Mediterranean Strategy with WW2 Podcast

Mediterranean Strategy with WW2 Podcast

Almost three years ago I was a guest on WW2 Podcast, hosted by Angus Wallace. We discussed my Master’s Thesis, which I’ve since transformed into my first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943.

Angus and I had been trying to find a way to cooperate on another podcast over the last couple of years. We finally managed it. Listen in as we discuss Mediterranean strategy in the Second World War. The discussion takes us from Gibraltar to Alexandria, and from 1940 to 1945.

As a framework for our chat, we both read Douglas Porch’s Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II. In it, the author posits that the Mediterranean war made a significant and necessary contribution to Allied victory.

In related news, I’ve also started hosting a podcast for the Juno Beach Centre this summer. Juno Beach and Beyond is Canada’s first Second World War podcast. Tune in to discover how Canada punched above its weight in the war that changed the world.

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Making Arduino Speak

About a month ago I wrote a post about how my Interactive Exhibit Design course had me learning how to code an Arduino microcontroller to turn lights on at the push of a button. We have had some studio lessons since then. Just a few weeks ago we started playing with sound. Our kits come with a rudimentary speaker that, while attached to the Arduino breadboard, can be programmed to make noises.

We began with a basic configuration, with the speaker connected to a simple circuit on the breadboard. We then programmed the Arduino to tell the speaker to make a rather unsettling noise. We also included a photoresistor in the circuit. We programmed this to change the noise from the speaker depending on how much light the photoresistor received. This was a good way to get a basic understanding of how the speaker worked, but we were not yet at the point where we could get much application out of it. Perhaps the basic idea could be applied by an exhibit designer who wanted to trigger a sound based on a change in lighting. For example, say a passerby inadvertently covers a light source, and the sound of gunfire erupts as he or she enters the trench section of a First World War exhibit (sort of like a tripwire without the tripping part). Obviously, that would require some different coding and a speaker that could handle the audio file.   

Next, we built a keyboard instrument. We removed the photoresistor from the circuit and instead attached four buttons. We then coded each of these four buttons to prompt the speaker to emit a different tone when pressed. I had a little bit of trouble with my breadboard on this one. In a previous studio class, I’d learned that one of the lines on my breadboard (the one marked in pen) was broken. It seemed that a second line was also broken, meaning I had to move things around on the breadboard to ensure all four buttons were part of a complete circuit. This is a constraint I’ll have to be aware of as I move forward with Arduino projects.

As you can see in the attached videos, the buttons worked like keys on a keyboard, each with a different sound. If I had any musical talent, maybe I would be able to compose a short song using this new instrument. Instead, it’s given me some other ideas. You’ll recall that in my last post I wrote about using buttons to turn on lights to highlight parts of a small display, such as a map of Sicily. Adding buttons with sounds would allow me to add some sound effects to the display. Perhaps I could upload the sound of an aircraft taking off, of fighter pilots or bomber gunners firing machine guns, or the sounds of air raid sirens, flak, or crashing aircraft. Pushing a different button might highlight a different part of an aircrew’s operational sortie over Palermo, Messina, or one of the Axis aerodromes on the island.

I could also program the speaker to narrate parts of the Battle of Sicily depending upon which button is depressed. This would add another layer to the light display rather than relying on the user to read the button’s accompanying text. I believe this would require a superior speaker and different programming software. I also would need some help programming the lights and audio files to work in sync. It would be great for the light to turn on at the same time as the narration begins. The light would turn off when the narration ends, and both would end when the user pressed another button, starting that lighting and narration sequence.

Another interesting application for a setup like this could be an audio listening display. Museums use these sorts of displays all the time. I remember one at the Canadian War Museum in their Cold War gallery. The visitor can put on a set of headphones and listen to various Cold War-era tracks from recognizable artists. I keenly remember falling in love with Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ when I was there as a teenager. It was a memorable experience that I won’t soon forget – the very thing that the best museums nail.

Arduino – Learning and Applying the Basics

Interactive Exhibit Design is different from any other history course I have ever taken. The Public History Graduate Program at Western University takes us far beyond theory into practical applications for putting history to work in the world, but this new course is a cut above. Interactive Exhibit Design is a studio course where we are learning (slowly but surely) about how to use microcontrollers to manipulate objects in the physical world using some basic electronic components and a coding program called Arduino.

We completed our first studio projects a few weeks ago now. At first, we started by plugging an LED bulb into one of the pins on our Arduino boards and coding that pin to blink the light at a particular frequency. I tried to spell ALEX in Morse code (You might be able to make out ._ ._.. . _.._ in the video).

