Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

A Gravestone for Stalingrad

In the first episode of this documentary, rare German survivor Gerhard Dengler remembers seeing weather conditions take smoke from Luftwaffe bombing, in August 1943, and shape it into a gigantic black cross.

We down below thought it looked like a gravestone, a gravestone for Stalingrad. That it was the gravestone of the 6th Army, we had no idea.

The documentary was made by three German filmmakers, and converted to English by Australians, but the key part is interviews with participants — an officer on Hitler’s staff, a Central Asian sniper in the Red Army, a doctor in one of the hopeless field hospitals, a young girl whose family tried to hide from the war  in the hole where their home once had been.

Stalingrad: The Assault

This is a hell of a thing to do to you on a week, work, day, hit you with a three-part, three-hour documentary, but this documentary is that good. It combines the documentary techniques of Ken Burns’s The Civil War with plentiful interviews with Wehrmacht, Red Army, and Russian civilian survivors. The Burnsian techniques are to use period found footage, and plenty of actor readings of soldiers’ letters home — mostly, given the loss of over a million men on both sides (and some women, on the Russian side), letters from soldiers who would never return home themselves, Russian and German alike.

Most everyone knows the general framework of the Battle of Stalingrad: at just over the one-year point in Hitler’s offensive in Russia, he pushed two army groups into south central Russia. One was aimed at a military and economic target: the oilfields of Baku, Azerbaijan, and Soviet Central Asia in general. The  other was aimed at a political, prestige target: the city on the Volga, Europe’s greatest river. Named for one monstrous dictator, the battle over it was a contest of egos between two of them, with the riflemen on both sides mere pawns in the game. (In Russian, it’s explicit: the pawn in chess and the private in the Army are both ryadovoy).

Marshal Franz Halder warned Hitler that the attack was a waste: that he was setting the pieces up for a checkmate by the Russian defense’s strongest player, winter. Hitler took the warning with his usual lack of good grace, and fired Halder, belittling him as he went. Halder had no front-line experience; he was a mere desk soldier.

He was also right. Of the 600,000-man 6th Army, some 40,000 were evacuated, some 92,000 captured by the Soviets, most of whom were slain or worked or starved to death before the release or a mere 6,000 survivors in 1955. Against this, a half-million Russians were slain in this battle, and the fate of a Russian taken prisoner was even worse, however unimaginable that is, than that of his German counterpart. (Should he survive Nazi captivity, he returned home to the Gulag for ten years — some of the Germans beat some of their former enemies home).

The film above is Part 1: The Assault of the new documentary, The Battle of Stalingrad. It ends with the encirclement of the German force by a mighty Soviet assault. Two other episodes follow: The Pocket and The End.

Stalingrad: The Pocket

Much of today’s national psychology, both Russian defensiveness — this was a war they never asked for, fought on their own soil — and German pacifism, has its genesis in this unimaginable million-man-plus abbatoir.

Stalingrad: The End

The producers write:

The Eastern Front experienced the viciousness of war on a scale of unimaginable horror and brutality. The bloodiest and most savage fighting took place in Stalingrad between August 1942 and February 1943. Stalin’s city on the Volga had military significance for Hitler. It carried the name of his enemy and therefore had to be destroyed. The ensuing battle sealed the fates of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and marked the turning point of World War II. It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. In their 3 part 16:9 HDTV, documentary filmmakers Sebastian Dehnhardt, Christian Deick and Jorg Mullner reveal new historical facts while touching the emotions of their audience with new, moving eyewitness accounts and confessions from some of the last survivors.

Filmed from both the German and Russian perspective, the series contains footage shot by soldiers during the siege. The Russian archives opened their doors to the filmmakers, granting them exclusive access to previously unreleased material. The series also contains digitally restored archive film as well as 3-D animation to recreate the city of Stalingrad and plot the course of its destruction.

Both ex-German and Russian soldiers are interviewed, along with Russian civilians. It is said that a soldier only really experiences war in the 1000 feet that is around him. If that is true, then this film is a horrifying, moving, and amazing account of those 1000 feet. This is a bottom-up account of Stalingrad that illuminates the experiences of the common foot soldier, which is often a story not heard from the German side of things.

Must see. Since it’s just short of three hours, it will take some time. You may want to rathole this post for later.

Whatever Happened To… Stainless Steel Shotshells?

We’re not referring to those shotshells containing stainless (or not) steel shot, designed by environmentalists to embugger waterfowl and upland hunters.  We’re talking about shotshell cases that were made of stainless steel, to let owners safely fire modern black powder loads in ancient — even Damascus-barreled — breech-loading shotguns.

This 1878 Colt (now on Gun Broker) is an example of the kind of gun that could use these.

This 1878 Colt (which just now sold, or didn’t, on Gun Broker) is an example of the kind of gun that could use these.


They were once manufactured by a company in Yuba City, California (one suspects an offshoot of the then-beginning-to-struggle SoCal aerospace industry) named Conversion Arms, Inc., and promoted nationally. But since then, they’ve vanished without a trace.

Here’s what the late John T. Amber, for many years editor of Gun Digest, wrote about them in the 1979 annual:

Stainless steel shotshells

Modern smokeless powder shotgun cartridges are a no-no for old shotguns made long ago – the outside hammer guns, with or without Damascus (twist) barrels, even many early hammerless guns – and factory loads powered by black powder are hard to find, impossible to locate in many areas.

This Union Machine Co gun is Belgian proofed. It's in remarkable condition -- the bores on these old guns are often trashed by corrosive cartridges of the day.

This Alger Arms Co gun (not Union Machine as the picture filename says, our error) is Belgian proofed. It’s in remarkable condition — look at the case hardening, still visible! The bores on these old guns are often trashed by corrosive cartridges of the day. This one doesn’t appear to be — $825 starting bid on GB. This was the sort of gun the conversion cartridges were meant to save.

