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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Filed under Napoleonic War, Navy, On TV, social history, Uncategorized

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.


Filed under Army, Museums, Music, Navy, Remembrance, Uncategorized, videos

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.


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


Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

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%.


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 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


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

UK-US Spy agreement revealed

The National Archives have today released into the public domain the text of a landmark agreement between the British and American intelligence communities. Agreed shortly after the end of the Second World War, the pact led to the sharing of information during the Cold War, an arrangement that is still in place today.

During the Second World War ad-hoc arrangements were in place regarding the sharing of intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts. In March 1946 the UKUSA Agreement was signed. In later years the Agreement was extended to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The agreement has long been known about, but this is the first time that its existence has been acknowleged by either Government, and the first time that its exact has been released. The release follows separate Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside documents relating to the agreement itself, the National Archives have also released examples of the kind of information that was shared. The newly-available documents are likely to be a gold-mine for Historians of Stalinist Russia. Intercepts shed light on private conversations and correspondence between Soviet citizens, military personnel, Party officials and religious leaders between 1946 and 1949.

The bulk of the intercepts focus on military issues, and give an important sense of the Soviet build up during the early years of the Cold War. There are reports of a “stormy meeting” taking place and one person says, ominously: “of the Moscow representatives nothing remains but a wet spot”. A Soviet Major says he can be “patient no longer”, as his son, who had been “foully killed”, was yet to receive justice. The war-readiness of the population is illustrated by an intercept which picks up a mother saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”

Intercepts also gleaned information about Political repression behind the Iron Curtain. Folksongs were banned on the grounds that they were “inartistic and trivial”. Songs such as “Why do you destroy me, you foolish woman”, were popular with the peasantry but not the authorities and were forbidden. The Kazakh Communist Party reported its local crime statistics to Moscow, crimes which included ‘anti-party activities’, ‘concealment of social origin’ and ‘desertion from the Soviet army’.

Reports also gave information about ordinary everyday life in Soviet Russia. Measures were taken to prevent infected grain reaching the food chain, and there were also reports of food shortages, diseases and plagues. One file reports a “widespread sickness” among all kinds of animals and reports that “vets are unable to cope”.

Stalin himself also featured in reports. In 1948 Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that special prayers and singing will take place in all of Moscow’s churches for the “preservation and long-life of our state and its leader”. The files also contain personal messages addressed to Stalin.

During the immediate post-war period Russia was facing the dual challenges of reconstruction after the war and cementing her status as a world superpower. Reports described various problems in Agriculture, Industry and the Economy, for example. Agricultural workers in Kamchatka complain to Comrade Molotov that they have failed to receive living accommodation, cattle, seeds and fodder, four years after their resettlement in the region. The unsatisfactory progress being made at a gas construction site is blamed on “hooliganism” and low morale.

Given that these documents refer only to a three year period, hopefully in the future we can look forward to the release of a mass of material on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This should shed a whole new light on our understanding of the Cold War.

To find out more about the Agreement and the Documents, click here

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Filed under cold war, Intelligence, News, politics, social history

When Generals fall foul of the Politicians

The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.

During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.

During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.

Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.

Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.

In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.

While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead: the Royal Navy part 2


93 Royal Navy officers and ratings from Portsmouth were either decorated during the Second World War, or had won medals previously – 7.2% of all Portsmouth sailors who were killed. Its noticeable immediately that most of the men who were decorated were older servicemen, and were either leading rates, Petty Officers or Officers. This is not surprising, as their leadership role gave more potential for performing bravely. And, arguably, older more experienced men were likely to be calmer in action.

Two Portsmouth sailors were awarded Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy – the George Cross. Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth was killed while defusing a bomb in 1940, and Able Seaman Henry Miller was lost in the sinking of a Submarine in 1940.

The most highly decorated naval officer from Portsmouth to die during the Second World War was Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. Hussey was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Service Cross, and was twice mentioned in despatches. 4 officers were awarded the Distingished Service Cross, and one officer – Lieutenant Charles Lambert – was awarded a bar to his DSC.

39 Sailors were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Three of these men were also awarded a mention in despatches, and one man – Able Seaman William Laing – was mentioned in despatches twice along with his DSM. Two men – Petty Officer Frank Collison and Electrical Artificer 1st Class Arthur Biggleston – were awarded a Bar to their DSM.

