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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

US may tie social media to visa applications

From The BBC

31st March 2018

The Trump administration has said it wants to start collecting the social media history of nearly everyone seeking a visa to enter the US. The proposal, which comes from the state department, would require most visa applicants to give details of their Facebook and Twitter accounts. They would have to disclose all social media identities used in the past five years. About 14.7 million people a year would be affected by the proposals. The information would be used to identify and vet those seeking both immigrant and non-immigrant visas. Applicants would also be asked for five years of their telephone numbers, email addresses and travel history. They would be required to say if they had ever been deported from a country, or if any relatives had been involved in terrorist activity.

The proposal would not affect citizens from countries to which the US grants visa-free travel status - among them the UK, Canada, France and Germany. However, citizens from non-exempt countries like India, China and Mexico could be embroiled if they visit the US for work or a holiday. Officials defended the proposal by saying it would help to identify potential extremists. Social media came under scrutiny after the shootings in 2015 in San Bernadino, California, in which 14 people died. The authorities said they had missed signs of radicalisation in messages on a messaging platform sent between the attackers.

Under rules brought in last May, officials were told to seek people's social media handles only if they felt "that such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting", a state department official said at the time. The tougher proposal comes after President Trump promised to implement "extreme vetting" for foreigners entering the US, which he said was to combat terrorism. "Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats," the state department said in a statement, quoted by the New York Times. "We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."

The idea is subject to approval by the Office of Management and Budget. The public will have two months to comment on the proposal before it makes a decision. Civil liberties groups have condemned the policy as an invasion of privacy that could damage free speech. "People will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official," said Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're also concerned about how the Trump administration defines the vague and over-broad term 'terrorist activities' because it is inherently political and can be used to discriminate against immigrants who have done nothing wrong," she said. The social media platforms covered in the proposal include US-based entities such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit and YouTube. However, the New York Times reports that overseas platforms such as China's Sina Weibo and Russia's VK social network would also be included.

[I read about this some time ago so it’s been on the cards for quite some time. As I’m from the UK it wouldn’t affect me anyway – not that I’m planning any trips to the US presently – but I wonder how they’d react to the fact that I have neither a Facebook or Twitter account – or any other Social Media account. Would that fact alone make me suspicious? After all… what could I possibly be hiding by not broadcasting to the world my every thought, meal, relationship or amusing cat video?]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Ground Control – Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City by Anna Minton (FP: 2009)

For most of the history of the modern city it has been public space owned and managed by the public using public money for the public good. But as we edge ever deeper into the 21st century something is happening – something hardly talked about, something hidden behind management speak, legal jargon and political sleight of hand: the privatisation of public space. Little by little, from shopping centres to whole neighbourhoods property developers are being sold parts of the city on 99 year leases (or longer) and are taking control of security – with CCTV and private guards – waste disposal and cleaning as well as monitoring who enters their space and what they do there. For safety and security – to say nothing of ‘enhancing the shopping experience’ the companies move on the homeless, licence street entertainers, prevent to distribution of political or other ‘questionable’ literature and break up any gathering of youths or other less than desirables. In other words they suck the life out of public spaces then try to import life-like activities (controlled of course) to bring it back.

This, argues the author, is what has been happening across the country – beginning in London naturally – at an increased pace since the 1980’s with only a short pause from the credit crunch after the 2008 banking crisis. Alongside the growing number of gated communities (not just for the rich apparently) and the wholesale destruction of perfectly fine older properties in areas of low land value this has been a silent and largely unremarked programme started by the Tories and carried on by New Labour in the names of increased property values – an end in itself apparently – and, more nebulous and much more insidious – supposed safety and security typified by the ‘secure by design’ building ideology. Imported almost wholesale and quite often word for word from American projects in the 80’s such safety procedures have seemingly increased the fear of crime and, by extension, the levels of anxiety in the very people they were supposed to make feel secure. There are no limits, it appears, to the need for increased security. No matter who deep you dig the moats or how high you build the walls they are not deep enough or high enough to guarantee a good night’s sleep.

Personally I haven’t noticed (or to be honest given a thought to) the private nature of shopping malls and such. I have been to at least one of the mega-malls mentioned here – The Metro Centre, the second largest shopping centre in the UK with 370 shops over 190,000m2, but honestly hadn’t noticed either the camera’s nor the private security. Likewise I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gated community nor, as far as I know, am unaware of anyone that lives in one. I have seen wholesale destruction of old housing though and the misery that causes especially to the elderly and close-knit larger families. The book is full of examples of this sort of urbanisation but is most definitely not a piece of mere academic study. Sprinkled with interviews with those living in or with this new style of living as well with planners, designers, architects and even a few politicians willing to talk about it this book is a fascinating insight into a largely behind the scenes activity driven by an ideology alien to British and European ideas of the city and city life. Eye-opening if rather depressing and a must read for anyone interested in modern urban planning.

