Category Archives: On TV

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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Filed under Army, Empire History, Family History, On TV, World War Two

How to build… Britain’s Secret Engineers

Aside from having a gramatically suspect title, this was another interesting instalment in the BBC’s ‘how to build’ series, that kicked off with a look at the Astute Class Nuclear Submarines several weeks ago.

QinetiQ is, essentially, the UK’s former Defence research and development in privatised form. Since formation in 2001 and floating on the stock market in 2006, QinetiQ has expanded and taken on concerns globally, including in the US. I’m not sure I personally agree with the country’s defence technology expertise being hived off to the private sector, even if the Government does retain a controlling stake. But thats an argument for another day!

The main focus of this programme is the work to make eight Chinook heavy lift helicopters ready for acceptance by the RAF. They were initially purchased in 1995 as CH3 special forces versions, at a cost of £259m. However, due to problems with their operating systems they never actually made it into service, and instead have been sat in storage for years. Reportedly, they could not fly in cloud. It was, to quote, the Defence Select Committee, a ‘gold standard procurement cock-up’. One that seems even more ridiculous, given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan it was decided to strip the spare Chinooks down, refit them to CH2 standard and get them into use as soon as possible.

The work is largely being carried out by QinetiQ at Farnborough and Boscombe Down. We watch the project manager overseeing the final stages of the fourth Chinook, as the wiring is completed – a mammoth task indeed. One person I do not envy is the young engineer who climbed inside the fuel tank to work on a fitting inside – not for the claustrophobic, and he could only stay in there for short periods due to fumes. One of the final – and most interesting – parts of the project was the fitting of the rotor blades, something that looked paticularly fiddly.

Another interesting project is the Tallon unmanned bomb disposal vehicle, primarily being developed in America. Made out of very few parts, and with a highly maneouvreable arm, four cameras giving 360 vision, and enough power to pull a small family car, the Tallon is a prime example of the Defence industry reacting to the needs of the armed forces. Not only that, but QinetiQ are also developing the Tallon for civilian use. A fine example of how developments inspired by military needs can have spin-offs for civilian use too.

Its difficult to place too much stock on a TV programme, but the impression gained is one of a hard-working bunch of people who seem to appreciate that what they are working on is very important to the troops on the ground in Helmand. Its a shame however that the future looks bleak when it comes to UK Defence procurement, ie there isnt going to be much of it for the foreseable future. Therefore its probably wise for QinetiQ to be diversifying into civilian markets, such as developing stealth technology to prevent wind turbines interfering with air traffic control radars.

A company like QinetiQ should be the heirs of great British military inventors and designers such as Barnes Wallis, Donald Bailey and R.J. Mitchell. In particular, the UK Defence industry has fallen far behind when it comes to the export market – more should be done to create jobs for companies such as BAE and QinetiQ.

How to Build… Britain’s Secret Engineers can be watched on BBC iplayer

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The untold Battle of Trafalgar

I watched this documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night.

It portrays the crew of the Royal Navy ship of the line HMS Bellerophon and her crew at the Battle of Trafalgar. While I would like to believe that the story told in the programme is ‘untold’, sadly I think that previous research has already made the same points. I’m not sure how the programme makers can claim that it is based on the same research, when a full register of seamen who served at Trafalgar has been available since at least 2005 on the National Archives website here.

It has long been known that the Royal Navy was an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, long before the term was even dreamt up. And a quick glance at the database on the National Archives website shows that a fair proportion of Trafalgar sailors were not English. Many seem to have come from Ireland. Aside from England and Scotland, men onboard the Bellerophon on 21 October 1805 came from… Portugal, West Indies, Ireland, Prussia, Holland, America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada and India.

I haven’t got my copy of Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions and Answers immediately to hand, but I recall that one of the 101 questions was about the composition of the crew. As far as I can remember, a large proportion of the crew was non-British – possibly a larger proportion than the Bellerophon – and was possibly more diverse too.

Perhaps we need to give bygone times more credit for their lack of prejudice? This common wisdom that back in the dark ages everyone was prejudiced against each other, and now we’re striving to some kind of equality utopia, is pretty blinkered. Its just a shame that it takes a documentary based on reycled research that is freely available to anyone and everyone!

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How to build a nuclear Submarine

I watched this documentary on BBC2 last night. It followed the building of the Royal Navy’s new class of Astute attack submarines. Aside from the usual PR feel of the programme, it was an interesting look behind the scenes at what goes into building a nuclear submarine.

What I found really interesting was the emphasis on how important shipbuilding is to the town of Barrow. The launch of Astute came 10 years after the launch of the last nuclear submarine, and in those intervening years most of the shipbuilding skills had been lost, and apprentice schemes had to be started up from scratch. And thus we follow 19 year old Erin Browne as she works on one of the subs wiring up the electrics.

We get to see how the submarines are built in sections, which are then moved – by road! – into the shipbuilding hall and welded together. We see how the command section is built and then slotted into place. We get a rare close up look at the living conditions on a nuclear submarine, and the process of getting a nucler sub ready for sea – its not every day, after all, that you get to see a nuclear reactor switched on!

What has to be worrying is the likelihood that orders for new ships will be few and far between after the current Defence Review, leaving towns like Barrow facing mass unemployment and all of the social problems that come with it.

How to build a nuclear submarine can be seen on BBC iplayer until Sunday 18th July 2010.

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For Queen and Country

I’ve just been watching this pretty interesting documentary on BBC iplayer. It follows the Grenadier Guards as they prepare for the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony. The Grenadier Guards took centre stage in the parade only weeks after returning from Afghanistan, a tour of duty in which they suffered a number of fatalities, including their Regimental Sergeant Major. There are two ways to look on this – firstly, it shows how resilient and professional the Guards are, but secondly, also how hard stretched they are in having to Troop the Colour so soon after returning from a hard tour.

I’ve always thought – patriotism aside – that no-one does ceremony quite like the British armed forces, and the Guards are the best in the business. But in the hard pressed and cash strapped modern environment is there a role for public duties? Whilst their shouldn’t be any sacred cows in the Armed Forces, we should not underestimate how important the Household Division is to tourism and Britain’s image. Their professionalism shines throughout, both in public duties and on operations. The Sergeant-Majors are terrifying, and the London Garrison Sergeant Major is the closest thing to God in the British Army.

How in the modern climate can the Army adapt to ensure that ceremonies such as Trooping the Colour still take place? Firstly, it might have to look beyond it being just a Guards event. Although the Guards at the Royal palaces are usually Foot Guards, occasionally other Regiments take a turn – why not use the same policy with trooping the colour? Long gone is the time when the Guards were THE elite of the British Army – nowadays the whole Army is an elite in its own right, with some regiments such as the Paras and the Rifles have their own elite status. It would also relieve the pressure on the Guards Regiments. Might it not make a better showcase for the Army to show different Regiments in this way, particularly with the lack of a broader event such as the old Royal Tournament?

Just a thought…

Click here to watch the Documentary on BBC iplayer

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Building Britain’s Ultimate Warship

I’ve just started watching this documentary on Channel 4 on demmand. Heres the programme blurb:

HMS Daring is the Royal Navy’s most costly and complex warship to date. With old and outmoded ships standing guard over our shores, the navy is building defence for the 21st century: a revolutionary new ship with cutting-edge technology that has never been to sea. Costing £1 billion, Daring is the first new destroyer built in Britain since 1985 and is to be followed by five more. Irrespective of whether this fleet of Type 45 destroyers is a hangover from a dated Cold War mentality or is more relevant than anyone dare contemplate, these impressive warships represent a quantum leap forward in naval technology. Channel 4 is given special access to HMS Daring, filming the entire process from construction in 2004 through to testing and using the new weapons systems at sea. The shipbuilders construct a warship the modern way, with new skills alongside traditional jobs, in three different locations around the country. Interviews with naval experts and officers, engineers, ship workers and the captains convey a real sense of the scale of the build and significance of Daring for the navy. Its stealth shape is dominated by its high-tech radar, mounted 36 metres above the sea to act as the eyes and ears of a guided missile system. The ship also boasts modern facilities for crew, such as email access, iPod docks and comfortable living quarters, including for mixed genders. This programme captures Daring’s dramatic launch: a Royal occasion for the people of Glasgow, to echo the historic launch days of old on the Clyde. The film also illustrates how the revolutionary British-built radar operates, and follows as Daring’s crew of men and women test their new ship to the limit and the captain leads his crew into action stations in a war game.

Phew, we got there in the end! Right, is it any good? Well, as the blurb suggests, it is a bit of a PR film. Every warship ever launched is always described as ‘the most advanced ever’ – its hardly an objective statement. Its more than a little rose-tinted – of course every ship designed is cutting edge when its launched, but then becomes obsolete almost as soon as it enters service.

And the film is a bit sheepish about describing the problems with the Sea Viper missile – there are clips of the missile being fired from a test barge, but it is not explained that neither HMS Daring nor her sister ship Dauntless have actually fired the missiles themselves.

It is, none the less, a very insightful look at the build process of a modern warship, with some nice footage of the ship being constructed, and some good interviews with naval and shipbuilding personalities.

Click here to watch Building Britain’s Ultimate Warship on Channel 4 On Demmand

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Operation Source: Lost Heroes

Ive just watched a fascinating programme on BBC iplayer, about a daring midget submarine raid on the Tirpitz in 1943.

The sister ship of the Bismarck, the Tirpitz spent much of the war lurking in Norwegian fjords, threatening the vital Arctic convoys to Russia. All the time she was there, the Royal Navy had to maintain a strong Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. If the Tirpitz had broken out into the North Sea or the Atlantic, we might have seen a desparate hunt like the one that sank the Bismarck in 1941.

British Forces launched a wide range of daring raids to try and neutralise the Tirpitz. One of the most famous, the raid on St Nazaire, was even hundreds of miles away from the ship. St Nazaire was home to the only dry dock big enough to take the Tirpitz – after this was destroyed, the German Navy would not be able to repair the giant ship.

Although the monster Battleship was eventually sunk by Lancasters of the RAF, the first raid that damaged the Tirpitz was carried out by three X Craft – midget submarines with a crew of four men. Towed across the North Sea by conventional Submarines, they were cast off on the Norwegian Coast. After breaching tight defences, including their divers cutting through anti-torpedo netting, the submarines dropped saddle charges under the battleship, before attempting to escape. Two of the submarine Commanders won the Victoria Cross, and many of the crew members were also decorated.

Yet what happened to the other Submarine has always remained a mystery – as it was not certain what part they had played in the raid. Did they manage to drop their charges? Did the Commander deserve a Victoria Cross, like his counterparts?

Watch Timewatch: The Lost Heroes on BBC iplayer here

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Blitz Street – Episode 2

This weeks episode of Blitz Street on Channel 4 carried on with the theme set down in the first instalment – detonating mock-up bombs in a replica 1940′s street, with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis.

This week the team explode an SC 1000 ‘Hermann’ Bomb, weighing in at 1,000 kilograms. Containing Amatol explosive, it produces more of a ‘heave’ effect than smaller bombs, which was effective at demolishing buildings. The slow-motion playback of the explosion, showing the blast wave, is incredible stuff.

Later in the programme Incendiary Bombs are tested, and also a Flammbomb. Incendiaries were used to great effect on Portsmouth in January 1941, when one lodged in th Guildhall’s ventilation shaft left to the building being burnt out. Small metal tubes packed with magnesium, they had an effect out of all proportion to their size. Flammbomb’s were much larger, but used explosives to throw burning oil over a large area – effectively an early form of Napalm. They must have been ghastly to try to put out.

The programme also focusses a lot on the devestating raid on the Coventry – the scenes of mass funerals are harrowing stuff. Yet I think it is important to remember that it is estimated that 568 people died in Coventry on that night; some suggest the toll may have been as high as 1,000. However fives years later, Historians estimate that between 24,000 and 40,000 people were killed in one night in Dresden. This is not to belittle the experiences of Coventry, London and elsewhere, but to try and give some form of context.

While the eyewitness accounts are a real insight, and its great that their experiences have been shared and recorded for posterity, I’m quite frustrated with the cotributions of the Historians – Juliet Gardner and Stephen Badsey. Their contributions feel very ‘top-down’ and conventiona. In my experience there is more to the Blitz than the ‘we can take it’ cliche and ‘roll out the barrell’. In particular, Badsey’s poor definition of ‘myth’ misleading.

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Blitz Street on Channel 4

Channel 4 has long had a tack record for producing first class History programming, and this is one of their best yet. Produced to mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, this Tony Robinson-presented series is a great look at the events of the late summer and autumn of 1940.

The centrepiece of the programme is a full reconstruction of a 1940′s style street. The first programme shows the team exploding replicas of German bombs to study the effect of blast and shrapnel. The footage and analysis is gripping stuff. Too often we hear about bomb damage in words, or see the effects in black and white photographs. But to watch a full reconstruction, in slow motion colour, really adds something to our understanding of the Blitz. What really occurs to me, is how the biggest bomb detonated in this programme was 500 kilograms -and the explosion was huge. But by the end of the war the RAF was using 20,000lb bombs!

The programme also makes excellent use of eyewitness accounts – people who lived through the blitz, such as firemen, air raid wardens and nurses. And they tell some harrowing stories, such as people who were killed by blast, without a mark on them. Some great colour footage of 1940 Britain is also incorporated in the programme. It is always good to see colour footage, as it does bring to life a period in british history that is often seen in black and white, in more ways than just its colour. The Historian’s used are perhaps not the best, however. But the production is slick, as we might expect, and as usual Tony Robinson is an enthusiastic and spot-on presenter.

It will be interesting to see how future episodes pan out. In particular I will interested to see how the programme deals with the tetchy issue of civilian morale during the Blitz.

Click here to watch on Channel 4oD

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WWII Lost Films on the History Channel

This week sees the premiere of a brand new series on The History Channel. Entitled WWII Lost Films, it promises unseen footage from the Second World War, digitally restored and in colour.

So how does it fare? Having seen the first episode in advance, I found it very interesting viewing. There is indeed a lot of footage that I have never seen before, including some fantastic image of kamikaze strikes on US Carriers in the pacific, and also of the fighting on Guadalcanal. We also get a very interesting insight from a Jewish immigrant from Austria, who escaped to America from the Anschluss in 1938.

The series has been produced for the American market, and it shows. It does have a very patriotic ‘God-bless-America’ feel to it, and you are given a slight impression that everything prior to Pearl Harbour was pre-amble. But that is by no means a problem limited to this one documentary. Also, it does illustrate the issues around isolationism and the American entry into the war.

It is a very interesting series none the less, and unseen footage is never a bad thing. I just wonder how much unseen films there are of the British aspect of the war, waiting to be discovered and shown to the world?

WWII Lost Films continues every night at 10pm on the History Channel.

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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

Empire of the Seas: Sea Change

I’ve just watched the last instalment of Dan Snow’s latest series.

After Trafalgar the Royal Navy was riding the crest of a wave. Dominant in all of the world’s oceans, the ironclad era and the advent of engine propulsion spurred it on to new heights.

But away from the ships, a sea change too place in the culture of those who served in the Royal Navy. Whilst still worshipping the memory of Nelson, officers began to place obedience far above initiative – the value that Nelson had tried to instill among his Captains. As the Navy became the darling of British society, it also became more stratified socially, which stifled meritocracy.

One man in the early Twentieth Century tried to change all of this. Admiral Jackie Fisher became First Sea Lord with a comprehensive plan to modernise all aspects of the Royal Navy. His mantra was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ – put simply, he wanted to make the Royal Navy so large and so powerful, that no-one would dare challenge it. Soon 25% of all Government expenditure was being spent on the Navy.

Chief among this spending was the new Class of Battleship – the Dreadnought. Far better armed and armoured than any ship previously, she rendered all other ships virtually obsolete. An arms race developed in Europe, with the Kaiser’s Germany attempting to challenge British Naval supremacy.

Although the German Navy had less than half the amount of Dreadnoughts as Britain, in 1916 the German fleet attempted to draw the British Grand Fleet into battle. Although the Grand Fleet suffered heavy losses at Jutland, the battle was a strategic victory for the British – the sheer amount of ships flying the white ensign prevented the Germans from challenging them again. The British failings at Jutland had been caused by a slowness to adapt to the new technology of battle – poor communications combined with rigid obedience led to ships failing to act decisively, and un-necessary losses.

Although Jutland led to bursting of the 100 year ‘Trafagar bubble’, it also shook the Royal Navy out of its complacency. Never the less, after the First World War Britain was no longer the world’s dominant Naval power.

This episode ends the series nicely, but I do feel that it concludes very abruptly. British Naval power did not suddenly end after 1918 – the size of the Royal Navy in 1940 still prevented Nazi Germany from invading Britain. I would argue that it was through the symbolic loss of the Royal Oak, the Hood, Prince of Wales and Renown that Britain really lost her naval superpower status. The decline may have begun at Jutland, but it was only in the latter stages of the Second World War that the US Navy eclipsed the Royal Navy.

All in all, this has been a thought-provoking series that has discussed a key part of British history. I have been impressed with how well Dan Snow has put across some complicated ideas in very simple and understandable ways. Many of them are extremely relevant today. On the down side, perhaps it did ignore earlier and later factors outside of the series arbitrary start and end dates. An earlier episode on Tudor sea power and a later one on the Second World War would have made much more sense.

How about a similar series, looking at the British Army since Cromwell?

