Tag Archives: London

Bomb Sight – mapping the blitz in London

This fantastic website was launched yesterday. It maps every bomb – high explosive, incendiary, parachute – that landed on Greater London during the Blitz, from 7 October 1940 until 6 June 1941. Produced by the University of Portsmouth (my alma mater), the National Archives and JISC, it’s a great example of geography and history working together.

Researchers used the WW2 Bomb Census in the National Archives, and painstakingly plotted the site of every bomb onto a map of London. From this we can see obviously the hardest hit areas. Whilst an overall look at the map shows an overall spread, when you zoom in closer, the Docklands – in particular the area around the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks – were hard hit. Whilst the Luftwaffe were bombing London in general to attempt to subdue the civilian populations morale, and for this indiscriminate bombing across the whole city would suffice – bombing the important docks also seems to have been a priority. There are two reasons for these dual approaches – firstly, they probably lacked the accuracy to actually pinpoint small targets inland, however the docks were relatively easy to find as all the bombers had to do was fly up the Thames Estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated with the use of geographical plotting to give context to historical events. Data that sits in a chart or a spreadsheet comes alive when interpreted onto a map. I’m very interested in the thought of using similar techniques to plot war dead from Portsmouth. It could really help us to understand not just the impact of losses in Portsmouth’s communities, but also the nature of Portsmouth Society in general – for example, blue dots for sailors and red dots for soldiers.

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The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990’s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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Reflections on London 2012

English: Mo Farah after 5000 m final - World c...

Mo Farah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, I know that in the main this is a history blog, but I couldn’t let the momentous events of the past few weeks pass by without saying a few words about the performance of Team GB, and how it compares with the performance of the players of our supposed national sport.

 

The funny thing about the Olympics is that a plethora of minority sports captivate our imagination for two weeks every four years, and then that’s it for another Olympic cycle. We would almost be forgiven for thinking that cycling, athletics, swimming, sailing and rowing do not even take place outside of an Olympic year.

 

Yet they are very much taking place. Olympic cyclists regularly train for 12 hours a day, beginning at 7am. Mo Farah runs anywhere between 100 and 120 miles a week. Add into that things like special diets that most of us would find distinctly unappetising, altitude training at camps far from home, in many cases a dearth of facilities and funding, and you can see that the lot of an elite athlete is hardly a glamorous one.

 

Compare that to the average day of a professional footballer, people who are held up as national heroes and role models. Get up at about 9am, roll in training at something like 10am, sit and have breakfast with your mates, and then do a few tricks and flicks and play some six a side for a couple of hours. Spend the afternoon playing golf, looking at cars or buying the plastic missus some (more) new clothes.

 

And to think we wonder why England always fail in big international tournaments. It’s not hard to see why – by and large, football has lost the charm, the inspiration and the hunger of athletics. Players don’t work hard and then we wonder why they fail. We pay them exorbient amounts of money and don’t ask them to do much for it, and we then wonder why they end up misbehaving and losing sight of why they play the game in the first place. And to cap it all, isn’t it a bit sad that the greatest moment of England’s supposed best player of the last two decades was scoring a last-minute equaliser to scrape world cup qualification against a football backwater?

 

The success of Team GB makes me wish that I was 12 again. If only I could try some of these sports, who knows how things might have turned out? Yet all I can remember from PE at school is playing endless indoor football. Looking back, I could have made a half-decent distance runner, but who at 15 really wants to be a runner? The overwhelming peer pressure, and wider culture, places football on a pedestal. Mo Farah was obsessed with football, and dreamed about playing left-back for Arsenal. Thankfully his PE teacher saw his potential as a distance runner, and the rest is history.

 

I will always like football, or, rather, the memories of the sport before it became tainted by money and celebrity. Football still retains the ability to enthuse and move people more than any other sport, if only it could rediscover them. The problem is, all the time people keep watching on Sky TV and paying the extortionate ticket prices, nothing much will change. But I am pretty sure there are some characters in the FA- hell, even in FIFA- who have watched the past few weeks events and will have realised that football has to begin to raise its game and clean up its act sooner rather than later if it does not want to be left behind.

 

 

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Portsmouth-based soldier’s 1914 VC sells for £276,000

Sidney Frank Godley VC, the first Private to b...

