Monthly Archives: January 2020

Podcast Episode 7: The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart (part 2).

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Hi all, so we left off just at the end of the Great War. Adrian spent a little time on break in Belgium, catching up with his family – which included cousins Henry – a future Belgian Prime Minister, and Edmond – political secretary to King Leopold II. On getting back to his battalion he found morale low – a big feeling of anti-climax was kicking in, with many of the soldiers feeling purposeless, redundant and more than a little aimless. While many of the rank and file could not wait to get home, Adrian was desperate for some more action. His opportunity arose when the war office called him in to offer him the second in charge role, to General Botha, in the British Military Mission to Poland.

For over a century and a half the Polish – Lithuanian alliance had been broken up and ruled over by the Austro-Hungarian empire, the states which went on to became Germany, and the Russian Empire. With all three in different states of disrepair, Poland was now free to pursue it’s own statehood again – and, with the Treaty of Versailles granting them nationhood again, pursue they did. Were they to survive and keep their nationhood Poland had five more wars to fight – with the Soviet Russians who were fighting at the time to establish the USSR, the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs and, believe it or not, the recently defeated Germans. The defence of Poland – and at times the expansionist aims of Poland, was to become Adrian’s next posting.

Carton De Wiart was sent to Poland, originally as second in charge, but when General Botha became unwell, the head of the delegation. Though serving for the most part as an advisor to the Poles and a liaison for the UK, he got himself physically involved in the Polish – Soviet war, the Polish – Ukrainian war, the Polish – Lithuanian war and skirmishes on the border with Czechoslovakia. He found over time, while he had a good working relationship with Winston Churchill, his relationship with then Prime Minister David Lloyd George was strained, and they had a falling out over backing the Poles claim on the Eastern Galicia region. He states he also found the Poles difficult to work with at times, primarily that they were unreasonable in their claims for land, and not at all diplomatic when the UK said they would not back them on a land claim. By 1924, however the Poles had completed five wars, winning all the land they believed should fall under their governance. During this time Adrian Carton De Wiart helped repel a sneak attack from the Ukrainians, fought in a relentless gunfight with the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw. Survived a plane crash, was almost claimed by another – where he discovered on the ground he had come within six inches of being shot yet again – by a ground based soldier – and for a short time found himself captured in Lithuania. He was a second in a duel between two Polish officers, and stole wagon loads of guns from Hungary. In 1924, having retired from the British army he took advantage of his close ties to Marshall Pilsudski, the Polish leader, and Prince Karol Mikolaj Radziwill, and got placed on a large estate in the Pripet Marshes – now situated between Ukraine and Belarus but then on recently reclaimed land.

Adrian does not mention what it was specifically which led to him stepping down, other than to say that he had falling out. He does recall soon after his resignation he found himself in Egypt arranging the passage of his step mother back to the UK – she had had a stroke which left her unable to look after herself – and while over there he was almost brought into another conflict. In November 1924 the Governor General of Anglo Egyptian Sudan, General Sir Lee Stack was murdered, and rioting broke out, while Carton de Wiart was still there. He offered his assistance in resuming control, but equilibrium was restored before he would be needed. While there Adrian Carton de Wiart was offered the command of a cavalry brigade in Sialkot – modern day Pakistan. He turned this down.

One may suspect it was more the pull factor of the marshes than any push factor to be honest. Carton de Wiart goes to great length to explain how he first visited the stately home surrounded by half a million acres- run down and neglected but being brought back to life by Prince Karol, Prince Charles as he refers to him. Adrian goes on to explain how Prince Karol offered him a hunting lodge out on an island 40 kilometres from the grand house. Adrian asked how much did he want for the rent. Karol said nothing, it is yours to keep if you want it. He did, and for the most part stayed there till the next great war. He goes on to detail how he spent much time hunting, killing 20,000 ducks in this time. He talks of the dinners and the company of the prince and his entourage on many nights. Of Niemojeski, a local scoundrel he became friends with, of the bandits who were afraid of him, and of finding a love of reading at the hunting lodge. Of the often quiet nights he said quote

“It was a lonely place, but I never felt the loneliness, for the countryside had so much to give, everything in fact that I had ever wanted”. This splendid isolation would soon be disturbed however.

On 30th September 1938 shockwaves from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler – supposed to bring ‘peace in our time’ were felt in Poland. Adrian contacted British army head Viscount Gort, offering his services if needed – but was given the cold shoulder.

In April 1939 Adolf Hitler withdrew Germany from the German – Polish non-aggression pact of 1934, and the London Naval agreement – a treaty which aimed to stop a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Hitler began demanding Poland hand over the free port of Danzig, a mostly ethnic German city in the North of Poland, and a land corridor to access the city. In July Adrian Carton de Wiart is called back to the war office and offered his old job, as head of the British military mission to Poland. He happily signs up for the role.
On August 22nd 1939 he gets a message to head to Warsaw immediately. He borrows Prince Karol’s car and is advised by his superiors that another war is only days off. Two days later he was in a meeting with the Polish commander in chief, Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly. Carton de Wiart’s advice to attack the Germans as soon as they crossed the border fell on deaf ears. He also suggested getting the Polish navy out of the Baltic, in case they were captured – which Rydz-Smigly grudgingly accepted. On the 1st September the Nazis attacked, taking out the airfields within hours, and steamrolling through town after town. On the first the Nazis bombed Warsaw. Adrian Carton de Wiart, still in the city later commented on the bombings.

“with the first deliberate bombing of civilians I saw the very face of war change- bereft of romance, its glory shorn, no longer the soldier setting forth into battle, but the women and children buried under it”.

On the fifth day of the invasion the embassy made the decision to clear out and get to safety, and Adrian Carton de Wiart was put in charge of getting all to safety. This initially meant getting back into Polish held territory – at times frantically dodging aerial assault. At one point a Mrs Shelley, the wife of one of the diplomats, was killed by a strafing plane- but at a certain point, the USSR having entered the invasion of Poland by the 17th September, they found themselves 15 miles from the border with Romania. Adrian Carton de Wiart approached Marshall Rydz-Smigly, stating if the marshall was to stay and fight he would too. Rydz-Smigly made the decision to make the final dash across the border into Romania. FYI the two countries don’t share a land border now, they did, in the South East in 1939. Finding Romania, at the time officially on the side of the allies, but with revolution in the air, they flew out of Romania for Britain, under false identities, on September 21st. Just as their plane was leaving, their pro British prime minister Armand Calinescu was assassinated, and the Romanian fascist Iron Guard party took control of the country.

On returning back to Britain he discovered the Russians, on getting involved, went straight for his hunting lodge looking to capture him, and were surprised to hear he had already left for the war.

In April 1940 Carton de Wiart was redeployed, in charge of a joint French- British force headed into Norway to invade Trondheim and stop the Nazis from pushing further into Norwegian territory, making a good launch pad to attack Britain from. He had to leave his newly acquired 61st Division he had been training for the war, and pick up a collection of British- mostly Northern command troops, and French Chasseurs Alpins. Having arrived and set up near the Namsen river Carton de Wiart was struck by how indefensible the area was, unless held by highly specialized soldiers, trained especially for the cold, mountainous terrain. Their orders were to attack Trondheim as soon as the allies brought in a fleet to attack from sea. Unfortunately, before they could get prepared the French troops drew attention to themselves from the Nazis, drawing German bombardment.

The Nazis showed up with ships and planes before the Allied expeditionary force could get set up, before the British naval attack – and began shelling the city. Though they did their best to dig in, it was hopeless – Carton de Wiart, quote

“We had rifles, a few Bren guns and some two inch smoke bombs, but none of them were either comforting or effective against a destroyer”

They dug in at a farm house outside of Trondheim, and waited for a chance to evacuate, as it was clear the mission had failed. Eventually Lord Mountbatten’s ships managed to break through and rescue them. One ship, the French destroyer Afridi, was sunk in the escape. Adrian Carton de Wiart comments he almost ended up on this ship, but for his gear being loaded onto the York, and, presumably half jokingly, states he was robbed of the experience of a shipwreck.

On the voyage home, Carton de Wiart turned 60, the age one must retire from active military service. He was briefly put back in charge of his 61st Division and put in charge of the defense of Northern Ireland, but soon called back due to his age – something he fought hard against, and pointing out he had, unlike his replacement – experience of the crushing, mechanized warfare deployed in World War Two. His replacement Lieutenant General Henry Pownall had no idea what to expect. He would soon be redeployed on a diplomatic mission however, to provide his expertise to Yugoslavia. While flying to the Balkans via a circuitous route, first stopping at Malta to refuel, then Egypt, the plane’s engines failed – and it crashed in the ocean off the coast of Libya. Adrian Carton de Wiart was knocked out on impact, but came to as he was pushed out of the sinking plane. Without a dinghy – they had one, which had sprung a leak, they had to hang onto wreckage from the plane – till the wreckage began to sink. The then swam for the shore, where the passengers and crew of the plane were shadowed by Italian police officers, till some soldiers come arrive to take them away. Adrian Carton de Wiart was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Italy, where he would remain from 1941 to 1943.

Held captive with a number of other Allied senior officers at the Villa Medici, Abruzzi, Carton de Wiart planned, and made numerous attempts to escape – at one point spending seven months digging a tunnel under the camp. He escaped via tunnel just days before an order came to release him and ship him back out to Britain. On the run, with his missing hand, eye patch and not a word of Italian he still managed to hide among the locals for eight days before being found. He talks of this time in captivity as being relatively comfortable, and that the Italian soldiers detaining him treated him and the other officers well, on the whole. He does make mention of a camp supervisor called Viviani, who he wished he could run into again in quote “more equal circumstances”, but seems for the most part to have gotten on with his captors. He mentions their prison was not far from Terminillio, a mountaintop base where Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, would later be imprisoned by the Italians themselves, and rescued by the Nazis. Just putting this out there – at some point I’ll have to come back to Mussolini’s rescuer, Otto Skorzeny – perhaps the most dangerous man in Europe in his time. In August 1943 the Italians released Adrian Carton de Wiart – in part owing to his age and missing body parts, in part due to his rank, and that an Italy who were on the verge of calling it a day on World War Two wanted to send a diplomat back with him to discuss with the British just what to do with Allied prisoners of war in Italy. He was returned to the British via neutral Portugal.

Carton de Wiart, once home, was kept under wraps until 7th September 1943, when Italy formally surrendered. Once his presence in the UK was revealed many people thought he had something to do with the Italian surrender, and Carton de Wiart began to get inundated with letters from families asking questions he couldn’t answer about the whereabouts of their captured family members. After a few weeks back Adrian Carton de Wiart began to wonder what next, still hoping he could be deployed in Yugoslavia.

