Hooray for Hollywood: A Brief History of the American Film Industry

Hollywood! A magical, amazing, magnificent, fascinating, fantasmagorical funpark where dreams are made. Today, Hollywood is the most famous place in the world for making blockbuster feature films. It’s where movie-stars earn multi-million dollar paychecks, it’s where aspiring actors hope to make it, and make it big…one day. It’s where directors create their masterpieces and where producers hope to push their latest pitch. It’s the dream factory where thousands of people work to produce fantasies that millions of others will buy. But where did this dream factory come from and how did it come into existence? Was Hollywood always around? Or was it accidently washed onto the shores of California a couple of centuries ago? Or did the aliens drop it out of the sky on their way to Mars? Who knows?

Well, we’re going to find out.

What is ‘Hollywood’?

The first thing we need to understand is the name ‘Hollywood’ and where it is. It is, admittedly, a very generic name. Just like there are lots of places named ‘Springfield’ or ‘Townsville’ or ‘Harrison’ (maybe), there are lots of places in the United States named ‘Hollywood’. Don’t believe me? Go look at a map. In America alone, there’s at least a dozen towns named ‘Hollywood’ and three places named ‘Hollywood’ in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. But when most people say ‘Hollywood’, we all know the one they’re talking about.

Hollywood, California.

To be clear, Hollywood is not actually a town. It’s a district of the City of Los Angeles, California. The area known as ‘Hollywood’ today started in the second half of the 19th century as just another suburb of Los Angeles. Developed between the 1880s and the early 1900s, Hollywood takes up a space of 500 acres. The area is designed as a quiet, upperclass neighbourhood where the wealthy, the high rollers and the fat-cats can live in luxury. To advertise this wonderful new part of town, an enormous sign is erected on the hills overlooking Los Angeles.


The Early Filmmaking Industry

Moving pictures started as an experiment at the close of the 19th century. By the first decade of the 20th century, people were beginning to hear about these new moving images and the possibility that they held for entertainment. Film studios were small concerns, few and far between. Films were cheap thrills. You could go to a simple cinema in town and pay five cents to watch a short flicker-show…which almost literally coined the term…‘Nickelodeon’.

But by the 1910s, interest in the filmmaking industry began to grow as people saw the potential of this new technology, and Hollywood would be there every step of the way.

The year is 1912. Hollywood is about to take off. Two years previously, the first film ever made in Hollywood went on show. It was just seventeen minutes long. A far cry from the three-hour-long, multipart blockbusters we know today. But it was a start. In 1912, the first official film-studio opened in Hollywood, called Nestor Studio. The first official Hollywood film, made in a Hollywood studio, would come out two years later in 1914, directed by one of the legends of the Golden Age of Hollywood. His name was Cecil B. DeMille.

By 1915, the American film industry (before then, based mostly in New York) had started moving to Los Angeles. The American film industry was born.

The Golden Age of Hollywood

The Silent Era

During the 1910s, Hollywood was still making a name for itself. Although film was becoming more widespread, it was still in a rather rudimentary state. The idea of film credits were only just being thought-of. It was only once cinema had a firm foothold as an entertainment medium that people decided it might be a good idea to add lists of details before and after films, so that people could tell who produced, directed and starred in the various films then rolling across the screens of the world.

The 1920s saw the rise of Hollywood. The first stars were born. People like Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Films during these early years were crude. Without the benefit of synchronised audio, actors relied on exaggerated body-language and close-ups of facial-expressions to convey emotional messages such as anger, frustration, horror and comedy. Intertitles, a staple of films of this era, conveyed important information to the audience such as important bits of dialogue, scene-changes or important story-elements.

Many terms used in the film-industry today survive from this early era. Today, a ‘flick’ is a feature film or a ‘movie’. A ‘film’. ‘Flick’ came from the propensity of early images to flicker across the screen as the film-reels rolled over the projection-lights. ‘Movie’ naturally comes from the bigger word ‘moving picture’ and ‘film’ from the delicate and highly combustable cellulose nitrate film that early films were produced on – So flammable that it was against the law to carry film-reels on public transport due to the immense fire-hazard. The very word ‘Cinema’ comes from the larger word ‘cinematograph’, an early form of projection camera. If the film produced wasn’t good enough, then the editor would take out a pair of scissors, slice off the bad film and splice the good bits of film together to make a complete reel – Anything not up to scratch literally ended up “…on the cutting-room floor”.

Despite technological shortcomings, films were being produced with amazing speed in Hollywood during the 1920s. Up to eight hundred a year during that decade alone. Most of them were short, one-reel flicker-shows, but the idea of the ‘feature length film’ was beginning to gain ground. The first feature-length film was actually produced in Australia in the early 1900s, and was about the famous Ned Kelly gang…Hollywood had a bit of catching up to do!

Due to the lack of audio, many early picture-houses featured a piano (or if they could afford it, an organ) to provide musical accompaniment. Most music was generic, written to provide a background to various filmic situations – Love-scenes, dramatic fights, light relaxing music for summer days, scary, dramatic music for stormy weather or horror films…Only the really big-budget films had musical scores written specifically for them. Cinema pianists had to be the best of the best, to accompany the film exactly in-sync for the music to work with what was being portrayed on screen. One of the most famous silent-film organists was the late Rosa Rio, who died in 2010. Playing the piano from the age of seven, her musical career ran for over a century (that’s right, 1909-2009). She started out as a silent-film pianist, then she moved to radio, then to television, providing some of the most famous theme-tunes ever known, such as the haunting and slow organ music that accompanied the opening of every episode of the famous radio-program, ‘The Shadow’.

Rosa Rio, silent film organist, 1934

The Birth of Talkies

“Talkies”, so-called because the actors could be heard to talk, came out in the late 1920s, when film studios figured out how to successfully synchronise recorded sound with moving pictures. Many people will tell you that the first talking picture was “The Jazz Singer” from 1927. This is both true, and untrue. It’s certainly got talking in it, but in many ways, it is still a silent film, complete with the exaggerated body-language and the intertitles that had existed since the earliest days of film production. I’ve seen the film myself and while it’s certainly a great story – I don’t know that I’d call it a modern, audio-synchronised film as we would know it today.

Talkies were a watershed of an invention. Some people loved them…Others hated them! Many silent-film actors were put out of work because they just didn’t understand the new technology and were unable to adapt to it. Charlie Chaplin was one of the lucky few that did…although he held off making his first ‘talkie’ film until well into the 1930s, by which time silent films were fast becoming ancient history. It was because of the invention of talkies that one of the most famous pieces of filmmaking equipment was created…the clapper-board:

The clapperboard was used to help the filmmakers. By showing the film, but most importantly, the act, scene and take-numbers, they could accurately synchronise motion with sound, from the ‘clack!’ that started each reel. It was invented in the late 1920s in Melbourne, Australia.

The Hollywood Sign

The most famous thing about Hollywood is of course, the Hollywood Sign. It was created in 1923 as a real-estate advertisement and originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND” and was lit up by thousands of lightbulbs at night. Only designed to be up there for a few months, no thought was given to its preservation and it was allowed to deteriorate for over twenty years until it was partially renovated in 1949. By then, the weather had damaged the sign so badly that the decision was made to remove the last four letters, leaving simply ‘HOLLYWOOD’.

The original Hollywoodland sign, photographed here in the 1930s

The original sign from 1923 doesn’t exist anymore. The one that we see today was what replaced the original sign in the 1970s. Continued exposure to the elements had necessitated the sign’s complete replacement in 1978.

Pre-Code Hollywood

A lot of people like to think of old Hollywood films as weak, soppy, exaggerated and overacted. And perhaps they are. But that’s only because of the intense censorship that existed in Hollywood at the time. Any Hollywood films made before 1934 (especially those made between 1927-1934) are classed as “Pre-Code” films. These films were full of sex, violence, blood, rough fist-fights and even homosexuality. It was during this time that many of the great gangster films were made, such as the infamous ‘Scarface’ and ‘Little Caesar’. Free from creative restriction, filmmakers and actors let themselves loose on the camera and film-set, shooting what they wished.

It was in 1934 that all this fun and joy had to end. It was dangerous. It was immoral. It was offensive to women, children, civilised men and to President Roosevelt’s pet dog (…maybe. The dog could not be reached for comment). Religious and morality groups spoke out against the percieved ‘immorality’ of these films, and demanded that the government take steps to clean up the act of the American motion-picture industry. As a result, a strict list of rules was created. These rules clearly stated, or strongly suggested that, among other things…

– Sexual innuendo was to be illegal. No nudity. No ladies lifting their skirts. No sex-scenes of any kind.
– Criminal films were to be strictly censored. It would be better if films did not show scenes of robbery, theft, murder, brawling…firearms, safecracking, malicious demolition of railroads or buildings…the list goes on and on. No wonder all the best gangster-films were made before 1934!!
– Profanity of any kind was illegal. It’s for this reason that Clark Gable shocked everyone in 1939 with his infamous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”.
– Death wasn’t allowed to be gory or excessively violent.

