Category Archives: World War Two

Royal Humane Society Medals

Among the decorations won by Portsmouth servicemen in both world wars, I have come across several who have been awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s Bronze Medal for lifesaving. Having done a bit of research on them, I thought it might be timely to take a look at the history of the RHS, and how these brave men came to be awarded their medals.

The Society was founded in London in 1774 by two Doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan. They aimed to promote the revolutionary new techniques that had emerged for resucitating people who were apparently dead. The Society presents awards for acts of bravery and lifesaving, and not surprisingly some servicemen find themselves in situations where they are called upon to save lives.

Here are a few details of Portsmouth men who won RHS Bronze Medals, from WW1 and WW2:

KIRKPATRICK, James Cramb; Canteen Manager, HMS Bulwark. Killed 26 November 1914, aged 45, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Born in Birkenhead on 18 March 1869, lived at 17 St Helens Park Crescent in Southsea, a Parishioner of St Wilfrids Church. He was an ex Chief Petty Officer. Sadly I have not been able to find the citation for his Royal Humane Society award.

SMITH, Samuel Charles Arthur; Gunner, HMS Comet. Killed 1 February 1915, aged 37, buried in Basra War Cemetery, Iraq. Lived at Eastfield, 3 Kewsick Avenue, Copnor. Smith was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society in 1912. Whilst serving as the Gunner on HMS London, Smith was involved in the rescue of survivors from the SS Delhi, a wrecked merchant vessel. On 15 December 1911, as Lascars (foreign seamen) were being landed to shore, one of them was washed away in rough seas. Smith swam after him and got him back to the Delhi, where they were both hauled aboard. Smith was also awarded the Board of Trade’s Medal for lifesaving.

WOOD, Frederick James; Lieutenant, HMS Cerberus II. Died 16 January 1941, aged 48, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. From Southsea. Wood’s RHS Bronze Medal was awarded in 1917, when as a Petty Officer, he and an officer rescued a man who had gone overboard in the Thames. Although the sea was choppy and the ship was travelling at 12 knots, they managed to keep him afloat until they could be rescued.

HEAP, Jack Edward; Aircraftsman 1st Class, 151 Maintenance Unit, RAF. Died 9 April 1945 aged 35, buried in Ambon, Indonesia. From Southsea. He was captured by the Japanese on 8 March 1942 and held as a prisoner at Java, Malacca and Celebes. He died at Muna. His RHS Bronze Medal was awarded posthumously in 1947 for an unspecified incident on 8 November 1944.

I find the RHS Medals quite humbling. The citations stand out amongst other military decorations, as they are explicitly for saving life. Whereas – obviously – many ‘mainstream’ medals are awarded for the opposite. Of course, in war killing is something of a necessary evil, but never the less, it is difficult not to be inspired by the humanity shown by some of these men.

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Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990′s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid by Robert Lyman

The ‘Cockleshell Heroes‘ raid is one of those operations that we all like to think we know everything about. Royal Marines, canoes, mines, Bordeaux, escaping. On the face of it, its a very daring escapade. But dig beyond the veneer of Hollywood history, and the story is even more fascinating and inspiring than it first appears.

Of course, being a Portsmouth bloke I’ve always been well aware of the Cockleshell Heroes. In fact, an ex-Bootneck down my mum and dads road was actually an extra in the film. Ah yes, the film. If you mention the Cockleshell Heroes, people think of a swarthy Mediterranean looking commander, an elderly second in command, and of brawling in Portsmouth pubs. Whilst the broad premise of the film was reasonably accurate, some of the names, personalities and suchlike were badly altered for whatever reason, and the background to the raid was not dealt with virtually at all.

What I found refreshing about this book is that Lyman has focussed more attention on the build up to the raid – its inspiration and genesis, and Hasler’s driving force behind it – than the actual raid itself. I think this is a smart move. To be honest – and as Lyman himself admits, C.E. Lucas-Phillips book of the 1950′s, written with the collaboration of Major Hasler, pretty much covered the raid itself very well.

The Cockleshell raid was not merely a case of sinking a few ships in occupied Europe. German ships had been attempting to break the Royal Navy’s blockade of Nazi-dominated Europe in an attempt to transport scarce raw materials between Germany and Japan and vice versa. Obviously, cutting off these blockade runners would seriously damage the Axis war effort. The Ministry of Economic Warfare targeted Bordeaux, and Combined Operations – led by Lord Louis Mountbatten – planned a daring raid.

One aspect that is often overlooked is how Hasler and Bill Sparks – the two sole survivors of the raid – made their escape from Bordeaux back to Britain. In terms of escape and evasion, the men were badly let down – they were not given the names of any French Resistance contacts, and only told, in the broadest terms, to head for a certain village. As Airey Neave of MI9 conceded after the raid, it was a terrific achievement for the men to make it home at all – via Ruffec, Lyon, Marseille, Barcelona, Madrid and Gibraltar.

