Monday 19 December 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 14 - the Battle of Isandlwana

King Cetshwayo, ruler of the Zulus in the late 1870's, was a confirmed Anglophile, saying he revered Queen Victoria like a mother, but some unscrupulous expansionists in London and South Africa wanted to get their hands on his lands and in 1879 they managed to foment a war.

An army of 7,000 crossed into Zululand, but the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, was afraid the enemy would try to avoid giving battle, and he kept dividing up his forces.   On January 22, he left behind just 1,250 soldiers at his main camp at Isandlwana.

Astonishingly, the Zulus had managed to hide an army of 20,000 or more, and they fell on the British, who had neglected to fortify their position, and virtually annihilated them.    When the news reached England, people thought at first that it must be a hoax – a British army with modern rifles and artillery destroyed by tribesmen armed mainly with spears!

But Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had to admit to Parliament that there had indeed been a ‘terrible military disaster’.    The full story is in Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, and there are only five shopping days to Christmas!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 13 - the Charge of the Light Brigade

It was probably the most famous blunder in British military history.   In 1854, Britain, France and Turkey were fighting the Russians in the Crimean War.   Early on October 25, the Russians began the Battle of Balaclava to try and break the allies’ fragile supply chain.

 ‘Two such fools could hardly be picked out of the British army,’ was one soldier’s verdict on the cavalry commanders, Lords Lucan and Cardigan, but it was a confused order by the commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, that sent the Light Brigade, considered by many to be the finest light cavalry in the world, on a suicidal charge against Russian guns along the 'Valley of Death'. 

Not only did the brigade have to endure fire from the guns they were attacking, there was also enemy artillery on either side of them.    Thanks to their courage, they managed to capture a few of the guns, but they were soon driven off by the Russians’ superior numbers, and then all that was left was a painful retreat back through enemy gunfire.

Out of the 600 men who set off, 300 were killed, wounded or captured.    After the charge, the battle petered out, but it had an important consequence – the British lost control of their main supply route, condemning them to a winter of shortage, sickness and death.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

UK and Europe - how the relationship works

Stage 1

Europe:  ’ We are planning this important new project.’

UK: ‘It will never happen.’

Stage 2

It happens.

UK: ‘All right.  It has happened, but it will never work.’

Stage 3

It works.

UK: ‘All right.  It has happened and it works, but we do not want anything to do with it.’

Stage 4

UK: ‘Please may we join?’

*A Facebook page I have just written on Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters.

Monday 12 December 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 12 - Afghanistan

The British government had no quarrel with the people of Afghanistan, but was worried about the presence of influential foreigners.   It decided to get rid of the existing government, and impose one it liked.   Then it compiled a dodgy dossier to drum up support for a war.

Any of this sound familiar?   It was what happened in Afghanistan in 1839, when the foreigners were Russians, not al-Qaeda.   At first, everything went swimmingly.    The popular ruler, Dost Mohammed, was replaced by Amir Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, who the Afghans had thrown out 30 years before, whose main interest was his enormous harem, and who dismissed his new subjects as ‘dogs’.

After the Brits had been in control for a couple of years, the Afghans rose up, and in January 1842, the occupiers said that as they were there only for the benefit of the Afghan people, if the Afghan people did not want them, then they would leave.

There followed the most disastrous retreat in the history of the British army.    Around 16,000 British soldiers, Indian sepoys and assorted camp followers began the 90 mile journey to Jalalabad.   At every pass, they were ambushed by Afghan tribesmen, while cold, hunger and exhaustion gnawed at them.     A week later, just one solitary army surgeon reached Jalalabad.

Dost Mohammed once again became ruler and proved himself a true friend of the British Empire until his death in 1863.   But he always remained baffled by the invasion, once telling a British visitor:  ‘I cannot understand why the rulers of so great an empire should have come to deprive me of my poor and barren country.’

Sunday 11 December 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 11 - the Battle of New Orleans

The year 1815 is celebrated in British history for the great victory at Waterloo, but there was also a great defeat – at New Orleans on January 8.   Britain and the infant United States had fallen out over Britain’s press-ganging of American sailors, her attempts to impose a blockade against Napoleonic France, and American territorial ambitions in Canada.

In fact, the battle should never have been fought, as the two combatants had made peace at Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814, but the news had still not reached America.     If it had, the British would probably have been disappointed.   They had 8,000 professional soldiers, many of whom had helped defeat the French in the Peninsular War, and fancied themselves to rout General Andrew Jackson’s untrained frontiersmen.

The American ranks, though, were packed with sharpshooters, and Jackson had constructed his defences well and sited his artillery very effectively.    When the British charged, they were cut down in dozens.

