Online sales websites – how to lose customers

More than fifty years ago, shortly before Britain adopted decimal coins, I was one of many schoolboys who joined the new craze for coin collecting. People hastened to collect date sets of old pennies and other predecimal coins before they disappeared from our change forever. One day I found a penny in my change with an unusually thick rim. Naturally, I kept it. Fast forward 25 years and during one of my periodic revivals of interest in coin collecting I read in a magazine that that the thick-rimmed penny was a rare variety worth up to £200. I duly took my penny to a coin-dealer, only to be told that it was a worthless fake.

A few years later, the thick-rimmed penny story surfaced again on a coin-dealer’s website where there was an appeal for information from anybody who might have seen one. Although my coin had turned out to be fake, the fact somebody had taken the trouble to fake it back in the 1960s suggested that these coins were known about and sought after even then.

Thinking my story might be of some interest, I recounted it on the form, added my contact details as requested, and pressed ‘Save’. Up came one of my pet hates – “County must be entered”. I hate any site that makes ‘County’ a mandatory field because I live in London and – as I usually respond – “LONDON IS NOT IN A BLOODY COUNTY”. But this particular website was especially egregious because for want of “County” being filled, it had not only refused to save the details I’d entered, it had thrown them away. Including the story I’d spent several minutes typing. Needless to say, I did not retype it – indeed I never went near that coin dealer’s site again.

To be fair, this was some years ago, and the design of online sales websites have improved considerably. Yet their capacity for finding ridiculous reasons for rejecting user registration input never seems to abate.

This morning, I spent several minutes entering my details on an online sales site operated by a very well known UK business, and pressed ‘Continue’. Highlighted in red, up came the utterly infuriating “There is information on this page that is required or not properly provided. Please correct the following and resubmit the page. Area Code must begin with zero”.

No it must not. The site was displaying a country code pre-populated with +44 for the UK. The zero should be omitted from the area code.

I nevertheless added the zeros and again pressed ‘Continue’.

“There is information on this page that is required or not properly provided. Please correct the following and resubmit the page User name, password, and security question must be entered”.

So, all these details, which I had already entered, had been thrown away because I had (quite correctly) left off the zero from the Area Code.

Guess what? I’d been contemplating a moderately expensive purchase, but as a result of this unsatisfactory user experience I decided against it. First impressions are important. It might sound harsh but I take the view that if your website is crap it’s very likely that the rest of your business will be as well.

SMS Scharnhorst (1906)

On 4 December this year, a team lead by British marine archaeologist Mensum Bound announced that they had found the wreck of the German armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst in 1,610 m (5,280 ft) of water, 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands. The announcement followed a search that began in 2014 for the ships of Adm. Maximillian Graf von Spee’s ill-fated East Asia Squadron, sunk in the opening months of World War I at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Named for the Prussian military reformer Gerhardt von Scharnhorst, Seiner Majestät Schiff (‘His Majesty’s Ship’) Scharnhorst was launched on 23 March 1906. Her one sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was launched on 14 June 1906. The Scharnhorst class, as they were known (Gneisenau was ordered first, but a shipyard strike delayed her construction), displaced 12,780 long tons with a full load. They were 144.6 meters (474 ft 5 in) in length, 21.6 m (70 ft 10 in) in beam, with a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 in). Their triple-expansion engines produced 26,000 metric horsepower (19,000 kW) for a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. The ships had a main armament of eight 8.3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns and a secondary armament of eighteen casemated 3.5-inch gun. In addition, they had four torpedo tubes – one forward, one aft, and two broadside. Their armour ranged from 8 to 15 cm (3.1 to 5.9 in), with the maximum thickness along the waterline and at the midships ‘citadel’. They were superior to earlier German designs and were a match for any non-capital ship of their day.

Scharnhorst was commissioned on 24 October 1907 and after completing her trials, she was assigned to the High Seas Fleet, where she participated in training exercises and fleet manoeuvres. In March 1909, she was reassigned to the East Asia Squadron, where she ‘flew the flag’ touring Germany’s East Asian and Pacific colonies. In March 1911, she was joined by the Gneisenau and on 4 December she became the flagship of the squadron’s new commander, Konteradmiral  (Rear-Admiral) von Spee. Promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) the following year, von Spee would retain command of the East Asia Squadron for the remainder of its existence.

In August 1914, when war finally broke out, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been in service for less than seven years, but they were already obsolete. The intervening period had seen a revolution in warship design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, armoured cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were less heavily armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. Their role was to act as the ‘eyes’ of a battle-group and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight. They could also operate on detached duties or – as with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the lead ships of a squadron in distant waters.

All this changed in 1906, when British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher came up with the idea of an ‘all-big-gun’ warship, which dispensed with secondary and intermediate calibre guns and was powered by the new Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines. The first ship built to this design was HMS Dreadnought. At 20,730 long tons, she displaced only slightly more than the preceding Lord Nelson class battleships, but at 21 knots she was significantly faster, and she had more than twice the firepower of any other ship afloat. With ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships rendered obsolete at a stroke, a naval arms race broke out between Britain and Germany – but Adm. Fisher had another brainwave up his sleeve.

What would happen if you put big guns into a fast but lightly armoured ship? The result was HMS Invincible. Comparable in displacement and armament to HMS Dreadnought, she could make an astounding 25.5 knots – but at the expense of armour. Launched in 1907, the Royal Navy classified her as an armoured cruiser, but the media referred to her variously as a dreadnought cruiser, a battleship-cruiser, and finally as a battlecruiser. In November 1911, the Royal Navy adopted the latter term.

At the outbreak of hostilities, von Spee’s squadron comprised the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. On 13 August, the Emden, commanded by Karl von Muller, was detached to act as a commerce raider. Emden captured over twenty Allied freighters and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet before she was finally overpowered by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands. Von Spee’s squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden.

On 1 November, von Spee’s ships encountered the British Fourth Cruiser Squadron off Coronel, Chile. The resulting Battle of Coronel was a one-sided affair. The British force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, comprised the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flag) and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the armed merchantman HMS Otranto. Cradock, on the lookout for the Germans, had left behind the elderly but sturdy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, whose 12-inch guns could at least have kept Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at bay. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands; only Glasgow and Otranto escaped the rout. The German squadron suffered minimal casualties and damage – but they had expended over half of their ammunition in the battle.

Word of the defeat soon reached London, where Fisher wasted no time in dispatching the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s ships. Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command.  On 26 November, the battlecruisers rendezvoused with the remnants of Cradock’s force, along with the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon, and Cornwall, and the light cruiser Bristol. The force proceeded to the Falkland Islands where HMS Canopus was grounded at Port Stanley to act as a guardship.

Meanwhile, von Spee’s squadron had captured a British collier and now had all the coal they needed, but there was no possibility of replenishing their ammunition. Von Spee decided to return to Germany, but first he proposed to attack the Royal Navy base on Falkland Islands. His captains mostly opposed the plan, but they were overruled.

On the morning of 8 December 1914, the East Asia Squadron was sighted by civilians at Fitzroy, who alerted the navy base at Port Stanley. The entire British squadron was coaling, but as von Spee’s ships approached Stanley the Canopus opened fire and Kent was making her way out of the harbour. With the bulk of the British ships still at anchor, von Spee might yet have been able to press home his attack. But sighting the tripod masts of the battlecruisers, he realised that he was up against a superior force and decided to make a run for it.

It was 10:00 before the battlecruisers left port and von Spee’s ships were 13 nautical miles ahead. But Invincible and Inflexible could outrun and outgun Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By 13:00, the battlecruisers had closed the range and opened fire. To give his smaller ships a chance of escape, von Spee turned back with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and engaged the British ships. Scharnhorst repeatedly attempted to close to within torpedo range of the battlecruisers, but without success. By 16:04, her smokestacks had been shot away, she was on fire, and listing. At 16:17, she sank with all hands; the British ships, still in action against the Gneisenau, were unable to attempt any rescue of survivors. The Gneisenau fought on bravely, but at 18:06 she finally succumbed. Invincible and Inflexible hastened to pick up survivors, but only 190 men were rescued. Meanwhile, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden fled the battle, hotly pursued by Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall. Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk with the loss of all but a handful of men; Dresden escaped though she was later cornered and sunk off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915.

German losses were 1,871 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. A total of 215 survived. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands proved to be the finest hour for the battlecruiser. The light armour was its Achilles heel: three were lost at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and in 1941, HMS Hood was sunk while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. In the mid-1930s, the new German navy, the Kriegsmarine, built two battleships named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Again, though, they were no match for British capital ships and the second Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape. The Gneisenau, which was undergoing a refit that would have upgraded her armament, was scrapped on Hitler’s orders. Adm. von Spee was commemorated by the ‘panzerschiff’ Graff Spee,  which was scuttled at Montevideo on 20 December 1939 on the orders of her captain, KptzS Hans Langsdorff, after sustaining heavy damage from British warships at the Battle of the River Plate. Three days later, Langsdorff killed himself despite having conducted himself in an entirely honourable manner throughout.

To this day, 8 December is a public holiday in the Falklands, and on that day in 2014 – the hundredth anniversary of the battle – the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust instigated a search for von Spee’s ships. The search was unsuccessful, but a second attempt was made in December this year with four deep-sea robot submarines operated from the search vessel Seabed Constructor. After just three days the Scharnhorst was located. She is standing upright in a debris field, her hull largely intact although little remains of her superstructure. The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust will seek to have the site protected in law. The search for the three other ships sunk in the battle will continue.

The London Planetarium

Built on the site of the Tussauds Cinema, which was destroyed during the Blitz, the London Planetarium was opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on 19 March 1958. Public presentations began the next day. The Planetarium was an immediate hit with the public, and it considerably boosted attendances at the adjoining Madame Tussauds gallery.

The Planetarium’s 18 m (60 ft) dome seated an audience of 330 who viewed presentations from a Zeiss Universal Mk IV star projector. This mechanical and optical wonder remained in use for nearly half a century before being replaced by a digital system in 1995.

Sadly, by the beginning of the millennium, attendances were no longer sufficient to keep the Planetarium going as a separate visitor attraction. Astronomical presentations ceased in 2006 and Madame Tussauds repurposed the building for shows about celebrities. Now known as the Stardome, it still features ‘stars’ – just not those up in the sky.

This beautifully-produced brochure dates to around 1960 and was sold for the very reasonable sum of one shilling (about £1.00 at today’s prices). The text is uncredited, but in his 2003 autobiography Eighty not out the late Sir Patrick Moore claimed to be the author. Moore turned down the opportunity to become the first Director of the London Planetarium because he did not wish to move to London; the job went instead to astronomer and author Dr. Henry C. King.

Alexei Leonov (1934-2019)

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov,the first human to walk in space, has died in Moscow aged 85. One of the legendary pioneers of the first decade of crewed spaceflight, he later commanded Soyuz 19 as the Soviet part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Following the announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA interrupted its live coverage of a spacewalk outside the International Space Station to report his death.

Although I’ve been fascinated by science, astronomy, and spaceflight since at least the age of five I have little memory of the early spaceflights, but Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk on 18 March 1965 sticks very strongly in my mind. It was just after lunch at school when a teacher told us that a man had walked in space from the spacecraft Voskhod 2 and the class was given the unusual (in a school where there was pretty well zero interest in science) and extremely welcome assignment of painting a picture of the event.

The extraordinarily rapid pace of developments in spaceflight was a product of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thanks to the efforts of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space program had racked up a remarkable series of ‘firsts’ including the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first photographs of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3), and most dramatic of all, the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin). The United States was galvanised into a response – in 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA; and in 1962 Kennedy made his famous speech committing the United States to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade.

By the end of 1963, six Russians and six Americans had flown in space, all of whom had flown solo (to this day, Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman ever to have gone into space alone). Following the conclusion of the successful Mercury program, the US was now working on Gemini, a spacecraft that would carry a crew of two and intended to pave the way for the Apollo Moon-landing project. The Russian response was Voskhod, which basically involved shoehorning three cosmonauts into a modified single-seat Vostok spacecraft. Safety features including ejector seats and spacesuits were omitted to save space. Despite this, the Voskhod 1 mission on 12 October 1964 was a success, though the flight only lasted just over a day. It was also an eventful day back on Earth: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

As intended, the mission sent a strong message to the Americans that the Soviet space program meant business, and the Russians still hadn’t finished. Thus, on 18 March 1965 at 07:00 UTC, Voskhod 2 was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. On board were mission commander Pavel Belyayev, 39, and Alexei Leonov, then aged 30. Instead of a third crew-member, Voshkod 2 was equipped with an inflatable airlock.

Ninety minutes after liftoff, Leonov exited the spacecraft via the airlock to perform his epoch-making EVA. In his own words “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in. I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Only much later was it revealed just how close the essentially makeshift mission had come to disaster. The inflatable airlock was necessary because Voskhod 2’s instrumentation had not been designed to operate in a vacuum, and hence the spacecraft itself could not be depressurised. When, after an EVA of 12 minutes, Leonov attempted to return to the spacecraft, he found that his spacesuit had ballooned and its joints had consequently stiffened to the point where he could not re-enter the airlock. He was forced to take the drastic step of bleeding off air from the spacesuit, to below safety limits, before he could bend the suit’s joints. The problems did not end there. There were difficulties in resealing the hatch after the spacewalk, and problems during re-entry resulted in Voskhod 2 landing 386 km (240 miles) away from the intended landing site. Leonov and Belyayev spent an uncomfortable night in the forests of Upper Kama Upland at temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius before a rescue party arrived the next day.

Gemini made its first crewed flight just days later, on 23 March, and its second between June 3 and June 7. On this second flight, on June 3, Ed White became the first American to perform an EVA. Alexei Leonov’s space walk would be the last time that the Russians would beat the Americans in space. Leonov was slated to land on the Moon in a craft known as the LK (‘Lunniy korabl’, or lunar craft), which was basically a much smaller single-seat version of the US Lunar Module. But the mission never took place: problems with the N1 rocket and Korolev’s death early in 1966 finally ended Soviet hopes of beating the Americans to the Moon. The Russians turned their attention to space stations in low earth orbit, which in the long run was far more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States.

Leonov’s second and final space flight took place nine years after his first, in July 1974. It was the era of Détente, and relations between the two superpowers had improved to the point that a joint spaceflight was planned. This became known in the West as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in which an Apollo and a Soyuz spacecraft would rendezvous and dock in low earth orbit. The Soyuz 19 crew comprised Leonov in command and Valeri Kubasov as flight engineer. The unnumbered Apollo spacecraft was crewed by Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton.

Both spacecraft were launched on 15 July. The rendezvous and docking took place two days later at 16:19 UTC. Three hours later, Leonov and Stafford shook hands through the open hatch of the Soyuz: it had been calculated that the handshake would take place over Bognor Regis, but delays meant that the two spacecraft were over France by the time it happened. After just under two days docked, Soyuz and Apollo parted company at 15:26 UTC on 19 July, and Soyuz landed back on Earth on 21 July. Apollo remained in space for a further three days, splashing down on 24 July. Although relations between Russia and the West have remained fractious, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program opened up an era of cooperation in space that continues to this day.

Following his second spaceflight, Leonov became head of the cosmonaut team and oversaw crew training. He remained in this role until his retirement in 1992. He was also an accomplished artist whose works include the painting Near the Moon. On the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, he took coloured pencils and paper with him into space, where he sketched the Earth and drew portraits of the Apollo astronauts.

