Tag Archives: France

To Caen and back

On Monday I travelled to France and back, without actually setting foot in France!

To go back to the start of the story, my employers very kindly asked me to give a lecture onboard Brittany Ferries MV Normandie, on the route between Portsmouth and Ouistreham-Caen. I gave a talk on my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ on each leg. It wasn’t actually worth me getting off the boat while it was docked at Ouistreham, so I stayed in my cabin and took some pictures of the gorgeous looking beach. Of course, those sands formed part of Sword beach on 6 June 1944.

Both talks were very well received. It is a new venture that Brittany are trialling, and it seems to have been appreciated by many people who attended. It was also a new experience for me, as I had never sailed on this route before. Hence for the first time I was able to take pictures, up on deck, of the warships in Pompey Harbour, and also experience sailing out past the Round Tower, down past the Solent forts, then round Bembridge ledge and past the round tower.

HMS Bristol

ex HMS Liverpool and ex HMS Ark Royal

a Batch 3 Type 42, Endurance and Illustrious

USS Normandy

mid-Channel on the way out

Ouistreham. The beach was part of Sword beach on D-Day

mid-Channel on the way back

late evening sun off the Isle of Wight

 

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Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Another radio appearance and more talks

Hi All!

I’m going to be a studio guest on the Sasha Twining Show on BBC Radio Solent this Saturday morning, between 8 and 9am – an early wake up for me! I will be talking about my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, the Falklands War and myself. If you can prize yourself out of bed so early at the weekend feel free to listen, or if not it will be on iplayer for a short time after the show.

I also have a couple of new talks booked.

On Saturday 12th May I will be giving a talk at Portsmouth Central Library, as part of Adult Learning Week. I will have books available for sale, and I will be happy to sign them of course.

And… on Monday 28th May I will be giving a talk on a Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth heading to France, and then another one on the return journey!

Has anyone else given a talk outside of territorial waters?!

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The Post Office Rifles from Portsmouth

I’ve been doing a little bit of work on my WW1 Portsmouth War Dead database, as a bit of light relief from working on promoting my WW1 Book. I’ve been using Tim Backhouse’s eternally useful memorials in Portsmouth website to flesh out some details on the names on my list. Tim has listed pretty much every name on every kind of memorial in Portsmouth. I have been using his listing of the WW1 Cenotaph to create the bulk of my database – without his listing I would have had to do twice as much work.

Aside from the main memorials, Tim has also listed names from the plethora of other memorials around in Portsmouth. Of chief interest to me are three kinds – Company and Organisation Memorials; School Memorials; and Parish Memorials. In terms of Organisations and Companies we have names for the Portsmouth Gas Company, the Electric Company, the Passenger Transport Depot, the Police, and even Handleys, a local Department store. Schools are chiefly the local Grammar and public schools – Portsmouth Grammar School, St Johns College, Southern Grammar School for Boys and Northern Grammar School. The Parish listings are also useful too, helping me to confirm where in the city somebody came from, and sweeping up a few names that are not on the Cenotaph. Funily enough, many of the names from RC parishes have a distinctively Irish ring to them. St Johns Cathedral even has some latin sounding names – from Malta, perhaps?

Just to give an example of from one company joined up, lets take a look at the Portsmouth District of the Post Office. Four men from the Portsmouth Posties joined the 8th Battalions of the London Regiment – or, the Post Office Rifles. The London Regiment was a Territorial-only Regiment, and the Post Office Rifles are a fine example of a profession-based unit.

Rifleman A. Toleman was killed on 18 May 1915. He is buried at Bethune in France. Rifleman Victor Papworth was just 19 when he was killed on 21 May 1916, and is remembered on the Arras Memorial in France. Rifleman Thomas Brady was killed the next day, aged 20. He is buried in Barlin Cemetery. Lance Corporal Leonard Cox was killed on 20 September 1917, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. Another Portsmouth man was killed serving with the Post Office Rifles, but does not seem to haved been a postie – Rifleman G Croad, who was killed on 7 June 1917 and is buried in Voormezeele. He joined the Army in September 1916, and seems to have gone to the front in January 1917, suggesting that he joined the Post Office Rifles as a replacement. As the wore drew on and the manpower situation became more acute, earlier recruiting loyalties and conventions were quietly ignored and men were sent to wherever they were needed.

The Post Office Rifles are a unique example – for Portsmouth, at any rate – of how men could join the armed forces based on their professional loyalties.

 

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970’s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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Filed under fiction, On TV, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

War Horse

War Horse (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just got in from seeing War Horse, so I thought I would post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The film is set in Iddisleigh, a picturesque village in Devon not far from my better half’s place of origin. The scenery is absolutely stunning, and equally well matched by the soaring, classical soundtrack. Some of the action scenes are mind-blowing, particularly the cavalry charges. The battle scenes are not as bloody as say Band of Brothers or the Pacific, but I don’t really think that they needed to be horrific for the sake of it.

In historical terms, there were perhaps a few bloopers. The german accents are almost laughable, and I can’t think for the life of me why Spielberg didn’t make them sound better. And in the final scenes in France all kinds of random men in random units seem to mingle together freely, which seems a bit unrealistic. But apart from that, it seemed to ring true for the most part. It IS a completely unrealistic story – but then that is the beauty of a novel, it doesn’t have to be absolutely realistic, and we can forgive a little historic or artisitic licence if it serves the story.

My performing arts student girlfriend tells me that there isn’t any particularly great acting, in fact the real star of the film is/are the horse(s). This film is very much an epic rather than a drama. That said, there are some very touching moments – apart from the final reunion scene, when the main equine protagonist becomes entangled in barbed wire is likely to move even the most cynical of hearts.

Whenever a new war film or programme comes out, you can guarantee that there will be scores of internet ‘experts’, bemoaning the inaccuracies and claiming the moral high ground. Sure, no war film is ever 100% accurate. But they can never be – no one really dies in a war film, surely? We need to look beyond the historical inaccuracies of incorrect shoulder titles or weapons. They might matter to us geeks, but in the bigger picture a film like War Horse has got thousands of people interested in the First World War, which is something that no manner of scholarly articles or mediocre books will achieve. Neither geeks, enthusiasts nor academics have any universal ownership of war. War is a human experience that touches everyone when it occurs, so it is the right of everyone to be interested by it.

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

This sure is a book that divides opinions among historians. Hence, I like it. I believe that Corrigan is quite right to take on the ‘mythbuster’ mantle. There are a trememdous amount of fallacies in history, and many surround the Great War. Not helped, it has to be said by cultural influences such as Blackadder, or ‘Oh what a lovely war!’.

Corrigan’s quote about the myth that Tommy marched up to the front in 1914 singing Tipperary, smoking a pipe, sat in a trench for four years, and went over the top and saw all his mates killed is one of my favourite passages in any history book. The original BEF in 1914, the old contemptibles, were a tiny force of 4 then 5 Divisions. The British Army expanded slowly, with Kitcheners volunteers largely entering the fray in 1916 on the Somme. Also, very few units spent very long in the front-line. My research suggests that a five day stretch in the front line would have been a long stint. Often, Battalions might spend up to a month away from the front training and resting. By no means did ever Tommy spend all of the war sat in a wet, muddy hole.

The conduct of the war also comes in for examination. Corrigan feels, perhaps with some value, that Haig could not really have done much better than he did. And, actually, I am rather inclined to agree. It goes against the perceived wisdom of an aloof cavalryman unconcerned with losses, but I have yet to hear, read or see of anyone suggesting HOW the ‘Donkeys’ could have fought the war differently. How the war was fought was a product of its time, with the mass armies of the nineteenth century, massive technological and industrial change but leaders and institutions that had not yet fully grasped these changes.

Corrigan’s argument on casualties is more difficult to support, I feel. Supported by statistical analysis, including percentages, Corrigan argues that the losses in the Great War were not as frightful as is generally thought. True, Britain did not lose as many men as France or Germany, but we need to remember that the vast majority of those killed were conscripts, whereas Germany and France had large standing armies. My research has shown that TWICE as many people from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1921 as did between 1939 and 1945. Having researched thousands of casualties in Twentieth Century conflicts, I am cautious to add that losses are not just about numbers, but the social impact.

But whether we agree or disagree with certain points is, I think, besides the point. When a historiography is riddled with assumptions and becomes as stale as that of the Great War, anything that gives it a good kick up in the air cannot be a bad thing. Even if they’re not strong arguments, it makes us go back and re-evaluate our thinking again.

