Category Archives: Royal Air Force

Portsmouth heroes update

Work has been progressing steadily on my Portsmouth Heroes project. At the moment I am researching a handful of some of the most interesting stories in detail, right down to when they were born, what kind of a background they came from, absolutely everything I can find out about them in order to try and understand what makes them tick.

I can remember reading Supreme Courage by Sir Peter de la Billiere, which is a fascinating profile of a number of Victoria Cross winners. DLB doesn’t just state the bare facts, he tries to get into the minds of the men in question, and explains how the came to show such inspiring bravery. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve here, only looking at Portsmouth men. Who stories, I hope, will be more accessible to local people.

Recently I have been researching:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth, a First World War veteran who served for years in submarines, transferred to B0mb Disposal and was killed defusing a Parachute Mine during the Blitz. He was awarded one of the first George Crosses posthumously.
  • Sergeant Sidney Cornell, a Paratrooper who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal in Normandy, fought in the Ardennes and the Rhine Crossing and was killed in the final battle for Germany in April 1945.
  • Lance Corporal Leslie Webb, a member of the 1st Hampshire Regiment who was mortally wounded landing in the first wave on D-Day, and was awarded a posthumous Military Medal.
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan, a Battle of Britain pilot who fought in the Battle of France, over Dunkirk and over southern England, claiming at least 6 downed enemy aircraft and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In August a Westland Lysander he was flying over northern France on a secret operation vanished.
  • Major Robert Easton, a pre-war Lancashire Fusilier who transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps, and won a Distinguished Service Order in the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. He was killed while second in command of his Regiment later that year.
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan, a Bomber pilot who flew early missions against Nazi Germany, then transferred to flying Beaufighters in North Africa and from Malta, where he commanded Squadrons. He was killed in the Mediterranean in 1944, after being awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar and a Belgian Croix de Guerre.
  • Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, a young Destroyer commander who saw action escorting convoys in the North Sea, Channel and Atlantic, took part in evacuating Dutch officials in 1940, and then saw service in the Mediterranean, escorting Convoys to Malta and attacking Axis shipping to North Africa. He was killed when his ship was sunk off Tobruk in May 1942. He was awarded the DSO, a DSC and was mentioned in despatches three times.

Its amazing how much you can find out. Navy, Army and Air Force lists are a godsend for tracing the careers of officers. Other ranks are slightly more tricky. Medal winners are easier too, as awards were announced in the London Gazette and you can obtain citations from the National Archives. The Portsmouth Evening News is very useful, but on microfilm it can take an age to trawl through! You can also get long-serving sailors and marines records from TNA too. A lengthy trip to the National Archives is in the offing, and probably the Imperial War Museum as well. And I can feel a few interlibrary loans in the offing too!

There are some other men I am keen to research too – such as Colour Sergeant Willie Bird of the Royal Marines,  Petty Officer Frank Collison and Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston of HM Submarine Triumph, Battery Quartermaster Sergeant Stanley Thayer and Major Maurice Budd. Then there are the interesting stories such as the Venables brothers who were killed in the same plane crash, Private Bobby Johns the underage Para, the massive losses on the Battleships Royal Oak, Hood and Barham, the POW’s in Europe and South East Asia, the brothers who died during the war, the Boy Seamen, the men who were killed on the SS Portsdown, the Merchant Seamen and NAAFI personnel, WAAFs, Wrens and ATS girls…

If there any stories that I have forgotten, or if anyone has any information about any of these men, or would like to chip in on anything about the whole project, I’m all ears. It’s hard knowing who to focus on, as with the best will in the world it would take me forever to research all 2,000+ men in such detail, and I’m hoping to take a representative sample of men and women who could have been anyone from Portsmouth.

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Filed under Army, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Defence Review – the rumour mill gathers pace

The mudslinging and inter-service squabbling regarding the Strategic Defence review has reached an undignified level in the past few days.

Firstly, Colonel Richard Kemp was quoted in the Sunday Express as saying that he would rather see an end to the three independent services than see the Army lose a single Infantry Battalion. Its probably worth pointing out that although Colonel Kemp is usually quoted as ‘former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan’, this was quite some time ago, prior to the current Helmand deployment.

In the Portsmouth News today Read Admiral Chris Parry stated that Kemp’s idea was ‘silly’, and that “No one in the services would go for it. The Canadians tried it and it was disastrous from a morale point of view and they couldn’t do their jobs properly.” Parry’s comments sound very much like a hissy fit. And whilst morale is very important, I wonder if the average sailor would be hugely bothered? I wonder whether the Canadian Forces structure is really as bad as Parry suggests – I doubt it.

These retired officers have clearly never heard of the dictum ‘when the armed forces argue, only the Treasury wins’. Will no-one poke their head above the parapet and at least say something constructive and realistic about UK Defence as a whole, rather than arguing their own corner and to hell with everyone else? No-one wants to go down in history as the commander who sold their service down the river, but once again the bigger picture seems to suffer.

By being so partisan and parochial, serving and retired officers are unwittingly making themselves into even juicier targets in the long-run. If they cannot come up with reasonable proposals for restructuring, then there is more chance that the Treasury will simply impose cuts arbitrarily.

This all comes as details emerge of possible cuts in the armed forces as a result of the Defence Review:

Royal Nacy Cuts

  • 2,000 personnel
  • 3 Amphibious Assault Ships
  • 2 Submarines

Apparently the Bay Class Landing Ships are seen as most vulnerable, and there has been talk of mothballing one of the Albion Class LDP’s. Both possibilities are ever so slightly ludicrous – the Bay Class ships have been great value and flexible platforms – landing ships, aid, disaster relief, transports, mother ships… Cutting Amphibious capability severely limits power projection. The possible cost of the 2 new Aircraft Carriers is all too evident now.

Army Cuts

  • 2,000 front line troops, plus 5,000 from Germany by 2015
  • 40% of Tanks, tracked artillery and Warrior armoured vehicles
  • Territorial Army cut from 32,000 to 15,000

It seems that the plan is to draw down the Army’s presence in Germany – this has already been slowly happening since 1990, and recently with the move of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps from Rheindalen to the UK, and 4 Mechanised Brigade from Germany to York. British Forces in Germany are in the main armoured, a legacy of the BAOR of the Cold War. Eventually the Army’s presence in Germany will probably consist of use of the huge Sennelager training area. Most commentators agree that in the current climate the Army is too armour-heavy, although whether 40% is the right level to cut remains to be seen. Cutting the TA by more than 50% is also likely to raise eyebrows.

RAF Cuts

  • 7,000 out of 42,000 personnel
  • All 120 Tornado Fighters/Ground Attack Aircraft
  • Combat Aircraft cut from 250 to less than 200
  • Joint Strike Fighter buy cut from 150 to less than 50

The early retirement of the Tornado before it has been fully replaced will undoubtedly leave a huge gap in the RAF’s inventory, with only a few Squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoons currently in service. In addition, the proposal to buy less than 50 JSF would seriously reduce the RAF’s close air support capability. And what it means for the Fleet Air Arm’s JSF plans, who knows? As with the Aircraft Carriers causing the loss of Assault Ships, it seems that the need to operate Eurofighter comes at the expense of other combat aircraft. Thankfully, there is no mention of any cuts to the RAF’s transport aircraft or helicopters – functions which the junior service has neglected somewhat in the past.

It should be added of course that there has been no indication of where these details actually came from… of course it could be a load of rubbish someone has made up… or, on the other hand, it could be something that the MOD has floated out to gauge opinion?

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Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC

On 17 August 1940, Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan, from Southsea and of 56 Squadron RAF, was killed in France. He was 25. There is a full biography of John Coghlan here.

Born in 1914 in Shanghai, Coghlan attended the Imperial Services College, before joining the RAF in 1937. His address in Southsea was 16 Worthing Road. Apparently he was a short, well-built man with darkk brushed back hair and a large moustache, and was friendly and unflappable. However he was also described as overweight and unfit, and had a ‘prodigious intake of ale’. He took over command of A Flight just before the Squadron departed for France in 1940. At one point during an air battle he had exhausted the ammunition in his machine guns, so proceeded to fire his Browning pistol at his enemy, earning the nickname of ‘Nine Gun’.

56 Squadron were based at RAF North Weald in Essex, and were flying Hurricanes in 1940. Part of 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, 56 Squadron were in the front line of the Battle of Britain. The Squadron had earlier provided air cover for the evacuation from Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain his personal aircraft was Hurricane US-N.

His was DFC gazetted on 30 July 1940:

This officer has been a flight commander in his squadron on most of the recent patrols and has led the squadron on some occasions. At all times he has shown the greatest initiative and courage and has personally destroyed at least six enemy aircraft.

The citation for his DFC suggests that he was in the thick of the air battles raging over southern England in the summer of 1940 – to have destroyed at least enemy aircraft was no mean feat. It is also notable that his DFC was announced in the London Gazette on 30 July – several weeks before his death, and indeed, the recommendation for an award would have predated the announcement by some time too. Therefore he may have accounted for even more aircraft.

But there’s more… Coghlan was not actually serving with 56 Squadron at the time of his death. According to acesofww2.com, he had attended a course at the Parachute Practice School at Ringway, Manchester on 7 August 1940. He took off on the night of 17/18 August 1940 in a Lysander aircraft to perform a special duties flight, but both he and the agent he was carrying were captured and executed. Whether this was a war crime or not depends on whether he was in uniform. If he was, Coghlan was entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. If not, then he was liable to be shot as a spy.

So, a pilot who appeared to be one of ‘the few’, was in actual fact not only one of the few, but one of the earliest of the RAF’s special duties pilots, who was sadly captured and executed in occupied France.

Operational Records and Log Books should – hopefully – tell us a lot more about John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan.

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‘The Third World War’: History and its effect on Defence Policy

I’ve just finished reading a quite remarkable book by General Sir John Hackett (he of Arnhem fame, who commanded by Grandad’s Parachute Brigade there). Known as the finest Soldier-Scholar of his age, and with a wealth of degrees to his name, Hackett put part of his retirement to imagining the circumstances, strategy and tactics of a Third Word war in the mid-1980′s world. Not only did this far-sighted book look at military, but also social and geopolitical factors. Also, Hackett showed a rare intelligence and fair-mindedness when commenting on Air Force and Naval issues.

Whilst it is ever so slightly in the realms of ‘what-if’ – something of a bane for historians – it is a very educated ‘what-if’. But something that was fairly concrete, was British Defence Policy from around 1947-ish until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone knew that the main threat emanated from Soviet Russia and the Warsaw pact, and the only discourse among the armed forces and politicians was about how exactly to face up to this threat. Certainly, there were disagreements – such as the RAF altering maps to support its claim that it could provide air cover for the Navy anywhere in the world – but on the whole, the arguments were about the how, not the what.

