Tag Archives: Sierra Leone

SS Gairsoppa

tower hill memorial taken 27/11/03 by a brady

Tower Hill Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

Interesting news item yesterday, when it was reported that the wreck of the wartime merchant vessel the SS Gairsoppa had been located and positively identified in the Atlantic, at depths of over 6,000 feet.

The Gairsoppa was built in 1919, originally named War Roebuck. She was taken over by the British India Steam Navigation Company and renamed the SS Gairsoppa. Weighing in at 5,237 tons, she operated out of Glasgow. Her crew numbered 86, made up of British Seamen and Indian Lascars.

In 1941 she was returning from Calcutta in India to Britain, via the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a mixed cargo, but more interestingly, hundreds of tons of silver bullion. Off Sierra Leone she joined Convoy SL-64. Slowed down by poor weather and running low on coal, on 15 February the Gairsoppa detached from the convoy and headed for Galway in southern Ireland. At 1800 on 16 February she was spotted by U-101. After trouble keeping up with the Gairsoppa in the deteriorating weather, at 2328 that evening the Commander Ernst Mengersen fired three torpedoes.  The freighter was heavily damaged, and settled in the water burning. The survivors abandoned ship, and she sank within 20 minutes, 300 miles south west of Galway.

Out of three lifeboats, two were lost without trace. One, containing the second officer and 31 men, survived. After seven days most had died of exposure. On 1 March only the second officer, four british sailors and two lascars were alive when the boat reached the Lizard in Cornwall, after two weeks at sea. Tragically, all but the second officer perished when the lifeboat was swamped in the surf. The Master, Gerald Hyland, 82 crew members and 2 gunners were lost.

The Third Master was a Portsmouth man – Campbell Morrison, aged 24, an old boy of St Johns College in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London to Merchant Seaman with no grave other than the sea.

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Filed under merchant navy, 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

PM and Defence Secretary at odds over Defence Review

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP (Image via Wikipedia)

A leaked private letter to the Prime Minister from the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has shown that the current Strategic Defence and Security Review is nothing more than a cover for the Government-wide Comprehensive Spending Review. The disagreement also shows the complete disunity within the Government over the Review.

I’ve quoted below some of the most important points in the letter:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war.

How do we want to be remembered and judged for our stewardship of national security? We have repeatedly and robustly argued that this is the first duty of Government and we run the risk of having those words thrown back at us if the SDSR fails to reflect that position and act upon it.

Our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments. The range of operations that we can do today we will simply not be able to do in the future.

The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the changes proposed would follow years of mismanagement by our predecessors. It may also coincide with a period of major challenge (and, in all probability, significant casualties) in Afghanistan.

Even at this stage we should be looking at the strategic and security implications of our decisions. It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package. Cuts there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.

Specific cuts mentioned in the letter are reducing standing naval commitments in the Indian Ocean, Carribean and Gulf, scrapping amphibious vessels and auxiliaries, the Nimrod MR4A maritime aircraft. Dr Fox implies that we could not re-do the Sierra Leone operation again, and also that we would have great trouble reinforcing the Falklands in an emergency. The ability to assist civil authorities would be reduced, as would the assistance the military could give in the event of terrorist attacks, and security for the 2012 Olympics.

Liam Fox has long been one of the Tory front-bench who I find it possible to respect – more so than most of the public schoolboy Thatcher-worshipping ilk. A former GP, and thus one of the few prominent politicians nowadays who has had a career other than politics or ‘policy’, he’s spent a long time in the Shadow Cabinet in various roles. Having been Shadow Defence Secretary for almost five years might be expected to have some idea of what he’s talking about.

I think the severe lack of senior politicians with any kind of armed forces experience – or for that matter with any experience of knowledge of history – shows. Any decision-maker with any sense would be looking closely at John Nott‘s 1981 Defence Review as a how-not-to-do-it. Yet that is exactly what Cameron and Osborne propose. It’s rather sad to think that the Conservatives came to power after touting themselves as the party of the armed forces. Even their former pet General, Sir Richard Dannatt, has waded in on Dr Fox’s side.

Fox’s reference to the possible reaction amongst the party membership is interesting. Although it is often thought that the Tory is made up of lots of ex-Guards Officers, via Eton and Sandhurst, the only former soldier of note on the Tory front bench is Ian Duncan-Smith. There are more than a few ex-military backbenchers, but how much influence do they have over ‘Dave’ Cameron and Boy George? I can’t imagine them, nor the Tory old guard around Britain, being too happy about the hatchet being wielded over the armed forces.

It is hard to disagree either with the assertion that the safety and security of the nation is the first duty of any Government. If they fail with that, then we’d all might as well give up. It’s no good having wonderful schools, hospitals and a thriving economy if enemies – either other states or terrorists – are able to disrupt our everyday lives at will. When we’re conducting an intervention abroad, say in Iraq or Afghanistan, we get the security sorted first, in order for the reconstruction to start. Why should the principle be any different when it comes to Defence closer to home?

Another thought that is deeply disturbing… if the Defence Secretary is having to write to the Prime Minister explaining his concerns about how the Review is progressing, who the hell is producing the review? It’s not a Defence Review… its a pure and simple cuts package. At least previous reviews made some attempt at sketching out the strategic direction. That somebody in the MOD feels the need to leak such a letter is indicative of how poorly this is being handled.

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Filed under Army, debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized