Daily Archives: 23 January, 2010

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

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

During the Second World War Southern Railways operated a steamship ferry service between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although on first impressions we might think that this was a relatively safe occupation, part of the Luftwaffe’s operations against Britan included dropping mines in coastal waters. An during wartime members of the Merchant Navy were liable to come under naval discipline, and the Merchant Navy was regarded as an arm of service in itself.

One of the Southern Railway steamers was the SS Portsdown. In service from 1928, she plied the route across the Solent. On 20 September 1941 the Portsdown blew up and sank off Southsea Beach. Eight of the crew and an unknown number of passengers were missing. It was believed she hit a mine.

Many of the crew were lost, and a lone civilian Passenger.

Eight crew members died when the Portsdown was sunk. Master Herbert Chandler, 57 and from Bognor Regis. Mate Seth Burgess, 33 and from Southsea. Purser Edward Cottrell, 34 and from Southsea. Ordinary Seaman Edwin Burnett, 19 and from Eastney. Fireman William Harrison, 47 and from North End. Fireman Bertram Rawlins, 25 and from Buckland. Deck Hand John Monk, 27 and from Southsea. And Deck Hand Alfred Farey, 61 and from Fratton. All are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, apart from Seth Burgess who is buried in Milton Cemetery. That they have no known grave suggests that the ship exploded and that only Burgess’ body was recovered.

Mecifully there seems to have been only one civilian casualty – Kenneth Spanner, 36 and from Sandown on the Isle of Wight. He seems to have no known grave.

How many passengers were onboard when she hit the mine? Did they manage to escape, or did the Portsdown only have one passenger onboard? It does seem strange for a ferry to have been travelling with just one passenger. She sank in around six feet of water, which taking a look at Admiralty chart, would place her around half a mile off Southsea Beach when she sank. Having fished the waters off Southea, I’m not awar of the wreck of a paddlesteamer off Southea. It would seem that the wreck was salvaged, or so destroyed by the explosion that nothing substantial remained.

There is a file on the SS Portsdown in the National Archives in London, so hopefully on my next visit I will be able to find out more. The local Newspaper might also tell me more. And knowing that the Portsdown was a Railway ship, and how enthusiastic Railway enthusiasts are, maybe I can find out more from that angle…

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Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

Galipoli – L.A. Carlyon

Galipoli

Galipoli

I’ve always been much more interested in the Second World War. In fact, I can count the amount of First World War books that I have read on two hands. Seeking to remedy this and to try and wean me away from all things 1939 to 1945, my brother gave me this book for Christmas. It’s been my ‘bus book’ to and from work (including sat in snow for 4 hours!).

Even as someone who knows very little about the Great war, I cannot help but have pigeonholed Galipoli as a valiant disaster, much like Arnhem. The similiarlities are striking – incompetent generals, a good plan badly executed, but lit up with some brave deeds and some steadfast soldiering. Ironically, Urquhart modelled the withdrawl over the Rhine at Arnhem on the evacuation of Galipoli, ‘collapsing bag’ style.

But Galipoli is not just any other battle. There presence of the ANZAC contingent on the Galipoli peninsula adds another perspective to what is already a uniquely located battle. As the first major battle that Australian troops fought in, Galipoli and its legacy have become a central part of Australian national identity. And when history is overshadowed by national identity, we all too often find that objectivity goes astray and the history is stunted. The ‘Australian’ ownership of Galipoli is perhaps curious given that 21,255 British soldiers died in the Campaign, compared to 8,709 Australians. But we must remember that 1915 saw a very young Australia, and as for all youngsters that first opportunity to prove oneself is etched in Australian national consciousness.

Carlyon is an Australian, and it shows. Whilst there is no doubt some grain of truth in his arguments about incompetent British Generals and bungling politicians, it all smacks far too much of hindsight. The plan to force the Dardanelles WAS a sound strategy, and could have reaped significant rewards. It WAS badly executed, from the British Government down. But we need to see these factors in context – they apply to pretty much every other battle of the First World War, after all. The ‘Brave ANZACS, useless British Generals’ overtone is far too simplistic. And war is rarely simple.

I’m not exactly sure what Carlyon was aiming to achieve. The history is all too often interspersed with modern anecdotes, and with poetic imagery. Yet alongside this, this book is also quite a thorough account of the whole Galipoli campaign. Which is a pity, as if it were slightly stripped down to a Middlebrook-style account, it would be very readable indeed. Even so, it will probably sell by the truckload down under. For the general interest reader, this is probably a very enjoyable book.

There are plenty of lessons to take from Galipoli. It is always worth looking for the alternative strategy, the leftfield option that might outflank the enemy. And amphibious assaults need to be organised down to the finest detail. Finally, any troops landed by sea have to advance as far as possible and quickly as possible before the element of surprise is lost, to gain a solid build-up area before the enemy can bring up reinforcements and close off the invasion, as the Turks did.

Perhaps once it became clear that Galipoli had bogged down into stalemate it might have been sensible to withdraw. But then virtually the same decision was flunked all through the First World War. Although Galipoli has given me more questions than answers, it has quite possibly sparked an interest in the Great War.

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Filed under Book of the Week, World War One