Tag Archives: d-day

D-Day on your Doorstep

The D-Day landings and the campaign in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945 are normally thought of as beginning in Normandy on 6 June and ending in Berlin on 8 May 1945. As usual with anything military history related, the real story behind the scenes is much different. The whole campaign from D-Day onwards depended on much preparation in Britain for months, if not years afterwards. In fact, virtually every corner of Britain will have some kind of connection with D-Day.

Millions of troops in Britain – British, American, Canadian and from many other allied nations – had to be accommodated somewhere. They all had to train somewhere. Equipment had to be manufactured and stored; supplies had to be delivered. There were marshalling camps, embarkation points; places where Mulberry Harbours were constructed. Dockyards, airfields, factories. The many units and organisations required numerous different headquarters. It is pretty obvious that in early 1944 Britain was one large armed camp geared up towards becoming a launchpad for the second front.

We’re currently working on a new page on the D-Day Museum website called ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’. Over the coming months we will be adding D-Day related locations to the map, and building a picture of Britain’s role in launching D-Day. We would love to hear from you if your area has any D-Day links, or if you would like to add any detail to the locations that we have already uploaded.

To see the ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’ page visit the D-Day Museum website here.

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‘the tail’: US Army logistics in Britain, 1944

It’s the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up soon, and aside from the blanket coverage of the First World War, expect various documentaries about the subject.

One of the things that has always interested me about D-Day and Operations Neptune and Overlord, is the sheer amount of administration, planning and ‘behind the scenes’ work needed to keep an army in action. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I think during the Second World War less than 20% of all servicemen in allied armies fought in the ‘teeth’ arms. War had become so technologically advanced that it took far more resources to keep vehicles, weapons and the men that operated them in action.

One case in point is the huge number of US units based in England from 1942 onwards. American units began to arrive from early 1942 as part of Operation Bolero – the American build up in Europe – but the numbers of troops and units reached a high water mark just before 6 June 1944.

Very few parts of the British Isles did not have US troops stationed near them. There were particularly large concentrations of US troops in places such as Northern Ireland, the West Country in Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire, and Eight Air Force airfields in East Anglia.

Hilsea in Portsmouth was home to a significant US Army supply depot. Under General Depot G-65 came 1 Special Services Company, 51 Ordnance Group, 53 Army Postal Unit, 91 Finance Distribution Section, 120 Chemical Procurement Company, 193 Chemical Depot Company, 196 Quartermaster Battalion, 208 Army Postal Unit, 245 Quartermaster Battalion, 284 Quartermaster Refrigeration Company, 298 Ordnance Company, 321 Ordnance Battalion, 346 Quartermaster Depot Company, 350 Ordnance Battalion, 532 Quartermaster Salvage Repair Company, 555 Army Postal Unit, 604 Ordnance Base Armament Maintenance Battalion, 784 Base Depot Company, 864 Ordnance Heavy Auto Maintenance Company, 1212 Engineer Firefighting Platoon, 3040 Quartermaster Bakery, 3267 and 3269 Quartermaster Service Companies and 4232 Quartermaster Sterilization Company. Clearly, Hilsea was a significant Ordnance and Quartermaster Depot, which supported US units in the Portsmouth area. It must have consisted of thousands of men, none of whom were infantrymen, artillerymen or tank men.

It was a similar situation at airfields. Stoney Cross airfield, in the New Forest in Hampshire, hosted the 367 Fighter Bomber Group Headquarters and 392, 393 and 394 Fighter Bomber Squadrons of the US Army Air Forces.These Squadrons operated P-38 Lightnings and during D-Day and the three days after flew nine missions. But aside from these rather more glamorous units, the station was also home to 17 Station Complement Squadron, 32 Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, 217 Medical Dispensary, 327 Service Group, 807 Chemical Company, 1113 Signal Company, 1180 Quartermaster Company, 1292 Military Police Company 1830 Ordnance Company and 2200 Quartermaster Truck Company. To keep aircraft in the air, the men operating them needed engineering, signal, logistics, transport and ordnance support. And once you have that many men on an air base, you are bound to need medical and provost services to keep them healthy and well-behaved! And Stoney Cross was a particularly small and remote place – check it out here.

