Category Archives: maritime history

The Sinking of the Laconia: two old friends reunited

Back in early 2011, I covered a fantastic Docu-Drama entitled The Sinking of the Laconia, the story of a liner-cum-troopship sunk by a German U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942. Not only is it a remarkable story, but my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard. He survived the sinking, but later died of Dysentery contracted in captivity in Vichy North Africa.

When I reviewed the TV series, the response was incredible. I had more hits in an hour than I normally have in a week. Even in the 18 months since, I’ve had hundreds of comments and emails regarding the Laconia, it really is a story that has captured the imagination of so many people. I can tell when it has been screened somewhere in the world, as hit ratings for the search term ‘Sinking of the Laconia’ go through the roof!

Yet even as incredible as the story of the Laconia is, it never ceases to amaze me that the incident is still able throw up surprises today. Two of the men who visited my blog in the days after the programme screened were John Royal and Tony Large. Both had been sailors onboard HMS Enterprise – by a huge coincidence, my great-uncle had been on the Enteprise too – and were coming home to Britain onboard the Laconia. They were in the Canteen on the Laconia when the ship was torpedoed. Separated in the chaos, they never saw each other again. They never even knew if the other had survived. Yet having both found my blog, they were reunited some 70 years later, with the assistance of Neil Pendleton who runs the Laconia page on Facebook. Even more remarkably, both had emigrated to Australia, and were living not a million miles from each other down under!

They recently met up, accompanied by many of their respective families. I share this photo with their blessing.

I can’t think of anything that I have done as a historian that has humbled me as much as being able to play a small part in reuniting these two fine gentleman, so long after they were separated by war. As I have often said about the effects of war, my grandad and great-uncle might have suffered terrible, but all of the other people affected by war were also somebody elses grandad or great-uncle, or father or son or brother. To be able to contribute to something  positive, through the history of war, is so inspiring.

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The Sinking of the Laconia… FINALLY!

I have been informed by a reliable source – via the BBC – that the Docu-drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ is going to reach our screens on 6 and 7 of January 2011. It will be on BBC at 9pm each night.

The programme was originally due to be on screen in the Spring of 2010. However the BBC asked the producer to edit it from a feature length drama to two shorter episodes. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been several false starts before, but it’s listen on the BBC website so fingers crossed!

For those of you who aren’t aware, my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down, so I’ve got a personal interest in the programme.

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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 Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759 by Nicholas Tracy

Popular convention seems to place the birth of the Royal Navy as 1805. Somehow the fleet simply transpired in time for the ‘Nelson touch’. Of course, this kind of blinkered view ignores the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and St Vincent earlier in the same war, but also the hundreds of years of development beforehand. Of course Nelson is the greatest Admiral in British History, but he is by no means the only great Admiral, and certainly not the first. This book by Nicholas Tracy goes some way to redressing the balance.

Admiral Hawke is a virtual unknown in British History, even here in Portsmouth. My only slight memory of the name is that Charles Dickens lived in Hawke Street in Portsea early in his life. But for an Admiral who apparently saved Britain from invasion during Heart of Oak’s ‘wonderful year’, Hawke has been remarkably unsung for some time. Its quite possible that Hawke, and other earlier seamen, have been overshadowed by Nelson’s later heroics. Revered naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, thought the Battle of Quiberon Bay was as significant as Nelson’s victory in 1805, calling it ‘the Trafalgar of the Seven Years War’. It might, Tracy argues, have been more important than that.

The Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763 found Britain, Prussia and a coalition of smaller German states at war with France, Austria, Russia and Sweden. As my tutor at university used to say, ‘because they deserved it, and they needed the practise’. The Seven years war found Britain essentially involved in a world war, due to the early development of Empire. Britain and France were rivals for domination, particularly in India and North America. Britain and France were fighting in Canada, culminating in Wolfe’s death at Quebec. The Hanoverian Army defeated a large French force at the battle of Minden in Germany. Against this tumultuous strategic background, France planned to invade England. British strategy of blockading continental Europe were developed during this period. In order to cut France off from her possessions overseas, and to prevent her allies and neutral states trading with her, the Royal Navy kept a close watch on French Ports. In addition to the blockading ships, the British Admiralty maintained a powerful channel fleet in the event of the French breaking out and threatening to invade Britain.

