On this day : The 16th May 1943

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The Dambusters Raid

By 1943 the German threat in North Africa had been negated; there was no chance that the Nazis could or would invade Britain; and the Americans had entered the conflict on the Allied side. Yet still Britain endured regular poundings from Luftwaffe bombing raids ; and the German war machine, centred on the Ruhr, was turning out arms and ammunition for the Third Reich’s forces. Such was the background to 617 Squadron’s Dambusters Raid, or Operation Chastise as it was officially dubbed.
Chastise was intended to hit German industrial production by destroying several strategically important dams that provided both hydro-electric power and water for factories in the area. As the dams were too small to be hit with accuracy by high level bombing, and defended by nets from torpedo attack, a new method was devised by Barnes Wallis – the bouncing bomb. This was a cylindrical device, rotated at high speed to impart backward spin that made it skip over the water like a skimming-stone until hitting the dam walls, at which point its remaining spin would roll it down the face of the dam where a depth sensitive detonator would explode it beneath the water, in theory causing devastating breaches.
The raid proved very costly, 53 of the 133 aircrew on the mission being killed, and eight of the 19 Avro Lancaster bombers not returning. The floods caused by breaches in the Möhne and Eder dams wreaked havoc in the area, and many of those killed were Allied prisoners of war and forced labourers from the USSR. But for more than a month the power generating capacity of the region was drastically reduced; and above all British morale was raised by the daring nature of the attack, and the reassurance that we had secret weapons to combat those it was constantly feared the Germans were developing. The operation’s leader, Guy Gibson , won the VC for his action in drawing fire from planes yet to complete their bomb run by offering his as a target; sadly he was later killed during a mission in 1944.

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On this day : The 12th April 1961

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First man in space

Aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin becomes the first human being to travel into space. During the flight, the 27-year-old test pilot and industrial technician also became the first man to orbit the planet, a feat accomplished by his space capsule in 89 minutes. Vostok 1 orbited Earth at a maximum altitude of 187 miles and was guided entirely by an automatic control system. The only statement attributed to Gagarin during his one hour and 48 minutes in space was, “Flight is proceeding normally; I am well.”

After his historic feat was announced, the attractive and unassuming Gagarin became an instant worldwide celebrity. He was awarded the Order of Lenin and given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Monuments were raised to him across the Soviet Union and streets renamed in his honor.

The triumph of the Soviet space program in putting the first man into space was a great blow to the United States, which had scheduled its first space flight for May 1961. Moreover, Gagarin had orbited Earth, a feat that eluded the U.S. space program until February 1962, when astronaut John Glenn made three orbits in Friendship 7. By that time, the Soviet Union had already made another leap ahead in the “space race” with the August 1961 flight of cosmonaut Gherman Titov in Vostok 2. Titov made 17 orbits and spent more than 25 hours in space.

To Soviet propagandists, the Soviet conquest of space was evidence of the supremacy of communism over capitalism. However, to those who worked on the Vostok program and earlier on Sputnik (which launched the first satellite into space in 1957), the successes were attributable chiefly to the brilliance of one man: Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. Because of his controversial past, Chief Designer Korolev was unknown in the West and to all but insiders in the USSR until his death in 1966.

Born in the Ukraine in 1906, Korolev was part of a scientific team that launched the first Soviet liquid-fueled rocket in 1933. In 1938, his military sponsor fell prey to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s purges, and Korolev and his colleagues were also put on trial. Convicted of treason and sabotage, Korolev was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. The Soviet authorities came to fear German rocket advances, however, and after only a year Korolev was put in charge of a prison design bureau and ordered to continue his rocketry work.

In 1945, Korolev was sent to Germany to learn about the V-2 rocket, which had been used to devastating effect by the Nazis against the British. The Americans had captured the rocket’s designer, Wernher von Braun, who later became head of the U.S. space program, but the Soviets acquired a fair amount of V-2 resources, including rockets, launch facilities, blueprints, and a few German V-2 technicians. By employing this technology and his own considerable engineering talents, by 1954 Korolev had built a rocket that could carry a five-ton nuclear warhead and in 1957 launched the first intercontinental ballistic missile.

That year, Korolev’s plan to launch a satellite into space was approved, and on October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 was fired into Earth’s orbit. It was the first Soviet victory of the space race, and Korolev, still technically a prisoner, was officially rehabilitated. The Soviet space program under Korolev would go on to numerous space firsts in the late 1950s and early ’60s: first animal in orbit, first large scientific satellite, first man, first woman, first three men, first space walk, first spacecraft to impact the moon, first to orbit the moon, first to impact Venus, and first craft to soft-land on the moon. Throughout this time, Korolev remained anonymous, known only as the “Chief Designer.” His dream of sending cosmonauts to the moon eventually ended in failure, primarily because the Soviet lunar program received just one-tenth the funding allocated to America’s successful Apollo lunar landing program.

Korolev died in 1966. Upon his death, his identity was finally revealed to the world, and he was awarded a burial in the Kremlin wall as a hero of the Soviet Union. Yuri Gagarin was killed in a routine jet-aircraft test flight in 1968. His ashes were also placed in the Kremlin wall.

On this day in Football History : February 27 1977

Maradona Goes International

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On 27 February 1977, Argentina beat Hungary 5-1 in a friendly that marked the international debut of 16-year old Diego Maradona. At the time, Hungary had been the more successful team, with two World Cup finals (1938 and 1954), three Olympic gold medals (1952, 1964, 1968) and one silver medal (1972). But they were in decline, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, the 1976 Olympics, or the 1976 European Championship. Argentina, meanwhile, had reached the Olympic final in 1928 and the World Cup final in 1930, but had since done little on the global stage (they did have 12 Copa América trophies, however).

For the friendly, they met at the Bombanera in Buenos Aires, where approximately 60,000 people turned out to watch. By half time, the hosts were up 4-0 with a hat-trick from Daniel Bertoni (11′, 18′) and a goal from Leopoldo Luque (37′). Luque added another just after the break (47′) to extend the lead to 5-0 before Hungary substitute Zombori Sándor pulled one back in the 61st minute.
One minute later, Argentina made a couple of substitutions of their own, taking Ricardo Villa off for Jorge Benítez and replacing Luque with young Argentinos Juniors midfielder Diego Maradona. It was Maradona’s first appearance for Argentina and he would go on to become the country’s greatest player, earning a total of 91 caps and leading them them to World Cup glory in 1986.

On this day : The 16th February 1894

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John Wesley Hardin is pardoned

Infamous gunslinger John Wesley Hardin is pardoned after spending 15 years in a Texas prison for murder. Hardin, who was reputed to have shot and killed a man just for snoring, was 41 years old at the time of his release.

Hardin probably killed in excess of 40 people during a six-year stretch beginning in 1868. When he was only 15, Hardin killed an ex-slave in a fight, becoming a wanted fugitive. Two years later, he was arrested for murder in Waco, Texas. Although it was actually one of the few he had not committed, Hardin did not want to run the risk of being convicted and escaped to the town of Abilene.

At that time, Abilene was run by Wild Bill Hickok, who was friendly with Hardin. However, one night Hardin was disturbed by the snoring in an adjacent hotel room and fired two shots through the wall, killing the man. Fearing that not even Wild Bill would stand for such a senseless crime, Hardin moved on again.

On May 26, 1874, Hardin was celebrating his 21st birthday when he got into an altercation with a man who fired the first shot. Hardin fired back and killed the man. A few years later, Hardin was tracked down in Florida and brought to trial. Because it was one of the more defensible shootings on Hardin’s record, he was spared the gallows and given a life sentence. After his pardon, he moved to El Paso and became an attorney. But his past caught up with him, and the following year he was shot in the back as revenge for one of his many murders

On this day : The 14th February 1929

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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Four men dressed as police officers enter gangster Bugs Moran’s headquarters on North Clark Street in Chicago, line seven of Moran’s henchmen against a wall, and shoot them to death. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it is now called, was the culmination of a gang war between arch rivals Al Capone and Bugs Moran.

George “Bugs” Moran was a career criminal who ran the North Side gang in Chicago during the bootlegging era of the 1920s. He fought bitterly with “Scarface” Al Capone for control of smuggling and trafficking operations in the Windy City. Throughout the 1920s, both survived several attempted murders. On one notorious occasion, Moran and his associates drove six cars past a hotel in Cicero, Illionis, where Capone and his associates were having lunch and showered the building with more than 1,000 bullets.

A $50,000 bounty on Capone’s head was the final straw for the gangster. He ordered that Moran’s gang be destroyed. On February 14, a delivery of bootleg whiskey was expected at Moran’s headquarters. But Moran was late and happened to see police officers entering his establishment. Moran waited outside, thinking that his gunmen inside were being arrested in a raid. However, the disguised assassins were actually killing the seven men inside.

The murdered men included Moran’s best killers, Frank and Pete Gusenberg. Reportedly Frank was still alive when real officers appeared on the scene. When asked who had shot him, the mortally wounded Gusenberg kept his code of silence, responding, “No one, nobody shot me.”

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre actually proved to be the last confrontation for both Capone and Moran. Capone was jailed in 1931 and Moran lost so many important men that he could no longer control his territory. On the seventh anniversary of the massacre, Jack McGurn, one of the Valentine’s Day hit men,was killed in a crowded bowling alley with a burst of machine-gun fire.

McGurn’s killer remains unidentified, but was likely Moran, though he was never charged with the murder. Moran was relegated to small-time robberies until he was sent to jail in 1946. He died in Leavenworth Federal Prison in 1957 of lung cancer.

On this day : The 7th February 1964

On this day : The 30th January 1920

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Japan’s Mazda founded

On this day in 1920, Jujiro Matsuda (1875-1952) forms Toyo Cork Kogyo, a business that makes cork, in Hiroshima, Japan; just over a decade later the company produces its first automobile and eventually changes its name to Mazda. Today, Mazda is known for its affordable, quality-performance vehicles, including the Miata, the world’s best-selling two-seat roadster.

In 1931, the company launched the Mazda-Go, a three-wheeled vehicle that resembled a motorcycle with a cargo-carrier at the back. The company’s car development plans were halted during World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. In the 1950s, Mazda began making small, four-wheel trucks. The company launched its first passenger car, the R360 Coupe, in 1960 in Japan. Seven years later, Mazda debuted the first rotary engine car, the Cosmo Sport 110S. Mazda entered the American market in 1970, with the R100 coupe, the first mass-produced, rotary-powered car in the U.S. In 1978, the Mazda RX-7, an affordable, “peak-performing” sports car debuted. The following year, the Ford Motor Company took a 25 percent stake in the company.

In 1989, at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda unveiled the MX-5 Miata, a two-door sports car carrying a starting price tag of $13,800. According to Mazda, the concept for the car was: “affordable to buy and use, lightweight, Jinba Ittai (‘rider and horse as one’) handling, and classic roadster looks.” The 2000 “Guinness Book of World Records” named the Miata the best-selling two-seat convertible in history.

In 1991, in another milestone for the company, a Mazda 787 B won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, becoming the first rotary-powered car as well as the first Japanese-made auto to do so. However, Mazda was impacted by the economic slump in Japan in the 1990s and in 1996, Ford took a controlling stake in the automaker and rescued it from potential bankruptcy. The two companies shared manufacturing facilities in several countries along with vehicle platforms and other resources. In 2008, Ford, which had been hurt by the global economic crisis and slumping auto sales, relinquished control of Mazda by selling 20 percent of its controlling stake for around $540 million. (Also that year, General Motors sold its stake in Japan-based Suzuki Motor.)

In 2009, Mazda celebrated the 20th anniversary of the MX-5 Miata, whose sales by then had topped nearly 900,000 and which had won almost 180 major automotive awards.