Adrian Carton de Wiart did not have long to wait till his next assignment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent him as his personal representative to China. He would travel there via Cairo, where he sat in at the top brass meeting- there is a group picture of Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai Shek surrounded by various generals – Carton de Wiart among them – then on to India, then China. This role was a desk job, to report any news from India, China and Burma back to Churchill. While there however he appears to have enjoyed living among the Chinese. He was also offered a combat role by Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek, but he turned the role down. Much of his recollections of his time in China he shares tales of the people, and of the progress of World War Two down to its conclusion. He does mention he had very little to do with the Communists, except that at one point he did give Chairman Mao a piece of his mind. He clearly was no fan of Communism- this being one of a very few times he speaks ill of another group of people. He would get to fly to Singapore to take part in the Japanese surrender following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He then prepared to return to Britain – after World War One he felt aimless, this time he admitted to feeling a diffidence- an awkwardness and unsureness as to what he would find there. Churchill’s successor Clement Atlee asked him to stay on as his eyes and ears for a little longer, which Adrian Carton de Wiart would do, till a fall down a flight of stairs in Rangoon in 1947 forced him into retirement. In the fall he broke his back, avoiding paralysis. It would take him several months to fully recover however. He was 66 years old at retirement, having survived 11 major gunshot wounds, two plane crashes, both World Wars, the Boer War, action in 4 of Poland’s five post WW1 wars with her neighbours – numerous battles, detainment, and seen warcraft progress from fighting on horseback to dropping atomic bombs.

I haven’t said much about his family life. In 1949 his first wife died – yes he was married – to an Austrian countess no less – he also had two daughters .. He never actually mentions his family once in his autobiography “Happy Odyssey”, I do wonder if he thought the countess Penelope to his Odysseus. In 1951 he remarried, to a woman 23 years his junior by the name of Joan Sutherland (not the opera singer), and settled down to a genteel life – though continuing to hunt and fish – in County Cork Ireland. He died in 1963, aged 83.

My final thoughts on Adrian Carton de Wiart; I first came across his tale while lying in a hospital bed in Phuket in 2014. My dad came in with a suggestion to keep my brain active while I recuperated “Google up this General Carton de Wiart, the story is crazy” It is, and I think from my first readings I had him pegged as some real life terminator – someone like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old men. I originally saw myself ending this piece with a quote from the man himself, quote

“Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.” End quote.

I think this sums him up, to a degree, but I came away with a sense of Adrian Carton de Wiart as an honourable man; open-minded, respectful to all. Strangely introspective. Anything but a raconteur, although very much the adventurer. Never relishing in tales of bloodshed. Rarely looking on his enemy with cruelty or malice. I came to this episode with the concept he was the stereotypical rough man, standing ready – doing the things we dare not ourselves so we can sleep safe. I think this still is true, but I understand what that rough man is less than I thought I did.

This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Podcast Episode 7: The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart (part 1).

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Hi folks I’m starting today’s tale on 18th November 1914. The setting Shimber Berris, the tallest mountain in Somaliland – a state often lumped in with Somalia in general, but who had it’s own self determination – and who were damn well going to keep it that way, regardless of what the British, Italians or Ethiopians said. Our hero tells us the Kharif, “a hot labouring wind heavy with sand” was in full force, but up in the hills the air was quite pleasant. All the same he was at the head of a group of soldiers sent up to capture Shimber Berris. Up the steep, rocky hills with little more than a few shrubs to cover their ascent.

Since 1899 the British had Somaliland in their sights, and had been at war with the local Dervishes, led by a man they called ‘The Mad Mullah’. The sources point out Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a Sufi poet, turned freedom fighter, turned General was neither mad nor a Mullah- but a man who was willing to stand up for his people for decade after decade, because he believed their way of life was worth defending. Our hero himself writes somewhat respectfully of them and expresses regret that they finally lost out to the invaders when they brought planes in, in 1920. The job of him and his men today though is to take over a stone blockhouse which looks out over the valley, thus making it harder for the Mullah’s soldiers to launch guerrilla attacks on the British below.
As they got closer, within 400 yards of the building, the dervishes from inside the blockhouse began taking pot shots at the British. The shots fall well short – from how our hero describes the scene, particularly that they were mixing their powder low to conserve resources- I presume the Dervishes are firing with muskets rather than rifles. The British fire back at the stone building. The Dervishes return fire with cutting comments on the British soldiers parentage. Our hero turns to his commander, Lord Ismay and begs to be the one to charge the defences – All we have to do is cover the 400 yards, make a 3 foot jump across a deep embankment, then in the front door. Once we breach the front door it is all over for them. Ismay lets his eager second in charge lead the assault. Our hero, Adrian Carton de Wiart would write years later how they charged the enemy – returning a volley of bullets with their own volley. They were quickly up the hill and within feet of the target, when he catches a bullet to the face. To quote

“By this time I was seething with excitement. I got a glancing blow in my eye, but I was too wound up to stop – I had to go on trying to get in.”

Following the bullet to the eye, Carton de Wiart gets hit with a ricochet, striking him in the elbow. Frenetically he returns fire. Another bullet hits him, this time glancing along the side of his head and going through his ear. Our hero steps back from the melee long enough to have his ear sewed back up, then re-joins the fray. This time a second bullet ricochets, catching him again in his damaged eye – so close to his target, yet so far. Adrian Carton de Wiart is taken away from the front line. His men relieved for a while by an Indian battalion, who similarly cannot make their way to the front door, and eventually have to give up. The next day they ascend Shimber Berris, only to find the Dervishes have scarpered. I imagine to the defenders this experience birthed tales of noble defence akin to the siege of Saragarthi, or Rorkes Drift – what we have though is a chapter in the life of the unkillable, Adrian Carton de Wiart – often his tale was of insane misadventure, when compared to, say Mad Jack Churchill or Audie Murphy – but it is far too crazy a tale not to share. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Season 1 Episode 7, The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart.

(Theme music- Ishtar ‘The Enemy Within’)

Adrian Carton de Wiart was a lifelong, professional soldier who saw action in many, many theatres of war. He served for many years as a British officer, spent some of his life as a mercenary in the employ of Poland, then returned to the British when World War Two broke out. His career spanned from the 2nd Boer war in 1899, till just after World War Two ended in 1945. You just don’t see that kind of longevity, and normally when you do – like in the case of Baron Edmund Ironside – the model for novelist John Buchan’s Richard Hannay – well, his short stint in World War Two was a desk job. Another thing which makes Adrian Carton de Wiart so remarkable is the number of scrapes he survived, and the number of serious injuries he shook off. At least eleven serious gunshot wounds, including multiple shots to the head, over two occasions. Shots to the stomach, leg, groin, hand and ankle. He survived two plane crashes, being shot at by planes while driving at dangerous speeds down winding country roads; survived trenches, revolutions, and mad mullahs, dug his way out of a prisoner of war camp- literally single-handed at an age where many would be collecting their pension. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s cover a little early biographical information.