Nicholas Tracy’s conclusion is that many of the aspects of the Royal Navy that we came to see in 1805 were born much earlier. There were some distinctly Nelsonian elements to the victory at Quiberon Bay – how the Admiralty and Hawke had laid down a central doctrine, but at the same time allowed their captains latitude to do what they thought best in the heat of battle. By comparison, the French fought by rigid obedience to orders that was unworkable in the pell-mell of a sea battle. The way that the British fought the battle – sailing into uncharted waters and into narrow channels in pursuit of the enemy also showed the kind of elan that later came to be expected of naval officers. Perhaps this new spirit of aggressiveness was caused by Byng’s execution some years earlier for supposed cowardice, and this is something that Tracy touches on. And, in yet another Trafalgar-like twist, the aftermath of the battle saw a terrible storm that sank several ships, including most of those captured by the British.

But Tracy does not focus just on the wooden walls and the salty sea dogs. Thanks to thorough primary and secondary research we are given a detailed and comprehensive persepctive of the context in British society and politics, and the situation across the channel too. One of the most important points to note is that the heavy defeat that France suffered in the Seven Years War led to the social unrest and upheaval that eventually brought about the French Revolution.

So, in essence, the same war that fine-tuned British naval strategy and traditions, but also the future war that would be its finest hour.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759 is published by Pen and Sword

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Flight Lieutenant James Potter DFM

Flight Lieutenant James Potter, a member of 233 Squadron in Coastal Command, was flying a Lockheed Hudson when he was killed on 17 February 1942. He was 29 and from Southsea. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial – this would suggest that he was lost at sea.

Earlier in the war Potter was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal – this is an award given to Non-Commissioned Officers, meaning that like many RAF flight crew he was commissioned as an officer before his death.

The citation for his DFM appeared in the London Gazette on 13 September 1940:

Sergeant Potter has completed 110 operational flights including attacks on enemy destroyers, successful reconnaissances off the Dutch coast and an attack with 250lb bombs on Stavanger aerodrome. On 16th February, 1940, he took part in a special search for the “Altmark”; the next day, he escorted five destroyers bringing rescued prisoners from Norway to Scotland. On 23rd July, 1940, during a North Sea patrol, he sighted an enemy force of eight destroyers and six motor vessels. He reported and shadowed them for 2 1/2 hours to the full endurance of his aircraft despite the presence of enemy aircraft. He has displayed great courage and determination.

Coastal Command was very much the Cinderella Command of the Royal Air Force, with much less publicity than Fighter and Bomber Commands. But as Potter’s citation shows, Coastal Command were performing a very important role. The Altmark was a supply ship that was carrying home seamen captured by the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic- the prisoners were eventually freed by a Royal Navy operation in a Norwegian Fjord.

110 operational sorties is an incredible achievement in any command. But this was only until September 1940 – from then until his death in February 1942 Potter must have flown even more.

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Records show profound decline in UK fish stocks

Bream

Me and a tiny Bream caught off Southsea last summer

I’ve just read a pretty interesting article on the BBC website about the decline in fish stocks in the seas around the Britsh isles.

The history of fishing combines two of my interests – history, and fishing (funnily enough!). I’ve did some research on fishing in Portsmouth in the Eighteenth Century for a presentation at Uni, and I have spent many an hour sat on the local beaches. And it doesnt take a genius to work out that there are a LOT less fish in British waters than years ago.

Apparently the researchers for this study looked at data from the late 19th Century onwards. FOUR times as many fish were being landed 100 hundred years ago as are today, with catches peaking in 1938. The Victorians were obsessive about setting up various inspectorates, committees and the like, and in the 1880′s the Government appointed fishery inspectors in large fishing ports to report on catches being landed. Not only did this give the Victorians a very accurate picture of their fishing industry, it also gives us some brilliant data to look back and compare with.

