Tag Archives: north africa

The National Archives: Day Three

Last day at National Archives in Kew. I’ve managed to look at everything I wanted to, and more besides.

I started off with looking at the Operational Record Books for 10 and 35 Squadrons RAF while Sergeant Francis Compton was serving with them. The ORB’s for each Squadron list what missions the Squadron flew on each night, which crews went, and what happened to them – what aircraft they were flying, when they took off, what bombload they carried, what they saw on the target, when they dropped their bombs, if they were engaged by any enemy aircraft, flak or searchlights, and if any damage was experienced. I don’t want to pre-empt what I’m going to write, but Francis Compton had a short but eventful flying career.

I managed to copy some very interesting documents about V Force, a clandestine guerilla force fighting in Burma. Major Maurice Budd won a Military Cross. I found the minutes of a conference, chaired by Bill Slim, the commander of the 14th Army in Burma, about the organisation of V Force. I also have copies of documents that show the war establishment of V Force – how many men and officers, and in particular they show how V Force was a mixed British and Indian unit, with some Indian officers commanding white troops, and british soldiers serving alongside Burmese and Indian men. Theres also a very useful official history document about the activities of V Force, written shortly after the war, with a view to learning lessons – possibly fearing a war against communists in the jungles of the Far East.

Finally, I discovered that Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who won a Military Cross in North Africa with an armoured unit in 1942. I originally thought that he then went to serve at a Base Hospital in Egypt, and from there back to serve as a Medical Officer with the 1st Royal Welch Regiment, where he was killed in early 1945. Not only have I found out that he died in his sleep of natural causes, for some unknown reason he left the 1st Royal Welch in September 1944, went to serve with the 1/7th Battalion of the Queens Regiment for less than a week – why, their war diary does not say, and it doesn’t say where he went to. Very strange indeed.

So all in all, a very interesting and useful trip. I’ve got plenty of information now to write some sample chapters – I’m thinking about CPO Reg Ellingworth, Major Robert Easton and Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan. I’ve also got lots of useful stuff about Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, Major Maurice Budd, and Sergeant Francis Compton. There will probably be a few more trips to Kew before I’ve finished writing the book, but I’ve got enough now to get started on a few sample chapters, and the basis for a few more.

I do fear about the future for the National Archives, however. Since I’ve been going there they have already closed on Mondays and cut their opening hours on other days. Their digitisation programme for putting documents online has also been drastrically curtailed, with only third parties like Ancestry and FindMyPast making records available on the web. And with the current Government’s philistine and ideological desire to slash public spending at any price, who knows what draconian measures might happen?

Despite its penchant for Political Correctness, I’ve got a real soft spot for Kew. Even though it tends to put on talks about things like ‘the history of reducing the Carbon footprint of bisexual ethnic minorities’, I think its such an amazing place and an amazing resource. I know a lot of  ‘serious researchers’ sniffed when they moved the Family Research Centre to Kew, but I think it works – theres something very refreshing about professors and historians rubbing shoulders with Mrs Jones studying her family tree – the two should go together.

Now, off to start transcribing some 300+ digital images of documents!

8 Comments

Filed under out and about, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

The National Archives: Day Two

Another hectic day in the National Archives at Kew. After my wise words about being prepared etc yesterday, I somehow managed to sleep in a little bit later than I planned… but didn’t lose too much time thankfully.

I’ve managed to look at the war diaries for all of the units that Robert Easton was with – the 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers from 1939 until 1941, and then the 109th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (Lancs. Fus.) until they were disbanded in 1942, and then with the 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps in North Africa and Italy until he was killed in September 1944. A regular officer, he was posted to the 1/6th Lancs Fusiliers early in the war. A territorial battalion, most of the officers – including the C.O. – were part-time soldiers. So as Adjutant and a regular soldier, Easton would have been the backbone of the Battalion. I’ve also found out that he was mentioned in despatches for Dunkirk, which I hadn’t previously known. I’ve also got details for all of the courses that he went on, especially during the Battalion’s conversion to armour in 1941.