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was born 5th May 1880 to an aristocratic Belgian family in Brussels. Whether true or not there is a rumour he was the illegitimate son of King Leopold II. Regardless of this his father, his family were noteworthy – his father Leon being a well to do international lawyer . He grew up in Belgium, after the early death of his mother Ernestine, Egypt, then on to private schooling in Britain – first a posh prep school then Oxford University’s Baliol college, to study law. While he enjoyed the company at Oxford, he was a terrible student, and in 1899, seized upon the 2nd Boer war in South Africa as a means of escape. At this point he was still a year too young to enlist, and being a Belgian citizen (his mother was part Irish being the only tie to the country) ineligible to serve for the British – so he changed his surname to Carton, got hold of some fake documents, and enlisted under phony details.

Adrian, at this time a bottom of the rung grunt in Paget’s Horse, Yeomanry regiment fell in love with soldiering. His stories in South Africa at this time are nothing special. Not long after arriving, and acclimatizing, and before he’d seen any significant action he was ambushed by a couple of Boer soldiers while crossing a river. He was shot in the stomach and groin and sent home – His dishonesty was uncovered, and his father, Leon was furious at Adrian for enlisting. Once recovered he would beg his father to allow him to re-enlist – he was just wasting his time at Oxford after all, and had found his niche in the army. Leon relented. Adrian Carton de Wiart became a naturalized British citizen and re-enlisted, being sent back to South Africa, with the Imperial Light Horse Brigade. The remainder of his time there would consist of drudgery – next to no action, a lot of aimless wandering from one post to another. In 1902 he took his first commission as an officer, and tried to get himself sent to Somaliland – remember the war there started in 1899 – but got sent to India to serve with the 4th Dragoon guards.

Most of his next 12 years was more or less free of conflict – and full of sports, hunting – a lot of killing animals for sport – the kind of hi-jinks you imagine when talking of upper crust Brits and use the word Hi-jinks really. Drinking, gambling, party tricks. In 1904 he was sent to Pretoria for more of the same – loved playing polo there. In 1908 he was sent back to serve in Britain, and only decided to look for an overseas posting when, on 3rd January 1914 his father sent him the message he had gone bust playing the stock market, and the allowance he got, which propped up his gambling, horses, sports and hi-jinks – would cease immediately. Needing the money Adrian signed up to fight in Somaliland, not knowing World War One was only around the corner – something which made him sad to hear, as for now he was trapped in an obscure country on the horn of Africa fighting in a sideshow to a sideshow, while all the big action was going on, on the continent.

Now, back to the aftermath of Shimber Barris, where Adrian had been shot – technically twice – in the left eye. The field surgeons could do nothing for him, and sent him to Egypt. The Egyptian doctors wanted to remove his eye, but Adrian refused – he had a reason for this. Now, while his autobiography does give an indication he was far more upset by this twist in the tale than most of the articles do, he knew if he was fixed up in Egypt he would be sent back to Somaliland – If he is sent to London, he would be, if found fit for duty after the surgery – sent to Europe to fight in the main event. Back in England his eye was removed. He is declared fit for service so long as he wore a glass eye (he didn’t) and sent him to France.

he got his wish redeploying in France and Belgium, where he saw action at the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, 2nd battle of Ypres and Arras among others. In February 1915 he sailed for France with his own infantry battalion, later on commanding a whole brigade. Adrian Carton de Wiart would win much praise for his soldiering and leadership, and he would also pick up several injuries. On arriving at the 2nd Battle of Ypres his battalion was sent out to relieve a previous battalion. On getting to the site he wandered ahead with a small group to meet the staff officer, only to be greeted by a pile of dead- mostly German bodies. Out of nowhere a volley of fire came their way, Carton de Wiart catching a shot to the hand which sent his watch out as shrapnel – embedding into the wound further. His hand badly mangled, Carton de Wiart got back on his feet and pursued his attackers, who fled. He then turned around and headed back to base. The terms in which he described his injuries are probably gory enough that I could get the podcast marked explicit, but will say he had all but lost two fingers and a whole lot more besides. He was sent back to London to recuperate – doctors trying, for the rest of 1915 to save his hand, and removing a little more at a time as it went bad. Eventually they amputated the hand, and three weeks later Adrian Carton de Wiart was on a boat headed back to the continent.

There is a tale, soon after returning and being posted to the Somme, Adrian Carton de Wiart is called on to clear the Germans out of the village of La Boiselle, France. They had tried twice before, both times leading to a bloody defeat. This was confirmed on their arrival, by large piles of dead British bodies in the middle of no man’s land. In a particularly tough battle three unit commanders were killed, and things had taken a dire turn. Carton de Wiart, through force of personality, and tactical smarts, took command of all 3 battalions and rallied the troops, winning the battle. This was a hard won battle with many casualties but it highlights why he was so highly regarded.

The Somme laid waste to whole stretches of forest, and over 1,000,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Later, In the battle of the Somme he was shot, again, through the skull, and ankle. The head injury is particularly shocking. Sent out at night to capture a particularly dangerous wooded area, high wood – named the Devil’s wood by some, Carton de Wiart was surprised by a sudden attack from out of nowhere. Carton de Wiart, quote

“We were still moving up when suddenly I found myself flat on my face, with the sensation that the whole of the back of my head had been blown off”

Holmes, his servant, managed to get him to shelter and they sat the battle out, before attempting to get medical help. He had been struck by a machine gun bullet at the back of the skull – which had gone clean through the back of his skull – managing to avoid anything necessary for life. This wound did not keep him off the battlefield for long. That night though he was one of a very few survivors of the botched attack.

