Monthly Archives: October 2009

killed Colonel warned of Helicopter shortages

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

A British Lieutenant-Colonel who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan had only weeks previously warned superiors that men would die because helicopter shortages were forcing troops to travel by road.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, Commanding Officer of the Welsg Guards, also told commanders that the organisation of helicopter support in Afghanistan was ‘not fit for purpose’, a leaked memo reveals. On June 5, in his “Battle Group Weekly Update” to the Ministry of Defence, he wrote: “I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters — we all know we don’t have enough. We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”

Despite this the Government and the Ministry of Defence insist that there are enough helicopters in Afghanistan, effectively calling a liar a man who died in action. If a senior commander on the ground says that he does not have enough of something, it should not be for whitehall warriors or mandarins to say that he doesnt know what he’s talking about. Whilst helicopters would not eliminate risk – men still need to be on the ground and to close with the enemy – they would reduce vulnerability dramatically. The gall of the politicians is unbelievable.

Part of the problem perhaps is the history behind the Royal Air Force. Traditionally the RAF has prided itself on fast jets, fighters and bombers. Whilst these are no doubt valuable and very impressive assets, this is to the detriment of more important roles such as support helicopters, close air support and long range transport. Fighters are an independent, sexy feature of the RAF. Whereas the other roles are unglamorous and involve working with other services, and as the junior service the RAF is fiercely protective of its independence. Look at the background of senior RAF officers – by far the majority of them are ex-fighter or bomber pilots.

It would surely be accurate to state that British Military Aviation is hardly fit for purpose. We currently have no dedicated maritime fighter-bombers to operate from our aircraft carriers, instead relying on RAF Harriers, which is hardly ideal. The Army invests in its own close support assets in the shape of the Apache gunship helicopter. There are nowhere near enough support helicopters, particularly the Chinook workhorses. Meanwhile, the RAF has some 200 Eurofighter Typhoons to show off in. An incredible aircraft, but it does illustrate much that is wrong with British military policy in the 21st Century.

3 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, News, politics

Time Team

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

Unless you’ve lived on a different planet for the past 15 years, you can’t fail but to have seen the hugely popular archaeology TV show, Time Team. It can be seen on Channel 4, and repeats on the Discovery Channel.

First broadcast in 1994, it showcases a team of archaeologists and associated experts as they go about investigating archaeological sites. The real crux of the programme is that they supposedly have only three days to carry out the dig. In fact much of the work is done before and after the three days. They have investigated everything from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Industrial Revolution through to second world war sites. They have also produced programmes on excavations in America and the Carribean.

The show is presented by Tony Robinson, of Blackadder fame. As well as an acomplished actor, he’s also got an enthusiasm for archaeology. The main expert is Professor Mick Aston, a nutty professor if ever there was one, with shocks of clown-like hair and day-glo stripey jumpers. Historian Robin Bush used to cover the research side of things, and proved to be unlike many archivists in that he actually had a personality. The show also uses some fascinating geophysical survey technology.

The real gem of the series has to be Phil Harding. Like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel and with the broad wessex accent to match, he is a dirt archaeologist and is always getting involved in the re-enactments and reconstructions. With long hair and short shorts, hes quite a character.

Time Team usually get involved with the local community. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, however, when earlier this summer they carried out an excavation in Portsmouth and cosied up with Portsmouth Grammar School. Why not invite some less privileged young people who might not normally get that kind of opportunity?

Time Team has made a lasting impact on British archaeology. The archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.

A lot of the establishment figures have never been to happy about Time Team, reasoning that it dumbs down archaeology, and no doubt they dont like anything that interests normal people. As someone who thinks that it is the right of anyone and everyone to be interested in history, this smacks of elitism. If these authority figures really loved their subject, then they would be glad that people find an interest in it.

If you dont like people being enthusiastic about history, go and work in a factory.

21 Comments

Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, debate, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Museums, On TV, social history

2009 Poppy Appeal

Poppy Appeal 2009

Poppy Appeal 2009

As October comes to an end this years Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal is upon us. In a year which saw the passing of the last veterans of World War One, and has seen yet more deaths and injuries in Afghanistan, it is more important than ever to remember.