Catch the last episode here on BBC iplayer

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Mo Mowlam remembered

I watched the docu-drama Mo on Channel 4 last night. It’s a portrayal of the last years of Mo Mowlam’s life, from just before the General Election of 1997 until her untimely death in 2005.

I know its only TV, and although its as a documentary element its not necessarily 100% accurate, but by all accounts her friends who were involved in making it regarded it as very true to life. Julie Walters was fantastic as Mo, and the screenplay was dramatic, moving and heartfelt. Mo’s story tells us a lot about the past 15 years in Britain. Its maybe too early to look at the New Labour era objectively, but with the Labour Government seemingly sloping towards an election defeat in May it seems natural to look back on those early days.

The way that Tony Blair undermined Mowlam after her standing ovation at the Labour Conference was nothing short of a disgrace. In an almost Stalinist manner, it was not acceptable for a Minister to be too popular. In a Government full of figures intent on following a political career rather than staying true to their beliefs, someone like Mo Mowlam was always going to stand out. But there seems little doubt that amongst ordinary people she remains the most popular and likeable Labour politcian of the past 13 years. Isn’t the Labour party supposed to be about representing ordinary people?

In hindsight it would seem as well that Downing Street attempted to marginalise Mowlam during the Northern Ireland negotiations. This fits in with the controlling, unconstitutional style of Government that is rapidly being exposed by the Iraq Inquiry. Despite attempts to steal the limelight, it has to be said that peace in Northern Ireland – largely brought about by Mo Mowlam – is the greatest achievement of the Labour Government.

But most importantly, Mo was herself. And among a cabal of faceless New Labour functionaries, that was refreshing. The way that she handled her illness was an inspiration. It does seem wrong that while Mo Mowlam suffered like she did, somebody like Peter Mandelson keeps bouncing back like a rubber ball and we have a Prime Minister ill at ease with people and vainly clinging onto power.

Her story tells us about much that is right and wrong about British politics, and budding politicians would to well to watch and learn.

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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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Empire of the Waves: The Golden Ocean

I’ve just finished watching the latest instalment of this series presented by Dan Snow, and I found this episode very much to my liking. It had perhaps far too much of Snow sailing – he’s doing it for fun, whereas the men he’s talking about worked bloody hard day upon day for years. And I’m not sure watching him try his hand at being a working man by making a nail added to the programme. But the subject matter is top notch, and there has clearly been some first class research gone on behind the scenes.

Snow charts the period from 1690 to 1759 and reveals how England – soon to be Britain – and her Navy rose from the depths of military and economic disaster to achieve global supremacy. In 1690, France was a significant seapower and the Royal Navy relatively weak. William III had taken England into a disastrous war against the most powerful country in Europe. If England was to survive, it needed a new Navy, one capable of carrying the fight to its enemies anywhere in the world. I do feel perhaps that the programme overstates the extent to which England was weak in 1690 – after all, hadn’t the previous programme made the argument that British Sea Power began with the defeat of the Armada? if so, how did it decline between then and 1690?

To achieve this naval transformation required a national effort unlike anything that had been seen before. A determination to achieve mastery of the seas unleashed a chain reaction of revolutions in finance, industry and agriculture which reshaped the landscape and created the country’s first great credit boom. Years before the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Navy became the engine of global change, propelling Britain into the modern world. Could it be that the Royal Navy acted as a pump-primer for the Industrial Revolution? And not only did the Navy develop into a fighting force, but also one that combated piracy, and launched a number of amphibious operations.

This transformation had incredible results at sea. By 1759, French forces around the world were capitulating to Britain’s superior Navy. the Royal Navy’s march, Heart of Oak, refers to 1759 as ‘this wonderful year’. For the first time in her history, Britannia really did rule the waves.

I would have liked to see more about the effect that this naval transformation had on Britain itself, aside from a token view of industrial North England. How about the Naval Dockyards? Where did all the food come from, the wood, the rope, sails? A whole supportive infrastructure grew up to support Naval expansion – the bristling Warships were but the sharp tip of a very long sword. If anyone wants to take an in-depth look at like in the Royal Navy during the mid 18th Century, ‘The Wooden World’ by NAM Rodger is a very good read.

This episode sets the scene very well for the pivotal wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In particular I hope that anyone watching this programme will have realised that Britain did have Naval heroes long before Nelson – Anson, Vernon, Hawke to name but three. And, in the words of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, First Sea Lord during the Second World War:

‘it takes a day to win a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’.

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