Daily Archives: 13 February, 2010

Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: the small ships of WW2

Aside from Battleships, Aircraft Carriers and the like, a huge range of smaller ships also served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. Perhaps not as glamorous as the big guns ships, never the less the Trawlers, Drifters, Tugs and other small ships gave sterling service in many theatres. Some were Navy ships, but most were requisitioned merchant vessels that served under Naval orders during the war.

Small vessels maintained boom defences around vital ports. In the Solent an anti-submarine boom stretched from Southsea Beach, across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On 30 May 1940 HM Boom Defence Vessel Cambrian, 338 tons and built in 1924, hit a mine and sank in the middle of the Solent and 23 men were killed. Onboard was Riggers Mate Robert Lavender, 41 and from Buckland. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. I recall fishing on the wreck of the Cambrian some years ago, and catching some nice Wrasse.

Meanwhile an armada of small ships were rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. HM Tug St Fagan was sunk by aircraft on 1 June 1940. The St Fagan displaced 550 tons and was completed in 1919. Among the 17 crew members killed were Stoker Frederick Hatch, 22, Stoker Bernard McBride, 40 and from Hilsea, Leading Steward William Longley, 44, and Stoker William Clark, 22 and from Milton. They have no known grave and are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. On the same day her sister ship HM Tug St Abbs was also sunk by German aircraft. Able Seaman William Cornford, 41 and from Cosham, was among the 20 crew members killed. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Navy also used Trawlers to perform a number of tasks, including minesweeping and coastal patrols. A 344 ton ship launched in 1938, HM Trawler Recoil was lost on patrol presumed mined in the English Channel on 28 September 1940. 25 men were lost, One of them Ordinary Telegraphist Hubert Ewen, 22 and from Surrey. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Drifter Harvest Gleaner (96 tons, 1918) was sunk by aircraft off the East coast of England on 28 October 1940 with the loss of four of her crew. Among those lost was Petty Officer Stoker Seymour Stephenson, 46 and from Eastney. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

Smaller ships also served in the Mediterranean and off North Africa. HM Trawler Ouse struck a mine off Tobruk, Libya on 20 February 1941, with the loss of 13 men. She weighed in at 462 tons, and was completed in 1917. Onboard when she sank was Petty Officer Stoker William Horsley, 40 and from Copnor. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. HM Tug St Issey was sunk off Benghazi, Libya on 28 December 1942. 810 tons and completed in 1918, she was presumed to have been sunk by a U-Boat. Among the 36 men lost was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Keith Hollis, from Southsea. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Trawler Red Gauntlet (338 tons, 1930) met an unfortunate end in the North Sea on 5 August 1943. She was sunk by an E-Boat, the German equivalent of a Motor Torpedo Boat. 21 men were lost. Her Second Lieutenant was 32 year old James Childs, an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

During the D-Day campaign small ships played a vital part. Ships that were employed on minesweeping duties were particularly vulnerable. HM Trawler Lord Austin (473 tons, 1937) was sunk by a mine in the Seine Bay off Normandy on 24 June 1944, with the loss of 7 of her crew. Her Assistant Steward was 35 year old John Cotterell. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

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Filed under d-day, maritime history, Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

Portsmouth and Southampton: Chalk and Cheese

Having just watched Pompey demolish the scummers 4-1 today, I could not let the day pass without talking about the massive difference between Portsmouth and Southampton. I would argue that you will not find two cities so close yet so different in every way possible. As someone who has studied the difference between the two cities in detail, I find it difficult to understand why people cannot see why we simply don’t like each other!

Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy, and has been for hundreds of years. Until the past 20 years, everyone and everything in Portsmouth has been about the Navy – menfolk either joined the Navy or worked in the Dockyard. The whole ethos of Portsmouth was built around training young men to go out into the world and fight. All this shows in Portsmouth culture – after all, only Portsmouth could have a main street called ‘The Hard’. The city is overwhelmingly working class. It has often been described as a northern working class town plonked on the south coast, and I think that is very accurate both in the city’s culture and its appearance. In a city where most if not all of the industries are controlled by the state, there have been few opportunities for private commerce and as a result no chance for a large middle class to develop. That social structure exists to this day. Also, Portsmouth is an island: and that is reflected in the sometimes insular attitude that pervades.