Some of the units that we see here are not the kinds that we think of. I love Band of Brothers, but how many men behind the scenes worked to get Easy Company into action? Sometimes it is all too easy to overlook the many unglamorous units and roles in an army, but they are all part of the same spear, with the infantry, armour and artillery being the sharp tip.

For more information about US Army units in GreatBritain in 1944, have a look at these invaluable documents prepared by Phil Grinton.

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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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Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe by Patrick Delaforce

Thankfully military history has moved on in the past few years. While not so long ago military history consisted primarily of battles, generals, tanks, ships, planes, dates and the ‘great man’ school of history. Although of its time, looking back this approach does seem rather stale. The practice of writing THE history of a particular unit - usually in narrative form - is very much a traditional approach, and Patrick Delaforce has written a number of histories of some of the Divisions that fought in North West Europe with the British Army in 1944 and 1945.

Anyone with an interest in the Second World War will probably be aware that one of the most prominent issues surrouding the British Army was the performance of several of its veteran Division in Normandy in 1944. When he took over command of 21st Army Group Montgomery requested three veterans Divisions from the Eight Army: the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland), and the famous 7th Armoured Divisions – the Desert Rats.

I’ve often thought that its pretty misleading to label any military unit as ‘elite’. No unit ever starts off as elite – everyone has to start somewhere, as they say – and units that once had a sharp edge can easily lose it. From my own research, I have found that while the 1st Airborne Division has often been regarded as an elite unit, in many ways it was green and had lost its keen edge. And most historians agree that far from giving the D-Day forces a stiffening of experience, the three Divisions brought over from Italy struggled once ashore. This issue has been looked at in more details by historians such as David French and David Fraser.

Why was this? While historians have debated and researched this for years, sadly Patrick Delaforce glosses over the Division’s performance, seeming to regard it as something that isn’t all that important. Which is a great pity, as discussing it help us get insde the psyche of the fighting soldier, as he goes from one battle to another. I’ve always been pretty interested in the psychology of battle, and I cannot help but feel that the experience of the 7th Armoured Division after D-Day would give a lot of food for thought. Historians have suggested arrogance, battle-weariness, and the difference between the Desert and the Bocage as reasons for the Divisions performance. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Division that saw two Commanding Generals sacked within 6 months had problems.

After landing shortly after D-Day, Montgomery sent the Desert Rats to capture Villers Bocage, in an attempt to outflank Caen. After they failed it became clear that perhaps the policy of using veteran units wasn’t working quite as it was hoped. After the Desert Rats failed to distinguish themselves in Operation Goodwood shortly after it became clear that the Division would need rebuilding. In subsequent battles other Armoured Divisions were employed - the capture of Antwerp by the 11th Armoured Division, and Operation Market Garden by the Guards Armoured.

There are some bright spots about this book – Delaforce makes use of a number of veterans accounts, which shed light on life for the British Soldier between D-Day and VE Day. Subjects such as food, looting, brothels, medical care, officer-men relations and attitudes towards the enemy are all looked at. But I am sure there are a lot more accounts out there from Desert Rats veterans. And Delaforce seems not to have looked at the wide range of official sources out there, such as war diaries. Which is a real shame. Perhaps as a wartime Royal Horse Artillery officer Delaforce does not wish to be too critical or to delve too deep into the controversial areas.

This book, although interesting, does feel very much like an ‘old military history’. Worth a read, and twenty or thirty years ago it would have been great. But it could do with being updated with a fresher and more objective outlook.

Churchill’s Desert Rats in North West Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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Wittman v Ekins: The Death of a Panzer Ace – The DVD

This is the second DVD I have had the pleasure of reviewing from the partnership of Battlefield History TV and Pen and Sword Digital. Whilst the first DVD I reviewed focussed very much on family military history, this release looks at two very different men, on opposing sides of one of the most famous battles of the Second World War.