Another mistake was the lack of co-ordination between Government and armed forces departments over raids. On the very morning that the limpet mines exploded, SOE operatives were on their way to the docks to plant bombs onboard the very same ships – both organisations were completely unaware of the others plans. If they had been able to work together, the damage might have been even more crippling on Germany.

I also like the manner in which Lyman has dealt with the very sensitive manner in which the remainder of the raiding party were executed by the Germans. In my experience, there is a wealth of documentation in official archives about war crimes, thanks to post-war investigations, and tragically it means that we can tell a lot about men who were killed in cold blood. Whilst writing about them might not be able to change history, at least their experiences might serve to remind us of why exactly they were fighting.

I enjoyed reading this book very much – it helped me through some very long train delays. And far more importantly, it achives the very difficult objective of shedding new light on a very-well known and intensely studied event in history.

Operation Suicide is published by Quercus Books.

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Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980′s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword

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The Irish who fought for Britain

Apparently there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 in a few days time looking at the discrimination suffered by Irishmen from the Republic who fought for Britain during the Second World War. I never knew this, but apparently the Irish Government had a blacklist of men who had deserted from the Irish Republic‘s forces and joined the British Armed Forces. The discrimination reached quite far, down to all Government agencies. It must have been hell for many of the poor blokes to have to hide their past for 60 odd years. As somebody says on the programme, it is incredible that men who volunteered to fight fascism were persecuted far more than men who simply deserted and went on the run. Even men who died in action were still included on the list.

On the face of it, this policy isn’t surprising. Ireland in 1939 still had a decidedly anti-British chip on its shoulder, particularly in officialdom. Of course, Eamon de Valera was the only world leader to offer his condolences to Nazi Germany on Hitler’s death. The rationale for which, I have never understood. But to learn that the Government actually went as far as to have a blacklist of names, to the point of affecting men’s employment prospects, is rather startling.

To this day, Irish citizens have a unique status when it comes to applying to serve in the British Armed Forces. If anyone has looked at the entry requirements, they often specify ‘UK, Commonwealth or Irish’ nationality. But Irish recruitment into the Royal Navy and British Army, in particular, has been going on for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic era legions of Irishmen served in Wellington’s Army – Sergeant Patrick Harper of the Sharpe novels, for example. My own Catholic Irish ancestry brought my family to Portsmouth, to join the Royal Navy. In 1914 my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, journeyed from Birkenhead to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, we can tell where WW1 sailors were born. 5 sailors out of 745 I have researched so far came from Ireland. This doesn’t include men who might be second generation immigrants. It is also noticeable that many Portsmouth servicemen died fighting with Irish Army units – the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in particular. In his many books Richard Doherty has charted the great contribution that Irishmen – from north and south of the border – made to the allied cause in the Second World War. And in the First World War, the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland put aside their differences and joined Divisions that included Protestant and Catholic men.

It seems to me that discrimination against Irishmen who fought Hitler was petty, and had more to do with an inherent anti-Britishness than any thoughts about the morality of the Second World War. When men have to hide medals that they earnt fighting against extremism and tyranny, its a very strange world indeed.

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Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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Foreign war graves in Chichester Cemetery

Regular readers will know I have developed something of an interest in war dead and war graves, be it from a particular space dotted around the world, from a particular nation, or in a particular place. Equally, regular readers will know that some six months ago I made the quantum leap from Paulsgrove (if you don’t know, wikipedia it) to Chichester (ditto, and compare).

Anyway, I digress. Yesterday while walking to Lidl to go and do the shopping, I stumbled upon Chichester’s Portfield Cemetery. And a very interesting stumble it was too. Like 99% of municipal cemeteries it has its fair share of war graves. Apart from a few dotted around the cemetery, most of the war graves are collected into three beautifully tended plots – separate plots for WW1 and WW2 protestant graves, and a separate one for Roman Catholic burials. But here’s the interesting bit – there are 13 foreign (ie, non commonwealth) WW2 burials – 7 Czech, 4 Polish and 2 German. The Poles and Germans are RC burials, but the Czechs are split between  protestant and RC.

What I find really interesting, is that every nationality has its own shape and format for CWGC gravestones – UK and commonwealth are rectangular with a shallow curved top; polish have a more pronounced, pointy-curved top; Czech have a very interesting angular design; whilst German have a more straight, perpendicular look to them.

Obviously at the moment I have my hands full with looking into Australians buried in Portsmouth and Portsmouth’s WW1 dead, but at some point in the non-too distant future I am going to start taking a look at the foreign war graves in Chichester. My hunch is that many of them must be airman, with important WW2 air bases nearby at Westhampnett and Tangmere.

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Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

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Sneak peak of the cover!