That was the last of my City books (for now). Coming soon – How our technology affects who we are.

Monday, March 26, 2018

OK...... I see a *few* problems with that idea.................

Just Finished Reading: The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis (FP: 1955)

James Bevan it at the end of his tether. Drinking heavily, failing at his job and barely speaking to his beautiful but aloof wife he takes his doctor’s advice and takes a vacation on Jamaica. Trapped in the hotel surrounded by high walls and crushing poverty Bevan watches helplessly as his wife begins flirting with another man. Sickened by his seeming inability to do anything about it he leaves the hotel and proceeds to get roaring drunk in the seediest dive he can find. When a fight breaks out his drunken mind decides he needs to be somewhere else to keep drinking in peace. Leaving the shanty bar he is followed out onto the filthy street and mugged. Acting purely on impulse he deflects the knife with a handy empty bottle only to have it smash and rip into his would-be assailant’s throat. Covered in his opponent’s blood he staggers back to the hotel to his waiting and horrified wife. Thinking nothing more of it Bevan decides his close encounter with death is a turning point. A time to start over and make something of his life – until a stranger appears with evidence that he has killed a man in cold blood and a willingness to go to the police and stay whatever he needs to for Bevan to hang.

This is the last of the ten Hard Case crime novels I’ve been working through lately. Generally a rather hit and miss series this was definitely on the miss side. I almost gave up after the first 50 pages which moved at a glacial pace (rather ironic considering the tropical setting). The author seemed to have read a layman’s guide to psychoanalysis and tried very hard indeed to use it to explain the otherwise strange behaviour of both Bevan and his wife who both seemed to go out of their way to make a potentially difficult situation much worse. This was another one of those stories where I had almost no sympathy (or to be honest very much interest) for any of the characters with the possible exception of the local mixed race police commissioner who actually seemed rather interesting considering his brief appearance. There was page after page of characters wandering around in the slums in the dark with a few meaningless encounters along the way none of which moved the narrative along one bit. Frankly the plotting was a mess and at one point I just decided to grit my teeth and finish the damned thing – which I did. My recommendation – save your time and read something else.

Next up – after a brief detour into SF – will be ten 20th century classics in publication date order. After THAT, as I’m definitely missing Sci-Fi at the moment, will be ten novels of man’s struggle with his own technology, but that’s for much later in the year. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The BEST of Luck, Kids! You're going to NEED it.

Lords seek rethink on UK passport contract

From The BBC

23 March 2018

Members of the House of Lords have called on the government to reconsider awarding a contract to print new blue UK passports to a Franco-Dutch firm. Conservative peer Lord Naseby said it would have a major adverse effect on "the whole of British industry, and the British people as they face Brexit". The burgundy passport, in use since 1988, will revert to its original blue and gold colour from October 2019. Gemalto has won the contract ahead of the current UK producer De La Rue. Lord Naseby said that he wanted an assurance that "nothing will be signed or sealed until the whole matter's been reviewed".

However, fellow Conservative Lord Courtown said that as a member of the European Union, the UK had to abide by procurement rules. He denied that there were any security issue in awarding the £490m contract to Gemalto, adding that some 20% of blank passports were already manufactured overseas and would continue to be personalised in the UK. Lord Courtown said that the decision would save the UK £120m over the course of the contract. But Lord Forsyth, a Conservative former cabinet minister, said the government was taking an "extraordinary position" while Labour peer Lord Foulkes said the matter should be reviewed "in the name of not just security, but of national pride". De La Rue, which has printed the burgundy version of the British passport since 2009, said that it been "undercut on price" by Gemalto. The company's chief executive, Martin Sutherland, said that he would appeal against the decision.

[OK, I’m the first to admit that this is friggin hilarious. The post-Brexit UK passport that the Brexiteers are crowing about because it goes back to the pre-EU blue colour so beloved by little Englanders is to be manufactured in FRANCE. Apart from the fact that you really couldn’t make this shit up it must’ve given a few of the Brexit crowd actual heart attacks. But here’s the thing – firstly they followed EU regulations that we are still bound by and second it saves the taxpayer £120 MILLION into the bargain. But that’s not enough (of course) to the people who think that we should be free of EU regulations, commercial reality (oddly when we’re supposedly going to be an outward looking and commercially hard-headed nation after we leave) and, it appears, any hint of sanity where ‘love of country’ is concerned. If we do go back on this I hope that both Gemalto and the EU sue us for non-compliance and breach of contract. If the Brexiteers think that pulling this shit is going to put us in a STRONGER bargaining position with the EU negotiating team they’re going to have a VERY rude awakening soon. My bet is still that we’re going to crash out of the EU with no deal in 12 months. Watch this space!]   

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Why it’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere - The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason (FP: 2012/2013)

No one saw it coming. No one. When what became known as ‘The Arab Spring’ swept across North Africa the world’s media and political commentators struggled to keep up with events. Journalist Paul Mason wanted to find out too – so he went to Egypt and interviewed people on the street and in the squares to find out exactly who these revolutionaries where and what they wanted. Before long Mason was back home in the UK covering protests across the country and off to mainland Europe in Athens, Madrid, Berlin, Paris and even Moscow. What surprised him, apart from meeting the same people more than once, was the common factors behind many of the protests and behind why such a diverse mix of protestors came onto the streets in ever growing numbers.

The common thread running through every protest and protest movement was youth. The backbone of many a cause was the students or young unemployed who would be the first generation since the 1970’s who would likely be worse off than their parents. To them the future was no future – of lower paid jobs, insecurity and debt. They felt, not without reason that they had been lied to. The anger they felt because of that was real, deep and lasting. The catalyst, more often than not, was the imposition of austerity measures designed, supposedly, to get economies back on their feet following the financial crisis of 2008. Being both educated and connected through social media they could see through such attempts at propaganda in a heartbeat. Of course, if it was just students rebelling against the incompetence of a system that had essentially screwed their future it would have likely, just as after 1968, fizzled out as the news cycle turned. But it didn’t because the base was far broader that that provided by students and recent ex-students. Across the globe the students were joined by the urban poor (the revolutions largely being an urban phenomena), the squeezed Middle class, industrial workers and, even across the Muslim world, educated and sophisticated women. To the surprise of everyone governments trembled and some of them fell. Something serious was happening, something new, something that might actually change things in a yet unpredictable ways. You could feel the excitement in the air intermingled with the faint whiff of teargas.

I was rather surprised by this book and more than a little impressed. Not only does Mason write very well indeed he was not one to try to understand these things from the side-lines. He was often there in the thick of the action, being teargassed with the protesters, avoiding baton chargers and putting himself at risk right alongside the protesters. No doubt this gave him considerable credibility and allowed him both to interview the protesters on the ground and to get truthful statements from them as to why they were there and what they wanted to achieve. But even more than the insights such privileged access gave him he also provides a narrative to explain why things kicked off, why they continued to kick off despite some pretty heavy opposition from governments and agencies across the world and why they ultimately seemed to achieve so few long term effects. Much was made of social media platforms – most especially Facebook and Twitter – and he had many interesting things to say about how this seemingly disconnected and disinterested group of ‘young people’ were in fact ‘hyper-connected’ tweeting the revolution as it happened whilst the slow-witted authorities scrambled to catch up.

I honestly learnt a lot from this book with different perspectives on things I was already aware of – the austerity measures in Greece for example – as well as windows into activities I was completely unaware of – protest movements by the urban poor in SE Asia. It gave me much to think about and many, oh so many, avenues to follow up on in the future. It’s also greatly increased the likelihood that I’ll be reading his other books sooner rather than later. I want to hear what else he has to say about the politics of the modern world. He is more than a little switched on to things and I want to take advantage of that ability to analyse things in order to come up with a rational narrative to put them in the right context. You’ll definitely see more of this author here. Highly recommended if you want to understand why it’s still kicking off everywhere!

Monday, March 19, 2018

The *original* Fat Tony....

Just Finished Reading: How to Stage a Military Coup – From Planning to Execution by David Hebditch and Ken Connor (FP: 2009)

When I saw this on Amazon I honestly burst out laughing. I laughed even more when I discovered that it was neither a work of fiction nor a comedy. Written by a documentary film maker and an ex-serving member of the SAS this is actually a stage by stage exploration of military coups from around the world over the past 50 years or so (with the occasional deep history visit to the early 20th century) looking at what went wrong and, more importantly, what want right for each of them. Lessons are then learned and important aspects of each from each point in the process are noted for future reference. Not too surprisingly a copy of this very book was found amongst the belongings of a would-be coup leader on the brink of overthrowing an African dictator. As the authors gleefully pointed out the would-be military leader missed several important messages in the book which would have prevented their coup being discovered and foiled before it got off the ground.

