Category Archives: Royal Marines

Portsmouth Second World War Dead – An appeal!

British battleship HMS BARHAM explodes as her ...

HMS Barham exploding in 1941 (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m currently working on a book about people from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any information at all about any relatives from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War, seving with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, Merchant Navy, ATS, NAAFI, British Red Cross and the Home Guard.

Any stories, documents, photographs, memories etc would be extremely useful, and I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who may be able to help.

In particular, I am looking for information and photographs about the following:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, a mine disposal rating from HMS Vernon
  • Seamen who were killed serving on the Portsmouth based battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In particular Frederick Bealing (Royal Oak),
  • Portsmouth Submariners, particularly HMS Triumph (disappeared in the Med in 1942), and especially Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston DSM and Bar and Petty Officer Frank Collison DSM and Bar
  • Any Boy Seamen from Portsmouth who were killed (aged 18 or under)
  • Lieutenant Commander William Hussey DSO DSC, the Commander of HMS Lively when she was sunk off Tobruk in 1942
  • Royal Marines from Portsmouth, in particular Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird, a 62 year old WW1 veteran who died in 1943
  • Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, of the Royal Armoured Corps who was killed in Italy in 1944
  • Portsmouth men who died as Prisoners of War, particularly Private William Starling who died after VE Day in Czechoslovakia, and Sapper Ernest Bailey who was murdered by the Gestapo in Norway in 1942
  • Portsmouth men who were killed fighting with the Hampshire Regiment, particularly Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM (D-Day) and Corporal Mark Pook MM (Italy)
  • Men killed on D-Day and in Normandy, especially Sergeant Sidney Cornell DCM and Private Bobby Johns (aged 16) 
  • Portsmouth men killed fighting in the Far East – including in Singapore, Burma, and as Prisoners of the Japanese building the Burma Railway
  • Bomber aircrew from Portsmouth, especially Flight Sergeant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Sergeant Francis Compton DFM
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan DFC, a Battle of Britain and Special Operations pilot
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC, a Bomber Squadron commander who fought in the Mediterranean and North Africa
  • Flight Lieutenants Arthur and Ernest Venables, brothers killed when their Dakota crashed in Southern France after VE Day
  • The Merchant Navy – particularly the SS Portsdown, an Isle of Wight Ferry mined in 1941
  • The NAAFI
  • Women at War – the Wrens, ATS, WAAFS, British Red Cross

Or indeed any other stories that I may have missed.

I have a database of 2,549 Portsmouth servicemen and women killed between September 1939 and December 1947; sadly it is impossible to write about all of them, but hopefully I can pay tribute to them all by telling some of their stories.

Any stories at all will be of interest, its these kind of personal stories that really bring home the impact of war on families and communities.

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Filed under Army, d-day, far east, merchant navy, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

The effects of LSD on British troops – 1964

This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. In 1964 military authorities tested the effects of LSD on a section of Royal Marines. As you can see the results were startling or hilarious, depending on your point of view!

And not to be outdone, heres Uncle Sam‘s finest undergoing the same kind of test…

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Filed under Royal Marines, Uncategorized, videos

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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Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines

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

Formed back in the eighteenth century, the Royal Marines have a long and illustrious history of service at sea. Much of the Corps served onboard Royal Naval ships, providing security, landing and boarding parties, bands and – on larger ships – crewing one of the main guns.

Yet the Second World War found the Royal Marines involved more than ever before in a new form of warfare – amphibious operations. In modern times the Marines are known primary for their green beret, command role. But in the Second World War the Royal Marine Commandos were a pretty new concept.

116 Royal Marines from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. As one of the main manning ports of the Corps, a large proportion of men came to settle in the area.

Areas

35 – Southsea (30.17%)
13 – Eastney (11.2%)
9 – Milton (7.76%)
8 – Fratton (6.9%)
7 – Copnor (6.03%)
5 – Cosham (4.31%)
3 – North End (2.59%)
2 – Mile End (1.72%)
1 – Buckland (0.86%)
1 – East Cosham (0.86%)
1 – Landport (0.86%)
1 – Paulsgrove (0.86%)
1 – Portsea (0.86%)

27 Royal Marines – 23.28% – are listed simpy as from Portsmouth. The remainder are unknown, or appear to come from somewhere else but perhaps have some Portsmouth connections.

The concentration of so many Royal Marines living in Southsea, Eastney, Milton and Fratton is not surprising, given the presence of the Marines Barracks at Eastney.

Years

11 – 1939 (9.48%)
6 – 1940 (5.17%)
45 – 1941 (38.79%)
20 – 1942 (17.24%)
13 – 1943 (11.2%)
9 – 1944 (7.76%)
7 – 1945 (6.03%)
5 – 1946 (4.31%)
1 – 1947 (0.86%)

All but one of the men killed in 1939 went down on HMS Royal Oak. The large number of men killed in 1941 is due to the large number of casualties suffered in the sinkings of HMS Hood and HMS Barham.

Ages

10 – teenagers (inc. 2 17 year olds) (8.62%)
39 – 20’s (33.62%)
28 – 30’s (24.14%)
15 – 40’s (12.93%)
5 – 50’s (4.31%)
2 – 60’s (1.72%)

The age of 18 Royal Marines – 15.52% – is unknown.

The majority of Royal Marines were in their 20’s or 30’s. Its noticeable, however, that the Royal Marines also contained a sizeable number of teenagers. A number of older former Marines were recalled to the sevice to act as instructors or in an administration role during the war, and these account for the men who were in their 50’s and 60’s.

Ranks

6 Portsmouth Marines – 5.17% – killed during the war were officers:

3 – Captain
3 – Lieutenant

The remaining 110 Marines – 94.83% – were NCO’s or junior ratings:

1 – Master at Arms
1 – Company Sergeant Major
2 – Quartermaster Sergeant
8 – Colour Sergeant
11 – Sergeant
4 – Bandmaster
5 – Corporal
2 – Lance Corporal
74 – Marine
2 – Boy Bugler

Units

The vast majority of Marines who were killed during the war became casualties while serving onboard ships:

57 – Ship duty (49.14%)
22 – RM Band Service (18.97%)
21 – unknown (18.1%)
6 – Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisation (5.17%)
4 – Commando (6.9%)
3 – Landing Craft (2.59%)
2 – RM Police (1.72%)
1 – RM Engineers (0.86%)

In particular, many Marines lost their lives onboard the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In addition, most of the Royal Marine Bandsmen who were killed were onboard ships. Although sea service was the overwhelming tradition of the Corps, there is evidence that the Royal Marines were beginning to diversify – forming Commando units, crewing Landing Craft, and providing personnel for the Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisations.

Cemeteries and Memorials

As the vast majority of Marines – 70 men, 60.34% – were lost at sea, most have no known grave other than the sea and are remembered on the various naval memorials:

63 – Portsmouth Memorial
5 – Plymouth Memorial
2 – Chatham Memorial

46 men – 39.66% – were buried ashore:

30 – UK
3 – Egypt
3 – Italy
3 – Sri Lanka
2 – France
2 – Holland
1 – Australia
1 – India
1 – Malta
1 – New Zealand

Of the men buried in the UK, 9 were buried in Highland Road Cemetery (close to the Marine Barracks at Eastney), 6 in Milton Cemetery and 2 in Kingston Cemetery. Others were buried in other naval locations, such as Haslar, Lyness, Milford Haven, Portland.

Many of the overseas burials seem to have been men who were taken ill onboard ship and died in hospital in principal naval ports, such as Sri Lanka or Malta. One Marine who died in France was killed at Dieppe, another the day after D-Day. One man in Holland was killed in the Walcheren landings, another – a Marines Engineer – was killed in the Rhine Crossing.

Decorations

4 Portsmouth Marines who died during the war – 6.9% – were the holders of some kind of decoration:

Cross of St George 4th Class (Russia)
Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird (won in WW1 at Jutland)

Mentioned in Despatches
Sergeant Arthur Bradley (47 Commando, Malta Convoys)
Sergeant Christopher Blake (Northern Waters)

Kings Badge
Sergeant John Maker

The Kings Badge was awarded to the best all-round recruit in each intake of Marines.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth WW2 Dead Project: completed!

This afternoon I finished inputting the last of the 2,548 names of Portsmouth men an women who died whilst serving in the Armed Forces, between 1939 and 1947. Of course, this kind of project is never truly ‘finished’, as you can be sure that new names will crop up from time to time. And now the work shift towards finding out as much about each of the names in my database, in order to be able to tell their stories.

The names primarily come from the Portsmouth City Council list, compiled for the planned Portsmouth WW2 memorial. I am very grateful to Tim Backhouse of memorials for providing me with a list of names that appear on local war memorials but not on te PCC list (126 names). I have also used Geoff’s WW2 search engine to find more names that do not appear on the PCC list (355 names). Some of the names on the PCC list also appear to have come from Portsmouth in Lancashire, and these names have been omitted frm my database.