Now there’s a good solution – Conversion Arms, Inc. (PO Box 449, Yuba City, CA 95991) has just introduced all-stainless steel 12-ga. shotshells (2 ¾” and 2 ½”) formed at the base to take standard number 11 percussion caps. No loading or priming tools are needed – simply fill with black powder, 50 to 70 grains of FFG being suggested, add a card wad or plastic shot cap, pour in 1¼ oz. of shot, place a card was over the pellets and push the cap on the integral nipple.

You can, of course, vary the shot load, too, but in any setup use a fair amount of pressure on the over-powder wad and on the over- shot wad for best combustion and performance. A wooden dowel or “short starter” works well, and snug-fitting cork or felt wads can be substituted if space permits.

CAI sells these S. S. shotshells for $7.95 each or two for $14.95 postpaid, and a detailed instruction pamphlet on their use is included. They’re guaranteed for life.

Of course, a lifetime guarantee may not be for your lifetime, but the company’s — whichever comes first. The guarantee only works if the company hangs around. California Secretary of State records show that Conversion Arms, Inc. was registered in 1977 and at some time after that — the records don’t say — was delisted for failing to pay taxes. (That usually happens when the company goes paws up).

English Hooper (probably W.C.Scott) damascus barrels. Another GunBroker sale (higher end).

English H. Hooper (probably made for Hooper by W.C.Scott) damascus barrels. Another GunBroker sale (higher end).


Amber’s write-up seems to have been that old journalistic dodge, a paraphrased press release, but it makes us wonder why this idea flopped. We’ve often looked at some beautifully crafted old Damascus gun and passed it up, just because there’s no shooting it. (Maybe there is, now, with cowboy-action driven blackpowder loads. We dunno). But these simple shells would have made it possible to pattern Ol’ Betsy and take her hunting again, and that’s something. Why did they die? Were they too odd a product? Did they appeal to too narrow a public? Was the price too high? In 1979, a cheap imported double-barrel shotgun still listed at $179. The rock bottom of the market, the H&R Topper Youth Shotgun and its Iver Johnson knock-off, were $65 and $55 respectively. It may just be that for the few of us crazies who want to shoot an old shotgun more than the latest trap gun made in a workshop in Italy where Michelangelo once apprenticed in the stock-carving shop, brass black powder cartridges available now are good enough.

This all happened almost 20 years before the Internet went public and interactive, and so, before the event horizon of the net, we were unable to find a single write-up or photo of these things online.

As we mentioned, there is an alternative: although the shells don’t reinforce the chamber the way stainless steel ones did, Rocky Mountain Cartridge sells lathe-turned brass shotshells and a loading kit (.pdf). The prices vary by gauge and length; the chambering of most old American shotguns, 12 gauge 2½”, costs $75.00 for a minimum-order box of ten (.pdf) — the same unit price of one of the Conversion Arms shells, but in deflated 2016 dollars. The loading kit is another $60 or so.

100 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Jutland

Going into World War II, there were two major surface ship actions of the Dreadnought era that everybody knew: Tsushima Strait, the battle that woke the world up to the Empire of Japan as a nascent power in 1905, and the battle of Jutland, the one great battleship fight of the First World War. It was a tough, inconclusive battle fought in uncooperative weather between two mighty fleets and their screening forces, which in 1916 (especially in foul weather) meant destroyers and other small surface reconnaissance vessels.

The battle, named for the Danish peninsula off which it reached its climax, was inconclusive; both sides lost ships and thousands of men, but it can be called a British strategic victory, as the Kaiser’s fleet never sortied in such strength ever again.

Jutland has been beautifully reconstructed as an informative animation, produced, directed and narrated by Nick Jellicoe, grandson of the British admiral, Lord Jellicoe.

This is one that is worth watching in full screen. Also, if you go to the Vimeo website, Nick has been engaging people in the comments there. No doubt he will be running flat out right now, as this is the actual anniversary and he’s a big wheel in the Centenary; but his devotion to telling  the story of his grandfather, and his officers and men, as well as their German opponents, is appreciated by all of us.

Things that we found most fascinating include the consequences of imperfect information and restricted information flow; the technical aspects of 1916 naval gunnery, including the German night-fighting technology (the main battle was fought by daylight, in the afternoon, but the night tech is interesting); and Nick’s well-developed argument that being thwarted here led to the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision that would ultimately sink the German Empire by drawing the US out of its cherished neutrality. (While President Wilson was strong for joining Britain and France, it wasn’t a popular position until after the Lusitania sinking).

Hat tip, the Old Salt Blog, which also has a report by Rick Spilman on the restoration of the only ship from Jutland which still survives, the cruiser HMS Caroline.

What Did a Luger Cost? (Updated)

This Commercial Mauser Luger was made very close to these cost figures -- in 1939. From the Sturgess collection, now for sale by Jackson Armory.

This Commercial Mauser Luger was made very close to these cost figures — in 1939. From the Sturgess collection, now for sale by Jackson Armory. ($3,450!)

Well, that depends. There’s a lot of different ways to look at this question. But what we’re going to do, is look at what it cost to manufacture a Luger. As it happens, the great book Mauser Pistolen has a table of Luger production costs in 19401. From there we can calculate would it cost in 1940 dollars, and from there it’s possible to make an estimate of its production cost in 2016, in today’s dollars. Let’s start by transcribing the original document, from the collection of Mauser Pistolen co-author Jon Speed. We’ll apply our MBA-fu and a little search online to translate the quaint old German accounting terms.

