Liner Notes: Paying for War in Angola

There’s  a common military aphorism that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. Despite that famous statement, histories of logistics can be hard to find and among those histories of finance (beneath the strategic level) even harder. The obscurity extends beyond historians even to the militaries you would expect to know better. According to a short monograph recently published by Air University Press, the US Air Force went into both Gulf Wars without a financial management system capable of operating in a war zone.

One of the more innovative experiments in managing finance in the theater of operations comes from the Cuban intervention in Angola. It’s particularly interesting for me because it hinged on one of the more unusual instruments of postwar power, the cruise liner.

Between 1975 and 1991 more than 430,000 Cuban soldiers and civilians served in Angola. The troops, who were a mix of professionals, reservists, and conscripts, were all ostensibly volunteers. Though conscripts got the perk of reducing their service from three years to two, in general pay was poor. An ordinary soldier received seven Cuban pesos and 150 Angolan kwanzas per month, disbursed at the end of the soldier’s tour. The kwanzas could be used to buy discounted luxury goods in special subsidized shops in Luanda. The pesos were for home. To avoid having to funnel all returning troops through Havana or operate pay counters in every port of arrival, the Cubans hit on an unusual solution. For most of the 1980s they hired the Soviet cruise liner Leonid Sobinov to float off the Angolan coast as a “money ship.” Troops were shuttled out to the Sobinov to receive their back pay before the long transatlantic voyage home. Under close escorts because it carried so much money, the Sobinov usually stayed in Angolan waters for three days at a time. At least once it remained for a month.

The original designers of the Sobinov had probably never considered such as use for the ship. That said, they had probably also never considered that it would be owned by the Soviets. Like many of the Soviet Union’s larger passenger ships, it had been constructed outside the Soviet sphere entirely. Built for the Cunard Line in Britain as the RMS Saxonia in the mid-1950s, the Sobinov was sold to the Soviet Union and renamed in 1973. In addition to its unique duties as a “money ship,” it operated as an occasional troopship and cruise ship in the south Pacific and Mediterranean. It was laid up in the mid-1990s and scrapped in 1999.

Source: Edward George, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (Frank Cass, 2005)


Invincible Blades and Unerring Bullets

Looking to improve your shooting? Consider following the example of carpenter Georg Schott of Augusburg, who mixed the intestines of a suicide victim, burned to ash, into his gunpowder. Want to make yourself invincible in a duel? Take the advice of Hans Hellinger and hide a thunder-stone beneath a church altar so a Mass is said over it. Then insert the stone in the pommel of your sword. Your enemy’s sword will always break. Or, if you feel like you might need a variety of tools to up your game, you could follow the example of mercenary Job Körnlein, who was arrested in Nuremberg with strips of skin, the finger of a dead Turk, and a piece of hangman’s rope – all talismans to improve one’s aim.

As B. Ann Tlusty shows in a recent article in the European Review of History, “weapons magic” was rife across early modern Germany. Soldiers, mercenaries, town guards, and even townsmen (for whom wearing a sword was a symbol of civic freedom) all many reasons seek magics that might give them an edge in duels or battles. Some weapons magic was connected with the language of devils and demons – the witch Anna “Tempel Anneke” Roleffes confessed to selling confession wafers to men who wanted them as shooting charms. Other magic reflected the academic language of sympathy promulgated by learned doctors like Paracelsus, many of whom were also busy prescribing human flesh (recent or ancient Egyptian) for various ailments. Much was apparently common folk belief.

Why did weapons magic thrive in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Germany? Tlusty suggests it was “the convergence of scientific, religious, and magical beliefs about blades and bullets just when the sword was at the apex of its association with masculine identity.” Why did it disappear? Growing skepticism about magic, the professionalization of warfare, the decline of casual arms-carrying, and a change in what constituted honorable conduct in dueling or battle all meant that the spells and talismans fell in popularity in the eighteenth century.

Tlusty’s article is currently available online to anyone at the publisher’s website, although it looks like that access is temporary. Take a look before it goes behind the paywall.

The Strange Life of Corpse Medicine

The following is an unusual prescription for epilepsy: “take of the powder (whether made by filing, rasping, or, otherwise) of the sound skull of a dead man, and give of it about as much as will lie upon a groat, made up into a bolus with conserve of rosemary-flowers.” If one had to pick a word to describe this disgusting concoction, you might call it “medieval.”

You’d be wrong. The prescription dates from the end of the seventeenth century and the prescriber is Robert Boyle, practically the inventor of the science of chemistry. As Richard Sugg observes in his book Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, the medical use of human bodies thrived in the early modern era rather than the middle ages.

