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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Afghanistan, debate, politics, Royal Air Force

Book of the Week – Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is perhaps best known for his Sharpe series of Napoleonic, swashbuckling novels. And quite rightly too, in my opinion they are one of the best historical fiction series ever written. But Cornwell has far more strings to his bow, as this effort demonstrates. And the pun is intended.

Azincourt follows the exploits and adventures of Nicholas Hook, an English Archer taking part in the legendary Agincourt campaign in 1415. Azincourt takes the reader not only in the footsteps of Henry V and his Army during those fateful days, but also on a voyage of discovery in medieval England. As usual with Bernard Cornwell, a convincing and gripping storyline is supported admirably by evidence of deep and broad research. Fitting and appropriate use of contemporary language and imagery is the icing on this literary cake.

An easy trap to fall into would be to write yet another Sharpe novel and simply graft it into a different era, something that several authors have done in recent years. This will perhaps never have the readership of Sharpe, or Sean Bean playing Hook, but it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf all the same. Cornwell is clearly not a one trick pony.

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Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, Medieval history

Victoria Cross Heroes – Boy Jack Cornwell VC

Boy First Class Jack Cornwell VC

Victoria Cross winners inspire for all kinds of reasons. But very few combine a shining example with young age. Jack Cornwell showed that age need be no barrier to heroism and devotion to duty.

At the age of 16 Jack Cornwell found himself serving onboard HMS Chester, a light Cruiser of the Royal Navy. Early in the battle of Jutland Chester came under fire. Cornwell, manning a 5.5inch gun, stayed at his post throughout a heavy bombardment that killed the rest of his colleagues and caused carnage on the Chester’s upper deck. All the time, Cornwell, although seriously wounded, waited obediently for orders and with no thought for his own safety. After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Although Cornwell was taken to hospital after the battle, sadly he died on 2 June 1916.

Admiral Beatty, the commander of the British Battlecruisers at Jutland, reccomended in the strongest possible terms that Cornwell’s incredible feat should be recognised:

“the instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded around him. He was under 16½ years old. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him.”

In September 1916 it was announced in the London Gazette that Jack Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross:

“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained
standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.”

Cornwell’s VC can be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London.

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RN agrees to cut in two new aircraft carriers

An artists impression of one of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers

An artists impression of one of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers

The Sunday Times reports that the Royal Navy’s new Aircraft Carriers will have a much reduced air wing.

Reportedly the Navy can save £8.2bn from its budget by only purchasing enough of the new Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft to equip one Aircraft Carrier. This would leave the other in the class to operate with mainly Helicopters, in an amphibious commando role. With only one ship operating in the strike carrier role, this would leave the Navy without air cover while she is in refit. Although apparently discussions have been ongoing with the French about ‘borrowing’ carriers, I doubt very much whether they would lend us Charles De Gaulle if Argentina were to have another go at the Falklands.

It was always unlikely that we would have enough aircraft to operate both of them as strike carriers at the same time – this is the case at present anyway – but by permanently designating one as a commando carrier the MOD are looking to save even more money. They know that they cannot cancel the second for fear of job losses.

Todays Portsmouth Evening News has more. The MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, who sits on the Commons Defence Select Committee, said that he was certain that both ships would be built, but the issue would be how they would be used. An MOD spokesman gave a usually diplomatic statement, saying ‘Challenging financial circumstances mean some difficult decisions will have to be taken to prioritise our forces efforts in Afghanistan. However, the Secretary of state remains 100 per cent committed to the Aircraft Carriers. At the moment theres absolutely no threat to jobs’.

The whole affair poses very serious questions. While everyone is quite rightly focussing on Jobs, the long-term impact on the Royal Navy and UK Defence is impossible to quantify.

Why were the RAF allowed to purchase so many Eurofighters, an aircraft that cannot operate from onboard carriers? Are the RAF getting an easy ride because at present the Chief of the Defence Staff is an airman? Is there any long term planning at all in UK Defence policy apart from continual cuts, overstretch and underfund? If Afghanistan is the priority, when will there be an order for some more Chinooks, relatively cheap compared to the Eurofighter?

All in all, the Royal Navy will be left with one aircraft carrier, and one huge commando carrier, when we already have one in HMS Ocean. The Royal Navy have accepted cut after cut in the number of Destroyers and Frigates, the workhorses of the fleet, in order to get the Carriers. This leaves the Navy seriously inflexible and unbalanced. The whole affair has been badly mismanaged from the moment the Admirals started dreaming of Super-Carriers.

