Thursday, 8 December 2016

Anodyne death from the skies

It's political correctness gone mad ... apparently:

New British flying robot killer death machines renamed 'Protector' 

'Reaper' and 'Predator' were too aggressive...apparently

The Ministry of Defence has tried to re-brand its latest batch of airborne death machines as “Protector” drones rather than their actual trade name of Reaper.
grumbled Gareth Corfield at The Register recently.

This comes as no great surprise to me, as the Brits have got previous when it comes to making America's winged weapons of war sound a whole lot less cool and frightening. Back in the Second World War, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm acquired a load of relatively fast and modern American planes to supplement the slow and antiquated British designs its carrier squadrons had been using at the outbreak of the war. These new planes included the Grumman F4F fighter, which the Americans called the "Wildcat" and the Grumman TBF torpedo bomber, known in America as the "Avenger."

The British authorities decided that these names were good enough for our American cousins but not quite classy enough for us, so they renamed the Wildcat in British service the "Martlet." What's a Martlet?
 Image credit

A martlet in English heraldry is a heraldic charge depicting a stylized bird similar to a house martin or swallow, with stylised feet. It should be distinguished from the merlette of French heraldry, which is a duck-like bird with a swan-neck and chopped-off beak and legs.
Great name - if you spent your childhood years nerdily obsessing over The Observer's Book of Heraldry. For almost everybody else, ridiculously obscure and a bit rubbish. Still, I guess that a few of the officer class might have got it, given that the Royal Navy boasted some senior officers of startlingly impressive aristocratic pedigree, including Lord Mountbatten (born "His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg") and that scion of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gl├╝cksburg, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

Maybe people who were born a "serene highness", or had a family name that was longer than the average commoner's postal address, lived in a world where knowing your heraldic devices was a day to day life skill, like being able to wire a plug. Perhaps the person who came up with the name "Martlet" was just used to hob-nobbing with nobs like this?

To be fair, although "Wildcat" was a far better name, it wasn't a very good fit with the appearance of the F4F, a tubby machine which looked more like an overfed domestic moggie than a rangy, untamed predator:
Bagpuss takes to the skies!*

OK, it looked slightly less like an aeroplane from a Rupert Bear cartoon than its stubby radial-engined near-contemporaries, the Boeing P-26 and Polikarpov I-16, but not much.

Still, appearances can be deceptive - the legendary Eric "Winkle" Brown (who went on to fly more different types of aircraft than anybody else ever has, or probably ever will), flew the innocuous-looking Wildcat/Martlet in combat and thought pretty highly of it (Michael Gove may think that people are "tired" of listening to experts, but I still have this perverse, old-fashioned preference for listening to the opinions of people who might actually know what they're talking about, rather than the noisily uninformed wibblings of virtually fact-free political rent-a-gobs).

As for the aggressive-sounding Avenger, the British decided for ... reasons, to rename it the "Tarpon", after a big fish that most British people had probably never heard of (although the name would have meant something to, say, Florida game fishers). Bonus points for choosing a name that sounds almost like "tampon." I'm not entirely sure whether the unintentional schoolboy humour is anachronistic - Tampax, apparently, first hit the US market in the early 1930s and whether tampons were a thing in 1940s Britain, I don't know, although if I had to guess, I'd imagine that the supply of innovative feminine hygiene products was low to non-existent in a U-boat blockaded country where stocks of everything were low to non-existent.

Later in the war, in a tacit admission that their naming abilities had been pretty woeful, the relevant British authorities relented and retrospectively decided to use the original American names for the Royal Navy's Lend-Lease Wildcats and Avengers. By the time the RN were adding the late-war US Corsair and Hellcat aircraft to Fleet Air Arm squadrons, nobody even thought about mucking around with the planes' names any more.

So, considering the British authorities' previous attempts at re-naming American kit, they could have done a lot worse than "Protector."

I'm not even sure that "Protector" even marks some sort of new low in the art of military euphemism. When the RAF got its hands on some American B-24 heavy bombers during the Second World War and wanted to name the big beasts, the name it came up with was "Liberator." Even in that undeniably just war, it's stretching credulity to imagine that the recipients of a stick of high-explosive bombs from a Liberator's capacious bomb bay would have looked around the smoking ruins and considered themselves liberated, any more than the survivors of a wedding party accidentally blown to hell by a Protector's Brimstone missile would feel themselves protected, but there you go.

*Updated - original Wildcat / Martlet image (nicked from Wikipedia article), replaced by relevant illustrations from British Air Forces, a wartime picture supplement / collectable, published by The Illustrated London News.