Monthly Archive: November 2012

Nov 28

The F 35 fighter probably seemed like good idea, so did the ADATS

You know, the F-35 fighter probably seemed like a good idea at the time, for Canada.

The current Canadian Conservative federal government is wrestling with the challenge of replacing the Canadian CF-18 fighter.

It’s a twin engine plane, something considered important for survival as it patrols the vast emptiness of the Canadian north and the country’s three coastlines.

The Conservatives all but declared the F-35 the replacement aircraft until it got out that the true cost of the aircraft would be almost double what the government was saying it would be.

It’s also a single engine fighter, something that can be a problem when one engine goes on the fritz. If you have two engines, you get home. If you have one not-working-engine you get to watch your plane crash in flames while you drift down into the arctic wasteland or the frigid north Atlantic or Pacific under the canopy of your parachute. If you’re lucky.

Now, um, the whole thing is, up in the air? Sorry.

The opposition to the decision is expected to gain strength next month.

Between now and Christmas, KPMG is expected to table it’s review of the cost of the fighter to Parliament. It’s expected the Conservative government will be accused of mismanagement by opposition parties.

It should shoot the fighter deal down.

Well, we’ve made bad decisions before. In fact, the Progressive Conservatives were looking around for an air defence weapon at the end of the cold war.

That’s right, although not always thought of as a major player on the world scene, Canada was just as worried as other countries during the Cold War, so officials began casting about for a system to protect our troops from enemy aircraft. By the time Canada actually pulled the trigger on the decision and the system was delivered, well, it was 1989; the last of it wasn’t delivered until the early nineties. The Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was no longer a monolith.

this seemed like a good idea at the time.

This ADATS weapon seemed like a good idea to the Conservative government at the time in Canada. It turned out to be a costly machine to operate and hard to transport.

Still, the world is a dangerous place. And our troops should be protected. So just what did we get to do the job?

Well, the Progressive Conservative government in power at the time did what governments generally do – ignore the real needs of the Canadian Armed Forces for something that will cost lots of money and never be used.

So it considered a system designed by the Swiss company Oerlikon-Buehrle. Now its name – the Air Defence Anti-Tank System, or ADATS – is a bit misleading, suggesting as it does that the system defends against tanks in the air (which are well known to be more heavy and brick-like than aerodynamic), but actually the system is made to shoot down both low-flying aircraft and tanks.

The more analytical among us might wonder what those two things have in common that makes a consolidated defence system a good idea. And the more economical among us might question the practicality of missiles that cost $300,000 each. At that price you might want to try just waving a cheque for $250,000 in front of the tank crew and offering to buy the tank from them, pocketing a handsome $50,000 for yourself.

The ADATS has some good points. For example, the ADATS missiles move really fast. They approach Mach 3. That’s three times the speed of sound. That’s faster than most jets. So they can catch up to a jet without problem. And if they hit one, there won’t be much left of the jet.

Of course, if the jets are flying low, which low-flying aircraft generally are, there are frequently trees and buildings and hills and such obstructing the line of sight, so often there just isn’t enough time to lock onto them and then “service” them (as military personnel euphemistically term it) with a missile.

The missiles can certainly catch a tank. Tanks move at about sixty kilometres per hour, maximum, on a smooth road, leaving plenty of time for the missiles to lock onto them.

Of course, today’s tanks are very heavily armoured. Chobham armour, which is a British invention, is made of layers of steel and ceramic. Even old Soviet-era T-72 tanks — which don’t have Chobham armour, just feet and feet of steel plate — are tough. So while the tanks can be caught, they can also easily withstand a shot from a kinetic energy weapon like the ADATS — at least from the front.

The armour at the back end of a tank is much thinner, so if the ADATS could hit it from behind, it would be game over for the tank. Of course, to do that, the ADATS would probably have to go behind enemy lines. And the ADATS is not heavily armoured. If it were hit from the right angle, an assault rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade could shoot it up.

The ADATS also has an anti–air radar dish, which makes it tall. And therefore difficult to hide behind enemy lines.

In fact, the ADATS is so tall, the military had to create a “clenching kit” to make the ADATS shorter for shipping. The kit bolts onto the bottom of the chassis and clenches the torsion bars to make it lower.

Unfortunately, because the ADATS is so heavy, the corroded loading ramps on the Hercules cargo aircraft that carry the ADATS overseas have to be buffed up to take the weight, which means the ADATS, even clenched, is too tall to fit on.

And given that our troops need protection overseas, there’s not much point in keeping the ADATS in Canada. Its range is ten kilometres. At that rate, we can’t even shoot past our territorial waters.

So, thanks to the Cold War – and typical government decision-making – what we ended up with is a system that can destroy a jet but has challenges locking on to it, that can catch a tank but has challenges destroying it, and that isn’t really needed at home (which is all to the good, of course) but is too tall to be shipped overseas where it’s needed most.

Eventually, the military realized that the missiles are too expensive and they’re not all that effective at disabling a tank, so they ordered ADATS to be used only in an anti-aircraft role. So much for the consolidated defence system.

But it gets better.

The full ADATS system with missiles and maintenance and all that good stuff, has cost taxpayers about a billion dollars – so far.

