D-Day on your Doorstep

The D-Day landings and the campaign in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945 are normally thought of as beginning in Normandy on 6 June and ending in Berlin on 8 May 1945. As usual with anything military history related, the real story behind the scenes is much different. The whole campaign from D-Day onwards depended on much preparation in Britain for months, if not years afterwards. In fact, virtually every corner of Britain will have some kind of connection with D-Day.

Millions of troops in Britain – British, American, Canadian and from many other allied nations – had to be accommodated somewhere. They all had to train somewhere. Equipment had to be manufactured and stored; supplies had to be delivered. There were marshalling camps, embarkation points; places where Mulberry Harbours were constructed. Dockyards, airfields, factories. The many units and organisations required numerous different headquarters. It is pretty obvious that in early 1944 Britain was one large armed camp geared up towards becoming a launchpad for the second front.

We’re currently working on a new page on the D-Day Museum website called ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’. Over the coming months we will be adding D-Day related locations to the map, and building a picture of Britain’s role in launching D-Day. We would love to hear from you if your area has any D-Day links, or if you would like to add any detail to the locations that we have already uploaded.

To see the ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’ page visit the D-Day Museum website here.

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The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Afghanistan, Vehicles, and Urgent Operational Requirements

This week’s Top Gear had a very interesting segment about the British Army’s use of ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in Afghanistan. It is a subject that has been well written about, but now that Operation Herrick is winding down, is it time to pose some questions on British military procurement? It is well known that the British Army entered the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan relying almost solely on the faithful Land Rover for patrolling. Was this a case of simply retaining equipment that had been intended to fight previous wars? Did budgetary constraints prevent proper planning?

One thing that the recent, ‘post-modern’ conflicts have brought about is a re-assesment of the traditional dichotomy of ‘armoured’ and ‘soft’ vehicles. For ‘wars amongst the peoples’, main battle tanks are clearly too big and heavy – physically it is hard to move them around villages, and psychologically they are rather intimidating. Yet the Land Rover proved to be far too lightly armoured to protect servicemen when on patrol, in particular against the roadside bombs and other forms of Improvised Explosive Devices which proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007 – four years after the British Army went into Iraq, and a year after Britain’s commitment in Helmand province escalated to Brigade and then Divisional level, it was becoming clear that the Land Rover was no longer fit for the task in hand.

The first of the new breed of vehicles to be ordered were the Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound, which are all variants of the American-produced Cougar. Designed by Force Protection Inc – by a British team! – the British Army has in service around 400 Mastiffs, 125 Wolfhounds and 160 Ridgebacks. The original order from the MOD was for 108 vehicles at a cost of £35m. This first batch of vehicles were deployed to Iraq in late 2006, before a further batch of Mastiff’s were ordered in October 2007, at a cost of £100m. These orders came via Urgent Operational Requirements – essentially, when the troops on the ground need something yesterday, in order to make up for the accountants not letting them buy it beforehand. Further purchases have been made since then, taking the total to almost 700 Cougar-variant vehicles. The British variants seem to be heavily armoured compared to the American version.

The Warthog is actually based on a design by the Singapore-based ST Kinetics, called the Bronco. In December 2008 the MOD ordered 100 Warthogs from ST Kinetics, at a cost of £150m. Incidentially, the purchase of the Warthogs came as part of a package of £700m worth of UORs. The Warthogs replaced the lighter-armoured Viking which had been used in Afghanistan previously, but had proved vulnerable to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Vikings were being used in an environment for which they were not procured, having originally been purchased as amphibious vehicles for the Royal Marines. Post Afghanistan the Warthogs will be used by the Royal Artillery as support for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Jackal and Coyote were designed by the British company Supacat. The first batch of Jackals – 172 – were ordered in 2008. In 2010 another 140 were ordered. Whilst the Jackal is a 4×4 chassis, the Coyote is a 6×6 variant. Many are believed to be used in different forms by Special Forces, and have not been declared in fleet totals. The Foxhound is a light patrol vehicles, based on the Ocelot, designed by Force Protection. The Husky is produced by International Trucks.

In the space of armoured six years, the MOD has purchased over 1,000 vehicles, at a price of hundreds of millions of pounds. From a procurement point of view, it is hard to believe that Urgent Operational Requirements will ever represent value for money – the troops on the ground need it urgently, the politicans will always sign it off to avoid adverse publicity, and therefore the contractors know that they can ramp the price up. Whereas if such purchases were made in ‘peacetime’, without the rush to get them into action, a more efficient procurement exercise would probably deliver better value for money. Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of vehicles will be needed in any war, as wars don’t always tend to give us plenty of warning, and any conflict will require unique modifications for any equipment, down to climate, local cultures, and so on.

But by the same token, if we don’t know exactly what we will need, should we therefore think not about having equipment that is great in one scenario, but rather having flexibility that allows for easy modification to suit particular needs? There is only so much you can do with a Land Rover Chassis, after all. The same approach applies to air and sea assets – are giant aircraft carriers the right platforms for the wars of the next 50 years? The Type 45 Destroyers are marvellous anti-aircraft warships, but are they flexible enough to react to a range of scenarios? Whilst the Eurofighter is a finely tuned dogfighter, but was any thought given to how it might contribute to a similar range of scenarios? The British Army’s new camouflage was unveilved in the past few years, and the MOD’s policy was that it should be able to work in all environments, rather than just being excellent in one.

The MOD has recently produced a policy entitled ‘Generic Vehicles Architecture’ or GVA. The idea seems to be to create a single standard architecture for British military vehicles – sensible, given the experience of vehicles in Afghanistan. The first ‘post-Afghanistan’ British Army vehicle is the Panther – 401 of these four wheel drive, light multi-role vehicles have been ordered. The Panther is an Italian vehicles, based on the Iveco LMV. With a contract worth £160m contract, they are being assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The Panther does appear to be a long-term procurement, and is slated to replace the CVRT series of light armoured vehicles (Scorpion et al), the FV432 and Saxon personnel carriers and the Land Rover Wolf. That the Panther is replacing light armoured vehicles and the Land Rover Wolf, suggests that it represents a shift in vehicle policy and doctrine.

Several lessons seem clear from the experience of military vehicles in Afghanistan. The first lesson seems to be that poor military procurement in peacetime – often based on the assumption of there not being a war in the forseeable future and hence money can be saved – actually ends up costing lives and even more money once war inevitably happens anyway. Secondly, it has often been thought that the British Army prepares to fight the last war. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Army’s mobility was based overwhelmingly on the Land Rover – a vehicle used extensively by the Army tearing up and down thw Autobahns during the Cold War, and in Northern Ireland. After the end of the Cold War, did it occur to anyone that Britain would find herself fighting different kinds of wars, and that it was not necessarily equipped properly? Granted, it is difficult for anyone to forsee events such as 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts, but did anyone in the Army or the MOD foresee the need to be flexible, to expect the unexpected? Short term economies always seem to cost more money – and lives – in the long term.

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Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters honours the father he never knew

I just caught this story at the end of tonight’s ITV News, and I’m glad that I did.

Earlier today Roger Waters, ex of Pink Floyd, unveiled a memorial to his father, near where he was killed at Anzio, during the Italian Campaign in the Second World War – 70 years to the day after the death of the father that he never knew. Waters had had no idea about when and how his father had been killed, but thanks to research by another veteran, Waters now knows the exact location and manner in which his father, Lieutenant Eric Waters, died.

Waters wrote frequently about his fathers death with Pink Floyd. I’m mindful of one particular set of lyrics, from ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2′:

‘Daddy’s gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory’

Read the Telegraph story here

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‘the tail’: US Army logistics in Britain, 1944

It’s the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up soon, and aside from the blanket coverage of the First World War, expect various documentaries about the subject.

One of the things that has always interested me about D-Day and Operations Neptune and Overlord, is the sheer amount of administration, planning and ‘behind the scenes’ work needed to keep an army in action. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I think during the Second World War less than 20% of all servicemen in allied armies fought in the ‘teeth’ arms. War had become so technologically advanced that it took far more resources to keep vehicles, weapons and the men that operated them in action.

One case in point is the huge number of US units based in England from 1942 onwards. American units began to arrive from early 1942 as part of Operation Bolero – the American build up in Europe – but the numbers of troops and units reached a high water mark just before 6 June 1944.

Very few parts of the British Isles did not have US troops stationed near them. There were particularly large concentrations of US troops in places such as Northern Ireland, the West Country in Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire, and Eight Air Force airfields in East Anglia.

Hilsea in Portsmouth was home to a significant US Army supply depot. Under General Depot G-65 came 1 Special Services Company, 51 Ordnance Group, 53 Army Postal Unit, 91 Finance Distribution Section, 120 Chemical Procurement Company, 193 Chemical Depot Company, 196 Quartermaster Battalion, 208 Army Postal Unit, 245 Quartermaster Battalion, 284 Quartermaster Refrigeration Company, 298 Ordnance Company, 321 Ordnance Battalion, 346 Quartermaster Depot Company, 350 Ordnance Battalion, 532 Quartermaster Salvage Repair Company, 555 Army Postal Unit, 604 Ordnance Base Armament Maintenance Battalion, 784 Base Depot Company, 864 Ordnance Heavy Auto Maintenance Company, 1212 Engineer Firefighting Platoon, 3040 Quartermaster Bakery, 3267 and 3269 Quartermaster Service Companies and 4232 Quartermaster Sterilization Company. Clearly, Hilsea was a significant Ordnance and Quartermaster Depot, which supported US units in the Portsmouth area. It must have consisted of thousands of men, none of whom were infantrymen, artillerymen or tank men.

It was a similar situation at airfields. Stoney Cross airfield, in the New Forest in Hampshire, hosted the 367 Fighter Bomber Group Headquarters and 392, 393 and 394 Fighter Bomber Squadrons of the US Army Air Forces.These Squadrons operated P-38 Lightnings and during D-Day and the three days after flew nine missions. But aside from these rather more glamorous units, the station was also home to 17 Station Complement Squadron, 32 Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, 217 Medical Dispensary, 327 Service Group, 807 Chemical Company, 1113 Signal Company, 1180 Quartermaster Company, 1292 Military Police Company 1830 Ordnance Company and 2200 Quartermaster Truck Company. To keep aircraft in the air, the men operating them needed engineering, signal, logistics, transport and ordnance support. And once you have that many men on an air base, you are bound to need medical and provost services to keep them healthy and well-behaved! And Stoney Cross was a particularly small and remote place – check it out here.

Some of the units that we see here are not the kinds that we think of. I love Band of Brothers, but how many men behind the scenes worked to get Easy Company into action? Sometimes it is all too easy to overlook the many unglamorous units and roles in an army, but they are all part of the same spear, with the infantry, armour and artillery being the sharp tip.

For more information about US Army units in GreatBritain in 1944, have a look at these invaluable documents prepared by Phil Grinton.

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The land at the end of our toes, goes on… and on… and on… and on…

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Last May, some, hmm…8 months ago, I took up long distance running. A slightly unusual thing for a military historian to do, I concede.

One of the problems with writing and researching history is that it is very much an indoor job. Couple that to a day job, then it is completely possible to hardly see sunlight for months on end. As interesting and productive as it can be, it isn’t always conducive to  good health, mentally or physically. I had been having a tough time with aspects of my life last year, and realised that I needed to do something positive to try and get some endorphins going and make a change. I’d spend months on end in doors, practically welded to my laptop. I had to get out and do something.

But why running, a seemingly insance pursuit? To regress, some family history. My dad took up running during the ‘running boom’ in the late 1980′s, and ran some very good times – 59 minutes for 10 miles, and a marathon in 3:04:00. He also had a rather intriguing obsession with running up and down Butser Hill, for which I believe there is professional help. But I grew up watching my dad train, while also being a dad and working full time. The smell of deep heat stays with you for many years! Years later my younger brother, Scott, took up running, and within a few years had also run 10 miles in 59 minutes.

I grew up seeing the benefits of long distance running, but also the extreme hard work that it takes to not just complete, but compete. Having been the black sheep of the family and having never run more than a mile for many years, on a whim I signed up to run the Great South Run for Mind, the mental health charity. It is a cause that it very close to my heart, and completely appropriate given the benefits of exercise in beating mental health problems.

Make no bones about it, if you’re not in good shape, starting to run is incredibly hard. Those first few miles are no doubt the hardest, breaking the three mile barrier is like an ever-present brick wall. But to a bloody-minded individual like myself, I find it hard to just complete something, I always want to do it to the best of my ability, to push myself and see what I am capable of (and also prove people wrong too!). I’m never happy with my time in any race, as soon as I finish, I’m thinking how I can break the next milestone – what does it take to run 10k in under 40 minutes, of 10 miles in under 1 hour 10 minutes?