The British commander, Edward Pakenham was killed, as was another British general, and within 25 minutes, the Redcoats had to withdraw, having lost 2,000 killed, wounded or captured against just 300 casualties on the American side.

*A review of Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters from Kent on Sunday.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 10 - The Castlebar Races

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was on its last legs when a mini French army of just over 1,000 men, led by animal skin dealer turned revolutionary general Joseph Humbert, landed near Killala in County Mayo.

Skilfully avoiding British forces, the French plus a few Irish recruits they had managed to pick up, found themselves early on the morning of August 27 before the walls of Castlebar, County Mayo’s county town, where they finally faced the enemy.

It should have been no contest.   The British had cavalry and artillery with a range of 1,000 yards.  The French had only muskets effective at 100, but they managed to launch a ferocious bayonet charge.

Was it the fact that a new British commander had arrived just hours before the attack?   Was it that many in their ranks secretly sympathised with the rebel cause?    Whatever the reason, the British force fled from the field with such speed and enthusiasm that the encounter was dubbed ‘the Castlebar Races.’    The full story is in Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters.

Monday 28 November 2011

Shome mishtake shurely?

It's not often the Economist gets something wrong, but on the cover of its Nov 18 edition, it says: 'Nuclear Iran, anxious Israel'.   Surely that should be: 'Nuclear Israel, anxious Iran'?

*You can follow me now on Twitter @john_withington.

* Authoritative new newsletter on air defence from eminent defence consultant (and my son) Thomas Withington just out.   If you want to subscribe or comment, contact Thomas at

You can also follow Thomas on Twitter at #ChainHomeHigh. 

Friday 25 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 9 - Surrender at Yorktown 1781

By the summer of 1781, the British were confident of winning the American War of Independence.   George Washington’s rebel army was in a state of mutiny, and it was only thanks to his French allies, that he had been able to keep hostilities going.    Now the French were saying they would be pulling out at the end of the year.

The British had two armies, one in the north and one in the south.    The southern force under Lord Cornwallis had been given the job of fortifying a base for the Royal Navy at Yorktown in Virginia.

By accident or design, the rebels had led the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to believe that they were going to attack the northern army in New York.   Instead, on September 28, they moved 16,000 men to Virginia, trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown.

For three weeks, the British commander held out, but by then with sickness reducing his effective strength to just over 3,000, and enemy artillery flattening his defences, Cornwallis surrendered, and four months later the House of Commons voted to abandon the war.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 8 - the Siege of Cartagena de Indias

The Spaniards often call it ‘the Defeat of the British Armada’.    In 1741, during the wonderfully-named ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’, the British dispatched the biggest force they had ever sent to the West Indies – 10,000 men and more than 20 ships - to join the fleet already out there under Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon.

The objective was to capture Spain’s fortress of Cartagena de Indias in modern-day Colombia, but right from the start, things went wrong.    The army commander, Lord Cathcart, and 600 of his men died from sickness on the way out.   

Then once the force arrived, a feud broke out between Cathcart’s replacement, the inexperienced Sir Thomas Wentworth, and Vernon, while the Spanish defences were cleverly organised by Admiral Blas de Lezo, nicknamed ‘half-man’, who had lost an arm, a leg and an eye in the service of his country.

A number of British assaults failed, while sickness continued to take a terrible toll.   When only 1,700 of the 10,000 who left Britain were still fit for duty, the assault was called off, and the country’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was forced to resign.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 7 - The Second Battle of the Medway

In 1667, England was in the middle of an austerity programme.    Tax receipts had been hammered by two major disasters, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666.   One government cut involved laying up the Royal Navy’s great ships, and paying off most of their crews.

Unfortunately, there was a war with the Dutch going on at the time, and at the beginning of June, their commander, Admiral De Ruyter, detached a task force from his fleet with the mission of attacking the pride of the navy  in the Medway.

The English had sunk ships in the river, and stretched a chain across it, and they had guns ashore to stop the progress of the enemy, but unfortunately there was a shortage of gunners, supplies had been pilfered, and the Dutch came on regardless.

 They set three warships alight, and captured and took away two others, including the 82-gun Royal Charles – the pride of the navy, the ship that had brought Charles II back from exile.    It was, considered the diarist John Evelyn, ‘a dishonour never to be wiped off’, and was perhaps Britain’s greatest ever naval humiliation.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 6 - the Battle of Castillon 1453

The Hundred Years War had been going on since 1337.   It is often described as a conflict between England and France, but that is not quite true.    In fact, the English kings ruled a lot of France when the war began, including Aquitaine in the south, and Ponthieu in the north, and many ‘Frenchmen’ served in ‘English’ armies.

