Book Review: Operation Big Colin Brown.


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 April 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144565184X

Science, bombs & intrigue? Sounds like a party to me. Written with the feel of an intellectual thriller Colin Brown tells the story of the race to stop Hitler’s A bomb during WW2.
It starts at the very beginning, with the Discovery of nuclear fission, here even those to whom Physics is a foreign language will recognise some of the names, if only from knowledge accrued from the Big Bang Theory. The military applications of splitting the atom became apparent very soon after the discovery of sub atomic power as a series of scientists started adding up the theoretical power of the discovery, with ever growing results. The idea of a super bomb became a reality for both sides almost from the get go, even before the true capabilities of such a weapon were properly understood. The science that preceded the declaration of war was then focused on by the European intelligence communities, who then began a race to gather supplies of heavy water. As they rushed to secure the birthing fluid of the atom bomb, the conventional shooting war broke out, and due to the circumstances of the fall of France etc, Brown is able to weave into his main narrative sub stories worthy of their own books. The image of the Earl of Suffolk, bearded and tattooed handing out champaign on his commandeered ship, hobbling around with his secretaries, determined to get France’s store of heavy water to British soil, and his stash of diamonds will stay with me for a long time.
Some of the story will be familiar, such as when it comes to the race to slow down or stop the enemy. After securing heavy water and all that could be salvaged in terms of mind power, for scientists were as valuable as technology, the two sides then did their best to discover and destroy what the other was doing. For the allies this culminated most dramatically with the destruction of the German Heavy Water plant at Telemark in Norway. The famous SOE operation will be familiar to many, but the importance undiminished for the retelling.
Most critical to this book is the kidnapping of German scientists and throwing them into a country house that served as a giant listening device, which the British used to learn their secrets. We see the listeners like flies on a wall recording every word the Germans said, and then passed them on to the operators of the Manhattan project. The information they unwittingly gave would prove vital to beating the Germans to the bomb.

Because everyone knows about Hiroshima and it’s legacy, it’s good to know that we can track back to the nuts and bolts of the Atomic race, something to plug the gaps as it where. And this book offers an interesting and not often observed part of that race. This book is also an exciting and engaging read that will not fail to appeal to people in search of real life cloak and dagger. The element of real science allows readers to peek a little into the practical world of 20th century physics. Given the ingredients it would have been easy for the author to trip and stumble, presenting stories that are ready made, much like cooking ready meals can all too often end up just a sad mess on a plate, but Brown has handled it well.
A steady pace is maintained, and an intellectual, gripping tone reminiscent of the thriller genre risked from the pages. From what I can detect this is not a controversial book, it is instead trading to tell a story, wether died in the wool enthusiasts and experts will be pleased with the depth of the text I cannot say, but from my point of view it was a very satisfying read.


Book Review: Escapades in Bizzarcheology by Adrian Burrows.


Length: 168 pages
Publisher: Williams & Whiting
ISBN: 9781911266280

Hemingway, (or was it Chandler?) used to wrestle with his opening sentence and would not continue until he got it perfect. Given their respective brevity I can therefore imagine that Adrian Burrows must have toiled long and hard with his opener. Man that’s an introduction! It’s long and perfectly describes what I tend to do when I wander thoughtfully through a bookshop. My eyes scan, scorching each shelf with a critical glare, my head turns methodically, often with a birdlike twitch as I go. If he hasn’t captured my personal bibliophilic quirks, then he has certainly got what I do when I open a book. The item in question has a sort of fantasy, steam punk, adventure feel to the cover, it’s small and is littered with accompanying images.

The question remains however, does this book live up to the grand promises the introduction… not least the vow of the Bizzarchaeologist! As a fellow adventurer/escapadist in the past, and someone with a similarly glued together title, Adventures in Historyland, (FYI we both independently thought words like Adventures and Escapades was a really cool words to begin a title,) I began with high hopes.

