Archive for category Research Finds
A friend of mine asked me about the name of one of my characters, Sherlock. He’s in Sworn Enemy, a British medic and a paratrooper, and his real name is Richard Holmes. I thought it would be fun to explain how he got his name, in case anyone else is curious.
A few years ago I read Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944, by Stephen Ambrose. It tells the true story of the British glider-borne troops who landed on the far east end of the Normandy D-day invasion sites. (It’s a good book—I highly recommend it.) In Pegasus Bridge, there was a man named Todd (or maybe more than one—its been a while since I read the book) and at least one man with the last name Sweeney. So naturally, all the Todds had the nickname Sweeney, and the man named Sweeney had the nickname Todd, on account of the books and movies about Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’ll confess I had a little trouble keeping track of all the Todds called Sweeney and the Sweeneys called Todd, but according to Ambrose, such nick-names were fairly common at the time. Thus, I decided to have a character with the last name of Holmes go by Sherlock.
Have you come across any book-or-play-inspired nicknames, either for yourself, a family member, a friend, or a character in a book you’re writing?
Research Find: Why you shouldn’t tell the newspapers if you’re breaking someone’s code or tracking their satellite phone
In 1927, the government of Great Britain was looking for a reason to break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. They had plenty of reason—for one, the staff from the Soviet embassy in Great Britain was involved in espionage. Proof could be found in several diplomatic messages that the British had intercepted and decrypted. The British released the decoded messages and published them in The Times. Thus, the reason for the break was justified publicly.
The Soviet Union promptly dropped their diplomatic code and switched to using one-time pads. The British were unable to break any Soviet codes for the next twenty years. In the meanwhile, several very successful Soviet spies were able to steal all sorts of British secrets (if you’re looking for an example, google the Cambridge spy ring).
This bit of history reminded me about a more recent event. Osama Bin Laden used to have a satellite phone (fourteen, fifteen years ago). He used it. The CIA (or NSA) tracked it. In 1998, the story leaked and was printed in a major US newspaper. Bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone. The US government could no longer listen in to his phone calls. I think everyone remembers what Bin Laden went on to do in the years between 1998 and his death in 2011.
Before posting this blog, I looked up the Bin Laden story, just to make sure I had it right. Turns out the way I remember it isn’t completely accurate. When the Washington Times reported that Bin Laden had a satellite phone, it didn’t say the US was tracking it, and it wasn’t the first time word had gotten round about Bin Laden’s phone. Bin Laden did dramatically decrease how often he used his phone after the Washington Times story, but at about the same time he was almost killed by a US missile strike, which may have been a larger factor than the article. The LA Times was the first paper to report that the government was actually tracking the satellite phone, and after that the calls dropped off completely.
So what was the point of this post? Just to say that some things never change—intelligence successes are usually secret. And if they become publicly known, they often change into intelligence failures. Also, it seems that anything involving George W. Bush is still controversial. I wonder how many decades it will take for that to change?
One thing about writing historical fiction—you have to do a lot of research. Good thing I like learning new things. A lot of tidbits I come across won’t appear in one of my novels anytime soon, but they’re dang interesting. Here a two recent examples:
Is that sanitary?
When the US Army invaded Oran, Algeria, in November 1942, female nurses went with them, on d-day, in the landing crafts, through smoke cover and shell fire. That was the only invasion where the nurses were sent in with the first wave, because it’s hard to send your sons off to die, but it’s even harder to send your daughters off to die. Once landed, the nurses were kept busy caring for casualties.
For a few days it was difficult to get supplies from the fleet onto the beach and into the hospitals because the French (yes, the French) wouldn’t stop shelling the American ships. Medical staff at forward hospitals ran out of suture material. So what did they do? Rather than letting wounded soldiers bleed to death, they stitched them up with hair: nurses’ hair, soaked in alcohol before it was used. Kind of gross, but better than bleeding to death, right?
Since reading about this, I’ve found myself playing with pieces of my hair almost daily. I guess if it was doubled up through a needle, it would hold alright. I wonder how long it would take to dissolve . . .
Rumors of a Japanese-French Alliance
When I think about WWII and Africa, I picture tanks rolling across sand and think of El Alamein, Kasserine, Rommel, Patton, and Montgomery. I don’t think of Madagascar. But did you know there was a battle of Madagascar? I didn’t, until I was looking up info on Lysander airplanes and noticed the caption in a photo mentioning Madagascar.
Madagascar was a French colony, so when the French surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, it became part of Vichy France. Its location made it a great spot for Japanese submarines wanting to attack British shipping. So in May 1942, the British attacked with a naval barrage and an amphibious landing. The main port of Diego Suarez was captured within two days, but the French and native forces didn’t surrender until November. As far at WWII battles go, casualties were low, but I was still surprised I’d never heard of it before.
I’m curious, other than this post, have you ever heard of the battle of Madagascar? And what do you think about nurses donating hair to stitch up their patents?