The First Victoria Cross awarded to a private soldier in the First World War has been sold at auction for £276,000. Private Sidney Godley, of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, earnt his VC at Mons on 23 August 1914 when he single-handedly managed to hold up a German advance on a bridge over the Mons-Conde Canal.

Born in East Grinstead in West Sussex on 14 August 1889, he moved to London when he was 7 and later worked in an ironmongers store. On 13 December 1909 he joined the Royal Fusiliers, a Regiment that has traditionally recruited from London. In 1911 Godley was with the 4th Royal Fusiliers at Corunna Barracks near Farnham, and no doubt lived in Barracks in Portsmouth.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, and found themselves facing the German Army at Mons in Belgium. Under heavy fire, he was wounded twice, with shrapnel in his back and a bullet in his head. He carried on the defence of the bridge for two hours while his comrades escaped, until he ran out of ammunition and was eventually captured.

Godley remained a Prisoner of War for over four years until 1918, learning that he had been awarded the VC whilst in captivity. He received the medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 15 February 1919. He died on 29 June 1957, and was buried at Loughton Cemetery in Essex.

Intriguingly, I was researching the 4th Royal Fusiliers only the other day, as  in 1914 they were based in Portsmouth as part of 9 Infantry Brigade. One of the first photos that I saw was that of Private Gidley, with his distinctive moustache. The next day, unbeknown to me, his VC was sold.

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Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think of a ‘Pals Battalion‘, you will invariably think of a bunch of lads from a northern, industrial working class town. Say, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, or Liverpool. So ingrained has this perception of the pals become, that you could be forgiven for thinking that nowhere south of Watford Gap raised any similar units. I even remember reading on a military history forum that, in the opinion of one member, a Battalion had to be from the North of England to be entitled to be called a Pals Battalion.

I’ve just taken Peter Simkins excellent ‘Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916′ out of the library. It is without doubt a great history of how the New Armies were recruited and raised, and launched into action, and Simkins does give good coverage to some non-Northern Pals – the Royal Sussex Downs Battalions, for example, and the Cardiff Pals. Yet I am slightly amazed to find not one mention of the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, or, as they were otherwise known, the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals.

I don’t think that history has been too kind to the Portsmouth Pals. Formed by the Mayor of Portsmouth and recruited locally, overwhelmingly from local young lads, many of whom no doubt knew each other, I think they are perfectly entitled to be called Pals. They served in the same manner as other better-known Pals Battalions, in particular at Flers and Guillemont on the Somme and again at Third Ypres, and were in New Army Divisions. Obviously, by the end of the war the numbers were being made up by men who were not from Portsmouth, but all the same, losses were horrific. The 14th Battalion lost 644 men killed, whilst the 15th lost 781 men. When we consider that the amount of wounded was often three times the number of those killed, then the two Portsmouth Pals Battalions lost their entire strength several times over as casualties.

For Portsmouth to raise two Pals Battalions – or three if we count the 16th Battalion, the Depot Battalion – was nothing short of magnificent. Remember that a very large proportion of Portsmouth’s young men were already serving in the Royal Navy, working in the Dockyard or were perhaps already serving soldiers, Portsmouth being a significant garrison town at the time. Nowhere else south of London managed to equal this feat. The Royal Sussex Regiment did have three ‘Downs’ Battalions that could be refered to as Pals, but these recruited from a much wider area and didn’t quite have the same link to place as the Portsmouth Pals did.

To put things into context, Southampton – at the time comparable in size to Portsmouth – did not raise any Pals Battalions of its own. Perhaps the people of Portsmouth were so keen to do their bit, as they were well used to sending young men off to fight, and it did not take too much to stir the martial spirit in a town that would have been full of serving and retired sailors and soldiers. I’m looking forward to reading the Portsmouth Evening News editions from those heady days in the summer of 1914. To what extent did these brave young men answer Lord Kitcheners call?

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Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sergeant Frederick Godfrey DCM and Bar MM

''The Kairer knows the Munsters, by the Shamro...

I’ve found a quite remarkable soldier from Portsmouth who was killed during the First World War. Even though he was heavily decorated and fought in virtually every battle of the war, in many ways he encapsulates the essence of many Portsmouth soldiers.

