Category Archives: Remembrance

Researching First World War Soldiers

Vis en Artois British Cemetery and Memorial, F...

Vis en Artois Cemetery and Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve now entered over 2,000 names into my database of Portsmouth men killed serving in the Second World War. So far this covers 4 panels of the War Memorial in Guildhall Square, and these are only the men who fought with the Army. I have one more panel of Army names to enter and analyse. And then its on to the Navy, who have about the same number of names again!

The process goes like this – look up the names on the War Memorial (handily transcribed  by Tim Backhouse on Memorials in Portsmouth), enter the names onto my Access Database, then search for them on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Of course, when you start with just initials for forenames, its quite difficult – especially if all you have is ‘A. Smith’, which there are hundreds of – it would take days searching through that to find the right person. Fortunately, quite a few of the names on the CGWG have their house number, road name and area listed – which makes it much easier to find the right person – if you’re looking through a list of 20 or so names, its heartening to find one listed as ‘…Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw’, cos odds are you’ve found your man. But when there are 4 or 5 names, and none of them have any details, its so frustrating – its got to be one of them, surely? But sometimes the sheer number of names can be daunting.

Its going to take some serious research to track down the several hundred men who are remaining elusive – but by using Street Directories, Register Office Records, the 1901 and 1911 Census, and electoral registers, it should be possible to slowly but surely fill out the gaps.

Another problem can be when you enter the name into the CWGC and NOTHING comes up – they must have been a real person, surely? Otherwise why would their names have been put forward for the memorial? The only thing I can suggest is that mistakes were made in compiling the names for the memorial, or perhaps people had different given names – someone registed officially as Harry James, for example, might have been known as Jim, and thus entered on the Memorial as J., and not H.J… it takes a bit of imagination to ferret these things out.

Another difference with researching First World War soldiers, is that it is much harder to trace details of any medals that they won. With the Second World War, more often and not you can find their award listed in the London Gazette. But for the First World War there are just so many, its like trawling through a haystack. You have to use some cunning, such as typing in a mans service number in the search, rather than their name. The problem there, of course, is that prior to 1920ish the Army didnt have an Army-wide numbering system, so if you’re looking for a Military Medal awarded to Private Jones 14532, there might be scores of 14532’s in the Army. Also, whereas many Second World War medal citations have been made available online on the National Archives website, the only information we have for First World War soldiers are their medal cards – relatively spartan in detail.

But on the flipside, one other source we have readily available for the Western Front are the War Diaries. Select War Diaries have been made available on The National Archives, such as the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, which I have been serialising on Daly History for the past few months. Although these rarely mention individual soldiers – especially not other ranks – they do give you the wider picture of what was hapenning day to day. If you know that someone died on a particular day, you can look up what was happening – if they were in the front line undergoing heavy shelling, maybe the man was killed that way. Or if there was a raid and he is listed on a memorial to the missing, he might have been killed in no mans land. Alternatively, if he died somewhere away from where the Battalion was, or on a day when they were not in action, he probably died of wounds or illness in a hospital behind the lines.

Another useful source is the National Roll, a publication produced after the war, the lists not only men who died, but other men who survived. Its not comprehensive – men or their families put their details forward, meaning that only a percentage of men are listed – but none the less, for the men who are included, it is a gold mine of information. Most entries tell you when a man joined the Army, and whether he was a regular, mobilised with the territorial force, volunteered in 1914, attested under the Derby Scheme, or was conscripted. This fact on its own builds up a veritable social history of the manpower situation. Some men have more information than others – most entries tell us where a man fought, if he was wounded, or if he won medals. Some tell very interesting stories – such as the Hampshire Regiment soldier who was captured at Kut, fell ill with Dysentry and fell out of the march to captivity and was left to die on the side of the road; the Sergeant killed in a Grenade accident at a training school in the New Forest; or the Sapper serving with Grave Registration unit after the war who drowned in a Canal. Without these details, they would just be names. But with their stories, we are so much closer to knowing who they were and what they went through.