I found a real gem in Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan’s original leather-bound pilot’s log book. Only a small number of these remain, so it was a great find. It lists every flight he took in RAF service, from training in Tiger Moths up to flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain in 1940, and also his instructors and commanders comments on his progress and abilities. I now know how many flying hours he had, and in what types. Sadly, his log book simply finishes on 3 August, with no clue as to what happened after that. Neither does 56 Squadron’s Operations Record Book shed much light, other than that he was posted to the Parachute Practice Unit at Ringway, Manchester.

I found time to take a look at some war diaries related to Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who died serving with the 1st Royal Welsh in Italy in February 1945. As soon as I flicked through the diary, I was perplexed… they had gone to the rear to rest in early February. Brown even went to Rome on leave for a week. All became clear, however, when the war diary recorded that Brown died in his sleep on the night of 24-25 February – it seems that he died of natural causes. There is of course something tragically ironic about a decorated Medical Officer, and a qualified surgeon, dying of natural causes in his sleep.

I also took a look at some documents related to Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. I’ve found damage reports for when his ship – HMS Lively – was shelled in the Mediterranean in 1942, and then from when it was sunk off Tobruk later in the same year. I also found a document recommending officers and ratings for awards after HMS Lively was sunk – including some very detailed descriptions of what happened, how the ship sank, and the circumstances in which Hussey went down with her.

Finally, I had a look at a few documents about Major Maurice Budd, who won a Military Cross in Burma in 1945 with V Force, a special forces unit. I found a document containing the minutes of a conference, chaired by General Bill Slim, about the role V Force was to play in the war in Burma, and how it was to be constituted – how many men – Indian and English – and how the unit was to be structured.

All in all a very succesfull day – apart from dropping Fl. Lt. Coghlan’s log book while queuing up for the photocopier, and getting a crick in my neck looking at the microfilm reader – why do they scan documents onto film, and then set them up landscape instead of portrait? And why dont the microfilm readers have a rotate option? Even the one in Portsmouth Central Library does!

So far I haven’t found anything truly earth-shattering, but plenty of useful material none the less – it all goes towards building up the bigger picture. Last day tomorrow, then back to reality!

Tomorrow: More about Captain Bernard Brown and Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, plus (hopefully) Wing Commander John Buchanan and more.

5 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, World War Two

In Rommel’s Backyard: A Memoir of the Long Range Desert Group by Alastair Timpson with Andrew Gibson-Watt

Military Memoirs are always useful to read. True, depending on the author style they might not always be the most rivetting, but what better than reading about what happened from the horses mouth? Here the wartime memoirs of Alastair Timpson, an officer with the Long Range Desert Group, have been admirably edited by Andrew Gibson-Watt.

Timpson joined the Long Range Desert Group early in the Desert War, and became a commander of one of the patrols. He gained a reputation for sharing the dangers and discomforts – not something that British Officers have always been known for. Indeed, his memoirs show a real connection with his men - something that was obviously crucial in the close-knit work behind enemy lines. He comes across as a level-headed, sensible man who was also more than happy to take the fight to the enemy when necessary. History would suggest that these qualities are an ideal combination for a special forces officer. The Group’s war was spent very much out in the Desert, conducting raids, attacking airfields, transporting the SAS, and most notably, carrying out observation on Axis supply routes and giving useful intelligence to the High Command. There are some incredibly stories here, made all the more incredibly by Timpson’s modest style of writing. His story of his observation post being camped on by a German convoy, and his subsequent escape, is breathtaking.

But its not all about the action. Timpson writes about the ever present North African flies, the monotony of Bully Beef, the shortage of drinking water, relations with the indigenous Arabs and Bedouin, the relations between the Germans and Italians (who seemed to despise each other), and the nasty illnesses that could be contracted in the desert. These kinds of details add colour to our understanding of what it must have been like to serve in North Africa. Of course, we can never KNOW exactly what it was like – this is something of a cliche – but we can get pretty close to it. And in some ways, this is more important to history than knowing who fought who where and when.

As the Desert War came to a close when the allies defeated Rommel, Timpson returned to his Scots Guards Battalion. In some ways this was a wise move, for the Long Range Desert Group’s role raison detre had vanished, and it saw little fighting after 1943. However, whilst serving with his Battalion in Italy Timpson was seriously wounded at Monte Camino, and after a long recovery fought no more. Fortunately, Timpson kept meticulous notes, intending them to be of interest to his family. After his death, however, his son realised that they would interest a much wider audience, and offered them for publication.