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Filed under debate, Navy, politics, Uncategorized

Victoria Cross Heroes – Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for Gallantry that any British or Commonwealth Serviceman or woman can receive. It is always awarded first at any ceremony, and always the first medal worn. And with apologies to the Medal of Honour and the Iron Cross, there really is something special about that crimson ribbon and dark metal pattee cross. It has a history and a mystique all of its own. Go to a Museum where they have VC’s on show, and gaze through the gleaming glass at those hallowed medals, and try and argue that they are ‘just a lump of metal’.

Created in the Crimean War to recognise brave and heroic acts by all sailors, soldiers – and later airmen – regardless of class, rank or creed, in recent years it has become harder and harder to earn. This is shown by how many of them are awarded Posthumously, after the recipient has died in action. Of the two awarded for the Falklands War, both Sergeant Ian McKay and Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones were killed in Action. Corporal Bryan Budd was also killed winning his VC in Afghanistan. Only Private Johnson Beharry, in Iraq, has survived to receive his award in person in recent conflicts. And even then, he suffered terrible brain damage in the process. There are also countless stories of men being nominated for VC’s, but in the long process they were awarded a more minor medal.

It has occured to me more and more that although we are fully aware of some of the more famous VC winners – Guy Gibson, Leonard Cheshire, and of course the famous action at Rorkes Drift. But what of the hundreds of other recipients who did amazing things, but that we dont hear about?

So, starting now I’m going to take a periodic delve into the London Gazette’s records of Victoria Cross Citations, and look at some unsung holders of the Victoria Cross. This week we look at Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April, 1944. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine. Sergeant Jackson received shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames. With a fire extinguisher and parachute, he started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away. By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places. Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner died. Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. This airman’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

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Filed under Afghanistan, Falklands War, Iraq, Museums, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two

the Sunday Papers – 25th Oct 09

As Sunday is traditionally a day when the newspapers put in their more serious stories that they have been working on all week, rather than simply what happened the day before, I thought I would start a regular round up of what is happening in the Papers relating to the Armed Forces and History.

The Queen is reportedly furious about the rise of the BNP, the News of the World reports. She has ordered all of the Royal Family to stake a stand to ensure that the United Kingdom stays united. She is also angry about their use of Winston Churchill in their publicity. Churchill was the Queen’s first Prime Minister, and she granted him a state funeral after his death for his iconic war leadership. This is an unprecedented move for the Queen, who usually keeps quiet on politics. But being the savvy monarch that she is, it shows how seriously the situation is (News of the World).

The People reports that Jordan is considering going to Afghanistan on a ‘morale raising’ trip for the troops. I can’t help thinking that its just a publicity stunt, funnily enough it comes when shes very unpopular after her acrimonious divorce (The People).

If anyone is still in any doubt about the true colours of the BNP, the Sunday Mirror tells us much here (Sunday Mirror). Meanwhile, the Sunday Express reports that the same blog entry by a senior BNP figure orders Jews to ‘show respect’ or when the BNP get in power they will ‘reap what they sow’. Who wants these people in charge of the country, seriously? (Sunday Express).

Former First Sea Lord Sir Alan West has spoken out in criticism of General Sir Richard Dannatt’s appointment as Tory Defence advisor. Funnily enough, West is serving as a Security Minister under the current Labour Government. Coincidence? He says that it is wrong for ex service chiefs to undermine their successors, but surely its better to have someone who knows what they are doing than a besuited politician who knows nothing? (Sunday Times).

Comedian Jimmy Carr has made a bad call by making fun of amputee servicemen, stating that ‘we should have a good paralympics team in 2012′ (Sunday Telegraph).

Peter Hitchens makes some interesting comments about Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance, namely suggesting that it might end up provoking a myth that he was ‘stabbed in the back’, much like the lies that the Nazis peddled that the Jews were to blame for Germany losing the First World War (Mail on Sunday).

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, Navy, News, politics

the truth is out there?

the truth is out there... or is it?

the truth is out there... or is it?

Recent events in the news have made me think back to one of my first lectures at University, many moons ago. In the Historical Methods unit, we were being encouraged to think more critically about what we were studying. A good theory. In practice it did far more to fry our brains.

But I digress. This particular lecture introduced the idea of the ‘historical truth’. The idea of truth, the lecturer argued, was absurd. Instead of there being something called ‘the truth’, there are only various different interpretations, which are naturally different based on a persons experiences and perspective.

No such thing as the truth? He must be mad, we all though. But its only by looking back, and having watched Nick Griffins absurd abuse of history, that I see the idea of the truth in a new perspective. Sure, there are some things that are beyond doubt. Water boils at 37 degrees, a normal human being has two eyeballs and sooner or later we all die. But that is all very scientific. Also, every crime must have been committed by someone, and it is the work of the detective to find out who.