On the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month of 1918 Armistice was signed and the First World War all but ended. Adrian Carton De Wiart summed up his wartime experience simply “Frankly I had enjoyed the war”. When I say the war was all but finished – in an effort to rearrange post World War One Europe several new conflicts broke out. Take Poland as an example. We’ll take a quick break here, and return to discuss the next chapter in the life of Adrian Carton De Wiart

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Merle Oberon – Dark Angel

Hi folks, welcome back to the blog. This week I want to delve into Hollywood a little, and look at a tale I personally find tragic, disturbing, and a little window into just how much our mores have changed in the last couple of generations. Today I think the reaction by many to our subject’s twin secrets would be on the first count, so what? And on the second, to show great sympathy for our subject’s hellish upbringing – her mother’s too for that matter. Hopefully some righteous anger towards her deadbeat father- but I am getting ahead of myself a little. In her, less enlightened, less woke time her secrets hung on her like a scarlet letter, and if exposed to the more puritanical folk of her time, would likely have ruined her. She bore these secrets heavily. In 1978 her façade began to crumble, the effects of this possibly bringing on her early death the following year. Today I want to shine a light on the tale of one time Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon, a Dark Angel if ever there was one. Apologies ahead of time if this comes out remotely Kenneth Anger-esque – this is not my intention.

To start we should begin in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978. In the numerous texts exact dates are scarce, but it appeared to be in November, maybe early December. Several months earlier the Lord Mayor of Hobart (also never named in the sources, but it has to be Doug Plaister, a former competitive swimmer, turned business owner, turned Lord Mayor from 1976 to 1984.) well, Mayor Doug contacts Merle Oberon directly. ‘As one of our most famous and successful expatriates, the city of Hobart would love to throw a shindig in our town hall in your honour. We’ll put on some food and drink, get the press out – even put on a band – and then there’ll be speeches and stuff- it’ll be a blast’. This is how I imagine the conversation going anyway. Truthfully it was to be quite a flashy, and formal shindig, probably with a very formal letter. The town hall had been host to another famous guest that year, thanks to Mayor Doug – none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Merle accepted the invitation.

Now the story of Merle Oberon that everyone knew at that time was she was born in Tasmania, to an aristocratic British family in 1911. When she was young her father died while away on a hunting expedition, and she moved to India to live with her wealthy, aristocratic godparents. As can happen there was a fire in the building holding her birth certificate and other official documentation, and all official papers concerning her origins went up in smoke. In 1928 Merle left India for Britain to be in the movies, eventually catching the eye of acclaimed film director Sir Alexander Korda in 1933. Korda cast Merle as Anne Boleyn opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Whether Korda, or anyone else thought her a great actor – and I suspect probably not, what film I could find of her online lacks all subtlety and nuance… basically she recites lines in a breathy, Mid Atlantic accent: all melodrama – I doubt anyone questioned her X factor in front of a camera. Strikingly beautiful, luminous; a raven-haired, almond eyed beauty with an aristocratic air – Merle Oberon certainly commanded one’s attention. Besides being beautiful, she also looked kind of exotic – there was something almost oriental about her appearance, but nothing you could pin down for certain. Given the racial politics at the time, being slightly exotic looking made one quite bankable, but actually being from an exotic place would limit the amount of work, and the type of work you might get… but this was ok for Merle, she was an English blue blood after all – even if born in Tasmania.

To run a potted history of Merle Oberon’s acting career – it went pretty well for her. She may not have been in the first rank of actresses, but she did play the lead in a number of films opposite some top leading men. Besides her role in The Private life of Henry VIII she had a leading role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) opposite Leslie Howard, played a love interest caught in a love triangle in Dark Angel alongside Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. She had the role of Claudius’ wife Messalina in a 1937 production of I Claudius, which got canned after Oberon was involved in a serious car crash. She starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), played Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée. Her career stretched all the way out to 1973.

She had four marriages, first to director Alexander Korda (1939- 45), then a cinematographer called Lucien Ballard (1945-49), third a wealthy Italian industrialist called Bruno Pagliai (1957-73) and finally Robert Wolders, a television actor, from 1975 till her death. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1935 for her role in Dark Angel, but lost out to Bette Davis – clearly a lot of people disagree with my claim she was an awful actress. She had a couple of notable off screen dramas – a car crash in 1937 left her badly injured. In 1940 her biographers claimed she got a bad skin infection from an allergic reaction to antibiotics, and had to spend a small fortune on dermabrasion treatments to try and fix the damage. The sources also claim she used skin whitening cream early in her career, and over time began to look more and more olive skinned – so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt. She became Lady Korda in 1942 after then hubby Alexander was knighted. She had two known affairs, one in 1941 with a disfigured RAF fighter pilot called Richard Hillary. The other affair was an on again- off again thing with the Duke, John Wayne, throughout most of the 1940s. For her affairs and multiple marriages however, she maintained an elegant, respectable public image.

Back to 1978, Merle Oberon arrives in Hobart for her shindig. Things have been going on at the council however – after the Lord Mayor had invited, and Merle accepted someone decided to go do a little research. Sure, Merle Oberon claimed to have come from Hobart, and sure over the years people popped up to claim they remembered the time in school when Merle did this or that, and how they knew she was destined to be a star and so forth – but people lie, and sometimes memories are nowhere near as sharp as we like to believe. It soon became apparent to the researcher in the council’s employ that Merle’s origin story was bullshit. There was no aristocratic father killed out hunting. There was no fire which destroyed a bunch of birth records. No documentation full stop. The problem the council faced however was they discovered this a little too late. The advertising was out, Merle Oberon’s arrival was imminent. The decision was made to just keep quiet, have the shindig, let her go on her way. The problem was, when she did show up she was clearly under huge pressure. At the ceremony she broke down during her acceptance speech and fled the room.