It’s so expensive it is rarely deployed even domestically (although during the G-8 Kananaskis conference in 2002, it being less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Canadian military actually sent some of the precious anti-air units off to the wilds of Alberta to help protect the G-8 leaders against a terrorist attack). And it has not been used for training since the time one rolled over and severely damaged the expensive radar and missile system.

Now you have to understand, Canada ordered just over 30 ADATS. The cost per vehicle is about $30 million per vehicle. Yes, $30 million. It was hoped the cost to Canada would be defrayed by the Swiss selling the system to other countries, like the United States. But only Canada and Thailand showed interest.

Scott Taylor, perhaps Canada’s best military affairs journalist, wrote in his magazine Esprit de Corp:

“With no chance to expand their sales, Oerlikon-Buehrle cut their losses and pulled its funding out of the Canadian ADATS program. The result was that the Canadian government alone (read: DND’s budget) was left propping up the entire project. With all the start-up costs and research and development factored into the equation, the original 32 units manufactured cost taxpayers over $1 billion – a staggering $30 million per vehicle.
“During a 1992 training exercise, a transport trailer carrying an ADATS unit rolled over and crushed the vehicle’s high-tech turret. When DND accountants wrote off the loss, the brass suddenly realized that they couldn’t afford to even train with such expensive toys. At that time, all remaining ADATS vehicles were mothballed at the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu factory, with maintenance costs of approximately $40 million per year being paid to Oerlikon.”

In 2005, the Canadian government under the Liberals, initiated a $750 million modernization program for the weapon system which was cancelled in 2006 due to complications with the concept.

Now it looks  like they will be stationed outside museums and similar sites across the country, more likely to be sitting places for feathered aircraft.

Well, as long as they’ve found a good home, right?

For more on the F 35 click here.

For more on ADATS click here.

Nov 27

2012 museum heist involved ‘major league’ villain: retired cop

Are  ‘major league’ villains involved with a 2012 art and museum heists? A retired Scotland Yard detective thinks such a villain may be involved in at least one large theft, and he’s faced some of the best. Maybe we should call Spider Man!

What a year and  2012 is not even over and museums all over the world have been hit by thieves – although in many cases the thieves were eventually caught.

Earlier this month police recovered everything taken from the Archaeological Museum of Olympia last February.

 'major league' villains involved with a 2012 art and museum heists

A handout photograph of the Mycenaean-era ring that was seized during the sting operation. All the artifacts salvaged by authorities will be returned to the museum for identification. It’s been quite a year for museum thefts. ‘Major league’ villains may be involved in at least one 2012 art and museum heist.

The goods were stashed in western Greece and the latest suspect was nabbed in a hotel in Athens after trying to sell a Mycenaean gold ring to an undercover cop.

Two other suspects had been picked up by Greek police, who are looking for yet another pair.

During the robbery, a lone guard (hard economic times in Greece had reduced the number of security staff) was restrained by a crew that entered the museum after hours, smashing display cabinets and taking 60 items.

The Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam was also the scene of a bold theft of seven paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars, on October 16th.

The thieves were gone by the time police arrived in response to the burglar alarm.

The theft “was carefully thought out, cleverly conceived and it was quickly executed, so that suggests professionals,” said Charles Hill.

Hill is a retired Scotland Yard art detective who has taken his talents into the world of stolen art and other valuables taken from museums around the world. His most famous case was his undercover work to locate and return a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” taken in 1994 from an Oslo museum.

2012 museum heist involved 'major league' villain

Charles Hill is a retired Scotland Yard art detective, most famous for tracking down ‘The Scream’ stolen from a museum in Oslo.

Hill said the amount of art taken in the fall heist indicates someone in need of paying off a debt and indicates a “major-league villain.”

In April, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was hit by a band of young-ish criminals and more than a dozen Chinese pieces taken. Three men and a teen-aged boy have since been caught and tried for the crime. Not much of a whiff of ‘major league’ villains here.

The goods have yet to be recovered.

Canada has seen its share of art and museum theft over the years. A high profile theft in 2008 at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology netted the perps 12 pieces of art by Bill Reid, a Haida artist and some ‘unique Mexican works.’

The method of theft was brazen – an early morning smash and grab. Not really the mark of a posh ‘major league’ villain.

Most of Reid’s pieces were made of gold, prompting fears they would be melted down before they could be recovered.

Four and a half years later, the theft still poses a mystery, but not where the goods went – they’ve all been recovered. The mystery is how. Police won’t say and no one else is talking about how the dozen artifacts worth about $2 million were found.

Then there’s the case of the waiter and the Bata Shoe Museum, located in Toronto, Ontario.

A waiter from a city restaurant was charged in the theft of slippers taken from the museum.  He was nabbed back in the summer of 2006 for the crime that had taken place in the spring of that year.

He was caught when a photo print shop worker recognized the bejeweled footwear in photos he was printing for a customer and called police.

At one point the slippers were dropped off in a parking lot, undamaged, along with a toe ring that was also taken during the theft. Eventually Miko Petric, originally from Montenegro, was charged and tried for the crime.

“I did a stupid thing,” said Petric. Not exactly the prototypical ‘major league’ villain.

Petric had applied for refugee status while in Canada. The theft of slippers and toe ring worth over $150,000 was considered not a great way of achieving that objective.

