Sailors who sailed on Allied corvette ships on the Atlantic Ocean during WWII had an interesting experience of war. Their days were filled with repetitive strain. Escort runs accompanying Allied convoys lasted several week at a time, each day being divided into four hour on-watch and four hour off-watch segments for the crew. The Flower class corvettes were the workhorses of these escort missions, but they were tremendously unstable in heavy seas. And in the North Atlantic, the weather more often found the sailors rocking and slamming against ship parts rather than enjoying leisurely calm waters.
This routine repeated itself endlessly for many servicemen for up to six years. The nature of the fight against their main enemy — German U-boat submarines — meant that they may only see their enemy face-to-face only a handful of times during the entire war. When the corvettes were alerted to the presence of U-boats, it was more often than not in the form of a merchant ship violently and suddenly exploding in the convoy. Then the rescue of survivors and the hunting of the U-boats would begin.
It was a lonely grind of a job. Most of the time, serving on an escort ship meant enduring the violent seas rather than fighting furtive German submarines. That is why Nicholas Monsarrat named his classic novel about two British escort ships in the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea. A movie was made in 1953 based on the book. I watched the movie first and then read Monsarrat’s novel. Both are excellent, but I enjoyed the film a little more. The latter, directed by Charles Frend, was a rare find for me because it’s the closest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of style to that other classic film of naval warfare, “Das Boot,” a personal favorite of mine.
For many years, I’ve been interested in submarine warfare during WWII. Reading and watching a film about the hunters on the other side of the periscope opened my eyes to the interesting experiences of the Allied sailors on corvettes, frigates, and destroyers who protected merchant convoys like shepherds against the wolves that lurked beneath the waves.
Having moved back from New York City, I discovered that my familiar public library in northwest Chicagoland got a facelift. The wall between the children and adult sections has been torn down, creating a pleasant sense of open space. While browsing there last week, I chanced upon a movie I had never heard about before: “The Hunley.”
A TNT movie from 1999, it didn’t win any awards for acting (though it did win an Emmy for sound editing). I enjoyed watching “The Hunley” because it recreates what it may have been like to serve aboard the first effective combat submarine in history. Starring Armand Assante, it has a bit of an action movie feel to it. For a film taking place inside of a weapons platform propelled by the underwhelming power of half a dozen men cranking away at the propeller shaft by hand, the high-intensity aesthetic is a bit of a mismatch. (more…)
A few days ago, I started reading a book that I bought about a year ago in a bookstore’s bargain aisle. The book is Paul by E.P. Sanders from the “A Brief Insight” series. The letters of the Apostle Paul form a big chunk of the New Testament. In those letters, his unique way of addressing problems in religious communities have had an enormous influence on the development of Christianity.
But Sanders’s 200-page work is the first book I’ve ever read focused specifically on Paul. Before I even finished reading the first chapter, I already started thinking about what the next book would be that I would read about Paul. I do this often: whenever I get interested in a new topic, I go on Amazon.com and try to find the most authoritative book on that subject. It’s handy information. Sometimes I even make a short bibliography of what the first books would be that I would read if I were to study the topic more closely.
It’s always satisfying to find the one definitive book on a subject: a recently-published and comprehensive resource you can turn to that will bring you up to speed on a subject in one fell swoop. Interested in Johannes Brahms? A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal that Jan Swafford’s biography, a 752-page tome decorated with 33 reviews averaging 4.5/5 stars, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the place to turn for all your Brahms needs. (more…)
I really like the kind of reality shows where you get to watch experts performing complex jobs with great skill. I enjoy it all: from Ice Pilots NWT, where aviators brave extreme winter conditions to fly in northern Canada, to Big Shrimpin’, a show about fishermen plying their trade off of the southern coast of the United States.
These past couple of weeks I’ve been interested in a show called Tank Overhaul. Each episode features a crew of a few men restoring rusty and battle-damaged tanks (from the World War II era and later) to like-new condition. There’s just something about sand-blasting decades-old rust from a tank chassis to reveal a brilliant metallic surface underneath that gets me going. With a wave of a wand (literally) time is reversed and these half-decayed battle tanks come to life again.
Truth be told, though, I’m not a big tank enthusiast. But this show got me thinking about the restoration and preservation of two types of machines that I do have a passion for: (no surprise here to anyone who reads this blog) submarines and airplanes. So I got to imagining: is there anywhere in the Chicago area where I can see or even volunteer in the restoration of these historical artifacts?
A simple search revealed a few interesting leads. (more…)
Below are new books published in the second half of 2012 that seemed to me like really interesting reads in my favorite fields (ancient philosophy and military history). This is a condensed version of my typical monthly books post, but I hope to return to my usual reviews and previews again next month.
Churchill and Seapower. Christopher M. Bell. Churchill was a leading naval strategist in both the First and Second World War. This is the first systematic study of his role in naval affairs and should be an informative read.
