Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Hillsborough cover-up

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fence onto the safety of the pitch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week over 450,00 pages of official documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 were released into the public domain, most of them for the first time. Some of the documents are illuminating, some of them are harrowing. If you have an interest in stadia, crowds or 1980’s politics and society, I would strongly reccomend having a read of some of the documents available here.

96 men, women and children were killed in crushing at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, at the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The Taylor Report immediately after the disaster largely absolved the authorities, principally the South Yorkshire Police, of any serious culpability, and senior police officers on the day have escaped responsibility in the decades since. Crucially, in 1989 Taylor did not have the wealth of material that we have available to us now.

There are hundreds of witness statements, from survivors, police officers, medics, Kenny Dalglish, Forest supporters, local Sheffield residents and many expert witnesses. There are official letters, reports and other documents covering organisations such as 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FA, Home Office, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council, Liverpool Football Club, Nottingham Forest Football Club, Sheffield Hospitals, South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and UEFA.

However, resolute campaigning on Merseyside led to the release of official documents before the 30 year rule, and the outcome has been significant. For years there had almost been an un-written, un-spoken assumption that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism and crowd disorder, and the Liverpool fans in particular came in for much criticism, unfair as it turned out. Of course many fans who go to football matches drink alcohol, but having a couple of pints doesn’t mean that you are incapable. And it’s always been a common problem that fans wait until the last minute to enter the stadium, but that was well known and should have been adequately planned for and managed.

Whilst the South Yorkshire Constabulary have come in for particular criticism for their approach and crowd management, one wonders how much of this goes back to something that will be harder to trace – the attitude of the Thatcher Government to working class disorder, and football supporters in particular, and the pressure that was exerted on police forces post Heysel. This surely shaped how local police forces handled football matches, and how grounds were constructed. True to form Thatcher was no fan of a working class sport such as football, and it showed. After the dramatic summer of 1985 – which after riots at Luton-Millwall, Birmingham-Leeds and at Heysel, not to mention the Bradford fire, the Prime Minister is well known to have vowed to ‘sort out’ football. Post Heysel she even lobbied UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions. Was the prologue – and the epilogue – to Hillsborough a part of this campaign?

Viewed against the wider background of the 1980’s, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath can be placed very firmly in the context of class tensions at the time. There was significant civil unrest throughout the period,  including riots on Merseyside that would have politicised many a young working class Liverpudlian, and also and the miners strike which encompassed much of Yorkshire and involved much of South Yorkshire Police in resisting what was working class movement. It is hardly surprising that a police force that had been involved in what was essentially counter-insurgency on behalf of the government viewed football fans as a de-humanised rabble. Through all stages of the planning for the day, the dealing with the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, the Police emphasised again and again hooliganism, even when it was clear afterwards that hooliganism had not played a part. That the blood alcohol levels of those who were killed were thought relevant is telling indeed – they would have died whether that had drunk ten pints or a couple of cokes.

Witness statements suggest that most of the rank and file emergency service personnel on duty at Hillsborough performed admirably, given the nature of their training, briefing and leadership, which gave scant priority to safety and huge emphasis on hooliganism. Many police officers suffered serious psychological problems after their frantic work pulling bodies out of the crush and attempting to resucitate victims. By contrast, many of the senior commanders were paralysed, and not effectively in command and unable to make informed decisions. The match commander had minimal experience of policing football crowds. The Police Control Room was closely overlooking the Leppings Lane End, but even after the match was stopped it was still thought that a pitch invasion was underway. Consequently many police officers were deployed forming a cordon on the pitch, when they could have been assisting in the rescue.

What is even more inexcusable is that having caused the disaster by their ineptitude, senior officers in South Yorkshire Police then presided over what was a formally organised cover-up, consisting of altering large parts of police officers statements of their recollections of the day. Statements were reviewed by commanders and the force’s solicitors, and many damming and critical statements were deleted. Why did the police feel the need to cover themselves? Some sources in South Yorkshire Police referred to the force as having its ‘backs against the wall’, and this might have led to officers to wish to give themselves some breathing space. Whilst people always want to defend their corner, to go to the extent of a de-facto smear campaign against innocent victims is inexcusable. Certainly, in the 1980’s the police had been deployed by the Government to police working class unrest and disorder, and for a police force to be found guilty in such a situation would not have fitted in with the prevailing political mood regarding class tensions and football being plagued by hooliganism. Hence, there was probably not any significant pressure from above to investigate South Yorkshire Police further.

Against this background of new material, it is difficult not to look back on many of the developments of the past 23 years – not least the Taylor report, the inadequate inquests, and the lack of criminal charges – and conclude that much of the prevailing wisdom regarding Hillsborough has been undermined. The disaster was caused by inadequate and incompetent policing, combined with the perimeter fences and dividing of the Leppings Lane terrace into pens with radial fences. Factors that were supposedly contributory – drinking, late arrival for example – are still present in football grounds today. German football grounds still have terracing, and have some of the best safety records in world stadia. Whilst I know acknowledge that Taylor did not have the benefit of much of the evidence that we do have now, and was probably under much political pressure to reach certain conclusions, I remain convinced that the introduction of all-seater stadia was more about gentrifying football than ensuring that there was no repeat of Hillsborough.

As a historian, a football enthusiast and someone who keeps a close eye on access to official documents, the Hillsborough case is a landmark. It demonstrates that those in authority can no longer expect to hide behind the closure of official papers, and that they should be held accountable to the general public whom they are paid to serve and protect. It should teach people in responsible positions that they can no longer sweep problems under the carpet for them to re-emerge 30 years later when it is too late.

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Message from James, my singing Girlfriend and next talk

First of all apologies for the marked lack of posts in recent weeks. As much as it is nice to have a busy blog, books to work on and lots of talks, some things in life come first.

Having said that, my next talk is tomorrow evening in Portchester, for the Portchester Civic Society at the Church Hall in Castle Street. ‘Kick off’ will be at 7.30pm, and I will have  copies of my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ available for purchase on the night.

Finally, my girlfriend Sarah would be really chuffed if you could have a watch/listen of her singing. She’s always had great talent and has recently started entering singing competitions. As you might guess, I’m very proud :)

Sarah Cornish – Wild Horses (Susan Boyle version, originally by the Rolling Stones)

 

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Arnhem: Battle of the Woods DVD by Battlefield History

I’ve reviewed quite a few Battlefield History DVD‘s before, and they just keep getting better and better. This edition in their Arnhem series looks at the role of the 4th Parachute Brigade, from their drop on Ginkel Heath on 18 September 1944 until they joined the Oosterbeek perimeter two days later.

I should register a vested interest, in that my late Grandfather fought with the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem. He hardly ever talked about the battle – unsurprisingly, as he was wounded and taken prisoner and the battle did not go well for the 11th Battalion – so it is a real treat to see so much focus given to his unit, one that has often been overlooked in the history of Arnhem. It’s nice to see a contribution from a soldier who was with the 11th, as so few histories of Arnhem contain anything from them.

I’ve been to Arnhem a couple of times myself, and have always found it hard to describe the terrain in that corner of Holland. This DVD does an admirable job of helping he viewer get a feel for what the battlefield was like. And that’s half the ‘battle’ – bad pun – with military history, ‘smelling’ the battlefield. The clips of re-enactors, equipment and visits to military museums add to the atmosphere and depth of the production.

I enjoyed watching it immensely, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods is published by Pen and Sword Digital

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VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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