Fake Histories #24   Did Charles Lindbergh​ or Alcock and Brown make the first transatlantic flight?

 

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In these days of instant and starry celebrity being conferred for the ability to eat grubs in a jungle while on national television, it is almost impossible to grasp just how famous was Charles Lindbergh. One minute he was a glorified postman, flying planes for the US Post Office, then he was more famous than Calvin Coolidge. And if you’ve never heard of Calvin Coolidge, well that’s my point. Coolidge was United States President when Lindbergh did something extraordinary, on 21 May 1927. He flew in a single seat, single engine plane named Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island in New York to Le Bourget Airport in Paris. He flew for almost thirty-six hours, often through ice and fog, and won the $25,000 Orteig prize. He was greeted by a huge crowd when he landed in Paris and fêted as a hero.

Five years later, of course, he was at the centre of an appalling tragedy when his twenty-month-old son, also named Charles,  was kidnapped and murdered. Later he achieved further unwanted notoriety as an opponent of US involvement in World War Two, although in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour he joined the US Air Force and flew combat missions in the Pacific.

However, contrary to received wisdom Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. He was beaten to that honour by eight years.

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Which brings us to a flight that started in Newfoundland, a century ago today, and ended in a Galway bog. That was the flight of the two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in a modified WW1 Vickers Vimy bomber. Their object was to fly from the landmass of North America (Newfoundland qualified) to the European landmass (Ireland qualified) in less than seventy-two hours, in order to win the Daily Mail prize. In 1913 the London newspaper had offered £10,000 to the first pilots to make this landmark flight successfully. Alcock and Brown ticked all the boxes. So they got there well before the Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh captured the popular imagination, however, in a fashion that Alcock and Brown never quite managed. It didn’t help that John Alcock was killed in a plane crash within six months of his spectacular joint achievement. Neither did it help that, unlike Lindbergh—who was greeted on landing in Paris by more than 100,000 people—one of the few people around to welcome Alcock and Brown was the intrepid Tom Kenny, then a reporter and scion of the famous Galway bookshop-owning family. While Alcock and Brown would, doubtless, have been happy to meet him he was no substitute for a hundred thousand hero-worshipping Parisians.

So, were Alcock and Brown the first transatlantic aviators? As a matter of fact they weren’t. They were merely the first to fly across the Atlantic non-stop, in the same plane, in less than three days.

Transatlantic flight became a possibility, theoretically at least, well before the Wright brothers took off in their heavier than air machine in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Pioneers like the French Montgolfier brothers in the late eighteenth century had ushered in the era of the hot air balloon. In 1859 a man with the rather unfortunate name of John Wise built a balloon which he tempted fate by calling Atlantic. His attempt to use the jet stream to help him on his way from the USA to Europe lasted barely a day. He crash landed near Henderson, New York. It took a little while to get balloon technology just right and enable one to make the trip. Actually, it was quite a bit more that ‘a little while’. The first successful transatlantic journey by hot air balloon didn’t finally happen until 1978. So much for hot air.

The problem with the first actual flight across the Atlantic is that it lacks any of the romantic narrative of Lindbergh, Alcock or Brown, and took more than half as long as your average ocean liner. It was a Curtiss NC-4 that took off from the US mainland on 8 May 1919,  stopped off in Newfoundland, then flew to the Azores, on to Portugal, before finally making it to the UK. Six stops and twenty-three days! It was also aided in its navigation by a small flotilla of ships, to make sure it didn’t end up in the Falklands. The Daily Mail’s money was safe, by almost three weeks!

However, eminently forgettable as that plodding journey was, it means if anyone tells you that Charles Lindbergh, John Alcock or Arthur Whitten Brown were the first airborne transatlantic pioneers, it’s fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #23   Did a neutral Irish weather station make a huge contribution to the success of D-Day?

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Yesterday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, when thousands of American soldiers in search of continental Europe, led by Matt Damon,  came ashore at Curracloe Beach in Co. Wexford by mistake. While they were, technically, in Europe, they were nowhere near their intended target, the coast of Normandy and there were no Germans around.

Or something like that anyway!

Actually, it was the diamond anniversary of D-Day, or Operation Overlord, the long-awaited Allied invasion of Europe when more than 150,000 American and British troops came ashore at five Normandy beaches. Which makes it sound a bit like a day trip across the English channel. Ten thousand Allied casualties attest otherwise.

The entire operation was planned and executed by a group of Bigots. This is not to suggest that the spiritual ancestors of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Marine Le Pen dreamed up the Normandy invasion. Back in 1944 military and intelligence personnel who had the requisite security clearance for Operation Overlord were on what was called a BIGOT list and were thus known as ‘bigots’. The name would certainly have put off any German spies, who might even have had legitimate hopes of recruiting someone they heard being so described.

The origin of the phrase is far too complicated and shrouded in mystery to deal with here. Suffice it to say that it is the words ‘To Gib’ reversed, the ‘Gib’ in question being Gibraltar. Happy now? No, I didn’t think so.

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day +1, by which time the five beachheads had been established and thousands of British and American troops were coming ashore. It could have been otherwise. The harrowing opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan depicts the amphibious landing at the beach code-named Omaha. Determined German defence meant that Omaha Beach accounted for around half of the Allied casualties.

But is it the case that things could have been very different were it not for a humble Irish weather station in Co. Mayo. The Bigots could plan all they liked, they could train, they could prepare, they could cover as many contingencies as possible, but the one element over which they had no control was the weather. Conditions in May 1944 had been excellent but then turned nasty. 5 June had been the intended date for the invasion but adverse weather conditions resulted in a twenty-four-hour postponement. The skies the following day didn’t look much better and a further deferral would not just have been for twenty-four hours but closer to two weeks. The phase of the moon, and the prevailing tides needed to be right as well.

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And that was when a humble Irish lighthouse keeper named Ted Sweeney did his bit to change world history. Although Ireland was neutral it still supplied vital weather reports to the UK. The lighthouse on Blacksod Bay, manned by Sweeney, had a bird’s eye view of conditions on the Irish west coast. Sweeney’s report, of diving barometric readings and a force six wind on 3 June, had been instrumental in the postponement of the invasion.  Twice that day Ted’s daughter Maureen, who worked in the local post office, took calls from London from a woman with a cut-glass English accent. She wanted to talk to Ted Sweeney. Twice she asked him to confirm the readings he had made. Probably getting a little impatient second time around, he duly did as he was asked. He had no idea that he was hitting the pause button on the invasion of Europe

But at noon the following day, 4 June Ted Sweeney, filed the report that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been waiting for. The heavy rain of the previous day had passed, cloud cover was at 900ft, and visibility was clear. This brief respite from stormy conditions would reach the English channel in time to allow Operation Overlord to proceed.

All of which was just as well. Because the weather in July was just as bad. Were it not for Ted Sweeney we might well be commemorating D-Day in August.

Although Ireland was a neutral country some Irishmen did play a role in Operation Overlord. The Royal Ulster Rifles, which included many volunteer soldiers from the Irish Free State, had two battalions involved in D-Day. But it may well have been non-combatant Ted Sweeney who played the crucial Irish role.

So, in answer to the question, did a neutral Irish weather station make a huge contribution to the success of D-Day seventy-five years ago this week? Yes, it did, it’s NOT fake history.

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