Table 1: P.08 with Haenel Magazine — Full Cost Accounting

Item Item (English) Cost, 1940 RM
Werkstoff Material 1.82
2 Haenel – Mag. 2 Haenel Magazines 5.32
Summe SubTotal 7.14
Fertigungslohn Direct Labor 10.21
Werkstoffgemeinkosten @6.8% Material Overhead @6.8% 0.49
Betriebsgemeinkosten @182.7% Factory (Business) Overhead @182.7% 18.65
SubTotal SubTotal 36.49
Kostenabweichung @7.6% Cost Variance @7.6% 0.78
Summe SubTotal 37.27
Zuschlag für Ausschuss @2.2% Surcharge for Spoilage (waste/scrap) @2.2% 0.82
Herstellkosten Manufacturing Costs 38.09
Verwaltungs- u. Vertriebsgemeinkosten @3.8% Administration & Sales Costs @3.8% 1.45
Umsatzsteueuer aus RM47.10 beziehungsweise RM 47.50 @2.0% Sales tax on basis of RM 47.10 or 47.50 @2.0% 0.94
Selbstkosten per Stück Our costs per unit 40.48
Private sale cost 47.50

OK, now  convert to period dollars. UCSB Historian Harold Marcuse has posted a useful table of exchange rates here. (He also, to digress for a moment, spent a portion of last year embroiled (with some allies, like Prof. Atina Grossman of Cooper Union) in a battle of wits with the relatively unarmed Erich Lichtblau of the New York Times over fabrications and exaggerations in Lichtblau’s America-bashing “history” of the postwar area as published in a book and the Times — something that will not surprise anyone who’s read Lichtblau in any form). So what did it cost Mauser to make a Luger in 1940, converted to 1940 dollars? Marcuse’s set of tables includes two tables that cover 1940, but they agree: RM2.5 = US $1 for that year. So let’s add a  column, and see what that adds up to.

Table 2: Full Cost Accounting, RM and $US, 1940.

Item Item (English) Cost, 1940 RM Cost, 1940, USD
Werkstoff Material 1.82 0.73
2 Haenel – Mag. 2 Haenel Magazines 5.32 2.13
Summe SubTotal 7.14 2.86
Fertigungslohn Direct Labor 10.21 4.08
Werkstoffgemeinkosten @6.8% Material Overhead @6.8% 0.49 0.2
Betriebsgemeinkosten @182.7% Factory (Business) Overhead @182.7% 18.65 7.46
Summe SubTotal 36.49 14.6
Kostenabweichung @7.6% Cost Variance @7.6% 0.78 0.31
Summe SubTotal 37.27 14.91
Zuschlag für Ausschuss @2.2% Surcharge for Spoilage (waste/scrap) @2.2% 0.82 0.33
Herstellkosten Manufacturing Costs 38.09 15.24
Verwaltungs- u. Vertriebsgemeinkosten @3.8% Administration & Sales Costs @3.8% 1.45 0.58
Umsatzsteueuer aus RM47.10 beziehungsweise RM 47.50 @2.0% Sales tax on basis of RM 47.10 or 47.50 @2.0% 0.94 0.38
Selbstkosten per Stück Our costs per unit 40.48 16.19
Private sale cost 47.50 19.00

While what Mauser got from the HeeresWaffenAmt (Army Ordnance Office) for each Luger is not immediately apparent (it’s probably somewhere else in that excellent book), we know what they charged a German military or police officer seeking to privately purchase a Luger: RM 47.50 (that’s in another of Speed’s period documents on that same page). In American, $19.

These costs were reduced about one Reichsmark per unit from the previous year, but Mauser’s costs in 1936-37 were lower and highly variable over time, suggesting that the ~5% difference might just be normal variance over time. It’s surprising that you don’t see cost reductions considering that Mauser produced the Luger for about ten years, beginning in the early ’30s when they took over production from then-corporate sibling DWM in Berlin (drawings, parts, and one engineer, August Weiss, were sent to Oberndorf). Other evidence in the book suggests that Mauser had quite modern management for its day.

Well, there’s the outrageously-expensive Luger for you — compare that to the US cost for the 1911A1, about $14-15 in 1940. Adds up if you’re making hundreds of thousands of them (Mauser and DWM together produced about 2 million Lugers, according to Weiss).

Another image of that same Luger at Jackson Armory.

Another image of that same Luger at Jackson County Armory.

There are several different ways to calculate what a 1940 dollar is worth today (which was news to us, MBA and history degree and all). Marcuse also recommends the site, which has this interesting discussion of which value comparison indicator is “right”. (The answer, it turns out, is “it depends.” Isn’t it always?)

Using Measuring Worth’s seven-index calculator, we get values for a 1940 dollar varying wildly from $13.40 (using the GDP deflator methodology) to $169 (using relative share of GDP).

one_1940_dollarAs it turns out, GDP deflator is a good measure of “how much it cost compared to the present cost of materials or labor”, but so are worker wages, which as you can see (for an unskilled worker) is double the CPI (reflecting a rising standard of living in the last 3/4 of a century); and relative share of GDP is a good measure of the national weight assigned to such a project.

The common Consumer Price Index which we’ve used for previous longitudinal price comparisons is close to the low end, at $16.90. A perfect methodology does not exist, but it might require us to use different metrics for different components of the Luger’s cost structure. Instead, we’ll just use the GDP Deflator and the Relative Share of GDP to get the min-max:

Table 3: Full Cost Accounting, RM and $US, 1940 and 2014

Item Item (English) Cost, 1940 RM Cost, 1940, USD Value, 2016 by GDP Deflator Value, 2016, Relative Share of GDP
Werkstoff Material 1.82 0.73 9.78 123.37
2 Haenel – Mag. 2 Haenel Magazines 5.32 2.13 28.54 359.97
Summe SubTotal 7.14 2.86 38.32 483.34
Fertigungslohn Direct Labor 10.21 4.08 54.67 689.52
Werkstoffgemeinkosten @6.8% Material Overhead @6.8% 0.49 0.2 2.68 33.80
Betriebsgemeinkosten @182.7% Factory (Business) Overhead @182.7% 18.65 7.46 99.96 1260.74
Summe SubTotal 36.49 14.6 195.64 2467.4
Kostenabweichung @7.6% Cost Variance @7.6% 0.78 0.31 4.15 52.39
Summe SubTotal 37.27 14.91 199.79 2519.79
Zuschlag für Ausschuss @2.2% Surcharge for Spoilage (waste/scrap) @2.2% 0.82 0.33 4.42 55.77
Herstellkosten Manufacturing Costs 38.09 15.24 204.22 2575.56
Verwaltungs- u. Vertriebsgemeinkosten @3.8% Administration & Sales Costs @3.8% 1.45 0.58 7.77 98.02
Umsatzsteueuer aus RM47.10 beziehungsweise RM 47.50 @2.0% Sales tax on basis of RM 47.10 or 47.50 @2.0% 0.94 0.38 5.09 64.22
Selbstkosten per Stück Our costs per unit 40.48 16.19 216.95 2736.11
Private sale cost 47.50 19.00 254.60 3211.00

We’d be very pleased to be pointed to any such cost accounting details from other nations/periods/firearms.


