Monthly Archives: January 2010

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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Empire of the Waves: The Golden Ocean

I’ve just finished watching the latest instalment of this series presented by Dan Snow, and I found this episode very much to my liking. It had perhaps far too much of Snow sailing – he’s doing it for fun, whereas the men he’s talking about worked bloody hard day upon day for years. And I’m not sure watching him try his hand at being a working man by making a nail added to the programme. But the subject matter is top notch, and there has clearly been some first class research gone on behind the scenes.

Snow charts the period from 1690 to 1759 and reveals how England – soon to be Britain – and her Navy rose from the depths of military and economic disaster to achieve global supremacy. In 1690, France was a significant seapower and the Royal Navy relatively weak. William III had taken England into a disastrous war against the most powerful country in Europe. If England was to survive, it needed a new Navy, one capable of carrying the fight to its enemies anywhere in the world. I do feel perhaps that the programme overstates the extent to which England was weak in 1690 – after all, hadn’t the previous programme made the argument that British Sea Power began with the defeat of the Armada? if so, how did it decline between then and 1690?

To achieve this naval transformation required a national effort unlike anything that had been seen before. A determination to achieve mastery of the seas unleashed a chain reaction of revolutions in finance, industry and agriculture which reshaped the landscape and created the country’s first great credit boom. Years before the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Navy became the engine of global change, propelling Britain into the modern world. Could it be that the Royal Navy acted as a pump-primer for the Industrial Revolution? And not only did the Navy develop into a fighting force, but also one that combated piracy, and launched a number of amphibious operations.

This transformation had incredible results at sea. By 1759, French forces around the world were capitulating to Britain’s superior Navy. the Royal Navy’s march, Heart of Oak, refers to 1759 as ‘this wonderful year’. For the first time in her history, Britannia really did rule the waves.

I would have liked to see more about the effect that this naval transformation had on Britain itself, aside from a token view of industrial North England. How about the Naval Dockyards? Where did all the food come from, the wood, the rope, sails? A whole supportive infrastructure grew up to support Naval expansion – the bristling Warships were but the sharp tip of a very long sword. If anyone wants to take an in-depth look at like in the Royal Navy during the mid 18th Century, ‘The Wooden World’ by NAM Rodger is a very good read.

This episode sets the scene very well for the pivotal wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In particular I hope that anyone watching this programme will have realised that Britain did have Naval heroes long before Nelson – Anson, Vernon, Hawke to name but three. And, in the words of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, First Sea Lord during the Second World War:

‘it takes a day to win a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’.

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Portsmouth war dead project: News

I’ve now finished processing the list of Portsmouth’s World War Two Dead from the list on Portsmouth City Council’s website. Each name has been inputted into a database, along with their details from the Commonwealth War Graves online roll of honour. I have also done a lot of research on each person, using websites such as lostbombers, Far East Prisoners of War, RAF Web and Naval History.net.

I’ve managed to find some fascinating stories, which I have written about on my blog over the past few months. Stories of heroic deeds, medals, families, young and old, men and women, rich and poor. Men who have no grave, who are buried in Portsmouth, or who died far away from home. Men who died in famous battles, and men buried in cemeteries long forgotten. Men who served on the sea, on land and in the air. From all corners of Portsmouth.

There are a total of 2,023 names in the list. 1,027 in the Royal Navy, 539 from the Army, 319 from the Royal Air Force, 84 in the Royal Marines, 35 in the Merchant Navy and 11 in the NAAFI.

From Ordinary Seaman to Admiral of the Fleet, Private to Lieutenant Colonel, and Aircraftman 1st Class to Wing Commander. Youngest 16, oldest 73.

82 men died on HMS Hood, 60 on HMS Royal Oak, and 43 on HMS Barham. 12 Died on D-Day.

2 George Crosses, 5 BEM, 2 CBE, 1 Cross of St George (Russia), 1 DCM, 9 DFC, 5 DFM, 4 DSC, 1 DSC and Bar, 2 DSO, 5 MBE, 1 MC, 3 OBE, 35 Mentions in Dispatches and 32 DSM and 2 DSM and Bar.

113 are buried in France, 60 in Germany, 102 in Italy, 128 in the Far East and 100 in North Africa. 632 are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on Southsea Common. 147 are buried in Milton Cemetery, 96 in Kingston Cemetery, and 35 in Highland Cemetery. To put that in perspective, more are buried in Milton Cemetery alone than are buried in France.

I have found some amazing stories – the Chindit, the 16 year old Para, the two brothers who died on the same plane, the submariners, the Paras, Prisoners of War, the Bomber Crew, Engineers, Sappers, Gunners, Ground Crew… all manner of men and women, of all ages, from all parts of Portsmouth, and from all walks of life. I guess the moral of this story is that war, and death, knows no distinction. Like the gravestones in War Cemeteries – all the same, row upon row.

This list was generated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the Council, in order to compile a list of names for the proposed WW2 memorial in Guildhall Square. It is clearly far from complete, however. There are many names on local war memorials that do not feature in the list and will require some further research. Also, using Geoff’s WW2 search engine has already helped me identify that there are many people who’s location is given as ‘Fratton’, and not ‘Portsmouth’, for example, and hence may have slipped the net.

So, the project is far from completed. The names that are inputted still require a lot of research, and there are potentially hundreds of other names that can be added to the list. I’m already starting to think about what to do with my findings – clearly, such a database does need to be available to the general public. I especially hope that young people may be able to use it for school projects and such like. The statistics should be able to tell us so much. I also have plenty of ideas for a website including pictures of each grave, so families may even be able to find pictures of the last resting place of their loved ones.

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Filed under Army, d-day, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

RFA Vessel off to Haiti

RFA Largs Bay: Haiti bound

RFA Largs Bay: Haiti bound

Hot on the heels of my article on Mulberry Harbour yesterday, the Portsmouth News today that RFA Largs Bay is set to depart for the Carribean to assist in the disaster relief effort.

The 16,000 ton RFA landing ship is normally used for supporting amphibious operations. She will be able to use her flight deck, internal dock, mexefloat pontoons and cargo crane to not only transport important supplies but to act as a platform off the coast. They have a hige vehicle deck which will be ideal for loading supplies. Essentially she will be a smaller version of the Mulberry concept of locating a base close to where assistance is needed. The ability to get cargo onto shore is important – a huge container vessel could transport thousands of tons to the area, but then getting it from ship to shore would be problematic. The other problem seems to be security: a ship based inshore will be ideal in this respect. If several similar ships could be located together, along with pontoons, landing craft and helicopters, the result would essentially be a makeshift port.

I’m a big fan of these incredibly versatile ships. I also think that this kind of operation demonstrates real and genuine international aid, much more positive and constructive than simply handing £bn’s over to states such as India and China who are rich enough to look after themselves. Disaster relief is definitely a positive by-product of having an amphibious warfare capability, and demonstrates how Defence, Foreign Policy and International Aid can and should be closely aligned.

Remember, however, that Largs Bay and her sister ships are part of a service that is under threat of being privatised.

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Artificial harbours for disaster relief?

Vehicles coming ashore at the Mulberry Harbour

Vehicles coming ashore at the Mulberry Harbour

I’ve just read a very interesting article on Think Defence about the relief effort in Haiti after the devestating earthquake there. It has strong historical echoes, so I thought I would sumarise it and add my own thoughts here.

The news channels are full of stories about how Foreign Governments and Non-Governmental Agencies are struggling to get aid into the country. Aside from security the problem appears to be that with no suitable port, and the one airport overwhelmed, there is no way to get aid into the country. The US Air Force has even resorted to air dropping supplies into Haiti by parachute, which is surely an option of last resort. This inability to get aid onto an island is all the more puzzling, as the US Navy and Marine Corps between them have awesome amphibious assets.

Lets take a look at another situation. Long before D-Day, the planning team putting together the plan for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe, had to ponder the problem of getting sufficient supplies into the beachead. It would be too risky to attack a port right away – ports are usually heavily defended, and capturing one would be a bloody business. The Germans were likely to render any ports useless anyway. But supplies had to be got onshore, or the offensive risked being bogged down in stalemate.

The solution? Build a new port. A team in British Combined Operations put together a plan to construct two working ports off the Normandy coast. After extensive trials in England, a blueprint was drawn up for each port to be bigger than the port of Dover. Floating Breakwaters were created to form an outer line of sea defence, and inside these old ships were sunk as blockships. 146 Concrete Caissons were assembled to form the harbour itself. Inside this the pierhead and roadways were built.

Construction began in the early hours of 7 June (D+1), and by D+8 the Mulberry harbours were operational. Unfortunately the harbour off the American beaches was completely wrecked in a severe storm on 19 June. The British Mulberry landed around 9,000 tons of supplies until the end of August when Cherbourg finally became available. Albert Speer, the Nazi Germany Armaments Minister, cited the Mulberry Harbour as the chief reason why the Allies were able to breach the fabled Atlantic Wall.

It was known at the time that the American commanders were less than keen on the Mulberry Harbours, similar to their ambivalent attitude towards the specialist ‘Hobarts Funnies’ amphibious tanks. But since the concept of a mobile, quickly assembled harbour proved so useful in 1944, how come no capability exists for doing something similar nowadays? The inability to get supplies ashore during an amphibious assault would be bound to limit options that any planners have. Modern amphibious forces only seem to have an ability to transfer stores from sea to land by landing craft, powered pontoons or by helicopter. But what if ships could dock directly in a harbour, and supplies could then be driven onto shore? Such a system could be made modular, so the port could be built as large or as small as needed.

Time and time again ideas that have proven useful in history are forgotten or discarded. The famous Bailey Bridge concept was quickly resurrected last year when floods hit Cumbria and swept away a number of Bridges. Maybe new technology emerges, but surely the same requirements exist – to cross a water obstacle, for example, or to create a port quickly?

Maybe Armed Forces consider that the Mulberry is an old concept that had its day in 1944, but that there is no need for it in the modern world. I don’t know. But I think looking at its performance in 1944, the concept still has a lot to offer. Not only could it have aided in getting supplies into the country quickly, it might have had a longer term legacy for developing what is a pretty poor country.

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Flt Lt Patrick McCarthy DFC & Plt. Off. Alan Hargrave

A Bomber crew preparing for their next mission

A Bomber crew preparing for their next mission

One thing that my research into Portsmouth’s Second World War dead has shown is the sheer number of young men who were killed on operations whilst serving in the RAF, and in particular in Bomber Command. There were young men who were going into action night after night in the skies over Europe. Bomber Command lost more men killed than any other comparable command in the British armed forces during the war.

We tend to think of Portsmouth as being a naval town, which of course it is – we all know about the devastating loss of life caused by the sinkings of HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. We are also perhaps more conscious of the armies role, especially as Portsmouth was the launchpad for D-Day.

Yet we hear very little about the young men of Portsmouth who were killed serving in the RAF. And they were overwhelmingly members of Bomber Command, killed in the strategic Bomber offensive during 1943 and 1944. They were mostly called-up servicemen, the peacetime RAF had expanded massively. They were also remarkably young – most were in their early to mid twenties. Not only were they going into action every night, but they were performing roles operating a complex aircraft – Pilots, Navigators, Wireless Operators, Flight Engineers, Air Bombers and Air Gunners.

Remarkably, two un-related Portsmouth men were killed on the same aircraft. Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC (21 and from Southsea) and Pilot Officer Alan Hargrave (24 and from Portsmouth) were members of 7 Squadron, which operated Lancasters from Oakington. Crew members of PB148 MG-C ‘C for Charlie’, McCarthy was the Pilot and Hargrave the Navigator. Bomber Crews formed by a process of ‘palling-up’, so either McCarthy and Hargrave teamed up as two Portsmouth lads, or by a huge coincidence they found themselves on the same crew.

On an operation to bomb a target at Sterkrade in the Ruhr, 7 Squadron was in the Pathfinder role. C for Charlie, however, came to grief in the skies over Holland. There is no indication as to how the she was lost, but all of the crew are now buried in Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery in Holland.

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Army and Navy chiefs at odds over future of Armed Forces

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope and General Sir David Richards

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope and General Sir David Richards

In recent days significant differences of opinion have been emerging between the heads of the Army and the Royal Navy over the future of Britain’s Armed Forces. Intense debate is already foreshadowing the impending Defence Review, which will take place after this years general election and will almost certainly entail difficult choices and cuts.

The Army view

The Army is currently leading the fight in Afghanistan. The head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, has spoke recently about a need to spend less on expensive jets, tanks and warships, and focus more on manpower. Richards’ argument seems to be that current and future threats will come in the form of asymetric warfare, such as terrorism, and that state vs. state conflicts would be unlikely. He has also argued that states are far more likely to fight fight conflicts by proxy, such as with Iranian support for Hizbollah against Israel. Nimbler, more flexible and specialised forces are needed to fight these kinds of wars. Against that background, the Army has long felt that it is doing most of the fighting, whilst receiving little of the Defence Budget.

The Navy view

The head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, has offered an almost polarised view. Stanhope argued recently that the UK’s international influece depends on a fleet that can operate globally. He has also cited the Falklands conflict as an example of the kind of unexpected strategic shock that can occur out of the blue. Stanhope strenuously denied that the Navy was not making best use of expensive equipment, citing its role defending British interests at sea around the globe.

The head of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, is believed to broadly agree with Admiral Stanhope’s assesment that state vs. state wars are not a thing of the past. The Navy and the RAF, however, rely largely on expensive equipment – such as Eurofighters, Aircraft Carriers. Projects which are vulnerable to budgetary cuts.

Analysis

The current debate between the Service Chiefs has strong historical echoes. General Richards has argued that the policy choices facing the UK are alike the “horse to tank” transition, comparing it to the revolution in military tactics during World War I. For years it was clear that horses were being eclipsed by tanks, yet Cavalry regiments were allowed to keep their horses for far too long for sentimental reasons. The ineffectiveness of British armour in the Second world war was the result. Another parallel is the reluctance of naval officers to adapt to air power, clinging on to their big-gun battleships until Prince of Wales and Repulse were destroyed in the water off Singapore.

It could be argued, however, that low-intensity warfare is not new and is merely a progression on from the wars that Britain fought during the withdrawal from Empire and in Northern Ireland. What is new is the element of extremism and fundamentalism involved. Richards does in my opinion appear to be pertinent in suggesting that states are now more likely to sponsor proxies to do their bidding, rather than gamble on all-out warfare. Richards has experience of command in Afghanistan and is known as a ‘thinking mans soldier’.

Divergence between the Armed Forces is also nothing new. As the junior service the RAF has historically been fiercely protective of its independence. The armed services rotate in primacy as different enemies and threats materialise. This does seem to suit the Government, who can then play divide-and-rule with the armed forces. Long gone are the days where service chiefs actual control policy. Neither is Defence a real priority for voters when it comes to the ballot box.

Making an argument can go too far, however. Allan Mallinson’s recent article in the Sunday Times seemed to argue for stripping back the RAF and the Navy, an argument that owes more to his background as an Army officer than anything else. Indeed, the Conservative party has a strong contingent of former soldiers and serving territorials who are bound to influence defence policy accordingly.

To put things into perspective, it is hard to see that the opinions of the heads of the Armed Forces will actually have any effect on Government policy. The overwhelming priority for any incoming Government will be cutting costs and keeping them down. The current perilous state of the British Armed Forces comes is a legacy of years of poor political leadership and incompetent procurement. Lessons should be learnt.

Where the Government is faced with difficult choices – as it undoubtedly will be – perhaps the understanding has to be arrived at that the UK cannot be all things to all people in Defence and that some capabilities will have to be dropped. It is no use trying to plan for all eventualities if we cannot afford to act on them in any case. This would require a level of pragmatism from all involved in shaping policy, but do service loyalties allow a ‘UK Defence’ minded pragmatism?

These debates will shape British Defence for the next decade, and probably beyond then. With the present Chief of Defence Staff being an airman, it is likely that either Admiral Stanhope or General Richards will be promoted to be Britain’s senior serviceman.

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Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM

Troops coming ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day

Troops coming ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day

Lance Corporal Leslie Webb, 27 and from North End, was serving in D Company of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the 1st Hampshire landed at 0725 in the first wave on Gold Beach at Arromanches. They came under heavy fire and lost their Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command within minutes of landing.

