Thursday, 30 June 2016

THE FORT GEORGE ATTACK: THE AFTERMATH AND CONSEQUENCES

A visit with my wife, Bonnie, to the Fort George National Historic Site near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on May 22, 2016 sparked my interest in the War of 1812. So much so that I quickly realized that the epic battle that took place there in early 1813 and what followed set the stage for how our country and Mother England handled this brutal and controversial conflict to the very end.

Fourth President of the United States,
James Madison (US Public Domain)
The War of 1812 is one of those confrontations that to this day both sides claim they had won. So, what sparked it? Some historians believe it was simply an act of aggression: President James Madison wished to expand American territory north of the border when, on June 18, 1812, he and the United States of America declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and its colonies. But there was more to it than that. The Americans had serious issues, besides secretly wanting to rid the continent of the British once and for all.

In the midst of an ongoing war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France and in order to restrict American trade overseas, Britain dominated the Atlantic with a naval blockade on Western Europe. Add to that, when the Brits boarded American ships on the high seas, they removed any British-born American sailors, forcing them into their own Royal Navy. There was a term for it: “impressment.”

Upon declaring war, the Americans knew bloody well they couldn’t invade Britain. So, instead, they attacked the colony of British North America (Canada). The Americans--the Bluecoats--figured all they had to do was merely march into our country, occupy it, and it would be theirs. That, of course, wasn’t the case. We did have a gun-toting, home-grown militia of country boys who could shoot straight, some highly trained British troops (although we would’ve had more had Britain not been at war with France), plus several area native tribes loyal to the King, namely the Six Nations of Iroquois. We were the Redcoats. However, there were American-born settlers in Niagara whose allegiance was debatable, as were other native tribes who had been influenced by American sympathizers on both sides of the border.

British Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond
whose forces captured Fort Niagara
(Canadian Public Domain)
The war was fought on numerous North American continent fronts, one of those being the Niagara frontier, a key area at the foot of the Great Lakes. The Fort George garrison was built by the British between 1796-1799 to guard the mouth of the Niagara River off Lake Ontario and the nearby town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) from American invasion. It’s interesting that the Canadians and Brits expected such trouble from their neighbors that many years before 1812. Anyway, the region was commanded by Brigadier General John Vincent. Across the river and within artillery range of Fort George sat Fort Niagara, New York on the American side.

A few months after the war started, both forts exchanged artillery salvos that damaged parts of their garrisons, until the Americans opened up with a colossal bombardment on May 25, 1813 that left Fort George in ruins. The American cannonballs flew over “hot shot,” which meant they were heated in furnaces, loaded up, then fired. Subsequently, any building taking a direct hit was quickly set ablaze.

Two days later, under cover of a thick fog that slowly dispersed as they reached shore, the Bluecoats, commanded by Major General Henry Dearborn, invaded with an amphibious force that outnumbered the British regulars, Canadian militia and natives combined by four-to-one. After a bloody battle, the Redcoats retreated west towards what is now Hamilton. For the next seven months, the Americans repaired the garrison as best they could, but not totally, and occupied it and the town of Newark, while sending out expeditions to crush the fleeing British. Following crucial defeats at the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams in June, the badly beaten Americans gradually retreated to Fort George which they eventually abandoned on December 10, but not without controversy.

Following orders from the American officer in charge at the fort, Brigadier General George McClure, the Americans forcibly removed   the Newark townspeople--women, children, and elderly--from their homes into a bitter-cold snow storm with only the clothes on their backs, about 400 civilians in all. The Americans burned approximately 150 houses to the ground, forcing the locals to find what shelter they could in the nearby woods. Then they advanced across the Niagara River.

Hot on the heels of the Americans, the British troops led by Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond were enraged at the sight of the smoldering ruins of Newark as they approached from the south. In retaliation, they sailed across the river, captured Fort Niagara with a surprise attack, and in the next few weeks torched several towns and villages, including Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo on the American side, and occupied the shores of the river until war’s end. No building along the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was safe. This time around, unlike what had occurred at Newark, most locals knew in advance the British would be seeking payback and managed to remove much of the belongings from their homes.

How many Newark civilians died during December 1813 was undocumented. Undoubtedly, many froze to death. The shocking events of that day made headlines in many newspapers in England. Shortly after his order to burn the town, McClure was relieved of his command and dismissed from the US Army.

The President's House, watercolor by George Munger, 1815 (US Public Domain)

British vengeance didn’t stop with Newark. Once Napoleon’s army was defeated in April 1814, the Redcoats now turned their attention to the all-out war effort in America by sending thousands of troops across the Atlantic. When they invaded Washington in August, the Brits left the White House (known then as the President’s House), the Capitol Building, and many other government structures in flames and smoke, in direct response to the unwarranted destruction at Newark; along with the American forces setting private homes and business aflame and shooting all livestock in Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Ontario, south of Hamilton, on May 14. Luckily for the Americans, less than 24 hours after the attack on Washington, a wicked thunderstorm--quite possibly a hurricane--raced through the city and put the flames out.

The Battle of New Orleans was the last major conflict of the war, occurring January 8, 1815, a resounding victory by the Americans led by Major General Andrew Jackson. Trouble was the early 1800’s had slow communications: a negotiated peace had been reached by both parties on Christmas Eve in Belgium, two weeks earlier.

On February 16, 1815 President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. In the agreement, no borders changed. Both sides would return property they had taken during the war, and would establish a joint boundary commission that would map the borders of the United States and British North America. Andrew Jackson became a national hero for his New Orleans victory and went on to be the seventh president of the United States for two terms from 1829-1837.

After the War of 1812, Fort George fell into ruin, then was abandoned in the late 1820’s. A century later, the National Historic Site saw the beginning of the reconstruction to its pre-1813 appearance and in 1950 opened to the public as a tourist attraction. Incidentally, the only untouched original building was the powder magazine, which had miraculously survived the 1813 American “hot shot” shelling.

The refurbished Fort George today (Canadian Public Domain)

When our founding Canadian Fathers of Confederation--including our first prime minister, John A Macdonald--established our nation in 1867, free of the British, they concluded that the American Civil War which had ended two years earlier was a result of too much power in the hands of the states. So, our boys created a more centralized federation with Ottawa running the show.

That sunny day this past May, Bonnie and I had a blast--no pun intended--walking the grounds of refurbished Fort George built from the original plans. If you go there, don’t miss the musket demonstration. You may even see the occasional ghost because I hear the place is haunted.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

THE GRAND BALLPARKS OF NEW YORK CITY

1950's postcard of Yankee Stadium (US Public Domain)














For a decade after the post-World War II years, New York City was the Capital of Baseball. They had the American League New York Yankees, and the fierce National League rivals, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, the three best teams at that time. In the days when no two parks were alike and bleacher seats sold for less than a buck, the New York teams played in unique venues: Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field.

Nicknamed “The Big Ballpark in the Bronx,” “The Cathedral in the Bronx” and “The House that Ruth Built,” Yankee Stadium was available to the public in 1923 to accommodate all the fans who flocked to see slugger Babe Ruth smash his long and lofty home runs. On opening day, April 18, 1923, Ruth didn’t disappoint, christening the holy grounds by smacking a 3-run homer into the right-field stands to beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1. After, he said: “This is some ball yard.” Four years later, he hit his record-setting 60th homer in the same park.

Yankee Stadium was a beauty, built at a cost of $2.4 million, a hefty sum in those days. It was the first sports venue given the name of “stadium,” the first to have three tiers, and was constructed with the left-hand-hitting Ruth in mind: down the line in right was a 295-foot short porch, a perfect target for the pull-hitting iconic slugger. Later extended to 296 feet, this was the same porch that Roger Maris, another pull hitter, aimed for in 1961 during his record-setting 61-homer season that broke Ruth’s illustrious record.

In its post-war heyday, the Yankee Stadium center-field fence was a no-man’s land 461 feet (20 feet less than it was in 1923) from home plate, a Death Valley to hitters. The Brooklyn Dodgers found that out playing there in seven World Series between the years 1941-1956. The clever Yankee hurlers knew how to pitch opposition hitters, feeding them outside pitches that became long outs in the power alleys and straightaway center where the balls were run down by fast stars Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Center field was also known for its granite monuments honoring Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins and the center-field pole: Both were in-play a few feet in front of the outfield wall.

