Thursday, September 28, 2017

Book Review: The RAF at War by Ralph Barker

This was a book I picked up at a local library’s Used Book sale. World War II has fascinated me, especially the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. I chose this book for the subject matter and was not disappointed. The book is a large softcover with glossy pages, while the author has a clear and easy style that allows the reader to understand both strategic decisions and the experiences of the men in the cockpits of the Royal Air Force.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first, appropriately titled “The First Taste of Combat” shows the RAF during the “Phony War” and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Special sections in this chapter discuss the training of RAF pilots, manufacture of aircraft, and a color gallery of the many planes deployed by the RAF in 1940 such as Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Wellingtons.

Following the battle and evacuation of Dunkirk, Hitler planned to invade Great Britain. The RAF had to stop him from gaining air supremacy, and the next chapter “The Battle for Survival” covers the clashes between the two. But there were clashes between the British commanders as well, as Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Sir Hugh Dowding disagreed about tactics. But they both desired to defeat the German foe, and Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept German raiders. The RAF gained victory, and the book pays tribute to the fighter pilots, their dedicated ground crewmen, and the many remarkable WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) who manned Britain’s radar network. Special sections include information about the radar network and a collection of rare air-to-air photos of the Battle of Britain.

A recruitment poster for the Womens'
Auxiliary Air Force

After victory in the Battle of Britain, the RAF turned to the offensive: attacking German targets. The mighty battleship Bismarck was crippled by a Swordfish biplane and aircraft hunted German U-Boats—though their bombs needed more power to destroy submarines. The book recounts an amusing story when a British plane accidently bombed a British submarine (HMS Snapper) and scored a direct hit, shattering four light bulbs. On land, too, the British hit German cities, notably Cologne with Operation Millennium, a raid of 1,000 bomber aircraft. The chapter also included a special showcase for the Porcupine, a German nickname for the Sunderland flying boat.

Of course, World War II expanded throughout the entire world, and the chapter “Defending the Empire’s Distant Skies” tells of the pilots who served Britain’s vast empire. North Africa, Malta, Greece, and Burma each required pilots to battle the Axis in the air. The defense of Malta is legendary, and several of its flying heroes are highlighted. And in the special section, we see RAF aircraft of 1943-45, including the Typhoon, Lancaster, and Meteor.

But the defeat of Germany was the first priority, and the RAF continued to pound the Nazi territory. New aids were developed for bomber crews, such as Oboe (direction-finding stations to guide bombers), and Window (strips of tin foil to confuse enemy radar). While factories, cities like Berlin, and the experimental plant at Peenemunde were all bombed, the RAF’s most interesting mission was to destroy three dams on the Weser and Ruhr Rivers, releasing the water to flood the area and crippling hydroelectricity production. A special bomb was developed and No. 617 Squadron practiced to destroy them. Striking in May of 1944, two of the dams were destroyed and the squadron earned their proud nickname, the “Dam Busters.” Special features include “Back to Burma,” a look at the RAF’s contribution to the liberation of that country, and a gallery of RAF heroes.

The frontpapers of the book contain this beautiful painting

This book is an excellent, easy-to-read, non-technical summary of the RAF’s role in World War II. It is lavishly illustrated with photos, paintings, and maps. The series “The Epic of Flight” often turns up in library sales, and it costs about $3.00 new on Amazon.  Definitely pick up a copy if you have any interest in World War II or the Royal Air Force.

Star Rating: 5/5 stars.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hobbit Day--Bilbo's Last Song

In honor of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins' birthday today, here is a poster version of Bilbo's Last Song, which he sings when departing Middle-Earth. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Peter Pevensie's Sword: An Illustration of His Journey

In the 2005 movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the prop that is most intimately associated with a character’s journey is Peter Pevensie’s sword Rhindon. Rhindon is given to Peter by Father Christmas, who tells him to “bear it well.” 

Peter, his sisters, and the Beavers cross a thawing river when they are ambushed by Maugrim and his wolves. A wolf grabs Mr. Beaver in his jaws and Susan, who is armed with a bow, screams “Peter!” She expects him to take the lead now, which is ironic considering she wanted to veto his plan to cross the river. Peter draws his sword, but Maugrim is not alarmed, taunting Peter to “put that down…someone could get hurt here.” Meanwhile, Mr. Beaver encourages Peter to “run him through, while you’ve still got a chance.” Torn between these two opinions, Peter finally makes a decision. Ramming his sword into an ice block, he grabs his sisters just before the river melts. Peter’s hand and sword hilt emerge above the water, showing us his determination to keep on fighting for Narnia.

Later in the movie, Maugrim attacks again, chasing Susan and Lucy into a tree. Peter runs to their assistance with his sword while Maugrim sneers, “We’ve already been through this before. We both know you haven’t got it in you.” But Peter has changed, and he kills the evil wolf. 

From this act of heroism, Peter continues to use his sword to defend his siblings. Edmund’s life is claimed by the White Witch, and Peter’s sword flies from its sheath as he dares her to come and take him.

In the final battle, Peter’s sword is out and he fights the Witch’s army valiantly. Unhorsed from his unicorn by an arrow, he continues the battle on foot until he sees his brother Edmund fall, stabbed by the Witch. Furious at his brother’s grievous wound, Peter charges to do battle with her. The pair fight in single combat until Aslan arrives with reinforcements for Peter’s army. When Peter sees this, a satisfied smile flits across his face: Narnia and his siblings are safe. The Witch trips him and is about to kill him, but Aslan the lion pounces on her and she dies. Symbolically, even while on the ground, Peter retains a grip on his sword.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Characters of J. R. R. Tolkein's The Hobbit

In J. R. R. Tolkein’s well-known novel The Hobbit, three common types of characters are seen: good ones, evil ones, and ambiguous ones. These can easily be defined based on how they use their powers, skills, or influence. Good characters use these qualities to help their friends and bring justice into the world. Ambiguous characters, as their name implies, do both good and evil things with their power, while evil characters use their powers only to exalt themselves and bring others low.

The good characters are those who use their power and skill to help their friends. Bilbo Baggins the hobbit is the foremost of these, working diligently to save the dwarves from the many perils that beset them. Despite their ingratitude, Bilbo keeps working with them. His heart is for peace, and he gives Bard and the Elvenking the magnificent jewel known as the Arkenstone in an attempt to resolve disputes about the treasure of Smaug.

Perhaps the most well-known hero of Middle-Earth is Gandalf. He uses his wisdom and skills to help others. In this story, the others are the company of dwarves with the hobbit. His knowledge of woodland creatures comes to their aid, as does his valor in battle.

Elrond of the Elves is another hero, but in a different way than Gandalf or Bilbo. Elrond is a hospitable, generous, merry and wise elf whose house is open to travellers. Whether you liked “food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all,” Elrond’s house possessed it (Tolkein 61). Lavishly he bestows gifts on the travellers: food, advice, and decryption of the moon-runes on Thorin’s map, without ever a thought of reward.

Ambiguous characters use their powers for both good and evil ends. Thorin Oakenshield is an excellent example of an ambiguous character. We see him fight valiantly against the trolls in defense of his companions. However, Thorin is also consumed by greed when the treasure stolen by Smaug the dragon is recovered. He refuses to give any of it to the Men of Lake-Town, even though their town was destroyed by the dragon. So greedy is he that he determines to fight to keep all the gold to himself, away from Men and their allies the Elves. But Thorin turns from a villain to a hero when he forgets his greed, allying with the Men and Elves to defeat the mighty goblin army. Mortally wounded in the battle, Thorin begs Bilbo for forgiveness before he dies, which Bilbo readily grants.

Another example of an ambiguous character is the Elvenking. When we first meet him, he seems more like an evil character, capturing the Dwarves and locking them in dark dungeons. As the story progresses, we see another side to the Elvenking: he is a just and kindly ruler who does not want to fight the dwarves coming to reinforce Thorin in the Lonely Mountain.

In contrast to the good or even ambiguous characters, evil characters only use their power to enrich themselves without caring whom they hurt. The dragon Smaug the Terrible is the perfect example of this kind of character. After destroying the dwarves’ halls in the Lonely Mountain and the men in the kingdom of Dale, he settles inside the mountain, counting the horde of gold that he has amassed. Not content to ravage the countryside, he tempts Bilbo to turn against his companions the dwarves, cynically observing that “I suppose they are skulking outside and your job is to do all the dangerous work.” (Tolkein 214)

But Smaug is not the only evil character in The Hobbit. The Master of Lake-Town is almost the complete opposite from Smaug, but he is still an evil character. While Smaug is full of rage and powerful destruction, the Master of Lake-Town is cunning and double-dealing. He seeks to escape from Lake-Town as Smaug attacks it, but then proceeds to take a shelter and much of the food left in the wrecked town when the dragon is dead. Despite receiving a large share of unearned gold from Bard the Bowman, the Master refuses to use it to help rebuild the town. Instead, he embezzles it and makes for the wilderness, only to die, deserted by his companions.

