Monthly Archives: January 2010

Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC

Wing Commander Buchanan DSO DFC (centre)

Wing Commander Buchanan DSO DFC (centre)

Wing Commander John Buchanan, from Southsea, was one of Portsmouth’s most highly decorated senior officers of the Second World War. Born in 1918 and a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, Buchanan was commissioned into the Royal Air Force as a Pilot Officer in May 1937.

Flying Wellington Bombers with 37 Squadron at the start of the war, he few on operations over Belgium and France in 1940. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 30 July 1940 for gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations. In January 1944 he was also awarded a Croix de Guerre by the Belgian Government, for operations in 1940. Later in 1940 he was posted to 14 Squadron in the Sudan, who were flying Blenheims. With 14 Squadron he also served in Egypt and Iraq.

Then after transferring to the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, he flew Beaufighters in the anti-shipping role. In 1943 he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order. This officer has participated in a very large number of sorties, involving bombing attacks against many countries occupied by the enemy. He arrived in Malta in November, 1942, and, within the next 14 days, led his squadron in 6 bombing attacks on enemy shipping. During these operations, Wing Commander Buchanan destroyed 6 enemy aircraft in combat. He is a magnificent leader whose great skill and fine fighting qualities have been of incalculable value.

By 1944 he was the Commanding Officer of 227 Squadron. He was only 24. On 16 February 1944 he was shot down off the coast of Greece while leading a section of four Beaufighters against a dredger sixty miles south of Athens. Buchanan and his Navigator managed to get into a Dinghy dropped by another aircraft, but although Buchanan seemed unharmed, he went quiet and died.

Wing Commander Buchanan is buried in El Alamein War Cemetery in Egypt. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Grammar School Memorial.

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Major Frank Baxter MC

Major Frank Baxter, 39 and from Southsea, was serving as a Staff Officer with the Headquarters of First Army during Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. As General Staff Officer Grade 2 (GSO2) for Camouflage and Deception Baxter was responsible for ensurin that units in the First Army camouflaged their activities properly, and also for any bigger deception operations. Deception was an option that was open to commanders to disguise their intentions from the enemy.

Although his role might suggest that he spent a lot of time behind a desk or in Headquarters, but it seems that Baxter was extremely busy. As a Royal Engineer Officer he was ideally qualified to oversee Camoflauge operations.

For continual bravery and devotion to duty throughout the period under review. During the early stages of the campaign he worked continually in the forward areas in the face of enemy artillery and air fire. He had no less than three motorcycles shot under him. His work as G.S.O.2. Camouflage and Deception, First Army, has been untiring and highly successful.

Major Baxter was awarded the Military Cross on 23 September 1943. Sadly he didnt not survive to receive it. He was killed on 11 July 1943, and is buried in Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery, Tunisia.

What were the highly successful work that Major Baxter was overseeing? Maybe the First Army’s war diary in the National Archives will shed more light…

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Operation Bluecoat: Over the Battlefield by Ian Daglish

Operation Bluecoat is perhaps one of the least well known offensives of the Battle for Normandy, and has often been overshadowed by its earlier cousins Epsom and Goodwood. This is largely due to the myth that Monty failed in Normandy, and that the US Army had to bail out the British (an argument made principally by Carlo D’Este). This argument takes no account of the fact that Goodwood and Epsom, whilst not making a decisive breakout, ground down the German forces to such an extent that a breakout further west was made possible. The myth that British forces in Normandy became bogged down and had to be rescued by th American breakout that still pervades in many quarters. It is an argument that promises to rumble on for years to come.

Whatever the argument, it is clear that Bluecoat has been somewhat overlooked. The British advance to seize Mont Pincon and the key road junction at Vire led to the ecirclement of German forces in the Falaise Pocket. If the northern boundary of the Falaise pocket had not been formed, then more Geman forces would have escaped to fight another day. Hopefully this book by Ian Daglish wil play a part in helping redress the balance. I have found it very enjoyable, readable and most informative.

This book is most timely, as a number of Portsmouth men died in the battle for Mont Pincon. The 7th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was a part of the 43rd (Wessex Division) that was at the forefront of Bluecoat. Private William White, 30 and from Eastney, was killed on 2 August 1944, the first day of Bluecoat. He is buried in Hottot-les-Bagues War Cemetery. Private Stanley Anslow, 27, was killed on 6 August 1944 – the day that Mont Pincon was captured – and is buried in Hottot-le-Bagues War Cemetery. Private Percy Hayter, 30 and from Southsea, was also on 7 August. He is buried n Bannevile-le-Campage War Cemetery. Books such as this make it so much easier for these men’s stories to be told.