In the coming weeks I will be looking in detail at the statistics that come from the list. But to begin with, here are a few facts:

  • 1291 Royal Navy (50.67%)
  • 674 Army (26.45%)
  • 410 Royal Air Force (16.09%)
  • 115 Royal Marines (4.51%)
  • 42 Merchant Navy (1.65%)
  • 13 NAAFI (0.51%)
  • 5 ATS (0.19%)
  • 1 Red Cross (0.04%)

They came from all over Portsmouth:

  • 588 from Southsea (23.08%)
  • 242 from North End (9.5%)
  • 231 from Copnor (9.07%)
  • 203 from Cosham (7.97%)
  • 113 from Fratton (4.43%)
  • 105 from Milton (4.12%)
  • 85 from Stamshaw (3.34%)
  • 71 from Buckland (2.79%)
  • 66 from Eastney (2.59%)
  • 44 from Hilsea (1.73%)
  • 36 from Landport (1.41%)
  • 33 from Drayton (1.3%)
  • 33 from Mile End (1.3%)
  • 24 from Farlington (0.94%)
  • 22 from Paulsgrove (0.86%)
  • 21 from Portsea (0.82%)
  • 17 from East Cosham (0.67%)
  • 11 from Wymering (0.43%)
  • 8 from Kingston (0.31%)
  • 2 from East Southsea (0.08%)

318 men – 12.48% – are listed as from simply ‘Portsmouth’, the rest are either unknown or appear to come from somewhere else in the country.  However, unless we know otherwise it is best to assume that they had some kind of Portsmouth connection for their names to be put forward to the memorial.

The first men from Portsmouth to die in the Second World War were killed on 10 September 1939 – Able Seaman John Banks and Leading Seaman Percy Farbrace of HM Submarine Oxley, and Able Seaman William Holt of HMS Hyperion.

Private George Rowntree, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, died on 24 December 1947. Aged 43 and from Wymering, he was the last man from Portsmouth to die during the period regarded as the Second World War for war grave purposes.

The oldest Portsmouth serviceman to die between 1939 and 1947 was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes GCB KCVO CMG DSO, who died of natural causes on 26 December 1945. He is buried in Dover. Keyes had been commander in chief at Portsmouth and also a local MP, as well as a former First Sea Lord and Chief of combined operations.

The youngest Portsmouth serviceman to die were Private Robert Johns of the Parachute Regiment, Boys 1st Class Gordon Ogden, Robert Spalding and Cecil Edwards of HMS Royal Oak, Ordinary Seaman Colin Duke of SS Irishman, Apprentice Tradesman L.H. Ward of the Army Technical School, Boy 1st Class Jack Lamb of HMS Dunedin, and Apprentice Electrical Artificer Raymond Whitehorn of HMS Raleigh. They were all 16.

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Filed under Army, Family History, Local History, merchant navy, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

local military history events this summer

Its looking like a bumper summer for all things military history in the Portsmouth area. If I’ve missed any out, feel free to comment!

Overlord Vehicle Show – 28 to 31 May 2010

This event takes place every year at the Horndean showground near Portsmouth, and is organised by the Solent Overlord Executive Military Vehicle Club. For 4 days from 9am until 5.30pm you can take a good look at a whole host of military vehicles, re-enactors, arena events and stalls. This year the shows designated charity is the Gurkha Welfare Trust. For more information click here, and to look at some pictures from last years event, click here.

South Coast Proms – 25 and 26 June 2010

This is a brand new event, featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines – only the best military band in the world! Its taking place on Whale Island, a naval base normally closed to the public. Pre-show entertainment starts at 6.30pm each night, and the evening will end on a high with the traditional Naval Ceremonial Sunset and a fireworks finale. For more information click here.

Para Spectacular and Veterans Day – 3 and 4 July 2010

This event began life as the Pompey Paras spectacular over twenty years ago. This year, for the second year running, its a two-day event and incorporates the Armed Forces and Veterans Day. It takes place on Southsea Common, and features a range of dislays, arena events, and parachute displays. According to the local media an Apache might even make an appearance! The day ends with a marchpast of veterans and a performance from the Parachute Regiment band. As the Grandson of a Para I always try and make an appearance if I can. For more information click here, and to see pictures of last years event click here.

