Saturday, 31 January 2015


The date was October 4, 1957. I was five years old at the time, too young to know that the Space Age had arrived with the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik--the first artificial earth satellite--in a low orbit around our planet. What was the effect of this shocking event here in North America?

It caused panic, that’s what!

So, the Russians weren’t as backward as so many Westerners had first thought. Then again, from plans they had stolen from the American Manhattan Project, the Russians had entered the nuclear age with the detonation of their first atomic bomb only a few years before in 1949. Were they now planning to attack us from space? Some Americans thought the technology that had sent Sputnik into orbit could ultimately be used to launch long-range missiles directly at North American cities.

Sputnik I replica at US National Air and Space Museum
(US Public Domain)
Sputnik was the result of 10 years of Soviet research and tests. Fitted with two radio transmitters and four radio antennas that broadcasted radio pulses in steady blips, Sputnik was a basketball-sized 23-inch-diamater sphere composed of an aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy weighing 185 pounds. Once in orbit at an altitude of 99 miles, it travelled 18,000 miles per hour and circled the earth every 96 minutes, providing the Russians with data on the earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz and was picked up by amateur ham radio operators throughout the globe. The blips were also heard on radios and television sets. The Sputnik signals continued for 21 days, until the batteries ran out. But it kept on going, regardless. On January 4, 1958, after travelling some 43 million miles and completing 1,440 orbits, it burned up and fell from the sky.

That same October 4, 1957, Avro Canada had arranged a “launching” of its own at its aircraft plant in Malton, Ontario, outside Toronto. Over 13,000 guests including lots of media were invited to catch the first glimpse of the company’s new and costly pride-and-joy toy, the delta-winged CF-105 Avro Arrow fighter-interceptor that--once assembled in force--would protect us from the Cold War Russian bomber threat for decades to come. Unfortunately, this rollout event was overshadowed by Sputnik, which, as the weeks and months grew on, led directly to a new wave of foolish thinking here in Canada that costly manned interceptors were soon to be obsolete, making missiles the way of the future.

Meanwhile, just to show they weren’t one-shot operators, the Soviets sent up two more Sputnik satellites. A  1,100-pound  Sputnik II was launched November 3, 1957 with a dog aboard named Laika. It orbited for 200 days. A few months later, Sputnik III served as a scientific laboratory when it began its orbit May 15, 1958. Weighing an even-heavier 3,000 pounds, its greatest achievement was the discovery of earth’s outer radiation belts. It stayed aloft for two years.

Back on our continent, the Americans convinced our naive Conservative government, who were funding the Arrow project, that the American-built Bomarc missile would do just as good a job or better than the Arrow in defending our northern reaches for a lot less money. The Boeing Bomarc supersonic surface-to-air missile (SAM) was a long-range anti-aircraft weapon that could fly at Mach 2-plus and cruise at more than 60,000 feet. Testing for the 46-foot-long missile that weighed in at 15,500 pounds began as far back as 1946. By 1949, the US government had been impressed enough to issue a contract to Boeing.

Operational Bomarcs in New Jersey, October, 1960. Courtesy National Museum of USAF
(US Public Domain)

Our Canadian defense department was soon faced with a terrible dilemma. They would have to either continue paying for the Arrow or buy the Bomarc. They couldn’t afford both, so they felt.  In a fit of insanity, they chose the Bomarc at an eventual total cost of $270 million.

So, on February 20, 1959, our Canadian “Day of Infamy” known as Black Friday, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons and announced the sudden and severe cancellation of the Arrow and Iroquois engine (the Arrow power plant) program, sending 15,000 Avro employees immediately out of work, along with another 15,000 technicians employed by 2,500 subcontractors in the US and Canada. Overnight, 30,000 individuals were without jobs. Then, a year later, the Diefenbaker government flip-flopped and paid American contractors $500 million to replace the Arrow with squadrons of American-built C-104 Starfighters and F-101 Voodoos, even though the initial reasoning bordered on manned interceptors supposedly being obsolete.

The Bomarc itself was not without controversy. It all started when it was announced in 1960 that the missiles would be equipped with nuclear warheads. Diefenbaker decided against any nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. And his cabinet split over the issue. The first Bomarcs arrived in Canada in 1961 with conventional warheads at a Royal Canadian Air Force Station in North Bay, Ontario. Lester Pearson, the Liberal Party and Official Opposition leader, saw his chance and went for it. Totally against nuclear warheads on the Bomarcs initially, Pearson performed his own version of a political flip-flop by suddenly arguing in favor of the nukes.

The strategy led to the downfall of the Diefenbaker government, ushering in Pearson’s Liberal Party in a minority situation in 1963 aided by the NDP party, with the Bomarc missile warheads one of the main issues. The first nuclear-equipped Bomarcs were deployed later that year at RCAF squadrons in North Bay and La Macaza, Quebec. Although fully operational, the missiles were never used in combat or even any testing this side of the border. Only in Florida. Nine years after installation, in early 1972, all Bomarcs were removed from Canadian territory.

What about the Americans? What did they do in answer to the launching of the three Sputnik satellites?

 Soviet stamp celebrating Sputnik I (US Public Domain)
In 1958, President Dwight D Eisenhower initiated the US space program by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That same year, US Congress passed the National Defense Education Act that provided scholarships to striving scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Shortly after Sputnik III had finished its run in early 1961, newly-elected US President John Kennedy, in a speech before Congress on May 25, announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Besides keeping their own manned interceptors intact, Washington selected advanced research groups that developed such weapons as Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), spy satellites, and missile defense systems that extended all across the northern Canadian DEW Line.

Ironically, following the 1959 Avro Arrow cancellation, a group of 32 Avro Canada engineers and technicians led by the brilliant aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlain joined the US Space Program and helped the Americans establish the Apollo Program that put a man on the moon in 1969.

Today, there are more than 1,000 operational satellites in Low-Earth Orbit, with half of these launched by the United States. Also, over the years, space debris--from damaged satellites and so on--has become a significant problem. Over 21,000 objects larger than 10cm orbit the earth at several thousand miles per hour.

And that’s what has happened nearly 58 years since the launching of Sputnik I, the basketball-sized satellite that had changed the technological world forever.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Doug Harvey 1955-56 Parkhurst Products card
(Canadian Public Domain)

It was unfortunate that Doug Harvey didn’t live to see the day that The Hockey News 1998 list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players ranked him in the Top Ten. Without any argument, he was the best defenseman of the Fabulous Fifties. And, what a career.

Not only an excellent hockey player, Harvey was a tremendous all-around athlete. Just shy of six feet and weighing in at around 200 pounds, he played a few games of pro football for a Montreal team as a devastating running back, in a league that was the forerunner of the CFL. He could also punt the ball a mile. At baseball, he was highly sought after by the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Braves, and the St Louis Cardinals, the two latter teams actually offering him contracts. But above all else, he loved hockey, the sport in which he could do it all.

A born-and-bred Montreal boy, Harvey played his junior hockey with the Montreal Junior Royals. Joining the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League in 1945, he contributed immensely to their 1947 Allan Cup win. Then he played 24 games with the 1947-48 AHL Buffalo Bisons at the age of 22, before joining the Montreal Canadiens mid-season. At first, Harvey was far from a hit with the Habs fans and management. He played a relaxed style as if in a rocking chair. For a time, he was booed. He appeared lackadaisical, as if he wasn’t moving fast enough on the ice, although no one could catch him once he had control of the puck. He hardly ever roamed out of position. People soon realized he could control the tempo of the game, and the booing stopped. Others must have noticed him too because that’s when he became an All-Star.

Starting in 1951-52, Harvey made the NHL All-Star team 11 consecutive seasons, 10 of those on the First Team. He played 22 pro seasons, 20 in the NHL. He won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman seven times out of eight seasons. He would collect assists in an era when it wasn’t fashionable for blueliners to do so, topping 40 assists twice and 39 in another season. A formidable penalty killer, he was also a defensive standout who could play it rough. In fact, opposing forwards hated going into the corners with him.

Harvey was an excellent skater, passer, and stick-handler. He quarterbacked the mighty Habs power play in the Fifties that proved so effective that the NHL had to change the rules mid-decade to allow the penalized player back on the ice once the power play team scored. Prior to that, the Canadiens were known to often score two or three goals during the man advantage, a continual embarrassment to the rest of the league. Harvey helped lead his team to six Stanley Cups, epitomized by five in a row from 1956-1960, with such future Hall of Fame titans as Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Jean Beliveau, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Henri Richard, Bert Olmstead, defense partner Tom Johnson, and netminder Jacques Plante.

Harvey had his own ways of doing things. If he had the puck when the Habs were forming up on the power play in his end, and he didn’t like something, he’d dart behind the net and start again, forcing his on-ice teammates to come back with him, as the two-minute clock ticked away. It used to drive his coaches--Dick Irvin and Toe Blake--crazy. Other times, he’d cradle the puck on his stick and entice opposing forecheckers to come and get him, then he’d fire a bullet pass to a streaking center or winger who would race towards the goal.

Harvey also had a threatening edge to him. In a 1956 game with the New York Rangers, he was upended from behind by forward Red Sullivan, who had a bad habit of kicking skates out from under opposing players, a very dangerous maneuver for anyone on the receiving end. The very next game the two teams met, Harvey took matters into his own hands by deliberately spearing Sullivan severely enough to send Sullivan to hospital with a ruptured spleen. With the Ranger player close to death, it’s reported that a Catholic priest was called in to administer last rites. After being out of action for three months, Sullivan came through it and continued to play until 1963. Unapologetic, Harvey wasn’t even penalized or suspended for his stick work because the officials didn’t see him do anything.
Doug Harvey as a New York Ranger

Along with feisty Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay, Harvey helped initiate the first NHL Players’ Association in 1957 to combat the unfair treatment of players in relation to concerns such as salaries, pension funds, endorsements and moving expenses when traded. Although the union was disbanded a year later, Canadiens management and the NHL brass in general, never forgave Harvey, or Lindsay, for that matter for daring to establish such an organization. The Canadiens waited until 1961--when the team was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs after five straight Stanley Cups--to trade their star defenseman to the New York Rangers, despite Harvey winning his sixth James Norris Trophy his last year in Montreal. As player-coach in New York, Harvey then led the Rangers to their first playoff appearance in four years. He also won another James Norris, making him the only defenseman in NHL history to win the trophy in consecutive years with two different teams.

Harvey played one more full season in New York and part of another, dropping his coaching duties after the first season because he preferred to be “one of the boys.” Heavy into the bottle, Harvey moved around the minors for the next few years in Quebec City, Baltimore, St Paul, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City. At the age of 42, he played two games with the Detroit Red Wings in 1967, then was back to the minors when expansion showed its face. His last fling in the NHL was spent with the St Louis Blues; first, in the 1967-68 playoffs, helping his team to the finals where they were beaten by the Canadiens four straight, then the following regular season with the Blues. He retired before the playoffs started.

To the shock of many, Harvey was not elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972, his first eligible year, after the minimum three years off the ice. Chairman of the selection committee, former Habs GM Frank Selke, claimed he didn’t realize that Harvey had been retired for three years. Harvey didn’t buy it, suspecting that he wasn’t elected because of his drinking, his lingering in the minors long after he had lost his skills, and his leadership in the foiled 1957 Players’ Association.

“I don’t give a damn if they put me in the Hall of Fame or not,” Harvey said, once he heard Selke’s statement. A few months later, the ex-defenseman accepted a position with the Houston Aeros of the newly-formed World Hockey Association, the NHL’s mortal enemy, where he was instrumental in getting Gordie Howe and his two sons, Mark and Marty, to sign with Houston. In August, 1973, when Harvey finally made it to the Hall of Fame, he--just to snub Selke and others in management around the league--didn’t bother to show at his own induction ceremony.

From 1985 on, Harvey scouted for the Canadiens. He died on December 26, 1989, a week after his 65th birthday, of cirrhosis of liver, although he hadn’t taken a drink in three years. After decades of drinking, the damage had already been done.