During the rest of her stay she remained hidden in her hotel room, refusing to speak with reporters – allegedly, well actually almost certainly correctly claiming she was very unwell. Friends and family have claimed the stress from the Hobart incident did send her health into a downward spiral, from which she never recovered. She died November 23rd 1979, after having a stroke.

So, who was Merle Oberon exactly? What were these twin mysteries which dogged her career and ultimately sent her into a downward spiral. Well, firstly that she was, shock – horror, Anglo-Indian in origin – I know right, in a day and age where the entertainment industry is at least making an effort to cast a little more diverse some of us might shrug that off – I don’t know if Anglo Indian, or Iranian, or Afro-American, or anyone other than white actors would feel that imbalance is anywhere near redressed today- but I think we can all agree Hollywood at the time was very very white. Often when the role required a non white, they cast white actors anyway – Anna May Wong, Lupe Valez and Sabu the Elephant boy were rarities, and very often typecast into one type of role for their short careers. The second part, is genuinely disturbing.

Charlotte Selby was born sometime around 1885 in Ceylon – modern day Sri Lanka. The sources say she was part Indian, part Maori. Many also refer to her as Eurasian so she may have had some European blood too. For many years though, she was known in Hollywood circles as Merle Oberon’s Indian valet. Aged only 13 or 14 she met an Irish tea planter out on the plantations, and had a brief relationship which left her with baby. Soon after Constance Selby was born. Clearly Charlotte and the unnamed Irishman (in two dozen articles and two books!!) never married, Constance carried her mother’s maiden name – and whether out of a sense of having brought shame to the family, or because the opportunities were better elsewhere, Charlotte Selby – a child with a child – moved to Bombay, India – known as Mumbai since 1995.

Things looked on the up and up when Charlotte met a young railway engineer from Darlington UK named Arthur Thompson. The two fell in love, and married…. And Arthur impregnated Charlotte’s 12 year old daughter Constance, who gave birth to Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911.

To avoid a repeat of what I imagine was a great scandal which befell Charlotte, she adopted Estelle as her own, claiming to all who would ask, Constance was her elder sister and not the mother. Arthur high-tailed it out of Bombay, joining the army soon after. His death certificate states he died of pneumonia in 1915, caught in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.

Now the next part of the tale I only have commentary of friends, confidants and Hollywood gossipmongers to go on, in a handful of online documentaries. The family, it is said, lived in extreme, subsistence poverty for several years in the less attractive parts of Bombay. Constance would come of age and marry a guy called Alexander Soares – she would have four more children who all called their older sister aunty – at least till later in life Harry, the oldest son, discovered the truth chasing up Aunty Merle’s birth certificate. Some sources suggested a teenaged Merle may have sold herself as a high end escort to get the money together to escape India, others stating she continued doing this in England till discovered by Alexander Korda – but somehow Merle and mother/grandmother Charlotte scraped the money together to get over to London in 1928, where Merle was sure she could become a big name actress. I completely understand why she would not have wanted this public knowledge – but ultimately none of this is on her. I hope at least that the vast majority of us in this age would not slut shame a Merle Oberon for a sordid family secret not of her making. In an age of #metoo Arthur Thompson would be excoriated by public opinion – probably shamed out of his job and off all social media. Merle Oberon was probably right though to suspect, in her time, she would have been the one shamed – the one to carry the Scarlet Letter.

Podcast Episode 6: Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen.

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Hi all thanks for joining me. Our tale begins today close to it’s chronological end, in September 1593. We’re at Greenwich palace, a now long demolished royal residence on the river Thames- it’s now the site of a naval hospital if anyone’s wondering- and there waits England’s fairy Queen, Elizabeth I. She’s there to meet with a rival queen who she has been at loggerheads with since 1574, her own fault as she has encroached on the latter queen’s lands from as early as 1558. No, if you’re wondering, we’re not talking of Mary Queen of Scots – at this point Mary was dead, in her grave for a little over 6 years, nor was she meeting with some Spanish Infanta. While making notes for this episode something the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said kept coming back up… Quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

One queen, by Emerson’s reckoning would have been pretty much the Law lord, this is Elizabeth – Her ancestors had violently ascended the ladder to the top, and while her reign was notable for a number of battles, she had the privilege of letting others spill blood for her. Was she the stereotypically genteel image we would associate with her now? Not so much so. Elizabeth had rotten, brown teeth. Her skin was constantly covered in Venetian ceruse, a thick mask of white lead and vinegar, which must have smelled… like a mixture of white lead and vinegar. She wore this mask more to cover terrible pock marks left from a bout of smallpox, and the lead content may well have caused her death not too long after this tale. In itself venetian ceruse was known to have a disfiguring effect on others. I don’t intend to say this to be mean, but mention this as a number of tales paint the other queen as something far more savage – I am not convinced 21st century eyes would have viewed them that differently from one another.

The other queen, however was still very much a warlord, a bona fide pirate queen who made her name leading her ships into battle, raiding enemy ships and towns, and looting with the best of them. She knew how to fight with the best of them. The queen about to make dock was none other than Grace O’Malley, leader of the Irish region of Connaught. Today I want to look at her remarkable life, and how it lead to this fateful meeting. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination, Season 1 Episode 6, Grace O’Malley- Pirate Queen.

