Wierd World Wars – Things You Probably Never Knew about the two World Wars

Did you know that…

During the First World War…

Soldiers used urine for almost anything! They pissed on their boots to soften the leather. They pissed on their handkerchieves to make gas-masks. They even pissed on their machine-guns to stop them warping from overheating! Urine was ideal for several applications in the trenches. It was easily accessed and in plentiful supply. Any duties where water was not absolutely required, or where urine was an acceptable substitute, this freely available fluid was utilised. Pee for victory!

Australia had the only 100% volunteer army. While other nations that participated in WWI had standing armies, the newly-federated (1901) nation of Australia did not have an army of its own. All its troops and officers sent to fight in the Great War were volunteers drawn up from ranks of civilians. Most of them had no prior combat-experience, and received only the most basic of outdated infantry training!

The first air-raids on a large population center were carried out. In 1915, the first-ever air-raids over a major city were carried out by the German ‘Zeppelin’ airships. Although highly inaccurate, these raids brought war to a civilian population that was previously untouchable. But for the first time, the people of Britain realised that the Channel was no guarantee of safety. The raids were carried out on London and other major British cities, starting in January 1915, and lasting until August of 1918.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured a gigantic, working typewriter as a marketing gimmick in 1915!…It was later melted down for the war-effort. 

Despite the fact that the war started in Europe, the first allied shot was fired from Fort Nepean in Victoria, Australia!

Just two and a half hours after the declaration of war, Australia, a country on the other side of the world, fired the first allied shot of the war, using the coastal artillery cannon at Fort Nepean.

During the Second World War…

Despite the fact that the war started in Europe, the first allied shot was fired from Fort Nepean in Victoria, Australia!…Again! 

Just as in July of 1914, on the 3rd of September, 1939, the first allied shot was fired by the coastal artillery cannon at Fort Nepean, in Victoria, Australia, on the other side of the world! By the same gun, from the same fort…and the shot was even ordered by the same man! In both instances, gun-captain, Commander Veale, ordered shots fired across the bows of two ships which refused to heave-to. In both instances, just hours after the official declarations of war.  And before any other allied nation had fired so much as a flare gun.

Cities were bombed with pianos! Okay, not really. But…Starting in 1944, pianos were parachuted into bombed out, but liberated cities across Europe, as the Allies advanced eastwards towards Berlin. Manufactured by Steinway & Sons, and called “Victory Verticals“, these lightweight, cheap, upright pianos were designed to provide a form of entertainment for troops and liberated civilians, whose own instruments were damaged by air-raids and artillery-barrages during the earlier years of the war. 2,436 Victory Vertical Steinways were manufactured.

A Steinway ‘Victory Vertical’ piano, sourced from pianoworld.com

The British tried making aircraft carriers out of ice! Those crafty Limeys. They tried concealing convoy ships as icebergs, and tried to make aircraft-carriers out of ice, to save up on precious steel.

No such ships ever made it off the drawing-board.

American psychologists produced a Freudian-style profile of Adolf Hitler. As part of trying to understand their enemy, the Americans drew up a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. Theories about Hitler’s personality and possible future actions were built up from known facts about the Fuhreur. These were gleamed from his published works, body-language in films, and from the few people who knew him intimately and had escaped to America. One of them was Dr. Eduard Bloch!

Dr. Eduard Bloch in his medical office in Austria, 1938. Two years before he fled to America with his family

Bloch (1872-1945) was the Hitler family doctor…and a Jew. For Bloch’s attempts at treating Hitler’s mother for breast-cancer (from which she subsequently died), Hitler gave Bloch special protection from Nazi antisemitic persecution. Despite this, Bloch felt unsafe, and fled from Austria to America in 1940.

Over a three year period, from 1941-1943, he was interviewed extensively by the Office of Strategic Services or “O.S.S.”, the precursor to the CIA. He provided the Americans with valuable insight into Hitler’s personality and early life, which helped them produce their psychological profile. He told them about such things as the death of Hitler’s mother, how Hitler reacted to the news, and details about Hitler’s childhood and upbringing.

Bloch settled in New York City. He lived long enough to see the defeat of Germany, and Nazism in Europe. He died on the 1st of June, 1945, at the age of 73.

The profile drawn up by the Americans was surprisingly accurate. It correctly predicted the July 20 bomb-plot of 1944, Hitler’s increasing withdrawal from public life, and even Hitler’s suicide in 1945!

During the war, many companies ceased production of their peacetime consumer-goods, and started manufacturing materials for the war-effort. Where possible, companies were asked to build things using materials or techniques and qualities which they already had. It wasn’t always a great success.

Steinway & Sons, the piano-manufacturers, produced lightweight wooden gliders for the Allies. These were used during D-Day, for the invasion of Normandy.

The Singer Manufacturing Company, world-famous producers of sewing-machines, was tasked by the Americans to produce sidearms for the army. They were given a contract to produce 500 Colt .45 automatic pistols. The pistols did not all pass muster, and Singer did not produce any more guns for the duration of the war. It produced bomb-sights instead!

Singer lost the pistol contract to Remington-Rand, the famous typewriter manufacturer! Remington was producing M-1911 pistols from 1942 until the war ended in 1945. In total, it cranked out 877, 751 firearms for the U.S. Armed Forces!

The Royal Typewriter Company ceased all production of civilian typewriters during WWII. From 1942 until the war ended in 1945, it cranked out rifles, bullets, machine-guns, and spare parts for airplane engines! It didn’t start making typewriters again until the war had been over for two months!