The damage that the ‘Hays Code’ as it was called, did to the American film industry was catastrophic. Many actors were furious and felt that their creativity was being severely impeded. One of the most famous of these was the actress Mae West. Famous for her saucy double entendres and generous breasts, she faced almost complete ruin thanks to the restrictions placed on her by the Code. Many movies from earlier years, mostly those from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s were heavily edited to comply with the new censorship laws, the result being that many classic films are now only available in their post-code states. In some cases, films were destroyed outright because they didn’t comply with the rules of the Hays Code.

One of the most famous and most obvious examples of the Hays Code in effect is in fight-scenes. They almost always take place at night and always in the dark, with the lights turned off and only turned on again when the fight is over. On the surface it makes no sense, because it’s almost impossible to film a fistfight in the dark, but this was done deliberately so that the audience wouldn’t see the violence portrayed on screen and children wouldn’t be desensitised to it. Another example comes from the 1950s Stanley Kubrick film “Paths of Glory”. A film set during the First World War, soldiers killed in combat merely flop over dead onscreen (regardless of actual manner of death). Compare this with the jarring introduction of Stephen Spielberg’s famous film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ which portrayed the full horror of a beachfront assault.

The Code couldn’t last. By the 1940s it was already being eroded as people complained that, while the Code did have its good points (needless or pointless violence and sex was removed from films, for example), it increasingly caused problems for filmmmakers who were unable to shoot particular scenes. The Code died a slow death, though. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that it was finally abandoned, to be replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating-system that we know today (“G”, “PG”, “PG 13+”, “R” and “NC-17”) which allowed films of all kinds to be created, and merely advised people of their content prior to watching them.

The full text of the Hays Code of 1930 may be found in the ‘Article Sources’ page of this blog.

The Big Studios

With the arrival of talkies, filmmaking really took off. The 1930s to the 1950s is considered the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. In this roughly twenty-to-thirty year gap, some of the most famous films ever, were shot in Hollywood. Classics like “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, the ‘Dick Tracy’ films, the classic ‘Sherlock Holmes’ films starring Basil Rathbone, “San Francisco” starring Clark Gable and many famous Hitchcock films, such as “North by Northwest” in 1959.

Hundreds of films were produced every year by big movie-studios. Called the ‘studio system’, the big-name filmmakers produced their films entirely on their own lots. They also controlled film distribution-rights as well as some of the better cinemas in town, which meant that they could make more money. Some of the big studios have survived into the 21st century. These include…

– MGM (“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”)
– Paramount Pictures.
– Warner Brothers.
– RKO Radio Pictures.
– Fox Film Corporation (later “20th Century Fox”).

The only one of these not around today is RKO Radio Pictures. Famous for films such as “King Kong” (which saved the company from bankruptcy in 1933), the company folded in 1959.

Before the age of television, Hollywood was pumping out hundreds of films a year, dozens of films a month. Some films made it big, some have faded into history. In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood films were extremely popular – for just a few cents you could buy a ticket and forget your troubles for a couple of hours and not worry about the Depression or the War that was going on around you. Hollywood boomed in this era for that reason. With so many films being made, less emphasis was put on films to make them a hit and fewer people worried if a film was a flop – there was nothing to compete against so it probably didn’t matter. Some films did make it big – “Casablanca”, “San Francisco”, “The Big Sleep” and “Twelve Angry Men” to name but a few.

An antique Bell & Howell movie-camera from 1933. An identical one was used in the Peter Jackson remake of ‘King Kong’. Cameras similar to this were common during the Golden Age of Hollywood

Hollywood During the 30s and 40s

Although Hollywood began to take off during the 1920s, the 1930s and 40s nearly killed it. The Depression could have shut the movie-making industry down, just as it killed off nearly everything else in the United States, but strong ticket-sales saved the various studios then in operation, from going bankrupt. Buying a film-ticket for a few cents was the only way that most Depression-era people had of escaping their misery, and they bought millions of them. ‘King Kong’, released in 1933, was wholly responsible for saving RKO from bankruptcy during the worst years of the Depression, when one in four Americans were out of work and unemployment was in the millions.

In the Second World War, Hollywood helped produce propaganda films and documentaries for the war-effort. While some may be considered insensitive today, they were undeniably funny and were aimed at boosting Allied morale and reminding Americans why they should fight a war which some of them thought, wasn’t theirs to bother about. Hollywood even produced training-films for the U.S. Army to better educate soldiers. They produced instructional films for soldiers as well, in the shape of the famous “SNAFU” cartoon-shorts. They were supposed to be followed by additional cartoon-series with SNAFU’s cousin TARFU and FUBAR, but these last two weren’t produced due to the war’s end. Because they were aimed at soldiers, these instructional cartoons were considerably more adult than other material Hollywood produced during the same-era…SNAFU, TARFU and FUBAR are all military acronyms. Respectively, they stood for: “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up”, “Totally and Royally Fucked Up” and “Fucked up Beyond All Recognition”.

The End of the Age

The ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ ended in the 1950s and 60s. The collapse of the U.S. Government’s ‘Hays Code’ meant that filmmakers were able to produce drastically different types of films, no longer restrained by what some people thought were over-the-top restrictions and regulations. Although invented in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that television finally took off and by the 1960s, was really spreading around the world. Some people feared that television would put the movie-making industry and cinemas out of business, but this fear proved groundless. What television did do was change the way Hollywood operated and affected the kinds of films they made. With fewer people going to the cinema, the number of films made dropped significantly, to about four hundred a year today.

“Hooray for Hollywood”?

If you’re wondering about the title of this article, it’s taken from the 1937 song “Hooray for Hollywood”, a piece of music written for the film ‘Hollywood Hotel’. It’s widely considered the official “theme-song” of Hollywood and is sometimes heard at awards ceremonies (even those not held in the United States!) The lyrics, largely forgotten today, celebrate the golden age of American filmmaking. They can be confusing and hard to understand today because they use many outdated slang-words, mention actors or actresses who have since passed away and refer to technology long obsolete.


Night Flying and Nigger: The Story of the Dam Busters

The Second World War is full of fascinating stories and amazing people, from Winston Churchill, who was known for occasionally wandering through his country house of Chartwell completely naked, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who required leg-braces and a pair of walking-sticks to stand up, from the Blitz, to the V2-rocket that blew up the police-station down the road from the Stewart family home in Highgate, London, when a newborn boy named Roderick came into the world.

But these stories, fascinating as they are, probably couldn’t hold a candle to the story of two men. One with an amazingly good brain, and one with balls of solid brass: Sir Barnes Neville Wallis and Wing Commander Guy P. Gibson (who had so many military decorations after his name that I shan’t list them here!).

Between the two of them, Wallis and Gibson, they solved one of the biggest problems and carried out one of the most famous aerial attacks on Germany during the entire Second World War which became a massive morale-booster to the Allies and a huge loss to the Germans. This mission of theirs, the rather appropriately-named “Operation Chastise” aimed to destroy the German hydroelectric dams in the Ruhr Valley, thereby cutting electrical power to the steel-production plants in the area and severely crippling the German war-effort.

This is the story of the Dam Busters and the famous Bouncing Bomb.

Target: The Ruhr Valley

During the Second World War, the Ruhr Valley was the heartland of the German war-machine. The valley area was dammed by the Germans and vast amounts of hydroelectricity was generated there, which was used to power the factories that manufactured shells, tanks, bombs, high explosives and airplanes with which the Germans were fighting their war of occupation and oppression against the rest of Europe.

The munitions factories in the Ruhr Valley area were a huge headache to the Allies. Despite repeated raids on the Valley, they had failed to put the factories out of action; the main method of aerial attack: Saturation carpet-bombing, just wasn’t accurate enough to destroy the factories. The Allies desperately needed to find another way to try and stab at the heart of the German military production-area.

Instead of attacking the factories, the Allies considered attacking the huge hydroelectric dams in the area. If they could successfully destroy the dams, the loss of electrical power would delay German munitions production for months, not to mention that the huge waves of water released from theh collapsing dams would probably wipe out every single factory in the immediate area. Unfortunately, with conventional bombing and all other conventional methods of attack, this was quite hopeless. The dams were protected by anti-aircraft guns, huge floating booms and underwater torpedo nets that made destroying the dams nearly impossible. The booms prevented the possibility of floating a sea-mine against the dam walls, the torpedo-nets meant that attacking the dams with torpedo-planes was a waste of time and the sheer inaccuracy of carpet-bombing meant that it was useless to try and destroy the dams by pounding them into submission by aerial bombardment. They needed a whole new and ingenious way to destroy the dams.

Enter Sir Barnes Wallis.

Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb

Enter Sir Barnes Wallis. Or Dr. Wallis, as he was called then. Barnes Wallis fitted almost all the stereotypes of your perfect mad scientist. By the 1940s he was already in his fifties. He was a brilliant scientist, engineer and a fantastical inventor, which is just as well, because this article wouldn’t be here without one of his most wonderful inventions: The Bouncing Bomb.

Wallis’s contributions to the Second World War were considerable. Before the Bouncing Bomb, Wallis was famous for helping to design the legendary Wellington Bomber.

The Wellington was one of the Allies most famous bomber-planes and they were used for bombing-raids with varying frequency throughout the entire duration of the Second World War. But it pales into insignificance, some might say, when compared to Wallis’s most daring and some might say, outrageous invention ever.

In studying the huge German hydroelectric dams in the Ruhr Valley, Dr. Wallis determined that to destroy the dams with conventional bombing, they would require bombs so powerful that no heavy bomber then in use would ever be able to transport them to Germany. It was a waste of time to even try. Wallis determined that if a regular bomb was detonated right against the base of the dam, the force of the blast would rip the dam apart. But many people thought that Wallis was dreaming. And maybe he was. Because to many people, this seemed a total impossibility; bombing-accuracy had not yet reached such a level that they could drop one regular-sized bomb with such a nicety that it would land right against the dam wall, sink and then detonate under water to destroy the dams. If Wallis wanted this hare-brained idea of his to work, he would have to figure out a way of delivering the bomb right up against the dam, something that nobody had figured out yet, but Wallis was determined to try.

Inventing the Bouncing Bomb

The challenges facing Dr. Wallis were immense. Although he had proven that a current-production high-explosive bomb detonated at the base of the dam walls would be sufficient to breech the dam and cause significant damage to the German industrial Ruhr Valley, he had to find a way to deliver the bomb to the dam in such a precise way so that the bomb would explode right against the wall of the dam. A distance-error of even a few feet would mean that the entire mission would fail, because when the bomb detonated, any cushion of water between the explosion and the dam would absorb the shock of the blast, rendering the bomb harmless and the entire mission a waste of time.

Eventually, Wallis got the idea that he could get a bomb right up against the wall of a dam if he skipped it across the lake behind the dam, like an enormous, high-explosive pebble. Such a technique was used by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, whereby gun-crews would fire their cannonballs at the waterline and watch them skip across the surface of the sea, a technique that vastly increased the range of their cannonfire before the balls finally hit the enemy ships, smashing into their hulls close to the waterline, causing them to sink. Using a similar technique, Wallis hoped that he could smash a hole through the German dams. Although he had now hit upon a possible method for getting the bombs close enough to the dams to destroy them, he still had to figure out how to get the bombs to bounce across the water like skipping-stones.

It was 1941 when Dr. Wallis started working on his new bomb. It took a lot of trial and error and countless hours of experimentation, measurements and testing. There were a huge number of obstacles to overcome. And if you don’t believe me, here they are:

– The bomb had to skip across the water. Not easy for a chunk of metal that weighs several tons.
– The bomb had to dropped from a precise height above the water from a precise distance from the target. Difficult when GPS hadn’t been invented.
– The bomb had to hit the dam wall at exactly the right time. If the bomb fell short, it would detonate in the water and prove useless. If it missed the target, it would explode on top of the dam and kill everyone in the bomber flying overhead.

The first of these great challenges was how to make the bomb skip across the water. Eventually, Wallis came up with the idea that the bomb would have to be a large cylinder suspended under the belly of the aircraft and provided with a means of producing backspin before the bomb hit the water, to prevent it from going where the bomber-crews didn’t want it to.

One of the actual ‘bouncing bombs’

Apart from figuring out the right shape of the bomb so that it would skip across the water and giving it backspin so that the bomb would bounce along the water and give it the height it needed to complete its journey, Dr. Wallis still had to figure out how high off the water the bomb had to be dropped and how far away from the dams they had to be released. Amazingly, these two problems weren’t solved by Dr. Wallis, but by the other man in this story.

A fellow named Guy Gibson. Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force. Gibson was an intelligent, brave and courageous fellow. If you don’t believe me, let’s have a look at his awards:

Victoria Cross.
Distinguished Service Order + Bar.
Distinguished Flying Cross + Bar.
Legion of Merit.

He didn’t win all those medals for nothing.

Gibson and his men were trying to figure out how to determine the height of their planes above the water before they dropped their bombs. The problem was, they had to be just sixty feet above the water. Their altimeters (the instruments that determined a plane’s altitude) just didn’t function at such low levels. Their solution came, reportedly, when they were out on the town. While the airmen were watching a theater-performance, they noticed how a pair of spotlights at either end of the stage met at a specific point on the stage-platform. They figured out that if they fixed two spotlamps on the noses and tails of their planes and angled them correctly, the lights would meet at the precise moment that the plane was sixty feet above the water.

The boys also figured out how to determine the distance from the dam using a similar method.

Each of the German dams had tall towers at each end. By using a cheap, homemade bomb-sight, the bomber could hold the bomb-sight in front of his eyes and keep them trained on two little upright sticks at the end of the sight. When the two sticks lined up with the two towers on each of the dams, they knew that they were dropping-distance from the dam and could release their bombs and then fly away.

Preparing for Battle

The attack on the German dams in the Ruhr Valley was called “Operation Chastise”, probably because by successful completion of this mission, the Allies hoped to severely cripple Germany’s muntions productivity. But the whole mission was almost scuttled before it began.

It took Barnes Wallis months to figure out how to get everything just right for his new bombs to work. And even then a lot of the success was totally up to luck. The bombs would only be as accurate as the crews that launched them. If everything worked perfectly, then the bombs would be dropped into the lakes. They would skip across the water like huge pebbles, bouncing over the torpedo-nets and the floating booms and then strike the side of the dam walls. Here, they would sink right down to the bottom of the dam. Each bouncing bomb was fitted with a hydrostatic charge which went off when the bombs were under a specific depth of water (the same charges are used to detonate naval depth-charges for destroying submarines). The force of the explosions would bounce off the water and be directed completely towards the dam walls. The shockwaves would cause the walls to crumble and for the dams to be breeched, crippling their hydroelectrical generating abilities. But this was only if everything went perfectly.

While Wallis tackled with these problems, RAF Bomber Command realised that they would need a really spectacular bomber squadron to carry out this insane mission. Training just any old squadron to execute this mission wasn’t deemed sufficient enough. A whole new squadron would have to be formed; a squadron manned by the best of the best of the best bomber pilots, navigators, wireless-transmitters, gunners and bombers in the entire Royal Air Force. Commanding this squadron was Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

The squadron, #617, was made up of men who were all specifically chosen for their particular skills, whether it was low flying, navigation, defensive gunnery, bomb-aiming or communications. The squadron was formed on the 21st of March, 1943 and was made up of airmen from almost every allied airforce imaginable. The RAF, the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force), RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) and the RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force). Rather appropriately, the squadron’s motto is “After me, the flood”, alluding to what they hoped to do to the Germans.

The Story of Nigger

Up to now, I have mentioned everything. The men, the machines, the technology, the mission and its aims. I haven’t, however, mentioned Nigger.

‘Nigger’ was the mascot of 617 Squadron. He was a labrador (hence the name ‘Nigger’) and the pet of Wing Commander Gibson. Beloved by Gibson and his fellow pilots, he was sadly killed on the evening before the raid. He was run over by a car at the airbase. He was buried outside of Gibson’s office on the night of the raid.

The men of 617 Squadron with Nigger. His owner and the sqaudron’s commanding officer, Guy Gibson, is first on the right on the bottom row, with the pipe in his mouth

On the night of the raid, ‘Nigger’ was one of the code-words used to signal a successful breech of one of the dams. Below is a photograph of Nigger’s grave:

“NIGGER – The grave of a black labrador dog; mascot of 617 Squadron, owned by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO, DFC. Nigger was killed by a car on the 16th of May 1943. Buried at midnight as his owner was leading his squadron on the attack against the Mohne and Eder Dams”

Busting the Dams

Despite the death of their mascot and favourite pup, the men of 617 Squadron were determined to go through with the mission. It would take more than a careless driver running over their pet pooch to stop these men.

The dam busters took off on the night of the 16th-17th of May, 1943. May was the month when the height of water in the dams was at its highest and destroying the dams would have the most devastating effect on the Germans. The Squadron was divided into three groups or formations. The first formation had nine planes and the second and third formations had five planes each. They flew southeast towards Germany, doing their best to avoid known German anti-aircraft gun-batteries.

The mission was almost a failure. The three formations encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire on their ways to and from their targets; and the dams themselves were heavily defended by anit-aircraft guns. Of the three main dams that were to be breeched, the Mohne, the Eder and the Sorpe, only the Mohne and Eder were successfully destroyed.

The Mohne Dam after the attack

Attempts to destroy the Sorpe Dam were unsuccessful, and the squadron was already encountering heavy anti-aircraft fire and were unable to hang around and try again. Three attempts in all were made to destroy it but even though the bouncing bombs hit the dam, they didn’t manage to destroy it.

The Eder Dam after the attack

After the Attacks

Although the mission was called a ‘success’, it was one that was paid for with a heavy price. Eight of the nineteen planes were shot down or crashed during the mission. The emotional toll on Barnes Wallis was immense and after the war, he became increasingly interested in remote-controlled aircraft, hoping that aerial wars of the future could be fought without the need for young pilots to die in combat. The effect of the destruction of the dams was immense. If nothing else, their destruction was a huge morale boost to the Allies. The water released from the two destroyed dams flooded out dozens of factories, storage-houses, munitions plants, it distrupted electrical generation and even destroyed German food-production, by flooding farmlands and ruining their crops!

