Category Archives: History, current affairs

Sort of political, too

Heart of darkness

Sometimes African rulers get so corrupt that Western aid donors go on strike. Take what Trump would call the shit-hole state of Malawi (please!).

Malawi relies on donors for 40 per cent of its spending. In 2013 a junior public servant was caught with cash bales of $US300,000 in his car boot. Raids on bureaucrats’ homes and car boots located more bales. Then someone shot the finance ministry’s budget director.

‘Cashgate’ travelled up to ministerial level, with initial allegations of a snaffled $US50m escalating to $US250m. The entire cabinet resigned. Normally-lavish donor Norway led a freezing of $US150m in aid, pending reforms.

Australian taxpayers’ despatched a bit over $A98m to Malawi in the past decade. Heck, round it to $100m. In the pre-scandal year we put in $23m. Was it coincidence that next year we halved it to $12m? All is forgiven because post-scandal we’ve given Malawi $46m-plus.

Aid ain’t transformative. Malawi’s signature accomplishment is breeding – 3 per cent annual population growth. In the five years to 2016, national income fell 11 per cent and income per head plummeted from $US440 to $US320. Schools are so useless that three-quarters of kids in sixth-grade primary can’t read. School incompetence is general, with countries typically wasting half their education budget on schooling by semi-literate teachers with national teacher absentee rates up to 42 per cent.

The 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa (23 Islamic, including Malawi) are a bottomless pit for corruption and donors’ funds. OECD puts total aid in the five years 2012-2016 at $USD297 billion. Australia does its bit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) totals our decade’s aid there (to 2018-19) at $A2.4 billion.

DFAT explains that Australia has a ‘clear national interest’ in the security, stability and prosperity of sub-Saharan Africa. Australia is developing good economic partnerships through targeted aid. Our strength is in our experience and expertise in human capacity building and the agriculture and extractive sectors.

But Western aid, alas, averages the same $US50 billion a year as $US50 billion-plus in ‘illicit outflows’ via politicians, officials, business people and criminals, a figure not disputed by the OECD. A pan-African study in 2013 put illicit outflows from 1980-2009 at $US1.2-1.4 trillion, again about equal to aid.

Most is in commerce. For example, Mozambique’s timber exporters were declaring 260,000 cubic metres of global exports when China alone was importing 450,000 cubic metres from Mozambique.

Guinea is rich in iron ore. One mine was reckoned good for $US7b annual exports for 20 years. In 2008 the Guinea government sold a multinational the mining rights for $US165m. The company promptly sold-on half its concession for $US2.5b. A successor government re-let the concession for $US20 billion, a far cry from the original $165m.

Africa’s resources-rich countries, tragically, are showing worse progress on welfare. Illiteracy rates are higher, life is shorter, women and children go hungrier and get beaten up more often.

It’s nasty stuff because any $US100m retained in the country could buy 100m malaria dosages or 10m treated bed nets, for example.

Even nastier: female genital mutilation rates. Here’s the top ten: Somalia 98 per cent; Guinea 96 per cent; Djibouti 95 per cent; Egypt 91 per cent; Eritrea and Mali 89 per cent; Sierra Leone and Sudan 88 per cent; Burkino Faso and Gambia, 76 per cent. All except Eritrea are Islamic states.

Here’s another little case study. Rwanda’s strongman President Paul Kagame is an Arsenal soccer fan. Last month he paid £30m ($A53m) for ‘Visit Rwanda’ to sponsor Arsenal. His clique can now enjoy perks like an Arsenal hospitality box. Rwanda also runs a loss-making airline that swallowed half a billion US dollars in government support from 2013-16. But 40 per cent live in squalor, 90 per cent have no electricity and it’s even rationed to hospitals. Teachers’ pay can lag five months.

Western donors give Rwanda about $US1b a year. The unhappy Brits’ contribution is about $US100m a year. In the past six years Australia gave $19m to Rwanda in official aid, equivalent to a third of Kagame’s payout to Arsenal.

Australia’s aid is now focused 90 per cent on what Julie Bishop re-assuringly calls the ‘Indo-Pacific’. But who’s ‘Indo-Pacific’? Answer: Pacific Islands – 10 including PNG; SEA and East Asia – eight countries including surprise entrant Mongolia; South and West Asia – eight countries including Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and the never-quite-drowning tourist mecca Maldives. And big surprise: African East Coast – Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and South Africa. Kenya by the way has a 27 per cent FGM rate and Tanzania 15 per cent.

This list of supplicants is broad indeed but not as broad as in the Rudd/Gillard era of your-cash-to-burn. In one year, 2011, we rained money on 48 of the 49 sub-Saharan states. That was Kevin Rudd’s strategy for a Security Council seat for 2013-2014.

Guinea-Bissau was the orphan with no grant. It’s not the worst in Africa (that’s Equatorial Guinea, a Christian state whose ruthless dictator has been in power for 38 years. His son in 2016 complained of a home burglary of 60 million euros). According to the US State Department, Islamic Guinea-Bissau features bureaucrats and the military topping up their salaries courtesy of international drug cartels, 45 per cent of the girls and women getting their genitals carved up, ‘wide-spread wife beating’, schools ‘only open intermittently due to strikes by teachers’ and girls being forced into prostitution if they reject arranged marriages. But countries almost as bad did get Kevin’s grants.

Our diplomats in five posts (58 staff) went crazy trying to ‘build relationships’ with scores of indifferent and unscrupulous African states. But in the most cost-effective last-minute gesture in diplomatic history, on General Assembly voting day our reps slipped each voter a Cadbury’s Caramello Koala. We won the poll.

While donors fret, sub-Sahara has become a population time-bomb, many countries gaining 3 per cent a year. Africa’s 1.26b could double to 2.53b by 2050, the UN projects, and nearly double again to 4.47b by 2100. The big feller is Nigeria, now 190m, but growing to 410m by 2050 and 794m by 2100. Currently Islamic forces in Nigeria are ‘ethnic cleansing’ Christian communities and Boko Haram is brutally suppressing girls’ education. (Australia’s decade of Nigerian aid: $48.5m).

Life expectancy below Sahara is 57, fourteen years under world average. In six countries you’re lucky to get forty years’ healthy life.

Across Africa 4 per cent are HIV victims, five times the global average and about forty times the rate in Australia. In South Africa, WHO data for 2016 show one in five adults (18.9 per cent) has HIV with 270,000 new infections a year. Swaziland (27 per cent prevalence!), Botswana and Lesotho are even worse.

Meanwhile African billionaires are on the rise. The 2018 count by Forbes was 23, worth an average $US3b. Isobel dos Santos, worth $US2.7b, happens to be the daughter of former Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos who lingered 38 years in office.

The truly criminal waste in our aid is ‘climate aid’. PM Turnbull, DFAT says, has committed Australia to ‘play its part’ in helping mobilise $US100b a year by 2020 for third world anti-warming efforts. Turnbull in 2015 pledged at least $A1b over five years, disingenuously subtracting it from our existing aid budget. Australia will consider future climate commitments in due course, DFAT adds.

So in three years 2014-16 we’ve tipped in $720m. With 2017-18 added (no data yet) we must have hit the billion, and counting.

DFAT is now evaluating its climate aid. To date it’s been claiming that the usual Pacific storms are a ‘climate’ manifestation, so don’t expect objectivity.

The epitome of climate insanity was our $13m program called System for Land-based Emissions Estimation in Kenya (Sleek) which we finished in mid-2016. The program helped Kenya to count its land-based greenhouse gas emissions for UN reporting requirements. DFAT farmed Sleek out to Bill Clinton’s ‘Clinton Climate Initiative’ (CCI), hopefully cleaner than Bill’s Clinton Foundation. An audit for DFAT by GHD Pty Ltd enthused about Sleek but had to rate it ‘borderline’ for sustainability, financial reporting and risk management.

The auditors envision an ‘upscaled’ Sleek rolled out across East Africa as ‘voluntary (and/or compulsory) carbon markets gain momentum…The value of systems/tools like Sleek will increase dramatically.’ Yeah? Ordinary Kenyans obsess more about their next meal and staying safe than emissions. The US State Dept. critique talks of ‘unlawful and politically motivated killings; forced disappearances; torture; impunity; arbitrary arrest and detention; an inefficient judiciary; lack of accountability in many cases involving violence against women, including rape and female genital mutilation/cutting.’ [FGM rate: 27 per cent]

Senegal hosted the February funding round of the Julia Gillard-chaired multilateral Global Partnership for Education. More than 1200 aid big-wigs, plus singer Rihanna, thronged Dakar. Senegal President Macky Sall was conference hero although Western pledges of $US2.3b fell short of the target $US3.1b. Our Julie Bishop pledged $A90m, additional to her $140m in 2014 and Gillard’s $270m in 2011. GPE’s had $570m from Australia. It typically spends nearly 80% of its funds on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Aid literature deplores ‘violence against girls’ in African schools. I’d assumed this meant bullying among kids, or corporal punishments. But State’s report on Senegal last year says parents keep daughters at home to escape ‘predatory teachers [who] could ruin their reputations and future marriage prospects’. Other reports merely deplore sexual harassment; only State Dept. adds ‘by school staff’.

Unremarked by the delegates, Senegal’s government-supported Quranic teachers chain, beat, rape and sometimes kill their ‘talibes’ – live-in children aged 5-10, says State Dept. They beg on the streets for up to five hours a day for food and money for their teacher – 30,000 begging in Dakar alone last year.

Whatever, Senegal’s education minister was promoted this month to vice-chair of GPE for his ‘remarkable achievements in improving the education system in Senegal [and] his global leadership advocating for the right to education for all children.’

Aid is always contentious but should we mis-spend it closer to home?


Duffy’s Truck and Me


It would be rash to declare that a 1926 Whippet Six taught a young man invaluable lessons in the ways of the world, but in the Western Australia of the 1940s it did encourage a future artist’s creativity, a healthy regard for self-preservation and, when the clutch failed, a certain skill with obscuring the truth

old whippetAt age 16, in 1940, I was offered a job at Kendenup Stores, a typical country store selling everything from bread to bolts, owned by Mr David H Duff, usually known as Dave Duff, and more usually as Duffy.[i] My appointment was as a result of a recent sacking, which came about as a result of an unexpected return to the Stores by Duffy, who had been checking something on his nearby farm. The sack-ee had been engaged in sexual intercourse with the comely young woman who also worked at the Stores.

