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The Battle of El Alamein: 70 years on

English: El Alamein 1942: British infantry adv...

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.

Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it could  said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.

On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.

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Message from James

Hi all, firstly I would like to apologise for the lack of updates recently. Unfortunately I have been very busy with various things which have made made blog posts pretty difficult to schedule.

However I do have a few posts in the offing, and some interesting projects ongoing. Stay tuned!

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Featured in Who Do You Are? Magazine

I’ve been featured in this month’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine, on page 54.

I was asked to name my ‘experts choice’ of website for researching the home front during the Great War, and plumped for the British Newspaper Archive.

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First sales figures for Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes

I thought might all be interested to know that my first book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ sold more than 500 copies in its first six weeks on sale, from mid-February until the end of March 2012!

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The Hillsborough cover-up

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fence onto the safety of the pitch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week over 450,00 pages of official documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 were released into the public domain, most of them for the first time. Some of the documents are illuminating, some of them are harrowing. If you have an interest in stadia, crowds or 1980’s politics and society, I would strongly reccomend having a read of some of the documents available here.

96 men, women and children were killed in crushing at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, at the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The Taylor Report immediately after the disaster largely absolved the authorities, principally the South Yorkshire Police, of any serious culpability, and senior police officers on the day have escaped responsibility in the decades since. Crucially, in 1989 Taylor did not have the wealth of material that we have available to us now.

There are hundreds of witness statements, from survivors, police officers, medics, Kenny Dalglish, Forest supporters, local Sheffield residents and many expert witnesses. There are official letters, reports and other documents covering organisations such as 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FA, Home Office, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council, Liverpool Football Club, Nottingham Forest Football Club, Sheffield Hospitals, South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and UEFA.

However, resolute campaigning on Merseyside led to the release of official documents before the 30 year rule, and the outcome has been significant. For years there had almost been an un-written, un-spoken assumption that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism and crowd disorder, and the Liverpool fans in particular came in for much criticism, unfair as it turned out. Of course many fans who go to football matches drink alcohol, but having a couple of pints doesn’t mean that you are incapable. And it’s always been a common problem that fans wait until the last minute to enter the stadium, but that was well known and should have been adequately planned for and managed.

Whilst the South Yorkshire Constabulary have come in for particular criticism for their approach and crowd management, one wonders how much of this goes back to something that will be harder to trace – the attitude of the Thatcher Government to working class disorder, and football supporters in particular, and the pressure that was exerted on police forces post Heysel. This surely shaped how local police forces handled football matches, and how grounds were constructed. True to form Thatcher was no fan of a working class sport such as football, and it showed. After the dramatic summer of 1985 – which after riots at Luton-Millwall, Birmingham-Leeds and at Heysel, not to mention the Bradford fire, the Prime Minister is well known to have vowed to ‘sort out’ football. Post Heysel she even lobbied UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions. Was the prologue – and the epilogue – to Hillsborough a part of this campaign?

Viewed against the wider background of the 1980’s, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath can be placed very firmly in the context of class tensions at the time. There was significant civil unrest throughout the period,  including riots on Merseyside that would have politicised many a young working class Liverpudlian, and also and the miners strike which encompassed much of Yorkshire and involved much of South Yorkshire Police in resisting what was working class movement. It is hardly surprising that a police force that had been involved in what was essentially counter-insurgency on behalf of the government viewed football fans as a de-humanised rabble. Through all stages of the planning for the day, the dealing with the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, the Police emphasised again and again hooliganism, even when it was clear afterwards that hooliganism had not played a part. That the blood alcohol levels of those who were killed were thought relevant is telling indeed – they would have died whether that had drunk ten pints or a couple of cokes.

Witness statements suggest that most of the rank and file emergency service personnel on duty at Hillsborough performed admirably, given the nature of their training, briefing and leadership, which gave scant priority to safety and huge emphasis on hooliganism. Many police officers suffered serious psychological problems after their frantic work pulling bodies out of the crush and attempting to resucitate victims. By contrast, many of the senior commanders were paralysed, and not effectively in command and unable to make informed decisions. The match commander had minimal experience of policing football crowds. The Police Control Room was closely overlooking the Leppings Lane End, but even after the match was stopped it was still thought that a pitch invasion was underway. Consequently many police officers were deployed forming a cordon on the pitch, when they could have been assisting in the rescue.

