Target London – Where’s the damn map?

January 15, 2014

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Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets.  The story is told in detail – great detail.  In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks.  We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and  intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.

All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret.  Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.

Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again.  There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.

When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance.  Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish  double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid.  As Campbell relates:

Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs – the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”

But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous.  In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault.  The map shows a strange convergence of data:  Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.

Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless.  I know about that personally.  Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.

il_570xN.492779607_o6ju  20622-01

Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:

HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!

I have forgot the map.

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)

The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent.  Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians.  The V-2 was a different story.  Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible.  The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos.  Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.


Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp.  As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported.  The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.


The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1.  Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.


The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below.  These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of  Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project.  Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are.  Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving.  More photos and history at this excellent site.




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“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.   

Tom Lehr

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Pynchon Fan

August 10, 2011

Initiating conversations with strangers on the NYC subway is not something I do often:  there’s too much uncertainty about the possible responses.  Yesterday, however, I broke my rule when I found myself crushed against the door of a crowded train next to a young man with a tattoo on his inner forearm just like the image above.  After screwing up my resolve, I quietly asked, “Are you a Pynchon fan?”  His eyes lit up, and he replied, “Yes, I am a Pynchon fan!  How many people get that!

For those not in the know, the symbol is a post-horn (used by mail carriers in Europe) and it figures prominently in Pynchon’s only short novel, The Crying of Lot 49.  It’s bound up with the history of the noble family, von Thurn und Taxis (here’s one of them) and their role in setting up one of the first national systems for moving mail.  A rare stamp for sale (crying a lot is an old bit of jargon – obsolete, I was told by a gentleman from Swann Galleries – that means putting an item up for auction) that shows a mail delivery airplane, accidentally printed upside-down, is the source of the title and the key to the mystery of the book.

Hmm..,” I replied.  “Don’t go overboard..,” I said, obliquely referring to all that conspiracy-paranoia stuff in Pynchon’s oeuvre.  Wonder if he caught my meaning.

Here is a link to all my posts tagged Pynchon.

Russian Satori

December 25, 2010

I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace.  The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat.  Is that the real story?  Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre?  When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.

Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story.  They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx.  Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death.  First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded.  In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes.  He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.

He is barefoot as the weather is still mild.  He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete.  This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat.  A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night.  They are keeping him prisoner!  Him, and his immortal soul!  They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him!  Satori, the zen enlightenment,  comes at odd times.

Nature’s soft passementerie

May 3, 2009


Today, in rainy weather, I went for a walk in this nature preserve in my town, a scant 5 miles from Manhattan.  In the photo, it looks like a park with large soft lawns, but it’s actually a swampy marsh with a path constructed through it.  In the rain, I can see how the water fills the channels and where it flows, and the colors look soft and rich.  The birds act differently too.

The essence of a garden, or park, is the joining of the path and nature.  Nature has no paths; they are for man.  Of course, this area is “restored”, and has been much abused by man, and the path through it is carefully built, but still, one has the feeling, especially in the rain, of tramping through a place without humans.  Even though residential quarters are often only a few yards away!

Here are those soft passementeries I was thinking of.  Inviting us into it, to rummage and grope and get lost.  As in a woman’s closet of dresses.  Sloththrop gets lost in just this way with Katje, but he’s always getting lost…




A profusion of leafy things, none of them with names that I know.


The object of my walk.  I took a sample of the water for examination under the microscope.



Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008


The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!



February 21, 2008


The image here is an elargement of a postage stamp from the last days of the Third Reich showing the launch of five Victory Rockets, the V-2, towards London. (I bought it on ebay, where else?) For dramatic effect, the artist has shown the rockets taking off at steep angle rather than vertically, as they would have been launched. When they reached the point at which their engines would cut out, brenschluss, the rockets would continue on their way, “pure ballastic”, powered solely by the force of gravity, describing a rainbow parabolic arc to their explosive terminus in England.

I have read Gravity’s Rainbow several times. Most of the people I recommend it to barely start it. I guess I like it. But I’m not sure how much I like it. It was certainly an important book to me when I first read it in college – we fans called ourselves the Gravity Men. But since then, I have gone back and forth on my “critical” assessment of this work that is, regardless of my opinion or anyone elses’, a very important, i.e., influential, book.

