Monthly Archives: August 2009

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah really was one of life’s characters. Just an ordinary Northern bloke, by a strange quirk of fate he ended up a national treasure.

After finishing his national service in the Army in 1962, the native of Bolton became famous as a steeplejack. Although he became famous for demolishing buildings, usually factory chimneys, he also repaired them. The decline of Bolton’s cotton industry meant that there was a never-ending stream of chimneys needing felling. An admirer of the workmanship that had gone into their construction, Fred felled them the old-fashioned way. Eschewing dynamite, he cut into the chimney, propped it up with wood, and then burnt the wood away. He was also fascinated with all things Industrial, and not surprisingly his hero was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Fred also became famous for his steam engines. Over time he built up a full-scale steam driven workshop in his back garden to work on his engines, a steam roller and a traction engine. He was so devoted to his engines that his first two wives ended up leaving him! In 2002 Fred even went as far as to sink a mine shaft in his back garden, with full pit head gear and incline railway.

After the real-life documentaries following his life, Fred also presented a number of fascinating series covering his love for Industry, Architecture, and steam. Diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Fred refused to receive chemotherapy so he could tour Britain in his newly restored Aveling and Porter Traction Engine, and collect his MBE from Buckingham Palace in style. He died in 2004, and his funeral was a real Victorian affair, even down to the steam engine carrying his coffin! Theres a statue of Fred in Bolton City Centre, and his back yard workshop is reportedly going to be turned into a working Heritage Centre. Lets hope so!

The steam world purists might belittle him at times, but what he had that the vast majority of them will never have was worth its weight in gold – charisma. Whats the use of knowledge if you can’t pass it on? He wasnt perfect – as his first two wives would no doubt testify – but who is? How many people are interested in industry, architecture, heritage…. just from watching Fred? How many people out there would be interested in those things, but just dont know it?

I wish I had got to meet him. If everyone devoted themselves to a cause like Fred did, the world would be a much better place. Keep an eye on the Cable channels, his programmes are often repeated and are well worth a watch.

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Filed under Architecture, Industrial Revolution, On TV

Book of the Week #7 – the Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

e Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

e Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

According to popular myth, Prisoners of War during the Second World War spent most of their time gallantly trying to tunnel out of captivity, goon-baiting or just generally passing the time with a good old sing song and all manner of typically British tally-ho antics.

This may have been true for a very small minority of Prisoners – mainly Air Force Officers, at Colditz or Stalag Luft – but for the vast majority, captivity meant boredom, uncertainty, and survival. And in some cases, untold suffering under extreme conditions, that we are only really beginning to understand today.

As 1944 drew to a close, Germany still held hundreds of thousands of Russian, British, American, French, Polish and many other Prisoners of War. Securing them, keeping them captive, feeding them and looking after them – as they were obliged to under the Geneva Convention – was a huge burden, especially at a time when German civilians and even Soldiers were struggling for food and medicine.

So you would have thought that the Germans would have been very glad to have got these Prisoners off their hands. Not so. In the cynical manner of Nazi policy, various powers that be decided that the POW’s had to be kept hold of at all costs. As a result, thousands upon thousands of men, in appalling conditions and untold brutality, were marched hundreds of miles across Europe in the worst winter for many years. Many never survived to tell the tale. One of the marchers would have been my Grandad, who was captured at Arnhem, and then marched from Stalag XIB in Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA, near Berlin. Albeit he was going in the opposite direction to most, but still the conditions would have been the same. Understandably he talked very little about it.

Yet this a story that has only been uncovered recently. Immediately after the war, the suffering of POW’s of Japan, and the victims of the Holocaust, all but overshadowed the death marches across Germany in the Winter of 1944 and 1945. And rightly so. But this a story that has to be told and understood. John Nichol – himself a Prisoner of the Iraqis in the first Gulf War after his Tornado was shot down – and Tony Rennell tell it very well indeed. Lets hope that more research is done into this subject very soon.

The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Germany 1944-1945

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two

This week on TV – 31/08/09

I thought I would have a look through the TV schedules and pick out some nice interesting Historical type programmes that might be interesting to watch over the next 7 days.