This could make for a fun interactive, activity. I could program the Arduino to spit out a secret message that students would have to decipher using a Morse code book. In doing so, the activity would teach students about wartime communication methods. To put some more fun into the project, maybe the light could be fitted to the photograph or drawing of a Royal Canadian Navy corvette at sea during the Battle of the Atlantic. The student could pretend that he or she is a sailor on a neighbouring ship trying to receive the message. One thing I noticed with the Morse code coding was the need to put long spaces between letters and words. Otherwise, it makes the message difficult to follow because it flashes by so quickly. Furthermore, when it’s programmed to repeat the message, it can be hard to identify where it begins.

Next, we set up and programmed the board to turn a light on when someone pushed a button. The button operates as a switch. The switch is open naturally, but when the button is pressed the switch closes, completing the circuit and turning the light on. This is a basic but handy setup. Museum exhibits use lights like these all the time. You press a button and part of a panel lights up corresponding to the button you have pressed. The button may illuminate the answer to a question posed next to the button or an element of a map that highlights one part of a battlefield.

This got me thinking. As research assistants at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum this term, Martha Sellens and I are working on a refresh of the Second World War exhibit. One of the proposed elements of this exhibit is an interactive map of Europe. Perhaps Martha and I could pull together a prototype of such a map. It could follow the events that led to Canada’s declaration of war in 1939, or it could trace the path of the RCR as they fought through Europe during the ensuing conflict.

Thinking that this could be too ambitious for a first go, I had another thought. Maybe I could make something with an interactive map that could teach people about the Battle of Sicily, the subject of my book, Eagles over Husky. I could take one of the maps in the book and PLAK-IT. This would provide me with a solid material to drill holes into and secure my lights. I could then program the lights to light up with the push of various buttons. The illuminated segments of the map could feature various bombing raids or the beaches where Allied forces stormed ashore on the early morning of 10 July 1943. I could even number the lights and have the user follow a narrative of the campaign using the illuminated map sections as a guide. This would be a neat piece to take with me when I go to sell books at book fairs or militaria shows this spring.

These ideas do raise some challenges. What if I wanted the lights to stay on for a prescribed time without the user having to keep the button depressed to complete the circuit? So far, I can code a light to stay on for an amount of time or to blink at a particular frequency, but I’m not sure how to make this work alongside a button. We did program multiple lights to blink in a sequence once we pushed a button, but I do not think we have switches that allow for a timed illumination (i.e. I press a button, and the light stays on for five seconds).

Another challenge may be that all our components need to plug into the Arduino’s breadboard and link to the Arduino Uno microcontroller itself. I will need some guidance on how to integrate these objects and the components into the map itself. I will also need to learn a bit more about wiring and circuits to make this vision a reality. This should bode well for an exciting term!

Taking Stock & Website Launch

Taking Stock & Website Launch

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Well, it’s been quite the rush but my first semester as a Public History graduate student at Western University is coming to a close. I’ve still got a few end-of-term assignments left, but I’m 80%+ complete all but one of them. The last three months or so have thrown many varied assignments my way. I’ve finished a Heritage Designation project for the City of London’s Heritage Planner, worked on a RAD inventory project at the London Life Corporate Archives, and built a promotional website and timeline for my book at www.eaglesoverhusky.ca. Please take the time to check it out and let me know what you think! You can get to the timeline directly by clicking here.

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In other exciting news, I’ve recently received my first proofs from Helion & Company for Eagles over Husky. I probably won’t look at them in detail until closer to the Christmas break, but this is really exciting. My manuscript actually looks like the inside of a book! Assuming I get the proofs turned around on time, the book should be released in the UK by mid-January or February at the latest. It looks like the book won’t be available at North American retailers until March. In the meantime, I’ll be buying plenty of author’s copies to sell on this side of the Atlantic.

I also recently received a really great testimonial for the book from one of my mentors, Professor Marc Milner, Director of The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society.

“Eagles over Husky is an exceptional debut for a young scholar. It combines excellent research, clear and evocative writing, and deep reflection to give us totally new insights not only into Operation Husky in 1943, but the whole higher direction of the Allied war effort in Europe during this critical phase.  Fitzgerald-Black provides us with a model of how the role of airpower in the major campaigns of the Second World War can best  be understood.”

– Marc Milner, University of New Brunswick, Canada

I’m literally blown away by Marc’s comments. I can’t wait to start the rounds giving talks about my book and raising awareness for Operation Husky’s 75th anniversary this summer. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with interview requests etc. You can get hold of me by filling out this form. Keep an eye on http://www.eaglesoverhusky.com for new content leading up to the book launch and the anniversary!

