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Book Signing – Saturday 2 August 2014

Hi all!

I know that it’s been a long time – I’m still recovering after D-Day 70! – but just to let you all know that I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth this coming Saturday, 2 August, between 12 and 2pm.

See you there!

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IT Band = History?

Well it seems like weeks since I’ve last updated here – in fact, its been months!

After getting frustrated with the lack of progress with my IT Band, I finally bit the bullet and went to see Cliff at Kings Road Clinic in Southsea for some physio. After a session of ultrasound, heat treatment and deep tissue massage, all aimed at breaking up the scar tissue, I could barely walk! But a couple of days after I could run, and run more comfortably. Then, the next couple of weeks I ran 9.2, 13.1 and 11.2 miles respectively. Considering I had been running 3 miles a week – if that – then getting into double figures again was a significant achievement. And the progress has carried on since, apart from a few quiet weeks due to work commitments. I’ve been running more comfortably, and further, and faster – all gradually. A couple of weeks ago I ran 6.8 miles for my long run, and I’ve done a couple of 5ks at 23:50ish, which considering my PB is 20:12, isn’t bad after three months injured.

I’ve been doing a lot of strengthening work to try and help out with the muscles that have allowed my IT Band to get weak – abs, hip, glutes etc. And so far it seems to be working. I do squats and planks every night, along with a few other random exercises thrown in for variety. Cliff gave me some stretches to do. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the lying down IT Band stretch – as it says, you lie down, raise one leg up with your feet near your other knee, then cross it over your body and use your hand to apply some stretch. Doing this little and often – 3 to 4 times a day – has definitely helped to stretch my Bands.

I’m almost fit enough to start running with Pompey Joggers again – I’ll probably start with one of the slower groups and do 5 miles or so at 8-9 min/mile pace. All being well I’m getting back to fitness just in time for the Lakeside 5k series over the summer, the run leg of the Portsmouth Triathlon (doing it as a team with my dad and brother) and the Hampshire Road Race League which kicks off again in September, with the Overton 5 and Victory 5.

Early tomorrow morning I’m going over to France to take part in the Courant de la Liberte 10k in Caen, as part of the Portsmouth team in a challenge against runners from our twin city Caen, and their twin city Wurzburg in Germany. It’s my first race since early March, so I’m not sure how I’ll get on – my PB is 42:48, but I won’t get anywhere near that – I hope to run under 48:00 at least, and 45:00 would be a real achievement.

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Military History: is there anything new to learn?

Last weekend I spent a very interesting couple of days working at our D-Day 70 Community Conference. As well as a visit to Southwick House which served as Eisenhower, Montgomery and Ramsay’s headquarters in the days prior to D-Day (I’d never been before), we also had talks from a range of different speakers. And hearing Dr Simon Trew from the War Studies Department at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst talking about whether there is anything new to learn about D-Day really got me thinking.

My first love in military history was – and still is – Arnhem. For family reasons the airborne battle in Holland in September 1944 has always been very close to me, and I’ve spent years poring over every book I can possibly find on the subject. Even when I have been working on radically different topics, Arnhem has always been there in the background. It’s always been an ambition of mine to write a book about Arnhem, but at the same time I’ve always been hesitant. It’s been written about so extensively that there are literally hundreds of books on Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. There are a wide plethora of specialist books on particular units or individuals, but my biggest bug bear has always been the sheer number of general books on the battle. There are so many, to the extent that with many of them, you could swap the authors names around, and the texts appear to be almost identical in content. Very few of them offer any kind of new research or new insight. Why would I want to wade into that historiography, just to cash in? No, I like to feel that if I am going to spend 2+ years of my life working on a book, that it will contribute something new to people’s understanding.

Hence I’ve left Arnhem well alone. But hearing Simon’s talk about the state of ’1944′ historiography really got my thinking. And I have to agree, that despite the apparent extensive coverage of the subject, if you look beyond the surface, there is still plenty of work to be done. Very little of the Arnhem historiography is ground-breaking. Surely there must be some documents out there, at the National Archives perhaps, that have not been looked at? Or, are there assumptions in the historiography that need re-visiting? For example, has it occured to anyone that there is no credible evidence that General Browning’s of-quoted ‘Bridge too far’ was ever said? Can more work be done on the large number of oral histories and personal testimonies of other ranks involved in the battle?