In Streets in the Sky Architecture Critic Tom Dyckhoff visits one of the most controversial listed buildings in Britain, the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, Although it was once heralded as the most pioneering public housing scheme in Britain, decades of decline and neglect have transformed it into a grim sink estate. Now it’s protected by English Heritage and raises questions about what we should be saving for the nation (Monday 31 August, BBC2, 19:30).

In Warship, we get an insight into the crew of one of the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships, HMS Bulwark, as they head off the the Far East on a multinational exercise. New Series (Monday 31 August, Five, 21:00).

For Anyone who missed Martin Freeman’s who do you think you are?, its repeated this week. Well worth a watch if you havent already seen it (Tuesday 1 September, BBC2, 19:00).

Wednesday sees a pretty unique insight into the First World War, in World War One in Colour. Computer techniques are used to colourise vintage newsreel footage of the conflict (Wednesday 2 September, Five, 21:00).

ITV gives us a pretty rare History programme on Thursday, Outbreak. It promises recollections od the day World War Two began (Thursday 3 September, ITV, 22:35).

Friday includes one of the most controversial Period Drama’s of the moment, The Tudors on BBC2. This week Henry VIII, played by Jonathon Rhys Myers, mourns the death of Jane Seymour. 3 down, 3 to go! (Friday 4 September, BBC2, 21:00).

Theres some classic wartime comedy on Saturday, with Dad’s Army. Not sure what episode its gonna be, but to be fair they’re all classic. (Sat 5 September, BBC2, 20:30).

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Filed under Architecture, Family History, Medieval history, Navy, News, On TV, World War One, World War Two

Al Murray’s Road to Berlin

Al Murrays Road to Berlin

Al Murray's Road to Berlin

Most people probably know him as his Pub Landlord Character from ITV’s happy hour. I’m a big fan, I’ve seen his live show and met the guy. But out of character Al Murray is in fact a History Graduate from the University of Oxford. Even more interestingly, he is fluent in both French and German – not sure what the Pub Landlord would say about that!

A few years ago Al released a History series, entitled ‘Al Murray’s road to Berlin’. It follows the campaign to liberate Europe, from just before D-Day to VE Day in May 1945. Its a very well produced programme, originally screened on the Discovery channel and available on DVD. Finally, some kind of documentary on WW2, presented by someone with a good background in History, but also with the common touch!

Al travels from Portsmouth, across to Normandy, through France and Belgium and Holland, jumps into Arnhem to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden, and finally goes on to Berlin. He drives around the battlefield sites in an original WW2 Willy’s Jeep, in Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 markings (Band of Brothers!).

What I really like, is that Al always interviews the normal people who took part in the battle, and doesnt wheel out Major-this or Colonel-that all the time, as some documentaries are prone to do. What is more interesting is that he is the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel, but you really wouldnt think so, which is very refreshing indeed. Aryeh Nusbacher was the Historical Consultant, who to be honest I’m not a fan of, but I reckon Al could have done it on his own anyway. I get the feeling that even if you didnt know much about WW2, you could still watch this and not find it too difficult to take it in, such is the accesible way that it is presented. A lot of so-called-Historians could watch this and take serious note.

I got this for my Birthday this year and its one of my favourite DVD’s. Heres hoping Al does some more History work eventually!

Click here to buy Al Murray’s Road to Berlin!

(l-r) Me, my brother, Al Murray

(l-r) Me, my brother, Al Murray

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Filed under Army, On TV, videos, World War Two

HMS Daring #2

HMS Daring entering Portsmouth Harbour

HMS Daring entering Portsmouth Harbour

Heres the Royal Navy’s newest Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Daring, entering Portsmouth Harbour. I’ve been lucky enough to have a look round Daring earlier in the summer, and you can believe the hype, she’s every bit as impressive as she looks, from close up and far away.

She’s the first in the new class of Destroyers. And what I really like, is that she LOOKS like a warship. I know its a silly thing to say, but if a ship looks scary and mean, and has a mean sounding name, then its only going to be positive for the crew who are operating it. For too long the Navy have had ships that were badly or cheaply designed, and had names taken from either a road atlas of Britain or an eye-spy guide to furry animals. Daring, Dauntless, Dragon… thats more like it!

The entrance to Portsmouth Harbour is a fantastic place to watch warships enter and exit the Naval Base. The shipping movements are publicised in the Evening news a day or two before. The Round Tower is an excellent vantage point, as are the Hot Walls and Spice Island. If you’re really lucky you might catch a ship going out while you’re going on the Gosport Ferry, like I have before. When a ships just going out for a few hours or a day or two often theres just a few nerds there watching, but when a ships going out on a long deployment family and friends crowd the Round Tower to wave the matelots off with Banners and all sorts. And when HMS Hermes came back from the Falklands, my mum and Dad were somehow on a Navy Tug!

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Filed under Falklands War, Local History, Navy, out and about

Shoreham Airshow – the pictures!

I’ve finally managed to upload the hundreds of pictures I took at the Shoreham Airshow last weekend. I’ve sorted through them, and here are the best bits – enjoy!

Me in a Dakota

Me in a Dakota

Me stood in the door - note the red and green jump lights

Me stood in the door - note the red and green jump lights

Always knew those Marines were big lads...

Always knew those Marines were big lads...

Dads Army!

Dads Army!

A WW2 Jeep in RAF Liaison Officer markings

A WW2 Jeep in RAF Liaison Officer markings

Team Guinot wing-walkers

Team Guinot wing-walkers

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B'

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B'

Fleet Air Arm Lynx

Fleet Air Arm Lynx

RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Avro Lancaster

RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Avro Lancaster

Avro Vulcan XH558

Avro Vulcan XH558

RAF Falcons Parachute display team

RAF Falcons Parachute display team

RAF Chinook

RAF Chinook

The Red Arrows... all 10 seconds of them

The Red Arrows... all 10 seconds of them

is it one of ours?

is it one of ours?

(l-r) great-uncle Terry, Me, Grandad

(l-r) great-uncle Terry, Me, Grandad

This guy was having fun... that Parrot isnt photoshopped!

This guy was having fun... that Parrot isnt photoshopped!

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Filed under airshow, event, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Vulcan Bomber, World War One, World War Two

Family History #1 – Getting Started!

Family History is getting a lot more popular nowadays. And its not just the blue rinse brigade of retired old birds either. I’ve worked in a big library with a family history section, and a museum that houses the local records office, and it is definitely getting a lot more popular. You can tell when an episode of who do you think you are has been on, because the next day we get a deluge of enquiries from people wanting to do their family history. I’ve been contacted by some people recently asking for help with their family history, people i would never have imagined would do their family history, and thats really cool. If you know where you’ve come from, you’ve got a much better idea of where you are going.

The problem is, the programme makes it look so simple. The celebrities themselves dont actually do the research, the programme is made by a production company who do all the donkey work. And the problem with that is, it gives people the impression that you can just pick up a phone or pop into a records office and hey presto, everything will unravel for you. Or someone will do it for you. Which is terribly misleading. And for one thing, part of the fun of doing research is not what you find, but HOW you find it.

So, in installments, I’m going to offer some advice on how to do your family history, from someone who has done their own, helped others with theirs, and has worked in libraries and museums. Devoid of the usual bullshit, I hope!

First off… write down what you already know! You would be surprised how many people try and skip this bit. Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, ask them about names, dates, places, anything and everything then can remember. Write it down. Ask them what photos or documents they might have tucked away in a box in a cupboard or in a loft somewhere. Everything is a potential lead. Birth, Marriage or Death certificates are very useful, not least because to get hold of copies costs £6 each. Once you have a load of info, try and draw up a rough family tree: it doesnt have to be neat and tidy, its a work in progress. You willl add to it, scribble on it, draw lines across it, all sorts. Also, for each person keep a record of their date of birth, their parents, their date of marriage, date of death, occupation, all those kinds of things.

