Tag Archives: second world war

Europe in Flames by Harold J Goldberg

Writing a ‘History of the ….war’ is always an ambitious idea, and one that is very rarely pulled off. There’s just so much to cover, it can only ever really be a framework at best. Not since Basil Liddell Hart‘s History of the Second World War has a historian really gone close to covering this vast conflict in one volume. In any case, it’s all been so well written about, what is there that we can add anyway?

I’m not what exactly the purpose of this book is. It gives an overview of the Second World War, year by year, in pretty basic fashion. But it also interweaves some oral history quotes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these quotes have been chosen and not others. There are, after all, millions of oral history testimonies relating to the Second World War, and choosing one or two relating to each major event in history does seem a bit minimalist and arbitrary.

However, if you know absolutely nothing about the Second World War in Europe – and, dare I say it, this might apply to a lot of budding historians stateside – I guess this isn’t too bad a place to start. It does focus very much on geo-political and strategic affairs, but then I guess that is what most history syllabuses tend to begin with anyway. It is telling that the bibliography includes mainly american historians, which would seem to point readers in that direction, rather than the more considerable – and, in my opinion, more scholarly – works that have come from Europe.

Europe in Flames is published by Stackpole Books

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – The Book

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, I’ve been very busy recently either working,  seeing Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society twice in three days, or nursing a poorly Girlfriend whilst being ill myself!

On a brighter note, I’m very happy to announce that on Monday I received a formal contract from The History Press to write my first book, entitled ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. My part of the work should be completed by June this year. I’ve been working on the project itself for a couple of years now, and writing the book itself since before Christmas. Most of the research is done, apart from a few trips I need to make to The National Archives at Kew, and then writing up the rest of the work and deciding on illustrations.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me though this process, particularly as its my first time dealing with a publisher and contracts and all that jazz! My Family and my Girlfriend Sarah for encouraging me (and telling me to relax when I’m working too hard!), Jay at The History Press, my friends and colleagues, and especially my brother Scott and John Erickson for proof-reading for me.

Keep an eye out for further bulletins!

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Lobbying intensifies over basing of Type 26 Frigates

Proposed design for Type 26 Frigate  - BAe Sys...

Image by NavyLookout via Flickr

In recent days lobbying has intensified over where to base the Royal Navy’s planned Type 26 Frigates. It’s the same old south-coast horse trading that occurs every time a new class of warship is ordered.

Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage told the Portsmouth News: ‘This new Type 26 is the global combat ship and I feel that Portsmouth is now very much the home of the Royal Navy. The HQ is in Whale Island, the new Type 45 destroyers are in Portsmouth and the new aircraft carriers will be here too so it makes sense to have the Type 26s based here as well. As a cost-saving and logistics exercise, it makes sense to me to have all the future force ships based in the same area.’

In the same article Dineage also stated that Plymouth MP’s are lobbying hard to try and get the Type 26’s based there. And they have reason to be anxious. The four remaining Type 22 Frigates, based in Plymouth, will be decommissioned this year. And one of the Landing Ships based there will also go into extended readiness. Furthermore, the previous Government had decided that all of the Type 23 Frigates would move to Portsmouth in 2014, although that decision was rescinded during the Coalition Government’s Defence Review.

Recent issues of Warship International Fleet Review put the cases for and against both Portsmouth and Plymouth. To this observer – albeit a slightly biased one- the for and against arguments for both ports seem finely balanced. But what is clear is that with the Royal Navy shrinking at such a rate, and highly unlikely ever to expand again, it is becoming increasingly unfeasible to maintain two ports handling the surface fleets.

The usual argument given is that closing Portsmouth would have less of an effect on the region than closing Plymouth would have on the South West. But the situation is slightly more complex than that – 50 years ago both cities were virtually identical. Since the Second World War, however, Portsmouth has diversified in terms of economy and employment, developing a tourist industry and generating employment in technology. This has lessened its reliance on the Navy. Meanwhile, the authorities in Plymouth have done, to put it bluntly, bugger all. If people in Plymouth are concerned about the possible closure of their naval base, they should look to their City Council‘s complacent record over 50 years.

In other Type 26 related news, there are links below of reports that the UK is in talks with both Canada and Turkey about collaborating in various ways on the Type 26 programme.

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‘A very fine Commander': the memoirs of Sir Horatius Murray (edited by John Donovan)

‘your memoirs, Nap? Who on earth do you think would want to read them?’

So said Field Marshal Montgomery, when General Horatius Murray suggested writing his recollections of a lifetimes service. Indeed, military memoirs can be very hit or miss, usually the latter. Especially when written by a family member or close friend. I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t too excited about reading this book – the memoirs of a General I had never heard of. But in actual fact, Horatius Murray’s memoirs made for a very interesting read, giving a great insight into the career of a pre-war officer, mid-level command in the Second World War, and then post-war command in Korea, Scottish Command and NATO’s Northern Command in Scandinavia.

You would expect somebody called Horatius to have served in the Guards, a dashing Cavalry Regiment or perhaps the Rifles. In fact Murray came from a relatively modest family, and only just manged to afford to go to Sandhurst. Although he performed well there, without sufficient private means he was forced to join a relatively unglamorous unit, the Cameronian Rifles. It shows the differing pace of soldiering in peace and war that from when he was commissioned in 1923 it took Murray until 1938 to become a Major, yet by 1944 he was an acting Major-General. Some of his early years as an officer were spent serving in Egypt, India and China. Interestingly, he also spent several months on attachment with the Germany Army only a couple of years before the Second World War broke out.

Horatius Murray commanded a Gordon Highlanders Battalion at El Alamein, where he was seriously wounded, then recovered in time to resume command in the final days of the Tunisian Campaign. He was then given command of a Brigade in the invasion of Sicily. In late 1943 the 51st Highland Division returned to Britain to take part in Operation Overlord. A follow up Division, the Highlanders landed in Normandy on 7 June 1944. In Normandy the Division performed rather poorly, in Murray’s opinion due to poor leadership and a lack of serious training. At one point Murray refused an order from the Divisional Commander, Major General Bullen-Smith, that he thought was needless and would waste mens lives. The Corps Commander ruled in Murray’s favour, recommended Bullen-Smith’s sacking, which Monty confirmed soon after. This undoubtedly showed great moral courage on Murray’s part. Shortly after landing in Normandy Murray was transferred to Italy to take command of 6th Armoured Division, which he led until the end of the war.

After the war he served as commander of the 1st Division, Director of Personnel at the War Office and commanded the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, a territorial unit based in Catterick. After leaving that post he was selected to command the Commonwealth Division in Korea. Although this came in 1953 after the ceasefire, Murray still commanded British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops in peacekeeping. Murray seems to have been a very modest General, to the point of not even mentioning in his memoirs his DSO and other brave acts – his Nephew added notes in when editing. He seems to have had no airs nor graces. Indeed, when he left command of the 50th Division based at Catterick, the local newspaper reported that he had given the camp a soldiers touch.

Also included are some very revealing ancedotes about King George VI, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Monty, Eisenhower, Bernard Freyberg VC and Maxwell Taylor. I cannot recall many other books that I picked up with such disinterest, yet finished with such an insight. I enjoyed reading them immsensely.

‘A very fine Commander’ is published by Pen and Sword

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The Portsmouth Blitz: 70 years on

70 years ago today the people of Portsmouth were coming to terms with the aftermath of the most devastating bombing raid on the city during the Second World War. The anniversary was marked yesterday by a service at the city’s Anglican Cathederal, a ceremony in the Guildhall Square, and the unveiling of a placque to victims in Old Portsmouth.

Even before the Second World War the Luftwaffe had identified Portsmouth as an important target. Luftwaffe target maps in Portsmouth Central Library show that aircrew were shown the location of the dockyard (including the various buildings and docks), the railway stations, the power station, Gosport, local barracks, Vospers Shipbuilders in the Camber, and also the Airspeed Factory at the Airport.

171 people were killed on the night of 10 and 11 January 1941. Portsmouth was chosen as a target that night as the rest of Britain was covered by thick cloud, and Portsmouth – on the coast – was the only readily identifiable target. German records show that 153 Bombers targeted Portsmouth. This compares drastically with the ‘1,000 Bomber’ raids launched by Bomber Command on Germany later in the war.

Many victims were unidentified due to their terrible injuries, and im some cases virtually nothing remained of their bodies. Hundreds of victims were buried in a mass funeral in Kingston Cemetery in the city. A memorial stands near to the site of their mass grave. Over 1,000 people died in Portsmouth as a result of Bombing during the Second World War. Many records state that 930 civilians were killed, but a number of servicemen were also killed whilst on leave or while on duty in the city. Just under 10% of the cities 63,000 houses were destroyed, and a similar number seriously damaged.

German records state that 40,000 4lb incendiary bombs were dropped on the city on that one night alone, as well as 140 tons of High Explosive. Many bombs did land in the sea – the Solent, and Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours. In 1940 Bombing from the air was not an exact science. The Bombers followed radio beams that interescted over Southsea Common. The incendicaries caused over 2,314 fires – far too many for beleagured emergency services to deal with at any one time, especially given that 60 water mains had been destroyed. The tide was also low, which prevented the Fire Brigade from pumping water from the sea.