One immediate area that occurs to me is the time period between 6 June and 17 September 1944. The British airborne landings in Normandy were an almost complete success, in particular the Pegasus Bridge and Merville Battery operations. How, just over three months later, did the same planning staffs manage to oversee a debacle like Arnhem? Many of you may know the well-known line in ‘A Bridge too Far’ when General Browning refers to fifteen airborne operations being cancelled since D-Day. How much do we know about these plans? Very little, it seems – some of them do not even seem to have received a code name. But they must have generated planning documents, and references in unit war diaries. Do these planned operations explain how Operation Market Garden transpired?

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D-Day on your Doorstep

The D-Day landings and the campaign in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945 are normally thought of as beginning in Normandy on 6 June and ending in Berlin on 8 May 1945. As usual with anything military history related, the real story behind the scenes is much different. The whole campaign from D-Day onwards depended on much preparation in Britain for months, if not years afterwards. In fact, virtually every corner of Britain will have some kind of connection with D-Day.

Millions of troops in Britain – British, American, Canadian and from many other allied nations – had to be accommodated somewhere. They all had to train somewhere. Equipment had to be manufactured and stored; supplies had to be delivered. There were marshalling camps, embarkation points; places where Mulberry Harbours were constructed. Dockyards, airfields, factories. The many units and organisations required numerous different headquarters. It is pretty obvious that in early 1944 Britain was one large armed camp geared up towards becoming a launchpad for the second front.

We’re currently working on a new page on the D-Day Museum website called ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’. Over the coming months we will be adding D-Day related locations to the map, and building a picture of Britain’s role in launching D-Day. We would love to hear from you if your area has any D-Day links, or if you would like to add any detail to the locations that we have already uploaded.

To see the ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’ page visit the D-Day Museum website here.

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The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Afghanistan, Vehicles, and Urgent Operational Requirements

This week’s Top Gear had a very interesting segment about the British Army’s use of ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in Afghanistan. It is a subject that has been well written about, but now that Operation Herrick is winding down, is it time to pose some questions on British military procurement? It is well known that the British Army entered the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan relying almost solely on the faithful Land Rover for patrolling. Was this a case of simply retaining equipment that had been intended to fight previous wars? Did budgetary constraints prevent proper planning?

One thing that the recent, ‘post-modern’ conflicts have brought about is a re-assesment of the traditional dichotomy of ‘armoured’ and ‘soft’ vehicles. For ‘wars amongst the peoples’, main battle tanks are clearly too big and heavy – physically it is hard to move them around villages, and psychologically they are rather intimidating. Yet the Land Rover proved to be far too lightly armoured to protect servicemen when on patrol, in particular against the roadside bombs and other forms of Improvised Explosive Devices which proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007 – four years after the British Army went into Iraq, and a year after Britain’s commitment in Helmand province escalated to Brigade and then Divisional level, it was becoming clear that the Land Rover was no longer fit for the task in hand.

The first of the new breed of vehicles to be ordered were the Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound, which are all variants of the American-produced Cougar. Designed by Force Protection Inc – by a British team! – the British Army has in service around 400 Mastiffs, 125 Wolfhounds and 160 Ridgebacks. The original order from the MOD was for 108 vehicles at a cost of £35m. This first batch of vehicles were deployed to Iraq in late 2006, before a further batch of Mastiff’s were ordered in October 2007, at a cost of £100m. These orders came via Urgent Operational Requirements – essentially, when the troops on the ground need something yesterday, in order to make up for the accountants not letting them buy it beforehand. Further purchases have been made since then, taking the total to almost 700 Cougar-variant vehicles. The British variants seem to be heavily armoured compared to the American version.

