Monthly Archives: June 2010

The untold Battle of Trafalgar

I watched this documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night.

It portrays the crew of the Royal Navy ship of the line HMS Bellerophon and her crew at the Battle of Trafalgar. While I would like to believe that the story told in the programme is ‘untold’, sadly I think that previous research has already made the same points. I’m not sure how the programme makers can claim that it is based on the same research, when a full register of seamen who served at Trafalgar has been available since at least 2005 on the National Archives website here.

It has long been known that the Royal Navy was an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, long before the term was even dreamt up. And a quick glance at the database on the National Archives website shows that a fair proportion of Trafalgar sailors were not English. Many seem to have come from Ireland. Aside from England and Scotland, men onboard the Bellerophon on 21 October 1805 came from… Portugal, West Indies, Ireland, Prussia, Holland, America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada and India.

I haven’t got my copy of Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions and Answers immediately to hand, but I recall that one of the 101 questions was about the composition of the crew. As far as I can remember, a large proportion of the crew was non-British – possibly a larger proportion than the Bellerophon – and was possibly more diverse too.

Perhaps we need to give bygone times more credit for their lack of prejudice? This common wisdom that back in the dark ages everyone was prejudiced against each other, and now we’re striving to some kind of equality utopia, is pretty blinkered. Its just a shame that it takes a documentary based on reycled research that is freely available to anyone and everyone!

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Youtube picks

Royal welcome home for 11 Light Brigade

Members of the British Army’s 11 Light Brigade marched through Westminster recently, in front of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. The Brigade recently returned from a 6 month tour of Afghanistan, where 64 soldiers were killed in action. The march through Winchester was followed by a service at the Cathedral.

The Altmark Incident

Richard Noyce of the National Museum of the Royal Navy tells us about the Altmark incident, and shows us an artefact from the Museum’s collections.

Muse featuring The Edge – Where the Streets Have No Name

I’m not normally a fan of the whole Glastonbury thing – more performers off the stage than there are on it – but this clip is amazing. Even though U2 couldn’t headline the Friday as planned, The Edge still turned up and joined Muse to play Where The Streets Have No Name, one of U2′s most epic songs.

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Portsmouth WW2 Dead – the Army (part 1)

674 men from Portsmouth were serving in the British Army when they were killed between 1939 and 1947.

British military policy in 1939 placed the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force in the van of defence. The British Army’s role was seen as providing home defence, and a small expeditionary force to serve in France. The slaughter on the Western Front led to a groundswell in public and official opinion to avoid the Army having to fight costly and bloody battles at all costs. However, the Army was relatively small pre-war, and needed to expand greatly in order to recruit enough men.

Areas of Portsmouth

British Army fatalities from Portsmouth came from the following areas of the city:

56 – Southsea (8.31%)
55 – Cosham (8.16%)
51 – North End (7.57%)
51 – Copnor (7.57%)
37 – Fratton (5.49%)
28 – Stamshaw (4.15%)
28 – Milton (4.15%)
26 – Buckland (3.86%)
19 – Eastney (2.82%)
13 – Hilsea (1.93%)
13 – Landport (1.93%)
10 – Mile End (1.48%)
9 – Paulsgrove (1.34%)
8 – Drayton (1.18%)
8 – Wymering (1.18%)
5 – Portsea (0.74%)
5 – Farlington (0.74%)
4 – East Cosham (0.59%)
1 – Kingston (0.15%)
1 – Old Portsmouth (0.15%)

72 men – 10.68%- are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’. The remainder either appear to come from outside Portsmouth, or their place of origin cannot or has not yet been identified.

Its striking that, compared to the same statistics for the Royal Navy, Army recruitment seems to have been relatively well spread around the city. In particular the large number of men coming from suburban areas such as Cosham is interesting. Whereas sailors seem to have lived overwhelmingly in specific areas of Portsmouth, such as Southsea and the inner city areas, soldiers seem to have been recruited evenly from around the city.

Many of Portsmouth’s sailors may have come from elsewhere, and settled in Portsmouth during their service. By comparison, although Portsmouth was home to a sizeable Army Garrison, the Army did not have such a magnetic effect on Portsmouth’s demographic as the Royal Navy.

Age

2 – aged 16 (0.3%)
2 – aged 17 (0.3%)
28 – aged 18 to 19 (4.15%)
288 – in their 20′s (42.73%)
158 – in their 30′s (23.44%)
45 – in their 40′s (6.68%)
7 – in their 50′s (1.04%)
3 – in their 60′s (0.45%)

42 men’s ages are unknown.