47 people were died when an air raid shelter at Arundel Street School suffered a direct hit. The power station was hit, and the main shopping centres at Commercial Road, Palmerston Road and Kings Road were all decimated. Also damaged were the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, the Hippodrome, Clarence Pier, three cinemas, the dockyard school, the Royal Sailors Rest Home, the Salvation Army Citadel, the Central Hotel and the Connaught Drill Hall. The FA Cup – won by Pompey in 1939 – was dug out of a Bank in Commercial Road, where it had been placed for safekeeping.

The most visible and symbolic material loss was the destruction of the Guildhall. ARP and emergency services battled fires in the building all night, but one 4lb incendiary bomb fell down a ventilation shaft and lodged itself in an inacessible place, proving impossible to extinguish. The Guildhall burnt all night and into the next day, the melting copper from the ornate dome dripping down to the ground. When the fires finally subsided only the outer walls remained. When the basement was dug out however the Lord Mayor’s chain and civic plate were found to be intact.

I’ve always found it a mystery why the Luftwaffe didn’t target Portsmouth more during the War. Situated on the coast and with the Isle of Wight to the south harbours to either side it should have been relatively easy to locate from the air, certainly easier than many of the inland cities that were targeted. Granted, most of the large naval ships didn’t use Portsmouth during the war for fear of air attack, but there was still a sizeable dockyard and a plethora of naval training establishments. Portsmouth was strongly defended by Anti-Aircraft Guns however – on Hayling Island, along the crest of Portsdown Hill, and on Southsea Common, where there were also rocket batteries. There were also many barrage balloons. Naval ships in harbour would also open up their AA guns. ARP precautions in Portsmouth were also advanced, as the authorities expected the city to be heavily targeted.

The ‘myth of the blitz’ that I have written about previously has also pervaded over Portsmouth’s experience. There were incidents of looting, recorded in the local court records. Many people also left the city each night and ‘trekked’ out of the city, over Portsdown Hill. They were criticised for leaving their homes vulnerable to incendiary bombs. But on the whole morale held surprisingly well. The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth Denis Daley (no relation) wrote:

“We are bruised but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy, and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive and decisive victory”

Whilst Portsmouth and many other cities in Britain were hit extremely hard during the war, it is important that we keep the impact of strategic bombing in context. More people were killed in one night in Dresden in 1945 than were killed in the whole of Britain during the war years. Cities such as Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin were also devastated. Further afield Tokyo was virtually obliterated. This is not to belittle the suffering of people in Portsmouth, but only to say that other cities in the world suffered even more. Colleagues of mine have in the past come in for a lot of criticism for stating that Portsmouth got off quite lightly compared to Hamburg and Dresden.

The Blitz also hardened the attitudes of many. Later in the war hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed bombing cities in the Third Reich and occupied Europe. A number of them died on missions to bomb Duisburg in the Ruhr, which would later become Portsmouth’s twin city. In the famous words of ‘Bomber’ Harris ‘The Germans entered this war with the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and that nobody was going to bomb them. They sowed the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’. Such an attitude is probably indicative of public opinion on the home front during the war. People who had endured the blitz were unlikely to be too concerned about the fate of German cities when their turn came.

My Grandad can remember a lot from the time of the Blitz. One night he saw a Heinkel fly over so low he could see the pilots blonde hair. On another occasion, he and his sister decided to go the Park instead of the cinema. The cinema was destroyed by a bomb that afternoon. He can also remember having to cut short his paper round as the cemetery had been bombed, and also collecting shrapnel from ack-ack guns. And my favourite memory of his, has to be when a barrage balloon got tangled round the school’s belltower, pulling it down!

It was only really in the 1970’s that Portsmouth was fully reconstructed after the war. It was not even until the 1950’s that the Guildhall was rebuilt. During the war grand plans were made to redesign Portsmouth – in terms of urban planning, roads and whole neighbourhoods – but these had to be curtailed in the Austerity that marked post-war Britain. Never the less, many people were re-homed from the shattered inner-city areas to new estates at Paulsgrove and Leigh Park, or new high rise blocks in Somers Town, Buckland, Portsea and Landport.

I have been disappointed with the media coverage of the anniversary. BBC1’s Inside Out gave a measly 10 minutes to the subject (mind you if it had been about Southampton we could have expected an hour long special). Inside Out even featured a local ‘historian’ I’ve never heard of – Portsmouth isn’t a massive place, and there arent too many historians here!