The Underwood Typewriter Company produced M1 carbines for the war-effort. In the late 1930s, it manufactured a gigantic, working typewriter as a marketing stunt for the World’s Fair:

Just like in 1915…this too, was melted down for the war-effort! This typewriter was a giant version of the Underwood Master standard typewriter:

Rationing on the British Home-Front was so severe, some people came up with interesting substitutes for some rare, rationed foodstuffs and goods…

Makeup for women was in short supply. Beetroot-juice was used for lipstick, gravy and pencil-marks were used to create the illusion of stockings.

Eggs were almost nonexistent. And if you wanted them, you had to open a can of egg-powder, instead! (Eugh…) Egg-powder was mixed with water, and the resultant slurry was fried on the pan.

Restaurants continued to operate throughout the War, but were not allowed to charge more than 5s (five shillings) per dish. Vegetables were not rationed in any way at all.

Fish and Chips were not rationed. But getting plaice, cod and other regular varieties of fish was almost impossible. Instead, Britons had to eat Snoek, (“Snook”), imported from South Africa.

Winston Churchill was an impossible workaholic. He worked day and night. He worked on the toilet. He worked in the bathroom. He worked in bed. He would stay up for hours and hours at a time, working. By comparison, Hitler enjoyed his shut-eye.

The British Army had its own magician! No, I’m serious. It really did.

His name was Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973). Born into the famous Maskelyne stage family, Jasper was originally a magician performing in London’s West End theaterland. When war broke out, Maskelyne was recruited by the British Army to provide morale-boosting performances to allied troops. He soon grew bored of this, feeling that he was not doing enough for the war-effort. He offered his services to the army as an expert in camouflage and deception. The Army was not exactly taken by the idea. They thought Maskelyne was mad!

Maskelyne’s argument was that as a stage magician, he had a lifetime of experience in deception, trickery and illusion, which could surely be handy for the Army! But they weren’t interested. To this, Maskelyne famously retorted:

“If I could fool an audience only twenty feet away, I could certainly fool the enemy, a mile away, or more!” 

Maskelyne supposedly convinced the army that he had something to offer, when he successfully created the illusion of a German battleship. He was employed as a camouflage expert, and together with his team of men (the “Magic Gang” as they were called), Maskelyne set to work putting on his greatest show ever.

Among other things, Maskelyne disguised tanks as trucks, to make military-buildups look like harmless goods-deliveries. He set up blackouts, and fake lights at night, to shift the position of Alexandria Harbour (a key attack-point for the German air-force), and most amazingly, shrouded the Suez Canal (a vital link between Britain and its Empire) beneath ‘dazzle-lights’.

Dazzle-lights were powerful searchlights aimed at the sky. Twenty-one massive search-lights would have revolving heads, each head with two dozen smaller lights. Aimed at the sky and constantly spinning, the hundreds of lights created a glittering, dazzling effect. It was very pretty, but its purpose was to disorientate German pilots. Blinded by the dazzle, they wouldn’t be able to look down from their aircraft to spot the canal, and therefore wouldn’t be able to bomb it.

The canal is still here, so it obviously worked.

So there you have it. These are just a few of the weird, whacky little facts about the two World Wars which you probably won’t find in your history books.


Lest We Forget: ANZAC Day and the Battle of Gallipoli

Seeing as I am an Australian, this article will mostly cover the Australian part of “ANZAC Day” and the Australian involvement in the Battle of Gallipoli

In the scope of the First World War, the 25th of April probably wouldn’t mean much to many people. All people care about is 11 o’clock on the 11th of November of 1918: The day the war ended. But what’s so special about the 25th of April, that it warrants a mention in this blog, anyway? And for that matter, April 25th of which year?

In Australia and in our neighbouring country across the way, also known as New Zealand, the 25th of April is known as ANZAC Day, and it commemorates the 25th of April, 1915 and the Battle of Gallipoli on the Gallipoli Peninsula of Turkey, during the First World War. The ANZAC was the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which was sent halfway around the world to fight a bunch of people they’d never met to help win a war which some reckoned, they should not have joined in the first place.


Every 25th of April, Australians and New Zealanders celebrate and commemorate that which is ANZAC Day, by remembering the diggers (that’s Australian slang for ‘soldiers’) who fought on the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula on that hellish day, ninety-five years ago in 1915 and by extension, all the Australian and New Zealand service personnel who have fought and died for our two little sea-girt sandpiles since then. It’s commemorated by pilgrimages to the Gallipoli peninsula, dawn services, rememberance marches, barbeques and by the baking and breaking of one of the hardest and yet strangely edible comestibles in the world: The ANZAC Biscuit.

Just like how the British have the “Dunkirk Spirit” of banding together against adversity and beating everything, Australians and presumably, New Zealanders too, have the “ANZAC Spirit” of mateship, togetherness, toughness and perseverence which helped them survive and stay firmly together during the hell of the First World War. It’s this spirit that Aussies and Kiwis commemorate and celebrate each April while breaking their jaws on ANZAC Biscuits or stuffing down sausages and burgers at the nearest, smoke-belching barbeque.

ANZAC Day also commemorates the fact or the belief that at the Battle of Gallipoli, Australia and New Zealand went through their trial of fire and were born there as nations who had endured hardships and come out with their heads held high.

Australia and the First World War

As far as countries go, Australia’s the little brother in the family. By the time of the official British settlement in Australia, as marked by the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, Great Britain had already fought and lost a war against the United States and the USA had already been settled by Europeans for over a hundred years before then. Australia only became federated, when its states and territories joined up to make one big country, in 1901, just over a century ago.

As its own country with its own government and prime minister, Australia could declare war on other countries. In the family of nations, Australia was kind of like the whining, wingey little brother who wants to do everything that momma, papa and all his bigger brothers do, like fight, make money, make love and start wars. When Britain declared war on Germany, Austria-Hungary and the other countries of the Central Powers in WWI, Australia jumped on the Allied bandwagon at once, stating that, as Mother Britain was at war, Australia was also at war.

Of course, this view was not universally accepted. The First World War mostly took place in Europe or the Middle East, on battlegrounds far from Australia. A sea-voyage from Australia to England took at least two weeks, even using the fastest ships and the quickest route. Some Australians felt isolated from this ‘European War’ and saw no reason to have to go off and fight other peoples’ wars.

On the other hand, patriotic Australians believed that it was their duty to fight and defend Great Britain, as their mother country and that they were fighting for the good of the British Empire. It was with this in mind that Australia went to war.

Unfortunately for Australia, though, it didn’t have an army.

Australia was so new on the world stage of established nations that it didn’t even have a single stinking army to protect itself with, let alone go off and fight someone else’s army! There were police-forces and local state militias, but it wasn’t until after the First World War that Australia had an actual national army of its own. Instead, the Aussies were just tacked onto the British Army and made to fight with the Brits. Throughout the First World War, Australia was the only country which took part in the fighting which had a 100% volunteer army.

The Australian soliders in the First World War were all ordinary people. They were farm-labourers, office-workers, school-teachers, schoolboys, university professors and shopkeepers…all ordinary people who had signed up to fight a war which was so far away, some people questioned what the hell they thought they were doing! Unlike the other countries, Australia had no standing army. Because of this, all the Aussie soldiers were trained in army tactics, strategies and manuveurs entirely from scratch!

It was all these raw, green recruits, rushed through a crash-course of the bare essentials of fighting, weapons-handling, tactics and army life, that the Brits sent off to Turkey to try and blast a way through the Turkish defences so that the Royal Navy could open up a supply-line to its allies, the Russians, further north. With woefully substandard and rushed training, the inept Australian troops were marching straight into hell. How inadequate was their training? Half the time the Australian soldiers didn’t even load, shoot and reload their rifles because there wasn’t any ammunition to show them how to do it properly! To make things worse, they (along with millions of other soldiers in the First World War), were taught outdated infantry tactics from the 19th century, which were completely useless in the mechanised hell of the First World War.

The Battle of Gallipoli

In 1915, the order came out that the Allies would try and attack the Gallipoli Peninsula of Turkey. The original plan was to ‘Force the Narrows’, that is, to try a naval assault on the Dardenelles Narrows near to the Peninsula, by the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, this failed (and resulted in the First Lord of the Admiralty, a little-known fellow called…Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill…to high-tail it off to the trenches in France to hide in shame for a few months) and the Turks were suddenly wide awake to a possible Allied invasion. They set up their positions and waited for everything to unfold.

In Australia, young Aussies were jazzed up and raring to have a crack at ‘Johnny Turk’. Many of the soldiers were so young that they’d barely finished school and had simply swapped the cane for a rifle the moment they sauntered out the gates at the last bell for the day. Many of the green Australian troops thought that the war would be over before they even got to Turkey or Europe!

Gallipoli in Turkey gets its name from the Greek word ‘Kallipolis’ which means “Beautiful City”. When the Aussies, Kiwis, Poms and Frogs arrived, though…there was very little beauty to be seen anywhere.

A map showing the Gallipoli Peninsula. On the left, you can see ANZAC Cove, where the ANZACs came ashore in 1915. On the right, you can see the Dardenelles; the narrow stretch of water which the Royal Navy failed to blast its way through

The ships transporting Australian troops sailed from Eygpt (because the Aussies were trained there) to Turkey and arrived in ANZAC Cove (a postwar name) on the Gallipoli Peninsula on the 25th of April, 1915.

From the moment the big ships dropped anchor off the west coast of the Peninsula…the ANZACs were in trouble. Serious, six-foot-under trouble. So much trouble that many soldiers were dead before they even got onto the beaches!

In the Second World War, allied soldiers and officers used a special kind of watercraft, known as a Higgins Boat, to safely transport soldiers ashore. The Higgins boat could go right up onto the beach where the front of the boat dropped down like a ramp so that soldiers could run right off the boat onto the beach to find cover.

In 1915, without the Higgins Boat, Australian and other Allied troops were massacred in the surf before they even set a toe on Turkish soil. The boats used to ferry these troops to shore were wooden lifeboats: Totally unprotected from machine-gun fire, cumbersome to operate, rowed by hand and with keeled bottoms, prone to wedging in the sand and surf, leaving soldiers stranded and having to jump out of the boats and wade through the water towards the beach. Hundreds of allied soldiers were shot down as they struggled out of the boats, through the surf and towards the beach. Accounts spoke of the water literally turning red with the blood of machinegunned or rifle-struck soldiers who never knew what hit them.

ANZAC Cove, 1915. Here, you can see the steep sides of the mountains that the ANZACs had to struggle up, the surf which they had to wade through, and the sandy beach that they had to run across…all while being sprayed by Turkish machine-gun fire

Within minutes of landing in Gallipoli, all hell broke loose. The inexperienced Australian soldiers were given hurried and unclear orders, officers were killed by machine-gun fire and soldiers were unable to band together to build up significant resistance to the enemy. To use an American expression, it was quite literally a ‘Turkey Shoot’. Or rather, a Turkish shoot! The ANZACs became sitting ducks for the defending turks, who mowed them down relentlessly with their machine-guns.

The big ships anchored offshore did manage to give the Aussies some covering fire, though. While the boats ferried troops and supplies ashore, the allied warships opened fire with their artillery, blasting away at the enemy, distracting the Turks enough for the Australians to get a firm foothold on Turkish soil.

Guests of Johnny Turk

Throughout both world wars, soldiers or ‘the enemy’ were known by various names. Germans were Krauts or the Boche, they were Jerries, Nazis, the S.S. The Brits were known as ‘Tommies’, the Australians were known as ‘ANZACs’ or ‘Rats’ (after the Battle of Tobruk in WWII, where Aussie defenders held off the Germans and became known as the Rats of Tobruk).

