In May 1940, Germany invaded France and conquered it in six weeks. Under the peace terms, only the northern half of France was occupied by the Germans. The southern half of France was governed as Vichy France by the French themselves under Marshal Petain.*

The French outside France who didn’t like the Vichy peace terms, maintained a Free French government in exile.

In Syria, the Vichy government’s forces fought and were forced to sign an armistice with the British and Free French in June 1941.

In December 1941 the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour, and immediately afterwards Germany and Italy joined with Japan in declaring war on the United States.

Here is the strange thing, Vichy France maintained diplomatic relations with the United States until the Allies invaded French North Africa in November 1942. At that point the United States shut its consulate in Marseille.

So in that eleven month period from December 1941 to November 1942, a citizen of the U.S. could travel more or less freely around southern France. Not only that, the United States had a consulate in Vichy France.

How strange is that?

I wonder what transpired in any meetings between German and U.S. citizens in Vichy during that period. Did they politely nod to one another?

Come to think of it, ‘Casablanca’ – the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film could be just that – an American in Vichy controlled Morocco during that period. Though to be sure it could be set in the period before the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. I guess there may be clues or statements in the film about when it was set – a good excuse to watch it again, and closely.

And now reading about the film at I find:

The Hollywood fairy-tale was actually filmed during a time of US ties with Vichy France when President Roosevelt equivocated and vacillated between pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support. And it was rushed into general release almost three weeks after the Allied landing at the Axis-occupied, North African city of Casablanca, when Eisenhower’s forces marched into the African city. Due to the military action, Warner Bros. Studios was able to capitalize on the free publicity and the nation’s familiarity with the city’s name when the film opened.

Varian Fry

Varian Fry was an American journalist who was in Germany in 1935 and didn’t like what he saw. When Germany invaded France in 1940, he asked permission of the U.S. State Department to rescue Jews from Vichy France.

In August 1940 he set up a ‘front’ in Marseille, the declared mission of which was to alleviate the plight of refugees by donating food and clothing. Behind this front Fry set up a clandestine operation to help Jews get out of France. He helped thousands make the journey overland to Spain and from there to Portugal, and he helped others escape by sea.

As time wore on, the U.S. State Department pressured him to get out but he stayed until he was kicked out by the Vichy French Authorities in August 1941, after two years of operations.

Fry grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey and there is a permanent exhibition in his honour at the public library, and a street named after him.

* After the war, history decided that the French arrangement with the Germans was too cozy a collaboration to be called a victor-vanquished relationship. Marshal Petain was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but because of his age his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Polar Bears and Rare Earth Deposits

I wrote this article in 2011 under the title ‘Polar Bears Poisoned And New Rare Earth Deposits Found’ – but the article was lost when I rebuilt this site. So I am re-publishing it here.

The fifteen lanthanide elements from lanthanum to lutetium – together with scandium and yttrium – are generally known as the rare earth elements.

They are essential in the production of TVs, phones, computers, and batteries.

Until now there has been a shortage of rare earths, exacerbated by China saying last December [ that would be December 2010 ] that it wanted to keep what is has – and it has almost all of the ore deposits.

That all changed last week when Japanese scientists announced that they had found huge deposits in international waters off Hawaii – deposits that are easy to get at and low in the associated radioactive materials usually found with them.

So that is good news for everyone who wants a phone, or a TV, or a computer.

And it is bad news for polar bears – and then for us.

The UK TV channel Channel 4 showed a program about polar bears in Svalbard in the north of Norway.

The programme was one in the series Inside Nature’s Giants that followed a team of veterinarians who carry out autopsies on elephants, giraffes, and other big animals.

The aim is to educate veterinary students (and the TV audience) about the special characteristics that enables each species to live as it does.

The autopsy on the polar bear was different in that it was ‘in the field’ in Svalbard and the polar bears were ones that the local Inuit hunters had hunted for food.

The programme was also different in that there were interviews with other teams of scientists who are in Svalbard investigating how polar bears are suffering from biological changes brought on by what they eat.

Specifically, they are losing sexuality, developing tumours, becoming weaker, and losing offspring.

What emerged was that because polar bears are at the top of the food chain, they are being poisoned by eating concentrated amounts of flame retardants.

Flame retardants are used in the plastics in TVs, phones, computers, etc. They are organohalogen and organophosphate compounds and they are released into the atmosphere when the products are recycled.

The products are recycled in countries like India – broken down by burning to get at the expensive rare earth metals within – and the flame retardant chemicals escape into the atmosphere and are carried thousands of miles around the world and up the food chain to polar bears (and I guess to the Inuit who eat the bears).

