It just seems appropriate to provide a link to my post of last year on the stunning and moving memorial at Arromanches by artists Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley.
We all know that walking along the beach on wet sand is easier than dragging our feet through the dry stuff. We all know that wet sand is a very different material from dry – the strange inter-granular capillary physics of wet sand allows us to build sandcastles and, it seems, made it a little easier to drag ridiculously heavy objects around the desert for the ancient Egyptians intent on claiming their places in posterity.
Around 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt lived a typically self-aggrandising nomarch (no, not typo, but the term for a semi-feudal governor), Djehutihotep. His tomb is famous for its paintings, a drawing of one of which is shown above. Hundreds of slaves are dragging a sledge bearing a gigantic statue of Djehutihotep, undoubtedly looking on his works and despairing. Look closely, and you will see a man pouring water, not on the perspiring workers, but on the sand, and research just published has indicated that the Egyptians knew exactly what they were doing in terms of the behaviours of granular materials. As reported on Sci-News.com:
A multinational group of physicists led by Prof Daniel Bonn from the University of Amsterdam has hypothesized that Egyptians probably made the desert sand in front of the sledge wet … In the presence of the correct quantity of water, wet desert sand is about twice as stiff as dry sand. A sledge glides far more easily over firm desert sand simply because the sand does not pile up in front of the sledge as it does in the case of dry sand.
The university news release describes the experiments and the results as follows:
Ancient Egyptians transported pyramid stones over wet sand
29 April 2014
Physicists from the University of Amsterdam have discovered that the ancient Egyptians used a clever trick to make it easier to transport heavy pyramid stones by sledge, allowing them to halve the number of workers needed. The researchers published this discovery in the prestigious journal Physical Review Letters.
For the construction of the pyramids, the ancient Egyptians had to transport heavy blocks of stone and large statues across the desert. The Egyptians therefore placed the heavy objects on a sledge that workers pulled over the sand. Research from the University Amsterdam has now revealed that the Egyptians probably made the desert sand in front of the sledge wet. Experiments have demonstrated that the correct amount of dampness in the sand halves the pulling force required.
The physicists placed a laboratory version of the Egyptian sledge in a tray of sand. They determined both the required pulling force and the stiffness of the sand as a function of the quantity of water in the sand. To determine the stiffness they used a rheometer, which shows how much force is needed to deform a certain volume of sand.
Experiments revealed that the required pulling force decreased proportional to the stiffness of the sand. Capillary bridges arise when water is added to the sand. These are small water droplets that bind the sand grains together. In the presence of the correct quantity of water, wet desert sand is about twice as stiff as dry sand. A sledge glides far more easily over firm desert sand simply because the sand does not pile up in front of the sledge as it does in the case of dry sand.
The Egyptians were probably aware of this handy trick. A wall painting in the tomb of Djehutihotep clearly shows a person standing on the front of the pulled sledge and pouring water over the sand just in front of it.
Besides revealing something about the Egyptians, the results are also interesting for modern-day applications. We still do not fully understand the behaviour of granular material like sand. Granular materials are, however, very common. Other examples are asphalt, concrete and coal. The research results could therefore be useful for examining how to optimise the transport and processing of granular material, which at present accounts for about ten percent of the worldwide energy consumption.
The research was supervised by group leader professor Daniel Bonn and is part of the FOM programme 'Fundamental aspects of friction
It’s interesting to note the comment “in the presence of the correct quantity of water” – this graphic from the paper in Physical Review Letters demonstrates the subtlety and fickleness of granular behaviour:
The images show the experimental sledge being pulled through the experimental sand, dry on the left, correctly wetted on the right. The graph shows the force required to move the sledge with across the dry sand (the red line) and with different proportions of water. The green line (1.5% water) reduces the force required a little, but the purple line demonstrates how adding 5% water eases task very significantly – fewer slaves required, although undoubtedly they were given other things to do. However, add a little more water – the black line represents 7.4% – and pulling the sledge becomes harder than in dry sand, the water between the grains turning the material into something more like mud.
So it would seem that the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of the physics of granular materials helped achieve their megalomaniacal ambitions. And the research has provided Egyptologists with an explanation of what that person was doing on the front of Djehutihotep’s sledge - as reported in an article in The Washington Post:
“This was the question,” Bonn wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “In fact, Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation. And friction is a terribly complicated problem; even if you realize that wet sand is harder – as in a sandcastle, you cannot build on dry sand — the consequences of that for friction are hard to predict.”
