Tag Archives: middle east

The Battle of El Alamein: 70 years on

English: El Alamein 1942: British infantry adv...

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.

Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it could  said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.

On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.

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HMS Daring leaving Portsmouth – some belated pics

Here are some belated pictures of HMS Daring leaving Portsmouth for the Middle East a few weeks ago.

Just to give you an idea of how long ago she left, she was last in port at Aqaba, in Jordan after transiting the Suez Canal!

Expect even bigger crowds when HMS Dauntless leaves for the South Atlantic next month…

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ANZAC #9 – Private Thomas Pearson

Thomas Owen Pearson was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1895, the son of Thomas and Ellen Pearson. In 1914, Thomas Pearson (junior) was working as an unapprenticed clerk. By this time, the Pearson family, including 19 year-old Thomas, were living at Walareyan, Dean Street, in Toowong. As well as working as a clerk, Pearson had been serving in a militia unit, the Oxley Infantry, for just over a year.

Thomas Pearson joined the Australian Army on 7  September 1914, very soon after the start of the Great War. He was initially drafted to the Australian Army Medical Corps, in No 3 Field Ambulance, A Section. He was 5ft 6 1/2 inches tall, weighed 133lbs, had a chest measurement of 33 and 36 inches, a fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair, and was a member of the Church of England.

After joining up Pearson spent less than three weeks in Australia, before he embarked for the Middle East, onboard the HMAT Rangatira (A22), on 25 September 1914 from Queensland. In common with most of the early members of the Australian Forces, Pearson and 3 Field Ambulance went to Egypt to await further instructions. Whilst there they commenced training, and it was not until 2 March 1915 that Pearson finally embarked for active service, joining the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. The Australians did not actually land at ANZAC Bay until 25 April 1915, but Pearson – who landed on the first day – was wounded in his shoulder and right hip on 9 May. He was taken to the Hospital Ship Gloucester Castle, and from there to Egypt. He was admitted to the 1st General Hospital in Helipololis, in Cairo. He had sufficiently recovered by 23 June to be discharged. On 21 July he again embarked for Gallipoli, this time on board HMAT Seang Bee.

Pearson was again evacuated from the Dardanelles on 26 September, this time suffering with Diaorrhoea. Admitted to the 1st Casualty Clearing Station, he then passed through 3 Field Ambulance – his own unit – and onto the Hospital ship Gascon. on 2 October he disembarked at Malta, where on 25 October he boarded the Hospital Ship Gibraltar, this time bound for England. He arrived in England on 31 October, and was admitted to the 2nd Southern General Hospital, at Mandlin Street in Bristol. There he remained for a good couple of months, evidently very weak after suffering from acute diarrhoea. A cable back home in November reported that he was suffering from debility, a serious weakness brought on by his illness. He was finally discharged on 4 January 1916, and reported to the ANZAC Depot at Abbeywood.

Pearson was destined to go back to the Mediterranean, but failed to report when he was supposed to. On 9 February he was fined a days pay, a remarkably light fine compared to some men who went AWOL for a matter of hours and were fined weeks worth of pay! Pearson finally embarked for the Middle East again on 24 February, onboard the MHAT Kingstonian. The Kingstonian arrived at Alexandria on 24 February 1916, and from there Pearson reported to the overseas draft base at Ghezerieh. He was finally assigned to the 2nd Field Ambulance on 12 March, at Serapeum. Two days later he was actually admitted to the Field Ambulance as a patient, suffering from Inflenza. This was edivently not serious, as he was discharged a week later.

The MEF had been evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916, and since then the ANZAC troops had been awaiting their next move in Egypt. As the Western Front was consuming vast numbers of men, it was decided to bring the Australians to France to join the BEF. Accordingly, on 23 March Pearson embarked on the HMAT Briton at Alexandria. He had only been back in Egypt for less than a month.

The Briton docked at Marseilles on 30 March 1916, and from there Pearson proceeded to the Western Front. On 19 June Pearson was transferred from 2 Field Ambulance to the 25th Battalion of the Australian Infantry – whether he had been transferred as medical orderly or stretcher bearer, or even as an infantryman, is unclear. But on 30 June 1916, the day before the opening of the Somme offensive, Thomas Pearson received a serious shrapnel wound in his left leg. Admitted to the 7th Field Ambulance the next day, by 3 July he was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital. By this time his wounds were described as a gunshot wound in his left leg, and a severely fractured fibula.

It appeared that Pearson’s wound was clearing up and healing well. Sadly developed Tetanus, probably as a result of the filthy conditions on the western front, the nature of his wound and lack of development of battlefield medicine at the time. On 24 July he reported a stiffness in his jaw, and by the next day was showing symptoms of Tetanus. He was treated with anti-tetanus serum, but died at 11.10pm on 26 July 1916. He was just 20. Unlike most soldiers who died at the Hospital in Milton, Pearson was actually buried in Highland Cemetery in Southsea. His personal effects were sent back to his fathe, consisting of 2 wallets, photos, letters, watch, correspondence, note book, purse, 3 coins, cigarette holder, cigarette case, tooth brush, scissors, ring, 2 pipes and a tobacco pouch. Pearson’s body was later exhumed after the war, and re-interred with his fellow Australians in Milton Cemetery.

