Turkey, History, Clarity

In front of the fire and across the valley from a wall of snow (previous post), it’s a natural time to do some reading. It’s harder than ever to keep up with everything that needs to be read. The other day I put up a list of recommended reading including  The Dawn Watch, but just now I’m still working through last week’s recommendation of Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, a memoir of her time in Istanbul.

Ataturk’s trick, she proposes (I think without sarcasm), is to have been “the man who had saved (the Turks) from Western rapaciousness, Islamic torpor, even death itself.” And so, she implies, the Kemalists had the legitimacy to rule the country for the next decades. 

This single sentence has the clarity, all in one go, to explain the breadth of Ataturk’s appeal to a nascent Turkey. Pure, concise, commendable writing. Cheers, Ms. Hansen.

 

Book Excerpt: Forgotten History

Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”

Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,

“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.

A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”

Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:

FORGOTTEN HISTORY

Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.

In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.

After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.

Peggy’s Cove

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Deck Chair from the Titanic

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.

Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.

It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.

Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.

Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.

By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.

The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.

The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.

Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.

•••••

By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.

Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.

Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.

The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.

There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.

The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.

Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.

So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.

Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.

Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.

The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.

Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.

Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.

When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.

The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.

So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.

The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.

At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.

Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.

Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.

Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.

•••••

Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,

An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.

With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.

Get Out in the Cold at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk. Or get the audio version from Audible.

Out in the Cold: One Last Audiobook Excerpt

The Parks Canada recreation of the first North American Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland – complete with iceberg. Click to enlarge.

There’s just time to sneak in another excerpt from my latest book, Out in the Cold: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada before the audiobook version goes live on Audible.com any day now. In this clip, sailors set out a thousand years ago from Greenland in search of what would become Vinland, a tiny settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, a place called L’Anse aux Meadows today.

It’s me speaking; I narrate the book. I hope you enjoy it.

 

You can get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.

And here are several more written and spoken excerpts from Out in the Cold.

Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….

More Vintage Moscow

The other day I shared a fascinating color photo essay at RFERL.com, from Moscow in the 1950s. It prompted me to seek out what photos I could find from my 1986 trip there. Here are three.

First, opposite the Kremlin, across Red Square, was the cavernous government-owned GUM department store (Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн), translated as “Main Universal Store:”

I stayed that trip at the massive Moscow Hotel (Гостиница Москва) just outside Red Square on Manezh Square. Here are the amenities on the desk in my room, circa summer 1986:

And here is the view from that room onto Red Square:

http://www.earthphotos.com/Countries/Russia/i-sHCjdqB/X3

KNEW That Sounded Familiar

Something in President Trump’s inaugural “American carnage” speech, set off alarms in my memory, and I’ve just realized what it was. Mr. Trump instructed “all Americans,” with rhetorical flourishes about “every city near and far, small and large” and so forth, to hear his words:

“You will never be ignored again.”

 
My gratitude to Peter Maass, writing on intercept.com. Mr. Maass reported from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and his article reminded me that a young and entirely colorless Serbian fonctionnaire named Solbodan Milošević was assigned to speak at a rally in Yugoslavia just as the Soviet Union’s unsteadiness began to infect its near abroad, in 1987.

The rally was held at Kosovo Polje, the “Field of Blackbirds” outside Pristina in Kosovo, the site of a battle between Serb in Turk in 1389 that ended in the utter defeat and collapse of Serbia. Milošević, a Belgrade politician, drew a crowd of Serbs in majority Albanian Kosovo. Predictably, the crowd grew restless and hurled stones. Police applied force. These two events may have happened in either order.

Milošević responded to the crowd, “You will not be beaten.” His words were heard by the minority Serbs, variously translated, as generally “No one will ever dare beat you (Serbs) again!” Serbian nationalism was off and running and President Ivan Stambolić, whom the gray apparatchik Milošević replaced in short order, called that day “the end of Yugoslavia.”

Perhaps Milošević was as surprised as anyone at his newfound power. Not to suggest any present day parallel.

For the record, the Milošević regime didn’t work out all that well. Many died, war swept the land and Milošević himself died in prison.

Here’s a little something I brought back from a visit to Slobodan Milošević’s Belgrade in 1997, before he decided to surrender instead of shoot himself dead, but after he’d had time to enact his economic policies:

500billiondinarssmall
A 500 billion dinar note.

Oral History, Berlin, part 5

berlin5

To end this week’s series, a post originally published here on D-Day, 6 June, 2014, about Inge’s husband Erich:

“I don’t like Polish people,” he says, and raises one eyebrow that suggests “And how could anybody, really?” 

Among other things, he explains, their language is incomprehensible. 

At 84 he has earned his opinions. 

He’s graying and a little severe, and turned out today in a light spring jacket, tan sweater and shirt with matching scarf. He takes small steps, pitched forward just a little. He’s tall, thin and upright, and he walks us up and down the streets of Wittenberg all day long.

•••••

His father was born in Poland, but mind you, Poland’s borders wave like a battle flag. When his father was born Posen was German. Today it is Poznan, in Poland.

His father fought the Great War riding great horses for the Kaiser, a dragooneer fighting hand to hand with lances. Imagine. His father owed oaths to three sovereigns in his lifetime: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar government and the Third Reich. Imagine that, too.

•••••

Erich was born in 1930. 

His mother had little reason to think he’d go to war. At the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and during the occupation of the Sudetenland later that year the prospects of her eight year old marching off to war seemed distant. When Germany invaded Poland to start the war in earnest, she thanked heaven her boy wasn’t even ten. 

But in time her boy was fifteen and the Reich was depleted of fighting stock. He got six weeks training – rifles, hand grenades, knives, and marched off to dig anti-tank trenches near Bratislava. In the end his unit marched two days trying to surrender to the Americans. 

Early in the morning of 2 May, the Russians captured the Reich Chancellery. Fighting continued here and there, but a week later the Red Army had collected German remnants, sorry unfledged youth and press-ganged elders in a stadium in Prague. They ran them through a gauntlet of sticks and pipes. They held them for a week, rain or shine, no shelter, no change of clothes, gave them only bread, then marched the lot to Dresden.

He feels the Russians were fair enough, but along the way ordinary Czech people beat them with sticks and bats the Russians did nothing to stop them. The soldier’s tongues were so dry they filled their mouths. They came to a camp in Dresden, a German POW camp for Russians that once held 3000, but the Russians used it for 18,000 Germans. 

He was there a month. Sleeping, when one man turned over, the next three or four had to, too.

When he was freed he returned to Berlin, a boy of sixteen and a war veteran. He had no idea if his parents were alive. His father had been a fireman. Because of the bombing, during the war he worked day and night. It was a dangerous job. 

Tremulously, Erich walked up to his old house, knocked, and his mother answered. She peered into his eyes and dismissed him: “I already gave food to soldiers” before at last she recognised him.

He mimicks her, putting his palms to his cheeks and exclaiming, “My boy!” 

He was so gaunt she didn’t recognize her own son.

His family was reunited but their city lay in ruins. He and his father bicycled 100 kilometers, deep into the Spreewald to trade with farmers, for there was no food in Berlin. 100 kilometers on a bike, for food. 

One time it was a Sunday. He was due in school the next day, learning Latin and mathematics but when they got home he leaned his bicycle against the wall and slept all the way through until noon on Tuesday. 

They would trade nails, tools, and especially soap for food. His father could get soap. Firemen had a police connection; they were the Fire Police. Maybe that had something to do with it, but he was never clear, he was just sixteen. 

What food could you get from farmers after the war? It depended on how many nails you brought, how much soap, but the staple was corn.

•••••

Erich loved a woman, and when they wed in 1951 they had nothing. Basic weddings are free in Germany because of the church tax, but the pastor will suggest every extra you might imagine, a tree and flowers and cards and silly things, but they had nothing and told the man they wanted it simple.

Together they finished school as lawyers. Inge became a family court judge. Erich became a criminal attorney. Once the wall went up they stayed in West Berlin, for nearly three decades, denied the opportunity to get very far out into the countryside around town. Later they showed us the Gleineke bridge, the famous spy bridge where Gary Francis Powers and others were swapped between the East and West Blocs, and they showed us enticing woodlands on the other side that you could see but not visit.

They had a wooden boat for fifty years. They would pack enough food for the weekend and live on the boat from Friday night until Monday morning to get out of town. It gave them a measure of freedom. Except they had to be careful. There were buoys beyond which if they drifted in error, they were liable to be shot. Others were.

•••••

Inge and her mother lived in Berlin right through the allies’ assault, until the block of flats where they lived was bombed and burned. They found shelter in the neighborhood, sharing bedrooms with others and moved around from time to time before the German surrender, when they hid from the Russians. 

They so wanted the Americans to arrive first because of the stories they’d heard of Russian soldiers and rape. There was a public shelter across the street from the last place they lived, nearby enough that Inge, a teenager in 1945, and her mother watched in terror as Russian soldiers went in and women came out, ‘blouses ripped’ and hysterical. Even parts of the rump German leadership fled west to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Russians.

Finally one day a single Russian soldier, very young, she said, pounded on their door and opened it to find her and her mother inside. “This is it,” her mother said, the moment of horror they’d built up in their minds in all those nights underground, burrowing like rodents against the bombs and the fires.

But the soldier just looked, then closed the door. 

Later a Russian soldier stole her bicycle but left them alone. 

•••••

She thought that because of some translation problem, when the Russians asked the Germans what kind of seed they wanted to plant they misunderstood that the Germans wanted corn instead of wheat, so now there are corn fields where there weren’t before. Which her future husband bicycled into the Spreewald to get instead of starving.

People ate most of the kernels the Russians brought instead of planting them. Which is part of the reason she loved the Americans. They brought actual bread instead of seeds. She said she would never forget when she and her mother got a whole loaf of bread from the Americans. 

When President Kennedy came to give his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, of course she went, but to Inge, more than Kennedy the star of the show was General Lucien Clay, the head of the American occupation sector, who came out of retirement to accompany Kennedy. She said Berliners felt it was he who had fed and saved them.

•••••

They traveled widely once they could, after the wall came down. They visited all the European capitals. They survived a vicious hurricane in St. Maarten. They liked the warmth of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in winter and spent lots of beach time in Cyprus and Doha and Dubai. We met some twenty years ago on the beach in French Polynesia.

As American World War II veterans celebrate their great victory in Normandy today, their numbers are dropping by some 550 a day. They are dying, too, in Berlin. 

America’s remaining veterans have led remarkable lives. So too have the remaining veterans in Berlin, some just boys at the time, who fought, were vanquished and left with a city in ruins, then found it rent asunder for 28 years more, divided east from west and friend from friend by the Berlin Wall. 

In April Inge, wife of the young soldier Erich, died in Berlin. We went to see Erich last week to celebrate two extraordinary lives. 

Photo: The Bundestag, Berlin.