A few things struck me whilst reading this book. Firstly, if only the members of Bravo Two Zero had read it before they set off for their ill-fated patrol in the Gulf. The Long Range Desert Group proved that you CAN operate vehicles behind enemy lines in the Desert. And vehicles - in this case heavily armed Jeeps and supporting trucks – were surprisingly easy to hide, and also packed a serious punch. The original SAS reverted to Jeeps after their attempts at airborne drops were a disaster. The history was there for all to read, so why did Bravo Two Zero insist on going in on foot, against all the evidence? On the other hand, Peter Ratcliffe was the SAS’s Regimental Sergeant Major in the Gulf, and his book ‘Eye of the Storm‘ could be interchanged with Timpson’s – the tactics are exactly the same.

Secondly, that the British Army in the Western Desert gave birth to all manner of private armies in the toing and froing with Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The SAS, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the SBS, Layforce, the Special Raiding Squadron and also Army Commandos also fought in the Western Desert. It was an incredibly untidy situation, with all kinds of units and men operating at any given time. Most of these units seem to have formed independently and organically, with a particular officer developing his own ‘baby’. The extent to which their work was co-ordinated and the degree to which these units worked together would be interesting to research.

Finally, Timpson’s experiences are an illustration of the Brigade of Guard’s role in the British Army. One of the Long Range Desert Group’s Squadrons – G Squadron,  G for Guards - was comprised solely of Guardsmen, with one patrol from the Coldstream Guards, and another from the Scots Guards. This recruiting policy was strictly adhered to, to the extent that the men seem to have been perplexed when some Grenadier Guards were sent to join them! This is a prime example of the age-old dilemma between capbadge loyalty and flexibility.

I found this a very interesting and enjoyable bo0k indeed. And not only that, but also thought-provoking – which is never a bad thing. It should appeal both to fans of special forces and current-day soldiers alike.

In Rommel’s Backyard is published by Pen and Sword

5 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, special forces, World War Two

Captain Bernard Brown MC

Royal Army Medical Corps

Royal Army Medical Corps

Some roles give soldiers the potential to do very brave things. Its perhaps no coincidence that Medical Officers, more often than not, seem to win awards for courage under fire. One Army Medical Officer, from Portsmouth, won a Military Cross in North Africa, and eventually lost his life in North Italy only months before the end of the war.

Captain Bernard Brown was born in Southsea in 1912. Qualifying as a Bachelor of Medicine from Oxford University, in the Second World War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Each Battalion sized unit in the Army has a Medical Officer, usually a qualified Doctor given the rank of Captain. Their role is to look after the mens health and provide first aid in action, often right up in the front line, before wounded can be passed back down the line to dressing stations and field hospitals.

Captain Brown was the Medical Officer of 6th Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa in 1942, in a period that included the Battle of Gazala and the first Battle ofr El Alamein, where Rommel’s last-ditch attack towards the Suez Canal was finally blunted. The citation for his Military Cross can be downloaded online from the National Archives website.

The Regiment was virtually in constant action. Shortly after they began fighting Brown’s armoured Scout Car broke down, so he simply used an unarmoured truck instead. He was never back at Headquarters, always close up behind the Tanks where he could watch the battle and go up to any needing medical assistance. At one point the unit was fighting next to a Royal Horse Artilley unit that was under heavy fire, and Brown went right up to the guns seven or eight times to bring out 20 wounded gunners. During the first Battle of El Alamein the Regiment took heavy casualties from anti-tank guns, and twice Brown went up through gaps in minefields, under enemy fire, to give first aid. His coolness and courage under fire, especially as a non-combatant, must have set an amazing example to the men in the Regiment.

Bernard Brown was awarded the Military Cross on 18 March 1943. Sadly, he did not survive the war. Whilst serving as Medical Officer with the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment in North Italy he was killed, on 25 February 1945. He is buried in Forli Military Cemetery.

11 Comments

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