The Over the Battlefield series is an innovative concept, drawing on aerial recconaisance photographs taken during the battle complemented with contemporary photographs. Given the popularity of GoogleEarth the use of overhead views is most welcome. Especially with a complex battlefield such as that found in Normandy, Over the Battlefield helps the reader to ‘smell the battlefield’. I for one hope that there are plenty more books to come in this vein – an edition on the Battle of Arnhem would be fascinating.

Operation Bluecoat: Over the Battlefied is published by Pen and Sword

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Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Pompey’s WW2 Guardsmen

Guards

Seven men from Portsmouth died whilst serving with the Foot Guards Regiments between 1939 and 1947. They were all serving with the two English Guards Regiments – the Grenadier Guards or the Coldstream Guards.

Guardsmen have always have a vaunted place in British Army culture, regarded as steadfast and well known for their public duties in London as bodyguards to the Sovereign. Prior to the Second World War Guards recruits had to be at least 5 foot 10 inches tall, and initially enlisted for at least seven years.

Guardsman David Lyons, 32 and from North End, was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. He died on 13 October 1940 and is buried in Enghien, Belgium. That he is buried in Belgium and died later in 1940 would suggest that he was probably taken prisoner during the battles in Belgium and France in the summer of 1940. Perhaps he had been too seriously wounded to be moved to a camp in Germany.

Guardsman Gilbert Gregory, from North End, died on 2 April 1941 and is buried in Kingston Cemetery. He was serving with the Grenadier Guards. Lance Corporal George Hawkins, 30 and from Southsea, was serving with the 6th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards when he died on 2 November 1941. He is buried in Kingston Cemetery.

Guardsman Harry Davies, 32, was serving with the 5th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards when he was killed in Tunisia on 27 April 1943, during the closing stages of the war in North Africa. He is buried in Massicault War Cemetery, Tunisia.

A Guards Armoured Division took part in the libration of Europe from D-Day onwards, and saw heavy fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and finally Germany. Guardsman Clarence Bull, 24 and from Fratton, was serving with the 5th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, a motorized infantry unit, when he was killed on 21 July 1944. This was the day after Operation Goodwood had been halted. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. Guardsman Henry Davis, 20 and from Stamshaw, was killed on 11 August 1944. He is buried in St Charles de Percy War Cemetery, and had been serving with the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards – another motorized infantry unit.

A Sherman of the Grenadier Guards crossing Nijmegen Bridge

A Sherman of the Grenadier Guards crossing Nijmegen Bridge

The Guards Armoured Division provided the spearhead for Operation Market Garden. Sergeant Robert Wakeford, 31, was killed on 20 September 1944 and is buried in Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Holland. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, an armoured unit that was at that point fighting hard around Nijmegen.

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Over the Battlefield: Operation Goodwood by Ian Daglish

Goodwood

After the end of Epsom the front in Normandy solidified, with the British and Canadians being held on the outskirts of Caen while the Americans cleared the Cotentin Pensinsula. Becoming bogged down was a serious fear, particularly among aggressive american commanders and British officers fearing a return to trench warfare. After Epsom ground to a halt and Caen was captured, the next logical step was to attack from the west and consolidate the possession of Caen.

Goodwood has remained one of the most contentious battles of the Second World War. Alongside Arnhem it is probably the one battle that fuels Montgomery’s detractors. The certainly have a point – the use of three armoured divisions in a concerted operation must surely have been aiming for some kind of breakthrough. Monty probably made a rod for his own back by suggesting that Goodwood might lead to a breakout in the direction of Falaise. His orders for the operation merely hinted at this as a possibility, not a certainty. Yet Eisenhower and Tedder seem to have taken it as a given.

It was a logistical achievement just to get the Guards, 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions – over 45,000 men and over 10,000 vehicles – across into the cramped Orne Bridgehead in the first place, a fact which is often ignored. Also, it is unrealistic to view operations in isolation – they were all clearly part of a wider campaign. On their own Epsom and Goodwood might have been disappointing, but seen together they resulted in the capture of Caen and its consolidation. And as Daglish points out, the Germans were very well prepared in defence east of Caen.

