Category Archives: On TV

Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

I really enjoyed Bomber Boys, which was on BBC1 on Sunday Evening. The programme showed Ewen McGregor’s brother Colin – a former RAF pilot who flew with 617 Squadron – learning to fly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster, the only flying Lanc in Britain and one of only two left flying in the world. First McGregor learnt to fly a C-47 Dakota, a classic aircraft that was perhaps as much of a war-winner as the Lancaster and the Spitfire, but has never quite attracted the same glamour. He then progressed to taking the controls of the Lancaster.

I especially enjoyed the insightful contributions of Bomber Command veterans. Of course, so few of those very young men actually survived the war. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any comparable command in the British armed forces during the second world war. I think that their views and remeniscences were very interesting, and it is increasingly important that their recollections of everyday life are remembered. It’s not just their memories of flying and fighting that are important, but also of drinking in pubs, life on airbases and chasing WAAFs, and things like that, that really matter. In that sense the McGregors looked at the social history aspect of Bomber Command more than any other programme I have seen. The McGregors also looked at other aspects of the campaign, such as the Germans raid on Coventry in 1940, the Butt report on bombing accuracy, and the raids on Hamburg and Dresden. They also looked at the bombing from the perspective of the German population.

My research into Portsmouth airmen shows just how history has slanted views. Hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed with Bomber Command. And they were young men, mostly in their early twenties and some in their late teens. Most of them have never even driven a car, but some found themselves piloting big, heavy Bombers on marathon missions over occupied Europe – often two or three times a week. It’s impossible to describe what a strain this must have placed on these young men – flying for up to ten hours at a time, facing imeasurable dangers of flak, night fighters and the threat of accidents. The rate of attrition in aircraft and crews was, in retrospect, terrifying.

Yet for some unknown reason, the Bomber Boys have never quite attracted the attention of Fighter Command. Compared to the hundreds of Portsmouth men who fought and died in the Bomber Offensive, only ONE was killed flying with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I cannot help but think that this is down to two historical developments. Firstly, after the end of the war the strategic bombing of civilian targets became distinctly unfashionable. Even before the end of the war Churchill was distancing himself from the historical legacy of the bombers. Secondly, the RAF being the RAF, it has always done self-promotion very well. And since the Second World War, it has suited far more to play up the Battle of Britain rather than the Bombers Offensive. And thus when we think of the RAF, we think of the dashing young public schoolboy, pre-war regulars of Fighter Command, rather than the diverse, international and unsung men of Bomber Command.

This was a brilliant programme, very well thought out and blending history with remeniscence. I also found it very moving and inspiring, and made me think of such brave Portsmouth bomber men as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, Flight Sergeant Francis Compton, and Flight Lieutenant’s Guy and Arthur Venables. Reading their operational records at the National Archives was a sobering reminder of just what an incredible ordeal they endured.

Bomber Boys is available to watch on BBC iplayer (UK only)

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Filed under On TV, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970’s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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Filed under fiction, On TV, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Find my Past: The TV series

The other day I stumbled on a new genealogy programme on the Yesterday Channel. Under the banner of the commercial family history website findmypast, this series takes climactic historic events, andfollows the journeys of people whose ancestors were involved.

This trailer is for the episode looking at the hundreds of British soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences such as falling asleep on duty on the Western Front during the Great War:

Other episodes look at the Battle of Britain, the Mutiny on the Bounty, D-Day, Jack the Ripper and the Titanic.

I watched the Jack the Ripper episode the other day and found it very engaging. It is nice to see family history with ‘normal’ people and not just celebrities. The Jack the Ripper episode featured Dr Nick Barratt (genealogy’s own Troy Mclure who crops up everywhere), and a host of other experts.

As I have often said, anything that heightens awareness of family history is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t gloss over the long yet rewarding work that is involved.

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British Army programmes on BBC iplayer

I’ve stumbled upon a fantastic collection of programmes on the British Army on bbciplayer, some modern, and some archive. Apparently, unbeknown to me, BBC4 have launched an ‘Army Collection‘, many of which are available to view online. Only, I’m afraid to say, to those of you watching in the UK. But to those of us sitting up in bed suffering from a hideous case of man-flu, its a goldmine!

One series I know will be very popular is The Paras, a famous 1982 documentary. There is also a set of 30-minute regimental histories, covering amongst other the Grenadiers and Coldstreamers, the Paras and the Gurkhas. Some of it is a little basic, and as usual with anything Regimental in the British Army, everyone’s own Regiment is of course the best ever bar none. But when you watch the ‘In the Highest Tradition’ programmes, you realise that all Regiments have their own, equally barmy, traditions and claims to fame. I also realise I could never have made an officer – silver service is not my style, give me take-away any time.

The BBC have also made available a great set of programmes from the Silver Jubilee in 1977, including the Scots Guards Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards. My personal favourite is the Queen reviewing the 4th Division of the British Army of the Rhine on the Sennelager training area in Germany. It involved 578 tracked vehicles, over 3,000 troops, and 27 Regiments. Incredible stuff, and something we will probably never see the like of ever again – it would be unthinkable to bring together a division for just a review! 3 Regiments of Chieftan  Main Battle tanks, 1 Recce Regiment, and 4 armoured infantry Battalions in 432 AFV’s, as well as supporting arms, including Gazelle and Scout Helicopters. Abbott 105mm guns, M109 155mm guns, 175mm guns, Lance nuclear missiles, Engineer AFVs including bridge laying equipment, RAMC Field Ambulances, REME in Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Stalwarts, you name it.

Other treats include ‘how to make a Royal Marine officer’, the life of a Household Cavalry Corporal of Horse, the Pathfinder Platoon in training, training in the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, Panorama behind the scenes at Sandhurst, and the Army in Belize and Borneo.

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Filed under Army, On TV

The Sinking of the Laconia: the verdict

Well now we’ve finally seen the two-part Drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘. If you haven’t already seen it, you can catch it on BBC iplayer here.

My impressions? I found it very gripping and very moving. I don’t mind admitting that I was choked in a few places. Historically, it seems to have captured the essence of the story and with no major embellishments or historical licence. From what I can tell, the writers used real events quite well, albeit changing some names and circumstances slightly. Perhaps there was a little too much time given to romance and flirting, but hey that’s just TV I guess. I’m not althogether sure that the character of Hilda Smith existed, perhaps someone can enlighten me.

I have a feeling that the actions of the American B-24 Liberator crew may come in for criticism now. The drama’s portrayal of them was as hapless, inexperienced trigger-happy young men. I have to say that from what I know, their actions were irresponsible and sadly added to the loss of life and suffering from the sinking. But on the other hand, they were by no means the only men in wartime to make a bad call in a difficult situation. It would be nice to think that it was simply a mistake.

Overall I’m glad that such a heart-rendering story of humanity amongst war has finally got the recognition that it deserved. For too long the Laconia has been virtually forgotten in the annals of history, quite why is hard to explain. Hopefully that will change now.

Thank you to everyone who has visited here in the past few days, visits to my blog have gone through the roof. My record for daily visits was smashed by three times the old record, and today’s total will be even more too.

Finally, to anyone who was on the Laconia, or has a family story connected with it, please keep in touch, I will try and write about the story from time to time here. I’ve really enjoyed all of your contributions. There is also a Laconia group on Facebook that is a great way to keep in touch and exchange news and stories. Let’s make sure that the story of the Laconia is remembered.

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Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

Apologies to those of you who don’t know what happened to the Laconia and are looking forward to the programme – this article might be a bit of a spoiler! But I wanted to share with you all why its of such interest to me and my family.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

As you probably guess from my surname, the male line of my family came from Ireland. We believe that my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland some time in the late 19th Century, no doubt due to lack of work and famines that blighted Ireland throughout the century. Unfortunately due to a lack of records (burnt during the Easter rising in 1916) we have no idea where Daniel Daly came from, but the surname itself is very populous in Country Cork.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Daly, was born in Birkenhead near Liverpool in 1895. In June 1914- at the age of 19 – he joined the Royal Navy (he had previously worked as an electro-plater). He served as a Stoker, onboard Battleships and then onboard the early ubmarines. He settled in Portsmouth, and married my great-grandmother Lillian Maud Ross at St Agathas Church in Portsmouth in 1917.

Their eldest Children – Janet and Thomas (known as Tommy) – were born in 1919, followed by Iris in 1923, Pat in 1927, Ken (My Grandad) in 1928 and Terry in 1934. Notice the long gaps in between some of their births – this was almost certainly down to my Great-Grandad being away at sea for years at a time.

Tommy worked at a Mattress Maker’s before the war. He tried to join the Navy three times, but was each time rejected. When war broke out in 1939, h0wever, the Navy was desparate for men to crew re-activated ships, so he was accepted in early 1940. After a period of training ashore in Portsmouth he was drafted to the light cruiser HMS Enterprise as a stoker.

HMS Enterprise

HMS Enterprise

The work of a stoker was hard, dirty, smelly, noisy and hot. Originally tasked with shovelling coal into the ships boilers, in oil fuelled ships the stokers job was to maintain and keep the boilers operating. Most ships boilers had spray bars fitted that sprayed fuel oil into them.

 HMS Enterprise was an Emerald class cruiser of 9,435 tons, built at the end of the First World War. There were only two ships in the class, HMS Enterprise and HMS Emerald. They were the fastest ships in the Navy at the time, with a top speed of 33 knots.

 In June 1940, after the fall of France, HMS Enterprise was despatched to the Mediterranean as part of Force H. This naval task force was given the unpleasant but necessary task of ensuring that the French fleet did not fall into the hands of the Germans. HMS Enterprise took part in the destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-kebir in July.

 HMS Enterprise was then sent south to Cape Town, mainly taking part in convoy escorts and interception duties. In December 1940 she unsuccessfully hunted for the German auxiliary cruiser Thor, which had been menacing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

 In early 1941, she was sent to the Indian Ocean, where as part of a large fleet she took part in the search for the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. After the search was abandoned she then resumed escort duties, before going to Basra in May to support the suppressing of a pro-German revolt in Iraq.

 In November HMS Enterprise was refitted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This refit was finished by December, when war broke out with Japan. In April 1942 she rescued some of the survivors from sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, which had been sunk by the Japanese on their Easter Sunday raid on Sri Lanka.

 In December 1942, HMS Enterprise finally returned home to the Clyde after almost 18 months away from home. But my great-uncle was not onboard. Sometime before HMS Enterprise returned home, it appears that he had injured his hand onboard ship, and spent some time in the Naval Hospital in Colombo. It was either this, or the fact that he was promoted to Leading Stoker, that led to him being sent home onboard the SS Laconia, a Cunard Liner requisitioned as a troopship.

The Laconia

The Laconia

 The Laconia sailed from Cape Town in August 1942, carrying Italian prisoners of war, serviceman returning home and civilians. Somewhere north of Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic, she was hit by torpedoes fired from U-156 at 8pm on 12 September. By 9.11pm the ship had sank, with many still onboard. Even those who survived faced grim prospects, as sharks were numerous in the tropical waters.

 However, shortly after the Laconia sank, the U-Boat surfaced unexpectedly. Remarkably, the U-boat then attempted to rescue survivors, something that was not official German policy at the time. When Werner Hartenstein, the Commander of U-156, realised that POW’s and civilians were onboard, he broadcast over the radio requesting assistance. Several more U-Boats arrived to assist in the rescue. Unfortunately a flight of US B-24 Liberator bombers was not aware of what was going on, and attacked the U-boats. The U-boats then dived, leading to more loss of life. In total, 3,254 people died. The commander of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, gave his infamous Laconia order, that in future U-boats were not to rescue survivors. This order was part of the case against Donitz at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

After spending some time in the water, my great-uncle Tommy was rescued, and eventually handed over by the Germans to the Vichy French, along with many other survivors. They were transported to the French territory in Morrocco, and interned at a prison camp at Mediouna. Although conditions in prisoner of war camps are rarely luxurious, this camp in particular seems to have been atrocious – the prisoners were given old foreign legion uniforms, and one cup of wine and a bowl of soup a day. Dysentery and lice were rife. Red Cross reports on conditions were damming.

 Although they were liberated by the Allied Invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, many of the men were seriously ill. My great-uncle was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, and then home to the Military Hospital in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His condition must have been deteriorating, however. On 3 April 1943 a telegram was sent on behalf of the senior officer at the Hospital to my great-grandparents, informing them that their son Thomas Daly was seriously ill, and they were advised to visit him as soon as possible.

 Sadly, however his condition did not improve, and he passed away in Hospital on 27 April 1943. His Death Certificate gave Toxaemia – blood poisoning – and ulceration of the throat as the cause of death, both likely caused by suffering from Dysentery and malnutrition. No doubt this wasn’t helped by the trauma of being torpedoed in the South Atlantic and having to be rescued from the sea.

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

 He was buried at home in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery. Its quite interesting really, we think of war graves as being something that we might see at Ypres, or Normandy. But in terms of the Second World War, more Portsmouth servicemen died in Britain than died abroad in action. If we think about it, the majority of men and also a lot of women were in uniform. For every man on a ship or on the front line, there were probably about the same number serving in the support services at home. And given the privations of the time, sadly its not surprising that many of them died. There were also a lot of older servicemen who were called up to train new recruits or to work in shore bases. 

It’s incredible to think that those dramatic events – that seem like a ‘Second World War Titanic’, happened when my 82-year-old Grandad was 15. And I have to say, it makes you think: how must it feel to lose your older brother when you’re 15? Not just killed in the war, but dying at home of illness after such a traumatic experience.

So if you watch ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’, please remember – these are real events that happened to real people, and some people still live with the effects to this day.

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Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

The Sinking of the Laconia – Links, previews and interviews

In readiness for the Docu-dramaThe Sinking of the Laconia, due to hit our screens later this week, here are a few interesting links I have found about the programme, the ship and the incident.

BBC webpage
Wikipedia entry
Internet Movie Database
Guardian interview with writer Alan Bleasdale
Suite101 page
BBC press pack with interviews and more
Interviews with the main characters
Werner Hartenstein (U-Boat Captain)
U-Boat.net page

Hopefully on Tuesday or Wednesday I will give you some insight into my personal connection with the Laconia, by sharing my Great-Uncle Tommy’s story.

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Filed under merchant navy, Navy, On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two