Michael Wittman was the most renowned German Tank Ace of the Second World War. By the time he arrived in Normandy with his elite Waffen SS Tank Battalion, he had seen extensive service on the Eastern Front and had been decorated for bravery. By contrast Trooper Joe Ekins was a shoemaker in civilian life who had volunteered for the Norhamptonshire Yeomanry, a territorial armoured unit. These two very different men came to be facing each other in August 1944 during Operation Totalize – Montgomery’s attempt to break out of the bridgehead or tie down German reinforcements, depending on which side of the historiography you sit!

Many books and programmes have attempted to pinpoint exactly who killed Michael Wittman. Where I think this DVD is spot on is in its conclusion that while it is almost possible to pinpoint who exactly killed Wittman, but it is very possible that it was Trooper Ekins. My take on it having watched the DVD, is why have people become so fixated with finding out who exactly killed Wittman? Lots of men and tanks were fighting each other in the summer of 1944, is it really possible or indeed wise to try and isolate individuals from the bigger picture? But I guess if people are interested in it, its always going to be the subject of speculation.

I found this a vey enjoyable DVD indeed. The balace between battlefield visits, the interviews with Joe Ekins and the expert analysis was just about right. In particular I enjoyed Richard Hone’s look at the German and Allied Tanks. The use of battlefield maps, overlaid with graphics and used in conjunction with battlefield views, really brings the story of life. But best of all, the interviews with Trooper Joe Ekin ensure that his memories and experiences are recorded for posterity.

This kind of focussed, battlefield interpretation lends itself very well to the DVD format. Its very well produced, and with a nice soundtrack. Whereas Tracing Great War Ancestors was a good effort, this seems a more confident offering. The ability to talk to veterans, walk the battlefields and present graphics paints a picture far more accesible than even the most vivid book. And I think there is a demand for these kinds of studies. I can think of plenty of stories associated with Arnhem that could be told very lucidly using this approach – fingers crossed we will see many more like this in the future.

Wittman v Ekins: The Death of a Panzer Ace is available from Pen and Sword Digital

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Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: the small ships of WW2

Aside from Battleships, Aircraft Carriers and the like, a huge range of smaller ships also served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. Perhaps not as glamorous as the big guns ships, never the less the Trawlers, Drifters, Tugs and other small ships gave sterling service in many theatres. Some were Navy ships, but most were requisitioned merchant vessels that served under Naval orders during the war.

Small vessels maintained boom defences around vital ports. In the Solent an anti-submarine boom stretched from Southsea Beach, across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On 30 May 1940 HM Boom Defence Vessel Cambrian, 338 tons and built in 1924, hit a mine and sank in the middle of the Solent and 23 men were killed. Onboard was Riggers Mate Robert Lavender, 41 and from Buckland. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. I recall fishing on the wreck of the Cambrian some years ago, and catching some nice Wrasse.

Meanwhile an armada of small ships were rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. HM Tug St Fagan was sunk by aircraft on 1 June 1940. The St Fagan displaced 550 tons and was completed in 1919. Among the 17 crew members killed were Stoker Frederick Hatch, 22, Stoker Bernard McBride, 40 and from Hilsea, Leading Steward William Longley, 44, and Stoker William Clark, 22 and from Milton. They have no known grave and are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. On the same day her sister ship HM Tug St Abbs was also sunk by German aircraft. Able Seaman William Cornford, 41 and from Cosham, was among the 20 crew members killed. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Navy also used Trawlers to perform a number of tasks, including minesweeping and coastal patrols. A 344 ton ship launched in 1938, HM Trawler Recoil was lost on patrol presumed mined in the English Channel on 28 September 1940. 25 men were lost, One of them Ordinary Telegraphist Hubert Ewen, 22 and from Surrey. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Drifter Harvest Gleaner (96 tons, 1918) was sunk by aircraft off the East coast of England on 28 October 1940 with the loss of four of her crew. Among those lost was Petty Officer Stoker Seymour Stephenson, 46 and from Eastney. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