Turks were called ‘Johnny Turk’.

And Johnny Turk was not happy at having Aussie soldiers camping on his front lawn.

The Battle of Gallipoli was a hopeless mess. Over the next nine months, life was a living and dying hell for the ANZACs. Without aerial support from the RFC (Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the RAF), Australian soldiers attacked Turkish positions with no covering fire. Without tanks, the Australians had nowhere to hide from Turkish return-fire and without the big ships (which very inconsiderately sailed off after just a few days), the Australians had no big artillery to bombard the Turks before launching an attack. It became one big game of Slaps, with each side waiting for the other to make a move, before jumping out, decking them and then diving back into the trenches to protect themselves from the enemy reaction.

ANZAC Biscuits

Stuck in the trenches for nine months with appalling weather (it rained and snowed half the bloody time!), few comforts, few clean or warm clothes, few things to do and even fewer things to eat, the ANZACs did have at least one thing to look forward to.

ANZAC Biscuits.

Note that. BISCUITS. Not cookies. BISCUITS.

It was once believed that ANZAC Biscuits were invented by the ANZACs themselves, bored with the disgusting rations that they were provided with. However, the ingredients in the recipe don’t lend themselves well to this theory. How many soldiers in the First World War were able to get their hands on such delights as dessicated coconut? Golden syrup? Sugar? Baking Soda? Flour and rolled oats? Probably not many. And even if they did, how the hell did they manage to bake the stuff in the middle of a battle?


The truth is that ANZAC Biscuits were invented by the womenfolk! The wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers and girlfriends of all those poor sods who were living, starving and dying all the way over in Turkey.

The ANZAC Biscuit was designed to be many things. Filling. Delicious. Tough. But most of all, it was designed to be long-lasting.

After baking, the ANZAC Biscuit looks (and feels) like something akin to 18th century hard-tack, the notoriously hard bread which sailors used to eat onboard ships in Napoleonic times. In a way, hard-tack and the ANZAC Bikkie shared a lot of things in common.

– They were both easy to make.
– They were both tasty (okay, the ANZAC Biscuit was tasty and sweet. Hard-Tack was like baked cardboard).
– They were both hard enough to break glass (or your teeth!) and drive in a nail.
– They were tough enough to survive long sea-voyages and a nuclear attack (on the same day).

The one element where ANZAC Biscuits were undoubtedly better than hard-tack had to be in the taste department. Hard-Tack is dry, cheap, tasteless crap that was about as easy to eat as cinderblocks. Sure, ANZAC Biscuits weren’t much easier to eat, but they were at least tasty. The sugar and the oats and the golden syrup (or honey, if you can’t get syrup) made the biscuits sweet and crunchy and they were a welcome relief to the ANZACs, who had little else fit for human consumption to shove down their throats.

The Great Evacuation

It’s probably not surprising to know that the Gallipoli campaign was a total failure. After nearly a year of being blasted, blown up and bombarded by the Turks, the ANZACs (along with the other allies) were bruised, bloody, beaten and bored. In late 1915, soldiers began to pull out from the Gallipoli peninsula.

But, in true British style, never wanting to admit defeat, the evacuation was done carefully over the course of several days. The ANZACs were shipped away quietly at night. Their specially-designed periscope rifles (rifles with periscopes fixed on them so that they shoot over the top without also getting their heads shot off) were rigged and modified to make them self-firing. The Aussie soldier who thought up this ingenious bit of trickery, William Scurry, fixed up the rifles so that water dripped into special pans underneath the rifles. The pans had strings tied to them which were tied to the triggers of the rifles. As the water dripped, the pans became heavier and heavier until the weight of the water pulled on the string and fired the rifle.

The Periscope Rifle in use at Gallipoli, where it was invented

Using this trick, the Allies were able to occupy the Turks and keep them busy while they evacuated thousands of ANZAC troops down the cliffs, across the beach and onto the waiting ships which were anchored offshore.

All in all, the remembrance of ANZAC Day, the 25th of April, could be seen as a joke: The commemoration of one of the biggest ass-whuppin’s that the Allies ever received, the remembrance of one of the greatest military failures in Australian history. But it’s also about remembering the courage, perseverence and sheer ballsiness that it took to continue fighting what was clearly a losing battle from Day 1, and to escape from a right screw-up without the enemy getting wise to you until you were far, far, far away.

That, my friends, is the story and the history of ANZAC Day.


Archie, Aces and Airspeed: Aerial Combat during the First World War.

In 1903, two brothers who ran a bicycle-repair shop, created the world’s first successful, heavier-than-air…gasp!…FLYING machine! People marvelled at a new contraption called the ‘airplane’ which could take off, fly where-ever the pilot wanted it to, and then land safely again. They thought that this was a magical new invention that could do marvellous things for mankind and spur it onwards to a new age of technology, science and transportation.

Well, Orville and Wilbur Wright thought so, anyway.

In fact they thought so, so much, that once their newfangled ‘flying machines’ were perfected and reliable, they took their courage by the balls and went off to all the national militaries of the early 1900s. They approached the American, British and even French armies, toting their new toy as a practical weapon and machine of war. With airplanes, you could spot troop-movements, direct men and see the entire battlefield! Armies were so excited about these amazing possibilities, that they jumped on the new invention!

Or…they would have, in a perfect world.

The truth was that most of the commanding officers and generals, all thought the Wright Brothers’ invention was something of a joke, and saw no practical application for this contraption in their arsenals and warehouses.

Just over ten years later, however, they were singing a different tune.

The first Airplanes.

The very first airplanes were used purely to demonstrate that powered, controlled flight was possible. But that was all they were used for. People just didn’t see how such flimsy, wood and cloth machines could be practical in any way other than to provide cheap, five-minute thrill to excited little boys and girls at funfairs! However, this perspective quickly changed with the onset of the First World War.

In the hell of the Somme, Flanders, Passchendeale, Ypres and the Marne, generals began to realise that having ‘eyes in the sky’ that could tell you where things were, would be a huge advantage. Suddenly, the allies didn’t think the Wright Brothers were stupid after all, and a few months after the war had started, airplanes were being used in warfare.

The first planes used in warfare just flew around taking photographs. Fun, huh? They were reconnaissance aircraft, gathering valuable military information. Airplanes were able to fly over enemy trench-systems, photograph them and then fly home, relatively unscathed from enemy fire. Knowing the layout of enemy trenches allowed generals the opportunity of finding weak-spots in enemy defences.


Originally, German, English and French pilots just flew around each others trench-systems taking snapshots, but soon it was realised that such activity should not be tolerated! The airspace above your trenches was YOUR airspace, and to hell with anyone trying to break into it! To this end, pilots started becoming more aggressive with each other. Pilots began taking to the air with revolvers, grenades, rocks and lengths of rope, to shoot, bomb, damage or entangle their enemies. New weapons called anti-aircraft guns were placed around entrenchments to shoot down hostile aircraft. They fired explosive or incendiary rounds, known during WWII as ‘flak’, known during the Great War, by the name ‘Archie’. A new era of warfare had begun.

On the 1st of April, 1915, April Fools’ Day, a French pilot named Roland Garros made history. His plane, the first of its kind in the world, flew into the skies and shot down a German pilot and his plane. While this was not the first air-to-air kill (people had been shooting, bombing and throwing stuff at each other, 1,000 feet up before Garros came along), this was significant because of the type of plane that Garros was flying. It was the first plane specifically designed for aerial-combat, having machine-guns and triggers which the pilot could aim and fire during flight! The Fighter Plane and the Fighter-Pilot had been born!

Aerial-combat, in which planes fought against planes, pilots against pilots, was the latest form of warfare in a war which was rapidly changing everything it touched. Unfortunately for the allies, Garros was shot down and his plane crashed in German territory. Garros survived and was taken prisoner, but his valuable flying-machine was not completely demolished on impact. Before he could set the plane on fire, the Germans had captured it and were soon turning out fighter-planes of their own!

The affect on Allied morale was devastating. Until that point, the British and French had ruled the skies, but now, the Germans had planes that could match theirs! The French and British started making newer, faster, more powerful planes and the era of Aces had begun.

Aerial Aces.

An ‘Ace’ is a pilot who is exceptionally skilled, and who can successfully shoot down enemy aircraft. Now that aerial combat was well-and-truly established, it was time for men with courage and balls to really show what they could do.

To understand just what this was like, you need to understand just how the men were fighting. If you’re picturing sleek, modern airplanes with enclosed cockpits and armour-plating and all that stuff…forget it! WWI fighter-planes were little more than box-kites with engines on them! The majority of the plane was made of wood and canvas! The fuselage was wood, canvas, two pairs of wings, an engine, cockpit and propeller and a wooden rudder and tail-fins at the back. These planes were very light, but also very delicate. If you put your foot in the wrong place, it ripped through the canvas and out you went!

Pilots in planes such as these could expect to be incredibly uncomfortable. Enclosed cockpits did not exist, and the only protection they would have had against the stinging, freezing wind, would have been their leather jackets, flying caps, goggles and maybe some gloves to stop their hands freezing from the windchill! Oh, and scarves. Pilots wore nice, long white scarves. Not to look cutesy for the ladies, but to prevent…skin-irritation, of all things. Without radar, the only way to spot enemy planes was to literally turn your head left and right to search the skies for them. All this twisting and turning rubbed your neck against the collar of your jacket and this could make you very uncomfortable. In a situation where the last thing you want to be, is uncomfortable, the scarves provided much-needed padding to prevent skin-chafing, as well as an extra layer of badly-needed warmth!

Back then…and even today…an instance of aerial combat between two opposing pilots is called a ‘dogfight’. They were called dogfights, probably, because pilots literally flew at each other like mad dogs. Planes could come within inches of smashing into each other and they fired their guns willy-nilly, trying to hit each other. Dogfights were fierce, fast, lethal battles of skill, courage, balls and determination. If you got shot down, you could expect a plunge of several thousand feet to the earth below. Your plane could explode in mid air, it could catch fire, or you could fall out of your cockpit. Few pilots carried parachutes back then.

When planes flew out in ‘sorties’ (a ‘sortie’ is a mission), they would fly out in groups set in strict formations. Pilots organised their planes so that they could attack the enemy as effectively as possible. Planes and their pilots were organised into groups called ‘squadrons’. Each squadron, or squad, had a ‘sqaudron leader’, usually the best pilot with the most experience. His job was to lead his men into battle and to direct the other pilots through the air so that they would know where to go and how to act. In the days before aerial radio-communications, hand-gestures were used to direct your fellow pilots through the air. Squadron leaders usually had their planes painted or marked in some way, so that they would be easily-recognised by Allied pilots during combat. The universal sign of ‘rocking wings’ (moving your wings up and down), was the signal to return to home-base. Better to crash on home soil than in enemy territory.

Taking down an enemy aircraft was difficult at best. Machine-guns were still fairly new weapons back then, and they were prone to jamming during dogfights. Apart from that, you had to find your target before you could shoot at it. And when your target is a plane zooming all over the skies, this is difficult at the best of times. There’s no heat-seeking missiles, there’s no target lock-on, there’s no laser sights, it’s just you, your plane, your guns and your eyes. Everything was done by hand and everything was done manually, using your own judgement, timing and skill.

