Tag Archives: North West Europe

Deal signed for armed forces new boots

The MOD ann0unced yesterday that it had just signed a new contract for the supply of new boots for servicemen in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The contract, worth £80m, will provide servicemen with a new range of brown combat boots. The name of the succesful contractor has not been divulged, but according to the pictures from the MOD it seems to be HAIX, a german company.Troops will have the choice of five different types of footwear:

  • Desert Combat, to be worn by on-foot troops, undergoing high levels of operations in heat of up to 40 degrees (such as Afghanistan)
  • Desert Patrol, as above but designed for mounted troops, such as drivers and armoured troops
  • Temperate Combat, for wear by dismounted troops in temperate climates (such as North West Europe)
  • Patrol, as above but to be worn by mounted troops
  • Cold Wet Weather, for dismounted troops in temperatures down to minus twenty degrees (for example the Falklands)

Each of the five types of boot come in two different styles – what styles these are the MOD have not announced – and in two different widths, so for the first time women can choose a boot that fits them more closely.The new boots were chosen after trials involving 2,000 personnel in Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and the UK.

In the pictures supplied by the MOD the Temperate Brown Boots in particular look very much like the hill walking boots you might buy from a brand such as Brasher. Black boots will still be work by ‘non-camouflage’ units, such as much of the Royal Navy and the RAF, and with full dress uniform – eg the Guards Regiments when on ceremonial duties in London. 

The history of combat boots is actually a pretty interesting one. Of course, soldiers operate on their feet. And on your feet you wear shoes (or boots!). If your boots aren’t good enough, you can’t move. And even in the twenty first century, and army that can’t move on its feet isn’t much good to anyone.

For years troops had worn hobnailed boots, or ammunition boots. With the advent of technology, and in particular the growth of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking, more advanced boots gradually became available.

Yet, in the Falklands troops actually suffered cases of trench foot, as the DMS boots then in use were completely unsuitable to fighting in cold and wet conditions. One supposes that having fought much of the last 50 years in places like North West Europe, Northern Ireland and potentially against the Warsaw pact, boots designed to fight in extremely hot or extremely cold places were not a priority. The DMS even still had toecaps. Initially there for reinforcement, they were beloved of Sergeant Majors as they were ideal for bulling – that is, polishing to a mirror-like state. British soldiers even took their regular fitness runs in DMS boots for many years, until someone inevitably realised that running long distances in unsuitable boots caused injuries.

After the Falklands the MOD introduced BCH – Boots, Combat, High – boots in a very simialkr fashion to those worn by practically every other NATO army for some time. A reliable source once told me all about these famous British Army boots that used to melt in the heat – as seen during exercises in Oman in 2001. I’m not sure about what exactly happened, but it sounds as if the MOD tried to upgrade the boots issued to the forces, but in going for the cheapest option – and potentially buying British – ended up buying a sub-standard product that didn’t do what it needed to do. SA80 mk1, anyone?

With the Army fighting two medium-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has turned once again to finding a style of boot that is comfortable, durable and can work in different climates. At one stage in the Iraq and Afghan deployments it was well known that troops were purchasing their own boots from companies such as Meindl, Lowa or Altberg. Obviously this situation is pretty ridiculous and led to the MOD putting out a tender in 2011, resulting in todays announcement.

In terms of most military equipment, I am of a functional mind – first and foremost, get something that does the job, and well. Buying sub-standard usually ends up costing more in the long run. And ceremonial considerations such as what they look like should come a distant second to operational matters.

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Filed under Army, defence, News

Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, d-day, World War Two

Mosquito Menacing the Reich: Combat Action in the Twin-Engine Wooden Wonder of World War II by Martin W. Bowman

I must confess I’ve always known OF the De Havilland Mosquito – apart from the fact that it was constructed from almost entirely from wood. But equally, I’ve never known very much about what it accomplished during the war. This book is an ideal remedy for what I suspect is a common affliction for those of us who know all about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters but have a knowledge gap when it comes to other Second World War aircraft types!

The Mosquito was originally conceived as a Medium Bomber, but ended up serving a number of roles with the RAF, and indeed with the USAAF as well. With its speed and high operating altitude, it served as a medium bomber, a precision strike aircraft, a pathfinder and marker, an anti-shipping strike platform, in North West Europe and in South East Asia. That it was also used by the Americans speaks volumes of its reputation.

For much of its service, only the Luftwaffe’s new jets could outperform it, speed wise. It had a higher operational ceiling than most other aircraft, and indeed German flak, so could quite often avoid danger. It proved to be ideal for precision bombing, where accuracy was needed that could not be obtained by Heavy Bombers. Leonard Cheshire VC used a Mosquito to perfect precision bombing of railway yards in the run up to D-Day, and Mosquitos were also used against the Tirpitz. Perhaps the Mosquito’s most famous raids were those on German Headquarters in The Hague, Aarhus and Oslo. Popular consesus might think that precision bombing came with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the Mosquito’s effectiveness came a clear 40 odd years before.