This post has been updated. Total Luger production has been added, and the paragraph noting that earlier costs were higher has also been inserted (Mauser Pistolen contains another, earlier cost breakdown table on p. 226 that shows these costs for the years 1936-38, with 1937 costs broken down by quarter. Plenty of data in that book for anyone interested in a deeper dive than this.


Weaver, W. Darrin, Speed, Jon, and Schmid, Walter. Mauser Pistolen. Cobourg, Ontario: Collector Grade, 2008.

Williamson, Samuel H.  Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present. Measuring Worth, n.d. Retrieved from:

Williamson, Samuel H. Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth. Measuring Worth, n.d.. Retrieved from:

Rifles: 2nd Half of the 19th Century

We have commented before on how interesting it is that no firearms advance gives any nation a lasting advantage. This takes place both because everybody who is not experiencing success copies others’ successes with alacrity, and because technology tends to advance at about the same rate everywhere, as equally bright people work to develop new ideas on the shoulders of the same body of prior work.

Reasons notwithstanding, you can pick just about any period in history and watch the armies of the nations of the world advance together, as if they were in step. Let’s pick the second half of the 19th Century, which began with everyone more or less on the same sheet of music — call it Movement I, maestoso, with Minié or other displacing balls fired from muzzle-loading rifle-muskets — and at the end of a rapid flurry of advances was playing a livelier gavotte on repeating bolt-action rifles firing fixed centerfire ammunition.

Experimental 45-70 Springfield

In the middle of the 19th Century, the question was: how do we get from rifle-musket to breechloader? Conversions were the answer almost everywhere.

We’ve made rather a dog’s breakfast of too many metaphors there. We promise to stop; we’ll stick to declarative sentences, here on out.  In military service, service long-arms passed through four stages between 1850 and 1900, almost regardless of nation. Here’s a little graphic illustrating what we mean.

rifle_history_1850-1900Germany is an outlier here, in part because we selected Prussia as our representative German state (the German Empire wasn’t unified under the Prussian crown yet at the start of this period. Had we chosen Bavaria it might have looked more like the other nations).

At the end, we just didn’t have room for the definitive bolt-action repeater, the Mauser 98!

If Germany was a leader, looking at the dates, the United States was a bit of a laggard; the 1888 Springfield was fundamentally unimproved from the 1865 Allin conversion. Imperial Russia, often thought of as backward, doesn’t look nearly as bad. (Of course, adopting a rifle is one thing; producing enough of them to arm the Russian Army is a whole other challenge). It would be interesting to add other powers, such as Spain and Sweden, and perhaps some of the more advanced South American lands, to the chart.

Although we like our bright colors, the next step ought to be to make a proper Gantt chart of it, in which you’d see how much variation there was in years of adoption, visually.

By the way, the individual steps are not nearly as neat and clear as the graphic implies. This comprehensive and illustrated analysis of the Enfield P.53s progress to the Snider is representative. Like the Allin conversion in the USA, the Snider won out over many possible alternatives in testing. (And here’s a great page on the Martini-Henry, the Snider’s follow-on). For every repeater, breech-loader, and conversion that was adopted, there were many also-rans.

More Retro/Vintage ARs, This Time from Troy

A routine email from TFB reminded us that Colt’s Retro ARs are not unique after all, but that since this year’s SHOT Show, Troy has been promoting retro ARs. At SHOT they introduced a retro GAU-5A/A, and at the NRA show, an XM177E2.

They are promoting these rifles at the cleverly selected URL, And they’re sensibly priced ($1,200-1,300 MSRP).

Here’s the GAU. A great deal of attention to detail has been applied here. It’s the right color grey.

GAU_5AA_rightThe lower receiver is contoured correctly for the A1-era CAR-15, and has almost exact rollmarks, until you look closely. It even has the “pin” for the auto sear — actually, just an engraved marking. GAU_5AA_right_rearThe pistol grip is an original surplus part — the only one. The barrel is about an inch longer than an original, and the profile of the false “moderator” — which is pinned and welded to make the barrel an ATF-legal 16″ — is a little bit off, but this is the closest any manufactured gun has gotten. Note that the bayonet lug has been milled off (this is correct to the originals).GAU_5AA_left

Care has been taken with the 2-position (period correct) stock. It is made of aluminum and then coated (probably not with the original vinyl acetate dip… that would be asking for OSHA to come a-viking to one’s factory). GAU_5AA_left_extTroy has not forgotten people who dwell within the Moonbat Curtain. You can also get one with the stock pinned in place and with the magazines gelded, and you can even go Full Harem Guard with a California-Legal (at the moment) Bullet Button. And each GAU (and the XM177s as well) comes with a package of accessories.


And let’s have a look at the XM177E2.

As you can see, it comes with all the same features and accessories as its Air Force / Son Tay brother, down to the “strap, utility” sling improvised with 550 cord loops….

XM-177E2_leftBut looking at the other side, we see the difference between the GAU and the XM, the yin of the Air Force and the yang of the Army — the forward assist, an Army-peculiar feature, originally. XM-177E2_rightHere’s the forward assist in close-up. Note how accurately they got the part colors, the lower receiver contour, and the dead-on look-and-feel of the stock.

XM-177E2 forward assistIt can’t turn you into Dick Meadows, but it can damn well give you his sight picture:

XM-177E2 sights

Here’s sthe stock with the field improvised sling.XM-177E2 stock

And here’s the other end of the sling showing how it’s attached., as well as the period-correct .625″ barrel OD. XM-177E2 FSB and slingThe moderator looks almost perfectly right.XM-177E2 false moderatorThis selector switch photo shows the false selector markings and the little fake-auto-sear “pin”. XM177E2_SCAR-XM11-14YT-00-autoMarkings-1-1024x512They’re also available with limited-custom, tasteful, laser personalization.