Stocks of fish such as Halibut, Turbot, Haddock and Plaice are severely depleted, largely caused by prolonged intensive trawling of the seabed. Aside from taking fish out of the sea, this also wrecks the seabed, and doesnt give it time to recover.

One of the major findings of the report, however, is that it takes seventeen times more effort to catch the same amount of fish that were being caught in the 1880′s. This really is ironic – technological changes and the move from sail to engine power meant that boats could fish in all weathers. As catches rose but then fell, boats could go further offshore. This in turn depleted offshore stocks too. And hence fishermen have to work that much harder to catch the fewer fish in the seas.

Reaction from the fishing industry has been predictably dismissive. The so-called expert in the BBC article who called the use of historical data ‘old news’ really is missing the point. Long term trends do not lie. Low fish stocks undoubtedly stem from poor fisheries management, whether it be from Europe, the UK Government or more locally.

Historically, the importance of fishing to Portsmouth has been overlooked. Granted, Portsmouth has never been anywhere near the same league as Hull or Grimsby, but all the same, throughout history fishing has ben an important part of Portsmouth’s economy. As early as 1710 local documents refer to turbot, brill, cod, whiting, bass, mullet, sole, plaice dab and flounder in local waters. Mackerel abounded off of Hayling Island. Records show that in 1725 an Emsworth fisherman sold 48lbs of bass and mullet to a Gosport sailor at 4d. per pound. Fish was sold in the High Street, where stone cooling slabs were fitted in the public market. And during the late Eighteenth there was a short-lived attempt to set up a local Fishery company, with a whole range of local people as shareholders – merchants, businessmen, councilors and aldermen, Admirals, Dockyard officials, and even the Governor (1).

It would not take a genius to work out that fish stocks have declined dramatically. In the twenty-first century, no-one could claim that the Solent is ‘teeming’ with fish, as they did in the Eighteenth Cetury. I can think of a few local examples. The Flounder fishing in Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours has been decimated by fishermen taking them for pot bait. But when theres no more Flounder left, what then? By the same token, the Bass Nursery areas have been a real success. Also the local Smoothound fishing has been brilliant, largely due to Anglers returning fish alive, and that the Smoothound is not a particuarly good eating fish.

These facts surely tell a story, much like the historical data.

(1) Information in this section is taken from James H. Thomas, The Seaborne Trade of Portsmouth 1650-1800, Portsmouth Paper 40, Published by Portsmouth City Council (1984).

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local military history events this summer

Its looking like a bumper summer for all things military history in the Portsmouth area. If I’ve missed any out, feel free to comment!

Overlord Vehicle Show – 28 to 31 May 2010

This event takes place every year at the Horndean showground near Portsmouth, and is organised by the Solent Overlord Executive Military Vehicle Club. For 4 days from 9am until 5.30pm you can take a good look at a whole host of military vehicles, re-enactors, arena events and stalls. This year the shows designated charity is the Gurkha Welfare Trust. For more information click here, and to look at some pictures from last years event, click here.

South Coast Proms – 25 and 26 June 2010

This is a brand new event, featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines – only the best military band in the world! Its taking place on Whale Island, a naval base normally closed to the public. Pre-show entertainment starts at 6.30pm each night, and the evening will end on a high with the traditional Naval Ceremonial Sunset and a fireworks finale. For more information click here.

Para Spectacular and Veterans Day – 3 and 4 July 2010

This event began life as the Pompey Paras spectacular over twenty years ago. This year, for the second year running, its a two-day event and incorporates the Armed Forces and Veterans Day. It takes place on Southsea Common, and features a range of dislays, arena events, and parachute displays. According to the local media an Apache might even make an appearance! The day ends with a marchpast of veterans and a performance from the Parachute Regiment band. As the Grandson of a Para I always try and make an appearance if I can. For more information click here, and to see pictures of last years event click here.

Navy Days – 30 July to 01 August 2010

This biennial event takes place at Portsmouth Dockyard. Aimed at showcasing the Royal Navy past, present and future, we can expect a wide array of ships, displays, arena events, aerial and water displays, and a whole host of entertainment. Already confirmed to appear are HMS Daring and Dauntless, the two new Type 45 Destroyers; RFA Argus, an aviation training and casualty receiving ship; two Type 23 Frigates; HMS Cattistock, a mine-countermeasures vessel; HMS Tyne, a fishery patrol vessel; and HMS Gleaner, an inshore survey launch. Nearer the event we can also expect some foreign warships to be announced. As well as the modern ships visitors will be able to see all the usual attractions of the historic dockyard. The Royal Marines band will be performing, along with the Royal Signals white helmets motorcycle display team, and the Brickwoods Field Gun competition. In the air, the Royal Navy Black Cats helicopter display team will appear, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance, and the Royal Artillery Black Knights Parachute Display team. Looks like a great day out. For more infomation click here.

Shoreham Airshow – 21 to 22 August 2010

The last event of the year is the annual Battle of Britain airshow at Shoreham airport. Headlining the show this year are contributions from the RAF, in the shape of a Harrier GR9, Hawk T1, Tucano T1, King Air, Grob Tutor, the Lancaster, Spitifire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and the Falcons parachute display team (saturday only). On Sunday the Red Devils Parachute Display team will be performing. A wide array of civilian displays are expected – Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnats, BAC Strikemaster, De Havilland Vampire, Catalina Flying Boat, a large number of Spitfires and Hurricanes, B-17 Flying Fortress, and a number of aerobatic displays. As well as the aerial displays there are always a wide range of static displays, including from the armed forces, and re-enactors. I’ve been the past two years and always had a great time. For more information click here.

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‘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!

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

Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: the small ships of WW2

Aside from Battleships, Aircraft Carriers and the like, a huge range of smaller ships also served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. Perhaps not as glamorous as the big guns ships, never the less the Trawlers, Drifters, Tugs and other small ships gave sterling service in many theatres. Some were Navy ships, but most were requisitioned merchant vessels that served under Naval orders during the war.

Small vessels maintained boom defences around vital ports. In the Solent an anti-submarine boom stretched from Southsea Beach, across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On 30 May 1940 HM Boom Defence Vessel Cambrian, 338 tons and built in 1924, hit a mine and sank in the middle of the Solent and 23 men were killed. Onboard was Riggers Mate Robert Lavender, 41 and from Buckland. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. I recall fishing on the wreck of the Cambrian some years ago, and catching some nice Wrasse.

Meanwhile an armada of small ships were rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. HM Tug St Fagan was sunk by aircraft on 1 June 1940. The St Fagan displaced 550 tons and was completed in 1919. Among the 17 crew members killed were Stoker Frederick Hatch, 22, Stoker Bernard McBride, 40 and from Hilsea, Leading Steward William Longley, 44, and Stoker William Clark, 22 and from Milton. They have no known grave and are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. On the same day her sister ship HM Tug St Abbs was also sunk by German aircraft. Able Seaman William Cornford, 41 and from Cosham, was among the 20 crew members killed. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Navy also used Trawlers to perform a number of tasks, including minesweeping and coastal patrols. A 344 ton ship launched in 1938, HM Trawler Recoil was lost on patrol presumed mined in the English Channel on 28 September 1940. 25 men were lost, One of them Ordinary Telegraphist Hubert Ewen, 22 and from Surrey. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Drifter Harvest Gleaner (96 tons, 1918) was sunk by aircraft off the East coast of England on 28 October 1940 with the loss of four of her crew. Among those lost was Petty Officer Stoker Seymour Stephenson, 46 and from Eastney. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

Smaller ships also served in the Mediterranean and off North Africa. HM Trawler Ouse struck a mine off Tobruk, Libya on 20 February 1941, with the loss of 13 men. She weighed in at 462 tons, and was completed in 1917. Onboard when she sank was Petty Officer Stoker William Horsley, 40 and from Copnor. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. HM Tug St Issey was sunk off Benghazi, Libya on 28 December 1942. 810 tons and completed in 1918, she was presumed to have been sunk by a U-Boat. Among the 36 men lost was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Keith Hollis, from Southsea. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Trawler Red Gauntlet (338 tons, 1930) met an unfortunate end in the North Sea on 5 August 1943. She was sunk by an E-Boat, the German equivalent of a Motor Torpedo Boat. 21 men were lost. Her Second Lieutenant was 32 year old James Childs, an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

During the D-Day campaign small ships played a vital part. Ships that were employed on minesweeping duties were particularly vulnerable. HM Trawler Lord Austin (473 tons, 1937) was sunk by a mine in the Seine Bay off Normandy on 24 June 1944, with the loss of 7 of her crew. Her Assistant Steward was 35 year old John Cotterell. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

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Portsmouth and Southampton: Chalk and Cheese

Having just watched Pompey demolish the scummers 4-1 today, I could not let the day pass without talking about the massive difference between Portsmouth and Southampton. I would argue that you will not find two cities so close yet so different in every way possible. As someone who has studied the difference between the two cities in detail, I find it difficult to understand why people cannot see why we simply don’t like each other!

Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy, and has been for hundreds of years. Until the past 20 years, everyone and everything in Portsmouth has been about the Navy – menfolk either joined the Navy or worked in the Dockyard. The whole ethos of Portsmouth was built around training young men to go out into the world and fight. All this shows in Portsmouth culture – after all, only Portsmouth could have a main street called ‘The Hard’. The city is overwhelmingly working class. It has often been described as a northern working class town plonked on the south coast, and I think that is very accurate both in the city’s culture and its appearance. In a city where most if not all of the industries are controlled by the state, there have been few opportunities for private commerce and as a result no chance for a large middle class to develop. That social structure exists to this day. Also, Portsmouth is an island: and that is reflected in the sometimes insular attitude that pervades.

Southampton is the home of the British cruise liner industry, and also a signficant container port. It has always been a merchant town, principally built around the opportunies to make money. Therefore there has always been a bigger middle class. Look at the amount of and size of the shops in Southampton compared to Portsmouth. Southampton also seems that much more rural, as it is very close to the New Forest and is surrounded by Countryside. Perhaps more gentile than Portsmouth, Southampton seems more laidback and relaxed. The story about Southampton dockers crossing picket lines in the 1930′s seems to be an urban myth, it does to fit in with the mentalities of both cities. The other myth about Portsmouth smelling like fish is, to be totally frank, totally rubbish. We’ve got a tiny fishing port at the Camber – hardly Billingsgate or Grimsby!

So clearly, the cities have very little in common, apart from the fact that they are on the sea. Tension between the cities is not a new thing, for hundreds of years there has been a rivalry. To pretend otherwise is to not only ignore history, but to try and rewrite it – something I’m not very keen on. I would suggest that whether right or wrong, people in Portsmouth don’t have much time for the city up the road. This isn’t just about city rivalry, its also about Portsmouth’ place in Hampshire. Right on the cusp, I doubt few Portsmouth people think of themselves as citizens of Hampshire. Interesting how in the 1987 general election campaign Docker Hughes’s manifesto included proposals to take Portsmouth out of Hampshire.

Mind you, he also wanted to introduce duty-free on the Gosport ferry!

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Revealed: the face of the man who sank the Mary Rose

Mary Rose

The face of the Bosun of the Mary Rose has been can be seen for the first time for over 560 years. The Bosun’s reconstructed head will go on display at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from tomorrow.

The head has been modelled by the internationally renowned forensic artist Richard Neave and two of his colleagues, from a skull recovered from the wreck. Only a handful of the more than 500 crew and soldiers survived when the ship sank in July 1545 and Henry VIII was reported to have heard the screams of the drowning men as he helplessly stood and watched from Southsea Castle.

This man was found with the emblem of his comparatively senior status, his Bosun’s call – a whistle – suggesting he was the man who may have been at least partly responsible for the disaster. Expert analysis has suggested that he was in his 30′s or 40′s. His skeleton indicated that although he was doing a relatively sedate job, at some point in his life he had previously carried out heavy physical work. This suggests that he had worked his way up through the ranks. His teeth reveal that he came from south-west England.

John Lippiett (Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust) commented that “it is great to have the opportunity to see what the Bosun looked like after all these years and to welcome his arrival in our Museum”.

