The disaster at the 1955 Le Mans endurance race – “Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died at the scene, whilst 120 more were injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.”
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, when Pierre Levegh’s state of the art Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ran into Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey 100 and crashed into the audience, causing large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh perished at the scene with 120 more injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
(Levegh’s car had a special magnesium alloy body that burned incredibly hot when it ignited and water obviously doesn’t help with magnesium fires.)
How the accident happened:
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on 11 June 1955, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitchwas Levegh’s assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maseratiwas close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. The race was extremely fast, with lap records being repeatedly broken.
At the end of Lap 35, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn’s leading Jaguar D-type, just as they were entering the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal to stop for fuel. Hawthorn slowed suddenly in an effort to stop rather than make another lap. Hawthorn’s Jaguar, with the new disc brakes, could decelerate much faster than other cars using drum brakes, such as Levegh’s Mercedes. The sudden, unexpected braking by Hawthorn caused Macklin in the Healey to brake hard, throwing up a small cloud of dust in front of Levegh, who trailed close behind. Macklin then swerved across the centre of the track, attempting to re-pass the slowing Jaguar, but also apparently out of control. Macklin had not noticed Levegh nor Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching rapidly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time, but directly behind, and attempting to lap Levegh.
Levegh, ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh’s car made contact with the left rear of Macklin’s car as he closed rapidly (at about 240 km/h (150 mph)) upon the slowed car.
When Levegh’s 300 SLR hit Macklin’s Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused some parts of the car, already damaged and loosened by the collision, to be flung from the vehicle at very great speeds. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and flew through the crowd.
The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, and his skull was fatally crushed when he landed.
As the somersaulting remains of the 300 SLR decelerated, the rear-mounted fuel tank ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers, totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, poured water on the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours. Official accounts put the death total at 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher.
Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, which was now skidding to the right of the track, across his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He struck the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, causing the death of a spectator, although Macklin survived the incident without serious injury.
Things were looking up for Germany…but then then they weren’t. The conference was totally a disaster and there is no way of twisting it any other way. Nobody supported Germany outright. Russia obviously supported France as did Spain but the real shockers was first Britain and secondly Italy. Wait what? Britain makes sense — they maintained the integrity of their agreement but Italy was the true shocker. Germany’s public defensive ally defied it in the congress and while Austria-Hungary tentatively supported Germany it was with an asterisk basically begging them to please stop being so aggressive and be more conciliatory. Germany, and more specifically the Kaiser, could have taken this as a note of the failure of Weltpolitik as a foreign policy but instead the Kaiser became more solidified in his belief in it. He would not again let himself back down and instead viewed more aggressive diplomacy necessary for it to work.
France and Britain had grown closer and at the very least Germany hoped this would drive at wedge between France and Russia. Well…it didn’t. All 3 powers supported the same decision in this conference and recognized the threat of Germany. Britain and Russia who just one year prior were actively fucking each other over began to make nice now and by 1907 would sign a series of agreements which would solidify the boundaries in Central Asia, the fate of Persia, and basically begin their friendship.
This was by all accounts the logical choice for both parties. Britain wanted to support France but to support France they would need to accommodate Russia. Also by extension of this agreement Britain would free up swathes of manpower stationed in India which were there for a significant purpose of keeping Russia in check and contesting said Central Asian territories. Although Russia herself could still go back into Germany’s arms any time she wished in this period and really did not need the French and British as much as they needed Russia, Russia felt alliance with the two powers was more beneficial than with Germany and A-H. The catastrophe in Manchuria against the Japanese and the failed revolution in 1905 as well showed the Tsar that the frontiers needed to be handled once and for all and the efforts concentrated and by dealing with Manchuria with Japan via losing and by dealing with Central Asia with Britain via diplomacy Russia could exert all of her efforts toward the West.