Navy Days – 30 July to 01 August 2010

This biennial event takes place at Portsmouth Dockyard. Aimed at showcasing the Royal Navy past, present and future, we can expect a wide array of ships, displays, arena events, aerial and water displays, and a whole host of entertainment. Already confirmed to appear are HMS Daring and Dauntless, the two new Type 45 Destroyers; RFA Argus, an aviation training and casualty receiving ship; two Type 23 Frigates; HMS Cattistock, a mine-countermeasures vessel; HMS Tyne, a fishery patrol vessel; and HMS Gleaner, an inshore survey launch. Nearer the event we can also expect some foreign warships to be announced. As well as the modern ships visitors will be able to see all the usual attractions of the historic dockyard. The Royal Marines band will be performing, along with the Royal Signals white helmets motorcycle display team, and the Brickwoods Field Gun competition. In the air, the Royal Navy Black Cats helicopter display team will appear, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance, and the Royal Artillery Black Knights Parachute Display team. Looks like a great day out. For more infomation click here.

Shoreham Airshow – 21 to 22 August 2010

The last event of the year is the annual Battle of Britain airshow at Shoreham airport. Headlining the show this year are contributions from the RAF, in the shape of a Harrier GR9, Hawk T1, Tucano T1, King Air, Grob Tutor, the Lancaster, Spitifire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and the Falcons parachute display team (saturday only). On Sunday the Red Devils Parachute Display team will be performing. A wide array of civilian displays are expected – Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnats, BAC Strikemaster, De Havilland Vampire, Catalina Flying Boat, a large number of Spitfires and Hurricanes, B-17 Flying Fortress, and a number of aerobatic displays. As well as the aerial displays there are always a wide range of static displays, including from the armed forces, and re-enactors. I’ve been the past two years and always had a great time. For more information click here.

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Filed under airshow, Army, d-day, Dockyard, event, maritime history, Music, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized

World at War weekend at Fort Nelson

I’ve just got back from the World at War weekend at Fort Nelson.

The main event involved an re-enactment of a raid on a fort on the Franco-German border in late 1944. The British had captured the fort, and a scouting force had left the fort on a patrol. A German force entered the fort, killed the commanding officer and set up an ambush.

The British troops – of the Devonshire and Hampshire Regiments – returned, in a half-track and on foot. Suddenly the Germans fired a Panzerschrek at the half-track, and ambushed the British. Returning fire, the British were hard pressed. Reinforcements arrived in the shape of an American patrol, a British airborne anti-tank gun, and a Royal Artillery Sexton Self propelled gun. With the extra firepower the British eventually assaulted the German positions, clearing the fort and taking them prisoner. Although slightly fanciful, interpretations such as this make great watching for kids and adults alike.

I also watched a brilliant interpretation of the Cockleshell Heroes raid – Operation Frankton – based on the recollections of Marine Bill Sparks, one of the survivors of the raid. Again, brilliant to watch.

There were also a whole host of military vehicles on display – including a number of Second World War Jeeps, with one in British Airborne Recce markings, and another marked as a Red Army lend-lease Jeep. There was also a British Army truck in 2nd Army markings, and a US Army truck.

Also outside were a number of post-war British vehicles. There were a number of Land Rovers, including a Bomb Disposal, and a couple of lightweights. Interestingly, there was also a Humber Pig, an armoured vehicle used in Northern Ireland, in the markings of J (Sidi Rezegh) Battery, 3 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. Two of my uncles served in J Battery in the 1970’s.

Fort Nelson is definitely one of the best-kept secrets about local military history. There’s always plenty of events going on up there, and you only have to pay to go in on special event days. How many people live only a mile or two away but don’t even know that exists?

Click here to look at my Flickr photo album

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Filed under Army, event, Local History, out and about, Royal Marines, World War Two

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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Falklands then and now: The Reckoning

After looking at the military aspects of any future war between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands, it’s now time to try and pull together and form some kind of conclusion.

I have enjoyed the discussions I have had here and elsewhere immensely, and in most cases the contributions that people have made have helped shape my own thoughts on the subject. Apart from the odd snobby comment the series has been very well received. I’m glad to have been able to make my own small contribution to debate over defence issues.

I selected the Falklands War for a case study not only because it has become tedious every time someone says ‘we could not fight another Falklands’, but as a historical example of a challenging tri-service operation it provides us with a relatively sound basis for comparing then and now. If we want to know where we are going, we need to be aware of where we are and where we have come from.

Key points

With a weaker Aircraft Carrier fleet and the retirement of the Sea Harrier any task force would struggle for air defence, in terms of numbers and effectiveness. Light Carriers proved their worth in 1982. A dedicated Naval Fighter is crucial. Without it we are lacking a layer of air defence.

The Royal Navy now has a stronger and more flexible Amphibious Warfare flotilla, and is geared up towards expeditionary warfare. However with inadequate air defence would it be possible to win sufficient air superiority to safely deploy it?