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Filed under Army, Remembrance, western front, World War One

RAF Benevolent Fund Day of Action

British propaganda poster during the Battle of...

Image via Wikipedia

Today marks the RAF Benevolent Fund’s ‘Day of Action’, and also seventy years since the height of the Battle of Britain over the skies of Southern England. To mark the day, I thought I would share a couple more stories about young fliers over Portsmouth in 1940. I’ve already written about Flight Lieutenant John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC, a Hurricane Pilot who was killed in a secret mission over France in August 1940. The next two men might not have come from Portsmouth, but they died bravely in the skies over the city in 1940, and both were part of ‘the few’ of the Battle of Britain.

Sergeant Hubert Hastings Adair, 23 and from Norwich, was flying a Hurricane of 213 Squadron when he was shot down in the skies over North Portsmouth on 6 November 1940. He has no official grave, and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

Adair had joined the RAF in 1936, and flew Fairey Battles over France in 1940. In August he transferred to the Hurricane-equipped 213 Squadron, based at Tangmere in West Sussex. Adair was last seen in Combat over Southampton Water, and when he failed to return it was assumed that he had crashed into the English Channel. After the war, however, it was discovered that his Hurricane had crashed in farmland a mile north of Portsdown Hill, near Pigeonhouse Lane. Locals were aware of the crash, but the RAF neither investigated the site nor recovered Adair’s remains.

In 1979 the Wealden Aviation Archaeological Group excavated the site. They recovered much of the aircraft, including the Browning Machine Guns and the Merlin Engine. Adair’s remains were also recovered. The coroner, however, stated that an inquest would not be held, and that the remains were to be disposed of. Because of this H.H. Adair is still officially Missing in Action.

A memorial plaque has been erected near the Churchillian Pub on Portsdown Hill, which overlooks the crash site roughly a mile to the north.

Flying Officer James Tillett, 22 and from Northamptonshire, was flying a Hurricane of 238 Squadron from Chilbolton, North Hampshire when he was also shot down north of Portsdown Hill later on the same day. He is buried in Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport. Tillett joined the RAF as an officer cadet in 1937. Graduating from Cranwell in 1939 as a Pilot Officer, he was promoted to Flying Officer in 1940.

On 6 November 1940 Tillett’s Squadron was scrambled to intercept a Bomber formation heading for Portsmouth. Tillett was shot down over Fareham by a Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The crash site was recorded as ‘near Whitedell, Fareham’. His Hurricane was seen to crash land with its wheels in the air near White Dell Farm, North Wallington, Portsmouth. According to eyewitness accounts the plane was in flames; two brothers attempted to rescue Tillett who was slumped over the controls, but the fire engulfed their aircraft. A memorial plaque has also been placed near the site where Tillet’s Hurricane crashed, near the junction of Pook Lane and Spurlings Lane.

In a day of high drama over the skies of Portsmouth, it is believed that both men were shot down by Hauptmann (Major) Helmut Wick, the Commander of 2 Jagedschewader of the Luftwaffe. After claiming 56 kills Wick was himself shot down on 28 November 1940. Wick’s logbook for the day states that he had shot down two Hurricanes over the Portsmouth area on 6 November 1940.

What must it have been like to be a young person in Portsmouth on that day in 1940? Its hard to believe, but my Granddad can remember watching dogfights over the channel and over Portsmouth in 1940. One time, he saw a Heinkel flying so over Portsmouth that he could see the pilot’s blonde hair.

We think of war as something that happens to other people, in far-off places, in a bygone age. Yet Adair and Tillett were killed just a couple of miles away from my house, and were younger than me. Adair and Tillett, and indeed John Coghlan, and all of the other young men who fought and died with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War should never be forgotten. Of course today we remember the few of Fighter Command, but as well we must remember those who died in Bombers, in Transport Aircraft, Ground Crew, the WAAF’s, men and women, young and old, who served and died overseas or at home.

To find out more about what happened in 1940, to find out about the RAF Benevolent Fund’s 1940 Chronicle Campaign, or to donate to the RAFBF, click here

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Filed under Local History, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Army (part 4)

Unlike Navy casualties, most soldiers killed in action where either buried or commemorated very close to where they fell. This allows us to analyse quite closely the battlefields on which young men from Portsmouth fought and died.

Theatres

Firstly lets take a look at the parts of the world in which Portsmouth soldiers died during the Second World War:

168 – N Europe (24.93%)
141 -UK (20.92%)
131 – Mediterranean (19.43%)
105 – Far East (15.58%)
94 – North Africa (13.94%)
17 – Indian Sub-Continent (2.52%)
10 – Rest of Africa (1.48%)
9- Middle East (1.33%)
1 – N America (0.15%)

My first impression is that Army casualties were spread far more evenly around the world than we might imagine. Also, that the second highest proportion of men died in the UK suggest just how many men were in uniform, and died of natural causes, illness or accidents while at home. An extremely large number of men died whilst serving in the Mediterranean (see below for more detail), and also in the Far East and in North Africa. The statistics for the ‘D-Day Dodgers’ and ‘Slim’s Forgotten Army’ in particular suggest both how many Portsmouth men served in both places, and how heavy their casualties were.

There are several other interesting statistics. The British Empire maintained a presence throughout much of Africa throughout the war – including a number of strategically important staging ports. Many army personnel served in India during the war, to guard against civil unrest and also to provide a base for the war in Burma. The campaigns in Syria and Iraq are frequently forgotten, and many British troops also served in Palestine.

Countries

141 – United Kingdom (20.92%)
110 – Italy (16.32%)
103 – France (15.28%)
46 – Tunisia (6.82%)
32 – Egypt (4.75%)
31 – Holland (4.6%)
30 – Singapore (4.45%)
23 – Burma (3.4%)
22 – Germany (3.26%)
17 – Thailand (2.52%)
17 – Hong Kong (2.52%)
16 – Greece (2.37%)
14 – India (2.07%)
9 – Algeria (1.34%)
9 – Japan (1.34%)
8 – Belgium (1.18%)
7 – Libya (1.04%)
6 – Malaysia (0.89%)
4 – Malta (0.59%)
4 – Syria (0.59%)
3 – Indonesia (0.44%)
3 – Israel (0.44%)
3 – Kenya (0.44%)
3 – South Africa (0.44%)
2 – Iraq (0.29%)
2 – Poland (0.29%)
2 – Sri Lanka (0.29%)
1 – Canada (0.15%)
1 – Czech Republic (0.15%)
1 – Ethiopia (0.15%)
1 – Gambia (0.15%)
1 – Nigeria (0.15%)
1 – Norway (0.15%)
1 – Pakistan (0.15%)
1 – Sudan (0.15%)

Again, its noticeable that more men at home in the UK than in any other country. Also, that more Portsmouth men died in Italy than in France is at first glance surprising. But once look at the reasons, it doe make more sense. Fighting took place in France for around a month leading up to Dunkirk, then from June until late August 1944. Whereas the war in Italy began with the invasion of Siciliy in 1942, and ended in May 1945 after a long fought slog up the spine of the country. Also, several Hampshire Regiment Battalions fought in Italy, whereas only one fought in North West Europe, and none in 1940.

Another surprise might be the number of men killed in Tunisia, but this was where the Hampshire’s who later fought in Italy got their first taste of action as part of Sir Kenneth Anderson’s First Army. Tunisia also saw heavy fighting, after Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight to the the last man rather than evacuate.

High casualty rates are noticeable in the Far Eastern Countries. This was no doubt caused by the harsh treatment of Prisoners of War by the Japanese, and the resulting high mortality rates – particularly on the Burma Railway in Thailand, and after the surrenders at Singapore and Hong Kong. By comparison, very few men died whilst prisoners of the Germans – six, as far as I can tell, including one Engineer murdered by the Gestapo in Norway.

Another observation has to be the number of countries in which men were serving – this truly was a global war. This shows not only the several theatres that we often overlook, but also the wider importance of the British Empire and its lines of communications to the war effort.

My final observation, however, has to be the number of men who died not on the battlefield, but at home, or in far-flung outposts. They may not have died in battle, but they were serving their country at the time of their death. In many cases their deaths may have been caused, or at least not helped by war-time factors – malnutrition, accidents, industrial or tropical diseases, possibly? Therefore, they deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two

Youtube picks

Royal welcome home for 11 Light Brigade

Members of the British Army’s 11 Light Brigade marched through Westminster recently, in front of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. The Brigade recently returned from a 6 month tour of Afghanistan, where 64 soldiers were killed in action. The march through Winchester was followed by a service at the Cathedral.

The Altmark Incident

Richard Noyce of the National Museum of the Royal Navy tells us about the Altmark incident, and shows us an artefact from the Museum’s collections.

Muse featuring The Edge – Where the Streets Have No Name

I’m not normally a fan of the whole Glastonbury thing – more performers off the stage than there are on it – but this clip is amazing. Even though U2 couldn’t headline the Friday as planned, The Edge still turned up and joined Muse to play Where The Streets Have No Name, one of U2’s most epic songs.

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The Long March remembered

march

65 years ago this winter thousands upon thousands of people were on the move all over Germany and occupied Europe. As the Third Reich crumbled under the allied onslaught from East and West, the Nazi state attempted to move its prisoners back into the German homeland. In the harshest winter for many years, thousands died or were killed.

This week a group of relatives and young RAF recruits are recreating the march made by RAF Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland into Germany in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Temperatures were between -22 and -25 degrees centigrade. Most of the men had very minimal clothing. It was snowing most of the time. Some men fell out from the march and were shot by the guards. Sometimes the Prisoners slept in buildings, other times in the open. German civilians treated them in a variety of ways – some were kind, whilst others threw stones at the airmen.

At the same time my own Granddad, who had been captured at Arnhem, was being marched across Germany from Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA near Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. But most men were being marched westwards, away from the advancing Red Army. Why? Well, its hard to explain just how chaotic the Nazi state was, especially near the end of the war. It might have been easier for the Germans to leave the POW’s to be liberated. But they may have planned to use them as hostages, or to liquidate them. At any point a rash order from Hitler or Himmler might have spelt doom. But whatever the reason, too many men died needlessly.

Andy Wiseman, an RAF veteran of the Long March from Stalag Luft III had these illuminating words to say about his expriences on the BBC website:

“What the long march taught me, and I go on long marches with current RAF people, is that cometh the hour cometh the man. There is no such thing “I can’t do it” there is no such thing “its impossible”. Have a go and you’d be amazed what you can do. If you see a barrier, don’t turn around and pretend it isn’t there, you’ve got to get over it or under it, there’s no other way of living.”

The Last Escape, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, tells the story of the long marches very well.

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Portsmouth war dead project: News

I’ve now finished processing the list of Portsmouth’s World War Two Dead from the list on Portsmouth City Council’s website. Each name has been inputted into a database, along with their details from the Commonwealth War Graves online roll of honour. I have also done a lot of research on each person, using websites such as lostbombers, Far East Prisoners of War, RAF Web and Naval History.net.

I’ve managed to find some fascinating stories, which I have written about on my blog over the past few months. Stories of heroic deeds, medals, families, young and old, men and women, rich and poor. Men who have no grave, who are buried in Portsmouth, or who died far away from home. Men who died in famous battles, and men buried in cemeteries long forgotten. Men who served on the sea, on land and in the air. From all corners of Portsmouth.

There are a total of 2,023 names in the list. 1,027 in the Royal Navy, 539 from the Army, 319 from the Royal Air Force, 84 in the Royal Marines, 35 in the Merchant Navy and 11 in the NAAFI.

From Ordinary Seaman to Admiral of the Fleet, Private to Lieutenant Colonel, and Aircraftman 1st Class to Wing Commander. Youngest 16, oldest 73.

82 men died on HMS Hood, 60 on HMS Royal Oak, and 43 on HMS Barham. 12 Died on D-Day.

2 George Crosses, 5 BEM, 2 CBE, 1 Cross of St George (Russia), 1 DCM, 9 DFC, 5 DFM, 4 DSC, 1 DSC and Bar, 2 DSO, 5 MBE, 1 MC, 3 OBE, 35 Mentions in Dispatches and 32 DSM and 2 DSM and Bar.

113 are buried in France, 60 in Germany, 102 in Italy, 128 in the Far East and 100 in North Africa. 632 are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on Southsea Common. 147 are buried in Milton Cemetery, 96 in Kingston Cemetery, and 35 in Highland Cemetery. To put that in perspective, more are buried in Milton Cemetery alone than are buried in France.

I have found some amazing stories – the Chindit, the 16 year old Para, the two brothers who died on the same plane, the submariners, the Paras, Prisoners of War, the Bomber Crew, Engineers, Sappers, Gunners, Ground Crew… all manner of men and women, of all ages, from all parts of Portsmouth, and from all walks of life. I guess the moral of this story is that war, and death, knows no distinction. Like the gravestones in War Cemeteries – all the same, row upon row.

This list was generated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the Council, in order to compile a list of names for the proposed WW2 memorial in Guildhall Square. It is clearly far from complete, however. There are many names on local war memorials that do not feature in the list and will require some further research. Also, using Geoff’s WW2 search engine has already helped me identify that there are many people who’s location is given as ‘Fratton’, and not ‘Portsmouth’, for example, and hence may have slipped the net.

So, the project is far from completed. The names that are inputted still require a lot of research, and there are potentially hundreds of other names that can be added to the list. I’m already starting to think about what to do with my findings – clearly, such a database does need to be available to the general public. I especially hope that young people may be able to use it for school projects and such like. The statistics should be able to tell us so much. I also have plenty of ideas for a website including pictures of each grave, so families may even be able to find pictures of the last resting place of their loved ones.

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Filed under Army, d-day, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

Portsmouth’s Glider Pilots

The Second World War saw the development of Gliders to transport airborne troops into battle. Alongside Parachute troops, Gliders enabled Armies to develop airborne forces on a substantial scale. The first decisive use of Gliders was in 1940 during the spectacular German coup-de-main seizure of Eben Emael, a border fortress in Belgium. By September 1944 the allies were able to launch 35,000 airborne troops during Operation Market.

One of the biggest problems with Gliders was their manning – just who was to fly them? The RAF was unwilling to waste precious aircrew on what it saw a peripheral task to its main roles or strategic bombing and air defence. Bomber Harris even scoffed at the thought of army troops flying Gliders.

But fly them they did. The Glider Pilot was formed from volunteers throughout the Army. Volunteers were given basic flying training to enable them to fly Gliders while being towed by a transport plane, and then to land them with a degree of accuracy and safety. Senior commanders in the Regiment flew Gliders on operations, including the CO, but the standard Glider aircrew consisted of a Staff Sergeant as Pilot and Sergeant as co-pilot. Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning qualified as a Glider Pilot after his attempts at Parachuting resulted in injury.

When they landed Glider Pilots formed up into infantry units, and provided a useful manpower reserve. In contrast, the American Glider Pilots were not combatants, and actually required troops to protect them. Flying Gliders was indeed a dangerous business: many paratroops remarked that they would rather parachute into battle than fly in an ‘oversize coffin’.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served with distinction at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. Several of those who were killed on operations. Staff Sergeant Roy Luff, 23 and from Buckland, was a member of the 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was killed on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – and is buried in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. Staff Sergeant Leonard Gardner was also a member of 1st Wing. A native of Portsmouth and 27, he was killed on 17 September 1944: the first day of Operation Market. His Glider, carrying Royal Engineers, disintegrated in the sky over England. He is buried in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Portsmouth Glider Pilots is that one of the Gliders they flew in action was designed in Portsmouth – the Airspeed Horsa. The Airspeed Company had a factory at Portsmouth Airport. You can see Horsa Gliders at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Airborne Assault at Duxford, the Army Air Corps Museum at Middle Wallop and the Assault Glider Trust at RAF Shawbury.

A Horsa Glider taking off

A Horsa Glider taking off

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