In some respects, long distance running is like planning a military operation. You have to think about what you want to achieve – a time target, or a certain distance, whatever – and the resources that you have – time, money, nutrition, your body etc. Think about the time that you have, and plan how you are going to get there. Looking back, it seems quite ironic that I was writing about thousands of servicemen, who would have been at the peak of fitness and displaying supreme feats of endurance, and I was a couch potato, stuck to my laptop!

There are other military parallels. I had always marvelled at the physical feats of some of the people I have read and written about – Chris Ryans epic march out of Iraq after the Bravo Two Zero operation,  the epic yomp across the Falkands, or the advance of the Paras from their drop zones outside Arnhem to the outskirts of the town, almost ten miles, heavily laden and under fire. Sometimes these feats seem super-human. You wonder how people manage it – are they like the rest of us? And it dawned on me, after watching a video by CT Fletcher, the inspirational American bodybuilding guru. He explained that most servicemen are in the best shape of their lives during basic training. As he says ‘what you didn’t think you could do, your drill Sergeant MADE you do’.  And that probably explains why standard for the Paras is 10 miles in 1 hour and 10 minutes – a time that few runners manage, in running gear and on flat courses. A big, scary bastard shouting at you helps, but if you want it bad enough, you will be able to beast yourself towards it.

The funny thing is, that although there are more people running now than ever, the average times have dropped compared to when my dad was running in the 1980′s. Why is this? Are people happy to complete rather than compete? It’s hard for me to say; I’m by no means an elite athlete, far from it. But I do sense that people do not tend to push themselves in terms of intensity – what can I achieve? What am I capable of? Personally I feel that when I am pushing myself to the limit, that is when I’m really getting the benefits. If you say, ‘I don’t think I can run that fast’, that’s the biggest impediment to you doing just that. I know it is possible to do things that you have never thought possible – I’ve seen people do it. I also think that you need to have a strategy. The marathon is obviously the ultimate symbol of long distance running, and has a mythology all of its own. But I don’t want to get drawn into the 26.2 just yet – I’m not really interested in running 26.2 miles at an ‘ok’ standard, if I can’t really push myself at 10k and 10 miles first. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me to try and ‘run’ before I can ‘walk’!

There is plenty of literature out there about running. I have particularly enjoyed ‘ Running with the Kenyans’ by and ‘Running with the Mind of Meditation’ by Sakyong Mipham. Running with the Kenyans looks at the secrets of the Kenyan runners who have been the best long distance runners in the world for the past two decades. Many people have tried to find some supposed ‘secret’ as to why the Kenyans are so good. It transpires that there is no ‘secret’ as such, just a combination of factors, and a lot of hard work. Meditation and running also have strong parallels – breathing and thinking are very important to both, and the power of the mind, when harnessed, can take you places. Sakyong Mipham is a Tibetan meditation master, and ran the Toronto Marathon with a new pair of socks – a classic error. After a few miles he developed a blister, and by the end of the race his shoe was full of blood. He managed to finish the marathon by telling his mind that the blister simply ‘wasnt there’. Inspiration stuff (if a silly mistake in the first place!)

Running really is a lifestyle. I joined Portsouth Joggers Club last year, and have found running with likeminded people to be not only beneficial to my training, but also great fun. A little tip – run with people who are just a little bit faster than you – it pulls you along much faster than you would ever run on your own! When I run on my own I always run with music – I have a playlist of songs that are just the right tempo to push me along. Although running keeps you healthy, there is a downside – if you are eating for stamina and putting in the miles, you are looking at lots of carbs – and that means pasta, rice or potato. And day in day out, there is only so much that you can do with staple foods like that!

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – book talks

ImageI’m going to be giving some talks based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’, courtest of Portsmouth Library Service:

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes

  • Saturday 8 February – 1.30pm, Carnegie Library (Fratton)
  • Saturday 8 March – 1.30pm, Southsea Library
Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during WW1. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a
wealth of sources available, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before.

Researching your World War One Ancestors

  • Saturday 29 March – 11am, Central Library

A special talk for the ‘Lost Hour’ event, this talk will show you how you can research your ancestors who took part in the First World War, using examples of men from Portsmouth who fought and died, and shwoing you the sources available to help with your research.

All talks are fully illustrated, and copies of my book will be available for purchase. Hope to see you there, come and say hi!

For more information about how to find the venues, and about other events taking place at Portsmouth Libraries over the next few months, click here.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes is also available to purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers, Waterstones Commercial Road, Blackwells at the Student Union, the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson and the City Museum.

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