Yankee Stadium began with 58,000 seats in 1923 before the three-tiers of decks were extended towards center field in 1937, thus topping off at 71,000 seats. Due to the height of the third deck, no one ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, but Mickey Mantle came within mere feet twice when he struck the right field fa├žade in 1956 and 1963 with two mighty clouts. In its history, the Yankee Stadium fans were somewhat subdued, a white-glove park attended by the swizzle-stick crowd who didn’t encourage any riff-raff. According to one sportswriter, “Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for US Steel.”

The original Yankee Stadium closed for renovations for the entire 1974 and 1975 seasons, as the team played their home games at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium. The refurbished home to the Yankees remained open and continued until 2008, when it was demolished. Since 2009, the new Yankee Stadium is now across the street.


1930's postcard of the Polo Grounds (US Public Domain)


The 55,000-seat Polo Grounds stood a rifle shot from Yankee Stadium in the Upper Manhattan part of Harlem alongside a lookout cliff known as Coogan’s Bluff, where locals were able to look down at the action below. From 1911-1957, the Polo Grounds was home to the New York Giants. For those first twenty years, games were played there by  the most hated team in the majors, led by the most hated manager, the fiery, no-holes-barred John McGraw, who didn’t take any crap from anybody. Also, for a time, from 1913-1922, the Giants rented out their park to the Yankees.

Most Polo Grounds occupants were middle-class ball fans, unlike those high-class snobs at Yankee Stadium, as Giant fans saw them. Giant fans remembered the park smelling of urine, cigar smoke, and stale beer. In the latter years, others recalled it as a dump. After 1940, it was badly maintained, as was the surrounding neighborhood along with it. But it was a distinct, historic dump, a fun park to watch a game in.

The Polo Grounds had the oddest shape, like a horseshoe or a bathtub, a place where one could hit 260-foot homers and 420-foot outs. Down the lines were chip shots for pull hitters:  279 feet to left and 258 feet to right, both 10-foot walls. Left field had a 21-foot second-deck overhang that often turned normal high fly balls into cheap home runs. From there the distances fanned out to 450-foot power alleys. Both clubhouses were in center field, and the players got there by leaving their dugouts, walking across the field to the 60-foot-long center field runway, and climbing the stairs to either side of the 483-foot mark at dead-center field. The nearby bullpens were in-play at the edge of the two power alleys.

At the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays was able to utilize his great speed roaming in center, illustrated by his outstanding catch in the 1954 World Series off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz that he caught at about 415 feet from home plate; and the same place where Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run of all, the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” that beat the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in the ninth inning in the third game of the 1951 National League playoff.

When the Giants left New York for San Francisco after the 1957 season, the Polo Grounds continued to show different events until the expansion New York Mets came to town for the 1962 and 1963 seasons. Once Shea Stadium was available to the Mets in 1964, the dilapidated, old park saw the wrecking ball that same year.


Early 1950's postcard of Ebbets Field (US Public Domain)


Built on a former garbage dump called Pigtown, Ebbets Field featured one of the most-loved ball teams ever: the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913-1957. Ebbets Field was an intimate park in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, containing 33,000 seats max. Some writers called it a “cigar box” and others a “bandbox.” The noisy Brooklynites didn’t care what others thought. They adored their home field and their players. “Oh, how we loved that place,” slugger Duke Snider used to say. It was a family affair: Many of the players knew the regular fans by their first names. Number one in fan proximity, the stands were so close to the action that they could hear the players sneeze and swear, and see the sweat on their faces.

The distances to the outfield fences were short: 389 feet in dead center, and 297 feet down the right-field line. However, dead left was 348 feet. Advertising covered the walls, something you never would’ve seen at the original Yankee Stadium. Ebbets Field had the greenest grass and the cleanest, brownest infield in the business.

A Brooklyn Dodger regular from 1946-1957, Carl Furillo owned right field at Ebbets Field, playing it as if it were a work of art. While opposing outfielders found it a hell on earth, Furillo faced it as a challenge for his unmatched work ethic. There were dozens of angles that a ball could carom off all the different sections behind him. The right field wall was 19 feet of concrete with a 19-foot screen on top. And, it sloped at an angle starting half-way up the concrete, then soared straight up the rest of the way. Towards the power alley, in between this concrete-screen combination, the flat scoreboard stood with the bright red-and-white Schaefer beer sign and a small section of screen on top of that to complete the near 40 feet of wall height.

