Tag Archives: twentieth century

Ian Daglish

I was very saddened to hear of the tragic passing of Ian Daglish yesterday.

Ian was the author of the Over the Battlefield series of books looking at the Normandy battles of Operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat. These took a very refreshing view of the battlefields and helped me a great deal in my understanding of the battle of Normandy. Ian was also very helpful to me personally when it came to researching Portsmouth’s World War Two dead, in particular a couple of men killed in those battles that he had written about himself.

The Second World War military history field is a lesser place for his passing. I’m sure the military history community will join me in offering my condolences to his family.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

3 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, politics, World War Two

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment from Le Paradis to Kohima by Peter Hart

This is yet another book in Pen and Sword‘s ‘Voices from the Front Series’, and this one again is authored by the Imperial War Museum‘s Oral History expert Peter Hart. The 2nd Norfolks began the war as a regular Battalion, and went to Northern France in 1939. During a tour on the Maginot Line the Norfolks won some of the British Army’s first gallantry medals of the war. Back with the BEF in May 1940, the Norfolks found themselves in the thick of the fighting back towards Dunkirk.

As interesting as Dunkirk was, it’s the chapters about the British Army in Britain in late 1940 and 1941 that really interested me. How a shattered Army rebuilt itself, and how regular Battalions found themselves diluted with territorials and conscripts, and how county regiments found themselves taking in recruits from all over the country and the Army abandoned its local recruiting policy. The Army – and its officers and men – had a lot of learning to do in a very short space of time, and the memories of ordinary soldiers during this period that I find fascinating. Much of this period was spent firstly guarding the coast against invasion, and secondly exercising and familiarising with new equipment.

After the threat of invasion subsided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Britain found herself facing a second theatre of war in the Far East. Accordingly the 2nd Norfolks were sent to the Far East. They landed first in India, and there are some fascinating stories about the passage East and the period spent acclimatising in the sub-continent. The Norfolks spent some time quelling civil distubance in India too, with the rise of Gandhi’s national congress beginning to pose problems for the Raj.

After acclimatising to the Far East – a difficult process for western constitutions – the Norfolks went up to Kohima, in time for the pivotal battles around the Indian-Burmese Border there and at Imphal. What follows is a most insightful account of a Battalion fighting in extremely trying circumstances, at a critical point of the war. One account tells of how a Norfolk soldier hid with his section in the jungle and observed hundreds of Japanese pass by, only yards away – such was the intensity of the war in Burma.

I am a great fan of these Oral Histories, and particularly those that focus on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and junior officers – so often the people at the point of the sword, but for so long the people we have heard the least from. Thank god for projects like this that finally give them a voice. And the experiences of this ‘ordinary’ Battalion, from the BEF to Burma, encapsulates the British Army’s journey from 1939 to 1945 perfectly.

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment – from Le Paradis to Kohima is published by Pen and Sword

2 Comments

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

Artillery in the Great War by Sanders Marble and Paul Strong

The First World War has often been described as an ‘Artillery War’. Particularly after the war on the western front descended into stalemate, all belligerents turned to heavier and heavier guns to try and break down their opponents.

The British Army in particular started the war in 1914 with its artillery configured for imperial policing – small, mobile guns that could follow behind infantry or cavalry easily. The French, with their offensive spirit, held to a similar approach. But by the end of the war, all sides were fielding huge cannons, some of which could only be moved by Railway.

Major attacks on the Somme and at Passchendale were heralded by huge artillery barrages, some of which, it was said, could be heard from London.The barrage before the Somme lasted for days. But was this massive firepower worth the loss of the element of surprise? It probably didnt take much for the German defenders to work out that a weeks artillery barrage would lead to a major offensive. In any case, the artillery rarely achieved what was hoped – to cut barbed wire and destroy enemy fortifications. In too many instances neither was achieved.

Not only did technology change, but theory too. At Le Cateau in 1914, British gunners were firing over open sights, much as their ancestors had done at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Once trench warfare ensued, indirect fire became the norm, with more complex fire plans. A certain Major Alan Brooke is credited with creating the creeping barrage. The question of control was also raised. Should artillery barrages be controlled at Army, Corps or Division level? And at what level should artillery be commanded? This issue was all the more acute, considering that many General officers lacked the aptitude to use artillery to its potential.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the use of artillery between 1914 and 1918 is the impact that it had on its use in the Second World War. At Alamein, and in Normandy, Montgomery prepared for every major set piece battle with a detailed, preliminary barrage. Between 1939 and 1945 the Royal Artillery was seen as perhaps the most crucial corps in the British Army, in breaking up attacks and wearing down the enemy. This use of firepower was all the more important, with Britain suffering acute manpower shortages, and fielding inferor small arms and tanks.

Artillery in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

3 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War One

Portsmouth Heroes update

Well folks, we’re nearing the finish line!

I’ve ‘finished’ over 96% of the text for Portsmouth‘s Second World War Heroes. 15 out of 18 chapters are finished, as well as the Introduction. The remaining three chapters need a bit of beefing up but then we’re done, and the work begins on proof-reading, proof-reading, and then proof-reading again!

The hard work really is proving to be in sourcing illustrations. With up to 40 illustrations up for grabs, I am in a quandry trying to illustrate the book well, but not breaking the bank in doing it. As I have written before, institutions charge an arm and a leg for reproducing their images – prohibitively high charges make it difficult, especially for those of us working on low print run, specialised books. A number of relatives have been very helpful and supplied me with some useful images, as has John Sadden the Archivist at Portsmouth Grammar School and Debbie Corner at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

I’m going to be off out taking some pictures myself – war memorials, gravestones and local military sites. I am also going to be trawling sites like flickr looking for public domain or royalties free images I can use.

One more thing that has occured to me is that it might be an idea to get some maps drawn up – and I have absolutely no idea how to go about it, having no experience or talent in graphic design! We’re talking very basic here – black and white, basic info such as coastline, towns and cities, rivers, arrows for troops movements or perhaps plotting the location of a ship at Sea. Anyone got any ideas?

16 Comments

Filed under News, portsmouth heroes

Sourcing Images for publication

I’m well advanced with writing Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes. I’ve written about 65% of the text, and have the research in hand to base most of the rest on. So with several months to go and having the text itself well in hand, my thoughts have been turning to selecting illustrations.

Most historic illustrations that are of use for publications such as mine are held by various Museums or Archives – the Imperial War Museum, for example. Most charge a fee for authors to use their images, which is only fair enough. But many charge rather high rates, and just thinking ahead, if I used all of the images that I would LIKE to use, with reproduction fees I would be running at a loss – I would be spending more on images than I would make if every book sold. Sadly, its prohibitive, as book contracts either stipulate that the author bears the cost of reproductions, or has it deducted from his or her royalties.

I wonder if I am the only person in this position? I wonder how many fascinating images are not used simply because it costs too much to reproduce them? I guess this comes back to my old argument I have made before about Museums and Archives and charging. If fees are too high, a barrier to access is created, and history is neglected. If fees are more sensible, more people can research, and the history gets taken care of.

Aside from my rant, can anyone think of any good cheap sources of military images? Finding plenty of cheap or free images might help subsidise getting hold of more from institutions that charge. Of course, photos that you take yourself are free, and it helps if you can find photos from provate sources who are willing to let you publish them. Of course if anyone has any photographs of men or women from Portsmouth who died during the War I would be very interested to hear from them, and I would be more than happy to make a suitable donation to a relevant charity in lieu of a reproduction charge.