The most famous Ace of all, was a German pilot. His name was Manfred von Richtofen, more famously known as ‘der Rote Baron’;…The Red Baron. The Baron was credited with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 confirmed kills. While 80 doesn’t seem very impressive today, it was damn impressive back in 1917, when aerial-combat was how I described it above. Unfortunately for Richtofen, he was shot down and killed on the 21st of April, 1918. The man credited with shooting down the Red Baron and killing him, with a bullet to the chest, was an Australian soldier named…Cedric Popkin! Popkin was a soldier in the First AIF (the First Australian Imperial Force). At the time of Richtofen’s death, Popkin and his men were manning Vickers anti-aircraft machine-guns and it was Popkin’s firing which shot the Baron and brought down his airplane, his famous Fokker Dr. 1, painted bright red.

Bombing Raids.

Apart from reconnaissance, protecting airspace and spying, airplanes in WWI had another major role to play – air-raids.

Various aircraft, such as the famous Sopwith Camel, were combination fighter-and-bomber aircraft, meaning that they could drop bombs as well as fire machine-guns. In later stages of the war, generals began to see even more possibilities for these newfangled machines, specifically in their ability to bring death to the enemy in ways previously unimaginable.

The Sopwith Camel, a typical, WWI-era fighter biplane.

By 1917, when aerial-combat and warfare was firmly established, Allied airforces and Allied armies began to collaborate with each other in an effort to pool their resources, skills and manpower to win battles. Some later battles went like this…

First there would be an intense artillery barrage, bombing and shelling the enemy trenches. At an appropriate time, rows and rows of tanks rumbled across No Man’s Land, shooting at the enemy soldiers who had survived the artillery barrage. While the tanks moved forward, infantry marched behind, taking advantage of the covering fire provided by the tanks, to engage enemy infantry. Upstairs, Allied bomber and fighter-planes flew overhead, strafing (raking) the ground with lethal swathes of machinegun-fire, killing soldiers in the enemy trenches, followed by intense, aerial bombardment, while below them, their Allied army buddies pressed on to take their target trenches. The airplane had proved its worth as a practical and useful machine of war.


“Over the Top!” – Life in the Trenches during WWI (Pt. I)

From early 1914 until November 1918, the world was at war. The ‘Great War’, as it was then called, inflicted upwards of six million casualties from over six different countries and mankind saw a new kind of mechanical warfare so devastating that many prayed that it would never happen again.

Known today as the First World War, this conflict pitched the countries of Canada, France, Italy, Australia, the USA, Great Britain and Russia against Turkey, Germany and Austria-Hungary in battles where men died in their thousands for just a few yards of earth. WWI was a disaster of epic proportions, throwing 19th century tactics against 20th century technology, the resultant explosion reverberating across the following decades to the present day.

One of the most enduring images of the Great War was trench warfare. Trench warfare was brutal, sloppy, slimy, smelly and sickening. Vomit-inducing, sleep-depriving, smelling of piss, shit, rotting flesh, stagnant water…and that was when you weren’t being shot at, gassed, shelled to Kingdom Come or having to shoot back at enemy soldiers charging towards you!

From mid 1914 right up to the day the war ended in 1918, trench-warfare remained a staple of life during the ‘Great War’. It remained like it did for so long because nobody could figure out how to successfully attack trenches without having the living shit blasted out of them or being mown down by machinegun-fire. Commanding officers pitched men against men using 19th century tactics and strategies and 20th century technology, which is about as useful as trying to storm a building filled with heavily-armed terrorists with a peashooter. Given that trench-warfare lasted so long…what was it actually like living in a hole in the ground for so long?

Digging the Trenches.

Before you could live in a trench, you had to dig it out. Digging took ages, even with the thousands of men with shovels. Trenches were roughly seven to eight feet deep, about six feet wide, with a drainage channel at the bottom, which was covered over by a type of planking (which would create a semi-sturdy walkway), called duckboards. Trenches literally stretched for miles and miles and miles and MILES. From southern France, they headed north, all the way to the North Sea. And it wasn’t just the ONE trench. There were dozens of them. First you had the ‘Front Line’ trench, and then behind that, you had communications trenches, and behind that, more trenches, and then to protect everything, you had machine-gun nests, barbed wire, landmines and sandbags. It’s little wonder that these things were so damn hard to capture! Trench-systems could be small cities in themselves!

Apart from the trenches, there were also ‘dugouts’. A dugout is a tunnel or underground chamber where officers could live and work, relatively protected from the rain outside. Dugouts were reinforced with wood and sheet metal and they provided a tiny bit of comfort for the men. The trenches themselves, once they had been dug out, were reinforced with wood, metal and reeds, woven to form a sort of basket-type mesh. All these things prevented the walls from caving in.

Living in the Trenches.

You’ve dug the trenches, you’ve fortified them, laid down duckboards, put in reinforcements and planking and dugouts and electric lighting…you can pack up and go home!…Right?


You actually had to live IN the trenches. Not for very long, perhaps a few days, a couple of weeks at any one time. That was provided you actually survived the two weeks. If you did, you could head back behind the lines and chill out on leave. Otherwise…it was in the trenches. And life in the trenches was crap at the very best of times.

One thing the commanders hadn’t counted on when they ordered their men to ‘dig in’, was the lay of the land. Unknown to the French and British COs, the land in which they were going to dig their trenches, had the water-table just a few feet below the ground! In some places it wasn’t so bad and you could go down the whole six, seven or eight feet into the earth. But in other places, the water table was barely four or five feet below the ground! If you dug any further, you’d be standing in a canal! In cases like this, soldiers stopped digging at four feet, and just stacked up sandbags to make up the additional three feet, but with trenches so close to the waterline…you can imagine what happened next.