If you think slipper theft is strange, then you will love the caper that took place just north of Toronto in 2011.


An urn that was part of a sculpture on loan to Barrie’s MacLaren art gallery was chopped off and spirited away in the night.


Well, as spirited as something weighing between 150 and 200 pounds can be.


At any rate, the bronze is estimated to be worth $150,000.


The sculpture had been installed along the lakeshore in the city back in 2003 and was due to be returned to the Kleinburg gallery later that year.

The sculptor, John McEwen, repaired the piece, creating a replacement urn. That’s the sign of a major league cool guy.

For more on the Greek museum thefts click here.

For more on the Fitzwilliam thefts click here.





Nov 26

A hot idea for consideration during old style winter

We’re back to the old style winter model this year say climatologists and here is a hot idea to consider.

The far north east, a dot in the central continental America and a smattering in the west will be warmer than usual but most of North America will be back to the regular winter and not the short ‘sort of’ winter of last year.

For people who live in much of Canada, that means a snowy season.

This makes Canadians think of warmer climes and wishing they had easier access to them.

Canada may not be a tropical paradise, but it could have had one. A few times. Sadly, however, we’ve never quite managed it.

Let’s skip back a century or so when one of Canada’s great heroes, Sir Sanford Fleming, was working on a plan for a trans-Pacific cable. The year was 1894. Fleming had been constantly encouraging and cajoling the British to take possession of an island in the mid-Pacific and lay claim to it. At the time, believe it or not, there were still plenty of small pieces of land that the Europeans and Americans hadn’t yet laid claim to.

Sir Sanford Fleming had a hot idea for saving Canada from the cold.

Sir Sanford Fleming had a plan to get a great spot for a Pacific Cable link, and a warm spot for Canadians to flee winter near Hawaii. But the hot idea didn’t take.

Fleming was partial to a property that was part of the Hawaiian Islands. And why not? It was perfectly placed and had no one living on it. It had been most recently discovered by the French in the 1700s and named by the French captain who found it — Necker, after France’s then minister of finance. (Actually, it was a barren rock in the middle of the biggest ocean in the world with supine plant life and covered from one end to the other with birds and the stuff that comes out of birds. Kind of perfect for remembering a minister of finance of any country, really.)

Britain was sluggish, to say the least, and Fleming, worried that someone else might spot the strategic significance of Necker Island, hired a retired naval captain living in Toronto by the name of R.E.H. Gardner-Bruckner to help. Gardner-Bruckner’s secret mission was to go to Hawaii, hire a steamer to take him to Necker Island, survey it, and then put up the Union Jack, laying claim to the island for the British Empire.

At the time Fleming developed his plan, Hawaii was an independent country with about forty thousand residents, governed by a queen, legislature, and cabinet. Oh, and it also had four hundred Americans who ran sugar plantations. Things were soon to change.

First, the British told the Americans what the Canadians were up to. And the Americans told the expatriates living in Hawaii. The expats were already busy plotting a coup.

They belonged to something called the Hawaiian League (named because it was in Hawaii, not because any actual Hawaiians were members). With an American warship in the harbour, the Hawaiian League threatened the Queen of Hawaii, and she stepped down as the leader of the country, believing that the United States of America would quickly reinstate her as monarch once word of the coup got out. As it turned out, the United States so liked the idea of having Hawaii as part of the good old U.S.A. that they made it a territory. And Necker was claimed as part of the Hawaiian Islands.

Fleming eventually did get Britain to claim a Pacific Island, but it was farther away and added another $2.5 million to the cost of the trans-Pacific cable.

But that’s not the only time we blew a chance for a tropical paradise.

Even as far back as the 1880s, Canada’s stable government and reputation for being not as bloody-minded as the Americans and British was attractive to many. Jamaica made a number of gestures of interest in a union with Canada. All to no avail.

And after the First World War, Prime Minister Robert Borden was approached by the West Indies about adding them to the Confederation. Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, suggested Canada take over responsibility of the whole of the West Indies. Borden noted this offer in his diary but did not follow it up. Since that time, some of the West Indies have become independent. Not, of course, the British Virgin Islands, which are still a colony of Britain.

Dominica, an island northwest of Barbados, also wanted to join Canadian confederation. In the 1960s, the people of this 750-square-kilometre island with a population of eighty-five thousand thought we might be interested. But there was talk of Canada not wanting to be a colonial power. And talk of Canada needing to add to its armed forces if it took on a responsibility so far away. And so we said no.

Most recently, in 1987, Canada was approached by the Turks and Caicos Islands to be adopted into our confederation. Well, we have pretty high standards and a reputation for looking at the long view. In 1987, the Turks and Caicos was a pretty small enterprise with only ten thousand people — 90 percent of whom wanted to join Canada. We turned them down. Perhaps we were too busy worrying about our own annexation by the United States through the Free Trade Agreement.

Canadian member of parliament Peter Goldring is a supporter of bringing in the Turks and Caicos into the Canadian fold.

Peter Goldring is a supporter of a hot idea; bringing the Turks and Caicos into the Canadian fold.

But all may not be lost. In 2003, Peter Goldring, a former member of the old Alliance Party and until recently the Conservative Party. He left the Conservative Party after he was charged with failing to provide a breath sample, the trial for which is scheduled for January, until then, he sits as an independent conservative

. Anyway, Goldring is a big promoter of bringing the Turks and Caicos into the fold. As far as Goldring (member of Parliament for Edmonton East) was concerned, the issue of the Canadian tropics hasn’t cooled off.

To check out the long range forecast for this winter, click here.

For more on Peter Goldring, click here.


Nov 20

Brotherly love and, well, Canada and the U.S.A.’s complicated relationship

Fort Montgomery is a good example of the complicated brotherly love relationship Canada and the U.S.A. share.

Fort Montgomery in New York State is a good example of the complicated brotherly love relationship Canada and the U.S.A. share.

The weird relationship between Canada and the United States often seems like something between two brothers. The concept of brotherly love is part of Canada and the U.S.A.’s complicated relationship.

Most of the time it’s fairly friendly. Sometimes there’s a cautious and covetous eye cast over the other’s things. Sometimes a punch is thrown but as soon as an interloper tries something they band together.

And every now and then it’s like a long summer trip in a hot  car with the chorus from the back seat not one of song, but ‘I’m not touching you’. Usually said by the larger boy as he holds his hand in front of the face of the other.

Yeah, good times.

Once upon a time, the United States was terrified of being attacked, so it put security on its northern border on high alert. No, this is not a post-9/11 story. This is a post-1812 story.

In fact they were so terrified of an attack on their northern border that they started building a fort on the northern tip of Lake Champlain at Sand Island near Rouses Point in 1816.

They wanted to make sure it was right up at the border.

‘I’m not touching you…’

There was another good reason for putting the fort there. It was on a route Americans liked to take when they were attacking Canada, so it wouldn’t hurt to make sure it wasn’t used in reverse. (And other armies had recognized its value. French commanders had attacked the British through this route during the Seven Years War and the British marched down after the Americans had marched up it during the War of 1812.)

There was one good reason for not putting the fort there. The fort was actually in Canada.

So much for the ‘I’m not touching you!’ thing.

The Americans had worked for three years building the fort when military leaders realized their mistake and abandoned it. The locals felt entitled to help themselves to parts of the fort for use in their own buildings.

Thirty years later a treaty between the two countries moved the border slightly north, placing the fort back in the U.S. Still fearing an attack from the north, the Americans started building a second fort on the same site. Fort Montgomery was named after General Dick Montgomery, who had led the army up that route in the late 1700s, heading north with the plan to liberate Quebec. As it turned out, the Quebecois declined the offer and chased the Yanks back through the bush in the middle of winter.

Nonetheless, Fort Montgomery was a fine piece of military engineering and cutting-edge technology for the times. No fewer than five masonry walls surrounded the core and mighty gates and bastions were added. Lots of gunnery was put in place, including seventy cannon.

As it turned out, the real threat to the United States was from within. In the middle of the 1800s, the war that was to wind up killing more Americans than any other erupted when the northern states and southern states declared war on each other.

The American Civil War did much to hone arms manufacturers’ skills around the world, and with the advances made in guns, masonry forts could be smashed to gravel. So by the time the second version of Fort Montgomery was finished, it was obsolete.

And — like its predecessor — it was ransacked by locals and used for local buildings. The final insult to the fort took place during the Great Depression, when the Works Project Administration hired locals to pull down the masonry walls and crush them into gravel to be used in the construction of a bridge from Rouses Point across to Alberg, which looks down on the ruins of the fort better known by its nickname: Fort Blunder.

For more on the fort, click here.

Nov 14

An allergy is something to sniff at…

North of Toronto, Ontario, a mother is fighting to have oak trees removed from a park next to where her daughter goes to school because of an allergy concern..
The Vaughan mother is worried the acorns from the trees could come into contact with her daughter, who is in Grade 8, and cause her to go into allergic shock.
Allergists say the nuts would have to be ingested to cause a health problem.
Allergy problems have doubled over the last 20 years. One study has found peanut allergies to be more of a problem among children in well-to-do families.

Britannicus may have been Roman royalty but he still suffered from a common allergy.

Claudius, emperor of Rome, had a son who didn’t become emperor, possibly because of his allergy problem.

Even pop star Justin Beiber has allergies, as you can see here.
Allergies are nothing new. They’ve been recorded historically for thousands of years.
The earliest record of an allergic reaction is the death of King Menses of Egypt sometime around 3640 and 3300 BCE (or BC if you’re old school). He was killed by a wasp sting – no ‘epi-pens’ back then.
The Roman philosopher, Lucretius (99 BCE to 53 BCE) who noticed some people’s problems with common things said “what is food for some may be fierce poisons for others”.
Claudius (10 BCE to 54 CE), the Roman emperor and subject of the great British television series I Claudius, had a son, Britannicus, who was allergic to horses. He “would develop a rash and his eyes swelled to the extent that he could not see where he was going” according to Seneca.
This allergy affected more than just Britannicus’ health. Since he couldn’t ride at the head of the young patricians, Claudius’ adopted son had that high profile position. Britannicus never became emperor, but the adopted son – Nero – did.
Sir Thomas More described how King Richard III used his allergy to strawberries to arrange for the death of Lord William Hastings – a judicial murder.
At a Friday-morning council meeting, Richard smiled at Bishop Morton saying,” My lord, you have very good strawberries at your garden in Holborn; I require you, let us have a mess of them.”
(Seriously? “Let us have a mess of them?” But golly, aren’t you allergic?)
Shortly after their lunch, with strawberries, Richard had a meeting with Hastings. During the meeting, not surprisingly, he developed acute urticaria or hives. He accused Hastings of putting a spell on him and that was it for Hastings.
By the 1800s, allergies had come to the ah-ah-ah-choo… attention of modern science. The ever popular hay fever, which has nothing to do with hay or fever, was described in 1819 by Dr. John Bostock.
In 1869, Charles Blakely applied pollen to a break in his skin to determine if he was allergic. He was. That method is still used today to test for allergies.

Race ahead to 1902 when Paul Portier and Charles Richet coined the word ‘anaphylaxis’ while researching immunizations and spotted life-threatening responses to medications and protein substances. It happens fast and can cause vomiting, tissue swelling, cramps, drops in blood pressure and loss of consciousness. It was probably what killed old Menses. Some of the common causes are penicillin, insect stings, tree nuts, peanuts and shellfish.
In 1906 Austrian Pediatrician Clemens von Pirquet used the word ‘allergy’ to describe non-disease related symptoms that some diphtheria patients developed when treated with a horse serum antitoxin.
By 1911-1914 John Freeman and Leonard Noon nudged science towards immunotherapy or allergy shots. This consists of injecting the sufferer with small amounts of whatever bothers them until they build up a tolerance. (This also works sometimes with cool jazz and rap music.)
Daniel Bovet synthesized the first antihistamine drug in 1937. Antihistamines can block histamine and also protect against some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
In 1948, Philip Hench and Edward Kendall found corticosteroids, which was key in the treatment of asthma and both immediate and delayed allergic reactions. They are still used today.
Then in 1953 Geoff West and James Riley discovered the mast cell granule was the major source of histamine in the body, through research on a long time subject, a 10 year-old cocker spaniel named Judy. Judy, who had a mast cell tumour, had the highest histamine content ever recorded. Judy, Judy, Judy!
Dr. Kimishige Ishizaka and his wife, Teruko, discovered an antibody class in 1966, a discovery regarded as a major breakthrough in understanding allergies.
In 1982, Professor Bengt Samuelsson was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine (with two other scientists) for finding the cause of “slow reacting substance of anaphylaxis” called leukotrienes.
This field has grown enormously since those days. Between 1981 and 1995 about three thousand papers per year were published that specifically used the expression “prostaglandins,” or related terms such as “prostacyclins,” “leukotrienes,” and “thromboxanes,” in their labels and titles.

For more information on allergies, click here.

Nov 11

Sometimes teamwork is an individual effort

On November 11, we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who worked to preserve our freedom and way of life in our armed forces.

Everyone who contributed was a hero in a way, but of course, there are stories more compelling than others.

In any battle, events are often turned by the actions of individuals, often out of all proportion to their contribution. A charismatic leader can either push his men to great achievements or his death or injury can send a chill through the whole operation. Even a lowly soldier can turn things around.

There were many examples of this during the Canadian operations along the Adriatic Coast of Italy during the Autumn of 1944.

The Canadian front stretched from the coast inland as part of the over-all Eighth Army responsibilities. It was lousy tank country with the shore riven with irrigation ditches, streams and rivers. The land was rich black loam that acted as a sponge for the rain and the blood that flowed that fall and as ever, the Germans were dug in and ready.

The Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry were the first to test the Savio. On 20 October, two companies worked their way through the minefields along the banks of the river and splashed across the waist-high Savio. But by 17:00 hours, both companies of Pats had been decimated by the heavy fire that greeted them. In D Company, one platoon and part of another huddled below the far bank, unable to move further.

Meanwhile A company’s Major Ted Cutbill, cut off from headquarters because of a radio malfunction, took a head count and tallied only 16 men. The major led his men deep into enemy territory to scout their positions and he sent off Sgt. F.H. Sparrow to bring back reinforcements in order to retain the bridgehead over the Savio. A huge accomplishment given the size of his unit.

The Germans pounded the Patricia’s bridgehead on Saturday, October, 21 and counterattacked. The Canadians had been reinforced but only with a handful of men and a new radio Sgt. Sparrow volunteered to cross the river again and bring back the needed food and ammunition, for which he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.  Sparrow brought back news of an impending Canadian attack with Seaforths and Loyal Edmonton regiment units.

It rained all day as ******Bogert’s battalions prepared for the attack. Unlike the Pats, the Seaforths and the Loyal Edmonton regiment had time to recce the river area and knew what to expect when they attacked. And they had support in the form of two medium and six field regiments of artillery, plus every mortar and machine gun in the Saskatoon Light Infantry. (Savio marked the first time ever this regiment fought together as a unit). At 19:55 hours, the bombardment began and half an hour later two companies of Seaforths and a third of Eddies crossed the Savio.