For more information about the Portsmouth Blitz, have a look at John Stedman’s excellent Portsmouth Paper ‘Portsmouth Reborn: Destruction and Reconstruction 1941-1974′, Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth at War’, and also ‘City at War’ by Nigel Peake. ‘Smitten City’ by the Portsmouth News is also a fantastic publication full of images of Portsmouth during the war.

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The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

Apologies to those of you who don’t know what happened to the Laconia and are looking forward to the programme – this article might be a bit of a spoiler! But I wanted to share with you all why its of such interest to me and my family.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

As you probably guess from my surname, the male line of my family came from Ireland. We believe that my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland some time in the late 19th Century, no doubt due to lack of work and famines that blighted Ireland throughout the century. Unfortunately due to a lack of records (burnt during the Easter rising in 1916) we have no idea where Daniel Daly came from, but the surname itself is very populous in Country Cork.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Daly, was born in Birkenhead near Liverpool in 1895. In June 1914- at the age of 19 – he joined the Royal Navy (he had previously worked as an electro-plater). He served as a Stoker, onboard Battleships and then onboard the early ubmarines. He settled in Portsmouth, and married my great-grandmother Lillian Maud Ross at St Agathas Church in Portsmouth in 1917.

Their eldest Children – Janet and Thomas (known as Tommy) – were born in 1919, followed by Iris in 1923, Pat in 1927, Ken (My Grandad) in 1928 and Terry in 1934. Notice the long gaps in between some of their births – this was almost certainly down to my Great-Grandad being away at sea for years at a time.

Tommy worked at a Mattress Maker’s before the war. He tried to join the Navy three times, but was each time rejected. When war broke out in 1939, h0wever, the Navy was desparate for men to crew re-activated ships, so he was accepted in early 1940. After a period of training ashore in Portsmouth he was drafted to the light cruiser HMS Enterprise as a stoker.

HMS Enterprise

HMS Enterprise

The work of a stoker was hard, dirty, smelly, noisy and hot. Originally tasked with shovelling coal into the ships boilers, in oil fuelled ships the stokers job was to maintain and keep the boilers operating. Most ships boilers had spray bars fitted that sprayed fuel oil into them.

 HMS Enterprise was an Emerald class cruiser of 9,435 tons, built at the end of the First World War. There were only two ships in the class, HMS Enterprise and HMS Emerald. They were the fastest ships in the Navy at the time, with a top speed of 33 knots.

 In June 1940, after the fall of France, HMS Enterprise was despatched to the Mediterranean as part of Force H. This naval task force was given the unpleasant but necessary task of ensuring that the French fleet did not fall into the hands of the Germans. HMS Enterprise took part in the destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-kebir in July.

 HMS Enterprise was then sent south to Cape Town, mainly taking part in convoy escorts and interception duties. In December 1940 she unsuccessfully hunted for the German auxiliary cruiser Thor, which had been menacing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

 In early 1941, she was sent to the Indian Ocean, where as part of a large fleet she took part in the search for the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. After the search was abandoned she then resumed escort duties, before going to Basra in May to support the suppressing of a pro-German revolt in Iraq.

 In November HMS Enterprise was refitted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This refit was finished by December, when war broke out with Japan. In April 1942 she rescued some of the survivors from sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, which had been sunk by the Japanese on their Easter Sunday raid on Sri Lanka.

 In December 1942, HMS Enterprise finally returned home to the Clyde after almost 18 months away from home. But my great-uncle was not onboard. Sometime before HMS Enterprise returned home, it appears that he had injured his hand onboard ship, and spent some time in the Naval Hospital in Colombo. It was either this, or the fact that he was promoted to Leading Stoker, that led to him being sent home onboard the SS Laconia, a Cunard Liner requisitioned as a troopship.

The Laconia

The Laconia

 The Laconia sailed from Cape Town in August 1942, carrying Italian prisoners of war, serviceman returning home and civilians. Somewhere north of Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic, she was hit by torpedoes fired from U-156 at 8pm on 12 September. By 9.11pm the ship had sank, with many still onboard. Even those who survived faced grim prospects, as sharks were numerous in the tropical waters.