Mosquitos were also often used in daylight, and for diversionary raids at night when Bomber Command’s main force was attacking elsewhere. They also famously raided Berlin night after night, just as much for the nuisance value as anything else. Hermann Goring was apparently furious that a Mosquito raid knocked out a radio station, thus putting one of his speeches off air.

At times perhaps there are more personal accounts than there are history, but the story is much better told in the words of the men who were there. With a crew of only two -a pilot and a navigator – they seem to have had to show more initiative and shoulder much more of a responsibility than other aircrew, given the highly specialised roles in which their aircraft were employed, often with a much greater degree of independence than say a Bomber crew with the main force.

This is a brilliant book my Martin Bowman. It’s choc full of accounts from men who flew and navigated the Mosquito. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It’s a great tribute to not only a wonderful aircraft – which deserves a more prominent place in aviation history – but also the incredibly brave men who flew it. It’s such a shame that there aren’t any surviving in airworthy fashion – I’m sure it would be quite a sight.

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force, World War Two

SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940′s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940′s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, social history, special forces, Uncategorized, World War Two

Voices From the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy, 1943 – 1945 by Peter Hart

This is the first book I’ve read in the Voices from the Front series. It’s based on an Oral History project that recorded the memories of many old Durham veterans. Peter Hart has been the Oral History specialist at the Imperial War Museum for many years, so is probably better placed to write a book like this than anyone else.

I’m glad that such a prominent book has been written about this Battalion for two reasons. Firstly, the 16th Durham Light Infantry were a service Battalion, and hence largely made up of soldiers who were conscripted into the Army during the wartime. Secondly, the Battalion served in Italy rather than in North West Europe, and the Italian campaign has received a chronic lack of attention from Historians over the years.

Excerpts from oral history interviews are interwoven with commentary on the overall history of the war, which provides good context. The interviews with junior officers and other ranks are particularly welcome, as these are two sections of the Army whose experiences are often maligned. And the experiences of the 16th Durhams were quite remarkable – unusually for a conscript Battalion, the unit seems to have developed a very strong espirit-du-corps, forged through tought fighting up the spine of Italy.

What I really find interesting are the little human stories that really give us an idea of what it was like to fight as a foot soldier in the Second World War, and not necessarily the stories about fighting. Its thoughts about uniforms and rations, officer-men relations, the locals and even fireworks displays on VE Day that really make a book like this stand out.

I cannot help but think how blessed we historians would be if a book like this was written about every Army unit during the Second World War. Oral History is a fantastic way of capturing not only the memories of an important generation, but also the essence and tone of their life experiences. The Voices from the Front series is very commendably indeed.

Voices from the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy 1943-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

My map of Portsmouth War Graves locations gives a pretty interesting insight not only into the conduct of the war between 1939 and 1945, but also into other factors, such as the policy of the War Graves registration units and the CWGC. Thinking about these issues helps us place in context war casualties, and probably goes a long way to solving a lot of mysteries about the location of war graves.

You can see from the location of War cemeteries and individual war graves where most of the heavy fighting took place – Northern France, in particular Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, Belgium and southern Holland, Italy, North Africa, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, and the Far East, especially Burma, Thailand and India.

There are also some interesting variances in policy, it would seem. In some theatres, there are a large number of smaller cemeteries. In Normandy, for example, there are a relatively high number of war grave locations. In Burma and Thailand, however, almost all men were reburied in larger central cemeteries, even if they were some distance from their original burial site.

RAF casualties are also commemorated differently. Army dead were usually buried in larger war cemeteries, even if it meant exhumation and reburial after the war. Indeed, most men killed in action on land were invariably buried in a field grave near to the site of their death, and the details recorded for later reburial.

On the other hand if a Bomber crashed over occupied territory its dead crewmembers were almost always buried in the local churchyard, and most remain there to this day. Therefore many burials in parts of France, Belgium and Holland are in small local churchyards. You can almost plot the flight routes from their locations in relation to that nights target. Almost all Bomber sorties – and there were many from 1942 onwards – had to fly over parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland. And these were where the Kammhuber line defences swung into action.

A large proportion of Portsmouth men are buried in Italy – this is due to the presence of four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment in the Italian Campaign, compared to only two in North West Europe from Normandy onwards.

You can also tell how far-flung British forces were during the war years. Servicemen are buried in outposts such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries saw any fighting, but they were important stopping off points, for Royal Navy ships or for convoys. A number of British airmen are also buried in the US and in Canada – they were almost certainly there for training, and died either in accidents or of illness.

But by far the most casualties are buried at home in Britain. They died at home of natural causes, illness, wounds received in action, or were victims of Bombing while on leave. Normally the authorities allowed families to bury their dead in their local cemetery – and happened with my Great-Uncle – but there do seem to have been exceptions. For example, the dead recovered from the sinking of the Royal Oak were buried in a nearby churchyard – the public health implication of transporting a large number of bodies around Britain from Scap Flow did not bear thinking about.

I also suspect that where men were the victims of explosions, for example, they were buried quickly in a local cemetery rather than being handed over to the family. This may have been to prevent the family from having to go through the ordeal of seeing the body. Also, when a large number of people were killed in one go – say in a bombing raid, for example – the priority of the authorities was to safely bury bodies to prevent disease spreading.

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