I obtained the news of the cause of the sacking at first-hand, as possibly many people did, as Duffy was not a taciturn character. I heard him telling Herb McClure, “I came in just as he was pulling his pants back on, and she, well…” (pointing at the floor) “… there are her heel-marks.”

My days at Duffy’s were most interesting, not least because Duffy was a manager in the true sense of the word. He understood the ways of country people, whether they were old or young. My first name is Samuel but no-one in our large family was called by their christened name.  Mine had suffered, through three elder brothers and no doubt my elder sister, the usual fate of transmogrification to “Plum”. Sam…Samson…Damson…Damson Plum…Plum. I hated Plum as a name, and I had never heard of a damson plum, unbelievably in a township that grew the best apples and stonefruit in the West.

kendenup II

At the Stores (above, as it exists today), I decided I needed a change of name. I said to Duffy, without giving any reason, and of course he knew the nicknames of every child in the district, “I want to be known by my second name, Geoff.” He, being a sensitive soul, and also being built like the man on the label of the Holbrook’s Worcestershire sauce bottle, spread the word and there were no transgressions, bless him.

Duffy had a truck, a very famous truck. It not only was used to deliver all of the merchandise to the Stores from the railway siding, and to deliver orders of goods to some of his clientele, but was the only truck big enough to carry loads of children from the local school to annual picnics. Not many local farmers had cars or trucks even then, the horse and buggy being the usual mode of transport.

Duffy’s truck was a 1926 Willys-Overland Whippet Six (a careful restored model is pictured below). It had a manual gear change, with no such thing as synchromesh, let alone automatic transmission. Its electric charger had long since given up the ghost, and the engine consumed large quantities of lubricating oil. The gear box tended to drop out of any of the higher gears unless the gear lever was held in place tightly, but perversely would remain stuck in low gear of its own accord. Duffy had a peculiar knack of exacerbating these malfunctions, and would ask in his uniquely gravelly voice whether anyone in creation could sort things out.

I had such an ability, even if it was embryonic at this stage. Duffy told me to take off the top of the gearbox, and maybe something would come to mind. There was an internal lever which was partly distorted, and I could see that it had been welded previously and was somewhat misaligned. Maybe if one was careful with the gear stick, some sort of truce could be maintained. I could see that Duffy was not going to spend money on mechanical maintenance, and that tightening up the nuts holding the top of the gearbox was going to be a waste of time.

whippet truck

Sure enough, a couple of days later Duffy arrived at the Stores, and both he and the truck were at boiling point.  Trembling with rage as he made his way into the shop, his portly figure shaking, he roared, “Fix the bloody truck, Geoff!” He had got the gears stuck in low gear at the farm five miles away, and had driven the truck to the Stores at a steady walking pace, engine roaring all the way.

I deftly removed two floorboards, undid four nuts on the top of the gearbox, unstuck the gear, put everything back, and filled the radiator with tank water.  Then two minutes later I announced to Duffy’s bewilderment that the truck was ready. “Christ almighty, how did you do that?”

When I had been there for a few months, Duffy’s confidence in me grew enough  for him to leave me in charge while he went to Perth for two weeks, probably to cement firm relations with the insurance company he was agent for, “Sun Alliance”.

I was putting the truck away at evening closing time, and I could not resist flooring the accelerator on the gravel approach to the garage, which was just rough sapling posts and rafters clad with corrugated galvanized iron sheeting.

Unfortunately several mechanical failures occurred simultaneously. The clutch linkage broke, the gear lever stuck in low gear and the accelerator jammed.

With great presence of mind, I kept the front of the truck heading for the open front of the garage, and I realized that the only way to arrest its progress was to cut off the ignition. I stabbed at the switch just as the radiator went through the back wall of the garage. Why Duffy even bothered to garage it, or to even have a garage for such a heap of junk, I sat pondering as I listened to the last sheet of corrugated iron hit the gravel. The echoes died away and a sprinkle of chaff and a couple of feathers from a bird’s nest in the roof timbers landed in my lap. Luckily the roof stayed up, and even more luckily, I was the only witness to the episode. An early arrival next morning armed with a hammer and some springhead nails would be required to carry out necessary repairs.

I began more sophisticated vehicle handling techniques after this. Having to hand-crank the engine was acceptable but if it started with the throttle advanced and jumped into a forward gear I was a dead man. Surely a safer method would be to put the gears into reverse, so that when and if it started, I could leap through the open side of the cabin, disengage reverse, engage a forward gear and proceed upon my way. I tried the method a couple of times, but getting run over by the front wheels as they overtook me from behind was less attractive than leaping out of their way as I faced them.

My favorite method was to lock the handbrake, pull the choke out, ignition off, gears in neutral and prime the engine with four turns of the crank handle. Then change the gears to extra-low forward, off with the handbrake. Advance the throttle one third, ignition on, and position the crank handle and heave.  A leap to the left, reach into the cabin to grab the wooden steering wheel and manipulate the gear lever to arrive at a suitable forward speed for the voyage to the next obstacle – the gate to the paddock with the killing shed where the mutton was ready hung for delivery back to the Stores. After a time I became so adept at changing gears without the assistance of the clutch that I wondered why clutches were ever fitted to vehicles.

Nearing the gate I would change noisily down through the gears to extra-low again, reduce the throttle setting, align the front of the truck roughly with the gate centre and leap out. I would race the truck to the closed gate and would barely have it open while the driverless truck ambled through with mostly an inch or two clearance to the gate post. I would close and fasten the gate, as any careful farmer would, and race off after the truck if it looked as if it was going to collide with the fence. Otherwise I would roll a smoke as the truck did a wide circle or two around the paddock before we met on the way to the killing shed. I would stop the engine there, load up the mutton and the entrails and be off to the Stores with only three stops to go. One for the gate, one for the pen containing Duffy’s pigs to dump the entrails (waste not, want not), and one to pick up any deliveries from the railway station.

When Duffy came back from Perth, I had to tell him about some of the additional faults in the truck, convincing him that these had occurred gradually and despite the gentlest of handling. Even the glistening new nails in the end of the garage were explained away with brilliant lies. Maybe the fact that I had managed to cart 50 tons of superphosphate from the railway station to the shed at the back of the Stores during the period of slow but steady mechanical breakdown was believable. However when I tried to show him how to drive the truck without using the clutch, he pursed his lips a bit and rubbed his forehead. “I’m not as agile as you, you young coot! Take it over to Colmer’s and get it repaired, but mind you get a quote first.”

The gearbox remained in a terrible state. Apparently the quote was too high, and as long as I was around, Duffy’s truck would be on the road somewhere. A whippet, it wasn’t.

Quadrant Online readers owe this memoir of life in the vanished West to contributor Tony Thomas, who explains that Geoff Allen was his uncle on his mother’s side. We don’t know when he wrote Duffy’s Truck or, for that matter, where and when the cantankerous vehicle ended its days. Geoff (1924-2000) was a Perth artist and later a maker of bespoke jewelry. Some of his pieces are in the collection of the WA Art Gallery.

[i] Kendenup is a hamlet (pop today, 1000) 70km north of Albany.


Skippy, Meet Stumpy

As a young reporter, kangaroo-paw bottle openers set my investigative juices flowing. Where did all those amputated limbs come from? While my efforts produced but few hard facts, I’m guessing they were more valuable than the latest green-inspired documentary listing kangaroos as endangered

skippyThe controversy rages over our kangaroo-meat exports to Europe, with Greens luminary Lee Rhiannon among those presenting a horror-cruelty film Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story to the snowflakes of the European Parliament. I’m a Perth boy of Kendenup-Mt Barker heritage, and in the south-west in the good old days we always treated roos as nuisances. Roo-shoots at night from a ute combined good works with entertainment.

Let me now take you in my time capsule back half a century, when you, a pale-faced Eastern Stater, have arrived at Perth Airport by a state-of-the-art TAA Boeing 727. You exit via the gift shop and browse the shelves for a souvenir to take home to loved ones to commemorate your epic and safe flight.kangaroo paw opener II

“Hmm! These look nice!”

They’re chopped-off paws of kangaroos, a sort of visual pun on the kangaroo paw plants flourishing in the gardens outside the building. The actual paws are about 10 inches long and the fur ranges from white through fawn to brown. At one end the five claws and palm are lacquered black, and at the other the amputation is concealed by a steel circlet. Fixed into the circlet is a bottle-opener, paper knife, can-opener or shoe horn.

One model in this novelty line has a thermometer fixed midway down the paw. The thermometer fluid seems to be red ink, and from a distance it looks as though the paw is still bleeding.

“Greetings from Perth, WA,” is inscribed on the metal fittings. Prices are $5 to $7 [$60-80 in today’s money].

In my role as The West Australian’s reporter-at-large, I see fit to look into this souvenir trade.

“Where do you get the paws from?” I ask Miss Andrea Lee-Steere behind the counter, wondering if they are a local industry.

“Kangaroos,” she says.

“Do you like them?”

“We’ve got a bottle-opener paw at home. It looks tremendous on the cocktail cabinet.”

“Do they sell well?”

“Four or five a week. Some people think they are gruesome but most people off the planes are really impressed.”

My arrival at the importers in Perth causes some consternation and steely-eyed glances, particularly when I want to know who produces the paws.

“We don’t say where we get any of our stuff from,” says a representative. “Once we told someone and people started ordering stuff through him direct instead of through our agency.”

He considers the paws are horrible, but says they sell well. It emerges they are made by a struggling migrant in a garage in an outer Melbourne suburb. He had been looking for something original to make, and the paws combined the attractiveness of kangaroo fur with absolutely unshakable authenticity.

Where does the struggling migrant get his raw material from? No-one in Perth knows.

I suggest the paws could be a by-product from the pet food industry, but they don’t think so. I eventually decide that a truck must materialise once a month and tip a load of kangaroo paws on his driveway – an interesting subject for Salvador Dali to paint.

Is anyone in Perth thinking of setting up a rival factory? This is, after all, the Kangaroo Paw State.

No, they say, there’s nothing brewing in that direction.

Being a sentimental bloke, I conclude, “Maybe it’s time to pause on the poor paws.”

Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here

The Original Power Couple – Ceaucescus Part Two

George Orwell was prescient about 1984.  The Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu and wife Elena produced TV sets with two-way transmitters – you watched the TV and it ‘watched’ you, although even they must have know it was overkill, given the legions of flesh-and-blood informers

old nicUnder the Ceaucsecu dictatorship, Romanians’ in the 1970s-80s were forced into abject poverty – only Albania may have been poorer in the Eastern bloc. People’s desperation for food and warmth was coupled with passivity enforced by the dreaded, mysterious Securitate, or secret police. In this essay, a follow-up to one earlier on the Ceaucescu couple’s personal lifestyle, I’ll describe living conditions and then the Securitate operations. These climaxed in the violent Christmas 1989 revolution, apparently faked-up by the Securitate as cover for installing their own people at the top. To this day, no-one knows what really went on.

The Liberty Center Mall in  Bucharest looks like a classy Western shopping mall, with fashion brands, food, a 3D cinema and an ice skating rink. Who would guess it took over the site of one of Ceaucescu’s  feeding stations for the city’s populace, dubbed “Hunger Circuses”.

The circus element was a dome on  each of the five identical feeding complexes, similar to the city’s actual circus building. The dictator finished two, and three more were under way at the time of the Christmas 1989 revolution or coup, which left him riddled with AK47 bullets. Incredibly, his plan involved preventing Bucharest’s population from kitchen-cooking and family meals, in favor of  regimented feeding by the state in  giant soup kitchens, officially called “Agro-Alimentary Complexes”.

On Mondays, for example, everyone’s main meal would be, say, goulash; on Tuesday, cabbage rolls; and Wednesday, bean soup. Food shopping other than at the ‘circuses’ would be extinguished. New apartments wouldn’t need kitchens.

It’s unclear whether any Hunger Circus actually got to operate, or how state-sponsored meals could work during food austerity. As one interviewee recorded, perhaps in hypothetical terms, “You go  there, you take your three little boxes, you go home, you heat them and eat them.  The bad thing is that behind this project there was a terrible idea. Since everything can be found like this, there is no more need for markets for raw products.”

Tony Thomas: The Original Power Couple – Part One

Ceaucescu viewed his subjects like a chicken farmer calculating inputs and outputs. People needed only 3000 calories a day, times the population of 22m. He could reserve the equivalent   total of grains, rice, meat, and eggs for  the population, leaving the rest for export to earn hard currency to pay off foreign debt. Romania had in 1981 defaulted on these US$11 billion debts after the Iranian oil shock of 1979 and Ceaucescu was determined to never again be dictated to by the IMF. He paid off the last foreign debts a couple of months before he was overthrown. He still spent on the military and his wasteful megaprojects such as the world’s biggest administration building, today 90% mothballed.

In practice, he cut food consumption under the pretence of more healthy diets. Only a few months before his execution, Ceaucescu was lying to a Newsweek interviewer that Romanians were among the best-fed on the planet. Shop shelves were full of goods and any empty spaces were just corrections to over-stocking mistakes, he claimed.

He may have half-believed it, as his flunkies sheltered him from the country’s realities of rationing  and hunger. When he travelled, farms were dressed up with fat cows, dense crops and apples wired to branches. On one visit he picked a fat corn cob, discovered it had been installed there, and just shrugged. (In similar vein, Mao Tse-tung’s flunkies even organized giant fans to make fake wheatfields wave when Mao’s train passed by).

The Romanian horror and hypocrisy was summed up in an anonymous letter broadcast by Radio Free Europe:

“I find the children yellow and sleepy, because the kindergarten food is scarce and bad. However the children ask for it so the Party takes care and gives each child a small pill to take away the appetite.” 

Citizens queued from 4am just to get milk when shops opened at 7am. They queued for up to 24 hours in the hope of meat, at best maybe chicken heads, necks  or feet. Retired people and children queued as place-holders while parents worked. Kids were also the eyes and ears of apartment blocks, alerting the tenants to grab their bags the minute a food truck came in view. But there could well be nothing left by the time the shop keepers had taken their first cut, the privileged had jumped the queue, and people hurried in to switch with the placeholders.

Queue dwellers passed the time grumbling about scarcities. It could be hazardous. One man in a butter queue exploded, “The hell with Ceaucescu and everything” and suddenly two men materialized and took him away.

As sociologist Katherine Verdery put it,

“The experience of humiliation, of a destruction of dignity, was common to those who had waited for hours to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) some basic task. Being immobilized for some meagre return, during which time one could not do anything else one might find rewarding, was the ultimate experience of impotence.”[1]

To add to the torments, piped natural gas to apartments had such low pressure that day-time cooking was impossible. Many did their cooking after 11pm or from 4am-7am, when gas pressure was better. Those relying on gas cylinders risked trampling when the replacement-cylinder truck arrived and people stole each others’ tanks. Room heating was another nightmare with indoor temperatures below 10C at home, in shops and at work, with 15,000-20,000 dying annually from cold and hunger. As the 1980s wore on, the regime through fuel austerity imposed a bizarre de-modernisation, with peasants told to use horses rather than tractors and businesses urged to use tricycles for supplies and deliveries. Fridges and washing machines were discouraged, and oil lamps brought back into  use.

To Prime Minister Elena Ceaucescu, people’s distress was of no consequence. Her indoor palace garden of tropical plants involved infra-red heating sufficient for 100 apartments, I was told during a recent visit. In her limo and noticing a queue, she snarled,  “Look at those worms. They’re  like worms on a carrion.”

The Securitate stifled any dissent. From post-war to the early 1960s, the regime  beat and killed opponents. This changed to a less-lethal system of all-pervasive secrecy and fear. A Hungarian-born dissident, Carol Kiraly, said in 1984,  “The atmosphere of terror is beyond description. It permeates every aspect of everyday life. Distrust is so prevalent that no one dares to communicate to anyone.”[2] The Securitate’s operators and informers were invisible to the public and also invisible to fellow operatives. Only those at high Securitate levels knew the bigger picture.

The most sensational disclosure in the book Red Horizons by top-level defector Ion Pacepa was that Ceaucescu organized for opponents to get lethal doses of radiation. Police might pick a man up on a traffic charge and briefly hold him in a cell at the station. No-one  suspected that his cancer death six months later had been organized during that arrest.

Pacepa wrote that a portable Soviet-sourced radiation device was planted in the Romanian section of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Three directors in succession and several other people there  died of cancers; no other RFE country desk had such a pattern.

After visiting China and North Korea in  1971, Ceaucescu started a personality cult of his own, with his toadies competing to idolize him as the Genius of the Carpathians, a Titan among Titans, the Oak from Scornicesti [his birthplace], All-Knowing Beloved Father, Earthly God, The Oak that Rises Above the Country and even “Prince Charming”.

On 27 January 1987,   the national TV station’s two-hour and only broadcast went:

8:00 P.M. – News;

8:20 P.M. – “We praise the country’s leader!” (Poetry);

8:40 P.M.–“Brilliant theoretician and founder of communism” (Documentary dedicated to the theoretical work of Comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu);

9:00 P.M. – “We salute the supreme commander!” (Performance by the artistic brigades of the army). 10pm: Close.

To his fury, Radio Free Europe (RFE), organised by the CIA and State Department, read out smuggled anonymous letters to expose the realities of local life and the  cult. To catch such authors, he organized a data base of the whole working and non-working populations’ handwriting, gleaned largely from official forms and permits.

Incredibly, the regime had a female agent installed in RFE from 1952 as personal secretary of the central news  director, while the Soviet KGB had a mole there of its own. Ceaucescu in 1977 ordered three PLO mercenaries in Paris to beat RFE desk editor Monica Lovinescu into a ‘living corpse’.  The thugs pretended to be delivering a telegram to her home but had to stop their bloody assault when neighbours appeared.

Another plan against RFE involved  bombs disguised as books and files. In 1981 a massive bomb blast hit the RFE offices, which Stasi files later revealed to be a job paid for by Ceaucescu and implemented by Carlos the Jackal. KGB defector Oleg Kalugin however claimed the inspiration was from his Department K Counter-Intelligence.

How pervasive was the Securitate? Figures supplied to parliament after 1989 involved  39,000 full-timers supported by 486,000 informers and helpers (for example, providing houses for meetings and contacts). The total of 525,000 is one in 42 of the 23 million population, or an astounding one in 30 of adults. The Romanian Communist Party had 3.5 million members, all of whom also had a duty to help the Securitate. Despite some double-counting, this cohort would lower the ratio even further. [3]

I like to imagine Romanian statistics applied to my street of 90 households, maybe 300 adults. That’s ten informers up and down the street, reporting to their handlers on loose talk at the tram stop, park or supermarket, along with all our second-hand neighborly gossip about work, marriage spats and dope usage.

The per population figures compare with one in 62 involved with the Stasi in East Germany, where 93,000 full-timers were supported by 178,000 informers. Assuming similar demographics, that’s one in 44 East German adults. Romania’s system of more unpaid informers per full-time officer was obviously cheaper to run. One agent, Victor Mitran, in 1973 claimed to have inherited from his predecessor 60 informers and 500 collaborators. They were supposed to get into “socialist competition” to increase their pool of informers, leading  to time-wasting and poor quality recruits.

Back to back, the Securitate files stretch 24km, compared with 80km for the Polish regime’s secret police and 100km-plus for Stasi. However, Securitate files in vast numbers went missing during the post-uprising years, with truckloads found burnt and part-buried outside Bucharest.

Securitate people had ample ability to cover their tracks, as about 40% simply kept working after 1989 for a re-branded security department.[4] (The Communist Party itself rebranded as the ruling “Social Democrats”). The courts delayed files’ publication until 1999, a decade later than other Warsaw Pact countries, and further court obstacles arose well into the 2000s. At 2013, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate (CNSAS) had 2.3 million volumes of paper files (70%), microfilm (25%) and audio and video (5%). Opening the files created a hornet’s nest of misinformation, as files were replete with misleading and undigested material. Unlike the German and Polish opening of files, the Romanian authorities covered-up. They allowed CNSAS only about 250 workers, compared with more than 3000 in Germany and 2000 in Poland.

Older people  were prominent in the files  on informers because they had more time to hang around in queues and overhear gossip. Recruiting was also active among schoolchildren, who were educated to higher loyalty to the State than to their own family, whom they informed on. Secrecy extended into the internal Securitate. Agents all had false identities and operated in isolated cells, with only high-ups aware of the larger picture. Hence an agent could waste enormous time trying to recruit someone already working for someone else.

Recruits swore a powerful oath of secrecy. They took pride in becoming “infantry on an invisible front”. Their tasks were   so time-consuming that     real friends  fell away. Agents first got to know a potential informer’s weak spots, like minor theft from the workplace, a bribe, an affair or an illegal abortion in the family.  After shadowing someone all day, they  would be working to midnight writing up  reports.