The number of Destroyers and Frigates has been cut dramatically. It is very unlikely that the Royal Navy could put together a big enough fleet to escort a task force as in 1982. There are also fewer classes of ship. The Type 45 Destroyers promise much, but there are too few of them and they are as yet unproven.

The cutting of the RFA to minimal levels means that the Royal Navy could almost certainly not operate a large task force at distance from the UK and without friendly bases – the scenario that was faced in 1982.

The Merchant Navy has also shrunk dramatically, to the point where it could not offer anything like the support that it did in 1982. Given also the pitiful state of the RFA, this makes the logistical support of any task group virtually impossible.

Whilst submarines proved to be crucial in keeping the Argentine Navy at bay in 1982, in 2009 the Royal Navy has a lot less boats available, and no diesel-electrics. However they do possess a useful strategic weapon in Tomahawk.

British Land Forces as a whole are leaner but meaner than in 1982, and also better equipped. Virtually all British units have seen service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Overstretch and deployments would limit what troops would be available.

The RAF no longer possesses a long range Bomber like the Vulcan. This however would be negated by Tomahawk. Helicopter support for the Land Forces would be crucial. Apaches also offer a useful new capability.

Command systems are much more flexible than in 1982, and much more geared up to ‘out-of-area’ operations.

Final Thoughts

So although there are some pretty depressing negatives, there are some positives to take from this analysis: some new and improved capabilities such as Tomahawk, more experienced and better equipped troops, and a better command system and culture.

However compared to these positives, the negatives are overpowering. With weaker air defence a task force would be much more vulnerable, particularly in the amphibious phase. The critical lack of Destroyers and Frigates would leave gaps in our anti-air, anti-surface and gunfire support roles. But the state of the RFA and the Merchant Navy might make the launching of any task force a non-starter simply due to an ability to maintain it logistically. It is hard to see the point of having such a strong Amphibious group if we are unable to protect it or to maintain it.

Against this background, the next natural step is to question what exactly the Government intends for British Defence policy. Effectively British Forces rely on friendly sea based air cover, and allied Destroyers and Frigates to assist in escorting and air defence. The Royal Navy is also reliant on friendly logistical support. While the Government espouses a Global Defence policy, the Royal Navy is effectively unable to operate Globally due to a lack of resources.

It could be said that another Falklands – or indeed any scenario like it – is unlikely. That is probably accurate, for all I know. But who saw the first Falklands War coming? Who could have predicted 9/11? Whilst we cannot plan for every eventuality, we can look back at history and see what can go wrong if we leave ourselves inflexible to changing world situations. It would be hard to argue that British defence policy is not facing a very serious phase in the next couple of years.

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Filed under Army, Falklands War, Navy, rfa, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Vulcan Bomber

The Dieppe Raid – Marine William Rhodes

Allegedly, the raid on Dieppe gave valuable lessons that were put into place for the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day. However, historians such as Brian Lorings Villa have suggested that the raid was launched Lord Louis Mountbatten without approval from his seniors, and the story about ‘lessons’ was propogated afterwards to cover-up the poor planning and execution and the heavy losses suffered, particularly by Canadian troops. The raid remains highly controversial to this day, particularly in Canada.

Mountbatten, a member of the royal family and a favourite of Winston Churchill, was definitely used to getting his own way and bending the rules. He was also a master of self-promotion, so the story of ‘lessons for D-Day’ is hardly surprising. In truth, it should not have taken the deaths of almost a thousand men to learn these lessons: it was obvious even before the raid that it would be folly to attack a port full frontally. Many of the unique projects that aided D-Day were already under development at the time of Dieppe.

A total of 962 Canadian, British and American men were killed, unbelievably high losses for one day of battle. Among them was Marine William Rhodes, 36 and from Southsea. He landed with 40 Commando Royal Marines, and was killed on 19 August 1942. He is buried at Pihen-les-Guines Cemetery, France.

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Falklands then and now: Land Forces

Although it is the job of the Royal Navy to defeat the enemy surface threat and make conditions favourable for any amphibious landing, it is only the Royal Marines or Army who can take the fight to the enemy on land.

Historically the British Army has by and large been a small, professional force that has been described elsewhere as a bullet to be fired by the Royal Navy, and then retrieved. This happened in numerous imperial conflicts, and the Falklands was perhaps the last example of this kind of operation.

The picture in 1982

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

1982 found the British Army in a curious position historically. For the first time in its history it had something of a primacy within the armed forces, with its huge treaty commitment to NATO in the shape of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). In 1982 a whole British Corps was stationed in Germany, consisting of 4 Armoured Divisions. This was largely of deterrence value, against the Warsaw pact across the inner German Border.