Alexi Leonov is commemorated by a lunar crater to the south of the Moscow Sea on the far side of the Moon. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two features a spacecraft named Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov
Born: 30 May 1934
Listvyanka, West Siberian Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Died: 11 October 2019 (aged 85)
Moscow, Russia

HMS Belfast

2019-09-07 18.48.01

Launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938, at Harland & Wolff Belfast, HMS Belfast is the largest surviving British warship from World War II.  A group 3 Town-class ‘large light cruiser’, she has a displacement of 11,500 tons and is armed with twelve 6-inch guns in four turrets. The seemingly oxymoronic designation reflects inter-war naval treaties. Any non-capital ship armed with guns of a calibre above 6.1 inches was deemed to be a ‘heavy cruiser’, and there were strict limits to the numbers of such ships a navy was allowed to possess. But there were no such limits on light cruisers. Consequently, navies began building large but relatively under-gunned cruisers. The US Navy’s Brooklyn class was another example of the type. Perhaps the best-known ship of this class was the USS Phoenix, later serving with the Argentine Navy as the ARA General Belgrano.

The Belfast was commissioned in August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the war. In November, she struck a mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. One man was killed and 46 officers and men injured. The ship sustained heavy damage and was out of action until November 1942. Belfast spent 1943 on Arctic convoy duty, and on Boxing Day of that year, flying the flag of Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, she took part in the Battle of the North Cape, off the coast of Norway. While escorting a convoy, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst and coordinated the defence of the convoy, forcing the Scharnhorst to turn away. Belfast shadowed the Scharnhorst by radar, enabling the battleship HMS Duke of York to intercept the German warship. As the Duke of York made radar contact, Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst with star shells. Soon after, the two capital ships began slugging it out, but the Scharnhorst was heavily outgunned by the British battleship. The Scharnhorst fought to the bitter end, but eventually sank with the loss of all but 36 of her crew.

Belfast’s next battle honour came on D-Day, when she took part in the naval bombardment that preceded the Normandy landings. During her five weeks off Normandy, she fired 1,996 rounds. This was her final action in European waters.

After undergoing a refit, Belfast was deployed to the Far East to take part in the war against Japan, but the Japanese surrendered before she saw action. With the war over, she remained in the Far East and was the Far East Squadron’s headquarters ship during the 1945 Yangtze Incident, when the British frigate HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze River by Chinese communist forces.

From 1950 to 1952, Belfast was involved in the Korean War, taking part in coastal patrols and bombarding shore targets in support of ground forces. During the course of the conflict, she steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the war zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.

Between 1955 and 1959, Belfast underwent an extensive refit, during which her bridge was rebuilt and her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts. It was a swansong for a ship now essentially obsolete in an era where ships were armed with guided missiles rather than large-calibre guns. She took part in a number of naval exercises in the Far East, but in December 1963 she was finally decommissioned.

While Belfast was laid up at Fareham Creek, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in preserving a 6-inch gun turret but then began to consider the possibility of preserving the entire ship. The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, but after several years of can-kicking, the Paymaster General decided against preservation. The Belfast looked to be bound for the scrap yard, but in March 1971 a former captain, Rear-Adm. Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, now Conservative MP for Winchester, formed a trust and argued strongly in Parliament for the preservation of his former command. He was supported by Gordon Bagier, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who had served in the Belfast at the Battle of the North Cape. Although the ship’s movable equipment had already been stripped out, the government postponed scrapping and in July agreed to hand Belfast over to the HMS Belfast Trust. On 15 October, the ship was towed to her present location above Tower Bridge, and six days later, on Trafalgar Day, she opened to the public for the first time. Belfast became the first naval vessel to be preserved since Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Although the Belfast was an immediate hit with the public, the Trust struggled financially, and in 1977 the Imperial War Museum sought government permission to take over the running of the ship. Approval was given, and on 1 March 1978, Belfast was transferred to the Imperial War Museum. She remains at Tower Bridge to this day, where she is frequently ‘visited’ by warships of the Royal Navy and other navies. Unlike Victory, the name Belfast was not ‘retired’, and the third of the new Type 26 frigates will be named HMS Belfast. The original Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast (1938). This is perhaps a little unfortunate, given her distinguished service in both WW II and the Korean War.