The Seaforths attacked on either side of Cutbill’s dug-in troops. Captain Don Duncan’s D Company on the left crossed the Savio in single file and scrambled up the far bank where they contacted the Pats. Some of the Seaforths, finding their weapons clogged with mud, traded with Cutbill’s men. At the same time, Captain Anthony Staples’ B Company took advantage of the steady rain and darkness and speed and manoeuvre to clear the Germans from a number of machine gun nests in the area. By dawn, B Company alone had rounded up 51 prisoners.

Meanwhile at the other end of the battle, the situation was less favorable. The Edmonton’s commander was Major Bill Longhurst who had devised the “mouseholing technique” for street fighting while in Ortona. Although seriously ill he insisted on leading his troops, but died early in the attack, riddled with bullets on the muddy bank of the Savio.

News of the commander’s death caused a drop in morale and the attack in the Eddies sector petered out. Some of Longhurst’s men were captured, others scattered, but company Sgt. Major W.G. Davies rounded up 10 survivors and dug in. As soon as Colonel Stone realized what had happened to his Regiment’s company, he forwarded another across the river. This turning point allowed the Eddies to establish a firm bridgehead and during the night, both battalions sent across their reserves.

Counter-attacks were not long in coming. As the Seaforth commander Budge Bell-Irving later said, “Getting there and staying there were two different problems.” The river meant all the heavy support equipment had to be left behind and even after a bridgehead was established the soggy ground did not make for easy transport.

Meanwhile German armor, supported by infantry, began pushing to drive the Canadians back across the Savio. Bell-Irving played his trump card, a newly created tank-hunting platoon of 16 soldiers equipped with four PIATs. While all battalions had tank-hunting platoons, they were typically defensive in nature. But Bell-Irving’s men went looking for trouble. Their tactics were simple: Hawkins anti-tank grenades were used to immobilize the tank, which was then knocked out with a PIAT, and the crew finally dispatched with Tommy guns.

At 2:30 hours, four Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns, and 30 infantry rumbled out of the gloom. The Seaforth tank-hunters were waiting for them. Sgt. K. P. Thompson carefully laid a string of Hawkins grenades across the road and deployed his two-man PIAT teams nearby.

The first victim was a German staff car which missed the grenades but was riddled with bullets, killing the two occupants. A self-propelled gun followed, hitting a grenade; a PIAT finished it off. Private James Tennant fired his PIAT “at such close range that either a piece of shrapnel or the ring from the bomb flew back into his eye.”

Next came a Panther; Private Ernest Alvia Smith hurried out to meet it. A former track star from New Westminster B.C., the stocky 30 year-old Smith was nick-named Smokey because of his speed. The night’s fighting earned him one of the highest military awards available, the Victoria Cross.

Smith ran into a field with a PIAT team. He left a single man and a PIAT there and crossed the road with his injured friend Tennant to fetch another PIAT. The two Seaforths just got into position when the Panther approached, its machine guns raking the roadside ditches. Tennant was hit and Smith jumped into the road in clear view of the firing tank. At a range of 30 feet, he fired his PIAT at the Panther. Ten Germans riding on the back of the 50 ton tank leaped off and charged Smith, who picked up his machine gun and cut down four of the enemy, forcing the rest to flee.

A second Panther and more infantry came at him, but Smith steadfastly stood over his wounded friend, calmly reloading his machine gun with magazines collected from the ditch. Time and again he drove back the enemy with hails of bullets. A third Panther came into action, this time forcing Smith to help Tennant to safety and medical aid. Smith then returned to his post to await further counter-attacks. He was the second New Westminster native to be awarded the VC. “I was scared the whole time,” he later reported, “who wouldn’t be?”

The morning brought a host of surprises, including the discovery and capture of a bogged-down Panther in a nearby ditch. German machine gunners who were on the riverbank behind Bell-Irving’s bridgehead came out of their posts in the morning for breakfast. Arriving where their kitchen had been with mess tins in hands, they were captured by the Canadians who had made the old German set up D Coy HQ. Amazingly, the Canadians caught 56 PWs in the line-up for chow. Another group were captured when the Canadians cut the communication telephone line down to the river; the Germans sent a repair crew who were promptly taken prisoner. Altogether, mopping up that morning was done without a shot fired and 150 Germans were sent to the Canadian rear.

By October 28, after more tough battles, the objective of Ronco was captured by the Canadians and other Allied troops. Just days later, however, the whole Italian campaign was “Dragooned” by the American plan to invade southern France. The loss of forces in Italy to this operation, coupled with the ongoing fighting in Northwest Europe took the edge off the forces in Italy. Although the Allies still had superior numbers, the loss of forces to the other fronts coupled with the lousy weather and the defensively oriented terrain meant future Italian operations would be seriously weakened. The Canadians for the most part were withdrawn and moved to another equally water-logged area.

Smokey Smith died at the age of 91 in 2005.

Here is the citation for his Victoria Cross award:


‘In Italy on the night of 21st-22nd October 1944, a Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were selected as the spearhead of the attack, and in weather most unfavourable to the operation they crossed the river and captured their objective in spite of strong opposition from the enemy.

Torrential rain had caused the Savio River to rise six feet in five hours, and as the soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies.

As the right forward company was consolidating its objective it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about thirty infantry and the situation appeared hopeless.

Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his P.I.A.T. (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank gun) Group of two men across an open field to a position from which the P.I.A.T. could best be employed. Leaving one man on the weapon, Private Smith crossed the road with a companion and obtained another P.I.A.T. Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine-guns along the line of the ditches. Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of thirty feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the P.I.A.T. and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation Private Smith moved out on the road and with his Tommy gun at point-blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith’s position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.

One tank and both self-propelled guns had been destroyed by this time, but yet another tank swept the area with fire from a longer range. Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.

No further immediate attack developed, and as a result the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.

Thus, by the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.’

Nov 10

Dickishness is nothing new in politics

It’s nothing new.

Our politicians, no matter what country, often leave office reviled.

And so boring old Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, is getting a new leader. Dalton McGuinty, the provincial premier announced he was stepping down, opening the door for the Liberal party leadership position and the Premier’s chair that goes with it – at least temporarily.

McGuinty is not thought of highly at the moment. Even so, he would have to go a long way to beat some other politicians. In fact, Ontario’s record for politicians has been spotty at best. Even from the start, it was shaky.

When revolution was brewing in Upper Canada in the 1830s — that would be Ontario nowadays — the British government realized a strong, smart leader was needed.

So whom did they send to settle the problem? Francis Bond Head, a man that England’s Punch eventually referred to as “Sir Francis Wronghead.” So much for the strong, smart leader. Some would say, nothing new in politics here!

Proving there is nothing new in politics is the example of Sir Bond Head.

Bond Head was called “Wrong Head” in an English magazine article.

Bond Head had served in the Royal Engineers, so he knew how to blow things up. He had applied for but was turned down as the head of the London police when he returned from military service, which included serving at Waterloo. He had written a number of excellent travel articles. He had demonstrated the military usefulness of the lasso. For this he was knighted.

But — no background in politics.

He was as shocked as anyone when a rider arrived at his home in the middle of the night to rouse him from his warm bed with the news.

His own father had run from the United Kingdom after spending the family’s wealth on gambling and the high life. His father had kept in touch with him, asking for money on a regular basis. The possibility of elevating his family seemed near with the offer from the Crown to run Upper Canada. He asked for a baronetcy and got it. And off he went to the New World.

A letter to his own son, Frank, revealed Bond Head’s bewilderment at the posting: “You will think it rather a strange event when I tell you that I have come in to take leave of the King on assuming the Government of Canada. I know very little more than yourself [about the running of a country].”

But that didn’t stop him from trying. When he and his family arrived in York, they were greeted with banners calling Bond Head a reformer. In fact, Bond Head wasn’t a reformer. He was a conservative and he snuggled right in with the Family Compact — the elite group of well-to-do families and wealthy merchants who controlled the government because they had the right to overrule the elected assembly, which represented the vast majority of not-so-wealthy people who weren’t in the Family Compact.

The Family Compact thought the common folk were a bit revolting.

Soon they would find them more so.

In fact, it was unhappiness with the Family Compact that was causing the rebellion. Bond Head was in town for only a week when he started to annoy the vast majority of the population. He had diagnosed the problem and was ready to proffer a prescription. As a “political physician” he lacked nothing but an understanding of the situation. When it came to the reformers, he said he would “mercilessly destroy them root and branch” and would “very soon be able to report proudly that the grievances of Upper Canada were defunct because I had veni-ed, vidi-ed, vici-ed them.”

As you might imagine, this did not end the talk of revolution.

William Lyon Mackenzie had garnered a reputation in Great Britain and was warmly greeted by the politician in charge of the United Kingdom’s colonies. MacKenzie’s book of complaints against the Family Compact was taken seriously in Great Britain and Bond Head was told to address the concerns. He responded by calling the document “Mr. Mac’s heavy book of lamentations.”

To settle things once and for all, Bond Head dissolved the government and called an election. And he ran a good old-fashioned election. By Upper Canadian standards, that meant corruption, violence, intimidation, riots, and a careful consideration of where the polling stations were positioned.

Orangemen — members and supporters of the Family Compact — played a prominent role. “Orangemen running up and down the streets crying five pounds for a liberal [reformer] and if any man said a word contrary to their opinion he was knocked down; and all this in the presence of magistrates, and judges, who made use of no means to prevent these outrages. The election occurred on the first of July, 1836, and it was a gathering which for riot and drunkenness exceeded everything I had ever seen before,” wrote W.H. Merritt.

After the election, flushed with his inevitable victory, Bond Head wrote to the British Colonial Office, “Nothing can be brighter than the moral and political state of the Canadas. All is sunshine and colour of rose.”

Shortly after this arrived in Britain, rebellion broke out in Lower Canada, now Quebec, and Upper Canada, now Ontario.

When the rebellion broke out in Upper Canada, Bond Head and his friends joined the rank of the militia as they marched north on Yonge Street. With a band marching along, playing “Heart of Oak,” they trooped up to Gallows Hill, and it is not far from there that they ran headlong into the rebels marching south. In the militia ranks were trained soldiers, many who had fought with Lord Wellington in France and Spain, including Bond Head. In the far larger body of the rebels were farmers and store clerks but not many soldiers.

Volleys were fired from both sides before both sides retreated. The militia were convinced the overwhelming numbers of the rebels would swarm them and the rebels were convinced the crack shots of the former British soldiers (whom they still held in high regard) would cut them to pieces.

Bond Head left Upper Canada in the spring of 1838, convinced he had saved the country.

And he had in a way. His inept handling had brought the boil of the Family Compact to a head, so to speak, and allowed it to be lanced. Not that he was thanked for his efforts. Bond Head snuck out of the country, crossing the ice from Kingston to the United States in fear for his life.

In 1867, Head requested and received an appointment to the Queen’s Privy Council for his “contribution to the development of Canada.

He set a benchmark, a low one.

For more on Sir Francis Bond Head, click here.

Nov 09

Um, can someone get George Lucas on the phone!

Nazis, space stuff and swastikas. Oh my!

Swastikas. They can stand for Nazis, good profits, chaos and even the name of a town in Northern Ontario that is now part of Kirkland Lake. It was named  after a nearby goldmine long before the Nazis took the symbol for themselves.
Anyway, Nazis figure in this story, but the “Iron Man,” the 22-pound (10-kilogram) seated figure that features a swastika on his midsection – is likely a Buddhist god. The swastika is a good-luck or good profit symbol in Buddhism (if it’s pointing one way) or a sign of chaos (if pointing the other).

In 1938 a team of Nazis traveling in Tibet came across the statue and—possibly intrigued by the familiar bent-armed cross—brought it back to Germany. There, the “Iron Man” remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007, when the statue became available for study.

Elmar Buchner of the Planetology Institute at Stuttgart University has been studying the Iron Man, which is believed to be an 11th Century Buddhist statue, from Tibet. The statue is carved from a meteorite that landed somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia roughly 15,000 years ago.

Buchner said the almost thousand year old statue could be “invaluable.”

Nov 09

Every mummy has its day

Field of dead bodies an inspiration


Imagine this: hunter gather cave people called the Chinchorro, walking across Chile’s Atacama Desert 5000 years BCE through the land of the dead, past a landscape of thousands and thousands of human bodies, some in shallow graves.
This nightmarish scenario is believed to be the inspiration for the Chinchorro to adopt mummification for their dead about 3,000 years before the Egyptians did.

The process required the removal of the skin for drying and while that was taking place, the stone-age people would take the organs out and replace them with sticks, dried plants and clay. The dried skin was reattached and embalmers painted it shiny red or black and capped it off with a black wig. A clay mask would cover the face, says ecologist Pablo Marquet of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago.

While many scientists studied the how of the mummification, few looked into why.

Well, maybe because these people weren’t so caveman-like after all. Marquet says only stable people who stay in one place for extended periods can spend the time required to perform these things.
The Chinchorro don’t fit that mold. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they formed groups of about only 100 people.

Time machines, once again would have been handy to solve this riddle. Sadly, once again the 1950s let us down and the promised jet packs and time machines are not yet in common usage. Okay, still no time machines but there are definitely jet packs.
Back to the story. Data from ice cores in the Andes mountains allowed researchers to figure out what the climate of the region was in the northern coast of Chile and the southern coast of Peru, where the Chinchorro lived, which is next to the Atacama Desert. Before 7000 years ago, the area was extremely arid, the team found, but then it went through a wetter period that lasted until about 4000 years ago. Researchers think the Chinchorro population peaked about 6,000 years ago during a rainier period.

Okay, so now it’s time for some math. They calculated that a single Chinchorro group of 100 would have 400 corpses each century. Because of the arid climate in the desert, because they weren’t burying the corpses very deeply, because they were living in the area for about 10,000 years, there would be a lot of bodies.

Marquet says this exposure to the natural mummies over generations may have led to a cult that would try replicate nature’s handiwork.

“The dead have a huge impact on the living,” Marquet says. “Imagine living in the barren desert with barely anything, just sand and stone,” he says. Barely anything, that is, except for hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies that never decay. One would feel “compelled somehow to relate” to the corpses, he says, speculating that the Chinchorro made mummies in order to come to terms with the continued presence of their dead. When the climate turned dry again and food supplies dwindled, Marquet says, the population dropped. The complex Chinchorro embalming practices also petered out around that time.

Nov 09

Missed it by that much…

Remains of the day? Remains to be seen

University of Leicester Photo
Re-enactors, um, guard (probably not the right word, but let’s go with that anyway), the site of King Richard III’s burial, recently found.

A grave believed to be that of King Richard III has been discovered and archaeologists working on the site say it was almost destroyed by Victorian builders.

The burying place of Richard, who died at the battle of Bosworth and is remembered for, among other things, a quote given him by Shakespeare in a play about him: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” was found by a team from the University of Leicester that dug three trenches under a local parking lot before finding the tomb. Site director Mathew Morris says the grave was just inches below Victorian era foundations. If the builder back in the day had dug deeper, there would be no remains to be seen, said Morris.

City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby added: “It is extremely lucky that the remains were found at all.

“His head was discovered inches from the foundations of a Victorian building. They obviously did not discover anything and probably would not have been aware of the importance of the site.

“If their plans had been just a little different, they could have destroyed a most significant historic find.”

Archaeologists and geneticists from the university are determining if the remains are indeed of King Richard III.

Using DNA extracted from Michael Ibsen, believed to be a descendant of King Richard III’s sister, the team will seek to determine if there is a match.

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