Saturday 30 March 2024

Happy Easter: some music

Over at Sacker's blog, there's an interesting Good Friday post from 'JD': a religious procession in the Spanish town of Avilés, taking place to a somewhat syncopated drumbeat.  Somewhat disconcerting, too - take a look for yourself - in all that Inquisition garb, making the drumbeat even more sinister.  At least to Protestants like me.

It put me immediately in mind of another procession I've personally witnessed - in the oddly similarly-named Ávila‎, another Spanish town: in fact, a splendid walled city.  Their procession is in honour of St Teresa.  And the thing is, they also process to syncopated drumbeat - though not identical with the one in Sackers' post.  And no pointy hats, either.  Sadly, I haven't quickly been able to find it on youtube.

I wonder if all Spanish religious processions jive in the same manner - perhaps one of our readers knows?

Anyhow, here's some more fine Easter music - Wagner's Karfreitagszauber from Parsifal.  Not a Catholic, Wagner.


PS: the other vid from JD's post - from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater - is worth listening to, as well.  Wiki mentions that Bach picked up on it: and to my ear, there's something there that Mozart must have picked up on too, for his mighty Requiem.

Thursday 28 March 2024

2024 Predictions Compo: Bankman-Fried Update

So we have an outcome on yet another of our 2024 predictions compo items: SB-F's sentence & fine.  The jail term is clear enough, the fine less so: he must "forfeit $11bn in assets".  Is that a fine?  Anyhow, it's financial - and a much bigger number than almost any of us guessed.  In fairness, we've still the appeal to be heard so let's wait up.

There seems also to be belated news on the UK's recessionary status in 4Q23, which might impact on the results of last year's compo.  Must look into that.

Some of you have been kind enough to note that my early intelligence on Putin's share of the vote turned out to be spot-on.  Yup, when the fix went in there were some communicative folks in the know who just couldn't contain themselves.  Russia is like that.



SB-F features in this very illuminating article on soi-dissant 'Effective Altruism' -

Thursday 21 March 2024

Aspects of Russia's war on Ukraine: (3) Germany

In times gone by Germany as a whole, and most German businessmen I have met, liked to come across as the grown-ups of Europe.  Oh, their worldly wisdom!  How I remember the condescending post-Brexit lectures on the imminent departure of the whole of the City of London for Frankfurt ... [1]

Well, it didn't seem to get them very far when the custard hit the fan.  Their two aces - being deeply in bed with Russia, and exporting like crazy to China, didn't turn out quite the bankers they had assumed when Putin played his own hand: cue breast-beating and hand-wringing.  So what happened next in Germany?  Well, lots of things but I'll highlight a few:

  • A typically dynamic German practical response: massive shift towards LNG to replace NS1 / NS2 gas - long before 'someone' exercised the Semtex option
  • Hugely accelerated efforts on a large-scale shift to hydrogen fuel as the supposed saviour of German manufacturing (no tangible results yet, though)
  • Meaningful slump in said manufacturing sector (whether this is permanent 'demand destruction' is yet to be established) with baleful economic repercussions
  • Promises (as yet unfulfilled) of much more defence spending and a full-scale reorientation of policy
  • Lame & abject 'followerism' as regards military aid for Ukraine: truly, pathetically demeaning
And now, the 'intercepted military telephone discussion' of a couple of weeks back.  WTF?  Afterwards, Scholz had the gall to suggest that everyone still has complete trust in Germany as a secure & reliable military ally.  Errr, no.  Hasn't been any for years before this incident; even less (if that's possible) now.  They don't get a look-in on anything of importance.

In short, from having a plausible case for being the grown-ups of Europe, Germany now looks like the over-sized, know-nothing teenager sulking in its bedroom and defying calls to come down for the family outing.  What and how long it takes for Germans to throw off this current malaise is not something I have a detailed view on, except that nobody should ever underestimate their ultimate capacity for hard work and self-sacrifice, whether in a good cause or a bad one.  Doesn't look as though it will be in time to be of much assistance to Ukraine, though.  I suppose keeping out of the way isn't nothing, in the circumstances.  It may be the best that can be hoped for.