Few women became outdoor agents because they couldn’t hang around places like bars without attracting attention. Wives of agents had a lonely life. As one put it,   “Never marry one. You never know when he’s coming home, you don’t know where he’s going,  who he is or even what his name is. If he gets very upset with you and grabs your arm, he’ll dislocate your shoulder because he’s in such good physical condition And they have no feelings  at all.” One suspicious wife, not believing her husband’s stories (known in the trade as ‘legends’), followed her man, saw the agent and ruined the recruitment.

Ceaucescu aimed for total surveillance of the population. In the late 1960s one secret police department  monitored hundreds of thousands of concealed microphones. The plan was for 10 million microphones by 1984, with every family to be checked at least once a year. Targets started with Ceaucescu’s fellow politburo members, seeking material for blackmail or enforced loyalty.

He enforced replacement of three million normal home phones with new models: choice of three styles and five colors. Users were unaware  of surveillance wiring sealed into each phone’s bakelite that could be activated at any time. Sockets with further   spy-wiring were installed in other rooms.

George Orwell was prescient about 1984.  The regime produced TV sets with two-way transmitters – you watched the TV and it ‘watched’ what you said.

All typewriters were registered and samples of their types kept centrally for identifying document authors. Renting or lending typewriters was forbidden and machines were checked annually and after any repair.

Westerners whether in business or tourism were prime targets. The Securitate even created “Westernised” meeting places riddled with microphones, cameras and wiretaps.  Not all were successful. The Sole Mio Bar was opened in Bucharest in 1969 but had to shut in a few weeks because too many people – including constructors– gossiped about its peculiarities. An entire hotel was built and staffed for spying on guests, with agents including the 30 cab drivers on the rank and loitering prostitutes.  Hotel lobbies and restaurants were supplied with ceramic ashtrays and vases with mikes activated by pulling out a simple pin.

In 2017 two Securitate chiefs died. The first  in August was Tudor Postelnicu, 86, Securitate head 1978-87, turned Interior Minister 1987-89 under Ceaucescu. He got four years for aggravated murder in 1990, released early on health grounds, was jailed again 1998-99, and was on trial for murder at the time of his death.[5]  In the 1989 overthrow of the regime, he ordered the massacre of Timisaura demonstrators in which 90 died.

The second death in September was of his successor in the Securitate, Iulian Vlad, who headed it during 1989 revolution. He was also 86. At a Politburo meeting on Dec. 17, 1989, Ceausescu berated Vlad, for treason for not stopping the rebellion. Soldiers  had fired blanks at the Bucharest crowds, leading to an outburst from Ceausescu, recorded in the meeting’s official minutes:

“I didn’t think you would shoot with blanks! That is like a rain shower. Those who entered the party building should not leave the building alive. They’ve got to kill the hooligans!”

Elena Ceausescu, who was present, added that the protesters should be locked in the Securitate building’s basement. “Not even one should see the light again,” she said.

In choatic days after the Ceaucescus execution, Vlad  claimed to have switched sides to join the revolutionaries. In the mysterious street fighting, Vlad’s night-time snipers armed with infrared sights were particularly feared. Vlad was sentenced to twelve years in 1991 for ‘favoring genocide’ and ‘aggravated murder’ but amnestied in 1994 under an age provision (60+ years).

The officers and troops had been cut off from genuine information and told that Romania was undergoing a Soviet-backed invasion supported by local ‘terrorists’ wanting to detach Transylvania from the country.  However, not a single “terrorist” was ever brought  to trial.  The most popular theory is that Ceaucescu’s successor and former apparatchik  Ion Iliescu  stage-managed his coup using troops as his unwitting actors against mythical ‘terrorists’. The cost in blood was about 1000 deaths and 2000 wounded in the few days after Ceaucescu’s exit from Bucharest.

Among the horrific incidents was one squad of troops being sent to the basement of the Politburo building by one stairway to deal with pro-Ceaucescu ‘terrorists’. This was immediately after the Ceaucescus flew out by helicopter. Another squad was ordered down the opposite stairway with the same mission. They shot at each other in bloody confusion.

At the barracks outside Bucharest in the early hours of the morning of December 24, 83  conscripts called “ducklings”, 18  years old, were ordered into three trucks to the international Otopeni airport to block ‘terrorists’ from  flying out with the Ceaucescus and the country’s treasury reserves. The trucks were followed by a routine passenger bus. As they entered the airport checkpoints, the four vehicles  were  riddled by cross-fire from heavy machine guns manned by hidden troops  who had been fed the same anti-terrorist story. The corpses were meant to be secretly disposed of, but 48 bodies were just dumped by forklifts  in the cargo terminal, to be found by workers arriving on Christmas Day.

“Of all the hundreds of speeches [Ceaucescu’s successor] Iliescu made and has made since then,” recalled Cordruta Cruceanu, curator of the national gallery in Bucharest, “the one that sticks in my mind was when he said: ‘In a country like Romania, it was impossible to have a revolution, so it had to be staged.’ That is the closest he has ever come to admitting what almost everybody believes, or knows, to have happened.”

Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable, 60 Years in Print, is available here.

[1] Verdery, Katherine:  Secrets and Truth, Ethnography in the Archives of the Romanian Secret Police. Central University Press. Budapest 2014. P59

[2] Ion Pacepa, Red Horizons, Regnery Gateway, Washington DC , 1990 p149

[3] Verdery, Katherine:  op cit. Kindle refce 1417/3945

[4] “The rest are all millionaires through privatisation grabs”. Herta Muellar, The Guardian, 1/12/2012

[5]  The victim was Gheorghe  Ursu,  an engineer, beaten to death in 1985 when critical thoughts were found in  his  diary

The Ceaucescus – The Original Power Couple


Nicolae Ceaucescu and wife Elena were dispatched with extreme prejudice when the Romania people finally rid themselves of a duo so brazen in their greed and tyranny no writer of fiction would have dared invent them. It’s quite a story, not least the gullibility of leaders in the West

nic and elenaBritain’s Islam-friendly politicians, led by London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan, are campaigning to cancel Prime Minister Theresa May’s invitation to President Trump for a State visit in 2018.  Britain has not always been so fussy about who gets a State reception. In the wake of a trip to Bucharest I’ve been researching the Communist-era  dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena (left).

They were invited to Britain by Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1978. Callaghan pimped a reluctant Queen Elizabeth to meet them at Victoria Station, and put them up in Buckingham Palace. Ceaucescu even got a ride with Her Majesty in the State landau. They were accompanied by bodyguard General Ion Pacepa, who defected to the West a month later, and a clatter of Household Regiment cavalry. The Queen later described the visit as “the worst three days of my life”. She was  required, among other indignities, to award him the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, subsequently revoked in 1989.

Ceaucescu came ostensibly “to make  firm friends among Western nations”, as the newsreels put it, and to sign a £200-million deal to buy several British Aerospace BAC 1-11 airliners (predecessor to DC9s and B737s) and build scores more in Romania under licence for export to China and the Third World. His actual goal was to open British doors for Romanian secret service men, doubling as technicians, to steal airline, Rolls Royce engine and Harrier jump-jet technology, to be on-sold to Moscow notwithstanding Ceaucescu’s vaunted hostility to Brezhnev.

The airliner deal turned into farce. An entire assembly line was air-freighted to Romania to make six BAC 1-11s a year.  At its peak the Romanians had 4400 skilled workers on the job. But the plane was already obsolete and actual production was no more than one a year. The two nearly finished planes were left to rot and rust after Ceaucescu’s overthrow. He also defaulted on the hard currency required and sought to pay in barter. The first shipload of Romanian strawberries was rotten by the time it reached the wharf.

In Bucharest I joined a tour of the Ceaucescus’ Primaverii or “Spring” residential palace, all of us especially  slack-jawed at the  indoor  tropical garden built on top of a swimming pool, with infra-red heating equivalent to power 100 normal apartments. The pool’s rear walls comprise a million-piece mosaic of pretty fishes that took artists two years to complete. This was just one of his five official residences, 39 guest houses, 21 exclusive apartments in embassies, nine planes, three helicopters and three presidential trains. Plus the couple had a hospital reserved for themselves alone.

In the palace’s bedroom quarters was a silk-upholstered Louis XV style sofa. “Guess who this sofa was for?” asked the guide. Nobody knew. “For the two Labradors that Queen Elizabeth gave the Ceaucescus,” the guide said.

He was  fairly  right. During the official visit to London, Liberal Party leader David Steel gave them one Labrador pup. If the Queen gave the other one, it was kept quiet and unofficial. Ceaucescu decided that as the pups were British, his London ambassador should buy dog biscuits from Sainsbury’s weekly for delivery via the diplomatic bag. As a dog lover, it grieves me that  during the Christmas 1989 overthrow of the Ceaucescus, the two Labs were clubbed to death. (There’s a sanitised version that they went into a fatal decline after their owners were felled).

her maj, nic and elena

Give it to the Royals, those smiles are almost convincing.

The defector Ion Mihai Pacepashocked Western intelligence agencies by disclosing that Romania’s “independent” stance within the Warsaw Pact was largely disinformation to win sympathy and help Romania acquire trade credits and otherwise-forbidden industrial and military technology for itself and Moscow. (To some extent Ceaucescu did some genuine brinkmanship, notably when he condemned the Soviet’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

Ceaucescu would set Western companies drooling with the hope of big  orders, encouraging them to pass over swathes of technical data only to welsh on his side of the bargain.  A classic case centred on Romania’s order for Canadian CANDU civil nuclear reactors, which began in 1969 with the lure of 20 possible purchases and ended in 1982 with the Romanians in possession of three quarters of CANDU technology while, in the end, buying only Soviet reactors. In addition, they had conned the Canadians into giving them a $US1billion line of hard-currency credit, which Ceaucescu from the outset diverted towards unrelated purchases.

Pacepa, who’d been in charge of technology, described how half of Romania’s modern industry had been built using stolen blueprints and technology for everything from petrochemicals, films, radial tyres and  dyes to pharmaceuticals, rolling mills, machine tools and diesel engines.

A classic technique was to dangle a large order before half a dozen international bidders and let the negotiations drag on. In the process, bidders would progressively reveal more detailed specifications – for example, a French contender to supply a petrochemical plant brought to Bucharest documentation of a complete plant it had just sold to another buyer. It was child’s play for the secret police to get the documents photographed.