Frederick Arthur Godfrey was, according to his stated age, born around 1890, in Putney in Surrey. However, the only Frederick Arthur Godfrey born in that area was born in either July, August or September of 1893, and was registered in Wandsworth – making it quite likely that Godfrey had lied about his age to join the Army. He also gave various places of birth in his enlistment papers and in the various censuses.

In 1901 Godfrey was boarding along with his brother Gerald and sister Susan, with Mary and John Knox, at 2 The Brins, Warren Lane in Portsmouth. There is no longer a Warren Lane in Portsmouth, but there is a Warren Avenue, just off Milton Road. Godfrey stated that he had been born in Edmonton in North London, although his brother Gerald was born in Putney.

In 1911 he was serving either A or E Company of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers. In the 1911 census the Battalion was stationed at Nowshera, in the Punjab in India. Godfrey was stating that his age was 21, that he was born in 1891 in Milton, Hampshire. This ties in with his having been living in Milton in 1901. Godfrey had probably been overseas for sometime, as the Battalion’s last home station was in 1899 in Fermoy.

By 1914 the 1st Munsters were stationed in Rangoon in Burma as part of the imperial garrison there, but with smaller units posted around islands in the Indian Ocean. As part of the policy of recalling regular units, the 1st Munsters were brought back to Britain to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. Arriving back in Britain in January 1915 at Bristol, the 1st Munsters went to Coventry and joined the 86th Brigade, in the 29th Division. At the time the 29th Division was Britain’s only reserves ready for action.

The 29th Division arrived at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. In the chaotic landings at V Beach on Cape Helles, almost 70% of the Munsters were lost. Between 30 April and 19 May losses were so heavy that the Battalion effectively merged with the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, calling themselves ‘the Dubsters’. The Battalion remained in the Gallipoli Peninsula until they were evacuated on 2 January 1916, sailing to Alexandria. From there the 29th Division landed at Marseilles in France on 22 March, for service on the Western Front.

Initially the Munsters served as lines of communications troops. After their arrival in France the 1st Munsters were transferred to the 48th Brigade in the 16th (Irish) Division on 28 May. Early in 1916 Godfrey was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. There is no date for the action in the citation, which appeared in the London Gazette on 20 October 1916 – my guess is that it was awarded for action on the Somme – the 16th Division fought at Guillemont and Ginchy on the Somme in 1916. :

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion. During an attack he was wounded, but saying “it is nothing”, led and cheered on two further attacks. When they finally broke down, owing to heavy machine gun fire, he was, with difficulty, restrained from going on by himself.

At some point between 1916 and 1918, Godfrey was awarded a Military Medal. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace any information about his MM as yet, as London Gazette announcements for them are somewhat harder to trace.

In 1917 the Division fought at Messine and Langemarck during the Third Battle of Ypres. After receiving heavy losses in the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918 particularly during the battles of St Quentin and Rosieres on the Somme, the 16th Division was withdrawn to England to be reconstituted. Virtually all of the Irish units were transferred, including the 1st Munsters, who absorbed troops from the 2nd Battalion and joined the 172 nd Brigade, 57th (2nd North Midland) Division.

The 57th Division fought in the Battle of the Scarpe, and the Battle of Drocourt-Queant in August and September 1918. During the final hundred days offensive on the Western Front, Godfrey was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal during the Battle of the Canal du Nord. The following citation appeared in the London Gazette on 2 December 1919:

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During the attack on Proville, south of Cambrai on the 30th September, 1918, he was wounded while his company was crossing theCanalBridge. He refused to go back and be dressed, but went to the assistance of other wounded, and saved some from being drowned. He then got his company across the canal, and all the officers being wounded, led them to the attack. He was wounded three times before he eventually left the company. He behaved splendidly.

Godfrey was evidently seriously wounded, as he died two days later on 2 October 1918. He was 28. He was buried in Sunken Road Cemetery, near Boisleux-St Marc, 8 kilometres south of Arras in France. Six Casualty Clearing Stations were based near the cemetery in the autumn of 1918, so it is likely that he died in one of them.

