Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nigel de Grey - Codebreaker of World War One

Late in 1916 the Germans had planned to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to cut most sea borne supplies to Great Britain and thereby ensure her defeat.
However there was the real risk that this plan would result in the United States joining the war on the side of Great Britain so Germany worked on a rather novel counter measure.

It was reasoned that if Mexico could be encouraged to join the German side, and declare war on America, then the US would be forced to commit a large slice of its military effort to defending its southern border, thereby weakening any European involvement.


Accordingly, on January 19th 1917, a diplomatic telegram in coded form was sent via Western Union from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman, to the German Ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, offering Mexico a deal. The telegram as despatched consisted of irregular groups of 3, 4 and 5 numbers and used the top secret German cipher “13040”, that unbeknown to the Germans had been cracked by the British.


The telegram was secretly intercepted by the British and sent to “Room 40”, their top-secret code breaker group in the Admiralty.  Here it was brought to the attention of a shy and small man called Nigel de Grey, who was also one of the most brilliant code-breakers in the world at that time. De Grey was a quiet and self-effacing man nicknamed “The Door-mouse” by his colleagues. Working with two other rather unlikely men, Dilly Knox and the Reverend William Montgomery, a Presbyterian Minister, the trio succeeded in decoding the telegram. The result was political dynamite. It read:


The British presented this result to Edward Bell, Secretary of the US Embassy in Britain. Bell was outraged and angered, and soon after, the situation was reported to President Wilson, with the Americans regarding the incident as growing proof of German hostility.

This event, together with the sinking of the Lusitania in March 1915, resulting in the loss of many American lives, undoubtedly played a significant role in finally bringing the United States into Word War One in April 1917. This, in turn, virtually guaranteed the eventual defeat of Germany.

De Grey helped begin the great tradition of British code-breakers carried on with such distinction by Alan Turing during World War 2 some 25 years later. “Room 40” would evolve into the famous Bletchley Park in which de Grey was also to serve.


 Nigel de Grey - The "Door-mouse"

For more inside information on key events of World War One see

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Battle of Mons

The Battle of Mons was the baptism of fire of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War. The BEF had arrived in France barely two weeks before and had been rapidly deployed with the French to try and arrest the onward march of the German Army.

The BEF was a much smaller Army than either the German or French forces and numbered some 80,000 men compared to the German strength of nearly double this at around 160,000 soldiers.

But there was a plus for the BEF troops - they were probably the best-trained Army in the field up until this stage with a special emphasis on markmanship with their standard issue infantry rifle – the Lee Enfield .303 - a particularly good and robust military rifle. Many of the BEF troops were capable of hitting an enemy soldier at a range of 500 metres or more.

On the early morning of 23rd August the Germans attacked the recently established British lines to the southeast of the Belgian city of Mons, beginning the operation with an artillery bombardment, followed by an infantry attack consisting of four battalions.


This first attack was repulsed by heavy and accurate British rifle and machine gun fire that inflicted terrible casualties on the German formations. A second attack followed, and the heavily outnumbered British were under increasing pressure. Particularly heroic actions by the machine gunners Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley delayed the Germans and both soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross (Dease posthumously), the first recipients of the War.


A Vickers Machine gun crew in action  - First World War (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

However the inevitable happened and the British were forced to retreat, initially falling back to Landrecies on the 25th August, but then further retreating to the outskirts of Paris two weeks later.


Chaotic scenes in Landrecies extended to night-time battles as the British retreated.
(The Times History of the War Vol 1 p 466)

However the battle was seen in many ways as a victory for the BEF – although it was outnumbered by more than two one, it had inflicted far more casualties on the Germans than vise versa – and then conducted a tactical withdrawal in good order. This enabled the British forces to regroup and counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne in early September.

For further information on the First World War see

http://www.h100.tv/Top-50-Events-of-WW1

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bondi Shark Attack

During 1928 and 1929, in a period just 9 months apart, two terrible shark attacks occurred at Bondi Beach, sending shock waves through the Sydney coastal communities.


Bondi Beach, circa 1930.

Saturday 14th April 1928 was an overcast and showery day and two young men Maxwell Steele, aged 19, and his younger brother Harry were on patrol duty as Bondi Surf Life Savers. At about 4 pm they decided to go for a swim and soon after Maxwell, whilst treading water only a short distance out, was seized by a large shark. The fish had him by the leg but he was able to free himself and make for the shore.

He survived the attack but tragically lost his leg.

Not so lucky was 14 year old Colin James Stewart who was attacked by a large shark in the same area on Saturday 12th January 1929. A newspaper account  of the 14th described the event:

After an amazing display of fortitude and courage, Colin James Stewart aged 14 years, who was attacked by a 10 ft shark in the surf at Bondi beach late on Saturday afternoon died in St. Vincent's Hospital at half past 7 o'clock yesterday morning.

Young Stewart, a fine type of lad and exceedingly well built received shocking injuries. The shark apparently made two vicious attacks on Stewart, and tore away a great portion of his back and a large piece of flesh from the boys right leg and thigh.

The boy was only up to his waist in water when he was attacked and as soon as it was realised that he had been bitten by a shark many other bathers, including members of the Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, went to his assistance.

Although badly mutilated, Stewart, while being assisted from the water, was able to tell his rescuers his name and address. Some time after admission to hospital he became semi conscious and remained in that state until he died, 13 hours after he was attacked by the shark.


Colin Stewart - attacked and killed by a shark at Bondi, 12th January 1929.

It was later revealed that another young man, Robert Kavanagh, had risked his life in pulling Stewart from the sharks jaws before others arrived to render assistance. He was later awarded the Albert Medal for bravery.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Can we solve the traffic jam problem?

Traffic jams are one of the major social blights in the big cities of the developed - and developing - world.

The obvious issues are the resulting pollution, stress and time wasting familiar to all of those who undertake the daily work day commute in a big city.

Perhaps not so well known is the enormous cost of traffic congestion. In Australia the estimated cost of avoidable traffic congestion will be $20 billion for the year 2020, making this one of our major financial issues of the next decade. (See the graph below)

These costs reflect the extra travel time, fuel usage, travel time unreliability and pollution arising from congestion, compared to a situation of optimal traffic flow.

Traditionally Governments have reacted by building more roads and increasing public transport , with the latter the better solution. But the cost of either is immense.

Today we have a much cheaper and more easily implemented solution, and that is - working from home. The wonders of the e-mail and Internet have given us the necessary tools to bring this in.

If the various Governments were to give tax breaks to those companies who allowed their employees to work say one day a week from home, the potential is there for a massive reduction in traffic congestion, to the benefit of all. Other flow on effects such as reduction in insurance premiums would likely follow.

Costs to the Government in the form of taxation benefits would be well less than the costs of the escalating congestion and the concept of working from home is generally very popular with the electorate.

On the down side the Government would experience a drop in revenue from decreased fuel consumption, but this would be well balanced with reduced costs in road maintenance and public transport infrastructure.

In the past, successful nations, corporations and individuals are those who have been able to grasp and efficiently use the new technologies, and we have a perfect opportunity here to do just that, in effectively addressing the issue of traffic congestion.  e-mail and Internet show us the way.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Centenary of the Red Cross

The Red Cross in Australia began on 13th August 1914 – just 9 days after the start of the First World War. It was begun as a branch of the British Red Cross and formally launched by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, the wife of the Governor General Sir Ronald Ferguson.


From the start Lady Ferguson proved herself to be no mere decorative pendant to adorn the Governor General’s ceremonial duties. On the contrary she was a dynamo that set the organization humming and right from the word go, the whole concept was universally embraced in Australia, particularly amongst the women who literally  “flocked to the cause”.