The annual Poppy appeal is the Royal British Legion’s fundraising drive leading up to Remembrance Day, on 11 November. The idea of wearing Poppies dates back to In Flanders Fields by John McRae, which includes the line ‘in Flanders Fields the Poppies grow’. After the First World War battlefields fell silent the churned up quagmire of no-mans land was transformed into fields of Poppies.

Throughout the year a team of 50 people – many of them disabled ex-servicemen – work to produce millions od poppies. In recent years the Legion has organised a Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey in London, where members of the public can place poppies, crosses or wreaths in memory of loved ones.

The annual Poppy appeal culminates on the nearest weekend to the 11th of November. On the Saturday evening the Royal Albert Hall hosts the festival of remembrance, featuring military bands, and in recent years popular artists such as Katherine Jenkins and Hayley Westenra. It closes with the moving spectacle of millions of poppies falling from the ceiling onto the servicemen paraded in the hall.

On the Sunday morning closest to 11th November the official Remembrance service takes place in Whitehall, centred on the cenotaph. The queen, royal family, politicians and service chiefs all place wreaths. There then follows a march past by thousands of veterans, all making their own tribute.

Most cities and towns also have their own services. In Portsmouth this takes place on the steps of the Guildhall.

And if the 11th does not fall on a Sunday, it is customary to observe a 2 minutes silence in the memory of fallen servicemen past and present.

47 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, Navy, News, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War One, World War Two

Victoria Cross Heroes – Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

I must confess to having a particular admiration for this Victoria Cross winner. Not only is he Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law, and not only did Major Robert Cain win his Victoria Cross during the battle of Arnhem, but there is something so completely normal and modest about his life before and after the VC, that it shatters the myth that all VC winners are supermen. Theres something of a VC winner in all of us.

A pre-war worker for Shell, Major Robert Cain was commanding B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment when they landed in Gliders at Arnhem. After leading his company in the attack into Arnhem, he was the only senior officer to survive. Major Gilchrist, of the 11th Parachute Battalion, met Cain, who told him that “The tanks are coming, give me a PIAT”. It was not exactly the job of a company commander to take on tanks with a PIAT, but that he was determined to have a go speaks volumes of the man.

After the remnants of the attack fell back to Oosterbeek to hang on for dear life, Cain was determined to take on as much Germany armour as possible. On the afternoon of 21 September 1944 two tanks approached his position. Standing in the open and guided by a spotter high in a building, he destroyed the first tank, but was wounded when a PIAT shell exploded in his face. In his own words he was “shouting like a hooligan. I shouted to somebody to get onto the PIAT because there was another tank behind. I blubbered and yelled and used some very colourful language. They dragged me off to the aid post.”
However within half an hour, against medical advice, he had returned to the front line. Later in the battle he and another man took over using a 6 pounder anti-tank gun until it was destroyed, and then with no PIAT rounds remaining he used a 2 inch mortar, firing from the hip. Before withdrawing across the Rhine, he even found time to shave.

Cain’s Victoria Cross was announced on 2 November 1944:

“Throughout the whole course of the Battle of Arnhem, Major Cain showed superb gallantry. His powers of endurance and leadership were the admiration of all his fellow officers and stories of his valour were being constantly exchanged amongst the troops. His coolness and courage under incessant fire could not be surpassed”

Upon leaving the Army after the war Cain returned to his job working for Shell, before retiring to the Isle of Man. When he died in 1974 his family were astounded to find a Victoria Cross among his belongings – apparently he hadn’t thought to mention it.

55 Comments

Filed under Army, Arnhem, victoria cross, World War Two

Victoria Cross Heroes – Albert Ball VC

Albert Ball VC

Albert Ball VC

Among Victoria Cross winners, more than a few show that quintessentially english personality trait – eccentricity. Many who people who might have been almost sectionable in peacetime have found their moment in wartime. First World War fighter Pilot Albert Ball is perhaps one of the most eccentric of the lot.