It also harks back to a time when British Defence policy had a firm anchor – ie, the Cold War. The Government was under no illusions as to the major commitments facing the British armed forces – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact as the likely opponents, with a large army based in Northern Germany, an anti-submarine based Navy, and a constant nuclear deterrent. Lesser commitments included Northern Ireland and defence of an ever-decreasing number of possessions abroad. But, largely, these commitments were known, and planned for accordingly.

Since the collapse of communism, defence policy has, to an extent, been in a vacuum. And given that the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland has effectively wound down since the Good Friday agreement, defence policy has been at even more of a loose end. British Forces have been involved in conflicts – principally in intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building – in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leonne, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The British Army in particular has built up quite an experience base of wars-among-the-people, originating in Northern Ireland. Indeed, others – such as the US – have often wondered if the UK has ‘gone soft’ when it comes to traditional warfighting.

Its an often quoted phrase that armed forces plan to fight the last war. This might be over-exaggerating things – in some cases, such as in the Second World War, officers like Monty were at pains to fight their wars to avoid the errors of their predecessors in the Great War. But in the same sense, the last conflict does inevitably have a huge bearing, in one way or another, on the planning for the next one. It could also be said, that in a strategic vacuum where no threat is perceived, then senior officers are liable to plan for the kind of war that they would like to fight – witness the British Army after 1918 going back to its Imperial policing roots, or the modern RAF with its Cold War-like stance over fighter jets.

So, where do we find ourselves now? In the short to medium future, it would be hard to argue that the UK faces the threat of a state-on-state war. The large countries that might pose a threat in the long-term – China and Russia, for example – might produce bluff and bluster with the west occasionally, but this is a long way from all-out war. The over-riding threats do seem to be asymetric – in terms of extremist terrorists, or perhaps in terms of failed states that might implode and require intervention – Yemen, or possibly even Pakistan for example.

And, in the present economic climate, where funding is likely to be tight for the forseable future, it will be impossible to be completely prepared for any eventuality – the funds simply do not allow it. It is a case of priorities, and – in a world where it is hard to assess threats and priorities – the most prudent course of action would seem to be to retain a capability to adapt at short to medium notice as threats emerge. But, also, it is fair to ask ourselves, are we holding onto capabilities and assets simply because we’re not sure what to do with them, or because they would have been useful in the last war?

The example of the pre-war mechanisation of the Cavalry is a case in point. The First World War should have made it clear to all and sundry that the tank was going to be a force in wars of the future. Yet after 1918 the Cavalry clung onto their horses well into the 1930′s – largely for sentimental reasons, or through a fear of change itself. Therefore the British Army of 1939 found itself far behind Nazi Germany when it came to armoured warfare. There were undoubtedly officers in the Army who would gladly have kept their horses, and would have seen British soldiers galloping off to war against the Panzers. Britain only formed its Airborne Forces in 1940 – long after Russia, Germany, or indeed Poland – because the Army as a whole looked on special forces as ‘not cricket’.

Are – and I am asking myself the question here, as much as anyone else – main battle tanks and fast fighter jets relics of the Cold War, much as the horse was a relic of Nineteenth Century British Army? Its perhaps not a perfect comparison – after all, I would not advocate completely scrapping all Challengers or Eurofighters – but maybe retaining a core element, expandable in times of crisis, would be more sensible? These are the kind of tough but searching questions that should be asked.

I guess the lesson from history is, you never have the luxury of picking what war you get to fight, nor of picking exactly how you want to fight it – unless you start it, of course. But when threats are not apparent, you should leave yourself able to respond as quickly as possible. And you do this by not over-commiting yourself in any one direction.

But to do that, we would need politicians who firstly won’t let the Treasury hold them hostage, and secondly, senior officers who can think holistically about UK Defence rather than their own service and their own places in the history books…

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Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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Filed under Army, debate, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, social history, World War Two

work starts on ‘Portsmouth’s heroes’

In the past week or so I have started researching the stories of some of Portsmouth’s fallen Sailors, Soldiers and airmen from the Second World War. To begin with I am focusing on a handful of men and their stories, and by finding out all I can about them I hope to try and give an impression of their sacrifice.

This week I have been researching Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC (RN Bomb Disposal), Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM (D-Day Para killed in Germany in 1945) and Lance Corporal Les Webb MM (1st Hants, seriously wounded on D-Day on Gold Beach and died of wounds a week later). I have a list of other names who I think will be very interesting to research and write about, and hopefully people will enjoy reading their stories too.

I have already had some successes early on – finding Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth’s service record on the National Archives online was a real bonus. The Evening News has given me some pretty useful death notices and thanks for sympathy messages, and announcements about medals. Personal notices in the local newspaper give a wonderful insight into the feelings that went with the loss of a loved one, as well as the names of family members, addresses, and other details that add so much depth and understanding to what is initially just a name, rank and a number. You cannot help but remember that these men were all someones husband, boyfriend, fiance, son, brother, father, grandson, nephew or uncle. The local Kelly’s directories and Electoral Registers also give a good idea of who was living where and when, and I have several certificates on order from the General Register Office.

It would be all too easy to just write about the battles and medals, but I think its important to look at the social side of these inspirational people, to find out who they were and what made them tick. That way we can try to understand that they really did come from the same streets that we do, and were human beings the same as us. We should be careful not to put them on a pedestal so much that their stories are out of touch, especially as the passage of time makes them seem from a different world in any case.

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940′s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 4)

27 decorations were won by 24 Portsmouth airmen who died during the Second World War. 5.7% of Portsmouth airmen were decorated in some way:

Distinguished Service Order
Wing Commander John Buchanan (227 Squadron, Beaufighters)

Distinguished Flying Cross
Flight Lieutenant Gerald Bird (97 Squadron, Manchesters)
Wing Commander John Buchanan (227 Squadron, Beaufighters)
Flying Officer John Coghlan (56 Squadron, Hurricanes)
Flying Officer Thomas Morris (unknown)
Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy (7 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant Benjamin McLaughlin (unknown)
Wing Commander Frank Dixon-Wright (115 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Lieutenant Donald Courtenay (511 Squadron, Yorks)
Flying Officer John Donohue (635 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant Dennis Woodruff (15 Squadron, Lancasters)

Distinguished Flying Medal
Flight Sergeant Arthur Smith (38 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Sergeant James Bundle (97 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant James Potter (233 Squadron, Hudsons)
Sergeant Francis Compton (35 Squadron, Halifaxes)
Flying Officer Frederick Brown (142 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Sergeant Raymond Hayles (15 Squadron, Lancasters)

Mentioned in Despatches
Group Captain Ernest McDonald CBE (144 Maintenance Unit) – twice MiD
Sergeant Arthur Knight (unknown)
Flight Sergeant Herbert Clarke (617 Squadron, Lancasters)

Commander of the British Empire
Group Captain Ernest Mcdonald (144 Maintenance Unit)

Member of the British Empire
Warrant Officer Edgar Juffs (unknown)

British Empire Medal
Flight Lieutenant John Holder (55 Squadron, Baltimores)
Pilot Officer John Philp (149 Squadron, Stirlings)
Flying Officer William Grant (166 Squadron, Lancaster)

Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal
Aircraftman 1st Class Jack Heap (151 Maintenance Unit, captured in Singapore)

Two men won more than one medal – Group Captain Mcdonald CBE MiD (twice) and Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC.

There seems to have been a fairly even split between officers and men winning awards – due to the specific nature of the air war, all men in the air were at the sharp end and had almost equal opportunities for showing bravery. Of course senior officers – pilots and commanders,for example – had more chance of winning leadership awards such as the DSO. Medals could also be awarded for prolonged good service or bravery rather than just one incident – something that was important given how Bomber crews in particular went up into the air night after night.

The vast majority of awards were given for men serving in bombers. Flight Lieutenant James Potter’s DFM was given for service with Hudson’s in Coastal Command. Flying Officer John Coghlan’s DFC was awarded for flying Hurricanes in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.

Another interesting point to note are two commissioned officers who were awarded Distinguished Flying Medals – an award normally given to NCO’s and men. These medals were obviously won while the recipients were NCO’s and before they were commissioned as officers.

Aircraftman 1st Class Jack Heap’s Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal was awarded posthumously for life saving deeds on 8 November 1944 whilst he was a prisoner of the Japanese after being captured at Singapore.

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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 Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 by Ian Smith Watson

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. No matter how you look on it, it just doesn’t sound that interesting. Which makes it all the more pleasing that in actual fact, its a very enlightening read.

I’m quite a latecomer to airshows – I’ve only ever been to one back in the early 90′s at the old HMS Daedelus in Gosport, and the last couple of years at Shoreham airshow. Its quite intereresting to read, therefore, that according to the author airshows were the second biggest participation events in Britain in the twentieth century, after football matches. Where this assertion comes from is not made clear, but all the same, as a spectacle the airshow holds a place in British social history.

The main focus of Ian Smith Watson is the RAF’s own official air displays from 1920, until the remaining annual display at RAF Leuchars. As a relatively young service the RAF has always had to gain the respect of the public, politicians and the other services, and as such it has learnt to market itself very effectively. As the operators of some seriously impressive hardware, the air show has become a valuable tool in the RAF’s PR armoury.

The first RAF airshows began soon after the service’s founding, in the early 1920′s at RAF Hendon. At that time it was still only some 20 years since the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, and aircraft were still a novelty and a big draw to the public. Locally, the airshows at Portsmouth’s new airport in the early 1920′s drew thousands of spectators – at the time it was almost the equivalent of NASA displaying the Space Shuttle.

Although interrupted by the war years – when naturally enough the RAF had enough on its plate without putting on displays – after 1945 a return to peacetime conditions ensued. Recognising once more a need to promote the service and engage with the public the Battle of Britain at home days were devised. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain was chosen, as it was seen as the RAF’s finest hour. Its interesting that even so soon after the end of the war the RAF was distancing itself from the fallout of the Bomber offensive. The ‘at home’ concept saw as many RAF bases as possible throwing open their doors to the public, with static and flying displays.

The post-war contraction of the RAF, coupled with the changing performance of aircraft, saw the number of shows gradually decline until they were taking place more on a regional basis, with bases such as Biggin Hill, Abingdon, St Athan, Finningley and Leuchars hosting major events. Gradually official aerobatic display teams were formed, leading to the world-famous red arrows.

One interesting factor that Smith Watson looks at is the involvement of foreign air forces. In the early 1950′s the RAF decided against inviting foreign airforces – apart from the US and Canada – for practical and protocol reasons. Within a few years, however, and with the decline of the RAF’s inventory a u-turn saw much of the ‘at home’ air shows being padded-out with foreign participants. Given the ever-decreasing size of the RAF and operational commitments, sadly the only official RAF airshow is now at RAF Leuchars, and RAF commitment to other civilian-organised shows is on the wane.

Perhaps in places the author is over-nostalgic, for example his dislike for the RAF’s attempt at trialling a new modern kind of airshow in recent years. People change, and so does society, and it takes different ways to engage. The other drawback with this book is that it focuses only on official RAF airshows, whereas in the broader remit there are many other air-minded events that might be interesting to research. But all the same, this book points the reader in that direction.

I think any writer can take a fashionable or well-known subject and churn out a book, but it takes a very gifted writer to take such a specialist subject and make it readable to a wider audience. It might also make interesting reading for an RAF PR officer, thinking about how to promote the service in public minds, especially with spending cuts looming.

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – focus on Bomber Command

As such a large percentage of Portsmouth airmen died whilst serving with Bomber Command, it makes sense to take a more detailed look at the manner in which they died.

Of the 208 Portsmouth airmen who died serving with Bombers, we have additional details about 138 of them thanks to the brilliant lostbombers website, which contains crash details for all Bombers lost over North West Europe during the war. The remaining 70 were either ground crew or serving in Bombers overseas. As we can see from the breakdown of where they were targetting, when and where they were lost accurately tells the story of the strategic Bomber Offensive.

Germany – 96

Portsmouth airmen were lost on raids on the following targets:

20 – Berlin
7 – Cologne
6 – Homberg
4 – Mannheim
3 – Dusseldorf
3 – Essen
3 – Frankfurt
3 – Hamburg
3 – Hannover
3 – Krefeld
3 – Mulheim
3 – Nuremberg
3 – Peenemunde
2 – Aachen
2 – Bremen
2 – Brunswick
2 – Dortmund
2 – Mainz
2 – Sterkrade
2 – Wilhelmshaven
1 – Bochum
1 – Chemnitz
1 – Duisburg
1 – Emmerich
1 – Gelsenkirchen
1 – Karlsruhe
1 – Kembs Dan
1 – Kiel Canal
1 – Koblenz
1 – Leipzig
1 – Lubeck
1 – Munich
1 – Osnabruck
1 – Russelheim
1 – Schweinfurt
1 – Stuttgart
1 – Witten
1 – Wuppertal

As we can see, most of the casualties were suffered in two areas – Berlin and the Ruhr. Berlin was heavily targetted due to its status as the Nazi capital. The Ruhr came in for special attention due to its high concentration of heavy industry, its relative closeness to airbases in England, and the ability to navigate to targets their from the coast.

15 of the 20 men killed while targetting Berlin were killed during the offensive known as the Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944. 24 March 1944 was a particularly heavy night, when 4 Portsmouth men were killed. Overall the Battle of Berlin caused the loss of 2,690 airmen and 500 aircraft.

19 men were lost during the period known as the Battle of the Ruhr, between March and July 1943. Raids were launched on Germany’s industrial heartland, and men were killed targetting cities such as Emmerich, Dortmund, Essen, Dusseldorf, Bochum, Cologne, Krefeld, Mulheim, Wuppertal and Cologne. Particularly heavy losses were experienced over Essen on 28 May (2 men killed), Krefeld on 2 June (3 men killed) and Cologne on 29 June and 4 July (2 men killed on each date).

3 Portsmouth men were also killed on the vitally important raid on Peenemunde on 18 August 1943. Peenemunde was the testing site for German V-Weapons. Other interesting targets were the U-boat pens at Wilhelmshaven, the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt, the Kembs Dam and the Kiel Canal. Interestingly, no Portsmouth airmen were killed in the infamous raids on Dresden or Hamburg.

Another fact that is most striking is the sheer number of targets that Bomber Command hit. Sure, we all know about Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne – but not about Homberg, Mannheim or Krefeld. German industry was spread far more widely than we might think, and part of Bomber Command’s ‘dehousing’ policy was to area bomb these cities and thus demoralise and dislocate the workforce. It was recognised early in the war in the 1941 Butt report that Bombers did not have the accuracy to effectively hit pinpoint targets at night.

France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Czech Republic – 25

2 – Pilsen
2 – Bourg-Leopold
1 – Vierzon
1 – St Leu d’Esserent
1 – Merville
1 – Normandy
1 – Mailly-le-Camp
1 – La Pallice
1 – Laon
1 – Achures
1 – Auberive-sur-Suippes
1 – Berry-au-Bac
1 – Boulogne
1 – Brest
1 – Caen
1 – Turin
1 – V Weapons sites
1 – Haine St Pierre
1 – Colombelles
1 – Courbonne
1 – Ypenburg
1 – Courtrai
1 – Battle Area (1940)

Bomber Command also struck at many targets outside of Germany. Pilsen in Czechoslovakia was targetted as it was the home of the huge Skoda auto works, and Turin in Italy as it was the home of Fiat – both were extremely long haul flights. Many of the targets in France were hit either in 1940 as the Germans advanced towards Dunkirk, or in 1944 either in the run up to D-Day or afterwards in an attempt to help the Allied armies take Caen or break out of the beachead. Notable raids include Merville, the battery that the Otway’s Paras disabled on D-Day; the V Weapons sites in Holland and Belgium, and the U-Boat base at Brest.

Other Missions 15

4 – Minelaying
4 – Anti-Shipping
2 – Communications
2 – Recconaisance
1 – Window
1 – Supply Drop to Resistance
1 – Invasion Ports

Bombers also performed a number of other roles during the war other than attacking German cities. Mines were laid in the North Sea and Baltic (known to the Bomber crews as ‘gardening’), and the Bombers also took on anti-shipping patrols. ‘Communications’ raids were mainly targetted at northern France in the run up to D-Day. ‘Window’ was the practise of dropping bundles of aluminium strips in the air to confuse German radar. One bomber was lost while dropping supplies to the resistance, two whilst performing ‘recconaisance’, and one whilst targetting invasion barges in channel ports in the summer of 1940.

