Monthly Archives: January 2010

Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield by Ian Daglish

Courtesy of Pen and Sword, over the next few days I will be bringing you reviews of the first three books in their innovative new series ‘Over the Battlefield’. Here is my taken on the first instalment, which focuses on Operation Epsom.

Epsom

Operation Epson was the first of three set-piece battles fought by Montgomery in Normandy. Before Epsom the front still remained fluid, and there were hopes that the allies might be able to extend the beachead further. There was even talk of dropping the 1st Airborne Division west of Caen in support.

But at the same time, there was also a risk that the Germans might also launch a decisive counter-attack against the allied build-up. Although Epsom was blunted, it also prevented a planned German operation and ensured that from then on the strategic initiative remained with the allies.

Epsom saw largely well-trained but inexperienced British Divisions fighting against some of the Third Reich’s most battle-hardened units. Thanks to ULTRA intelligence Montgomery was aware that Rommel was planning an offensive towards Bayeux – by launching Epsom Rommel was frorced to cancel his thrust for Bayeux.

This book tells the story of Epsom in wonderful detail. I am very impressed with the use of aerial recconaisance photographs, and combined with period maps and location photographs, the combination of sources means that you can almost locate yourself in the action and ‘smell the battlefield’. These books are almost the military historians equivalent of Google Earth – they would make a fantastic addition to your luggage if you’re planning on walking the Battlefields of Normandy. Daglish has plotted the movements of units down to Company level, which is refreshing considering that most books on Normandy concentrate on Armies, Corps and Divisions.

Here Ian Daglish introduces new unseen evidence to analyse Epsom. The battle is routinely cited alongside Goodwood as evidence of ‘Monty’s failure’ in Normandy. Whilst neither battle went exactly to plan, what military plan ever does? Particularly with Epsom, the situation was very fluid indeed. Although the outcome of the battle itself was indecisive, this was acceptable for the allies, who could carry on ther build-up, whilst the Germans, under pressure to throw the Allies back into the sea, were ground down more and more. That it made a German counter-offensive less likely seems to be forgotten. Outflanking Caen would have been great, but to call Epsom a disaster, as some do, is ridiculous. In particular historians such as Carlo D’Este and Max Hastings are critical, yet D’Este’s opinions are partisan and Hasting’s are part of a wider intention to denigate Montgomery.

But Ian Daglish focuses on the men who fought the battle, and I think this approach adds much more to our understanding of the battle for Normandy than any tired ‘tit-for-tat’ arguments about Montgomery.

My research has identified several Portsmouth men who were killed during Epsom: Sergeant Leslie Scott, 25 and from Eastney, was killed serving with the 23rd Hussars on 27 June 1944. He was most likely killed in the tank fighting south of Cheux, and may have met a grisly end as he has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. And Captain George Hendry, 27 and from Southsea, was killed serving with the 7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders on 29 June 1944. Daglish tells us that Hendry was last seen stalking Tanks with a PIAT when the Germans made a strong counter-attack aiming to cut off the allied advance near Cheux. He is buried in St Manvieu War Cemetery.

Next:Now that the Allied Bridgehead was left with a salient pointing out to the west of Caen, the next logical step was to attempt to outflank Caen to the east from the Orne bridgehead.

Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield is published by Pen and Sword

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History around us

Where exactly IS History?

Interesting thought isnt it. Classrooms? Books? Films? Museums? Libraries? Stately homes? Maybe in times gone by History was something that was taught by teachers, written by authors, shown in films or stored in glass cases. Sadly, this meant that history became about castles, kings, battles, generals, paintings and the like. Whilst these are all pretty interesting, they are only a small part of the picture.

But the world is a different place. When was you house built? Where did the bricks come from? Take a walk out of your door. Whats the name of your road? Why is it called it that? Who decided to build a road there? Even think about the road itself – when did tarmac start getting used for roads? Whats the name of your local pub? Chances are heres something historic aout it.

When you go to work, how do you get there? How did people get to work 100 years ago? And I bet they didnt have nearly so much leave back then! Look at the countryside – ‘England’s pleasant land’ hasn’t always been like that: hundreds of years ago England was mainly woodland. Why was it cut down? What was it used for?

In fact, you could say that History isnt really a subject itself -its just the art of looking at absolutely anything over time. You can find history anywhere and anything. There is as much history to be found on a council estate as there is in any ancient town. Everywhere you go, and everything you do, there is history. And its not just in the bricks or the artefacts.. its in their stories.

In my mind, it is easier to say where History isn’t. The answer? Thin air*!

(* well, technically you could talk about the history of physics and molecular science…)

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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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The Long March remembered

march

65 years ago this winter thousands upon thousands of people were on the move all over Germany and occupied Europe. As the Third Reich crumbled under the allied onslaught from East and West, the Nazi state attempted to move its prisoners back into the German homeland. In the harshest winter for many years, thousands died or were killed.

This week a group of relatives and young RAF recruits are recreating the march made by RAF Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland into Germany in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Temperatures were between -22 and -25 degrees centigrade. Most of the men had very minimal clothing. It was snowing most of the time. Some men fell out from the march and were shot by the guards. Sometimes the Prisoners slept in buildings, other times in the open. German civilians treated them in a variety of ways – some were kind, whilst others threw stones at the airmen.

At the same time my own Granddad, who had been captured at Arnhem, was being marched across Germany from Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA near Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. But most men were being marched westwards, away from the advancing Red Army. Why? Well, its hard to explain just how chaotic the Nazi state was, especially near the end of the war. It might have been easier for the Germans to leave the POW’s to be liberated. But they may have planned to use them as hostages, or to liquidate them. At any point a rash order from Hitler or Himmler might have spelt doom. But whatever the reason, too many men died needlessly.

Andy Wiseman, an RAF veteran of the Long March from Stalag Luft III had these illuminating words to say about his expriences on the BBC website:

“What the long march taught me, and I go on long marches with current RAF people, is that cometh the hour cometh the man. There is no such thing “I can’t do it” there is no such thing “its impossible”. Have a go and you’d be amazed what you can do. If you see a barrier, don’t turn around and pretend it isn’t there, you’ve got to get over it or under it, there’s no other way of living.”

The Last Escape, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, tells the story of the long marches very well.

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