Despite the destruction and death and the disruption caused by the breeching of the dams, the military aims of the dam-busters raid were barely fulfilled. It was hoped that knocking out the dams would cripple the Germans for months. Instead, they were out of action for only a few weeks. The dams were repaired, the factories were put back into operation and soon it was as if nothing had happened. Although a disappointment to the Allied top brass, the morale-boost it gave to the British was something that the Germans couldn’t try and modify.

Sir Barnes Wallis died on the 30th of October, 1979. He was ninety-two.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson was killed in action on the 19th of September, 1944. He was twenty-six years old.


X Marks the Spot: Being a Brief & Concise Examination of the Popular Views of the Golden Age of Piracy

Ah, pirates. We love pirates! I love pirates! Don’t you love pirates? We all love pirates!

But like me…you probably don’t know a damn thing about them. So that’s what this article is for. It’s a look into what pirates were and when they existed. It’s an examination of the times in which they lived, how they lived, what they did and how they did it…during the Golden Age of Piracy.

What do we ‘know’ about pirates?

Pirates have existed for centuries, even the 21st century, what with Somalian pirates being in the news of late, attacking ships and holding their captains and crews hostage and with the navys of the world’s superpowers trying to put a stop to their felonious, maritime activities. But when most people think of pirates, we think of the classic pirate – Peg-leg, eyepatch, hook-hand, bandana, boots, buckles, belts, striped shirt, waistcoat, neckerchief, pistol and cutlass. We think that pirates sailed around attacking ships, killing their crews or stealing them of their cargoes, which they would later bury on tropical island paradises, going back there later with maps to dig up their hordes of booty and then sail off into retirement.

But how much of this is true? What were classic pirates really like? A lot of what we think of pirates comes from popular fiction, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “The Pirates of the Carribean” or “Hook” and the stories of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. We think that pirates drank rum and that they spoke a strange language full of phrases that nobody else would understand, like “Pieces of Eight” and “Avast” and “walking the plank”. They say that all myth has a basis in fact. But which facts and how many of these ‘facts’ are actually real?

Pirating Times

The ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ ran, with stops and starts, from about 1620 until about 1780, a period of roughly a hundred and sixty years. Pirates came from all countries, including Great Britain, Colonial America, France and Spain. During this era, which was occasionally interrupted by wars, outbreaks of disease or fantastic natural disasters, pirates sailed around attacking ships, stealing their cargo and either killing the crews and sinking their ships or marooning them on an island and sailing off their newer, much better ship (the one with central heating and surround-sound home-theater).

What kind of people were Pirates?

In many cases, pirates were actually privateers. A privateer was a bit like a ‘government pirate’. You were given a letter of authority (officially, a “Letter of Marque”) that said you could hunt down, attack, capture or sink any ships bearing an enemy flag. Privateers were often spawn during warfare as an easy way to deprive the enemy of its weapons, foodstuffs, ammunition and other essential wartime supplies. But what happened when the war ended? Privateers were out of a job! So the natural thing to do was to put your seafaring skills to good use and turn into the oceangoing version of a highway robber, sticking up ships on the open seas and stealing their treasures. In the days before government social security, this was pretty much the only way a sailor out of work could ensure his own ‘social security’. Like most desperate criminals, pirates had a lot to gain and nothing to lose and plenty of time to do one and not the other.

As I mentioned earlier, pirates came from all over what was then the known world, although the majority of pirates (about one third, according to my research) were English, probably not surprising when you consider that the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world at the time. Indeed, one of the main reasons why people became pirates was to escape the harsh realities of naval life. You didn’t have to be flogged, you could get better food and you could sail to where-ever it was you wished to go.

Common Pirate Stereotypes

Pirates have been so swamped in literary and filmic fantasy that it’s sometimes hard to determine fact from fiction with piracy. So how many of the famous aspects of piracy are actually true?

The Jolly Roger is the classic pirate flag. A black rectangle with a skull and a pair of bones in a diagonal ‘St. Andrews’-style cross. It’s believed that this flag was probably created in the late 17th century, but it was by no means the only pirate flag that existed. Variations of black flags with skulls, skeletons or swords existed throughout the Golden Age of Piracy and each pirate ship and captain had his own particular design. In general, a black pirate flag (with or without its morbid artwork) was used as a sign to the enemy that the crew onboard would fight to the death and were beholden to no laws other than their own.

Peglegs and hook-hands really were part of pirate folklore. Sea-battles were fierce and dangerous affairs and it wasn’t uncommon for pirates to lose limbs or to have them so badly injured that they’d require them to be amputated later. Most pirate ships had absolutely no professional medical help onboard at all, except for the ship’s cook (the only person around with any experience with knives). The ship’s cook would perform the amputation, after which the bloody stump would be bandaged and cauterised using blackpowder. Pouring gunpowder on a bleeding stump and lighting it was a quick and dirty way to stop bleeding. The intense heat from the burning powder would sear the wound shut and prevent continued bleeding and eventual infection. Afterwards, a prosthetic limb such as a hook-hand or a peg-leg would be fashioned out of whatever spare wood, metal and leather (to act as a securing strap) that the pirates could lay their hands on.

Eyepatches were used, both for covering an eye-socket when someone lost an eye in a fight, or, as was actually more common, to preserve sight when moving around the ship. It was often dark inside ships and very bright outside. Due to the extreme contrast between the different light-levels, wearing an eyepatch was a way of ensuring that a pirate’s eyes could adapt quickly between extreme brightness and extremely low light.

“Pieces of Eight” refers to money. Traditionally, prize-money at sea was divided up into eighths and shared out among the crew accordingly. ‘Pieces of Eight’ were also Spanish dollars, Spanish gold being a popular target of English pirates during the 17th century.

Parrots are as commonly associated with pirates as dogs are with the blind. Pirates travelled all over the world so it is possible that they picked up parrots and kept them as pets during their travels.

Tropical Locations are always associated with pirates. And you can hardly blame them. After all that pirating, you would want to relax in a tropical island paradise for a few years. And the Johnny Depp film franchise would have us believe that pirates loved hanging out under the Carribbean sun when they weren’t doing anything else. But is this true? Probably yes. Pirates preyed on ships sailing around the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, sailing along the “Triangle of Trade”. Ships sailed from England to Africa to pick up slaves (stop one), then across to the southern reaches of North America (stop two) to drop off slaves, before provisioning their ships, picking up spices and cloth and other goodies, like the latest bootleg DVDs, and then sailing back to England (stop three). Hanging around in waters like these, it’s not hard to see why pirates are associated with tropical locales such as the Carribbean.

Pirates love Drinking Rum! It’s well-known that pirates (and maritime types in general) loved drinking rum and grog! Is this true? The answer is probably yes. Rum, an alcoholic beverage created from molasses, has been distilled since the mid 1600s, right around when pirates were rocking the waves. It was produced in sugar-growing areas of the world such as the southern areas of North America and the Carribbean, where pirates were known to hang out.

Rum started being given to British seamen in 1655, replacing their previous tipple, brandy, so successfully that by the 1740s, rum had to be watered down, creating the slightly less alcoholic beverage…grog. The introduction of rum was directly linked to the British colonisation of Jamaica. Sailors took such a liking to rum that when they turned into pirates, they kept rum around them at all times. Attacking ships is thirsty work, after all.

Buried Treasure! Everyone knows that pirates buried their treasure! They parked off of a tropical island, dug a hole, chucked in their gold, buried it, drew a map to its location and then sailed off, coming back years later when it became a necessity to access their little nest-egg. But is this true?

“Treasure Island” as drawn by Robert Louis Stevenson

Sorry folks. No it isn’t. History (and reliable records) says that only ONE pirate…Captain Kidd (Capt. William Kidd; 1645-1701) ever buried any treasure at all (the location is believed to be Long Island, New York). But this was hardly a widespread practice, so for all intents and purposes, no, pirates did not bury their treasure, and as Indiana Jones said: “X never, ever marks the spot”.

Pirates were all ruthless cutthroats and indeed they were. At least, to other seafarers. In actuality though, pirates were a pretty disciplined bunch. Surprising, huh? Below, you will see a partial list of rules and regulations from various Pirating Codes that existed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Walking the Plank was a pirate’s favourite way of getting rid of troublesome people. Again, not nearly as common as we’d like to think. Although instances of walking the plank have been recorded throughout history, it appears that it wasn’t a widespread practice and was rarely used by pirates. It was most likely glamorised by writers and Hollywood.

