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Monthly Archives: June 2014

The History of Villa Helios, Lugano, Switzerland

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DSCN2646 - Lugano, 20 June 2014 - Resized

Lake Lugano, the city of Lugano, and San Salvatore, one of the many mountains in and around Lugano

I’ve been gone on holidays (thus the lack of posting – I DO know how to leave work behind… well, almost), and thought I’d write about a place I’ve come to know over the years:  My in-laws have a holiday flat with an amazing view over Lago di Lugano here in Switzerland, and we’ve come for a week nearly every year for the past 20 years.  The photo shows part of our view (I’d have to do a panorama shot as our view goes from Casserate to Caprino), and for as many years we’d looked down upon Villa Helios, watching her rot away like an abandoned old lady.  I don’t know her history; it may be one of the dozens of cases around Lugano in which there is an inheritance squabble, and the property is shut up until the cases are settled; if the parties pass away in the meantime and the issue of inheritance goes to a new generation that frankly doesn’t want to be saddled with a decaying mansion with pretensions of palace, it continues to sit. A few years ago we were pleased to see that at long last, renovation had begun.  And it continues still; the exterior is beginning to take shape, though as far as I can tell the inside has a long, long, long way to go.  I have heard through the grapevine that it is intended to become individual apartments, which will take some major work inside to divide up, wire, add plumbing and create separate entrances.

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The dome of Villa Helios

Precisely because we’ve looked out over the villa for more than 20 years, speculated, wondered, and asked questions of the passing hawks because no one else seemed to have any answers, my writer’s curiosity took over and began to form a novel; I work on it when we’re down there as a nice change of pace from my other novels and writing projects.

I do know that the villa was designed by architect Otto Maraini, who was born in Lugano on 8 November 1863, and died there 16 January 1944. Helios Villa in Castagnola was built in 1901-1902, including a series of walls and terraces that formed part of the lake shore. I came across a few historical photos at arteeidee – thank you for sharing these old magazine photos (“The modern building” monthly magazine of architecture and construction practice, August 1904)!  Check out that blog post for the older photos (click on them to enlarge); The photos I’ve added here are current shots. For the writers out there, find an interesting old building in your own area, research into its history, and create a story with the building as one of the characters and not merely a location.

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Villa Helios, as seen from the lake

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The terraced walls leading down toward the lake shore

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The front entrance of Villa Helios, under construction

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Famous Deceptions of World War 2

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Enigma - Sketched

The Enigma Machine

Everyone knows about D-Day, 6 June having been the 70th anniversary and mentioned everywhere in Cyberspace and beyond this weekend.  But how many have ever heard of Operation Bodyguard, Slapton, or Major Martin – the man who never existed?

Operation Bodyguard was specifically crafted to mislead the German high command as far as the exact date and target of the D-Day invasion.  At the time of the Normandy invasion, the German military resources were spread thinly along the Atlantic coast; they knew something was coming, but not when or where, and their interceptors and spies were hard at work trying to catch any information that might tip them off in order to concentrate their forces in the correct location and timing.  The allies knew that if Normandy were spotted as a possible landing place, all might be lost; so to cover any correct information, they intentionally leaked bogie information – namely, that Normandy was a diversionary ploy; it was a tactic used several times during the war because the German spy network in the UK had been compromised though not exposed, so that the allies could use them against their own side unwittingly (or employ double spies); Bletchley Park had also been able to crack the Enigma codes to a sufficient extent, and as long as that stayed secret they could not only decipher the enemy’s encoded messages, but know which “spiked” information had been swallowed.  The allies gave several bogus targets along the Atlantic front, as scattered as Calais in northern France,  the Balkans and Norway.  Hitler was so convinced he’d interpreted the bogus information as valid that he delayed reinforcements to Normandy by seven weeks.  The operation was a strategic success; General Omar Bradley called it the “single biggest hoax of the war”.

There were dozens of similar operations throughout the war, some more successful than others.  The village of Slapton, along the Devonshire coast, was a dress rehearsal for the real thing; while in itself not a deception, it aided the allied troops invaluably in preparing for a swift and successful invasion to establish a beachhead and eventually win the most decisive battle of World War 2.  The beach near Slapton was considered a close match to the conditions the allied troops would face on the beaches of Normandy and Omaha.  The town was evacuated for their own safety, and rigorous training ensued along the coastal beach and cliffs, beginning as early as July of 1943, including landing craft maneuvers and beach obstacles.   It was kept fairly secret, but in April of 1944 a surprise torpedo attack from a German speedboat ended the lives of nearly 750 American sailors and soldiers.  To bolster the strength of the diversionary operations and reduce any radio static connected to further preparations in Slapton, travel and communication along the coast of Britain and the Republic of Ireland were limited or blocked altogether, in effect creating a news blackout.  The preparations there enabled the allies to beach successfully.

Major Martin, though he never existed, was invaluable to the success of the allies:  In “Operation Heartbreak”, a novel by Duff Cooper, and “The Man Who Never Was” (also known as Operation Mincemeat) a historical account by Ewen Montagu, the history and eye-witness accounts of men involved in the deceptions reads like a great mystery novel – but it’s all real:  In the early hours of 30 April, 1943, a corpse was dumped off of the coast of Spain; but the corpse had a greater mission in death than it had in life:  Wearing a high ranking Royal Marines uniform and with a “spiked” briefcase attached to its wrist, it was sure to wash into the port and its information intercepted by the corrupt spy network in bed with the Nazis.  The misinformation was swallowed whole, and the operation was a success.

The above-mentioned book is well worth reading (it’s actually two in one), and another that I would highly recommend is “Station X – The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park”, by Michael Smith.  The film Enigma (with Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott) is a great one on this topic, if you’re interested in the topic.

The Lions of MGM

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or getting your popcorn and drinks during the opening moments of every film you’ve ever seen, chances are you’ve seen the famous MGM lion roaring his way into your movie experience.  But I bet you didn’t know they’ve used several lions over the years, and that they each had a name; the one most of us know is Leo, who’s been used on most films since 1957.  Click on the photo below to see the whole article at Wikipedia!

Cameramen recording the lion roar for the MGM logo

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