Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919 – Gregory Fremont-Barnes

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

On a recent visit to Pakistan, a British military official wondered out loud why the Pakistani Army was having such trouble fighting tribal militants in the Waziristan hinterland areas. After all, the British Army was fighting exactly the same war, in exactly the same place, in the 1930′s. The training manuals are still there to be read.

This story might be apocryphal, but it does illustrate how it simply will not do to shut past events in the past and forget about them. Particularly in military history, lessons are there to be learnt. Weapons may change, but terrains and societies remain relatively unchanged. The British soldier in Helmand province fixes Bayonets and clears compounds much the same as his ancestors did in the 19th century.

Therefore, this edition in Osprey’s Essential Histories series is very timely. At a time when many commentators are doubting our role in Afghanistan and whether we can achieve our goals – usually peppered with simplistic comments such as ‘the Russians couldnt manage it’ and ‘we couldnt defeat the Afghans in the nineteenth century’. This book certainly blows apart some misleading assumptions.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes is a Doctor in Modern History and a senior lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst. Therefore, you probably couldn’t hope for a better qualified writer. And his background is crucial – this is not nostalgic history, it will make essential reading for young – and indeed older – officers serving in Afghanistan today.

The British Army has been fighting in Afghanistan since 1839, not too many years since Waterloo. British interest in Afghanistan arose from fears that Russia, just to the north, might threaten India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Therefore repeated attempts were made to secure Afghanistan as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. Much as in the same way security in Afghanistan today is crucial to the security of Pakistan, and the wider region.

As with so many British campaigns, involvement in Afghanistan was hallmarked by initial failures, followed by which the local leadership rallied and secured the situation. Therefore, popular talk about the British Army failing in Afghanistan is largely inaccurate. The British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, the strategic aim was to secure the north west flank of India, something that was achieved. Whilst Afghanistan has frequently been a hard fight for British soldiers, it has given some heroic tales, such as the Battle of Maiwand.

The overarching lesson from Britain’s experiences in Afghanistan seems to be that the real challenge lies in defeating the irregular forces at large in the country is a complex problem, that can be contained by military force but ultimately will be nullified by a sound ‘hearts and minds’ policy. And above all, an understanding of Afghanistan’s history, topography and society is crucial.

ISAF is not trying to conquer Afghanistan, that is the crucial difference. To do so would be impossible and counter-productive, as shown in this book. That such a learned and well-presented view is espoused by one of the very people instructing our future Army officers is very encouraging indeed. This book is well researched – as shown by the exhaustive bibliography – and contains Ospreys trademark detailed maps and fine artwork.

The Anglo Afghan Wars 1839-1919 is published by Osprey Books

23 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Book of the Week, debate

Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.

5 Comments

Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

Portsmouth Heroes – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

So far, the youngest person I have found who came from Portsmouth and died in the Second World War was Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden, from Milton. He was aged 16 when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939. The Royal Oak was a Revenge Class battleship, sunk at anchor by U-47, captained by Gunther Prien, who had avoided extensive anti-submarine defences in the area. 833 men died, out of a crew of 1,244. Many of these men came from Portsmouth, as the Royal Oak was manned from Portsmouth. Over 100 of the crew who died were Boy Seamen under the age of 18, the most ever killed in one incident.

The recruiting of Boys into the Royal Navy was nothing new – we have all heard of the Powder Monkeys. But up until the Second World War, when the Navy required a huge pool of manpower to crew the ships required to police the Empire, Boys were recruited to fill various tasks onboard ship. This also provided valuable training for young men who wanted to progress on to be Seamen.

Gordon Ogden would have enlisted with the rank of Boy 2nd Class, suggesting that he had served for some time before being promoted. As Naval service records are only available to next of kin at the time of writing, so we can only guess at how young Ogden would have been when he joined up – but it will almost certainly have been younger than 16. By the second world war the minimum age for joining the Royal Navy as a Boy rating was 15, and had to be approved for a Boys parents. The minimum terms of engagement for a Boy entering the Navy was at least 12 years. A boy had to have served at least 9 months as Boy 2nd Class, show proficiency in seamanship and gain at least one good conduct badge for promotion.

