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The thunderstorm that broke out over the southern coast of Spain on September 26, 1942 was not particularly remarkable, despite its relative violence.  After all, at any given time there are hundreds of storms all over the world, scattering rain, hail, lightning, and occasional tornadoes across the landscape.

When we have storms around here, one of the first things I do is go outside to watch them roll in.  I find them to be awesome, mesmerizing displays of the power of weather as it fights for calm and equlibrium.  And as I look down the street, usually one or two of my neighbors seems somewhat captivated as well.  In 1942, people were apparently interested in watching storms as well (there certainly weren’t any emergency weather broadcasts on the TV to watch), because a bunch of people stopped what they were doing to have a look.

But this storm was a bit different than the others…the spectators saw a little bit more than they bargained for.

At 3:30pm, an airplane came crashing from the sky and plowed into the Atlantic Ocean in an explosion of fire and water near the port of Cadiz.  The Catalina flying boat was carrying ten passengers and crew, and all were killed.  Among them was Lieutenant-Paymaster J. H. Turner and Louis Danielou Clamorgan, who was bound for northwest Africa.

What those watching didn’t know was that these two men, Turner in particular, were carrying secrets.  In his book Deathly Deception, Denis Smyth writes that Turner was “carrying on his person documents which seriously threatened to compromise a major forthcoming Allied offensive, if they fell into the wrong hands.  The operation in question, code-named Torch, was to be an amphibious assault of a size and complexity never before attempted in the history of war and for which secrecy was absolutely crucial.”

Fortunately for Allied planners, all the documents and all the bodies were recovered within hours.  Disaster had been averted.

And a seed had been planted.

It was this aircraft accident that, much like lightning itself, sparked the idea in British minds to actually fabricate a duplicate incident.  Put some faked documents on a dead soldier and have him wash ashore.  Let him be “captured” by the enemy and hope they read the documents, which would send them scurrying in the wrong direction.

This was the beginning of what was, in all likelihood, the most successful deception operation of the war:  Operation Mincemeat.

Recommended Reading: Deathly Deception

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Well, this might be one of the shortest history lessons we’ve ever done.  But it’s supposed to be nice outside today (at least where I am), so I’m figuring you’ll have one eye on the window anyways.

Back in January, we learned about a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress that collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling over the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.  The heavy bomber was carrying a quartet of Mk28 Hydrogen bombs.  We learned that three of the bombs fell on Spain itself, while one fell into the Mediterranean.  And while there was substantial fallout (both political and radioactive) from those that hit the ground, the bomb that fell into the water certainly wasn’t forgotten.

A search was immediately begun and, exactly two months later, on March 17, 1966, the DSV (Deep Submergible Vehicle) Alvin located the bomb, completely intact, in about 2,500 feet of water.  The Alvin’s first attempt to recover the bomb failed when it slipped free, but the Alvin would relocate it two weeks later, and a special recovery vehicle would successfully salvage it.  So, while a small area near Palomares, Spain would have to deal with contamination for a very long time, the Mediterranean would be spared a similar fate.

The DSV Alvin has, as deep-sea vehicles go, a rather colorful history.  There’s a solid chance we’ll check in on her again.

Recommended Reading: DSV Alvin webpage – Check out all the info about one of the longest-serving submergibles.

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It’s been almost a year since we talked about the B-52 Stratofortress that crashed near Goldsboro, North Carolina.  Time really flies.  That accident, in 1961, was something of a nuclear “near miss” as the massive bomber was carrying a pair of Mk39 Hydrogen bombs.  Back then, we kind of thought that there would be other incidents like this floating in historical space, simply because Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) readiness code required that some planes be ready on a moment’s notice.  So they carried nukes.  Today, we’ll look at another of those incidents, one with a less happy ending.

On January 17, 1966, another B-52 was in the process of in-air refueling.  Now Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will recall Episode 612 (The Starfighters) as not only one of the funniest episodes ever, but also as the one that featured the most in-air refueling footage ever gathered in one movie reel.  And while Mike and the Bots make light of the process (for the sake of the movie), it really is one fraught with peril, with one (or more) planes trying to get really close to a tanker stuffed with flammable jet fuel.

Our subject B-52 was in the midst of a lengthy flight and preparing to refuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker in the Mediterranean not far from the coast of Spain.  But the big bomber came in a little too fast and collided with the tanker’s refueling arm.  The B-52 was heavily damaged and ultimately crashed, killing 4 of the 7 crew.  The KC-135 exploded, killing all 4 crew.

But as you know from the intro, the big Stratofortress was not cargo-less.  In its bomb bays were four Mk28 Hydrogen bombs.  This bomb was somewhat smaller than the Mk39, possessing a full yield of about 1.5 megatons, but that’s still a tremendous punch.  Three of these bombs fell near the quiet farming village of Palomares (on the southeast “corner” of Spain), and one fell in the Mediterranean itself.

Two of the bombs that hit solid ground exploded.  But we’ve briefly touched on the basics of how nuclear weapons work.  There’s a conventional explosion that serves to trigger the nuclear device.  However, the nuke only detonates if all the “kill” switches are turned off.  This mission was flown in peacetime, and so only the conventional weapon exploded.  So while there was no giant mushroom cloud and instant vaporization, the explosions served to “crack the shells” and release radioactivity into the air.

The third and fourth bombs were recovered intact and Spain had been spared a nuclear holocaust, but roughly a square mile of Spanish territory had been contaminated by fallout.  And of course, radioactivity hangs around for a long time.  Much of the affected topsoil was brought to the U.S. for disposal, but even today, radioactivity is still being discovered.  The United States and Spain continue the task of cleaning up a mess that occurred more than 40 years ago…a mess that, in 2009, Time Magazine called one of the worst nuclear disasters ever.

Recommended Reading:  America’s Lost H-Bomb

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