June 13


Tank ambush in Normandy

The June 6 D-Day landings were successful, in part, because of the German decision to station their heavy armour back from the beaches. Their theory was that their panzer divisions would be spared the initial aerial and naval bombardments that the Allies would use to secure their foothold, but that they could soon rush forward to crush the enemy. However, Allied mastery of the skies meant that German tanks could only move cautiously and at night. Consequently, Allied forces were able to penetrate inland before they encountered significant armoured opposition.

On June 13, British units moved toward the high ground near the village of Villers-Bocage. There they were ambushed by an SS panzer unit led by Hauptsturmfüfhrer Michael Wittman whose Tiger tank wrought havoc on the unsuspecting British. Within minutes Wittman had destroyed fourteen tanks and fifteen personnel carriers, along with two anti-tank guns – an astonishing feat that won him enormous propaganda fame in Germany and the decoration of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Military historians have called this the greatest single-handed action in tank warfare.

Wittman’s career did not last much longer. Less than two months later, his panzer unit was ambushed in turn by British and Canadian armoured formations, equipped with the up-gunned Sherman Firefly, one of the few Allied machines capable of taking on Tigers. A shot through the turret of Wittman’s tank ignited ammunition killing him and his crew.

Names of tank designs vary from country to country. Americans name their machines after generals: Sherman, Grant, Stuart, Abrams, Patton; Germans name theirs after deadly felines: Panther, Tiger, Leopard; British names all begin with the letter C: Churchill, Comet, Centurion, Chieftain, Challenger, etc. Iraqi forces employed the Lion of Babylon; Egyptians relied on the Ramses; South Koreans put their trust in the Black Tiger.

June 9


Senator McCarthy is rebuked

After being wartime allies, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the western democracies degenerated into a Cold War which resulted in both sides maintaining huge armies facing each other in central Europe. Back in North America, the Igor Gouzenko revelations pointed to Americans working as Russian spies in the US and spoke of Americans with loyalties wider than just their native land. Coupled with Soviet expansionism in Europe and the growing power of the Communist Party of China versus wartime US ally Chiang Kai-shek, dislike of communism again took root. The crusade against Reds was first led by HUAC, the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee, which dated from before the war but which was in 1945 made a powerful standing committee of the House with wide-ranging powers of investigation. Though HUAC had failed miserably in showing any real communist penetration of the movies, this attack on the so-called Hollywood Ten silenced the protests from the entertainment industry, created a blacklist of writers and performers whose careers were ruined, and set the stage for an anti-communist witch-hunt of government officials.

Anti-communist groups, such as the American Legion and firms of private investigators specializing in loyalty checks, spread stories about secret battalions of 75,- 80,000 trained communists manipulating a million leftist dupes, camp followers, and fellow travellers. Neighbourhood anti-communist watch groups were formed, sponsors of suspected programs or radio personalities were threatened with boycotts, libraries were scoured for leftist comics and books. This anti-communist mood forced a reluctant President Truman to institute government actions against federally-employed suspects. Loyalty boards screened civil servants and army personnel, firing many, not for disloyalty or treachery, but for once having belonged to left-wing causes or parties. Sensational cases included that of civil servant Alger Hiss whom Congressman Richard Nixon accused on television of spying for the USSR — Hiss denied it but was ruined; Nixon was launched into national prominence and was made Eisenhower’s V-P candidate in 1952 election.

This paved the way for further probes — the Rosenberg spy case sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviets who had soon produced the A-bomb and the H-bomb with help from such spies  — and convinced some politicians that the way to popularity with the voters was by denunciation of hidden communists. The leading proponent of this was the Senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy who in 1950 began announcing he had a list of red agents in the State department. The State Department was widely blamed for the failure of the US to support Chaing Kai-shek and the subsequent loss of China to the Communists, and though McCarthy’s accusations were usually drunken ramblings and without substance, they did create a climate of fear and an atmosphere of what became known as McCarthyism: guilt by association, intimidation of witnesses and abuse of democratic process. He announced that he had discovered 30,000 books in USIS libraries abroad were by Communist or pro-Communist writers: Sovietolators as they were called and he succeeded in panicking officials wherever his gaze lighted. His success lay in using television and mobilizing grass-roots anti-intellectualism and xenophobia and distrust of the university-trained, upper-class, anglo-Protestant elite in government as well as their urbanized, educated Jewish counterparts.  His downfall came when he attacked the US Army for sheltering communists — the establishment which had hitherto been timid came forth to denounce him and his alcoholic excesses caught up with him. On this day in 1954, Joseph Welch the attorney representing the Army lashed out at McCarthy, asking him in front of the television cameras: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