Once a Boy reached 18 he was automatically rated as an Ordinary Seaman and became subject to the Naval Discipline Act.

Leave a comment

Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two

Victoria Cross Heroes: The Battle of the Imjin River

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Certain battles come to have a defining influence on the armed forces out of all proportion to their size, for many years later. The battle of the Imjin river is just one of these.

During the Korean War in April 1951, The North Koreans – with heavy Chinese Communist support – launched a strong attack on UN positions near the Imjin river, just north of Seoul. The sector was defended by the 29th Infantry Brigade, with a Belgian Battalion under command. This relatively tiny force held their positions for over 2 days, against overwhelming opposition. Although many were killed or captured, their actions did much to blunt the Communist offensive. Not only did it have a tactical and strategic influence, but also a moral one. The heroic stand on the Imjin river captured the world’s imagination.

In particular the stand of the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glorious Glosters – has come to have a huge legacy on the traditions of the British Army. Not because they were SAS, or Paras, or Marines, but ordinary line infantry, young men from a peaceful country recruiting area, many of them national servicemen. It showed what ordinary people are capable of when making a stand.

The Glosters CO, Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, was awarded the VC. Although he had won a DSO in the second world war, he was seen as an average officer at best. However during the battle he moved constantly amongst his unit under heavy fire, and twice personally led assault parties to drive the enemy back – a tactic H Jones would employ at Goose Green. He was eventually captured and subjected to brutal treatment in captivity, including being drugged and forcefed communist propaganda.

Lieutenant Phillip Curtis, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry but attached to the Glosters, had learnt of the death of his wife just before the battle. He went on to charge an enemy machine gun post alone. Not once, but twice, even after being wounded the first time. He was killed yards from the position, and was awarded the VC. His story is certainly not the only one where a soldier has reacted to personal loss by disregarding their own safety.

Among the other British officers decorated was Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley, who was awarded a Distinguised Service Order. He had originally enlisted as a Private in the Glosters in second world war, whilst underage. After earning a commission and serving with the Parachute Regiment in Greece, he spent two years as a prisoner after the Imjin battle. He went on to command Allied Forces Northern Europe, retiring as a General.

The Battle of the Imjin river deserves a place in British military history alongside Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem as examples of how soldiers know what has gone before them, what their forefathers have done, and what they are capable of doing themselves. In an army which places tradition higher than any other, these are valuable stories indeed.

18 Comments

Filed under Army, cold war, Korean War, victoria cross

Andrew Marr’s ‘the Making of Modern Britain’

Andrew Marr

Andrew Marr

I’ve been watching this series over the past few weeks, and with the final instalment due this week I thought I would give my views on it so far. And, with the benefit of iplayer, you can go back and watch the previous episodes too.

Andrew Marr was until 2005 the BBC’s political Editor, so it is perhaps not surprising that this series takes a strong emphasis on politics, and especially the high politics of ‘great men’ and statesmen. It broadly looks at how Britain has developed as a nation in the first half of the twentieth century. While the title of the series does seem to suggest that Marr believes the Britain we know today was shaped by events circa 1900 to 1950, personally I see this as a very simplistic view. While those turbulent 50 years were perhaps the most pivotal in the nations development, what marks them out is the sheer amount of change and climactic events that took place. It is wrong to suggest that nothing prior to 1900 really mattered. British roots go back hundreds of years. It does, however, make great use of archive footage, and some interesting – but also expensive looking – location shooting. And Marr is a dynamic and engaging presenter.

In a New Dawn Marr argues that following the death of Queen Victoria, the short Edwardian era was akin to a late summer heatwave, but with tensions under the surface, and stormclouds gathering far on the horizon. With the difficult Boer War, signs were already appearing that Britain was struggling to maintain her Empire.

Road to War focusses on the years immediately prior to the first world war. Tensions over Ireland and calls for votes for women. The Chancellor, David Lloyd George, faced a choice between funding warships or extending welfare. The politics, culture and popular opinion of Europe seems to have made war inevitable.

