Category Archives: Military History

Reader Challenge: On J.F.C Fuller

Hi everyone, this week I’m doing things a little differently. I think this will be a one off, but the process was fun. A few weeks before this will publish I got a message via the portal from WordPress follower Tom Doberman – Hi Tom. His question, have I thought of picking a date then doing a post based on that date. Short answer yes, I did the Christmas Carol episode last year, on the stories of O Henry – writer of Gift of the Magi, and Lee Shelton, the man behind the Stagger Lee legend.

I’m also planning a Halloween week this year, a post a day for five days all on ghosts, and monsters and other spooky things.

But’, Tom replied, ‘what about a normal day on the calendar?’
I said no, but I could. The next date free was 15th September. According to the ‘today in history’ type sites, what happened on this day that I could spin an odd tale out of?

Hmm… not my usual brand of history really…. OK let’s go with the tanks.

A Very Graceful Machine

As stated – tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme, September 15th 1916. The Western Front had devolved into a messy stalemate with an ever growing death toll, while the opposing trenches stretched out for hundreds of miles. Neither side’s infantry, or cavalry could make any headway on the other. They just sat there in the damp trenches waiting to become cannon fodder. The top brass were eager for any solution to this dilemma, no matter how mad. Putting Da Vinci sketches aside for a moment, the idea of a tank like contraption had been floated before.

In 1855 inventor James Cowen had built a model he named a ‘Locomotive Land Battery’, hoping Britain would develop and use his steampunk contraption in the Crimean War. The top brass passed on Cowen’s invention. In the First World War the ‘landship’ got the green light – Lincolnshire agricultural machinery manufacturers William Foster & Co were awarded the contract. The prototype, nicknamed Little Willy, was described by one officer who is very important to our tale as


…a very graceful machine with beautiful lines. Lozenge- shaped, but with two clumsy looking wheels behind it.


Little Willy came to be known as the Mark I. Landships were re-named tanks.
The first tanks were horrendously unreliable; buggy and constantly breaking down. Many early crews found them death traps – but at their best, they were spectacular. Where soldiers were stuck in the mud, a tank could just roll over trenches, crush razor wire, and shake off machine gun fire like it was nothing. Over the course of the war they developed – the bugs ironed out of the design. The French seemed especially tank mad in these early days, making a lot of tanks, and working out many of those teething pains. The Germans also got into the tank game towards the end of the war, but of course were banned from owning any tanks after, as per the Treaty of Versailles.

For all the French innovation, Britain should have had an unassailable lead in the tank game. It didn’t work out that way. To explain why, we first must meet the man from the ‘lozenge’ quote, Major General John Frederick Charles ‘Boney’ Fuller (1878- 1966).

Now, when discussing J.F.C Fuller you must keep two things in mind. 1. He was a brilliant military strategist, and 2. he was a remarkably unlikeable guy. Perhaps his sense of ‘otherness’ distanced him from other soldiers – he was a short, slightly built guy who preferred staying home reading classic literature over mixing with his peers (if you recall the tale of his contemporary Adrian Carton De Wiart; De Wiart’s downtime was full of sports, drinking and pulling off dangerous stunts) – I don’t think it justifies his argumentativeness, bloody-mindedness, and utter disdain for his fellow officers; so evident in letters, essays and documents left behind by (or concerning) him. By today’s standards, his white supremacist views would be abhorrent to wide swathes of society today, but it was his strong belief in occultism, particularly the Thelemic Mysticism of his close friend Aleister Crowley, that separated him from many of his peers.


Fuller had been trained at Sandhurst, before being assigned to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in the 2nd Boer War. During the war he formed an opinion that wars should be fought with increasingly agile forces, at lightning fast speed, as opposed to slow, steady and methodical formations. After the war he was sent to India – where he fed his passion for occultism – before coming back to the United Kingdom to take on a role at Staff College, Camberley. When World War One broke out, the top brass put him to work coming up with strategies and tactics. Much of the time he rubbed his superiors up the wrong way – in one task they were worried a large number of sheep on rural roads would hamper a quick defence if needed and tasked Fuller to come up with signs. Fuller replied asking what to do with the sheep who were illiterate. When the tank came along however, Fuller began planning tactics in earnest. He came up with a strategy called ‘Plan 1919’.

Fuller believed the way to stop an army was to win the battle in a single, decisive attack on it’s command. If you took a large contingent of tanks, and drove them straight through enemy lines – directly for the high command who were safely ensconced an hour from the front – the front lines would not realize what was happening till it was too late. They would also be powerless to stop you. When you smashed the command, the army would turn into little more than a rabble and soon surrender.

Fuller never had the chance to test his plan. The war came to an end in November 1918, by other means. In peacetime he became an advocate for the widespread adoption of the tank by the military. He met opposition, on the face of it from generals who wanted to return to using cavalry. In 1919 he wrote an essay advocating for tank warfare, reminding everyone of the great advances made – but of a need to keep developing. Fuller wrote

Race horses don’t pull up at the winning post”.

His essay won him a gold medal from the think tank The Royal United Services Institute. His superiors were furious at his subordination. Fuller continued to be a thorn in the side of top brass until 1926. In 1926 he was offered a promotion, and command over a new infantry force, which would include tanks – but also included foot soldiers. Fuller wanted no part of the foot soldiers, and resigned. In the following years Fuller would become involved in fascist groups, including Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists; but far more concerning, the Nazi party. General Heinz Guderian was a particularly big fan of Fuller, and invited him to see the rollout of the Panzer tank in 1935.


Why did Britain not take up the tank?

… at least not till much later (it is true that as war broke out the top brass ordered 1,000% more hay for their horses, even insisting their few tank commanders also keep a horse in reserve.) This would change, at a huge cost to them.

Fuller’s unlikeability probably played a small role, but it appears the biggest reasons revolved around the British armed forces not being set up for tanks. First, who owns them? If they are put in with cavalry they are a bad cultural fit and sow discord among cavalry officers, concerned the tanks are there to take their jobs. As a result they will do their best to undermine them. If a separate division, then they become competitors with every other division of the army, for attention and resources, running the risk of being deliberately stifled by top brass looking out for their pet projects. Does the British army even have the organizational architecture to develop tank divisions, people (Fuller aside) with the skill sets to build the division, and to know what to do with it? Think of recent examples in business – Xerox built the first personal computer in their Palo Alto ‘PARC’ facility in 1970, but were not set up to do anything with the invention. Sony built a digital music player before the iPod, but did not have the organizational architecture to capitalize either.

No doubt some generals were struck with the ‘innovators dilemma’ if you’re in at the ground floor, you also get to see all the flaws, all of the bugs. These blind you to the future potential of the tank – baggage other nations are not burdened with. No doubt some generals just felt mechanized warfare ‘ungentlemanly’ and wanted no part in it.

Of course one power had none of that baggage. Nazi Germany more or less rebuilt their military from scratch, free of such limitations. General Guderian turned to Fuller’s writings, and put his plan 1919 to use, first in the invasion of Poland, then much of Western Europe. Dunkirk was quite a wake up call. Of course they gave it a different name – the Blitzkrieg.

OK, back to normal transmission next week – Simone.

Tipu’s Tiger

Local legend in the Kingdom of Mysore tells the following tale.

One day, a young prince named Tipu went out hunting in the jungle with a friend – sometimes portrayed as a French mercenary in the service of the prince’s father – the fearsome Hyder Ali. While tracking a local deer or antelope the two men were surprised by a giant tiger leaping out at them from the undergrowth.
As stealthily as they had been while stalking their prey; the tiger had been even quieter, more stealthy, more cunning. The beast seized Tipu’s companion by the throat, crushing his windpipe and severing his jugular in one fell swoop. Before Prince Tipu could react, the big cat spun around on him, knocking his gun from his hand. Tipu drew his sword, but the tiger leapt, striking him full force in the chest; sending the sword flying.

Pinned to the canopy, the Prince and the tiger wrestled on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally successfully grasped his sword, Prince Tipu – bloodied and beaten – mustered the strength to stab the tiger. The Prince stabbed and slashed, cut and thrust till the tiger lay dead.