With practice, Furillo knew all the angles, from the 297 feet down the foul line out to the 376-foot power alley, where he approached Duke Snider’s territory in center. If the ball hit the screen, Furillo knew he’d have to run like mad towards it because the ball would drop dead. If the ball went off the concrete wall, Furillo would run towards the infield because the ball would shoot off like a rocket.

Similar to the New York Giants, the Dodgers also moved to California, settling in Los Angeles for the 1958 season. Both their New York ballparks had been decaying, and apartments now stand on the former sites of the playing fields. Demolished in 1960, Ebbets Field made room for Ebbets Field Apartments.  A housing project sits on the old Polo Grounds spot today: Polo Grounds Towers, over 1,000 apartments tucked inside four 34-story buildings situated on 15 acres. 

Three great New York City ball yards--the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and the original Yankee Stadium--are only a memory now of what was once great in major league baseball venues.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

THE MIGHTY MOSQUITO

de Havilland Mosquito B.IV in 1942 (UK Public Domain)

The de Havilland Mosquito was the most versatile combat aircraft of World War II and the most feared by German Luftwaffe pilots. It went by several nicknames: “The Wooden Wonder” and “The Bamboo Bomber” or just the plain and affectionate “Mossie.” Designed by the British originally as an unarmed high-speed day bomber, the Mosquito also performed remarkably well as a fighter, fighter-bomber, pathfinder-marker for heavy bombing raids, and a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. It was fast, maneuverable, well-armed, lightweight for its size, and could reach altitudes above 35,000 feet on long-range operations that took the crews as far as eastern Germany. And because of its wood construction, it could often slip “under the radar” at best or leave only a slight blip at worst.

During the course of the war, Mosquito squadrons made strategic raids on Gestapo offices and headquarters.  One raid hit Amiens prison in occupied-France in 1944 that freed Resistance fighters waiting execution. Other Mosquitos were used by BOAC to transfer secretive cargo and different VIPs--inside the bomb bay--to and from such countries as neutral Sweden and over other occupied areas of Europe. In total, over 6,000 Mosquitos were built in Great Britain, over 1,000 in Canada, and another 200-plus in Australia.

Here in Canada, the Mosquitos were assembled at Downsview, Ontario, north of Toronto from 1942-45. Once these production lines got rolling, the plant saw sixteen finished aircraft wheeled out per day: a grand total of 1,134 by war’s end. They were test-flown in London, Ontario, then flown overseas from there. The powerplant: the Packard-Merlin V-1650 produced in Detroit by Packard Motor Company to Rolls-Royce specifications. This same engine also saw placement in American-built North American P-51 Mustangs and Canadian-built Avro Lancasters, the latter factory not far from Downsview.

When first conceived by de Havilland in 1937, the Mosquito was not an easy sell to the military. The last thing the Royal Air Force wanted was a two-man, unarmed bomber made of wood, an outdated construction design at the time. However, once the aircraft was fitted with two modern Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 liquid-cooled engines producing well over 1,000 horsepower each, the RAF soon realized that in test flights this machine could get it on without the need of guns aboard.

The Mosquito’s wood construction was something still unique for the time period: pre-formed plywood, made up of various layers of woods glued over each other making the pieces extra strong. Plywood had been around for a number of years already, but not the strong and lightweight material crafted especially for the Mosquito. The woods were a combination of Alaskan spruce, Canadian birch, Ecuadorian balsa, and English ash. The fuselage was manufactured from molds in right and left pieces that were glued in place then drilled together with hundreds of small brass wood screws. The aircraft’s other pieces--the wings and tail--were made as single assemblies and fastened to the fuselage. The only metal applied to the body was engine mounts and fairings, control surfaces, and the screws. Because of the lightweight plywood combined with the ever-improving Merlin V-12, the Mosquito’s power-to-weight ratio gave the aircraft her tremendous all-out speed.