There can not be a greater indictment of Weltpolitik than when you consider the deep seated and long lasting (at times hundreds of years long) hostilities between France, Britain, and Russia being resolved so rapidly. In January 1904 Russia and Britain were irreconcilable, Britain and France were on uneasy terms, and France and Russia were friends but it was nothing really solid — it was really a one way agreement if you think about it. By December 31st 1907 though we can truly say the Triple Entente was formed in at least a proto state. But it was all tentative. It would be the 1911 Crisis that really set all of this into stone and really set the divisions in place that you talk about.
France, using riots as an excuse to send troops into Morocco would be quite slow to leave and were clearly making a power grab. A grab which was in clear violation of the treaty agreed upon by the congress just a few years prior. Now, this legitimately did drive a wedge between Britain and France for just a moment and Germany had an opportunity to shine if it acted diplomatically. It did not. Remember what I said about the Kaiser not backing down? Instead of operating in a peaceful, diplomatic fashion Germany would escalate the situation in true Weltpolitik fashion; she would send warships to intervene. Britain, who again held naval hegemony despite the race, was stunned. With the extension of actually not even knowing where the rest of the German fleet was the crisis immediately shifted from the French mucking up the treaty and more with maintaining the integrity of the Triple Entente in the face of German aggression. Germany would seize a sizable amount of French territory in sub-equatorial Africa to integrate into the colony of Kamerun and would in return recognize French control over Morocco. Weltpolitik would in the short sight work but in the grand scheme completely fail.
Charles Maurras, a contemporary, wrote “The solution of the Moroccan crisis is not to be found in Fez but among the pines of the Vosges. What is afoot in Morocco makes sense only if we are prepared to fight in the Vosges.” What the Second Crisis made explicit was what should have been made implicit in the first — that colonial disputes were now for the first time ever being directly projected back onto Europe and European rivalries and not treated in vacuums. This is only exacerbated by the fact that Morocco’s geographic position directly influences control of the Mediterranean which makes it harder to separate than some sub-equatorial African colony.
The Triple Entente was by all accounts solidified at this point in a mutual fear of Germany and even though by 1912 the naval arms race had almost entirely cooled down (Britain, for instance, reducing to a one-power standard in the Mediterranean) it was far too late. Britain was now in favor of continental intervention with regards to assisting France and would use her naval might to contest the German navy in the Baltics to protect the Russians. Russia who was just a few years prior in this strange land where it could still choose which power bloc to support was now fully behind France and Britain and France, despite having an abysmally low birth rate and a low population would now be able to stand up to Germany with two big friends. Italy had shown in these two crisis’ that her allegiance was only tentatively with Germany which explains their backing out of the war and even joining on the side of the Entente in 1915. Germany’s position was one of isolation with but one friend, Austria-Hungary; a nation which was imploding domestically (and that’s a whole big post for another time) and had a military which would perform embarrassingly in the war.
In the process of the past 25 years Weltpolitik had effectively isolated Germany from the rest of the world and driven former enemies into allegiance together for the sole purpose of containing Germany. It had created clear political boundaries in the formation of two major power blocs — the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. That is why, ultimately, people say the war was “inevitable”. When you create two power blocs like that where one is created for the sole purpose of aggressive expansion (Germany colonially and A-H with respect to Serbia and the rest of the Balkans) and the other with the sole purpose of containing the other, war is nearly inevitable. Some may point to the Warsaw Pact vs NATO and say that never evolved to war and I’d say that’s not a fair comparison because nukes completely changes the formula. This is the Cold War without M.A.D. and nuclear bombs. Even with nuclear deterrent that is an incredibly dicey situation but when we’re just talking about the risk of conventional warfare that becomes a ticking time bomb. It was by no means inevitable and I wouldn’t say that but the conditions were set in such a perfect way that most people in Europe by the end of 1911 viewed a general continental European war as a reality and began preparing for one in a very serious manner.
 Scaremongers: Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914, Anthony Morris.
The First World War: Volume I: To Arms, Hew Strachan
The Opening of World War I, Holger Herwig
A little Russian girl touches her dead mother just after the liberation of the Ozarichi concentration camp in Belarus; ca. March 1944
Information on the liberation of the Ozarichi death camps.
Alan Shepard being recovered from the Freedom 7 capsule after the first American human spaceflight; May 5th, 1961
Crater from the “Sedan” underground nuclear test as part of Operation Plowshare in Nevada. The 104 kiloton blast displaced 12 million tons of earth and created a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide; ca. 1962
There’s an urban legend that says that this blast is responsible for John Wayne’s death (and most of the film crew) due to cancer:
Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada.
The Conqueror, a putative love story involving Genghis Khan’s lust for the beautiful princess Bortai (Hayward), was a classic Hollywood big budget fiasco, one of many financed by would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes. Originally director Powell wanted to get Marlon Brando for the lead, but John Wayne, then at the height of his popularity, happened to see the script one day and decided he and Genghis were meant for each other. Unfortunately, the script was written in a cornball style that was made even more ludicrous by the Duke’s wooden line readings. In the following sample, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai: “There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you–and there are moments fer action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!'” In the words of one writer, it was the world’s “most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.”
The movie was shot in the canyonlands around the Utah town of St. George. Filming was chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, a black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out everybody. But the worst didn’t become apparent until long afterward. In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which resulted in immense clouds of fallout floating downwind. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a lot of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of hot dirt back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes, thus making things even worse.
Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there’s a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble. Actor Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after the movie was completed, and later shot himself when he learned his condition was terminal.
Howard Hughes was said to have felt “guilty as hell” about the whole affair, although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years.
The Napoleonic Wars greatest innovation, something which would paint warfare forever after, is the concept of a citizen army — to replace the highly trained, specialized mercenary armies employed by crowns around Europe. These mercenary armies would generally be foreign and highly paid, which makes them very efficient at quelling local revolutionary tendencies. With the French Revolution, the combination of the ideas of the Enlightenment and Democracy came the idea that if this is a nation of the people then the army must also be of the people. When basically all of Europe went to war with Revolutionary France to subdue them and restore the monarchy, hundreds of thousands of men would willingly sign up and fight the invaders as a united force. They were not nearly as trained and in fact had egregious casualty ratios but their sheer numbers and force would wreck the balance of power. These Prussian and Austrian and etc. Generals pleaded with their monarch’s for armies of equal size to compete lest they be conquered entirely.
How these battles would actually be fought is too diverse to cover and would be its own major post on its own, so I’ll focus on Napoleon. Napoleon’s strategy and tactics were that of complete annihilation whether on the attack or defense — his goal was to obliterate the enemy forces under any circumstance. Absolute victory or bust. So let’s talk about an average Napoleonic battle. Napoleon’s army would be in this marching formation which allowed for ridiculous flexibility. The cavalry screen allowed much early warning and the dual army allowed him to further spread his power rather than putting his ‘eggs in one basket.’ So he detects an enemy, his cavalry returns to the communications staff and the army would begin forming.
Light infantry would approach the enemy first and begin harassing the enemy lines. They would operate in teams of two covering each other and operate with 100 in a roughly 100-200 meter region. They tended to have more camouflaged uniform (but not much). They were also the highly intelligent and generally more trained members of the group, many times even hunters and rangers before their military tenure. The Voltigeur also were designated by something that many people would not immediately think, height. Height was actually critical in designation of Napoleon’s armies — you were likely pushed into skirmisher roles if you were 4’11 to 5’1. Small and maneuverable and exceedingly accurate makes a deadly combination.
Their job was, like I said, harassment — generally of the enemies weakest links to try and further weaken them. They also had to contest with enemy skirmishers which lead to warfare that could look pretty similar to a modern soldier — small ‘squads’ with rifles operating with cover against each other. They were especially useful in urban environments to climb into and through buildings and small places to become a nuisance to the enemy.