A word of caution, however: family stories often end up being slightly embellished. Over 50 years what starts out as a grain of truth might end up as an incredible story of heroism and daring thats far from the truth. Treat what people tell you as a lead, not truth. Its not that people are lying, it just happens. I was told that my grandad fought in Siciliy and might have been in the SAS, but I’ve found no proof of either. I’ve found proof that he WASN’T in Siciliy, and in the case of the SAS, I’ve found no proof either way, but it is unlikely.

To begin with, dont worry about going on websites or anything like that, concentrate on what is already under your nose. Then, when you start hitting brick walls and have everything in place, you’re ideally set up to follow lines of inquiry, one by one.

In a practical sense, make sure you keep everything tidy in a folder or something. If you make a note of something, note down what book or website it was from, or who told you. Think of family history as detective work, because its exactly the same skills and approach.

Next time, we’ll look at how to start following up leads and how to clear up those annoying dead ends.

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Sharpe – best historical fiction ever?

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Heroes. Richard Sharpe has to be one of mine, and he isn’t even real. A creation of Bernard Cornwell, Richard Sharpe joined the British Army as a Private, and served in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium. He’s a pretty incredible character. Rough and tough, he was a survivor who got by on his talents and skills in an era when birth and privilege counted for far more. He manages to do pretty bad things in every book, but heres the nub – he only does bad things to bad people. So its OK, they were asking for it. He’s not perfect, by any means. But he always ends up coming out on top- if only real life was that clear cut. He cared about his men and stood up for them, and stood up for what he thought was right. In fact, I reckon Sharpe isn’t a bad role model at all. Just as long as you dont go around bayoneting Frenchmen!

Not only all that, but the books are absolutely fantastic. As someone who has read all of them at least 3 times, I think they are perhaps the greatest series of Historical Novels ever written. The research and accuracy is completely impeccable. I’ve always thought that a writer of Historial Fiction is essentially doing the groundwork for two books at one – a history book and a novel. Cornwell does it so well. The great thing is too, you can see how his writing has matured over the years. You could read all of the Sharpe novels from first to last, and probably learn more about the Napoleonic British Army and Regency British Society than you would reading the same amount of History books.

Its a formula that has been copied so many times over the years. There are so many Sharpe imitations out there, some of them are so bad you could almost change the names and they would be the same characters and stories. How they get on the shelves bemuses me. But hey, I guess imitation is a form of flattery, and Cornwell himself was heavily influenced by the Hornblower series of books. I’ve often sat down and tried to write a novel, but without fail it always ends up being another Sharpe.

The TV series takes it to another level too. Sean Bean IS Sharpe, and Daragh O’Malley is Harper, you couldnt imagine any better casting. Maybe the TV programmes are very truncated, because they have to fit it all into 2 hours and make it slightly more simple, but in my opinion its done very sensitively to the original.

Sharpe got me interested in military history, and the Napoleonic War. I think it also encouraged me to study English and to write as much as I have. I have a feeling that the Sharpe books will be as popular in years to come as they have been since Cornwell penned Sharpe’s Eagle. And Long may it continue.

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Filed under Army, fiction, Napoleonic War

Book of the week #6 – Sniper One by Sgt Dan Mills

Sniper One - Sgt Dan Mills

Sniper One - Sgt Dan Mills

This weeks book of the week is a real gem. Not only is it a real thrill of a read, it is possibly one of the most important books written about the British Army.

Why? well, as we all know, whenever there is a crisis anywhere in the world, we call on the Paras, the Marines, and the SAS.  The rest of the Army are just cannon fodder, of course.  Dan Mills even refers to this head on, and suggests how damaging it is to morale to the infantryman to think that they are somehow sub-standard. Thankfully, this book succesfully blows apart this myth.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and after the Marines and Paras had gone home, the rest of the Army were taking turns on duty in Iraq. The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment were deployed for a 6 month tour of duty in Al Amarah, north of Basra – one of Iraq’s most lawless provinces. So peaceful was it expected to be, that they werent issued with grenades, and they even left their mortars at home. This is the story of the Battalions Sniper Platoon.

