Category Archives: Family History

Mud, Blood and Bullets: Memoirs of a Machine Gunner by Edward Rowbotham

Having researched 1,500+ Portsmouth soldiers who died in the First World War, sadly I know very little about any of them as people. There really aren’t as many Great War veterans accounts as there as there are from their counterparts who fought twenty or so years later. Therefore anything that sheds new light on the soldiers experience of the Trenches is to be applauded. Here, a Granddaughter has edited her Grandfathers wartime memoirs.

Edward Rowbotham was born into a large Midlands mining family, one of 14 children. Although he followed his father and most of his brothers down the pit, as soon as war broke out in 1914 he wanted to join the Army. Although he initially remained at home, in 1915 he finally volunteered as part of Kitcheners Army.

Although he initally joined this local unit the Staffordshire Regiment, he was soon drafted to a brand new formation – the Machine Gun Corps. Although infantry Battalions had begun the war with Vickers Machine Guns in their weaponry, it was soon found that for them to be fully effective they would need to be put into the hands of a dedicated unit. And thus the Machine Gun Corps was formed.

Rowbotham fought at the Somme – particularly at the Battle of Flers – and then at Passchendale in 1917. Almost continuously in the front line for three and a half years, his story takes us right up to the point where the British Army marched into Cologne as an occupying force. Three and a half years is an awful long time to he survived on the Western Front, and it is difficult not to have the feeling that Rowbotham had a charmed life.

As so often is the case with personal accounts, it is not the ‘what happened when’ that is interesting, it is the very human tales that emerge that are worth their weight in gold. Stories of bizarre wounds, boxing matches, grumbling about bully beef, officer-men relations, the usual ‘British-soldier-in-a-strange-country’ stories and tales of super-strength Army Rum are what make personal stories such as this so valuable. At all times we are reminded that we are reading about a real person and their experiences, the text has such a personal feel to it. I found myself not just by the war stories, but also by the tales of failed romances. Rowbotham’s premonitions about his own safety are also amongst some of the intriguing episodes I have read about.

Ted Rowbotham distinguished himself on a number of occasions. On one occasion he went ino no-mans land to find a missing soldier, after receiving a premonition of his own safety. Having found him mortally wounded, Rowbotham sought out a stretcher and remained with the wounded man. Eventually Rowbotham managed to have him evacuated to Hospital, where he later died. Although this incident was not reported at the time, when Rowbotham later took over a gun position and manned it all night he was recommended for a Military Cross. But, as with so many men decorated for bravery, he is entirely modest about it in his memoirs.

Not only is Ted’s account of the Western Front interesting, but also is stories of what happened to him before and afterwards – its like the bread in the sandwich, it holds the filling together. But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is the authors warm, grandfatherly style of writing – its very much in the tone you would expect a wisened older relative to take when passing on their life experiences to the young. But not at all patronising, more ‘warm fireside’.

Mud, Blood and Bullets is published by The History Press


Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, social history, western front, World War One

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead: the Royal Navy part 2


93 Royal Navy officers and ratings from Portsmouth were either decorated during the Second World War, or had won medals previously – 7.2% of all Portsmouth sailors who were killed. Its noticeable immediately that most of the men who were decorated were older servicemen, and were either leading rates, Petty Officers or Officers. This is not surprising, as their leadership role gave more potential for performing bravely. And, arguably, older more experienced men were likely to be calmer in action.

Two Portsmouth sailors were awarded Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy – the George Cross. Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth was killed while defusing a bomb in 1940, and Able Seaman Henry Miller was lost in the sinking of a Submarine in 1940.

The most highly decorated naval officer from Portsmouth to die during the Second World War was Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. Hussey was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Service Cross, and was twice mentioned in despatches. 4 officers were awarded the Distingished Service Cross, and one officer – Lieutenant Charles Lambert – was awarded a bar to his DSC.

39 Sailors were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Three of these men were also awarded a mention in despatches, and one man – Able Seaman William Laing – was mentioned in despatches twice along with his DSM. Two men – Petty Officer Frank Collison and Electrical Artificer 1st Class Arthur Biggleston – were awarded a Bar to their DSM.

Five men were awarded the British Empire Medal, One man was awarded a CBE, and two men OBE’s. One man was awarded a BEM and a mention in despatches. 33 Sailors were mentioned in despatches. One man was awarded a Reserve Decoration for long service with the Royal Naval Reserve, and another the Royal Vctorian Medal for long service on the Royal Yacht pre-war. Another sailor had been awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal during the First World War. Another man had been awarded a George Medal earlier in his career.

