Tag Archives: british army

News – Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes book

I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.

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Portsmouth as an Army Garrison 1914

Something that has always intrigued me is the manner in which Portsmouth’s military heritage is often overlooked, compared to its naval past. Sure, we all know that Portsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navy, but few people know about the long and enduring presence of the British Army in Portsmouth. It stands to reason that such a critical naval base and embarkation point will be a natural place for a significant Army garrison.

The regular Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment were both based outside of Hampshire. The 1st Battalion were at the Essex garrison town of Colchester, while the 2nd Battalion were overseas at Mhow in India. The convention in the British Army for many years had been for one of a Regiment’s Battalions to be based at home in Britain, whilst the other would be based overseas in one of Britain’s colonies.

In 1914 Portsmouth came under Southern Command, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien later commanded a Corps in the BEF in 1914 and 1915. Southern Command was Headquartered at Salisbury, but the Portsmouth Garrison in particular was commanded by Major General W.E. Blewett CB CMG, the General Officer Commanding the Portsmouth Garrison.

9 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General F.C. Shaw, comprised the bulk of Portsmouth’s infantry.  9 Infantry Brigade had four Infantry Battalions under its command, and was designated as a part of the BEF to go overseas in the event of war breaking out. 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and 1st Bn Lincolnshire Regiment were barracked in Portsmouth, while the 4th Bn Royal Fusiliers were at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and the 1st Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers were based across the Harbour in Gosport. The Brigade was one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, fighting with the 3rd Division.

Surrounded by fortifications, Portsmouth was also home to several Artillery units. 1 Heavy Brigade of Royal Garrison Artillery was based in Palmerston Forts nearby at Fareham, with 26 Battery at Fort Wallington, 35 Battery at Fort Fareham and 108 Battery at Fort Nelson.

The Army Service Corps also had a strong presence in Portsmouth, with 12 and 29 Companies being based in the town, along with 62 Mechanical Transport Company. A section of 2 Coy of the Army Ordnance Corps was also based in Portsmouth. No 6 Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps was based at Cosham, I suspect at the new Queen Alexandra Hospital on Portsdown Hill.

Portsmouth was also home to significant Territorial Force units. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment had its Headquarters at the Connaught Drill Hall in Portsmouth. Much of Portsmouth’s defence, in the event of war, comprised Territorial Forces. The General Officer Commanding South Coast Defences, under Southern Command, was based in Portsmouth. 37 and 42 Companies of the Royal Garrison Artillery formed part of the inner defences of the Portsmouth area, while 29 and 67 Companies comprised the outer defences.

III Reserve Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery was Headquartered at Hilsea, comprising 140 and 141 Batteries. The Artillery Barracks at Hilsea were located near Gatcombe Park, and several of the Barrack buildings still exist, including the Riding School. The Brigade’s 3 Depot was based nearby, close to Cosham Railway Station. 1 Wessex Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery had its Headquarters at St Pauls Road in Portsmouth, consisting of 1, 2 and 3 Hampshire Battalions RFA, and 1 Wessex Ammunition Column.

Territorial units of the Royal Engineers were based in Portsmouth. Hampshire Fortress RE had its Headquarters in Commercial Road, with No 1 and No 2 Work Companies being based in Hampshire Terrace, along with No 4 Electric Lights Company. 3rd Wessex Coy of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also based in Portsmouth.

In all, Portsmouth was home to several thousand Regular troops of Infantry, Artillery, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Army Medical Corps. There was also a Brigade Headquarters and no doubt the usual support services that come with any substantial garrison. Soldiers would have been a frequent and daily sight to the townspeople.

Interestingly, it seems that quite a few servicemen who went to France in 1914 with 9 Infantry Brigade had put down roots in Portsmouth. In particular, a not insignificant number of men who were killed serving with the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment seem to have been living in private residences in Portsmouth. Of course, neither Regiment could lay claim to southern Hampshire as a recruiting area, so it would seem that men from Northumberland and Lincoln who found themselves stationed in Portsmouth ended up marrying local girls and living out of Barracks in the town.

Portsmouth was by no means a prominent Garrison in the manner of towns such as Aldershot and Colchester, or Salisbury Plain, but never the less the town did play host to a much more significant military force than most people are aware of. It is perhaps hard for modern Portsmuthians to imagine, considering that the Army garrison began to shrink after 1918 and nowadays consists solely of the Army contingent at the Defence Diving School on Horsea Island. 

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The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.

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Army 2020 unpicked

Now we’ve had a bit more time to look at what last week’s Army 202 statement means, lets take a bit of a look at some of the finer details.

Among the announcements, articles and suchlike, there was an accompanying brochure on the Army’s official website that received very little publicity, but details the Army 2020 cuts and restructuring in much more detail than I have seen anywhere else.

Of course, some of the most high profile cuts have come in the Infantry, with the loss of some famous names.

The Argylls are currently an Air Assault Battalion, based in Canterbury, so moving to Edinburgh as an incremental company will obviously arouse quite a few howls north of the border. It is a similar move to the manner in which the second Battalions of Guards Regiments were reduced to incremental company status in the early 1990’s.

The Following Infantry Battalions, and the traditions of some of their antecedent Regiments, will be lost:

Two threads seem to emerge – a reduction in armoured infantry in particular, and a cut in Germany-based units in preparation for the units that remain there being brought back to Britain in the forseeable future. Apart from one case the MOD has chosen to cut the junior Battalions of each Regiment, apart from in the case of the Green Howards, who are a relatively senior Battalion with the 3rd Bn (Duke of Wellington’s) being junior. It was obviously felt that a theatre reserve Battalion was not necessary and easier to cut in terms of operational tempo.

The following Armoured units are to merge:

  • 1st and 2nd Royal Tank Regiments to merge; 1st RTR currently at Warminster and RAF Honington as CBRN, and 2nd RTR are currently at Tidworth as an Armoured Regiment.
  • Queens Royal Lancers and 9th/12th Royal Lancers to merge; QRL are currently at Catterick as a recconaissance Regiment, and 9/12 are currently in Germany as a reconaissance Regiment.

Obviously in terms of armour, the decision was to merge where there was commonality – reducing to a single Tank Regiment, for example, and creating a new Regiment of Lancers. Merging similar Regiments should cut down on overheads.

The loss of two Regiments from the Royal Artillery:

  • 39 Regiment RA. Known as the Welsh Gunners and recruiting from Wales, currently operate MLRS in Newcastle.
  • 40 Regiment RA. Known as the Lowland Gunners, recruiting from Lowland Scotland, currently operating the 105mm light gun.

These are two most junior Artillery Regiments, apart from 47 Regt RA who operate the UAV systems, which are presumably too important to cut what with UAV’s being a growth area for the future. Again, the MOD seems to have gone with cutting the most junior Regiments first.

Royal Engineers:

  • 24 Commando Regiment RE, currently based at RMB Chivenor near Barnstaple. Leaving 59 Independent Commando Squadron RE.
  • 25 Regiment RE, already disbanded.
  • 28 Regiment RE, an amphibious bridging unit currently based in Hameln in Germany.
  • 38 Regiment RE, based in Antrim.
  • 67 Works Group RE

The cutting of 24 Cdo RE suggests that it is not felt that a full Regiment will be needed to support 3 Cdo Bde in an expeditionary capacity, or at least not to the extent that another Engineer Regiment could not be attached to augment the independent Commando Squadron. The disbanding of 28 Regiment seems sensible, given that it was only ever intended to facilitate the withdrawl of the British Army of the Rhine from Germany in the face of the Warsaw Pact. With the withdrawl of British Forces from Germany, it would seem un-necessary to re-home them in the UK. The cutting of 38 Regiment seems to be part of the move to de-militarise Northern Ireland.

Royal Signals:

  • 7th Signal Regiment, ARRC, at Elmpt (old RAF Bruggen)

Probably not a surprising move given that the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps has relocated from Rheindalen to Innsworth recently, and with the withdrawl of the rest of the British Army from Germany.

Army Air Corps:

  • 1 Regiment AAC and 9 Regiment AAC to merge, both Lynx Wildcat Regiments.

Royal Logistics Corps:

  • 1 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 2 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 23 Pioneer Regiment; Oxford
  • 8 Regiment RLC; Catterick
  • 19 Combat Service Support Bn
  • 24 Regiment RLC; Germany

REME:

  • 101 Force Support Bn; a hybrid regular and TA unit

RMP:

  • 5 Regiment RMP

I actually had trouble finding out much information about the RLC, REME and RMP units concerned. Any contributions would be gratefully received.

Looking at it, it does seem like a salami-slicing exercise. The promised dramatic reductions in Armour haven’t happened, and various Infantry Regiments were protected due to political concerns. Aside from a few cases more junior Regiments were cut, with the Army having its age-old concern with seniority above much else. It seems inaccurate to describe Army 2020 as a restructuring exercise. The Mike Jackson led cuts in the mid 2000’s at least dealt with the problems of arms plot and lots of tiny infantry Regiments.

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Leaks and Rumours on impending Army Cuts

There have been a number of leaks and rumours recently regarding the impending cuts to the British Army. Naturally, with the Army faced with losing 20% of its manpower strength, the current structure of Regiments and Corps will be unsustainable with this smaller footing.

And with the British Army being as tribal as it is, there have been numerous articles, letters, meetings and the like lobbying to keep certain Regiments. No lobby group swings into action like an old-boys network when ‘the Regiment’ is under threat. This kind of layalty is very admirable, particularly when it fosters a closeness among serving soldiers, but it also makes decision making very uncomfortable, particularly when political considerations come into play.

An article on the BBC News website reported that a letter from the honorary Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to the CGS had been leaked. Apparently draft plans appear to show the two Fusiliers Battalions being merged into one – obviously not a good move for any Regimental Colonel, the tribal elder. The CGS will probably have had letters from every Colonel of every Regiment no doubt. A further article in the Daily Telegraph reported that at least five infantry Battalions are to be cut, along with a third of the Royal Artillery and a third of the Royal Logistics Corps.

An article in the Guardian reported that a Battalion each of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Regiment of Scotland would be cut. Under the leaked document the Army’s troops would be reformed into three categories – spearhead (namely the Royal Marines and Paras); adapatable forces to take over from the spearhead, but taking 18 months to train for the specific theatre; and force troops, ie support units such as artillery, etc. Mergers have also been proposed within the Royal Armoured Corps, with the Queens Royal Lancers merging with the 9th/12th Lancers, and the 1st and 2nd Royal Tank Regiments merging. The Parachute Regiment’s three Battalions will also be spared.

Finally, today’s Portsmouth News contained a report fearing for the future of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. The Tigers were only formed by a merger just over two decades ago, and as a two Battalion Regiment are vulnerable to either being cut and or merged. The News understands that there are proposals to merge the PWRR with the Royal Anglian Regiment and the Fusiliers to form an East of England Regiment. This would be the next step on from Mike Jackson’s Regimental reforms some years ago. Whilst it is sad that centures old traditions are being lost, the size of the Army and the recruiting patterns of todays Army do not support the old structure.

One would hope that the Government and the Ministry of Defence take into account recruiting patterns, capability and future developments when they are thinking about which Regiments to cut and which to merge, and not just quaking in the face of Alex Salmond’s predictable jibes. When we have to plug gaps in Scottish Regiments with Commonwealth volunteers, then it’s no wonder the downsizing is to be considered.

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Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80’s and 90’s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

This is one of those books that I read through, cover to cover, within hours of opening. There’s something almost holy about the British Field Marshal. Even more so since the 1995 Betts report recommended that senior officers should not be appointed to Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, except in special circumstances. The feeling is that the Field Marshal is now a thing of history, and indeed there are very few surviving holders of this high rank alive. Added to this, Field Marshals never retire, and are on the active list for life. Anyone promoted to the top of the tree, and awarded the Prince Regent-designed Baton, is in exalted company indeed. Of the 138 men to hold the rank, there are some fine names indeed to consider – Wellington, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Plumer, Allenby, Robertson, Birdwood, Smuts, Gort, Wavell, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson, Auchinleck and Slim.

The interesting thing is, that Field Marshal as a rank has never been a condition, or benefit, or serving in a particular appointment. There were points in both the First and Second World Wars when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  – the head of the British Army – was a General, while theatre commanders – technically subordinates – were Field Marshals. The rank can often be awarded by Royal approval, as it was to Haig in 1916 and Montgomery in 1944. It has also been awarded on an honorary level to 22 British and Foreign Monarchs, Royal Consorts of officers of commonwealth or Allied Armies – one of them being Marshal Foch, and also a certain Emperor Hirohito.

I was particularly interested to read the analysis of what arms Field Marshals came from. As someone who has critiqued the armed forces for the background of their leaders, I was intrigued to see how the Army fared. And it’s rather interesting. 20 Field Marshals came from the Cavalry, 4 from Armour, 10 from Artillery, 5 Engineers, 18 Foot Guards, 48 Line Infantry (including 8 scottish, 14 Rifles or Light Infantry and 1 Gurkha), and 11 from the old Indian Army. The schools attended by Field Marshals is also an interesting appendix –  15 for Eton, 3 from Charterhouse, 3 from Marlborough, 4 from Wellington, 6 Westminster, 5 from Winchester and 2 from Harrow.

The individual entries about each Field Marshal are informative, but concise as you would expect from a Biographical Dictionary. I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the older, lesser known Field Marshals pre-Wellington. We often think that the Iron Duke was the first Field Marshal. After he captured Marshal Jourdan’s Baton at Vitoria, the Prince Regent promised to send him the Baton of a British Field Marshal in return. No such Baton existed, however, so one had to be hastily designed!

It is of course a shame that we no longer, generally speaking, appoint Field Marshals. As much as the historian in me would love to see the Baton awarded more regularly, the realist in me acknowledges that our armed forces are so small, and the nature of warfare is so different nowadays, that it is perhaps not appropriate to automatically promote officers to the rank, when it is largely symbolic. If in the future we found ourselves in a mass-mobilisation war and generals were again commanding large forces in action, then by all means bring it back. But the clue is in the title – ‘Field Marshal’, he who marshal’s the field of battle. Is a Field Marshal’s place in Whitehall, in peacetime?

Funnily enough, a matter of days ago it was announced that General Lord Guthrie – Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001,  the last CDS not to be promoted to the highest level and the provider of the foreword for this book – was being made a Field Marshal in the Queens Birthday Honours. Also awarded the rank, along with Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was Prince Charles. Illustrating succinctly how Field Marshals can be appointed after a lifetime of service, or as an honour.

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 is published by Pen and Sword

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