In the Great War Marr looks at the story of Kitchener’s Army – the largest force that Britain has ever fielded in war. This episode is perhaps the best in the series. An honest focus on real, ordinary people, using the politics and the high command as a framework. The resignation of the First Sea Lord, the shell scandal, little known stories of German warships shelling the east coast, the great social cost of millions of men dead or mained, and the upheaval caused by the changing of so many social roles. This, Marr argues, was the start of ‘Big Government’.

Having a Ball witnesses a stark contrast with the Great War. It focusses on art, society, culture, writing, sex and drugs. And while this might be story of the landed classes and the artistic circles in the 1920′s, it does rather put the working people in the shade. As if what happens on a bohemian country pile has much effect on the millions of working people in Britain, many of whom were taking part in the General Strike and suffering under the effects of the Wall Stree Crash. I think Marr got the emphasis wrong here, almost ‘bolting-on’ the social history of the decade to story of decadence and art.

Little Britain sees Britain in the early 1930′s, on the road once again to a world war. Marr makes the interesting, and I have to say, accurate metaphor between British society and hats. Bowlers, trilbies, top hats and flat caps, all marking a strata of society. This is more focussed on people, rather than high society, with a look at Gracie Fields and Billy Butlin. We see how the Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley failed to take hold in Britain – dammed un-British, we are led to feel – and the little known group called the Greenshirts – who? – offered a solution to the national crisis. By Little Britain, Marr argues that Britain had shrunk back into itself, almost pulling up the Drawbridge, and it is hard to argue otherwise.

All in all, it is a fascinating series. Perhaps the overall tone, and the limited scope offered by the title does lead Marr to simplifications. Is this a social history or a political history, a ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ view? I dont think Marr would know either, its not really a combination but a bi-polar portrayal. Never the less, it is very well written and presented, with some good research evident. There arent enough History programmes on TV, and the ones that are are usually bland and uninspiring. Hopefully this series encourages people to think.

Leave a comment

Filed under debate, News, On TV, politics, social history, videos, World War One, World War Two

Urinating student avoids jail

Phil Laing, the student who urinated on Sheffield’s war memorial, avoided a jail sentence in court today. The Sheffield Hallam University student, who had been drinking heavily, had been warned he faced jail. He was told to complete 250 hours’ community service when he appeared at the city’s magistrates’ court.

District Judge Anthony Browne said “I have never seen anyone more contrite for what has happened nor one who regrets more the hurt and distress he has caused. You have understandably had the wrath and indignation of the public heaped upon you and your family”.

The sports technology student said he had no recollection of the events of the night until he was contacted by the university press office and shown the photograph which later appeared on the newspaper’s website.

The judge said: “No-one forced you to take all this drink, or forced it down you, or persuaded you to commit a criminal offence. You did that all by yourself and you must take responsibility. But all this is set against a backdrop, as your solicitor has said, of a culture of drinking far too much. In my view something does need to be done to change this culture. What you have done has outraged and offended many and has saddened most.”

Tim Hughes, defending, told the court of his client’s utter remorse. The court heard Laing had no recollection of the night’s events “Philip Laing has paid an extremely high price for one evening of complete and utter foolishness.” He said Laing had no idea where he was when he was urinating. “He could have been standing in the middle of Hillsborough football ground, frankly.” Mr Hughes said Laing had never been in trouble with the police and that prison would “utterly destroy what could otherwise be a good, hard-working, tax-paying life.” He added: “In terms of remorse – absolutely, it’s from every pore.”

A spokesman for Sheffield Hallam University said: “The university has already initiated disciplinary proceedings against this student. Now that the judicial process has been completed we will arrange a disciplinary hearing to decide appropriate sanctions.”

Now, I dont know what planet the judge lives on – answer that and you could probably find the meaning of life – but if thats contrition and remorse, then the Dictionary definition of both of those emotions needs to be changed to ‘a temporary state of mind, designed to dig ones self out of a hole for ones one sake’. It looks like the Defence team did a very good job. I would be very interested to know what exactly his community service will be doing, but whatever it is he got off pretty lightly.

