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Hammond: Army Regiments facing Axe

English: Infantry of the British Army recruiti...

Infantry of the British Army recruiting areas by regiments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hot on the heels of the Aircraft Carrier u-turn rumours came the Secretary of State’s speech at the Royal United Service Institute’s Land Warfare Conference. With the Strategic Defence and Security Review calling for a reduction in the size of the Army’s manpower, it was inevitable that at some point proposald would crop up to trim the Army, in terms of regiments, Battalions and capabilities.

The programme is euphemistically being called ‘Army 2020′, as part of ‘Future Force 2020′. Interesting, when the 2010 Defence Review was pretty much out of date with three or four months!

“Army 2020, as we call it, will deliver a new structure designed to meet the needs of a smaller, more flexible and agile Army. Set on a firm foundation, in terms of both men and materiel. Well-trained, well-equipped, and, crucially, fully-funded.”

Apparently three key considerations underpin the structuring of the Army – sustainability, capability and integration:

“That requires the UK’s Armed Forces to be intelligent, flexible and adaptable, both in approaching the fight and during the fight. With an expeditionary capability and a theatre-entry capability.”

Expeditionary capability is hanging by a thread as it is, and any future cuts might render it a thing of the past.

“But all of us here recognise the reality that this process is not taking place in a vacuum. The wider national interest requires that we build for the future with strict financial discipline. Tackling the fiscal deficit and returning the economy to sustainable growth are themselves strategic imperatives. Efficiency and the successful application of military force are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, military productivity, which binds them together, is a key concept in the future management of our Armed Forces. The value that our Armed Forces produces for the country is based on their capability to deliver standing military tasks and project formidable power when national security requires it. That, not balancing the books, is the raison d’être for the existence of our Armed Forces and the MOD.”

The talk about financial discipline is of course welcome. Of course, the thing about balancing the books is just lip service – even the dumbest observer knows that slash and burn is the name of the game.

Hammond had something interesting to say about logistics:

“Working closely with partners to operate logistics more rationally through Alliance structures. Looking, sometimes, to others to provide the tail, where Britain is providing the teeth.”

This has been tried before many a time. When we think back to NATO, early on there was a strong movement to adopt the same calibre small arms, and standardise as much as possible – hence how military equipment has a NATO stock number (even the hull of a warship, it seems!).  But standardising on 7.62 and 5.56 is one thing, but what about when it comes to rationing, uniforms, fuel, and the myriad of other cultural differences? It’s one of those things that sounds great to an accountant – get rid of the support lines and just buy it in when you need it – but you can’t just hire in military tail whenever you need it. A tail doesn’t just bolt onto the teeth effortlessly. Would other countries be able to handle supporting the cultural diversity in Britain’s army, for example? We’re talking leather in beret bands (anathema to a vegan!).

In terms of Reserves:

“The Future Reserves must be structured to provide, as they do today, some niche specialist capabilities that simply aren’t cost-effective to maintain on a full-time basis – for example in areas of cyber, medical or intelligence. But the Future Reserve must also be able to provide on a routine basis those capabilities across the spectrum of tasks requiring less intensive complex training.”

I feel this is slightly cynical. Again and again we find ministers attempting to replace regulars with reserves. And that is what it entails. No disrespect to reservists, but it is always going to be a downgrading in capability. I know that there are some success stories with use of reservists – some of the medical reserves, for example, and the Royal Engineers railway guys, but I can’t help but wonder if we have already pushed the reserve agenda as far as we can? Maybe he’s thinking in terms of reducing Regular Logistics?

Or, more ominously, is he thinking in terms of privatisation of logistics? This, if true, is rather worrying. My personal feeling is that privatisation in defence has been pushed too far by successive governments, and that the cost savings pale in comparison with the problems experienced. Wherever privatisation is heralded, I cannot help but fell that it is motivated by a desire to help wealthy businessmen make even more money. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Haliburton springs to mind.

On the Regimental System:

“I also understand that people worry about how, in the midst of all this change, we will maintain a strong thread of continuity. Retaining the ethos, traditions and connections that are part of what makes the British Army so effective – particularly a regimental system and regionally-focused recruiting. Of course, a Regular Army of 82,000 will have a different structure to one of 102,000. And some units inevitably will be lost or will merge. But let me be clear, we value the history and the heritage because they deliver tangible military benefits in the modern British Army. There is no question, as some have suggested, of abandoning the regimental system in the British Army. But that does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions as the Army gets smaller. That means focusing on analysis of recruitment performance, demographic trends and future recruiting needs.”