To summarize the “main” thread of its incredibly complicated set of plotlines, or at least the one that interests me the most and relates most directly to the title:

Tyrone Slothrop is a private in the US Army stationed in London during the V-2 blitz. A colleague, plotting with colored pins on a map of London the impact sites of the rockets, begins to notice a pattern: When Slothrop, who has a knack with the ladies that is envied and celebrated by his buddies, beds down with a new bird, the rocket arrives the next morning to destroy the site. It’s almost as though Slothrop’s presence brings the rocket on later, or as though through some weird sex-guilt-perversion-psycho complex, Slothrop chooses to have sex with women who will be destroyed. And how could he know in advance..? Are cause and effect reversed in time? (You only hear the supersonic rocket coming after the impact!) It all has to do with the experiments performed by Lazlo Jamf, using baby Slothrop as a subject, that tested his sexual arousal in the presence of a new plastic, Imopolex G, which substance is a critical component in the V-2 rocket…

From here on, it gets complicated.

Maps, mathematics, sex, history, techo-weirdness…it has its appeal.

Pynchon can write poetically, and he sometimes conveys a sense of deep pathos, but too often his characters are mere cardboard that he moves around to make his fascinating and convoluted points. The book is permeated with the spirit of “stoner humor,” the sort of jokes that you imagine might be hilarious if you were high, but that can be a bit tedious and sophomoric if you are just reading. Paranoia, the ultimate scheming by the unamed and unknowable Them, the depiction of all social structures as conspiracies (from motherhood to the distribution of lightbulbs) can be outrageously funny, but to one who has never been a fan of Ken Kesey, 60s-style counter-cultural posturing, it can also appear dated and somewhat trivial.

Lots of critics are in awe of Pynchon’s grasp of science and mathematics, but I suspect that this has a lot to do with the general ignorance of such topics among literary critics. (cf. his endless discussion of entropy, a concept much abused in non-scientific argument.) I love his fascination with drainage and urban sewers (a central element in his novel, V) and as one who grew up in the shadow of Rocketdyne and the roar of its engine tests (or at least that’s what we thought those noises were), how could I fail to be amused by The Crying of Lot 49, in which Yoyodyne is the name of a principal defense-aerospace contractor? (I was told by an auction house person that nobody uses that phrase, “crying a lot” anymore.) That novel centers on another conspiracy, one involving the postal service, the first one of which was started by the ancient family of Thurn und Taxis (you can see that name carved into the frieze around the NYC main post office along with the famous “Neither snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night…” slogan.)

Still and all, Pynchon can compress so much into a paragraph. Here he is describing the Victorian Gothic-Revival architecture of the building, known as The White Visitation, where the British counter-intelligence teams work:

The are approaching now a lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted in Gothic cathedrals – but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a derangement of aim, a doubt as to the God’s actual locus (or, in some, as to its very existence), out of a cruel netowrk of sensuous moments that could not be transcended and so bent back the intentions of the builders no on any zenith, but back to fright, to simple escape in whatever direction, from what the industrial smoke, street excrement, windowless warrens, shrugging leather forests of drive belts, flowing and patient shadow states of the rats and flies, were saying about the chances for mercy that year.

The spirit of the age crystalized in architecture, and his prose.

Mindless Pleasures

November 25, 2007


No, I am not talking about Thomas Pynchon. (Mindless Pleasures was his original title for Gravity’s Rainbow.) I mean my Terra Crusher , nitro-fueled, radio controlled, 4-wheel drive, two-speed, monster truck that is finally up and running again. It has a new engine with a pull start. If you want to know what this all about, watch this video. No, mine no longer runs in reverse – that went out with the old, destroyed engine, but that’s a small matter. This truck, for me, is one of those things I dreamed of having as a boy, and now that I do have one, it’s every bit as good as I thought it would be. How often does that happen?

When I was a boy, I was interested in car racing. I recall hearing a discussion between an older boy and his father in which the son complained that car racing “fucked up the environment.” Even as a kid, I thought that was a tad harsh. Pretty small potatoes, pollution-wise, a few hundred cars running like crazy for a few days a year. Still, I guess, if that’s what you concerned about, it might seem very retrograde to be into automobile racing…incorrect, as they say these days.

I enjoy my fume spewing screaming vehicle without guilt – only a toy, and I have absolutely no interest in full-scale monster trucks. In fact, they struck me as idiotic. Let’s hear it for the amazing aesthetic effect of miniaturization!

Spinoza on the Essence of Conspiracies

September 11, 2006


Came across this in the first part of Spinoza’s Ethics .   Somehow, he anticipated the nature of conspiracy theories by centuries. Ooops, they have always been with us. Instead, he is the earliest of which I know who laid bare the nature of their non-thinking arguments. “Reduction to ingnorance,” I like that.   In this passage, he was refuting the notion that everything that happens, happens for a reason, or an end, similar to the reasons or ends that humans would imagine.   That is, things don’t “just happen,” there is always a reason explaining them.   This is how conspiracy theories work:

Why weren’t those telephone calls from cell phones on the record..?” [Taken from the website Petition to Investigate 9/11.]