The other contentious point surrounding Goodwood is the use of Heavy Bombers in the opening stage. The intention was to ‘soften up’ the German front line to aid an armoured breakthrough. Over 900 British Bombers bombed in daylight on 18 July, shortly followed by their American counterparts. The use of heavy bombers to directly support operations had never been tried before. The shock was numbing, but it also gave away the element of surprise.

An advance of five miles certainly seems scant reward for the use of three Armoured Divisions and thousands of heavy bombers. But the battle had made a huge dent in the Germans ability to hold the line in Normandy. Goodwood is a very difficult battle to get a handle on due to the cotrovresy surrunding it, but the use of aerial photos iluminates a murky history. Scenes of massed tanks and bomb craters give us such a better impression than a map. The attack eventually petered out due to congestion, poor weather and stiff german resistance, and was halted on 20 July.

British losses were heavy, amongst them several Portsmouth men. Flight Sergeant Kenneth Meehan, 20 and from North End, was a Navigator in a 158 Squadron Halifax Bomber that crashed while bombing the German lines on 18 July 1944. He is buried in Banneville la Campagne War Cemetery.

The principal stated goal of Goodwood, as Daglish points out from the start, was to tie up Panzer Divisions in the East. Yet Monty let himself down by allowing his equals and superior to hope for too much. He woud have done far better to accept that he was acting flexibly than to insist that everything went exactly to plan. Personally, I feel that a breakout from Goowood would have over-extended the allied eastern flank and left the bridgehead imblanced – completely out of character for Monty.

Next: we take a look at Operation Bluecoat, the succesful British breakout in Normandy.

Over the Battlefield: Operation Goodwood is published by Pen and Sword

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The United Nations: at a crossroads, or beyond?

The Chilcott inquiry into the circumstances of the Iraq War has brought me back to thinking about a subject that I spent some time working on and involved with when I was a lot younger: the United Nations.

When I was 15 I took part in a model UN event at the United Nations HQ in Geneva. It was quite interesting representing Chile at the height of the Pinochet affair! I also chose the effectiveness of the UN as a personal study subject at college. So, hopefully, I have some kind of understanding of the organisation.

The founding principle of the UN is the prevention of armed conflict through collectiveness and discussion. Formed out of the alliances that defeated Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945, in the past 65 years of its existence it has had very mixed results. Whilst a wealth of humanitarian, economic and social activities take place under the UN banner, the UN has become increasingly toothless in the face of serious global problems. Particularly dangerous regimes, such as Iraq and Iran.

That the biggest and most powerful country in the world is willing to not only ignore the UN, but bypass it entirely, undermines the whole process and sets the world on a very dangerous path. Unilateral action creates as many problems as it solves. Any action that takes place in the name of ‘the international community’ will not alienate or radicalise nearly as much as any US Coalition.

But it is a double edged sword. Too many times the UN has been weak on big international crises. In the worlds of Team American, ‘we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are’ is not good enough when dealing with people like Saddam Hussein.

Both ignorance of the UN and its inability and refusal to act decisively has undermined its standing in the world. The two factors are clearly interlinked – all the time the UN is weak on crises, ignoring it will always seem an option. But by marginalising the UN, states make it irrelevant anyway. To change this will probably take a big cultural shift in policy making, particularly in the US.

But also, the Security Council system is increasingly coming under scrutiny. The power of any of the 5 permanent members to veto any resolution has largely hamstrung its ability to act. There are also calls to reform the membership of the Security Council – should Britain and France, for example, have a seat, in view of their declining influence? Why are prominent countries such as Germany, Japan, Brazil and India not permanent members? Personally I am undecided on this issue – but I am positive that size, wealth and strength should not necessarily eclipse responsibility and diplomacy as a factor for world influence.

Clearly the UN has been much more succesful than its predecessor the League of Nations, and it has encouraged a degree of international dialogue unheralded in world history. But it could do much more.

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Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield by Ian Daglish

Courtesy of Pen and Sword, over the next few days I will be bringing you reviews of the first three books in their innovative new series ‘Over the Battlefield’. Here is my taken on the first instalment, which focuses on Operation Epsom.

Epsom

Operation Epson was the first of three set-piece battles fought by Montgomery in Normandy. Before Epsom the front still remained fluid, and there were hopes that the allies might be able to extend the beachead further. There was even talk of dropping the 1st Airborne Division west of Caen in support.

But at the same time, there was also a risk that the Germans might also launch a decisive counter-attack against the allied build-up. Although Epsom was blunted, it also prevented a planned German operation and ensured that from then on the strategic initiative remained with the allies.

Epsom saw largely well-trained but inexperienced British Divisions fighting against some of the Third Reich’s most battle-hardened units. Thanks to ULTRA intelligence Montgomery was aware that Rommel was planning an offensive towards Bayeux – by launching Epsom Rommel was frorced to cancel his thrust for Bayeux.

This book tells the story of Epsom in wonderful detail. I am very impressed with the use of aerial recconaisance photographs, and combined with period maps and location photographs, the combination of sources means that you can almost locate yourself in the action and ‘smell the battlefield’. These books are almost the military historians equivalent of Google Earth – they would make a fantastic addition to your luggage if you’re planning on walking the Battlefields of Normandy. Daglish has plotted the movements of units down to Company level, which is refreshing considering that most books on Normandy concentrate on Armies, Corps and Divisions.

Here Ian Daglish introduces new unseen evidence to analyse Epsom. The battle is routinely cited alongside Goodwood as evidence of ‘Monty’s failure’ in Normandy. Whilst neither battle went exactly to plan, what military plan ever does? Particularly with Epsom, the situation was very fluid indeed. Although the outcome of the battle itself was indecisive, this was acceptable for the allies, who could carry on ther build-up, whilst the Germans, under pressure to throw the Allies back into the sea, were ground down more and more. That it made a German counter-offensive less likely seems to be forgotten. Outflanking Caen would have been great, but to call Epsom a disaster, as some do, is ridiculous. In particular historians such as Carlo D’Este and Max Hastings are critical, yet D’Este’s opinions are partisan and Hasting’s are part of a wider intention to denigate Montgomery.

But Ian Daglish focuses on the men who fought the battle, and I think this approach adds much more to our understanding of the battle for Normandy than any tired ‘tit-for-tat’ arguments about Montgomery.

My research has identified several Portsmouth men who were killed during Epsom: Sergeant Leslie Scott, 25 and from Eastney, was killed serving with the 23rd Hussars on 27 June 1944. He was most likely killed in the tank fighting south of Cheux, and may have met a grisly end as he has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. And Captain George Hendry, 27 and from Southsea, was killed serving with the 7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders on 29 June 1944. Daglish tells us that Hendry was last seen stalking Tanks with a PIAT when the Germans made a strong counter-attack aiming to cut off the allied advance near Cheux. He is buried in St Manvieu War Cemetery.

Next:Now that the Allied Bridgehead was left with a salient pointing out to the west of Caen, the next logical step was to attempt to outflank Caen to the east from the Orne bridgehead.

Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield is published by Pen and Sword

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History around us

Where exactly IS History?

Interesting thought isnt it. Classrooms? Books? Films? Museums? Libraries? Stately homes? Maybe in times gone by History was something that was taught by teachers, written by authors, shown in films or stored in glass cases. Sadly, this meant that history became about castles, kings, battles, generals, paintings and the like. Whilst these are all pretty interesting, they are only a small part of the picture.

But the world is a different place. When was you house built? Where did the bricks come from? Take a walk out of your door. Whats the name of your road? Why is it called it that? Who decided to build a road there? Even think about the road itself – when did tarmac start getting used for roads? Whats the name of your local pub? Chances are heres something historic aout it.

When you go to work, how do you get there? How did people get to work 100 years ago? And I bet they didnt have nearly so much leave back then! Look at the countryside – ‘England’s pleasant land’ hasn’t always been like that: hundreds of years ago England was mainly woodland. Why was it cut down? What was it used for?

In fact, you could say that History isnt really a subject itself -its just the art of looking at absolutely anything over time. You can find history anywhere and anything. There is as much history to be found on a council estate as there is in any ancient town. Everywhere you go, and everything you do, there is history. And its not just in the bricks or the artefacts.. its in their stories.

In my mind, it is easier to say where History isn’t. The answer? Thin air*!

(* well, technically you could talk about the history of physics and molecular science…)

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RSM Frederick Barlow

The Regimental Sergeant Major of a Battalion is the closest thing to god for the men in that unit. In a peculiar, British kind of way, the RSM has an almost holy position as the senior NCO. Responsible for discipline and morale, it is not unknown for the RSM to tick off junior officers.

Frederick Barlow, 33 and from Portsmouth, was the RSM of the 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade during the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. At the age of 33 and as the RSM he was probably a pre-war regular who had been promoted to be RSM of a war-raised Battalion. The Rifle Brigade was also a fine Regiment to join, one of the most prestigious Infantry units in the Army after the Guards.

