Daily Archives: 26 January, 2010

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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