Some things cannot be proved. Something more fluid things simply cannot be proved or disproved. Religion, for example. How can you prove a higher being? That is more belief than truth. As Richard Dawkins would say, no-one can offer any proof of this, apart from ‘god works in mysterious ways’. Which is not proof.

Nick Griffin comes from the David Irving school of history. Namely, that they have already decided what they want to see, and select sources and evidence that supports their argument, and ignore everything else. This is not history, it is lying and abusing your position to hoodwink people. It should be a matter of honour to historians that they look at the evidence in an as impartial way as possible, then come to a conclusion. This process if further enhanced by publishing your work, giving talks, and debating with other historians. In this process, something close to the truth usually appears.

A propensity to knowingly lie is not something that you can trust in a Historian. As Professor Richard Evans commented on Irving, his work is completely worthless and he cannot be trusted, due to his track record with evidence. The ironic thing is, the fact that Irving is a denier of the holocaust is one of the most concrete things any Historian could ever come across.

So, the truth is out there. Or is it? Its one of those arguments that will never be solved, and will run and run all the time historians are paid to pick over technicalities. Personally I find historiography rather tedious, and prefer to spend my time actually researching things. But all the same, some idea of objectivity and use of evidence is important to bear in mind, in life as well as in history.

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USNS Laramie

USNS Laramie

USNS Laramie

I quite unexpectedly saw the USNS Laramie coming into Portsmouth Harbour today. She is in the UK supporting US warships taking part in a NATO exercise in Scotland recently.

The Laramie is a 31,200 ton tanker of the Henry J Kaiser Class. He role is to support US warships at sea by providing fuel oil and aviation fuel. They can also carry a small amount of dry and frozen food. She has a capacity for 159,000 barrells of fuel oil and aviation oil, 7,400 square feet of cargo space, 8 20 foot refrigerated containers and room for 128 pallets. The high gantires enable her to refuel ships while underway, a process known as Replenishment at Sea, or RAS. With gantries on both sides, she can RAS with two ships at once.

The US Navy’s support vessels – oil tankers, supply ships, hospital ships and container vessels – actually come under the Military Sealift Command, hence the USNS prefix and not USS. This is a designation that is also used by the Royal Navy, whose non-fighting support ships come under the Royal Fleet Auxilliary and have the designation RFA. Both the MSC and RFA’s ships are manned mainly by civilians.

The US Navy have 14 ships in the same class, which makes it possible to support and replenish a large number of warships, at sea, around the globe. In comparison the Royal Fleet Auxilliary, only has four oil tankers. The two ships of the new Wave class have a similar size and capacity, but the two ships of the Rover class are only 11,000 tons.

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Paulsgrove

After writing about so many high and mighty subjects – aircraft carriers, politicians and the like – I thought I would write about something much more humble… where I live.

Paulsgrove is a large estate in the suburbs of Portsmouth, on the north west mainland part of the city, bordering Portchester and on the slopes of Portsdown Hill. Until 1945 the area was very quiet – apart from Paulsgrove House, a few roads and houses, and a racecourse, it was mainly made up of Pig Farms, owned by George Cooper.

Why is it called Paulsgrove? It has been suggested that it might be because St Paul preached there, although its probably an urban myth. Old maps of the area show the settlements as ‘Pals Grave’, so its probably more likely that an old english chief called Pal was buried in the area.

After Portsmouth was heavily bombed during the blitz, however, the City Council realised that it would have to plan to resettle many of the city’s residents off of Portsea Island, to provide better living conditions. To do this they purchased the land at Paulsgrove. At the same time, a very similar development was started at Leigh Park in Havant. Both sets of my Grandparents were among the first people to move to the new area after the end of the war. It must have made a big change from the crowded conditions in the inner city. That so many people moved in together, at the same kind of age and from the same kind of background, probably accounts for the strong community spirit felt in the area.

Most of the early houses were prefabricated, not meant to last longer than 5 years. Incredibly many of them remain today, albeit heavily modified. The early shops on Allaway Avenue were built out of Nissen huts, as was the Library.

Paulsgrove has had its problems over the years, although many of them have been blown out of all proportion by the press. In particular, the paedophile inspired riots in 2000 probably didnt show the neighbourhood at its best. You’re always going to have problems if you try and transplant thousands of people into a whole new settlement overnight. Usually towns grow organically, from a village, to a town, to a city. Not overnight. In the same way, putting people in high rise flats just doesnt work.

The areas changed quite a lot in the past few years. Out of the many pubs, only the Cross Keys is left now.
But all the same its a great place to live, near to the city, but far enough away to have plenty of space, green areas, nice views and even front gardens!

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