Daily Archives: 4 January, 2010

Portsmouth’s Senior Officers of WW2

Sir Roger Keyes

Sir Roger Keyes

The overwhelming majority of Portsmouth men and women who fought and died during the Second World War were ordinary servicemen – especially in the army and Royal Navy. The Royal Air Force was slightly different, as most aircrew were at least of Flight Sergeant rank, and most aircrew were commisioned as Officers.

The most senior Portsmouth person to die during the Second World War was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes. He died on 26 December 1945, aged 73. He is buried in Dover Cemetery in Kent. He is probably noted as having a Portsmouth connection as he had served as the city’s MP. His wartime career consisted of being Lord Louis Mountbatten’s predecessor as Chief of Combined Operations.

Funnily enough, so far I haven’t managed to find any other Royal Navy Officers from Portsmouth who were over the rank of Captain. I might have thought that being a Naval Town Portsmouth might have had its fair share of Naval Officers living here. I can only speculate that maybe they lived further afield.

The Royal Air Force, on the other hand, had a number of senior officer who came from Portsmouth.

Group Captain Gerard Hanly, 42 and from Cosham, died on 6 August 1942. He is buried at Habbaniya War Cemetery in Iraq. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and was obviously a senior Medical Officer. RAF Habbaniya was a vital base in Iraq, a country that had seen an attempted pro-Nazi coup in 1941.

Wing Commander Frank Dixon-Wright DFC, age 31 and from Southsea, was killed on 27 July 1942. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial. The commander of 115 Squadron, he was flying in Wellington BJ615 on a raid on Hamburg. He and his crew were presumed lost in the North Sea. His DFC was Gazetted on 2 September 1941 for attacks on the German Warships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen, which were berthed at Brest and La Pallice. These raids were executed in daylight, and in the face of heavy and accurate Anti-Aircraft fire and enemy fighters.

In terms of Army Officers, another interesting trend appears. So far Portsmouth seems to have had a healthy number of junior officers – Lieutenants, Captains and Majors – but no senior officers of Lieutenant-Colonel or above. There is a plausible explanation for this. Men who were given emergency commisions to serve as officers during the war only were very likely to have been junior officers. Therefore, it is possible that quite a few Portsmouth men joined the army as emergency officers, whereas most regular and senior Army officers probably lived in or nearer Garrison towns, such as Aldershot.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the social context of wartime service.

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The Dockyard: like the writing on a stick of rock

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard have just published my first guest article on their blog. You can read it here, but I have reproduced it here as well.

There’s something about Portsmouth – the clue is in the name, I guess – that has made it a place where people come to and go from, for hundreds of years of its history. Think about it, how many Portsmouth families can trace back their history in the city to past 1800? Not many, I suspect. Because people come and go so much.

Take my own family for instance. In 1900, my various ancestors were living in Lancashire, Sussex, Ireland and London! Yet by 1914 all of my great-grandparents had somehow found their way to Portsmouth – and for most of them, it was the sea that brought them here.

Two of my great-grandparents came to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy – both of them became Stokers, in fact. My great-granddad on my Dads side served in Battleships and Submarines for over 20 years, and my great-granddad on my Mum’s side fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

And in the Second World War my great-uncle joined up as a Stoker, serving on the Cruiser HMS Enterprise. Sadly, he died of illness after being torpedoed in the South Atlantic on his way home on the SS Laconia. One Granddad worked for Vospers Shipbuilders in Old Portsmouth before joining the Army in 1942, and my other Granddad worked in the Dockyard as a painter and labourer.

Even after the war the trend carries on. Two of my uncles were shipwrights, and one uncle and my Dad were both electrical fitters. One uncle even moved down to Plymouth to work in the Dockyard there.

I’ve heard some fascinating Dockyard stories. Just before the Falklands War in 1982, the Government announced cuts to the Dockyard, including redundancies. The Defence Secretary, John Nott, visited the Dockyard for talks with Union leaders. Most of the workers gathered around the building to hear the outcome. When the Union men and John Nott emerged, the Union leader barely got past “I would just like to say…” before a missile was launched from the crowd and hit John Nott on the head. A full-scale riot ensued and John Nott had to be smuggled out by the back door.

Another thing my Dad remembers is the sometimes lax attitudes in the ‘yard. At the end of one summer two ‘new’ faces emerged on his section. Asking the charge hand who they were and where they had been, he was told “oh, that’s so and so, they’ve been down the beach all summer”. You wonder how anything got done! But in 1982, the Dockyard managed to get the fleet ready to sail to the Falklands in a matter of days. You get the impression that when things had to be done, they were done and done well. But all the same, it sounds like it was a parallel universe all of its own.

My Dad still has many of his old Dockyard tools – one of the things about serving a Dockyard apprenticeship, is that you get to keep your tools, complete with Government broad-arrow mark on them. Many of them have long outlasted their counterparts from B&Q. He even has his coffin-like toolbox in the shed, with P DALY stencilled on the side. My Dad even can remember cutting the grass with one of my uncles old shipwrights adzes that he found in the shed at my grandparents.

When he’s doing DIY around the house, you can see the apprenticeship training. Everything has to be just so, there’s no rushing. But then you wouldn’t expect anything different from someone who had to spend a month shaving a block of brass to within a tenth of a millimetre during his apprenticeship! You can understand why it had to be done properly, because often men’s lives depended on it.