It couldn’t just be an error, or system foul-up out of all the thousands from that building that day…if, in fact, the report that they are missing is correct in the first place.   It must be because…And how do you explain the fact that the impact happened on a beautiful day when visibility was so great..? JFK was killed by several people – must be so – one person couldn’t have done it, and there are those reports of…

And so, Spinoza (my italics):

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory–namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof onto someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance?  Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. [Here, Spinoza perfectly captures that knowing tone of the conspiracy theorist…] “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?”  If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist:  “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?”  So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God–in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Pynchon addressed this tendency of people to try and make sense of the world by creating nonsense because they can’t accept the non-sense of the world in Gravity’s Rainbow. It was all due to the Mother Conspiracy.  Mom’s are to blame for everything.  Or you can fret about the ultimate conspiracy, God.

Mr. Churchill Says…The Kinks Say

April 23, 2005

For the last week, I’ve been listening to Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1970) by The Kinks. Listening over and over again because it’s such a good rock album, and I have always been fascinated by pop music that takes a look at history and society, although I don’t mind songs about wanting to hold hands either.

I was only 13 when this album came out – I didn’t get to know The Kinks’ music until the last two years, spurred on partly the interest of my young daughter in 60s music. I wasn’t a close follower of rock ‘n’ roll as a teen, but I knew the big hits by The Kinks – “Lola”, “You Got Me”, etc. “Mr. Churchill Says,” a song on Arthur, is now firmly lodged in my head and I can’t get enough of it. It begins with a slow, bluesey cadence:

Well Mr. Churchill says, Mr. Churchill says
We gotta fight the bloody battle to the very end
Mr. Beaverbrook says we gotta save our tin
And all the garden gates
And empty cans are gonna make us win

and goes on to quote Churchill himself, with a little additional text by Davies:

We shall defend our island
On the land and on the sea
We shall fight them on the beaches
On the hills and in the fields
We shall fight them in the streets
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few
‘Cos they have made our British Empire
A better place for me and you
And this was their finest hour

 An air raid siren goes off, and the song changes into a fast-paced rock number. After a long instrumental passage, they sing:

Did you hear that plane flying overhead
There’s a house an fire and there’s someone lying dead
We gotta clean up the streets
And get me back on my feet
Because we wanna be free!
Do your worst and we’ll do our best
We’re gonna win the way that Mr. Churchill says

 Is he mocking Churchill? Yes. Is he celebrating him? Yes. Is it gentle mockery or admiration he’s expressing about the slogans, the legendary ‘British pluck’ that got them through the blitz? Both, I think. The last song, “Arthur”, after making a little fun of him, concludes with the rollicking chorus

Arthur we read you and understand you
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Oh! we love you and want to help you…

 Several of the songs evoke the horror and dehumanization of war – are they “anti-war” songs? They are intensely personal. Is “Get Back in Line” (on a different album) an anti-Union song because of the lines,

‘Cause that union man’s got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat…?

It’s intensely personal, but doesn’t make an explicit political points. Davies is not a politico. His song “Some Mother’s Son” is about death in war, good war, bad war, indifferent war, period.

Davies was born in ’44 in working class London, too young for memories of the war, but no doubt surrounded by folks for whom the experience was as vivid as it could be. So British, so 60s in a way, breaking away from the past, welcoming the swinging present, but looking with a bit of (sceptical) nostalgia at the past. I don’t know of a comparable strain in American rock/pop music, but Ray Davies may just be extraordinary. Certainly, his muscial roots in British music hall culture (someday I’ll find out just what that was) are part of it, and he shares that with the Beatles.

The Blitz? Gravity’s Rainbow does a nice job of evoking the terror of life lived under the rain of the first rockets. Orwell, in 1984, draws on his experiences with the random destruction of streets, houses, and lives in that time. (I wonder if Orwell would have liked the song – he could be a real stick in the mud when he wasn’t being brilliant.) I’m not sure why it fascinates me so – I’ve always had a thing for the Spitfire airplanes. The fact that the Brits had radar, and nobody else did, so that they had advance warning of the Luftwaffe raids, which, together with the skill of the RAF and the prowess of the Spitfires, wrought terrible losses on Hitler’s planes. Of course, it was nothing compared to the siege of Lenningrad…which makes me think about September 11th …

Some people say 9/11 changed everything – I just don’t get it. It was a terrorist attack…but maybe I’ll post more on that later.