Monthly Archives: August 2010

Dover Harbour to be privatised?

Port of Dover, England

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been reading about a ridiculous plan to privatise the operation of Dover Harbour (click here and here). It’s being dressed up as a plan for a ‘people’s port’, when really it amounts to selling off the family silver for a quick buck.

Dover is a vital part of Britain’s economy and transport infrastructure. It is the UK and the world’s busiest passenger ferry port – with 9 berths, 4 services, 15 ferries and up to 65 sailings each day – and the first place where most people who visit by sea come to when they arrive. Dover Harbour has been run by the Dover Harbour Board since 1606, and currently handles over £80 billion worth of trade each year. Of course Dover also has a historic place in British History, and indeed in the national psyche- think Vera Lynn, Bluebirds etc – making this an even more emotive issue.

The standard old conservative argument has been trotted out about how the port cannot be competitive, etc etc, and being a private business will allow it to borrow money. Rubbish. The state of the railways and local bus companies since privatisation should show anyone that privatisation does not mean investment, it means profits for shareholders and destruction of an industry. Look at other industries such as Steel, Coal, Shipbuilding – communities decimated in the name of removing a line from the balance books.

It really is shocking the extent to which the current Government is willing to go to hive off the public sector. Is it any coincidence that the kind of wealthy businessmen who are likely to invest in privatisation stand to make a nice tidy profit? I cannot help but think that moves like this are ideologically driven, to reduce the state as much as possible, give wealthy investors an opportunity to double their money, and to hell with the consequences. The budget crisis has given the Government a gilt-edged excuse to finish what Thatcher started.

Ferry ports CAN and DO work in public ownership. My local ferry port, here in Portsmouth, operates under council control, and makes a tidy profit each year. In fact, the profit goes towards keeping Portsmouth’s council tax bill relatively low. So why not Dover, which is bigger and busier? If it needs investment, it cannot be anywhere near the sums that were somehow found for propping up the banks only a couple of years ago, and the kind of profits those banks are now making at our expense.

Not only does privatisation mean profit, job losses and poor services, it also means a lack of control for society over crucial functions. Look at how the railway and bus companies have operated in recent years – with no regard at all for passengers, and there is very little the Government – national or local – can do about it. Imagine if a new operating company decided to cut the number of sailings, under the pretext of saving money, much as bus companies cut services? Or put up the charges to the ferry companies? How many people are directly or indirectly employed in Dover thanks to the port?

In a similar manner, privatising the Royal Fleet Auxiliary would mean that any new private owners would be able to do whatever they liked, no doubt at a cost to the country’s defence capability, especially that of the Royal Navy.

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The Real Enigma Heroes by Phil Shanahan

We’ve all heard about the film U-571. Or, more importantly, how its a travesty of a film. Supposedly a fictional film based on true events, it is nothing more than a plagiarism of heroism, twisted to maximise profits with scant regard for any kind of integrity.

The men who were the REAL heroes were Able Seaman Colin Grazier, Lieutenant Tony Fasson and NAAFI Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown. Serving onboard the Destroyer HMS Petard, in October 1942 they volunteered to join a boarding party for the sinking U-559. Although the U-Boat was rapidly sinking, Grazier and Fasson went down below and retrieved vital documents, passing them up the conning tower to Brown. They remained below searching, and were onboard when the ship went down. Colin Grieve and Tony Fasson were both awarded a posthumous George Cross, and Tommy Brown the George Medal.

The capture of vital Enigma code books enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to finally crack the Enigma riddle, and continue to read German communications until the end of the war. In particular, the capture helped the Allies to win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. Without that victory, D-Day might not have been possible, and the war may have lasted much longer – raising the disturbing possibility of the Russians reaching the Rhine or the Channel.

Yet surprisingly, it has taken decades for Grazier, Fasson and Brown to receive any recognition. The official secrets act precluded any publicity being given to the incident. The British Government were also keen to ensure that the Germans – and Russians – did not find out that the Enigma code had been broken. And thus the situation remained. Even the men onboard HMS Petard on that fateful night were not aware of how important Grive and Fasson’s actions were.

Phil Shanahan, of the Tamworth Herald, has ensured that the mens names will be remembered for evermore. Starting with a chance discovery – that Grieve came from Tamworth, he was astounded that the winner of the George Cross was unknown in his home town. A series of articles in the Herald followed. A Committee was formed, and set about raising funds for a fitting tribute in Tamworth town centre. Along the way he had some interesting encounters, with the Producer of U-571, and the Imperial War Museum. The U-571 debacle in particular raised much publicity for the Colin Grive Project. As Shanahan states, not many English provincial journalists have been interviewed in a Dallas daily newspaper!

There are some emotive episodes. In particular, I felt a personal connection with the dilemma Phil Shanahan found when confronting the Imperial War Museum. It is simply impossible to cover absolutely everything in any museum or book. The sad fact is that many people have their cause that is close to them, but there is never enough room to give each of them the credit that they deserve. It is a dilemma that many a poor Curator has faced, and I feel that the people who have to choose what to leave out deserve more sympathy. Similarly, it is easy to understand the sentiment that Grieve and Fasson should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s something that I have written about at the time – that bravery is bravery, regardless of enemy action. Yet they were awarded the George Cross under the standards set, and it would have been unprecedented to upgrade them to the VC.

This is a very interesting and rather unique book. It is, in many ways, two books in one – firstly the story of HMS Petard, and then secondly the long fight to earn Grazier, Fasson and Brown recognition. They are complementary stories, and are intwerwoven in the order of which Shanahan and his team uncovered the stories and embarked on their campaign. There are some small errors of accuracy, but you can feel Shanahan’s passion. Something that many historians would do well to take note of, and not those involved in the making of U-571.

A fine statue was commissioned and erected in Tamworth town square, and a nearby Hotel was named the Colin Grazier Hotel. A Tamworth Housing Estate has had its roads named after men involved in the incident. And every year, the people of Tamworth celebrate Colin Grazier Day, with a small ceremony at the memorial, and a tot of rum in the evening.