I’ve often heard it said that many of the tools and materials in the Dockyard mysteriously grew legs and managed to walk out of the gate. At one point, Shipwrights even had it written into their contracts that they could keep off-cuts of wood! I wonder how much of Portsmouth would fall down if you took away all of the wood stolen from the Dockyard over the years…

So the Dockyard really does run through Portsmouth, like the writing on a stick or rock. It’s made the city – and its people – what it is. I cannot help but feel that even though few people work in the Dockyard now, its influence will take many years to disappear.

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Falkands then and now: The Air War

The Falklands was a difficult war for air commanders. At the very limits of the Royal Navy’s range, it was hard to see how land-based air could have any impact on the conflict, given the lack of friendly bases for thousands of miles from the war zone. Air Defence of the task force therefore fell upon the Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers, embarked on the Aircraft Carriers.

Yet, by a Herculean effort, a ‘forward’ air base was established on Ascenscion Island. The RAF made a contribution to the Falklands War much beyond what could have been expected.

The picture in 1982

Vulcan - a strategic Bomber in 1982

Vulcan - a strategic Bomber in 1982

The Royal Air Force in 1982 was heavily geared up towards the Cold War. This was reflected in its assets and its locations – in the UK and in Germany. As well as providing air defence over Western Europe, the RAF provided battlefield support to the Army – in the shape of ground attack and helicopter support, as well as transport. But most of its aircraft were ill-suited to fighting as far afield as the South Atlantic.

The ageing Vulcan Bomber was beginning its withdrawal from service in 1982. Nevertheless, it had a wide range, and after significant retraining and engineering work a fleet of Vulcans was made ready to launch long-distance bombing raids from Ascenscion Island. As well as rendering Stnaley airfield inoperable to fast high performance jets, this also caused the Argentines to fear Bombing raids on the mainland itself, withdrawing fighters to defend Argentine cities and dispersing their effort.

Victor tankers performed a vital task in fuelling the long distance bombing raids. Harrier GR3’s were flown to the Aircraft Carriers to provide ground attack capability, although of the 10 that arrived 4 were lost. Nimrod Maritime Patrol aircraft operated from Ascenscion, and Hercules transports maintained an air bridge between there and the UK. At the time the RAF Lacked an AEW (airborne early warning) capability.

4 Chinook heavy-lift Helicopters were transported south on the Atlantic Conveyor. Fortunately one, Bravo November, was airborne when the container vessel was sunk. The lack of heavy lift support made the land war on the Falklands a hard slog for the foot soldiers.

The picture in 2009

An Army Apache on exercise onboard HMS Ocean

An Army Apache on exercise onboard HMS Ocean

The Vulcan Bomber was retired soon after the Falklands War, with no replacement in the long range, strategic bombing role. However, there is a more than feasible replacement in this respect, in the shape of the Submarine-launched Tomahawk missile. With no other aircraft in the UK inventory (including the hundreds of Typhoons and Tornados) having anything like the range needed to operate from Ascenscion to the Falklands, nor the ability to operate from Aircraft Carriers, all air defence and attack would be reliant on the Carrierborne Harrier GR9’s. As we have already discussed this is far from ideal, as they are a completely different aircraft to the Sea Harrier, designed for a completely different role.

Nimrod Maritime aircraft would once again prove useful in the patrol and anti-submarine role, albeit with a limited range, as might a number of the RAF’s other larger aircraft – the Sentinel surveillance and Sentry AEW might be able to cover the northern part of the South Atlantic, but not all the way down to the Falklands. The lack of a carrier-borne AEW such as the American Hawkeye would be keenly felt.

Helicopters might be a significant problem. High-profile reports have suggested that there is a chronic shortage of helicopters for operations in Afghanistan, even without any other operations occuring. Considering how difficult the lack of heavy lift-helicopters made the land war in 1982, fighting another Falklands War without enough Chinooks – and the mobility that they offer – would not appeal to many Generals. On the converse, enough Chinooks to move an air assault Battalion around the Battlefield at will would be a godsend.

One new air asset that the UK possess might be the Army Air Corps Apache. Even several of these embarked on HMS Ocean would give useful ground attack support. The Apache has been trialed and passed for operational use from HMS Ocean and the Invincible Class Carriers.

Conclusion

The lack of a Strategic Bomber such as the Vulcan would be largely negated by the capability of launching Tomahawk missiles from Submarines. The Nimrod could perform a similar – albeit still limited – function to that that it did in 1982, and newer aircraft such as Sentinel and Sentry might offer a limited capability too. The Apache also offers a mobile, hard-hitting capability that could operate from HMS Ocean.

The inability of interceptor and attack aircraft such as the Typhoon and the Tornado to contribute to any task force would leave air defence solely in the hands of the Carrier-based Harrier GR9’s, which are not primarily fighters. Even though the Argentines operate the same aircraft in 1982, and less of them, achieving air superiority would be a problem. This demonstrates the importance of both a specialist Maritime Fighter, and the ability of RAF jets to operate on Carriers if necessary.

Helicopter support would be critical – if no or very few Chinooks could be provided, it would be a very difficult land war. If in their absence few or no Merlins could be used, then it would be virtually impossible. Given current Helicopter shortages in Afghanistan, few Helicopters could be expected.

With no guarantee of air superiority and a shortage of Helicopters, the air war would be more taxing than in 1982. Even if a task force could deploy all the Helicopters that it might wish for, with no air superiority they would be frightfully vulnerable.

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