The Mary Rose sank on 18 July 1545, during a confrontation with the French Fleet in the Solent, before the eyes of Henry VIII himself. There are many theories about why the ship sank, but evidence from the wreck itself suggests the ship put about with its gunports open, was hit by a squall and sank like a stone. Ensuring that the gunports were closed would have been the Bosun’s job. The Mary Rose settled deep into the silty bed of the Solent, which preserved the many thousands of unique artefacts in excellent condition.

The prominent Historian David Starkey has referred to the Mary Rose as ‘England’s Pompeii’. Not only is the ship important, but the time-capsule like artefacts that have been recovered along with it. The silty bed of the Solent ensured that thousands of arefacts and the remains of many of the crew were preserved.

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Portsmouth Harbour tour #2

There were a couple of foreign warships in port this weekend, so I thought I would take the chance to go on the Pompey harbour tour and take some pics!

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a German Frigate of the Brandenburg Class, and its the first time a ship of that class has visited Portsmouth. They’re very impressive ships with a 76mm main gun, Vertical launch anti-air missiles and exocet anti-ship missiles, as well as Rheinmetall 20mm cannons. They’re currently underoing an upgrade and the Vertical launch missiles are being replaced with Sea Sparrow, and the Exocets with RBS 15 Mk.3. Interesting how she looks like a German warship – high, stacked and mean looking.

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HLMS Johann De Witt is a Dutch Landing Ship. Launched in 2007, she is from a class of two ships. She can accomodate numerous landing craft, which use the stern dock to embark troops. She also has a large flight deck and hangar for up to 6 Lynx helicopters. She can carry 611 marines, 170 armoured personnel carriers or 33 Main Batle tanks – a impressive sealift capacity. The Dutch Navy and Marines can form a joint task force with the Royal Navy’s amphibious task group, so she could well operate with British ships. She’s very similar to the British Bay Class. Unlike the Bay Class however she has good self-defence – 2 Goalkeeper guns and 4 Oerlikon 20mm cannons – and the Bay Class lack a hangar.

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester is a Batch 3 ship of the Type 42 Class of Destoyers. She’s looking her age now and her and the rest of the class are due to be replaced as the Type 45 Destroyers come into service. The Sea Dart missile system is pretty much obsolete now compared to the Sea Viper, even if it hasn’t yet been fully proven in trials. Notice also how shes longer than the earlier Type 42′s – they proved to be very poor in rough seas, so the later ships were lengthened. But this would have cracked the hull, so they had strengthening fitted along their sides.

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke is a Type 23 Frigate. She has a 4.5inch main gun, Sea Wolf verital launch anti-air missile system and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They were originally designed as anti-submarine ships for the North Atlantic, but nowadays are more likely to be seen fighting pirates and drug-smuggles. The Iron Duke performed well in the Carribean last year, but is a Cold War anti-submarine frigate the best ship for fighting drug smugglers? She has a proper warship name though, named after the Duke of Wellington. My Great-Grandad served on the First World War vintage Iron Duke, a battleship.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible

Finally we see HMS Invincible, the mothballed Falklands veteran aircraft carrier. She was withdrawn from service in 2005 – technically she is in ‘extended readiness’. Not sure what the Navy means by this, as if you look on Google Earth you can see her propellers on the flight deck – I don’t think shes going anywhere anytime soon. She’s probably been robbed of parts to keep her sister ships Illustrious and Ark Royal running. My dad worked on Invincible when she first came into the Dockyard, many moons ago. She’s due to be towed to the breakers yard later this year.

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Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer

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Falklands then and now: Merchant Navy

As an island nation Britain has since time immaterial depended on its fleet of merchant vessels for trade. Perhaps the most stark example of this was the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War, when German U-boats threatened to cut Britain’s lifeline.

It was but a small step to push trading networks out around the world, and the Royal Navy expanded to protect maritime trade and empire. Hence the British Empire was built on seapower, and the Royal and Merchant Navies have had a closely interwoven history. The Falklands War proved no different.

The picture in 1982

The Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by Exocet

The Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by Exocet

Merchant Navy involvement in the Falklands fell into three categories: chartered, requisitioned or taken up from trade. The Government is empowered to requisition British flagged ships for Defence use, and maintains a list of vessels suitable for use in various roles. Most of these ships had to undergo some modifications, such as naval communications and navigation equipment, equipment to allow them to be replenished at sea, and in some cases helipads and anti-aircraft weapons. This substantial work was undertaken at commercial shipyards and the naval dockyards. Most also sailed with a party of Naval officers and ratings onboard.

The task force that retook the Falklands in 1982 made use of a sizeable portion of the British Merchant Navy, consisting of no less than 40 merchantmen. These came from a wide range of roles, from Ocean Liners, ferries, container vessels, Oil tankers, Ocean tugs, mooring vessels, repair ships, water tankers, hospital ships, even trawler-minesweepers. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary simply lacked the ships to maintain such a vast task force 8,000 miles from home.

Troop transports such as Canberra, QE2 and Norland were required to transport the military forces to the Falklands, as there was not nearly enough space in the Amphibious ships to take them all south. Stores ships were also required to transport the wide range of equipment and supplies needed. A large fleet of Oil Tankers was used to transport fuel to the South Atlantic, where it was transferred to the RFA tankers who could then replenish the warships at sea. Given the lack of Sea Harriers and Helicopters in the South Atlantic, the container ship Atlantic Conveyor sailed carrying extra Harriers and Chinooks. All but one of the Chinooks were lost when she was sunk by an exocet missile strike.

The picture in 2009

Cross-Channel Ferries - unsuitable for the South Atlantic

Cross-Channel Ferries - unsuitable for the South Atlantic

Given the already highlighted shortcomings in the RFA flotilla, any task force to the South Atlantic would be even more reliant on support from Merchant vessels than it was in 1982. This is unfortunate, as the British Merchant Navy has dwindled considerable since 1982. Many commercial vessels now carry the flags of countries such as Panama or Liberia.

In 2008, the British Merchant Navy consisted of the following vessels:

  • 55 General Cargo ships
  • 134 Container ships
  • 12 Passenger ships
  • 40 Oil tankers
  • 19 Refrigerated Cargo ships
  • 25 roll-on/roll-off ferries

In addition UK interests own 446 ships registered in other countries. This gives a much smaller range of choice than in 1982. Of these, only a fraction would really by suitable for use in a military campaign in the South Atlantic. For example, of the 25 ro-ro ferries, the majority of them are designed for crossing the English Channel or the Irish Sea and would be wholly unsuited to service in the South Atlantic. And how many of them would be suitable for modification for helipads, for instance?

It would be a tough job indeed putting together a fleet of support vessels from the Merchant Navy. What is not immediately clear, either, is how many of them would be immediately available in any case. Of the ships listed above not all of them will be in UK waters, apart from any in refit. The time taken in modifying and storing them also needs to be accounted for.

The process of requisitioning, making ready and manning the number of commercial vessels necessary would be a mammoth task. Not only would there be problems in terms of numbers. Requisitioning or chartering a sizeable proportion of the Merchant Navy would have significant economic and political consequences, not to mention the widespread disruption. And with the rundown of the Naval Dockyards, it would be much more difficult and take much longer to carry out the modification work as in 1982. Almost as difficult would be finding enough naval manpower to make up naval parties: if the navy has trouble crewing its own ships, how could it put together parties to serve on requisitioned Merchant vessels?

In Conclusion

Clearly, the Navy and the RFA could not expect support from the Merchant Navy on the level that it received in 1982. Using Merchant vessels is far from an ideal solution in any case: they are largely built to different safety standards than Naval ships, with less substantial firefighting and damage control systems. As shown by the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor, Merchant vessels cannot afford to sustain damage, and if they do critical cargoes might be lost. The loss of a couple of Chinooks on a container ship, or a Battalion on a cruise liner does not bear thinking about.

Along with the perilous state of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the state of the Merchant Navy makes talk of aircraft carriers, missiles and escort vessels largely redundant: without the logistical support to get them there and keep them there, any kind of task force operation would be impossible.

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Filed under debate, Falklands War, maritime history, Uncategorized