This, at least, is the tale explaining why Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, from 1782 – became known as ‘The Tiger of Mysore’. Tipu would adopt the tiger in his art and architecture, military uniforms (striped), even his signature.

The Kingdom of Mysore was an empire in the South of India, established at the end of the 14th Century by the Wadiyar dynasty. By the middle of the 18th century, power had passed to Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali – an Indian born soldier of possibly Iraqi or Arabian descent. Through military and political prowess Hyder Ali ascended to the throne in 1761. Father and son ruled in extremely turbulent times.



From the middle of the 18th Century, the Indian Mughal Empire began to lose much of their power, and the British East India Company – originally in India just as merchants – began vying with France to fill the power vacuum. The following series of conflicts became known as The Carnatic Wars. The British corporation, led by the sociopathic Robert Clive, won the war, taking over tax collecting rights for swathes of India and kicking British colonialism into a higher gear. This also set the scene for a conflict between the East India Company and The Kingdom of Mysore.

This tale is not about the Anglo-Mysore wars – well it is only tangentially so. The East India Company fought four wars against the Kingdom, from 1767 to 1799. These wars were bloody, and anything but one sided. While it is easy to imagine the British having the upper hand technologically, Tipu’s kingdom came to the battle with Mysorean rockets, quite possibly the first true rockets used in war. Towards the end of the war there was also a very real concern Mysore would ally with Napoleon. They only didn’t due to Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of the Nile of 1798 forcing him out of the region. The first war almost went Mysore’s way, the second was fought out to a very costly status quo antebellum – a draw. The third went against Tipu, costing him close to half his empire.


The fourth Anglo- Mysore war would cost The Tiger of Mysore his life. This brings us to the topic of this Tale.


On 4th May 1799 the fortress of Seringapatam fell. The Tiger of Mysore was killed in the battle. Looting was rife in the city. While going through a music room the British found a remarkable device. To quote from a note compiled for EIC Governor General, Marquis Wellesley

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.


Known widely as Tipu’s Tiger, the automaton depicts a near life-sized white man being mauled by a large tiger. From pipes within the device you can trigger sounds like a man screaming, and a tiger roaring. There is also a keyboard, which you can use to play the automaton as a pipe organ. It is believed Tipu’s Tiger was built some time around 1795. The British have long been convinced it depicts the 1792 mauling of EIC General Sir Hector Munro’s son by a Bengal tiger. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the region to comment, though I do have to wonder if the British have it right? One day, legend tells us, a young prince and his European companion went hunting in the jungle after all.

The Wreck of the Batavia (Part Seven: Wiebbe Hayes)

Hi all welcome to the final chapter of the Batavia saga. Apologies to the readership for the delay in finishing this tale… I had to move out of a house I’d lived in and rented for a little over a decade (the Coronavirus pandemic gave the owners time to rethink priorities, one decision was to cash in their chips on their rental property… Fair enough, I wish them well). I hope you all enjoyed the two unused tales and the re-writes I posted in the interim.

Of course a resurgence of COVID cases in Auckland, New Zealand made the move a real joy – as I waited on tenterhooks in the days up to the move to see if we were even allowed to move in the lockdown level. We were. I’m writing from my new home/office

Over several weeks we followed the wreck of the Batavia. We discussed how and why motley troupes of young Dutch citizens sailed around the world for spices and other Asian goods. We followed the heretic Jeronimus Cornelisz gradual takeover of Beacon Island, and the spate of murders that followed. We also looked at the perilous journey of Francisco Pelsaert, Ariaen Jacobsz and the crew on the lifeboat as they explored hundreds of miles of unforgiving cliffs, devoid of life – before finally finding water; then sailing for Indonesia. You can pick up the tale at parts one, two, three, four five or six on the links.

Once more we must rewind several weeks, to the High Land, and the party of explorers Cornelisz left there to die. It is time we introduced Wiebbe Hayes to the tale.

Hayes statue in Geraldton, Western Australia.