Thinking wider about the Regimental system, one wonders if it might mean an extension of the restructuring that occured in 2006.

In the current British Army, there are 37 Regular Infantry Battalions:

  • Grenadier Guards (1 Bn)
  • Coldstream Guards (1 Bn)
  • Scots Guards (1 Bn)
  • Welsh Guards (1 Bn)
  • Irish Guards (1 Bn)
  • Royal Regiment of Scotland (5 Bns)
  • Duke of Lancasters Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Yorkshire Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Mercian Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Royal Welsh (2 Bns)
  • Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Royal Fusiliers (2 Bns)
  • Royal Anglian Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Royal Irish Regiment (1 Bn)
  • Parachute Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Royal Gurkha Rifles (2 Bns)
  • Rifles (5 Bns)

One would imagine that if the MOD is intent on reducing infantry manpower and infrastructure, it will attempt to reduce the number of parent Regiments through mergers, and then reduce the amount of Battalions. For example, in 2006 the Royal Greenjackets (2Bns), the Light Infantry (2 Bns), the Devon and Dorsets (1Bn) and the Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshires (1Bn) merged to form the 5 Battalion Rifles Regiment. There are a lot of 2 and 3 Bn Regiments in the order of battle that might make sensible mergers.

One wonders how Hammond – and indeed Cameron – will fare when it comes to the inevitable decision that the Royal Regiment of Scotland cannot sustain 5 Battalions. As outlined by Mike Jackson years ago, demographically it just isn’t sustainable. Yet when Alec Salmond and his ilk start their bluff and bluster about Scottish heritage, who will blink first? In 2006 Blair called in Jackson and said, to quote, ‘I need you to help me out of a hole here’. There have already been unfounded rumours in some Scottish media outlets about disbandment of Regiments. Hell hath no fury like an old boy whose Regiment is threatened. In particular, regional pride in the form of Ireland and Wales might also be heavy going. The Guards, although seemingly out of date, are bombproof from any kind of change when it comes to the Army’s respect for all things senior and historic.

The traditional Regiment structure has been evolving ever since the early nineteenth century. The Cardwell Reforms in the 1880’s saw the establishment of country Regiments, which in turn were merged into what might be call sub-regional Regiments between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. The County Regiment structure which appears to be held up as a traditional golden age only existed for around 60 years. History suggests that where Regimental structures are concerned, a state of flux is actually the norm.

That things have to change is, sadly, non-negotiable. As with the Royal Navy, we would all swell with pride if the Army regained some of its former glory. But strategic necessity and my tax bill just don’t warrant it. But on the flip side, we don’t want to see a rerun of previous defence cuts, with cuts so savage that the guys that are left have an impossible job to do, and are then asked to do too much by the very same politicians who slashed the Armed Forces in the first place!

Interesting times ahead indeed. My predictions – more mergers and cuts in Infantry units, cuts in Armour and Artillery, and cuts and increased reliance on reserves in specialised support functions – in particular logistics.

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Sergeant James Stevenson DCM MM

I’ve found another interesting Portsmouth man who died during the First World War – officially, just after it had ended. And like Sergeant Frederick Godfrey, he was well decorated too. His story also illustrates how Portsmouth servicemen came from vastly different parts of the world.

James Stevenson was born in Tannadice, a small village near Forfar, Scotland in 1890. The son of James Stevenson, in the 1891 census he is living with his grandparents at the Regristrars House in Tannadice. Thomas Stevenson, aged 50 in 1891, was the Inspector of Poor and Registrar. Where James Stevenson’s parents are is not recorded, in this census or in any other records.

In 1901 James is still living with his grandparents in Tannadice. By this time he was 11, and a scholar. Interestingly, a visitor was staying with the Stevensons on census night – an Alfred E. Waterman, aged 28, who gave his occupation as a ‘Military Land Surveyor RE’. This is particularly interesting, given the career path that Stevenson would follow.

In the 1911 census, James Stevenson was stationed at the Royal Engineers Brompton and St  Marys Barracks, as a Lance Corporal Clerk. At this point he was still single. Based on his birth date he would have to have served at least a couple of years to be promoted to Lance Corporal.

In late 1915 Stevenson married Isabel M. Lever, in Southampton. Isabel had been born in Portsmouth in early 1888. She does not appear in the 1891 census, but in the 1901 census she was living in St Mary’s Street in Southampton, where her parents ran a Pub. In the 1911 census was working as an Infirmary Nurse Southampton Union Infirmary. Did James and Isabel meet while he was being treated in hospital, perhaps?

His medal index cards at the National Archives state the was successively a Sapper, Corporal, Acting Sergeant, Temporary Sergeant with the Royal Engineers. And, interestingly enough, a Staff Sergeant attached to the Nigeria Regiment. Hence it is very possible that he fought in German West Africa.

In 1917 James Stevenson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation appeared in the London Gazette on 17 September 1917, stating the he was from Southampton:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in surveying battery positions under shell fire. He completed his work with accuracy and success, notably on one occasion when he was in the midst of heavy hostile shelling.

There is nothing in the citation to suggest when the acts of bravery took place, nor indeed where. He was serving with thr 5th Field Survey Battalion of the Royal Engineers, a specialist unit that worked on finding the location of German guns from their noise signatures. This could often take them

Sergeant James Stevenson died on 11 December 1918. He was 29, and is buried in Busigny in France. I haven’t been able to find out how he died, but as it was after the Armistice it was probably either due to wounds or illness. After his death Stevenson was awarded a posthumous Military Medal, announced in the London Gazette of 14 May 1919.

His entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that his widow, Mrs Isabel M. Stevenson, was living at 37 Kimberley Road in Southsea. She isn’t there in the 1911 census, so whether they moved there shortly after, or indeed Mrs Stevenson moved their independently after the war, I have yet to find out. I think it is quite possible that James Stevenson was stationed in Portsmouth at some point.

Tragically, It looks possible that they had a son – Ian R. Stevenson, who was born in Southampton in either July, August or September of 1918. Whether James Stevenson ever saw his son, seems pretty unlikely given the scarcity of leave during the Great War.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the Kaiser Offensive continues

After the hard-fought battle on 28 March 1918, the 1st Hampshires went back into Brigade reserve trenches. March 1918 closed relatively uneventfully. On 1 April the Hampshires went into Brigade support, relieving the Somerset Light Infantry north of the River Scarpe, 3.5 miles east of Arras. Their spell in support was quiet, until the Germans began shelling on 5 April. The adjutant, writing in the war diary, felt that this was a ‘demonstration’ connected to the attacks being made at the same time, further south on the Somme. That evening the Hampshires went into the front line in Fampoux, holding Stoke Avenue, Pudding and Port trenches. The next few days saw intermittent shelling, until the Battalion was relieved on 8 April.

After being relieved the Hampshires marched back to St Laurent Blangy, and from there boarded buses to ‘Y’ Huts, about four miles north west of Arras. The next few days were spent in the usual clean up after the front line, and on 9 April it was announced that six other ranks had been awarded the Military Medal for their part in the battle on 28 March. On 10 April the Battalion moved again, marching to camps near Haute Avesnes. During the same day a draft of 159 other ranks joined the Battalion. A rare treat was enjoyed on 11 April, when the Battalion were treated to baths. Also that day Lieutenants Edwards and Evans were awarded the Military Cross for their part in the battle on 28 March.

The Battalions time away from the front was short lived, however, for on 12 April they boarded buses, and proceded to Bethune. Once there, the 11th Brigade took over a section of the line to the south of La Basse Canal, with the Hampshires being billeted for the time in Gonnehem. An attack was clearly imminent, for the next day certain personnel were detailed to remain with the transport. Sure enough, on 14 April the Battalion marched up from Gonnehem, and formed up. At 6.30pm the advance began, covered by artillery support and with the Somersets on the right. The Somersets took the village of Riez du Vinage, taking 120 prisoners. The Hampshires met no opposition, and after advancing 1,500 yards dug in on a line level with the Somersets. During the day only one man was killed, and four wounded. The next day orders were received to continue the advance. Attacks were made by the Ox and Bucks on the flank, and although they were initially succesful and the Hampshires pushed out patrols to keep in touch with them, they were eventually forced back to their start line. At 4.30am on 16 April the Hampshires were relieved, and went back to billets at L’Ecleme.

Although the 17th was spent in billets, as the situation was still very unstable the Hampshires were soon put on alert to return to the front. On 18 April a German attack on the 4th Division led to the Hampshires being recalled to Gonnehem to stand by. The attack was unsuccesful, and the Hampshires returned to L’Ecleme. This attack was part of the Germans Operation Georgette in the Lys Sector. The next day the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Bois de Pacaut. That night a patrol led by 2nd Lieutenant Clegg crossed the canal and captured a prisoner from the 471st Regiment. Prisoner snatch patrols were a hallmark of an agressive unit. The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Bois de Pacaut, capturing two wounded prisoners. 21 April was relatively quiet.

On 22 April the Battalion launched another attack on the Boise de Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of the Pacaut Wood, and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being alloted its own objectives, and with the remaining company in support. Zero hour was to be at 5.15am, with the troops assembling south of the Canal by 5am. Three bridges were to be erected across the canal by the Royal Engineers. Stokes Mortars and Machine Guns were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of Gas if the wind was favourable. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was also attached, to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold. Troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. At 7am an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.

The attack began as planned, but the heavy artillery barrage alerted the enemy almost at once to the impending attack. Enemy artillery fell as the Hampshires were crossing the Canal bridges, causing casualties. The centre bridge in particular received heavy fire, with the leading officer being killed whilst crossing the Bridge. The right and centre companies came under machine gun fire from the wood almost at once, but the left met no opposition. The right hand company pushed Lewis Guns out front, and managed to overcome resistance. By 5.35am the left flank company had reached its objective, and by 5.40am platoons of the right company were on their objective. The centre company, however, had taken heavy casualties in officers and NCO’s, but after being held up for a short time they managed to make progress and link up with the other Companies. At 9am a platoon of the support Company was ordered up to fill a gap in the Battalion’s line. After daybreak heavy Machine Gun fire was directed on the wood, and the Canal area received heavy shelling. At 1.30pm Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. At 5.30pm the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. This counter-attack was beaten off with machine gun fire. The centre Company were still struggling to make progress to their objctive. 12 men were detached from the support Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as the Support Company themselves were suffering heavy casualties on the Canal Bank, and if the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day.

The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of Operation Georgette. The Hampshires paid a high price, however. During the attack on 22 April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. 22 men were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing.

A number of Portsmouth men were killed during this period. 2nd Lieutenant Eric Reid, aged 19 and from Lennox Road in Southsea, was killed on 29 March 1918. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial. Lance Corporal G.H. Lacey, 33 and from Clive Road, Fratton, died on 31 March 1918. He evidently died in a Base Hospital or on his way home on leave, for he is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. Several men were killed on 3 April – Lance Corporal P.O. Lawrence is buried in Roclincourt Valley War Cemetery, and Private Frederick Henwood, 21 and from Bishop Street, Fratton, is buried in Athies War Cemetery. Four men were killed During the Battle of Bethune and the attack at Pacaut Wood. Corporal S. Metcalf, 40 and from Orange Street, Portsea, was killed on 21 April and is buried in Mont Bernanchon War Cemetery. Private Harry Reeve, 29 and from Rivers Street, Southea, was killed on 22 April, and is buried in St Venant-Robecq Road Cemetery. Also killed on the 22nd was Private C.F. Jerome, who is buried in Mont Bernanchon Cemetery. Finally, on 23 April, Private W. Brockway, 22 and from London Road, North End, who is buried in Lapugnoy War Cemetery.

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Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams by James Owen

I’ve written in the past about my admiration for the Bomb Disposal men who work out in Helmand Province defusing IED’s. I also had the pleasure not long ago of reviewing the excellent book about UXB’s on Malta during the war. Its impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery shown by these men. This book by James Owen is very much in the same vein.

The cover itself tells a story. A team of sappers are hauling on a huge bomb. One of the men, in apparent disdain for the danger that would never be allowed nowadays, is puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while only inches away from a mass of high explosive. Somehow its a very British image – danger, hard work and a fag!

The story starts, though, with the German fuze expert at Rheinmetall before the war, working on developing new types of fuzes. This, the fuze, was essentially the major concern of the bomb disposal teams – to make the bomb safe by immobilising the one thing that coud cause the explosive to detonate. Given the multitude of conventional, delayed-action and anti-handling fuzes the Germans would use – some of which were directly calculated to kill the bomb disposal men themselves – they certainly had their work cut out. And they would be deployed in conventional bombs of all sizes, along with incendiaries, Parachute mines, butterfly bombs and the V1 and V2 flying bombs. Aside from being dangerous, unexploded bombs caused disruption do the the enforced closure of roads, railways lines, factories, and making thousands of people homeless, either temporarily or permanently.

The response of the British Government and Armed Forces to the multitude of new problems during wartime was twofold – Ministries and Departments would argue and squabble over whose responsibility it was, and then, at least one committee would be formed, possibly more. Somewhere along the lines several stereotypical English eccentrics would become involved. Bomb Disposal was no exception. The Ministries of Home Security and Supply both had a hand in the research and policy behind disposal of unexploded bombs, but eventually it fell to the armed forces to provide the men to deal with the problem. Particularly during the height of the blitz the men had to learn very quickly indeed.

The men on the ground may have been focussed on the task in hand, but mandarins and whitehall warriors were arguing over petty squabbles, as so often in British history. The RAF refused to give details to the other services of the workings of British bombs. Bomb Disposal duties were strictly parochial too – the RAF handled bombs on airfields, the Royal Navy took care of bombs in water and Dockyards, and the Army everywhere else. Yet the Navy were called in to deal with parachute mines that fell on land, due to their expertise with mines. Its not mentioned in this book, but Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC from Portsmouth was killed in 1940 defusing a parachute mine in Dagenham.

One important aspect that Owen does very well to stress is the relationship between the sharp end and the scientists working in the background. Each new fuse that the German’s deployed – of which there were many, in increasing complexity – required a solution to make it safe. The various contraptions and techniques that were developed are testament to the ingenuity of British science and technology at war. For me, the unsung hero in the book is John Hudson. Drafted into a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal unit, he submitted a paper to his superiors pointing out his opinions. Having made an impression he was seconded to the UXB Headquarters in London to work as a link between the scientists and the bomb disposal sections. His own personal bravery is shown by how having devised a method of dealing with a new type of fuse, he insisted on being the first to trial it, so as not to endanger others if his method proved no to work.

Sadly not all involved in Bomb Disposal seem to have had the same professionalism. The Earl of Suffolk himself operated as a kind of bomb-disposer-at-large, complete with his own van. Despite his lack of experience in the field, and evidence of a cavalier attitude to safety, he was tasked with retrieving important parts from bombs for experts to study. Eventually the Earl was killed by an explosion, along with a number of Sappers who were assisting. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he should not have been allowed to work defusing bombs – surely its no field for a maverick amateur. Its possible, maybe, that in a Britain still very much deferential to class, no-one wanted or felt able to stop him?

For me, the most poignant episode in the book is the story surrounding the famous bomb that almost destroyed St Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz. The man concerned – Robert Davies – undoubtedly performed a brave deed, but it transpired afterwards that he had been accepting money from civilians and pocketing it for himself, stealing from dead men’s possessions and bouncing cheques. He was eventually awarded the first ever George Cross, but even then, according to James Owen, controversy reigns. It seems that members of his section had over-egged their accounts, which followed through into the press and Davies’ citation for the George Cross. A lesson, if any is needed, that brave men are not always completely scrupulous, and by the same token, crooks can be brave.

This is a compelling story, well told and immensely readable. And like all good books, its inspiring – its impossible not to feel the ice-cool bravery of the bomb disposal men. And on a personal level, it makes me feel inspired to take a closer look at what bomb disposal efforts must have taken place during the wartime bombing of Portsmouth.

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams is published by Little, Brown Book Group

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UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 by S.A.M. Hudson

Bomb Disposal has got a pretty high profile at the moment, what with the recent award of the George Cross to two British Army Bomb Disposal experts, and the film The Hurt Locker. Therefore its probably as apprpopriate a time as any to take a look at the incredibly brave men who worked on Bomb Disposal in Malta during the Second World War, and this book dedicated to telling their story.

After Italy entered the war in 1940 Malta became strategically important; a thorn in the side of Axis ambitions in the Mediterranean. From Malta British bombers could attack Italy and convoys heading for North Africa. Converesely, Malta also acted as a staging post for Allied Convoys. Therefore the Italians and Germans launched repeated and concerted attempts to obliterate Malta. Particularly between 1940 and 1942, for its size Malta was the most bombed place on earth. And with 15% of bombs failing to explode, there was much work for the Bomb Disposal teams.

Yet it was by no means a simple matter of exploding the bombs. Obviously this could not always be done. And with the wide array of bombs – from the tiny but deadly incendiaries and ‘butterfly bombs’ to the giant Hermann and Satan bombs – and the complex fuzes – anti-handing, delayed activation, for example – every job seems to have presented its own challenges. And with many bombs impacting and penetrating feet into the ground, digging them out was often hard work.