This is a book and a campaign that is gripping and most inspiring. If only more local newspapers and local councils would be more diligent in recognising our communities heroes. It has certainly motivated me to ensure that Portsmouth’s heroes of the two world wars should never be forgotten.

The Real Engima Heroes is published by The History Press

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The national roll of the Grear War

I’ve been working through the list of names on the Portsmouth First World War Memorial. Although there are a few names that have eluded me, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Portsmouth edition of the national roll, it has been possible to find out a lot about many of the men from Portsmouth who fell in the Great War.

The national roll in particular is a great reference source. It’s not comprehensive, as families had to pay for their relatives to be included, and it also covers men who survived as well as men who died. It tells us when a man joined the armed forces. The exact word used is important – men who were already in the Army were serving soldiers, men who joined in the euphoria on the outbreak of war volunteered, men in the Territorial Force or Army Reserve were mobilised, and men who were conscripted are described as ‘joined’.

The entry supplied by the family gives us details that we would not get from anywhere else. In some cases we are told when the person went to the Western Front. We find out when and where somebody was wounded. In some cases, we also hear about how somebody was killed.

Its also interesting to note how many men died of illness. In particular, towards the end of the war quite a few men died during the Influenza pandemic. In general however it seems that a lot less servicemen died on the home front or away from the front-line than did during the Second World War.

Some interesting stories include:

Private W.E. Morey, of the 6th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, came from 18 Vivash Road. He had volunteered in October 1915. He was taken prisoner on the Somme, and somehow was killed by the Germans in an internment camp at Langensatz – on 27 November 1918, 16 days AFTER the armistice.

Private P. O’Neill volunteered in August 1914. Although he never served overseas, he did serve at home with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was invalided out of the Army in August 1915, and died in Landport Hospital in January 1916. He is not recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions register, as he was not a serving soldier when he died.

Pioneer James Newman was one of the oldest Portsmouth servicemen. Of 70 Unicorn Street, Portsea, he was serving in the Army when the war started. Initially serving with no. 2 Stores Section of the Royal Engineers, he was sent to France in December 1918 after the Armistice to work with the Graves Registration Unit. He was accidentally drowned in the Sambre Canal on 13 December 1919, and is buried in Les Baraques Cemetery, France. He was 63.

Sergeant A.A. Martin was a pre-war regular soldier. Serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, he was wounded at Gallipoli. He was seconded to a Bombing School at Lyndhurst in the New Forest, to train new recruits in how to use Grenades. He was killed in an accident on 23 February 1917, and is buried in Lyndhurst. He came from 64 Bedford Street, Buckland.

Private C. Oakey was also killed accidentally. From 70 Union Street, Portsea, he originally volunteered in October 1914 and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was wounded at Ypres, and was again wounded after being transferred to the Salonika Front in 1917. After the armistice he was transferred to Turkey, and was killed in an accident. He is buried in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Istanbul.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Passchendaele

artillery barrage map from ...

An example of a creeping artillery barrage at Passchendaele (Image via Wikipedia)

The Battle of Passchendaele had begun on 31 Jul7 1917. The first phase during July and August had failed to make any serious progress. The Battle of Broodseinde was to be the last assault launched in the Ypres Salient as part of the offensive, and was an attempt to protect the southern Flank of the salient. The ever-elusive breakthrough was still hoped for, however.

After arriving at Proven on 20 September, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment spent the next week training hard. It was hard to get much training done, however, due to the limited amount of space available. On 23 September a draft of 103 men arrived, and on the 27th the Divisional Commander, Major-General Matheson, inspected the Battalion.

On 28 September the Battalion entrained at Proven in the afternoon, and detrained at Elverindghe. From there the Hampshires marched to Roussol Camp. The next day Company Commanders instructed their NCO’s and men in the plans for the forthcoming offensive. The day after that on the 30th each Company rehearsed their plan for the attack.

later on the 30th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at the Canal Bank, relieving the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. The detailed operation order issued by the Adjutant listed the equipment and rations that the men were to carry. Officers were not to carry swagger sticks, and were to dress exactly the same as the men. Haversacks and entrenching tools would be left behind. Instead every man was issued with either a pick or shovel. Each platoon would carry 10 wire cutters, every man 2 aeroplane flares and every man 3 sandbags.

A detailed map was issued, showing the ground over which the Brigade was to advance. Starting in the area of Langemarck, the 11th Brigade was to attack on a narrow front, capturing ground to the North East of Poelcappelle. The 1st Hampshires were on the left, the Somerset Light Infantry on the right, and the 1st East Lancs in support and the Rifle Brigade in reserve. The Hampshires objectives, in order, were to be the Red House, Beek Villa, Imbros House, Kangaroo Huts and Tragique Farm. The principal objective, however, was merely a green line marked on the map. An even more detailed Battalion-level map was issued, that showed each of the Companies objectives, and also the distances between each landmark on the map. A diagram of how the platoons were to be set out in the advance was also included, and each platoon was allocated a specific objective, either to capture or, for the support companies, to consolidate once it had been captured.

The attack was to be on a 2 Company front, with each company’s front being 150 yards wide. The two other companies were to be in close support. A creeping Artillery Barrage was planned, as well as a Machine Gun Barrage. A detailed map showed the planned creep of the Barrage, beginning at Zero hour, and creeping forward on lines in front of the advance, moving forward every 2 to 3 minutes. Each Battalion was also alloted 2 Vickers Machine Guns to act in support. 2 Platoons were also designated as counter-attacking platoons, and designated authority to act on their own initiative to break up any German attacks. A Lewis Gun team of the 21st West Yorks was to be attached for anti-aircraft duties. A contact aeroplane was to overfly the area at set times to observe and report on progress.

On 1 and 2 October officers and NCO’s went forward to reconnoitre the line. The next day, on the 3rd, the Battalion went forward to its assembly area at Eagle Trench. It comprised 19 officers and 522 men. 3 officers and 118 men were to be left with the transport, to form a nucleus for reforming the Battalion if it were wiped out. Two tins of hot tea laced with rum were brought up for each Platoon. Heavy rain had fallen in the first few days of October, turning the artillery-riddled ground into a morass.

The troops were formed up and ready to go at 2am on 4 October. The enemy began shelling at 5am. At 6am the advance began, advancing behind the creeping barrage. They met light resistance, but the barrage was reported as being ‘ragged’, and caused many casualties to the Battalion. 30 prisoners and a machine gun were captured in Kangaroo trench. The Battalion advanced well, however. At 1pm it was noticed that the 10th Brigade on the left flank were retiring. An advance by the Rifle Brigade, coming up from reserve, checked this withdrawl. The Hampshires held firm on their objective line as night fell. Overall the battle of Broodseinde was one of the most succesful of the war. All objectives had been captured, for relatively light casualties when compared with the Somme and the earlier phases of Passchendaele. This was

The Battle on 4 October inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion. 4 officers and 36 men were killed, and 8 officers and 182 men were wounded. 25 men were missing. Among the wounded were Colonel Armitage and Captain Laurie, the Chaplain, who both remained at their post.

Four Portsmouth men were killed on 4 October 1917. Private William McCarthy, 32 and from Highland Street, Eastney, is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Henry Hall, of Victoria Road South, Southsea, is also remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Private Charles McCable is another man remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, while Private Frank Oxford, 29, is buried in Cement House Cemetery.

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Youtube picks

Heres a few vidoes on youtube that I’ve been watching recently. Enjoy!

HMS Hermes returns from the Falklands

This is a pretty historic piece of footage. Not only does it show the Flagship of the Falklands Task Force returning to Portsmouth, my mum and dad were on one of the black and buff Navy tugs escorting her in! Presented by Michael Buerk and Brian Hanrahan, we see thousands of people gathered on the waterfront at Portsmouth, and there are interviews with Margaret Thatcher, and the Captain Lin Middleton. There are interviews with the crews families at the quayside.

The Somme: From Defeat to Victory

A pretty good documentary about the Battle of the Somme that I’ve just found. It’s refreshingly non ‘Janet and John’ style, which makes a nice change!

Royal Navy Sea Wolf Missile firing

I’ve been having a look at clips of missile firings on youtube, because it occured to me that I write about them a lot, but have never really seen what they look like in evidence! Heres a clip of a Sea Wolf missile firing from a Type 22 Frigate.

Black Label Society – Parade of the Dead (Live)

From the new album, Order of the Black. Zakk Wylde is back to his best!

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Filed under Army, Dockyard, Music, Navy, videos, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – after the Battle of Arras

Lewis gun

A Lewis Gun, as used by the 1st Hants (Image via Wikipedia)

As June 1917 dawned Company Training continued, as well as sports events, including a Company football competition. On 6 June the Divisional Royal Engineers commander lectured on consolidation. On 10 June a party of 100 men under Captain Johnston marched to Monts-en-Ternois, where medals were presented after the recent operations at Arras.

On 11 June the whole Battalion moved to billets in Arras by ‘motor bus’. The next day the men were bivouaced in the support lines, until 7.15pm when the Battalion relieved the 5th Cameron Highlanders in Brigade support. They remained in support until 16 June, when the Battalion went into the front line near the River Scarpe. The line ran to the east of Roeux. The Battalion had a very quiet time in the line, and were relieved on 20 June, when they went back into Brigade support. The next few days were spent on improving the trenches and erecting barbed wire, before the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Royal Warwickshires on 26 June. The last few days of June were spent in the usual post front line cleaning, inspections and then work parties.

During June 1917 the Battalion had received significant reinforcements, in the shape of 6 officers and 131 men. Notably, no members of the Battalion were killed during the month – a rare month indeed on the Western Front. By mid-1917 the BEF and its units had honed the routine of trench warfare. Each time the Battalion went into the line or was relieved, a detailed operations order was issued in advance by the Adjutant. Atlhough this was no dobt efficient, it was also motivated by a feeling that the high proportion of conscripts in the Army, as well as non-regular officers, needed more detailed orders.

 Early July was spent in Balmoral Camp, training and providing work parties. On 13 July the Battalion went into Brigade support, and on 14 July went into the front line, north east of Monchy-le-Preux. The Germans were very quiet during the day, but very busy at night with snipers, rifle grenades and trench mortars. No men were killed, and the Battalion was relieved on 18 July. After several days in Reserve, the 1st Hampshires went back into the front line on 22 July. This tour proved to be more eventful. On the 23rd the Artillery carried out a dummy raid on the German lines to which the enemy replied, and the next day the Battalion sent out a patrol to reconnointre the enemy line. Several members of the patrol were lost. One of them was Corporal John Leask, a Portsmouth man, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial. On the 25th the Artillery again carried out a dummy raid, before the Battalion carried out a genuine raid the next night. The raiding party advanced behind a strong barrage, and took four prisoners. Only one Hampshire was killed. The Battalion was relieved the next day on 27 July. The rest of July was spent in Brigade reserve and providing working parties.

The Beginning of August 1917 found the Battalion in Wilderness Camp, before on the 2nd of the month they marched to Balmoral Camp. The Battalion began training, including a tactical exercise for officers to illustrate how to advance after a retreating enemy. Divisional sports competitions were held, and medals were awarded for the raid carried out on 24 July. On 13 August a full Battalion exercise was carried out, complete with dummy enemy machine guns. On the 14th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve, and the next day into the front line. The Battalions line was in the area of Musket Trench and happy valley. The Hampshires remained in the line until 23 August – a very long tour – and suffered 4 men killed by enemy shelling. One of them was Private Francis Davis, 35, from Boulton Road in Southsea. He is buried in Level Crossing Cemetery.

On 23 August the Battalion marched back to camp in Scots Valley, apart from A Company who remained in Lance Lane. The accomodation at Scots Valley consisted mainly of tents, and a few tarpaulin shelters. There were no cookhouses, and these had to be built. Over the next few days the Battalion also provided work parties. On 28 August Colonel Armitage left the Battalion temporary to take charge of the 11th Brigade – presumably the Brigadier was ill or wounded. On 31 August the Battalion marched back to Balmoral Camp.

September proved to be an interesting time for the Battalion. Although the ever-present work parties continued, time was found for platoon training. On the 5th the Battalion was relieved, and marched to Pommier. During the day a draft of 129 men arrived. The next day the new arrivals were inspected by the CO, and the Companies were re-organised into 4 platoons. On the 7th individual training commenced, including bombing and Lewis Gun lessons. the next day Brigadier-General Marshall, of the 45th Infantry Brigade, gave a fighting on recent fighting at Ypres. On the 8th Colonel Armitage returned to resume command.

Interestingly, on 9 September a group of 3 officers and 80 other ranks went by lorry to visit the area around Beaumont Hamel, where the Battalion had fought in July 1916 on the Somme – an early form of battlefield tour. Meanwhile back with the Battalion training continued, and on the 10th all officers and NCO’s down to Platoon Sergeant were lectured on German methods of defence ‘and how to deal with them’. More and more lectures were taking place – a sign of the experience that was being gained on the Western Front, the new professionalism in the BEF, and the number of amateur soldiers in the Army.

Training continued, and on the 15th of September, when 14 officers and 350 men turned out for a cross-country run (one wonders what happened to the rest of the men). On the 18th the Battalion marched off to Mondicourt. At midnight on the night of the 19th/20th the Battalion entrained at Mondicourt, and 9.30am detrained at Hopoutre, south of Poperinghe. From there they marched to Piddington Camp, south east of Proven.

The Battalion had returned to the Ypres Salient, where the Third Battle of Ypres had been raging for several months.

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Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950’s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press

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Fast jet flying club?: the perspective from across the pond

Last week I looked at the backgrounds of the UK Armed Forces chiefs of staff over the past 20 or so years, and what effect this might have on the outlook of their service.

The conclusion was, largely, that the RAF’s high command has been overwhelmingly been in the hands of former fighter pilots, while no officers with a background in the more humdrum fields of logistics or battlefield support have made it to the top of the tree.

By contast, Royal Navy and Army Chiefs of Staff seem to have had a more diverse background, both individually and in terms of the different people who have risen to the top of the pack.

But are these trends unique to the UK, or do they transcend national barriers? As a bit of a comparison, I thought I would take a look at the equivalent commands in the US. The findings are pretty interesting to say the least.

US Air Force

The US Air Force’s career structure is uncannily similar to that of the RAF – Fighter pilots are very much the top dogs. Apparently Norton Schwartz’s appointment as Chief of Staff was made deliberately to buck the trend, as the Secretary of Defence was keen to have someone other than a Fighter Pilot in command. The main difference with the RAF is that senior officers in the US Air Force have the opportunity of more ‘star’ commands before reaching Chief of Staff level, whether they be functional home commands of the command of air components in joint combat commands.

Norton Schwartz – Airlift (mainly C-130), US Transportation Command

Michael Moseley – Fighters (F-15 Eagle), Central Command Air Forces

John Jumper – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), Airlift (C-7 Caribou), US Air Forces Europe, Central Command Air Forces

Michael Ryan – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), US Air Forces Europe

Ronald Fogleman – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre), US Transportation Command, Deputy Commander Korea

Merrill McPeak – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre, F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom), Southern Command Air Forces

Michael Dugan – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre), Attack (A-1 Skyraider), US Air Forces Europe

Larry Welch – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), Strategic Air Command

Charles Gabriel – Fighters (F-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabre), US Air Forces Europe

Lew Allen – Bombers (B-29 Superfortress, B-36 Peacemaker), Air Force Systems Command

US Navy

US Navy Chiefs of Staff have a broadly diverse experience base. Most have commanded a number of ships, and the modern trend is for former Destroyer and Cruiser Captains. For a Navy based on the power of the supercarrier, very few have actually commanded a carrier, although some have commanded Carrier Battle Groups. During the Cold War aviators and submariners were in a prominent position.

Gary Roughead – Destroyer (USS Barry), Cruiser (USS Port Royal), George Washington Carrier Battle Group, US Pacific Fleet

Michael Mullen – Tanker (USS Noxubee), Destroyer (USS Goldsborough), Cruiser (USS Yorktown), George Washington Carrier Battle Group, US Second Fleet

Vern Clark – Gunboat (USS Grand Rapids), Destroyer (USS Spruance), Destroyer Squadrons, Carl Vinson Carrier Battle Group, US Second Fleet, US Atlantic Fleet

Jay Johnson – Naval Fighters (F8- Crusader, F-14 Tomcat), Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group, US Second Fleet

Jeremy Boorda – Minesweeper (USS Parrot), Frigate (USS Farragut), Saratoga Battle Group, US Naval Forces Europe

Frank Kelso – Submarines (USS Finback, USS Bluefish), US Sixth Fleet, US Atlantic Command

Carlisle Trost – Submarines, US Seventh Fleet, US Atlantic Fleet

James Watkins – Destroyers, Cruisers, Submarines, Sixth Fleet, Pacific Fleet

Thomas Hayward – Naval Fighters, Aircraft Carrier (USS America), US Seventh Fleet, US Pacific Fleet

James Holloway – Naval Fighters (F-9 Panther), Attack (A-4 Skyhawks), Aircraft Carrier (USS Enterprise), US Seventh Fleet

US Army

US Army Generals also come from a broad experience base, both as individuals and as a group. Unlike the British Army, where an officer stays within his Regiment until reaching ‘star’ rank, in the US Army it is not unknown for officers to transfer frequently, and hence gain experience in more than one arm. As in the British Army, it is not unknown for an infantryman to command an Armoured Division, for example. It is also noticeable that more US Generals appear to have Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault qualifications, even if they have not served in the relevant units. Commanders in Vietnam usually became Chief of Staff of the Army, probably due to the profile and experience that the war in South East Asia gave them.

George Casey – Rangers/Mechanized Infantry, 1st Armoured Division, Multi-National Force Iraq

Peter Schoomaker – Armoured Cavalry/Special Forces, Delta Force, US Special Operations Command

Eric Shinseki – Infantry/Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Seventh US Army

Gordon Sullivan – Armour, 1st Infantry Division, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations and Plans)

Carl Vuono – Artillery, 8th Infantry Division, Training and Doctrine Command

John Wickham – Infantry/Airborne, 101st Airborne Division, US Forces Korea

Edward Meyer – Armoured Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations and Plans)

Bernard Rogers – Infantry, 5th Infantry (Mechanized) Division, US Army Forces Command

Frederick Weyand – Artillery/Intelligence, 25th Infantry Division, II Field Force (Vietnam), Military Assistance Command (Vietnam), US Army Pacific

Creighton Abrams – Armour, 3rd Armoured Division, V Corps, Military Assistance Command (Vietnam).

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Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe by Charles Whiting

I had always been under the impression that Nazi Germany didn’t really ‘do’ special forces – much like Napoleon, Hitler didn’t seem to see the value of irregular warfare, and moreover there was not room for special operations in Blitzkrieg; the short, sharp war. The Germans had nothing to compare with the plethora of special forces that sprang up in Britain – the SAS, the SBS, the Commandos, the Paras, the Long Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to name but a few.

Yet this book by Charles Whiting suggests that this is a slighty simplistic view. Otto Skorzeny performed some daring and almost improbable acts during the war – rescuing Mussolini from captivity, kidnapping the son of the Hungarian Regent, and an infamous role in the Battle of the Bulge. What is even more fascinating, is that Skorzeny was not a career soldier, and largely developed his own theories, which the Nazi High Command only showed interest in once the war turned against them. He gained unique access to Hitler and other Nazi grandees, and for a relatively junior officer had quite a privileged place in the Nazi war machine.

There are some interesting lessons for military enthusiasts. Principally, how special forces operations seemed in the main to only occur to both belligerents when they were forced onto the defensive – Britain in 1940, and Germany after Stalingrad and Alamein. But, whereas after 1940 Britain kept on developing special forces capability which came in use when the tide turned, Germany was continually on the back foot until defeat in 1945. Also, the fact that Skorzeny was outwardly an unpromising, amateur soldier shows how military hierarchies – particularly one as stiff as the ‘prussian’ officer class, are not always adept at embracing unconventional tactics.

The impact of Skorzeny’s operations in the Ardennes are perhaps his best known legacy. Heading up a special unit of men dressed in US uniforms, and who broke through the front line to cause havoc behind the American lines. Rumours spread that Skorzeny was going to go all the way to Paris to assasinate Eisenhower. Although slightly ridiculous, these rumours caused panic and meant Eisenhower was a virtual prisoner in his headquarters during a critical phase of the battle (this incident led to his ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ tag). Thus Skorzeny and his men had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their size, merely by the suggestion of what they might do. Such is the strategic impact of special forces.

One of the most prolific military historians ever, Whiting based this book on interviews with Skorzeny, while the former was lying seriously ill in Germany towards the end of his life. Whiting does not merely tell us about Skorzeny’s wartime career – there are also startling tales about his involvement in Peronist Argentina (including an affair with Eva Peron), and a shady role in Nasser’s Egypt. These are stories that may well be new to the eyes of many, me includuded, and they all go towards painting a picture of an extraordinary man.

Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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‘Why things don’t happen’ – calls for a cheap Frigate

Image via Wikipedia

The RUSI has published another thought-provoking article on the state of Britain’s armed forces, that is bound to inform debate and discussion around the ongoing Strategic Defence Revew.

In ‘Why things don’t happen: silent principles of national security’, Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins argue that the deepest issues in British Defence are the most silent – principally, the Royal Navy. The article argues that geopolitics makes a maritime framework imperative for the future of Britain’s armed forces. However, the Royal Navy has progressively – or regressively – become weaker and weaker, to the point of not being able to meet the challenges facing it.

The Royal Navy has often been called the silent service – it goes about its business quietly, efficiently, largely away from public gaze and without without blowing its own trumpet. However, in todays media-savvy world, has this led to the Royal Navy being quietly maligned? The Royal Navy, the authors argue, is the main force safeguarding Britain’s silent security principles.

The same authors argued in an earlier article that the Royal Navy was in danger of losing coherence, with ships that were largely a hangover form the Cold War reducing overall utility in a changing world. One of the other points made, that I totally agree with, is that the deeper principles of defence and security are drowned-out by inter-service politicking. And given that the Navy is overhwelmingly a platform-based service, it is at the mercy of funding and equipment issues.

That ‘hard power’ is being replaced by ‘soft power’ was suggested in a major speech by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007. Similarly to Tony Blair‘s Chicago ‘Blair Doctrine’ speech, Brown’s policy brought about consistent growth in the international aid budget, while the Defence budget became more and more squeezed year on year. Yet this naive believe in throwing money at developing countries (and countries that are richer than the UK, for that matter) is intellectually bankrupt if it comes at the expense of the defence that can safeguard humanitarian intervention. part of the problem, however, is that the carefree signing of cheques to foreign countries is so ingrained in decision-makers , that – in the words of the authors – “It demands a bonfire of current assumptions, plus the demolition and rebuilding of current institutions.”

The MOD’s procurement spending comes in for particularly harsh criticism – it is argued that up to a third of the MOD’s budget is wasted by indecision and delays. The problem is, however, that while the country is effectively at war in Afghanistan, peacetime constraints are still over-riding all decisions in Whitehall – primarily, a desire to cut costs at all times.

The authors also look at globalisation. The real impact of globalisation, they argue, is that states and societies are – more than ever – interdependent. Trade and economies are so interconnected that a small problem anywhere could spell disaster for other parts of the world. But this interdependence is subject to very few checks and balances, as the UN is frequently bypassed and ignored.

The Defence Green Paper’s suggestion that Britain align herself more closely with France is odd to say the least – Britain has since 1945 had wildly varying strategic interests with France. French politicians are hardly likely to take decisions with British interests in mind – De Gaulle is an obvious example.

The article goes onto look at a subject that has occupied much of my attention as of late – that of military tribalism. Although the Ministry of Defence has been the primary agency of Defence planning since the demise of the single-service ministries, it is still governed by a deeply-tribal system. The individual chiefs of staff are the tribal chiefs of their service, making it very difficult for them to agree to any decisions that reflect badly on them in this capacity. Against this tribal atmosphere, ‘jointness’ has been a policy used by the Treasury to divide and rule the services. Jointness may be anathema to many wishing to preserve their independence, but recent – and not so recent – history shows us that no operation in war is ever really not of a joint nature. Evacuations and Invasions are a prime example, and the Royal Marines usually exert an influence out of all proportion to their size. The argument is, therefore, that by protecting their independence, the services are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

The post-Cold War run-down of the Royal Navy has been conducted very much in a climate of ‘nothing ever happens’. Because no major or even medium level war has occured for some time, the assumption is that good order is now a constant. The authors argue, however, that this good order and lack of major conflict is precisely because of pre-emption and deterrent, both nuclear and conventional. The suggestion is that when something does not happen, it is because someone of something has stopped it from happening, or has made it impossible to occur in the first place. The example offered by the authors is that of world trade – if less ships were available to patrol the worlds trade routes, would threats emerge as a result?

 The British Empire was largely built in seapower, which in turn was built on control of the oceans. Perhaps the modern public is seablind thanks to the growth of air travel, but the bulk of Britain’s trade – and crucial elements such as fuel – still comes by sea. And as much of this trade has to transit a small number of choke points – Hormuz, and Suez for example – it is highly vulnerable. Against this background, and that of Britain’s shrinking fleet, states such as India and Australia are expanding their naval resources. Japan is opening a naval base in Djibouti, in order to safeguard her shipping off Somalia.

And so to the size and structure of the Royal Navy. Whilst Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon justified the failure to build new ships, by arguing that as newer ships were bigger and more advanced, they would have more capability and would be able to take on the roles that strength-in-numbers would normally handle. Yet all common sense and logic suggests that a low number of high-spec ships are not ideal for policing the globes sea lanes. Crucially, however, the polarity between high and low intensity operations is seen as alarming – it should be seen more as a spectrum; a sliding scale.

A concise table in the article shows just how hamstrung the Royal Navy will be in future years. In 2010 it has 23 Frigates, with an average age of 15 years and across 4 types. By 2020 this will be 21 ships, with an average age of 21 – the age frequently understood to be the limit of a ships active service life. The perils are all too clear. This force structure has been largely built around the need to escort the two new aircraft carriers, yet Britain is very unlikely to go to war in a conventional manner with a full carrier battle group, and in any case European Navies have ample air defence escorts of their own that could be co-opted. The other problem is that the high cost of Type 45 Destroyers is likely to hamper the number of more useful Type 26 Frigates that can be procured. Such a building programme, the authors argue, effectively tells the world that Britain is ‘signing off’ from maritime security.

So, what steps can be put in place to rectify the slide? Firstly, that strength in depth is important not only for presence and replacability, but also for deterrent value – if the enemy know that you are unlikely to respond, they are more likely to act. And, ‘if you cannot afford to lose a ship, then you cannot afford to use it’. The authors would scap the Type 26 C2 design, and would replace them with 10 cheap Frigates within 10 years, effectively an equivalent of the Type 21 Class in the 1970’s. The Danish Absalon Class, and the Dutch Holland Class, are offered up as inspiration of what can be achieved at much lower cost than the Type 45 and 26 programmes. A cheap, multi-pupose frigate would be of far more use patrolling sea lanes and combatting pirates than a Type 45 Destroyer.

Interesting thoughts indeed…

Read the full article here

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Battle of Arras #2

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a res...

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest (Image via Wikipedia)

 

As night fell on 9 April 1917, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were holding a section of captured German trenches after the Battle of Arras. Snow fell throughout the night, enough to leave a white blanket over the ground.

10 April seems to have been a relatively quiet day. The Hampshires observed the Germans very closely, and they seemed to be in the process of retreating. Judging by the traffic on the roads behind the enemy lines it seemed that they were pulling back, yet small groups of Germans in the front line kept up resistance. Attempts were made to continue the attacks, but the wintry conditions made fighting difficult.

At 7pm Germans were spotted moving towards the Hampshires front in a counter-attack. An artillery barrage was quickly called up – a great example of the improvements in all-arms co-operation – as well as rifle and Lewis Gun fire. After several hours it became clear the enemy’s attack was a reconnaisance in force, to assess the strength of the British line.

The next day, 11 April, saw the Battalion return to offensive action. The 4th Division was ordered to attack and hold a low ride, about 1,200 yards to the East of the fourth line of German trenches. The Somersets were in the lead for the 11th Brigade. The Germans were holding their line in strength, however, and the plan had to be altered. The Hampshires attacked to the left, and extended their line by 150 yards, losing 1 officer and 11 men killed and 16 wounded in the process. A similar attack was enacted the next day in order to cause a diversion for another attack elsewhere near Arras. This attack was repulsed, and the Battalion again lost 11 men killed and 16 wounded.

