Daily Archives: 15 July, 2010

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

Formed back in the eighteenth century, the Royal Marines have a long and illustrious history of service at sea. Much of the Corps served onboard Royal Naval ships, providing security, landing and boarding parties, bands and – on larger ships – crewing one of the main guns.

Yet the Second World War found the Royal Marines involved more than ever before in a new form of warfare – amphibious operations. In modern times the Marines are known primary for their green beret, command role. But in the Second World War the Royal Marine Commandos were a pretty new concept.

116 Royal Marines from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. As one of the main manning ports of the Corps, a large proportion of men came to settle in the area.

Areas

35 – Southsea (30.17%)
13 – Eastney (11.2%)
9 – Milton (7.76%)
8 – Fratton (6.9%)
7 – Copnor (6.03%)
5 – Cosham (4.31%)
3 – North End (2.59%)
2 – Mile End (1.72%)
1 – Buckland (0.86%)
1 – East Cosham (0.86%)
1 – Landport (0.86%)
1 – Paulsgrove (0.86%)
1 – Portsea (0.86%)

27 Royal Marines – 23.28% – are listed simpy as from Portsmouth. The remainder are unknown, or appear to come from somewhere else but perhaps have some Portsmouth connections.

The concentration of so many Royal Marines living in Southsea, Eastney, Milton and Fratton is not surprising, given the presence of the Marines Barracks at Eastney.

Years

11 – 1939 (9.48%)
6 – 1940 (5.17%)
45 – 1941 (38.79%)
20 – 1942 (17.24%)
13 – 1943 (11.2%)
9 – 1944 (7.76%)
7 – 1945 (6.03%)
5 – 1946 (4.31%)
1 – 1947 (0.86%)

All but one of the men killed in 1939 went down on HMS Royal Oak. The large number of men killed in 1941 is due to the large number of casualties suffered in the sinkings of HMS Hood and HMS Barham.

Ages

10 – teenagers (inc. 2 17 year olds) (8.62%)
39 – 20’s (33.62%)
28 – 30’s (24.14%)
15 – 40’s (12.93%)
5 – 50’s (4.31%)
2 – 60’s (1.72%)

The age of 18 Royal Marines – 15.52% – is unknown.

The majority of Royal Marines were in their 20’s or 30’s. Its noticeable, however, that the Royal Marines also contained a sizeable number of teenagers. A number of older former Marines were recalled to the sevice to act as instructors or in an administration role during the war, and these account for the men who were in their 50’s and 60’s.

Ranks

6 Portsmouth Marines – 5.17% – killed during the war were officers:

3 – Captain
3 – Lieutenant

The remaining 110 Marines – 94.83% – were NCO’s or junior ratings:

1 – Master at Arms
1 – Company Sergeant Major
2 – Quartermaster Sergeant
8 – Colour Sergeant
11 – Sergeant
4 – Bandmaster
5 – Corporal
2 – Lance Corporal
74 – Marine
2 – Boy Bugler

Units

The vast majority of Marines who were killed during the war became casualties while serving onboard ships:

57 – Ship duty (49.14%)
22 – RM Band Service (18.97%)
21 – unknown (18.1%)
6 – Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisation (5.17%)
4 – Commando (6.9%)
3 – Landing Craft (2.59%)
2 – RM Police (1.72%)
1 – RM Engineers (0.86%)

In particular, many Marines lost their lives onboard the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In addition, most of the Royal Marine Bandsmen who were killed were onboard ships. Although sea service was the overwhelming tradition of the Corps, there is evidence that the Royal Marines were beginning to diversify – forming Commando units, crewing Landing Craft, and providing personnel for the Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisations.

Cemeteries and Memorials

As the vast majority of Marines – 70 men, 60.34% – were lost at sea, most have no known grave other than the sea and are remembered on the various naval memorials:

63 – Portsmouth Memorial
5 – Plymouth Memorial
2 – Chatham Memorial

46 men – 39.66% – were buried ashore:

30 – UK
3 – Egypt
3 – Italy
3 – Sri Lanka
2 – France
2 – Holland
1 – Australia
1 – India
1 – Malta
1 – New Zealand

Of the men buried in the UK, 9 were buried in Highland Road Cemetery (close to the Marine Barracks at Eastney), 6 in Milton Cemetery and 2 in Kingston Cemetery. Others were buried in other naval locations, such as Haslar, Lyness, Milford Haven, Portland.

Many of the overseas burials seem to have been men who were taken ill onboard ship and died in hospital in principal naval ports, such as Sri Lanka or Malta. One Marine who died in France was killed at Dieppe, another the day after D-Day. One man in Holland was killed in the Walcheren landings, another – a Marines Engineer – was killed in the Rhine Crossing.