The Royal Air Force truly saw what they had when they deployed an unarmed photo-reconnaissance PR.I prototype in September 1941 to snap pictures along the French Atlantic coast. The result: the German Bf 109 fighters sent to intercept couldn’t catch her. Two months later, RAF 105 Squadron received the first of the B.IV Mosquitos which could carry four 500-pound bombs. After that, the Mosquito only got better, faster, and more powerful.

The Mosquito Canadian production plant at Downsview, Ontario during World War II
(Canadian Public Domain)








The most mass-produced model was the FB.VI, with over 2,500 built.  Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannon under the floor and four .303 Browning machine guns in the nose, the FB.VI could take two 250-pound bombs in the bomb bay and two 500-pounders on wing racks. Also, 50- or 100-gallon drop tanks, mines, depth charges or 60-pound rockets could be added, making this version of the Mosquito a formidable weapon.

Royal Canadian Air Force Flying Officer George Stewart of Hamilton, Ontario flew 50 operations using the Mossie during World War II with RAF Squadron 23 based near Fakenham, England in 1944. Decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFM), he and his navigator, Flying Officer Paul Beaudet, engaged in dozens of Night Intruder attacks in which their job was to circle specific German night fighter aerodromes to prevent the fighters from returning successfully after engaging British bombers that had crossed into occupied-Europe. They and the other Night Intruder crews had to fly to the target in the dead of a moonless night, at very low altitude (perhaps 50 to 100 feet off the ground) at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 miles per hour. Once they struck a vulnerable Luftwaffe fighter about to land, they’d high-tail it out of there, using the Mossie’s 400 miles per hour top speed!

Stewart flew the popular FB.VI.  Armed with the already-stated .303 machine guns and 20mm cannons, their Mossie sometimes had two 500-pounds bombs on the wings depending on the actual operation. “The Mosquito was a fantastic aircraft! It was versatile, maneuverable, and had the armament,” Stewart told me.  “When I flew the Mosquito, it was considered the fastest aircraft in the world. I loved every minute of it! The serviceability was great,” he added. “I flew one for 100 hours and the only repair was a Pesco pump.”

Prior to a handful of their Night Intruder attacks, Stewart and Beaudet thoroughly enjoyed taking their fighter up within 24 hours of a called RAF operation in order to check it for any snags. “The Mossie was such a delightful aircraft to fly that we looked forward to any excuse that would allow us to fly her--a pilot’s dream!” Stewart recalled.

RCAF Flying Officer Hank Seidenkranz from Burlington, Ontario remembered the Mosquito, but in a different capacity than Stewart. Trained as a navigator, Seidenkranz flew for No 45 Transport Command, a branch of the Royal Air Force that ferried different factory-fresh Canadian and American-built bombers and transport aircraft--such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, C-47 Dakota, B-25 Mitchell, and Mosquito--across the Atlantic for use by combat crews on the war front.

“Flying the Mosquito was quite an experience,” Seidenkranz remembered about the Downsview-built aircraft. “Only two seats: the pilot and radio-navigator. I had to do the radio work, too. All the navigators did. To get aboard, the pilot climbed in first and sat down, then I got in and closed up the hatch at my feet. It was a tight squeeze. Our seats were almost in line, with mine slightly behind and the radio equipment behind his seat. I navigated with the charts resting on my knees. Nothing fancy. No matter what plane you flew the navigator was always busy. I would make a calculation on where we were, which would take a few minutes, and by the time I was finished, we were 100 miles past that point. So I had to make another calculation, and so on. Always busy.

“In March 1945, I navigated a special Mosquito flight with pilot Flying Officer HC Graham. We started from London, Ontario, and took four hours to fly 1,300 miles to Gander, at 9,000 feet and a ground speed of 330 miles per hour. We stopped to refuel, then took off again, put our oxygen masks on, got up to 21,000 feet to take advantage of ice-free weather and a tail wind of 70 knots, and  landed in Prestwick, Scotland exactly five hours and 38 minutes later--a world record for Trans-Atlantic crossings! We averaged 387.5 miles per hour! It was front page news around the world. A few hours later another Mosquito chopped one minute off our time to make a new record. But we got most of the publicity because we were first!”

Even German Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goering respected the de Havilland Mosquito. In a statement in 1943, he admitted: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminum better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they can give it a speed which they have now increased yet again.


“What do you make of that,” he went on to say. “They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops!”