By December 1954 his colleagues in the Senate censured him for his behaviour; his reign had ended and he was not re-elected for a third term. But consider this: McCarthy succeeded in his crusade though he himself was brought down. He helped discredit leftist policies and officials left over from the Roosevelt era; he redefined political discourse in terms of “American-mindedness” and even his left-wing opponents had to claim that they themselves had espoused “Americanism” for years. The labour movement had to move to the right. In 1950 the CIO expelled 11 national unions, 20% of its own membership, for alleged Communist leadership. Just a few months before his downfall in 1954 a supporter of McCarthy wrote this in a magazine article: “As Russia and Red China advance nightmarishly toward the maximum power goals which they will reach in the 1970s, the American people will be as unlikely to think seriously of anything else, as to ignore an onrushing comet. Communism will be the issue of the 1950s and sixties. Those American leaders who most surely interpret the emotions of the American public in the face of the Communist challenge will be the man who will dominate American politics. Today Senator McCarthy is the articulate voice of the American people in a Communist-haunted age. On this issue he marches with history. He cannot lose.”

June 8

1776 The Battle of Trois-Rivières

One often hears the phrase “the thirteen colonies” in reference to the American Revolution but little is heard of the attempt by the armies of those rebels to coerce the inhabitants of other British North American possessions to heed the siren call of republicanism and disobedience to the crown. Even in Canada little attention is paid to the battles that thwarted the ambitions of the Continental Congress. One such battle occurred at Trois Rivières (aka Three Rivers), a town on the St Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. 

The so-called “Continental Army” had invaded Canada in 1775, expecting to be greeted favourably by French-Canadians eager to cast off the British yoke that had been laid on them for more than 25 years. Though the American force found a few anti-clerical and radical inhabitants, the vast majority was indifferent to the intruders or downright hostile. Montreal was captured — and the first printing press in Canada was established by Benjamin Franklin — but the siege of Quebec was a failure. By the spring of 1776 the American army was in retreat. On its way back to New York it encountered what they believed to be a small British force at Trois-Rivières, unaware that the redcoats had been strongly reinforced. A local guide led the Americans into a swamp and when they emerged they found themselves caught between the cannons of a British warship on the river and thousands of British regulars. The result was a nasty defeat for those who stood and fought. Thirty to fifty Americans were killed and over 200 captured. The rest straggled back to safety where the defeat was hotly debated and incompetent officers cashiered.

Many American wounded soldiers were treated at the Ursuline convent in Trois-Rivières. Congress never authorized payment for these services but the convent retained the bill. By the early 21st century, the original bill of about £26 was, thanks to the magic of compound interest, estimated to be equivalent to between ten and twenty million Canadian dollars. On July 4, 2009, during festivities marking the town’s 375th anniversary, American Consul-General David Fetter symbolically repaid the debt to the Ursulines with a payment of C$130.




June 4


The Montgolfier Brothers make a hot-air balloon ascent

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740 – 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745 –  1799) developed a balloon made of sackcloth and paper, propelled by hot air. The younger brother made the first human ascent in a balloon in front of a large crowd of French dignitaries at Annonany in southeastern France. The journey lasted about 10 minutes, with the craft reaching an altitude of perhaps a mile. This led to further, more ambitious attempts. Those interested in this subject will learn almost nothing about it in the Monty Python sketch below.

June 3

1839 Commissioner Lin destroys the opium

In the early 19th century the Qing dynasty ruling China was trying to keep foreigners at bay and closely regulate trade with the outside world. This policy resulted in a balance of payments problem for the British who imported far more Chinese goods than the value of what they could, with difficulty, sell the Chinese. In response to this, the British East India Company hit on the diabolical scheme of smuggling opium into southern China, a technique that soon created a widespread addiction problem among the Chinese and a  profitable harvest of silver for the British.