Ceaucescu was the first Communist leader invited to the inner sanctums of Texas Instruments, at a time when TI was the world leader in defence-essential microcircuits. Back home, he bragged, “What has America got out of it? Shit, nothing but  shit.”  He told his technology gatherers they were “soldiers without guns”, keeping  “a broad smile on your face as you look towards the enemy. Let him believe that we like him. Smile with your mouth, and hit him with your brains , with your cleverness.”

It worked a treat. The Queen, reading from her UK government  script,  praised the Ceausescus for their “heroic struggle” and said how much Britain had been impressed “by the resolute stand you have taken to sustain the independence of Romania”. Pope Paul VI  in 1973 also weighed in: “We ask heaven to bless your activity, which we follow with great interest, and we ask you to consider us humble supporters of your policies of independence and sovereignty, which you are executing with such consistency.”

Western leaders, led by de Gaulle, flocked to Bucharest for state visits. President Nixon and the Ceaucescus made two reciprocal trips. President Ford received the couple, himself visiting Bucharest only three weeks after his inauguration. Thanks to Romanian disinformation, they all imagined that Ceaucescu was ‘their’  sort of Communist, one who deserved support with industry know-how.  President Carter  orated that Ceaucescu “has not only brought tremendous progress elena swansto Romania, but also has taken on a role of leadership in the entire international community.” Bamboozled by more Romanian disinformation, Carter even credited Ceaucescu with helping to create the  Helsinki Human Rights declaration –  a leader who used his murderous thugs, including Carlos the Jackal  and outsourced Arab gunmen, to terrorise dissidents at home and abroad.

The Queensland and WA premiers, Bjelke-Petersen and Brian Burke, along with our coal and iron ore producers, fell for the notion that Romania was a prize market and entre to the Eastern bloc. Burke and iron ore magnate Lang Hancock flew a large business party to meet Ceaucescu in the port of Constanta in mid-1987, seeing Romania as a gateway to sales into Eastern Europe. Ceaucescu was non-committal and the party was shocked at the low quality of Romanian railway wagons that he  offered as barter. Nonetheless the Ceaucescus made a trade visit to Canberra, Brisbane and Perth in April 1988, with Elena (above) quite taken with our unique black swans.

The Romanian president was fearful of  assassination, and at one state dinner where Queenslanders engaged in a bit of back-slapping in the foyer, his security squad pulled out their guns. His food-tasters sampled each plate. Ceaucescu’s habit with unwanted morsels was to drop them surreptitiously to the floor and then kick them far down the table.

At Brisbane’s Government House, his bizarre requirements included the binding of his toilet seats with soft, sterilised medical bandages. His party to Australia came with his steamer trunks of sterilized pillows, linen,  towels, bathrobes, mats and rugs, all items in sealed vacuum bags. He used a portable laboratory to chemically analyse food and brought his own fare in special containers. Radiation, chemical and biological detectors were installed and sentries manned every entrance to the couple’s suites.

He feared poison powders on his clothes and personal items, especially after rumors that the CIA had attempted that method on Fidel Castro. Hence a dedicated tailoring workshop provided him with 365 fresh suits and shoes per year, with used outfits stamped in colored ink and burnt in a furnace.[1] He also disliked being touched and used alcohol disinfectant after every handshake, including when he shook hands with the Queen. His wife and Prime Minister, Elena, used all state visits to extort costly presents from their hosts. Before their London visit in 1978, according to Pacepa,  she daydreamed about the jewels she would acquire and  “take a look at in the privacy of Buckingham Palace.”

On a West German visit, the couple came away with a Mercedes 600 limo for him, a 450 series for her, a coupe for daughter Zoia, and two Audis for their playboy son, Nicu. Plus they got an 11-metre mobile home and office. None were ever used.

Elena’s most breathtaking grab came in 1975 when she grasped for the luxury yacht owned by King Hussein of Jordan. The king  had welcomed them aboard, and Elena told Pacepa, privately and tearfully, “I want that yacht. I won’t leave without it.”  The king explained next morning that he had already given it to his wife Alia as a love token.  To end the stalemate, he built her a copy in the US. Christened “Friendship”, the yacht  was delivered 15 months later, but she never set foot on it. For their US visit to President Carter in 1978, she set her sights on a full-length mink coat and cape. Carter declined, incurring her hatred as “President Peanut” because he offered only a copy of his book, Why Not the Best?

From hopeful Fifth Avenue jewelers, she acquired a dozen boxes of jewellery, each then worth around USD20,000, which she took back to Bucharest for selection and return. Her ruse was to ‘forget’ about them. It is not clear if the jewelers were ever paid from the Ceaucescus’ USD400m slush fund, or if Fifth Avenue had to write off the expense.[2] She was an enthusiastic promoter of her husband’s 1966 scheme to boost Romania’s population by banning abortion and contraception and generating four children per couple – couples who could barely afford one child. Women were ordered to undergo monthly checks by gynaecologists (dubbed the Menstrual Police) and any pregnancies discovered were tracked through to birth. Hospitals were monitored by secret police and women seeking abortions risked years in gaol along with their helpers. Back-alley abortions proliferated all the same, with mortality reaching ten times the level of neighboring countries. Mothers abandoned babies to horrific state orphanages, where thousands of infants were infected with AIDS. By 1989 abandoned children totaled 170,000, when emerging images of their fetid, chained and loveless conditions shocked the West. Elena had tried to encourage adoptions by lying that she adopted her own first child, Valentin, as an example to the nation. Her arithmetic let her down as Valentin was born in 1948 when Elena was a nobody incapable of inspiring anyone, let alone the nation.

Romania’s first lady — and prime minister, don’t forget — modelled her dynastic ambitions on Isabel Peron, then President of Argentina. “If a whore from a Caracas night club could do it, why not a woman of science?” she asked. A woman of science indeed! She finished her education at the fourth grade. As a teenager, one of her jobs was as a menial in a chemistry lab, where she coveted the scientists’ god-like status. In power, she organized the ghost-writing of her 1975 PhD thesis on “The stereo specific polymerization of the isoprene on the stabilization of synthetic rubber.” Such  erudition elevated her  to the Romanian Academy, and a chemical institute was built especially for her.

She attended scientific conferences, with Romanian scientists as her translators. They ensured that her ignorance went un-noticed. But on one occasion she read one of her own papers.  That seemed safe, but she read “CO2” as “koh-doi” (English-sounding: “Cohtwo”), not knowing to pronounce the “C” and the “O” separately, and inadvertently punning in Romanian to mean a “big tail”. Nevertheless she collected a total of eight foreign scientific honors, including one “earned” by badgering her US hosts for an honorary degree from leading universities. Her efforts ended in a fit of outrage when she offered no more than honorary membership of the Illinois Academy of Science. In Manila the refusal of the main university to honor her threatened a  diplomatic crisis, but President Marcos, with a large donation, changed the university’s mind.

nic's endIn London  Elena demanded membership of the Royal Society. What she got was an honorary doctorate from the  Central London Polytechnical Institute and membership of the Royal Institute for Chemistry. While the Royal Society has lately become a sanctuary and pulpit for catastropharian global warmists, it is re-assuring to know that, once upon a time, standards were upheld. Her ambitions stretched to a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, involving her supposed discoveries and advances in science’s war on cancer.[3] To pave the way she had secret police specialists to amass a portfolio of leading-edge Western research. She took charge of the Romanian Patent Office, and organized for the research to be backdated and patented in her name.

Elena kept up her scientific charade to the last hour of her life. She was tried in Targoviste by a kangaroo court,  and was asked:

“Tell me what you know about the Timosaura genocide, or do you only think about polymers?”

– “You call it a genocide…for 36 deaths?”

“Who writes the scientific papers for you, Elena?

“You should be ashamed of yourself, I am a member of the Academy of Sciences. One cannot speak to me like that, to me.”

Her finest moment was her last – thats her and hubby (above) being led to their executions — with telling her executioners , ‘If you are going to kill us, then out of respect for our love for each other, don’t kill him and make me watch. At least let me die along with my husband.’  The general ordered: “Take her to the wall with him.”

Minutes later, bursts from three AK47s riddled the evil couple. The final indignity was that the helicopter returning to Bucharest was so crowded that one of the firing squad had to use the dictator’s corpse as his seat.

Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here


[1]  Elena has a similar 365-day stock but cheated by adding her favorite Parisian and London outfits. Her wardrobe became three times larger than his.

[2] Ceaucescu built this personal fund largely from selling exit permits for Romanian Jews and ethnic Germans. An individual could be priced at up to USD250,000.

[3] She also wanted herself and her husband to win a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to mediate between the PLO and the Israelis. In reality Romanian was supporting the global export of PLO terror.


  1. hwka

    Carpetbaggers, scumbags and opportunists have been amongst us since time began.
    What really sticks in my craw are the fawning bureaucrats , Government “leaders” and even royalty that protect them and ensure their survival and advancement

    • Michael Galak

      This is why Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deserve our gratitude. Each one of them did not mince their words and call the spade a spade, refusing to be conned into a charade of diplomatic politeness and obsequiousness towards “carpetbaggers, scumbags and opportunists’.

      • Tony Thomas

        Reagan commented that he used the defector Pacepa’s Red Horizons book as his manual when dealing with duplicitous Communist leaders

  2. Geoffrey Luck

    Ceausescu’s pretended independence from Moscow actually allowed him to play a minor but significant part in the diplomatic manoeuvrings between the great powers. I flew to Bucharest to report Richard Nixon’s visit in July 1971 – the first by an American President or a western leader behind what was then the Iron Curtain. Russian tanks were deployed for the visit and drawn up at the border, only fifty miles away. The vist was championed as a smack in the eye for the USSR, and represented as the first step in levering the satellite states away from the Eastern Bloc. It was nothing of the sort, but I was not to know until Kissinger’s revelations in his book about Mao, On China, just what Ceaucescu had been up to and how he was being used on all sides by the powers.

    As Kissinger explained (p.225) “Nixon used the occasion of an around-the-world trip in July 1970 to tell his hosts in Pakistan and Romania that he sought high-level exchanges with Chinese leaders, and they were to free to communicate this to Beijing.” He continued (p.230): “Zhou Enlai sent a parallel message via Romania in January. This message, too we were told, had been “reviewed by Chairman Mao and Lin Piao.” It added an entirely new element: since President Nixon had already visited Belgrade and Bucharest – capitals of Communist countries – he would also be welcome in Beijing.”

    As Kissinger found out in his conversations with the Chinese leaders in November 1973, Ceausescu revelled in the self-importance of a go-between. On page 278, this:

    “Mao: They (the Russians) tried to make peace through Ceausescu of Romania, and they tried to persuade us not to continue the struggle in the ideological field.
    Kissinger: I rmmber he was here.
    Mao/Zhou: That was long ago.
    Zhou: The first time he came to China (said in English).
    Mao: And the second time (Soviet Prime Minister Alexsei Josygin came himself, and that was in 1960. I declared to him that we were going to wage a struggle againsst him for ten thousand years.
    Mao: And this time I made a concession to Kosygin. I said that I orginally said this struggle was going to go on for ten thousand years. On the merit of his come to see me in person, I will cut it down by one thousand years.” [Laughter].

    A personaql note: In the early 1970s Ceausescu was not nearly so nervous. I have several photographs of him with Nixon, taken from six feet away.

    /Users/GCL/Desktop/Nixon-Ceaucescu 2.jpg

Biggles, No Friend of Reconciliation

Are boys still moved by Group Captain James Bigglesworth? Probably not, as none of WE Johns’ titles is available in my municipal library. As the council is infested with Greens, that shouldn’t surprise, given the aviator’s derring-do in putting down an Aboriginal revolt

biggles mug III grew to maturity on Biggles books. Today the prose of Captain W.E. Johns seems a bit clunky but I never minded this sort of thing:

“I would like a straight answer to a straight question,” he said.

“Have I ever done anything to suggest my answer would not be straight?” asked Biggles evenly.


“Then why bring that up?”

In the later Biggles books, Captain W.E. Johns began inserting a preface.

“In the First World War, Italy and Japan were our allies. In the Second World War, they fought against us.  And so on. The reader must therefore adjust himself to the period concerned so that when the expression “The War” is used, he will understand which war is meant.”

When I would curl up somewhere with Biggles Defies the Swastika while my mother and sister did the washing up, there was no ambiguity about the allies and enemies. Count Erich von Stalhein was not one of ours. But later the Boche, Touregs and Polynesian cannibals were quite likely to write protest letters to The Times about discrimination and hate speech. Von Stalhein came from East Germany, luckily. Turn now to Biggles Buries the Hatchet, Chapter One, “A Visitor Brings News”.

“Did he give his name?”

“Yes. Fritz Loewenhardt. Does that mean anything to you?”

‘Not a thing except it has a solid German ring about it.”

Biggles: “From East or West?”

“From East Berlin.”

A shadow of disapproval crossed Biggles’ face.

The visitor was Von Stalhein’s emissary. Von Stalhein had decided to join the Free World and had been locked up by the East Germans. Biggles to the rescue…

“Everyone waited, eyes on Von Stalhein.

‘Are you asking me to believe you took the appalling risk of coming here to rescue me purely out of.. shall I say sympathy or affection?’

“To you such a motive must appear strange,” said Biggles slowly. “First, strange though it may seem, it may have been something like that, or I would not have come here. I shall expect you to prove your gratitude by refraining from working against us in the future.”

“That remark was quite unnecessary,” stated Von Stalhein. “Your opinion of me may not be very high but I would hardly be as base as that.”

Biggles most endearing trait was his unflappability.   Biggles and the Gun Runners: “’The great thing in life is to keep your sense of humor,’ said Biggles, though getting his Constellation shot down over Southern Sudan by a trigger happy pilot  of the Congolese Air Force was no laughing matter.”

Biggles in his later years turned his hand to lower-grade detective work, like recovering a gentleman farmers’ disappearing bulls. As Biggles puts it, “This racket is not being run by a few country yokels. The crooks are highly organized – and dangerous.”

Just as dangerous was Biggles’ own drift to sententiousness. That story ends, “Up to a point it had worked but the crooks made the mistake, as often made by criminals emboldened by success, of repeating what may have seemed an easy way of making money.” Although Biggles’ Britain did harbor a few crooks, it was a land where press barons  knew how to behave. In Biggles and the Black Peril he thwarts a Russian plot to raid England with a fleet of 30 giant flying boats landing at nine different bases on the English coast. Johns was probably thinking of something like the humungous Dornier DoX of 1929 in the YouTube clip above. The British Air Ministry  “wasted no time” and destroyed all but two of the fictional Soviet superplanes, but not a word of this triumph of British arms and daring ever made it into the newspapers.

“The Ministry had denied any knowledge of the matter to the press, as it was bound to without running the risk of starting a war…The newspapers have guessed there is a lot more behind it, of course, but in the national interest they are allowing the thing to drop.”

Readers need to be alert for bogus versions of Biggles stories. One example I came across reads,

“Suddenly they were airborne. Algy breathed a sigh of relief and eased himself out of the co-pilot’s seat.

“It’s so hot in here,” Algy declared evenly. He began to unzip his flying jacket and soon stood naked in the faint glow of the altimeter.

Ginger blushed hotly.

Algy returned his blush curtly.

Biggles also turned red and blushed and threw the twin-engined Jupiter into a tight turn over the airfield.

“Does my body offend you?” queried Algy sharply.

Suddenly out of the clouds directly ahead of them, Ginger glimpsed the red flash of the Heinkel fighter.

“Get your clothes on, Algy,” murmured Biggles curtly. But it was too late.

“My God, we’re done for!” screamed Ginger.[1]

we johns flyerIn case you hadn’t guessed, that’s a Monty Python parody, but in terms of cadence, dialogue and aviation lingo it is very nearly indistinguishable from its inspiration.

Captain William earl Johns[2]  penned his more action-packed yarns in the tranquility of a Scottish farm. An interviewer wrote, “After a good breakfast, he spends the rest of the day in the open air, often with a picnic lunch, even in winter.” Less efficient at cheating death than his Biggles, he died in 1968 at 75, mid-way through his final  story, Biggles does some Homework, which shows Biggles at last preparing to retire, and meeting his mixed-race replacement.

Johns was a real warrior (left), not an armchair one. He started with the army in the Great War, including the trenches of Gallipoli and in Macedonia. He transferred while still a teenager to the Royal Flying Corps and flew two-seater DH4s on photographic and bombing raids into Germany. That’s him at left, before being shot down, surviving the crash by a miracle and put in prison camps with a death sentence hanging over his head, according to one biographer. He escaped twice and spent the rest of the war in a punishment camp. Thereafter he was with the RAF till 1927, publishing his first Biggles book in 1932.  He re-enlisted with the RAF in 1939, and served in non-combat roles. Post-war he joined the Air Police Unit at Scotland Yard. He drew on each slice of his career for a torrent of at least 150 Biggles and other titles.

All this is just preamble to my real story, discovering a copy of Biggles in Australia last week while fossicking in the State Library, Latrobe Street. Who knew about such a title?

The ten libraries in my Moonee Valley and Moreland districts — both bastions of the Greens –  don’t have a single Biggles book, let alone this one. Statewide, libraries still have about 200 Biggles titles, but no Biggles in Australia. However, five libraries have it included in an omnibus book Biggles’ Dangerous Missions, that includes three other Biggles titles. The  libraries involved, which are either unwitting or hideously racist – the former, surely — are Bayside, Whitehorse, Goldfields, Mildura and Latrobe Library out Morwell way.  The librarians will be in serious trouble if councillors find out this book is on their shelves.

Biggles in Australia must once have been quite popular, at least outside Australia. Reginald Smythe, in his authoritative 1993 guide for youngsters, rates the book as “Very Good Indeed”.[3]   The National Library also has an Angus & Robertson 1981 copy featuring “music by Patrick Cook”. This had me stumped. Unlike Keating, the Musical, Biggles’ misadventures in Australia have never been converted to a melodic treat. In fact, the Patrick Cook did satirical illustrations for this version.

Another version cited carries the warning, unusually for a kids’ book, For Mature Readers.

biggles tridentSo let’s discover what Biggles in Australia is about. Warnings: (a)This article spoils the plot and (b) includes racist language which I do not endorse in any way and cite only out of literary necessity. The tone is set by the frontispiece illustration, showing an Aboriginal in loincloth hurling a weird spear at Biggles (right). Captain Johns refers in the text to a three-barbed spear and the artist[4] has translated this into a Neptune trident, hardly day-wear for a kangaroo hunter.

Another illustration shows Aborigines dancing around a campfire, “shaking their spears, yelling and stamping”. A third is innocuous but features the author’s curious phrasing: “You’re in a great hurry,” bantered Biggles” [to Von Stalhein, no less].

The book opens conventionally (for the Biggles genre) with Biggles & Co asleep in their Otter amphibian in a lagoon off the Kimberley coast. They come under attack from a school of giant squids on holiday from their deep-sea habitat. One wraps its 20-foot tentacles around the Otter but is fended off with a bullet to the tea-plate-sized eye. This chapter is aptly titled, “An Uncomfortable Night.”

The plot of Biggles in Australia involves a posse of Iron Curtain thugs, led by von Stalhein, setting up a communist fifth column in Australia. The spy ring is centred on a “trouble-making agitator” who is a “red hot Communist of the loud-mouthed type”, namely an electrician from Perth  called Adamsen. This pricked my interest, as most of Perth’s red hot Communist agitators dropped in on my family home in Willagee in  the 1950s and I certainly recall some loud arguments about implementation of the revolutionary struggle.

Von Stalhein’s targets cover a broad field, including the Montebello nuclear tests, uranium deposits, Woomera rocket testing, fomenting strikes and creation of a network of Red spies “against the time when they will be needed”.

But Von Stalhein’s most contentious task is to arm disaffected Aborigines in northern  Australia with rifles and grenades and set them off on a Kenyan Mau-Mau type uprising against white civilisation. In Biggles’ concluding words, after thwarting his arch-enemy:

“The plan was to spread a network of agents and operatives all over the continent  both to spy on secret experimental work with atomic and guided missiles, and undermine the country’s economy by the infiltration of agitators into the native settlements as had been done elsewhere. When the trouble started, certain selected blacks were to be provided with firearms. Behind the background of disorder [foreign] scientists [arriving by lugger] were to explore the outback for minerals useful in nuclear research.”

During the book, more detail has been suggested:

Biggles: [Air Controller] West told me this top corner of Australia used to be called the triangle of death on account of the ferocity of the natives. Even today, with native reserves and all that,  they’re not to be trusted. That goes for the half-civilised blacks who work up the Daly for the white planters…You’ll call me an alarmist, I know, but it occurred to me that this is just how the trouble began in Malaya and Kenya.”