Now, in the beginning Burrows lays out some pretty high falluting vows, essentially boiling down to the fact that he tries to make history fun. Well Historyland has some rules about this: Most importantly, all fun history must also be good, (IE accurate) and actually be funny (IE with believable similes and parallels, preferably not relating to modern day equivalents) otherwise it is nauseating. Secondly all history that wishes to be regarded as fun, must include at least a few if not all of the following, Ninjas (and or samurai) Pirates, Knights, cowboys and Gladiators or some kind of hybrid Transformer made up of them all.

The book takes a light hearted tour of a magical warehouse, endowed with the properties of time travel. It’s witty, sharp and in some places a little goofy. As one would expect from a book about random and bizarre history, it begins with Ninjas. But there is a doorstep that is dangerously placed to trip the author up. Can he deliver the real ninja experience, which he writes is elusive, in such a small chapter? Probably not. Yet does it bust some myths? For some people, most probably! The most impressive one being that Ninjas would only wear black when they needed to. I’ll tell you what else is surprising, the interruption between this chapter and the next as Burrows’ alter ego Max Virtus butts in to tell us about how Ancient Egyptian’s and his mother would embalm a corpse. That was a weird sentence to write.

Leaving the Ninja dojo, we are taken to the Ludas, no it’s not a version of the game Ludo, the Roman gladiator school. This section is vaguely familiar to me, for a really top secret reason (Spoiler alert! It’s because it’s based on a guest blog the captain wrote for Historyland). And yet again Burrows begins by telling us this is a world full of misnomers that he will answer in a really short time. Mind the step Captain? But yet again we are saved from the fake, the glib and the trite by the author’s affecting charm and humour, and his choice of facts to highlight. Even though he did wander into a dark and dangerous place called parallel-land by likening Gladiators to big brother contestants! Grr.

We then move on with another sudden departure explaining the British system of electing Prime Ministers and follow through with the author’s top 3 worst Roman Emperor’s. (One wonder’s if there is something subliminal about this sequence). This ends up in a brief examination of how Rome got to the top, and attributing Rome’s successful conquest to their road network. Now this is big statement! And I partially agree, but I’d say that Conquest was dependent on firstly the will of the emperor or senate (depending if you’re in the republic or not), then the ability of the army and then the roads, in my opinion allowed the empire to endure, rather than conquer.

Amid the avalanche of puns you will find some delightful quirky objects to admire, this is especially true of the section called the Zoo, which deals with crazy animal facts. How Ancient Egypt’s love of cats brought the country under Persian control. Really happened. How Emus won a war against the Australian army. Yep that too! And the old favourite, beloved of the Internet. Excuse me while I adopt my Pigs in Space epic voice “Pigs vs war Elephants!”

The Last of the big sections is weapons, which highlights such things as a top 4 most awesome swords gallery. Top 4 most awesome guns gallery, and… you get the idea. Some fun and very true remarks follow about how not to fight a duel, and in fact if I was to go on about all the random, cool and downright loony stuff in this book, some of which I feel in no way qualified to comment on, I’d end up writing one myself. Let’s leave it then with the Pirates before we sum up. Pirates are one of the big elements of fun history… though the weird thing is that even though in reality they were a bunch of dirtbags, we kinda like them. Here we get the facts about setting your beard on fire, (which I must sadly inform readers, Blackbeard only appeared to do). And the more conventional myth busts about pirates not burying treasure and jolly Rogers being extensions of buccaneer personality, rather than the national pirate flag. After a thoughtful retrospective about things always looking greener next door which really puts the whole “2016 worst year ever” fad into the shameful corner it deserves, (applause to the author), we get more pirate stuff. Making fun of Johnny Depp, then saying pirates wore earrings to improve eyesight (I’d heard it was to prevent drowning, but maybe accessorising like this served a duel purpose?), and a bunch of stuff about peg legs and eye patches etc.

So what’s the verdict? Well although there weren’t any sections on cowboys or knights. Some criteria was met, after all we did get pirates, ninjas and Gladiators and though some of those parallels were worth a cringe, and I would like a recount on a few assertions, this is a fun book. We can all overdo the serious aspect of history. Everyone wants their subject to be the one that matters most, all too often we forget how fun it can be just to forget the significance and enjoy the madness, or the story for what it is. And for this I salute the author, and the mysterious and fearless captain Virtus… who is nonetheless scared of Emus.