Any expectations of a quiet tour were soon dispelled, most of their 6 month deployment was spent fighting with Iraqi Militiamen loyal to Moqtada al Sadr. The long battle they fought has come to be known as the Siege of Cimic House. It was during this period that Johnson Beharry won his VC. Mills describes every bullet, every aspect of modern warfare.

Mills writes with a dynamism that is gripping, yet has none of the bombast or glorification of Andy McNab or Chris Ryan. Refreshing in his honesty, that he talks about pornography and masturbation all helps you to believe that these are normal men, not the virtual superheroes that front-line soldiers are made out to be. The Tigers recruit from Portsmouth, my home town, and you can almost see people you know in the characters in Mills’ Patoon.

This is a very important book. One, because it focusses on a rather less glamorous Regiment, and secondly because of its realism and its no-nonsense style or writing, it will be invaluable to Historians for hundreds of years. This is a more honest, and more important, book than Bravo Two Zero.

Click here to buy Sniper One: The Blistering True Story of a British Battle Group Under Siege

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Iraq

Shoreham Airshow

I went to Shoreham Airshow yesterday. Unlike Last year it was a cracking day, blazing sunshine and no cancellations. As well as a stellar programme of flying displays as always they had a full and varied bunch of static displays. Dad’s Army seem to be an annual fixture, as are Haurel and Lardy. With such an impressive cast its almost impossible to pick out highlights, but I’ll try and do my best!

The first display was a real rarity, a Strikemaster in the markings of the Kuwaiti Air Force, flown by an Englishman! Its an American built plane, sold to second and third world countries as a counter insurgency attack craft. Next up were the Team Guinot wingwalkers, who have to be seen to be believed – young girls wingwalking and performing gymnastics on biplanes, all sponsored by a make up company! The Gnat display team is made up of ex-red arrows pilots, and it shows.  A real treat was the Great War Team, flying a collection of replica Sopwiths, Fokkers and Messerschmitt’s… those magnificent men in their flying machines indeed, very evocative.

The afternoon saw the noisy and aggressive entrance of the RAF’s new Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft that seems to be able to do whatever its pilot asks of it, while making a hell of a lot of noise at the same time. Staggering to think that we’ve ordered almost 200 of them! We were treated to a flypast by the Red Arrows – literally, just a flypast. This was rather disappointing, considering that they performed all 3 days at the Bournemouth Airshow, which is a freebie, whereas the Shoreham airshow is to raise money for the RAF Association.

Another rarity was Sally B, the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress. Happily, the RAF did manage to get something right, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight gave a great display consisting of their Avro Lancaster bomber, complete with distinctive engine tone, and a lone Hurricane. An annual fixture of Shoreham is the Battle of Britain airfield scramble, where the airfield is ‘attacked’ by the Luftwaffe, complete with pyrotechnics, before the Spitfires and Hurricanes scramble and defeat the Hun. Its the same every year, and a little contrived, but I guess its fun for the kids.

The highlight for a lot of people was the first appearance at Shoreham of XH558, the legenday Avro Vulcan Bomber. Flown by Martin Withers DFC, who piloted her sister plane XM607 on its epic raid on Port Stanley in the Falklands War.  XH558 is limited as to what maneouvres it can make, due to the astronomical cost of keeping her flying and the potential for stress on the airframe.  It was still an impressive moment, however, and the classic delta wing shape and camoflaugued paint finish is recognisable anywhere. Truly a flying legend, how sad that it comes down to a group of dedicated volunteers to keep her flying. Meanwhile, the Govt pays millions to buy a Titian painting.

After that, the Fleet Air Arm Black Cats display team arrived in their Lynx helicopters, an aircraft we see fairly frequently over Portsmouth! Finally, we were treated to a display by the RAF Falcons parachute display team, jumping out of an RAF CH47 Chinook at 10,000 feet. Maybe not as good as the Red Devils, but then I am biased!

