Tag Archives: bbc

De Gaulle – the myth

Theres been plenty in the media today about how the French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in London to mark the 70th anniversary of a supposedly important speech given by Charles De Gaulle, the then Leader in exile of the Free French Forces.

The consensus among historians appears to be that at the time hardly anyone heard the speech first hand – it was only broadcast on the limited BBC French service. Yet somehow it has come to be revered in French national history as a speech that rallied the French, leading to eventual victory in 1945. But the obvious question is, how can this have been the case if no-one actually heard it? Of course, many people will claim to have heard it, but how many of them actually did? Even former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing states that when he heard the broadcast he had never heard of De Gaulle before, who was then the most junior General in the French Army.

Most historians seem to tacitly agree that the speech’s important was not in the days, weeks or even months after it was given. It was afterwards, when the text of the speech gradually became more widely known that it became a convenient turning point in the low tide of 1940. Of course, this is very much in hindsight. To be a true turning point, a speech has to be effective in its time, not in hindsight.

De Gaulle’s leadership of the Free French during the war was very important. Granted, he was a very difficult character – Churchill once quipped that ‘the only cross I have to bear is the cross of Lorraine’. But he was far more palatable than Petain and the Vichy Regime. And it is imperative not to forget that many french citizens risked their lives fighting during the war, with the resistance or assisting allied fugitives.

Sadly, however, a fair amount of re-writing of history has gone on regarding the French experience of World War Two. While the usual stereoypes are perhaps unkind, France was defeated convincingly in 1940, and for all De Gaulle’s posturing during the liberation in 1944, France was largely liberated by the Allied armies. Indeed, one statue in France which marks the spot where De Gaulle landed after D-Day gives the impression that he liberated France single-handedly. In reality, De Gaulle was little more than a spectator, so untrusted was he by the allied command that he was not involved in any of the planning for the Invasion of Europe.

Its all the more curious how De Gaulle came to be regarded as a French national hero. True, he provided leadership and a focal point during an extremely low period. But he did not win any battles. Yet generals such as Montgomery, who did, are all but forgotten in Britain. Perhaps, due to the traumatic French experience between 1940 and 1945, De Gaulle and his speech have been ready-made focal points for the rebuilding of French self-pride? The desire to forget 1940 possibly also explains some of the more prickly French policy decisions of the latter half of the twentieth century.

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Operation Source: Lost Heroes

Ive just watched a fascinating programme on BBC iplayer, about a daring midget submarine raid on the Tirpitz in 1943.

The sister ship of the Bismarck, the Tirpitz spent much of the war lurking in Norwegian fjords, threatening the vital Arctic convoys to Russia. All the time she was there, the Royal Navy had to maintain a strong Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. If the Tirpitz had broken out into the North Sea or the Atlantic, we might have seen a desparate hunt like the one that sank the Bismarck in 1941.

British Forces launched a wide range of daring raids to try and neutralise the Tirpitz. One of the most famous, the raid on St Nazaire, was even hundreds of miles away from the ship. St Nazaire was home to the only dry dock big enough to take the Tirpitz – after this was destroyed, the German Navy would not be able to repair the giant ship.

Although the monster Battleship was eventually sunk by Lancasters of the RAF, the first raid that damaged the Tirpitz was carried out by three X Craft – midget submarines with a crew of four men. Towed across the North Sea by conventional Submarines, they were cast off on the Norwegian Coast. After breaching tight defences, including their divers cutting through anti-torpedo netting, the submarines dropped saddle charges under the battleship, before attempting to escape. Two of the submarine Commanders won the Victoria Cross, and many of the crew members were also decorated.

Yet what happened to the other Submarine has always remained a mystery – as it was not certain what part they had played in the raid. Did they manage to drop their charges? Did the Commander deserve a Victoria Cross, like his counterparts?

Watch Timewatch: The Lost Heroes on BBC iplayer here


Filed under Navy, On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two

‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ to hit our screens soon

The Laconia

The Laconia

I’ve just been watching BBC1, and seen a trailer for their upcoming Dramas. Among them is the two-part story of The Sinking of the Laconia. It stars Brian Cox as Captain Rudolph Sharp.