By 1453, the French king Charles VII had virtually driven the English out, but many people in Aquitaine wanted them back, and so an army under England’s best general, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury – the ‘English Achilles’, went out to try to exploit their discontent.

On July 16, he set off to relieve the town of Castillon to which the French were laying siege.   He came upon a small French force and routed them.  Then a messenger from Castillon told him they had seen clouds of dust coming from the main French camp.

Thinking the enemy were beating a hasty retreat, Talbot launched an attack even though many of his troops had not yet arrived.    In fact, only the camp followers had been leaving, and French artillery cut down the English mercilessly, inflicting a decisive defeat and virtually ending the war.

*There’s much more on Castillon in my BFBS interview:-

The Aberdeen Press and Journal published a piece on Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters on November 16, and the Tamworth Herald on November 17.

Monday 21 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 5 - the Battle of Hastings 1066

In that hilarious book, 1066 and All That, 1066 was selected as one of the only two ‘memorable’ dates in English history.    And rightly so.   The Battle of Hastings marked one of its cleanest breaks with an entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class removed to be replaced by Normans imported by William the Conqueror.

And yet the battle itself was a close-run thing.    The army of the English king Harold was exhausted and depleted, having had to race up north to defeat another claimant to the throne, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and then race back south again.

Even so, the Norman cavalry could at first make little impact on the Saxon shield-wall, and when William was knocked off his horse, a rumour swept through his army that he was dead, and some leading commanders called for a retreat.

William had to win the battle, while a draw would have been good enough for the English, so there followed a race against time to gain a decisive victory before dusk brought an end to the fighting.    For the full story, see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, the History Press.

*Review of my last book – A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 18 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 4 - the Anglo-Saxon Conquest

Germanic raiders who became known collectively as ‘Saxons’ had been attacking England since the 3rd century, but after the Romans left at the beginning of the 5th century, one of the Britons’ leaders, named Vortigern, had the bright idea of hiring Saxons as mercenaries to fight the Picts and Scots who had been raiding northern England.

So in 449, the brothers Hengest and Horsa arrived in Kent.   They were very successful against the Picts and Scots, but when the Britons tried to defy their increasing demands for land, the Saxons fought and heavily defeated their employers, perhaps at Aylesford in Kent in 455.

Two years later, the Britons suffered an even more decisive defeat, perhaps at Crayford.   They are said to have lost 4,000 killed, while the survivors ‘fled to London in great terror’.  

In the late fifth or early sixth century, the Britons had a series of successes, perhaps under King Arthur, but the year 577 saw another crushing defeat at Dyrham, near Bath, where three British kings were killed, and by 600 most of what had been Roman Britain was in Saxon hands.

*This is an interview with me on British Forces Broadcasting about my new book – Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Britain's worst military disasters 3 - Mons Graupius AD 83 or 84

We tend to think of the Roman conquest of Britain as extending only as far as Hadrian’s Wall, but, in fact, in AD 83 or 84 (historians cannot agree on the date), a Roman army won a stunning victory perhaps as far north as Aberdeenshire.

Having subdued Wales and the north of England, the Roman governor Agricola had advanced up through Scotland, but found it difficult to bring the Caledonian tribes to battle, Eventually, though, about 30,000 of them confronted him at ‘Mons Graupius’ which many modern-day historians believe to be in the Bennachie range, north-west of Aberdeen.

The Caledonian vanguard was on the plain, with the rear stretching up Mons Graupius.    Agricola held his legionaries in reserve, and sent in his ‘barbarian’ auxiliaries to close with the enemy.    Roman armies were at their most effective in this close, hand-to-hand combat, and they broke through the Caledonians and started to advance up the hill.

The tribesmen fought bravely, but when Agricola sent in his cavalry, they were routed, and the Roman historian Tacitus put their losses at 10,000 against just 360 for the Romans.  It was too late in the campaigning season, though, for Agricola to advance any further, and his troops withdrew to forts further south.  Never again would the Romans penetrate this far north.  

*Article about Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters in the Bath Chronicle.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

British military disasters 2 - the defeat of Boudicca AD 60 or 61

Less than 20 years after they won the Battle of the Medway, the Romans had managed to provoke a large-scale British revolt by their arrogance.    After their ally, the East Anglian king Prasutagus died, they seized all his property, and when his family protested, they raped his daughters and flogged his widow, Boudicca.

She rose in revolt, attracting the support of other tribes the Romans had upset, and burned down Colchester, London and St Albans.    Then she headed north to try to destroy the army led by the Roman governor Suetonius.