We know little about Wiebbe Hayes. He is presumed a lifelong soldier, though at this stage in life he was still a private in rank. Friesian by birth. Middle aged at the time of the wreck. Despite his rank he was clearly a man who could lead a group. He was also resourceful, with a knack for surviving in extreme environs like the Abrolhos. While stuck on the Abrolhos, others – including officers of much higher rank – turned to Hayes for leadership. Cornelisz likely saw those qualities in him, which was why he sent him without supplies to find water on an island both his own men and Pelsaert believed had none.

Unfortunately for Cornelisz, Hayes and his team found a couple of deep wells which were covered by slabs of limestone within a few days. They also found abundant fish off the coast of the High Land, and Tammars – a kind of wallaby they referred to as ‘cats’. Hayes may have wondered what Cornelisz was up to when his signal fires, lit to announce their discovery, went unheeded. He certainly knew trouble was brewing days later, when eight men escaped the massacre at Seal Island in the second week of July. Over the coming weeks the number of refugees on the High Land swelled, as dozens took their chances, a few at a time, at paddling over on home-made rafts. As an invasion from Cornelisz looked inevitable Wiebbe Hayes had 50 survivors on his island at his disposal; all aware of the prior massacres, and ready to fight to the death if need be.
Hayes turned the attentions of his camp to fabricating weapons and defenses with whatever flotsam and jetsam there was available. He knew Cornelisz and his mutineers would arrive armed with swords, pikes, home-made morning-stars and a couple of guns. Though he had a slight advantage in numbers, they needed to match like with like as best they could. They turned long planks into pikes – tipped with sixteen inch long nails salvaged from the wreckage. Morning stars were cobbled together. They came up with a catapult or slingshot, which the men christened a ‘gun’, which could hurl large chunks of coral at the mutineers. Hayes built lookout posts allowing advanced warning when Cornelisz’ men landed on the mudflats; and a small fort.

War is often a continuation of diplomacy through other means, it should not surprise anyone that Jeronimus Cornelisz’ first move was a diplomatic one.

In the final week of July, Cornelisz sent a young cadet named Daniel Cornelissen to the High Land. In his possession, a letter warning Hayes that the sailors on his island were plotting against him. He proposed Hayes capture the sailors and hand them over to him. Not surprisingly, Hayes saw the letter as an attempt to divide and conquer, and took Cornelissen captive. A few days later two dozen mutineers, led by Daniel Zevanck, landed, intending to take the island by force. Zevanck and his men landed on the mudflats and strode through the mud, only to find Hayes defenders ready and waiting for him on the other side. The specifics of the first battle went unrecorded, though we know neither side suffered casualties this time, and Zevanck’s men were forced to retreat.

On 5th August, Zevanck, backed by Cornelisz’ whole force, took another shot at taking the island. Again there was a skirmish, followed by a retreat by the mutineers. For close to a month nothing further happened. Cornelisz’ men were in no fit state to take on the better fed, well prepared defenders. Wiebbe Hayes kept his holding pattern, having no plans to attack Cornelisz’ camp. As each day passed however, pressure built up on the mutineers to take out the High Land. A number of mutineers began complaining about their need to ration food, while the defenders ate so well. Some also thought it likely a rescue ship was on it’s way, and if the ship reached the High Land first, then all was lost. Not fancying direct conflict with the defenders, Jeronimus Cornelisz came up with yet another plan. He would travel to the High Land himself, and make a peace offer – bearing much needed clothes, wine and blankets for the defenders. When they let their guard down a few days’ later, he would order the mutineers to cut them down. In the meantime, others in his party were told to try to bribe members of Hayes’ defenders to join them.