XM-177E2 custom laser engraved

They also include such things as copies of inspectors’ paint marks.

The Charity Angle

But wait! there’s more. For every one of these retro blasters Troy sells, they’re going to make a contribution to an appropriate charity. For instance, the GAU supports the National Leage of Families; the XM177E2 supports — what else? — the Special Forces Association and the Special Operations Association. The SFA is the regimental association of the SF Regiment, and the SOA restricts full membership to veterans of behind-the-lines or cross-border units and

We’re life members of both SOA and SFA, and yet we never heard of these things before so we’re extremely glad we picked up Nathaniel F’s report thanks to the TFB email.

Prague 1938: The Doomed and the Saved


As you can see from the cut-off margin and wavy horizontal line, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board on this scan.

We have been working to scan a story from the 30 May 1938 LIFE magazine for the site. The cover of that magazine shows “Commander of the Czech Army,” whose actual title was General Inspector (or Inspector General), Jan Syrový. A tough-looking guy, he had fought on both sides in World War I, like many Czechs and Slovaks, abandoning the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s weak claims on his loyalty, and going over to the Russians. The Russians had their own problems, but allowed their Czechoslovak POWs to form the Czechoslovak Legion, which started small but would ultimately be a brigade-sized unit of three infantry regiments. Syrový lost his right eye fighting alongside the Russian Army during the ill-fated Kerensky Offensive. (The Czech Legion took their objectives, but few of the Russian units did). Around the time this photograph was taken, Czechoslovak defense leaders had mobilized their reserves — 70,000 men — under threat from Germany.

At the time, Munich was still in the future (by then, Syrový would have bene elevated to Prime Minister, over his own objections), but in May, the Czechoslovaks were still hoping for support from former allies Britain, France and the USSR; in the end they would be betrayed by all three nations, Britain and France cutting the Munich deal for the death of Czechoslovakia (with Czechoslovakia conspicuously unrepresented), and the USSR writing the rump of the state off in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939.

In the LIFE issue, we saw the photo immediately below. The LIFE caption was:

German Refugees. In this hand-decorated Prague cellar of an abandoned factory Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany find the safe haven Prague has long offered their race.


That struck us pretty hard. Note the tied-down swastika on the map of Germany, and the weird cartoon figures… not sure who they’re supposed to be. LIFE had more to say about the refugees, including some fairly deep background. As we read it, the realization sank in that these people were almost certainly murdered in the next few years. Seeing the picture, we know what the happy musicians could not: the Nazi menace was coming their way.

Generations before Romulus and Remus found their Roman wolf, Prague on the Vltáva River was an old established village that had been inhabited continuously since Paleolithic men scrabbled caves in its riverbanks some 15,000 years ago. Modern industrial Czechoslovakia thus has not only one of the oldest capitals in Europe, but one of the most beautiful. The curving Vltáva (pronounced Vultava) splits the city in two as the Seine splits Paris.

Prague has an ancient and honorable reputation for liberalism. Its university is the oldest in Central Europe. The martyrdom of John Huss not only foretold the Protestant Reformation, but started a wave of Czech nationalism among the nobles of the Bohemian court. Like other medieval cities. Prague kept its Jews in a ghetto, the Josefstadt, but they were not molested. They had a separate Jewish town hall, with a Jewish clock that still ticks on its steeple. The 14th Century synagogue where the Golem was made is still in use. Prague’s Jewish cemetery is the oldest in Europe.

Currently Prague is an asylum for thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. At the left LIFE’s photographers show several of these in an abandoned factory in Prague’s Strašnice district. Their faces are purposely turned from the camera for the protection of relatives still in Germany. They manage to exist on an average of 11¢ a day donated by Czech workers’ unions, but because of Czech unemployment they are not allowed to accept jobs. All of them are ready to enlist in an anti-Nazi brigade should Czechoslovakia be invaded by Germany.

It was depressing, reading this, reading the cautious optimism on the crumbling pages, and knowing what became of the Jews of Prague and other Czechoslovak cities (herded into ghettos, relocated to KZ Theresienstadt (Terezín, Czech), relocated to KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau, murdered like rats. Especially the kids. When a transport came in, the old, the sick, and the children went straight to extermination.

We looked on that picture, and the accompanying legend, and despaired. They never got the chance to “enlist in an anti-Nazi brigade.” The list of European nations and statesmen who sold them out is a long and bleak catalog of shame. To that must be added the shame of the United States in not accepting these refugees — for unlike the ISIL advance parties currently roiling Europe, these people were actually refugees in the classic sense of the word.

The day after hitting an emotional rock bottom over this long-forgotten little tragedy, in one corner of The Greatest Tragedy Show on Earth that was the Second World War, we stumbled on this report by Kemberlee Kaye at the great law blog, Legal Insurrection. It’s all about this guy, a master of English pluck… and English understatement.


Nick Winton was a young stockbroker who found himself in Prague on holiday about a year after that Life Magazine, and he decided to do something. Something was getting permission to bring unaccompanied refugee children from Prague to London from the Nazis (which turned out to be easy, as they were looking to get rid of Jews), from the Foreign Office (which turned out to take one visit and compliance with a list of conditions) and the rest of midcentury British bureaucracy (which was a little more complicated).

At one point, he resorted to forging a letterhead to convince authorities he wasn’t just one guy, but head of a large and potent organization. He did all that he could.

He saved 669 children; the parents who put them on the train, and most of the rest of their families in Europe, vanished forever into the Nacht u. Nebel of the Final Solution.

And what did he do then? Like most men his age, he served in the war, and afterward, moved on with his life. What is different about his rescue is what he didn’t do — he didn’t tell anybody. Apart from a brief mention in a flyer for a 1950s campaign for local office — he lost, by the way — he never brought it up. He did it, and that was enough. It was in 1988, almost fifty years later, that his wife found an old scrapbook — and discovered Nick Winton’s secret.

After that, he was showered with honors, none of which he sought. Last week, there was a memorial service for Sir Nicholas Winton, who passed away last year, leaving alongside his own progeny perhaps as many as 15,000 “descendants” among his foster children.

Winton didn’t do this alone, of course, and that is one reason he never blew his own horn. He actually ran the operation from London, and had a team of helpers — all long since passed away — on the ground in Prague. So do bear in mind that it was a team effort, if you go (as we are about to recommend!) to Kemberlee’s story and Read The Whole Thing™, and watch the two embedded videos there (one from the Beeb and one from CBS’s 60 Minutes, but they’re not like all the others…).


The Marker is All that Remains, Until We Look Further

Queens Westminster Rifles grave markerThis small, but beautifully worked, marker was nailed, Christlike, to a cross that marked the end of a man’s world and the beginning of the Commonwealth War Graves Commisison’s responsibility for caring for his last remains. When his daughter, who somehow received the temporary cross, presumably when Richard de Rupe Roche’s grave was marked with a permanent stone by the Commission after the war, passed away, the marker which had been on the cross came into the white-gloved hands of the curators of the Imperial War Museum in London, who handle and preserve the century-old marker with care, perhaps even reverence.

Name plate from temporary grave marker of (409) Corporal Richard de Rupe Roche who served during the First World War on the Western Front with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th Battalion, The London Regiment). Corporal de Rupe Roche died on active service on 8 January 1915 (aged 34). He was the elder son of Captain Richard Roche RN and Maria Jane Roche, and husband of Ethel Roche of Culver Cottage, Fletcher Road, Horsell, Woking. He is buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension. (Information derived from the Commonwealth War Graves ‘Debt of Honour’ database). The cross belonged to his daughter Miss Barbara Roche who died in 1981; Miss Roche’s only memory of her father was waving goodbye to him as he left by train when she was only five years old.

Multiply that by several million, translate it into all the languages of the European continent, and behold the human picture of First World War.

The IWM does not say it, but Barbara, born 1913, was Richard’s and his wife Ethel’s only child. When Richard died, he left a substantial estate (for the time) of £2,365 15s 6d. (For those not old enough to recall pre-decimalization English money, those figures denote two thousand, three hundred sixty-five pounds, fifteen shillings and sixpence… people would usually say two thousand, three hundred sixty-five pounds, fifteen and six. Don’t get us started on guineas.

Says the IWM of this little artifact:

Name plate from a temporary grave marker of (409) Corporal Richard de Rupe Roche who served during the First World War on the Western Front with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th Battalion, The London Regiment). Corporal de Rupe Roche died on active service on 8 January 1915 (aged 34). He was the elder son of Captain Richard Roche RN and Maria Jane Roche, and husband of Ethel Roche of Culver Cottage, Fletcher Road, Horsell, Woking. He is buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension. (Information derived from the Commonwealth War Graves ‘Debt of Honour’ database). The cross belonged to his daughter Miss Barbara Roche who died in 1981 and was a close friend of the donor’s sister, to whom she left all her personal property. Miss Roche’s only memory of her father was waving goodbye to him as he left by train when she was only five years old. Several photographs and two letters of condolence were acquired with the marker (see correspondence file). One photograph shows a simple wood cross with the grave marker fixed to it at Houplines Military Cemetery and the others show Miss Barbara Roche as a young girl with her mother Ethel and a separate photograph of Corporal Roche.

For all their effort, the IWM has missed some details of Richard Roche the father and Richard de Rupe Roche. Fortunately, amateur historians memorializing Isle of Wight notables have unearthed them, and historians far away in western America have found more. These details reflect well on the men and their family. Captain Roche served in a ship in support of the British force that occupied the north end of San Juan Island in Washington (while American Marines occupied the south end, and diplomats wrangled over the border). Roche père did considerable exploration there; some terrain features are named after him to this day. He passed on in 1888 in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, so at least he did not live to see his son go to war — either time.

In World War I, Corporal Roche received a Mention in Dispatches, a significant valor award. It turns out he was already a veteran who fought and was wounded in the Boer War.

Private 4766 Richard de Rupe Roche served with 50 Company (2nd Hampshire) 17 Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry in the South African War. He was ‘Wounded Dangerously on 28 Mar 1901 at Rondal’, and awarded the Queen’s South Africa (QSA) Medal with Clasps: Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, Rhodesia, South Africa 1901.

He would have been just 20 in that war. He was well enough on his return to England for sport:

Richard de Rupe Roche is believed to have played for Wakefield Rugby Football Club in the inaugural season of 1901/2.

Back to his temporary marker at the IWM:

Physical description

Silver metal grave marker (148mm x 105mm) bearing portcullis emblem and impressed inscription: ‘QUEEN’S WESTMINSTER RIFLES. / CPL R DE R ROCHE. / 8, JAN 1915 / DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI. / R.I.P.’ The plate has four rounded corners with a hole in each of them for fixing to cross.

via grave marker (EPH 7584).

The marker is a beautiful thing, is it not? Almost jewelry. The Queen’s Westminster Rifles were a territorial unit, which is to say, a reserve formation. Someone spent money from the regimental fund to make these fine markers, because the average poor bastard had to be content to have his grave marked with hand-painted or stencilled letters, or letters quickly stamped in a pot-metal marker strip that the British Army’s logistic troops used at the time.

A dozen years ago, when Roche’s medals were sold at auction, more of his military history was told, including the sad circumstances of his demise (he was slain going for water for his Vickers or Maxim gun); we have bolded some points of interest in the auctioneers’ narrative:

Medals & Decorations ] Six: Corporal R. de R. Roche, 16th London Regiment (The Queen’s Westminster Rifles), late Imperial Yeomanry, who was killed in action near Houplines on 8 January 1915 Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 5 clasps, Cape Colony, Rhodesia, Orange Free State, Transvaal, South Africa 1901 (4766 Tpr., 50th Coy. 17th Impl. Yeo. ); 1914 Star (409 L. Cpl., 1/16 Lond. R.); British War and Victory Medals (409 Cpl., 16 Lond. R.); Territorial Force Efficiency Medal, G.V.R. (409 Pte., 16/Lond. Regt.); another Territorial Force Efficiency Medal, G.V.R. (409 Pte., 16/Lond. Regt.), this being an entirely official but erroneous ‘double issue’, with related Memorial Plaques (Richard de Rupe Roche) and (Philip Henry Tibbs) [see footnote], the first very fine and the last polished, the remainder nearly extremely fine (8) E600-800

Richard de Rupe Roche, who was born at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, the son of Captain R. Roche, R.N., enlisted in the Imperial Yeomanry in February 1900, aged 20 years. Subsequently posted to the 17th Battalion, he served out in South Africa from April 1900 until July 1901, and was dangerously wounded at Rondal on 28 March. He was discharged in the same year.

Roche, however maintained his links with the military establishment, by joining the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, and was awarded his T.F.E.M. in Army Order 282 of October 1911. Clearly a keen Territorial soldier, he was a noted marksman, four times making the final hundred to qualify for the King’s prize at Bisley in the years leading up to the Great War. He also represented Ireland in shooting competitions in 1913 and 1914. Called up in August 1914, he went with his Battalion to France on 1 November 1914, and was mentioned in despatches for his bravery at the end of the month: ‘On the 30th November, Lieutenant J. B. Baber and Corporal R. de R. Roche captured the first prisoners for the Battalion They had gone out at night to patrol along a ditch some way in front of the line, when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by three different parties of the enemy who had apparently arranged to meet at a certain spot. Two of the enemy patrols passed by without having their suspicions aroused, but the third consisting of three men was making its way towards the place where Lieutenant Baber and Corporal Roche were crouching. The latter immediately opened fire, and after killing one man rushed the remaining two, who threw down their rifles and surrendered.’

The circumstances of Roche’s death during the Houplines operations are also described in The War History of the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Westminster Rifles 1914-18, by J. Q. Henriques: 8th January, just as it was beginning to get light, Corporal R. de R. Roche was shot as he was crossing the open to get some water for his gun. He was not missed until daylight, when he was seen lying in the open in rear of the trench and in full view of the enemy, who was not more than a hundred and twenty yards away. It was practically certain death to attempt to reach him; but two very gallant men, Rifleman P. H A. Tibbs, a stretcher-bearer, and Rifleman Pouchot (both of No. 2 Company), crawled out to him to see if anything could be done. As soon as they were seen, the enemy opened fire on them, but both men went on and succeeded in reaching Corporal Roche, who was found to be dead. Rifleman Tibbs was killed as he was kneeling over his body; but Rifleman Pouchot, who saw that both men were beyond help, managed to get back to our lines untouched. He was awarded the D.C.M. for his bravery on this occasion, and thus won the first decoration gained by the Battalion. Rifleman P. H. A. Tibbs was mentioned in despatches. Corporal Roche was a noted rifle and revolver shot, and a very keen member of the Regiment. At home he had always been ready to give to others the benefit of his experience; he had served in the South African War, and in France had already done some splendid work for which he was mentioned in despatches. In him the Battalion lost a good soldier and a true comrade.’

A less comfortable but probably more accurate account of Roche’s final moments appears in The Daily Graphic a witness describing how he was actually found ‘gasping for breath, with a terrible wound in his face’, and how Tibbs was shot down as he tried to bandage him with a field dressing; similarly, further mention of the incident is to be found in the diary of Sergeant B. J. Brookes, also of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, who stated that their bodies lay out in the water – for the area was flooded – for a long time, ‘the stretcher bearer lying with his arm round the neck of the other man’, since the Germans kept a close eye on them in the hope of catching further victims. Roche, whose posthumous ‘mention’ by Sir John French appeared in The London Gazette on 22 June 1915, was eventually interred in the Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension, where he lies in a grave adjoining that of the heroic Rifleman Tibbs; photographs of his headstone are included. Sold with original M.I.D. certificate, dated 31 May 1915, and related War Office letter regarding the announcement of the award and offering the King’s condolences on Roche’s subsequent death in action; together with Record Office forwarding letter for his B.W.M. and Victory Medals, dated 12 August 1922.

He seems to have been a remarkable man, and his death a pity, for his family and for his country. The number of such distinguished families brought to an end by the Great War must be staggering (although Roche did have, apparently, a surviving brother). And this story could be repeated with examples from every combatant nation. In war, the best fall; it has to have a dysgenic effect on a nation.

Belated Recognition for Great War Private John Edward Gravenor

GravenorA century-old error has been put right. A soldier was labeled a “deserter” for not forming up with his unit after a 1916 battle. But recently he was found in other records to have failed to show for a very good reason: he was killed by enemy rifle fire while trying to patrol across a defended river, and his body was never recovered.

Thanks to the persistence of a great-niece who never knew him, Private John Edward Gravenor, who as a “deserter” was never listed on any war memorial with the honorable dead, is now going to be so engraved.

A British soldier who was branded a ‘coward’ and a ‘deserter’ after fighting during the First World War has finally been exonerated as a hero thanks to his great-niece’s persistence to clear his name.

Private John Edward Gravenor, from Edgbaston, Birmingham, died, aged 26, while wading across a river – ahead of his unit – during fierce fighting in Salonika, Greece, in July 1916.

His body has never been found and rumours persisted that he fled after making it to the far bank on July 29. Even the Army branded him a ‘deserter’ and ‘coward’ in official military documents.

It also emerged that the British Army accepted, back in the 1920s, that Private Gravenor had not turned his back on the enemy. But a lack of paperwork meant that his exoneration remained buried.

Gravenors awards

However, he can now be remembered alongside his fallen colleagues after his great-niece, Nikki Medlicott, finally managed to clear his name and exonerate him as a hero 100 years on.

No death certificate was ever issued for Private Gravenor and she has spent the last seven years trying to prove that Britain should pay tribute to the soldier who gave his life fighting for his country.

And her persistence has finally paid off – after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission admitted ‘something went wrong’ in documenting her Great Uncle’s military career.

The organisation has pledged that the soldier scrubbed from history will be included on the Dorian memorial in Greece after confirming he was killed in action when he was shot as he crossed a river.

Ms Medlicot is now pushing for Birmingham City Council to include his name in the city Book of Remembrance, something that could not be done until the Commission recognised his sacrifice.

via First World War soldier John Edward Gravenor branded a coward has been exonerated | Daily Mail Online.

Character, whether of the doomed combat variety of Gravenor and so many Great War Britons, or of the stubborn, persistent kind displayed by his young relative, suggests that, while “always” represents a very long time, England is here for the long haul, and one would be ill advised to listen to premature obituaries of that scepter’d isle.

Jeff Cooper on Small Caliber Guns

Jeff Cooper and 45Col. Jeff Cooper was known as someone who believed that there was no point in a handgun whose caliber did not begin with .4. (Had he lived to see it, he’d probably warm up to the .500 S&W). He was very influential in the late-century police adoption of 10mm and .40 caliber pistols, and had nothing good to say about smaller rounds.

Of course, Cooper is an interesting cat. He was an entertaining gunwriter, an excellent shot and competitor, and an instructor with a massive and sometimes slavish following. He insisted on the title Colonel, and made broad hints about being some kind of secret squirrel, but as far as we know he was a reserve ordnance officer without combat service, let alone command. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; somebody had better be running the depots and making sure the gunplumbers stay organized and get paid.

While working up the book on Czech and Czechoslovak guns, it seemed like an amusing idea, given the European penchant for .25 (6.35 mm) or .32 (7.65 x 17SR) pistols as military and police sidearms, to contrast European, particularly Czechoslovakian, midcentury practice with Cooper’s preferences. We hit several varieties of pay dirt, in an excerpt below from an early draft of the book. And then, in this post, we move on to another famous fictional secret squirrel! But first, Cooper:

American pistolero and writer Jeff Cooper, Col., USMC (Ret.), once had occasion to meet Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a famous German Stuka pilot, best known for destroying over 500 Soviet tanks with a version of the  dive-bomber armed with two Rheinmettal-Borsig . Naturally, Cooper, a strong proponent of .45 and 10mm pistols, wanted to know what sort of pistol Rudel, a man facing a high risk of capture by what would certainly have been a furious enemy, carried on his combat flights. Cooper remembers:

I asked Rudel about this and he told me personally that he packed one of those miniature 25 caliber automatics on his antitank missions. When asked why, he replied, “Because I have never been a pessimist.”[1]

What Cooper said to Rudel on this occasion, he did not bother to record; but he’s on record at other times as referring to, the “25 ACP, which everyone knows is not sufficient to clear sinuses,”[2] and this aphorism in-the-round:

[C]arry a 25 if it makes you feel good, but do not ever load it. If you load it you may shoot it. If you shoot it you may hit somebody, and if you hit somebody – and he finds out about it – he may be very angry with you.[3]

Bear in mind that the “anemic” .38 special of Cooper’s day was once the “hot” round, replacing even lighter loads such as the .32 Colt and .32 S&W (interchangeable cartridges, the different names were marketing eyewash) and the .38 S&W, a round the Brits happily issued to soldiers as the .38/200 in World War II! He lived in a period of great firepower expansion, even before he gave it a push, but the old, small-caliber guns died hard, both in police agencies — NYPD stuck to the .38 special until they finally went to automatics, far behind other departments — and in the popular culture.

Ian Fleming wrote without irony, in Dr. No in 1956, and after consulting with a Scots expert in firearms, that the .32 ACP PPK with which Major Boothroyd — named after the expert — replaced James Bond’s preferred .25 Beretta, had “a delivery like a brick through a plate glass window.” Geoffrey Boothroyd had written to Ian Fleming:

I dislike a man who comes into contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that.[4]

Boothroyd (as has been recorded elsewhere in these pages) suggested several upgrades for Bond, including a Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special, but the book, Dr. No, and the film, set him up with the .32 PPK instead. Boothroyd’s lines:

Walther PPK. 7.65mm, with a delivery like a brick through a plate glass window. Takes a Brausch silencer with very little reduction in muzzle velocity. The American CIA swears by them.[5]

Bond and BoothroydIn the movie, Dr. No, Hollywood quotes the scene verbatim, but the producers and property master/armorer botch it by using a .380 Beretta 1934 — a more powerful pistol than the .32 PPK — as a stand-in for the .25 Beretta of the novel.

In both versions of Dr. No, at the end of the discussion, Bond attempts to leave with both pistols. But as Jeff Cooper might have told him, .32 + .25 does not equal .45.


[1] Cooper, John Dean “Jeff”. Cooper’s Commentaries, Vol. 14, No. 5, June-September 2006. Retrieved from:

[2] Cooper, John Dean “Jeff”. Cooper’s Commentaries, Vol. 2, No. 2, 31 January 1994. Retrieved from: The whole comment is brief and is worth reproducing here:

We hear of an unfortunate woman who, during an nighttime asthma attack, confused the small handgun she kept under her pillow with an asthma inhaler and proceeded to relieve her symptoms. It was not a fatal mistake, partly because she used a 25 ACP, which everyone knows is not sufficient to clear sinuses.

[3] Cooper, John Dean “Jeff”. Cooper’s Commentaries, Vol. 4, No. 14, December 1996. Retrieved from: Again, the whole exchange is worth reproducing, although a bit longer than the last:

Our old buddy Gene Harshbarger from Guatemala reports a recent episode with the 25 ACP pistol cartridge. It seems that Gene’s cousin was set upon by a trio of car thieves who shot him once almost dead center with that dinky little pistol. The bullet entered at a very flat angle, however, proceeded laterally just inside the pectoral muscle, and exited after about 5 inches of traverse, continuing on into the target’s left arm.

The cousin hit the deck and started shooting back, whereupon the assailants split. When he stood up the bullet slid out of his left sleeve and bounced on the pavement. It penetrated the jacket, but not the skin of his left arm.

As we used to teach in the spook business, carry a 25 if it makes you feel good, but do not ever load it. If you load it you may shoot it. If you shoot it you may hit somebody, and if you hit somebody – and he finds out about it – he may be very angry with you.

[4] Packard, Scott. Inside Bond’s Weapon of Choice, the Walther PPK. Gear Patrol, 9 November 2012. Retrieved from:

[5] ibid.