Tag Archives: germany

Thinking about Portsmouth’s WW1 Army Heroes

Join the brave throng that goes marching along...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

I’ve started thinking about how I’m going to write up the stories of Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes. So far I have analysed something like 2,672 soldiers, and almost 300 sailors and Royal Marines, out of a total of more than 5,000 servicemen and 3 women.

There are so many names and stories, its really difficult having any idea knowing where to start. In an ideal world, I would write a full chapter on all of them. But with space constraints, I’m really interested in hearing what people would like to read about, or which stories you think are really important to ‘get out there’. Particularly with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war coming up in 2014.

  • The Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, recruited solely from Portsmouth men who volunteered after the start of the war to join Kitcheners Army. Their story has never really been told before, but by my reckoning over 300 men were killed serving with both Battalions
  • Portsmouth’s Commonwealth Soldiers – how did young men from Portsmouth end up serving with the Imperial Armies? According to my research 43 men died serving with the Australian, African, New Zealand, Canadian and Indian Forces.
  • Lt-Col Dick Worrall – a Portsmouth man who had served in the ranks of the British Army, emigrated to America and joined the pre-war US Army, then once war was declared went to Canada and volunteered. He was quickly commissioned, and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel, and the holder of a DSO and Bar and MC and Bar – a remarkable story.
  • The Old Contemptibles. 156 men from Portsmouth were killed in 1914, before Britain had fully mobilised. Hence many of them were probably regular servicemen.
  • The Royal Flying Corps. Four young men from Portsmouth were killed serving with the Royal Flying Corps, at least two of them either in flying accidents or in action.
  • The Tank Corps. The First World War saw the advent of the tank as a major force in warfare. 10 Portsmouth men died serving with thee Tank Corps.
  • Brothers in Arms. Many families lost more than one son in the war – many lost two, some three, and one poor family lost four sons in action. I would like to take a look at this element of the human cost.
  • Gallipoli. At least 91 men from Portsmouth were killed in Gallipoli, a campaign beset by disaster which has perhaps not had as much attention through history as it should have.
  • Mesopotamia. 94 men from Portsmouth were killed in Iraq, many at the disastrous siege of Kut in 1916. Many more were captured, and suffered terribly in captivity. Again, I feel that its a campaign that has been much ignored in history, particularly given how the British Army has found itself fighting in Iraq at least three times since!
  • Oddities. I would like to be able to write about the interesting little stories that perhaps don’t fit in anywhere else, or don’t quite warrant a chapter on their own. Like the elderly Royal Engineer who was sent on grave registration duties after the armistice, and died after drowning in a Canal in Belgium.
  • Prisoners of War. We don’t ever hear much about WW1 Prisoners of War, yet at least 12 servicemen from Portsmouth died in Germany whilst being held as prisoners.

Any thoughts at all would be very welcome!

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Histories of World War II edited by Peter G. Tsouras

I’ve always been a bit dubious about alternate histories. I’ve always thought of them as ‘what might of happened, but didn’t happen’. Therefore if it didn’t happen, why are we worrying about it? But then again, I guess thats like saying that just because something is in the past then it’s irrelevant, as its behind us. Just as understanding the past gives us a handle on the future, understanding how past events turned out how they did probably gives us a firmer grip on that handle. Confused? me too! Now that we’ve established that alternate histories and conspiracy theories are not the same thing, lets take a look at this thought provoking book.

One thing you can say about Hitler, is that perhaps no-one in history has shown such inconsistency when it comes to decision making – at times he had an impeccable intuition, and at other times managed to cock things up when it was far easier to get it right. It is, surely, a matter of conjecture to imagine a scenario in which Hitler might have won the war – the strength of the US and Soviet Union made it pretty unlikely in my mind. But, certainly, some aspects of the war might have turned out very differently.

Let’s consider some of the chapters. In ‘May Day’ by Nigel Jones, Lord Halifax becomes Premier instead of Churchill, who is made Minister for War. Churchill is killed flying over France in 1940, the Panzers do not pause before Dunkirk, the BEF is overwhelmed and Hallifax sues for peace. This set of circumstances were by no means impossible. Hallifax seemed to be everyones preferred candidate to succeed Chaimberlain. Churchill was lucky to escape harm during the war. And, above all, Hallifax did not have the gumption to keep up the fight when things got tough.

Operation Felix sees the Spanish colluding in the Axis, and supporting the capture of Gibraltar. Of course without such a strategic port the Mediterranean would have been closed to British shipping, Malta overwhelmed, North Africa seriously weakened and Italy strengthened. Again, if Spain had joined in the war on the Axis side, it is hard to see how Gibraltar could have outalsted a prolonged onslaught, although one suspects its defenders might have put up a serious fight. A couple of chapters consider how the war might have turned out if Mussolini and the Italians had performed better than they did, and although this is mere conjecture, a stronger Italy would have presented less of a millstone to the Third Reich.

One very interesting scenario is the co-opting of Nazi and Islamic interests in the conquest of the Middle East. It is well known that Hitler courted the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an extremist islamic figure. An uprising in Palestine and Iraq would have seriously undermined British control of vital oil reserves, and the route to India. A further chapter sees the Caucasus – on the flank of the Middle East and an oil field itself – captured by Kurt Student‘s paratroopers, following on from Crete. As for the Eastern Front overall, successive chapters see Moscow captured by the Wehrmacht, and the beleagured Sixth Army at Stalingrad breaks out and joins up with the rest of the German Army, avoiding a serious strategic defeat that in the event turned the tide on the Eastern Front.

Going back to the Mediterranean, Malta was lost under prolonged bombardment, after supply convoys failed to get through. The loss of Malta would have removed a thorn in the side of the Axis supply routes to North Africa, removed a key staging post from the Royal Navy, and gave the Italiand and Germans a platform to control the Med. The loss of Malta was something that was a very real risk, I feel.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the last chapter considers what might have happened had the US Generals prevailed and an early invasion been launched in the Cotentin peninsula before 1944. In this scenario, a smaller, poorly trained and unprepared allied army is eventually thrown back into the sea, after landing in too small an beachead. Hitler is then free to concentrate on the Eastern Front, while US and British relations are irreparably damaged. Oddly, this scenario sees Patton and Monty becoming firm friends, reminding us that it is, after all, an alternative history!

I found this a very thought provoking read. Some of the scenarios were more likely in my opinion than others, but considering how various decisions were made and events transpired between 1939 and 1945, the war could have taken a lot longer and cost many more lives, had the allies made more errors and Hitler made less. It would have taken a coincidental set of events, but did not such a course of events derail Operation Market Garden?

Hitler Triumphant is published by Pen and Sword

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Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? by Andrew Norman

Plenty of theories have been advanced about Adolf Hitler – his background, his inspirations and his mental state. But to my knowledge this book by Andrew Norman is one of the first to assert that he was suffering from Schizophrenia.

Norman begins by taking a detailed look at Hitler’s childhood, his family and his upbringing. One assertion is that Hitler knew plenty of Jews early in life and was certainly no anti-semite until later in life. Indeed, anti-semitism had existed in Europe long before 1933, and certainly long before Hitler. Add to this mix his attitudes to Marxism, the impact of World War One, the crisis in Germany between 1918 and 1933 and we have what we could describe as either a toxic mix of causes, or an extremely unfortunate set of circumstances coming together to create a monster.

One of the most striking things in this book is the examination of Hitler’s early influences. One is particularly distubring, namely Lanz van Liebenfels. Liebenfels was a former monk, no less, who edited and produced a rather cheap, base anti-semite magazine entitled Ostara. Hitler never seems to have acknowledged his sources, particularly once he hit the ‘big stage’. Perhaps, as Norman suggests, Hitler did not want to lessen his own image. One influence I was not aware of is that of Houston Stewart Chaimberlain. I’m even more surprised, given that Chaimberlain was born in Southsea in 1855! Chaimberlain left Britain at the age of 14 to undergo treatment for poor health, and while visiting health resorts in Germany was accompanied by a Prussian tutor. Chaimberlain was influenced towards German history and culture. Chaimberlain was later a great supporter of Hitler.

The conclusion is that Hitler was unhinged by his disfunctional family background, under the influence of some particularly nasty influences from an early age, and particularly susceptible given his possible schizophrenia. The former condition would certainly explain his undoubted delusions, be it his faith in astrology, or his ‘command delusions, which led him to follow the advice of a mysterious ‘voice’ rather than his generals sound reasoning. Clearly not a decision making policy that one would vote for in the next general election, thats for sure.