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There’s a lot to look forward to in 2018. My fellow students and I will be working on an oral history project with Western University’s McIntosh Gallery. We’ll also be researching and writing a history of beautiful Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario. What I’m looking forward to most is beginning my work at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum. I’ve already been volunteering there and can’t wait to get started in collections management. It looks like I’ll be handling some artefacts donated by the estate of Milton F. Gregg, who I wrote about back in October. What a thrill!

The Digital History Playbook

The Digital History Playbook

The first term of my Public History graduate degree is wrapping up rather quickly. My classmates and I have something like four major project deadlines between now and the middle of December. So it’s only natural that I am procrastinating by writing this blog instead of working on those various assignments this evening.

Tomorrow is our last official class in Digital Public History. It’s going to be a bit of a show-and-tell whereby we will present the progress we’ve made on our independent projects. Each of us has explored a digital technology and its current and potential applications for public history. That’s the great thing about this course. It has really opened my eyes to many possible applications where the modern and the historical can come together to produce something better than the sum of their parts.

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Take online archives for instance. Using the cloud, we now have the potential to gather, preserve, and provide access to historical records we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. The Memory Project is one example. Canadian veterans’ stories from the World Wars, the Korean War, and various Peacekeeping missions are recorded on audio and transcript. The September 11th Digital Archive captures the stories of those who experienced the worst terrorist attacks in American history whether they were at Ground Zero or waiting at home for loved ones who never returned. What’s great about these websites is that they record, preserve, and share memories and historical records that otherwise may never have survived. They reach out to engage their audiences in growing their collections.

Digital technologies also have the potential to transform how teachers educate their students. Learning history doesn’t need to be about names and dates. Students can also learn the skills of historians through archives’ education outreach programs like DocsTeach, an online tool for teaching with documents from the US National Archives. By doing history, not just learning it, students can practice their analytical and communications skills using actual documents that are part of the historical record. Perhaps teachers who use tools like these will help inspire a new generation of scholars, or maybe they’ll just be better, more aware, and thoughtful citizens. Either way, society benefits!

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Other digital technologies can give us a better perspective of the past — sometimes they can provide us with perspectives we couldn’t see even if we had been present. Geographic information systems and spatial history have loads of potential. Check out this brilliant 360° 3D recreation of Halifax at the time of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. In it, you’ll find a 3D video recreation of the events that led to the disaster followed by a map to explore the tragedy’s aftermath.

Public historians can also make use of digital tools to help manage projects. Social media helps academic and amateur historians engage and interact with other researchers to support one another’s projects or contribute a coordinated effort. Zotero is an example of free software that allows researchers to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources. Even tools as evident as Dropbox or Google Drive can help project members coordinate their efforts to improve project results.

Finally (and this is not an exhaustive list), digital tools can help historians present new ideas in readily accessible and digestible ways. In short, they can help us enhance our storytelling (backed by robust analysis) in ways that enhance the experience for the consumer. For instance, Canadian military historian Terry Copp has recently launched MontreatatWar.com, presenting his new book in an online format. The website is promising, with links to footnotes and primary documents referenced in the text. A more modest approach is TimelineJS, an open-source tool that enables anyone to build clean-cut, interactive timelines.

TimelineJS is one of the digital tools I’ve used for my independent project. I’m almost as excited to see what my classmates have produced using various digital tools as I am to showcase my work. My project consists of a new website and interactive timeline supporting my book, which I now understand should launch by February 2018. I can’t wait to reveal this work to the public in the next few days!

I’d like to finish this short reflection with one overriding principle that our professor, Timothy Compeau, has urged us to heed: engineers create these great tools, but it’s up to us to make the best use of them. Digital history isn’t about technology; it’s about how we can use technology to help us tell a compelling story and craft an experience that is memorable, fun, and educational.

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GIS and Spatial History

GIS and Spatial History

A few weeks ago now our Digital Public History class had an opportunity to visit the Map and Data Centre at the D.B. Weldon Library on the Western campus. There, we were given an introduction to GIS (geographic information system) software, including Story Maps, a series of ArcGIS-enabled applications. Story Maps is a great way to use GIS to tell a place-based story digitally. You can send people on tour across countries or even continents from the security of their own home. There is also a Cascade application which essentially allows the user to create a scrollable website. I started experimenting with this app to build my book website but decided to go elsewhere when I found that it was not meant for commercial use. In the future, I look forward to pulling this tool out of my toolbelt in the service of a different project.

I did not have much experience with GIS before this, but the workshop reminded me of work one of my fellow MA candidates did at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society back in 2013. Matthew Douglass was studying the New Brunswick Rangers, a support company in 4th Canadian Armoured Division, and its role in closing the Falaise Gap. Matt used a map from C.P. Stacey’s The Victory Campaign, the official history of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, to help get a better understanding of the radius of fire for the company’s mortars and machine guns.