Years

203 Portsmouth Bomber men were killed during wartime:

18 – 1940 (8.87%)
25 – 1941 (12.32%)
20 – 1942 (9.85%)
60 – 1943 (29.56%)
67 – 1944 (33%)
13 – 1945 (6.4%)

In terms of the intensisty of losses, the Bomber war seems to have been split into three distinct phases. From 1939 until 1942 Bomber Command lacked the numbers of both aircraft and crews to hit Germany with any intensity. Once Sir Arthur Harris took over Bomber Command in 1942 he was finally able to unleash a force experienced at flying at night, with increasing numbers, heavier aircraft such as the Lancaster, and with technology such as Oboe, Gee and Window becoming available. 1943 and 1944 saw the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Berlin, the raid on Peenemunde and the raids on targets in France in support of Operation Overlord. Once this phase was completed the Bombers went back to targetting Germany, but with the war ending in May 1945 and with German defences shattered losses were far lower.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 3)

Countries

The number of countries in which Portsmouth’s RAF fallen are buried or commemorated shows not only how the RAF was committed to fight in so many places, but also suggests where the main efforts were concentrated:

203 – UK (49.5%) inc. 70 Runnymede Memorial
46 – Germany (11.22%)
32 – France (7.8%)
25 – Holland (6.09%)
17 – Egypt (4.14%)
15 – Belgium (3.66%)
13 – Singapore (3.17%)
11 – Malta (2.68%)
10 – Italy (2.44%)
4 – Burma (0.98%)
4 – Canada “
3 – Iraq (0.73%)
3 – Norway “
3 – Sri Lanka “
2 – Libya (0.49%)
2 – USA “
1 – Bahamas (0.24%)
1 – Bangladesh “
1 – Gibraltar “
1 – Greece “
1 – Hong Kong “
1 – Indonesia “
1 – Japan “
1 – Kenya “
1 – New Zealand “
1 – Pakistan “
1 – Serbia “
1 – South Africa “
1 – Thailand “
1 – Uganda “
1 – Zimbabwe “

Clearly, the vast majority of men were killed over North West Europe, or at home in the UK. Many of those who died in the UK would have done so due to natural causes, although it is known that several died in crash landings or accidents in Britain.

Obviously Gemany was the main target for much of the war, Bombers had to overfly counties such as France, Holland and Belgium, and many Bomber aircrew are buried there as a result. For several months in 1944 targets in France were also heavily bombed as part of the plan to cripple the transport network in advance of Operation Overlord.

But there are also some other noticeable statistics too – the numbers of men killed in Egypt, for example, suggest how important the Middle East Air Forces were – and also the number of men killed on Malta also points to the intensity of the air battle there. Several men were also killed in Iraq, during an uprising at RAF Habbaniya in 1941 – the RAF had long been the service tasked with administering Iraq.

The sheer spread of casualties around so many countries shows just how far and wide the RAF served during the Second World War. In particular, fatalities in countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Bahamas suggest that the RAF was operating transport routes down the East Coast of Africa, across the Atlantic and across South East Asia. Deaths in the US and Canada were probably caused by accidents during training or ferrying operations.

Memorials

104 Portsmouth Airmen – 25.37% – have no known grave and are remembered on various memorials to the missing:

70 – Runnymede Memorial (Europe)
12 – Alamein Memorial (North Africa)
11 – Malta Memorial (Mediterranean)
11 – Singapore Memorial (Far East)

Men on the Runnymede and other Memorials mainly consist of aircrew lost at sea or whose remains could not be found, although other casualties are also included, such as RAF ground crew who were lost in the sinking of the Lancastria in 1940.

Due to the nature of air combat it was not always possibe to identify individual remains when aircraft crashed. As a result 33 Portsmouth airmen are buried in joint or collective graves along with their comrades.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 2)

We know the age of the majority of Portsmouth airmen who were killed during the Second World War. Most of them were incredibly young when they were killed, and also the vast majority of them were killed serving in Bombers.

Age

3 – 18 (0.73%)
14 – 19 (3.41%)
264 – 20′s (64.39%)
51 – 30′s (12.44%)
11 – 40′s (2.68%)
6 – 50′s (1.46%)
1 – 60′s (0.24%)

The age of 60 airmen – 14.63% – is unknown.

Airmen in their Twenties

That such a large percentage were in their 20′s warrants more detailed examination:

40 – 20
62 – 21
39 – 22
31 – 23
16 – 24
26 – 25
9 – 26
9 – 27
14 – 28
18 – 29

As we can see, the majority of Portsmouth airmen were in their early twenties. Overall, 46% of RAF servicemen from Portsmouth who were killed during the war were 23 or younger.

Another feature of RAF service is that men could reach quite senior rank whilst still relatively young. For example, Wing Commander Guy Gibson was 23 at the time of the Dambusters raid in 1943. By contrast, to command a Battalion an officer would have to be in their 30′s, and a major naval ship older still. But as the junior service, the RAF perhaps was less wedded to tradition and more open to promotion on merit rather than seniority.

It will be interesting to look at what parts of the RAF men came from, and whether, for example, Fighter Command or Bomber Command had younger aircrew.

Types of Aircraft

Of the 410 members of the RAF from Portsmouth who died during the Second World War we know what aircraft 267 of them were flying in at the time of their death.