To have survived over three years of war, only to be killed a matter of days before the war ended, was both incredible and tragic. There weren’t many pre-war regulars left towards the end of 1918, so not only was Frederick Godfrey a very brave man, he must also have had luck on his side for some time. He fought at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Third Ypres, during the Kaiser Offensive and the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918. You didn’t win a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar and a Military Medal just by going through the motions.

Another thing worthy of mention – how did a man born in Putney (who also claimed variously to have been born in Edmonton and Portsmouth), find himself boarding in Portsmouth, before joining a southern Irish Regiment? It just goes to show how mobile Portsmouth people could be!

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Portsmouth’s Great War Emigrants and Immigrants

I’ve always found the transient nature of Portsmouth society pretty interesting. As a port people have been coming and going from the place for hundreds of years. In fact, Portsmouth probably knew more about Immigants and Emigrants than any other place before the Empire Windrush.

My research into Portsmouth’s World War One dead is throwing up some pretty interesting findings with regard to people either leaving Portsmouth or coming here. A number of Portsmouth men were killed serving with foreign military units. 5 men were killed with African units. 12  were with the Australian Army, as well 6 men who were loaned to the Royal Australian Navy. 29 men were serving with Canadian units, 3 with Indian units, and 2 New Zealand. For many of these – in particular Australian and Canadian – their service records survive, so it should be possible to research their careers and lives in a fair bit of detail – how did they come to leave Portsmouth?I suspect that some may never have set foot in their ‘adopted’ country, but might have been transferred in theatre as manpower needs dictated. All the same, the majority of them probably emigrated in search of a better life, and im many cases, were killed serving closer to their homeland than they could have ever imagined.

Looking down the list of surnames of war dead, it is possible to find quite a few foreign sounding surnames. Some of them sound distinctly German, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and possible Jewish. Some of them I have picked out are as follows:

Gunner Alfred Baulf (RFA), Gunner Henry Berger (RFA), Private Henry Bosonnet (15th Hampshires), Private Cyril Brunnen (2nd Hampshires), Lieutenant George Cosser (6th Hampshires), Private Walter De Caen (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal Joseph Hassalt (South Wales Borderers), Private John Hedicker (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal Harold Heffren (1st Hampshires), Private H.W. Heinman (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal R.J. Pamphilon (London Regiment), Sergreant Albert Petracca (Army Service Corps), M. Weiner (not yet identified, Ships Cook William Boggia (HMS Victory),PO Frederick De Barr (HMS Natal), PO Walter De Ste Croix (HMS Hampshire), AB Charles Farlou (HMS Ardent), Telegraphist John Hefferman (HMS Princess Irene), Chief Engine Room Artificer William Lucia (HMS Queen Mary), Sick Berth Attendant Arthur Mazonowicz (HMS Victory), Gunner Albert Mehennet (RMA Siege Guns), Signal Bosun Arthur Mortieau (HMS Hampshire), Officers Cook 1st Class Herbert Weitzel (HM Yacht Zarefah), Musician John Whichello (RM Band Service), Alexander Zeithing (unidentified), Gunner Albert Rosser (RMA, HMS Vanguard), Officers Cook Alfred Santillo (HMS Goliath), PO William Koerner (HMS Niobe).

There are also quite a few men who came from ‘foreign’ places with links to the British Empiure – 17 men from the Channel Islands, and five from Malta. Many of these men may have fled strife at home – possibly some French-descended men of Hugenot origin? – or perhaps Eastern Europeans of Jews fleeing pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe. Sadly for many of them service records are not available, but it might be an interesting exercise to try and chart their lives.

When it comes to Royal Naval and Royal Marine Servicemen, for the vast majority their service records still survive. And better still, in the search function on the National Archives Documents Online website, you can see their date and place of birth without having to pay! The following were born in foreign climes:

PO George Temple (Bermuda), PO Samuel Greenway (Ceylon), AB William Morrison (Ceylon), Lieutenant George Walker-Williamson (India), Cooks Mate William Opie (India), Cooks Mate Frederick Shephard (India), Warrant Mechanician Thomas King (New Zealand), Leading Seaman Edward Williams (Campos Gabrielle, South America, possibly Chile), Chief Engine Room Artificer Stamper Wade (Boston US).

They all have distinctly British names, so it would seem that they were born to British parents who for whatever reason were living or working abroad. Interesting that many of their places of birth – India, Ceylon and New Zealand for example – were part of the British Empire. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but Stamper Wade sounds like a typical American name! It would also be interesting to find out about Edward Williams – as far as I can tell, Campos Gabrielle could be in Chile.

We don’t know quite as much about the provenance of men who served in the Army, but on his Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry we see that Private Henry Hodge was born in Barbados, but was living in Cosham at the time that he was killed. Again, it would be very interesting to find out why!

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Band Corporal Arthur Wood and Musician Frederick Wood

British battlecruiser HMS QUEEN MARY.

It never ceases to amaze me just what an impact the Battle of Jutland had on Portsmouth – three Portsmouth Battlecruisers were sunk, with the loss of thousands of men. Obviously, in such a strong naval city, many communities were badly hit. And with several generations of the same family often served at the same time, some family suffered more than one casualty. But one family I have researched paid a heavier price than most.

Arthur Oswald Wood, born in Worcester on 8 September 1892, enlisted in the Royal Marines Band Service on 20 September 1906. His brother Frederick William, who had been born in London on 23 September 1889, joined the Band Service on 15 March 1905. Their father was a retired warrant officer who had served in the Royal Field Artillery, and the family lived at 10 Kimberley Road in Southsea.

At the Battle of Jutland both were serving on board the Portsmouth-based Battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, as part of the ship’s Royal Marine Band. Arthur Wood was the Band Corporal. Both were killed when HMS Queen Mary was sunk in the battle on 31 May 1916. Arthur was 23, and Frederick was 26. They are both remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on Southsea Common.

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HMS Belfast airbrushed out of Olympic Posters

Preserved Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast in th...

HMS Belfast - airbrushed (Image via Wikipedia)

This is a pretty strange one – its transpired today that HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge, has been airbrushed out of an official poster for the London 2012 Olympics.

We’ve had the usual ‘it was a mistake, blah blah’ statements from un-named spokesperson. But lets look at the facts. At some point, someone somewhere, made a conscious and deliberate decision that it would be a good idea to remove a historic warship from a scene of London. This isn’t something that you do accidentally – as anyone with design experience knows, doctoring a landscape is not something that ‘just happens’. I could understand some spotty young designer maybe brushing it out, but for it to pass so many levels up until publication without being halted, is pretty alarming.

What we need to think about, wider than the fact that it happened, is the thought process that led to it being acceptable? HMS Belfast has been moored on the Thames for over 40 years now, and has been visited by millions of people. If it wasn’t for the role of HMS Belfast in the war, we would have had plenty more Olympics like those in Berlin in 1936 – ie, a farce. Or football teams having to give the Nazi salute, like the teams who played in the World Cup in Germany in 1938. It’s not just ‘a ship’, it represents all of the ships of the British Royal Navy that have fought in bloody conflicts over hundreds of years.

Is it that military history is not thought appropriate for the Olympics? Well, in that case you can also airbrush out the Tower of London. Oh, and the Tower Hill Merchant Navy Memorial. And can anyone remember the spectacle of the Chinese Army soldiers goose-stepping with the Olympic flag in Beijing in 2008? That was hardly subtle, yet somehow that was overlooked. Don’t expect to see Grenadier Guards at the 2012 opening ceremony, or the Red Arrows flying overhead (although after recent events that might not be possible in any case).

I do wonder if it is down to a modern, lefty kind of school of thought, that would like to try and airbrush wars and anything military out of history. No doubt with the sobriquet that we ‘need to look to the future’. Well, without those who secured our past, there wouldn’t be much of a future to look forward to. I guess its the problem with having elected and appointed leaders with no sense of history.

It’s yet another example of just how blind this country and its institutions can be about our naval heritage. And if we’re that blase about the past, is it any wonder that the Royal Navy is struggling for attention in the present?

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D-Day Museum on Remembrance Sunday

Just a little reminded that I will be speaking at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth this coming Remembrance Sunday.

The Museum is open from 10am. I will be speaking at 12noon and 2pm, giving a short talk on my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. Entry to the Museum is free all day, and there is no need to book.

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my notes. If you come down, feel free to say hello and ask me anything you like!

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ANZAC #4 – Lieutenant Harry Gearing

The fourth Australian soldier to be buried in Milton Cemetery presents us with a pretty interesting story indeed. Harry Alan Cheshire Gearing was born in India, on 16 August 1884. Hence he was very much a son of the British Empire. He was the son of Henry George and Mary Gearing. In civilian life prior to joining the Army he was Secretary and Accountant, and his wife was Bertha Gearing.

Sadly, as he was an officer Harry Gearing did not go through quite the same recruitment process as the rank and file. Harry Gearing was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Australian Army Service Corps on 22 April 1915. Prior to embarking for the Middle East, Gearing was in charge of rations at the Brisbane Army base, issuing rations daily for 4,000 men and 1,000 horses.

2nd Lieutenant Gearing embarked from Australia onboard the HMAT Ascanuis (A11), from Brisbane on 24 May 1915. He reached Egypt sometime later, but had been taken ill on the voyage. On 21 July 1915 he was examined by a Medical Board at the Australian Hospital in Heliopolis, outside Cairo, and found to be suffering from Diabetes, his symptoms including glycosuria, unquenchable thirst and asthemia.

On 28 July he left Egypt, onboard the HMAT Ceramic bound for England. By 7 August he was in Britain, and was again examined at the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth. Again, a Medical Board found that he was suffering from Diabetes, caused by service, and that he was unlikely to be fit for any future active service away from home. He was immediately given 3 months sick leave, leaving London on 31 August 1915.

Whilst on sick leave Gearing seems to have been perpetually on the move, taking in vast swathes of England and Scotland in something of a grand tour. His letters to the Australian Headquarters in London passed on his forwarding address, even if he was only staying for one or two days! In September he stayed with a Mrs Stewart at Culgruft, in Cross Michael in Scotland. From there he went to Dollar in Clarkmananshire, and from there on to Lauriestone Hall in Mossdale. In October he took in Corsock, Dalbeatie, Kircudbrightshire; and Balmaghie House, Castle Douglas.

In late October 1915 he was informed that he had to come back to London to sit before another Medical Board, in order to assess his fitness for further service. An argument then ensued, about whether he was entitled to a Railway Warrant for his journey! Gearing also stated that he would be willing to foregoe the rest of his sick leave if he could be garuanteed a post with the ANZAC base depot at Weymouth, but AIF Headquarters would not promise this.

Gearing was finally examined by yet another Medical Board at the AIF Headquarters at 130 Horseferry Road on 26 November 1915 The board found that his weight was still fluctuating, and that he had Polyuric and pains in the limbs, much sugar in the urine. He was found permanently unfit for active service. For some reason he does not appear to have been discharged there and then, but sent on more sick leave.

Between November 1915 and April 1916 his movements are somewhat vague, but we do know that Lieutenant Gearing was finally discharged from the Australian Imperial Forces in April 1916, in London. Although his letters suggest that he wished to return to Australia, for whatever reason he did not do so immediately. Upon arrival in London in April he was staying at Messrs Wallace and Co,Russell Court, ClevelandRow, in West London. In early May 1916 he sent a number of telegrams that suggest that he had been to Marseille in the South of France before returning to London. At some time in early April we know that he was in Gibraltar, making that a likely possibility. Later in May he stayed at Faulkners Hotel, Villiers Street, Strand, before travelling to stay at The Bungalow, Praa Sands, Vis Ashton, Cornwall.

Intriguingly, Lieutenant Gearing does appear to have had a sister in England – Hope G. Gearing, who lived in Culver Lodge, at Sandown on the Isle of Wight – by no means a million miles from Portsmouth. Ironically given his extensive travelling, there is no indication that he visited her during his time in Britain.

It seems that Gearing did not return to Australia. He died of Diabetes on 16 March 1917, almost a year after he had left the Australian Army. He was 31. Death records suggest that he did die in Portsmouth. Perhaps he was in the Military HospitalHe was buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, alongside other Australian Great War soldiers. Why he was buried in Milton is something of a mystery, but in 1919 his widow, who had been in Australia during the war, was living at Red Lodge, Craneswater Park in Southsea. She was still in Britain during 1920 and 1921, and according to her brother, was ‘always on the move’ – much like her husband, it appears.

Although he did not see active service, Harry Gearing’s experience is another example of the way in which servicemen could become ill during their service, and many sadly died. Although Gearing seems to have been of a slightly different class to most Diggers – an accountant, who seemingly had contacts throughout Britain – like his comrades, he died and was buried thousands of miles from home.

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Filed under Pompey ANZAC's, Uncategorized, World War One

Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations

The British Grand Fleet steaming in parallel c...

The Grand Fleet of WW1 (Image via Wikipedia)

Having completed the entry of Portsmouth Soldiers who were killed between 1914 and 1921, for the past few months I have begun entering the names of sailors from Portsmouth who were killed in the Great War. Having processed some 414 sailors and 82 Royal Marines, I have a pretty decent sample to make some interesting observations.

Thanks to the way that WW1 Naval service records are available online, we can see the exact date of birth and place of birth for virtually ever 1914-18 sailor. And the findings are striking. A very large percentage of Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Great War were actually born here. I would have presumed that many more would have been born elsewhere but moved to Portsmouth in service. I wonder how many of them were second or even third generation sailors? It seems that the Navy did not actually expand significantly, in terms of manpower, between when most of these men were born in the late Victorian period and 1914. Certainly not as much as the Army expanded, in any case.

Of those who did come from elsewhere, most of them came from nearby maritime counties, such as Sussex or Dorset. A sizeable amount came from London, which also had a seafaring tradition. Others came from virtually every county in Britain, including some from Ireland, Scotland, and even two from Malta. One great surprise is the sizeable amount who came from the Channel Island – a place with a very small population, but obviously a great many young men familiar with the sea.

As with my similar research into WW2, it seems that most Pompey sailors were pre-war regulars, and often Leading Rates, Petty Officers or Warrant Officers. Long-serving sailors were clearly more likely to settle here, and most of them seem to have lived in areas close to the naval base, such as Landport, Buckland and Portsea. About 90% of CWGC entries for WW1 sailors include house numbers and street names, which gives great potential for some geo-mapping exercises. Oddly enough very few naval officers seem to have settled in Portsmouth – perhaps it was not quite fashionable.

Relatively few sailors in WW1 seem to have won medals compared to their counterparts in WW2. One exception seems to have been the submarine service, in which a number of Pompey sailors were involved. Several were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, at a time when submarines were very much in their infancy, and a very hazardous way of going to war.

The Navy did not actually expand that much during WW1. Obviously the only way you would really need to expand naval manpower massively is if you had new ships to crew, but in 1914 the Royal Navy was already easiest the largest in the world. The only ‘expansion’ involved the re-activation of some Reserve Fleet ships. One of these was HMS Good Hope, which was crewed almost exclusively by re-called reservists. In fact, when war was declared the Royal Navy received too many volunteers, and formed a Royal Naval Division for service on land. Several Portsmouth men were killed with the RN Division, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Most sailors were killed in the large set piece battles, such as at Jutland or the Coronel. At Jutland HMS Invincible, Princess Royal and Black Prince were lost, and HMS Good Hope at the Coronel. A number of other ships were sunk by accidental explosions, such as HMS Bulwark and HMS Natal.

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Historian for hire!

Just a little reminder that I’m available for helping out with any of the following:

  • Family history research – Ordering and interpreting birth, marriage and death certificates; drawing up family trees; overcoming those little snags in your family history!
  • Military history research – researching and interpreting individuals service records; war diary look ups; medal winners; casualties; Prisoners of War
  • Archive and library research – particularly in the Portsmouth/Hampshire/West Sussex area; also London, such as the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, British Library etc.
  • Talks and lectures, workshops, etc. – I can give talks to any local history group, which can be tailored to the audience. Also workshops etc.
  • Researching and writing articles and other publications – I have previously written articles for Britain at War Magazine
  • Researching and writing text for Exhibitions – I have previously written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth

And absolutely anything else that you can think of, to do with history! Contact me to discuss what I can do, rates etc.

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Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0’s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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Filed under Royal Air Force, World War Two, out and about, portsmouth heroes, site news