Category Archives: d-day

D-Day Museum on Remembrance Sunday

Just a little reminded that I will be speaking at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth this coming Remembrance Sunday.

The Museum is open from 10am. I will be speaking at 12noon and 2pm, giving a short talk on my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. Entry to the Museum is free all day, and there is no need to book.

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my notes. If you come down, feel free to say hello and ask me anything you like!

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Wellington and Montgomery: General swapping?

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterl...

Mont... sorry, the Duke of Wellington (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Battle of Normandy recently for my forthcoming book. And I have always been a big fan of Wellington.

Which got me thinking – what if Wellington had fought the battle of Waterloo in the style of Monty? And what if Wellington had been in command in the summer of 1944?

Montgomery after Waterloo:

Montgomery: ‘the battle went exactly as I planned. I fully intended to draw the French reserves onto my front, thus allowing the Prussians to arrive unhindered. Hougoumont was not important as long as I pretended to hold it. At all times I was in complete control of the situation. We will no crack-about south of Caen’.

At which point Blucher is mortally offended, and Prussian historians spend hundreds of years belittling his every move. Meanwhile, German film-makers all but obliterate Montgomery and the British from Waterloo, apart from oblique and stereotypical references.

Almost one hundred and 30 years later, at the St Pauls School Conference in May 1944…

Wellington, to the assembled crowd of Allied senior officers, politicians and King George VI: ‘what I intend to do depends on what Rommel intends to do, and as the Desert Fox has not informed me of his plans, then I cannot inform you of mine’

At Southwick House, 5 June 1944…

Eisenhower: ‘so Wellington, what are your plans?’
Wellington: ‘to beat the Germans’

Actually, were Wellington and Montgomery really that different? The only difference to me seems to be that American historians have had no reason to villify Wellington. Even so, during his lifetime Wellington was ridiculed and lambasted for both his adulterous affairs and his politics. Time, however, tends to see petty criticisms fall away and victories stand the test of time.

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Portsmouth Second World War Dead – An appeal!

British battleship HMS BARHAM explodes as her ...

HMS Barham exploding in 1941 (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m currently working on a book about people from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any information at all about any relatives from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War, seving with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, Merchant Navy, ATS, NAAFI, British Red Cross and the Home Guard.

Any stories, documents, photographs, memories etc would be extremely useful, and I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who may be able to help.

In particular, I am looking for information and photographs about the following:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, a mine disposal rating from HMS Vernon
  • Seamen who were killed serving on the Portsmouth based battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In particular Frederick Bealing (Royal Oak),
  • Portsmouth Submariners, particularly HMS Triumph (disappeared in the Med in 1942), and especially Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston DSM and Bar and Petty Officer Frank Collison DSM and Bar
  • Any Boy Seamen from Portsmouth who were killed (aged 18 or under)
  • Lieutenant Commander William Hussey DSO DSC, the Commander of HMS Lively when she was sunk off Tobruk in 1942
  • Royal Marines from Portsmouth, in particular Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird, a 62 year old WW1 veteran who died in 1943
  • Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, of the Royal Armoured Corps who was killed in Italy in 1944
  • Portsmouth men who died as Prisoners of War, particularly Private William Starling who died after VE Day in Czechoslovakia, and Sapper Ernest Bailey who was murdered by the Gestapo in Norway in 1942
  • Portsmouth men who were killed fighting with the Hampshire Regiment, particularly Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM (D-Day) and Corporal Mark Pook MM (Italy)
  • Men killed on D-Day and in Normandy, especially Sergeant Sidney Cornell DCM and Private Bobby Johns (aged 16) 
  • Portsmouth men killed fighting in the Far East – including in Singapore, Burma, and as Prisoners of the Japanese building the Burma Railway
  • Bomber aircrew from Portsmouth, especially Flight Sergeant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Sergeant Francis Compton DFM
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan DFC, a Battle of Britain and Special Operations pilot
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC, a Bomber Squadron commander who fought in the Mediterranean and North Africa
  • Flight Lieutenants Arthur and Ernest Venables, brothers killed when their Dakota crashed in Southern France after VE Day
  • The Merchant Navy – particularly the SS Portsdown, an Isle of Wight Ferry mined in 1941
  • The NAAFI
  • Women at War – the Wrens, ATS, WAAFS, British Red Cross

Or indeed any other stories that I may have missed.

I have a database of 2,549 Portsmouth servicemen and women killed between September 1939 and December 1947; sadly it is impossible to write about all of them, but hopefully I can pay tribute to them all by telling some of their stories.

Any stories at all will be of interest, its these kind of personal stories that really bring home the impact of war on families and communities.

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Filed under Army, d-day, far east, merchant navy, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Book of the Week, d-day, World War Two

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – The Hampshire Regiment in focus

The Hampshire Regiment in focus

114 men from Portsmouth died serving with the Hampshire Regiment during the Second World War, more than any other infantry Regiment. Between 1939 and 1945 six Hampshire Battalions fought overseas – the 1st, 2nd, 1/4th, 2/4th, 5th and 7th.

11 men died in England, 1 in Algeria, 1 in Burma, 1 in Egypt, 21 in France, 1 in Germany, 1 in Greece, 5 in Holland, 41 in Italy, 2 in Malta, 1 in Singapore, 1 in Syria, and 27 in Tunisia.

Traditionally British county infantry Regiments consisted of two regular Battalions and several territorial Battalions. In wartime these might be joined by a number of war-raised Battalions, and also Depot Battalions. Unlike in the Great War no ‘pals’ Battalions were formed, after concerns that too many men from the same communities were being killed together, which was bad for morale at home and for the men concerned.

For many years the Hampshire Regiment Depot had been at Winchester, but during the Second World War it was evacuated to the Isle of Wight. Almost all wartime recruits would have undertaken their basic training there.

Regular Battalions:

1st Battalion – 20
2nd Battalion – 22

Most line infantry Regiments began the Second World War with two regular Battalions. In peacetime normally one Battalion would be serving overseas – such as in India, or Egypt – while the other would be at home.

The 1st Hants began the war in Egypt. After pecekeeping duties in Palestine and guarding Italian prisoners in Egypt, they spent some time in Malta in 1941, suffering two casualties there, before joining the Malta Brigade and fighting in Sicily and Italy. At the end of 1943 they were withdrawn to England, after Montgomery requested experienced troops to take part in the D-Day operations. When the Battalion laned in England in 1943 it was the first time it had set foot in the UK after 23 years overseas. The 1st Hants landed on D-Day, with four Portsmouth soldiers being killed among total losses of 182 men, including the CO and second in command. After fighting at Hottot, Villers-Bocage, Belgium and Holland, along with the rest of the 50th Division the Battalion was disbanded in November 1944 and the men dispersed to other units.

The 2nd Battalion was based in Aldershot when war began. They landed in France in September 1939, serving on the Maginot Line and the Franco-Belgian Border, but were evacuated through Dunkirk with its equipment intact and without suffering any casualties. The 2nd Hants then went to North Africa in November 1942, fighting in Algeria and Tunisia. The Battalion suffered very heavy casualties between 1 and 3 December 1942, with 7 Portsmouth men killed. After the fall of Tunis they joined the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade.

Territorial Battalions:

1/4th Battalion – 15
2/4th Battalion – 16
5th Battalion – 14
7th Battalion – 17

On the outbreak of war in 1939 most Regiments also possessed two Battallions of the Territorial Army. To provide a firm basis for new recruits, the 4th Battalion were split in two to provide an extra Battalion, of the first and second line, ie 1/4th and 2/4th. The 5/7th Battalion, meanwhile, was split up into the 5th and 7th Battalions. Therefore these Battalions were made up roughly half of territorials and half of conscripts, although they would have taken on conscripts during the war to make up losses.

The 1/4th, 2/4th and 5th Hants were formed into the 128th ‘Hampshire’ Brigade, part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division. In January 1943 the Brigade left the 43rd Division and joined the 46th (West Riding) Division for North Africa. After the end of the war in North Africa the Brigade landed at Salerno in September 1943, suffering very heavy casualties, with 8 Portsmouth Hampshires killed. After fighting up trough Italy the Brigade was taken out of the line in February 1944, and taken to Egypt where reinforcements were taken on. In August 1944 the Hampshire Brigade was back in action in Italy. In December 1944 they were relieved once again, and in January 1945 were sent to Greece to disarm communist guerillas. One man of the 5th Battalion was killed in Greece. Although the Brigade moved back to Italy in April 1945 the war was over before they could go into action again.

The 7th Hants was part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, and were grouped with the 4th and 5th Dorsets in 130th Brigade. They landed in France on 22 June, and were initially in reserve. In July the 7th Hants went into action in the bitter bocage fighting, culminating in the capture of Mont Pincon. The Battalion was then involved in the breakout and the great swan across France, before being involved in the latter stages of Operation Market Garden. After rest the 7th Hants took part in the battle of the Reichswald in February 1945. After crossing the Rhine on 24 March 1945 they ended the war at Barkhausen in Germany, between Bremen and Hamburg.

Home Service/Depot Battalions

12th Battalion – 3
13th Battalion – 2

Home Service and Depot Battalions were formed to act as holding units for recruits, or for older men who were maybe not suitable for service overseas. Younger men could in turn be posted overseas. Four of the five men who died while serving in Depot Battalions died in the UK. The other man died in Burma, perhaps while he was travelling to another unit or while he was serving as a Staff Officer.

Of the Portsmouth Hampshires killed during the Second World War, only Lance Corporal Leslie Webb of the 1st Battalion was decorated for bravery. He won the Military Medal for his part in D-Day, but after being evacuated wounded to England died on 14 June 1944. He was 27 and from North End, and is buried in Milton Cemetery.

Information taken from ‘The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1918 – 1954′ by David Scott Daniell.

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Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe by Patrick Delaforce

Thankfully military history has moved on in the past few years. While not so long ago military history consisted primarily of battles, generals, tanks, ships, planes, dates and the ‘great man’ school of history. Although of its time, looking back this approach does seem rather stale. The practice of writing THE history of a particular unit - usually in narrative form - is very much a traditional approach, and Patrick Delaforce has written a number of histories of some of the Divisions that fought in North West Europe with the British Army in 1944 and 1945.

Anyone with an interest in the Second World War will probably be aware that one of the most prominent issues surrouding the British Army was the performance of several of its veteran Division in Normandy in 1944. When he took over command of 21st Army Group Montgomery requested three veterans Divisions from the Eight Army: the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland), and the famous 7th Armoured Divisions – the Desert Rats.

I’ve often thought that its pretty misleading to label any military unit as ‘elite’. No unit ever starts off as elite – everyone has to start somewhere, as they say – and units that once had a sharp edge can easily lose it. From my own research, I have found that while the 1st Airborne Division has often been regarded as an elite unit, in many ways it was green and had lost its keen edge. And most historians agree that far from giving the D-Day forces a stiffening of experience, the three Divisions brought over from Italy struggled once ashore. This issue has been looked at in more details by historians such as David French and David Fraser.

Why was this? While historians have debated and researched this for years, sadly Patrick Delaforce glosses over the Division’s performance, seeming to regard it as something that isn’t all that important. Which is a great pity, as discussing it help us get insde the psyche of the fighting soldier, as he goes from one battle to another. I’ve always been pretty interested in the psychology of battle, and I cannot help but feel that the experience of the 7th Armoured Division after D-Day would give a lot of food for thought. Historians have suggested arrogance, battle-weariness, and the difference between the Desert and the Bocage as reasons for the Divisions performance. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Division that saw two Commanding Generals sacked within 6 months had problems.

After landing shortly after D-Day, Montgomery sent the Desert Rats to capture Villers Bocage, in an attempt to outflank Caen. After they failed it became clear that perhaps the policy of using veteran units wasn’t working quite as it was hoped. After the Desert Rats failed to distinguish themselves in Operation Goodwood shortly after it became clear that the Division would need rebuilding. In subsequent battles other Armoured Divisions were employed - the capture of Antwerp by the 11th Armoured Division, and Operation Market Garden by the Guards Armoured.

There are some bright spots about this book – Delaforce makes use of a number of veterans accounts, which shed light on life for the British Soldier between D-Day and VE Day. Subjects such as food, looting, brothels, medical care, officer-men relations and attitudes towards the enemy are all looked at. But I am sure there are a lot more accounts out there from Desert Rats veterans. And Delaforce seems not to have looked at the wide range of official sources out there, such as war diaries. Which is a real shame. Perhaps as a wartime Royal Horse Artillery officer Delaforce does not wish to be too critical or to delve too deep into the controversial areas.

This book, although interesting, does feel very much like an ‘old military history’. Worth a read, and twenty or thirty years ago it would have been great. But it could do with being updated with a fresher and more objective outlook.

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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