What is really incredible to read, is that despite years of frenetic work dealing with hundreds of bombs, none of Malta’s Bomb Disposal Engineers were killed on he job – testament indeed to their professionalism. And when we consider that for most of the war the team consisted of two young officers in their early twenties and but a handful of men, their service seems all the more sterling.

What stands out for me most of all is how evocative the book is. It is impossible not to read the countless stories and reflect on whether you could display that kind of steely cold bravery, all day every day for months indeed years on end. Yes, Bomb Disposal takes a particular kind of courage – the infantryman in the second world war might experience short, sharp periods of battle, and maybe the occasional prolonged fight. But the Bomb Disposal Sappers in Malta were dealing with countless incidents every day that could have killed them at any second.

This book is fine tribute to those remarkably brave men who saved many lives. Hudson more than does justice to these incredible human beings. And there are such strong parallels with the men out in Afghanistan right now dealing with IED’s.

UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 is published by The History Press

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The Hyson Brothers?

An interesting little story has transpired from my WW1 dead research.

Before the widespread use of motor vehicles, Railways were used during the First World War to transport men an materiel quickly around to the front line, and then around the front quickly as threats arose. To operate these military railways a large specialist service sprang up within the Royal Engineers.

Sapper F.C. Hyson, from Portsmouth, was serving with 98th Light Train Crew Company Royal Engineers when he died on 31 December 1917. He is buried at Alexandria in Egypt. The train crew companies made up the drivers, fireman and other crew members of the trains.

Sergeant R.H. Hyson, a resident of 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End, was serving with 19th Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers when he died on 30 December 1917. He was 32. He is buried at Salonika in Greece. The Railway Operating Companies were responsible for operating the tracks, stations and signalling.

It seems a huge coincidence to find two men, with the same surname, from the same city, serving in the Railway units of the Royal Engineers. Is it possible that the men were brothers who worked on the Railways pre-war and volunteered or were conscripted for their skills and experience? Its not uncommon to find whole families who worked on the Railways. Lets see what we can find out!

Although we only know the mens intials, we do know that at least one of them lived at 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End.

One way to check whether the men were related is to find their birth records on FreeBMD, and see if they have the same parents. According to FreeBMD Frederick Chares Hyson was born in Portsea Island in either January, February or March 1894. This would make him 23 when he died. Sadly, his record has no mention of his parents. I can find no entry for R.H. Hyson.

According to the 1901 census, Frederick Charles Hyson was living in Portsmouth, and was 7. Robert Henry Hyson was 15, and an apprentice blacksmith – certainly the kind of skill that would come in handy working on the railways. Apparently he was born in Aldershot. The age fits exactly if he was 32 when he died in 1917, so back to FreeBMD to check for Hysons born in Aldershot!

According to FreeBMD Robert Henry Hyson was born in the Farnham registration district – which at that time included Aldershot – in either July, August or September 1885. Again, the dates match perfectly. But no clue as to his parents!

Its looking like I will have to check electoral rolls and street directories to see whether there is any connection between Frederick and Robert Hyson, but at this stage it is not impossible. It would be a huge quirk of fate indeed if two men from the same city with the same rare surname died within a day of each other, serving in the same specialist arm of the Royal Engineers.

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Major Frank Baxter MC

Major Frank Baxter, 39 and from Southsea, was serving as a Staff Officer with the Headquarters of First Army during Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. As General Staff Officer Grade 2 (GSO2) for Camouflage and Deception Baxter was responsible for ensurin that units in the First Army camouflaged their activities properly, and also for any bigger deception operations. Deception was an option that was open to commanders to disguise their intentions from the enemy.

Although his role might suggest that he spent a lot of time behind a desk or in Headquarters, but it seems that Baxter was extremely busy. As a Royal Engineer Officer he was ideally qualified to oversee Camoflauge operations.

For continual bravery and devotion to duty throughout the period under review. During the early stages of the campaign he worked continually in the forward areas in the face of enemy artillery and air fire. He had no less than three motorcycles shot under him. His work as G.S.O.2. Camouflage and Deception, First Army, has been untiring and highly successful.

Major Baxter was awarded the Military Cross on 23 September 1943. Sadly he didnt not survive to receive it. He was killed on 11 July 1943, and is buried in Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery, Tunisia.

What were the highly successful work that Major Baxter was overseeing? Maybe the First Army’s war diary in the National Archives will shed more light…

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