Since post-World War II, the two best NHL defensemen--according to many hockey experts--have been Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey. Who was better? Probably Orr. In fact, in my opinion, Bobby Orr was the greatest hockey player to lace a pair of skates. Orr, ranked second, and Harvey, ranked sixth, were the only two defensemen in the Top Ten on The Hockey News 1998 list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players. To see Harvey placed in the sixth spot of such a prestigious ranking proves how important he was to the game of hockey.

Like Frank Sinatra, Doug did things his way.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


The blockade-runner Banshee (1863) made 14 trips through the blockade out of Wilmington, NC. Artwork by RG Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy US Naval Historical Center (US Public Domain)

All too often when the American Civil War is discussed, we think of the epic battles. Gettysburg. Bull Run. Chancellorsville. Antietam. We think of brother vs brother. North vs South. Union vs Confederacy. Blue vs Gray. Yankee vs Reb. Free vs Slave. One overlooked part is the naval aspect of the war; in particular, Confederate blockade-running.

Immediately following the declaration of war in 1861, when the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Union President Abraham Lincoln announced a naval blockade of the Southern ports between Virginia and Texas, 3500 miles of shoreline. Lincoln and his Northern associates knew the Southern states were incapable of producing the goods and firearms vital to any war effort. The South was an agricultural nation. Cotton was King, and the South foolishly thought they could rule the world with it. No one dare make war on cotton, so the South’s arrogant politicians thought, mesmerized by the fact that in 1860 their cotton exports were valued at $191 million--57 percent of all American exports.

However, nearly everything had to be brought into the Southern states from abroad, especially England who needed the South’s cotton for their thriving textile industry. So, blockade-running became a reality for patriotic and profitable reasons. And the adventure didn’t hurt either. To many, it became a business, for Southerners as well as Englishmen, for off-shore crews, and on-shore owners and speculators.

At the height of the Civil War, high-powered side-wheelers were deployed to sneak through the Union blockade, usually at night. Constructed on the Clyde River in Scotland, they were built “to go,” long and lean, camouflaged lead-gray in color. And they burnt anthracite coal as fuel that left a “no smoke” trail behind. Aboard these ships were hundreds of cotton bales--often along with turpentine and other products--stacked to the hilt. The main Rebel ports were Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina, the latter being the closest to the major portion of the war’s fighting in Virginia.

The skippers would meet with their English contacts at the two main neutral sights--Bermuda and the Bahamas--for the exchange of money and goods bound for the Confederacy, such as meat, clothing, shoes, blankets, coffee, medicines, firearms, swords, ammunition, gunpowder, saltpeter, and lead. We can’t forget the latest luxuries and female fashions of Europe, where the real profits were for the ship’s owners, much to the Confederate’s government’s dismay. As a result, by mid-war, the rules were tightened on the amount of luxuries brought in. Another neutral port used was Havana, Cuba, although it was farther away from Southern ports in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama than the North Carolina and South Carolina ports were to Bermuda and the Bahamas. 

At first, running the Union blockade was relatively easy, besides being highly profitable. Crews, a large number of them Royal Navy deserters, were paid quite handsomely. Skippers, in fact, could retire for good after only a few successful runs. That’s if they didn’t spend their winnings on lavish parties, which were quite common. For a single 570-mile return trip from Wilmington to Nassau, Bahamas, the pay rates--in pound sterling--were as follows: 1000 for a captain, 750 for a pilot, 500 for a chief engineer, 250 for a chief officer, 150 for a second and third officer, and 50 for the crew and fireman. Excellent money, given the time period. Usually, half was paid in advance, the rest upon completion of the trip.

The Union gunboats, on the other hand, were cumbersome and slow and their teamwork was disorganized, at first. Then as the blockade tighten each year into the war, the Union Navy put more ships into service. They also developed an inner and outer line of defence beyond the ports. In addition, they captured more and more of the Rebel side-wheelers and turned them into gunboats to catch their prey at their own game.  Each year grew tougher for the Confederate supply line. In 1861, about 800 vessels made it safely through, although a far cry from the last year of peace--1860--when about 6000 ships had entered and departed Southern ports. Chances of capture for neutral-bound ships in 1861 were estimated at one in ten. By 1864, about one in three.

When Wilmington and Charleston fell to the Union late in the last year of war, the Confederacy was cut off to the outside world. As blockade-running collapsed, so did the Confederacy and her ability to wage war. All told, 2500-2800 attempts were made at running the blockade with an overall success rate of about 75-80 percent. Union records recorded that over 1000 blockade-runners were captured with 210 turned into blockade gunboats. Over 350 ships were destroyed, sunk, beached or burned.

We here in Canada were very much involved in the American Civil War blockade. Mid-war, due to a yellow fever outbreak and a resulting quarantine in Bermuda and the Bahamas, the blockade-running skippers turned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had been a popular shipping and refueling point between England, Nassau, Bermuda, and Cuba since the beginning of the war. Halifax was one of the few ports where iron-hulled blockade runners could receive extensive repairs. 

The blockade-runner Advance (1863) made 17 trips through the blockade out of Wilmington, NC. Artwork by RG Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy US Navy Art Collection (US Public Domain)

By early 1864, the Canadian shipping firm of Weir and Company had set aside a wharf and a warehouse for the transfer of blockade goods. The activity was watched closely by the US consul in town, however. But Halifax never really caught on as a major blockade-running port. It was too far away from Southern ports, requiring more fuel and less goods aboard. In other words, less profit. And the Northern seas were too rough for navigating, sometimes causing damage to the ships. Less than 10 full-scale return trips were made between the Confederacy and Halifax that year. Then once the cooler weather arrived, and the yellow fever scare declared over, Halifax was no longer a conceivable  route.  But it still remained a key refueling point for foreign vessels, including the new, sleek blockade-runners that were built in Great Britain and making their way to the Southern ports for active service.

*   *   *

Margaret Mitchell’s mega novel, Gone with the Wind, goes into a few mentions of blockade-running that were missed out totally in the movie. The main male character, Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable in the 1939 movie version, was a blockade-running skipper. In the book, Butler told the shocked Scarlett O’Hara a year after the war had started that he had many clandestine connections in the North. On more than one occasion, he had even sailed his ship right into New York harbor to take on cargo from his Northern “friends” who were quick to sell out the Union for the sake of profit.

At war’s end, Butler was captured by the Union army and placed in an Atlanta, Georgia jail, accused of stealing Confederate funds--rumored to be millions in gold--during the blockade and banking them in England in his own name and not the Confederate government, whom he was supposed to be working for. In the movie, there’s a scene where O’Hara arrived with her new green dress to ask Butler for $300 to save her plantation, Tara, from Northern carpetbaggers. She didn’t get anything because Butler had his fortunes locked away in banks outside Atlanta. Then, lo and behold, Butler was released two weeks later. The book explains why in juicy detail. Apparently, he knew a particular Washington official high in the government whom Butler had purchased muskets and hoop skirts that were bound for the Confederacy. So, the government man pulled some strings and Butler was let him go.

It’s also interesting  to note that in one of the opening scenes in Gone with the Wind (prior to the official announcement of the War between the States), Butler shocked the men at a country barbeque that he was invited to by saying the South was not equipped for a war. He spoke from experience because he had been North for a few years--where he undoubtedly made his previously-mentioned contacts, I might add.

He went on to boldly declare that the Confederacy didn’t have a single cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in addition to very few iron foundries, cotton mills, or tanneries  and that a Yankee blockade along their coastline would prevent cotton from getting out, thus squeezing the Confederacy dry. He also said that all he saw in the South so far was “cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” To support what was Butler saying, I read recently that the entire Gross National Product of the Confederacy in 1861 was equal to only one-quarter of New York State. Butler was trying to tell those men that they didn’t stand a chance against the industrial North. Alas, no one listened to his words of wisdom and they suffered big time for it.

*   *   *

I may be tooting my own horn here, but I wrote a novel specifically about American Civil War naval action. Entitled The Cotton Run, it’s marketed by my British ebook publisher, Mushroom Books. My story zeroes in on a ship’s captain named Joshua Denning and his daring exploits running the Union blockade. You can click on the link for the novel on the right side of my blog’s home page.

You might say that Denning is my version of Rhett Butler. Except Denning has a heart.