Bill [policeman] was staring. “Do you mean Mau-Mau, and that sort of thing?”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

Bill: “I still don’t see how it could happen here.”

“Neither, I imagine, could the settlers who took their wives and kids to outlying farms in Kenya, and now never move without a gun in each hand…Last night, after that wop had flung a spear at me, the idea suddenly came to me that the set-up in the sparsely populated areas of Australia is exactly the same as in East Africa…

…It only needs one or two people to walk about telling the natives that white men are a lot of thieves who have swindled them out of their land, and turned them into slaves, and the next thing is murder…This dirty business is all part of the Cold War. It has worked in Malaya, Kenya, Indonesia, Burma and all over the Middle East, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen here.”

Bill’s expression had changed. “I never looked at it like that,” he admitted soberly.

The policeman estimates there are 50,000 full-bloods and “a lot of mixed breeds” – enough to “do a lot of mischief”.

Sure enough, the blacks soon after club and spear a prospector to death for his rifle. “Now, perhaps, you see what I mean,” Biggles concludes.

The prospector had been generous to the ungrateful naked warriors.

Biggles: “That cuts no ice with blacks when the savage inside ‘em bursts through the thin skin of friendliness they pick up from contact with whites. More than one doctor has been murdered by the man he’s just cured…If I know anything about natives, that bunch is all keyed up to jump. They themselves, with their animal brains, don’t know yet which way they’ll go.”

Towards the book’s climax, policeman Bill addresses a band:

“What yabber-yabber belong you? You been savvy what happen longa here?”

“The blacks remained like graven images, their brutish eyes, unwinking , on the policeman…While Bill’s eyes were on them, like animals, they hesitated to do anything; but the instant he turned, they acted. With shrill whistles and strange cries they began to fan out.”

biggles booksGinger deals with the threat by revving the great engines of their Halifax bomber transport to send a wall of slipstream dirt  their way.

The northern natives, author Johns says to my mystification, comprise “Peedongs” in the scrub country and “Myalls” in the jungle.  Bill says, “They’re all pretty wild, but the Arnhem Landers are the worst. Until recently, it was almost certain death to go near them.” (The book was published in 1955). After they capture one black and “two half-breeds” at rifle-point, “there were a few critical moments with the blacks outside…they stood their ground, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as their primitive brains strove to keep pace with these unusual events.”

“No white man in his right mind would trust some of these black fellows behind him,” says the party’s civilian pilot, Cozens. “They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. People who find excuses for them say they act on impulse. The sight of a gun is enough to make ‘em want to shoot somebody and they can’t resist the temptation. They don’t care who they shoot.”

Ginger says, “Didn’t I read something about an expedition going into Arnhem Land to look for a white woman who was supposed to have been captured by the blacks – after a shipwreck on the coast, or something?” [5]

Later, minus Biggles who is in Darwin, the party  flies in to the Daly Flats settlement, finding it liberally strewn with   corpses of whites and their black “houseboys”, all speared or shot. It appeared that a policeman had been shot first, from behind, “and the sight of blood was all that was necessary to send them  crazy. They’re like that.”

biggles books IIGinger’s party at the hut is then ambushed by “scores of the devils” who are in a frenzy and  “mad to kill”. The party responds with bullets in a scenario reminiscent of Rorke’s Drift or your average climax to an old Western movie. The affray gets it own chapter headed, “The Battle of Daly Flats”.

The battle begins with the natives doing a war dance outside. The pilot Cozens tells Ginger, “Shoot at anything that moves.” The natives set Cozen’s plane on fire, cutting off any retreat. Ginger is perplexed by the horror of their predicament, “in a country he had imagined to be as safe as England. But then, he reflected, the people in Kenya must have felt like that before the Mau-Mau trouble started.”  Their suspicions are confirmed on finding a locked room filled with cheap rifles for distribution to the dark insurgents.

Bertie worries that Biggles may arrive unwittingly and “step right into the custard” – this being as close as W.E.Johns gets to use of profanity. But the first visitors to approach the scene are Von Stalhein’s emissaries, including two blacks carrying their parcels, African-style. Ginger, ever gallant, shouts to warn them, using that resounding cliché,  “The blacks are on the warpath!”

W.E. Johns prose gets surprisingly flaccid as the battle rages, as if he’s nodding off after port before bedtime.

“Cozens must have seen something that aroused his suspicions; or it may have been the very absence of movement that told him what was about to happen; at all events, from the open door towards which they had all moved, he suddenly shouted: ‘Look out!’

He was too late. In an instant the air was full of flying spears, thrown by blacks who had appeared from nowhere, as the saying is.”

Ginger’s party lets fly with volleys of bullets,  downing two or three blacks. Von Stalhein’s second in command cops it with a spear in his back through to his heart, but Ginger and two helpers each put a bullet in the assailant. We aren’t told how many others they fell, only that “There’s about a score left”.

The remote Daly River settlement now gets more like Bourke Street Mall at lunchtime, for Biggles is about to turn up with a colonel and three offsiders. Ginger’s party fling tear gas grenades – conveniently found in the house – to enable Biggles to land.

“’The blacks have gone mad,’ Ginger told him tersely. ‘Hark at ‘em! They’ve killed I don’t know how many people.’”

But the blacks “quietly faded away into their jungle retreats” and it turns out Von Stalhein per se was not with his troops, thus living to fight another day in the next Biggles adventure. The list of communist would-be fifth columnists is discovered “and the entire plot exposed, although for security reasons the soft pedal was kept on the story.”

Biggles’ troupe re-board their Halifax and make a leisurely return to London. Their assistant, the pilot Cozens, “soon got another job and is now flying a Quantas [sic] Constellation.”

The book’s last para concludes:

“So, taking things all round, the only people who came to any harm from Biggles’s visit to Australia were those whose sinister conspiracy had taken him there.

Which was as it should be.”

As a libertarian I don’t want libraries burning the book, but maybe they should keep it in a locked cabinet and release it only to adults. The adults might be further limited only to those who have memorized an Acknowledgement to Traditional Owners.

Tony Thomas’ book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here

[1] Biggles and the Naughty  Things, 1941. Quoted in The Brand New Monty Python Paperbok

[2] His highest rank was only Flying Officer but in a pen-name, you can take any rank you like

3. The maniacs guide to the Biggles books : the readers guide to all 100 Biggles books / by Rowland Smythe; Birmingham: Ventos 1993

[4] The illustrations are attributed to “Studio Stead”. There’s still a Yorkshire architect firm of that name that might have taken on the job.

[5] This seems to derive from Eliza Fraser, from a Queensland shipwreck in 1836, who wrote of being captured by the Badtjala people. Fraser Island is named after her.

Inside Hitler’s Dark Tower

Gazing down upon Berlin are the substantial remains of a flak tower intended to protect the Nazi capital from RAF bombers. Less than entirely successful in that endeavour, they became citadels of misery and horror for those who looked to them for refuge

aa gun berlinSomewhere I’d read that Berlin still had a giant flak tower left over from the war. We only had a week in an Airbnb flat in an outer suburb and I didn’t give the tower any priority. But our last day, a Sunday, was a slack morning.   I checked and discovered the flak tower was only three stops down the U-Bahn in the Humboldthain Park.

First, I’ll describe my morning’s adventure, and then  how the Berlin flak towers defended the city. Detouring from my supermarket-shopping for lunch ingredients, I was at the park by 10.30 am. A path led to steps on a steep hill, with  trees on all sides blocking the view. I couldn’t see any tower but kept climbing. In fact I was ascending a mountain of rubble around the 40m tower,  which had been partly blown up by the French-zone occupiers in 1948.[1]   They had to leave the north side intact because a Russian-run railway was only metres away in a deep cutting. For the same reason, the rubble mountain had to stop half-way up the tower to avoid avalanches into the cutting.

Once my view cleared, I could see the tower poking out of the hill like a giant concrete chimney.  Its height is equal to a 13-storey building.  From the roof, Berlin stretches to the horizon all around. To add to the visual drama,  a roped-up mountaineer  was half up the concrete face, urged on by companions just visible at the top.

The wall is pockmarked by Russian artillery hits during the battle for Berlin, but even the Russians’ 203mm cannon  couldn’t weaken the 2-3m thick walls. On the roof I little knew I was walking on nearly four metres of reinforced concrete. At the roof’s highest point   a blue and white vertical sculpture rises another 11m, with ravens jostling to sit on the top point. The sculpture is a 1967 monument towards a united Germany, sited  for East Berliners to look up to, and to annoy their authorities.

At the roof’s two north corners are circular balconies that once surrounded 12.8cm anti-aircraft (AA) guns, four times more powerful than the standard 88mm AA guns. Below the gun pits was another platform which once bristled with 20mm quad cannons to fend off any lower-flying attackers. The roof and walkways were daubed with graffiti and confined by spiked black fences. Leftover trash from junkies didn’t improve the aesthetics.

I was just heading downstairs for home when I saw that a steel door in the central column was open, and a bearded young bloke was fussing inside with some paperwork. “Can I come in?” I asked in my best German, but he turned out to be a  Sydneysider working for the Berlin  Underworlds Association, which runs tower tours. “When’s the next one? Can I join?” I asked, without real hope.

“In five minutes, but it’s fully booked. The insurers are strict about numbers.”

He phoned his office anyway, grinned and said there had been two drop-outs. But after the tour I’d have to go back to his nearby  office to pay the 11 Euro fee. The 90-minute tour also happened to be the only English-language tour that day. My luck was in! Our young Brazilian guide, Luiz, arrived with a group of about 25 in tow. The inside tour was not for sissies, and as we put on hard hats Luiz warned about trip-hazards, stepways, dark corners and group indiscipline. We were to traverse the upper three of the original six floors. No photos, please.

The whole interior was a gloomy jumble of concrete ruins and wall segments, created by   demolition attempts involving fearsome tonnages of TNT. The initial blasts were meant to knock down the walls but the TNT just played havoc with the interior. I’ve seen nothing like this scale of destruction before. The only comparison would be with piles of big boulders flung onto shore by a tidal wave, or earthquake devastation. Luiz shone his torch at one ceiling where an internal reinforced-concrete wall had been anchored. This thick wall had been blown backwards about a metre.