The next two days were very quiet apart from heavy shelling, and one man was killed on each day. On 15 April another attempt was made by B Company to capture Hudson and Hazard trenches, but again it was found impossible to take.

On 16 April the Battalion was shelled heavily, losing 4 men killed, before being relieved by the 1st Royal Irish Rifles and going back to Divisional Reserve that night. D Company did not manage to get away before daylight and had to remain in Hyderabad redoubt until the next night.

The Battalion marched back to shelters in the old German second line. Whilst they would have been OK in decent weather, the rain and snow had made them uncomfortable. After several days in reserve the Battalion then marched back to huts in Agnez-lez-Duisans, six miles west of Arras. The next day the Battalion marched to crowded billets at Izel-lez-Hameau, twelve miles west of Arras.

After the ubiquitous church parade on the first Sunday and time spent cleaning up, the Battalion were paraded and read messages of congratulations from Major-General Lambton (GOC 4th Division) and Lieutenant-General Fergusson (XVII Corps) for their efforts in the Battle of Arras. By the end of the month the Battalion had recommenced training in a similar manner to that it had before going into action.

During April 1917 the 1st Hampshires had suffered their heaviest casualties since the Somme the previous year – 3 officers and 26 men killed, 8 officers and 122 men wounded, 3 men accidentally wounded and 5 missing.

On 2 May the Battalion returned to the front line. After marching up to the old German 4th system the Hampshires were occupying trenches immediately north of the Fampoux-Athies road. Major Earle was in command, as divisional orders had ordered that Lt-Col Armitage was to remain behind with the transport.

The next day the 4th Division attacked, with the aim of capturing the western outskirts of Plouvain. Zero hour was very early, at 3.45am. The Germans were obviously expecting an attack, and it seemed that little progress was made. In the afternoon the 1st Hants supported the 1st Rifle Brigade in their attack on the Chateaux north of Roeux. Due to delays the Rifle Brigade began their attack at 3.30am, but were held up by maching-gun fire.

The next few days were relatively uneventful apart from heavy shelling. On 4 May the Battalion was holding a position between the junction of Corona and Ceylon trenches and the railway embankment. The enemy’s snipers were very active between the Chemical Works and the Chateau that the Rifle Brigade had attempted to capture. On 8 May the Battalion made a ‘chinese attack’ on the Chateaux, Chemical Works and surrounding areas, but evidently were not succesful.

10 May was spent preparing for operations, and nightfall found the Battalion occupying Ceylon and Cordite trenches. On 11 May the 4th Division, together with the 17th Division, attacked on a fron from Roeux Cemetery on the left to the station buildings on the right. Maps showed blue and black lines which were the respective objectives. The enemy were completely surprised and offered little resistance. The Black line was reached by 7.30pm, and the Battalion had taken 150 prisoners and 7 machine guns. The next day at 6am the Battalion advanced on the Blue line, and was again succesful, taking very few casualties.

The Battalion was relieved on 12 May by the 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 13 May found the Battalion bivouaced south of the Fampoux-St Nicholas road, and from there the men marched to the Cavalry Barracks in Arras. On 14 May the 1st Hants boarded buses at Arras and moved to Magnicourt-sur-Canche. Over the next two days Major-General Lambton and General Sir Edmund Allenby inspected and addressed the Battalion, and operation awards were announced – 1 DSO, 2 MC’s, 1 DCM and 2 MM’s.

Although relatively modest, compared to the Somme the gains at the Battle of Arras were very impressive, and for much smaller losses. Little progress was made after the first day, however, and no breakthrough was made. The Hampshires were to remain at Arras for the time being, until the Third Battle of Ypres began – Passchendaele.

More Portsmouth men were killed in the days and weeks after the first day than on the first day itself:

11 April – Corporal Mervyn Offer (Arras Memorial), Private J.J. Cleaver (Bailleul Road East)

15 April – Private W.C.Brine (Etaples)

16 April – Lance Corporal George Jones (96 Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw; Arras Memorial)

18 April – Private Frederick Earwicker (Worlds End, Hambledon; Aubigny)

25 April – Lance Corporal W. Palmer (29 Mills Road; Aubigny)

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Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The Battle of Arras

Battle of Arras in April 1917

Battle of Arras in April 1917 (Image via Wikipedia)

The 1st Hampshires went into the Battle of Arras better prepared than for any other operation since the beginning of the War. The men had taken part in individual, Company and Battalion training, and a number of Brigade exercises. And, thanks to the methodical and exhaustive staff work that went into planning the attack, historians are left with a wealth of documents to study, that allow us to tell the story of what happened to the Battalion on 9 April 1917.

The plan

At the end of March the Adjutant circulated a note on signals between Infantry and Artillery, and also a complicated table showing what equipment troops were to carry during the attack – ammunition, sandbags, barbed wire and poles, and screw pickets.

On 2 April the detailed Operation Order for the coming battle was circulated to Officers. Running to eight pages, its length and complexity show how the British Army had learnt the importance of good planning and preparation – the hard way, sadly. The XVIIIth Corps – comprising the 4th, 34th and 51st Divisions – were to capture the third system of trenches, around the River Scarpe. Rather ambitiously, if this objective was achieved, the next target was to be the southern section of Vimy Ridge. Detailed instructions were given for where the Battalion was to assemble prior to the offensive. The officers were assured that the Artillery Barrage would cut gaps in the wire in front of the German defences.

The Hampshires specific targets on day one were as follows: to capture the second German trench (code named HAGGARD) , and then to bomb the first and third trenches (HUDSON and HAZZARD), and then to push out patrols as far as the sunken road. D and B companied were to be in the front, with A Company in support. The companies were given very detailed instructions, down toobjectives for their platoons and sections. The plan also placed emphasis on consolidation and the building of strong points. Looking at the map, the plan was very much to break through the line, and then attack down the length of the German trenches.

The attack would have significant firepower support. The 11th Trench Mortar Battery were to move up immediately behind B Company. A incredibly complex artillery creeping barrage was put together, with very specific timings – to the minute, in fact.