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The Roberts brothers – killed on the same day

Royal Munster Fusiliers

Image via Wikipedia

The fantstic work of Chris Baker on the Long Long Trail website has identified 274 instances of brothers who were killed on the same day in the Grear War. And one pair of brothers came from Portsmouth.

Charles James and Goerge Ernest Roberts were both Corporal Signallers serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Regular Soldiers, they were sent to France on the outbreak of war. They were at garrisoned at Aldershot, and were part of the Guards Brigade in the 1st Division. The Battalion had been in Ireland on garrison duty until 1912. They landed at Le Havre via Southampton on 14 August, and went straight up to the Front.

After the Battle of Le Cateau the British Army retreated. Along with the 15th Hussars the 2nd Munsters fought a stiff rearguard action at Etreux. A single Battalion were facing an entire German Army Corps. In a Rorkes Drift style action the Battalion suffered severe casualties, where they were surrounded and virtually destroyed. The survivors left the front line and became divisional troops.

Charles and George Roberts were both killed on the same day – 27 August 1914 – and are buried in the same grave at Etreux British Cemetery in France.

It was not common – but not unusual – for young British men to join an Irish Regiment. My research suggests that of young men joining the infantry in peacetime, around 50% joined the Hampshire Regiment, and around 50% joined other Regiments. Although the local country Regiment was natually the most obvious choice, perhaps family connections persuaded the Roberts to join the Munsters?

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The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

My map of Portsmouth War Graves locations gives a pretty interesting insight not only into the conduct of the war between 1939 and 1945, but also into other factors, such as the policy of the War Graves registration units and the CWGC. Thinking about these issues helps us place in context war casualties, and probably goes a long way to solving a lot of mysteries about the location of war graves.

You can see from the location of War cemeteries and individual war graves where most of the heavy fighting took place – Northern France, in particular Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, Belgium and southern Holland, Italy, North Africa, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, and the Far East, especially Burma, Thailand and India.

There are also some interesting variances in policy, it would seem. In some theatres, there are a large number of smaller cemeteries. In Normandy, for example, there are a relatively high number of war grave locations. In Burma and Thailand, however, almost all men were reburied in larger central cemeteries, even if they were some distance from their original burial site.

RAF casualties are also commemorated differently. Army dead were usually buried in larger war cemeteries, even if it meant exhumation and reburial after the war. Indeed, most men killed in action on land were invariably buried in a field grave near to the site of their death, and the details recorded for later reburial.

On the other hand if a Bomber crashed over occupied territory its dead crewmembers were almost always buried in the local churchyard, and most remain there to this day. Therefore many burials in parts of France, Belgium and Holland are in small local churchyards. You can almost plot the flight routes from their locations in relation to that nights target. Almost all Bomber sorties – and there were many from 1942 onwards – had to fly over parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland. And these were where the Kammhuber line defences swung into action.

A large proportion of Portsmouth men are buried in Italy – this is due to the presence of four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment in the Italian Campaign, compared to only two in North West Europe from Normandy onwards.

You can also tell how far-flung British forces were during the war years. Servicemen are buried in outposts such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries saw any fighting, but they were important stopping off points, for Royal Navy ships or for convoys. A number of British airmen are also buried in the US and in Canada – they were almost certainly there for training, and died either in accidents or of illness.

But by far the most casualties are buried at home in Britain. They died at home of natural causes, illness, wounds received in action, or were victims of Bombing while on leave. Normally the authorities allowed families to bury their dead in their local cemetery – and happened with my Great-Uncle – but there do seem to have been exceptions. For example, the dead recovered from the sinking of the Royal Oak were buried in a nearby churchyard – the public health implication of transporting a large number of bodies around Britain from Scap Flow did not bear thinking about.

I also suspect that where men were the victims of explosions, for example, they were buried quickly in a local cemetery rather than being handed over to the family. This may have been to prevent the family from having to go through the ordeal of seeing the body. Also, when a large number of people were killed in one go – say in a bombing raid, for example – the priority of the authorities was to safely bury bodies to prevent disease spreading.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two

Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in his a...

Churchill and de Gaulle: the uneasiest of allies (Image via Wikipedia)

Not many of you might know this, but the Anglo-French Defence Agreement was due to be signed onboard HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. Until she was hatcheted in the Strategic Defence Review, cue a new plan to spare Dave C any embarassment. Even though the SDSR itself was one big embarassment.

Anyhow, on to my main point. When it comes to the UK and France working more closely together, does history matter? As one of my lecturers told us at Uni, ‘we spent most of the eighteenth century at war with the  French, one – because they deserved it, and two – because they needed the practice’. Even though in recent times Britain has been allied with France and Germany has been the more recent enemy, you cannot help but feel that the man on the street has very little time for our cheese-eating cousins across La Manche.

Anglo-French rivalry begins in earnest in 1066, with the arrival of William the Conqueror. After his death his realms in France and England were divided amongst his sons, sparking a rivalry that led to frequent wars between English Kings and various French Kings, nobles and other factions for hundreds of years. The Plantagenets in particular built up an impressive cross-Channel Angevin Empire, through dynastic marriages and conquest. Battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt heralded British military superiority during the Hundred Years War.

During the reign of Henry VIII we once again gain of feeling of Henry trying to outdo his French ‘cousin’ King Francis, both in war and in chivalry. The Field of Cloth of Gold was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to outwrestle each other, literally at one point. Early modern international politics saw Kings one moment allying with each other, the next trying to attack each other. Later, after the English Reformation and the coming to the throne of Charles I, his French – and Catholic – Queen was the source of much suspicion, particularly for Puritans who suspected a French-backed scheme to re-impose Catholicism. After the accession of the house of Hanover, attempts to re-install Stuart Pretenders to the throne were more often than not launched from France.

Things really hot up during the eighteenth century. Increasingly Imperial rivals – especially in India – Britain found herself at war with France in the middle of the eighteenth century during the thirty years war, and then in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1787 and 1815. This ‘War of wars’ defined modern European, and really was a titanic struggle between a France buoyed firstly by revolutionary fervour and then by Napoleon Bonaparte; and on the other hand a number of coalitions of European nations, bankrolled by British finance. Rather cleverly, Britain refrained from using her land forces in Europe for much of the period, preferring instead to rely on a naval blockade of European ports which strangled French trade. Although Napoleon marched all through Europe, he could not defeat the Wooden Walls bearing the White Ensign.

After co-operation during the Crimean War, the mid to late nineteenth century was again hallmarked by suspicion, with a min-arms race, involving ironclad warships such as HMS Warrior, and the new rifled, breech loading guns requiring whole new lines of fortifications, such as Palmerston’s Folly’s around Portsmouth. Therefore the Entente Cordial, signed in 1904, came as something of an oddity in Anglo-French relations. Forced into an alliance by German expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and France have none the less been uneasy bedfellows since.

Although nominally on the same side in the Second World War, there was much acrimony between both sides. After the fall of France many felt that the BEF had turned tail and ran. I’m not sure quite what else they expected Gort to do; he was following French strategy after all, which had caused the problem in the first place. Even the free French who fought under allied patronage were prickly, particularly de Gaulle, who only really thought of himself, let alone France. In 1940 the Royal Navy was forced to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands. The incident still causes high feelings even today. Whilst the French might have promised not to let their ships fall to the Germans, this was a promise they were unable to make. I’m not sure what else they expected us to do.

Even after being liberated in 1944, the French had a bizarre way of showing gratitude. Gaullism brought about a fiercely independent outlook, which vetoed UK entry into the EEC for many years, and also withdrew France from NATO – a nonsensical decision during the Cold War, which left the western world highly vulnerable, all for the sake of French pride. During one famous argument, the French Foreign Minister ordered that all US troops were to leave French soil at once. Quick as a flash, his American counterpart enquired whether that included those that were buried there. In a funny kind of way, Gaullism is an example of how a sovereign state should look after its own interests, but its belligerent manner – personified by one Jacques Chirac – has probably caused France more problems than anything else.

So, co-operation with France is very much against the historical grain. Even in recent history where France has nominally been an ally, relations have been uneasy. It will probably take a lot of effort on behalf of the Sarkozy Government to change French domestic thinking in favour of closer military co-operation. Put crudely, the French will have to show more ‘backbone’, and stop building walls between themselves and the rest of the world. During the Cold War France was not part of the military structure of NATO, although French forces were in Germany facing the Warsaw Pact, and also in Berlin. These units were not allowed to plan with their NATO colleagues, meaning that if the balloon went up allied planning would have been in a vacuum. Lunacy indeed, dictated by French selfishness.