The Warthog is actually based on a design by the Singapore-based ST Kinetics, called the Bronco. In December 2008 the MOD ordered 100 Warthogs from ST Kinetics, at a cost of £150m. Incidentially, the purchase of the Warthogs came as part of a package of £700m worth of UORs. The Warthogs replaced the lighter-armoured Viking which had been used in Afghanistan previously, but had proved vulnerable to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Vikings were being used in an environment for which they were not procured, having originally been purchased as amphibious vehicles for the Royal Marines. Post Afghanistan the Warthogs will be used by the Royal Artillery as support for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Jackal and Coyote were designed by the British company Supacat. The first batch of Jackals – 172 – were ordered in 2008. In 2010 another 140 were ordered. Whilst the Jackal is a 4×4 chassis, the Coyote is a 6×6 variant. Many are believed to be used in different forms by Special Forces, and have not been declared in fleet totals. The Foxhound is a light patrol vehicles, based on the Ocelot, designed by Force Protection. The Husky is produced by International Trucks.

In the space of armoured six years, the MOD has purchased over 1,000 vehicles, at a price of hundreds of millions of pounds. From a procurement point of view, it is hard to believe that Urgent Operational Requirements will ever represent value for money – the troops on the ground need it urgently, the politicans will always sign it off to avoid adverse publicity, and therefore the contractors know that they can ramp the price up. Whereas if such purchases were made in ‘peacetime’, without the rush to get them into action, a more efficient procurement exercise would probably deliver better value for money. Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of vehicles will be needed in any war, as wars don’t always tend to give us plenty of warning, and any conflict will require unique modifications for any equipment, down to climate, local cultures, and so on.

But by the same token, if we don’t know exactly what we will need, should we therefore think not about having equipment that is great in one scenario, but rather having flexibility that allows for easy modification to suit particular needs? There is only so much you can do with a Land Rover Chassis, after all. The same approach applies to air and sea assets – are giant aircraft carriers the right platforms for the wars of the next 50 years? The Type 45 Destroyers are marvellous anti-aircraft warships, but are they flexible enough to react to a range of scenarios? Whilst the Eurofighter is a finely tuned dogfighter, but was any thought given to how it might contribute to a similar range of scenarios? The British Army’s new camouflage was unveilved in the past few years, and the MOD’s policy was that it should be able to work in all environments, rather than just being excellent in one.

The MOD has recently produced a policy entitled ‘Generic Vehicles Architecture’ or GVA. The idea seems to be to create a single standard architecture for British military vehicles – sensible, given the experience of vehicles in Afghanistan. The first ‘post-Afghanistan’ British Army vehicle is the Panther – 401 of these four wheel drive, light multi-role vehicles have been ordered. The Panther is an Italian vehicles, based on the Iveco LMV. With a contract worth £160m contract, they are being assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The Panther does appear to be a long-term procurement, and is slated to replace the CVRT series of light armoured vehicles (Scorpion et al), the FV432 and Saxon personnel carriers and the Land Rover Wolf. That the Panther is replacing light armoured vehicles and the Land Rover Wolf, suggests that it represents a shift in vehicle policy and doctrine.

Several lessons seem clear from the experience of military vehicles in Afghanistan. The first lesson seems to be that poor military procurement in peacetime – often based on the assumption of there not being a war in the forseeable future and hence money can be saved – actually ends up costing lives and even more money once war inevitably happens anyway. Secondly, it has often been thought that the British Army prepares to fight the last war. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Army’s mobility was based overwhelmingly on the Land Rover – a vehicle used extensively by the Army tearing up and down thw Autobahns during the Cold War, and in Northern Ireland. After the end of the Cold War, did it occur to anyone that Britain would find herself fighting different kinds of wars, and that it was not necessarily equipped properly? Granted, it is difficult for anyone to forsee events such as 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts, but did anyone in the Army or the MOD foresee the need to be flexible, to expect the unexpected? Short term economies always seem to cost more money – and lives – in the long term.

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Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters honours the father he never knew

I just caught this story at the end of tonight’s ITV News, and I’m glad that I did.

Earlier today Roger Waters, ex of Pink Floyd, unveiled a memorial to his father, near where he was killed at Anzio, during the Italian Campaign in the Second World War – 70 years to the day after the death of the father that he never knew. Waters had had no idea about when and how his father had been killed, but thanks to research by another veteran, Waters now knows the exact location and manner in which his father, Lieutenant Eric Waters, died.

Waters wrote frequently about his fathers death with Pink Floyd. I’m mindful of one particular set of lyrics, from ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2′:

‘Daddy’s gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory’

Read the Telegraph story here

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