I realise that this post is later than it should have been, but I would be delinquent if I did not note this extraordinary event. A few years ago, on a dismal and gusty day somehow appropriate for the location, I visited the Normandy town of Arromanches, whose beach, on the 6th June, 1944, was a focus for the D-Day landings.
At Arromanches last month, to mark International Peace Day, artists Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley of Sand in your eye, turned into a very moving reality their extraordinary concept of the ‘Fallen Project.’ “The objective was to make a visual representation of 9000 people drawn in the sand which equates the number of Civilians, Germans Forces and Allies that died during the D-day landings, 6th June during WWII as an example of what happens in the absence of peace. . . . On the day we had 60-70 confirmed volunteers that had travelled from around the world to help. We knew that this was not enough to complete the project in the 4.5 hours that we had so at 3pm when we were about to begin we were overwhelmed by the hundreds of people that turned up to help. . . . [and] took stencils and rakes in hand and embarked on drawing the 9000”
There is something of a mystery, an historical debate, about who exactly caused the burning of the great Library at Alexandria. There is, however, no mystery about who torched the library in Timbuktu.
Some years back, while researching the Sand book, I became fascinated by the stories of the manuscripts of Timbuktu, many of them dating back to the thirteenth century:
It is not only the dryness of the climate that preserves ancient manuscripts—the desiccating properties of sand can do the same directly… Timbuktu holds dramatic illustrations of this. From around a.d. 1300 to 1500, the fabled city was a great seat of learning, with students and scholars coming from far away to study, learn, and debate. But after its fall, many of its archives became dispersed or lost. However, in recent years, following more peaceful times in Mali, literally thousands of manuscripts have been recovered from where they had been hidden, in caves or directly in the desert sand.
“More peaceful times in Mali” – how times do change. Back then, Mauritania, Mali, the Festival of the Desert, were high on my bucket list of destinations, a fine illustration of the foolishness of procrastination. And when I read in the news this morning that the manuscript collections had been burned by the fleeing “rebels,” I was ready to weep. I reached in vain for words that would properly describe this act and the individuals who committed it, until I settled on “obscene” and “evil,” words that apply to essentially all of the actions of these people.
As the culmination of decades of work, largely stimulated by UNESCO, and with the collaboration of the Malian and South African Governments, the support of the Ford Foundation, funding from Kuwait, and the expertise of the University of Capetown, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research opened the doors of its new building in 2009. It housed collections of literally priceless manuscripts and the facilities and staff to finally document and preserve them. On Monday came the news that it had been destroyed.
However, at the time of writing, there is a glimmer of hope – not, perhaps, for the facility but for the manuscripts. Time magazine reports that, in anticipation of exactly what happened, a significant number of them had been quietly removed and hidden; history repeating itself, ironically:
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied.
Let us hope that this is true.
Update 2 February: grounds for optimism - it seems likely that the majority of the manuscripts were indeed removed and hidden safely.
The critters who make their lives in the sands of the Australian outback are not by nature publicity-seekers. Shy, discreet, and often nocturnal, they are, with the exception of the occasional cunningly-camouflaged lizard, rarely seen, but their journeys are recorded, with astonishing diversity, in the sand.
Birds, dingoes, lizards, insects, snakes, dingoes all leave their tracks and trails. But what of the print in the photo at the head of this post? Any guesses?
The Aborigines of Western Australia had an explanation: these are “little fellah bums,” the tracks of small spirit-beings who make their way across the sands on their backsides. This is a delightful and culturally sound interpretation, but the truth is that these are the footprints of change, and a change that would contribute to essentially dismantling the lives of those indigenous inhabitants forever.
Here’s another clue, the prints this time crossing a dried-out playa lake bed:
You’ve probably guessed by now – here are the culprits:
For a hundred years, camels were the engines of the opening up of Australia’s interior, enabling early exploration, construction, mining, and, vitally, water-supply. In the initial expeditions into the “ghastly blank,” horses and mules had proven more of a liability than an asset, and it was in 1839 that importing camels was first suggested as a solution. The first camel to be imported into Australia was named Harry, and he accompanied John Ainsworth Horrocks on his venture into the unknown in 1846, an ambassador for his kind. Harry proved his worth, but, unfortunately, decided to lurch as Horrocks was re-loading his gun: the consequence would prove fatal to the explorer and, very unfairly, to Harry. But, as a Melbourne newspaper reported, camels could carry
from seven to eight hundred pounds weight ... they last out several generations of mules ... the price paid for them does not exceed one half of that paid for mules ... and it is proved that these 'ships of the deserts' of Arabia are equally adaptable to our climate.
This heralded the forced immigration of large numbers of camels whose stamina, fortitude, and – generally – good nature, would support the development of the country’s economy for almost a century. And, vitally, along with the camels came the men who knew them and could handle them, the cameleers. Although collectively referred to as “Afghans,” they, together with their camels came from essentially anywhere that the ships of the desert did - Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajastan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab, as well as Afghanistan. Australia’s iconic trans-continental railroad, “The Ghan,” is named after these workers and its emblem is a camel with an “Afghan” rider. The tragically disastrous yet successful Burke and Wills expedition of the 1860s was made possible by 24 camels and three cameleers. All the heroic early infrastructure projects that opened up the outback – the telegraph, the railroads, the mail, mining – were only possible through the efforts of the camels and their masters.
The Australian Government has a fascinating and informative website on the history and culture of this extraordinary community. By the 1930s, the heyday of the camels and cameleers was over (except for a few, largely tourism-based, operations here and there). From the website:
The last of the cameleers
By 1940, few cameleers remained. Philip Jones relates the tale of some of the last of the Afghan cameleers in reCollections, the Journal of the National Museum of Australia:
In the Adelaide summer of 1952 a young Bosnian Muslim and his friends, newly arrived immigrants, pushed open the high gate of the Adelaide mosque… As Shefik Talanavic entered the mosque courtyard he was confronted by an extraordinary sight. Sitting and lying on benches, shaded from the strong sunshine by vines and fruit trees, were six or seven ancient, turbaned men. The youngest was 87 years old. Most were in their nineties; the oldest was 117 years old. These were the last of Australia's Muslim cameleers... Several had subscribed money during the late 1880s for the construction of the mosque which now, crumbling and decayed, provided their last refuge.
It is only in recent years, with the South Australian Museum's Australian Muslim Cameleers exhibition (developed with support from the Visions of Australia program) and book, that the story and the contribution of these pioneers to Australia's history and development has been told.
The primary (and largely accomplished) goal of my recent foray into the ghastly blank, was to travel the Canning Stock Route, “one of the toughest and most remote tracks in the world.” Developed in the first decade of the twentieth century by Alfred Canning, the 1800 kilometres of strategically spaced wells allowed a route to move cattle from the Kimberley to Perth that avoided the tick-infested coastal regions. The project, and particularly Canning’s methods in terms of treatment of the indigenous inhabitants (who were, after all, the people who knew where water was to be found), will perhaps be the subject of a later post. But for now, it’s the fact that, yet again, it was camels that were the key to it all. There are 51 wells along the route, and it was not only their construction that was made possible by Camelus dromedarius, but their operation. Here, from Gordon Grimwade’s survey, The Canning Stock Route: Desert stock route to outback tourism, and from the collection of Perth’s Battye Library, camels set out in 1908 carrying materials for the wells:
Many of the wells are now in complete disrepair, but a number have been restored:
The canvas bucket in the photo is for the hand windlass only – the main means of drawing water for the cattle was a much larger canvas or sheet metal bucket. Thirsty cattle need to be watered quickly in order to avoid chaos, and these buckets, of a couple of hundred litres capacity, were beyond any manual ability. Each well was therefore equipped with a “whip pole,” the angled and pulley-wheeled feature in the photo. An animal was attached to the rope that ran over the pulley to draw the massive bucket – and you can probably guess what animal did the work.
As their usefulness drew to a close, most of Australia’s camels were simply set loose. It is estimated that more than a million wild camels now roam the outback, and they have become a nuisance. At one point on our journey, the tranquillity of the desert was rudely disrupted by the sound of a helicopter, and we shortly encountered the camp of those responsible: they were camel-shooters, culling dozens each day from the air, and leaving the carcasses for the dingoes.
I hope that the group of camels I showed above haven't fallen victim to this pragmatic necessity – but, if they sadly have, perhaps their spirits still roam the sands as little fellah bums.
[For further information on Australia’s Muslim cameleers, see http://www.cameleers.net/; images of camels and cameleers above from the remarkable image collections of The State Library of South Australia. For a modern tale of travelling with camels, read Tracks by Robyn Davidson – it’s compelling, much more than just a travel book.]
Here’s part of the original report from NOAA:
NOAA, BOEM: Historic, 19th century shipwreck discovered in northern Gulf of Mexico
May 16, 2012
While most of the ship's wood has long since disintegrated, copper that sheathed the hull beneath the waterline as a protection against marine-boring organisms remains, leaving a copper shell retaining the form of the ship. The copper has turned green due to oxidation and chemical processes over more than a century on the seafloor. Oxidized copper sheathing and possible draft marks are visible on the bow of the ship.(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.)
During a recent Gulf of Mexico expedition, NOAA, BOEM and partners discovered an historic wooden-hulled vessel which is believed to have sunk as long as 200 years ago. Scientists on board the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer used underwater robots with lights and high definition cameras to view remnants of the ship laden with anchors, navigational instruments, glass bottles, ceramic plates, cannons, and boxes of muskets.
Equipped with telepresence technology, Okeanos Explorer reached audiences around the world who participated in the expedition through live streaming Internet video. As members of the public ashore watched live video from the ocean bottom, they became “citizen explorers,” sharing in the discovery with maritime archaeologists, scientists and resource managers from a variety of federal, academic, and private organizations.
The NOAA-funded 56-day expedition that ended April 29 was exploring poorly known regions of the Gulf, mapping and imaging unknown or little-known features and habitats, developing and testing a method to measure the rate that gas rises from naturally-occurring seeps on the seafloor, and investigating potential shipwreck sites.
The shipwreck site was originally identified as an unknown sonar contact during a 2011 oil and gas survey for Shell Oil Company. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) requested this and other potential shipwreck sites be investigated during NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico expedition. Surveys and archaeological assessments are required by BOEM to aid in its decision-making prior to issuing permits for bottom-disturbing activities related to oil and gas exploration and development.
“Artifacts in and around the wreck and the hull’s copper sheathing may date the vessel to the early to mid-19th century,” said Jack Irion, Ph.D., a maritime archaeologist with BOEM. “Some of the more datable objects include what appears to be a type of ceramic plate that was popular between 1800 and 1830, and a wide variety of glass bottles. A rare ship’s stove on the site is one of only a handful of surviving examples in the world and the second one found on a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Significant historical events occurring in the regions around the Gulf of Mexico during this time include the War of 1812, events leading to the Texas Revolution, and the Mexican-American War, he said.
“Shipwrecks help to fill in some of the unwritten pages of history,” said Frank Cantelas, a maritime archaeologist with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. “We explored four shipwrecks during this expedition and I believe this wreck was by far the most interesting and historic. The site is nearly 200 miles off the Gulf coast in over 4,000 feet of water in a relatively unexplored area.”
The news has been reported widely, these extracts being from CBS News and the Associated Press:
"When we saw it we were all just astonished because it was beautifully preserved, and by that I mean for a 200-year-old shipwreck," said Jack Irion, maritime archaeologist with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in New Orleans… Among the wreckage were "a rather astonishing number of bottles," particularly square gin bottles known as case bottles, as well as wine bottles, Irion said. There were many ceramic cups, plates and bowls that didn't appear to be cargo. Some were green shell-edged pearl ware, a British import popular in the United States between 1800 and 1830. The ship's kitchen stove was found intact. "Very few shipwrecks have been found that still have the stove intact," Irion said. "You can very clearly see the features of the stove. It's in rather good shape." Also discovered were an anchor, cannons and muskets. Irion said researchers have not yet determined whether it was a merchant, military or pirate ship… The wreckage can also give insight to the lives of the crew, where they had been, where they were going and their role in the economy and world history. "It's as if we get a glimpse into what their lives were like, like a time capsule," Irion said.
All kinds of fascinating stuff, but I can’t understand why no mention of the sandglasses lying in the sand…
A story that appeared all over the news recently caught my eye for a number of reasons - here’s an example of the headlines: “Frozen in the sands of time: Eerie Second World War RAF fighter plane discovered in the Sahara... 70 years after it crashed in the desert.”
The Western Desert of Egypt and Libya is strewn with well preserved wreckage from WW II, but this is an extraordinary example. This is the BBC description:
A World War II RAF fighter, which crash-landed in a remote part of the Egyptian desert in 1942, has been discovered almost intact. There was no trace of the pilot, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping, but the British embassy says it is planning to mount a search for his remains.
The RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, says it is hoping to recover the plane as soon as possible.There are fears souvenir hunters will start stripping it.
The 24-year-old pilot, the son of a dentist from Southend in Essex, went missing over the Western Desert in June 1942, flying an American-made P40 Kittyhawk single-engine fighter. Two-and-a-half months ago an aircraft believed to be his was discovered near a remote place called Wadi al-Jadid by a Polish oil worker, Jakub Perka. His photographs show the plane is in remarkably good condition, though the engine and propeller have separated from the fuselage. The original paintwork and RAF insignia are said to be clearly visible, almost perfectly preserved in the dry desert air.
But of the pilot there is no sign. He appears to have executed a near-perfect emergency landing, perhaps after becoming lost and running out of fuel, and to have survived the crash. He rigged a parachute as an awning and removed the aircraft's radio and batteries but then apparently walked off into the desert in search of help. Almost 100 miles from the nearest settlement, he stood virtually no chance.
David Keen, an aviation historian at the RAF Museum, says the pilot broke the first rule of survival in the desert, which is to stay with your plane or vehicle. But the very same conditions which made the pilot's prospects so bleak have helped preserve the plane. Mr Keen says of the many thousands of aircraft which were shot down or crashed during the Second World War, very few survive in anything like this condition.
He said: "Nearly all the crashes in the Second World War, and there were tens of thousands of them, resulted on impact with the aircraft breaking up, so the only bits that are recovered are fragments, often scattered over a wide area. "What makes this particular aircraft so special is that it looks complete, and it survived on the surface of the desert all these years. It's like a timewarp."
The RAF Museum has a P40 Kittyhawk on display, but it has been put together from parts of many different aircraft.
Recovering Flt Sgt Copping's plane will not be easy. It is in a part of the desert which is not only remote but also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt. The defence attache at the British Embassy in Cairo, Paul Collins, says he is hoping to travel to the area in the near future, but is waiting for permission from the Egyptian army.
He told the BBC: "I have to go down there. This is a serviceman who was killed, albeit 70 years ago. We have a responsibility to go and find out whether it's his plane, though not necessarily to work out what happened. He went missing in action. We can only assume he got out and walked somewhere, so we have to do a search of the area for any remains, although it could be a wide area. But we have to go soon as all the souvenir hunters will be down there."
He said the British authorities are trying to find out whether Flt Sgt Copping has any surviving close relatives, because if his remains are found a decision will need to be made about what to do with them.
A compelling story. And, of course, being a geologist and having spent some time in the Western Desert, I was curious – where, exactly, was the plane found? The location mentioned, Wadi al-Jadid, is a very large area south and west of the village of Mut, part of the sprawling oasis of Dakhla – through which I had passed, travelling to the southwest on my way to the Gilf Kebir several years ago. Geologists have a strange tendency to look at the rocks in a photo or in a movie (and, unnervingly for passengers, out of the car window while driving), and an examination of the photos above reveals a couple of things. First, all the gumph in the press reports about “buried in the sands of time” is exactly that – this is an area of sand-blasted limestone outcrops across which the blasting grains would bounce, swirl, and keep going: no dunes deep enough to have buried the plane could accumulate there. Second, the reports variously describe the location as being one hundred or “more than 200” miles from the nearest town, which is, perhaps, Mut. Vast areas to the south and west of Mut are covered by dunes sweeping across seemingly endless gravel plains – few outcrops,none of them limestone. Only after around 150 miles did we enter the distinctive blasted limestone landscapes. I would suggest that this image from my trip is evocative of the general environment shown in the photos of the plane:
I have no intention of providing a guide to bounty-hunters – the area shown on the Google Earth images below is still huge (and, anyway, I may be wrong - I am, see comment discussion below after this was posted):
Incidentally, the comment in the BBC piece that the area is “also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt” I believe is somewhat misleading. Those photos come from the desert west of the Gilf Kebir and it is there, along the Libyan border, that certainly the main people smuggling routes run – I know (and wish that I didn’t), because we saw some of the trucks in the distance.
The CNN report describes how “The young pilot, according to [British military historian] Saunders apparently became disoriented during the flight and headed in the wrong direction. Another RAF pilot flying nearby ‘tried all sorts of things’ to get his attention, but Copping ‘bizarrely’ ignored a series of warnings.” So where should the pilot have been trying to get to? The Imperial War Museum website proves to be yet another wonderful internet resource. Here are two images from their online archives of the North African Campaign:
Left, “A Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I of No. 112 Squadron RAF taxies through the sand at a landing ground in the Western Desert. A mechanic sitting on the wing is guiding the pilot, whose forward view is obscured by the aircraft's nose.” Right, “Trolleys loaded with 250-lb GP bombs are drawn up in front of a line of Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs of No. 260 Squadron RAF at Marble Arch landing ground, Libya, prior to a bombing sortie.” (Reproduced courtesy of the IWM Non-Commercial Licence).
These landing grounds were scattered across the Western Desert, but, appropriately, close to the Mediterranean coast; the Google Earth image above shows one of the British-American joint bases, RAF Gambut, from which the Kittyhawks flew. The pilot of this one was certainly, tragically, a long way from home.
The plan to dig down to the workshop at the starting point of the tunnel known as Harry, where the wartime fliers began their effort to tunnel beneath the barbed wire, was aborted when engineers failed repeatedly to prevent tons of sand from collapsing their own access tunnel.
“The tunnel known as Harry” was one of the incredible constructions by the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, the escape tunnels, laboriously and ingeniously built, that would be immortalised in the movie, The Great Escape. But this story did not need a movie for immortality – it was extraordinary enough in reality. And now a geoarchaeological project, led by Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, has shed further light on just how extraordinary it was.
The prisoner of war camp was built, intentionally, on the sandy soils of the forests of today’s western Poland, along the banks of the Bóbr river. Intentionally, because the river valley is filled with sandy sediments deposited from melt waters of the Ice Age glaciers and carried by the ancestral Bóbr. And sand is difficult to tunnel through. Very difficult.
An earlier geoarchaeological expedition to the site of Stalag Luft III was reported in a fascinating article by Peter Doyle and his colleagues that includes a geological assessment of these soils. The following illustration of the sands is taken from their work:
A thin grey organic soil is underlain by glacio-fluvial cross-bedded sands, yellow and reddish-yellow in colour. As the authors point out, this in itself was a problem for the would-be escapers – the excavated sand from the tunnels was immediately visible if deposited against the darker topsoil.
There were numerous tunnelling attempts made at Stalag Luft III, each tunnel given a name, but the events captured in The Great Escape related to Harry. Harry was 330ft long, made from 4,000 bed boards and dug with thousands of pieces of cutlery. The ingenuity and engineering were astonishing – and, as Hunt discovered, impossible to reproduce without unacceptable danger. The movie was based on the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, whose illustration of the project was reproduced in the article by Peter Doyle and his colleagues:
The escape would end in tragedy for all but three of the 76 prisoners who emerged from the tunnel on that March night in 1944. “Following the escape, it is estimated that 5 million Germans were mobilized to recapture them. Of the 76 that escaped, 3 eventually reached Allied territory, but the remainder were recaptured, and 50 of them were executed by the Gestapo.”
One of the remarkable details of Hugh Hunt’s recent project was that one of the team was Frank Stone. Now 89, Frank was waiting his turn to enter the tunnel that night when the escape was discovered. As reported in the Daily Mail, he demonstrated the use of the trolleys made to move men quickly down the tunnels:
Hunt’s work was the subject of a recent documentary on British TV, and compellingly described in the following piece from The New York Times:
Latter-Day Dig of ‘Great Escape’ Tunnels Humbles Modern Engineers
By JOHN F. BURNS
CAMBRIDGE, England — For scale, they were no match for the Great Pyramids of Giza or the Panama Canal. The labor took months rather than years and a work force of barely 100 men. As for materials, there were none, beyond what the captured Royal Air Force fliers who built them could scavenge, scrounge or improvise.
But by the measures of ingenuity, courage and persistence, the tunnels built almost 70 years ago in sandy scrubland near the small town of Zagan, 130 miles southeast of Berlin in what was then Hitler’s Germany and is today western Poland, were a legendary feat of engineering, although on a miniature scale.
Chronicled by the 1963 movie “The Great Escape,” the tunnel building is one of World War II’s great stories. In the decades since, the legend of the allied fliers’ mass breakout on the night of March 24, 1944, together with the ingenious planning and the Nazi retribution that followed — 73 of the 76 escapers recaptured, and 50 of them summarily executed on Hitler’s orders — has, in a way, eclipsed reality.
In an effort to establish more clearly how the escape was accomplished — and, in a sense, to reclaim the narrative of the breakout — British-based engineers, battlefield archaeologists and historians traveled into the pine forest outside Zagan last summer to unearth the secrets buried there for a television documentary by Wildfire Television in London that was broadcast in late 2011 in Britain. They were accompanied by modern-day Royal Air Force pilots, as well as veterans of wartime bombing raids, now in their 80s, who helped build the tunnels at the encampment known as Stalag Luft III.
The team’s task was to employ “reverse engineering” by uncovering the tunnels and what remained of the tunnelers’ jury-rigged equipment to replicate the wartime fliers’ ingenuity. Ultimately, the team members were stunned that, even without the menace of the ever-watchful Nazi camp guards, they were unable to match their wartime counterparts fully, particularly in the most crucial skill, digging a tunnel 30 feet below the camp surface without repeated collapses of the sandy soil above.
For years, veterans and others have pored over the camp’s ruins, laying memorial stones amid the outcroppings of broken brick and concrete scattered among the pine trees, all that remains of the 60-acre site built by the Germans to house 10,000 captured fliers. But no group matched the expertise of the 2011 team, which went determined to lay bare what Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, described as “the final secrets of a remarkable story.”
A maverick Australian affectionately nicknamed Dr. Screwloose by his colleagues, Dr. Hunt went to Poland as a consultant to the current R.A.F. pilots, including some with combat experience over Iraq and Afghanistan. Their task was to use insights gleaned from the digs at the sites of wartime tunnels known as Harry and George to build a new 35-foot tunnel they called Roger, after Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the principal organizer of the 1944 escape and one of those executed by the Nazis.
“What those men did at Stalag Luft III was an astonishing feat of improvisational engineering,” Dr. Hunt, 50, said in an interview at Cambridge’s Trinity College. “Their resourcefulness was beyond belief. It wasn’t a case of one man’s genius, more the accomplishment of a team, one man’s skills complementing another’s. And they had one precious resource, time. If you have time, somebody will eventually come up with something, and the others will say, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ ”
Like others who joined in the expedition to Zagan, Dr. Hunt has little quarrel with the escape story as told in the film version, which was based on Paul Brickhill’s book of the same name, partly because the tunnelers’ real-life drama required little embellishment. The wartime camp, for one thing, did not have a Virgil Hilts, the irrepressible American flier played by Steve McQueen, and there was no climactic sequence like his flight from German troops on a stolen BMW motorcycle and entanglement in a border fence, one of cinema’s great chase sequences.
The plan to dig down to the workshop at the starting point of the tunnel known as Harry, where the wartime fliers began their effort to tunnel beneath the barbed wire, was aborted when engineers failed repeatedly to prevent tons of sand from collapsing their own access tunnel. But Dr. Hunt and his team struck gold in the excavation of George, a tunnel built under the camp auditorium after the escape and designed to give inmates a place to hide as Nazi control east of Berlin collapsed before advancing Soviet troops.
Their dig yielded a set of rusting trolley wheels, the metal scavenged from remnants of a campsite stove and a coil spring taken from prison gramophones; wood paneling for the tunnel’s roof and sidewalls, fashioned from the prisoners’ bed boards; and a ventilation pump with a bellows and piping made from a prisoner’s kitbag, ice hockey sticks and tins of powdered milk. The pièce de résistance was a rusting radio made from a biscuit box, the wiring stolen from the prisoners’ huts and batteries scrounged from German guards.
The contemporary Royal Air Force fliers built Roger, the replica tunnel, but in a trench just beneath the surface; anything deeper was deemed too dangerous. With Dr. Hunt, they fashioned a trolley system, given its first run in the new tunnel by Frank Stone, 89, a camp veteran involved in preparing the 1944 escape plan. The 2011 team also built a replica of the original tunnelers’ ventilation system, with facsimiles of wartime milk tins and a World War II kitbag.
Mr. Stone, maker of the biscuit-tin radio found in the excavated remains of tunnel George, was one of those still waiting for his turn to escape when a German guard spotted one flier scrambling from the tunnel exit into the pine trees. He remained a prisoner until the camp was liberated in 1945, with a lifetime to grieve for the men who made it, if only briefly, to freedom. “People say to me, ‘How unlucky you were,’ ” he told the documentary makers. “But I say, no, I was lucky to have taken part in it at all.”
[Memorials images Lech Muszynski/European Press Photo Agency and http://www.raf.mod.uk/project104/gallery/stalagluftiiigallery.cfm?viewmedia=3]
For one reason or another, I have been reading The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French. In the history of exploration and enquiry into far-flung parts, it’s easy to overlook that regiment of indefatigable women – particularly Victorian - who played extraordinary roles. Perhaps the most celebrated was, of course, Gertrude Bell, whose middle-eastern exploits changed politics and history. But in China, in the first couple of decades of the last century, there were three women, Mildred, Francesca, and the latter’s sister, Eva (Evangeline), who documented the landscapes and culture of that part of the world through quite remarkable travels. Yes, they were missionaries, but they pursued their goals with linguistic skills and a deep cultural sensitivity that resulted in accounts that are distinctly and fascinatingly different from the typical travel writing of the times and have become classics. And the classic of the classics is their description of their thirteen years in the Gobi, “following trade-routes, tracing faint caravan tracks, searching out innumerable by-paths and exploring the most hidden oases. ... Five times we traversed the whole length of the desert, and in the process we had become part of its life."
The story begins as they set out from the fort at what is today called Jiayuguan, the westernmost bastion of the Great Wall. Leaving the western gate, they passed a great mound of earth whose role was to keep out the evil spirits of the desert, and a stone tablet on which were inscribed the forbidding words “Earth’s Greatest Barrier.” Following the Silk Road westwards, they stopped at isolated and insular oases – Shachow, “City of Sands,” Shamen, “Gates of Sand.” These even before they reached the Taklamakan Desert proper.
But one of the things that intrigues me is the following account from their overnight stay in Huei-huei-pu, the “Moslem Tomb Halt,” whose location today I have yet to figure out. While wandering around the village, Mildred stopped at the local shop, where
There was something different here, however, for, in addition to the dull stock of the oasis shopkeeper, this man had a variety of articles made from a fine-grained, light-grey stone which was found near at hand. These were slabs on which to rub down the hard sticks of Chinese ink, and little pots to hold water with which to moisten them. The chief demand, however, was for small pieces to be used as whetstones for knives, razors or scissors, and many a carter passing that way added a hone to his small outfit of traveller’s necessities.
Having made some purchases, Mildred sat down and chatted with the shopkeeper about this and that, but then
I turned to go, and just as I was leaving, I noticed on his counter a jar of coarse grey sand. Taking some of it in my hand, I rubbed it between my fingers testing the quality of the grains, and as I did so I felt there was something unusual about it. “What do you keep sand for?” I asked. “Is there not enough of it by the roadside?”
“This is special sand, Lady,” he said. “It comes from near here but is not found elsewhere in the Gobi.It is so heavy that the wind does not blow it about, and it is the only sand which can be used for one process in the polishing of jade.Though it is hard enough to use even on jade, yet it never scratches the surface. It is very highly valued, and jade polishers send here to get it.”
So there’s my question – does anyone have an idea as to exactly what this highly valued sand might be?
Tectonic turmoil has been a long-running production in Indonesia, even by geological measures. Thirteen million years ago, peaceful seas covered what is today eastern Java, but blundering plates soon put an end to the tranquillity. The entire island of Borneo was rotating counter-clockwise, at the same time suffering upheaval to the point where erosion became rapid and relentless. Huge volumes of quartz-rich sands cascaded southwards into the seas of East Java, burying the old, calm, seafloor in a thick blanket of shallow marine and deepwater sands and mud. Eventually, the seas were entirely filled with these sediments and rivers and deltas dominated what had been a marine environment.
Continuing upheaval would eventually raise these sediments back above sea level and expose them as sandstones in the river banks of eastern Java. They are on particularly fine display not far from the village of Ngrayong which gave its name to this particular pile of sedimentary archives. The grains of the Ngrayong sandstones are remarkably immature – they are sharp-edged and angular, their journey having been too short for any effective abrasion and rounding of those rough edges.
All of the grains in the images above are less than a fifth of a millimetre across, very fine-grained components that have been separated from their coarser companions by sieving. Why separate out these grains? Well, I came to have a bag of this Ngrayong sand not because I have visited the location, but because I was visiting the siever, so to speak; it turns out that these grains perform particularly well in a rather intriguing experimental application – but more of that for another post.
Where still buried underground, the Ngrayong sandstones themselves have also performed rather well for more than a century as a reservoir for oil and gas. The original discoveries were made by the Dutch in the days of colonisation; I did visit these old fields many years ago when I was in Indonesia before, for they are still producing and more discoveries, some of them very large, are still being made. But the real fascination was the in situ museum of industry history that the area represented – pieces of old equipment, venerable wheezing pumps and groaning fly-wheels still sedately in action. Unfortunately, all those photographs are in my archives back in London, but here are a couple of images from the 1920s, courtesy of the Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands.