Tag Archives: luftwaffe

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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Foreign war graves in Chichester Cemetery

Regular readers will know I have developed something of an interest in war dead and war graves, be it from a particular space dotted around the world, from a particular nation, or in a particular place. Equally, regular readers will know that some six months ago I made the quantum leap from Paulsgrove (if you don’t know, wikipedia it) to Chichester (ditto, and compare).

Anyway, I digress. Yesterday while walking to Lidl to go and do the shopping, I stumbled upon Chichester’s Portfield Cemetery. And a very interesting stumble it was too. Like 99% of municipal cemeteries it has its fair share of war graves. Apart from a few dotted around the cemetery, most of the war graves are collected into three beautifully tended plots – separate plots for WW1 and WW2 protestant graves, and a separate one for Roman Catholic burials. But here’s the interesting bit – there are 13 foreign (ie, non commonwealth) WW2 burials – 7 Czech, 4 Polish and 2 German. The Poles and Germans are RC burials, but the Czechs are split between  protestant and RC.

What I find really interesting, is that every nationality has its own shape and format for CWGC gravestones – UK and commonwealth are rectangular with a shallow curved top; polish have a more pronounced, pointy-curved top; Czech have a very interesting angular design; whilst German have a more straight, perpendicular look to them.

Obviously at the moment I have my hands full with looking into Australians buried in Portsmouth and Portsmouth’s WW1 dead, but at some point in the non-too distant future I am going to start taking a look at the foreign war graves in Chichester. My hunch is that many of them must be airman, with important WW2 air bases nearby at Westhampnett and Tangmere.

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Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Mike Spick

I guess it’s always going to be a dilemma. What kind of book do you take with you to the Hospital to read while your other half is having a camera put somewhere unpleasant? Topiary? Chess? micro nutrients in the reef aquarium? All very tempting, but in the end I went with Luftwaffe Fighter Aces.

And very interesting it was too. What startled me most is the high number of kills that the Luftwaffe’s top aces had – over 200 in many cases. Whereas in the western allies – RAF, USAAF for example – any pilot who shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft was considered an ace. The RAF’s leading ace, Pat Pattle, accounted for 51 enemy aircraft. The difference is partly that German Jagdwaffe pilots spent a lot more of the war in combat, from Poland in 1939 onwards, but also that many of them were in action in Russia during Barbarossa, when the hordes of poorly trained, poorly equipped Russian fighters provided rich pickings. Erich Hartmann might have shot down an incredible 352 enemy aircraft, but all but seven were Russian. Men such as Adolf Galland and Werner Molders, renowned as among the greatest, actually scored very low compared to some of their compatriots.

The book is structured chronologically, looking at the development of the Luftwaffe, the Spanish Civil War as a proving ground, the early campaigns, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa, North Africa, and then the Allied Bomber Offensive later in the war. Spick has looked admirably at the technical issues, the tactics involved (including some nice diagrams of dogfighting maneouvres), and woven into the narrative details of the careers of some of the Luftwaffe’s greatest pilots. Also of note are the considerable political problems that the Luftwaffe had to overcome, not the least the interference of the Fuhrer, and the refusal of Goring to accept that air combat had changed since he was in action over the Western Front in 1918.

Two Luftwaffe aces I have a particular interest in are Helmut Wick and Hans Wolfgang Schnauffer. Helmut Wick is believed to have shot down Flight Sergeant Hubert Adair in his Hurricane over Portsmouth on 5 November 1940. Wick is also believed to have shot down Flying Officer James Tillett near Fareham on the same day. Wick himself was killed on 28 November 1940, when he was shot down over the English Channel. He had claimed 56 victories – low in the context of the war, but very succesful considering most were gained within a year of flying, and were against the RAF rather then the Red Army Air Force.

Hans Wonfgang Schnauffer is renowned as the Luftwaffe’s greatest night fighter pilot, with 121 victories. This is even more incredible, when we consider that he only began flying in June 1942, straight from flight training school. Schnauffer shot down the Halifax Bomber of 35 Squadron, in which Sergeant Francis Compton was a tail gunner. On the night of 29 June 1943, Schnauffer intercepted Halifax HR812 over Belgium.

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces is published by Pen and Sword

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The Coventry conspiracy

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Covent...

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been aware for a few years of a feeling that somehow Winston Churchill ‘sacrificed’ Coventry to the death and destruction that occured during the infamous bombing raid in November 1941 – see this article on the BBC website. Sadly, I just cannot agree. Even though I understand the sentiment of anyone from Coventry who felt that their city was thrown to the wolves. But whilst the emotions are understandable, the evidence just does not bear out some kind of conspiracy.

I think we need to be careful about castigating every General or politician who made a decision that caused lives to be lost in wartime – it would be a pretty long list. People will die during war, its a sad fact of life. And very often any decision to move resources to save lives in one respect will cost lives in another. That is the balance of decision making. And by the same token, if decisions are avoided just because someone might die, then nothing would ever happen. It was clear to all in 1939 that given the growth of strategic bombing, many civilians were going to die in the coming war. People had a grim cest la vie attitude to it then, why should we impose our hindsight morals now at a distance of 70 years?

Could Churchill, or anyone else for that matter, have done anything to stop the raid on Coventry? Even if every anti-aircraft gun in Britain had been thrown around Coventry, bombers would still have got through – AA fire was more for the morale of civilians than anything else. Even then, the prospect of moving large number of guns, men and associated infrastructure at such short notice is pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff, even before we consider that such a move would have left the rest of Britain undefended. Neither could the city have been evacuated at such short notice – hundreds of thousands of people. Where would they have gone to? Evacuation of children was routine, but complete evacuating a city on the pretext of one incoming raid would have set a dangerous precedent. There were already fears about civilian morale, such as the treckers who left cities for the countryside every night.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of the authorities getting intelligence of incoming raids in the days and hours beforehand. But at that early stage in the war, not much could be done. Advanced warning DID allow the civil authorities and emergency services to be fully prepared. But to act too pre-emptively would have prejudiced intelligence sources, in particular the breaking of secret German codes. Whilst later in the war I believe that more risks should have been taken on the basis of Enigma decrypts, earlier in the war – particularly when Britain stood alone – intelligence sources had to be closely guarded. Saving hundreds of lives in one situation might have meant the loss of thousands further down the line. Such is the cold hard balance of losses in wartime.

People like to take comfort in conspiracies – or flog books off the back of them – but for the most part they are just that – conspiracies.

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The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

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The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1’s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

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Portsmouth’s Anti-Aircraft Gunners

QF 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, L...

3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, London (Image via Wikipedia)

As Britain’s premier naval port, Portsmouth was naturally a prominent target for the Luftwaffe. Although major warships such as aircraft carriers and battleships rarely used the dockyard in wartime due to the fear of air attack, much work repairing smaller vessels still went on in the yard.

The Germans were well aware of the importance of Portsmouth. A folio of maps in Portsmouth Central Library’s Local History section shows that the Luftwaffe had identified targets all over Portsmouth – the Dockyard, the Power Station, Gunwharf, Vospers Shipyard in the Camber, Fratton Goods Yard, the Airport, the Airspeed Factory, the Gasometer, the military barracks at Hilsea, and Hilsea Railway Bridge. Across the water, HMS Dolphin at Gosport was also a target.

Clearly, such a large target needed considerable Anti-Aircraft Defences. The principal defence came in the form of the 57th (Wessex) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The 57th was a Territorial unit, made up mainly of men who had volunteered to be part-time soldiers before the war and had been mobilised upon the start of the war. 213 battery recruited from Portsmouth, 214 Battery from Southsea, 215 Battery from Gosport and Fareham, and 219 Battery from the Isle of Wight and Cosham.

There were a number of Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements around Portsmouth. Recent features and letters in the news have pointed to both Gun and Rocket Batteries on Southsea Common. My Grandad can also remember the naval ships in harbour using their anti-aircraft guns too. Anti-Aircraft fire was not just about actually trying to attack aircraft, but also to try and put up such a volume of fire that the pilots were forced away from the target. It also boosted the morale of civilians, who were cheered to see that someone was attempting to hit back on their behalf.

But the most considerable defences seem to have been located around the outskirts of the ciy, in order to catch the attackers as they were either approaching or leaving the target area. As Bob Hunt’s Portsdown Tunnels shows, there were gun sites north of Fort Nelson at Monument Farm, south of Southwick, and near Crookhorn. It was felt at the time that the Luftwaffe was using the white chalkface of Portsdown Hill to guide its planes to the area, so basing flak guns over the reverse slopes would have given the gunners a fair chance of downing Dorniers and Heinkels.

There was also a considerable anti-aircraft emplacement at Sinah Warren on the very south-western tip of Hayling Island. The site at Sinah is particularly interesting. It was located on the edge of a decoy site. A number of sites were set up around the country, in order to lure the Luftwaffe away from bombing large urban centres such as Portsmouth. They achieved this by lighting dummy fires, and two bunkers for dummy fires can still be found on Farlington Marshes. The Langstone Harbour site was particularly succesful. After the massive bombing raid on Portsmouth on 10/11 January 1941, the next large raid on Portsmouth was largely foiled by the decoy site, and most of the German bombs fell harmlessly into Langstone Harbour.

Sadly, some of the anti-aircraft gunners at Sinah Warren paid the ultimate price for their closeness to the decoy site. Several bombs fell on the gun emplacement, killing five men. One man died of his wounds later. All were serving with 219 Battery, 57 Heavy AA Regiment:

Gunner James Bardoe, of Northfleet in Kent
Gunner James Collingbine, of Plaistow in London
Gunner Arthur Farmer, of Portsmouth
Gunner Reginald Knight, 21 and from Wymering
Gunner Leonard Ward, 22 and from Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight
Gunner James Powell, 28 and from Middlesex (died on the 19th of wounds)

After the threat of air attack receded when the Germans turned on Russia, 57 HAA Regiment was drafted to serve overseas. After going to North Africa in 1942, the Regiment finished the war in Italy. There is a plaque at the Sinah Warren site commemorating the 6 gunners killed in April 1941, and there is an example of the kind of gun the Regiment would have used outside the D-Day Museum, complete with the unit’s ‘flaming Dornier’ emblem.

A total of 48 men were killed serving with 57 HAA Regiment during the war. They are buried in Britain, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Crete and Italy.

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