To remedy this,  Emperor Daoguang sent Lin Zexu as a specially appointed imperial commissioner to end the practice of the opium trade. To stamp out opium, Commissioner Lin used all the powers of the Chinese state: he instituted a public-health program warning of the dangers of addiction; he organized addicts into  five-man mutual-responsibility teams pledged to guarantee that no one in the group would smoke; he rewarded those informing on the drug pushers; he arrested dealers and seized their wares — tons of opium and tens of thousands of pipes.

He moved diplomatically with the foreigners behind the trade, not wishing to start a war he could not win, urging them to stick to their legitimate trade in tea, silk, and rhubarb (he believed this last to be essential to the health of foreigners) and to desist from harming the Chinese people. In a carefully phrased letter to Queen Victoria, Lin tried to appeal to her moral sense of responsibility. “We have heard that in your honorable nation, too,” wrote Lin, “the people are not permitted to smoke the drug, and that offenders in this particular expose themselves to sure punishment…. In order to remove the source of the evil thoroughly, would it not be better to prohibit its sale and manufacture rather than merely prohibit its consumption?” Opium in fact was not prohibited in Britain and was taken— often in the form of laudanum—by several well-known figures, Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them. Many Englishmen regarded opium as less harmful than alcohol, and Lin’s moral exhortations fell on deaf ears.

When the British in Canton refused to give up their opium, or to hand over only token amounts, he blockaded their compound. After six weeks, when the foreigners had agreed to give up over 20,000 chests of opium and Commissioner Lin had taken delivery, the blockade was lifted. Lin  was now faced with the remarkable challenge of destroying close to 3 million pounds of raw opium. His solution was to order the digging of three huge trenches, 7 feet deep and 150 feet long. Thereafter, five hundred laborers, supervised by sixty officials, broke up the large balls of raw opium and mixed them with water, salt, and lime until the opium dissolved. Then, as large crowds of Chinese and foreigners looked on, the murky mixture was flushed out into a neighboring creek, and so reached the sea.

In a special prayer on June 3, 1839, to the spirit of the Southern Sea, “you who wash away all stains and cleanse all impurities,” Lin brooded over the fact that “poison has been allowed to creep in unchecked till at last barbarian smoke fills the market.” He apologized to the spirit for filling its domain with this noxious mixture and, he wrote in his diary, advised it “to tell the creatures of the water to move away for a time, to avoid being contaminated.” As to the foreigners who had lived through the blockade and now watched the solemn proceedings, Lin wrote in a memorial to Emperor Daoguang, they “do not dare show any disrespect, and indeed I should judge from their attitudes that they have the decency to feel heartily ashamed.”

On the contrary, the shameless British appealed to their government who used Lin’s actions as a pretext for the start of the Opium Wars that blasted the doors open to Chinese trade.

June 2


The execution of James Douglas

James Douglas, Earl of Morton (1516-1581) was a Scottish politician at a time when losing favour often meant losing one’s head. During the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, he had sided with Protestant nobles supporting England and frustrating many of the queen’s actions. He had taken part in the murder of Mary’s favourite, David Rizzio, and was part of the army that compelled the queen to abdicate in favour of her baby son James. In 1572 he was named Regent, governing on behalf of James VI but he made enemies in the Scottish church and other noble factions. He was charged with the murder of Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley (who was blown up and strangled in 1567) and was executed by means of a guillotine-like device, nicknamed “The Maiden” which he had imported from England, based on the contraption used in Halifax, Yorkshire.

Holinshed’s Chronicle of 1587 describes the Halifax prototype of the guillotine and the curious law that made one susceptible to its embrace:

There is and hath been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever doth commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confess the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood, of the length of four feet and a half, which doth ride up and down in a slot, rabet, or regall, between two pieces of timber that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height.

In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which, being drawn up to the top of the frame, is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Samson’s post), unto the middest of which pin also there is a long rope fastened, that cometh down among the people; so that when the offender hath made his confession, and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see justice executed), and pulling out the pin in this manner, the head block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such a violence, that if the neck of the transgressor were so big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke, and roll from the body by an huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they being driven, do draw out the pin whereby the offender is executed.

May 30


Lod Airport Massacre

The next time you fuss about airport security, remember that it was once possible to board an airplane carrying an assault rifle and explosives. On May 30, 1972 three Japanese travellers stepped off a flight from Rome at Lod Airport in Israel, took out their weapons from violin cases and indiscriminately sprayed fire into the crowd. 26 people were killed, most of them Puerto Rican pilgrims, and 80 were injured. Two of the terrorists were killed on the spot but the third was captured.

What were Japanese Red Army communists doing involving themselves in the Palestine-Israeli conflict? It appears that an exchange program had been worked out with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — External Operations, a more radical offshoot of the already pretty radical PFLP, led by Wadie Haddad. Haddad, an associate of Carlos the Jackal, was experienced in airliner terror, having master-minded the Entebbe high-jacking. The PFLP-OE trained the Japanese in Lebanon, thinking, correctly, that they would be less likely to draw suspicion from airline security.

The surviving attacker, Kozo Okamoto, pled guilty to murder charges and was sentenced to an Israeli jail but he was released in a prisoner swap in 1985. He is reported to have converted to Islam and lives in Lebanon, which has resisted calls for his extradition.

May 27

1332 Birth of Ibn Khaldun

The greatest of all Muslim historiographers is Abd-ar-Rahman ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun al Hadrani or, for short, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis, of an Arab family with strong ties to Muslim Spain (especially Seville) going back to the 9th century. The family had left Seville for North Africa immediately before the city’s Reconquista in 1288. From there they went to Ifriqiya and settled in Tunis becoming high-ranking civil servants and scholars. His great-grandfather was tortured and murdered by a usurper in the turbulent politics of the area.

Ibn Khaldun received a very thorough education, a classical education, based on the study of the qur’an, of hadith, of the Arabic language and of Islamic law. As a teenager he survived the Black Death of 1349 and moved to Fez, then the most brilliant capital of the Muslim West. For a time he served the Sultan of Fez and then visited Spain where he was employed by the King of Granada who used him as an envoy to Pedro the Cruel of Castile. Chaotic politics saw him cast into jail for two years and serving a number of masters in Spain and North Africa. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and saw Alexandria and Cairo where he served as Chief Justice to the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. He went into retirement but was recalled in 1400 and sent to Damascus where he found himself inside the city as it was besieged by the Mongol conqueror Timur or Tamerlane. He was lowered from the walls in a basket to negotiate with the blood-thirsty Mongol; he impressed Timur who consulted him on historical matters and spared him when the city was taken and its inhabitants massacred. He returned to Egypt (having been stripped and robbed by bandits) and took up a position again as judge. He died in Cairo in 1406.

Ibn Khaldun began his great work of history, the Muqaddimah (Introduction) in the 1370s when he was in his late 40s and spent the rest of his life accumulating material and refining it. In the author’s intention, and as the title indicates, it is an “Introduction” to the historian’s craft. Thus it is presented as an encyclopaedic synthesis of the methodological and cultural knowledge necessary to enable the historian to produce a truly scientific work. 

 In his preface to the Introduction proper, Ibn khaldun begins by defining history – which he expands to include the study of the whole of the human past, including its social, economic and cultural aspects – defining its interest, denouncing the lack of curiosity and of method in his predecessors, and setting out the rules of good and sound criticism. This criticism is based essentially, apart from the examination of evidence, on the criterion of conformity with reality, that is of the probability of the facts reported and their conformity to the nature of things, which is the same as the current of history and of its evolution. Hence the necessity of bringing to light the laws which determine the direction of this current. The science capable of throwing light on this phenomenon is, he says, that of “a science which may be described as independent, which is defined by its object: human civilization and social facts as a whole”.