To say that jailing him would ruin his future is slightly ridiculous. What future a sports science student has is open to debate anyway. Also, I personally disagree that because he didnt know what he was doing, then it is not so bad. If you let yourself get into that state, then you deserve to suffer the consequences as much as if you were stone cold sober. If you cant handle your drink, dont go out playing the big hard man.

But the judge is right to condemn companies that promote drinking to excess. This is just one case, there must be thousands of incidents that take place caused by cheep alcohol and kids who cant handle their drink. Laws need to be put in place that punish companies that ply students with cheap drink and then wash their hands of the consequences.

But what saddens me even more is that to a lot of young people, behaving like Phil Laing seems to be cool.

Leave a comment

Filed under crime, debate, News, Uncategorized

Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

A Genealogist and Freedom of Information campaigner has requested that the 1939 National Identification Survey be released under Freedom of Information laws, reports the BBC Website.

In September 1939 the Government conducted a an emergency, census-like survey of the country at the beginning of the war. This would provide invaluable help to researchers, historians and family history enthusiasts in unlocking the past.

Until recently each census was released 100 years later. However, Guy Etchells succesfully campaigned for the early release of the 1911 census, which became available online earlier this year. Professionals and enthusiasts alike will be hoping that the 1911 challenge proves to be a test case.

There is another census due for release, the 1921 census in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and there was no survey taken in 1941 because of the war. It may be more than 40 years until the 1951 details become public. This effectively leaves family historians with a dead end for some years to come.

None of the legislation forbids access to the records,” says Mr Etchells. “The records have been kept so that people can access them. They are not archived so that they can be hidden away. There’s no point in charging people thousands of pounds a year to keep them if you are not allowed to access them.”

The Information Commissioner has told the NHS Information Centre – which holds the 1939 details – that it should grant Mr Etchells’ request for access to a record, previously withheld on data protection grounds, where the circumstances relate to people now dead – a stipulation Mr Etchells may yet challenge further.

The National Registration survey led to the issuing of 46 milliona National Identity cards, Households were asked to provide information about the names, ages, sex, marital situation and jobs of those living there. During the war, and until 1952, every civilian had to carry their card as proof of identity and address. The registration was also used as the basis for the issue of ration books for food and clothing.

The 1939 survey would be a goldmine for researchers. In particular, it would help us unlock the secrets of most of the generation who fought in the second world war. For example, I could use the survey to cross reference against the list of portsmouth war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s roll of honour. It would make it so much easier for their stories to be told.

Personally, I think there is no sound reason for witholding such information for so long. There is surely no need for the NHS to keep such data locked away, there is nothing sensitive contained in the records. Even with the regular census, 50 year closure periods would be more appropriate. Lets hope that the authorities see sense and make the 1939 survey available.

2 Comments

Filed under debate, Family History, Local History, News, social history, World War Two

The Coral Sea 1942

The Coral Sea 1942

The Coral Sea 1942

One of the most striking effects of the second world war was the supplanting of the Battleship by the Aircraft Carrier as the most important Naval vessel. By 1945 the era of the big gun Dreadnought Battleships was long gone.

Nowhere saw more Aircraft Carrier battles than the Pacific. Former US Navy Commander Mark Stille takes a look at one of the earliest battles in the South Pacific, the 1942 battle of The Coral Sea. The US Navy’s carrier succesfully thwarted a Japanese attempt to invade New Guinea. It was pivotal in that it represented the first reverse for the Japanese since Pearl Harbour, and set the US on the long road of ‘island-hopping’. It was not perhaps as decisive a battle as Midway, fought less than a month later. But the lessons learnt by the Americans and the losses suffered by the Japanese at the Coral Sea had a profound effect on the outcome of Midway.

Mark Stille takes a very detailed look at the opposing plans, from the Japanese intent to invade New Guinea and the tactics that the US Navy deployed to frustrate them. We are given very informative biographies of the senior Naval Commanders in question, and also a glimpse into the respective Naval ethos of each country. As a former Naval Officer, Stille is well placed to write about Naval tactics and strategy. And of course, this book contains Osprey’s trademark maps and illustrations. One thing that really impresses me is the ’3D’ maps, showing the height of waves of aircraft as the attacked.