Five men were awarded the British Empire Medal, One man was awarded a CBE, and two men OBE’s. One man was awarded a BEM and a mention in despatches. 33 Sailors were mentioned in despatches. One man was awarded a Reserve Decoration for long service with the Royal Naval Reserve, and another the Royal Vctorian Medal for long service on the Royal Yacht pre-war. Another sailor had been awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal during the First World War. Another man had been awarded a George Medal earlier in his career.

Areas of Portsmouth

Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Second World War came from the following areas:

282 – Southsea (21.84%)
145 – Copnor (11.23%)
133 – North End (10.3%)
110 – Cosham (8.52%)
56 – Milton (4.34%)
50 – Fratton (3.87%)
43 – Stamshaw (3.33%)
33 – Buckland (2.56%)
26 – Eastney (2.01%)
26 – Mile End (2.01%)
23 – Hilsea (1.78%)
20 – Landport (1.55%)
14 – Drayton (1.08%)
13 – Farlington (1%)
13 – Portsea (1%)
11 – Kingston (0.85%)
7 – East Cosham (0.54%)
7 – Tipner (0.54%)
6 – Paulsgrove (0.46%)
2 – East Southsea (0.15%)
2 – Wymering (0.15%)

171 men – 13.25% – are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’.

What can we say about these figures? Southsea was at the time the largest and most populous part of Portsmouth, and although Southsea is best known as a seaside resort, ‘Southsea’ also describes the area as far north as Goldsmith Avenue, and what is now known as Somers Town. Hence it was the home not only to wealthy officers, but also many ordinary sailors, and working class men called up during the war. It seems that sailors came overwhelmingly from the southern Part of Portsea Island, near the Dockyard, and the laterr 19th Century suburbs such as Copnor and North End. Outlying, less populated areas such as Paulsgrove, Drayton and Wymering provided few sailors.

It will be interesting to compare these statistics with those for the other Armed Services, and also to take a closer look at each area itself to see if we can learn anything about their social composition.

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Filed under Family History, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

Kept in the Dark by John Stubbington

This forensic and incisive book by Wing Commander John Stubbington takes a comprehensive view of the intellingence – or lack of it – provided to Bomber Command during the Second World War.

It’s pretty much common knowledge nowadays that for the last few years of the war the allies were able to intercept the Germans Enigma Signals, and the decryptions of these signals were known as ULTRA. Of course, some sterling work went on at Bletchley Park by men such as Alan Turing and by British submariners in capturing Enigma codebooks. Perhaps the most well-known use of ULTRA intelligence was defeating the U-Boat menace during the Battle of the Atlantic, something that has been well described by John Terraine in The U-Boat Wars.

But having such a rich seem of intelligence is one thing, making good use of it is quite another. And we don’t ever hear much about the misuse of ULTRA intelligence – one of the most prominent in my mind if the debacle of Arnhem, where intercepts clearly placed the Panzer Divisions around Arnhem, but it seems that this fact was not passed down to the commanders who really needed to know the fact. And as Stubbington shows here, a similar situation existed in the RAF, where the Air Ministry, incredibly, did not pass on ULTRA intelligence to Bomber Command and its Chief, Sir Arthur Harris. Its even more incredible when we consider that his American counterparts at the US Eight Air Force had full access to ULTRA.

Why were Harris and Bomber Command kept out of the loop? It seems to have been down to a complex set of parochial and political issues pervading within the RAF. The existence of a Director of Bombing Operations at the Air Ministry, who was openly hostile to Harris, created tension that possibly led to a holding back of intelligence. A plethora of committees, departments and commanders in Whitehall and beyond were continually bickering about targets – Oil, transportation, U-Boat pens, dehousing etc – led to a lack of common purpose within the RAF. This lack of purpose made it all the more easy for Harris’s enemies to ensure that he did not receive ULTRA intelligence, that may well have informed and shaped his operational planning. To not pass ULTRA intelligence on to a commander of Harris’s level was most unusual, and must beg the question why.