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Image Courtesy of Matt Douglass

Matt notes in his thesis that in spite of the good coverage these weapon systems had, “the various small hills were able to conceal German formations who were able to evade the ever-watchful Allied gaze, though much of their movements were limited to the hours of darkness.” Taking things a step further would see Matt using GIS in the form of topography maps to get an even better understanding of the impact those small hills had. The terrain is a primary document when it comes to military history, and there’s much it can tell us about how events took shape.

This brings up an essential point about spatial analysis. GIS and mapping software are great tools for enhancing the narrative, but they can also be great tools for improving historical analysis. As Richard White wrote in “What is Spatial History?”

[V]isualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

Spatial history helps historians to pose and answer questions they may not have thought about before. Here are just a few that could take my work on the Allied air forces and the invasion of Sicily further:

  • What were the spatial limitations imposed on Allied fighter cover over the Sicily beaches? How far did they have to travel just to get to their patrol routes and what implications does this have on the fighter cover schedules, which were heavily criticized by the US Army and US Navy?
  • Similarly, what was the actual effect of forcing German and Italian bombardment wings north to central Italy instead of being based nearby the landing zones in Sicily? How many sorties were prevented merely because of the flying distance was expanded?
  • What was the spatial impact of Allied bombing on the Italian railway system in 1943? How long did it take a supply train to travel from Rome into the Italian toe in peacetime and how does this compare with the conditions the Allied air forces imposed? This one would be more difficult because it would require getting hold of the raw data in the form of railway timetables for the locations and periods in question.

For now, I’ll have to stick with using maps to communicate by research rather than enhance it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have engaged an excellent military cartographer for the maps in Eagles over Husky.

Here’s an example:

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Convoy routes for Operation Husky

In chapter two of my book, this map helps readers visualize my discussion of air protection for the various convoy routes involved in landing Allied troops on Sicily.

That’s it for today. We’ve got a busy month ahead in the Public History MA program at Western. I’m most excited for my independent Digital History project, in which I’ll be designing a website to promote my book and a timeline to help tell the story.

My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

The History Department of Western University is celebrating its centenary in 2017. One of the events the department is putting on for the occasion is a Greatest (Dead) Canadian Competition. I’ve entered the competition to champion Milton Fowler Gregg for the reasons below.

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Milton F. Gregg, VC

Pro Patria – For Country – is the motto of the Royal Canadian Regiment. My nomination for Greatest (Dead) Canadian, Milton Fowler Gregg, exemplified this creed. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest.

Victoria_Cross_of_canadaGregg owes his original claim to fame to the First World War. He earned the Military Cross & Bar and then the Victoria Cross as a lieutenant and platoon leader in the Royal Canadian Regiment.

In the interwar years, Gregg worked as a veteran’s advocate for the Soldiers Settlement Board and became Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons from 1934 until the eve of another conflict in 1939.

He began the war serving overseas as 2IC of the Royal Canadian Regiment and then as commander of the West Nova Scotia Regiment. But Gregg’s calling was as a trainer of soldiers. In 1942 he was promoted colonel and returned to Canada to command army officer and infantry training schools, preparing young men for the grim task that awaited them overseas. He retired as a brigadier in 1944.

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With the war nearing its end, many servicemen and women used higher education to re-enter civilian life. As President of UNB from 1944 to 1947, Gregg oversaw this effort in his home province of New Brunswick. He was known affectionately by students, staff, and faculty alike as “the Brigadier.”

Next, Gregg found his way back to Ottawa as a Member of Parliament, serving in the cabinets of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, including two years as Minister of Veteran’s Affairs.

He finished the last decade of his career in various diplomatic posts, helping build on the Golden Age of Canada’s Foreign Relations. He was the United Nations envoy to Iraq, UNICEF’s envoy to Indonesia, and the Canadian representative to the United Nations – though not all at once. As a capstone to his career, Gregg was awarded the Order of Canada near the time of his retirement in 1968.

v309_20060122_badg_royaThis great Canadian passed away on March 13, 1978, at 85 years of age. Milton Fowler Gregg is fondly remembered every year at a small Remembrance Day service in Snider Mountain, New Brunswick. The Royal Canadian Regiment sends a small detachment from CFB Gagetown, and the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at UNB usually sends a representative. Last year it was my honour to be there.

In war and peace, Milton Gregg exemplified the value of service to his country and the world. I hope our honoured judges will give him due consideration as the Greatest (Dead) Canadian, and that everyone will take some time to remember the Brigadier as I will this Remembrance Day.

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Gregg’s gravestone at Snider Mountain, New Brunswick