This week is the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, one of the most celebrated military operations of World War II but not very well known outside the UK. All week here in the UK there have been special documentaries about the attack, as well as news features, and showings of the 1955 movie. This afternoon my home city is celebrating with a special service at the cathedral and a flyover by a Lancaster bomber, the plane that performed so spectacularly in 1943.
The story of the Dambusters is familiar to almost every Brit but always worth retelling. During WWII, the German Ruhr Valley and its dams was identified as a strategic target. This was a heavily industrialised area and the dams supplied hydro-electric power, pure water for steel-making, and water to feed the canals–not to mention drinking water for the thousands of workers. It was calculated that repeatedly bombing the dams would breach them.
However, the degree of accuracy required was too much to maintain under enemy fire. A smaller explosive would work if it could be detonated below the surface of the water right beside the dam wall, but the dams were protected by heavy torpedo nets to prevent such an attack. Barnes Wallis (who was later knighted) had developed a bomb that when dropped from just the right height and at just the right speed, would skip across water for a significant distance in just the same way that children skip stones across a lake. The residual spin when the bomb finally reached the dam would cause it to run down the side of the bomb to its base under the water.
Trials were run on plaster models and a disused dam in Wales and were successful enough for 30 Lancaster Bombers to be assigned to the mission with just eight weeks to train.
Many of us geek love codes, cyphers and other types of hidden messages, and there are few more famous codes than Morse Code. Developed in the 1800s, Morse Code is simple and easy to learn, it’s also easy to write down once you know the correct sequence of dots and dashes that represent each letter. It was this ease of writing down and reading the code without the need of any special equipment that allowed a British prisoner of war to use it to create a subversive piece of art during his time in a Nazi prison camp.
Major Alexis Casdagli was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1941 and sent to a series of prison camps where he whiled away the long hours by sewing. A piece he created in December 1941 looks innocent enough, indeed it looked so innocent that guards allowed him to hang it on the walls at all the camps he stayed in. However the piece contains two subversive messages coded into the borders, messages that if they had been discovered by guards would have put his life at risk. The outer border spells out “God Save the King” and the inner border, the decidedly more risky “F**k Hitler”. To create the piece, Casdagli used threads taken from a disintegrating pullover that belonged to a fellow prisoner, a Cretan general.
For the four years the piece hung on the walls of the prison camps until his release, the Germans never spotted the secret message of defiance hanging in front of them. In fact the Germans were so impressed with the officer’s skills that they had him give classes to other prisoners. Major Casdagli’s defiant stitching has even recently been on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The major continued stitching until his death in 1990 and his son, a retired Royal Navy officer, continues the habit today.
I’m saddened to inform all ye who cling to the age-old symbol of feminist power, that your mascot has passed away. Geraldine Hoff Doyle died at age 86 on December 26th in Lansing, Michigan. If you haven’t the foggiest idea who that is, shame on you. OK, not really. I didn’t know who it was either. Let me put it this way, Rosie the Riveter was laid to rest. That should make more sense.
Geraldine Hoff Doyle was the inspiration behind the now-famous “We Can Do It” poster. The term Rosie the Riveter came from a 1942 song by the Four Vagabonds. The poster was published about the same time by the Westinghouse Corporation as a way to motivate workers and boost war-time morale.
Interesting tid-bit of info, our Rosie wasn’t actually a riveter. Doyle was photographed in the metal factory where she was briefly employed. While she was wearing the iconic polka-dotted bandana, she wasn’t too terribly muscular either. She was actually a cellist, caught up in the fervor of the war effort at home. She took the job with every intention of helping the boys ‘cross the sea but was horrified to learn that the girl who had occupied the position before her had severely injured her hands. She left the factory shortly after the picture was snapped and took a job at a soda fountain.
Doyle’s daughter reports that the face on the poster was very much her mother. Doyle was “a glamour girl.” The full red lips and finely arched eyebrows definitely belonged on the face, but those arms, poised in the eternal symbol of strength and power, were drawn using just a touch of artistic liberty. In fact, it wasn’t until 1984 that Doyle recognized herself on the poster.
The poster has become a veritable rallying point for many a cause and photo-shopped more times than Sad Keanu and Tron Guy put together. Geraldine Hoff Doyle lived her life unknowingly inspiring thousands of young women and we at GeekMom salute for her silent contribution to American History. Our condolences are with her family.