There was such thing as a Pirates’ Code In “Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, we are told that there is a ‘Brethren Code’. Did such a code ever exist? Research suggests that a code (or more likely, several codes) did exist, and that these codes were the rules that pirates were obliged to follow. Sadly, no original written documents of such codes from the 1600s survive, but copies stated that among other things…

    – Fighting was forbidden onboard ship. Any such arguments or disagreements that might arise were to be settled onshore in the prescribed gentlemanly manner (ehm…duelling).
    – Fighting onboard ship was punishable by flogging.
    – Smoking tobacco or using a naked flame without also using a protective cover was punishable by flogging (fire was a big hazard on wooden sailing-ships).
    – Thievery was punishable by marooning or death.
    – In instances of marooning, a pirate would be given a bottle of water, a charge of blackpowder, a single shot and a flintlock pistol.
    – Rape was not to be tolerated. Any pirate caught raping (or even having consensual sex) with a female faced death by shooting.
    – It was against the rules to stay up past a certain hour. All lights to be doused at 8:00pm SHARP.
    – Gambling was strictly forbidden.
    – All members of the crew were expected to have their pistols and swords (and any other appropriate weaponry) in good repair and in working order for battle at all times.
    – Any members of the crew who provided entertainment through the playing of musical instruments were allowed every Sunday off, as was their right.
    – The right of an enemy or rival captain to demand Parley (‘negotiations’) with the master of the ship and his expectation not to be harmed, was to be upheld at all times.
    – A pirate injured in the course of his duties was entitled to compensation! Loss of an eye or a finger was 100 pieces of eight. Loss of the right hand was 600 pieces of eight. Loss of right leg was 500 pieces of eight. Loss of left arm was 500 pieces of eight. Loss of left leg was 400 pieces of eight. Most pirates who fulfilled the job of ‘Ship’s Cook’ was usually a pirate who had been injured and was unfit to do any other kind of meaningful (and more phsyical) labour.

Pirates of the Carribbean

What is Port Royal?

Port Royal was a city located in British Jamaica. It was built and colonised during the second half of the 1600s. It was a safe haven for pirates during this time and pirates were even called upon by the Port’s governor to help defend the city in the case of Spanish or French naval attacks. In its time, Port Royal was famous for whoring, boozing, drunken brawls and alcoholism…charming place. There was said to be a public house, tavern, bar or other less-than-reputable drinking-establishment for every ten people that lived in Port Royal. When you consider that Port Royal was once home to about 6,500 people, that’s a hell of a lot of drinking. In 1687, Port Royal tried to clean up its act and passsed Anti-Piracy laws. Dozens of pirates were arrested and hanged for their crimes. The Port was destroyed in 1692 by a powerful earthquake, which many believed was God’s punishment for all the prostitution, drinking, gambling and vice that existed in the city. Port Royal barely exists as a city today. It was destroyed again by earthquake in January of 1907 and the city has struggled ever since.

Where is Tortuga?

Ilsa Tortuga, the Island of Turtles, is located off of the coast of Haiti, northeast of the Jamaican city of Port Royal. Colonised in 1625, it was a notorious pirate hangout during the 17th century. French and English pirates existed in an uneasy harmony here for several years. It was attacked in 1654 by the Spanish and by 1670, pirating connections with Tortuga were in serious decline. Pirates who used Tortuga as a home-base began to turn to legitimate work in the years that followed since piracy wasn’t exactly bringing in the gold anymore.

Were Pirates Really Marooned on Desert Islands?

Yes indeed they were. As mentioned above (although not in great detail), marooning a pirate on a desert island was a genuine pirate punishment of the 17th century. The offending party was lowered on a ship’s boat, rowed ashore and then the rest of the pirates rowed back to the ship and sailed off. The marooned party was given a bottle of water (or rum; whichever was more readily available), a flintlock pistol, a round of pistol-shot and a charge of blackpowder. The decision was simple, really. You could drink the water and ration it out and see how long you survived until you starved to death…Or you could load the pistol and commit suicide and have it all over in a heartbeat.

What is the ‘Black Spot’?

Jack Sparrow is given the Black Spot in one of the PotC movies. In the film, Jack Sparrow has the mark on the palm of his hand, but in real life, the Black Spot was either a black, filled-in circle on a sheet of paper, or the Ace of Spades out of a deck of cards. The Black Spot was given to someone suspected of being a government informer or a traitor to his pirate brethren.

Some Famous Pirates

So, who are some famous pirates that we know of? Captain Jack Sparrow? Long John Silver? Captain Hook? Captain Feathersword!? Pffft. Here’s some real pirates for yah…


Real Name: Edward Teach.
Born: Ca. 1680, England.
Died: 22nd Nov., 1718, of twenty sword-wounds and five bullet-wounds sustained in battle.


– Blackbeard is believed to have had over a dozen wives!
– Blackbeard blockaded the city of Charles Town (Charleston) South Carolina and threatened to open fire on it with his ships and kill hostages (prominent city officials) unless his ransom (a chest of medical supplies) was met. The supplies were produced and Blackbeard set sail without firing a single shot.
– Always ready for action, Blackbeard carried no less than three braces of pistols on him during battles (‘brace’ is an old term for a pair. So in all…six pistols).

Captain Kidd

Real Name: William Kidd.
Born: 1645.
Died: 23rd May, 1701.


– One of the few pirates who actually buried treasure.
– Was once a privateer for the English government.
– Tried to bribe his way out of the charge of piracy.
– Eventually arrested, brought back to England from Colonial America.
– He was found guilty of five counts of piracy and one count of murder. He was hanged in London.

Black Sam

Real Name: Samuel Bellamy.
Born: 23rd February, 1689.
Died: 27th April, 1717.


– Called ‘The Prince of Pirates’ for showing mercy to prisoners.
– Ammassed one of the greatest pirate fortunes ever.
– His flagship, the Whydah Gally sank off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was rediscovered in 1984.

The End of Piracy

To be fair…piracy never really ended. The classic, romantic, Hollywood swashbuckling pirate is still alive…in classic, romantic Hollywood films. And piracy is still a big threat today in the waters around the African continent. But classic piracy of the kind we associate with ‘Treasure Island’ did eventually peter out as the 18th century progressed. In 1717, King George I of England issued an amnesty to all pirates, basically saying that all their crimes would be absolved, on the condition that they stopped being pirates. Some pirates were glad to give up the life and took advantage of His Majesty’s mercy. Others stuck their tongues out at the king and went right on pirating.


Escaping to the East: Jewish Refugees in Asia

What do I like about history? Is it all the fancy old stuff? Is it the facts and figures? Is it the new inventions that were popping up all over the place?

Yes. Of course. But if I had to pick one reason for loving history, it’s because of all the stories that you get to hear about and learn about and pass on to others.

Like the story within this article.

This article will cover one of the lesser-known stories of the Second World War. Everyone knows all the big stories. The Blitz, the Battle of Normandy, the Invasion of Russia, the Fall of France, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Dam Busters and the heroics of Oskar Schindler, but in and amongst all these wonderful and amazing stories are the ones that people forget about, or which they can’t imagine ever happened, because they just seem too weird and strange and out-of-place.

This is one of those stories.

This is a story about the Jews. It’s about the Jews and the Second World War. It’s also about a city. In fact, it’s about one of the very few cities in the world which helped to save Jews from Nazi persecution during the years leading up to the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939, taking in thousands of refugees from the hell of Europe when no other city in the world would bother to open its gates. This city is not London, New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Belfast or Boston. It’s not Sydney or Tokyo or Havana. In fact it’s none of the cities that you would ever imagine that persecuted German Jews would ever think of going to.

In English, its name literally means “On the Sea”. In its native tongue, this city is called…


“The Bund” on the waterfront of Shanghai’s International Settlement Zone, Shanghai, China. 1928

Escaping the Nazis

Of all the places in the world to flee to, so as to escape from oppression, hardship and persecution, one of the last places on earth that you’d think the Jews would pick is China. Not because it wasn’t welcoming or accepting of Western Jews or because of language-barriers or cultural clashes or anything else, but simply because it was such a different place from any other country in the world at the time. Why on earth would escaping European Jews from Poland, Germany, Austria and France (among other European countries) wish to flee to China, a country that was so incredibly alien to them?

The truth was, they had no choice.

In 1933, Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany. Although at first things seemed normal, by 1935, life for German Jews became increasingly restricted and more dangerous, with the passing of the “Nuremberg Laws“, that controlled, prohibited and monitored an increasing number of Jewish activities and freedoms. Everything from where Jews could shop, where they could go in public, what they could own, when they could go out, whether or not they could use public transport, whether they could travel, use public institutions such as swimming-pools, cinemas and theatres and even what kinds of jobs they could have. Jews were banned from legal occupations, educational occupations and military occupations. Jewish lawyers, teachers, university lecturers and soldiers were all kicked out of the German companies or organisations that they worked for.

Life for Jews in Germany became more and more dangerous as the 1930s progressed and while some believed that this was a passing thing and that sooner or later all this antisemitic fervor would die down, others saw the writing on the wall. They were convinced that it was not safe for them to remain in Germany anymore, and that they had to get out.

But leaving Germany was not easy. You needed passports, money, travel-permits, tickets and visas to move around. If you were patient or resourceful or rich enough to beg, borrow, bribe, buy or steal these documents, you might be able to escape to another country such as France or Poland or Italy. However, other people were so scared that they wanted to leave Europe altogether.