Areas of Portsmouth

Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Second World War came from the following areas:

282 – Southsea (21.84%)
145 – Copnor (11.23%)
133 – North End (10.3%)
110 – Cosham (8.52%)
56 – Milton (4.34%)
50 – Fratton (3.87%)
43 – Stamshaw (3.33%)
33 – Buckland (2.56%)
26 – Eastney (2.01%)
26 – Mile End (2.01%)
23 – Hilsea (1.78%)
20 – Landport (1.55%)
14 – Drayton (1.08%)
13 – Farlington (1%)
13 – Portsea (1%)
11 – Kingston (0.85%)
7 – East Cosham (0.54%)
7 – Tipner (0.54%)
6 – Paulsgrove (0.46%)
2 – East Southsea (0.15%)
2 – Wymering (0.15%)

171 men – 13.25% – are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’.

What can we say about these figures? Southsea was at the time the largest and most populous part of Portsmouth, and although Southsea is best known as a seaside resort, ‘Southsea’ also describes the area as far north as Goldsmith Avenue, and what is now known as Somers Town. Hence it was the home not only to wealthy officers, but also many ordinary sailors, and working class men called up during the war. It seems that sailors came overwhelmingly from the southern Part of Portsea Island, near the Dockyard, and the laterr 19th Century suburbs such as Copnor and North End. Outlying, less populated areas such as Paulsgrove, Drayton and Wymering provided few sailors.

It will be interesting to compare these statistics with those for the other Armed Services, and also to take a closer look at each area itself to see if we can learn anything about their social composition.

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Filed under Family History, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

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

HMS Hood

Given that for hundreds of years Portsmouth has been the historic home of the Royal Navy, and the largest Naval Base in Britain, its not surprising that by far the most men from Portsmouth who died in the Second World War were serving with the Royal Navy.

1,291 naval officers and ratings from Portsmouth were killed between September 1939 and December 1947. This represents just over 50% of all Portsmouth servicemen who were killed during the war.

The nature of the Royal Navy in the Second World War warrants a mention. Particular naval ships were manned by men from one of the three manning ports – either Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. Hence specific ships contained men mainly from one of these ports, although there were small exceptions. Terms of service were also relatively long, so men who joined the Navy who originally came from elsewhere in the country were likely to move to Portsmouth – particularly men who might rise up the ranks.

Due to the nature of naval warfare, many sailors who were killed in the war were lost at sea – almost 76% of them, in fact. 806 of the men are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, 86 on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and 65 on the Chatham Memorial. In addition 24 men of the Fleet Air Arm are remembered on the naval memorial at Lee-on-the-Solent.

The biggest single losses were sustained when the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham were sunk. 66 Portsmouth sailors were killed when HMS Royal Oak was sunk on 14 October 1939. A total of 833 men were killed, and 386 survived. 98 men were lost when HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck on 24 May 1941. Out of a crew of 1,418 only three men survived. And 54 men were killed when HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean on 25 November 1941. 861 men were lost on the Barham.

Other significant losses were suffered with the sinkings of HMS Acheron (Destroyer), HMS Cossack (Destroyer), HMS Culver (lend-lease coastguard cutter), HMS Daring (Destroyer), HMS Dunedin (Cruiser), HMS Eagle (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Fidelity (Special Service vessel), HMS Fiji (Cruiser), HMS Glorious (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Glowworm (Destroyer) and HMS Penelope (Cruiser).

112 men (8.68%) died whilst serving in Submarines, 28 (2.17%) in the Fleet Air Arm, 15 men (1.16%) were serving with the Royal Naval Patrol Service, 12 men (0.93%) in Coastal Forces, and 5 men died (0.39%) whilst crewing Landing Craft. 9 women also died during the war whilst serving with the Womens Royal Naval Service, 0.7% of all Portsmouth’s naval fatalities.

98 men (7.6%) died whilst serving at shore bases local to Portsmouth – HMS Victory, HMS Vernon and HMS Excellent. Many of these were older men serving in administration and support services, and seem to have died of natural causes -this suggests just how many men were required to keep the Royal Navy running. Although they did not die in action, their contribution to the war effort should be remembered.

The amount of men who died in each year reflect the wider activities and losses of the Royal Navy during the war:

74 men were killed in 1939 (5.73%)
319 in 1940 (24.71%)
329 in 1941 (25.48%)
205 in 1942 (15.88%)
149 in 1943 (11.54%)
112 in 1944 (8.68%)
65 in 1945 (5.03%)
45 in 1946 (3.49%)
35 in 1947 (2.71%)

The heavy losses in 1941 – and to a lesser extent 1942 – reflect the sinkings of not only HMS Hood and HMS Barham, but the Battle of the Atlantic. That 80 men (6.2%) died after the end of the war is significant, and suggests how many men were still in uniform for several years after the war ended.

