Passchendale: One hundred years on, the horror and agony of the Passchendale campaign still resonates across Europe


The echoes of the carnage at Passchendale still resonate across the former battlefield where hundreds of thousands of soldiers became casualties of a bloody war of attrition.

Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the long and protracted offensive raged between July and November of 1917, claiming over half a million lives from all sides involved.

Passchendale, a small rural community in the West Flanders province of Belgium, became the site of historic carnage as German, British, and French troops fought for control of the strategically important Passchendale Ridge, a stretch of elevated ground about 70ft above sea level.

Seizing and controlling the high ground was crucially important for both sides, as the vantage point enabled unobstructed ground observation and a prime position for artillery pieces, with the added advantage of providing cover to conceal troop movements from the enemy.

Incessant bombardment during previous engagements had left the battlefield pocked by hundreds of shell holes, and had churned the ground to a quagmire. Constant rain during August 1917 compounded the problem, leaving the terrain with the “consistency of porridge”, as some combatants put it.

Horror and misery became the norm at Passchendale, with thousands of troops meeting their fate in a desolate ocean of mud that swallowed men, horses, and military hardware alike.

It was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. It ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you…”, soldiers said of the vast amounts of soft mud surrounding them.

There was no gas, nor there were tanks fielded at Passchendale. The campaign was purely an infantry engagement, with hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers sent to fight and die in agony inside a massive quagmire.

The exact number of casualties will probably never be known, but estimates put at around 245,000 dead, injured, or missing British troops, about 280,000 German (though some estimates quote up to 400,000 casualties), and a comparable number of French soldiers, either dead, sick, or missing.

The British side claimed victory, though it would be a pyrrhic win. The British army was depleted, and exhausted after suffering such enormous bloodshed during three long months of hellish struggle.

Back to Havana! First scheduled flight between the US and Cuba in decades departs today


Back in the early 1960s, the US and the then USSR were playing a dangerous game of military escalation that almost triggered thermonuclear war.

The USSR were using Cuba as a proxy in a high-stakes display of firepower, and when some US reconnaisance planes spotted a significant build-up of military hardware on the US’s backyard -including medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) sites-, the brown stuff really did hit the fan.

The escalation directly led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62, plus trade embargos, blockades, and more relevant to this piece, Cuba imposed a ban on all incoming flights from the US, a ban that has lasted to this very day.

History is being written today, however, as the first commercial flight between the US and Cuba in five decades takes off from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, bound for Santa Clara in Cuba.

JetBlue Flight 387, a 150-seater Airbus A320, is scheduled to depart at 9:45 a.m. EDT, and will fly the short 72-minute journey into history, a journey that open up a brand new era of U.S.-Cuba travel.

JetBlue’s landmark flight heralds big business, too, as other airlines are likely to establish links with Cuba in the near future. The forecast is for up to 400 flights weekly between the two countries, and with fares quoted as low as US$99 (€88) one way, most Americans have no excuse to fly to the beautiful island of Cuba.

The Candy Bombers – A reflection on one man’s will to give hope


In early 1945, the combined air power of the Allied forces had laid waste to Berlin. Tens of thousands of tons of allied ordnance had fallen on the crippled city, turning the once majestic German capital into a smoldering pile of ruins.

The wrath of RAF Bomber Command first, and the American Eight Air Force during the latter half of the war pounded the city mercilessly, exacting fiery retribution against the Nazi regime.

By May 1945, Nazi Germany had finally capitulated, after a long and costly 6 year struggle for dominance in the continent. Representatives of the decimated German Army sign an unconditional surrender on May 7. The war has officially ended. The arduous task of rebuilding Berlin, and Germany as a whole, would take decades.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, few buildings remained standing. Much of the city had been turned into rubble. Well over 600,000 dwellings had been flattened, and from an estimated 4.3 million population, only 2.3 could be accounted for. The rest, either dead, or missing. The entire civilian infrastructure was largely gone. Water, electricity, and other facilities had pretty much been obliterated in an effort to paralyze the German war effort.

The victorious factions soon begin slicing the German capital. Berlin is divided into British, American, French, and Soviet sectors of occupation, effectively establishing an East/West border and sowing the seeds of the Cold War.

In 1946, the Soviet sector of occupation and East Berlin become unified, a move which sparks outrage among the other three nations.

By 1948, Berlin simmers with hostility between the Western powers and the Soviet-controlled territory. A dispute over currency reforms sparks a Soviet blockade of the Western sectors, the first of many major crises of the impending Cold War. The rationale behind this blockade was to deny the Western powers vital rail, canal, and road access, thus granting the Soviet nation effective control over the entire city of Berlin. Food and supplies soon become scarce.

The Allied nations respond by organising Operation Vittles, also known as the Berlin Airlift. Its goal: to supply the Western sectors with food, coal, and other necessities. Aircraft from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand air forces take part in this operation. Over 200,000 sorties take place, and more than 4,700 tons of supplies are airlifted into the Western sectors of the city.

The airport at Tempelhof district would become the logistical hub for Operation Vittles. Pilots soon realized however that the grass runways, typical of German airports at the time, clearly could not handle the heavily laden aircraft landing there. A perforated steel matting runway was built in an attempt to solve the issue, but it soon began crumbling under the weight of the gigantic Allied transport planes. Engineers were forced to build a proper 6,000 feet runway to meet the demand.

During Operation Vittles, USAF Col. Gail Halvorsen would give rise to one of the most poignant and endearing (and also, little known) stories of World War II.

Col. Halvorsen, aged 27 at the time, piloted C-47 and C-54 transport aircraft as part of the Berlin Airlift effort. When landing at Tempelhof, Halvorsen often noticed children lingering at the airport’s perimeter fence, watching the aircraft and all the airport activities. Soon, he came up with an idea, and put it forward to his commanding officer, Lt. General William Tunner. The idea? To drop candy from his airplane to the children below, using parachutes. Tunner approved, and christened it Operation Little Vittles.

Halvorsen was well aware that German kids had next to nothing in the post-war era. The Soviet blockade had severely limited access to supplies, and while the airlift that he and so many others were part of was slowly balancing the situation, the German population -and kids in particular- living in the Western sectors were suffering deprivation. Thus, he hoped his actions would at least help to raise morale a little.

At the height of the airlift, aircraft would land at Templehof every 3 minutes, hence children would have no way of knowing which airplane Halvorsen was piloting. To resolve this problem, he promised the children that he would swing the wings of his aircraft on approach, so they would know candy was about to be parachuted their way. This would earn Halvorsen the nickname “Onkel Wackelflügel” (“Uncle Wiggly Wings”).

The American pilot’s initiative took off. When word of what he was doing got around, other aircrews began imitating him. Soon, candy was landing all over Berlin, thus giving children a very sweet indeed ray of hope. All the participating aircrews became collectively known as The Candy Bombers. School pupils all over the United States also began contributing to the effort by packing candy, rations, and other much needed supplies for the German kids. All in all, over 18 tons of candy would be dropped on Berlin.

Gail Halvorsen, still alive today, would go on to become an iconic figure in post-war Germany, and far beyond. He single-handledly improved the German population’s perception of the American army, and of the United States in general, after the bitter animosity displayed between the two nations only a few years earlier. Even today, the original candy bomber is still dearly remembered and sporadically mentioned in German media as a symbol of American-German relations.

Some of the children who received Halvorsen’s candy gifts appeared numerous times on German TV as adults, along with Halvorsen himself, celebrating the anniversary of the life-changing airlift, and the experience as a whole. Much later, other aircrews airdropped teddy bears and other toys to Iraqi children during the first Gulf War, honouring Halvorsen’s far-reaching legacy.