Personally, I am more in favour of European military co-operation being on a ‘cluster’ basis. Take for example the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Britain is the framework nation, providing the Headquarters, signals units, etc. When required, NATO state will assign Divisions to the Corps. Several nations have units designated for quick allocation, and this took place in Kosovo in 1999. Britain has long had a fruitful link-up with the Dutch amphibious forces, with Dutch ships and Marine Battalions operating in an integrated manner with the British Commando Brigade. In this case the synergy is definitely there. During the Cold War, the commander of the British Army of the Rhine also served as NATO’s Commander of the Northern Army Group, with Dutch and German troops under command. Again, the synergy was there, as it had to be. But is that synergy there with the French? Does it make sense for two of the largest militaries in Europe to spontaneously and bilaterally tie themselves together with no planning regarding other states?

Before I finish off this post, let me share something that I found on a well-known British forces discussion website, which gives an idea of how the French military is regarded…

 

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Plan for Britain and France to ‘share’ Carriers

FS CdG11

FS Charles De Gaulle (Image via Wikipedia)

Rumours regarding defence cuts have reached a new level of lunacy, with reports that the Government is considering talks with France to share aircraft carriers.

The plan would see the two countries co-ordinate refit cycles, so that at least one aircraft carrier would always be at sea. In effect, what we would see is an Anglo-French task group. Which is all very well in theory when both countries are agreed on action, but what if – say, like with Iraq – there is disagreement about intervening? The UK would be powerless to contribute an aircraft carrier if Queen Elizabeth happened to be in refit.

Take, for example, the Falklands. If Argentina were to invade again, any task force to reclaim the islands would need air cover – which means an Aircraft Carrier. But imagine if Queen Elizabeth is in refit, are the French going to let us ‘borrow’ Charles De Gaulle? Very unlikely, in my opinion. In effect, this would mean a French veto on UK foreign and defence policy.

Even IF the plan could be made to work, it is unlikely to be very popular with either country, particularly the British and French sailors. There is nothing wrong with inter-state co-ordination (take, for example, the Anglo-Dutch Amphibious Group, a model joint poject), but it only works if the constituent parties are willing to work closely together and can rely on each other. Would a British Task Force get the same effective cover from Rafale’s flown from De Gaulle as it would from a Queen Elizabeth class with F-35’s? I doubt it. In any case, the CDG has been riddled with technical problems throughout her service life – a French former President even referred to her as ‘half an aircraft carrier’. The consensus seems to be that she is neither reliable nor effective.

Politically the French are unreliable. Long term enemies of Britain, the twentieth century may have seen France become an ally, but it has none the less been an uneasy entente cordiale. There is still animosity over Britain’s withdrawl from Dunkirk (I don’t know quite what else they expected us to do) and the destruction of the French Fleet in 1940 (again, what else could we have done?). De Gaulle made for a very uneasy bedfellow during the war (somehow managing to gain a status as a French hero without actually doing anything), and his withdrawal of France from NATO could have had disastrous results if the Warsaw Pact had rolled across the Iron Curtain. French Foreign policy – and Defence policy- is invariably governed by what is good for France, and not much more.

I’m not against co-operation, far from it. But it has to make sense and be workable. I did read a suggestion in a well-known warship magazine for closer co-operation amongst Commonwealth navies, which is something that would make a lot of sense. Not only do countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a head of state, but they also share much culturally, politically and linguistically. Such countries almost always find themselves co-operating in coalitions, alliances and operations. The only fly in the ointment might be public opinion in countries which are keen to assert their independence of the ‘mother country’.

Make no mistake about it, this is an accountant driven plan. It would enable the MOD to either make Prince of Wales a Commando Carrier, sell her to another country, or scrap her completely. Yet the cost to British Defence capabilities would far outweight the potential savings, which in any case might not be as much as hoped. And militarily, it makes about as much sense as the UK offering to sell Argentina the Bulwark or Albion LPD’s. But that is exactly what the French ARE trying to do – sell the Argentinians one of their landing ships…

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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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