This is a rather narrow account, however, as it focusses almost exclusively on one specific battle. Although it has clearly been written for the American market, there are very broad contexts to the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Royal Navy had been using its Carriers to great effect in the Mediterranean and in the sinking of the Bismarck. Furthermore, it could be argued that the point at which Aircraft Carriers truly gained the ascendancy was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse when sent to Singapore without adequate air cover. Yet this episode only receives the briefest of mention. Stille does focus almost exclusively on the US Navy, and what is an interesting and thorough account does miss out on some comparative and contextual depth in this respect.

The Coral Sea 1942 is published by Osprey

Leave a comment

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, World War Two

BAE systems to create plans for new Frigates

An artists impression of the Future Surface Combatant

An artists impression of the Future Surface Combatant

BAE Systems have signed a £3.4m contract to create designs for the Royal Navy’s next generation of Frigates, the Portsmouth News reports. Staff at BAE are working on two designs under the Future Surface Combatant Programme, called the C1 and C2.

C1 is larger than the current Type 23 Frigates, and provides air defence for Carrier groups, but also has a small ‘mission dock’ – not unlike the dock on assault ships – for the rapid launching of small, fast boats. The second design, C2, would be more of a general purpose vessel, designed for patrolling and other duties. Plans are said to be taking shape for ten C1′s and eight C2′s.

Project Director Brian Johnson said: ‘Subject to MoD approval at later stages, we’ve got an outline plan that would see the first ship launched in 2016, and then one ship a year enter service from 2020 or 2021. They would be expected to have a 25-year lifespan, so would be in service until 2050.’

It is a much needed boost to the Royal Navy to have this project advancing. It is arguably more important than the planned new Aircraft Carriers, as 95% of the time it is the Destroyers and Frigates that are out around the globe patrolling the seas. While designs are not the same as signed contracts, at least something is happening.

There are a few areas for concern, however. Why is an air-defence Frigate being planned, when we have the Type 45 Destroyers that are supposedly designed for protecting the new Carriers? And why are we only having six of them, wouldn’t it be better to have say 8 or 10, and just have one class of General Purpose Frigate? Or are the C1 Air Defence Frigates a cheaper alternative for the cancelled Type 45′s?

The C2 design sounds encouraging. A smaller, more general purpose Frigate would be far more ideally suited to tackling small and fast suicide boats and Somali Pirates. The mission dock sounds especially capable.

8 Comments

Filed under Navy, News

Captain Bernard Brown MC

Royal Army Medical Corps

Royal Army Medical Corps

Some roles give soldiers the potential to do very brave things. Its perhaps no coincidence that Medical Officers, more often than not, seem to win awards for courage under fire. One Army Medical Officer, from Portsmouth, won a Military Cross in North Africa, and eventually lost his life in North Italy only months before the end of the war.

Captain Bernard Brown was born in Southsea in 1912. Qualifying as a Bachelor of Medicine from Oxford University, in the Second World War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Each Battalion sized unit in the Army has a Medical Officer, usually a qualified Doctor given the rank of Captain. Their role is to look after the mens health and provide first aid in action, often right up in the front line, before wounded can be passed back down the line to dressing stations and field hospitals.

Captain Brown was the Medical Officer of 6th Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa in 1942, in a period that included the Battle of Gazala and the first Battle ofr El Alamein, where Rommel’s last-ditch attack towards the Suez Canal was finally blunted. The citation for his Military Cross can be downloaded online from the National Archives website.

The Regiment was virtually in constant action. Shortly after they began fighting Brown’s armoured Scout Car broke down, so he simply used an unarmoured truck instead. He was never back at Headquarters, always close up behind the Tanks where he could watch the battle and go up to any needing medical assistance. At one point the unit was fighting next to a Royal Horse Artilley unit that was under heavy fire, and Brown went right up to the guns seven or eight times to bring out 20 wounded gunners. During the first Battle of El Alamein the Regiment took heavy casualties from anti-tank guns, and twice Brown went up through gaps in minefields, under enemy fire, to give first aid. His coolness and courage under fire, especially as a non-combatant, must have set an amazing example to the men in the Regiment.