So just at the time that the scientific community is able to demonstrate the danger from these chemical flame retardants, a new source of rare earths is found – with the result that more and more TVs and phones can be made.

The Suwalki Gap

To understand it, start with Kaliningrad. It is a bit of Russia that is cut off from the rest. I have coloured it yellow on this map and as you can see, it has a coastline so it is accessible to the Russian fleet, but otherwise it has no direct land connection with the rest of Russia.

Belarus under its current regime has close ties to Russia. So the recent decision by Belarus ask to store nuclear weapons supplied by Russia has increased tensions in the Baltic States. They fear that if Russia decided to command the land connection between Kaliningrad and Belarus then the Baltic States would be isolated from the rest of Europe, and easy pickings.

The land connection is known as the Sowalki Gap (I’ve marked it red on the map_ and Russia has been trying to establish a solid route along it for years – since the break up of the Soviet Union. For more detail of the history of the Suwalki Gap, read the Wiki entry.

Map illustrating the Suwalki Gap and the position of Kaliningrad and Belarus

Boskalis To The Rescue: FSO Safer Update

In August 2020 I wrote about the FSO Safer, an offshore vessel rusting in the Red Sea since 1988, and in danger of spilling over a million barrels of oil. I wrote it under the title ‘under the title Over A Million Barrels Of Oil In A Rusting Hulk In The Red Sea Since 1988’ and you can follow this link to read it.

In April this year I wrote an update noting that the UN plan to offload the oil was foundering for lack of funds. The UN had gone so far as to ask individuals as well as countries to chip in to make up the shortfall. In the face of what stood to be the world’s biggest ecological disaster that could happen right now, immediately, it beggared belief that humanity could not take action to avert it.

Well now there is some positive news. The International Maritime Organisation reports that

On 30 May 2023 Boskalis’ multipurpose support vessel Ndeavor arrived at the site of the FSO SAFER with the salvage team and equipment onboard. Critical work will now start to assess the FSO SAFER, inert the oil tanks and ready the vessel for the oil transfer operation.”

Boskalis itself reports that

After Boskalis’ multipurpose vessel Ndeavor reached its destination offshore Yemen earlier this week, the colleagues of SMIT Salvage were able to board the FSO Safer on Wednesday afternoon. First, gas measurements were taken to assess the presence of toxic gas in and around the vessel. After the ship was declared “safe to access”, a number of operational steps were initiated. This included loading of mobile inert gas generators and conducting inspections of the FSO and its deck machinery as well as structural hull assessments. It is expected that the Ndeavor will soon be able to berth alongside the Safer after which further preparations will continue. 

All good news, but not home and dry yet. And as the IMO also reported

Additional funds are still needed to make up a shortfall in covering the immediate US$142 million cost of the emergency phase of the salvage operation. The second phase of the operation, including the removal and safe recycling of the FSO SAFER, is expected to cost an additional US$19 million.

What Could Still Go Wrong

Not knowing anything about the operation to transfer oil from one vessel to another, I assumed the new vessel would rock up, and offload. Now I understand that first the cargo has to be made safe by removing the risk of explosion from any build-up of gas.

So, US$19 million still short. It’s not pocket money.

Here is an extract from the report on the situation by Dr. Ian Ralby of I R Concilium published Jan 11, 2023

Floating in the Red Sea, attached to an oil pipeline that runs nearly 300 miles to the war-torn city of Marib, the FSO Safer was established as a Yemeni oil export facility in 1988. The massive converted tanker was due to be decommissioned and replaced by a land-based terminal when the Yemen civil conflict erupted nearly eight years ago. Owned by SEPOC, a company which itself is owned by the Government of Yemen, the Safer sits off the coast of Ras Isa, an area controlled by Houthi rebels.

The vessel is still loaded with 1.14 million barrels of oil. While roughly 15,000 barrels have evaporated over the last eight years, and a thin layer has polymerized, the majority of that cargo remains liquid and liable to spill. The portion of the pipeline that runs for five miles beneath the Red Sea has an additional 17,000 barrels of liquid crude in it. Without intervention, the Safer will either explode or corrode and spill its contents – and likely take the pipeline with it.

UPDATE PUBLISHED JUL 25, 2023 BY THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE: …The United Nations with its contractor Boskalis’ SMIT Salvage announced that the oil transfer from the derelict FSO Safer off the coast of Yemen has begun. UN officials said the pipes have been laid and the precautions taken and as of this morning at 10:45 a.m. local time “the pumps are on.”