After that the light artillery near the front would open up as the light infantry began to withdrawal. They would also target weak points in the enemy line as the first wave of infantry began to form…not into lines as you may imagine, but columns! The Napoleonic Wars, especially in the early days, was as I said a citizen army and these men never held a gun in their life and had no dream of joining the military years prior. They were not military men and it would be too time consuming and even irresponsible to try and train them in complex military tactics and maneuvers. Why bother with finesse when you have brute force?
These infantry would be organized in tight columns with ridiculous depth that rivaled Greek phalanxes centuries prior — dozens of men deep was not uncommon. A center line would unleash an initial volley and then the two sides, in their column formation, would charge with all their force into the enemy line with bayonets. Many times the threat of hundreds of men charging you with that kind of depth would be enough to cause a break in the enemy lines and a total rout which your cavalry would promptly clean up. However if it wouldn’t, you would crash into their weak point and your men would pour out and that much shock and force and men pushed into one small area immediately following artillery and a barrage of muskets would cause a route. This would have so much ridiculous success and would contribute to France winning wars against, again, basically the entirety of Europe at once consistently.
As the different Coalition Wars (ie: Napoleonic Wars) drew on, Napoleon would get more experienced troops and would fight a more finesse based style. He would utilize Grenadiers — tall men with huge bearskin caps for intimidation and as elite shock troops. He would love using his inexperienced line infantry and light infantry to hold the enemy in place while his elite troops swung around and crashed into the enemy’s flank and “rolled them up”.
The Franco-Prussian War taught a story to Europe that many would not want to hear, but would harken in an age of new warfare. As opposed to the ACW just five years prior which used muzzle loaded percussion muskets, the French and German forces would both be using breech loaded bolt action rifles using cartridges. The French had the Chassepot and the Germans had their infamous “Needle Gun” — both with an effective range over a thousand meters. I’ll quote from Michael Howard:
The German infantry did not, indeed, acquit themselves particularly well. The company columns in which they advanced into action disintegrated under fire into a ragged skirmishing line which quickly went to [the] ground, and which officers and N.C.O.s urged forward in vain. In the woods and close country which lay before the French positions the temptation to ‘get lost’ was sometimes overwhelming. Only close order could give the infantry confidence, and close order in the face of breech-loading rifles was suicidal. The answer to the problem, as the Germans discovered during hte course of the campaign, was for the infantry, so long as its armament was inferior to that of the enemy, to hold back and leave matters to the guns; and the German field artillery proved quite capable of settling matter sitself. Its range and rate of fire gave it, at the beginning of both battles, such an ascendancy that the French gunners — including the dreaded *mitrailleuses–were silenced in a matter of minutes.*
The Franco-Prussian War was a “half and half” war even more than the American Civil War. The Germans would have rapid mobilization — over 250,000 men — and would have staggering casualty rates. They would simply not be capable of assaulting positions without unacceptable casualties because of the deadliness of French riflemen and them not having the tactical flexibility to deal with it.
The Generals had no idea what to do other than to just sit back and try and flatten the target area with their artillery and send in their infantry to mop up — something we’ll see tried again in a few years with much less success. However it worked then and, unfortunately, both sides didn’t get a real picture of the futility of their tactics because of how much of a fluke the war was. The French would be duped by the genius Von Moltke the Elder into being completely surrounded at Sedan and surrendering along with their monarch Napoleon III. Paris would declare herself the Third Republic but would still surrender just a few months later after a prolonged siege. There was a significant amount of casualties (the Prussians suffered 68% casualties at Mars-la-Tour for instance) as holes began to form in ‘Napoleonic Tactics’ but the war did not drag on long enough and there were not enough battles for any of serious influence to notice. Most of those who did notice were lying somewhere face down in a field somewhere, and they didn’t have much of an influence on military doctrine unfortunately.