A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander
Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau
The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno by Christopher M. Rein
Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton
Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by William B. Ecker and Kenneth V. Jack
Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington
The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken
Since I’ve fallen behind on my monthly articles and books posts, I’ve decided to condense the past several months into a couple final posts for the year. That way, I can start 2013 afresh with the regular format, reviewing and previewing books and articles every month. Below are the articles for the second half of 2012 that interested me but that I haven’t had a chance to review on this blog.
“Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line“ by Robert Pippin in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2013).
“How Motion Pictures Industrialized Entertainment” by Gerben Bakker in The Journal of Economic History (December 2012).
“Ethical Progress as Problem-Resolving” by Amanda Roth in The Journal of Political Philosophy (December 2012).
“Intuiting Gods: Creed and Cognition in the Fourth Century” by Marilyn Dunn in Historical Reflections (Winter 2012).
“Imagining the Unconscious” by Wouter J. Hanegraaffa in Intellectual History Review (Winter 2012).
“Overshadowed New York” by Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman in American Literary History (Winter 2012).
“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).
Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.
As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?
But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)
Scholarship of an empire
There are really two narratives of the Roman empire. The first one picks up where the Iliad ends, follows the story of Aeneas until the time of the early kings of Rome, observes with admiration the Roman republic, and illustrates the glories and flaws of the Roman emperors. This is the traditional story of ancient Rome.
The second type of narrative is the academic one, which often leaves chronology by the wayside and examines the Roman empire by topic, often sociologically. Greg Woolf’s new book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, seems to be written for the niche of people who are well familiar with the first, traditional, narrative of Rome but have no knowledge of (but a desire to learn) the second, scholarly, dialogue about the empire.
Although Woolf’s writing didn’t inspire an enormous amount of enthusiasm from this reader, the most interesting chapter for me was the second one: “Empires of the Mind.” Reading this chapter made me wonder why it was that Rome apart from all other ancient empires has such a lasting existence in our world. Woolf here also discusses sociological categorization of empires and describes Rome as a conquest state, an entity dependent on political expansion for its very survival. I think such a breakdown of terms like “empire” is useful because, without further reflection, one may assume erroneously that the Roman empire was more similar to, say, the American empire than was actually the case. The United States may arguably be an imperial power but it is not a conquest state. (more…)
With this post, I’m starting a new monthly article series called “Historical Proceedings” that reviews a sampling of the new historical articles published in mostly academic journals (but also some popular magazines). I’m a few months behind on these and also on my monthly posts about new history books, but I’m working to catch up.
As with the books, I’ll be choosing articles every month that I think are interesting, enlightening, and well written (all, admittedly, subjective criteria). I hope these posts inspire you to read new works of history and to share your comments with me below.
“The Repression of Soviet Koreans during the 1930s” by Alexander Kim in The Historian (Summer 2012).
Joseph Stalin killed so many people from so many different communities during his purges of the 1930s that it’s hard to deny the veracity of the quote that is often attributed to him: “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” To understand the human toll of the purges, it helps to take a closer look at one cross-section of the population that was affected by them.
Alexander Kim writes in The Historian, a publication of the Phi Alpha Theta Historical Honor Society, about Soviet Koreans who were forcibly relocated from their homes in the Far East to barren lands in Kazakhstan. That they were accused of trumped-up charges of spying for the enemies of the Soviet Union was not unique by Soviet standards of the 1930s. But Kim describes how the Soviet Koreans’ integrality to the local economy (they were adept vegetable farmers) and easy ability to escape Soviet authorities by crossing the border into China delayed their repression by Stalin’s agents. That was something most other groups were not able to do during the purges. (more…)
I’ve been interested in submarine warfare 0f the Second World War since I was in middle school. There are a lot of books written in English about the German U-boat campaign targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic and also the American submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping in the Pacific. Relatively little has been written in recent times, though, about submarine operations of any nation during the First World War.
That’s why I was happy to discover a copy of Edwyn Gray’s book, The U-boat War: 1914-1918 (which was originally published in the 1970s as The Killing Time) in Manhattan’s mecca for rare books: the Strand Book Store. I’m really glad I bought this book, because after reading it, I disabused myself of several erroneous notions about these early German submarine operations.
For example, I previously believed that German submarines during WWI in comparison to their counterparts in WWII
- were generally smaller, slower, and carried less fuel, crew, and torpedoes,
- exclusively operated in the coastal waters of Western Europe, and
- did not wage as large or effective of a campaign against merchant shipping.
All of these preconceptions turned out to be false. By way of comparing the U-boat campaigns of the First and Second World War, I turned to some data from uboat.net, an ongoing research project by an amateur historian which I’ve enjoyed visiting since I first started using the internet in the mid-1990s.
Just looking at how many ships U-boats attacked during each war, it’s evident that the number of ships hit by submarines in the 1910s surpasses the totals of the 1940s: (more…)