Bomb Sight – mapping the blitz in London

This fantastic website was launched yesterday. It maps every bomb – high explosive, incendiary, parachute – that landed on Greater London during the Blitz, from 7 October 1940 until 6 June 1941. Produced by the University of Portsmouth (my alma mater), the National Archives and JISC, it’s a great example of geography and history working together.

Researchers used the WW2 Bomb Census in the National Archives, and painstakingly plotted the site of every bomb onto a map of London. From this we can see obviously the hardest hit areas. Whilst an overall look at the map shows an overall spread, when you zoom in closer, the Docklands – in particular the area around the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks – were hard hit. Whilst the Luftwaffe were bombing London in general to attempt to subdue the civilian populations morale, and for this indiscriminate bombing across the whole city would suffice – bombing the important docks also seems to have been a priority. There are two reasons for these dual approaches – firstly, they probably lacked the accuracy to actually pinpoint small targets inland, however the docks were relatively easy to find as all the bombers had to do was fly up the Thames Estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated with the use of geographical plotting to give context to historical events. Data that sits in a chart or a spreadsheet comes alive when interpreted onto a map. I’m very interested in the thought of using similar techniques to plot war dead from Portsmouth. It could really help us to understand not just the impact of losses in Portsmouth’s communities, but also the nature of Portsmouth Society in general – for example, blue dots for sailors and red dots for soldiers.

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BAE Systems may close one of British shipyards

Type 45 Destroyer at BAE System Shipyard (Govan)

Type 45 Destroyer at BAE System Shipyard (Govan) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of BAE Systems British shipyards may close, the firms Chief Executive told the Sunday Telegraph.

BAE systems own three shipbuilding facilities in Britain – at Govan at Scotstoun in Scotland, and in Portsmouth. After the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers have been completed there is a noticeable gap in orders from the MOD, with the next programme likely to be the Type 26 Frigates due to begin a couple of years later. This gap means that it would be unprofitable to keep one of the yards running while there is no work, hence the likelihood of a closure.

Notably, BAE has performed poorly in the export market in recent years, only managing to receive orders from smaller countries for patrol vessels. Ships such as the Type 45 have not sold on the international market. By contrast countries such as France, Spain and Germany have extremely succesful export records. If only BAE had managed to sell even a few destroyers or frigates in the intervening years, British jobs might not be at risk.

Portsmouth is believed to be the most vulnerable, with 1,500 jobs at risk. There is a notion outside of Portsmouth that as it is in the South East, it can look after itself. As a result Portsmouth has always fared badly when it has come to defence cuts, compared to areas such as Plymouth and Scotland, which not only have relatively few other opportunities for employment, but have also managed to deploy much stronger political arguments. The previous Labour government went to great lengths to protect scottish shipbuilding, due to the close poximity of the scottish shipyards to the constituencies of several high-profile Labour MP’s. Yet, with Alec Salmond’s hot air regarding independence, not to mention the SNP’s anti-military stance, would it not be sensible for BAE – a BRITISH, ie, London company – to secure itself in England?

It’s cruelly unfair that Portsmouth always gets the thin end of the wedge when it comes to cuts. In the post-war period Portsmouth did much to diversify and reduce its reliance on the Royal Navy and the Dockyard, developing new industries, such as heritage, tourism, technology and services. Plymouth, on the other hand, did very little. As a result Plymouth is still reliant on the Navy, and has long been protected from cuts.

Rather worrying times for anyone working for BAE in Portsmouth.

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes available for pre-order

I haven’t even written it yet, and it’s not due for publication for another eleven months, but my next book ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ has been listed on Amazon and is now available for pre-order:

Pre-order ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ on Amazon

Here’s the blurb:

“Over 5,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during the First World War – the greatest loss of life that the city has ever known. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a wealth of sources available and painstaking use of database software, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before. James Daly builds an extremely detailed picture of Portsmouth’s World War One dead, down to where they were born, and where they lived. Not only will their stories tell us about how the war was fought and won, and their sacrifices; but they will also provide a clearer picture than ever before of how Portsmouth and its people suffered”

I’ve also got some other interesting World War One related projects at an early stage of developmentat the moment. Of course with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War not far off now, there’s going to be a lot of attention on all things Great War over the next few years.

 

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WW2 Pigeon discovered; code may never be broken

As you may have seen in the news recently, the remains of a Second World War code-carrying pigeon have been discovered in a chimney in Surrey. The bird had a small red canister attached to its leg, of the type used by SOE – the Special Operations Executive. The code inside cannot be broken with any existing codes, and is currently being worked on by Government code experts at GCHQ.

It is entirely possible that the code may be unbreakable. It could have been written using a unique, ‘once only’ code, which will have long since been destroyed. Alternatively, it could be written using a code written for a specific operations, again, which may have long since been destroyed. Without any contextual information, it will be difficult, even with the use of ‘super-computers‘, to break the code.

Even if the code can be broken, it could well be something completely mundane. It could be a message from a unit confirming that they have achieved an objective, or sending a message back to headquarters for more toilet paper.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20164591

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20458792

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The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990′s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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How to Make a Royal Marines Officer (1989)

I’ve found this rather interesting programme on BBC iplayer showing the training of a group of Royal Marines officer trainees undertaking the Commando Commissioning Course at Lympstone.

It’s quite interesting to note the training for officers compared to men – more focus on initiative, not so many extreme bollockings but the same physical and mental tests. As one of the staff mentions, the idea is that the young officers who if they are comissioned will be commanding a platoon of 30 blokes, many of them older, can stand in front of their men and provide a good example and not be embarrased. It’s always intriguing to see the NCO’s staff berating the ‘young gentlemen’, calling them all kinds of things, suffixed with a ‘sir’. But every green beret in the Royal Marines will have done the same training.

I’ve always found the psychological aspect of military training pretty interesting, as it can apply to other fields and professions. The skills of leadership in particular are fascinating – how do you pick out a leader at 18 or 19, from the thousands of applicants? It’s entirely possible that from those humble beginnings, one of them might end up as a Major-General commanding the Corps.

The lad from Barbados attempting the Commando Course during winter in particular seems to have had a pretty tough time!

Click here to watch (UK only)

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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 couldĀ  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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