The highlight for me, however, was the unexpected opportunity to climb on board a C-47 Dakota, a static exhibit at the show. My Grandfather, Private Henry Miller, was an Arnhem Veteran and would have jumped out of an idential plane in 1944. It was very emotional to be able to sit in the metal bucket seats, stand up and see the static line hook, and the red and green lights near the door.

It only remains for me to summon up the courage and find the means of parachuting out of one…. some day I hope!

But back to Shoreham… sunshine, spitfires, hurricanes, Lancaster, Vulcan, and we won the Ashes… would more could you hope for on a summers day?

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Filed under airshow, event, Falklands War, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Vulcan Bomber, World War One, World War Two

Historians

All manner of people work and trade under the banner of ‘Historians’.

But what the hell IS a Historian?

Generally speaking, its someone who specialises in looking at, and possible also explaining about, the past. More specifically, purists would say that Historians should have at least a degree, and real History snobs would probably say you need to have a PhD or an MA or something to be a ‘true’ historian. Other people might read a book about History then suddenly decide that that makes them a Historian.

But then again, like a lot of things in life, having the qualifications and the fancy certificates doesnt actually make you good at doing something. Some lecturers I have come across were able to reduce a room full of students to insanity within 10 minutes. And by the same token, some of the most gifted ‘historians’ I have come across have had not one qualification at all.

What I think makes a good Historian is… research. Theres no substitute for getting your sleeves rolled up and working with documents, getting out and looking at things, and talking to people. There are certain things that you just can’t learn in books. Also, just regurgitating what other people have already written doesnt make you a Historian, merely a plagiarist. If you’re going to write a book, please please make sure that there is something new in it, so its worth the bother. Some of the biggest selling ‘historians’ on the shelf are guilty of this. Selling books isnt important, but making a contribution to people’s understanding of the future IS.

Another thing that does annoy me is the fact that the overwhelming majority of high-profile Historians are either from a very privileged background, or are where they are thanks to a family connection. Take Dan Snow. If he wasn’t Peter Snow’s son, no-one would know who he is. He’s made no contribution to History, but has no doubt earnt a lot in the process. Granted many people may have become interested in History through his programmes, but you would think that maybe a Cambridge graduate might have something more to offer rather than trading on his Dad’s name. And I can’t help but think that the large amount of Oxbridge graduates and double-barrelled shotgun historians out there will really give a good account of normal, working class people’s experiences. It will always be a ‘top-down’ approach, no matter how objective.

The problem is, that they way History is taught in schools, and prescribed by the national curriculum, History is just not an attractive subject. I really don’t blame kids for being bored with it, when its largely irrelevant, too rigid and taught so blandly. It doesnt help either that there’s absolutely no money or glamour to be earnt from a career in History.

Something else that annoys me is the fact that a History degree alone is not enough to get yourself a job in a museum, archive et cetera. I can’t help thinking that the policy of insisting on professional qualifications and postgraduate degrees is a way of making sure that only people who can afford it get into that line of work, thus keeping the whole profession nice and stable and free of new ideas that  might upset the apple cart and derail the gravy train. If you think about it, you can learn how to handle pots quite easily on the job if you have the aptitude. But people skills? No postgrad course goes into them. In my experience they are far more important than any obscure professional thing.

But having said all that, there gets a point where you have to put aside where you come from, and think more about where you’re going. I think a Historian should be judged on what you do, not on what school or Uni you went to.

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The New Forest

Earlier today I went for a walk in the New Forest, which lucikly is about 20 or so miles away from where I live.

New Forest Ponies

New Forest Ponies

The New Forest is pretty much what most of England would have been like hundreds of years ago – woodland, before much of the forest was cleared for farming. The fact that the soil is quite poor means that most of it becomes heathland, which is quite stunning with its dense purple colour.

People have lived in the New Forest for thousands of years – there are over 250 long barrows (ancient burial mounds), and 150 other scheduled ancient monuments. The New Forest became a royal Forest in 1079, primarily thanks to the rich hunting that it offered, and there are still the remains of a number of Royal Hunting Lodges in the Forest. William II, known as William the Rufus due to his red hair, was killed in the Forest in 1100, reputedly by an arrow accidentally fired by Walt Tyrrell while out hunting.