The History Press have today listed my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, on their website. And alongside the listing, is also a sneak peek of the cover!

Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – The History Press

I’m working through the proofreading as we speak, before I get cracking on the index. Happy days!

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Proofreading the final draft

As I write I am happily scanning though a PDF file of my book, kindly sent to me by my publisher.

I can gladly report that it looks the biz. When you’ve worked on something like this for a couple of years, at times it seems like a long haul and when you read the chapters in word format, it just looks like another undergraduate essay. But when you see it designed, laid out with photos and in a fancy font, you suddenly realise that you’re a historian! I’m really pleased with how it looks. I was concerned about the ratio of pictures to text, but I seem to have got it just right.

One thing I hadn’t bargained for was working on the index, which should be interesting as it’s something I’ve never done before. Prioritising the key points to fit into the space avasilable should be a challenge.

Once the index and any amendments are sent back to the publisher its all systems go, with just over 70 odd days left before publication.

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Publicity for Sunday’s talk

I’ve been featured in the local Newspaper today, and no, not in the court round up section for crimes against fashion and cooking!

Remembrance events will help children understand

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The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

I know its something I have written about before, but it never ceases to amaze me how historians and publishers will attempt to flog dead horses. Well, maybe thats not a great analogy, but some battles have been written about so much, without anything substantially ‘new’ being offered.

Coming from a background of academic history, my philosophy is that you only undertake to write something if you have a new vein of original material that has never been worked on before, or you can offer a dramatically new appraisal of something that has already been done. What you don’t do is just re-hash what somebody else has already done. It gets very tiring when you see yet another book about an epic battle, that promises much but delivers little.

Therefore I am astounded by just how many books get written about Arnhem and Market Garden. Most of them are very general books, telling any reader who has more than a little knowledge what they already know and offering nothing new in return. In Waterstones yesterday I picked up a copy of a new Arnhem book by a well-known military history duo, whose books I have previously enjoyed, but whose new effort on Arnhem appears to be re-inventing the wheel. It does seem to be publisher-motivated, as any military history publisher knows, books on Arnhem sell.

Out of the virtually hundreds of books written about Arnhem, only a handful of them are really indispensible, in my experience. Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook is the best overall, general introduction about the Battle. A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan is, for obvious reasons, another good introduction, which reads almost like a novel, and takes a wider perspective. It never snows in September by Robert Kershaw is invaluable, as it is the only book that really tells the German side of the battle – and a history of a battle that only focuses on one side is like watching a football match but only being able to see half of the pitch. Arnhem 1944 by William Buckingham was, in my opinion, the first book to look at Arnhem through a more challenging, modern historiographical perspective. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, putting the cat amongs the pigeons leads for a more rigorous history in my opinion. And obviously ‘original’ texts like those by Roy Urquhart, John Frost etc are invaluable, as primary sources.

It’s so disappointing, to see big name authors with big publishing deals re-hashing what is already out there, when there are legions of historians out there who are working hard on original material, yet never get the credit that they deserve. As much as I want to sell books and pay the bills, I also want to contribute to history, and you do that by offering something new or different. I guess in that respect military history does lag behind some other disciplines, in that sometimes it is nowhere near challenging enough, and of course as a popular subject for publishing it is open to market forces more than say the history of ferret stuffing in deepest Somerset.

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Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

It’s nice to be able to review a book, for once, that is about more than just ‘words’. I must confess to having a great interest in war art, in particular the propaganda poster. Long before ‘Keep Calm and Carry On‘, I have been fascinated with ‘Let us go forward together’, ‘The few’ and ‘I need you for US Army’. An interesting distinction I found is the difference between propaganda produced by Democracies and Dictatorships. Whereas democratic posters tended to be more subtle and laidback, as free citizens tend to be scornful of being told what to do in an overt fashion. Democratic propaganda tends to be more romantic, and more an attempt to appeal to the reader’s better nature. Nazi and Soviet propaganda was far more akin to a sledgehammer – there was no need to appeal to anyones better nature, as in a one party state nobody had a choice in the matter in any case. In an interesting kind of way, propaganda posters reflect that nature of the societies in which they were created.

British propaganda is something that many people will be familirar with, and is certainly in vogue in shops such as Past Times at the moment. Information posters exhorted the population to conserve food, carry gas masks, or evacuate children. Recruitment posters were generally an attempt to encourage rather than enforce. Many examples show an exemplary man or men, in an attempt to encourage the reader to wish to be like them. Quotes from Winston Churchill were also a staple. Funnily enough Canadian propaganda tended to be more overt, such as the famous poster of a lion and beaver charging, bayonets fixed, and the equally famous ‘Lets go Canada!’. French war posters were also quite interesting. Of couse after 1940, whilst the Vichy French were pleading with the populace to ‘remember Oran’, and attempting to recruit for the Vichy Legions, the Free French were also producing posters for the consumption of exiles in Britain and elsewhere. Soviet propaganda has always interested me greatly. Although to begin with Russian posters were very socialist, and very, well, brutalistic and politicised, in time the regime peformed a volte-face and began to embrace aspects of Russia’s history and culture that had been shunned previously. Attempts to demonstrate continuity with the old Russia, ancient Russian heroes and cultural icons such as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were made in an attempt to inspire the Soviety citizens in the great patriotic war. Examples of heroic soldiers abound, rifle thrust in their air, in defence of the motherland. Like Soviety War Memorials, its very stirring stuff indeed.