Tragically, Thomas Pearson’s parents lost another son on the Western Front. Corporal F.W. Pearson, also serving with the 25th Battalion Australian Infantry, was reported missing on 29 July 1916, during the Battle of Pozieres on the Somme. Twelve months later he was reported killed in action. Thus it seems feasible that the two Pearson brothers died within three days of each other.

A series of letters from Thomas Pearson senior to the Australian Infantry Base Records Depot sheds much light on what this poor family went through. By the early 1920’s the family were living at Wilmington Street, in Newmarket, Queensland. Evidently their moving confused matters, as there is evidence that Thomas’s memorial scroll took some time to reach them. His letters also tell us that Mr Sanderson of Exeter Road, who voluntarily tended the Australian graves in Milton, had actually visited Thomas whilst he was hill. It seems reasonable to suggest that Mr Sanderson looked after the Australian boys in life as he did in death.

The last words, perhaps, belong to Thomas Pearson senior:

to know a lad is buried decently softens the blow exceedingly… of my other lad I suppose we shall never know

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Filed under Pompey ANZAC's, 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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USS George HW Bush departs… for Portsmouth?

070505-N-6854D-003 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (May 5, 2...

USS Anzio, part of the Bush Strike Group (Image via Wikipedia)

Yesterday the USS George HW Bush departed from Norfolk VA on her maiden deployment.

The Bush strike group is deploying to Europe and the Middle East, tasked with supporting maritime security. One would imagine that this deployment has been made with the conflict in Libya in mind. The Bush’s strike group includes the Ticonderoga class Cruisers USS Gettysburg and USS Anzio, and the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers USS Truxtun and USS USS Mitscher. It’s also a first deployment for the Truxtun, and it’s also the first time that a woman has commanded a Carrier Strike Group – Rear Admiral Nora Tyson.

On her way to the Mediterranean it is thought that the USS Bush will take part in Exercise Saxon Warrior, scheduled to take place between 18 and 26 May. Rumours around the internet suggest that the Bush will be stationed off Anglesey, taking the opportunity for her air wing to bomb targets at Pembrey Ranges. It seems that much of the flying activity will be over the South West and Wales. The exercise may also include GPS jamming, courtesy of the Bush’s Growler electronic warfare aircraft.

Why the interest? Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Bush will be arriving off Portsmouth in the Solent on 27 May, staying for the weekend. Any of her strike group might arrive along with her. Of course this is subject to operational demands, but keep your watching here for more information as soon as I get it.

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Warships: Interational Fleet Review

HMS Liverpool, a Royal Navy Type 42 Batch 2 ai...

HMS Liverpool, en-route to Libya

I’ve just picked up the latest copy of this fascinating magazine. As usual it makes for a measured, insightful but pointed read.

Iran has recently sent warships through the Suez Canal, after signing a defence pact with Syria. Transit through the canal is governed by the Egyptian Government, and the post-Mubarak leadership broke a tacit agreement with Israel and the US to not allow Iranian vessels through. The pact with Syria and the prospect of Iranian vessels in the Mediterranean – especially off the Israeli coast -changes the strategic picture in the Middle East somewhat.

The Magazine also highlights the folly of the Government’s Defence Cuts, in that the Royal Navy Frigate leading the British contribution to the sea blockade of Libya, HMS Cumberland, is due to come home to decomission soon. The ship we are sending to relieve her, HMS Liverpool, is an elderly Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer, which is also due to be scrapped within a couple of years. France, meanwhile, has sent its Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has been using its significant amphibious capability. Britain appears increasingly impotent, especially when consider that even China has sent a Warship. However old and labour intensive they are, the Type 22’s are extremely capable ships, and they are not being replaced. An editorial takes Cameron’s SDSR to pieces, arguing that its credibility has been torn to shreds by events in Libya. Britain is now a second rate player on the European-international stage.

Elsewhere, the new Australian Aircraft Carrier HMAS Canberra has been launched at the Navantia yard in Ferrol, Spain. Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, she and her sister HMAS Adelaide are officially termed Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD).  They have enough space to operate two dozen helicopters, a ski-ramp and the potential for operating VSTOL jets (Australia is purchasing Joint Strike Fighter), and an amphibious dock to the rear. At well over 20,000 tons she is much larger than anything the mother country has built for years, and represents a quantum leap for Australia, both in terms of size and capability. Something Britain could really do with.