Yet in the confusion the long and thorough training of the men seems to have held out. In an assault to capture Le Hamel, on the flank of Gold Beach, D Company found themselves pinned down. Lance Corporal Webb managed to move his men forward, and was seriously wounded while going to receive orders from his Platoon Commander. The Battalion suffered 64 men killed on D-Day alone, including many officers.

For his bravery on D-Day Lance Corporal Webb was reccomended for the Military Medal:

At Le Hamel on 6 June 44, during an attack on an enemy position by D Coy, the Company came under heavy enemy fire and found movement forward impossible.

L/Cpl Webb, showing complete disregard for his personal safety, repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to move his men forward. In full view of the enemy he went to get orders from his Pl Cmd, and was seriously wounded, but his courage and bravery were such an inspiration to all that the Pl went forward again and seized its objective.

Webb was evacuated back to England, but sadly died on 14 June 1944. He is buried in Milton Cemetery. His Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 25 September 1944.

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Type 45 Destroyers face further worries

The Portsmouth Evening News for today includes an in-depth investigation into the problems that are plaguing the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 Destroyers.

Reportedly the Navy is planning to take old Phalanx close-in weapons systems from old Type 42 Destroyers as they are scrapped and fit them on the Type 45’s. Why they were not planned to have a close in system such as Phalanx or Goalkeeper in the first place defies logic and demonstrates the extent to which Ministry of Defence procurement policy is about cutting costs at the expsense of lives. The Falklands War demonstrated that even modern weapons systems are not 100% reliable, and was exactly the reason why close-in weapons systems were fitted in the first place.

Sources have also admitted that they are still no closer to establishing why the Sea Viper missile system has failed in 50% of its test-firings from a barge off the south coast of France. News that the Phalanx system is to be fitted to the Type 45’s might suggest that the Navy is planning to deploy the Daring’s without Sea Viper operational – given the shortage of escort ships there is a real prospect of a 7,500 ton, £1billion Air Defence Destroyer being used as a patrol boat, with an add-on close in weapon system in place of a defective missile system.

New reports have also surfaced regarding the Type 45’s new communication system, which is intended to allow them to see what other ships are doing and to co-ordinate action. Apparently the cut from 12, to 8, and then to 6 vessels was not important, we were told, as 1 ship could do the work of 2 or 3 anyway. Yet, unbelievably, a contract has not even been placed for the CEC (Co-operative Engagement Capability) system. The MOD procurement department is yet to decide whether the system will be ordered from British or American suppliers.

These new reports cast a dark shadow over MOD policy. That ships were planned without standard close-in weapons systems, that the main missile system is not yet operational, and that the ship’s main computer system has not even been ordered yet, beggars belief and could suggest that it will be a matter of years before they are able to perform their intended role in the Fleet.

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Lance Bombardier Edward Wait MM

Lance Bombardier Edward Wait, 25 and from Southsea, was serving with 444 Field Battery in 64 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, a London-based Territorial Army unit. The Regiment was part of the 56th (London Division) during the war in Italy in 1943. As an Observation Post Assistant to the Battery Commander, Wait had an important role in keeping communications flowing between the Observation Post, the Guns and the Infantry that the Battery was commanding. Frequently in the Second World War the Royal Artillery were called upon to provide support to Infantry attacks, and the Artillery Signals network often provided a link not only for the Gunners but other units too.

The Reccomendation for his Military Medal takes up the story:

On the night of 29 October 1943 444 Field Battery RA were supporting the 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the attack on the Tranzi feature 0492. Lance Bombardier Wait was performing the duties of O.P.A. to the Battery Commander’s party. In about the area 047916 the wireless set which was carried by a signaller got struck by a piece of shell which damaged the terminal wire and rendered the set unserviceable. At this particular moment, approximately 0230 hours, this set was the only means of communication to Brigade HQ as the Battalion set was disserviceable. To repair the wireless set was a delicate operation which entailed removing minute screws from the control panel. Lance Bombardier Wait worked coolly and patiently in the dark under heavy mortar and shelling and made good the repair in 15 minutes. The shelling was so intense that the Infantry were forced to take cover but Lance Bombardier Wait remained in the open with his set. Later on the set gave further trouble; infiltrating enemy made things very confused and Lance Bombardier Wait and one signaller got separated and lost touch with the rest of the party. He knew that the objective was a certain feature and through his determination to succeed at all costs he rejoined his Battery Commander on the feature at first light with his set through to the Battery. His complete disregard for personal safety was most noticeable, he is a young NCO and this was his first experience of an attack and his behaviour throughout was very fine indeed.

Lance Bombardier Wait’s Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 21 March 1944. He did not live to learn of the award, however. Wait was killed on 20 February 1944, during the amphibious assault in the Anzio Beachead. He is buried at Anzio War Cemetery.

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Vulcan needs £580k repairs to stay airworthy

Vulcan XH558 at Shoreham 2009

Vulcan XH558 at Shoreham 2009

The worlds only flying Vulcan Bomber is in desparate need of £580,000 worth of repairs, reports the Mail on Sunday.

In what is becoming an annual event, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust have launched an urgent appeal for the funds needed to keep Vulcan XH558 airworthy in time for this years airshow circuit. Reportedly it took a battering performing in poor weather conditions last year. Weak points on the wings on the wings require replacement steel and aluminium reinforcing plates, all onboard fire extinguishers have to be replaced as do the braking parachutes.

There are amibitious plans for the 2010 flying season, in what will be XH558’s 50th anniversary. The Trust also hopes to feature in a flypast over Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Having been lucky enough to see a Vulcan flying twice at airshows – Lee-on-Solent in the early 90’s and 2009 at Shoreham – this really is a special aircraft. Apart from its role delivering the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent for many years, and the famous Black Buck bombing raids in the Falklands War, there is something enigmatic about the delta winged airframe appearing over the horizon.

It really is quite sad that in a world where the country can find £50million for a Titian painting – just how many paintings does this country own anyway? – and millions for the Royal Opera House, we’re struggling to keep historic aircraft in the air. This news comes shortly after rumours that the RAF will offer up the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Red Arrows for the axe in the next Defence Review. Such historically important aircraft should be protected.

To Donate to keep Vulcan XH558 flying, visit the Vulcan to the Sky Trust’s website here

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Lance Corporal George Sullivan – the Portsmouth Chindit

A Chindit Mule Train moving through the Jungle

A Chindit Mule Train moving through the Jungle

Lance Corporal George Sullivan, 23 and from Cosham, died in Burma on 1 August 1943. He is buried in Rangoon War Cemetery in what is now known as Myanmar.

A member of the 13th Battalion of the Kings Regiment – a Regiment that normally recruited from the Liverpool area – he served on the first Chindit expedition, Operation Longcloth.

The Chindit Operations were the brainchild of Brigadier Orde Wingate, who had trialed forms of long range penetration warfare in East Africa. In Burma, he was given the 77th Indian Brigade to train as a force to fight behind Japanese lines. They were trained to be supplied by stores dropped by parachute, and to use a minimum of heavy equipment. The force was structured into a number of columns, instead of the usual Battalions.

Operation Longcloth was originally to have been part of a wider campaign in Burma. Despite the wider offensive being cancelled, Wingate was persuaded to take his men into the jungle anyway. Beginning their march into Burma on 8 February 1943, on 13 February they crossed the Chindwin River. They stayed in the Jungle until late March, when Wingate decided to withdraw. They had been fighting the Japanese continually, and had often had to leave their wounded behind. Much of their time was spent clearing paths through the dense jungle with kukris and machetes.

Of the 3,000 men who set off on the first Chindit expedition, 818 died. Those that returned had covered between 1,000 and 1,500 miles. Of those that returned only 600 were fit for further military service. It took many months for some of the survivors to return to British lines. Despite these huge losses, the principle of deep penetration warfare in the Jungle had been proven, and a much larger expedition was approved for 1944.

It is unclear how Lance Corporal Sullivan died. We know that he was a Prisoner of the Japanese, although POW records give no indication of when or where he was captured. However he met his fate, Lance Corporal Sullivan was part of one of the most legendary British units of the Second World War, and had taken part in a significant feat of arms.

