Category Archives: out and about

USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman, a US Navy Arleigh Burke class Destroyer, seen coming into Portsmouth Harbour – conveniently during my lunch hour!

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Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0’s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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Ark Royal open day report

Ark Royal on Victory Jetty

Today’s Portsmouth News reports that over 11,000 people visited HMS Ark Royal over the weekend, taking a lost opportunity to visit the ship before she is decomissioned. I went with my Girlfriend and Dad. We had planned to visit some of the Historic Dockyard afterwards, but in the event only had time to go round the Mary Rose Museum – after a restorative Hot Chocolate of course!

The queue snaked all the way back from Victory Jetty right back through the Historic Dockyard, and at times almost reached the Gosport Ferry at the Hard. If anyone doesn’t know Portsmouth, that is a very long way. All in all we had to queue for over an hour just to get on, then queue round the ship just to get off again.

The famous ski-jump

There wasn’t even much to look at or see. A Merlin and a Gazelle on deck (what exactly a Gazelle has got to do with Ark lord only knows), and in the hangar we had the ubiquitous displays of firefighting equipment and suchlike, like on every ship at every Navy Days ever. It’s extremely boring standing round on a ship for hours on end, even more so in January.

The end of a famous ship deserved so much better. I guess the Ark is a victim of her own popularity, it wouldn’t have been so bad if 1) it had been in the summer, and 2) it had hadn’t been so crowded. If the RN had got its planning right it would have ensured that Ark Royal was at Navy Days in Portsmouth last year, ensuring a welcome publicity coup and a much more fitting chance to say goodbye.

Hopefully with her being decomissioned soon at least the Ark Royal brownie points bandwagon will cease. In more than one place I’ve seen an article about the Ark, accompanied by a picture of the OLD Ark Royal. Have people been getting a piece of the Ark circus while they can?  We’ll see when Illustrious retires from service in 2014 (or earlier if Dave and Boy George decide) and what kind of a send-off she gets. Invincible, a Falklands veteran, left service in 2005 with barely a whimper.

Hells Bells? :P

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The National Archives: Day Three

Last day at National Archives in Kew. I’ve managed to look at everything I wanted to, and more besides.

I started off with looking at the Operational Record Books for 10 and 35 Squadrons RAF while Sergeant Francis Compton was serving with them. The ORB’s for each Squadron list what missions the Squadron flew on each night, which crews went, and what happened to them – what aircraft they were flying, when they took off, what bombload they carried, what they saw on the target, when they dropped their bombs, if they were engaged by any enemy aircraft, flak or searchlights, and if any damage was experienced. I don’t want to pre-empt what I’m going to write, but Francis Compton had a short but eventful flying career.

I managed to copy some very interesting documents about V Force, a clandestine guerilla force fighting in Burma. Major Maurice Budd won a Military Cross. I found the minutes of a conference, chaired by Bill Slim, the commander of the 14th Army in Burma, about the organisation of V Force. I also have copies of documents that show the war establishment of V Force – how many men and officers, and in particular they show how V Force was a mixed British and Indian unit, with some Indian officers commanding white troops, and british soldiers serving alongside Burmese and Indian men. Theres also a very useful official history document about the activities of V Force, written shortly after the war, with a view to learning lessons – possibly fearing a war against communists in the jungles of the Far East.

Finally, I discovered that Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who won a Military Cross in North Africa with an armoured unit in 1942. I originally thought that he then went to serve at a Base Hospital in Egypt, and from there back to serve as a Medical Officer with the 1st Royal Welch Regiment, where he was killed in early 1945. Not only have I found out that he died in his sleep of natural causes, for some unknown reason he left the 1st Royal Welch in September 1944, went to serve with the 1/7th Battalion of the Queens Regiment for less than a week – why, their war diary does not say, and it doesn’t say where he went to. Very strange indeed.

So all in all, a very interesting and useful trip. I’ve got plenty of information now to write some sample chapters – I’m thinking about CPO Reg Ellingworth, Major Robert Easton and Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan. I’ve also got lots of useful stuff about Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, Major Maurice Budd, and Sergeant Francis Compton. There will probably be a few more trips to Kew before I’ve finished writing the book, but I’ve got enough now to get started on a few sample chapters, and the basis for a few more.

I do fear about the future for the National Archives, however. Since I’ve been going there they have already closed on Mondays and cut their opening hours on other days. Their digitisation programme for putting documents online has also been drastrically curtailed, with only third parties like Ancestry and FindMyPast making records available on the web. And with the current Government’s philistine and ideological desire to slash public spending at any price, who knows what draconian measures might happen?

Despite its penchant for Political Correctness, I’ve got a real soft spot for Kew. Even though it tends to put on talks about things like ‘the history of reducing the Carbon footprint of bisexual ethnic minorities’, I think its such an amazing place and an amazing resource. I know a lot of  ‘serious researchers’ sniffed when they moved the Family Research Centre to Kew, but I think it works – theres something very refreshing about professors and historians rubbing shoulders with Mrs Jones studying her family tree – the two should go together.

Now, off to start transcribing some 300+ digital images of documents!

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National Archives: Day One

The National Archives, Kew 3

The National Archives (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m at the National Archives in London for a few days doing some research for my Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes book project. The NA is such an enigma (inside a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, to quote WSC!) that I thought it might be interesting to write a short diary of each day and what I get up to.

I’ve been to TNA plenty of times, right back to when I was a keen undergraduate at uni, happy to ignore the ‘you dont have to do original research’ pleadings of the ever-so-adventurous tutors. Ever since then, any excuse I can think of I find a way to look at Documents at Kew. Odd days up to Kew are pretty un-economical and time-consuming, especially by train. What I try and do nowadays is get some time off work, stay over somewhere and make a few days of it. That way you can get there for opening time, and leave at closing time.

Today I’ve been looking at documents related to Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, the mine warfare rating who was killed in September 1941. I didn’t find anything directly related to Ellingworth, but I did find plenty of background material relating to Parachute Mines – a minute from Winston Churchill, reports about the threat that they posed, and a detailed list of every Parachute Mine that landed in Britain in 1940, and a similar list for the London area for the whole of the war. I also found some useful photographs of the kind of mine that killed Ellingworth.

I got that over and done with quicker than expected, so I managed to get a look at some documents relating to Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, who was killed serving in an Armoured Regiment in Italy in 1944. He turns out to have been an even more formidable soldier than I thought – he saw action in 1940 when his Battalion went to France just before the German attack, and were constantly in action until they were evacuated. Easton played a crucial role keeping the Battalion together as Adjutant, and he was awarded the MBE. Then, after being converted to a tank Battalion, in late 1943 Easton transferred to 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, acting as second in command, then serving as a Squadron Commander, and finally permanent second in command when he died of wounds in September 1944. He certainly saw plenty of action.

Part of the knack of TNA is making the best use of your time. If you can, order documents in advance – you can order up to 6, so they will be there waiting for you to start work on straight away. As it takes up to 40 minutes for documents to arrive in the reading room, try and juggle ordering documents so you’re not left twiddling your thumbs at any point. And always go with a big long list of documents you want to look at, so if you get through them quicker than you expect, you can get more in. I’ve started taking a digital camera with me to take pictures of documents, so I can look at them when I get home – its certainly easier than scribbling everything down by hand. The only problem is, I’ve found, that if you dont get the resolution right, or if its wartime economy paper with typewriter ink, you dont get a very clear image. Its also heavy on batteries, and memory – so I’ve got my laptop to decant pictures to.

TNA is a nice place to spend time even if you’re not studying seriously – theres a great Cafe, coffee bar, shop and museum. Its diversity week there this week, and at lunchtime they had an actor dressed up in ‘negro slave’ garb, giving a performance as a freed slave. A bit PC, but very interesting – why not extend it further, and have Churchill, or Nelson? Its also fun for people watching – from the tweed wearing, old-school tie traditional historians, to the ‘sunday driver’ family historians and the academics and professionals, and not forgetting the UFO hunters, you get all sorts at TNA.

Tomorrow: More on Easton, and hopefully some stuff about Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan and some other Portsmouth Heroes.

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HMS Daring damaged in tug collision

HMS Daring outward bound from Portsmouth Naval...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sure you’ve all seen the reports about how HMS Daring was damaged yesterday in Southampton Water, when a tug – civilian – lost power and collided with her. She was in Southampton for a port visit.

Daring hot-footed it back to Portsmouth today in order to be examined, and as chance would have it I was sitting eating my lunch on the hot walls in Old Portsmouth when she came in.Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me, but I’m sure some pics will surface soon. She’s got a couple of not inconsiderable dents in her starboard side amidships, just above the waterline at tug-level, and a scrape running all the way down to the aft section. Hopefully it looks worse than it is, but it seems that half of the tugs black paint came off onto Daring too! Looks like somebody’s going to be doing some warship-sized panel beating…

The RN has had bad luck in recent years with collisions. Of course there was also the HMS Endurance flooding incident in 2008, and HMS Nottingham almost sank after hitting an uncharted rock off Australia some years ago. I’ve often wondered why the Navy insist on using dedicated tugs when coming in and out of harbour, while bigger commerical ferries glide alongside on their own. The use of tugs is probably down to the HMS Vanguard incident in the 1960’s, when Britain’s last old style Battleship ran aground on Portsmouth Point on her way to the breakers yard. Not too much harm done, but very embarassing…

Stop Press

Theres some footage of the damage here courtesy of the Portsmouth News.

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Navy Days 2010 – the rest of the sights

7 Dock

There’s always plenty more to look at at Navy Days other than the Warships – OK, so they are the big draw, but you can find some pretty interesting stuff on the docksides too.

I had an interesting chat with a Gentleman at the Project Vernon stand. Project Vernon aims to erect a statue at Gunwharf Quays, commemorating the sites heritage as the Royal Navy’s centre for Minewarfare until its closure in 1996. I’ve been researching a minewarfare man, CPO Reg Ellingworth GC, so I think its a wonderful idea and a very good project – good luck to them!

One of the highlights of the day, for me, was getting to visit the Royal Navy Historical Branch. This is one of those quiet departments that you know exists, but get to actually visit once in a blue moon. Their library seemed to have the Mariners Mirror, the Navy List, and practically every other kind of naval and maritime journal. While I was there a number of visitors were getting some advice about their ancestors naval service. I had a very interesting in-depth discussion with one of the members of staff about naval service records – how difficult they are to read, what all the abbreviations mean, and how to interpret them. The conclusion? Somebody needs to write a book on it! And also, it would be great if resources like this could be more accesible.

Type 26 model

The BAe System stand was very interesting. In effect the only shipbuilding company of note in Britain nowadays, BAe are leading the work on the Type 45 Destroyers, the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, the Astute Class submarines, and design work for the new Type 26 Frigates. As you might expect their stand was very flash indeed.

Another stand I found interesting was the HMS Intrepid stand. A small group dedicated to perserving her memory had on display some relics from the Falklands veteran landing ship. Apparently when it came to scrapping her the old girl put up quite a protest, and even her name plate would not come off without a fight!

RM

In terms of harbour and air displays, things were a bit thin on the ground. I did catch the Royal Marines anti-piracy boarding demonstration, which looked excellently conducted, and shows what they can do when they’re actually allowed to (reference the incident in the Indian Ocean last year when a Marine boarding party was not allowed to rescue a kidnapped British couple). The Royal Navy Lynx Helicopter display team the Black Cats put on a display, as did the Royal Navy’s historic flight Harvard, but I’ve seen both of them before several times now. While I was on one of the warships the Royal Artillery’s Black Knights parachute display team – why is it that every armed forces unit has its own parachute display team?

The arena events were ok, if not spectacular or unusual. The Royal Marines, Royal Navy volunteer and Rose and Thistle Pipe Bands are firm fixtures at these type of events. I’m a bit mystified as to what the Solent Dog team has to do with Navy Days – I could have understood if it was an MOD police dog display or something like that. The Royal Signals white helmets motorbike display team disappeared from the programme, even though they had been announced earlier in the year. I can’t say I was particularly excited about Bloodhound either – the supersonic car. Again, quite what its got to do with the Navy, who knows…

Re-enactment groups are always good to see, whatever you think about re-enactors, it brings history to life in a far more accesible way. I spotted the Fort Cumberland Guard, The Coldstream Guards, some gentleman doing Napoleonic Musket firing near HMS Victory, and a group rowing a Victory-era small boat in 1 Basin. There weren’t as many wandering entertainers as I’ve seen in previous years, however.

Aachen

While we’re talking about boats, I forgot to mention RCL Aachen, a British Army operated and crewed large Landing Craft. She’s run by the Royal Corps of Logistics, and based at Marchwood in Southampton Water. According to her crew she can operate with the Royal Navy’s amphibious forces, but spends much of her time operating as a kind of water-borne taxi for the army, taking small numbers of men and equipment from one place to another by water.

However, the biggest pleasant surprise was finding Jason Salkey, who played Rifleman Harris in the Sharpe TV series. This was really quite something, as Sharpe is probably the reason why I am into military history in the first place. Jason’s a very nice bloke, and happily talked about Bernard Cornwell’s books, Sean Bean, and how sad he is that after he was killed off in Sharpe’s Waterloo he cannot appear in any future programmes.

1 Basin

Something that not a lot of people appreciate, is that the Dockyard buildings themselves have an awful lot of history – all you need to do is take a look at one of the many books by Ray Riley or Brian Patterson – every dock, storehouse, boathouse, jetty or basin has its own history. If only those bricks could talk… And when Navy Days is on you get to look round parts that aren’t normally open to the public, and take pictures from different angles – especially of 1 Basin from the top of RFA Argus!

All in all, there could have been a more and better displays, in particular in the air and in the arena. I can’t believe that on its biggest showcase of the year the Navy – or indeed the other armed forces – could not put on more. Its either lack of resources, costcutting, or sheer lack of effort. Thankfully some of the rare gens – such as meeting Jason Salkey, the Historical Branch, finding out about Project Vernon, RFA Argus and talking to some of the sailors on the ships made up for things. But theres something wrong when the sideshows are more interesting than the ships…

Apparently the word is that there won’t be a Portsmouth Navy Days in 2012 as it clashes with the Olympics – what that’s got to do with it I’m really not quite sure… why not just move it to another part of the year? Sounds like cost-cutting to me, unless of course the Type 45 Destroyers are going to be part of the air defence cordon off the Thames Estuary… There is talk of an event being put on next year, but as usual it looks like Portsmouth will miss out.

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