Category Archive: Success in history

Well, we had failures so we gotta have success, right? And there have been some pretty spectacular ones over the years.

Jun 24’s Tom Villemaire has list in Maclean’s Book of Lists special edition

The Ross Rifle is one of author Tom Villemaire’s favourite Colossal Canadian Failures.’s Tom Villemaire has a list in the latest Maclean’s special edition, Book of Lists 2.

Villemaire cowrote two books with Randy Richmond, called Colossal Canadian Failures books one and two and Villemaire also has a podcast on failures of a more global nature called Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

This list is a take off of the books.

Called Colossal Canadian Failures, it lists nine things that were laughable failures for Canada.

You can check out the list here: so let us know what you think.

Jun 13

It seemed like a nice dry place… now monument under the Sea of Galilee

Well, it seemed like a nice dry place… now monument is under the Sea of Galilee. A large monument about 70 metres across, 12 metres high has been found below the waves of the Sea of Galilee.
When it was built about 6,000 years ago, the site was on dry land.
“The base of the structure — which was once on dry land — is lower than any water level that we know of in the ancient Sea of Galilee. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that water levels have been steadily rising,” said professor Shmulik Marco of Tel Aviv University’s department of geophysics and planetary sciences. Because the Sea of Galilee is a tectonically active region, the bottom of the lake, and therefore the structure, may have shifted over time. Further investigation is planned to increase the understanding of past tectonic movements, the accumulation of sediment, and the changing water levels throughout history.

Shmulik Marco Credit - Basalt boulders form conical mound at bottom of Galilee.

Shmulik Marco Credit – Basalt boulders form conical mound at bottom of Sea of Galilee were originally built where it seemed like a nice dry place to build, say researchers.

The 60,000 tonne structure is made of basalt boulders hauled almost two kilometres reported Marco.
Basalt is common on the Golan Heights but not in this area of the lake.
Marco added, “the base of the structure — which was once on dry land — is lower than any water level that we know of in the ancient Sea of Galilee.”
The Journal of Nautical Archaeology article attributed the submergence to either tectonic movement or rising water levels.
According to the June 10, 2013 press release, the research team plans to further investigate “past tectonic movements, the accumulation of sediment, and the changing water levels throughout history” to determine how the structure ended up at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee.
The ancient community of Beth Yerat was not inhabited during the Biblical period or 1200 to 450 BCE, by then it had been abandoned or destroyed but it was reinhabited during the Persian period and the early Islamic period. The Hebrew name means House of the Moon (god) and the site is an archaeological mound itself, located on the south shore of the lake, where the Jordan river runs out. The mound or ‘tell’ covers about 50 acres and contains remains from a similar period of the Bronze age as the submerged cone-shaped structure. The Arabic name for the community was Khirbet Kerak or Ruins of the Castle and probably comes from the Roman fort built in the area.
Starting at the end of June, 2013 and running until the end of August 2013, the Archaeological Institute of America is running a project to explore the old site of Beth Yerah. Here is how it describes it: “Tel Bet Yerah (Khirbet Kerak) is a large mound situated on the Sea of Galilee, at the outlet of the River Jordan in Israel. Occupied throughout the Early Bronze Age and sporadically in later times, Bet Yerah was a fortified city at the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E.. It had contact with the First Dynasty kings of Egypt and was later home to a unique ceramic tradition: Khirbet Kerak Ware, with roots in the South Caucasus. In 2013, students and volunteers will continue to investigate the monumental Circles Building (granary), excavating a nearby plaza and houses dating to 3000 – 2800 B.C.E.”