Bombers – 208 (77.9%)

78 – Avro Lancaster (Bomber)
32 – Handley Page Halifax (Bomber)
29 – Vickers Wellington (Bomber)
19 – Bristol Blenheim (Light Bomber)
15 – Short Stirling (Bomber)
6 – Armstrong Whitworth Whitley (Bomber)
5 – Martin Baltimore (Bomber)
4 – Fairey Battle (Light Bomber)
4 – Consolidated Liberator (Bomber)
4 – De Havilland Mosquito (Light Bomber)
3 – Bristol Beaufort (Bomber)
2 – Douglas Boston (Light Bomber)
2 – Boeing Flying Fortress (Bomber)
2 – Vickers Vincent (Light Bomber)
1 – Avro Manchester (Bomber)
1 – Martin Marauder (Light Bomber)
1 – Lockheed Ventura (Bomber)

That such a large percentage of airmen died serving in Bombers is not surprising. Bomber Command was by far the largest part of the RAF, in terms of manpower and aircraft. Each aircraft had up to seven crew members, whereas most fighters had only one. And – particularly from 1943 onwards – Bomber Command launched hundreds of thousands of sorties over Germany and occupied Europe, leading to an incredibly high attrition rate. Research suggests that for every 100 airmen in Bomber Command 55 would be killed on operations, 3 would be injured, 12 would be taken Prisoner, 2 would evade capture, and 27 would survive the war unscathed. Sobering statistics indeed.

The statistics above also suggest the prime importance of the RAF’s big workhorse Bombers – the Lancaster, the Halifax and the Wellington.

Fighters – 22 (8.24%)

9 – Hawker Hurricane (Fighter)
8 – Supermarine Spitfire (Fighter)
3 – North American Mustang (Fighter)
1 – Boulton Paul Defiant (Fighter)
1 – Gloster Meteor (Jet fighter)

On first impressions, we might be suprised that such a small percentage of airmen were killed flying Fighters – after all, we all associate the Spirtfire with the RAF more than any other aircraft, do we not? Yet it is important to remember that Fighter Command was much smaller than Bomber Command. Also, while Bomber Command was in action virtually every night, Fighter Command experienced short periods of frenetic activity, intersersed with defensive patrolling. It would be accurate to think of Fighters as a smaller, more specialised force than Bombers, hence the lower losses – Fighter Pilots were indeed ‘the few’.

Between 1939 and 1945 Fighter Command lost 3,690 men killed. 4,790 aircraft were lost. During the same period Bomber Command lost 55,573 men killed.

Transport – 11 (4.12%)

6 – Douglas Dakota (Transport)
2 – Westland Lysander (Special Ops)
1 – De Havilland Albatross (Transport)
1 – Avro Anson (Transport/Trainer)
1 – Avro York (Transport)

Transport Command was one of the unsung parts of the RAF. Transport Command itself was formed in 1943 from Ferry Command, and other Transport aircraft also served with Army Co-operation Command. Although Transport Aircraft did not routinely go into action in the same manner as Fighters or Bombers, long-laul flying in various theatres meant that accidents were bound to occur.

Coastal/Maritime 11 (4.12%)

7 – Lockheed Hudson (Maritime Recce/Bomber)
2 – Consolidated Catalina (Flying Boat)
2 – Short Sunderland (Flying Boat)

Coastal Command played a crucial but little-known role in the Second World War, particularly in the defeat of the U-Boat menace. Coastal Aircraft flew over 240,000 sorties, sinking 212 U-Boats. 1,777 aircraft were lost, and 5,866 men were killed. Its interesting that these losses were higher than those of Fighter Command, yet perhaps Coastal Command’s less glamorous role has led to it being overlooked.

Ground Attack 7 (2.62%)

4 – Bristol Beaufighter (Ground Attack)
2 – Hawker Typhoon (Attack)
1 – Vultee Venegance (Dive Bomber)

The RAF also played a role in supporting Army operations – this can be seen to a lesser extent at Dunkirk, but the practise was pioneered by the Desert Air Force in North Africa and then the Second Tactical Air Force in North West Europe after D-Day.

Other units and roles

Of the 143 men and women of whom we have no aircraft details, we do have information about some of them. 1 was serving in an Airfield Construction Squadron, 3 with Barrage Balloons, 1 with Bomb Disposal, 3 with maintenance units, 1 was an Officer Cadet in training and 1 other man was serving with the RAF Regiment.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 1)

410 Airmen and women from Portsmouth died between 1939 and 1947. Analysing when and how they died tells us much not only about the war that the RAF fought, but also about the population of Portsmouth in the mid-twentieth century.

As with the Navy and Army we can analyse where in Portsmouth they came from, when they died, their ages, what ranks they held, and any decorations they were awarded. But RAF casualties also present us with some unique information – their roles, what aircraft they were flying, and even on what raids they were shot down.

Areas

96 – Southsea (23.41%)
47 – North End (11.46%)
40 – Cosham (9.76%)
25 – Copnor (6.1%)
15 – Fratton (3.66%)
11 – Stamshaw (2.68%)
10 – Drayton (2.44%)
9 – Milton (2.19%)
7 – Buckland (1.7%)
7 – Hilsea (1.7%)
6 – Paulsgrove (1.46%)
5 – East Cosham (1.22%)
5 – Farlington (1.22%)
4 – Eastney (0.98%)
3 – Mile End (0.73%)
2 – Portsea (0.49%)
1 – Wymering (0.24%)

49 men are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’ – 11.95%. The remainder of men are listed as coming from somewhere other than Portsmouth.