The 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade were serving with the 7th Motor Brigade. the 7th Battalion were serving as mobile infantry in support of the tanks – a role that light infantry units of the Rifle Brigade and Kings Royal Rifle Corps in particular exceled at. The 7th Motor Brigade formed the infantry support for the Armoured units in the 1st Armoured Division.

The Second Battle of El Alamein came at a pivotal point. Montgomery had just taken over command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, was away in Italy.

When the battle began on 23 October 1942, the initial assault was made in the north. By 25 October the Eighth Army had made a thrust of several miles into the Axis positions. However the battle reached a standstill. In the coming days Montgomery succesfully fended off a counter-attack by the returned Rommel, and then ground the Axis forces down so badly that they had no option but to retreat.

Alamein was a significant victory. Perhaps it was a sideshow compared to the Eastern Front, but for a Britain that been under severe strain it was a much needed boost to morale. Winston Churchill described it thus:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”

RSM Frederick Barlow was killed on 25 October 1942. Having looked at events surrounding Alamein, I suspect that he was killed during the heavy fighting when the 1st Armoured Division were attempting to break through the Axis defences. He is buried in Alamein War Cemetery Egypt.

Frederick Barlow’s medals are in the care of Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, and are currently on display at the D-Day Museum, Southsea.

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Talk one done!

I had the pleasure today of giving a lecture to the Portsmouth University of the 3rd Age Local History Group.

This was the first outing for my ‘what my family did during the war’ talk, and apart from a few technical glitches everything went very well. As usual they were very surprised to see someone my age turn up!

I was interested to meet a gentleman who served with the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment in the closing stages of Market Garden, another chap who served in the Royal Artillery and one lady who lost two brothers in the war in an air crash.

Sometimes when you spend a long time researching something you can get quite blase about it, and its only when you tell other people about it, and you can hear the gasps and sense the reactions that you realise how incredible some stories are. Thats one of the reasons I find going out and giving talks a great reality check.

My next talk is at the D-Day Museum in Southsea on Thursday 18 February, kick off at 7.30pm. Its primarily for members of the Portsmouth Museums and Records Society, although guests are welcome at £2 each!

Or alternatively if anyone would like to book me to give a talk, or knows of a group that might like to have me, feel free to get in touch!

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The Battle for Burma: Roy Conyers Nesbit

Burma

Perhaps the most well-known fact about the war in Burma is that the men who fought in Burma are often regarded as the ‘Forgotten Army’. What I’ve always found most curious about this epitaph – which is quite accurate – is that people are willing to agree with it, but not to actually remedy it. Here Roy Conyers Nesbit makes a strong contribution to giving the Burma campaign the profile that it deserves.

Not content to simply give us a narrative about Burma, Nesbit starts by introducing the issues that underpinned the decline in Ango-Japanese relations, and also the effect that the fall of Singapore had on the war against the Japanese – not only strategic, but also psychological. Burma was definitely a long hard slog – that impression is made lucidly. Along the way we read about Orde Wingate and the Chindits, the Burma Railway and characters such as William Slim, Harold Alexander and Lord Louis Mountbatten. After suffering serious reverses in 1942 and 1943, in 1944 the counter-offensive at Imphal and Kohima turned the tide leading to the liberation of Burma shortly before Victory over Japan.

A page from Battle for Burma

This book is most timely, as I have recently been researching the men from Portsmouth who fought and died in Burma – including a member of the Chindits, men who are buried at Imphal and Kohima, and men who died whilst working on the Burma Railway. Having read Battle or Burma, I can already visualise what those brave men must have been through.

Accompanied by over 200 original black and white photographs, and contemporary maps, this is a first class book indeed and a must-read for any military history enthusiast. This is already a contender for my ‘military history book of the year’. Not bad at all for a book released on 7 January!

The Battle for Burma is published by Pen and Sword

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Italian Blackshirt 1935-1945 by P Crociani and PP Battisteli

One of the biggest myths of the years leading up to the Second World War is that of Germany being the first Facist State. We all know that after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 Hitler eventually came to power in 1933. Most people seem to assume that Italy became fascist on Germany’s coat-tails, but while Hitler was languishing in prison for his role in the failed putsch, Mussolini was already established as the head of the fascist Government. Hence fascism had a much longer history in Italy than it did in Germany.

As with most totalitarian regimes, Mussolini depended on loyal, committed and trustyworthy stormtroopers to seize power, and then to maintain it. Think of the Praetorian Guard. Step forward the Blackshirts – the counterparts of their much more famous German cousins, the Brownshirts. They had their ancestry in the action squads of the fascist party, and soon after coming to power in 1922 Mussolini organised them into a paramilitary force.

As with the SS, the Blackshirts went on to fight as conventional troops in Ethiopa, the Spanish Civil War, and then in a range of theatres after Italy’s entry into the war in 1940. Perhaps most well known was Italy’s involvement in the North African War, and least well known is the Italian cotingent who fought on the Eastern Front. Another great myth about the war is the performance of Italian troops – popular wisdom tells us that they all ran away. Having looked at the Blackshirts, however, I doubt very much whether these politically loyal, fearsome looking men ever did much running away.

This book follows the tried-and-tested Osprey concept of experts covering a particlar unit or battle in amazing detail. Particularly for a oftenn ignored aspect of the war, such as the Blackshirts, this approach really pays dividends. Perhaps this might not have the general appeal to a wide audience, but as someone who really does not know enough about Italy’s role in the war, reading this book has filled the gap nicely. Theres an Osprey book for every gap!

Italian Blackshirt 1935-1945 is published by Osprey Books

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The Long March remembered

march

65 years ago this winter thousands upon thousands of people were on the move all over Germany and occupied Europe. As the Third Reich crumbled under the allied onslaught from East and West, the Nazi state attempted to move its prisoners back into the German homeland. In the harshest winter for many years, thousands died or were killed.

This week a group of relatives and young RAF recruits are recreating the march made by RAF Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland into Germany in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Temperatures were between -22 and -25 degrees centigrade. Most of the men had very minimal clothing. It was snowing most of the time. Some men fell out from the march and were shot by the guards. Sometimes the Prisoners slept in buildings, other times in the open. German civilians treated them in a variety of ways – some were kind, whilst others threw stones at the airmen.

At the same time my own Granddad, who had been captured at Arnhem, was being marched across Germany from Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA near Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. But most men were being marched westwards, away from the advancing Red Army. Why? Well, its hard to explain just how chaotic the Nazi state was, especially near the end of the war. It might have been easier for the Germans to leave the POW’s to be liberated. But they may have planned to use them as hostages, or to liquidate them. At any point a rash order from Hitler or Himmler might have spelt doom. But whatever the reason, too many men died needlessly.

Andy Wiseman, an RAF veteran of the Long March from Stalag Luft III had these illuminating words to say about his expriences on the BBC website:

“What the long march taught me, and I go on long marches with current RAF people, is that cometh the hour cometh the man. There is no such thing “I can’t do it” there is no such thing “its impossible”. Have a go and you’d be amazed what you can do. If you see a barrier, don’t turn around and pretend it isn’t there, you’ve got to get over it or under it, there’s no other way of living.”

The Last Escape, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, tells the story of the long marches very well.

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The New Forest at War: John Leete

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the New Forest – its a great place to go and walk out in the country, see the famous Ponies, have a pub lunch and generally spend some time away from the rat-race. However I must confess that I know very little about the history of the New Forest beyond Willam Rufus. Therefore this book by John Leete is most timely – especially with spring and the walking season rapidly approaching!

As a huge expanse of woodland and heathland, the New Forest proved to be an ideal training area in wartime, particuarly for the Army. The wide open spaces also provided space for numerous airfields – the traces of some can still be seen today. The House at Beaulieu provided the training base for the Special Operations Executive, and Exbury House was an important Naval Intelligence centre. General Patton even used Braemar House as a Headquarters for some time. The New Forest was also an embarkation centre fo prior to D-Day. The volume of traffic flowing through the forest, and the amount of men based there, also led to many of the main roads being widened – a lasting physical impact. In fact, I must confess to getting out my Ordnance Survey map of the Forest to look for some sites to explore!

This book is illustrated with some wonderful images of the New Forest in wartime, and complemented by numerous oral testimonies. I’m a big fan of oral hisory, theres no better way to present the rich tapestry of ordinary people’s experiences than by letting them tell their story, in their words. Hence this book is not just about buildings, generals and elite units, but also about evacuees, Air raid precautions and rationing.

When I go down to the New Forest in the summer this book will almost certainly be in my rucksack!

The New Forest at War is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Local History, World War Two