Daily Archives: 14 January, 2010

The British Army’s supporting arms in the Second World War

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

One thing that is really striking about my Portsmouth World War Two dead research is just how many soldiers were members of the various supporting arms, who maybe don’t get the credit that they deserve.

In Wellington’s day, the Army consisted in the main of Infantry and Cavalry, with Artillery in support. These three might be termed the ‘teeth’ arms, and due to their low-technology status they only required support in the field from services such as the Royal Engineers, the Commassariat and the Army Wagon Corps.

With the Industrial Revolution, and the increased mechanisation of warfare, the Army required many more men and services to support it in wartime. Winston Churchill might have scoffed the amount of cooks and bottle washers in the Eighth Army in the Desert, but it took a lot of manpower to keep hundreds of tanks running. Churchill simply divided the total strength of the Eighth Army by the amount of men in the ‘teeth arms’, and concluded that the remainder must be superfluous. An example of how out of touch Churchill could be regarding military matters. Warfare had advanced since Wellington’s day – the Generals of 1914-1918 had struggled getting to grips with technological change. A smaller proportion might have been ‘ront-line’ troops, but those that were better armed than their ancestors, and needed support arms to maintain them.

The Royal Artillery seems to have had a first class reputation during the Second World War, and was frequently one of the reasons that the British Army was able to fight battles without too heavy losses – particularly important given the dearth of replacements available by 1944. Many men served in the Royal Artillery, from the various Light, Medium and Heavy Field Regiments, Anti-Aircraft units, Searchlight Batteries and Coastal Artillery. They served in every theatre, as shown by the Gunner’s motto, Ubique – everywhere. Wherever the British Army fought, its guns went with it. Almost as many Portsmouth men died serving in the Artillery as did serving with the local Hampshire Regiment.

The Royal Engineers also gained a first class reputation for their sterling work in many theatres, from the Desert to the Jungle. There were a wide range of Sapper units – Field Companies and Regiments, Dock operating companies, General Construction units, Fortress Companies, Railway Companies, Advancied Field Companies and Assault units. They operated frequently under enemy fire, for example throwing up Bailey Bridges in remarkable time. Often they put down their tools and also fought as infantry, particulary at Arnhem Bridge. So far I have found at least 32 Portsmouth men who died serving with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War.

One innovation in the Second World War was the formation of REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This new Corps specialised in working on vehicles and machinery, and many men were transferred from other Corps upon its formation. 4 Portsmouth men died serving with REME.

The Royal Corps of Signals was another unit that went everywhere that the Army did. Maintaining communications was a vital part of warfare in the Second World War, in particular in the highly mobile fighting that frequently occured. At least 10 Portsmouth men died serving with the Royal Signals between 1939 and 1947.

Other Corps such as the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps, down to the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Royal Army Chaplains Department, along with the Gunners, Sappers, REME and Scaleybacks provided strong support to the Infantry and Armour. The men who died serving in these units are proof, if any is needed, that the Infantry Private or the Armoured Trooper needed the Gunner to lay down fire support, the Sapper to build his bridges, the REME to fix his engine or his rifle, the Signals to keep up communications, and the medics to treat him.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Napoleonic War, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.

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Filed under Afghanistan, debate, Iraq, politics