A World War One Poster for the Australian Red Cross (Wikipedia Commons)

On the day of the announcement of the beginning of the organization, the following item appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:

RED CROSS,
LADY HELEN MUNRO FERGUSON'S APPEAL.
MELBOURNE, Wednesday.
Her Excellency Lady Helen Munro Ferguson will be pleased to receive subscriptions for the Australian branch of the Red Cross Society. Cheques should he crossed, and made payable at the Commonwealth Bank. Subscriptions will be acknowledged by Mr. Edward Miller, treasurer of the society. This money will be transmitted to England for field hospitals, ambulance trains, and such hospital requirements as are needed, thus making the services available more quickly than if arrangements were made from the Australian end. The list of articles which should be made by Red Cross workers is being printed, together with the necessary measurements appropriate for each article. Copies of the list will be issued without delay to all workers, as it is or the greatest importance that no effort or material should be wasted.
It is desired that only those things that are really in demand should be made, and that these should be adaptable to hospital requirements.

Lady Ferguson then wrote to the wives of each State Governor to secure their support and this resulted in the rapid formation of Red Cross branches in each state.

In short order she organised a wide range of activities including the sending of a team of nurses to France in 1916, the establishment of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Files, regular fund raising projects for the war effort and “home front’ activities such as the kitting of socks for he soldiers and the preparation of first aid kits.

Possibly no other non-military organization in Australian’s history has produced such a major impact in so short a time and the Red Cross was to play a vital role in the war effort over the next four years.

For her sterling work during the war, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in 1918.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Battle of Liege

This was the first land battle of the war, initiated by the Germans when they invaded Belgium on August 5th 1914, with the longer-term plan being to attack France from the north.

The Germans were not anticipating serious resistance from the much smaller Belgian Army, and they marched on the key Belgian city of Liege with expectations of a quick victory. At the beginnings of the battle the German Army numbered some 320,000 men compared to the 70,000 Belgians who were therefore outnumbered by more that 4 to 1.

However Liege, located on the confluence of Meuse and Ourthe Rivers was a heavily defended city, with the defensive centrepiece being twelve forts made of steel and concrete and armed with 400 heavy guns in retractable turrets.

The Germans commenced hostilities on the night of 5th August, but instead of the anticipated easy victory they were repulsed with heavy losses, with the forts playing a significant role.


The decision was then made to by-pass the forts and the Germans exploited a gap between them to take over Liege on 7th August. The internal defences of the city had also been weakened by bombing raids from zeppelins, cruising the skies above the increasingly damaged city.


The destroyed Leopold Bridge in the centre of Liege in August 1914. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

The issue of the forts was then settled with the use of “super artillery’, massive Austrian built 17 inch howitzers, together with the use of “Big Bertha”, at the time the worlds largest artillery piece, that fired 42 cm shells over a distance of 15 km. These giant field guns were used with devastating effect on the forts that were literally blown out of the ground.

The Belgians were forced to surrender and the capital city, Brussels, fell to the Germans soon after, on 20th August.

The Battle of Liege was a crushing victory to the Germans although the Belgians had put up an unexpectedly strong defence. It is estimated that the Belgians suffered some 20,000 casualties, including 4000 prisoners, compared to the 5300 Germans killed or wounded.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Germany Declares War on Belgium - August 4th 1914

Soon after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914, Germany began to activate its so-called Schlieffen Plan that had had been established as a model and a sequence of actions for a Franco-German war. It started with an offensive on Luxembourg and Belgium to clear a path for German troops to pour across the border into France, with the main aim an attack on Paris soon after.


However in 1914 the Belgians were insisting on maintaining a state of neutrality amid the escalating crisis and refused the Germans military access to their country.


Cartoon from the British magazine “Punch”, dated 12th August 1914. Entitled “Bravo Belgium”, it reflected solid support for the Belgians against the German invasion. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

On August 1st 1914, the German Army invaded Luxembourg, and the next day a communique was delivered from the German Ambassador at Brussels to the Belgian Government.  It stated, amongst other things that

Reliable information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur.  This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany.

It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack.  The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

This ultimatum was firmly rejected by Belgium on 3rd August, with the British Government undertaking to supply military support to Belgium if they were invaded. When the Germans were informed that a treaty existed between Belgium and Britain, this was dismissed by the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, as a “scrap of paper”.

The next day – on August 4th, German forces invaded Belgium and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. 

For more information on the First World war - including weekly updates, go to Foxtel Australia's History Channel at