Smaller ships also served in the Mediterranean and off North Africa. HM Trawler Ouse struck a mine off Tobruk, Libya on 20 February 1941, with the loss of 13 men. She weighed in at 462 tons, and was completed in 1917. Onboard when she sank was Petty Officer Stoker William Horsley, 40 and from Copnor. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. HM Tug St Issey was sunk off Benghazi, Libya on 28 December 1942. 810 tons and completed in 1918, she was presumed to have been sunk by a U-Boat. Among the 36 men lost was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Keith Hollis, from Southsea. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Trawler Red Gauntlet (338 tons, 1930) met an unfortunate end in the North Sea on 5 August 1943. She was sunk by an E-Boat, the German equivalent of a Motor Torpedo Boat. 21 men were lost. Her Second Lieutenant was 32 year old James Childs, an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

During the D-Day campaign small ships played a vital part. Ships that were employed on minesweeping duties were particularly vulnerable. HM Trawler Lord Austin (473 tons, 1937) was sunk by a mine in the Seine Bay off Normandy on 24 June 1944, with the loss of 7 of her crew. Her Assistant Steward was 35 year old John Cotterell. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

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Operation Bluecoat: Over the Battlefield by Ian Daglish

Operation Bluecoat is perhaps one of the least well known offensives of the Battle for Normandy, and has often been overshadowed by its earlier cousins Epsom and Goodwood. This is largely due to the myth that Monty failed in Normandy, and that the US Army had to bail out the British (an argument made principally by Carlo D’Este). This argument takes no account of the fact that Goodwood and Epsom, whilst not making a decisive breakout, ground down the German forces to such an extent that a breakout further west was made possible. The myth that British forces in Normandy became bogged down and had to be rescued by th American breakout that still pervades in many quarters. It is an argument that promises to rumble on for years to come.

Whatever the argument, it is clear that Bluecoat has been somewhat overlooked. The British advance to seize Mont Pincon and the key road junction at Vire led to the ecirclement of German forces in the Falaise Pocket. If the northern boundary of the Falaise pocket had not been formed, then more Geman forces would have escaped to fight another day. Hopefully this book by Ian Daglish wil play a part in helping redress the balance. I have found it very enjoyable, readable and most informative.

This book is most timely, as a number of Portsmouth men died in the battle for Mont Pincon. The 7th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was a part of the 43rd (Wessex Division) that was at the forefront of Bluecoat. Private William White, 30 and from Eastney, was killed on 2 August 1944, the first day of Bluecoat. He is buried in Hottot-les-Bagues War Cemetery. Private Stanley Anslow, 27, was killed on 6 August 1944 – the day that Mont Pincon was captured – and is buried in Hottot-le-Bagues War Cemetery. Private Percy Hayter, 30 and from Southsea, was also on 7 August. He is buried n Bannevile-le-Campage War Cemetery. Books such as this make it so much easier for these men’s stories to be told.

The Over the Battlefield series is an innovative concept, drawing on aerial recconaisance photographs taken during the battle complemented with contemporary photographs. Given the popularity of GoogleEarth the use of overhead views is most welcome. Especially with a complex battlefield such as that found in Normandy, Over the Battlefield helps the reader to ‘smell the battlefield’. I for one hope that there are plenty more books to come in this vein – an edition on the Battle of Arnhem would be fascinating.

Operation Bluecoat: Over the Battlefied is published by Pen and Sword

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Over the Battlefield: Operation Goodwood by Ian Daglish

Goodwood

After the end of Epsom the front in Normandy solidified, with the British and Canadians being held on the outskirts of Caen while the Americans cleared the Cotentin Pensinsula. Becoming bogged down was a serious fear, particularly among aggressive american commanders and British officers fearing a return to trench warfare. After Epsom ground to a halt and Caen was captured, the next logical step was to attack from the west and consolidate the possession of Caen.

Goodwood has remained one of the most contentious battles of the Second World War. Alongside Arnhem it is probably the one battle that fuels Montgomery’s detractors. The certainly have a point – the use of three armoured divisions in a concerted operation must surely have been aiming for some kind of breakthrough. Monty probably made a rod for his own back by suggesting that Goodwood might lead to a breakout in the direction of Falaise. His orders for the operation merely hinted at this as a possibility, not a certainty. Yet Eisenhower and Tedder seem to have taken it as a given.

It was a logistical achievement just to get the Guards, 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions – over 45,000 men and over 10,000 vehicles – across into the cramped Orne Bridgehead in the first place, a fact which is often ignored. Also, it is unrealistic to view operations in isolation – they were all clearly part of a wider campaign. On their own Epsom and Goodwood might have been disappointing, but seen together they resulted in the capture of Caen and its consolidation. And as Daglish points out, the Germans were very well prepared in defence east of Caen.

The other contentious point surrounding Goodwood is the use of Heavy Bombers in the opening stage. The intention was to ‘soften up’ the German front line to aid an armoured breakthrough. Over 900 British Bombers bombed in daylight on 18 July, shortly followed by their American counterparts. The use of heavy bombers to directly support operations had never been tried before. The shock was numbing, but it also gave away the element of surprise.

An advance of five miles certainly seems scant reward for the use of three Armoured Divisions and thousands of heavy bombers. But the battle had made a huge dent in the Germans ability to hold the line in Normandy. Goodwood is a very difficult battle to get a handle on due to the cotrovresy surrunding it, but the use of aerial photos iluminates a murky history. Scenes of massed tanks and bomb craters give us such a better impression than a map. The attack eventually petered out due to congestion, poor weather and stiff german resistance, and was halted on 20 July.

British losses were heavy, amongst them several Portsmouth men. Flight Sergeant Kenneth Meehan, 20 and from North End, was a Navigator in a 158 Squadron Halifax Bomber that crashed while bombing the German lines on 18 July 1944. He is buried in Banneville la Campagne War Cemetery.

The principal stated goal of Goodwood, as Daglish points out from the start, was to tie up Panzer Divisions in the East. Yet Monty let himself down by allowing his equals and superior to hope for too much. He woud have done far better to accept that he was acting flexibly than to insist that everything went exactly to plan. Personally, I feel that a breakout from Goowood would have over-extended the allied eastern flank and left the bridgehead imblanced – completely out of character for Monty.

Next: we take a look at Operation Bluecoat, the succesful British breakout in Normandy.

Over the Battlefield: Operation Goodwood is published by Pen and Sword

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Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield by Ian Daglish

Courtesy of Pen and Sword, over the next few days I will be bringing you reviews of the first three books in their innovative new series ‘Over the Battlefield’. Here is my taken on the first instalment, which focuses on Operation Epsom.

Epsom

Operation Epson was the first of three set-piece battles fought by Montgomery in Normandy. Before Epsom the front still remained fluid, and there were hopes that the allies might be able to extend the beachead further. There was even talk of dropping the 1st Airborne Division west of Caen in support.

But at the same time, there was also a risk that the Germans might also launch a decisive counter-attack against the allied build-up. Although Epsom was blunted, it also prevented a planned German operation and ensured that from then on the strategic initiative remained with the allies.

Epsom saw largely well-trained but inexperienced British Divisions fighting against some of the Third Reich’s most battle-hardened units. Thanks to ULTRA intelligence Montgomery was aware that Rommel was planning an offensive towards Bayeux – by launching Epsom Rommel was frorced to cancel his thrust for Bayeux.

This book tells the story of Epsom in wonderful detail. I am very impressed with the use of aerial recconaisance photographs, and combined with period maps and location photographs, the combination of sources means that you can almost locate yourself in the action and ‘smell the battlefield’. These books are almost the military historians equivalent of Google Earth – they would make a fantastic addition to your luggage if you’re planning on walking the Battlefields of Normandy. Daglish has plotted the movements of units down to Company level, which is refreshing considering that most books on Normandy concentrate on Armies, Corps and Divisions.

Here Ian Daglish introduces new unseen evidence to analyse Epsom. The battle is routinely cited alongside Goodwood as evidence of ‘Monty’s failure’ in Normandy. Whilst neither battle went exactly to plan, what military plan ever does? Particularly with Epsom, the situation was very fluid indeed. Although the outcome of the battle itself was indecisive, this was acceptable for the allies, who could carry on ther build-up, whilst the Germans, under pressure to throw the Allies back into the sea, were ground down more and more. That it made a German counter-offensive less likely seems to be forgotten. Outflanking Caen would have been great, but to call Epsom a disaster, as some do, is ridiculous. In particular historians such as Carlo D’Este and Max Hastings are critical, yet D’Este’s opinions are partisan and Hasting’s are part of a wider intention to denigate Montgomery.

But Ian Daglish focuses on the men who fought the battle, and I think this approach adds much more to our understanding of the battle for Normandy than any tired ‘tit-for-tat’ arguments about Montgomery.

My research has identified several Portsmouth men who were killed during Epsom: Sergeant Leslie Scott, 25 and from Eastney, was killed serving with the 23rd Hussars on 27 June 1944. He was most likely killed in the tank fighting south of Cheux, and may have met a grisly end as he has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. And Captain George Hendry, 27 and from Southsea, was killed serving with the 7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders on 29 June 1944. Daglish tells us that Hendry was last seen stalking Tanks with a PIAT when the Germans made a strong counter-attack aiming to cut off the allied advance near Cheux. He is buried in St Manvieu War Cemetery.

Next:Now that the Allied Bridgehead was left with a salient pointing out to the west of Caen, the next logical step was to attempt to outflank Caen to the east from the Orne bridgehead.

Operation Epsom: Over the Battlefield is published by Pen and Sword

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Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM

Troops coming ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day

Troops coming ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day

Lance Corporal Leslie Webb, 27 and from North End, was serving in D Company of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the 1st Hampshire landed at 0725 in the first wave on Gold Beach at Arromanches. They came under heavy fire and lost their Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command within minutes of landing.

Yet in the confusion the long and thorough training of the men seems to have held out. In an assault to capture Le Hamel, on the flank of Gold Beach, D Company found themselves pinned down. Lance Corporal Webb managed to move his men forward, and was seriously wounded while going to receive orders from his Platoon Commander. The Battalion suffered 64 men killed on D-Day alone, including many officers.

For his bravery on D-Day Lance Corporal Webb was reccomended for the Military Medal:

At Le Hamel on 6 June 44, during an attack on an enemy position by D Coy, the Company came under heavy enemy fire and found movement forward impossible.

L/Cpl Webb, showing complete disregard for his personal safety, repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to move his men forward. In full view of the enemy he went to get orders from his Pl Cmd, and was seriously wounded, but his courage and bravery were such an inspiration to all that the Pl went forward again and seized its objective.

Webb was evacuated back to England, but sadly died on 14 June 1944. He is buried in Milton Cemetery. His Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 25 September 1944.

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Portsmouth’s Glider Pilots

The Second World War saw the development of Gliders to transport airborne troops into battle. Alongside Parachute troops, Gliders enabled Armies to develop airborne forces on a substantial scale. The first decisive use of Gliders was in 1940 during the spectacular German coup-de-main seizure of Eben Emael, a border fortress in Belgium. By September 1944 the allies were able to launch 35,000 airborne troops during Operation Market.

One of the biggest problems with Gliders was their manning – just who was to fly them? The RAF was unwilling to waste precious aircrew on what it saw a peripheral task to its main roles or strategic bombing and air defence. Bomber Harris even scoffed at the thought of army troops flying Gliders.

But fly them they did. The Glider Pilot was formed from volunteers throughout the Army. Volunteers were given basic flying training to enable them to fly Gliders while being towed by a transport plane, and then to land them with a degree of accuracy and safety. Senior commanders in the Regiment flew Gliders on operations, including the CO, but the standard Glider aircrew consisted of a Staff Sergeant as Pilot and Sergeant as co-pilot. Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning qualified as a Glider Pilot after his attempts at Parachuting resulted in injury.