While we all wait to learn the outcome of this surely-temporary impasse, there's a question lingering in my mind: did Mutti realise what she was doing all those years of 'drawing Russia into the fold', and how misconceived it was?  Obviously, the German polity embraced her always-implausible policy wholesale: as Nietzsche said, " 'Credo quia absurdus est': that is what the German spirit wants" [2].

Merkel mostly keeps her peace on the matter, and we can see why; but early on, there were some hints at remorse (- unlike the shameless Schröder, only too happy to draw his enormous Russian stipend: historical, ocean-going, world-scale treachery).  She, remember, was a prize-winning Russian student: fluent in the language, in communism - and surely also in the Russian mentality?  I don't have a tenth of her first-hand experience of Russia; and for a westerner the 'Mysterious Russian Soul' takes a bit of adjusting to.  But I still reckon to have more insight than she seems to have deployed.  When you've been systematically exposed to all things Russian (including the bully Putin personally - the man who maliciously enjoyed literally setting the dogs on her) as long as she has, it's pretty weird to misread them quite as badly as she did.  I don't consider her guilty of Schröder-sin, so I can only assume her neuro-wiring is extremely well geared for language-learning but not for reading human beings.  It happens out there on the autism spectrum.

This post hasn't been much centred on Ukraine (for which apologies).  It was the Russian invasion that triggered Germany's present regression, of course - but we must surely assess there was a major fault-line in the coherence and wisdom of German geo-economic policy and overall statescraft that would have become manifest eventually, one way or another.  What are the likely consequences - e.g. for the EU?  For NATO?  The West vis-à-vis China?   Etc etc.  Very much open to any insights and perspectives on this massive and rather important topic - lots of you [2] know Germany well.

[1]  Frankfurt?!  Have you ever been there?  Would your wife be willing to live there?  Would anyone ever visit you there?
[2] OK, this quote is a bit out of context but Nietzsche very much saw the Germans as being suckers for falling in behind a Grand Idea, whether or not having serious merit.  He blamed Bismarck for using his undoubted statesmanship and populism to build up "a monstrosity of imperial power"; and I don't think he'd have liked what Merkel did either. 
[3] Am greatly missing whatever would have been Mark Wadsworth's opinions on this: he thought widely & laterally, and was an excellent German speaker.

Monday 18 March 2024

The refurbishment of Sidney Cotton's G-AFTL

By, er, popular demand:  a short account of the recent refurbishment of Sidney Cotton's legendary Lockheed Electra 12a, UK registration G-AFTL.  For more on why it's a legend, see these earlier posts.  Here, we're concerned mostly with the airframe.

Photo: IWM

G-AFTL was one of several (probably four) Electras acquired surreptitiously, just before WW2, on behalf of the British and French secret services.  Each was modified in different ways to facilitate its use for clandestine aerial photography.  Some were fitted with inconspicuous cameras - they wouldn't be noticed by a passenger.  Others carried cameras so big, nobody inside the cabin could possibly miss them.  The exact camera fit of G-AFTL is the subject of very careful current research, but I'm only covering it briefly here (see below).  Official records of the missions Cotton flew in it differ from his claims on the matter - he seemed to be conveniently and boastfully conflating missions by more than one plane and more than one pilot; and the claims of his personal role (made on his behalf via fawning biographers) are certainly exaggerated.  That doesn't really matter for our purposes here: the whole pre-war and early-war exploit was astonishing and very productive.

After many successful missions, G-AFTL was in a hangar at Heston (near today's LHR) when in September 1940 it suffered a direct hit by German bombing - a parachute mine.  Word was, it had been crushed - but in fact, it had quite miraculously escaped write-off damage, see photo below.  It seems that Cotton's MI6 handler, one F.W.Winterbotham (another James Bond character), gifted Cotton the plane for services rendered, and helped him get it back to Lockheed in Burbank, California (under a 1941 "export licence") to be fixed - not a trivial matter in wartime.  

Rumours of its demise had been exaggerated ...  photo: Tuttle

In any case, fixed it definitely was.  And there was a lot more work done on it in North America over the years, as would inevitably be the case for any aircraft that's been flying, on and off, for over 80 years  When recently the plane was stripped right down, evidence was found of several fairly major jobs done over the years.  The extra fuel tanks fitted by Cotton had been stripped out in the USA.  The damaged port wing and aileron were replaced by Boeing of Canada in 1942, using cannibalised parts from probably two other Lockheeds.

In 2022 the plane came back to Blighty from a prolonged period of semi-neglect in the USA, and was taken in hand at Sywell.  A very exhaustive (and costly) refurbishment followed, with a lot of research and detective work thereby facilitated on all manner of different aspects of the plane, its history, and Cotton's claims.  It turns out G-AFTL's cameras (no longer extant, but the fittings can be detected) must have been of the bulky non-covert type - and thus G-AFTL wasn't one of the planes that carried out recce actually within Germany during "commercial" visits (Cotton had business there).  Also, only one of this pair of large cameras benefited from one of Cotton's many genuine innovations - he was a serious inventor and holder of many patents - the diversion of hot engine air to play over the lens of the camera to stop it from freezing at altitude, a major issue for high-altitude aerial reconnaissance at the time.  Only the starboard engine had its air pipework modified, and the mods only reached the starboard aperture.  It is felt that the port camera may have been kept warm by virtue of its positioning in the body of the aircraft.

The undercarriage proved to be the most difficult thing to fix in the 14-month rebuild.  Painstaking efforts to find clues under the several layers of paintwork as to its pre-war livery have failed to come up with anything definitive, so the current 'restoration' paint scheme is speculative.  This is a bit of a shame because part of the Cotton legend is that he invented "CamoTint", a bluish paint job that made it very difficult to spot at high altitudes.  

Propellers of a different type to the original have been used for the reconditioned engines.  No example could be procured of the 'tear-drop' type of canopy extension that Cotton had fitted to at least the port side of the forward cockpit glazing to facilitate good 180 degree sideways visibility for the pilot - another 1939 innovation, though Cotton himself didn't hold the patent for that one.  The interior has been fitted out for passenger use (and rather sumptuously, too - the new owner probably knows his market) rather than in the necessarily spartan, ultra-utilitarian way Cotton converted it for his 1930's purposes. 

Photo: IWM

All this work culminated triumphantly in complete restoration to airworthiness, as you can see in that IWM film.

Hope that satisfies interest!


Saturday 16 March 2024

Aspects of Russia's War on Ukraine: Part 2 - the air war

Having considered developments on the land, we now turn to the air.  Many months ago there was a period of serious debate around whether Russia was going to go down the tactical nuclear route.  I never thought it remotely likely, but offered two hypothetical scenarios where it might be more plausible: if Ukraine threatened (in believable terms) to be about to retake Crimea; and/or if Russia committed its airforce - it was very noticeably absent from the battle at that time - and it was shot out of the skies.  The first of those is somewhat obvious, but what was the reasoning on the latter?

Answer:  unlike any of its ground assets, Russia cannot replace its airforce.  So it's been largely withheld, although as Ukraine's limited and now dwindling AA assets have slowly been depleted, Putin has gradually been hazarding more of his aircraft. 

A-50:  looks smart - but not many left

Until a few weeks ago, that was: and then two A-50s were shot out of the sky (by whom, exactly, remains unclear: the Russians are curiously anxious to claim it was friendly fire).   These critical planes are used for directing air assets into forward positions - and Putin doesn't have very many of them left (fingers of one hand now).  The Chinese are highly unlikely to offer them any substitutes, and I'm not at all sure India will sell them any either.  And skilled crews are even harder to come by - essentially irreplaceable in the short term.  Nobody bales out of one of those.  So the Russian airforce once more takes a step backwards - and just when they were perfecting the use of their new glide bombs.  