Whether it was “mummy” (as likely to be the flesh of the recently dead as genuine preserved Egyptian), blood, fat, or moss grown on the back of a human skull, early modern doctors and patients were wild for corpse medicine. As Sugg’s pithily puts it: “James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine.” Boyle was one keen user, experimenting with skull-grown moss (usnea), blood, or mummified flesh. So was the “father of neuroscience,” Thomas Willis, the poet John Donne, and the Paracelsian chemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont.The fact that prescribing human parts thrived at the same time as the Scientific Revolution – often even with the same individuals – actually makes perfect sense. Only a few ancient and medieval doctors prescribed corpse medicine. If the Galenic corpus remained the basis of medical teaching, corpse medicine would never have thrived. But the vigorous and wild empiricism of the Scientific Revolution gave license to all sorts of strange experiments. Shakespeare’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is the credo of a experimental era not one of received wisdom. (I realize I’m oversimplifying here, but indulge me for a minute.) The human body is a complex machine, one that even today foils attempts to judge the efficacy of all sorts of medical treatments (and let’s not even get started on the placebo effect).It’s no surprise that it was experimentalists like Boyle and Willis who were willing to try corpse medicine. And frankly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that corpse medicine seemed no less predictably successful than other treatments, given the information at their disposal.

Plankton on the Battlefield

How small can an animal be, and still shape a battlefield? Very small, it turns out, as long as you’re zooplankton.

In 1942, the US Navy came to a group of oceanographers working in the University of California Division of War Research with an odd question. Navy sonar operators were getting echoes from “false bottoms,” with their signals bouncing back from depths of 1500 feet where the true depth of the ocean was several thousand. The navy was flummoxed, looking for ways to explain the phenomenon, and turned to the oceanographers Charles Eyring, R.J. Christensen, and Russell Raitt.

They turned to Martin Johnson of the Scripps Institute, a marine biologist who had already had success helping the navy recognize that interference with their sonar signals was the work of snapping shrimp (which are, apparently, shockingly loud when you put hundreds of them together).

Johnson was struck by the idea that the source of the reflection might be organic. In the deep ocean, zooplankton and the fishes which feed on them follow a diurnal cycle – staying deep during the day and climbing close to the surface at night. Clustered together, these fishes and plankton were dense enough to generate a sonar return that confused the operator.

In 1945, Johnson had the chance to prove his theory, watching as the false bottom (soon to be known as the “deep scattering layer”) rose towards the surface overnight and sank again in the morning. Once again, he had been able to help explain the environment in which the navy was fighting.

The use of oceanography during the Second World War became the basis for a massive expansion of government-funded ocean research during the Cold War, and Johnson’s discoveries helped ensure that marine biology and the study of the deep scattering layer would be part of that. After all, even tiny plankton could affect the operation of the US Navy’s most advanced sensors.

h/t Gary E. Weir, An Ocean in Common: American Naval Officers, Scientists, and the Ocean Environment (Texas A&M University Press, 2001); Robert L. Fisher, Edward D. Goldberg, and Charles S. Cox (eds.), Coming of Age: Scripps Institution of Oceanography : A Centennial Volume, 1903–2003 (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2003).

Pigeons at Sea

Here’s an interesting postscript to Project Pigeon, the US wartime effort to train pigeons to guide bombs. In the late 1970s, Project Sea Hunt began training pigeons for a similar task, except that this time they were supposed to recognize orange objects floating in the water – like a life raft or a person in a life jacket. After a rigorous, and personalized (!) training program, the pigeons were deployed in a plexiglass dome on the bottom of a US Coast Guard helicopter, and in tests off Hawaii they proved to be startlingly good at the job.

SARPigeonPosterUnlike humans, pigeons don’t get bored of scanning the waves for hours, and they work like their next meal depends on it (which, with operant conditioning, it sort-of does). In the Hawaii tests, the pigeons spotted the targets (a simulated overturned life raft) before the humans 84% of the time, and frequently at a greater distance.

The project was cancelled in 1983 due to budget cuts, but not before tragedy had struck one team of Coast Guard pigeons. In 1979, one of the test aircraft was on a real Search and Rescue flight off Hawaii when it ran out of fuel and had to ditch. All four human crew were saved, but the pigeons didn’t make it.

More on Project Sea Hunt at the US Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office.

The Paradogs

I think this can be pretty much submitted without comment: Der Spiegel has an article on the dogs who parachuted into Normandy with the British 6th Airborne Division on D-Day:

Bing and the other dogs proved to be very useful, especially for locating mines and booby traps. “They would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy,” [one soldier] wrote, noting that the dogs would then be rewarded with a treat. “The dogs also helped on patrols by sniffing out enemy positions and personnel, hence saving many Allied lives,” he added.