8 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, World War Two

two landmarks in one day

We’ve had two landmarks in one day here at DalyHistory. Sometime this morning my humble little blog passed the 100,000 hit mark. Incredible, I would never have thought I would ever get 1,000 hits, let alone 100,000! And later this evening the 2,000th comment was posted. So doing the maths, if that means that ever 50th hit results in a comment, then surely thats not such a bad ratio at all ;)

I’m currently off work this week to focus on researching and writing up the naval chapter of my forthcoming ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’. Today was spent looking at secondary sources on the Royal Oak, Hood and Barham. I also found some great source books on Submarines, including a catalogue of all decorations made to submariners in WW2. Tomorrow’s plan is to finish off some books on submarines, and then go onto the mircrofilm to take a look at the Portsmouth Evening News of the days following the sinkings to see what reaction there was locally, and to see if I can find any pictures or obituaries of men who were lost. Later in the week I plan focus on Boy Seamen, and a Destroyer Captain’s antics in the Mediterranean.

3 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, site news

General ‘Boy’: The Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning by Richard Mead

I have a confession to make – this is a book that I actually started to write a few years ago, but was ‘warned off’ by a Regimental archive that I approached, who informed me that Richard Mead was already well advanced on writing a biography of General Browning. Therefore I have been eagerly awaiting this book for some time.

I’ve written before about the idisyncracies of the military biography. The problem is that the most critical sources – personal letters, diaries, recollections and memories etc – are controlled by the subjects family, who are very unlikely to make them available to a writer who is likely to show their nearest and dearest in anything other than a flattering light. Regiments can be even more protective of their old boys, especially a clan as tightly knit and exclusive as the Grenadier Guards. Therefore the military biography is hardly an objective project at the best of times. But when the subject is a controversial figure such as Browning, this is even more so the case.

On balance, Mead’s appraisal of Browning’s role in Market Garden appears apologetic. Most of the serious criticisms of Browning are rebuffed, while a few minor faults are admitted, almost as sacrificial lambs. I remain convinved that Browning was the most pivotal figure in the whole operation, who could have forced changes in the plan but did not, and who should have foreseen errors, but did not. Browning certainly did not protest about taking a grossly inadequate Corps HQ into battle, as he knew it was his last chance to see action in the Second World War. No serious military historian would argue that I Airborne Corps‘ presence in Holland was vitally necessary on the first day of the operation.

In the same manner,  A Bridge Too Far‘s treatment of Browning is decried, but again, I still feel that the substance of the film is correct – Browning DID preside over a disaster. He did downplay dangerous intelligence, and did have his intelligence officer sent away on sick leave. These are not trivial accusations. Perhaps Dirk Bogarde did play Browning in a less than flattering light, but new evidence would suggest that the screenplay – and the influence of American interests – forced Bogarde into this portrayal, even against his own personal will. In any case, the main complaint is that Bogarde’s protrayal showed Browning to be vain and aloof. But, surely it’s not stretching the imagination to describe someone who designed their own extravagant uniforms as being vain? When the film was released a plethora of military figures protested, but this perhaps had more to do with military loyalty to a superior than anything else.

Where Mead really has succeeded is in ‘bookending’ Browning’s life. For too long military history has seen Browning’s life as starting in 1942 and ending in 1944 when he went to South East Asia, with what came before and after as an afterthought. His family background, his service in the First World War, his sporting activities, his regimental service between the wars and his time as Adjutant at Sandhurst all played a part in making Boy Browning the man that he was in September 1944. That he spent virtually all of his career with the Grenadier Guards – very much a closed and conservative environment – perhaps did not aid his work with others who were not part of the Brigade of Guards. He might have been a fighting soldier in 1918, but by 1939 had had a severely limited career that did not prepare him sufficiently for higher command.

In much the same manner his subsequent valuable service as Chief of Staff to Mountbatten in South East Asia, Military Secretary at the War Office, and then a key figure in the Royal Households should not be overlooked. In particular it seems that Browning was a very able administrator, particularly for the relatively young and inexperienced Mountbatten. Ironically, this kind of work was perhaps Browning’s strength, rather than active command. Perhaps it is indicative of the patronage system that pervaded the British Army that an officer singularly unsuited to active operations was allowed to reach such a position in the first place.

One aspect of Browning’s life that has very rarely been exposed is that of his mental and physical health, in particular in retirement. I have long seen glimpses of this, particularly in my own research, but it’s almost as if a veil of secrecy had been drawn over matters, so as not to portray any weakness on the part of Boy Browning. Not unlike the proverbial elephant in the room. He suffered from a lifelong stomach complaint (perhaps psychosomatic?), and not infrequent periods of exhaustion and stress. It’s probably unfortunate that somebody with such a stress threshold found themselves in command of the most high-profile failure of the Second World War.

After the War Browning developed something of a drinking problem which severely damaged his circulation, suffered from bouts of depression and at one point a serious nervous breakdown. On several occasions he was found with a revolver in his hand threatening to blow his own brains out. Browning’s relationship with his wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, is also examined. Both certainly had affairs, and du Maurier had liaisons with a number of women. Browning also seems to have had a difficult relationship with his children. These characterstics certainly co-align with wartime descriptions of him being nervy and highly strung, and cold and aloof. In some respects, it would be interesting to hear the thoughts of a psychologist on this evidence of a very strained life. Although we need to understand what part all of this played – if any – in his wartime actions, we should not think any less of the man purely that he suffered from personal problems.

Whilst the controversy is sure to rage on, at least Boy Browning’s life can now be seen in greater context. Whatever Historians might write about him, the focus on Browning’s life and career has for too long been far too narrow. I do not envy any Historian in the task of writing a military biography. Here Richard Mead has made the best effort that perhaps could be expected.

General ‘Boy’ is published by Pen and Sword

22 Comments

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

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.

Related Articles

41 Comments

Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

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

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The British Army of the Rhine

Sleeve patch of the British 21st Army Group.

Image via Wikipedia

My recent trip to the Nord Rhein Westfalen region of Germany has got me thinking about the role that British forces played in that part of the world for many years during the Cold War. I wrote an article on this subject some time ago, submitted to Britain at War (and apparently vanished into their ether). Sadly it disappeared on a crashed and rebooted PC, so I have to re-write from memory.

21st Army Group ended the War occupying large portions of Northern Germany, from the Dutch border across to the Baltic, with Montgomery receiving the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. Although initially the British Army was very much an occupation force, and involved in de-Nazification and keeping the Germans to heel, as the Soviets became more and more confrontational, western military doctrine in Germany focussed more on keeping the Russians out than keeping the Germans down. The Berlin Airlift, the creation of West Germany and the Deutsche Mark and the formation of NATO polarised the former allies across either side of the Iron Curtain.

British forces in Germany from the late 1940′s onwards were under no illusions that they were there to face the Russians. British Land Forces in Germany came under the command of the British Army of the Rhine. The Commander-in-Chief of BAOR also served as the commander of NATO’s northern Army Group, and as such had Dutch and German units under command in the event of war. British Air Forces in Germany came under the command of RAF Germany.

In the event of the Balloon going up, the BAOR was to face the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. Intelligence reports suggest that the BAOR was heavily outnumbered and seriously in danger of being rolled over very quickly – a likelihood that was not lost upon British squaddies. Documents I have discovered in the National Archives also suggest that there were very few reinforcements available for BAOR – pretty much a few TA Battalions, and two TA SAS Regiments for special forces work. And these units would take days to arrive by air and sea. And from 1969 onwards, the troubles in Northern Ireland proved a constant drain upon manpower in the BAOR. Evacuation of casualties and civilians would be almost impossible due to the lack of transport. But for the first time in British military history, the Army was at the forefront of British defence policy and strategy.

Thousands of British men – and indeed women in children – spent some of the most formative part of their lives in Germany. Imagine the experience a young 19 year old might enjoy being posted to a strange country, going abroad for the first time, and to a country that until relatively recently was the enemy. Only to find that actually, the German Beer and Food is quite to his liking! No wonder many former servicemen look back on their time in Germany so fondly.

Places such as Celle, Hohne, Herford, Hameln, Krefeld, Bielefeld, Paderborn, Detmold, Lippstadt, Sennelager, Soltau, Fallingbostel, Osnabruck and Minden became almost as well known to the British Army as Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Tidworth, Winchester and Catterick. Whole parts of Germany were occupied by thousands of Brits, in virtually exclusive British settlements, on base and off base.

At its height BAOR consisted of over 50,000 men. Add to that the amount of women, children, civilian workers et al, and then consider the turnover of troops every few years, and its no wonder that so many people experienced life in Nord-Rhein Westfalen and Niedersachsen. This experience probably went a long way to establishing Anglo-German relations again after the war.

British Forces in Germany have been in the process of winding down since the end of the Cold War. Few garrisons remain, concentrated mainly around Paderborn and Fallingbostel. There is no military reason for the British Army to be in Germany, but we still have access to some excellent training facilities and the Germans like having us. Indeed, during the Cold War the West German Government paid part of the Army’s basing costs. And until recently, it was cheap to base units in Germany.

Eventually – by 2020 – the British Army in Germany will be nothing more than a memory. We have to hope that this period of history is not lost, simply because the Cold War never became hot. Im particularly interested in the social history of life in BAOR – the human experiences, the impact of living in a foreign country on men, women and children. Sadly the excellent BAOR locations website seems to have gone offline, which is a real pity.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Great War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians by Paul Reed

There’s been a notable growth of interest in First World War Genealogy in recent years. I think there are probably two reasons for this – programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, and the prominence that they give to military history; and also the recent passing of the last veterans of the Western Front. Therefore this book by Paul Reed is most timely.

Many military genealogy books seem to follow a structured but disjointed route – this is how you do this, this is where you go to do this, etc etc. and by the way, you can find this out from here because etc etc. But here Paul Reed has followed a different model, by purely writing about 12 individuals, and THEN explaining HOW he found out about them. I think this approach works, as the reader can become fully immersed in the story without being interrupted with details of musems, archives and suchlike. I think its a much easier approach for the layman in particular.

Reed has chosen a broad but well-balanced range of individuals to write about. We find out about a Field Artillery subaltern who was killed in action but whose body was brought home to England; the village of Wadhurst (a timely counter to the perception that all Pals units came from ‘oop north’); The Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli; A Greek man on the Western Front; A Tunneller VC winner; A man who died in a base hospital; A Vicar’s son who fought in three theatres; A Royal Marine at Passchendaele; A ‘Great War Guinea Pig‘; An Officer who was dismssed from the Army for striking a French woman, but then re-enlisted as a Private; A Black Flying Corps Pilot and a little-known War Poet.

Plenty to get stuck into, and plenty to inspire too. I’ve found it useful and inspiring for my own Portsmouth WW1 Dead research.

Great War Lives is published by Pen and Sword

13 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, victoria cross, western front, World War One

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

36 Comments

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

Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

Portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Well...

Wellington: he 'got' morale (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m very selective over what I post relating to the SDSR nowadays – otherwise we all run the risk of SRSD-itis, and in any case, a Defence Review where the MOD is a bystander is pretty dubious. But there is a very interesting report in today’s Portsmouth News that I wanted to comment on, and draw on some historical parallels. The funny thing is, the letter that the article is based on is slightly dubious – apparently written by a ‘senior naval officer’, the individual concerned is currently at sea – so no higher than a Captain, and considering only the Carriers, Landing Ships and some destroyers are commanded by Captains, and few of them are at sea, it looks like its someone who is a Commander of below. Not too senior then.

Morale is possibly the most unquanitifiable resource that any armed service can possess. You cannot buy it (well, not in a bottle anyway), and you cannot measure it by any accountant-friendly matrix. But it wins battles, and a lack of it loses battles. Yet all too frequently, it doesn’t feature at all in planning, or in debates.

Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Andrew Cunningham‘s quote before Taranto that ‘ it takes a day to lose a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’ shows how hard morale is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered. You cannot say, ‘I am going to improve morale’, you have to actually do things to lift it, and it doesnt happen overnight. Look at the oft-quoted Japanese Commander, who decreed to his troops that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’.

With the Duke of Wellington in command in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, the British Army knew that it had a gifted commander who was on top of his game, and was not going to squander their lives needlessly. Which does wonders for morale – men are more likely to fight well if they know their Generals are good, if they think they have a chance of winning, and most importantly, if they have a good chance of surviving. The same principles could be applied to Marlborough as well as Wellington.

There are some tragic examples of how things can go badly wrong when morale is ignored. Whilst much has been written in the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘ debate about the Western Front, it would be hard to argue that British Generals in 1914-18 were overly concerned with their men. Its also probably the time in British military history where there was a bigger gulf in understanding between field officers upwards and the rank and file. Living and fighting in miserable conditions, in a war where the men knew very well that the commanders were struggling, could more have been achieved if the men had simply been treated like human beings? It is hard to know for sure, but it cannot have hurt.

The men who commanded the British Army in the Second World War were the platoon, company and battalion commanders of the previous war. As junior officers on the western front they had very much shared the hardships of their men, and most of them came to despise the Generals who had commanded them. Men such as Montgomery, Slim and Horrocks showed a strong concern for their men. Montgomery expressed an opinion that if you want men to risk their lives for you, then you owe it to them to explain exactly WHY. Slim of course was from very humble beginnings himself, having served as Private in a University Cadet unit. Horrocks was famously incredulous when he discovered that the Americans were not giving their men hot meals in the Ardennes. Men fighting in the snow need and deserve a hot meal first, he told them. On the other side of the coin, Generals who had little regard for their men were not liked – Ivo ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for example.

But bringing thinking back to the Royal Navy, the RN is possibly the most prominent example of how an armed service, morale and national identity are inherently intertwined. Rule Britannia, Heart of Oak, Nelson, Victory, Trafalgar… the Navy might not have the vast numbers of ships any more, nor the frequent opportunities to use them, but the tradition is still there. Look at the Falklands… Commander Chris Craig taking HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword on picket duty off West Falkland, and Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant. They are the descendants of Drake, Rodney, Vernon, Hawke, Howe, Nelson, Collingwood, Cochrane, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham.

Yet, if you gut that sense of tradition, and the feeling of being part of something special, you lose a vital resource that has been built up over hundreds of years, and once thrown away, is lost forever. Morale.

14 Comments

Filed under Army, debate, defence, Napoleonic War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, World War One, World War Two

Russian Cold War Maps of the UK

I’ve just discovered a site that shows old Russian military maps of Britain during the Cold War. Its a commercial site, but you can still look at sections for free.

Its amazing just how detailed they are. My street is all there, and you can make out my streets name in the cyrillic script. My old school is there too, complete with running track. Where I work is even labelled as what clearly translates to ‘Museum’. As far as I can see they didn’t get anything wrong at all. If only I could read Russian I could see just how accurately they managed to identify the buildings in the Dockyard and on Portsdown Hill.

Of course, its not surprising that the Russians had such detailed maps – this was the space age after all, and there were plenty of satellites in the sky. But even with detailed photographs, how did they get to know what every building was? Every wharf and dry-dock in the Dockyard is correctly named and numbered. It was either from material that leaked out, such as Navy Days guides, or from ‘other sources’…..

Its incredible to think of just how much information each side knew about the other. Relatives in the armed forces at the time tell me that they were told exactly how many nuclear ballistic missiles the Soviet Union had readily aimed at their home towns. Perhaps it was this mutually assured destruction and familiarity that prevented it ever becoming hot? Maybe if there had been more unknowns, things might have been more dicey?

But back to the maps… a lot of this run-of-the-mill information would have been in the standard Ordnance Survey map, available in all good bookshops!

Take a look at Russian Maps here

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized