Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

Age of Innocence – 1967, Che Guevara, Torrey Canyon and Francis Chichester

1967 was a quiet and uneventful at home and seemed to slip by almost unnoticed but elsewhere there were some important news stories.

I suppose that one of the biggest news events of the year occurred in Peru, South America, when in October a 1960s icon died at the hands of a firing squad.  Che Guevara was born in 1928 in Argentina and as a medical student in the 1940s became a committed Marxist revolutionary when he became convinced that capitalism created the poverty that he witnessed as he travelled on his motorbike on a journey through South America.

In the year that I was born, 1954, he joined Fidel Castro in Mexico as he set out to overthrow the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, which they achieved together on New Years Eve in 1959.  For five years after that Che Guevara was effectively the number two in the country but then he suddenly tired of revolutionary tribunals and executing people and in 1965 he left Cuba to stir up more revolutionary Marxist trouble first in the African Congo and then in Bolivia back in South America.

In a bungled guerilla offensive he was captured by United States CIA backed army forces and summarily executed.  By coincidence he was caught and killed in Vallegrande which wasn’t so far away from San Vicente where nearly sixty years before the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were also trapped and killed.

Butch and Sundance

Odd isn’t it how reputations are built?  Everything about this modern saint is a myth – his love of justice, his romantic disposition, his goodness. The truth is that he was responsible for the deaths of  hundreds of people, ruined the Cuban economy, tried to turn Cuba into a nuclear power and helped bring about many military dictatorships in Latin America in reaction to the guerrillas he inspired in the 1960s and the 1970s.  The man it seems was a menace!

After his death Che acquired an iconic stature and in the late 1960s and 70s his face was seen on tee-shirts and posters in every western university, it didn’t matter that like Robespierre or Stalin he was a thug and a bully and a murderer, he became the symbol of revolution and challenge to the establishment and his famous picture with burning eyes full of defiant intensity and steely resolve became the most famous image of the decade after that of Marilyn Monroe.

The death of Che Guevara probably didn’t register that greatly elsewhere in the world at the time and in Europe there was a coup d’etat in Greece which began a period of military dictatorship, in Spain the Spanish Government closed the border with British ruled Gibraltar and the French, or more precisely General DeGaulle, once more said no to Britain’s application to join the Common Market.  Although there was no spirit of partnership working at the diplomatic level, the United Kingdom and France did however jointly introduce the world to the ambitious aviation project, the Concorde.

At sea the first North Sea Gas was pumped onshore with a promise that Britain would be self-sufficient forever.  That turned out to be a hopelessly inaccurate prediction and forty years later it has nearly all gone and we have to buy our gas from Russia.

In the Atlantic, just off the coast of Cornwall, there was the World’s first major oil spill when the super tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground, broke up and spilled one hundred thousand tons of crude oil into the sea.  The ship was on route to Milford Haven from the Canary Islands and was allegedly being steered by the ship’s cook at the time of the accident while the skipper was trying to make sense of the ship’s hopelessly inadequate charts whilst trying to take a short cut past the Scilly Isles.

As this was the first event of its type the authorities were completely clueless about how to respond to the event and the botched clean up operation did almost as much damage as the leaking crude oil.  The tanker was bombed for two days and the RAF and the Royal Navy dropped thirty tonnes of bombs, twenty thousand litres of petrol, eleven rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship.

A quarter of the bombs missed the stationary target and despite some direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.  To make matters worse, the use of seventy five thousand litres of highly toxic detergent did further huge amounts of additional damage to the marine environment.  Over twenty thousand seabirds were killed and more than a hundred kilometres of beaches were affected and not many people went to Cornwall for their summer holidays that year!

Also on the water in 1967 Francis Chichester in his boat Gipsy Moth IV became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the world from West to East via the great capes.  He was later knighted for the achievement and for the ceremony the Queen used the very sword used by Queen Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake who was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  Chichester became a British hero in the same year as one was lost when Donald Campbell  was killed in January on Lake Coniston whilst trying to regain the world water speed record.

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Age of Innocence – 1959, Missile Mail and Fidel Castro

Since the 1930s there had been various attempts at speeding up postal services.  In 1934 for example a rocket was launched over a sixteen kilometre flight path between two Hebridean islands in Scotland with a fuselage packed with mail.  Unfortunately the rocket exploded and destroyed most of its cargo, which was a bit of a shame if you had put ten shillings in a birthday card to someone!

In 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the US Post Office Department in its search for faster, more efficient forms of mail transportation with the first and only successful delivery of ‘Missile Mail’. Shortly before noon on 8th June, the Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile with its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two official Post Office Department mail containers from the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida and twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target at Jacksonville.

What an utterly absurd concept and probably only the American’s could waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on such a pointless exercise because it must have been obvious even to a five year old that this was never going to be a commercially viable proposition.

Even so the US Postmaster General declared it a great success and instantly proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world“, and predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.

This was probably one of the most wildly inaccurate predictions ever made by a Government official and nothing more was ever heard again of ‘Missile Mail’.

Bill Bryson in “The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid” sums up exactly why:

“Perhaps it occurred to someone that incoming rockets might have an unfortunate tendency to miss their targets and crash through the roofs of factories or hospitals, or that they might blow up in flight, or take out passing aircraft, or that every launch would cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver a payload worth a maximum of $120 at prevailing postal rates”

In the world of entertainment the big star of 1959 in the United Kingdom was the plinky plonky pianist Russ Conway who had five top ten hits this year with the first two going all the way to No 1.  One of these, Side Saddle, stayed at the top spot for four weeks, and Russ was the top-selling UK artist of the year.  On the sheet music chart, three of his compositions were at number one, in total, for over six consecutive months.  Russ was a big star and famous as a pianist for having only seven fingers having lost the tip of one of his little digits in an accident whilst serving in the navy.

In world politics Fidel Castro became President of Cuba after overthrowing the corrupt pro-American Government and after getting a frosty reception from the United States, partly because he had closed down the casinos and seized the assets of the American owners, declared his friendship for Russia and established the first communist regime in the western hemisphere.

Now we didn’t just have to worry about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and this was going to be a bit of a problem in the future and Regulus cruise missiles were being quickly refitted with their nuclear warheads!

1967 – Che Guevara, Torrey Canyon and Francis Chichester

1967 was a quiet and uneventful at home and seemed to slip by almost unnoticed but elsewhere there were some important news stories.

I suppose that one of the biggest news events of the year occurred in Peru, South America, when in October a 1960s icon died at the hands of a firing squad.  Che Guevara was born in 1928 in Argentina and as a medical student in the 1940s became a committed Marxist revolutionary when he became convinced that capitalism created the poverty that he witnessed as he travelled on his motorbike on a journey through South America.

In the year that I was born, 1954, he joined Fidel Castro in Mexico as he set out to overthrow the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, which they achieved together on New Years Eve in 1959.  For five years after that Che Guevara was effectively the number two in the country but then he suddenly tired of revolutionary tribunals and executing people and in 1965 he left Cuba to stir up more revolutionary Marxist trouble first in the African Congo and then in Bolivia back in South America.  In a bungled guerilla offensive he was captured by United States CIA backed army forces and summarily executed.  By coincidence he was caught and killed in Vallegrande which wasn’t so far away from San Vicente where nearly sixty years before the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were also trapped and killed.

Odd isn’t it how reputations are built?  Everything about this modern saint is a myth – his love of justice, his romantic disposition, his goodness. The truth is that he was responsible for the deaths of  hundreds of people, ruined the Cuban economy, tried to turn Cuba into a nuclear power and helped bring about many military dictatorships in Latin America in reaction to the guerrillas he inspired in the 1960s and the 1970s.  After his death Che acquired an iconic stature and in the late 1960s and 70s his face was seen on tee-shirts and posters in every western university, it didn’t matter that like Robespierre or Stalin he was a thug and a bully and a murderer, he became the symbol of revolution and challenge to the establishment and his famous picture with burning eyes full of defiant intensity and steely resolve became the most famous image of the decade after Marilyn Monroe.

The death of Che Guevara probably didn’t register that greatly elsewhere in the world at the time and in Europe there was a coup d’etat in Greece which began a period of military dictatorship, in Spain the Spanish Government closed the border with British ruled Gibraltar and the French, or more precisely General DeGaulle, once more said no to Britain’s application to join the Common Market.  Although there was no spirit of partnership working at the diplomatic level, the United Kingdom and France did however jointly introduce the world to the ambitious aviation project, the Concorde.

At sea the first North Sea Gas was pumped onshore with a promise that Britain would be self-sufficient forever.  That turned out to be a hopelessly inaccurate prediction and forty years later it has nearly all gone and we have to buy our gas from Russia.

 

In the Atlantic, just off the coast of Cornwall, there was the World’s first major oil spill when the super tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground, broke up and spilled one hundred thousand tons of crude oil into the sea.  The ship was on route to Milford Haven from the Canary Islands and was allegedly being steered by the ship’s cook at the time of the accident while the skipper was trying to make sense of the ship’s hopelessly inadequate charts whilst trying to take a short cut past the Scilly Isles.

As this was the first event of its type the authorities were completely clueless about how to respond to the event and the botched clean up operation did almost as much damage as the leaking crude oil.  The tanker was bombed for two days and the RAF and the Royal Navy dropped thirty tonnes of bombs, twenty thousand litres of petrol, eleven rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship.   A quarter of the bombs missed the stationary target and despite some direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.  To make matters worse, the use of seventy five thousand litres of highly toxic detergent did further huge amounts of additional damage to the marine environment.  Over twenty thousand seabirds were killed and more than a hundred kilometres of beaches were affected and not many people went to Cornwall for their summer holidays that year!

Also on the water in 1967 Francis Chichester in his boat Gipsy Moth IV became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the world from West to East via the great capes.  He was later knighted for the achievement and for the ceremony the Queen used the very sword used by Queen Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake who was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  Chichester became a British hero in the same year as one was lost when Donald Campbell  was killed in January on Lake Coniston whilst trying to regain the world water speed record.

1959 – M1 Motorway and Rocket Mail

In 1959 there were two important news items that celebrated significant events in British motoring.  First of all the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.

I have always thought this to be a curious choice of route.  Starting in London was sensible enough but it didn’t actually go anywhere and ended abruptly in a sleepy village in Northamptonshire.  Surely it would have made more sense to build a road between London and Birmingham?

The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a six-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

This encouraged car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 to conduct speed trials and in June 1964 a man called ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 MPH in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway, an incident that started the calls for a speed limit.  In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.

The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.  When it first opened this was the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic!  This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men that is about one mile every eight days.

M1 Motorway

In 1959 cars were still rather old fashioned and basic design hadn’t changed much since the 1940s but the new motorway age needed a new breed of car and in August 1959 the world saw the introduction of the Austin Seven, Morris Mini-Minor and Morris Mini-Minor DL 2-door saloons, all with transversely mounted 848cc engine and four speed gearbox and known collectively as the MINI!

The car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis who had previously designed the Morris Minor and was intended as a small economic family car.  The Mk 1 Mini was immediately popular and sold nearly two million units and by the time production ceased in 2000 a total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured.  Nearly everyone has owned a Mini at some time, I did, it was a blue 1969 model, registration BUE 635J.

Mini BUE 635J

Not that all of this mattered a great deal to us however because like lots of families in 1959 we didn’t have a car and dad didn’t even learn to drive until the early 1960s and mum not until ten years after that. 

His first car was an old fashioned white Austin A40 Cambridge, SWD 774, which was a car with few refinements and even lacking modern day basics such as seat belts, a radio, door mirrors or satellite navigation!  There were no carpets and the seats were made of cheap plastic that were freezing cold in winter and if you weren’t especially careful burnt your arse in the summer. 

After that he had a white Ford Anglia, 1870 NX, which I always thought was a bit chic and stylish with that raking back window and after that he had a couple of blue Ford Cortinas before he moved on to red Escorts before finally downsizing to Fiestas, and back to blue again.  My first car was a flame red Hillman Avenger, registration WRW 366J, in which I did hundreds of pounds worth of damage to other peoples vehicles because it had an inconveniently high back window which made reversing a bit of a challenge for a short person.

I remember car registration numbers because this was something we used to do as children.  Car number plate spotting was a curiously boring pastime and on some days it would be possible to sit for a whole morning at the side of the road outside of the house and still only fill one page of an exercise book.  These days you would need a laptop and a million gigabytes of memory.  Ah happy days!

Since the 1930s there had been various attempts at speeding up postal services and in 1934 for example a rocket was launched over a sixteen thousand metre flight path between two Hebridean islands in Scotland with a fuselage packed with mail.  Unfortunately the rocket exploded and destroyed most of its cargo but in 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the US Post Office Department in its search for faster, more efficient forms of mail transportation with the first and only successful delivery of ‘Missile Mail’. Shortly before noon on 8th June, the Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile with its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two official Post Office Department mail containers from the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida and twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target at Jacksonville.

Only the American’s could waste thousands of dollars on such a pointless exercise because it must have been obvious even to a five year old that this was never going to be a commercially viable proposition.  Even so the US Postmaster General declared it a great success and instantly proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world“, and predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”  This was probably one of the most inaccurate predictions ever made by a Government official and nothing more was ever heard of’ ‘Missile Mail’.  Bill Bryson in “The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid” sums up exactly why:

“Perhaps it occurred to someone that incoming rockets might have an unfortunate tendency to miss their targets and crash through the roofs of factories or hospitals, or that they might blow up in flight, or take out passing aircraft, or that every launch would cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver a payload worth a maximum of $120 at prevailing postal rates”

In the world of entertainment the big star of 1959 was the plinky plonky pianist Russ Conway who had five top ten hits this year with the first two going all the way to No 1.  One of these, Side Saddle, stayed at the top spot for four weeks, and Russ was the top-selling UK artist of the year.  On the sheet music chart, three of his compositions were at number one, in total, for over six consecutive months.  Russ was a big star and famous as a pianist for having only seven fingers having lost the tip of one of his little digits in an accident whilst serving in the navy.

In world politics Fidel Castro became President of Cuba after overthrowing the corrupt pro-American Government and after getting a frosty reception from the United States, partly because he had closed down the casinos and seized the assets of the American owners, declared his friendship for Russia and established the first communist regime in the western hemisphere.  This was going to be a bit of a problem in the future.

1956 – Suez, The Cold War, Airfix and Clean Air

In 1956 there were some really important events around the world that had an influence on international relations over the next twenty years or so.

In the Middle East the Suez Canal was of very high military and commercial strategic importance and the United Kingdom had control of the canal under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 but on July 26th Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, in which British banks and business had a large financial interest.   The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was outraged and up for war and Britain together with France made threatening noises and began to prepare for an invasion with large forces deployed to Cyprus and Malta and the fleet dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea.  On 30th October the allies sent an ultimatum to Egypt and when it was ignored invaded on the following day.  Someone should have told them that this was no longer the nineteenth century and they couldn’t go throwing their weight around like this any more.

Almost simultaneously with this event there was a crisis in Eastern Europe when a revolution in Hungary deposed the pro-Soviet Government there.  The new government formally declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections.  By the end of October this had seemed to be successful but on 4th November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and during a few days of resistance an estimated two thousand five hundred Hungarians died and two hundred thousand more fled the country as refugees.  Mass arrests and imprisonments followed and a new Soviet inclined government was installed and this action strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe.

From a military perspective the operation to take the Suez Canal was highly successful but was a political disaster due to unfortunate timing.  The US President Eisenhower was dealing with both crises, and faced the public relations embarrassment of opposing the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Hungary while at the same time ignoring the actions of its two principal European allies in Egypt.  It was also rather unnerving that the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and launch nuclear attacks on London and Paris and fearful of a new global conflict Eisenhower forced a ceasefire and demanded that the invasion stop.  Due to a combination of diplomatic and financial pressure Britain and France were obliged to withdraw their troops early in 1957.  Anthony Eden resigned.

The Hungarian revolution and the Suez crisis marked the final transfer of power to the new World superpowers, the USA and the USSR, and it was clear to everyone that only ten years after the Second-World-War Britain was no longer a major world power.  Since that time Britain has only once acted in a military matter without checking with the US first, when Margaret Thatcher sent troops to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders and things are so bad now of course that British Prime Ministers like Tony Blair simply do as they are told by the American Head of State as though they are the President’s pet poodle.

In addition to these major events something significant happened in the Caribbean when Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a small group of followers landed in Cuba intent on revolution, the overthrow of the pro-US Government and a military takeover which would ultimately lead to another world crisis in the early 1960s.

This change in the world balance of power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  In 1955 the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had fled in 1951, turned up in Moscow and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last couple of years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.

With Britain’s world humiliation it was significant that also in 1956 the Royal Air Force decommissioned the Second-World-War bomber, the iconic Avro Lancaster.  Along with the spitfire this was the most successful British wartime plane and I have my own fond memories of the Lancaster because I can remember struggling to assemble an Airfix plastic model of the famous old aircraft.

Airfix kits were notoriously difficult to assemble and the only absolute certainty was that once it was finished it definitely wouldn’t look like the picture on the box!  Getting the fuselage and the wings snapped together was a fairly straightforward procedure but things quickly became difficult after that, with fiddly little bits and pieces that required huge dexterity, great precision and unnatural amounts of patience to position into exactly the right place.  What made this even more difficult was the plastic cement glue with its curious smell that had a habit of exuding the tube nozzle in far greater quantities of stringy ooze than you could ever possibly need for such a delicate operation.  I always found this especially tricky when finally putting the cock-pit window into position at the end and my model was always left with smears on the perspex that if this was a real plane would have made it virtually impossible for the pilot to see where he was flying.  And thinking about the pilot, one of the most irritating things was to discover that I had got the cockpit in place and the whole thing finished before I had placed the pilot into his seat and there he was rattling around in the bottom of the box along with all of the bits of discarded plastic and the assembly instructions.  After the gluing together came the painting and this was an equally messy affair with paint dribbling down the fuselage, bits of wool and hair getting stuck on the model and fingerprints in various places where I had tried in vain to rectify the damage.

Finally came the delicate process of applying the decals which had to be separated from the backing paper by soaking in water and then requiring a most delicate touch to manoeuvre them carefully into position.  Sometimes if I was lucky they could be used to cover up the dodgy paintwork but mostly they would end up on first contact in the wrong place and crease and tear as I tried to correct the error.  I finished the Lancaster to some sort of sub-standard but I can recall making such a mess of Lysander that as soon as it was completed I was so ashamed of it that I immediately consigned it to the bin.

Airfix was also popular in the United States, France and Germany, but here the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts were banned.  An important thing about Airfix was that it taught important life skills like reading impenetrably detailed assembly instructions that were useful later in life for dealing with flat-pack furniture assembly.

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 had darkened the streets of London and killed an estimated four thousand people in the frighteningly short time of just four days and a further eight thousand died later from its effects in the following weeks and months.  This must have been a bit of a worry to mum and dad especially as they lived in London at the time and experienced it first hand.  In response the 1956 Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.  Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past.  It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during the previous two centuries, had gradually blackened due to smoke pollution.

The summer of 1956 was abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

Two final facts about 1956 that I have found interesting are that this was the year of the first Eurovision song contest (The United Kingdom did not participate) that was held in and won by Switzerland,  and in cricket, Jim Laker took nineteen wickets for England in a test match against Australia a feat never achieved before or since.  The twentieth Australian wicket was taken by Tony Lock and without that intervention Laker would probably have made a clean sweep.