Southampton is the home of the British cruise liner industry, and also a signficant container port. It has always been a merchant town, principally built around the opportunies to make money. Therefore there has always been a bigger middle class. Look at the amount of and size of the shops in Southampton compared to Portsmouth. Southampton also seems that much more rural, as it is very close to the New Forest and is surrounded by Countryside. Perhaps more gentile than Portsmouth, Southampton seems more laidback and relaxed. The story about Southampton dockers crossing picket lines in the 1930′s seems to be an urban myth, it does to fit in with the mentalities of both cities. The other myth about Portsmouth smelling like fish is, to be totally frank, totally rubbish. We’ve got a tiny fishing port at the Camber – hardly Billingsgate or Grimsby!

So clearly, the cities have very little in common, apart from the fact that they are on the sea. Tension between the cities is not a new thing, for hundreds of years there has been a rivalry. To pretend otherwise is to not only ignore history, but to try and rewrite it – something I’m not very keen on. I would suggest that whether right or wrong, people in Portsmouth don’t have much time for the city up the road. This isn’t just about city rivalry, its also about Portsmouth’ place in Hampshire. Right on the cusp, I doubt few Portsmouth people think of themselves as citizens of Hampshire. Interesting how in the 1987 general election campaign Docker Hughes’s manifesto included proposals to take Portsmouth out of Hampshire.

Mind you, he also wanted to introduce duty-free on the Gosport ferry!

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Filed under Local History, maritime history, social history

Why no Bomber Command Memorial?

I’ve just read an interesting article on the Today section of the BBC News website.

The infamous Bomber raid on Dresden took place 65 years ago this weekend. At least 25,000 people died in the devestating attacks on the city. The raid was carried out largely at the request of Stalin, but the scale of destruction – despite the city’s status as a munitions and transport hub – led to much controversery, particularly after the war. Dresden is still debated to this day.

More than 55,000 men of Bomber Command lost their lives in the Second World War. Despite this, and the crucial role they played in the war effort, they received no campaign medal, despite the fact that the Bomber Offensive was very much a distinct campaign. Sir Arthur Harris did not receive the peerage that many of his counterparts and superiors were awarded. It was not until 1992 that a statue of Bomber Harris was unveiled in London. Even then, it has suffered problem from vandalism.

But that lack of recognition is set to change. 65 years after the end of the war, plans are advanced for a permanent memorial to the brave air crews of Bomber Command, in Green park in the centre of London.

But why has it taken so long? One Bomber Command Veteran, Andy Wiseman, now 87, has a very interesting perpective:

‘”I think at one time bomber Command were the blue eyes of the war… Churchill’s Blue Orchids we were called at one time. I think it was Dresden which did destroy churches and museums inter alia and the German propaganda and there are far too man revisionist historians floating about. They should have been in Coventry in the 40s; they should have been in Auschwitz in the 40s, rather than in the cloistered peace of the universities. We don’t claim we’ve done necessarily more than other people, but we’ve certainly done as much as other people and to see a memorial to the women of Britain going up in Whitehall – bless them, I’m sure they played their part. But they didn’t play as much as a part as Bomber Command.”

Wiseman’s point of view does seem to fit in with the historiography. During the war it was fahionable to complement the Bombers, but as soon as peace reigned it became an unpleasant part of the war that politicians and historians felt convenient to forget, ignore and denigrate. Many historians have argued that the Bomber offensive was not as effective as we have been told. But that is besides the point. Bomber Command lost more men than any other comparable armed forces command during the war. While ships and armies fought battles in short sharp bursts, the Bombers went out into the skies over Europe night after night. Theirs was a war like no other. Bombers were about much more than the Dambusters.

My own research into Portsmouths war dead shows the scale of losses. Hundreds of men from Portsmouth died flying in Bombers, in hundreds of aircraft, over targets in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Norway, in the North Sea and in the English Channel. They are buried in hundreds of cemeteries and churchyards all over Europe. Its unacceptable that their contribution to the war effort has gone unrecognised just because it has been convenient for politicians to forget them and for Historians to denigrate them. By comparison, there are plenty of memorials out there to Fighter Command. There are plenty of Spitfires and Hurricanes still airworthy, there is only one flying Lancaster in the UK. Their part in the war was crucial too, but numerically in terms of losses and aircraft, it was much smaller. Yet history seems to have treated Fighter Command far kinder.

Approximately £1.5million has been raised so far, out of the £4million required. The Memorial Fund hope to see the memorial unveiled in March 2011.

Further Information about the Bomber Command Memorial can be found here.

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Filed under Royal Air Force, World War Two