The ages of Naval servicemen are also interesting to look at. 5 were Boy Seamen aged 16. 6 were aged 17,
23 aged 18, and 36 were 19. 422 men were in their 20′s, 407 in their 30′s, 211 in their 40′s, 72 in their 50′s and 17 were 60 or over. 83 men’s ages are as yet unknown. Their age groups are interesting. While most sailors were in their 20′s, a significant proportion of men were in their 30′s and 40′s. This shows how many Portsmouth sailors had served for a long-time, and also how long serving sailors very often ended up living in Portsmouth. Whilst we tend to think of men who died in the war as ‘young’, many of these older men would have left young families behind them.

In part 2 of my look at Royal Navy losses, I will examine ranks, areas of Portsmouth that they came from, and medals.

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Filed under Family History, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

The National Archives Labs

The National Archives have announced a new project, entitled National Archives Labs. The idea is to pilot new and innovative ways of accessing and sharing data. Visitors to the website are able to test prototypes of new projects and give feedback, which should help the future development of online resources.

The projects in Labs are not intended to be full, finished versions, but a means of showcasing and testing ideas. If, and when, they are given approval they will be refined and made accessible before they can be properly integrated into The National Archives’ main website.

Emma Bayne, programme manager, said: ‘Labs is the first step towards us opening up our records further, and providing new ways for you to access the vast collection of information we hold.’

UK History Photo Finder

This fascinating resource allows users to search and view digital images. The first series of photographs uploaded are the Dixon-Scott collection, a set of more than 14,000 images taken between the 1920′s and the 1940′s. You can search mainly by geographical location, and I managed to find some photographs of Portchester Castle and St Thomas Cathedral that I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully more images will be made available in time. Only one criticism of this section, I would like to see more information on how to obtain copies of the images, and the relevant copyright information.

Valuation Office Surey

This tool enables users to look up Valuation Office Survey maps of England and Wales from 1910 to 1915. The Catalogue contains nearly 50,000 maps, and provides a way of searching for a geographical location. A search leads to a modern day map of your chosen area, with a link to the catalogue code of your chosen section of map. Sadly my search for Portsmouth came up with no results for the city itself, only the surrounding areas. The link enables you to purchase a hard copy of the map. This is very much a catalogue project, as it helps you find data and enables you to access it, rather than making it readily available. It should be useful none the less.

Person search

I’m a bit perplexed by this. Apparently the idea of the new Person Search facility is to bring together a wide range of sources – including First World War records, Royal Navy records, criminal registers, law suits, wills and pension records – and make it possible to search for one particular name. However there are several places where you can already do this on The National Archives website, and maybe it would be more sensible to streamline these rather than create another facility.

In general, I applaud the concept of making more records more accessible to more people. And especially using digital media. However, with the looming cuts in public spending, sadly I expect that these kind of projects may be few and far between for the forseeable future.

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Portsmouth WW2 Dead Project: completed!

This afternoon I finished inputting the last of the 2,548 names of Portsmouth men an women who died whilst serving in the Armed Forces, between 1939 and 1947. Of course, this kind of project is never truly ‘finished’, as you can be sure that new names will crop up from time to time. And now the work shift towards finding out as much about each of the names in my database, in order to be able to tell their stories.

The names primarily come from the Portsmouth City Council list, compiled for the planned Portsmouth WW2 memorial. I am very grateful to Tim Backhouse of memorials for providing me with a list of names that appear on local war memorials but not on te PCC list (126 names). I have also used Geoff’s WW2 search engine to find more names that do not appear on the PCC list (355 names). Some of the names on the PCC list also appear to have come from Portsmouth in Lancashire, and these names have been omitted frm my database.

In the coming weeks I will be looking in detail at the statistics that come from the list. But to begin with, here are a few facts:

  • 1291 Royal Navy (50.67%)
  • 674 Army (26.45%)
  • 410 Royal Air Force (16.09%)
  • 115 Royal Marines (4.51%)
  • 42 Merchant Navy (1.65%)
  • 13 NAAFI (0.51%)
  • 5 ATS (0.19%)
  • 1 Red Cross (0.04%)

They came from all over Portsmouth:

  • 588 from Southsea (23.08%)
  • 242 from North End (9.5%)
  • 231 from Copnor (9.07%)
  • 203 from Cosham (7.97%)
  • 113 from Fratton (4.43%)
  • 105 from Milton (4.12%)
  • 85 from Stamshaw (3.34%)
  • 71 from Buckland (2.79%)
  • 66 from Eastney (2.59%)
  • 44 from Hilsea (1.73%)
  • 36 from Landport (1.41%)
  • 33 from Drayton (1.3%)
  • 33 from Mile End (1.3%)
  • 24 from Farlington (0.94%)
  • 22 from Paulsgrove (0.86%)
  • 21 from Portsea (0.82%)
  • 17 from East Cosham (0.67%)
  • 11 from Wymering (0.43%)
  • 8 from Kingston (0.31%)
  • 2 from East Southsea (0.08%)

318 men – 12.48% – are listed as from simply ‘Portsmouth’, the rest are either unknown or appear to come from somewhere else in the country.  However, unless we know otherwise it is best to assume that they had some kind of Portsmouth connection for their names to be put forward to the memorial.

The first men from Portsmouth to die in the Second World War were killed on 10 September 1939 – Able Seaman John Banks and Leading Seaman Percy Farbrace of HM Submarine Oxley, and Able Seaman William Holt of HMS Hyperion.

Private George Rowntree, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, died on 24 December 1947. Aged 43 and from Wymering, he was the last man from Portsmouth to die during the period regarded as the Second World War for war grave purposes.

The oldest Portsmouth serviceman to die between 1939 and 1947 was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes GCB KCVO CMG DSO, who died of natural causes on 26 December 1945. He is buried in Dover. Keyes had been commander in chief at Portsmouth and also a local MP, as well as a former First Sea Lord and Chief of combined operations.

The youngest Portsmouth serviceman to die were Private Robert Johns of the Parachute Regiment, Boys 1st Class Gordon Ogden, Robert Spalding and Cecil Edwards of HMS Royal Oak, Ordinary Seaman Colin Duke of SS Irishman, Apprentice Tradesman L.H. Ward of the Army Technical School, Boy 1st Class Jack Lamb of HMS Dunedin, and Apprentice Electrical Artificer Raymond Whitehorn of HMS Raleigh. They were all 16.


Filed under Army, Family History, Local History, merchant navy, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!


Filed under Army, Family History, Museums, World War One

Chief Yeoman of Signals George Pankhurst BEM

More than a few Portsmouth men served in both the first and second world wars. As Britains premier naval port, its not surprising that Portsmouth became home to many of the men who had long careers in the senior service.

Chief Yeoman of Signals George Pankhurst was one of these men. Born in Fulham in London on 30 October 1886, he was a Barman before enlisting in the Royal Navy on 30 October 1904, at the age of 18 – he had obviously been waiting until he was old enough! His service records tell us that he was 5 foot 2 and a half inches tall, with Brown hair and Brown eyes, and a fresh complexion. By 1919 he had a tattoo of a bird on his right arm.

He initially served onboard ships such as HMS Northampton (training ship), HMS Hercules (ironclad battleship), HMS Revenge (battleship), HMS Barfleur (battleship), HMS Brilliant (cruiser), HMS Dryad (torpedo gunboat), HMS Bonaventure (Submarine depot ship), HMS Imperious (repair ship), HMS Blenheim (destroyer depot ship) and HMS Venus (cruiser). He also spent stints ashore at HMS Victory, the main shore base in Portsmouth.

The beginning of the First World War found George Pankhurst serving as a Leading Signalman on HMS Venus. In April 1916 he joined HMS Nomad (destroyer). On 31 May Nomad was present at the Battle of Jutland, where she was sunk by gunfire from Admiral Hipper’s Battlecruiser Squadron. 72 survivors were rescued by the Germans, including George Pankhurst. He was held as a Prisoner of War until 13 November 1918, when he was repatriated.

He was richly rewarded for his war service. On 17 March 1919 he was awarded the Cross of Military Virtue 2nd Class, a Romanian Decoration. He was then Mentioned in Despatches on 5 October 1919. At some point during his career he was also awarded the British Empire Medal.

After returning home Pankhurst was promoted to Yeoman of Signals and based at HMS Victory in Portsmouth until June 1919. He then served on HMS Dido (depot ship), HMS Greenwich (depot ship), HMS Columbine (base ship) and HMS Centuar (light cruise). In June 1925 Pankhurst was promoted to Chief Yeoman of Signals.

In 1926 he was pensioned ashore. It is unclear what exactly he did between 1926 and 1946, but at the time of his death at the age of 59 on 21 March 1946 he was serving as a Chief Yeoman of Signals at HMS Shrapnel, a shore base or ‘stone frigate’, which was actually none other than the Great Western Hotel in Southampton, near the main train station. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth. At the time of his death he was recorded as living in North End.

George Pankhurst is a fine example of the kind of man who came to Portsmouth with the Royal Navy, and having had a long career afloat and ashore, fighting and being captured at Jutland, also died here in Portsmouth.

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The Hyson Brothers?

An interesting little story has transpired from my WW1 dead research.

Before the widespread use of motor vehicles, Railways were used during the First World War to transport men an materiel quickly around to the front line, and then around the front quickly as threats arose. To operate these military railways a large specialist service sprang up within the Royal Engineers.

Sapper F.C. Hyson, from Portsmouth, was serving with 98th Light Train Crew Company Royal Engineers when he died on 31 December 1917. He is buried at Alexandria in Egypt. The train crew companies made up the drivers, fireman and other crew members of the trains.

Sergeant R.H. Hyson, a resident of 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End, was serving with 19th Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers when he died on 30 December 1917. He was 32. He is buried at Salonika in Greece. The Railway Operating Companies were responsible for operating the tracks, stations and signalling.

It seems a huge coincidence to find two men, with the same surname, from the same city, serving in the Railway units of the Royal Engineers. Is it possible that the men were brothers who worked on the Railways pre-war and volunteered or were conscripted for their skills and experience? Its not uncommon to find whole families who worked on the Railways. Lets see what we can find out!

Although we only know the mens intials, we do know that at least one of them lived at 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End.

One way to check whether the men were related is to find their birth records on FreeBMD, and see if they have the same parents. According to FreeBMD Frederick Chares Hyson was born in Portsea Island in either January, February or March 1894. This would make him 23 when he died. Sadly, his record has no mention of his parents. I can find no entry for R.H. Hyson.

According to the 1901 census, Frederick Charles Hyson was living in Portsmouth, and was 7. Robert Henry Hyson was 15, and an apprentice blacksmith – certainly the kind of skill that would come in handy working on the railways. Apparently he was born in Aldershot. The age fits exactly if he was 32 when he died in 1917, so back to FreeBMD to check for Hysons born in Aldershot!

According to FreeBMD Robert Henry Hyson was born in the Farnham registration district – which at that time included Aldershot – in either July, August or September 1885. Again, the dates match perfectly. But no clue as to his parents!

Its looking like I will have to check electoral rolls and street directories to see whether there is any connection between Frederick and Robert Hyson, but at this stage it is not impossible. It would be a huge quirk of fate indeed if two men from the same city with the same rare surname died within a day of each other, serving in the same specialist arm of the Royal Engineers.


Filed under Army, Family History, portsmouth heroes, railway history, World War One

RAF Handbook 1939-1945 by David Wragg

I’m a big fan of the Handbook series from Sutton Press. My intoduction to them came by way of the Army counterpart, when researching my Granddad’s war service. This edition of the series focusses on the Royal Air Force between 1939 and 1945.

The Handbook opens with a lengthy chapter on the history of the RAF. Whilst this is interesting and adds context, I feel that it is perhaps a little more detailed than is necessary. We then have a chapter focussing on the state of the RAF in 1939. Then several chapters follow describing the RAF during the Second World War, from the phoney war, to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, the Bomber Offensive, the Battle of the Atlantic, war in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Later Chapters then follow up with focus on the Far East, and the war in Europe after 1944. Whilst this broader context is important, again I feel that perhaps it goes into too much detail – particularly when we consider that there are already a number of authoritative histories of the RAF in the Second World War. The broader, strategic context IS important, but I feel it is a case of getting the balance right.

What really sets this book apart is its focus on the more human aspects of service in the RAF. Rcruitment and training and Personal and Personnel are fascinating subjects and David Wragg covers them admirably. Its only by looking at what the men and women who served in the RAF experienced, that we can get an accurate picture of the wartime RAF. In particular I like the section on training structures – all too often personal stories of wartime serice begin after training – yet surely this has to be one of the most formative experiences of service?

I have been researching the men of Portsmouth who died in the Second World War, and the section on ranks and roles has added to my knowledge and understanding considerably. Its also very interesting to read about Pay and Conditions, Uniforms, Insignia and similar subjects – these are very human aspects that are so important, particularly for family historians. One of the most difficult aspects of military history is investigating medals, and this is covered too.

The Handbook is not limited to the men of Fighter Command and Bomber Command either – passages are dedicated to the Womens Royal Auxilliary Air Force, the RAF Regiment, and anti-aircraft defences. It also includes a comprehensive list of wartime squadrons, with a service history of each, and also a list of wartime airfields. The lists of Squadrons and airfields run well into three figures, so this is a valuable source. To add context to Bomber Command’s war the Handbook includes a list of German cities subjected to Bombing, with the first and last dates they were attacked, together with a total tonnage of bombs dropped. I have never seen this information anywhere else. Finally, a full list and description of all RAF VC winners between 1939 and 1945 pays tribute to some extraordinarily brave men.