The youngest Portsmouth soldier killed in the Second World War was Private Robert Johns, aged 16, of the Parachute Regiment, who was killed in Normandy in 1944. The oldest Portmouth soldier to die between 1939 and 1947 was Major Ernest Norris of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, who was 69 when he died in 1947.

Several observations can be made. Despite the large number of underage soldiers who fought and died in the Great War, it seems that far fewer 16 and 17 year olds were casualties between 1939 and 1947. Recruitment was much tighter on picking underage soldiers, and identification was stricter.

But overall, the majority of soldiers were under 30. There are several reasons for this. Active soldiering on campaign required youth and stamina. Also, most soldiers seem to have been young men called up during the war, and there were much fewer older, long-serving soldiers compared to their counterparts in the Navy. Never the less, it seems that a few older men were recalled to serve in supporting roles.

Date of Death

The years in which soldiers were killed reflect the wider developments of the Second World War:

1939 – 2 (0.29%)
1940 – 50 (7.42%)
1941 – 75 (11.13%)
1942 – 89 (13.2%)
1943 – 136 (20.18%)
1944 – 227 (33.68%)
1945 – 69 (10.24%)
1946 – 21 (3.16%)
1947 – 15 (2.23%)

The two men who died in 1939 seem to have died of illness of accident during the ‘Phoney War’. Heavy casualties began in 1940, particularly with the Battle for France. In 1941 fighting mainly occured in North Africa, and then towards the end of the year in the Far East, particularly at Singapore and Hong Kong. In 1942 fighting continued in North Africa, and also in the Far East. 1943 saw the fighting progress on to Italy. 1944 saw continued heavy fighting in Italy, and of course D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. As 1944 wore on Belgium and Holland also saw casualties, and the war in the Far East continued, especially in Burma. 1945 saw the war reach Germany.

Its noticeable also that 36 men died in 1946 and 1947, when the war had been over for 6 months in Europe and 4 months in the Pacific. These men were no doubt seeing out their service until demobilisation and died of illness or accidents. This shows just how may men were still in uniform for several years after the war.

Next – Regiments, where they died, and Medals

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How to build a nuclear Submarine

I watched this documentary on BBC2 last night. It followed the building of the Royal Navy’s new class of Astute attack submarines. Aside from the usual PR feel of the programme, it was an interesting look behind the scenes at what goes into building a nuclear submarine.

What I found really interesting was the emphasis on how important shipbuilding is to the town of Barrow. The launch of Astute came 10 years after the launch of the last nuclear submarine, and in those intervening years most of the shipbuilding skills had been lost, and apprentice schemes had to be started up from scratch. And thus we follow 19 year old Erin Browne as she works on one of the subs wiring up the electrics.

We get to see how the submarines are built in sections, which are then moved – by road! – into the shipbuilding hall and welded together. We see how the command section is built and then slotted into place. We get a rare close up look at the living conditions on a nuclear submarine, and the process of getting a nucler sub ready for sea – its not every day, after all, that you get to see a nuclear reactor switched on!

What has to be worrying is the likelihood that orders for new ships will be few and far between after the current Defence Review, leaving towns like Barrow facing mass unemployment and all of the social problems that come with it.

How to build a nuclear submarine can be seen on BBC iplayer until Sunday 18th July 2010.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 dead – the Royal Navy (Part 3)

Officer Rank

108 Commissioned Royal Naval officers from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. This represents 8.37% of the total amount of Portsmouth sailors killed during the war:

1 Admiral of the Fleet
5 Captains
10 Commanders
20 Lieutenant Commanders
32 Lieutenants
20 Sub-Lieutenants
3 Midshipmen
17 Commissioned rank

Clearly, Officers consisted of less than 8% of the Royal Navy’s manpower. But given that many officers settled in Portsmouth, and a significant number of older officers serving ashore seemed to die of natural causes, its not surprising that officer fatalities were so high. Around half of officers killed were seagoing officers, and the other half were shore-based, including a not insignificant number of older officers who were serving as instructors and administrators. Given that the Navy was so large, its not surprising that older men were recalled to free up younger officers to serve at sea.

Commissioned ranks were senior ratings, usually in their 30′s or 40′s, who were commissioned as officers due to their experience and expertise. Very few midshipmen were killed during the war – it seems that young men who joined as officers were promoted to Sub-Lieutenant, so there were very few Midshipmen.