(theme music Ishtar The Enemy Within)

Grace O’Malley, aka – and sorry I’m going to butcher some if not all of these Gaelic pronunciations- Grainne Mhaille was born some time around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – John and Margaret in modern speak. Eoghan was the feudal lord of Umhaill, a territory in Connaught, now County Cork, Ireland. As a local aristocrat whose family held power in the area he was far more in the vein of the warlord than the law lord – He provided protection for the locals, taxed their income, and actively drew income as a privateer and occasional merchant. For all their lineage, it was their ability to inflict violence on any challenger which kept them at the top of the pile. In the West of Ireland they were well beyond the pale – the outer border of the Dublin region then under English rule, but during his lifetime Eoghan would see Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII encroach upon his land, till Henry had enough of the land to crown himself of King of Ireland in 1542. Grace would grow up viewing the English as the aggressive imperialists next door. Henry VIII would rule until his death in 1547, passing the crown to his 9 year old son, his only son, Edward VI, who in turn died in 1553 – the cause of death most likely the disease of the previous episode, tuberculosis. Lady Jane Grey, a relative from another branch of the family tree held the crown for nine days, before getting locked away in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. She died of, likely ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, passing the crown to Queen 1 in this tale, Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I

Grace’s tale of her rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. Because he was considered the bastard son, the title would eventually pass to Grace. This was lucky for Connaught in a way; legend has it Donal was well liked, and a born entertainer who would break into song on the drop of a hat. He wasn’t interested in the piracy and pillaging that was his father’s stock and trade though. Grace on the other hand lived for the seven seas. From a young age she showed an interest in seafaring, and legend has it when she asked to join her father on a trading journey to Spain the other sailors laughed at her stating her long hair would get caught in the ropes. As a result she cut her hair off, embarrassing her father into let her go. It turned out she was a natural, and would regularly sail with her father after, learning the trade. Aged 16 she would marry Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another local chieftain, and would bear her first child with Donal at 17. Contrast to Elizabeth, she may have found love- it is most often suggested she was lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who managed to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing networks and interests it would have been very difficult for Elizabeth to ever marry, whether for love or otherwise – without upsetting some faction or other. Of course Grace’s marriage was not apolitical though – it led to the consolidation of quite a large region under one family. She would have two sons and a daughter with Donal, and for a time retired from the sea. She did not have a long marriage to Donal. In the 1560’s, I have read a dozen books and articles and anywhere from 1560 to 1565 are quoted (1560 seems most trustworthy however) – Donal came to a messy end fighting with the neighboring Joyce clan over a long disputed castle on the shores of Lough Corrib. Grace, ever the warrior queen, retaliated – invading the castle and ousting the Joyces. While many in the tribe were impressed by how capable Grace was as a military leader, sexism came into play and Donal’s titles and land were passed to a cousin. She returned to her family with a small army in tow, set herself up on nearby Clare Island, and returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’, I guess in a way similar to how Tony Soprano summed his work up as ‘waste management’? Now in time she would pick up her father’s titles however, and her sons recapture their father’s lost chieftainship.

As with much of Grace’s life, there is little by way of documentation as to what specifically she was doing at this point, but what exists shows she had put together a standing army of 200, with which she would do battle with certain neighboring chiefs, as well as carrying out regular raids along the coasts of Scotland. She had a business transporting ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland for allied chieftains in their battles, and according to one 1593 report from an English governor, had begun fomenting an opposition to English encroachment by this time. One story which does survive from this time, in 1565 a ship floundered off nearby Achill Head, on a particularly stormy day. Looking to salvage whatever she could from the wreck Grace set off into the storm. The texts I have read don’t say what treasure she may have found there, but she did find one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but not for long, as he was killed by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. The tales don’t make much of her being now twice unlucky in love, but all point out she now had two strategic points where she could capture a lot of passing booty – and it is at this point that she begins to become both very well known, and extremely wealthy.

Much of her tale at this time really is more folklore than history. One tale has it that Grace chased one neighboring chieftain who had tried to steal from her to a small island which contained just a church and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church Grace besieged the church and threatened to stay there till he starved to death if need be, but the chieftain dug a tunnel to safety. This is generally brought up to point out how godless Grace was, apparently.

One tale which was meant to show her in a different light goes as follows. One night returning from a raid Grace found herself needing to take rest at the town of Howth, near Dublin. They had run low on provisions and needed water particularly to get them home. She called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth, only to find the castle gates locked and a porter with a message that the Earl is not to be disturbed. He was dining. Sent packing she just so happened to come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. They boarded and headed for home. Not too long after they were visited by the Earl himself, distraught and willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace agreed to his return, not for money but for a promise that in future the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors, and when he dined he would always keep a chair free, for any passing traveler who stopped by – a tradition which remains to this day. The sources tell this as an example of her daring and level headedness- I think it is an interesting window into the heavily honor bound society she lived in where small sleights would often escalate into clan warfare, to a degree does show some level headedness – and does serve as a reminder of how different a time they lived in than us. One just has to think back to the Chibok schoolgirl kidnappings in Nigeria April 14 2014- by members of Boko Haram – and the subsequent worldwide condemnation of the act. We’re not so quick to make heroes of kidnappers these days.

In 1566 she remarried, to another chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – for his ironworks of course – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued a life of plunder – story has it they soon divorced, but not before bearing Richard a son – known as Toby of the Ships as he was born onboard a ship while away pirating. Legend has it that a day after giving birth, somewhere off the Irish coast they were boarded by Barbary pirates of Algerian origin who had strayed a long way from home. These Barbary picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by this half naked, angry lady with a musket – furious not just by their presence but that they dare arrive while she was breastfeeding. They fled for their lives. Grace O’Malley’s life continued in much this manner till 1574, which we’ll discuss right after this break.