Another argument that Stubbington advances is that perhaps Harris was seen as too unreliable to be trusted with ULTRA. There is no evidence to suggest that Harris was a security risk, and in any case if any officer cannot be trusted, should they really be in command anyway? There is no evidence to suggest that ULTRA was witheld for this reason, but my hunch is that it is a reason that could well have been quietly expounded by Harris’s enemies. Time and time again we read that the allies were paranoid about the ULTRA secret leaking out, to the extent of witholding its benefits from key officers.

Would ULTRA intelligence have made much of a difference to Bombing Operations, had Harris been in receipt of it? Stubbington suggests here that ULTRA decrypts would have shown just how pivotal the destruction of Germany’s transportation system was. ULTRA might have made Harris better armed when it came to arguing over target policy. And by denying the commander most responsible for directing the Bomber offensive the most valuable source of intelligence available, the whitehall warriors were commiting a shameful act.

This is a most insightful book by Wing Commander Stubbington. It draws on a wealth of original research and uses a wide range of sources, and it will infom the historiography of ULTRA and wartime intelligence, and also the controversial history of the Bomber Offensive.

Kept in the Dark is published by Pen and Sword


Filed under Book of the Week, Intelligence, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Navy (part 1)

HMS Hood

Given that for hundreds of years Portsmouth has been the historic home of the Royal Navy, and the largest Naval Base in Britain, its not surprising that by far the most men from Portsmouth who died in the Second World War were serving with the Royal Navy.

1,291 naval officers and ratings from Portsmouth were killed between September 1939 and December 1947. This represents just over 50% of all Portsmouth servicemen who were killed during the war.

The nature of the Royal Navy in the Second World War warrants a mention. Particular naval ships were manned by men from one of the three manning ports – either Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. Hence specific ships contained men mainly from one of these ports, although there were small exceptions. Terms of service were also relatively long, so men who joined the Navy who originally came from elsewhere in the country were likely to move to Portsmouth – particularly men who might rise up the ranks.

Due to the nature of naval warfare, many sailors who were killed in the war were lost at sea – almost 76% of them, in fact. 806 of the men are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, 86 on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and 65 on the Chatham Memorial. In addition 24 men of the Fleet Air Arm are remembered on the naval memorial at Lee-on-the-Solent.

The biggest single losses were sustained when the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham were sunk. 66 Portsmouth sailors were killed when HMS Royal Oak was sunk on 14 October 1939. A total of 833 men were killed, and 386 survived. 98 men were lost when HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck on 24 May 1941. Out of a crew of 1,418 only three men survived. And 54 men were killed when HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean on 25 November 1941. 861 men were lost on the Barham.

Other significant losses were suffered with the sinkings of HMS Acheron (Destroyer), HMS Cossack (Destroyer), HMS Culver (lend-lease coastguard cutter), HMS Daring (Destroyer), HMS Dunedin (Cruiser), HMS Eagle (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Fidelity (Special Service vessel), HMS Fiji (Cruiser), HMS Glorious (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Glowworm (Destroyer) and HMS Penelope (Cruiser).

112 men (8.68%) died whilst serving in Submarines, 28 (2.17%) in the Fleet Air Arm, 15 men (1.16%) were serving with the Royal Naval Patrol Service, 12 men (0.93%) in Coastal Forces, and 5 men died (0.39%) whilst crewing Landing Craft. 9 women also died during the war whilst serving with the Womens Royal Naval Service, 0.7% of all Portsmouth’s naval fatalities.

98 men (7.6%) died whilst serving at shore bases local to Portsmouth – HMS Victory, HMS Vernon and HMS Excellent. Many of these were older men serving in administration and support services, and seem to have died of natural causes -this suggests just how many men were required to keep the Royal Navy running. Although they did not die in action, their contribution to the war effort should be remembered.

The amount of men who died in each year reflect the wider activities and losses of the Royal Navy during the war:

74 men were killed in 1939 (5.73%)
319 in 1940 (24.71%)
329 in 1941 (25.48%)
205 in 1942 (15.88%)
149 in 1943 (11.54%)
112 in 1944 (8.68%)
65 in 1945 (5.03%)
45 in 1946 (3.49%)
35 in 1947 (2.71%)

The heavy losses in 1941 – and to a lesser extent 1942 – reflect the sinkings of not only HMS Hood and HMS Barham, but the Battle of the Atlantic. That 80 men (6.2%) died after the end of the war is significant, and suggests how many men were still in uniform for several years after the war ended.