When they landed Glider Pilots formed up into infantry units, and provided a useful manpower reserve. In contrast, the American Glider Pilots were not combatants, and actually required troops to protect them. Flying Gliders was indeed a dangerous business: many paratroops remarked that they would rather parachute into battle than fly in an ‘oversize coffin’.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served with distinction at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. Several of those who were killed on operations. Staff Sergeant Roy Luff, 23 and from Buckland, was a member of the 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was killed on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – and is buried in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. Staff Sergeant Leonard Gardner was also a member of 1st Wing. A native of Portsmouth and 27, he was killed on 17 September 1944: the first day of Operation Market. His Glider, carrying Royal Engineers, disintegrated in the sky over England. He is buried in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Portsmouth Glider Pilots is that one of the Gliders they flew in action was designed in Portsmouth – the Airspeed Horsa. The Airspeed Company had a factory at Portsmouth Airport. You can see Horsa Gliders at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Airborne Assault at Duxford, the Army Air Corps Museum at Middle Wallop and the Assault Glider Trust at RAF Shawbury.

A Horsa Glider taking off

A Horsa Glider taking off

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Sergeant Louis Hogg

I’ve found an intriguing case in my research into Portsmouth’s 1939-1945 war dead.

Sergeant Louis Hogg, 24 and from Stamshaw, was serving with 59 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery when he was killed in France on 10 July 1944. This was just after Operation Charnwood, the capture of Caen. He is buried in Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery, Normandy.

59 Anti-Tank Regiment, a Hampshire based Territorial Army unit, was attached to 43rd (Wessex) Division during the battle of Normandy in 1944. Its four batteries would have been dispersed throughout the Brigade to provide Anti-Tank defence against the German Tiger and Panther Tanks, which were proving so deadly to the Allies.

What intrigues me most of all are the details for Sergeant Hogg on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website. His parents are described as Mr and Mrs LOADER.

How come a Sergeant Hogg’s parents were a Mr and Mrs Loader? It might not be militarily important, but as a historian with an interest in both family history and military history, and the social side of war, it would be interesting to know his story.

Anyone out there got any ideas?

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RAF Bomb Disposal – Corporal Roy Henley

The vast majority of Portsmouth men who served in the RAF in the Second World War died serving in Bomber Command. A few more died while flying Spitfires or Hurricanes, or Lockheed Hudsons in the Coastal role.

But Corporal Roy Henley, 23 and from Fratton, was serving with 6225 Bomb Disposal Flight. 3 Special RAF Bomb Disposal Squadrons were formed, consisting of 8 flights, to provide bomb disposal support during Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe.

Corporal Henley’s unit was sent to Normandy on 7 June 1944, D+1. At 0400 the Landing Craft that they were in was engaged by German shore batteries and an E-Boat. The Landing Craft sank within 2 minutes, and Seven men were killed. 90% of their equipment was lost.

Corporal Henley was presumably lost at sea, as he is listed on the Runnymede Memorial, where all RAF personnel who have no known grave are remembered.

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Pompey’s WW2 Paras

The Parachute Regiment

The Parachute Regiment

Many Portsmouth men served in the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War.

The Parachute Regiment was formed during the Second World War, after the Germans had used Airborne forces to great effect in the invasion of Holland and Belgium in 1940. Although initially Britian’s Airborne forces operated as small raiding parties, by the time it came to invade Europe in June 1944 the Airborne forces had expanded into 2 full Divisions, each of over 10,000 men. Each contained 2 Brigades of Parachute troops, and there was also an independent Parachute Battalion in the Mediterranean. The Parachute Regiment had expanded enormously to more than 10 Battalions.

During the war men could only volunteer for the Para’s from another unit, not directly from civilian life. They underwent strenuous physical training, and in addition had to complete a number of parachute jumps to obtain their parachute wings and additional pay. Naturally, they soon earned a reputation as among Britain’s toughest troops. The Germans nicknamed them ‘Der Roten Tefuel’ – the Red Devils. Field Marshal Montgomery paid the paras perhaps their most timeless tribute when he described them thus:

‘They are in fact, men apart. Every man an Emperor’

More Pompey paras are bound to emerge from the records as I carry on analysing the list of war dead, but here are some names and stories from among the first 600 names I have researched.

Private John Byng, 21, was killed in action in Tunisia on 11 March 1943, during the invasion of French North Africa. He was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and had originally been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. After serving in North Africa the Paras then went on to Italy, where Private George Bayton, 34 and from Southsea, was killed on 8 December 1943, fighting with the 4th Battalion. He joined the Paras from the East Surrey Regiment.

The Regiment suffered heavy losses on D-Day and in the subsequent battle of Normandy. Private Ronald Kent, 24, and from the 8th Battalion, was killed on D-Day. He had originally joined the Royal Artillery. In the heavy fighting after D-Day the 6th Airborne Division was in action right through until August 1944. Sergeant Frank Kempster, 30, was killed on 19 August 1944. He had previously been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

The famous battle at Arnhem also saw heavy losses. Corporal Thomas Bedford, age 22 and from Paulsgrove, was killed on 18 September 1944, the day that the 11th Battalion landed at Ginkel Heath. Bedford had previously been in the Royal Artillery. He was serving in the same battalion as my Grandad, Private Henry Miller, also from Portsmouth, who interestingly lived in Paulsgrove for almost 50 years after the war.

Finally, the 6th Airborne Division later saw service in action supporting the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945 and subsequently on until VE Day. Sergeant Sidney Cornell, 31, was killed on 7 April 1945, just over a month before the end of the war. He is buried at Becklingen in Germany, not far from the site where the Germans surrendered to Field Marshal Montgomery at Luneberg Heath. Although we do not know what unit he had served in prior to the Paras, he had been called up after September 1943, and thus was very new to the Army.

Sergeant Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in action during the Battle of Normandy, when he was a Private and serving as his company runner in the 7th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The DCM was second only to the Victoria Cross for bravery shown by non-officers. The recommendation for his DCM is available to download from the National Archives website, and I’ll quote from it here:

‘This soldier was one of the parachutists to land behind the German lines in Normandy on the night 5/6 June 1944. During the next five weeks he was in almost continuous action of a most trying and difficult nature. Cornell was a Company runner and has repeatedly carried messages through the most heavy and accurate enemy mortar and Machine Gun fire. Four times wounded in action this soldier has never been evacuated and carries on with his job cheerfully and efficiently. Very many acts of gallantry have been performed by members of the Battalion but for sustained courage nothing surpasses Cornell’s effort. His courage and many wounds have made him a well known and admired character throughout not only his own Battalion but the whole Brigade. Space does not permit a record of all his feats as he distinguished himself in practically every action and fighting took place daily. On 18th June 1944 his company carried out a raid on a strong enemy position in the Bois de Bavent area. The position was stronger than expected and the company was hard pressed and the wireless set destroyed. Cornell was sent back with a verbal message, he was wounded during the journey but carried on and delivered his message correctly and set off with the reply. He was wounded a second time on the return journey but again carried on and again delivered the message correctly. During the remained of this raid, and despite his two wounds, he was outstanding for his courage and dash. The courage and devotion to duty displayed by Cornell on this occasion was an inspiration to all who witnessed it. He has performed similar runs on countless occasions and, as has been pointed out before, has been wounded twice more but is still the runner for his company and is as cheerful as before. On 10 July 1944 his company again carried out a raid on the same area and again, as usual, Cornell’s complete disregard for his own safety became the chief topic of conversation amongst his fellow soldiers. He has never failed to deliver a message correctly despite the fact that he has carried through a perfect hail of enemy mortar bombs and shells and very frequently aimed Machine Gun fire as well. He is a truly magnificent parachutist and I cannot recommend him too highly for a decoration’.

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