(break music)

Hi folks welcome back, so things take a turn for the worse around 1574. Now one might appreciate when Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542 it was largely a nominal thing, not of any great importance to people beyond the area which England controlled – the area known as the pale. Without digressing too far, when he made the proclamation it was not too long after England had officially brought Wales in, ad he had turned his attentions to Scotland. In 1544 Henry found himself at war with France, and soon after all but bankrupt from that war. Had he lived longer he may have taken a shot at the 60 independent chieftains in Ireland, but the stars were never to align for Henry. For Elizabeth, she would move in that direction, but didn’t make any serious moves against the O’Malleys’ until they became too big a problem to ignore anymore. This would happen in 1576.

Now this is not to say Elizabeth I didn’t think of an all out takeover of Ireland before this time. In 1565 it was mooted. Catholic Spain began to get very concerned over growing protestant numbers in the Netherlands, then under their control. Protestant England started to worry about a Spanish invasion, and the very real possibility they would take over Ireland as a home base. England didn’t have the resources at the time to launch an invasion – though they had a number of subjects they could resettle there, just to make the place more English. Like any colonization this meant an arrival of second sons of the gentry intent on building a fortune for themselves denied by primogeniture – the practice of passing everything to the first born son, of chancers, adventurers, and of the kind of bad men who can facilitate a land grab off the locals. Ireland quickly found itself overrun by these craven, desperate characters who viewed the native Irish in much the same way as the Spanish Conquistadors say, or the Jamestown settlers viewed the people of the Americas- savage, backwards, and unless you were talking about them as a cheap source of labour – then they were otherwise an impediment to progress. By 1569, in spite of active opposition by the chieftains, the English had established a military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to wield a big stick in Connaught. He had backing by a counterpart in Sir John Perot, in Munster. Both men had sizeable military support, and they began to work out how they would carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many of the chieftains put up a resistance. The MacWilliam of Mayo (something like a chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam had given in by his death in 1570, handing much of Connaught to the English. In the face of an opposition still choosing to scrap it out, in 1576 the English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make the chieftains an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting now. Pledge allegiance to the crown, including paying the crown tax and complying to their laws. Get rid of the Gallowglasses in the area. Provide a contingent of Irish soldiers to the crown. If you doo all of this you will get your titles back, and some of your land. If you choose to keep fighting, then the offer is off the table. This was put to the chieftains in a meeting in Galway. In 1577 Grace met with Henry Sidney and pledged her allegiance to the crown. She also spent quite some time in conversation with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney – who recorded how remarkable he found O’Malley, but not what they discussed. In a book of his aphorisms collated long after his death Sir Philip Sydney would say “The only disadvantage of an honest heart is credulity.” He may have felt more than a little credulous, foolish – when almost immediately afterward she launched a raid on a rival chief, the Earl of Desmond, who had sold out to the English early on in the piece. This raid did not go as well as her raids usually did however, and Grace was captured and jailed for 18 months for the attack. In 1581 both her and Richard Bourke officially pledged their fealty, and were rewarded with British titles, and things may have settled to a point – no doubt the two would continue to provide low key resistance, but Ireland would likely have remained a safe place for the British colonizers and the sell outs – but in 1584 a new governor arrived. The new governor was a hard nosed ball breaker by the name of Sir Richard Bingham – yes the same family as the later John Bingham, Lord Lucan – who became infamous in 1974 when he botched a murder attempt on his wife, killing the nanny – then disappearing without a trace. Well Richard Bingham was determined to put down all opposition whatsoever by the chieftains, and he saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.

Bingham, first undermined Grace’s title – which he saw largely based on her marriage to Bourke (their divorce was only temporary), Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace yet again a widow, and now ruled by a law which stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, having two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage executed for treason, kidnapping the beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships – and finally Bingham had Grace arrested with the intent of having her executed also. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham did allow, for some reason. Seizing the opportunity Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and out of desperation sailed for London. She knew she could not fight Bingham – he had been using similar tactics with other chieftains, decimating all opposition – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. She was somewhere around the same age Grace is believed to have been born in 1530, Elizabeth in 1536. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us full circle- back to that meeting at Greenwich palace in September 1593. As typical of much of this story, their meeting wasn’t sufficiently recorded. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we do know they did have a long conversation in Latin- Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- both spoke the lingua franca of the time however. We know they were expecting Grace to show up looking like a stereotypical peasant, but when she arrived she had recently bathed – no mean feat in Elizabethan England – but that is a whole other topic. She also showed up wearing a fine gown to rival any courtier – although she caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, was found to have a knife on her ‘for her protection’ and, at one point had Elizabeth’s court horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace. We do know she did state she was a loyal subject who was being unfairly targeted by Bingham – who had robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She argued that Bingham was stopping her pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to leav her and her family alone – and to release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595 – this time not just getting her backing, but for a time getting Bingham removed from his post. Though this was very far from a happily ever after for the people of Connaught – it did not take a terribly long time for Bingham to regain his title, and things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish – Grace O’Malley, a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword would live to a ripe old age for those times of 72, and die of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

Thank you for tuning in all, this one is a bit of a personal one for me – though I’m no aristocrat I do have family ties back to Ireland- and according to a DNA test have quite a bit of blood from Connaught. I’ll be back on the podcast in a few weeks’ time with a new tale. I will have a new blog post up on the in between week at Please like, share, follow us on Facebook – or Instagram, both under Tales of History and Imagination. If you liked this episode please share us around.
Music this week as always provided by Ishtar- a former New Zealand based hard rock group who, if they could be Grace O’Malley or Elizabeth I would have been Grace any day. Take care folks we’ll be back soon.

The Vela Incident; why radioactive sheep matter.

For he who grew up tall and proud,
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Convinced our voices can’t be heard,
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

Queen- Hammer to Fall.

Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”

On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused.
OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.

Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.

Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.

One of the Vela satellites.

The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else.
As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.

In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor.
Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).

This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary.
See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.