The characters in Tolkein’s book The Hobbit come in three easily recognizable types: good, evil, and ambiguous. But these three are not found in Middle-Earth only. It is easy to see people we know who are self-focused like the Master of Lake-Town, or generous like Elrond. Perhaps this explains the reason that The Hobbit has endured as a classic for 80 years: though it is set in a fantasy world with dragons and dwarves, the characters are easily identifiable because we encounter people like them in our everyday lives.

Tolkein, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books-Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Details and Drinking Glasses

Sometimes we as Christians have a feeling that God is not interested in the mundane details of our lives. Sure, He cares for the big buying a house or marrying a spouse...but not the little things that make up our days. But God does care for all aspects of our lives. The apostle James tells us in his epistle that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." (James 1:17) I was reminded of this aspect of God's character in a recent interaction.

A number of years ago, my family won a pair of drinking glasses as part of a restaurant's promotion. For some reason, I took quite a shine to these particular glasses and used them as much as I could. One broke not too long ago and it always remained in the back of my mind to hunt down some more of this particular type of glass...sometime.

A friend of ours was holding an estate sale for her elderly mother. All sorts of items (mostly crafts and quilting) were to be sold. We took a trip out there and began to poke around. Suddenly I noticed a glass that was almost identical to my favorite. The size and color were slightly different, but the style was exactly the same. In the box there rested another one. This was wonderful news, especially when I noticed that the box was labeled "Free Stuff!"

The two glasses were added to our collection and I was very happy. But this showed me how God loves to give good gifts to His creatures. He lavishes gifts on me--even something considered as mundane as a drinking glass.

"They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures." (Psalm 36:8)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

One of the many covers of Mere Christianity
No copyright infringement intended.
Once, I had been an ideological crusader, dead-set on a certain view of family roles, economics, churches, politics—if you could name it, I had an opinion. After a long and painful chapter in my life, I finally realized the tyrant I was rapidly in the process of becoming. For more on that, read my story With Truth and Grace at Disaster was compounded with disaster, and needless to say, this epoch in my life left me in a tail-spin. What did I believe anyway? Was true Christianity connected to a specific view of church or plans for the creation of a just society? What was essential, and what was personal preference?

Man proposes, but God disposes, says the old adage. God certainly knew exactly what I needed at this juncture, and He provided. I began to read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. My only acquaintance with Lewis’s writings was his Chronicles of Narnia, and I had read one (short) biography on him. However, I regarded these favorably enough to be willing to read Mere Christianity. Here was a Christian theologian whom I respected, and I was interested to read what he said about these issues.

Beginning with the forward, Mere Christianity was exactly what I needed. Here was an author who stated that he was an Anglican, but that more important than a denomination was a belief in Jesus Christ. The book slowly built from a universal human knowledge of right and wrong to a clear and concise explanation of Christian beliefs. Most importantly for me, these were universal Christian beliefs! There was much about the importance of Christ’s death and the importance of faith, hope, love, and prayer. Rather than railing at an anti-Christian culture, Lewis stated that the real enemy we have to fight is our own sinful nature. But the most part of Mere Christianity was Lewis’s joyful expectation of the glories and unspeakable delights of heaven—which, he contends, is something that we have had hints or glimpses into on earth.

If you have not yet read Mere Christianity, please take the time to find it and read it. It is an excellent book to show the basics of Christianity that all Christians have agreed on for almost 2,000 years. Despite its topic and its size, plenty of deep theological topics are contained inside as well.  5/5 stars.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Flag of Armand's Legion (Completely Speculative)

Speculative Armand's Legion flag
Following on my flag reconstructions, here is a completely speculative one for Armand's Legion.  I have never run across any description of this legion's flag, or even if they were issued a flag.  However, we have descriptions/artifacts of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, the 3rd Continental, and Pulaski's Legion.

But onto the description of this fictional flag.  I chose a red ground as all three Continental cavalry standards (2nd, 3rd, and Pulaski's Legion) have red as their field.  An owl was chosen as an interesting classical symbol (the owl of Minerva) and also to evoke Armand's service with the Chouans in France.  The motto translates to "Vigilance is the price of Liberty," and the owl seemed to suggest vigilance and wakefulness.  The 13 stars and fleur-de-lis is taken from contemporary drawings of United States flags.

If you would like to deploy your wargame unit of Armand's Legion under this standard, please feel free; however, credit and a link back to this post is appreciated :)