The team examining the newly discovered underwater site also included TAU Profs. Zvi Ben-Avraham and Moshe Reshef, and TAU alumni Dr. Gideon Tibor of the Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.
While the structure was discovered in 2003 during a sonar survey of the lake, publication about the study the discovery entailed was just made this spring.
Researchers say it’s possible the site is linked to a nearby town, Beit Yerah, which was a major settlement during the Bronze Age which was between 2200 and 3300 BCE.
The Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel, is also known as Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinnerat. It’s about 53 kilometres in circumference and a maximum depth of 43 metres. It’s the lowest freshwater lake on the planet and the second lowest body of water in the world with the Dead Sea being the lowest – it’s a saltwater lake and the lowest point in the valley at about 790 metres below sea level at the bottom of the Dead Sea – the shore is about 400 metres below sea level.
It’s located in the Jordan Rift Valley which is part of the African Great Rift Valley formation. This is caused by the sliding of the African plate and the Arabian plate. It was formed during the Miocene Epoch which was 5 million to almost 24 million years ago as the Arabian plate moved northward and then eastward away from the African plate. It has created the lowest land on Earth, including the two lowest bodies of water, mentioned above.
The area has long been a choice one for human and pre-human settlement. The abundant water of the lake and rivers along with the fertile plains have attracted settlement, say researchers. At El-ʿUbeidīya, three kilometres south of the lake, lacustrine or lake formations dating from about 400,000 to 500,000 years ago have revealed prehistoric tools and two human fragments, which are among the oldest in the Middle East. Canaanite (ancient Palestinian) structures have been uncovered that date back to between 1000 and 2000 BCE. In the first century CE the region was rich and populated; the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote of nine cities on the shores of the lake in ancient times, but of these only Tiberias has survived. Tiberias, on the western shore, north of the Beth Yerah site, was one of the four Jewish holy cities, and Kefar Naḥum (Capernaum), near the northwestern shore, has preserved one of the most beautiful synagogues of the Galilee region, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce. A sanctuary for the Druze (an independent sect founded in the 11th century that followed a creed containing elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) is located near Kefar Ḥittim near the western shore. The Sea of Galilee is well-known to Christians because Christ’s miracle work as reported in the Bible took place in the region, including his walking on water and feeding the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and and a few fish.
Marco and company didn’t expect to find the basalt pile. They were trying to determine where a certain kind of pebble found in the area came from, suspecting it was washed down the watercourse now occupied by the River Jordan, south of the lake.
As they did sonar readings of the south end of the lake, a sudden mound appeared on what was a fairly level lake bottom. Marco dived on the pile and found it was a structured pile made of one metre long volcanic stones – the nearest source of which was more than a mile away.
The age of the site was determined by the build up of lake sediment, which was about three metres deep over the base of the mound.

TAU Credit - Shmulik Marco.

TAU Credit – Shmulik Marco.

What’s next? Marco says they will organize a specialized underwater excavation team to examine the site more, hoping to find artefacts that will help date the structure more accurately. He said it could be just as important for explaining the geological history.

Apr 19

Passive aggressive behavior is not leadership

Political appointments are an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Or not.
In Canada political appointees that have backfired have risen in conversation again. This time it isn’t a senate appointment, it’s a human rights tribunal appointment.
According to reports in the press, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment of Shirish Chotali to head the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal may backfire after a two year investigation into the woman’s actions as boss of the organization that is supposed to help protect human rights, found she was allegedly abusive to her employees.
This is after a winter of discontent with the Prime Minister’s decision-making abilities with regard to senate appointments when two of his freshest senators made headlines that are cringe worthy. There is no need to repeat them here. Okay, a quick mention.
Patrick Brazeau was charged with assault earlier this year. This came after he made headlines for calling a reporter a ‘bitch’ in a twitter message and for being investigated for billing taxpayers for a housing allowance he may not qualify for because of his home’s proximity to the national capital.
Mike Duffy is also being investigated for the housing allowance issue. He was also in the news last year for comments he made to the press – which prior to becoming a senator, he was a member of – and suggesting they should do their jobs and stop bothering him with questions.
These aren’t the first political appointments that have backfired and won’t be the last.
Come back with me to the year 1902.
American President Teddy Roosevelt appoints Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to the Supreme Court. It’s TR’s first appointment to the Supremes – as Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, calls it.
The president is pretty pleased with the appointment.
Fellow Republican and senator, Henry Cabot Lodge says “he’s our kind right through.”
Skip ahead to 1904, an election year.
T.R. is hoping his appointment will have the stomach to decide against the railway in what is up to that point, the biggest railroad busting case called the United States v. Northern Securities. It’s a case where what is called the Sherman Act is being called into question. It’s an act that is supposed to limit what railways can do to strangle competition. T.R. wants the act upheld. The Supremes vote 5-4 in favour of the act, but Holmes writes the minority decision.
Roosevelt, who has had Holmes over to the White House for dinner, feels his political appointment has cast his progressive credibility into the dumpster.
“I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone than that,” said Roosevelt.
Harry Truman was also bitten by a judicial appointment.
“It isn’t so much he’s a bad man. It’s just that he’s such a dumb son of a bitch,” said Truman of Justice Tom C. Clark when ruling against the president’s 1952 actions to avoid a strike by seizing the steel industry.
But backfiring political appointments are even older than that in the states.
Take the case of possibly the very first American political appointment. Sort of, as the appointment took place in 1774.
The Rev. Jacob Duche was an Anglican Church minister. He was appointed by the first congress of the United States to be the congressional chaplain.
Duche found out by letter from the congress that he’d been appointed. The letter, from no less than John Hancock (must have been a big sheet of paper) desired his presence to open congress on Tuesday, September 6, 1774.
There was a political reason behind the appointment.
An Anglican minister as chaplain for the congress would give a measure of legitimacy to the actions of congress, it was thought. Many members of congress were members of the church. The church would possibly be elevated in the eyes of the public because of the links with congress.
It is estimated that only about one in three people actively supported the war for independence and another third opposed it and one third had no opinion. Any support gathered would help the cause.
John Adams wrote, “[Joseph Reed] says we never were so guilty of a more masterful stroke than in moving that Mr. Duche might read prayers. It has had a very good effect &c. He says the sentiments of people here are growing more and more favorable every day.”
Duche served two years and in October 1776 wrote a letter to George Washington telling him he was stepping down.
He was declaring his support for the British crown.

Earlier in April of this year, 2013, The Park Geun-Hye Blue House apologized for a lack of judgement in the appointments it made. The South Korean Blue House is similar to the American White House.
Top officials who were appointed by the right wing government, were forced to walk away from their posts because of their pasts.
Opposition cite a lack of accountability on the part of the government.
“The Blue House has lost any kind of decency before the people by making its spokeswoman read an apology on a weekend while no one is assuming responsibility,” Kim Hyun, the left wing DUP spokeswoman, said. “President Park must punish the chief of staff and senior civil affairs secretary.”
The lack of proper screening of the appointments and ‘high handedness’ are blamed for the ruling party’s drop in the polls.
Under the British government of Margaret Thatcher there were a number of appointment scandals. Thatcher’s appointment of Nick Ridley to Secretary of State for Trade and industry backfired. He was forced to resign after an interview in which he described the European Economic and Monetary Union as finishing the work of Adolph Hitler.
“A German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe.”
Ridley was so tightly tied to Thatcher through his loyalty, this caused deeper rifts in the governing party and eventually, Thatcher had to resign.
Is it possible the whole appointment scandal ploy is just a sign of cynical passive aggressive action against a policy governments find distasteful today, but lack the backbone to do something about it?
In Texas, a state much like the province of Alberta, where Stephen Harper was elected in that it is a conservative place with oil and people like to think of themselves as rugged individualists, appointments have a whole other problem.
The state has lots of positions that require appointing.
The governor of the state, former Republican presidential nominee hopeful, Rick Perry, is not a believer in appointments.
This means the people already in the position get to stay or the position goes empty.
Take Ric Williamson, the Transportation Commissioner, who has slowly become more and more despised as he pushes for more and more toll roads in the state.
Perry backs Williamson, so he’s happy to have him remain as commissioner. Another Republican, the chair of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee asked Williamson to meet with him and Williamson refused, because Perry backs him.
Perry’s lack of appointments has caused problems with Texas Southern University where the lack of governors needed for its board has led to financial and oversight problems.
Many Texas appointee positions hold important posts that are intricate in the running of the state.
It may end up with legislation being moved that will change the rules that Perry has found a way around.
It may be that governments want someone else to make the decision for them, so they set things up to fail.
If that is the case, then what is happening in Canada and around the world is a manifestation of a governments acting in passive aggressive manner to get what they want.
Which is not leadership.

Jan 06

History of France in English on the iTunes “New and Noteworthy” list for educational and history podcasts, but it’s still pretty good!

The History of France in English Podcast by’s Tom Villemaire is now on the iTunes list of “New and Noteworthy” podcasts.

For History and Education podcasts that is, even so, it’ s still pretty good and kinda funny in spots. Not Steve Buscemi funny in Fargo, but still, pretty funny.

Way funnier than a broken leg – even with clever stuff scrawled on yer cast.

So check it out.

We won’t break your leg.

What would you learn from that?


Jan 04’s podcast History of France in English ranks in top 50 on iTunes

Historylab's Tom Villemaire has his new History of France in English podcast now available on iTunes.

Historylab’s Tom Villemaire has his new History of France in English podcast now available on iTunes.’s podcast History of France in English by Tom Villemaire is ranked in iTunes top 50 educational productions.

This is because of the huge amount of support of the people in the history podcast community, in particular, those who hang out at the facebook site, the link is here.

The podcast will be launching its fourth episode this week, less than a month after its first and the download numbers are very encouraging.

Thanks to everyone who has helped!

Dec 31

Some bright ideas are Canadian

It was New Year’s Eve in 1879 that Thomas Alva Edison unveiled his best known invention, but some bright ideas are Canadian first.

Edison’s incandescent bulb shone light on a new era as well as a new year.

Matt Evans was co-inventor of a working light bulb before Thomas Edison lit up the night with his on New Year's Eve, 1879.

Matt Evans was co-inventor of a working light bulb before Thomas Edison lit up the night with his on New Year’s Eve, 1879.

Thomas Alva Edison lit up the night on New Year's Even 1879 but two Canadians had the bright idea working first.

Thomas Alva Edison lit up the night on New Year’s Even 1879 but two Canadians had the bright idea working first.

That Thomas Edison — a great guy. He invented the light bulb and changed the way the world … um, not really. It’s sad but true. Two men from                            

Toronto, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, invented a light bulb before Edison. But they couldn’t get the financing they needed to get their invention from the lab to the store windows. So they sold the rights to their 1875 patent to Edison. In 1879, Edison demonstrated his light globe — one of the inventions most associated with his name. Like so many other great Canadian ideas, Woodward and Evans’s invention ended up going south.

The brain drain didn’t end there.

Henry Woodward was co-inventor of a working light bulb before Thomas Edison's bright idea.

Henry Woodward was co-inventor of a working light bulb before Thomas Edison’s bright idea.

When you think radio, you probably think Guglielmo Marconi.

And you probably think Canada’s role in the invention of the radio was to provide some real estate for the first intercontinental radio broadcast.

You’d be wrong.

First, the broadcast was made in Newfoundland long before it ever entered Confederation. And second, don’t think Marconi. Think Fessenden.

Reginald Fessenden was a Quebec-born inventor who, like many Canadian inventors, may have been a genius but could have used some help with marketing and publicity.

When Fessenden was growing up in Ontario, his uncle, a physics teacher, brought him to see Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the year Bell invented the telephone. Fessenden liked the telephone but was curious about why it required wires to connect the two sets. Right then and there, Fessenden decided he was going to broadcast voices through the air.

And he did. Before Marconi.

In 1901, Marconi managed to send a radio signal across the Atlantic with the message in the dots and dashes of Morse Code. Marconi had a theory of why this happened, but it was wrong and Fessenden knew it. He recognized that a radio, to be useful, would need to use a standing wave; that is, it would have to broadcast continuously, not in little spurts of sparks as his contemporaries believed. Fessenden’s first speech broadcast was looked on with something like amusement — why use speech when you can spark off some dots and dashes? And other scientists ridiculed his theories of the continuous wave.

Fessenden’s first speech broadcast took place on December 23, 1900 — the year before Marconi’s trans-Atlantic transmission of dots and dashes. He transmitted his own voice over the first wireless telephone from a site on Cobb Island in the middle of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.

In 1906, with Marconi still playing about with sparks and arcs and dots and dashes, Fessenden broadcast music and speech to ships in the Atlantic. In 1906 he also managed two-way voice communication between Scotland and Massachusetts.