Finally – and some might say amusingly – we get a round-up of the UK independence party‘s Defence manifesto. And interesting reading it makes too. They propose to retain British Forces completely under national control, and to maintain a fleet of – wait for it:

  • 3 Aicraft Carriers
  • 4 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 12 Nuclear Attack Submarines
  • 11 Destroyers
  • 20 Frigates
  • 6 Amphibious vessels
  • 21 Minewarfare vessels
  • 7 Offshore Patrol Vessels
  • 55 Strike Fighters
  • Retain 3 Commando Brigade

This sounds impressive. But remember, this is essentially what we had only 10 years ago anyway. This extensive building programme would cost a lot, but would generate jobs and boost the shipbuilding industry, and would guarantee the future of jobs at bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport and Rosyth. How to fund it? Well, UKIP suggest stopping our annual international aid bill of £10bn to countries that have space programmes, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Sounds loopy, but there are grains of truth therein.

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Wavell: Soldier and Statesman

 

I must confess I had probably conformed to the wider orthodoxy on British military history when it came to Wavell – everything before Monty was hopeless, surely? This perceived wisdom is partly due to efforts of both Montgomery the self-publicist and Churchill, whose history of the Second World War set the tone for the historiography of the conflict. Victoria Schofield is an authority on the Indian sub-continent, and has also written an official history of Wavell’s Regiment, the Black Watch. Therefore, she is ideally placed to try and redress Wavell’s poor treatment through history.

But reading this book has made me think differently. Prior to El Alamein the British Army and its commanders were swimming against the tide – poorly equipped, poorly prepared, and with far too much being expected of them in the circumstances. Wavell was by no means the only British General whom Churchill castigated for not moving heaven and earth in the way that he demanded, and because he did not fit Churchill’s ridiculous stereotype of what a General should ‘be’. This gives us an insight into Churchill’s failings in terms of working with his commanders – men such as Auchinleck, Dill, and even Montgomery also suffered from Churchill’s outbursts.

As a young Black Watch officer Wavell was seriously wounded on the Western Front (in common with Montgomery), losing an eye in the process. After recovering he was drafted to the Middle East, serving under Allenby during his famous campaign against the Turks in Palestine, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem. Wavell learnt much during this period, and some years later went on to author a Biography of Allenby. During the inter-war years Wavell had a much more active service than many of his contemporaries, with a number of staff and regimental postings, as well as writing on military history and theory. Prior to the Second World War he also developed a correspondence with the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart.

There were in fact some extremely bright moments in the early years of the war in the Desert – not least Operation Compass, where led by Richard O’Connor the Western Desert Force completely routed the Italians on the Egyptian-Lybian border. If it hadn’t been for a London-based directive to intervene in Greece, Wavell and O’Connor might well have been able to rout the Italians from North Africa entirely. The Italians were also completely routed in East Africa too. Yet Churchill’s constant meddling and barracking – added to the wide expanse of Wavell’s command – made his task nigh on impossible.

After leaving the Middle East, Wavell was appointed the Commander-in-Chief in India, at an important time when the Japanese were threatening the Far East. After the outbreak of war with Japan Wavell was made supreme commander of the short-lived American, British Dutch and Australian Command, co-ordinating the war in South East Asia. This task proved a thankless one, with the woeful lack of preparation and resources, combined with the relentless onslaught of the Japanese, culminating in the fall of Singapore. It is hard to apportion any blame on Wavell for these early reverses in the east, given the impossible situation in which he was placed.

After returning to India from his Far East appointment, Wavell was then appointed as Viceroy – the King’s representative in India. Although having little experience of politics, Wavell’s calm, studious personality enabled him to perform reasonably well in dealing with the extreme demands of the post – seeing India through the final stages of the war, and not least handling the growing move towards Indian independence. Wavell’s approach in this respect seems to have been for negotiation between all of the parties, over any and every potential problem. This contrasts with events that transpired after Wavell’s replacement by Mountbatten in 1947 – a pell-mell descent into independence, followed by chaos and anarchy in which thousands died.

The impression I have of Field Marshal Wavell is of a very quiet, private but very intelligent man who did the best that could be expected of him at the time. It should be no reflection on him at all that the Prime Minister of the day found it difficult to trust his subordinates, and at times showed very poor judgement of character. A much-maligned figure in British military history, Wavell seems to have suffered not only from being in the wrong commands at the wrong time, but also from his modest nature, not unlike other commanders such as Alan Brooke and Bill Slim, who have been overshadowed by publicists such as Montgomery, or dashing warriors such as Alexander. How might Wavell and Auchinleck have fared later in the war when resources were behind the allies? By the same token, how might Montgomery have fared commanding earlier in the war when the cards were heavily stacked against Britain?

Hopefully Victoria Schofield’s masterly biography will go some way to redressing the harsh treatment that Wavell has been afforded by history. Schofield makes the case for Wavell very well, which is just as well given that all the evidence suggests that he was, unjustly, one of the most maligned figures of the Second World War. I’m by no means a fan of the official military biography, but this example is very well done indeed.

Wavell: Soldier and Statesmen is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Empire History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two