What is even more inexcusable is that having caused the disaster by their ineptitude, senior officers in South Yorkshire Police then presided over what was a formally organised cover-up, consisting of altering large parts of police officers statements of their recollections of the day. Statements were reviewed by commanders and the force’s solicitors, and many damming and critical statements were deleted. Why did the police feel the need to cover themselves? Some sources in South Yorkshire Police referred to the force as having its ‘backs against the wall’, and this might have led to officers to wish to give themselves some breathing space. Whilst people always want to defend their corner, to go to the extent of a de-facto smear campaign against innocent victims is inexcusable. Certainly, in the 1980’s the police had been deployed by the Government to police working class unrest and disorder, and for a police force to be found guilty in such a situation would not have fitted in with the prevailing political mood regarding class tensions and football being plagued by hooliganism. Hence, there was probably not any significant pressure from above to investigate South Yorkshire Police further.

Against this background of new material, it is difficult not to look back on many of the developments of the past 23 years – not least the Taylor report, the inadequate inquests, and the lack of criminal charges – and conclude that much of the prevailing wisdom regarding Hillsborough has been undermined. The disaster was caused by inadequate and incompetent policing, combined with the perimeter fences and dividing of the Leppings Lane terrace into pens with radial fences. Factors that were supposedly contributory – drinking, late arrival for example – are still present in football grounds today. German football grounds still have terracing, and have some of the best safety records in world stadia. Whilst I know acknowledge that Taylor did not have the benefit of much of the evidence that we do have now, and was probably under much political pressure to reach certain conclusions, I remain convinced that the introduction of all-seater stadia was more about gentrifying football than ensuring that there was no repeat of Hillsborough.

As a historian, a football enthusiast and someone who keeps a close eye on access to official documents, the Hillsborough case is a landmark. It demonstrates that those in authority can no longer expect to hide behind the closure of official papers, and that they should be held accountable to the general public whom they are paid to serve and protect. It should teach people in responsible positions that they can no longer sweep problems under the carpet for them to re-emerge 30 years later when it is too late.

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VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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New Design Images of Type 26 Frigates

Earlier today the Royal Navy released new images of the planned class of Type 26 Frigates.

The images show a rather sleek looking vessel, stealthily like the Type 45 Destroyers, with a very similar, albeit shorter and set back. It looks very similar to a lot of the other recent European designed Frigates such as the Dutch Zeven Provincien, Danish Absalon and Spanish Bazan classes. As with the Type 45’s, its nice to see us designing modern warships, but why are we essentially designing ships now that the rest of the world built a decade ago? What is it with out defence policy and procurement that takes so long?

Some more technical specifications have also been divulged:

  • Displacement – 5,400 tonnes
  • length – 148 metres
  • crew – 118, with space for up to 190
  • Vertical launch missile silo
  • Medium Calibre Gun, that looks suspiciously like an Oto Melara
  • A Phalanx-style CIWS
  • Hangar to accomodate Merlin or Lynx Wildcat
  • A flexible mission space for UAV, seaboats, special forces or humanitarian operations

According to reports the planned order is for 13, although given the manner in which warship classes almost always end up consisting of a lot less than the original order, the Royal Navy might do well to get 10. There are currently 13 Type 23 Frigates in the fleet. According to the Portsmouth News the final decision for ordering these ships will be taken in the 2015 Defence Review, so of course that is vulnerable to cuts.

The first ship is scheduled to enter service, but again, expect this to slip once the project goes through the various hoops at the MOD. Mind you, Phillip Hammond announced today that 25% of senior military and civilian staff at Commodore/Brigadier level and above will be cut over the next few years, so things might actually start to run smoother!

Some of the quotes from the Defence Minister, Peter Luff, refer to how the project will sustain shipbuilding jobs in Britain. The design IS modular, a la Type 45 and CVF, but if the first ship is due to enter service in 2020, work will have to start in about 2015 at the very latest one would imagine (unless the ‘in service’ date is actually delivery date, but the two are different). One suspects that there will end up being a gap between the end of the QE programme and the Type 26 work, which might leave shipbuilding jobs in Portsmouth in particular vulnerable.

I’ve gone on record before in my belief that these will be the most important ships in the 21st Century Royal Navy. One only has to take a cursory glance a the operational taskings of the fleet, and 95% of what Royal Navy ships are doing is Frigate work. The Type 26 seems like a step in the right direction for chasing pirates and insurgents in RIB’s.

See the MOD, BBC or Portsmouth News articles for more information. There’s also a nifty looking animation on the BBC website.

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