Anyone who has even flicked through Mein Kampf will be well aware that it is full of ranting and raving, and is a disparate collection of diatribes on various subjects, from Judaism, Bolshevism and even sexually transmitted diseases and poverty. It certainly adds to the feeling that Hitler was not a person capable of rational thought processes. I guess this is where the title of the book comes from – rather than being a Dictator in control, Hitler was in fact a puppet of his influences and his illness.

Hitler’s relationships with women also come under scrutiny. Namely, that he had an improper relationship with his young niece, who died in suspicious circumstances, and also that his relationship with Eva Braun was unusual to say the least. This all adds to a picture of a person who, clearly, was not quite right in the head in any sense. Even his own close family seem to have had very little time for him.

But does all of this really matter? Firstly, we can chew over the causes of Hitler’s behaviour all we like, but it doesn’t change the fact that he and his regime commited some of the most heinous crimes in history. Contrary to popular opinion, men such as Stalin may have killed more people, but it is the horrific, industrial and hateful manner of the Nazi regime that still shocks today. And surely understanding how such a person came into being, is crucial to recognising evil today. Thankfully, I doubt very much whether someone in Hitler’s condition would reach prominence in the modern world, and for that we must be very grateful.

Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, politics, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

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 Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 by Charlie Heyman

Something that doesn’t seem to appear on many strategits or analysts radars if the growth of the European Union as a military infrastructure and a regional power. Since the end of the Second World War, NATO dominated military planning in western and central Europe. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, however, NATO has found itself at something of a loose end.

The EU, on the other hand, appears to be a rising presence on the world stage. The 27 members have a joint population of 498 million people, a joint defence budget of 182bn Euros, and a total of 934,600 soldiers, 223,770 sailors and 331,450 airmen. 5,325 tanks, 7 aircraft carriers, 69 submarines, and 140 Frigates and Destroyers. A mammoth 2,088 combat aircraft, 603 transporters, and 77 air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

It would be wrong to assume that the EU is the same as NATO. Although many members are the same, there are exceptions. Ireland, Sweden, Finland,  Austria and Cyprus are members of the EU only; while Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania and Turkey are members of NATO but not the EU. Denmark is a member of both, but has an op-out clause where EU defence policy is concerned.

The co-ordination and integration of European militaries could be seen by some as a move towards European federalism – after all, one of the hallmarks of a ‘state’ is a military, and with a permanent European military staff, it does herald integration like never before. But what an EU military does reflect, is a Europe endeavouring to work together without needing a cross-Atlantic input. NATO is still important as an underpin to the western hemisphere’s unity.

The EU military commitee is nominally made up of the CDS of each nation, but in practice is formed by a representative seconded from each respective armed forces. The chairmanship rotates every three years and is a 4-star post. The current commander is a Swedish General, and I think it is very important that the Committee is not necessarily always commanded by those with the most muscle. There is an EU ops centre in Brussels, that can command a relatively small force of about 2,000 troops. Other national operational centres have been placed at the EU’s disposal, including PJHQ at Northwood, and its equivalent in Paris, Potsdam, Rome and Greece.

There are a number of non-NATO, EU based multilateral structures:

  • Eurpean Air Group (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK)
  • European Airlift Centre (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Sealift Co-ordination Centre (Netherlands and UK)
  • European Amphibious Initiative (France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Standby High Readiness Brigade (AU, DK, SU, IRL, I, LIT, N, NOR, PL, P, SLOVENIA, E, SV)
  • SE Europe Brigade (Greece, Italy, Slovenia)
  • Nordic Co-Ordinated Arrangement for Military Peace support (Finland, Sweden, Denmark)
  • EUROCORPS – Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, France, Luxembourg
  • EUROFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain
  • EUROMARFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain

EUROCORPS in particular is a credible structure, with a Franco-German Brigade and a Multinational Command Brigade permanently attached, and up to 9 other Brigades earmarked. Other national, multinational or international units could be made available – the British led ARRC, for example.

The most interesting development, for me, is that of the EU battlegroup. Whilst European nations between them have a sum total military that appears formidable, at present it is limited in its deployability. The reliance on national forces and ad-hoc arrangements every time a threat emerges does not tend to engender long-term planning. In my opinion, officers, staffs and forces are bound to work better together in a crisis if they work together when there isn’t one too. And whilst it might seem like an excuse for cost-cutting – much the same as ‘jointery’ does in the UK – there is no doubt much duplication among 27 militaries that could be avoided.

On paper, the national forces of the EU have 120 Brigades that are deployable. However, many smaller countries do not even have forces of that level. Even if, for example countries like the Baltic states – have one or two Brigades, deploying them would repesent a herculean effort. Why not, therefore, combine and send a battalion each? In terms of ships also, whilst Britain, for example, might have one Albion class LPD available, if more were needed for an appropriate task, why not add-in a Rotterdam or Galicia class ship? Some countries have plenty of escort ships but no carrier, in which case integrated battle groups could work dividends. Many smaller nations have no transporter aircraft, but others do. Another example, for me, is in sealift. Obviously, countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic have no sealift capabilty. Fine, drive to Rotterdam or south to a Med port and load up on a borrowed ro-ro there instead!

There are a total of 17 EU battlegroups available. Many are comprised solely of national Brigades (including the UK battlegroup), but others are a combined group. Some are based on geography (Spain and Italy’s amphibious battlegroup, France and Belgium, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia) while others are a little strange (Germany, Netherlands and Finland; and Ireland teaming up with Nordic and Baltic countries). The aim is to have two battlegroups on high readiness at any given time.

Of course, such close intergration only works if countries are genuinely prepared to do their share when the prverbial hits the fan. But all the time countries are working together, they’re less likely to be fighting each other, and more likely to be more effective when called on to fight alongside each other.

Suffice to say, I found this book very thought provoking indeed!

The Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 is published by Pen and Sword

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Kiel Week 2011

Kieler Hafen

Image via Wikipedia

I know I’ve written on this subject before, but take a look at the line-up for Germany’s Kiel Week this year.

Kiel week is the equivalent of Cowes and Navy Days combined, and funnily enough was established by the Kaiser in an attempt to instil an English-style affinity with the sea into German society. But looking at the line up, it has far exceeded the scale of Navy Days in the UK. The last few have been pretty woeful, even for British vessels. At the last Navy Days in Portsmouth we had two Destroyers and two Frigates, and no Foreign visitors at all. You have to wonder whether we bothered to make an effort, or we had offended too many navies? But whatever the reson, the woeful inactivity of the Royal Navy PR Department is pretty embarassing, especially in a country with acute sea-blindness.

German Navy

Schleswig-Holstein (Brandenburg class Frigate)

Ammersee (Coastal Tanker)

Spessart (Replenishment Tanker)

Spiekeroog (Ocean-going Tug)

Fehmarn (Ocean-going Tug)

Lutje Horn (Harbour Tug)

Russian Navy

Minsk (Landing Ship)

Dutch Navy

Zuiderkruis (Replenishment Ship)

De Ruyter (De Zeven Provincien class Frigate)

French Navy

Commandant L’Herminier (D’Estienne d’Ovres class Patrol vessel)

Irish Navy

Eithne (Fishery Patrol Vessel)

Estonian Navy

ENS Ugandi (Sandown Class Minesweeper, formerly HMS Bridport)

Lithuanian Navy

Suduvis (Lindau Class Minesweeper)

Jotvingis (Vidar Class Minelayer)

Polish Navy

Naklo (Gardno Class Minesweeper)

Druzno (“)

Gardno (“)

Kondor (Kobben class Submarine)

Danish Navy

Absalon (Absalon Class Frigate)

Havkatten (Flyvefisken Class Patrol Vessel)

Svanen (Sail training ship)

Thyra (Sail training ship)

Kureren (Patrol boat)

Budstikken (“)

Speditoren(“)

Royal Navy

Express (P200 Class Patrol boat)

Puncher (“)

US Navy

Mount Whitney (Command Ship)

Phillipine Sea (Ticonderoga Class Cruiser)

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Using Google Maps to plot War Cemeteries

I had a brainwave whilst browsing google maps the other day. Why not use the drop-pin feature on Google Maps to plot the location of War Cemeteries where Portsmouth casualties are buried?

Using the CWGC‘s directions, and with a bit of searching, I have begun to plot the locations of a number of war cemeteries, beginning with Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic, Poland, Algeria, Tunisia, and some of the Far Eastern Countries.

Hopefully its something I will be able to use to help people locate exactly where they relatives are buried. It also helps us appreciate how the war was fought – in what countries, and the locations of war cemeteries as campaigns were fought.

Take a look at my customised map here.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two