One of the most pleasing aspect of this book is the illustrations – its full of great pictures of aircraft, and aircrew and groundcrew at work. I know that there are plenty of training manuals, for example, that might have made good illustrations. But if you want to use it for family history research or just for pleasure reading, its well worth picking up. If you really want to drill down and do some in-depth research, you might like to track down some specialist books, or borrow something from the library. But for off-the-shelf research into the RAF in the Second World War, especially if you are new to military history, this book is very hard to beat.

RAF Handbook 1939-1945 is published by The History Press


Filed under Book of the Week, Family History, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Tracing Great War Ancestors – the DVD


I’m well into the swing of reviewing books now, having been working on my blog for almost 9 months. But it was a pleasant surprise to receive a copy of this brand new DVD from Pen and Sword. In fact, im surprised that its only now that this concept is taking off!

The DVD is broken down into three sections, and follows Richard Hone as he sets off on a journey of discovery, looking to find out more about his Uncle Bill who died in the First World War. In the first part genealogist Simon Fowler shows Richard how to get started. Armed with these details, in the second part Tim Saunders takes Richard to visit the Battlefields in France and Belgium where his Uncle Bill fought, from Loos, via the Somme and Passchendaele, to where he was killed in the Ypres Salient in 1918. Finally, medal expert Phil Mussell explains about First World War campaign medals.

There are also some pretty nifty extras, including a printable family tree planner, a full-colour magazine and book extracts. This aspect of the product is something that could be developed more in the future – would it be possible to include digital examples of documents, for instance? Maybe even film clips and/or music? I’m not sure how licensing would work, but its a thought…

It makes a very pleasant change indeed to be watching a DVD on family military history, rather than reading a book – it brings it to life so much more vividly. I can imagine it being a lot more friendly too if you want to research your family history but are not into reading. It is structured very well, with a nice gentle introduction. I am a big fan of getting out there to ‘smell the battlefield’, so it’s very pleasing to see that the viewer is encouraged to do just that. The use of a case study is a sound idea, and adds a nice personal touch. At the moment I am researching the men of Portsmouth who died in WW1 and watching this DVD has given me plenty of inspiration.

In some respects the presentation is rather rusty, however. Some of the editing is less than crisp in places, and we hear Tipperary and one other WW1 era song throughout. Also, it might make an interesting sideshow to run a sweepstake as to precisely which British Army regiment Tim Saunders was an officer in! But these are issues of style: the substance is all there.

I think we can expect to see a lot more DVD’s like this in the future. I must admit it has got me thinking too: how about some DVD’s in a similar vein, but aimed at younger people?

Tracing Great War Ancestors is available from Pen and Sword


Filed under Army, Family History, Uncategorized, World War One

‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ to hit our screens soon

The Laconia

The Laconia

I’ve just been watching BBC1, and seen a trailer for their upcoming Dramas. Among them is the two-part story of The Sinking of the Laconia. It stars Brian Cox as Captain Rudolph Sharp.

The Laconia was a Cunard Liner, pressed into service as a troop ship in the Seond World War. She was torpedoed in 1942, in what became one of the most moving stories of the war.

I have a keen interest in this programme, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard when she went down. He survived and was rescued by the Vichy French. He was interned in Morrocco, and contracted Dysentry. He was liberated, only to die after returning to England in 1943.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Here’s the blurb from the BBC website:

Andrew Buchan and rising German star Ken Duken are joined by Brian Cox and Lindsay Duncan in The Sinking Of The Laconia, a powerful new two-part drama for BBC Two from acclaimed writer Alan Bleasdale. The drama tells the true story of the amazing heroism shown by ordinary people in the face of extraordinary adversity during the Second World War. Brian Cox plays Captain Sharp, whose armed British vessel, the RMS Laconia, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat 156 on 12 September 1942. Also on board was 3rd officer Thomas Mortimer (Buchan), who heroically risked his life to help the passengers reach the lifeboats.
Six hundred miles from the coast of Africa, the mixture of English civilians, Allied soldiers and Italian Prisoners of War faced certain death until U-Boat Commander Werner Hartenstein (Duken) made a decision that went against the orders of Nazi High Command. The U-boat surfaced and Hartenstein instructed his men to save as many of the shipwrecked survivors as they could. Over the next few days the U-156 saved 400 people, with 200 people crammed on board the surface-level submarine and another 200 in lifeboats. Hartenstein gave orders for messages to be sent out to the Allies to organise a rescue of the survivors but, in an unbelievable twist, they were spotted by an American B-24 bomber who moved in to attack. The Sinking Of The Laconia takes a look at the human side of the remarkable events that took place: the friendships that developed, the small acts of heroism,and the triumph of the human spirit in the most incredible of situations. The cast also includes some of Germany’s biggest names, including Matthias Koeberlin, Frederick Lau and Thomas Kretschmann.

No idea of when it will be on yet, but you can be sure as soon as I know you will read it here!


Filed under Family History, maritime history, Navy, On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two

Guide to Your Ancestors Lives by Nick Barratt


Family History is more popular now than it has ever been before. Along with the growth of genealogy websites, this explosion in interest has also been caused by the popular programme ‘Who do you think you are?’. Nick Barratt is the mastermind behind WDYTYA. A Doctor of History and a former employee of The National Archives, there are few people better placed to give us a guide to family history. But the bookshelf of family history is crowded one, so what makes this book different?

The clue is very much in the title. This is not just a guide to carrying out research and finding out dates and names, but a deeper look at the lives of our predecessors. I am a big fan of the more social history approach to genealogy. Why stop at just finding out their names, why not really get to grips with what their lives were like? There are some aspects where Barratt’s expertise really shines – in particular regarding legal documents, property history and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this book is not so strong on military history, but it would be pretty impossible for any family history book to be all things to all people.

I applaud that this book does not instantly point the reader towards family history websites. Whilst these can be useful, I do feel that they take away some of the fun of researching your family history. For me, part of the appeal is going to libraries and records offices and getting your hands dirty. I think is misleading to think that you can research your family tree just on Ancestry.

There are plenty of things in this book that were new even to myself, in particular a couple of websites that I have never see before – just goes to show there is always something new in the internet world. But the most interesting thing about this book – for me – is the suggestion that perhaps we should be thinking about archiving our lives now to help our descendants in the future. But with mobile phones, emails and social networking, will there be a lack of sources? This is were Arcalife comes in – a website that archives our activities across a range of media and, effectively, archives our lives.

There are some issues of presentation that I feel do let the book down. I’m exactly not sure why there has to be a full-sized picture of Barratt on the back cover. Also I think some more illustrations would help explain some of what he is trying to say. I’m not advocating dumbing down – after all most genealogy books are full of pictures anyway – but sometimes pictures or diagrams make more sense than words. This book, however, is probably most useful for people who already have a basic grasp of genealogy issues.

Guide to Your Ancestors Lives is published by Pen and Sword


Filed under Book of the Week, Family History, social history, Uncategorized

Talk one done!

I had the pleasure today of giving a lecture to the Portsmouth University of the 3rd Age Local History Group.

This was the first outing for my ‘what my family did during the war’ talk, and apart from a few technical glitches everything went very well. As usual they were very surprised to see someone my age turn up!

I was interested to meet a gentleman who served with the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment in the closing stages of Market Garden, another chap who served in the Royal Artillery and one lady who lost two brothers in the war in an air crash.

Sometimes when you spend a long time researching something you can get quite blase about it, and its only when you tell other people about it, and you can hear the gasps and sense the reactions that you realise how incredible some stories are. Thats one of the reasons I find going out and giving talks a great reality check.

My next talk is at the D-Day Museum in Southsea on Thursday 18 February, kick off at 7.30pm. Its primarily for members of the Portsmouth Museums and Records Society, although guests are welcome at £2 each!

Or alternatively if anyone would like to book me to give a talk, or knows of a group that might like to have me, feel free to get in touch!


Filed under Family History, Talks, World War Two

Falklands then and now: Command and Leadership

In 1982, the primacy of the Royal Navy was clear. The Task Force came about largely because the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, over-rode the objections of the Army and RAF and insisted that it should be attempted. As the conflict was dependant on the Navy to carry it out, command was placed within existing Royal Navy structures. The Task Force Commander was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet based in Northwood.

In other respects, however, the arrangement was rather ad-hoc. In some respects, there was an almost dangeorus lack of understanding, clash of personalities and unwielding lines of command. The British armed forces learnt many lessons from how command coped in the Falklands, and this led to new systems and structures that were perfected from the first Gulf War onwards.

The picture in 1982

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

In 1982 senior appointments and command systems were focussed on Britain’s role within NATO. Independent operations outside of NATO and without allies were thought extremely unlikely.

The Commander of the Battle Group, Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, fell into the role rather than being chosen, as his flotilla was exercising off Gibraltar when the crisis blew up. He was a Submariner Officer, who had spent a matter of weeks onboard Aircraft Carriers during his career. If he hadn’t been on the spot it is likely that a more senior, Aircraft Carrier or Amphibious specialist would have been appointed.

In other respects the command system was rather untidy – to this day, Woodward insists that he was the senior commander in the South Atlantic, whereas Julian Thompson (3 Commando Brigade) and MiKe Clapp (Commodore Amphibious Warfare) feel that they ALL were equal and reported back to John Fieldhouse in Britain. This could have resulted in serious problems. That such senior officers were unclear of who commanded who is rather worrying.

The submarines, meanwhile, were commanded directly from Britain, in the same manner as if they were in the North Atlantic. This left Woodward, an ex-Submarine Commander himself, out of the loop completely and unable to control one of the key components of the Task Force. The time taken communicating over the Belgrano issue could have led to her slipping away.

The picture in 2009

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

After the end of the Cold War, doctrine and experience has led to a more flexible culture and structure of command, less on any predictable enemy or threat and more able to react quickly and flexibly to crises.

As a result of the lessons learnt during the Falklands War, a Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) was set up, to command all three armed services during combined operations. This is a more permanent and more professional arrangement than previously, whereby the Armed service that was most involved in an operation commanded on an ad hoc basis. As such any Argentine invasion could be met with an immediate response by the PJHQ who could go to work immediately.

The Royal Navy itself has fine tuned its command system and its structure. The Chief of Joint Operations at PJHQ would perform the function that Admiral Fieldhouse did in 1982 as the British-based command of the Task Force, and the Commander UK Maritime Forces, a Rear-Admiral, would probably be deployed as the senior Commander in theatre. The Carrier Strike Group and Amphibious Group both have Commodores commanding them who would deploy as well. The Commander UK Amphibious Forces, a Royal Marines Major-General, would likely command the Land Forces as in 1982, with the Brigadiers of the specific Brigades – Army or Marines – underneath him.


In 1982 the command arrangements for the Task Force were largely improvised specifically for the conflict, as it fell outside the remit of the existing structures and there were no permanent arrangements for commanding joint operations. This was also reflected in the broader culture within the armed forces.

Despite their ad-hoc nature the arrangements worked well, although there were problems – particularly the lack of understanding between the Battle Group Commander and the Amphibious Commanders, and the control of Submarines in theatre. Commanders in theatre also had limited independence, and ultimate command rested in Britain. With the limited technology of the day, this made communication difficult.

Lessons were clearly learnt, as in 2009 the Armed Forces have an integrated system for co-ordinating joint operations, that has worked well in recent conflicts. This would be able to swing into action the minute any Task Force were required. The value of a familiar and dedicated staff team in taking action would be considerable. Modern statellite technology would enable swifter communication and decision making.


Filed under Army, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

A Genealogist and Freedom of Information campaigner has requested that the 1939 National Identification Survey be released under Freedom of Information laws, reports the BBC Website.

In September 1939 the Government conducted a an emergency, census-like survey of the country at the beginning of the war. This would provide invaluable help to researchers, historians and family history enthusiasts in unlocking the past.

Until recently each census was released 100 years later. However, Guy Etchells succesfully campaigned for the early release of the 1911 census, which became available online earlier this year. Professionals and enthusiasts alike will be hoping that the 1911 challenge proves to be a test case.

There is another census due for release, the 1921 census in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and there was no survey taken in 1941 because of the war. It may be more than 40 years until the 1951 details become public. This effectively leaves family historians with a dead end for some years to come.

None of the legislation forbids access to the records,” says Mr Etchells. “The records have been kept so that people can access them. They are not archived so that they can be hidden away. There’s no point in charging people thousands of pounds a year to keep them if you are not allowed to access them.”

The Information Commissioner has told the NHS Information Centre – which holds the 1939 details – that it should grant Mr Etchells’ request for access to a record, previously withheld on data protection grounds, where the circumstances relate to people now dead – a stipulation Mr Etchells may yet challenge further.

The National Registration survey led to the issuing of 46 milliona National Identity cards, Households were asked to provide information about the names, ages, sex, marital situation and jobs of those living there. During the war, and until 1952, every civilian had to carry their card as proof of identity and address. The registration was also used as the basis for the issue of ration books for food and clothing.

The 1939 survey would be a goldmine for researchers. In particular, it would help us unlock the secrets of most of the generation who fought in the second world war. For example, I could use the survey to cross reference against the list of portsmouth war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s roll of honour. It would make it so much easier for their stories to be told.

Personally, I think there is no sound reason for witholding such information for so long. There is surely no need for the NHS to keep such data locked away, there is nothing sensitive contained in the records. Even with the regular census, 50 year closure periods would be more appropriate. Lets hope that the authorities see sense and make the 1939 survey available.


Filed under debate, Family History, Local History, News, social history, World War Two