Many of the plantations that remain today in the Forest were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide wood for the ever-expanding wooden walls of the Royal Navy, and many ships were built at Bucklers Hard in the Forest. Nearby Beaulieu was also the home of wartime training for the SOE, or Special Operations Executive, and is today a motor museum.

Its famous for the New Forest Ponies that roam wild, including around the villages and holding up traffic on the roads! The Forest is governed to this day by an ancient court of verderers, and is subject to a complex system of rights and privileges, such as the right to let Ponies run free, and to let Pigs wander the forest at certain times of the year in order to eat acorns. There are also many rare species of wildlife that live in the Forest.

Its amazing that only 20 miles away from a big city like Portsmouth or Southampton you can find a little part of old England, where it seems like time has forgot.  Its a great place to go for a walk and relax away from the rat race.

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Filed under Ancient History, Local History, Medieval history, out and about

Monty – hero or villain?

Think of great British military Heroes. Wellington. Nelson. Marlborough. Henry V.

But funnily enough, you rarely hear Montgomery mentioned in the same breath. Why? Certainly, his prickly character and egotistical manner hasnt helped his image amongst Historians.

Monty

Monty

But more importantly, hardly anyone has been prepared to fight his corner, either during the war or after. He was the victim of a serious witchhunt amonst the Allied High Command, when Eisenhower’s deputy Tedder, on very narrow and selfish grounds, attempted to have him removed from the command of 21 Army Group. Then, after the war, American Historians have been ruthless in playing down Monty’s legacy. Even in films, the idea that Monty was over-rated persists.

As so often, if you strip away the myths and counter myths, you get somewhat closer to the big picture. Monty fought in WW1, and was seriously wounded. None, if any at all, of his American colleagues could call on this experience. And Monty performed very well in bringing his Division back fr0m Dunkirk, then re-equipped and trained it, before succesfully commanding 2 Corps in England. When he went to Egypt to command the Eighth Army, he turned a defeated Army into a victorious one. Circumstances may have been on his side, but that should not be held against him. Tedder felt that Monty and the Eigth Army got too much attention after El Alamein, which to be honest sounds to me like jealousy. Since time immaterial  commanders have got credit for winning, it would be like Collingwood complaining that Nelson got too much credit for Trafalgar.

Then we come to D-Day.  No one on the Allied side could have organised D-Day quite like Monty. And despite what American Historians have claimed, the Allies got to almost exactly where Monty had predicted after 90 days. Maybe not exactly as he suggested, but what plan ever survives contact with the enemy exactly? Bradley hardly performed miracles in Normandy. The beauty of it was, he adapted his plan to suit developments.  People forget how easily D-Day could have all gone wrong. But you can’t help feeling that because he was prickly and made few friends,  people bore grudges.

Market Garden is often cited as a reason for criticism of Monty. It is a classic counter-argument to the though that Monty was ‘too cautious’.  I, after a lot of study, am sure that with the correct resources behind it, the plan was fantastic and would have worked. But unfortunately the plan meant stopping Patton, and that was not palatable to Eisenhower or the American Public.  Despite the fact that letting Patton keep driving very fast in a straight line arguably led to the war lasting a lot longer and costing a lot more lives.

Neither do I think that just because Monty had an ego, that that makes him less of a commander. Nelson had an ego, in fact he was so convinced that he would die a hero he left detailed plans for his own state funeral. And look at how he treated his poor wife. Wellington, too, was a famous adulterer, and was rather cold and aloof. But no one ever claims that that detracts from his victories.

But most of all, Monty cared about his men, told them what they were fighting for, and didnt waste their lives. In stark contrast to a LOT of his contemporaries. His men thought a lot of him, and I think that speaks volumes.

We can only hope that as time passes, the more frivolous criticisms fall away and the real achievements remain. So is it time to rehabilitate Monty? I think so. Or at least, look at some of the rather weak arguments against him, and consider the other side of the coin.

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Government snubs war hero Eddie

Just when you thought the Government couldn’t stoop any lower, you see something like this :http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/newshome/Government-snubs–war-hero.5567352.jp

Commander Eddie Grenfell

Commander Eddie Grenfell

Eddie Grenfell, 89, fought in the Arctic Convoys in the Second World War. He was a stalwart behind the campaign to force the Government to give long overdue recognition for Arctic Convo veterans, and also did much work promoting peace and understanding between Britain and Germany. If anyone deserves a medal, its this guy. The Germans have honoured him. The Russians have honoured him. We, on the other hand, turned him down. For the SIXTH time.

According to the Ministry of Defence civil servant Alistair Boyd competition for awards was ‘too strong’. He said: ‘I am sorry that your nomination has not been successful but you will appreciate that there are many who act to remember and commemorate the sacrifices made in wartime. Competition for awards is extremely strong. Unfortunately this means that not all those nominated can succeed as there are simply many more worthy people than there are awards available.’

Now, lets think about it. Competition is not so fierce that Bankers, civil servants, party political donors and mediocre officers are given medals and honours as a matter of course for not really doing much. The honours system is well overdue for serious overhauling. There should be no quotas at all, it shouldnt be a case of picking and choosing. Why is there a limit on awards anyway? Theres no limit on bravery in wartime. You should get a medal if you do something special and out of the ordinary, not just for doing a job that you’re paid for as a grace and favour. For example, I bet Mr Boyd will get some sort of medal for not really doing much worthwhile. I know personally of MOD civil servants who have been given awards for – essentially – slashing wages and cutting jobs. The accountants obviously liked it, and an OBE is the result. I wonder what impact those cuts had on our armed forces?

Eddie Grenfell if a role model for young people if ever there was one. Not just for his wartime service, but for giving up so much of his time to heal old conflicts, standing up for what he believes in and behaving in such a dignified manner in the face of never ending civil service red tape.

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Portchester Castle

Half a mile south of my house, on the shores of Portsmouth Harbour, is Portchester Castle.

Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle was first built by the Romans, who found the natural cove at the top of Portsmouth Harbour to be an ideal anchorage for ships, and built a substantial fort to defent their naval base. Most of the Roman walls survive to this day, and used by the Saxons to build a more substantial castle once the Roman Empire in England has collapsed.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, William the Conqueror gifted land across the country to his loyal followers, both to reward them and to control the native Saxons. The Domesday book, a record of English land ownership in 1086, recorded that William Mauduit owned the Castle at Portchester, and had built a Norman Keep (tower) in the North West corner of the Roman walls.

In 1130, the Augustinian Order of monks founded a priory in the South East corner of the castle. The Castle was clearly not a suitable site for a monastery, as by 1145 the monks had moved a few miles north to the village of Southwick. However, they left behind a fine Norman church, that survives to this day.

The Medieval Kings of England often stayed at Portchester Castle. It proved a suitable location for hunting in the nearby Forest of Bere, and also for staying the night before sailing across the Channel to English possessions in France. King John often stayed at the Castle, Richard II built a magnificent Palace in the inner bailey (courtyard), and both Edward III and Henry V assembled their armies at Portchester before sailing to victory at the battles of Crecy and Agincourt.

After Henry VII founded the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, however, Portchester declined in importance. In addition, castles were no longer as fashionable to live in as mansions and country houses. Portchester still had its uses, however – in the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was used as a prison for thousands of French prisoners captured during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Castle is now a museum. The outer bailey is open to the public during daylight, and English Heritage run the Inner Bailey and Keep as a Museum. St Mary’s church, the remains of the priory, is still a functioning church and is open to the public. If you want to find out more about Portchester Castle, visit the English Heritage website, or take a look at the Portsmouth Paper on the Castle by Barry Cunliffe, which details the archaeological investigations at the Castle.

Portchester Castle Official Website

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Filed under Ancient History, Local History, Medieval history, Museums, out and about