However, it is perhaps surprising that so few senior officers of the rank of Captain or above came from Portsmouth. Obviously, hundreds of Captains must have served in the Royal Navy between 1939 and 1945, and given how many ships were sunk, how come only 5 Captains came from Portsmouth? Does this suggest that senior officers did not tend to settle in Portsmouth? Only one officer over the rank of Captain – Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes – came from Portsmouth, and even then, his Portsmouth connection was serving as MP.

Naval Ratings

Enlisted men in the Royal Navy were known as Ratings. The following numbers of men died, representing 91.63% of all naval casualties from Portsmouth:

64 Warrant Officers (5.39%)
265 Chief Petty Officers (22.3%)
322 Petty Officers (27.1%)
187 Leading Seamen (15.74%)
299 Able Seamen (25.17%)
41 Ordinary Seamen (3.45%)
10 Boy Seaman (0.84%)

As we can see, a significant number of Portsmouth sailors who were killed were Chief Petty Officers or Petty Officers. This is not surprising, as Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval port, long-serving seamen were bound to settle in Portmouth. Also, Portsmouth men were bound to look to the Navy for employment. We would normally expect the rank struture to look something like a pyramid – with the amount of men in each rank halving as we go upwards.

Do these proportions of casualties by rank reflect the bigger picture? To tell that I would have to look at the overall losses suffered by the Royal Navy. Or, perhaps, look at the losses suffered on one ship as a case study. But one thing is for sure – cleary, Petty Officers did not represent 27% of all Royal Naval Seamen, and Able Seamen did not account for only 25%.

Departments

We’ve looked at ranks, but from what departments of the ships crews did the men come from?

General Seamen 427
Stoker 231
Engine Room 151
Fleet Air Arm 30
Electrical 49
Cooks 42
Telegraph 37
Steward 33
Signals 28
Supply 27
Engineer 26
Shipwright 25
Mechanic 19
Ordnance 14
Gunnery 14
Writer 10
Medic 9
Wrens 8
Regulating 8
Artisan 6
Canteen Service 4
Coder 2
Patrol Service 2
Photography 1
Wire 1

Several immediate observations can be made. Losses were highest amongst General Seamen, Stokers and Engine Room ratings. On the one hand, these were among the largest branches of the Royal Navy, requiring the most men. ‘General Seamen’ is also a term used to describe ratings serving ashore in non-specialist roles, of which there were many, so many of these casualties may have been men who died of natural causes.

Another factor that may have led to the loss of so many Stokers and Engine Room men may be their location onboard ship. Boilers and Engine Rooms were of course dangerous places, vulnerable to explosions, either caused by accidents or enemy fire. And when a ship was damaged or sunk, it would have been very difficult for men deep in the bowels of the ship to have escaped to safety.

The roles listed above show the wide range of skills and professions in the wartime Royal Navy. Although some technology was coming into service, in the form of telegraphy, signals and various electrical advances, serving at sea was still very much a physical job.

If anyone is unsure about any of the roles above, there is a very useful section on navalhistory.net about Royal Navy ranks and roles during the Second World War. But to cover just a few common roles, Writers were clerks and administrators, and Regulators were responsible for discipline. ‘Artisan’ describes roles such as Painter, Plumber, Joiner etc.

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Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe by Patrick Delaforce

Thankfully military history has moved on in the past few years. While not so long ago military history consisted primarily of battles, generals, tanks, ships, planes, dates and the ‘great man’ school of history. Although of its time, looking back this approach does seem rather stale. The practice of writing THE history of a particular unit - usually in narrative form - is very much a traditional approach, and Patrick Delaforce has written a number of histories of some of the Divisions that fought in North West Europe with the British Army in 1944 and 1945.

Anyone with an interest in the Second World War will probably be aware that one of the most prominent issues surrouding the British Army was the performance of several of its veteran Division in Normandy in 1944. When he took over command of 21st Army Group Montgomery requested three veterans Divisions from the Eight Army: the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland), and the famous 7th Armoured Divisions – the Desert Rats.

I’ve often thought that its pretty misleading to label any military unit as ‘elite’. No unit ever starts off as elite – everyone has to start somewhere, as they say – and units that once had a sharp edge can easily lose it. From my own research, I have found that while the 1st Airborne Division has often been regarded as an elite unit, in many ways it was green and had lost its keen edge. And most historians agree that far from giving the D-Day forces a stiffening of experience, the three Divisions brought over from Italy struggled once ashore. This issue has been looked at in more details by historians such as David French and David Fraser.

Why was this? While historians have debated and researched this for years, sadly Patrick Delaforce glosses over the Division’s performance, seeming to regard it as something that isn’t all that important. Which is a great pity, as discussing it help us get insde the psyche of the fighting soldier, as he goes from one battle to another. I’ve always been pretty interested in the psychology of battle, and I cannot help but feel that the experience of the 7th Armoured Division after D-Day would give a lot of food for thought. Historians have suggested arrogance, battle-weariness, and the difference between the Desert and the Bocage as reasons for the Divisions performance. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Division that saw two Commanding Generals sacked within 6 months had problems.

After landing shortly after D-Day, Montgomery sent the Desert Rats to capture Villers Bocage, in an attempt to outflank Caen. After they failed it became clear that perhaps the policy of using veteran units wasn’t working quite as it was hoped. After the Desert Rats failed to distinguish themselves in Operation Goodwood shortly after it became clear that the Division would need rebuilding. In subsequent battles other Armoured Divisions were employed - the capture of Antwerp by the 11th Armoured Division, and Operation Market Garden by the Guards Armoured.

There are some bright spots about this book – Delaforce makes use of a number of veterans accounts, which shed light on life for the British Soldier between D-Day and VE Day. Subjects such as food, looting, brothels, medical care, officer-men relations and attitudes towards the enemy are all looked at. But I am sure there are a lot more accounts out there from Desert Rats veterans. And Delaforce seems not to have looked at the wide range of official sources out there, such as war diaries. Which is a real shame. Perhaps as a wartime Royal Horse Artillery officer Delaforce does not wish to be too critical or to delve too deep into the controversial areas.

This book, although interesting, does feel very much like an ‘old military history’. Worth a read, and twenty or thirty years ago it would have been great. But it could do with being updated with a fresher and more objective outlook.

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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Mud, Blood and Bullets: Memoirs of a Machine Gunner by Edward Rowbotham

Having researched 1,500+ Portsmouth soldiers who died in the First World War, sadly I know very little about any of them as people. There really aren’t as many Great War veterans accounts as there as there are from their counterparts who fought twenty or so years later. Therefore anything that sheds new light on the soldiers experience of the Trenches is to be applauded. Here, a Granddaughter has edited her Grandfathers wartime memoirs.

Edward Rowbotham was born into a large Midlands mining family, one of 14 children. Although he followed his father and most of his brothers down the pit, as soon as war broke out in 1914 he wanted to join the Army. Although he initially remained at home, in 1915 he finally volunteered as part of Kitcheners Army.

Although he initally joined this local unit the Staffordshire Regiment, he was soon drafted to a brand new formation – the Machine Gun Corps. Although infantry Battalions had begun the war with Vickers Machine Guns in their weaponry, it was soon found that for them to be fully effective they would need to be put into the hands of a dedicated unit. And thus the Machine Gun Corps was formed.

Rowbotham fought at the Somme – particularly at the Battle of Flers – and then at Passchendale in 1917. Almost continuously in the front line for three and a half years, his story takes us right up to the point where the British Army marched into Cologne as an occupying force. Three and a half years is an awful long time to he survived on the Western Front, and it is difficult not to have the feeling that Rowbotham had a charmed life.

As so often is the case with personal accounts, it is not the ‘what happened when’ that is interesting, it is the very human tales that emerge that are worth their weight in gold. Stories of bizarre wounds, boxing matches, grumbling about bully beef, officer-men relations, the usual ‘British-soldier-in-a-strange-country’ stories and tales of super-strength Army Rum are what make personal stories such as this so valuable. At all times we are reminded that we are reading about a real person and their experiences, the text has such a personal feel to it. I found myself not just by the war stories, but also by the tales of failed romances. Rowbotham’s premonitions about his own safety are also amongst some of the intriguing episodes I have read about.

Ted Rowbotham distinguished himself on a number of occasions. On one occasion he went ino no-mans land to find a missing soldier, after receiving a premonition of his own safety. Having found him mortally wounded, Rowbotham sought out a stretcher and remained with the wounded man. Eventually Rowbotham managed to have him evacuated to Hospital, where he later died. Although this incident was not reported at the time, when Rowbotham later took over a gun position and manned it all night he was recommended for a Military Cross. But, as with so many men decorated for bravery, he is entirely modest about it in his memoirs.

Not only is Ted’s account of the Western Front interesting, but also is stories of what happened to him before and afterwards – its like the bread in the sandwich, it holds the filling together. But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is the authors warm, grandfatherly style of writing – its very much in the tone you would expect a wisened older relative to take when passing on their life experiences to the young. But not at all patronising, more ‘warm fireside’.

Mud, Blood and Bullets is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, social history, western front, World War One