Firstly, most RAF men seem to have come from Southsea and outlying areas such as North End, Cosham and Copnor. Cosham in particular is an interesting case – with a relatively low population at the time, it contributed a much larger proportion of airmen than it did sailors and soldiers. Although it had a small population, Cosham woud have been home to more educated and middle class people. Given its more stringent entry requirements and need for specialist skills, its not surprising perhaps that many Cosham men joined the RAF – a case of round pegs in round holes. By comparison, much fewer airmen came from the inner-city areas such as Buckland and Fratton – and none at all from Landport.

When they died

When they died tell us an awful lot about the part that the RAF played in the war:

1 – 1939
36 – 1940
56 – 1941
48 – 1942
95 – 1943
110 – 1944
45 – 1945
14 – 1946
5 – 1947

The large numbers of men killed in 1943 and 1944 suggest that heavy casualties were suffered during Bomber Command’s Stategic Offensive over Germany. I will look more closely at these statistics in a future instalment.

Ranks

The RAF presents an interesting case where ranks are concerned, due to its unique structure.

100 of the Portsmouth Airmen who were killed during the war were commissioned officers – 24.39% of all airmen, a much higher proportion than either the Navy or Army:

2 – Group Captain
3 – Wing Commander
3 – Squadron Leader
20 – Flight Lieutenant
38 – Flying Officer
33 – Pilot Officer
1 – Officer Cadet

310 Portsmouth Airmen killed during the war were either NCO’s or other ranks:

12 – Warrant Officer
65 – Flight Sergeant
177 – Sergeant
16 – Corporal
22 – Leading Aircraftman
9 – Aircraftman 1st Class
7 – Aircraftman 2nd Class

Of these other ranks 270 – 87% – were NCO’s. This was due to the RAF’s unique rank structure. Virtually all air crew were promoted to NCO or officer rank, almost as a matter of course. Subsequently, few other ranks came into harms way during the war, and thus far fewer were killed. Whereas aircrew flying on Bombing missions night after night or were much more vulnerable. Obviously many thousands of ground crew – Aircraftsmen and Corporals, for example – would have been serving with the RAF during the war, but for the most part they would have been serving in relative safety compared to aircrew. The exceptions of course would have been theatres where ground crew were open to air attack or capture, such as at Singapore.

The RAF also had unique customs when it came to ranks. Whereas in the Navy and Army officers led and men followed, in the RAF ranks did not neccessarily correspond with roles. It was quite possible to have a crew made up completely of officers, and another crew made up completely of NCO’s. Therefore, in one aircraft a Flight Lieutenant might be an Air Gunner, whereas in the next plane the Pilot might be a Flight Sergeant.

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Kept in the Dark by John Stubbington

This forensic and incisive book by Wing Commander John Stubbington takes a comprehensive view of the intellingence – or lack of it – provided to Bomber Command during the Second World War.

It’s pretty much common knowledge nowadays that for the last few years of the war the allies were able to intercept the Germans Enigma Signals, and the decryptions of these signals were known as ULTRA. Of course, some sterling work went on at Bletchley Park by men such as Alan Turing and by British submariners in capturing Enigma codebooks. Perhaps the most well-known use of ULTRA intelligence was defeating the U-Boat menace during the Battle of the Atlantic, something that has been well described by John Terraine in The U-Boat Wars.

But having such a rich seem of intelligence is one thing, making good use of it is quite another. And we don’t ever hear much about the misuse of ULTRA intelligence – one of the most prominent in my mind if the debacle of Arnhem, where intercepts clearly placed the Panzer Divisions around Arnhem, but it seems that this fact was not passed down to the commanders who really needed to know the fact. And as Stubbington shows here, a similar situation existed in the RAF, where the Air Ministry, incredibly, did not pass on ULTRA intelligence to Bomber Command and its Chief, Sir Arthur Harris. Its even more incredible when we consider that his American counterparts at the US Eight Air Force had full access to ULTRA.

Why were Harris and Bomber Command kept out of the loop? It seems to have been down to a complex set of parochial and political issues pervading within the RAF. The existence of a Director of Bombing Operations at the Air Ministry, who was openly hostile to Harris, created tension that possibly led to a holding back of intelligence. A plethora of committees, departments and commanders in Whitehall and beyond were continually bickering about targets – Oil, transportation, U-Boat pens, dehousing etc – led to a lack of common purpose within the RAF. This lack of purpose made it all the more easy for Harris’s enemies to ensure that he did not receive ULTRA intelligence, that may well have informed and shaped his operational planning. To not pass ULTRA intelligence on to a commander of Harris’s level was most unusual, and must beg the question why.

Another argument that Stubbington advances is that perhaps Harris was seen as too unreliable to be trusted with ULTRA. There is no evidence to suggest that Harris was a security risk, and in any case if any officer cannot be trusted, should they really be in command anyway? There is no evidence to suggest that ULTRA was witheld for this reason, but my hunch is that it is a reason that could well have been quietly expounded by Harris’s enemies. Time and time again we read that the allies were paranoid about the ULTRA secret leaking out, to the extent of witholding its benefits from key officers.

Would ULTRA intelligence have made much of a difference to Bombing Operations, had Harris been in receipt of it? Stubbington suggests here that ULTRA decrypts would have shown just how pivotal the destruction of Germany’s transportation system was. ULTRA might have made Harris better armed when it came to arguing over target policy. And by denying the commander most responsible for directing the Bomber offensive the most valuable source of intelligence available, the whitehall warriors were commiting a shameful act.

This is a most insightful book by Wing Commander Stubbington. It draws on a wealth of original research and uses a wide range of sources, and it will infom the historiography of ULTRA and wartime intelligence, and also the controversial history of the Bomber Offensive.

Kept in the Dark is published by Pen and Sword

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