Did you hear the news about Robert the Bruce?

A new video, asking the question, did the new digital forensic reconstruction of Robert I actually tell us anything we didn’t already know? Just for the record the finished product is of course a great way to get the interest of the public, but I couldn’t resist being a little irreverent about all the hype… which I have helped perpetuate.



Book Review: Iron Dawn by Richard Snow.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Amberley 2016
Language: English

The crew of the USS Cumberland had never seen anything like the Merrimack. They had heard of it, but they didn’t really associate it with a ship. Up until now they had been using words like Floating battery and on the 8th of March 1862 when Merrimack slowly steamed into Hampton Roads, looking for all the world like a floating barn roof with a single chimney, Cumberland’s Quartermaster could find no word other than “That thing” to describe it. The nickname “The big thing” would stick.
Inside the ungainly, clunking, metallic monster, the Confederate crews waited silently by their guns, while in the louder parts of the ship the engineers strained their ears against the noise of their own machinery, blind in what many considered an iron coffin. Officers watched tensely as the “old time Frigate” with her skyscraping masts and high sides, still considered the cutting edge of maritime technology, crept into their sights.
The battle when it came was brutal. Merrimack’s smaller but heavier battery tore through the old wooden walls as if they were paper, slaughtering the gun crews. While the broadsides of the conventional warships bounced off her armoured sides like India rubber. Hampered by the confines of the anchorage and the lack of wind, the giant old frigate was at the mercy of this godless, chugging, creation of modern war. Called everything from an infernal crocodile to a rhino, the Merrimack crawled slowly towards its target, blowing more holes in her her with every passing minute, then rammed her, and sent her to the bottom.

This was the beginning of the battle of Hampton Roads, which could have come right out of 20,000 leagues under the sea. Merrimack might as well have been Nautilus, with its iron hull and deadly ram, for the amount of terror she inspired, if only she could have submerged. But it didn’t matter what she couldn’t do, because what had just happened in this vital stretch of water, had made real the fears of all the politicians in Washington. Since the fall of Norfolk, they had shivered at the thought that the south had built a “floating battery” or else an iron ship, that single handedly could engage and sink multiple conventional ships twice her size. The implications of such a ship, let loose in a busy harbour or yard, would be like a 19th century pearl harbour, with the ironclad running amok amongst an entire fleet and sinking most of it. It just didn’t bear thinking about, especially when the north depended on the navy to keep the south locked down under blockade. But the question was, could such a ship really be capable of such an action?

The answer was yes, but no one knew that until the sinking of the Cumberland, and it was a scary enough thought to ensure the north got building one as well. So on the second day of the battle, when Merrimack came steaming for the grounded USS Minnesota and a sinister, crocodilian form slid out from behind the bulk of helpless timber-ship, most confederates suspected it was “Ericson’s iron battery”.
Sinister by name sinister by nature the Monitor, with its black decks almost awash and it’s revolving turret scanning for a target like a cyclops eye had one mission that day. After the news of the disaster of 8 March, she had been sent steaming down across the open ocean and though very nearly not making it into the calmer waters of the roads, she now fearlessly interposed herself between the two bigger ships, determined to save the Minnesota, and possibly the union.

Richard Snow has written a book worthy of a screenplay, the details are simply amazing. If this book was made (properly) into a war movie, it would garner the director and producer unending praise from the historical community. This book is about people and personalities, it’s about politics and agendas, it’s about science and engineering, it’s about war and how it was changing. In short it’s everything a work of narrative history should be.
A clear, straightforward account of the battle of Hampton Roads, excitingly told, but with the added padding of almost everything that occurred to bring the first fully ironclad steamers into battle, and what happened afterwards. The history is helped by the fact that it all occurred with almost novelistic timing, or at least it appears that way due to Snow’s expert writing. The confederates build a potentially war winning ship by converting the hulk of a burnt out captured Union vessel, based on armoured floating batteries and ironclad steam/sail ships already in service in Europe. The union gets wind of it and also gets building. One is beleaguered by supplies, the other with red tape, but the race is on and both reach the finish line together, having almost taken on lives of their own. Then one goes on a wrecking spree amongst Union ships, prompting the US to send their new equivalent to stop it. Showing up the next day, a legendary duel of machines occurs.