Alongside Germany, Northern Ireland represented a major commitment to the British Army from 1969 onwards. In 1980 11,000 troops were deployed in the province. The commitment to Northern Ireland also weakened BAOR, as troops from Germany also took turns serving there. Although this represented a drain on the Army’s manpower, it also had benefits. Referred to as a ‘Corporals war’, it gave young soldiers a steep learning curve.

Britain did maintain a small force designated for ‘out of area’ operations or to reinforce NATO’s flanks: in the main, this comprised 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines, and 5 Airborne Brigade. In public consciousness Paras and Marines always appear whenever there is a crisis. In 1982, however, armoured warfare in North Europe dominated British military thinking.

That 3 Commando Brigade and 5 Brigade comprised the land forces sent to the Falklands was natural, as they were the forces on high alert for out of area operations – BAOR could not be weakened, nor could Northern Ireland. The other troops sent to the Falklands – the Welsh and Scots Guards – had just finished public duties, but were all that could be spared.

By and large the performance of British land forces in the Falklands was exemplary. Even when heavily outnumbered, without air superiority and with scant helicopter support, their training, motivation and leadership won out. The reputation of units such as the Paras, the Royal Marines and the Gurkhas had a powerful psychological effect on the young Argentine conscripts.

The picture in 2009

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

The British Army has been radically reduced since the end of the Cold War, as part of the so-called ‘peace-dividend’. In addition the peace process in Northern Ireland has led to a draw-down in Army commitments there. This has also led to cuts.

Any future Falklands land war would again fall upon the infantry, given the terrain in the Falklands. In 2009, the Army consists of 37 Battalions of regular infantry. 22 of these are light infantry, 7 armoured, 4 Air Assault, 3 mechanised, and 1 demonstration. Of these 3 are performing public duties.

The Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade would be the ideal spearhead of any land forces to retake the Falklands, given their expertise and experience in Amphibious warfare. The Brigade currently consists of 3 RM Commandos and an attached Army Battalion. This would probably require reinforcing by at least another Army Brigade, as in 1982, as well as their supporting arms – logistics, engineering, artillery, and so forth.

At the time of writing over 10,000 British soldiers are in Afghanistan. Currently this consists of 4 infantry Battalions as well as supporting troops. Brigades serve in Afghanistan for 6 months, in some cases with 18 months in between deployments. When we consider work-up training, post-deployment leave, etc, the overstretch is even starker. If any Argentine invasion of the Falklands took place this would severely restrict the troops available, in the same way that BAOR and Northern Ireland did in 1982. If it happened while 3 Commando Brigade, the specialist amphibious infantry, were in Afghanistan, then any land force would be severely handicapped.

There are positives, however. Virtually all of the Army’s Battalions have been deployed on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years, against a formidable enemy in the Taliban. This can only have heightened professionalism and fighting edge, particularly among line infantry Battalions who are perhaps not as glamorous as the Marines or the Paras. An average line infantry Battalion would probably be more capable of fighting a Goose Green that it would have been in 1982.

However, the Argentine forces will in all likelihood also have improved on their 1982 state. The ending of conscription will have led to a more professional army. It can no longer intervene in internal politics, and hence resembles a modern Army that is soleley focussed on soldiering. It has also been able to co-operate more with allies, such as the US, and a thaw in relations with Chile has removed the need to station large forces on that border. This would free up specialist mountain warfare troops, unlike in 1982.

Conclusion

Although the British Army is much leaner than in 1982, it is in a lot of ways meaner. In addition, it is more flexible, both structurally and doctrinally. It is less focussed on one particular theatre, and out-of-area operations are now the norm rather than the rule. The line infantry on the whole is more experienced than it was in 1982.

Having said that, overstretch caused by operations in Afghanistan would severely limit the kind of force that could be generated. A best case scenario would see 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade both available; a compromise situation would either of the Commando or Air Assault Brigades reinforced by another Army Brigade, and a worst case scenario would see neither the Commando nor Air Assault Brigades available.

In the Argentine Army, it could also expect to face a more professional, better trained and better motivated enemy, who would be able to deploy more reinforcements, particularly elite troops and specialist mountain warfare units.

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Falklands then and now: Amphibious Warfare

Britain, and particularly the Royal Navy, were among the pioneers of amphibious warfare – that is, moving your troops from the sea to land, and keeping them there. After Galipoli, and a ‘reverse invasion’ at Dunkirk, lessons were put to effect in Sicily, and later on in Normandy.