Instead of getting rich, his backers seized his patents and pushed him aside. He sued. That took almost two decades to settle. When all was said and done, he won about $500,000 in damages and handed over about $300,000 in lawyers’ fees.

He wound up working in the United States building radios for that country’s military. In Canada, he couldn’t get the funding to do research. And when he tried to create a radio network in Canada, he was told he couldn’t. The Canadian government had given that privilege exclusively to Marconi — who was not a Canadian.

In 1929 Fessenden invented a television. He also developed a kind of sonar to help the world avoid another Titanic disaster by helping ships detect icebergs. The same invention came in handy during the First World War, helping ships detect submarines.

During that war, he also created a device that would allow the Canadian military to detect enemy artillery and determine its range and location. His sense of patriotism had brought him back to Canada and he was sent to work on the device in London, England. But the bureaucrats who approved purchases for the military weren’t interested. (A Canadian army officer later created a similar device out of necessity, at the front, driven by the horrific losses of men to German artillery.)

In all, Fessenden was a holder of more than five hundred patents. He was highly regarded in the United States. He was awarded money and recognition by the city of Philadelphia as “one whose labors have been of great benefit to mankind.” The Institute of Radio Engineers of America presented him with its medal of honour. The head of General Electric Laboratories called him “the greatest wireless inventor of the age — greater than Marconi.”

The New York Times wrote an editorial regarding Fessenden:


It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect. The progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the minds of men and was replaced by the continuous wave — one with all too little credit to the man who had been right.

In my lifetime, I developed over a hundred patentable inventions including the electric gyroscope, the heterodyne, and a depth finder. I built the first power generating station at Niagara Falls and I invented radio, sending the first wireless voice message in the world on Dec. 23, 1900.

But despite all my hard work, I lived most of my life near poverty. I fought years of court battles before seeing even a penny from my greatest inventions. And worst of all, I was ridiculed by journalists, businessmen, and even other scientists, for believing that voice could ever be transmitted without using wires. But by the time death was near, not only was I wealthy from my patents, and all of those people who had laughed at my ideas were twisting the dials on their newly bought radios to hear the latest weather and news.

In many American encyclopedia and reference books, he is considered an American Canadian, even though he never gave up his Canadian citizenship and when war was declared he returned to Canada to serve, although his genius had been ignored and gone unrewarded in his own country.

Even today the Encyclopedia Canadiana does not give him a separate listing. Mention of him is included only under the listing for his mother, Clementina, who established Empire Day in Canada. Reginald is mentioned as one of her four sons, “inventor of the wireless telephone, the radio compass and the visible bullet for machine guns, he also invented the first television set in North America in 1919.”

Still — no credit for the radio.

Aw, well, let’s head out for a drive.

On the weekend, you probably like to hit the road for the country for a picnic with your friends and family and take a few photographs with the McCurdy and …

What, you’ve never heard of a McCurdy?

Well you would have, had Arthur Williams McCurdy been as much businessman as inventor.

McCurdy was a genius when it came to inventions. One of them was a method of making pictures anywhere — not just taking them but making them. It was called the Portable Film Developing System, and McCurdy created it in 1890. A little ahead of his time.

Even so, thirteen years later, when the world caught up to him, he sold the patent to George Eastman. Yes, as in Eastman Kodak Co. It took decades for the first Polaroid cameras to come onto the market. And McCurdy was long forgotten.

Canadians have some bright ideas, sometimes it takes an American to shine a light on them.

For more on the light bulb, click here.


Dec 13

History of France in English podcast now available on iTunes!

The History of France in English podcast is now available on iTunes. The first episode deals with the history of wine in France, from its first historic mention about 600 BCE up to the end of the Roman occupation, including the destruction of the Gaul vineyards around 92 AD and the somewhat biased view of the Greeks and Romans towards the Gauls and their ability to grow grapes.

Check out the iTunes website by clicking here!

Historylab's Tom Villemaire has his new History of France in English podcast now available on iTunes.

Historylab’s Tom Villemaire has his new History of France in English podcast now available on iTunes.

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

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.

Older posts «