The plan also made extensive use of very detailed maps, with the German trench system mapped and code named. All orders made thorough use of grid references. Communictations were also important – a Squadron of Royal Flying Corps BEC2 aircraft were assigned to work with XVIII to observe progress and sport for signal flares.

Medical arrangements were also thorough. The Regimental Aid Post was to remain with Battalion HQ, and from there officers were briefed on where the Main Dressing Station,  advanced Dressing  Station and Walking Wounded Aid Post were to be. Men were assigned to act as xtra stretcher bearers, and a special Labour Company was assigned to bury the dead.

The thought, effort and detail that had gone into the planning of the Battle of Arras shows how, slowly but surely, the British Army was learning how to fight on the Western Front. This, compared to the non-existant or minimal planning for previous battles, was much more professional.

The Battle

The day broke with slight rain. Reveille was at 4.45am, and breakfast was served before the Battalion marched off. Arriving at the assembly area at 7.30am, the Brigade ate dinner from cookers. No news was heard from the first phase of the attack, but promisingly large numbers of German prisoners were seen being herded to the rear.

The Brigade finally marched off at 10am, at a compass angle of 90 degrees until it reached the original British front line. There enemy shells began to fall, and one landed in the middle of B Company, causing 17 casualties. After an hour, the Battalion then launched its attack.

The enemy  offered slight resistance, most German troops apparently turned and fled. The guns had not in fact cut the German barbed wire, but due to the lack of enemy activity the men were able to cut it themselves. The Battalion captured 80 prisoners, 2 Machine Guns and three 8 inch howitzers. By 4.05pm  all Companies had achieved their objectives. The captured position was a good one, giving good observation and a commanding view of the north east and east.

The Battalion had suffered remarkably few casualties. 12 men were killed, and 47 wounded. The Doctor, Captain J. Walker RAMC, was wounded but remained at his post. Among those killed was Private Gerald Gomer, from Portsmouth, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to Arras

A British machine gun post in a captured trenc...

A British machine gun post during the Battle of Arras (Image via Wikipedia)

After returning from the front line on 2 February 1917, the 1st Hants spent several days going through the usual clean-up routine. After the ubiquitous church parade on the Sunday, attention then shifted to training, and also providing men for fatigue duties. On 8 February a party of 3 officers and 268 men were seconded to Maurepas to relieve a working party from another regiment. 268 men represented a sizeable amount of the Battalion’s manpower, at a time when they were supposed to be resting and training.

Although the remainder of the Battalion went on a route march on the 9th, and on the 10th marched to a new camp at Suzanne, on the 11th a party of 4 officers and 171 men were attached to 171 tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers near Maurepas. The remainder of the Battalion left in the camp did nothing but fatigues, with only a Lewis Gun class continuing. The party of men sent to Maurepas were engaged in making gun emplacements, and the men attached to the tunnellers were assisting in building accomodation for gun teams.

On 16 February the Battalion went into close support. Every available man was put to work improving the trenches, as the onset of the spring thaw was making them very very wet and muddy. On 18 February the Battalion went into the front line. By this time it was raining, making conditions even worse. After four days in the line the 1st Hants were relieved on 22 February. As the ground was in such a poor condition it took until midday on the 23rd for all of the Battalion to pull back to Hem crossroads, where they boarded buses for their new camp at La Neuville-les-Bray.

Having reached La Neuville-les-Bray, on 24 February the Battalion marched to camp 124, near Corbie. Once there the usual cleaning, inspections and church parades commenced. Finally, on 27 February, a full scheme of training began, starting with individual training within sections, and other training for specialists. A platoons football league was also begun.

On 4 March the whole 4th Division began the march to its new area of operations at Arras. The first day’s march was for 15 miles, and 16 men fell out. This was quite a low figure, given the Battalion’s fitness, the conditions and that they had become used to static warfare. The next day’s march of 10 miles saw only five men fall out, even with a snow fall. By 7 March the Battalion hard reached their new camp at Buire-au-Bois.

After the usual cleaning up and improving of billets, training began in earnest on 9 March. Individual training continued, with Company training beginning on the 10th. For several days D Company were attached to the 3rd Army, to give a demonstration to training staff and observers of ‘the company in attack’. Later, on the 18th, the whole Battalion have a similar demonstration.

No sooner had Battalion training begun on 19 March, than on the 21st the Battalion was transported by bus to Bajus. Company and Battalion training resumed, but time was found on the 25th for the final of the Platoon Football Cup, with 9 Platoon beating 5 Platoon 2-0.

Although the Battalion were scheduled to take part in a major offensive in only a matter of days, on 26 March 119 men under 2nd Lieutenant Stannard left for Anzin-st-Aubin, to form a work party. The next day the rest of the Battalion went to the divisional training area, and took part in a Brigade exercise. The Battalions assaulted positions almost identical to those that they had been given for the coming battle – in effect, a dress rehearsal. Another practise took place two days later, and another two days after that.

With plenty of individual, company, Battalion and now Brigade training behind them, the 1st Hants were certainly better prepared for Arras than they had been for any other battle so far in the war. At the end of the month detailed instructions were circulated to officers by the Adjutant, covering signals between infantry and artillery, and also a complex table showing what equipment men were to carry during the assault. Staff work was also beginning to come into its own.

Into April, poor weather limited the amount of training that could be carried out. 4 April was spent – for A and D Companies – practising consolidation, that is, keeping hold of positions that had been captured, clearly something that was of benefit when attacking enemy trenches. B Company spent the day exercising with the Trench Mortar Battery, a good example of co-operation. The next day was spent going through Operation Orders with NCO’s and men – again, the men were going into the Battle of Arras better informed than ever before.

On 7 April the Battalion marched to huts on the main Arras-St. Pol road, and the next day marched to camp at Maroeuil. The Battle of Arras was to begin the next day.

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What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960’s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

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