All of this is told with the precision, accuracy and verve of the best storytellers. The tension and fear in the opening of the battle of Hampton Roads is palpable, and inspires such crisp imagery that it’s darn near compulsive reading. First hand accounts put the reader right into the ship’s themselves, and practical and technical details abound in ways that promote the flow of the narrative rather than slow it down.
There are some rather grand statements made, but none that are not merited, because although these ships were in fact greatly limited in terms of speed and blue water effectiveness, indeed their duel highlighted everything that was wrong with them as well as what was right. However the potential was staggering nonetheless. It appears here as if, certainly for the north, it was as much a giant real time practical test as it was an effort to check the Confederate menace.

The legacy of the duel at Hampton Roads is both the most well known naval action American Civil War but also, the applications of armoured steam warships, which as one of the many interesting image sections show, was not taken lightly by the Union. The age of Ironclads and Dreadnaught’s had arrived with the gleam of an Iron Dawn. And this book shows how it happened.


Book Review: The Servant’s Story by Pamela Sambrook.


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Nov. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445654202
It is hard to imagine what could have left out of this book. No it’s not just another upstairs downstairs expose, it’s a companion that follows the life of a great countryside house through the minutiae of its staff during the 19th century. More, it’s about how a house was managed and run.

Instead of a conventional format the book has themed chapters, so in one you’ll be learning about why someone would want to seek employment with the southerlands, and in another you’ll be getting an idea of the duties and personalities of the many people who passed through the entrance of Trentham, which is the house that is the principle focus of the book. Though others, such as the London residence and Dunrobin get a word here and there

Pay, housing, healthcare, travel and even what they ate, from beer to main courses is here. This is all thrown together with anecdotes that showcase individual experiences and common facets of working in a particular job. Hierarchy of course was strict, and the chain of command is clearly set out here, which, since the world became obsessed with servants and masters will clear a few things up.

This book is a gift to authors and researchers for its invincible authority on everyday life in the service of the Duke of Sutherland. And a boon to students who will be able to be able to dip in and out at will. Quite apart from being a record of how individual houses were run, it offers an insight into service as a whole. Each house being different and at the same time similar depending on the owner and his or her close staff. Quite apart from statistics and average duties we get many personal stories of life at Trentham.

Such as the House steward Vantini an Italian who at first had trouble assimilating to the household, but would leave a distinctive mark on the house. Also of note, due to the primetime drama tone, is that of the in many ways respectable housekeeper Mrs. Doar , who fell pregnant while employed and had to be dismissed, however sympathy soon waned, as it was then soon discovered that she had been up to no good all along.

Well illustrated and scattered with insightful captions throughout the book, the author has dug through mountains of records to provide first hand accounts to build the Servant’s story around, through letters and legers, pay slips and accounts whole careers come into focus and a picture of daily life and management comes through.

Throughout the book Mr. Loch (two of them in fact), the Duke’s chief agent keeps cropping up as the capable administrator of life in the household. The management of these self contained communities all serving the family, like ants or bees that collect, build and work to serve the queen, is fascinating. And the hierarchy no less so, where stewards largely control the male population and the housekeeper the female. Life in service at Trentham was a series of doors, from the gate where the porter let you into the grounds, to the front door where the Steward stood guard of the family’s privacy, to the warren of private and not so private rooms where the servants slept.

With Pamela Sambrook no door is closed to us and a crisp reality is glimpsed, not just through keyholes but in wide screen. The ups and downs of service life, a myriad of different people from the 1820s down to the 1890’s, what they did, what was expected of them, how they measured up and what happened after they closed the servants door for the last time.