On 1st September, Cornelisz sent the preacher Gijsbert Bastiaensz over with an offer to meet and discuss peace the following day. The meeting was agreed to by Hayes.
Jeronimus Cornelisz arrived at the High Land on 2nd September. Although he landed with just a small party of trusted lieutenants, Cornelisz had the remaining mutineers placed on an embankment several metres offshore. Landing with David Zevanck, Coenraat van Huyssen, Gysbert van Welderen, Wouter Loos and Cornelis Pietersz, the mutineers were greeted by a similarly sized group of defenders. Goods were exchanged, wine passed around. Cornelisz did his best to convince Hayes they meant the defenders no harm. The uneasy truce suddenly broke however, when one of the mutineers offered a defender 6,000 guilders a man to turn on Hayes. On this suggestion Hayes’ defenders seized the delegation, except for Loos – who managed to break free and run towards the mutineers on the embankment. Knowing in a few minutes they would be inundated by mutineers, and need all hands free to fight back, Hayes gave the order to kill all captives but Cornelisz. They were run through with the pikes, and left to bleed out on the beach.

The sight of their leaders being run through with sixteen inch long spikes was enough to bring the mutineers – some mass murderers well used to blood and gore– to a dead stop. The mutineers fled back to Beacon Island. The defenders took the cloth, wine, and the heretic Jeronimus Cornelisz back to their camp. Thrown into a limestone pit, Cornelisz was put to work plucking the carcasses of sea birds.

Meanwhile, on Beacon Island, the 32 remaining mutineers elected Wouter Loos their new leader, and began to plot a revenge attack. They would attempt to take the High Land again on 17th September, and this time they would bring the guns.

Now it is worth mentioning that guns in those days were muskets; capable of firing a shot a minute, muzzle loading, with a maximum effective range of around 100 yards. All the same, when the mutineers landed around 9am on the 17th with two muskets, the ball was finally in their court. Over the next two hours Loos’ musketeers fired at the defenders from a distance. The defenders took cover behind their fortifications. Neither side attempted to charge the other. This tactic worked best for Loos, whose musketeers hit four defenders, killing one and badly wounding three others. If they could keep up their war of attrition the day would be theirs – Either sooner or later they would pick off all the defenders, or the defenders would get desperate enough to charge them. Loos believed in open combat the mutineers superior weapons would give him the advantage. All they had to do was keep their nerve…

Just then Pelsaert arrived, Deus Ex Machina, on the Sardam.


The sudden arrival of the upper merchant over the horizon suddenly changed everyone’s game plan. The mutineers left the battlefield for Beacon Island in disarray. The knew they stood a chance of taking the defenders out, then surprising the rescuers with a little space between the actions – but to fight on both fronts only led to death. Wouter Loos gave up, however Stone Cutter Pietersz rallied a number of mutineers behind him, and loaded into a boat with a plan to sail to the Sardam and take her over. The defenders could be dealt with later. Wiebbe Hayes decided the best plan was to lead a party across the High Land with their best raft and head for the Sardam to warn them. The rescue ship would be operating on a skeleton crew to allow for as much booty and survivors as possible, but if warned they would have superior weapons to the mutineers. At this stage the Sardam was docked off the northernmost tip of the High Land, Pelsaert having come ashore on a lifeboat. He was unaware of the two parties racing towards him with very different purposes.

Finally Pelsaert was greeted by a boatload of survivors

Welcome, but go back on board immediately, for there is a party of scoundrels on the islands near the wreck, with two sloops, who have the intention to seize the jacht”.

Hayes arrived first, only just. Pelsaert had barely enough time to get back on the Sardam and order crew to point their guns at the mutineers – who had just arrived armed and ready for a fight. After an intense stand-off, the mutineers threw their swords into the sea and surrendered.

In the wake of the surrender Pelsaert learned of the original plot between Cornelisz and Ariaen Jacobsz to take the Batavia, and of the massacres of 120 men, women and children on the islands. The following day several crew of the Sardam, alongside a group of defenders landed on Beacon Island to capture the half dozen mutineers not yet in custody. Though much effort was made to salvage the treasure on the Batavia, several treasure chests got left behind.

So, what happened to the survivors?