Flooding. And a lot of it.

Not just a few inches or milimeters of water to grumble over that got into your socks…I mean SERIOUS flooding. Water could reach two or three feet deep and men would be sloshing through trenches turned into rivers, in muck up to their waists! Given that even in the nicest of weather in Europe, it can still pour down and be freezing cold, you can bet this was one of the worst things that soldiers had to put up with.

Well…you’d be wrong. Because there’s worse. Much worse.

If you just said ‘Aww rats!’…you’d be right.

As the war continued, there were thousands of dead bodies all over the battlefields and nobody had the time (or indeed, the PLACE!) to bury all the corpses. These corpses brought rats. Hundreds of them. They feasted on dead bodies, eating at them until only skeletons remained. They grew fat and even hungrier and it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to go around shooting all day long…not at the enemy, but at rats! They tried to do everything to get rid of the rats…drown them, gas them, club them…Some would even spike cheese onto their bayonets. When the rat started eating the cheese, the soldier pulled the trigger on his rifle. BAM! Rat gone! But for every rat they killed, there were hundreds to take their place.

Food in the trenches was pretty basic, too. The support-trenches, further back from the front line, were supposed to be able to supply soldiers with hot, freshly-cooked food, but since the trenches were being shelled, gassed or bombed every other day of the week, you can bet they didn’t get much of that home-cooked goodness. You try preparing a meal for 10,000 starving soldiers when artillery-shells and mortars are crashing all around! It’s not easy!

Most men survived on canned or otherwise preserved food. They ate biscuits, salted meat, whatever vegetables and fruit they could find, together with…chocolate. Yes, chocolate. When you’ve got almost nothing else to look forward to, a nice bit of Cadbury’s or Whitman’s goes a long way. In fact in both world wars, the Whitman chocolate company (famous for its yellow ‘Whitman’s Samplers’ boxes), sent boxes of candy overseas to Europe to feed Allied soldiers!

What goes in has to come out…right? Where did you go to the toilet?

Well…you see that empty patch of land there which nobody’s using? Take your trowel, some old newspapers..and commune with nature. There were no toilets, and if you had to go, you had to make your own toilet, digging a hole in the ground. Some trench-sysems actually had specifically-dug sewerage-channels where soldiers could go and relieve themselves. But after three days of heavy rain…you can imagine where all the stuff in the sewerage-channel ended up…Yep…right back in the trenches!

Health in the Trenches.

Given the appalling living-conditions, it’s no surprise that disease was a BIG problem on the Western Front. Common trench ailments included headlice and ‘trenchfoot’. Headlice were such a problem that most men gave up trying to keep the lice out of their hair! Instead, they just got a pair of scissors and a razor and shaved themselves bald! The other common trench disease was something called ‘trench-foot’.

Trenchfoot is a bit like ‘athlete’s foot’…only a hell of a lot worse. It comes as a result of spending hours every single day, standing in stagnant, freezing, disgusting water and never giving one’s feet enough time to fully dry out. When you consider that the trenches were flooded half the time, you can imagine how bad trenchfoot could get. A soldier was useless if his feet were so infected that he could barely walk! Commanding officers had to make it a rule that ALL MEN were to change their socks on a regular basis to keep their feet dry and clean to prevent trenchfoot. As the war progressed, trenchfoot did eventually go down, but it never completely went away and isolated cases continued to pop up throughout the duration of the war.

Another medical condition which came to prominence during the war in the trenches was a mental incapacitation called ‘shell-shock’, what people today like to euphamistically call ‘post-traumatic-stress disorder’. Shell-shock had been known of before the Great War, but it had never been seriously examined until so many cases of shellshock started popping up during the mid 1910s! And shellshock is a lot more than just irritability or not being able to sleep…it could turn men into shivering, jibbering, glubbering wrecks, barely able to function in civilian society.

Shell-shock got its name because it was caused by artillery-shells. Before a big offensive move, the enemy (or you, depending on who was moving where), would shell the other fellow’s lines with artillery and mortar-fire. INTENSE fire. I don’t mean just a few minutes of ‘boom-boom-boom, let’s go boys!’, I mean REALLY INTENSE FIRE. A proper artillery-barrage could go on for hours…even days! Shell-shock was caused by the mental anguish inflicted by these barrages. Imagine that you’re a soldier in a trench…and you hear artillery-fire in the distance. Sooner or later, you’ll hear the high-pitched shriek of the shells sailing downwards towards you. In most cases, you won’t see them until it’s too late. You’ll have about a split-second to run before the shell slams into the ground and destroys everything around it! That’s just one shell. Imagine a hundred, two hundred, three hundred shells…all being fired at once, for hours and hours on end, day and night. The noise, the panic, the fear and the severe sleep deprivation was enough to send a man literally raving mad. Some cases of shell-shock were so bad that the men literally became shivering, nervous wrecks.


“Over the Top!” – Life in the Trenches during WWI (Pt. II)

Continued from Part 1, above.

Attacking another Trench.

Given all these horrible, horrible, horrible things…it’s no wonder that trench-warfare was so hard. You needed balls to survive out there, no doubt about that. If you couldn’t hack it, you’d be snuffed out in a second.

But once you were there, you had to fight. Defending a trench-system was actually fairly easy. You lined up your men, stuck your rifles over the top, manned the machine-guns and then fired at the enemy coming towards you. What was REALLY hard was trying to ATTACK a trench, because they were so damn well-protected!

Basic battle-tactics had not changed much over the past few decades. In the 1700s, you lined up your men and marched in close-formation across the battlfield with muskets. Muskets were inaccurate, so amassing your men together was the only way to ensure a decent amount of firepower.