Decorations

4 Portsmouth Marines who died during the war – 6.9% – were the holders of some kind of decoration:

Cross of St George 4th Class (Russia)
Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird (won in WW1 at Jutland)

Mentioned in Despatches
Sergeant Arthur Bradley (47 Commando, Malta Convoys)
Sergeant Christopher Blake (Northern Waters)

Kings Badge
Sergeant John Maker

The Kings Badge was awarded to the best all-round recruit in each intake of Marines.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams by James Owen

I’ve written in the past about my admiration for the Bomb Disposal men who work out in Helmand Province defusing IED’s. I also had the pleasure not long ago of reviewing the excellent book about UXB’s on Malta during the war. Its impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery shown by these men. This book by James Owen is very much in the same vein.

The cover itself tells a story. A team of sappers are hauling on a huge bomb. One of the men, in apparent disdain for the danger that would never be allowed nowadays, is puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while only inches away from a mass of high explosive. Somehow its a very British image – danger, hard work and a fag!

The story starts, though, with the German fuze expert at Rheinmetall before the war, working on developing new types of fuzes. This, the fuze, was essentially the major concern of the bomb disposal teams – to make the bomb safe by immobilising the one thing that coud cause the explosive to detonate. Given the multitude of conventional, delayed-action and anti-handling fuzes the Germans would use – some of which were directly calculated to kill the bomb disposal men themselves – they certainly had their work cut out. And they would be deployed in conventional bombs of all sizes, along with incendiaries, Parachute mines, butterfly bombs and the V1 and V2 flying bombs. Aside from being dangerous, unexploded bombs caused disruption do the the enforced closure of roads, railways lines, factories, and making thousands of people homeless, either temporarily or permanently.

The response of the British Government and Armed Forces to the multitude of new problems during wartime was twofold – Ministries and Departments would argue and squabble over whose responsibility it was, and then, at least one committee would be formed, possibly more. Somewhere along the lines several stereotypical English eccentrics would become involved. Bomb Disposal was no exception. The Ministries of Home Security and Supply both had a hand in the research and policy behind disposal of unexploded bombs, but eventually it fell to the armed forces to provide the men to deal with the problem. Particularly during the height of the blitz the men had to learn very quickly indeed.

The men on the ground may have been focussed on the task in hand, but mandarins and whitehall warriors were arguing over petty squabbles, as so often in British history. The RAF refused to give details to the other services of the workings of British bombs. Bomb Disposal duties were strictly parochial too – the RAF handled bombs on airfields, the Royal Navy took care of bombs in water and Dockyards, and the Army everywhere else. Yet the Navy were called in to deal with parachute mines that fell on land, due to their expertise with mines. Its not mentioned in this book, but Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC from Portsmouth was killed in 1940 defusing a parachute mine in Dagenham.

One important aspect that Owen does very well to stress is the relationship between the sharp end and the scientists working in the background. Each new fuse that the German’s deployed – of which there were many, in increasing complexity – required a solution to make it safe. The various contraptions and techniques that were developed are testament to the ingenuity of British science and technology at war. For me, the unsung hero in the book is John Hudson. Drafted into a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal unit, he submitted a paper to his superiors pointing out his opinions. Having made an impression he was seconded to the UXB Headquarters in London to work as a link between the scientists and the bomb disposal sections. His own personal bravery is shown by how having devised a method of dealing with a new type of fuse, he insisted on being the first to trial it, so as not to endanger others if his method proved no to work.

Sadly not all involved in Bomb Disposal seem to have had the same professionalism. The Earl of Suffolk himself operated as a kind of bomb-disposer-at-large, complete with his own van. Despite his lack of experience in the field, and evidence of a cavalier attitude to safety, he was tasked with retrieving important parts from bombs for experts to study. Eventually the Earl was killed by an explosion, along with a number of Sappers who were assisting. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he should not have been allowed to work defusing bombs – surely its no field for a maverick amateur. Its possible, maybe, that in a Britain still very much deferential to class, no-one wanted or felt able to stop him?

For me, the most poignant episode in the book is the story surrounding the famous bomb that almost destroyed St Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz. The man concerned – Robert Davies – undoubtedly performed a brave deed, but it transpired afterwards that he had been accepting money from civilians and pocketing it for himself, stealing from dead men’s possessions and bouncing cheques. He was eventually awarded the first ever George Cross, but even then, according to James Owen, controversy reigns. It seems that members of his section had over-egged their accounts, which followed through into the press and Davies’ citation for the George Cross. A lesson, if any is needed, that brave men are not always completely scrupulous, and by the same token, crooks can be brave.

This is a compelling story, well told and immensely readable. And like all good books, its inspiring – its impossible not to feel the ice-cool bravery of the bomb disposal men. And on a personal level, it makes me feel inspired to take a closer look at what bomb disposal efforts must have taken place during the wartime bombing of Portsmouth.

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams is published by Little, Brown Book Group

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two