Bernard Brown was awarded the Military Cross on 18 March 1943. Sadly, he did not survive the war. Whilst serving as Medical Officer with the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment in North Italy he was killed, on 25 February 1945. He is buried in Forli Military Cemetery.

29 Comments

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two

Scott Church Creations

C-47 Dakota by Scott Church

C-47 Dakota by Scott Church

I thought it might be interesting to show you all this amazing image that I’ve received recently, of a Douglas C-47 Dakota. This is the plane that my Grandad and thousands of his comrades jumped out of at Arnhem in September 1944. Although I might be biased, I think its also one of the most stunning aircraft in history.

Scott Church graduated from the University of Portsmouth, and is an environmental and visualisation artist. He’s also got a keen interest in history, as you can see from his work.

Have a look at his website for more fascinating arwork:

www.scottchurchcreations.co.uk

Leave a comment

Filed under Arnhem, art, Royal Air Force, World War Two

War Graves Commission unveils new climate policy

A traditional war cemetery at Arnhem

A traditional war cemetery at Arnhem

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who look after thousands of Commonwealth War Graves around the globe, have unveiled a new climate change policy.

The Commission have selected four cemeteries in France and Belgium to trial new environmentally friendly methods of gardening. One cemetery in each country has had the turf removed and gravel laid. The other two have had a more drought tolerant grass laid to adapt to drier conditions. Borders in all four cemeteries will be planted in the traditional way with plants selected for their ability to withstand periods of drought.

War cemeteries in hot, arid countries have often used pebbles or gravel. But in Northern Europe the Commissions Cemeteries have forever been hallmarked as ‘a small part of the world that is forever England’. The pristine grass lawns and traditionally English planting makes these places not only very fitting locations for soldiers to lie, but almost nice places to visit in their own right.

Railway Chateau cemetery

Railway Chateau cemetery

Pebbles and gravel, however, are really not suitable and look terrible as can be seen above. The dignity and integrity of such important places should not be compromised for political brownie points. Its sad that the Commission are being forced to make these changes, but I suspect they come from on high. Increasingly Government departments are being forced into making changes based on a climate change agenda.

I’m not saying that the environment is not important, but the Commission’s Cemeteries represent a tiny pinprick of the worlds surface. Meanwhile, countries like India and China belch out tons and tons of Carbon Dioxide.

Using new forms of grass and plants is no doubt a good idea. But to suggest that they might have to change the whole outlook of hundreds of cemeteries, on the basis of a theory for which the scientific basis is not fully proven, smacks of scaremongering. I cannot help but wonder if someone is looking to gain some kudos from this project. I know of no municipal cemeteries who are looking at changing their landscaping like this.

To give your views on the War Graves Commissions plans, fill out their survey here.

Leave a comment

Filed under debate, News, politics, Remembrance, World War One, World War Two

Army may build Bailey Bridges in flood-hit Cumbria

troops crossing a Bailey Bridge

troops crossing a Bailey Bridge

The Army may be called in to build second world war style Bailey Bridges to replace Bridges washed away by flooding, the Daily Telegraph reports.

Personally, I feel that the civil authorities will probably not let the military show their skills. By calling in the Army Government and the local councils would be admitting that they cannot handle the situation. Which is a shame, because the Royal Engineers have always had first class bridging skills, and I doubt very much whether that has changed.

The only problem would be getting hold of enough Bailey bridge sections. Times gone by there were probably plenty stored around the country, however I would not be surprised if they have all been sold off to third world countries or for scrap metal.

Sir Donald Bailey’s invention was one of the technical marvels of the Second World War. Easy to produce, transport and erect, it was built out of a minimum of components but with maximum strength and flexibility. Hundreds were built during the war, many surviving for years afterwards. They were immortalised in Bridge too far as ‘that british precision built bridge, which is the envy of the civilized world?’

If they are good enough for the Army when under fire, in a hurry, with few tools or specialist equipment, and can carry tanks, I’m sure they would help out in Cumbria right now.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, News, World War Two

Centurion vs. T55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Centurion vs. T-55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Centurion vs. T-55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Both the British Centurion and Soviet T55 tanks trace their roots back to the second world war. With the Centurion, the woeful British tanks of the second world war inspired designers to make sure that the Army never went to war with such sub-standard armoured vehicles again. Not only that, but it proved very succesful as an export. Meanwhile the T55 owed much of its design to the legendary T34.