So how was it that Amphibious Warfare was in such a perilous state in 1982? Although the capability had been proven time and time again in action and in exercise, and the Royal Marines Commando Brigade had a role as reinforcements for NATO’s northern flank, amphibious warfare was seen as a low priority. The Royal Navy’s emphasis was still mainly on anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet Union in the North Sea and North Atlantic.

The picture in 1982

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

The Royal Navy had post-war trialled the concept of the Commando Carrier: an Aircraft Carrier operating Helicopters to land a Royal Marines force. These were used effectively in Suez in 1956. However, given the shortage of Carriers in 1982, and that the task force needed both available flat tops for providing air defence, the Commando Brigade – the spearhead of the land forces – would have to rely on the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships.

The two ships of the Fearless Class of Landing Platform Dock were available. HMS Fearless was available to sail straight away; HMS Intrepid was destored and run-down, and only after a mammoth effort by Portsmouth Dockyard was she able to sail south. In fact, the whole operation hinged on when she was available. The two Fearless class Landing Platform Docks, almost 20 years old, could carry a maximum of 700 troops each, with 8 Landing Craft. They carried no helicopters themselves, but had space to operate 4 or 5 medium helicopters, usually ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Fleet Air Arm’s Commando Support Group. Both ships were also equipped to act as Flagships to an amphibious group.

The six Round table class of Landing Ships were normally tasked by the Army, supporting the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. They could carry up to 500 troops each, but were primarily designed for transporting vehicles and stores. They were not designed for long-range amphibious operations, and were not even considered part of the Royal Navy’s active fleet. They carried no landing craft or aircraft, with the Fearless Class Landing Craft being used instead to ferry troops ashore.

The Royal Navy’s amphibious group in 1982 could deploy a Commando Brigade and Headquarters, albeit in cramped and far from ideal conditions. It also relied predominantly on landing craft rather than helicopters. It required the use of Merchant ships to carry stores, ammunition and extra troops. Losses, particularly either of the Fearless Class or of any Landing Craft, might have proved critical.

The picture in 2009

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

The Royal Navy now has an expanded and capable amphibious fleet, having learnt the lessons of the Falklands War and committed itself to ‘out of area’ expeditionary warfare. This cultural aspect is important – in 1982 the Amphibious Commanders and the Battle Group Commander were by their own admission not singing from the same hymn sheet.

The Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean can use her 18 Helicopters and 4 Landing Craft to deploy almost 800 troops, the equivalent of more than an army Battalion or RM Commando. She can also operate British Army Apache Helicopters, and might also be a useful platform for launching an air assault by airborne units in conjunction with any seaborne operation. She was however designed to commerical rather than military standards, and will require replacement in the non too distant future.

The Assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are an improvement on the Fearless Class and can deploy up to 700 troops each, with eight Landing Craft each. One of these ships is usually at high readiness, and the other in refit or training. However, often these are deployed on tasks that would normally be performed by destroyers or frigates. As with the Carriers, much would depend on the ability to get the second ship ready for action. As in 1982, one of these ships would likely provide the Flagship for the Amphibious group.

The four Bay Class Landing ships, a significant improvement on the Round table class, can deploy 350 troops each, by 2 Landing Craft and Mexefloat rafts. Of the four, two are normally available for immediate use, and the other two either on operations or in refit or training. As with the Albion Class, these are often deployed on escort duties in place of Frigates or Destroyers. I will examine the potential for calling up Merchant vessels in a future instalment, but the RFA does also contain the Point Class vessels for performing sealift duties, which would be invaluable for performing a task that required the use of requisitioned Commercial vessels in 1982.

In Conclusion

In total, an amphibious group consisting of HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and perhaps three of the Bay Class ships would be able to carry and deploy a reinforced Commando Brigade along with its Headquarters and supporting troops, but would also be well placed to launch further units and equipment arriving in theatre as well, without such a reliance on Merchant vessels. It also possesses more strength, capability and flexibility in terms of landing craft and helicopter assets than it did in 1982. This was shown by the succesful assault on the Al Faw peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade in 2003, and the operations in Sierra Leone several years before.

The Royal Navy may be able to deploy a much stronger Amphbious Task Group than it did in 1982, and is much more focussed on amphibious warfare than it was in 1982. In all likelihood the real difficulties would be in providing air cover for such an operation and finding enough escort ships to provide close defence. To launch an amphibious assault requires air superiority and command of the seas: is it worth having such a capability if you cannot create the conditions to deploy it, nor defend it?

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They died on Christmas Day

Sadly, aside from the unique example of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western front, war usually has no regard for Christmas. Of the 1,000 Portsmouth soldiers, sailors and airmen who I have so far researched, these three men died on Christmas Day.

