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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Filed under maritime history, Navy

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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Filed under maritime history, Navy, On TV, World War Two

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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Filed under debate, maritime history, News, politics, Uncategorized

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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Filed under maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy, Uncategorized

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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Filed under maritime history, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

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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Filed under debate, Local History, maritime history, News, Uncategorized

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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Filed under airshow, Army, d-day, Dockyard, event, maritime history, Music, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized