Tag Archives: United States

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Another F-35 Volte Face

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all about today announcement by the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons explaining the Government’s decision to backtrack and purchase the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, instead of the conventional carrier version. The original plan was, of course, to purchase the STOVL version – ie F-35B – as replacement for the Harriers, to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers.

The coalition has now performed two u-turns on the Joint Strike Fighter issue. First, soon after coming into office they abandoned the vertical take-off verson, in favour of  the higher performance variant. Now, having seen the costs for installing catapults and traps on the aircraft carriers spiral, they have decided to go back to the vertical take off variant.

One cannot help but feel that this constant to-ing and fro-ing has probably added a significant amount to the cost, for no discernible gain, and will almost certainly delay their introduction into service. And as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than a customer who keeps changing their mind every five minutes. It’s bad enough if someone is buying a book or a loaf of bread, but 50+ fighter aircraft?

There are some upshots to the decision. It is possible that both aircraft carriers will come into service, and slightly earlier in 2018, compared to lengthy delays if they had to be converted to ‘cat and trap’. There have been some concerns that the B version has a less impressive performance than the C version. Compare the following specs:

  • Range – B version, 900 nautical miles; C Version, 1,400 nautical miles
  • combat radius – B version, 469 nautical miles; C Version, 615 nautical miles

The lack of range is apparently due to the B version having to accomodate extra plant for vertical landing, which eats into its fuel capacity. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the differences do not seem too critical – isn’t the beauty of an aircraft carrier that you can move it 100 miles closer in if need be, and if safe to do so? Apparently the B version will be able to carry less weapons than the C version as well, however I am having trouble finding firm specifications for this. It should also be remembered that the B version will, in theory, be able to operate short-term or in an emergency from other ships that have landing spaces, or from rough airstrips on land – neither of which the F-35 C can do. By way of a contrast, the Sea Harrier had a combat radius of 540 nautical miles, but didn’t have such a high performance as the F-35 in other respects. I seem to recall that the SHAR was hardly bristling with armaments either.

The decision making regarding the Joint Strike Fighter project has been flawed from day one. Perhaps setting out to buy the STOVL versions was not the wisest decision in hindsight, but to decide to switch to the C version, and then back to the B version again in a year shows a serious case of indecision and narrow-mindedness. A decision that was supposed to save money in the long run, ended up costing us more money in the short term and not happening anyway. Let’s hope that this kind of defence procurement strategic direction never transgresses into decision making in war.

Still, I cannot help but feel that we would have been far better off purchasing some F-18’s off the shelf in the first place – both in terms of cost and capabilitity.

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Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

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Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – out in mid-February

I just wanted let you all know some exciting news about my new book.

My publishers have informed me that the books will be released from the distributors on 14 February, so hopefully they will start to appear soon after that. Thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered, if you haven’t purchased a copy yet but would like to do so it is available from the outlets linked to the right.

I am hoping to confirm a couple of signing events soon at local venues – you’ll hear it here first!

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23 Things they dont tell you about Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang

Ok, so this is a bit of a departure from my usual reading of a military history bent. And equally, I tend to steer clear of politics, not wanting to alienate anyone – or myself for that matter – due merely to party politics. But my brother bought me this book for Christmas as a leftfield wildcard kind of gift, and I have found reading it to be a revelation.

Since the 1980’s, and in particular the conservative economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher, free market economic policy has been an orthodoxy, not quite globally but certainly in the North Atlantic area. The philosophy is that the less you interfere and meddle in the economy, the more everything will turn out better for everyone, and income will trickly down and we will all live happily ever after.

Chang is also quite pertinent in question the manner in which the United States is always, without fail, held up as the poster boy of economic success. I cannot help but think that this is down to the historical legacy of the ‘american dream’, and a pinch of american narrow-mindedness. Whilst the US does have a strong economy, a high proportion of its wealth is distributed at the very top of its earning spectrum, whereas other countries, such as Sweden, might not have so many billionaires, but they have fewer of their citizens living in abject poverty. It all depends on exactly HOW we measure economic prosperity.

Essentially, I think Chang presents a stern critique of free-market capitalism, whilst defending capitalism itself as a broader concept. I can understand where he is coming from. I come from working class roots, and I would have to say I lean firmly to the left when it comes to equality and social justice in society, but at the same time I believe it is important to have an independent, ‘can-do’ spirit. The problem with free-market ideology, as I see it, is that when you remove all rules, the lowest common denominator wins out – ie, in crude terms, shit floats to the top. Hence the rise of the yuppy.

I was also much taken by Chang’s assertion that the Post Industrial Era is a myth. Why? Well, much of the world is still producing, ie, manufacturing. There IS still money to be made from making things, it is just that some countries chose to abandon their manufacturing industries and move towards service based economies. The Post-Industrial tag seems to be an attempt to justify the abandonment of production, if nothing else. Not that service based industries have really worked out very well for Britain anyway.

Another aspect that Chang examines very succinctly is that of the welfare state. Many argue, mostly in the US, that a bloated welfare state not only costs the country money, but encourages the lower classes to be lazy, knowing that they do not have to work too hard to survive. Yet it could be argued – Chang does, and I tend to agree – that having a welfare state means that employees are able to take more risks, knowing that if things do not work out or if their employer goes bust, they will not be on the breadlines. This is the case in most European states, whereas in the US, employees could be excused for playing it safe and protecting their jobs, as losing ones job means losing everything, due to a virtual non-existance of any kind of welfare support. This means effectively that you only get one decent shot at a career, or a business – which is hardly conducive to innovation and risk taking!

Chang’s final point is that whilst we have learnt the lessons of the 2008 crash, the credit crunch, we have yet to reform the financial industries to take into account these lessons. The credit crunch showed that free market ideology leads to irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, but the banks and stock markets have been unaffected since their disastrous actions. Why? well, one suspects that bankers and stockbrokers have enough influence to protect their interests politically, but it also shows the extent to which free market-ism is taken as a given in modern society. Perhaps it is down to the false notion that western capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War over eastern communism, and therfore must surely be superior?

In conclusion, I don’t think we can exclude politics from anything  that we discuss, in terms of history or military affairs. After all, who makes the decisions and shapes the policy? And for that matter, don’t economic forces drive defence procurement?

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Submarine warfare

English: Cropped version of public domain File...

Image via Wikipedia

In 2009 I identified a serious risk of the Royal Navy losing a useful mass of numbers when it comes to submarines.

As in 1982, one would imagine that the Submarine service would be expected to shadow the Argentine fleet, and try to take out some of its inventory – in particular the Exocet equipped ships that might cause our surface vessels trouble. They would also be expect to loiter off the Argentine mainland watching for aircraft and shipping, to provide land strike capability, and also to slip ashore special forces.

The Astute Class are regarded as the best submarines in the world, perhaps on a par with the US Navy’s equivalent Virginia Class. According to one website, she is as quiet as a baby dolphin, which probably makes her as good as undetectable in skilled hands. And a submarine that cannot be detected can act with impunity. And knowing that British submarines can roam around the South Atlantic at will is bound to put the fear of god into Argentine naval officers.

The Astutes carry advanced sonar and weapons systems, more weapons than any other British submarine previously – Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. With a range of 1,240 miles, this means that Astute could accurately target sites in North Africa sitting off the South Coast of England. Such a range and sophistication really would cause severe problems to the Argentine forces. The only problem might be replenishment of Tomahawk stocks, both in terms of the US allowing us to purchase more, and then getting them to the South Atlantic. But as I identified in 2009, Tomahawk would provide a more accurate and less risky alternative to the Black Buck Vulcan raids.

In terms of slipping ashore Special Forces, I must confess I had always laboured under the impression that bigger SSN’s were not as ideal for the task of inshore work as the smaller, old diesel electrics where. After all, in 1982 HMS Onyx was sent south reputedly to work close inshore with special forces. Yet it seems that the new Astute Class boats will be able to use a piece of American technology, the Dry Dock Shelter (DDS). The DDS enables special forces teams to enter and exit the submarine much easier. As with much special forces and submarine technology specifications are hazy, but I can imagine the DDS being pretty useful.

The big problem – and this is the same as with Destroyers and Frigates – is that we simply do not have enough Submarines. By the time the Astute class are finished in 2024 – yes 2024, in 12 years time! – the RN will have seven SSN Submarines – critically short. Of course, as with any vessels a number of these will be in refit at any time. As the Astute class boats are commissioned – at a rate of one every two or three years – the Trafalgar Class will decommission, with the Navy maintaining a level of seven SSN’s in service. Of course, there is a strong possibility that the Trafalgars might start falling apart long before then.

The problem with Submarine procurement, is that with the political desire to ‘buy British’, there is only really one option – BAE Systems yard at Barrow. In order to maintain a healthy programme of orders and ensure that a skilled workforce and facilities can be maintained, submarine procurement and constructions works on a ‘drumbeat’ policy – stretching out orders to ensure that there are no quiet periods when workers would have to be laid off. With the MOD looking at renewing the nuclear deterrent SSBN’s by the mid 2020’s, the building programme for the Astutes has been stretched to cover until when work is due to begin on the SSBN replacements. All very well, but according to the National Audit Office this delay will cost more, to the point at which if the boats had been built faster an eighth Astute could have been built. The MOD decided against this, however, no doubt fearful of the running costs of operating another boat.

Obviously, due to their nature it is very difficult to find out too much about submarine deployments, or submarine technological specifications. But if it is true, that an Astute can watch shipping from off the North American coast, then even one Astute in the South Atlantic could provide a wealth of intelligence without actually firing its weapons. And that is actually the beauty of submarines – you don’t know where they are, so you have to assume that they could be anywhere and could strike at any time – a real hinderance on your freedom of operations if you are an Admiral looking to take and defend the Falkland Islands.

In 1982 the Task Force deployed 5 SSN’s of the Churchill, Valiant and Swiftsure Classes, and one diesel electric Oberon class Boat. In 1982 the RN was geared up for submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and hence had a considerable submarine arm, in terms of numbers and experience. In 1982 the Royal Navy had 11 SSN’s to chose from, and no less than 13 Oberon Class conventional boats. 24 boats, whilst in 2012, we would be able to choose from 7 at the most.

A theme is emerging – a Royal Navy with first class assets, but with not nearly enough of them.

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