Hebrew University, Jerusalem.”)
November 29, 2012
For 20 months during World War II, northern Italians were caught between the retreating Nazi front and invading Allied forces. As confusion reigned, one story circulated among civilians time and again: An elusive and unidentified airplane, nicknamed “Pippo,” was said to fly over northern Italy each night—solo—sometimes strafing and bombing the landscape, other times performing reconnaissance. In all of the accounts of Pippo found in newspapers, letters, diaries, and oral histories, not a single person claimed to have seen Pippo. But the aircraft’s distinctive sound made it easy to recognize.
The nicknaming of solitary night intruders wasn’t unusual, writes folklorist Alan Perry (Gettysburg College) in his 2003 article in the Journal of Folklore Research. Members of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 416th Night Fighter Squadron, assigned to the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations, referred to the Junkers Ju-88 flying overhead as “Reccie Joe.” Marines who fought on Guadalcanal had the Japanese “Washing Machine Charlie” to deal with. And GI’s fighting in North Africa and Italy called the night fighter they heard “Bed-Check Charlie.” (“Bed-Check Charlie” also made an appearance during the Korean War.)
What made Pippo different was that your political allegiance determined his identity. For those who opposed the Germans, Pippo, says Perry, was a friendly Allied pilot conducting reconnaissance. For those upset that Italy had betrayed its former German ally, Pippo was a sinister German intent on dropping bombs.
Perry looked for evidence of lone fighters waging psychological warfare in northern Italy. He notes that in 1944, “night intruder missions became an integral part of Operation Strangle, an effort to destroy German attempts to reinforce ground troops.” Night fighter squadrons of both the RAF (the 255th, the 256th, and the 600th) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (the 414th, 416th, and 417th) were part of this effort. Could Pippo have been a Bristol Beaufighter, a Northrop P-61, or a de Havilland Mosquito? Some Italian historians lean toward the Mosquito.
An interesting footnote: During Perry’s research, he ran across a contemporary piece in the daily Il Giornale by correspondent Fausto Biloslavo. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Biloslavo was sent to Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led bombing of Afghan training camps and Taliban air defenses. Biloslavo writes, “The scheme for the raids is always the same: before the attack an airplane with normal wings, not delta shaped like the fighters, circles very high above the targets. It’s either a reconnoitering aircraft or an electronic jewel that interrupts enemy communications and perhaps advanced defense weapon systems. In fact, we’ve noticed that during the flight of Pippo, as we’ve nicknamed him, there is no way to use the satellite phones. Soon after, the bombers come in pairs of two and dive upon their targets.”
November 21, 2012
Two months ago, on a flight from Brisbane to Melbourne, Australia, a crocodile got loose in the cargo hold of a Qantas aircraft. “The animal was quickly and safely secured when the aircraft arrived in Melbourne,” a Qantas spokesman told The Australian.
It’s not the first time a croc flew. Two years before that, a crocodile—carried on board in a large duffel bag—allegedly escaped on a Filair flight from Kinshasa to Bandundu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Pandemonium ensued,” reported msnbc.com. The Let L-410 Turbolet crashed, killing 20 on board. (The croc escaped, but was killed by ground crew.)
The earliest reference we can find of crocodilians becoming airborne dates to 1929. Yoav Di-Capua writes (in the summer 2008 issue of the Journal of Social History), “[I]n 1929, at the age of thirty, a bored employee at Bank Misr named Muhammad Sidqi decided to replace his wooden office chair with a posh leather seat in an airplane cockpit. Resigning his position, he enrolled in a German aviation school. A few months later…he purchased a modest monoplane with a 45-hp. engine and an overall weight of less than 250kg. With the enthusiastic cooperation of the Egyptian authorities, on December 15th he left from Berlin, and, via Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Venice and Malta, made his way to Libya. With him in the cockpit was a small crocodile that was presented to him in Berlin as a gift for the Cairo Zoological Gardens.”
On January 26, 1930, thousands of people — including the Egyptian Prime Minister — gathered to watch Sidqi land on a Cairo airstrip. The mob swarmed the rickety aircraft as it landed, and triumphantly carried the newly minted pilot through the Cairo streets. The next day the newspapers covered Sidqi’s feat, but “Not a word was written on the fate of the small crocodile that had bravely accompanied Sidqi on his perilous journey back home,” notes Di-Capua.
November 19, 2012
It’s one of those days—probably a Monday—where everything goes wrong. The alarm clock doesn’t go off. You oversleep. You have to crash land into enemy territory. It’s a good thing you remembered your U.S. Air Force Pocket Survival Handbook.
The handbook (republished this month) outlines the mission: As soon as you eject, bailout, or crash, your new assignment is to “return to friendly control without giving aid or comfort to the enemy, to return early and in good physical and mental condition.”
Let’s get down to the business of survival: Got a sucking chest wound? See page 60. You might need a stitch or two, although sometimes an airtight dressing will suffice. Perhaps you bailed out over a snow- or icebound area; page 92 explains how to make a suitable pair of shoes from moose hocks. (Skip ahead to chapter 14 for tips on how to kill animals both large and small. “Be sure the animal is dead, not just wounded [or] unconscious…. Poke all ‘dead’ animals in the eye with a long sharp stick before approaching them.”)
Now that you’ve survived that simple task, you can set to work building a para-snowhouse out of ice, your parachute, and urine (page 119).
The handbook explains how to build a variety of shelters, how to find and cook edible plants, and how to hunt, dress, and cook animals—everything from “fish tickling” to dressing a rabbit by flinging it between your legs.
We say this is $12.95 well spent.
November 15, 2012
While fighter pilots risk being shot down, or, in the case of F-22 pilots, suffering oxygen deprivation, it turns out that one of the hazards of flying an unmanned drone is boredom—or at least that’s what researchers at MIT have concluded.
“You might park a UAV over a house, waiting for someone to come in or come out, and that’s where the boredom comes in,” said Mary “Missy” Cummings, quoted in a study released yesterday by MITNews.
Cummings, a former F/A-18 pilot, is the director of the Humans and Automation Lab in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. She and her team set up a UAV simulation in which operators monitored the activity of four UAVs during a four-hour shift. Each subject was videotaped, and researchers noted when the operators were engaged, and when they were distracted. Not surprisingly, the operator with the highest score was the one who paid the most attention during the simulation. “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said.
The next-best performers were distracted a whopping 30 percent of the time—either reading a book, getting up to find a snack, or checking their cellphones.
Is being an unmanned aerial vehicle operator that bad? According to CareerCast.com, the worst job of 2012 is lumberjack, followed by dairy farmer and—wait for it—enlisted military soldier. Other hellish jobs include newspaper reporter, meter reader, and conservationist.
In the MIT experiment, participants were asked to rank their personality traits, including extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Top performers ranked “conscientiousness” as their strong trait. Sounds good, right? Maybe not. “You could have a Catch-22,” says Cummings. “If you’re high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor, but whether these same people would be effective in such military settings is unclear.”
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