American propaganda is also quite interesting. obviously, after Pearl Harbour a desire for revenge was present, and racial stereotypes of ‘the Jap’ were very common. Often Japanese soldiers were portrayed as rat-like, no doubt in an attempt to convince the American public that they were an inferior race and that Uncle Sam would prevail. Talking of which, Uncle Sam himself featured very heavily, in his Kitchener like pose, along with Golden Eagles and lots of  blue, red and white. i cannot help but think also that a lot of American propaganda was inspired by American commercialism, which obviously drew on consumerism and marketing, to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. It could be suggested that the US Government was selling the war in the same way that Ford would sell Model T’s, or Coke would sell Cola.

The Nazi regime had made use of Propaganda since its inception after World War One. In fact, men such as Hitler and Goebbels were consumate propagandists, placing spin at the centre of the regime right from the start. How else do you explain a whole country being made to believe in what turned out to be an illogical and nihilistic ideology? The ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer‘ poster is one of the most famous ever. Much use was made of classical symbols such as the Eagle, and bemuscled, Teutonic males, in an attempt to invoke a heritage supposedly linked with age old Empires. Posters decrying the Jews attempted to arouse old stereotypes, particularly of Jewish looks, and portraying them in an animalistic manner. When the war started to turn against the Third Reich the propagandists had an even harder job, to try and persuade the population that Aryan superiority was not a myth. By contrast, Italian propagandist were facing an uphill struggle, as the majority of Italians were indifferent to the war, and hence Italian posters seen, in retrospect, rather absurd and ironic. Japanese posters really are very different to anything seen in Europe, given the vastly different culture. And, again, in a totalitarian monarchy, there was little need to co-erce or persuade.

The funny thing is, I can’t help but admire totalitarian propaganda more. There’s something about Nazi and Soviet art that is really impressive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with what it is saying. I guess its kind of like Lemmy from Motorhead, who has been criticised for wearing Nazi-like clothes. When pressed, he answered that if the Allied armies had cool looking clothes, he would wear them. It just so happens that the bad guys always seem to have the best uniforms. Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it does sum up my thoughts about war propaganda.

This was a very enjoyable book to read. Some well-known examples, but also some posters that were new to my eyes. Neither is it just a picture book, it is well interpreted and enlightening, looking not only at the art itself, but also the sociological, political and military background. I only wish I had more wall space and funds to decorate my flat with some of them!

Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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SS Gairsoppa

tower hill memorial taken 27/11/03 by a brady

Tower Hill Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

Interesting news item yesterday, when it was reported that the wreck of the wartime merchant vessel the SS Gairsoppa had been located and positively identified in the Atlantic, at depths of over 6,000 feet.

The Gairsoppa was built in 1919, originally named War Roebuck. She was taken over by the British India Steam Navigation Company and renamed the SS Gairsoppa. Weighing in at 5,237 tons, she operated out of Glasgow. Her crew numbered 86, made up of British Seamen and Indian Lascars.

In 1941 she was returning from Calcutta in India to Britain, via the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a mixed cargo, but more interestingly, hundreds of tons of silver bullion. Off Sierra Leone she joined Convoy SL-64. Slowed down by poor weather and running low on coal, on 15 February the Gairsoppa detached from the convoy and headed for Galway in southern Ireland. At 1800 on 16 February she was spotted by U-101. After trouble keeping up with the Gairsoppa in the deteriorating weather, at 2328 that evening the Commander Ernst Mengersen fired three torpedoes.  The freighter was heavily damaged, and settled in the water burning. The survivors abandoned ship, and she sank within 20 minutes, 300 miles south west of Galway.

Out of three lifeboats, two were lost without trace. One, containing the second officer and 31 men, survived. After seven days most had died of exposure. On 1 March only the second officer, four british sailors and two lascars were alive when the boat reached the Lizard in Cornwall, after two weeks at sea. Tragically, all but the second officer perished when the lifeboat was swamped in the surf. The Master, Gerald Hyland, 82 crew members and 2 gunners were lost.

The Third Master was a Portsmouth man – Campbell Morrison, aged 24, an old boy of St Johns College in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London to Merchant Seaman with no grave other than the sea.

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