Ball was unhappy with the hygiene of his assigned billet in the nearest village. He elected to live in a tent on the flight line. He soon built a hut to replace the tent; he reasoned it was better to be closer to his airplane. Very much a loner, Ball preferred his own company. Apparently sensitive and shy, he spent much of his spare time tending to his small garden and practicing the violin. He insisted on working on his own aeroplanes, and as such had an untidy and dishevelled appearance. In combat he refused to wear goggles or a flying helmet.

But this eccentricity added up to make a ferocious fighter, who consistently performed heroics in the air. By the time of his death on 7 May 1917 Ball had accounted for one balloon and 28 aircraft. For consistent gallantry he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

“For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from the 25th of April to the 6th of May, 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land. In these combats Capt. Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy. Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so seriously that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another. In all, Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.”

52 Comments

Filed under Remembrance, Royal Air Force, victoria cross, World War One

Family History #10 – Newspapers

A Newspaper cutting about rioting in Andover

While a lot of things have changed over time, some things change very little. Much as today, in bygone days you could read all about what was going on by picking up the Newspapers.

As such Newspapers are a great resource for family history. Birth, Marriage and Death announcements, court proceedings, news stories, and all the usual scandals and gossip can be found in old Newspapers. In fact, you can guarantee that when you are looking for something, you will come across wonderful accounts of murders and executions. And aside from being devilishly distracting, they give you a very good idea of contemporary society.

My local library in Portsmouth has copies of the Hampshire Telegraph from the 18th Century until the 1970′s, and the Evening News from its beginning until the present day, all on microfilm. Better still, these have been indexed by subject in a card index, so if you are looking for a particular person, road, business or event, you can go straight to it rather than sift through thousands of copies.

Further afield, the Times can be searched online, at timesonline. You can search for free, but to access the full articles you need to pay a fee. Also, some libraries have Palmers index to the times, which can also be accessed online.

On a slightly more official level, the official Government Newspapers, including the London Gazette, can also be accessed online here, completely free. These contain details of armed forces promotions, official announcements and awards and honours.

Finally, the British Library Newspaper Archive have made 49 local and national newspapers, from between 1800 and 1900, searchable online here. You can search for free, but need to pay to download any articles.

For more about the British Library’s collection of Newspapers, click here.

You never quite know what you are going to find. For example, if one of your ancestors had a business, you may find an advert placed by them. And even if you don’t find anything specifically about them, you can use Newspapers to give you a very good idea about what was going on at the time, what society was like and what public opinion was like. Try to think in bigger terms than just names and dates, but people, times and events.

Leave a comment

Filed under Family History, social history

Costcutting blamed for Nimrod crash

Bae Nimrod

And independent review into a fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in 2006 has found that the Ministry of Defence placed cutting costs before safety, reports the BBC website.

The highly critical report by an expert in aviation law found that there was a ‘systematic breach’ in the military covenant, between the armed forces and the Government. Fourteen crewmen, based at RAF Kinloss in Moray, died when the aircraft blew up after air-to-air refuelling over Afghanistan when leaking fuel made contact with a hot air pipe.

Between 1998 and 2006 financial targets became the most important concern in the MOD, over-riding safety. This was as the result of a culture of ‘getting on’, that meant amibitious officers and civil servants had to keep on top of their budgets at all costs if they wished to progress. The report also identified ‘fundamental failures of leadership’ on the part of two senior RAF Officers.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the report was a “formidable indictment” and “genuinely shocking”, containing information that previous incidents and warning signs had been ignored. Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: “This is a tragic case of an accident that could have been avoided.”

The Ministry of Defence has grounded all Nimrods whose engine-bay hot air ducts had not been replaced.

The report raises serious questions not only about the RAF and individuals, but about broader culture in the Ministry of Defence and how it is at odds with the values of the armed forces. There has also been a clear lack of ministerial responsibility throughout.

The Nimrod aircraft are used for reconnaisance in war zones. Developed from the ancient De Havilland Comet, they have been in service since 1969 and have recently been plagued by controversy over whether they are fit for purpose. All Nimrod MR2 aircraft are due to be replaced by new MR4A, although whether this rehash of an old plane will be sufficient remains to be seen. What was initially an order for 21 has been reduced eventually to 9. Meanwhile, 200 Eurofighters eat up the RAF’s budget.

28 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, politics, Royal Air Force