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War Cemeteries and young people

Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Belgium

Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Belgium

I was having a bit of a browse on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Website earlier today, and happened upon their excellent Respect micro-site, aimed at helping school parties gain the most out of their visits to War Cemeteries.

I was, however, shocked and disappointed to read a set of correspondence reproduced from the Bulletin of the Western Front Association. Now, I’m someone who was worked with young people before, and dealt with some bigoted and old-fashioned attitudes. But to read someone inferring a snobbery about visiting War Cemeteries is very sad indeed. I’ve written before about how these ridiculous arguments that ‘years ago everyone was respectful, now young people are yobs, its the end of the world as we know it’ are based on nothing more than prejudice.

I want to share an experience that I had visiting a War Cemetery as a young person. On a school trip to Arnhem in Holland, we were not even due to visit the Cemetery or the Museum. But when I told the teacher in charge that my Granddad had fought at Arnhem, the itinerary was changed. We went to the Museum. Now, initially this didn’t go down too well with most of the other people on the coach – not a bloody Museum! But when we got off the coach, one of the teachers stood everyone around, and explained about the Battle, and about my Granddad, and how important it was that we pay our respects. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ve never seen a group of kids so attentive in a Museum. At the end, some of the younger kids were even buying me things from the shop, and one even talked about how they wanted to join the Parachute Regiment. Then on to the Cemetery, everyone got off, and walked round the Cemetery in little groups, talking about the names, the ages, the fact that one of the graves had a Jewish Star of David on it. It was an incredible experience.

Make no mistake, this was a bunch of kids from what was at the time one of the worst schools in the country. Only months earlier the local bus company had banned Pupils in school uniform from getting on their buses. Yet this group, which included some of the most hardened tough-nuts in the school, behaved impeccably at Arnhem. What amazes me, looking back, is that the young people who were most interested and most respectful, were the ones who would have played up the most in the classroom. The were exactly the kind of young people who might have found themselves jumping out of Dakotas over Ginkel Heath. Yet if the gentleman in the article had his way, they wouldn’t have visited the Cemetery at all.

What does that teach us? Certainly it cautions us against assuming that all young people care not a jot for battlefield heritage. And also, that it is not only the public schoolkids that have respect for national heritage, but it is there in all young people too – it is just a case of finding it. It takes a more informal, young-people focussed aproach to do this. The National Curriculum has resulted in a ‘lost generation’ who have been spoonfeed turgid and mindnumbing versions of history. This is not their fault, yet it is a worrying trend that needs addressing.

As someone who has sat in a fair number of History lessons, I am the first to admit that it is one of the most uninspiring subjects when taught in a classroom, particularly if the teacher is lacking in dynamism. But take that same group of young people out for a walk round the battlefield, and to the Museums and the Cemeteries, and see how different they react.

The snobbery of suggesting that only a ‘genuine kind of pilgrim’ should visit war cemeteries is ludicrous. Like, only the ‘right kind of chap’ should be allowed to join a certain regiment. The many thousands of British and Commonwealth men buried in France and Belgium came from all walks of life, some of them were no doubt ‘genuine kinds of soldiers’ and some were surely rogues too. That is human nature. But they all paid the ultimate sacrifice all the same, a bullet neither knows nor cares whom it is killing. To suggest that some people are more worthy to visit War Cemeteries should be anathema for anyone with an interest in military history. If I found myself thinking like that, I would be ashamed.

It is so very important that we engage meaningfully with young people around wars and conflict. I feel that the real growth area for this is in informal learning projects, such as the Discovering D-Day Project ongoing at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s recent project on footballers in war. These kinds of projects meet young people on their level, rather than expecting them to subscribe to outdated ideas of learning.

So, instead of bleating on about young people, which is hardly helping matters, why not get involved and do something to help matters? Its no use moaning about something if you’re not prepared to make a difference yourself. I don’t mind people being critical, as long as they are constructive about it too.

It astounds me that there are military history enthusiasts out there who profess to have great respect for our war dead, yet in another breath talk about young people as ‘teenaged morons’.

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer

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