Corporal Robert Davison, from Milton, was a Royal Marine onboard HMS Berwick when he was killed 25 December 1940. At the time HMS Berwick was serving in North West Approaches. Davison must have died and been buried at sea, as he has no grave and is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Private George Griffin, 21 and from Milton, was serving in the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in Burma when he was killed on 25 December 1941, fighting the Japanese. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Rangoon Memorial.

Petty Officer Frederick Bulbeck, 35 and from Drayton, died on 25 December 1945. He was serving onboard HMS Zodiac, a Zambesi class Destroyer. He died after the war had ended, and is buried in Hamburg War Cemetery, Germany.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

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Refighting the Falklands War?

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands

One of the most uttered phrases in recent British Military History is ‘we couldn’t fight the Falklands War again’. In fact, its said so many times, that its become something of a cliche. I get so fed up of reading it so often, that I’ve decided to take a deeper look behind this oft-uttered phrase.

Is it a simple case of ‘yes we could’ or ‘no we couldn’t’. There are many, many aspects to consider. To begin with, there are the many facets of the Royal Navy: air power, amphibious capability, escorts, auxilliaries, submarines, and merchant vessels. Then there is the ground forces to consider, and what the Royal Air Force might be able to provide. All have undergone radical changes since 1982, with more foreseen in the next few years.

And, as in any military history context, we ignore the enemy at our peril. The Argentinian Armed Forces have changed dramatically, as has the Argentinian nation itself. They are no longer ruled by a military dictatorship, and conscription was abolished some years ago. The structure and materiel of the Argentine military has changed considerably too.

One aspect I do not plan on looking at is the politics behind it. I for one have no idea whether Argentina has any plans to re-take the Falkland Islands, I strongly suspect not. But rather, the purpose of this series will be to use the Falklands as a template for a long-range, out-of-area combined operation by British Armed Forces. It just so happens that the Falklands provides the ideal yardstick. Also, I do not wish to examine whether the British Government would have the will and or the finances to launch a task force as in 1982.

My scenario starts from the moment, as in April 1982, when the Prime Minister authorised the Defence Chiefs to put together a task force to retake the Falklands Islands….

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HMS Bulwark

I managed to catch a rare sight today when HMS Bulwark came into Portsmouth Dockyard. Conveniently when I was able to dash out of work in my lunch hour! Known as Landing Platform Docks, Bulwark and her sister ship HMS Albion are replacements for the HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

Their primary role is to embark, transport and deploy troops, their vehicles and equipment. To do this she carries 8 Landing Craft – with a resident Squadron of Royal Marines to operate them – which can be loaded through the dock at the stern of the ship or off of a side door and ramp. They can operate Helicopters up to the size of the Chinook, although there are no Hangar facilities onboard.

Albion and Bulwark, as well as carrying troops, can act as the Flagship for an Amphibious Task Group, containing the Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean and several ships from the Bay Class of Auxilliary Landing Ships. They can carry 305 troops for long periods, and 710 in an emergency. The whole ship has been specifically designed around the needs of the embarked military force.

Weighing 18,500 tons, they are a significant improvement on Fearless and Intrepid. Although their top speed, 18 knots, is pretty low.

Albion was commissioned in 2003, and Bulwark in 2004. Both are based in Plymouth, along with HMS Ocean. This probably makes sense as the Commando Brigade is based in the West Country. Therefore it is not very often that one of these ships comes into Portsmouth.

Earlier this year HMS Bulwark headed a UK task group taking part in Amphibious exercises and ‘flying the flag’ operations in the Far East. She’s looking pretty rusty – her predecessor used to be nicknamed ‘Rusty B’ so obviously she is living up to the nickname!

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

The introduction of Albion, Bulwark and Ocean represents a commitment to the UK’s amphibious capability. For years up until the Falklands war the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the Royal Marines, and preferred to spend time and money on aircraft carriers and submarines. The Falklands War changed all that, and along with 16 Air Assault Brigade the amphibious ships and the Commando Brigade comprise the UK’s readily deployable forces, ready and able to deploy into any enviroment from the Arctic to the Tropics.

It is difficult to envisage what kind of environment such a force would be used in – although securing a destabilised country, such as Sierra Leonne, could be one. The Falklands showed that amphibious operations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, and as the Royal Navy is getting shorter and shorter of Destroyers and Frigates armed with anti-aircraft missiles to act as escorts it might be difficult to deploy our amphibious forces against anything more than medium opposition.

But in an unpredictable world a capable Amphibious Task Force is a sound insurance policy.

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