Steel walkways join gaps in wrecked stairways. On all sides are black abysses. Decades ago, when the tower was not properly secured, young explorers got in and several were  injured by falls, one fatally. Apart from  concrete lumps, there were only some cabling trays on ceilings and meagre remnants of an elevator and an ammunition hoist. Looters, official and private, stripped everything bare, starting from the moment Berlin surrendered. One no-go area was a cavern inhabited by a dozen species of bats. To help them hibernate, the tours run only from April to October. Tour guides normally choose entertainment over accuracy, but Luiz kept us enthralled and didn’t make stuff up.

zoo flak towerThe flak tower story is not well known, except to WW2 buffs. Records are patchy and the Russians still have secrets to keep, especially about art treasures they looted from safe storage in the towers.  The first flak tower was at the Berlin Zoo (left), followed by another at Friedrichshain Park and finally “my” tower at Humboldthain. The coordinated trio was  intended to put an anti-aircraft umbrella over central Berlin.

In his Great Dictator spoof of 1940, Charlie Chaplin pulls the lanyard on a giant howitzer, which lobs a shell that demolishes a distant backyard dunny. The sequence that gave Hitler his tower idea was also somewhat farcical.  The real-war timeline went:

Night of August 24-25, 1940: A JU88 bomber in a group targeting the Thameshaven Oil Terminal strays off-course and one of its bombs damages the Church of St Giles in Cripplegate in the East End.[2]

Night of 25-26 August: On Churchill’s orders for reprisal, a force of  Hampdens and Wellingtons  (all twin-engined), set off to bomb Berlin’s Tempelhof airport and a nearby Siemens factory complex. The Hampden raid merely destroyed the summerhouse of a home in Rosenthal suburb, injuring two people.  The Wellingtons couldn’t find the factory under cloud, and their bombs fell on farmland, causing Berliners to joke that the Brits were trying to starve them out.

Night of August 28-29: Churchill orders a further Hampden raid, which hits housing around Berlin’s Goerlitzer railway station, killing eight, wounding 21 and causing vast German public indignation. The raids infuriated Hitler and Goering, the latter having invited Germans in  September, 1939, to “call me ‘Meyer’” if any bomber got through to the Ruhr, which is 400km closer than Berlin for RAF pilots.[3]

Early September 1940: Hitler issues two directives. A public one orders revenge attacks on British cities, just as the Luftwaffe assault on RAF airfields is succeeding. The diversion, as everyone knows and writes, leads to Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Britain.    Non-publicly, Hitler also orders construction of the flak towers, with secondary use as civilian air-raid shelters.[4] He even did some hand-sketches for the design.

In a bizarre touch, Hitler  was so certain about  Berlin’s immunity from ground attack that he integrated the towers into the design of his madman’s world-capital “Germania”.[5] The best 3D model of this “world capital” was built for the much-parodied Hitler bio-epic Downfall (2004). It has triumphal arcs (dwarfing the Arc de Triomphe) astride 120m-wide boulevards, and a People’s Hall 320m high for an audience of 180,000.[6] Hence the flak tower walls even had numerous openings for windows, ready for the imagined post-war museums,  theatres and restaurants.

Building the towers was a serious diversion from Hitler’s primary war effort. Each day trains and barges needed to deliver 2000 tonnes of concrete, steel and timber. Germany’s national rail timetable was adjusted to give the flak humbmaterials priority. The first tower was at the Zoo, with concrete pours round the clock to finish the job in six months. The site was flood-lit nightly despite the blackout, except during actual raids. As soon as this tower was completed, contractors started on the Friedrichshain Tower and finally Humboldthain (left). Hamburg later got two towers and Vienna three.[7] None were put out of action in the war.

The Berlin towers at each top corner deployed a formidable 12.8cm AA gun. This had twin barrels 8m long, able to throw 26kg shells 15 kilometres high.  Electrically loaded, each gun could fire up to 20 rounds a minute (80 per minute per tower). The gun’s 26-tonne weight made it impracticable except for the towers, and only 34 were in use by early 1945. Ammunition came up to the roof via a ‘paternoster’ lift (resembling an vertical escalator). This device was capped by a 72-tonne steel dome for protection against bombs. As a fail-safe, shells could be brought up four floors by a normal lift and hand-carried up two more floors.

Air Marshall Goering liked to visit the guns. He was prone to idly pushing buttons and testing levers, so before he arrived troops had to unload the live shells manually and substitute blanks. I found the spiral staircase taxing even without carrying shells – no wonder the troops hated Goering’s visits.

The smoke and shock waves meant the guns’ aiming data had to be generated off-site. Hence each tower had a more compact control tower within half a kilometre, connected by underground cables . That tower was similar in height (40m) but with sides only 50-by-23 metres, compared with 70-by-70m for the mighty gun towers.

The control tower system coordinated the total Berlin air defences, including observers, radar, searchlights, fighter planes, and  guns. With its 6.5m diameter “Wuerzburg Giant” radar dishes, a control tower could pick up a bomber stream 70km out, and retract 12m down into an armored dome when bombs started to fall.  The three towers’ gunners, with their massive firepower, sought to intercept bombers in a 250m-by-250m  “shooting box” of bursting shells. The aiming had to “lead” the   bombers by more than a kilometre ahead to allow for the shells’ 15 second travel. Planes could dive or weave but German analogue computers in the control towers could adjust the guns’ aim within 10-15 seconds.

Heinkel He 219The third floor of Humboldthain used parts from crashed allied planes for top secret research on counter-measures against allied  radar such as the “H2S” guidance system . The lab’s output also enabled night-fighters to home in on bombers, using the whisker-like nose antennas as seen on the Heinkel He 219 (right).

So how successful were the towers? Not very.

Humboldthain  was credited with 32 kills, Friedrichshain with 16-20 and the Zoo tower with 13. That’s a total of about 60 bombers, though other guesses range from 20 to 90. An unknown number  were damaged and limped away to crash elsewhere. The Germans estimated it took 3000 shells from the 12.8cm guns to knock down one bomber via the cloud of shrapnel. The towers certainly deterred the bombers from massing over Berlin to create Dresden-style fire storms, and forced the bombers to their maximum height.

The towers as air-raid shelters did save thousands of civilians during the raids. The lowest two floors of each tower pair were designed for up to 15,000 people but had to cope with as many as 40,000. Crowds queued on suitcases outside during the day to get inside during night raids. The conditions became appalling with foul air, hospital corpses, vermin and concrete dust.              

An  account of the towers by Armin Lehmann, a junior courier moving in and out of Hitler’s bunker, relates:

“Men women and children would exist for days on end, squashed side by side like sardines along every corridor and in every room. The lavatories would very quickly cease to function, clogged up by overuse and impossible to flush because of lack of running water. The passageways of the hospital units became make-do mortuaries for the dead – the nurses and doctors fearing death themselves if they dared venture out to bury the corpses.  Buckets of severed limbs and other putrid body parts lined all the corridors.”

Ursula von Kardorff, in her Berlin Diary 1942-45, wrote of the Zoo flak tower, January 25, 1944:

“A herd of people in the darkness, running like animals towards the entrances – too small and much too narrow. Rude police and officers herd the unwilling crowd up the stairs for distribution on the various floors. For every new floor the crowd grinds to a halt. A woman broke down, screaming. She was convinced she would be in greater danger on the upper floors. “I have a husband at the front,” she shrieked. “I am  not going up there.” At long last she was taken away. The towers have spiral staircases. Loving couples seek them out – a travesty on a carnival.

“When the anti-aircraft guns on the roof are firing, the building trembles and all heads duck as if a reaper was swung over them. People are standing pell-mell; scared bourgeois, weary wives, shabby foreigners dragging all their belongings with  them in huge sacks, and soldiers emitting an air of embarrassment. I thought: God have mercy upon us if panic strikes.”

The Russians in their final push to the Reichstag found the towers impregnable, both to air attack and artillery. The towers’ giant guns could be depressed far enough to knock out dozens of Soviet tanks, until surrender was negotiated on May 2.

flak humb IIAnother role for the towers was storing priceless artworks from the museums. A few days before my expedition, we’d noticed a sad label in the Alte Museum saying that three cases of its ancient gold pieces had been shipped to the Zoo Tower for safety,  but were taken by the Russians immediately after the surrender and never seen since. The Russians (whose own art treasures had been plundered or destroyed) did return some treasures to the East German regime in  the late 1950s, including the bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Altar.

Demolishing the Berlin towers was a challenge. The Russians began in April, 1946, with what the allies scoffed at as a ‘rustic’ approach – they   packed tonnes of explosives into their gun tower around the fully-stocked lockers of big shells. The blast knocked the tower walls down but also   damaged streets for kilometres around.

The British began in July, 1947, with a successful blast of the Zoo control tower and a month later invited the world press to record the destruction of the main tower, involving 25 tonnes of TNT. The  blast left the tower still standing. One US pressman commented sardonically, “Made in Germany”. The engineers spent the next four months drilling 400 holes into the tower for 35 tonnes of dynamite. This blast succeeded but  also  damaged the Russian-run S-Bahn, ratcheting up the impending Cold War tensions.

The French-zone tower in Humboldthain (left) abutted the same S-Bahn. They blew the control tower successfully in December, 1947, but damaged AEG factories nearby and broke windows as distant as Rosenthaler Platz (where I had started my U-bahn trip). The gun tower needed three blasts – the final one with 25 tonnes of TNT – just to knock down the south side. The north side was left intact to avoid enraging the Russians further over damage to the rail line.

It was thanks to this French concern that I was able to have my morning’s adventure scrambling around the remains of the flak tower. I remembered to buy some lunch on my way home, but lunchtime was well passed and I had some explaining to do to my legally-conjoined opposite-sex partner.

Tony Thomas’s book of essays,  That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here

[1] The 1300 rubble workers at Humboldtshain included women from 15-50 whose labor earned them ration cards.  The 1300 workers shifted 1.5m tonnes of rubble.

[2] Goering next morning   demanded the names of the crews so he could transfer them to the infantry. The straying plane was in fact commanded by Major Rudolf Hallensleben, who remained in the Luftwaffe and three years later won the Knight’s Cross.

[3] Goering’s quote is often misquoted to refer to Berlin rather than the Ruhr.

[4] Virtually none would be bomb proof but since civilians didn’t know, the shelters boosted morale.

[5]  In the Fuehrer’s own words, Germania would “only be comparable with ancient Egypt, Babylon or Rome. What is London, what is Paris by comparison!”

[6] Such a crowd in fact would cause the structure’s biggest-ever dome to spout down internal rain from all the condensed breaths.

[7] Vienna’s towers include current conversions to   an aquarium, army base and storehouse.