The Laconia was a Cunard Liner, pressed into service as a troop ship in the Seond World War. She was torpedoed in 1942, in what became one of the most moving stories of the war.

I have a keen interest in this programme, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard when she went down. He survived and was rescued by the Vichy French. He was interned in Morrocco, and contracted Dysentry. He was liberated, only to die after returning to England in 1943.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Here’s the blurb from the BBC website:

Andrew Buchan and rising German star Ken Duken are joined by Brian Cox and Lindsay Duncan in The Sinking Of The Laconia, a powerful new two-part drama for BBC Two from acclaimed writer Alan Bleasdale. The drama tells the true story of the amazing heroism shown by ordinary people in the face of extraordinary adversity during the Second World War. Brian Cox plays Captain Sharp, whose armed British vessel, the RMS Laconia, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat 156 on 12 September 1942. Also on board was 3rd officer Thomas Mortimer (Buchan), who heroically risked his life to help the passengers reach the lifeboats.
Six hundred miles from the coast of Africa, the mixture of English civilians, Allied soldiers and Italian Prisoners of War faced certain death until U-Boat Commander Werner Hartenstein (Duken) made a decision that went against the orders of Nazi High Command. The U-boat surfaced and Hartenstein instructed his men to save as many of the shipwrecked survivors as they could. Over the next few days the U-156 saved 400 people, with 200 people crammed on board the surface-level submarine and another 200 in lifeboats. Hartenstein gave orders for messages to be sent out to the Allies to organise a rescue of the survivors but, in an unbelievable twist, they were spotted by an American B-24 bomber who moved in to attack. The Sinking Of The Laconia takes a look at the human side of the remarkable events that took place: the friendships that developed, the small acts of heroism,and the triumph of the human spirit in the most incredible of situations. The cast also includes some of Germany’s biggest names, including Matthias Koeberlin, Frederick Lau and Thomas Kretschmann.

No idea of when it will be on yet, but you can be sure as soon as I know you will read it here!


Filed under Family History, maritime history, Navy, On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two

Empire of the Seas: Sea Change

I’ve just watched the last instalment of Dan Snow’s latest series.

After Trafalgar the Royal Navy was riding the crest of a wave. Dominant in all of the world’s oceans, the ironclad era and the advent of engine propulsion spurred it on to new heights.

But away from the ships, a sea change too place in the culture of those who served in the Royal Navy. Whilst still worshipping the memory of Nelson, officers began to place obedience far above initiative – the value that Nelson had tried to instill among his Captains. As the Navy became the darling of British society, it also became more stratified socially, which stifled meritocracy.

One man in the early Twentieth Century tried to change all of this. Admiral Jackie Fisher became First Sea Lord with a comprehensive plan to modernise all aspects of the Royal Navy. His mantra was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ – put simply, he wanted to make the Royal Navy so large and so powerful, that no-one would dare challenge it. Soon 25% of all Government expenditure was being spent on the Navy.

Chief among this spending was the new Class of Battleship – the Dreadnought. Far better armed and armoured than any ship previously, she rendered all other ships virtually obsolete. An arms race developed in Europe, with the Kaiser’s Germany attempting to challenge British Naval supremacy.

Although the German Navy had less than half the amount of Dreadnoughts as Britain, in 1916 the German fleet attempted to draw the British Grand Fleet into battle. Although the Grand Fleet suffered heavy losses at Jutland, the battle was a strategic victory for the British – the sheer amount of ships flying the white ensign prevented the Germans from challenging them again. The British failings at Jutland had been caused by a slowness to adapt to the new technology of battle – poor communications combined with rigid obedience led to ships failing to act decisively, and un-necessary losses.

Although Jutland led to bursting of the 100 year ‘Trafagar bubble’, it also shook the Royal Navy out of its complacency. Never the less, after the First World War Britain was no longer the world’s dominant Naval power.

