Reaping the Whirlwind
The second extinction of the dinosaurs from the Bahariya Oasis began shortly after midnight. It came from the sky. It began with a barely discernible disturbance in the air, a distant rumble that insinuated itself into the quiet of the night and quickly grew in intensity to a deafening roar. Then, suddenly, the sound became sight and the dark became light as the sky itself became fire. Moments later the roaring was punctuated by a stunning explosion that shattered the still night air. Then another. Then dozens more, until the earth shook and the ground split. Almost immediately, the sound and light became smell-the smell of burning, the singed stink of death. Screams rent the night, and soon the living became the dead.
There have been roughly a dozen mass extinctions during the history of life on Earth, five of them so severe and all-encompassing that they killed off vast numbers of living things. One was so catastrophic that it came close to ending life altogether. Indeed, all of the species alive today represent only 1 percent of all the life that has ever lived during the Earth's history. The other 99 percent have long since perished.1 By far the worst of the mass extinctions occurred an estimated 245 million years ago and took several million years to run its course. But though it was gradual, it was also exceptionally deadly. Scientists believe fully 95 percent of all the forms of plant and animal life in the seas at that time were likely eliminated. Though the cause is still hotly debated, many scientists believe that the consolidation of all of the continents then in existence into a single landmass-called Pangaea-caused sea levels to fall, the land to heat, and the ocean to stagnate. In this scenario, carbon dioxide levels rose, the heat increased, oxygen levels in the ocean plummeted. Slowly but surely, life in nearly all its forms suffocated to death.2 All we know about the creatures that vanished is what they left behind, their fossilized remains-petrified plantlike stems and calices of sea-dwelling crinoids, limy corals, bits of ammonite shell, skeletons of certain kinds of fish, tiny seagoing creatures.
But extinctions can also occur with cataclysmic suddenness. The age of the dinosaurs, those massive reptiles that ruled the Earth for more than 165 million years, appears to have ended abruptly, in geological terms, roughly 65 million years ago. To this day, no one knows why. One theory, intriguing though not widely accepted, points to the fact that this was a period of intense volcanic activity in many places on the Earth's crust. Perhaps the most spectacular eruption occurred in what is now southern India. There, between 66 and 68 million years ago, the Earth cleaved apart, spewing what may have been as much as 48,000 cubic miles of lava over an area of more than 772,000 square miles,3 an area roughly three quarters the size of the entire American West. The remnant of this event is a formation known to geologists as the Deccan Traps.4 The consequences of an eruption of this scale could have been appalling: Immense quantities of dust and ash would have been flung into the upper atmosphere and, in a matter of weeks, would have darkened the sky everywhere on the globe. In time, starved of light, plants would have shriveled and died. Animals that lived on plants would have followed, and animals that lived on other animals would, in turn, have followed them. What may have happened next is uncertain. The sulfurous air could have reduced temperatures sharply worldwide. Alternatively, the death of plants on land, and algae in the seas, may have caused carbon dioxide levels in the air to skyrocket, creating a massive greenhouse effect.5 In no time at all, geologically speaking-perhaps only a few thousand years-the diversity of life on Earth would have been drastically reduced.
That is one theory. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed another, more frightening one: that the great age of dinosaurs was terminated by the impact of an object plummeting from space. Examining rocks in Gubbio, Italy, the scientists found surprisingly high levels of a rare element called iridium in a narrow band of rock that dated back 65 million years. Iridium does not occur normally in the Earth's crust in such concentrations: Most arrives from space through the gentle rain of cosmic dust and the somewhat less gentle arrival of small meteorites and asteroids. The accumulation of this element has been fairly consistent throughout time. But in this particular layer, the element appeared in the rock at a concentration equal to all the iridium that had been deposited in the preceding half million years!6 In 1980 researchers felt confident enough to make an announcement that was quite literally earth-shattering: 65 million years ago, they explained, an asteroid or comet roughly the size of Mount Everest struck the Earth at a speed of more than 22,000 miles per hour, creating an explosion 10,000 times more powerful than if all the nuclear bombs that exist today had gone off at once. The impact vaporized the comet or asteroid and spread iridium-and destruction-across a great swath of the Earth's surface, in roughly the same manner and to the same effect as the Deccan Trap eruptions.7 The impact theory was strongly supported a decade later by the discovery of a crater, one of the largest yet discovered. Between 100 and 125 miles in diameter, it was found beneath the Yucatán Peninsula and the Caribbean Sea. Its date of origin? Roughly 65 million years ago. Other craters of similar age also have been discovered.8
So, which phenomenon caused the disappearance of virtually every single dinosaur on Earth? Maybe both, and other events as well.9 It may well be that the age of dinosaurs was, in both ecological and evolutionary terms, an immense house of cards-intact but extraordinarily fragile. Or it may be more like the straw that broke the camel's back; as one scientist puts it, "Things got bad, then they got worse."10
Although similar in effect, the second extinction of the dinosaurs of the Bahariya Oasis, which occurred less than a century ago, had a different cause altogether. This particular extinction was a product of neither terrestrial nor extraterrestrial geologic forces. This extinction was man-made.
Wing Commander G. Leonard Cheshire arrived at the Royal Air Force's aerodrome at Woodhall Spa on the morning of April 24, 1944, as the soft spring sunlight began burnishing the hazy, expansive landscape of eastern England. An American expatriate to England, the poet T. S. Eliot, once wrote that "April is the cruellest month," but in Lincolnshire it can be positively radiant, the grass impossibly green, fields of nearly black soil freshly plowed and planted, lanes replete with naturalized daffodils and hedgerows frothy with hawthorn blossoms. As flat as a snooker table and richly fertile, this area just south of the Lincolnshire Wolds, along with the adjoining reaches of Cambridgeshire, contains to this day some of Britain's finest farmland, producing a wide array of market vegetables and flowers for the country's industrial cities. But after the outbreak of World War II, the region's principal crop was aerodromes. Close to the coast, and therefore to Nazi Germany, the farm fields became airfields. RAF Woodhall Spa, with three runways forming a rough triangle, a pair of corrugated-iron hangars, and a scattering of thrown-together brick huts, was simply one of dozens of airfields scattered across the eastern counties. The pilots and officers were billeted in a hotel in town that had been requisitioned by the Air Ministry. They got to and from the airfield mostly by bicycle.
As he approached the flight briefing room, Leonard Cheshire was effectively a walking miracle. An RAF bomber pilot for nearly four years, Cheshire by now should have been dead. The RAF's losses through the first three years of the war had been staggering. On average, of every hundred crew members in Bomber Command, only twenty-seven survived. Losses for each sortie or bombing mission ranged from 5 to as high as 10 percent. A single tour of duty for a bomber pilot involved thirty sorties. Mathematically, at least, a pilot couldn't be expected to live through one complete tour of duty. Cheshire was well into his fourth. He was twenty-seven years old.
Cheshire was an unlikely ace. With his movie-star looks and a college career at Oxford that he freely admitted was distinguished more by carousing than achievement, he hardly seemed a candidate for greatness. One biography describes his college years as "a time of fast cars, reckless exploits, fantastic extravagance, mounting debts and shady associations."11 A student of the law, he graduated with a second-class degree, but that would turn out to be of far less importance to Cheshire, and to England, than another skill he learned at school: the science and art of flying. Cheshire joined the university's Air Squadron in 1936, and the undeniable panache attached to flying suited him perfectly. He was commissioned in the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1937, as war with Germany began to seem inevitable; he joined No. 102 Squadron in June 1940, immediately after completing his degree. And there Cheshire seemed to find himself at last, quickly demonstrating remarkable flying skills and strong but compassionate leadership ability. Combining what his fellow pilots described as an ice-cold brain and hair-raising flight tactics, Cheshire soon won the admiration of his crews and the respect of the leadership of Bomber Command. During the next four years he and his crews were assigned ever more difficult missions. Unlike most of his fellow pilots and squadron leaders, however, Cheshire always made it home-though sometimes only barely.