Of course part of the fun of reading a book like this in public (well, at work in my case) in the funny looks you get from people. I had something similar some years ago when I read a book about European counter-terrorism called ‘Shoot the Women First’ on the train on my way into work. But I do enjoy the opportunity to add to my ‘reputation’. No doubt I’m on a watch list somewhere (again). But actually, although this book is about military coups and looks at some of them in considerable depth, the title is something of a misnomer. A more accurate title would have been ‘How NOT to Stage a Military Coup’ as the book spends a great deal of time showing how mistakes either during the planning or execution phase of the coup ended up getting people thrown into prison or shot for their trouble. Naturally lessons are learned from other people’s mistakes but only in a more general sense. Ideas for planning a successful coup are more hinted at than laid out for anyone to try out next time they fall out with the government of the day. If you wanted (or want) to learn how to overthrow your government you’d need to do a lot more reading than this! Luckily there’s a few good books mentioned in the notes section for anyone who fancies it to do some more background reading.

Generally I liked the style of the book very much. Knowledgeable and detailed with more than a hint of sarcasm and sometimes rather dark humour it was often a delight to read. Just about the only thing that irritated me throughout the book was the fact that each section – on the road from planning to execution – was prefaced by a short fictional account of a military coup in England. I actually think the odds of something like that happening are so long that it makes winning the lottery look like a dead cert. Unless something had gone very wrong with this country I doubt very much indeed if any significant numbers of military personnel would even consider overthrowing the government. It’s just silly. I think probably the only case of it ever happening here is at the end of the Civil War in the 17th century and calling it a coup might be stretching the point a bit. But even with this niggle (actually the fiction bits were rather well done!) this was still a fascinating read and will lead to more books on this and similar subjects – the Iranian coup which installed the Shah fostered by both the British and the Americans looks definitely worth more investigation. But if you are planning a coup in the near future you could do worse than start here. It’ll definitely point out some possible pitfalls you might then avoid before you end up in front of a firing squad. But if you are serious – keep on reading once you’ve turned he last page. One book on any subject is generally not enough – especially when your life might depend on it.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Science promised us truth, or at least a knowledge of such relations as our intelligence can seize: it never promised us peace or happiness. Sovereignly indifferent to our feelings, it is deaf to our lamentations. It is for us to endeavour to live with science, since nothing can bring back the illusions it has destroyed."

Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, 1895 

Cartoon Time (click to enlarge).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Big harpoon is 'solution to space junk'

Jonathan Amos, BBC Science correspondent

15 March 2018

Airbus is testing a big harpoon to snare rogue or redundant satellites and pull them out of the sky. The 1m-long projectile would be attached, through a strong tether, to a chase spacecraft. Once the target was captured and under control, the chase vehicle would then drag its prey down into the atmosphere to burn to destruction. Airbus has been working on the concept for a number of years now, developing ever bigger systems. It is a response to the growing problem of orbital junk - old pieces of hardware that continue to circle the globe and which now pose a collision threat to operational satellites.

Something in the region of 20,000 items of 10cm or larger are currently being tracked. The latest Airbus harpoon is being designed with the capability to capture one of the biggest rogue items of the lot - Europe's defunct Envisat Earth observation platform. This 8-tonne behemoth died suddenly in orbit in 2012. "Envisat is the outlier," explained advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman. "If we can design a harpoon that can cope with Envisat, then it should be able to cope with all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit."

The testing at the aerospace company’s facility in Stevenage, UK, involves firing the harpoon, using compressed air, into a panel that is representative of the kinds of material used to build satellite structures. Typically, this takes the form of 3cm-thick, composite honeycomb panels that incorporate a lot of aluminium. "The harpoon goes through these panels like a hot knife through butter," said Mr Wayman. "Once the tip is inside, it has a set of barbs that open up and stop the harpoon from coming back out. We'd then de-tumble the satellite with a tether on the other end." This is where harpoons should come into their own, over other methods of capture such as nets and robotic arms. A harpoon is relatively simple. You line up the target and shoot. "Many of these targets will be tumbling and if you were to use a robotic arm, say, that involves a lot of quite complex motions to follow your target," Mr Wayman explained. "Whereas, with the harpoon, all you have to do is sit a distance away, wait for the target to rotate underneath you, and at the right moment fire your harpoon. And because it's a really quick event, it takes out a lot of the complexity."

You still have to bring the tumbling satellite under control using thrusters on the chase vehicle - but computer simulations show this should be possible. The European Space Agency, which is responsible for Envisat, is considering all options at the moment, and the demonstration missions that fly in the next few years will almost certainly go for easier, more cooperative targets first. Indeed, a miniature version of the Airbus harpoon is set to launch next month on a mission called RemoveDebris. This demonstrator satellite, developed at the Surrey Space Centre, will carry its own piece of junk which it will release and then attempt to retrieve. It will trial a net, but will perform a harpoon test as well to further knowledge about how such systems will behave in the weightless environment of space. For the big harpoon back in Stevenage, it is now ready to move to its next development stage. This will involve firing the projectile over a distance of 25m, the sort of separation over which the real flight model would have to work.

[What a BRILLIANTLY simple idea! Get close enough to the object, fire a harpoon into it (images of while whales again) and drag it out of orbit until it burns up in the atmosphere. Return and repeat as appropriate. Of course, over and above its use to get rid of some of the bigger space junk no doubt other agencies are thinking about its potential as a weapon. Send a harpoon enabled vehicle up and park it next to an ‘enemy’ satellite. Harpoon it and then send your vehicle into a deliberate dive into the atmosphere ‘killing’ both vehicles. The destroyed satellite might not even be able to report what killed it. It’s just go off-line and disappear. You’d have total deniability – so they’re probably doing it already!]

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block (FP: 1964)

Billy Maynard is lucky to be alive and he knows it. Caught cheating at a high stakes card game in Chicago he was relived to get out with a damaged hand and a few chipped teeth. Heading for New York he pulls up in a small town to get his teeth fixed and rest his hand. There his dentist offers him a friendly game with his buddies. Whilst not exactly in his normal league Billy is in new of some folding money to pay his hotel bill and anyway needs a bit of practice for his damaged hand. Playing with people completely unaware of his skills is quite relaxing until the wife of one of the players drops a hint that she knows exactly what he’s up to. Oblivious to the hidden meaning of their conversation the players play on and Billy walks away with $30 and a problem. Mrs Murray Rogers, Joyce, knows what he is. The question is: What’s she going to do about it? The answer comes soon enough. She wants out of the marriage but she wants to keep her husband’s money. But that’s another problem. He’s a top lawyer in town and has tied up his marriage in legal knots. She can’t divorce him and can’t even kill him. But there are other ways to get Mr Rogers off the scene – like frame him for a murder he didn’t commit. But what if Murray gets wise to the deal and what if he’s smarter than Billy and Joyce combined?

I must admit that this was probably the best of the 10 Hard Case Crime novels I’ve just finished (one more to review). A nice simple story with a strong plot. A believable main character with history, depth and many likable qualities. A feme fatal with an equally convincing background which explains why she’s the way she is. A bunch of secondary characters that you could meet anywhere and probably recognise. The frame-up makes perfect sense and might even have worked but, as this is a 60’s crime novel just couldn’t could it. I think it’s the sign of a well-constructed novel when you actually feel for the protagonist – even when he’s ‘bad’ as in this case. A very enjoyable read. No great mystery as such as there isn’t really a crime to solve before the detective gets there but there’s still a great feel of oppressive dread especially towards the end. Recommended for all those lovers of crime without the blood or sex of much of today’s fare (although to be honest there is some sex in this one!).   

Monday, March 12, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Battle of Matapan by S W C Pack (FP: 1961)

March, 1941. With the arrival of HMS Formidable everything changed. The fast armoured deck carrier provided fighter cover to fend off enemy bombers, reconnaissance plans to find the enemy and a mix of dive bombers and torpedo planes to attack them. Easily capable of keeping up with the largely aging Eastern Mediterranean fleet it was the jewel in the crown that Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham had been waiting for. No longer blind and no longer keeping a wary eye set for enemy stuka’s he could at last do what he had longed for – to find, fix and destroy the Italian fleet at sea. But such a task was going to be far from easy. The Italians had some of the best ships afloat – new, fast and heavily armed. Meanwhile the British fleet dated from the previous war and, although impressive in themselves, had no hope of catching their much faster prey without air support and a fair dose of luck. But this time luck, for a change, was on the side of the Allies. Suspecting that the Italian fleet intended attacking British convoys between their Egyptian bases and landing fields on Crete and in Greece Admiral Cunningham decided to spring a trap.