The central point around which his observations are built and to which his researches are directed is the study of decline, that is to say the symptoms and the nature of the ills from which civilizations die. Hence the Muqaddima is very closely linked with the political experiences of its author, who had been in fact very vividly aware that he was witnessing a tremendous change in the course of history, which is why he thought it necessary to write a summary of the past of humanity and to draw lessons from it. He remarks that at certain exceptional moments in history the upheavals are such that one has the impression of being present “at a new creation, at an actual renaissance, and at [the emergence of] a new world. It is so at present. Thus the need is felt for someone to make a record of the situation of humanity and of the world”. This “new world”‘, as Ibn Khaldun knew, was coming to birth in other lands; he also realized that the civilization to which he belonged was nearing its end. Although unable to avert the catastrophe, he was anxious at least to understand what was taking place, and therefore felt it necessary to analyse the processes of history.

 His main tool in this work of analysis is observation.  Ibn Khaldun had a thorough knowledge of  logic and made use of it, particular of induction, but he greatly mistrusted speculative reasoning. He admits that reason is a marvellous tool, but only within the framework of its natural limits, which are those of the investigation and the interpretation of what is real. He was much concerned about the problem of knowledge and it led him finally, after a radical criticism, to a refutation of philosophy, casting doubts on the adequacy of universal rationality and of individual reality, on the whole structure of speculative philosophy as it then existed’ Having thus calmly dismissed Arabo-Muslim philosophy, he chose, in order to explore reality and arrive at its meaning, a type of empiricism which has no hesitation in “having recourse to the categories of rational explanation which derive from philosophy”. In short, Ibn Khaldun rejects the traditional speculation of the philosophers, which gets bogged down in fruitless argument and controversy, only to replace it by another type of speculation, the steps of which are more certain and the results more fruitful since it is directly related to concrete facts.

May 22


Loss of the Scorpion

The USS Scorpion was a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine of the United States navy launched in 1960. It carried a crew of 99 and was designed to be an extremely fast hunter-killer of both surface vessels and enemy submarines. It had almost unlimited range and could travel at 61 kmh underwater. In 1966 Scorpion penetrated Soviet waters and secretly filmed a Russian missile launch.

In May 1968 Scorpion was assigned to follow and observe a Soviet task force in the Atlantic, a flotilla that included two attack submarines. Having done that, it was to return to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia. It never reached its destination. A radio message was received on May 21 that the boat was following the Soviet vessels but no more was ever heard from it. A search was launched before news of its disappearance was released to the public, but it was not until October, 1968 that  the wreckage of the Scorpion was found at the bottom of the Atlantic 740 km southwest of the Azores and over 3 km below the surface.

Cause of the loss of the boat has never been conclusively determined but many have speculated that one of its own torpedoes had exploded. A more sensational charge is that the Soviets had sunk Scorpion — dangerous games between submerged vessels of opposing navies were not unknown during the Cold War. Moreover, the Soviets had lost one of their own submarines earlier that year when the K-129 sank in the Pacific; conspiracy theorists posit that the Russian navy blamed the U.S. for this and that Scorpion was attacked in revenge.

To add to the mystery, two other submarines were lost in 1968: the Israeli sub Dakar sank in the Mediterranean and the French Minerve off the coast of France.

May 12


Métis defeat at Batoche

In 1885, the Métis settlers of the South Saskatchewan River valley and a number of western native tribes arose in rebellion against the Canadian state, motivated by fears of loss of land, dwindling natural food resources, and government mismanagement. They were led by the mad visionary Louis Riel, and chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear. After a number of rebel successes against white settlers, militia and police, a Canadian army led by General Frederick Middleton advanced against the centre of resistance, the village of Batoche.

After two days of shelling and outflanking maneuvers had failed to dislodge the Métis from their rifle pits, the army tried another unsuccessful attack on May 12, which failed because of miscommunication between units. Finally, frustrated Canadian regulars belonging to the Winnipeg Rifles, the Royal Grenadiers and the Midland regiment staged a mass frontal charge that overwhelmed the outnumbered and outgunned rebels. The surrender of Louis Riel hastened the end of the uprising, which would end in July when the last of the native warriors gave themselves up.

The rebellion was ill-advised and resulted in hard times for the Métis, though Riel remains a hero in the eyes of many.