 However, shortly after the Laconia sank, the U-Boat surfaced unexpectedly. Remarkably, the U-boat then attempted to rescue survivors, something that was not official German policy at the time. When Werner Hartenstein, the Commander of U-156, realised that POW’s and civilians were onboard, he broadcast over the radio requesting assistance. Several more U-Boats arrived to assist in the rescue. Unfortunately a flight of US B-24 Liberator bombers was not aware of what was going on, and attacked the U-boats. The U-boats then dived, leading to more loss of life. In total, 3,254 people died. The commander of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, gave his infamous Laconia order, that in future U-boats were not to rescue survivors. This order was part of the case against Donitz at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

After spending some time in the water, my great-uncle Tommy was rescued, and eventually handed over by the Germans to the Vichy French, along with many other survivors. They were transported to the French territory in Morrocco, and interned at a prison camp at Mediouna. Although conditions in prisoner of war camps are rarely luxurious, this camp in particular seems to have been atrocious – the prisoners were given old foreign legion uniforms, and one cup of wine and a bowl of soup a day. Dysentery and lice were rife. Red Cross reports on conditions were damming.

 Although they were liberated by the Allied Invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, many of the men were seriously ill. My great-uncle was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, and then home to the Military Hospital in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His condition must have been deteriorating, however. On 3 April 1943 a telegram was sent on behalf of the senior officer at the Hospital to my great-grandparents, informing them that their son Thomas Daly was seriously ill, and they were advised to visit him as soon as possible.

 Sadly, however his condition did not improve, and he passed away in Hospital on 27 April 1943. His Death Certificate gave Toxaemia – blood poisoning – and ulceration of the throat as the cause of death, both likely caused by suffering from Dysentery and malnutrition. No doubt this wasn’t helped by the trauma of being torpedoed in the South Atlantic and having to be rescued from the sea.

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

 He was buried at home in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery. Its quite interesting really, we think of war graves as being something that we might see at Ypres, or Normandy. But in terms of the Second World War, more Portsmouth servicemen died in Britain than died abroad in action. If we think about it, the majority of men and also a lot of women were in uniform. For every man on a ship or on the front line, there were probably about the same number serving in the support services at home. And given the privations of the time, sadly its not surprising that many of them died. There were also a lot of older servicemen who were called up to train new recruits or to work in shore bases. 

It’s incredible to think that those dramatic events – that seem like a ‘Second World War Titanic’, happened when my 82-year-old Grandad was 15. And I have to say, it makes you think: how must it feel to lose your older brother when you’re 15? Not just killed in the war, but dying at home of illness after such a traumatic experience.

So if you watch ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’, please remember – these are real events that happened to real people, and some people still live with the effects to this day.

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Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

As Stephen Bull quite rightly states in this book, the word ‘Commando‘ has become common currency for all kinds of special forces operations.

The ‘commando’ concept originated from the Boer War, when Dutch-descended ‘Kommando‘ units caused havoc for much larger British units in the South African veldt. Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent at the time, recalled the idea in 1940. At the outset of the Second World War, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ special forces. The Commando’s were formed in 1940, partly by initiative amongst the armed forces, but also spurred on by characteristic notes that flourished from Winston Churchill demmanding instant action. The idea was that while Britain was unable to stike back at the enemy in a conventional manner, small groups of nimble special forces could inflict an impact on occupied Europe out of all proportion to their size.

Commando’s made their presence felt on the Lofoten Raids in Norway; at St Nazaire and Dieppe; on D-Day and in Siciliy and Italy. Strictly speaking the British Army C0mmandos were formed from volunteers from Army units, but the Royal Marines also formed their own Commando units later in the war. The Parachute Regiment was formed from No 2 Commando in 1940, and the SAS and SBS were formed by formed Commando officers. Thus it could be argued that the Commando’s formed their embryo for modern British special forces. Ironically, whilst the Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS still exist, the Army Commandos were disbanded soon after the war.

The title of this book focuses on tactics, but Bull goes much further by writing about the wider history of the Commandos, and the impact that the development of the Commando’s has had on British military ethos and development, the effects of which can still be seen today. But the real strength of this book is in the description of the making of a Commando – what went into selecting and training the men, the development of tactics and equipment, and how mistakes were made and lessons were learnt until a well-honed concept was arrived at. The ‘small, heavily armed but highly mobile’ approach has become widespread amongst all special forces to this day. There is also much in the selection and training that will be familiar to anyone who has read Bravo Two Zero or the million and one other SAS memoirs.

 This book adds considerably to the historiography of British special forces during the Second World War. It is an interesting read in its own right, but it also stands up extremely well as an in-depth military study. It contains some fascinating biographies of leading Commandos, and some useful eyewitness accounts. But the real piece de resitance is the inclusion of contemporary documents, such as details of Commando clothing and equipment, the establishment and armanent of Commando units, and a booklet describing Commando Battle Drill.

Commando Tactics of the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword

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