Although both were designed to combat the German Panthers and Tigers, increasingly as the Cold War developed they faced each other in North Europe, on either side of the Iron Curtain. They never faced each other in action, but they did however equip many of the second and third world states, particularly in the middle east. This book by Simon Dunstan compares the performance of the machines and the men who operated them, using the Yom Kippur War of 1973, between Israel and Syria and Egypt, as a case study.

Comnparison in history is crucial. Particularly in military history. It is one thing to say that a tank is impressive, but how does it fare against its contemporaries? That is the real acid test of any military hardware. Can it defeat its opponent? If not, then its occupants are in trouble. Therefore, the duel series is onto a winner in my opinion.

But comparing the machines alone is not enough. Without the men to operate them they would stand idle. In the case of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Centurions and Arab T55′s were finely matched technologically, but the Israeli’s training, leadership and motivation proved decisive. After being caught off guard and then holding back a strong attack at the beginning of the war, the Israelis held their ground and launched a decisive counter-attack. And this very much mirrored the British and NATO policy. They could never hope to build more tanks than the Russians, so chose to concentrate on quality, and training. And when opposing forces are matched in terms of a balance between quanitity and quality in equipment, training usually proves decisive, backed up by morale and leadership.

Simon Dunstan has written widely on both the Middle East and Armour, and this breadth of knowledge pays dividends in this book. Different factors are considered, without being disparate, and the broader context of the Cold War and the Second World War provide a sound basis. This book informs greatly our knowledge of armoured warfare. Not only that, but it makes me want to go to Bovington to look at some tanks!

Centurion vs. T55 is published by Osprey

3 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, middle east

VC’s of the St Nazaire raid

HMS Campbeltown at St Nazaire

HMS Campbeltown at St Nazaire

Jeremy Clarkson called it ‘the Greatest Raid of all’. Out of a total of several hundred men, 5 Victoria Crosses were won. This makes the St Nazaire raid possibly the most decorated operation for its size since Rorkes drift.

In 1942, the Bismarck had been sunk. Only the Tirpitz remained of the German Battleship fleet. Whats more, there was only one dry dock in Nazi-occupied Europe that was big enough to repair her, at St Nazaire in Brittany, France. Destroy that, the British realised, and the Tirpitz was hamstrung.

A daring plan was devised for 28 March 1942, codenamed Operation Chariot. A redundant Royal Navy Destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, would be rammed into the dock wall. Loaded with explosives, she was set to explode some time later. A flotilla of coastal forces boats would also bring in Commandos and Engineers. Once the operation was completed, it was planned to withdraw by sea. In the event, there was such heavy fighting in St Nazaire and so many of the flotilla’s ships were destroyed that only a fraction of the men escaped. Many were killed or taken prisoner.

But the dock was destroyed, and the Tirpitz was left stranded in Norwegian fjords until she was finally destroyed by the RAF in 1945. The allied shipping that was saved by the St Nazaire raid is impossible to quantify.

Captain Robert Ryder, the senior Naval Officer, won a VC for his leadership, and for exposing himself to fire whilst evacuating the Campbeltown.

Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Beattie, in command of HMS Campbeltown, was awarded a VC for gallantry shown in steering his ship into the dock walls in the face of blinding searchlights and under intense fire.

Able Seaman William Savage also received a VC for great skill and gallantry shown in manning a pom-pom gun on a Motor Gun Boat. Savage remained at his post, resolutely firing away until he was killed.

Sergeant Thomas Durrant, a Royal Engineer, was attached to the Commando forces. He was in charge of a Lewis Gun on a Motor Launch, and although wounded and with no cover, he carried on firing until taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day. He was awarded a Posthumous VC.

Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman commanded the commando troops, and received a VC for leading his men and directing operations with no concern for his own safety. He only surrendered once ammunition had run out.

27 Comments

Filed under Navy, Royal Marines, victoria cross, World War Two