The ages of Naval servicemen are also interesting to look at. 5 were Boy Seamen aged 16. 6 were aged 17,
23 aged 18, and 36 were 19. 422 men were in their 20’s, 407 in their 30’s, 211 in their 40’s, 72 in their 50’s and 17 were 60 or over. 83 men’s ages are as yet unknown. Their age groups are interesting. While most sailors were in their 20’s, a significant proportion of men were in their 30’s and 40’s. This shows how many Portsmouth sailors had served for a long-time, and also how long serving sailors very often ended up living in Portsmouth. Whilst we tend to think of men who died in the war as ‘young’, many of these older men would have left young families behind them.

In part 2 of my look at Royal Navy losses, I will examine ranks, areas of Portsmouth that they came from, and medals.

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Filed under Family History, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

The National Archives Labs

The National Archives have announced a new project, entitled National Archives Labs. The idea is to pilot new and innovative ways of accessing and sharing data. Visitors to the website are able to test prototypes of new projects and give feedback, which should help the future development of online resources.

The projects in Labs are not intended to be full, finished versions, but a means of showcasing and testing ideas. If, and when, they are given approval they will be refined and made accessible before they can be properly integrated into The National Archives’ main website.

Emma Bayne, programme manager, said: ‘Labs is the first step towards us opening up our records further, and providing new ways for you to access the vast collection of information we hold.’

UK History Photo Finder

This fascinating resource allows users to search and view digital images. The first series of photographs uploaded are the Dixon-Scott collection, a set of more than 14,000 images taken between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. You can search mainly by geographical location, and I managed to find some photographs of Portchester Castle and St Thomas Cathedral that I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully more images will be made available in time. Only one criticism of this section, I would like to see more information on how to obtain copies of the images, and the relevant copyright information.

Valuation Office Surey

This tool enables users to look up Valuation Office Survey maps of England and Wales from 1910 to 1915. The Catalogue contains nearly 50,000 maps, and provides a way of searching for a geographical location. A search leads to a modern day map of your chosen area, with a link to the catalogue code of your chosen section of map. Sadly my search for Portsmouth came up with no results for the city itself, only the surrounding areas. The link enables you to purchase a hard copy of the map. This is very much a catalogue project, as it helps you find data and enables you to access it, rather than making it readily available. It should be useful none the less.

Person search

I’m a bit perplexed by this. Apparently the idea of the new Person Search facility is to bring together a wide range of sources – including First World War records, Royal Navy records, criminal registers, law suits, wills and pension records – and make it possible to search for one particular name. However there are several places where you can already do this on The National Archives website, and maybe it would be more sensible to streamline these rather than create another facility.

In general, I applaud the concept of making more records more accessible to more people. And especially using digital media. However, with the looming cuts in public spending, sadly I expect that these kind of projects may be few and far between for the forseeable future.

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Portsmouth WW2 Dead Project: completed!

This afternoon I finished inputting the last of the 2,548 names of Portsmouth men an women who died whilst serving in the Armed Forces, between 1939 and 1947. Of course, this kind of project is never truly ‘finished’, as you can be sure that new names will crop up from time to time. And now the work shift towards finding out as much about each of the names in my database, in order to be able to tell their stories.

The names primarily come from the Portsmouth City Council list, compiled for the planned Portsmouth WW2 memorial. I am very grateful to Tim Backhouse of memorials for providing me with a list of names that appear on local war memorials but not on te PCC list (126 names). I have also used Geoff’s WW2 search engine to find more names that do not appear on the PCC list (355 names). Some of the names on the PCC list also appear to have come from Portsmouth in Lancashire, and these names have been omitted frm my database.