On this particular morning, April 24, 1944, Cheshire knew that this, his hundredth mission, had an importance that far exceeded any other in his flying career to date. Cheshire had become the critical weapon in a high-risk battle between not England and Germany but two senior officers of RAF Bomber Command. That the outcome of this night's sortie might substantially affect the success of the upcoming top-secret Allied invasion of France seemed, at that moment at least, secondary to the war that had been waged for months between No. 8 Bomb Group commander Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett and No. 5 Bomb Group commander Air Vice Marshal Ralph Cochrane.
The first three years of the war had been difficult and sometimes disastrous for the RAF. Initially, its bomber force wasn't large enough to pose a significant threat to the Germans (even as late as mid-1941, the RAF had only seven hundred serviceable planes available on any given day).12 In addition, the bombers they did have lacked the speed, range, power, or altitude capabilities needed to drop large numbers of bombs on targets within Germany. At the same time, the RAF didn't have the long-range fighters needed to escort and protect bombers from German fighters during daytime raids. As a result, Britain could conduct only nighttime raids-a perfectly reasonable strategy if the RAF had developed the navigational technology to guide its bombers to their targets effectively at night. But they had not. Operating in the early years essentially by dead reckoning-quite literally "in the dark" about their own location-the bombers more often than not were unable to find their targets, and they often failed even to hit the cities in which their targets lay. And the RAF's losses were brutal. During 1941 its aircrew losses were actually higher than the civilian losses at its German targets.13
The British command concluded that the only way to wage a successful air war was to build a massive number of heavy bombers, work furiously to improve navigation technologies, and then mount a sustained campaign of area-wide bombing raids to destroy not just German military matériel, but also the homes, morale, and lives of German civilians as well. On February 23, 1942, the Air Staff named Arthur Harris-soon to be nicknamed "Bomber Harris"-air chief marshal to carry out the policy. He was "a commander of coarse single-mindedness [who] had neither intellectual doubt nor moral scruple about the rightness of the area bombing policy and was to seek by every means-
increasing bomber numbers, refining technical bombing aids, elaborating deception measures-to maximize its effectiveness."14 As new planes began to enter service, Harris was able to put as many as a thousand bombers in the sky on a single night, creating firestorms in some German cities that reached in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit; even the asphalt pavements caught fire. It was Harris who is famously quoted as saying of the Germans, "They have sown the wind, and now they shall reap the whirlwind."
Although the RAF's technicians steadily developed better navigational technologies (only to have their advantage quickly countered by Germany's own technicians), bombing accuracy was still unacceptably poor. Internal RAF studies found that despite the tonnages of bombs dropped, targeting was still "wide or wild," and the bombs were having little effect on Germany's ability to wage war.
In the end it was human innovation that began to improve the effectiveness of the RAF's bombing campaign. That innovation was the birth of the Pathfinder Force. The Pathfinders, created within Air Vice Marshal Bennett's 8 Group on August 24, 1942, were a group of elite pilots and crews who were assigned to fly ahead of a bomber formation and mark the targets with flares. Flying Lancaster heavy bombers and, on occasion, light, high-speed Mosquito fighter-bombers, the Pathfinders traced the route across Europe, then dropped brilliant markers to guide the bomber streams that followed. Bomber Command chief Harris initially had opposed the creation of the Pathfinders, fearing it would siphon off his best crews and strip the RAF of its leaders, but their success was undeniable and eventually he relented. Each target marker contained sixty pyrotechnic flares equipped with barometric fuses designed to set off at predetermined altitudes. As the air war progressed, the flares were color-coded daily to prevent German decoy flares from drawing the incoming bombers off target. Though much improved, accuracy was still inadequate and, as a weapon of war, "Bomber Command remained more of a cudgel than a rapier."15
The plain fact was that area bombing was not slowing appreciably the flow of matériel to German troops. Consequently, in June 1943, the Allied Command, meeting in Casablanca, changed the bombing rules on Harris and ordered that the area bombing campaign be replaced with a more narrowly focused one aimed at destroying smaller and much more strategic targets: refineries, rail yards, submarine bases, airplane engine factories, and transportation hubs, among others. Harris vehemently opposed this new offensive, code-named Pointblank, and for the most part simply refused to alter his long-standing commitment to massive area bombing.
Excerpted from The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by William Nothdurft with Josh Smith. Copyright © 2002 by William Nothdurft with Josh Smith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.