In the days following their surrender, a council was convened on the island chain to try the mutineers. Under water torture the mutineers admitted to their crimes. Cornelisz did his best to claim he was simply a follower of Ariaen Jacobsz and David Zevanck, until other mutineers were brought in to point the finger at him. He would not be broken till 28th September. Most of the other mutineers confessed freely, to avoid being tortured. On the 28th Cornelisz was sentenced to have both his hands chopped off, then to be hung from a gallows erected on Seal Island. Jan Hendricxsz, Lenert van Os, Allert Janssen and Mattys Beer would all lose a hand before hanging. Jan Pelgrom, Andries Jonas and Rutger Fredricx would be allowed to be hanged – their hands still intact. All would forfeit all their worldly possessions to the VOC. Without trap doors their deaths would all be prolonged, painful affairs.


… well almost. Jan Pelgrom begged to be spared – to be marooned in Australia; at this time uncharted, very largely unexplored by Europeans. Completely without European settlers. Wouter Loos would also be marooned in Australia. Almost 160 years before the British, at James Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks urging, began dropping of criminals in Botany Bay, Pelgrom and Loos were the lucky country’s first convicts, and first European settlers. They were dropped off on a beach which showed signs of Aboriginal settlement, but no-one knows what became of the two men.

A further nine mutineers would be taken back to Java to face punishment. Nineteen others, who had perhaps signed up with the mutineers for fear of death if they didn’t were free to go, on the provision no further evidence arose against them. In all 14 mutineers would be imprisoned in the dungeons under Castle Batavia. Five of them would be hanged. Others were flogged and exiled into the Indonesian wilderness. Stone Cutter Pietersz was broken on the wheel – tied to a giant cart wheel, then to have his arms and legs so crushed that his limbs could be tied around the curve of the wheel itself. The wheel would then be hoisted upwards, and Pietersz left to bleed out.
The skipper Ariaen Jacobsz would be held in prison and questioned till 1631. He was never officially charged, never gave in to torture. After this he just disappears from public records.

Wiebbe Hayes was promoted to sergeant while on the Abrolhos, and given a large salary bump. He would go on to become a national hero, as word of the massacre made it back to Europe… but of the man himself? He disappears from the history books soon after. On arrival at the town of Batavia he would be promoted to the officer class. From there no records of Hayes exist. The defenders were all rewarded also by pay increases, and a cash bonus.

Four mutineers from the original plot before the wreck were, unbeknownst to Pelsaert, on the longboat which sailed back to Java. They would be exposed in the investigation on the Abrolhos, but managed to escape justice on the return of the Sardam, having already sailed for other ports.

Pelsaert, before he could face a tribunal for his carelessness, would be censured when caught having an affair with a married woman in Java. He would be sent to Sumatra on other business, but be dead of a mystery virus by mid September 1630. His illegal trades while in India would be uncovered on his death, and his fortune would be seized from his family by the VOC.

The preacher Gijsbert Bastiaensz would face close scrutiny over his alleged innocence in the mutiny by the VOC. He would eventually be cleared, would remarry, and move out to the Banda Islands – the nutmeg capital of the world – where he would preach for less than two years. By 1633 he would be dead by dysentery. His only surviving daughter Judick would marry twice, and be widowed two times by 1634. The VOC, feeling sorry for her struggles, gave her a substantial cash payout which got her back to Holland.

Finally Creesje Jans, the famed beauty who had travelled out to join her husband, arrived in Java to find her husband had died some time before July 1629. It is not known what became of him, but he had been sent to the Burmese port of Arakan a few years earlier to buy slaves for the VOC. She would re-marry to a soldier – something seen as beneath her station in life – and stay on in Indonesia till 1641, when she moved back to Holland. Independently wealthy, she appears to have lived a comfortable and uneventful life after this. She is believed to have lived till 1681, into her late 70s, making her the last survivor of the wreck of the Batavia.

Repost: The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Hannibal in Bithynia

Today’s tale is set in the Asiatic town of Libyssa, in Bithynia – on the periphery of what is now Turkey. The date, some time around 182 BCE. Hannibal Barca, perhaps one of the all time great generals in world history is pacing the room like a caged Barbary Lion. His life, from the age of nine had lead to this point – ever since his father made him take an oath he would “Never be a friend of Rome.” At the time Rome was a republic with it’s greatest days ahead of it. The tough, militaristic state had yet to really flex – to show what they were capable of. Carthage, was already a superpower, but one on the decline. The two powers had come to blows over the Carthaginian island of Sicily, now part of modern Italy. For 23 years the two superpowers butted heads. They fought on land and sea – and finally the young lion, the Roman republic, got the better of Carthage.