Leaving Europe in the 1930s was fraught with all kinds of diplomatic and foreign-policy nightmares. In the 1920s and 30s, many countries had ‘immigration quotas’. A country would only allow…so many Jews…so many Chinese…so many English…so many Americans…so many Germans…to migrate to their shores each year. And once that quota was met, the gates were closed and all ships were turned away. The quotas were often deliberately kept small. Only a few thousand people from each category were allowed in. For those who were lucky enough, they could book a steamship passage from Germany to England or to America or even Australia and take comfort in that in a few weeks, they would be out of the reach of the Nazis.

But those were only the people who were lucky enough to find themselves within the government immigration-quotas. What was to become of the hundreds of thousands of other Jews who were desperate to escape from Nazi Germany? There was almost nowhere else to go. Once the quotas were full, German Jews would have to wait a whole year before they could get another bid at sailing to England, America, Australia or any other country of safety again. And by then, it might be too late.

In sheer desperation, German Jews looked to the East. To Asia. To countries in the Pacific which would take them and accept them and give them at least a chance of escaping from the Nazis. One of the few places that opened its gates was the Chinese port city…of Shanghai.

China in the 1930s

Perhaps one reason why people might not think of China as a safe port for persecuted German Jews in the 1930s is because of the fact that at the time, China was fighting its own war with Japan. Not the Second World War, but the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from July, 1937 until September of 1945. In time, Japan would become an ally of Germany. So why go there?

The reason for wanting to go to China was because the Japanese were there.

In comparison to the super-restrictive world of Nazi Germany, where travel-permits and other essential documents were almost impossible to find, in China, travel-documents were practically ignored. Passport-control in the port city of Shanghai was non-existent, partially because of the huge, diplomatic mess that already existed in Shanghai at the time.

During the 19th century, China had been rocked by foreign wars. The Opium Wars had forced China to open its gates to the Western powers, something that China was very reluctant to do. The Chinese Imperial Government saw itself as being the head of a country which was the head of the Asian world and which would answer to no other power. However, the British, French, American and other European powers wanted in on China. They wanted Chinese resources and they wanted Chinese products. This resulted in the Treaty of Nanking. The Treaty covered many things, but the main thing it covered was international trade. Foreign Powers (mostly the British) wanted the Chinese government to open up their port cities and give the British the power to trade within China and do business with whoever they wished.

One of these port cities…was Shanghai.

A map of what Shanghai looked like in 1931

Although the reigning Qing Government was opposed to this, by the early 20th century when Imperial China had collapsed, to be replaced by a capitalist, republican Chinese government, the city of Shanghai was booming.

In accordance with the Treaty of Nanking, within Shanghai were various sectors in which foreign powers could trade. There was the Chinese Sector (Old Shanghai), there was the French Sector, American Sector, British, German and even the Japanese sector. In July of 1937, the Chinese lost the authority of passport control for people entering Shanghai due to the Japanese invasion of China and the occupation of Shanghai. The foreign powers didn’t want to control passports because if the Western powers could control passports, then the invading Japanese would fight for the ability to take over passport control, if that happened, then all hell would break loose. As a result, no country or organisation at all controlled passports into Shanghai. With such a collapse of travel-regulations…

It was the perfect place for German Jews to try and escape to.

Escaping to Shanghai

With almost every other major port city in the world shutting its gates to German Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Shanghai was the last place on earth (almost literally) that persecuted Jews could hope to receive any kind of welcome at all. The chaos of the Second Sino-Japanese War meant that the conventional regulations that controlled immigration to the city of Shanghai had all but disappeared. With passports for Jews being either confiscated or almost impossible to obtain, the lack of any passport control at all made Shanghai the perfect destination for those trying to escape Nazi persecution.

Of course, the journey to Shanghai wasn’t all smooth sailing. Jews still had to get out of Germany! Those that were lucky enough managed to catch trains or drove or even walked from Germany south to Italy. From there, they would board Asian ocean-liners bound for the Far East. The voyage to China was a long one. From Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean and then northeast into the Pacific and then West to the Port of Shanghai, a journey that took a month by steamship. Perhaps ironically, the Jews escaped Germany on ships operated by the eventual German ally, Japan. Two of the ships were the S.S. Hakusan Maru and the S.S. Kashima Maru.

The S.S. Hakusan Maru

The S.S. Kashima Maru

With all other ports closed to them, Jews began to realise just what a golden opportunity Shanghai had become. It was probably the biggest stroke of good luck they ever had before the War. It was gold that they would have to dig for and good luck that they would have to grab they horns, but it was there for them nonetheless. If they could get there in time, that is. But a surprising number of Jewish refugees did catch onto this opportunity and the sheer number of Jews that actually managed to make it to Shanghai is quite staggering. Between 1937 and December of 1941, over twenty thousand Jews, mostly from Germany, managed to book passages on Shanghai-bound ships and sail out of the reach of the clutches of the Nazis to the relative safety of China. The majority of them managed to get Visas from anti-Nazi consular officials and underground resistence-fighters. Ships sailed regularly from Italy to China, ferrying thousands of Jews to the safety of the Port of Shanghai.

Arriving and Surviving in China

Any Jews arriving in China and expecting a fanfare welcome were to be sorely disappointed. Although the disruption caused by the Japanese meant that it was much easier to get to Shanghai and therefore, safety, once they were there, the German Jewish refugees were more or less on their own.

The City of Shanghai was divided into sectors centered around the Huangpu River. To the west of the river where it turned 90-degrees and headed towards the East China Sea, was Old Shanghai, the Chinese sector, and the French Sector. North of the French sector and the north bank of the Huangpu River was the International Settlement Zone. The Jews were dreaming if they could flee from Germany and settle in these busier, more affluent parts of the “Oriental Paris” as Shanghai was called. In fact, the Jews were forced to live in a run-down, working-class part of Shanghai, east of the International Settlement Zone, a desperate slum called Hongkew (“Hongkou” in Chinese).

Life in Shanghai was incredibly hard. Food was scarce, jobs were hard to come by and sanitation and comfortable housing were mere pipe-dreams. But the Jews survived. Despite living in the Hongkew sector of Shanghai, they survived. By pulling together and working together and supporting each other, they survived.

While some Jewish refugees did manage to find work in Shanghai and were therefore able to survive and in some cases, make life relatively comfortable for themselves and their families, the majority of the twenty thousand Jews were reliant on the charity provided by wealthy Jewish families already well-established in Shanghai, or from American Jewish aid agencies. The most prominent of these was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (commonly called the JDC). Despite the disruptions of the Japanese, wealthier Jews supported the poorer Jews and aid organisations helped those who were unable to help themselves. In one way or another, they survived.

The impact of the Jews on the Chinese population was probably negligable. The Chinese, already driven into hardship by the Japanese already, barely noticed the Jews. But when they did, relations were tolerant and polite. Perhaps because the Chinese were already suffering, they sympathised with the Jews. They did business with the Jews and the Jews did business with the Chinese. For a few years, although life was hard…things seemed to be going alright.

The Shanghai Ghetto

Although life was very hard for the Jewish refugees living in Shanghai, even though they had to put up with shortages of food, money, clothing, proper housing, even though they had to worry about the Huangpu River flooding every time it rained, even though they were disgusted by the lack of indoor sanitation, even though the Hongkew Sector was patrolled regularly by Japanese soldiers, they survived. And they also considered themselves damn fortunate to be in China. By 1939, war had broken out in Europe and further transports of escaping Jews from Europe to China pretty much dried up overnight. The Jews living in Shanghai knew that they were lucky to be living there and were lucky to be running and living their own lives. If only they’d known what was happening to their relatives in Europe, they would’ve thought themselves luckier still.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in Shanghai, either. From 1937 to 1941, life in the Shanghai slums was filthy, depressing and riddled with disease and hunger…but at least the Jews were safe. That was all about to change.

In December of 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Within days, Great Britain and America had declared war on Japan. In Shanghai, the Jewish situation went from bad to worse.

Already struggling to get by and just keeping their heads above the water, the Jews were dealt an even harder blow. Jews living in Shanghai who were British subjects were now considered enemies. They were rounded up and sent to concentration-camps. These British Jews were the ones with all the money. With them went all their charitable contributions to the refugee Jews of Europe. But with the declarations of war against Japan, American Jews in Shanghai also became the enemy. The JDC almost ceased operation altogether, if not for a stroke of luck. Because America was now an official enemy of Japan, the JDC could no longer rely on American funds and donations coming from the United States to keep it operating. With the wealthy Shanghai Jews, those who were British subjects, now incacerated, the JDC turned to Shanghai’s other pre-war Jewish community, a collection of Russian Jews who fled to Shanghai during the Russian Revolution of 1917, for donations and funds. Although Shanghai’s Russian Jewish community was not as wealthy or as prominent as the British Jewish community, they did nevertheless, manage to keep the JDC running so that it could continue is charitable work.