In the coming weeks I will be looking in detail at the statistics that come from the list. But to begin with, here are a few facts:

  • 1291 Royal Navy (50.67%)
  • 674 Army (26.45%)
  • 410 Royal Air Force (16.09%)
  • 115 Royal Marines (4.51%)
  • 42 Merchant Navy (1.65%)
  • 13 NAAFI (0.51%)
  • 5 ATS (0.19%)
  • 1 Red Cross (0.04%)

They came from all over Portsmouth:

  • 588 from Southsea (23.08%)
  • 242 from North End (9.5%)
  • 231 from Copnor (9.07%)
  • 203 from Cosham (7.97%)
  • 113 from Fratton (4.43%)
  • 105 from Milton (4.12%)
  • 85 from Stamshaw (3.34%)
  • 71 from Buckland (2.79%)
  • 66 from Eastney (2.59%)
  • 44 from Hilsea (1.73%)
  • 36 from Landport (1.41%)
  • 33 from Drayton (1.3%)
  • 33 from Mile End (1.3%)
  • 24 from Farlington (0.94%)
  • 22 from Paulsgrove (0.86%)
  • 21 from Portsea (0.82%)
  • 17 from East Cosham (0.67%)
  • 11 from Wymering (0.43%)
  • 8 from Kingston (0.31%)
  • 2 from East Southsea (0.08%)

318 men – 12.48% – are listed as from simply ‘Portsmouth’, the rest are either unknown or appear to come from somewhere else in the country.  However, unless we know otherwise it is best to assume that they had some kind of Portsmouth connection for their names to be put forward to the memorial.

The first men from Portsmouth to die in the Second World War were killed on 10 September 1939 – Able Seaman John Banks and Leading Seaman Percy Farbrace of HM Submarine Oxley, and Able Seaman William Holt of HMS Hyperion.

Private George Rowntree, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, died on 24 December 1947. Aged 43 and from Wymering, he was the last man from Portsmouth to die during the period regarded as the Second World War for war grave purposes.

The oldest Portsmouth serviceman to die between 1939 and 1947 was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes GCB KCVO CMG DSO, who died of natural causes on 26 December 1945. He is buried in Dover. Keyes had been commander in chief at Portsmouth and also a local MP, as well as a former First Sea Lord and Chief of combined operations.

The youngest Portsmouth serviceman to die were Private Robert Johns of the Parachute Regiment, Boys 1st Class Gordon Ogden, Robert Spalding and Cecil Edwards of HMS Royal Oak, Ordinary Seaman Colin Duke of SS Irishman, Apprentice Tradesman L.H. Ward of the Army Technical School, Boy 1st Class Jack Lamb of HMS Dunedin, and Apprentice Electrical Artificer Raymond Whitehorn of HMS Raleigh. They were all 16.


Filed under Army, Family History, Local History, merchant navy, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

70 years ago: after Dunkirk and the Lancastria

The British Army continued fighting in France after the fall of Dunkirk. Records of Portsmouth men who were killed in the Second World War suggest that the British Army suffered very heavy losses on 17 June 1940.

After some quick research, it transpires that many of these men were killed in the sinking of the RMS Lancastria, a troopship evacuating British troops from Western France in the aftermath of Dunkirk. She was sunk of St Nazaire on 17 June 1940. 1,738 men are known to have died, with 2,777 survivors.

Sapper Reginald Cole, of 1 Supply Base Depot Royal Engineers, is buried at Rennes in France. Aged 20, his Army Service number suggests that he had originally joined the Hampshire Regiment.

Private Peter Hale, of 4 Base Ammunition Depot Royal Army Service Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 20 and from Hilsea.

Sapper William Shannon, of 663 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers, is buried at La Berniere-en-Retz in France. He was 36 and from Gosport.

Private Joseph Diviani, of 1 Base Ordnance Depot Royal Army Ordnance Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 22 and from Copnor.

Private William Mcdonald, of 46 Company Auxilliary Military Pioneer Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 33 and from Copnor.

Air Force men were also onboard the Lancastria. Aircraftman 2nd Class John Peters, of 98 Squadron RAF, has no known grave and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial. He was 20 and from Southsea.

Aside from the Lancastria, the losses in France continued. Gunner Robert Brown was killed on 18 June 1940. Serving with 3 Battery of 1 Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery, he is buried in a joint grave at Dunkirk War Cemetery. He was 34 and from Southsea. His Amy Service number suggests that he had originally joined the Cameronia Rifles.

Gunner Henry Male, of 490 Independent Searchlight Battery Royal Artillery, died on 21 June 1940. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth. He was 23 and from Fratton.

The final British soldier from Portsmouth to die in the aftermath of Dunkirk was Sergeant Edgar Cocks, of the Royal Army Service Corps. He died on 16 July 1940, and is buried at La Berniere-en-Ritz, France. He was 49 and from Copnor.


Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two