Sailing from Alexandria without a hint of suspicion making its way to the Italians or their German allies the Eastern Mediterranean fleet headed out into deeper water with cruisers racing ahead to make initial contact with the enemy. At dawn Formidable flew off her spotter planes and waited for reports coming back. Hours passed with no news and little to do except wait. Initial contact reports were dismissed as mistaken reports of their own cruisers and ignored. That was the first mistake and it was a big one – the ships were those of the enemy. When the mixed force of cruisers and destroyers finally made contact sometime later they turned back towards the fleets heavy units unaware that a much larger enemy force lay between them and the safety of the British main fleet. Unknown to anyone aboard the British cruisers they were about to come within rage of the Italian battleship Vittorio Vento.

Almost before anyone knew what was happening the British ships came under accurate fire from a much superior Italian cruiser force both faster and more heavily armed than its British counterparts. After brief close quarter exchanges of fire the British ships did the only logical thing – they tried to disengage and left the scene at high speed hoping that they would be under the protection of the British battleships approaching their position before the pursuing Italian cruisers can attack in force. As they pulled away with little confidence that they could escape for long their fears were realised in a rather abrupt manner when they started receiving heavy fire from ahead. They had stumbled into the main enemy force consisting of a battleship, cruisers and destroyers. Heavily outnumbered and seriously outgunned it looked very bad indeed for the British cruiser force. But the Italian commander was unaware that the British main fleet was approaching at top speed and that Formidable’s planes were already on their way. When the planes where first spotted by the Italians it was assumed that they were German bombers from coastal airfields. Only when they began their attack runs did the truth dawn on each Italian commander. The British must had an aircraft carrier close and if that was the case a battle fleet must be nearby. This was no longer an action to crush a few enemy cruisers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With dive bombers and torpedo planes attacking in sequence and each enemy ship valiantly attempted to avoid destruction the British cruisers took the opportunity to make good their escape and return without loss to the main fleet. Meanwhile the Italians were doing less well against deadly air attack. Dropping both bombs and torpedoes from almost suicidal close range the British planes managed to score a number of hits none more deadly than on one of the heavy cruisers who pitched out of the battle line and stopped dead in the water unable to make any headway. Unaware of this calamity the Italian admiral, once the attacking planes had turned for home, ordered his force to return to base fully confident that his ships superior speed would get everyone safely out of the danger zone. Only sometime later did he realise that he had left a cruiser behind practically defenceless in hostile waters. It was here that he made the fateful decision to split his force with the battleship and her escorts continuing for home base and a force of cruisers and destroyers sent back to bring his damaged ship home. Without the advantage of radar – something the British had but the Italians had yet to employ – the commander of the cruiser force had no idea that he was being sent straight into the British main battle fleet.

As night closed in the British relied more and more on their often temperamental radar system and couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing on their screens. Ahead of them, barely three miles away was a large stationary blip originally thought to be the damaged Italian battleship. As they approached cautiously closer the surprise turned to shock as the Italian relief force passed ahead of them seemingly oblivious to the presence of the British force. Trained in night action and with radar to guide them the British ships opened fire on the unsuspecting Italians at point blank range. With scant seconds between the huge guns of the battle fleet opening fire and the shells arriving on target the Italian ships had no chance to avoid contact or fire back. They were caught in a deadly hail of shells which ripped ships in half and pummelled the wreckage before the burning hulks turned over and sank. Within minutes several enemy cruisers and destroyers were burning uncontrollably and their shocked crews were jumping over the side before they exploded. Oddly in the middle of the conflagration the original Italian cruiser remained untouched until stumbled upon by a British destroyer. Unwilling to attack a ship obviously incapable of defending itself the crew were taken off before torpedoes sent her to the bottom. For no losses and no casualties the British had just destroyed three cruisers and two destroyers, severally damaged the battleship and damaged a number of other ships in the Italian fleet. From then on the Italians would no longer pose a threat to British interests in the Mediterranean and, although it only became a British ‘lake’ much later in the war it was no longer an area under Italian control or domination.

Related by an officer actually based on HMS Formidable during this period this was a fascinating personal account of one of the major naval engagements of the Mediterranean conflict. It was a turning point in British domination of the Easter Mediterranean which they never lost subsequently. Because of that the British had control of the Suez Canal and could much more easily reinforce their forces in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Without it the desert war, and the desert victory so important to the eventual invasion of Italy would have been much more difficult to achieve. An excellent read for anyone interested in this often overlooked theatre of war. This is the last in my naval triple read. After a short detour into other historical subjects I’ll finally be reading my Russia triple, followed by the RAF and China.