Excerpt from the Shanghai Herald newspaper, dated February 18th, stating that all “Stateless Refugees” (which included Jews) had to move to their own sector within the Shanghai distict of Hongkew, by the 18th of May, 1943

Just like in Europe, though, the Jews in Shanghai were forced into a ghetto. Officially, it was called the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees”, but over time, people just called it the “Shanghai Ghetto”. It was a tiny place just a square mile in area, into which twenty thousand Jews were crammed in.

The Shanghai Ghetto, 1943

As unpleasant as this was, the Shanghai Ghetto differed from comparable European Jewish World-War-Two ghettos in many ways. To begin with, the JDC continued to provide charity to the poorest of their community. The Ghetto was not walled in like those in Poland and Germany, and the Chinese already resident in the area of Hongkew designated as the ghetto did not bother to leave. So the Jews were not totally isolated as they were in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Because the Ghetto was not walled, the Jews were able, more or less, to go where they wanted. They required special passes and permits to do this (issued by the Japanese), but they could still travel outside the ghetto, but only for work. Some Jews would take the opporunity of their out-of-ghetto trips to buy essential supplies for their families, or to buy things that they could sell for a profit (meagre as it was) in the ghetto and get some more money to feed their families.

Life in the ghetto grew increasingly harsh as the years wore on. A lack of coal and wood meant that there was a real risk of freezing to death in winter. Food was always scarce and what food there was usually had to be cleaned and prepared specially before you could eat it, since it was often the worst, cheapest food available.

The United States Army Air Force started air-raids on Shanghai in 1944. For the past few years they had been driving the Japanese back through their Pacific island-hopping campaign and they were now determined to flush the Japanese out of China. Shanghai was hit heavily during the raids, especially on the 17th of July, 1945, when American B-29 bombers attacked Hongkew specifically. A number of Jews and Chinese were injured or killed during this and subsequent raids on Shanghai, although the number of Chinese casualties was almost always significantly larger than those of the Jewish community.

Leaving Shanghai

Liberation for the Jews came in September of 1945 when the Japanese surrendered and Chinese forces entered the city and declared it safe. Soon after, aid agencies such as the International Red Cross entered the city to give aid to civilians, including the Jewish refugees. Desperate to know what happened to their families back in Europe, many Jews turned to the Red Cross. The Red Cross had come to Shanghai bearing news of the Holocaust, but they also brought survivor-lists for the Shanghai Jews to read, information that probably helped them make up their minds pretty quickly about what they wanted to do with their lives. Many Jews living in Shanghai during the War felt a significant level of survivor-guilt at the end of the conflict, wondering why they had managed to survive the holocaust in the relative safety of Shanghai, while entire families, all their friends and all their relatives had been killed.

Compared with the ghettos of Europe, the concentration-camps, the death-camps, the roundups, the starvation, the gassings and the horrible uncertainty that nothing was certain at all…Shanghai was like paradise. In the years to come, the Chinese Civil War would drive many Jews away. Thankful to have survived the War, the roughly twenty thousand Jews who had called Shanghai their home between 1937 and 1945 boarded ships for Western countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

By the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 there were only about a hundred Jews still living in Shanghai, however for the roughly 19,000 Jews that survived the War thanks to the ability to take refuge in this Oriental Paris, Shanghai would always hold a special place in their hearts, and indeed, in the hearts of Jewish people all over the world.


A Random History of Popular Foodstuffs

Food. Glorious food. In the 21st Century there is an abundance of this stuff. You find it everywhere. And a lot of us just eat it without thinking. But some of us do think. Some of us think about the most random and ridiculous thoughts ever.

Like…who invented crispy potato chips? Where did the Hotdog come from? Why do police-officers eat doughnuts and who invented them? Why is a Baker’s Dozen one more than a real one and why did it take mankind so long to come up with a meal that could be eaten between two slices of bread? This article will look into the whimsical and interesting histories of a selection of famous foodstuffs that are as common to us today in the 21st century as bread, cheese and ale was to Medieval European peasantry in the 1200s.

Crispy Potato Chips

Beloved by all, adored by some, coveted by others, served in glittering, foil-like bags and notoriously difficult to pick out of your teeth afterwards, potato chips, the deep-fried, paper-thin crunchy variety, have been with us for over a hundred years. But who invented them? Which famous person or company came up with the idea of manufacturing and selling wafer-thin slices of potatoes seasoned with salt and packaged into cute little bags? Smiths? Lays? The guy with the moustache on the ‘Pringles’ can?

No! Crispy potato chips were actually invented by a pissed-off chef at an American resort in the mid-1800s. Yes, it’s true!

The unlikely inventor was a man named George Crum (that’s ‘Crum’ without a ‘b’). He was the cook at Moon’s Lake House, a holiday-resort in Saratoga Springs in the State of New York, U.S.A.

The story goes that on the 24th of August, 1853, a patron at the Lake House’s restaurant kept sending his French Fries back to the kitchen, over and over again, complaining that they were too thick and too soggy and too floppy and too much everything-else. The finicky restaurant-patron did this so many times that Crum reportedly lost his temper. Frustrated at having his cooking refused so many times, Crum sliced some potatoes until they were nothing but thin, almost transparent sheets. He dumped them in a sieve and deepfried them until they were so crispy and crunchy that the expectant and probably equally-frustrated customer would be wholly unable to spear them with his fork. Crum sprinkled an abundance of salt on the chips, dumped them in a bowl and sent them back out of his kitchen, probably feeling jolly pleased with himself for showing this picky patron what-for.

To Crum’s surprise, his attempt at revenge was actually met with delight on the part of his target. The salty, crispy chips were a smash-hit and unwittingly, Crum had invented a new snackfood! The new invention were eventually named “Saratoga Chips” in honour of the town where they had been invented. They proved so popular that Crum was able to set up his own restaurant in 1860. For the next eighty years, ‘Saratoga Chips’ remained a regional speciality until a businessman named Herman Lay latched onto the idea of selling these ‘crispy chips’ nationwide. And for the first time, people all over America (and eventually, the world) could eat Crum’s famous mishap invention.

Popular legend has it that the customer that sparked Crum’s invention was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Bill Gates, Donald Trump and *insert name of another, fabulously rich guy here* of his day. However, this claim or rumor is all that it is. A rumor. Vanderbilt was not the person who so incensed the chef as to make him create something totally new.

Ice Cream Cones

Ah. Ice-cream cones. Like the hotdog-bun, the pie-crust and the crunchy chocolate biscuits that sandwich every single Oreo cookie in existence, the ice-cream cone is one of our most beloved of all the edible food-packaging materials ever invented. But where did they come from?

Believe it or not but the ice-cream cone (the crunchy wafer thing) has only been around for a little bit more than a hundred years. Previous to that, ice-cream was served in waxed paper bowls or cups or in fine glass and ceramic dishes at cafes and restaurants or on street-corners. So, where were ice-cream cones invented and how did they come into existence?

The story of the ice-cream cone is a short one, but is a prime example of the saying that ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’.

The year is 1904. The Wright Brothers have perfected the new heavier-than-air flying machine called the ‘aeroplane’, ‘CQD’ becomes the world’s first international radio distress-signal and Trans-Siberian Railroad is completed in Russia.

In the city of St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition is underway. Also called the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Although the story has been disputed by others and may not be entirely true, the popular one is that an ice-cream seller at the fairgrounds ran out of waxed paper cups and wooden spoons with which he served ice-cream. Hearing of his plight, a nearby wafflemaker supposedly rolled a thin waffle into a conical shape and presented it to the ice-cream vendor as a suitable vessel for his frozen treats.

Is this true? Not really.

It is, however, the popular story told by everyone to everyone else.

Although people have been storing ice-cream in weirdly-shaped containers for centuries (yes, ice-cream has been around since the 1700s), research seems to suggest that the ice-cream CONE, that is, the crispy, crunchy ones we eat today, was invented in 1902 by an Italian man living in England. This man was Antonio Valvona, an manufacturer and seller of ice-cream. Valvona, then living in Manchester, England, received a patent on the third of June, 1902 for his “Apparatus for Baking Biscuit Cups for Ice-Cream”. Although no specific mention of ‘cones’ are included, the patent-details state that…

    “By the use of the apparatus of this invention I make cups or dishes of any preferred design from dough or paste in a fluid state this is preferably composed of the same materials as are employed in the manufacture of biscuits, and when baked the said cups or dishes may be filled with ice-cream, which can then be sold by the venders of ice-cream in public thoroughfares or other places.”

This then, appears to be when and by whom, the edible, crunchy ice-cream cone was invented. Nice work, Signor Valvona.

Apple Crumble

Sweet, delicious, hot, crunchy and wonderful with cream, Apple Crumble is one of the most beloved desserts in the world, and easy as pie to make.

Or actually, it’s easier than pie to make.

Which was the very reason it was invented.

Apple Crumble was born in the minds of English housewives during the 1940s. During the Second World War, everything was rationed. Coal, tea, tobacco, milk, eggs, butter, water…even the sugar in your coffee was rationed. Due to the significant shortage of food, women were unable to bake the desserts that their families were used to, such as classic apple pie. There simply wasn’t enough butter, milk, eggs, flour and sugar to make the pastry-crust that would both line the tin as well as cover the apple-filling. So, in the spirit of ‘Make Do and Mend’, housewives went thrifty.

