Monthly Archives: July 2010

work starts on ‘Portsmouth’s heroes’

In the past week or so I have started researching the stories of some of Portsmouth’s fallen Sailors, Soldiers and airmen from the Second World War. To begin with I am focusing on a handful of men and their stories, and by finding out all I can about them I hope to try and give an impression of their sacrifice.

This week I have been researching Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC (RN Bomb Disposal), Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM (D-Day Para killed in Germany in 1945) and Lance Corporal Les Webb MM (1st Hants, seriously wounded on D-Day on Gold Beach and died of wounds a week later). I have a list of other names who I think will be very interesting to research and write about, and hopefully people will enjoy reading their stories too.

I have already had some successes early on – finding Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth’s service record on the National Archives online was a real bonus. The Evening News has given me some pretty useful death notices and thanks for sympathy messages, and announcements about medals. Personal notices in the local newspaper give a wonderful insight into the feelings that went with the loss of a loved one, as well as the names of family members, addresses, and other details that add so much depth and understanding to what is initially just a name, rank and a number. You cannot help but remember that these men were all someones husband, boyfriend, fiance, son, brother, father, grandson, nephew or uncle. The local Kelly’s directories and Electoral Registers also give a good idea of who was living where and when, and I have several certificates on order from the General Register Office.

It would be all too easy to just write about the battles and medals, but I think its important to look at the social side of these inspirational people, to find out who they were and what made them tick. That way we can try to understand that they really did come from the same streets that we do, and were human beings the same as us. We should be careful not to put them on a pedestal so much that their stories are out of touch, especially as the passage of time makes them seem from a different world in any case.

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40 years since the end of the Rum Ration

Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.

The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.

Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.

There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.

Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.

There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.

The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.

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Trident to be funded from MOD budget

The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.

Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.

The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.

Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.

The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960′s.

The RUSI proposes four alternatives:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.

Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.

Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.

Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.

Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.

Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.

Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War: Aftermath of the Somme

On 10 July 1916 the 1st Hants left billets in Bertrancourt to take over front line trenches from the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – this only nine days after the Battalion had been decimated on the first day of the Somme. – in the Beaumont Hamel-Serre sector. There they found trenches in a very bad condition. In some places Mills Grenades were buried in the mud – B Company lit a fire which exploded some grenades, killing one man and wounding two. There were only six officers in the front line, excluding Battalion HQ.

On the 13th a big fire demonstration was put on along the front line of the whole Corps. Gas, Smoke and High Explosive Shells were sent over all night, but retaliation from the enemy was light. By the next day trenches were beginning to dry out. Two patrols were sent out that night, and found that the German front line was strongly held. On the 15th the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Mailly-Maillet. They were still close to the front line, and had to sleep in cellars to avoid shelling.

On the 16th the men attended a church parade in the morning, followed by 100 men forming a working party on the communication trenches. A draft of 15 men arrived, most of them men who had recently been lightly wounded. This suggests both how seriously understrength the Battalion was, and how desparate Britain’s manpower situation had become after the losses on the Somme. The next day a draft of 300 men arrived, mostly from the 16th (Depot) Battalion, but some from the 14th (1st Portsmouth) Battalion. Again, taking on such a huge number of men in one go suggests how depleted the Battalion was. The War Diary notes that the physical condition of these men was very poor – one man was sent to the Hospital within two hours of arriving. More new arrivals appeared on the 19th, including, as the War Diary puts it, ‘our old friends Capt Lockhart and Lt. Smythe’. Slowly, the Battalion was rebuilding. The influx of men who were no doubt volunteers or conscripts marked the point at which the Battalion lost much of its regular make-up.

On the 22nd the Battalion paraded for inspection. The next day they marched at 3am from Beauval to Doullens (Nord) Station, where they boarded trains for a 5 hour journey to Esquelbeeq (Nord) in Belgium. From their the men were billeted in farms. Battalion HQ was in Wormhoudt. The move to Flanders was evidently unpopular, as the War Diary records ‘those of us who were in Flanders before showed no zeal at renewing our acquaintance with this part of the world’. This is somewhat intriguing, given that the Battalion had suffered crippling losses on the Somme only weeks earlier, and that during 1916 the Ypres Salient proved to be relatively quiet. It is very possible that the 1st Hants were sent to this quiet sector in order to rest, rebuild and integrate their new recruits.

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Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The first day on the Somme

After a hiatus of a few months, its time to find out more about what happened to the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War. We left them on 30 June 1916, the night before the British Army launched its attack on the German lines on the Somme.

The Somme offensive was originally planned as a joint British and French effort to break the German front line. After the German offensive at Verdun, however, the battle evolved more into an relieve the pressure on the French defenders of Verdun by diverting German reinforcements. The ground had not been chosen for any reason other than that it was at the boundary between the British and French sectors of the Western Front.

There were arguments among the Generals about the tactics to be used. The commander of the Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was mindful of the limitations of the New Army units, and proposed to use a ‘bite and hold’ strategy of assaulting the front line, and then reinforce these gains before moving on to the next objective. He was overruled by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig -the Commander in Chief of the BEF -however, who ordered a more ambitious strategy of aiming to over-run the whole front line.

The Battalion had formed up in their assembly trenches the day before the attack was due to begin. A huge artillery barrage was planned, to neutralise the German front line, cut barbed wire and kill Machine Gunners. At 7.30pm the whole line assaulted. The 4th Divisions objective was the German front line between Beaumont Hamel and Serre. The Brigade’s front line consisted of the East Lancs and Somerset, and the second line was made up of the Hampshires and the Rifle Brigade. As soon as the troops left their trenches they encountered heavy machine gun fire from all directions, and it was impossible to even reach the German front line.

After hiding in shell holes in no mans land throughout the day, the survivors trickled back to the British lines. That same night the remains of the Brigade were relieved, and went back to billets at Mailly. From Mailly, the remnants of the Battalionwent back to billets at Betrancourt. On 10 July the Battalion relieved the Lancashires in the line near Beaumont Hamel, and stayed in the trenches until the 16th.

Losses were so great on the first day of the Somme, that the Battalion’s War Diary does not even give figures for men killed, wounded or missing. The stark figure of 100% casualties amongst officers tells its own story. Thousands of Tommies had been thrown against the German line, which despite a massive preliminary artillery barrage was still intact. Casualties among the officers amounted to 100%, and was also very heavy in other ranks. If these levels of losses are replicated across the whole Army on the Somme, only then do we get an idea of how heavy a price was paid for so little. The British Army on the Somme had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners. In ONE day.

Among the dead from Portsmouth were Private Frank Goldring, Private Henry Bushnell and Corporal Phillip Brymer who have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, Private Reginald Buckland (27, Copnor) who is buried at Serre Road War Cemetery, and Sergeant Norman Blissett (23, Southsea) who is buried in Beaumont Hamel War Cemetery. Corporal Walter Gubby (21) died the next day, and is buried at Doullens Cemetery.

Among the officer casualties on 1 July 1916 was the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lawrence Palk. Born in 1870, Palk was the second son of Lord Haldon, and fought in the Boer war between 1901 and 1902. He had served with the 1st Battalion since the start of the war, and had been awared the French Legion d’Honneur, the DSO and was mentioned in despatches. He is buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps. Colincamps is back from the front line, suggesting that Palk died of wounds received. Another officer killed was Lieutenant Charles Goodford, who had won the Military Cross the previous winter for leading a daring raid across no-mans-land. He is also buried at Colincamps.

The Battalion would not take part in another attack on the Somme until October. Its not difficult to see how the devestating losses on the Somme – and the first day in particular – cut a swathe through the British Army. Losses amongst Officers, NCO’s and experienced men were keenly felt, especially among regular battalions such as the 1st Hants. The Portsmouth Pals Battalions – the 14th and 15th Hants – would suffer even bigger losses when their turn to fight came in September 1916.

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The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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