Tag Archives: war crimes

Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC

On 17 August 1940, Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan, from Southsea and of 56 Squadron RAF, was killed in France. He was 25. There is a full biography of John Coghlan here.

Born in 1914 in Shanghai, Coghlan attended the Imperial Services College, before joining the RAF in 1937. His address in Southsea was 16 Worthing Road. Apparently he was a short, well-built man with darkk brushed back hair and a large moustache, and was friendly and unflappable. However he was also described as overweight and unfit, and had a ‘prodigious intake of ale’. He took over command of A Flight just before the Squadron departed for France in 1940. At one point during an air battle he had exhausted the ammunition in his machine guns, so proceeded to fire his Browning pistol at his enemy, earning the nickname of ‘Nine Gun’.

56 Squadron were based at RAF North Weald in Essex, and were flying Hurricanes in 1940. Part of 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, 56 Squadron were in the front line of the Battle of Britain. The Squadron had earlier provided air cover for the evacuation from Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain his personal aircraft was Hurricane US-N.

His was DFC gazetted on 30 July 1940:

This officer has been a flight commander in his squadron on most of the recent patrols and has led the squadron on some occasions. At all times he has shown the greatest initiative and courage and has personally destroyed at least six enemy aircraft.

The citation for his DFC suggests that he was in the thick of the air battles raging over southern England in the summer of 1940 – to have destroyed at least enemy aircraft was no mean feat. It is also notable that his DFC was announced in the London Gazette on 30 July – several weeks before his death, and indeed, the recommendation for an award would have predated the announcement by some time too. Therefore he may have accounted for even more aircraft.

But there’s more… Coghlan was not actually serving with 56 Squadron at the time of his death. According to acesofww2.com, he had attended a course at the Parachute Practice School at Ringway, Manchester on 7 August 1940. He took off on the night of 17/18 August 1940 in a Lysander aircraft to perform a special duties flight, but both he and the agent he was carrying were captured and executed. Whether this was a war crime or not depends on whether he was in uniform. If he was, Coghlan was entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. If not, then he was liable to be shot as a spy.

So, a pilot who appeared to be one of ‘the few’, was in actual fact not only one of the few, but one of the earliest of the RAF’s special duties pilots, who was sadly captured and executed in occupied France.

Operational Records and Log Books should – hopefully – tell us a lot more about John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan.

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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.

This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980′s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.

The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.

Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.

It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.

This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.

What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, cold war, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth men building the Burma Railway

In 1942, after invading Burma through Thailand, Japananese forces needed to bring supplies to the front in Burma through the straits of Malacca, which was vulnerable to Allied submarines. The only feasible alternative was a railway.

Construction started in June 1942, at both ends. Part of the work included the famous Bridge over the River Kwai, made infamous by the film starring Alec Guinness. The work was completed by Allied Prisoners of War and local Slave Labourers. The Japanese Government had not signed up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of Prisoners, and Japanese military culture looked down on surrender as a shameful act. As a result Prisoners were treated brutally. It is estimated that 160,000 Prisoners and locals died building the railway, due to overwork, malnutrition, and diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery. An estimated 6,318 of these were British, and the total death rate was a staggering 25%. Many war crimes were perpetrated by the Japanese military against prisoners during the building of the Railway.

On 17 October 1943 both ends of the line met, and most the surviving prisoners were transferred elsewhere. Some, however, remained in the area in order to maintain the line. They continued to live in appalling conditions. Using Prisoners for work was not illegal – my own Grandfather worked in a sugar beet factory in captivity in Germany – but mistreating them to such an extent consituted a serious war crime.

Many men from Portsmouth died working on the Burma Railway. We can only guess at the horrors, ill-treatment, illness and brutality that they must have endured.

In Burma, Aramament Staff Sergeant Edward Rex, 25 and from Southsea, was serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers when he was captured in Singapore. He died on 5 September 1943. Private Sidney Rich, 31 and from Southsea, was also captured at Singapore with the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. He died on 27 Octmber 1943. Both are buried in Thanbuyayzat War Cemetery, Burma.

Many more worked on the Thailand end of the line, all of them having been captured in the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Most of them are buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Gunner Arthur Denmead, 22 and from Fratton, serving with 135 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, some time in June 1943. Sergeant Frank Hudson, 28 and from Landport, was captured while serving with 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 5 August 1943. Signalman John Morey, 36 and from Southsea, was a member of 9 Indian Division Royal Signals. He died on 17 September 1943. Gunner Walter Cottrell, from Southsea and at the young age of 19, was serving with 3 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 22 October 1943. Lance Corporal Derek Foster, from Southsea and serving with 18 Divisional Provost Company, was 29 when he died on 27 November 1943. Private John Moore was a qualified electrical engineer, who was evidently working in Malaya, and having joined the local volunteer defence force was captured in the fall of Singapore. He was 38 when he died on 19 December 1943. Gunner James Hammond, age 38 and from Fratton, had been captured with 11 Battery, 3 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 11 January 1944.

Several Portsmouth men are also buried at Chungkai War Cemetery in Thailand. Lance Sergeant Phillip Lansley, age 31 and from Paulsgrove, was serving with 1 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 9 January 1944. But perhaps the saddest story, amongst a tragic situation, is that of Captain Cecil Lambert. He was aged 60 and from Cosham, and was serving with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He died on 24 June 1943. Clearly even the old were not excused from the brutality.

That they died, in such a terrible manner and so far away from home, should never be forgotten.

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Portsmouth’s Prisoners of the Japanese

A prisoner of the Japanese in WW2

A prisoner of the Japanese in WW2

Prisoners of War faced a particularly grim experience during the war. While servicemen captured and held by Nazi Germany faced an arduous experience, many of them for almost 5 years, those unfortunate enough to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese had to endure untold horrors before they were released.

The Japanese Government had not signed or recognised any of the international treaties on the treatment of Prisoners of War, such as the Geneva Convention. As such, the Japanese authorities felt under no obligation to treat prisoners humanely. In addition, Japanese military culture saw surrender as a shameful act, and it was widely felt that people who had allowed themselves to be captured were not deserving of respectful treatment. The Prisoners were allowed no access to Red Cross representation, and camps were not inspected by neutral countries. Prisoners faced brutal treatment, torture, summary punishment, forced labour, medical experiments, starvation rations and little or no medical treatment.

Unsurprisingly, the Tokyo Tribunal found that the death rate amongst Allied POW’s held by the Japanese was 27.1%. This was SEVEN times that of prisoners held by the Germans and Italians. Many Japanese personnel were tried and executed for war crimes after the war, and the pictures that emerged of the emaciated men liberated in the Far East shocked the world.

So far I have found two Portsmouth men who died and were buried in Japan during the Second World War, so were almost certainly prisoners of war when they died.

Lance-Sergeant Harold Kennard, 34 and from Stamshaw, was a member of the Royal Signals. He died on 28 December 1942. He was presumably captured in the 1941 and 1942 land battles in South East Asia, when the Allies faced a number of defeats, and taken to Japan to work as a forced labourer.

Private George Ogle, 46 and from North End, was a member of the Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps. He died on 5 February 1945. Hong Kong was the main base port of the Royal Navy’s China Station. Hong Kong was attacked by the Japanese on 8 December 1941, 8 hours after the raid on Pearl Harbour. By 25 December Hong Kong had fallen. He was also presumably taken to Japan as a slave labourer. He had served over three years as a Prisoner of the Japanese by the time of his death.

Sadly it is difficult to find out much more about them and their experiences, as the Red Cross were unable to keep records of them, as were the British Government.

Both Lance-Sergeant Kennard and Private George Ogle are buried in Yokohama War Cemetery, Japan.

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Sinking of the Laconia

Filming began last week on a new TV Docu-Dama series, based in the sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Laconia in the second world war.

SS Laconia

SS Laconia

On 12 September 1942, at 8:10pm, 130 miles north-northeast of Ascension Island, Laconia was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side, fired by U-boat U-156. There was an explosion in the hold and most of the 450 Italian prisoners the ship was carrying were killed instantly. The vessel immediately took a list to starboard. Captain Sharp, who had also commanded Lancastria when she was torpedoed, was beginning to control the situation when a second torpedo hit.

Captain Sharp ordered the ship abandoned and the women, children and injured taken into the lifeboats first. Some of the 32 lifeboats had been destroyed by the explosions and some surviving Italian prisoners tried to rush those that remained. The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives.

At 9:11pm Laconia sank with many Italian prisoners still on board. The prospects for those who escaped the ship were only slightly better; sharks were common in the area and the lifeboats were adrift in the mid-Atlantic with little hope of being rescued.

However, before Laconia went down, U-156 surfaced. The U-boat’s efforts to rescue survivors of its own attack began what came to be known as the Laconia incident. Realising who the passengers were, U-156 started rescue operations flying the Red Cross flag. The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass; it was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats would still occasionally provide aid for survivors. At the Nuremberg Trials held in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the “Laconia order”:

Although hardly known, more people perished when the Laconia was sunk than died on the Titanic. For such a far-reaching and destructive incident, it plays almost no part in the history of the second world war, or in peoples awareness.

Of course, I await the Sinking of the Laconia reaching the screen with interest, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down. He was transferring home after being promoted to Leading Stoker onboard HMS Enterprise. He died later in 1943 from illness he suffered while in French captivity in Morrocco, after being picked up by Vichy French Warships.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Brian Cox (Sharpe, Troy) will star as the Laconias Captain, Rudolph Sharp.

Click here for more on The Sinking of the Laconia

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