By the Civil War period in America, of the 1860s, firearms technology had advanced to such a stage that rifles were now more accurate, amassing your troops like you would have back in Napoleonic times would get them slaughtered, because they presented a nice, easy target to men with nice, accurate weapons. To handle this, men marched across the battlefield more spaced out, to present smaller targets which were harder to hit.

By the 1910s, when the heavy machine-gun was deemed a powerful and useful weapon, even these tactics were outdated. Machine-guns could mow down hundreds of men, no matter how they moved across the battlefield. Constant shelling meant that they weren’t even marching across a FIELD anymore, either, but a quagmire of water, craters, mud, blood, dead bodies and hell knows what else. Commanding officers who were old-fashioned and unaware of the power of machine-guns, worked out battles as they would have 25 and 50 years ago, when machine-guns were less common and less effective. This led to thousands of men being killed every day, since enemy soldiers set up their machine-gun nests to create wide fields of interlocking crossfire which soldiers couldn’t escape from. Commanders set their men impossible objectives, given the manner in which battles were fought, and this contributed to the stalemate on the Western Front.

Changing Tactics.

It took a while, but eventually commanders recognised that if they were ever going to win this war, they had to change the way in which they fought. They needed a way for men to be mobile, protected and efficient on the battlefield. They needed better weapons which could do more than just go ‘boom!’.

After his disastrous attempt to ‘Force the Narrows’ during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, a then, relatively unknown man called Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, headed to the trenches. He spent a considerable amount of time there, hiding from the shame of his disasterous naval campaign. While in the trenches, Churchill learnt a thing or two about how battles were fought and how he might improve the Allies’ chances of winning.

Instead of trying to run before they could walk, Churchill went in the other direction to most battlefield strategists, and suggested that intead of running or indeed, walking…they should instead…crawl.

Using a method which he called the ‘Bite and Hold’, he reasoned that in the long-run, soldiers would be able to win battles more effectively. The ‘Bite and Hold’ tactic worked like this:

Instead of trying to take everything all in one day, soldiers would instead take only half of their objective. Having secured this, they would hold their position, restock, resupply, rest…and then jump forward and grab the rest another day, when they felt up to fighting again. This allowed men to take ground, but it didn’t wear them out or put them in any significant danger. The idea worked and bit by bit, the Allies began to advance.

Changing Technology.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Well in 1916, it was necessary for the British to mother an idea about how to win this goddamned war. The biggest problems were the issues of mobility and firepower. Soldiers could move quickly across the battlefield, but they lacked any serious firepower apart from their rifles, which were useless against the high-power heavy machine-guns. Machine-guns provided the intense firepower that soldiers needed to protect themselves with, but these guns were so big and heavy, they required upwards of three or four men just to operate them! Hardly effective when you’re out in the middle of No Man’s Land beng shot and shelled at all the time! A typical machine-gun of the period, like the belt-fed Vickers Gun, required a gunner and something resembling a race-car pitstop team just to keep the gun working! You need a gunner, you needed riflemen to protect him. You needed someone to feed the ammunition belt, someone to carry the ammuntion, someone to carry the tripod, someone to refill the empty ammo belts…you see where this is going, don’t you? It just wasn’t practical! Machine-guns were great in defensive-positions when they didn’t have to be moved around, but the moment you told a gun-crew “go from A to B”…you had problems. They were simply no good on the move.

Apart from that, machine-guns were prone to overheating and jamming, hardly ideal when you’re trying to kill the enemy. Vickers machine-guns were water-cooled and this could be a problem when you didn’t have any water (not that this happened much in the waterlogged trenches!). But when you really didn’t have any water…you couldn’t shoot! One way to overcome this problem was to actually fill the gun’s water-jacket with piss! Soldiers who had to take a leak, would urinate into cans and this delightful, apple-juice-coloured liquid, would then be poured into the Vickers gun’s water-jacket to keep the gun cool and ready to fire!

The Lewis Gun, another popular machine-gun of WWI, was considerably easier to use than the Vickers. The Lewis was air-cooled and it was magazine-fed. This meant that it was lighter, easier to carry, quicker to load and required fewer men to look after it. Despite this, the Lewis was still big and bulky, but at least it was (sorta) portable.

To deal with the problem of firepower and mobility, the British invented a new machine, originally called ‘landships’…now called…’tanks’.

The tank was a revolutionary machine in 1916. While it had almost no armour, even though it was slow (9mph was break-neck speed for a tank!) and even though it was prone to engine-failure, it answered peoples’ prayers about wanting armour, mobility and firepower. Commanders soon learnt how to use tanks effectively, and they sent them out in waves like mechanised cavalry, with infantry behind the tanks. The tanks provided the heavy firepower and protection while the infantry provided the mobility. A winning combination had been found!

There are of course, other types of technology which both sides used to try and win the war. One of the most famous…is…gas!

That’s right! Even before grandpa was dancing the Charleston, mankind had invented chemical warfare.

The gas used was either chlorine gas or mustard gas. Both of which were absolutely 100% nasty. If it got into your lungs…you were screwed.

Gas was fired into enemy trenches in metal gas-canisters. When the cans exploded, the gas spilt into the trenches like smoke from hell and went into all the crevices and low-places and little hidey-holes. While soldiers did have some primative gas-masks to protect themselves, the best way to escape gas was to do the opposite to what the gas did. Since gas went down…soldiers went up! They got out of their trenches and worked on their sun-tans until the gas in the trenches had disappated. Of course, this also left the exposed soldiers vulnerable to enemy attacks.

There are of course, other aspects of the Great War, all of which are equally fascinating, but which are too numerous to be mentioned here. And at any rate, they’re not strictly confined to the trenches. These will be covered in other postings, at a later date.