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had been present at the Peace of Lutatius; where Carthage was ordered out of Sicily for good, to be peaceful to Syracuse and her allies, to pay 56 tons of silver over 20 years as reparations, and to hand over their weapons. A leading general in the war against Rome, Hamilcar agreed to all terms bar one – he and his men refused to disarm under any circumstances. Peace had been a relative term for Carthage, As soon as the first Punic war ended, Hamilcar was sent out to quash several rebellions from their own people. The unsightliness of it left him with a lifelong hatred of the Romans – which he passed on to his young son.


Pacing in that Bithynian compound, one wonders; did Hannibal cast his mind back to his youth. As a young general, he marched an army of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and of course 38 elephants over the Alps, hitting the Romans where they never saw an attack coming. To cross the alps with an army, and war elephants was madness, utterly suicidal – yet he did it. On the other side, Hannibal’s army wreaked havoc. Though half his army died on the Alps crossing, his remaining force made short work of the Roman’s, time and time again. Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene. Nothing stood in the way of him sacking Rome itself – other than the fact he left his siege engines in the Pyrenees; and the oligarchs back home refused him the financial backing to build new ones. The war in Italy would eventually wind down to a stalemate.

If, one’s life flashes before your eyes when facing your demise, the battle of Cannae would loom disproportionately large. A masterclass in completely obliterating a much bigger army, military strategists with much greater understanding of such things than myself, still rate Cannae as one of the all-time greatest battles of history. The Romans outnumbered Hannibal and his allies by almost 2 to 1. They were slaughtered at a rate of more than 11 to 1 in the battle. Hannibal’s cavalry encircled the Romans from the outside. Within Roman ranks, a band of 500 ‘deserters’ revealed hidden short swords and cut them to ribbons. Death came from all directions. Pliny would write of 67,000 dead Romans, Polybius of 5,700 dead Carthaginians. In the aftermath, many Roman allies jumped ship. The Romans turned to guerrilla warfare, never again fielding a large army against Hannibal on Roman soil.

The Romans refused all peace treaties, enlisted all their men into military service, and carried on. Carthage’s oligarchs responded indifferently to Hannibal’s requests for the siege engines needed to topple Rome itself. In 202 BC Rome eventually landed a king hit, at Zama, modern day Tunisia. The Roman Scipio Africanus succeeded where Hannibal failed, and the oligarchs declared peace.


Hannibal must have cast his mind back to his middle age, as an avenging, populist politician. He limited the term an oligarch could rule from life, to two one year terms. He taxed them so they would pay their fair share. Just as his reforms were bearing fruit however, the accusation came from Rome that he was colluding with Antiochus III of Syria to overthrow the Roman empire. He would find himself exiled, forced to spend his remaining years on the lam, a soldier of fortune for whoever a. could afford him and b. would be willing to harbor him, knowing Rome could arrive at any time. Antiochus took him in for a while, then Artaxias I of Armenia. For a while he hid out in the pirates’ den which was Crete, before finding employ with Prusias I of Bithynia.

Bithynia would eventually succumb to the Roman yoke, and Prusias would betray Hannibal anywhere between 183 and 181 BC, though they were told to find him themselves. Roman soldiers would track him to his house and demand his surrender. One tale has it, in a ‘live by the sword’ moment, that Hannibal had recently injured his hand by his own sword, and the wound was sceptic. Another tells, in his final moments he downed a vial of poison. Whatever the case, the Romans entered the premises, cautiously, to a deathly silence. The old lion had passed, a note on the table read

“Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2)

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.

We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.

Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.


(theme music)


We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.

To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.


A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.

The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.

A family of homesteaders on their way to Nebraska.

In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.


By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.


With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.


Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.

1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.


The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.


For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.


Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.

Willie Nickell


Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.


The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.

Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.

I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone

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.

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 historyandimagination.com. 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.