So - another period of relative impasse in the air: and I don't think this has been a 'pre-election' issue for Putin: he genuinely never wants to see his irreplaceable airforce seriously degraded.  This deprives Russia of one of the standard doctrinal components of what it needs to be doing to execute on its newly-revived 'Soviet' operational method (see earlier post), namely, the vital air contribution required towards the 'firepower' imperative.  My assessment that Putin dare not hazard his airforce stands - particularly in light of the crazy comments he lets his outriders make about taking on NATO in the foreseeable future.

For completeness, we should remember that Ukraine was similarly hobbled during its ill-fated 2023 offensive.  Supposedly planned initially on NATO lines, it was always missing the air component - which for NATO doctrine is even more critical than for Soviet.  'Ill-conceived' might be a better description.

What might break this current impasse?  A couple of things can be envisaged in terms of purely military considerations (i.e. putting aside some political stroke):

(1) Putin might decide to throw in the airforce anyway - if not right now, then perhaps in the expected Russian summer offensive.  Will Ukraine have received the currently-on-ice new package of US military aid by then?  If not, the Russian airforce might be expected to get away with fewer casualties than it would have at any time since Feb 24. 

(2) The Russians might come up with a novel work-around for the lack of A-50s.  The rapid and creative way technology is being adapted in this conflict by both sides, who knows?  I say 'adapted' because Russia has serious problems getting new Western electronic components for anything really advanced, albeit sanctions aren't remotely watertight.  

(3) The long-discussed F-16s might arrive in fair numbers on the other side.  If Ukranian pilots have been trained on the air-to-air mission, that really would keep the Russian aircraft at a distance.  But maybe they've been trained for close air support ... I just don't know.  The F-16 is versatile, but only in terms of how it's been fitted out and crewed: not every F-16 squadron can effectively taken on any role. 

Otherwise, this strange conflict will continue on its hybrid course for many more months to come.

In Part 3 we'll look at Germany's lamentable performance in all this.


Tuesday 12 March 2024

Sidney Cotton's Pirate War - revisited

A couple of years ago I ran a couple of posts on the piratical old rogue Sidney Cotton and his WW2 exploits in the famous Lockheed G-AFTL; and how it was returning to the UK to be refurbished.  Several of you said you enjoyed the tale.  But I hadn't updated the story for you: and now's the time.

I'm pleased to say the illustrious aircraft been restored to full flying glory (- in fact, possibly even 'better' than before because I can tell you the newly-installed interior is rather more sumptuous than it ever was).  Recently it's been a centrepiece in a big display at IWM Duxford, 'Spies in the Skies', on WW2 aerial reconnaissance.  I'm including the link here: it works right now but I suspect it'll be coming down in the near future as they draw stumps on the display.  But there will be other opportunities to see the Lockheed because it is flying perfectly well now. 

Also on offer from the IWM is this short film (click above) on the plane and a little of its history.  We need to be a bit cautious on the story, because Cotton was a serial liar - a shame, because the true story is riveting enough without his self-serving embellishments:  see those earlier blog posts.

On another aspect of the IWM display, they were also showing a short official film on Bomb Damage Assessment in WW2 - link here.  Different times:  the destruction of avowedly civilian targets being cheerfully discussed in the film would count as war crimes today.  O tempora, o mores ... 


Wednesday 6 March 2024

Budget: Open Thread

What has Hunt achieved?  A bit of stealing Labour's thunder?  A bit of tinkering?  The last budget by a Tory chancellor for a decade?

Well I never pretended to understand macroeconomics.  Over to you.


Tuesday 5 March 2024

3 Aspects of Russia's War on Ukraine: Part 1 - a strategy at last?

Lots to think about, and I hope we can do so without some of the inanities that have popped up BTL here over the past two years.  Is that overly-optimistic?  For the avoidance of doubt, nobody ever said Russia was about to run out of ammo / be terminally crippled in a couple of months by sanctions, etc etc etc ...