Somewhere along Watling Street, now the A5, probably in the West Midlands, she came upon them.   The Romans numbered around 10,000, while Boudicca’s host was estimated by some at nearly a quarter of a million, though many of these were women and children who had tagged along to see the enemy defeated.

Suetoninus, though, chose his ground very carefully, packing his men into a narrow gorge protected on either side by forest.  First they hurled their javelins at the Britons advancing uphill, then they pushed forward in their famous v-shaped wedge and routed the enemy, killing them in their thousands.   Boudicca took poison, and the revolt collapsed.

Monday 14 November 2011

British Military Disasters 1- the Battle of the Medway AD43

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be blogging about the military disasters featured in my new book – Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters (The History Press).

According to some estimates, 40,000 Roman legionaries and auxiliaries were confronted by 80,000 Ancient Britons as they tried to cross the Medway in AD43.    If those figures are right, this would be the second biggest battle ever fought in Britain.

The Britons were taken by surprise when a detachment of auxiliaries managed to swim across the river and start attacking their horses.    Taking advantage of the chaos this caused, a force of legionaries under the future emperor Vespasian crossed on the opposite flank.

Even so, the British resisted doggedly and the battle went into a second day, something highly unusual for those times, and perhaps testimony to the large number of men involved.   On day two, the Romans used boats and a pontoon bridge to reinforce their bridgehead, but in a determined counter-attack the British captured a number of officers and for a time looked as though they might win.

Eventually, though, the Romans’ superior organisation won the day, and soon after the Roman emperor Claudius came over to take the surrender of 11 British kings, laying the foundations for nearly 400 years of Roman rule.

Saturday 5 November 2011

My new book

My new book, Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disaster: from the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore, is just out.   Not surprisingly everyone in Britain seems to know about our great victories – Crecy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Trafalgar, Waterloo, El Alamein, etc, but when you have fought as many wars as the British, it’s not surprising that there’ve also been plenty of disasters. 

The book looks at famous ones, such as Hastings, and Yorktown, which sealed the loss of the American colonies, but it also tells the story of the forgotten defeats – like Castillon, the last battle of the 100 Years War.

Some, like the first Battle of the Medway, had far-reaching consequences, paving the way for the Roman conquest.    Others, like the second Battle of the Medway sixteen hundred years later, had little long-term impact, but was still regarded as ‘a dishonour never to be wiped off’.

There are stories of defeats by Afghans, Americans and Zulus, who had all been dismissed back home as no match for our boys, and of brilliant retreats that prevented even worse disasters as at Gallipoli and Dunkirk.

Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters ISBN: 9780752461977 is published by the History Press, and is offered for sale on their website

Sunday 30 October 2011

Unlucky church

I was in Hamburg recently, and managed to pop into the wonderfully light and airy St Michael’s Church.  The inside reminded me a bit of St Martin-in-the-fields in London.    Originally constructed in 1647, it was destroyed by fire 103 years later after being struck by lightning.

It was rebuilt, but in 1906 it was burned down again, this time while building work was going on.  Then it was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War Two.  

In July 1943, Hamburg was hit by what was then the most devastating raid of the war.   The RAF started a firestorm which reduced eight square miles of the city to blackened ruins.   About 42,000 people were killed, and Hitler’s minister for war production, Albert Speer, told the Fuehrer that if another three or four cities were bombed like that, it would mean ‘the end of the war’.

* Here’s a new review of my book Disaster!  as much fun as any horror film’ – I take that as a compliment.

And this is me on the tv in the 1970’s:-

Saturday 29 October 2011

Turkish earthquake

Turkey’s second major earthquake of the year has now claimed at least 575 lives.   It struck the eastern town of Ercis, which has nearly 100,000 inhabitants, on Sunday.   More than 180 people have been pulled from the wreckage, including a 13 year old boy in the early hours of yesterday, but now hopes of finding anyone else alive are fading.

Tens of thousands of people have been made homeless, and the nights are freezing cold.   Most of those living in the region are Kurds – an ethnic minority that has been battling to have its own country - and the Turkish government had been criticised for what some saw as a sluggish initial response. 

I was in Istanbul at the time of the last earthquake in May, which struck the western Kutahya region, about 100 miles away, killing two people.    Some people in Istanbul said they felt the tremor, though I did not.

Perhaps the worst earthquake in Turkey’s history was the one that destroyed the famous city of Antioch in 526, killing up to 300,000 (see my blog of Jan 22, 2010).   The deadliest of recent years was the Izmit quake of 1999, which caused at least 17,000 deaths in the area, about 40 miles from Istanbul.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Disaster relief funds - record for a famine

Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee has announced that it has raised a record sum to help famine victims in Somalia.     The £72 million donated is the highest ever for a food crisis, and the only disasters of any kind to have attracted a bigger response were the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

DEC’s chief executive said the money had saved many people’s lives, but that the situation produced by a devastating drought remained ‘grave’, and that help was not reaching many of those in greatest need.

Relief work has been hampered by the militant Islamist group, al-Shabab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda (see my blog of July 21), but now rains have revived pasture for livestock in some areas, and some crops are being harvested. 

Aid agencies had been afraid that the actions of Somali pirates might discourage people from making donations.    They have kidnapped a number of foreign tourists, including a 56 year old British woman, Judith Tebbutt, who was abducted from 25 miles inside Kenya.    The pirates murdered her husband.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Costa da Morte

Just back from the beautiful coast of Galicia in north-west Spain.  Below you can see me at the memorial to the many ships wrecked off the ominously named Costa da Morte.   It got its name in 1890 when a Royal Navy torpedo cruiser, HMS Serpent, came to grief here.

She was en route from Plymouth to Sierra Leone on November 10, 1890 when in fog and drizzle, she lost her way.   Then a fierce storm broke and the ship was dashed against the treacherous rocks, though at first the crew seemed to think they had just been hit by a very powerful wave, and there was a delay in closing watertight doors.

Just three survivors from the crew of 175 managed to reach the shore and sound the alarm in a nearby village.   A search party went out but was able to find only bodies.    The British government later sent letters of thanks to local people, and the mayor was presented with a shotgun and the parish priest a gold watch.

It is said that the survivors owed their lives to wearing lifebelts, which was unusual at the time, and that the incident led to their being used much more widely.

Pic by Anne Clements.  See her other lovely work

Friday 7 October 2011

Thailand floods

More than 250 people have now been killed in the monsoon floods that have been affecting Thailand for the last two months.    Twenty-eight provinces have suffered, and more than two million people have had their lives disrupted.

These are said to be the worst floods in half a century, and the Prime Minister has warned that parts of Bangkok will soon be under water.     In some areas, people have been told to beware of crocodiles which have escaped from farms.

Last year saw monsoon floods across 38 provinces of Thailand, and more than 230 people were drowned, while millions more lost their homes and their livelihoods.

This years’s floods have also killed 167 people in Cambodia, and another 40 in Vietnam and Laos.

Monday 3 October 2011

Disasters - blaming the experts

Six scientists from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology and the former deputy chief of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis , have gone on trial for manslaughter in Perugia in connection with the earthquake that hit the medieval city of L’Aquila in  2009, killing 308 people, and destroying thousands of buildings.

For months, people living in and around the city had been experiencing earth tremors, but on March 31, 2009, Dr De Bernardinis told them there was ‘no danger’.  Six days later the earthquake struck.

The prosecution claims the seven were negligent in their assessment of the risks, and that the reassuring comments made by Dr De Bernardinis and a vulcanologist resulted in the deaths of people who would otherwise have left their homes after two tremors on successive nights just before the quake.

Some scientists have said that the case will have a ‘chilling effect’, and might deter them from sharing their expertise with the public for fear of the consequences if things go wrong.   (See also my blog of April 6, 2009.)

Friday 23 September 2011

Malaria - a glimmer of hope?

Some hopeful signs from a new anti-malaria vaccine.    Preliminary trials had begun in Burkina Faso to test its safety, but it soon became clear that children who had been given the injection were getting a high degree of protection.

The results are described as ‘most encouraging’, and a bigger trial is about to start in Mali.  About 100 different vaccines have been tried against the disease, and this one, developed by the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is only the second to have shown promise.

The Burkina Faso study involved only 45 children, but the incidence of malaria was three or four time lower among those who were given the vaccine.    Eight hundred children will be enrolled in the new trial in Mali.

Malaria still kills around 1 million people a year, 90 per cent of them in Africa, and most of these are young children.  (See also my blogs of 11 April, 30 May, 24 Sept and 21 Oct, 2009.)

Thursday 22 September 2011

Animal survivors - tales of dogs, pigs and clones

Here’s a strong contender for this year’s most bizarre disaster story.     Chinese scientists have cloned a wonder pig that survived the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed more than 90,000 people.

 Zhu Jiangqiang, or "Strong-Willed Pig", survived in his sty under the rubble for 36 days on a diet of charcoal and rainwater.    Scientists in the city of Shenzhen have cloned six piglets from his DNA.    They are all said to look like him, with a distinctive birthmark between the eyes.   It’s planned to send them off to a museum and a genetic institute.

During the Japanese tsunami in March, as the owners of a pet dachshund prepared to seek safety in the hills inland, the terrified dog raced off towards the sea.    They were heart-broken and assumed that was the last they would see of him.

But a week later, he was found safe a mile inland.   How did he survive?    No one knows.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

More floods in China

Floods are said to be the most common natural disaster to afflict mankind, and China has suffered many, including perhaps the deadliest natural disaster in history.  (See my blog of June 20.)

Now a week of heavy rain has brought the deaths of at least 57 people and driven a million from their homes.    The flooding in Sichuan is the worst since records began in 1847, and the provinces of Henan and Shaanxi have also been hit.

More than 120,000 houses have been destroyed, along with many crops.   Many of those who died were in a brick factory and the dormitory for its workers that were buried by a landslide in the city of Xi’an.

Last year’s floods were the worst in China for a decade, and cost 4,000 lives, while so far this year more than 350 people have been killed in 12 provinces.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

London's deadliest post-war fire

New light has been cast on the deadliest fire in London since World War Two, and one of the worst mass killings in British history.   In the early hours of August 16, 1980, fire ripped through two illegal clubs in Denmark Street - ‘Tin Pan Alley’ – just off Charing Cross Road.

The second floor housed a gambling den, while the first floor was a club where salsa music – virtually unknown in London in those days – attracted lots of South American expatriates.    A disgruntled customer who had been refused admission, poured petrol into the building and set fire to it.   The disc jockey was one of those killed, as he tried to save his record collection.

There were no proper fire escapes, and with much of the building made of wood, it went up in no time.    A total of 37 people were killed, and in May 1981, a 42 year old man was gaoled for life for causing the fire.

Matt Rendell has come up with some fascinating new details about the disaster in his new history of salsa in Britain.   For the full story, see Salsa for People Who Probably Shouldn’t just published by Mainstream.  

Monday 19 September 2011

Pakistan flooded again

Just as they did around this time last year, devastating floods, caused by heavy monsoon rain, have once again struck the unhappy country of Pakistan.    So far this year nearly 250 people have been killed and more than 600,000 homes have been destroyed.    Last year, up to 2,000 people lost their lives.

The United Nations has launched an appeal for more than £230 million to help the estimated six million who have been affected this year.    Once again, the Pakistan government has been criticised for what has been seen an ineffectual response.

More than two million people are said to be suffering from flood-related illnesses, while at least 7,000 have been bitten by snakes.    Local people claim that if proper drainage systems had been in place, many lives could have been saved.

(See also my blogs of July 20, Aug 11, 17 and 23, 2010, and 27 Jan, 2011.)

Thursday 1 September 2011

Black Death WAS plague - official

When I was at school, there was no doubt about it.   We were taught that the Black Death – perhaps the most lethal disease ever to afflict humanity – was bubonic plague.    Then some scientists came up with revisionist theories that it might have been an ebola-type virus, or anthrax, or some combination of infections.

Well now a group of Canadian researchers from McMaster University in Toronto believe they have proved the epidemic really was bubonic plague.   They analysed bones from the 14th century, and were able to extract the plague bacterium, though in a different form from the one we know today.

They hope also to throw light on why the disease carried off so many.    From its first appearance in Central Asia in the 1330’s, it spread right across Europe and Asia, killing perhaps a third of the population.   In some places it was even more deadly.    Siena in Italy was said to have lost half of its people.  Nearby San Gimignano, with its famous towers, even more.

The Black Death was a dreadful blow to the prestige of the Church which had failed to warn the faithful that God was about to inflict this dreadful punishment on them.   It also produced a labour shortage, and as wages for the working class rose, the kings of England and France quickly imposed a wage freeze.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Baghdad bridge disaster anniversary

In the week when it was revealed that back in 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair secretly promised President Bush that Britain would join in the bombing and invasion of Iraq in defiance of the United Nations, a sombre reminder of the chaos the deadly duo left behind.

On this day, six years ago, a million Shi’ite pilgrims had thronged to a holy site in Baghdad.  The atmosphere was tense after a number of attacks by Sunni extremists.   When rumours of a suicide bomber began to spread through the crowd, people fled to the Al-Aaimmah Bridge to try to escape.

Soon there was a dreadful crush, with pilgrims being suffocated and trampled to death.   Railings gave way, and many people fell into the River Tigris below, while others jumped to escape the crush.   One Sunni  drowned from exhaustion after rescuing a number of people from the waters, but altogether up to 1,000 people died.

A Sunni group with links to al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for one of the earlier attacks that had helped cause the panic, but the government claimed the stampede had simply been a dreadful accident.

The letter that reveals Blair’s secret promise to Bush:-

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Uganda landslides

Heavy rain has brought disaster to another part of Africa.   At least 24 people have been killed by landslides in the Bulambuli district of eastern Uganda.    One village has been completely submerged in mud, and a chief, his wife and their eight children are reported to have died. 

Red Cross workers and local people have been digging in the mud to try to find survivors, and hundreds of people have had to leave their homes.   The sudden downpours follow months of below-average rain.

Last year, officials said they would be moving up to half a million people from the area after landslides killed at least 300 people, but in the end only a few thousand were relocated because of local opposition to the plan.

Many trees have been cut down because of rapid population growth, and this is said to have made floods and mudslides more common, while the government also blames climate change.    (See also my blogs of November 12, 2009 and March 3, 2010.)

Monday 29 August 2011

Floods in Africa

Unusually heavy rains in Nigeria have resulted in at least 20 deaths around the city of Ibadan, 90 miles north of Lagos.   A dam overflowed, and the fact that drains were clogged with rubbish made the inundation even worse.    

Camps have been set up to accommodate the thousands of people who have been driven from their homes.  Buildings have been flooded, food destroyed, and farmland swamped.

Last year, more than 100,000 people were made homeless by floods in the country, while across western and central Africa as a whole, more than 300 people were killed.    The Niger river reached its highest level in 80 years, and there were severe food shortages in the aftermath of the flood, which affected half a dozen countries.

The African floods of 2007 were even more widespread, affecting 14 countries, disrupting the lives of 2.5 million people, and killing 250.  (See also my blog of March 19, 2009)

Wednesday 10 August 2011

London's worst ever riot

The riots of the last few nights have been frightening enough, but fortunately they have, so far, been nothing like the worst ever to have disfigured London.   It came in June 1780 as people got angry over a very minor dilution of the laws discriminating against Roman Catholics.

The ringleader was a young MP on the make, named Lord George Gordon, and what became known as the Gordon riots began with an invasion of Parliament, then soon developed into an attack on anyone or anything connected with Catholicism, like the Bavarian and Sardinian embassies, priests’ houses, homes owned by Catholics, a chapel.

Then the target list broadened to take in the homes of magistrates who had imprisoned rioters, and French Protestant refugees.  Well, they were foreign weren’t they?  How was a fellow supposed to tell the difference between a Protestant Frenchman and a Catholic?   The rioters destroyed  four prisons, and released the inmates, plus a distillery where they released the gin.

The authorities faced heavy criticism over what was seen as their initial rather relaxed attitude to the disorder, and after five days the army was turned out, while even the great radical, John Wilkes, took up arms against the mob.    By the time order was restored, nearly 300 had been killed.    For the full story, see London’s Disasters; from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Yugoslav war crimes - job done?

161 down, none to go.   The calling to account of suspected war criminals after the tragedy of Yugoslavia has been perhaps the most successful operation of its kind in history.

Last month’s arrest of Goran Hadžíc, the leader of Croatia’s Serb minority during the conflict, meant that not one of the 161 people wanted for trial was still at large.    Hadzic, a former warehouse worker, is alleged to have played a leading role in the destruction of the town of Vukovar in 1991, during which at least 264 people were tortured and killed.

He has already appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which was set up back in 1993, joining Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.   Ten of the people indicted by the court died before they could be brought to justice, while Slobodan Milosevic died during his trial.

A crucial factor in the successful pursuit of the suspected war criminals has been the wish of the nations of the former Yugoslavia to join the EU, which has enabled international pressure to be brought to bear on their governments, even though many local people deny that any war crimes were committed.

Monday 1 August 2011

World's deadliest supermarket fire

On this day…..7 years ago, the world’s deadliest ever supermarket fire killed around 400 people at Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.    The food court at the Ycua Bolanos store was packed with families when there was an enormous gas explosion.

The blaze spread through the building at such speed it was said that firemen found cashiers sitting dead at their tills.   Some shoppers were burned alive in the underground car park, while other victims were found hugging each other in the store.

Allegations surfaced that fire exits had been locked, and in December 2006, the owner of the store, his son and a security guard were each gaoled for five years, but the verdicts were followed by a riot, as families of the victims complained furiously at what they considered the undue leniency of the sentences.

At a re-trial just over a year later, the owner’s sentence was increased to 12 years, his son got 10 years, while the security guard’s five year sentence was confirmed.    In addition, a shareholder who had been present when the fire started was gaoled for two and a half years, while the building’s architect spent two years under house arrest.

Monday 25 July 2011

Lightning strike brings rail disaster

On July 1, I blogged about the role played by lightning strikes in disasters, and on Saturday we saw another, when a Chinese bullet train was struck near the city of Wenzhou.   It stalled, and another train ran into it from behind, killing at least 43 people and injuring another 200.   A four year old child was found alive in one of the carriages 24 hours later.

China’s bullet trains came into service in 2007, with some travelling at more than 180 miles an hour.   In Saturday’s crash, four coaches from the second train fell off a viaduct up to 100 feet high.

Plenty of people are worried about how a lightning strike could cause a disaster on this scale.  Three senior rail officials have been sacked, and an official newspaper has said the crash represented a ‘bloody lesson’ and should be a spur to ‘safer railway standards.’

Public anger seems to go further, though, with 97 per cent declaring themselves unhappy about the government’s response to the accident in an online poll of 44,000, and some blaming official corruption.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Amy Winehouse

Farewell to my neighbour, Amy Winehouse.   Thanks for the great music, Amy.  RIP.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Famines in Africa

The United Nations has officially declared a famine in Somalia, the first since 1992.   Half the population – 3.7 million – are said to be at risk, with another 7 million in Kenya and Ethiopia also in need of help.

As is so often the case in African famines, politics is playing a part.   The Islamist militia, al-Shabab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, controls the area where the famine is raging, and two years ago it banned foreign aid agencies.   Even now it is prepared to allow only limited access.

The stricken area had previously included the most fertile part of the country, and the UN says nearly £1 billion in aid is needed.  The USA has said it will send help so long as al-Shahab does not interfere with it, or use it to raise money.

The great Ethiopian famines of the 1970’s and 80’s were also aggravated by politics.   In the first, the Emperor Haile Selassie, responded lethargically (and was promptly deposed), while the second was exacerbated by President Mengistu’s scorched earth campaign against rebels, and his determination that the famine would not spoil a birthday celebration for his regime.

Friday 15 July 2011

Target Mumbai

Mumbai was always regarded as a diverse, tolerant city.   Maybe that is why it has been targeted so often by terrorists.    In Wednesday’s attack, three bombs went off, thought to have been activated by timers, and 18 people were killed.

In 2008, a group of ten Muslim gunmen murdered 165 people in attacks on hotels, a station, and other places frequented by foreigners.   Back in March 1993, more than a dozen bombs made from plastic explosives and detonated by timers killed at least 257 people, while the terrorists also threw grenades at Mumbai airport.

Ten years later, bombings killed another 50 people, while in July 2006, seven bombs were set off on rush-hour trains during a period of 11 minutes, claiming 209 lives.   Police blamed an outlawed Indian Muslim organisation, Lashkar-e-Toiba (‘Soldiers of the Pure’), but said the outrage had been planned by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

A trial of 13 people accused of involvement is still wending its way through the Indian justice system, with judgment now expected before the end of the year.

Monday 11 July 2011

Russian disasters

Up to 110 people, including 50 children, have been drowned after an overloaded tourist boat sank on the Volga River in Russia.   The vessel’s official capacity was only 120, but it was said to have been carrying 208 people.

The 55 year old Bulgaria went down in minutes after being caught in a storm, while it was en route from Bolgary to Kazan, and the Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the disaster amid reports that one of the vessel’s engines was not working.  

President Medvedev has ordered safety checks on ‘all means’ of passenger transport, saying the Bulgaria was in a poor state, and that Russia had too many ‘old rust tubs’.

Back in the 1980’s after a series of dreadful accidents in the former Soviet Union, including Chernobyl and a gas explosion by the Trans-Siberian Railway, President Gorbachev complained that too many resulted from ‘negligence, irresponsibility and a lack of proper organisation’.    It looks as though his successor believes that problem is far from being solved.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Bloody Assizes + 326

This day…..326 years ago saw the last battle (touch wood!) fought on English soil.    The rebel army of Charles II’s illegitimate Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth, was decisively defeated by the forces of his uncle, the Catholic King James II, at Sedgemoor in Somerset.

The battle was followed by a ferocious campaign of repression in the West Country.   The royalist commander set up a line of gibbets along the road to Bridgwater, and hanged a captured rebel from each one.   Monmouth was found disguised as a shepherd and beheaded.

Next Colonel Percy Kirke, and his fearsome soldiers ironically nicknamed ‘Kirke’s Lambs’, summarily executed another 100 during the course of a week, before he was recalled for being too lenient.   So in early September, Judge Jeffreys set out on his ‘Bloody Assizes’.

Jeffreys’s speciality was abusing and terrifying defendants and any witnesses who spoke up for them – ‘lying, snivelling, canting Presbyterians’ and that kind of thing.    Altogether, he hanged more than 300, and had more than 800 transported.     Three years later, James II was fleeing the country, as he was deposed by William of Orange.