Oops

In 1942, uncertain whether one of its spies had been replaced by a German impersonator, Britain’s Special Operations Executive hit on a clever plan: After a regular radio communication, the British radio operator signed off with HH, short for “Heil Hitler,” the standard farewell among Nazi operators. His counterpart, “Netball,” responded HH automatically, giving himself away.

They confirmed this at the next session:

Netball was several minutes late for his sked (not significant) and signalled ‘q r u’ (‘I have no traffic for London’). Howell replied ‘q t c’ (‘We have a message for you’), and proceeded to transmit it (the message warned Netball never to send less than 150 letters). Howell then signalled ‘HH’, and Netball immediately replied ‘HH’.

‘Right,’ Nick was heard to say to his companion, ‘that’s it then.’

(From Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide, 2001.)

Podcast Episode 125: The Campden Wonder

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.

We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.

See full show notes …

Backup

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On D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower carried this note in his wallet:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

He threw it away the next day, but an aide retrieved it. Today it’s in his presidential library.

Something Borrowed

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Just a fragment: During Japan’s U Go offensive into India in 1944, British officer Tony “Raj” Fowler would reportedly inspire his Indian troops by reciting passages from Shakespeare in Urdu before leading them in charges against the Japanese trenches. From Arthur Swinson’s Kohima, 2015:

Here they waited, with the Punjabis,who were to attack the D.I.S., on their left. The latter were in great heart, recorded Major Arthur Marment, and ‘anxious to avenge the death of the large number of the Queens lost a few days previously’. Their adjutant, Major R.A.J. Fowler, had translated a short passage from Shakespeare’s King John into Urdu — ‘Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue’ — which became: ‘Dunia ka char kunion se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko assosi denge.’

“This, says Marment, ‘had a most tremendous effect on the troops’.”

In a Word

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Aceldama
n. a field of bloodshed

abreption
n. the action of snatching something away

tutament
n. a means of defence; a safeguard

Strange freaks these round shot play! We saw a man coming up from the rear with his full knapsack on, and some canteens of water held by the straps in his hands. He was walking slowly, and with apparent unconcern, though the iron hailed around him. A shot struck the knapsack, and it and its contents flew thirty yards in every direction; the knapsack disappeared like an egg thrown spitefully against the rock. The soldier stopped, and turned about in puzzled surprise, put up one hand to his back to assure himself that the knapsack was not there, and then walked slowly on again unharmed, with not even his coat torn.

— Franklin Aretas Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1908

Souvenir

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In May 1864, Union corporal James Denn was hit in the hand by a Confederate minie ball in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Denn survived the fighting, but the ball remained lodged in his now-useless hand, and he was discharged from the service in December.

The ball remained in Denn’s hand for 38 years, during which time he would often rattle it to entertain (or appall) visiting children. In 1902 he moved into the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C., where surgeon Louis A. LaGarde finally removed it, arguably performing the last surgical operation of the Civil War.

“Missile was loose in a thick sac under palmar fascia,” LaGarde memorably reported. “Sac contained about 1 ounce of hemorrhagic fluid, the blood being no doubt the result of frequent traumatisms from shaking the hand violently near the ears of his friends to cause them to hear the ball rattle in the cyst. The succussion sound made by the loose ball and the fluid in the unyielding sac was very perceptible to the sense of hearing.”

Podcast Episode 122: The Bear Who Went to War

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During World War II a Polish transport company picked up an unusual mascot: a Syrian brown bear that grew to 500 pounds and traveled with his human friends through the Middle East and Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Wojtek, the “happy warrior,” and follow his adventures during and after the war.

We’ll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 121: Starving for Science

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During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.

We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.

See full show notes …

Hoist, Petard

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The U.S. Navy submarine USS Tang was sunk by her own torpedo. Patrolling off China in October 1944, she fired at a Japanese transport and the electric torpedo, its rudder jammed, curved to the left in a great circle. The submarine put on emergency power to escape the circle, but it had only seconds to do so. Captain Richard O’Kane later said, “The problem was akin to moving a ship longer than a football field and proceeding at harbor speed clear of a suddenly careening speedboat.”

It struck her abreast the aft torpedo room and she went down in 180 feet of water. Seventy-eight men were lost, and the nine who survived were picked up by a Japanese frigate and taken prisoner. Until the accident the Tang had had the most successful submarine patrol in the war.