1.  Russia adopting an identifiable ground-war strategy

Russia has of course laboured under a good many strategies: for the raising of troops; for sourcing weapons from anyone who'd sell them; for sleeving oil abroad; for stirring up FSU countries from Estonia to Moldova, etc etc.  Some of this is coherent; some of it chaotic.  I'm not concerned with them here; nor Putin's Grand Strategy, nor his theory of victory.

So I'm looking at the ground war and Russia's current strategy to achieve what we might infer (from their actions) to be their 2024 objective: capture the whole of the four oblasts they've notionally annexed, to be poised for Odessa and Kharkiv next year.  And after two whole years since February 2022, they've at last come up with a strategy that - insofar as you'd draw it on a map - is informed by Soviet operational art.  That's after mounting an initial campaign that, to general astonishment, flew in the face of such well-developed doctrine: you'll perhaps recall my critiques of their conduct back in 2022 (e.g. here and here.)

Anyhow, the diligent analysts at ISW have recently come up with this: The Russian Winter-Spring 2024 Offensive Operation on the Kharkiv-Luhansk Axis.  Their analysis is not a work of genius (and certainly not of concision), but it's competent, and comes from genuine students of Soviet operational art.  Summarising: on a particular front, the Russians are seeking to advance along four axes that are (broadly) parallel and designed to be mutually supportive - see the second map in ISW's briefing.

And that, folks, is the essence of the geographical or configurational aspect of phase 1 of a Soviet frontal advance.  (Where was this in 2022?)  Think of a heavy wooden club with four long, parallel nails protruding.  It's to be whacked vigorously into the enemy, with the immediate aim of embedding nail-deep into his body of troops; breaking their front line; fixing them in position & denying them the ability to shift left, right or even backwards; and with various pre-ordained reactions planned for contingencies (like one of the nails running into hard resistance).  It's what the first few days are meant to look like, resulting in a punctured, badly injured, immobilised foe, who's to be finished off by what comes in phases 2 & 3, to yield a concrete territorial gain across a broad area.

But here's the thing: just forming units up in the right geographical disposition isn't enough.  I emphasised the above description as being the configurational aspect, because there are other pre-requisites laid down in the Soviet handbook.  As noted back in '22 (see links above), these are: speed, firepower and manoeuvre.

Let's give the Russians of 2024 the benefit of the doubt on firepower: they have probably assembled enough, though there's an important caveat below.  There's also the merest hint of a bit of maneouvre going on just now, although they've proved to be quite shockingly bad at that to date, and Ukraine's massed drones ain't making things any easier for them in that regard.

But what's really missing is the speed.  The Soviets didn't call their front line troops "shock armies" for nothing.  Their doctrine was designed, firstly against WW2 Germans and secondly Cold War Americans, both opponents that were quite masterful at logistics.  Everything depends upon speed, for reasons we could go into.  And speed has been lacking on the Russian side, more even than manoeuvre, in everything we saw after about Day 3 back in Feb two years ago.

The idea that a Soviet frontal attack strategy can be made to work in slow motion is ... well, it's something the Soviets never dreamed of.  Unless some genius has come up with an innovative hybrid - and where has he been all this time? - this ain't gonna work, provided Ukraine retains at least a modicum of military resources.  They have all the depth an army could ask for to fall back into, coupled with some very well-prepared, mutually-supporting defences (e.g. at Slovyansk and Kramatorsk), even stronger than those at Avdiivka** and much more so than at Bakhmut, both of which caused such losses for their Russian attackers.  And they are just as good at chess, which is what you get when everything slows down.

There's even a caveat to my generous concession above on the firepower dimension of all this.  Putin's airforce, long held back in this conflict, was just starting to get into its stride when it suffered a month of serious setbacks and seems to have been withdrawn from the very front line right now.  That's potentially big, and will be the subject of Part 2.



** Footnote: reliable figures are hard to come by, of course, but leaks from Russian sources (FWIIW) suggest they lost the equivalent of approximately three full divisions taking Avdiivka, in about 3 months, with total casualties far higher.  For context, that's like the entire British Army of the Rhine in the Cold War.  For one small town of limited (but, unlike Bakhmut, not zero) operational value.