This episode ends the series nicely, but I do feel that it concludes very abruptly. British Naval power did not suddenly end after 1918 – the size of the Royal Navy in 1940 still prevented Nazi Germany from invading Britain. I would argue that it was through the symbolic loss of the Royal Oak, the Hood, Prince of Wales and Renown that Britain really lost her naval superpower status. The decline may have begun at Jutland, but it was only in the latter stages of the Second World War that the US Navy eclipsed the Royal Navy.

All in all, this has been a thought-provoking series that has discussed a key part of British history. I have been impressed with how well Dan Snow has put across some complicated ideas in very simple and understandable ways. Many of them are extremely relevant today. On the down side, perhaps it did ignore earlier and later factors outside of the series arbitrary start and end dates. An earlier episode on Tudor sea power and a later one on the Second World War would have made much more sense.

How about a similar series, looking at the British Army since Cromwell?

Catch the last episode here on BBC iplayer


Filed under Navy, On TV, World War One

Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer


Filed under maritime history, Navy, On TV

Question Time

I’ve just finished watching Question Time, this week a special edition from Wooton Bassett. The guests were General Sir Richard Dannatt, Bill Rammell, William Hague, Paddy Ashdown, Piers Morgan and Salma Yaqoob.

Firstly, I would never want anyone to think that I glorify war, or even like war. Its horrible, its a failure that we ever need to resort to war. It would be great if we never had to go to war again, but sadly there will always be rogue elements in the world who only understand their own language and can only be dealt with by force. And when we do have to do so, it should be done by international agreement and done professionally and properly.

I’m convinced, having studied a multitude of conflicts, recent and not so recent, and especially wars in Afghanistan since the 1830’s, that this is a war where we must not fail. It is not a war that we can win, but that we must not lose. We have to make sure that the Afghan Government and people are helped to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible, and then we leave as soon as we possibly can. To try and put an end date on this would simply not work. Furthermore, some of the things people vaguely quote about previous wars in Afghanistan are simply not true. This is a very different war to any other ever fought in the country.

To simply cut and run would be a disaster and we would end up paying the consequences in kind in years to come. The Taliban would almost certainly re-emerge as the dominant force, which would give free rein to Al Qaeda. This in turn would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear armed country that has enough problems as it is.

I feel that to argue that we are making the problems worse by being there, and that we should just get out and mind our own business, is nonsensical. We don’t live in a world any longer were we can pull up the drawbridge and ignore events overseas. The world is interconnected, by technology, ideas, culture, money, drugs, anything and everything. Whilst it is sad that we have to do so, I think it is necessary for the international community to intervene if it is in the wider world’s interests. And a lawless and dangerous Afghanistan is in no-ones interest.

I must confess to not agreeing with any of Salma Yaqoob’s arguments, and I suspect her statistics were wrong. They seemed to come more from a standard script of anti-war protest than any realism (yes, we know Tony Blair lied) and showed no understanding of any history, research or regional affairs. The war should have been better managed from the start, Iraq did make us take our eyes off the ball, yes the mishandling of Iraq has tained peoples views on Afghanistan. But those are lessons we must learn and hold to, they are not reasons to give up now. But there is a sort of champagne-socialist trendiness about opposing war, without really understanding the background to it. Its almost a rite of passage for middle class students. The Government has to do better to explain what we are aiming to do there, to disprove such ill-informed views.

But I do think we are watching the death throes of this Government, with lightweights like Bill Rammell being thrown to the slaughter on Question Time. The Labour Government have never taken Defence seriously. At the same time, it has by its Foreign policy committed the forces to do more and more. Only yesterday we heard that Health and Education would be protected from massive cuts, while Defence can expect falling budgets. I am not for one moment advocating cutting money for Schools or Hospitals, but I think there is an awful lot of money in Education and Health that never reaches the front line, and pays for LEA’s, managers, quangos, all kinds of things that add no value or have no effect on ill people or on children. Being an important service should not give anyone carte blanche to waste money while other Departments are being strangled for cash.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, News, On TV

Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.


Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two