Fruits and vegetables were unrationed during the War, and most people grew their own. So filling up the pie was not a problem. It was covering the pie that caused housewives and bakers headaches. Making the best of a bad situation, they simply took sugar, flour and ground cinnamon and mixed it up. This crude, powdery mixture, devoid of both eggs and butter (both of which were nigh unobtainable during the War) was then sprinkled over the top of chopped up apples and the whole thing was shoved in the oven.

Probably because it tasted so good and was so easy to make, the Apple Crumble remains one of the most popular desserts in the world to this day.

Carrot Cake

Like the Apple Crumble, the Carrot Cake was invented during the Second World War. Shortages of almost every kind of food imaginable meant that baking a conventional cake was almost impossible. Because England imported most of its raw foodstuffs, sugar became incredibly scarce and was rationed just as much as everything else. To compensate for the lack of sugar in their cakes, housewives used the natural sugar in carrots (which they probably grew in their own ‘Victory gardens’) to sweeten up their cakes, and the Carrot Cake was born.

ANZAC Biscuits

ANZAC Biscuits are a staple of Australian cuisine. Like the barbeque, the Four’n’Twenty Pie and Streets Ice Cream, no comprehensive look at Australian food would be without a mention of this sweet, crunchy, jaw-breaking confection. But how did it come into existence?

Common folklore will tell you that in 1915, bored Australian soldiers on the frontline in Galipoli mixed up the hodgepodge of rations that they were given, baked the resultant glumpy mess over a fire, and ended up with a sweet, crunchy treat which they called the ANZAC biscuit, naming this new invention after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

As fascinating as it may be, this account isn’t true. ANZAC biscuits were made from the rations afforded to housewives, mothers and sisters living back in Australia during the First World War and were designed to be a treat for their brave fighting-boys over in Europe. They were originally called “Soldier’s Biscuits” for this reason.

One defining characteristic of the ANZAC biscuit is that you could probably hammer a nail in with one of them and then eat your hammer for lunch. They were notoriously hard and crunchy (although recipes do exist that produce softer, more jaw-friendly biscuits) and it’s generally accepted that the biscuits were baked so hard and dry so that they wouldn’t crumble during the long voyage from Australia to Turkey.


    “Don’t make a fuss dear, I’ll have your SPAM. I love it! I’m having SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, baked beans, SPAM, SPAM and SPAM!”

And in one stroke of genius, this mysterious and odius meat-product was launched to stardom and immortality. Or…something like that.

Spam, or properly capitalised “SPAM” (which I won’t do, since it would probably wear out my ‘Shift’ key in no time at all) is the most famous ‘mystery meat’ in the world. Curiously pink and saltier than concentrated seawater, Spam is famous for being the staple food of the British people during the Second World War. But where did it come from?

Spam was invented in 1937 by the Hormel Foods Company and was one of a growing number of convenience foods that started coming onto the grocery market in the early 20th century. Originally called “Hormel Spiced Ham”, the name was changed to “SPAM” soon after. Due to its strange appearance, Spam has been given all kinds of names over the years, a few of the more interesting ones I shall list here.

Spiced Pork and Ham.
Shoulder of Pork and Ham.
Something Posing as Meat.
SPecial American Meat.
Stuff, Pork and Ham.
Surplus Parts Animal Meat.

Spam is synonymous with the Second World War, although it lasted for a long time before and after that event. Due to its long shelf-life and sturdy, metal containers, Spam could be sent almost anywhere in the world. Millions upon millions of cans of the stuff was sent to England starting in the early 1940s, to deal with the shortage of meat due to rationing. Soldiers in the South Pacific survived on Spam for weeks or months on end, unable to get any other food that wouldn’t go bad in the humid, tropical heat.

The Sandwich

It’s impossible to think of life without the sandwich, isn’t it? Where on earth would we be if we didn’t have some nondescript foodstuff crammed between two slices of bread, eh?

And yet, as fantastically convenient, as idiotproof as it is to make, as simple as it is…the biggest history fact about the sandwich isn’t a fact at all.

Popular history will tell you that the Sandwich was invented by a lazy English nobleman who was a gambling addict and who couldn’t be bothered leaving the card-tables under any circumstances…not even for meals. The story goes that the man ordered his valet to bring him meat stuck between two slices of bread so that he might have a meal but at the same time, not get grease on his playing-cards. Other people (probably other card-players) began asking for the same, ingenius and convenient dish to be served to them as well, and a new type of food was invented. The Sandwich!

Is it true?

Not really, no.

The sandwich has existed for centuries. It just wasn’t called a sandwich. Ever since the Middle Ages people had been eating food stuck between two slices of bread. But since back then this type of dish wasn’t called a sandwich…how come it enjoys that name today?

Although he was not the inventor of this dish, this curious and probably hereforto, unnamed delicacy, was finally named after John Montagu…the Fourth Earl of…Sandwich…a village in the English county of Kent, in the late 1700s. The story of the cardplaying artistocrat John Montagu who ordered his manservant to bring him meat between two slices of bread is probably true. It’s also true that this snack was finally named after Montagu’s title as the Earl of Sandwich, but what’s certainly not true is that Montagu was the undisputed creator of the dish…because he wasn’t.

The Hamburger

Related to the Sandwich is the Hamburger, the Sandwich’s American cousin. Or is it?

The Hamburger is a strange thing. Called a hamburger but containing no ham. Where did it come from?

The Hamburger gets its name because it was actually invented in Germany…not America. For centuries, people in the German city of…you guessed it…Hamburg…enjoyed a grilled steak sandwich which had no particular name. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries, when people from Europe started migrating to America, that this simple regional dish was referred to as a Hamburg-style sandwich and eventually…a hamburger.

Fish and Chips

Americans have hotdogs, the Irish have potatoes. Australians have meat pies, the Japanese have sushi. The Chinese have deep-fried cockroaches.

In England, the most famous dish is undeniably…fish and chips.

But when was it invented?

Fish and chips were created in the 19th century. They were a cheap, filling and delicious meal that was often served to lower-class working men, wrapped up in newspapers (printing ink has more protein per drop than concentrated bug-guts). Potatoes were plentiful and were a popular snackfood during the Victorian era. They were filling and cheap. To make them easier to cook, they were chopped up into rough ‘chips’ and deep-fried.

It’s said that the ‘fish’ part of this dish came thanks to Jewish immigrants. In the mid and late 19th century, the Russian Empire was engaged in serious ethnic and religious cleansing. Polish, Russian and other Eastern European Jews escaping pogroms in their homelands fled across Europe to Britain, taking their Jewish culture with them. Because it is against Jewish law to cook or to kindle a flame on the Sabbath, Jews would do all their cooking the day before. They would batter and fry their fish (a method of preserving it) on the day before the Sabbath so that they could eat it cold the next day without cooking. This method of battering, crumbing and frying fish supposedly caught on with the non-Jewish community and the ‘Fish’ was added to chips.

Although once considered a working-class staple, today Fish and Chips are enjoyed by millions of people all around the world. The food-shortages of the Second World War helped spread the dish and increase its popularity. In fact, Fish and Chips was one of very few things that wasn’t rationed by the British Government during the War.

The Baker’s Dozen

A regular dozen is twelve. A Baker’s Dozen is thirteen. Why?

It comes from Medieval law. In the Middle Ages, when bread was a staple of every single person from the king down to the lowest of his serfs, a baker screwing up his bread-count (either deliberately or by accident) was susceptable to harsh punishment. The baker’s dozen was instituted so that bakers couldn’t be accused of shortchanging their customers and holding back on how much food they had produced. Also, thirteen round buns were supposedly easier to pack into a rectangular storage box without the buns bouncing and rolling around.

The Doughnut

Researching the history of the doughnut is like trying to find out who shot President Kennedy. You’re sure there’s only one answer, but everyone has their own opinions.

The same goes for doughnuts.

The most accepted version, however, seems to be that the doughnut was an invention of the Dutch, who brought it with them when they came to the New World and founded a city called New Amsterdam (that’s ‘Manhattan’ to you and me). The doughnut was originally a ball of sweet dough that was deep-fried and were originally called “oilycakes”. They supposedly got the name “doughnut” when it was discovered that by removing a lump (“nut”) of dough from the middle of the oilycake, the confection would cook faster and more thoroughly. This was how the doughnut got its name (and yes, dougnuts still have holes in them for the same reason).

But why are dougnuts associated with police-officers? In the United States, a cop eating a doughnut is as American as the Statue of Liberty or baseball or Apple Pie (which is actually English). The fact is that when they’re out late at night on the beat or stuck in their police-cars, officers had very little to eat and drink. The only places that were open at such ungodly hours were little diners and roadside cafes and sleepy restaurants where doughnuts and coffee were cheap and plentiful. They tased delicious and were easy to handle and so officers took to eating them, and a national stereotype was created.