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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