Tag Archives: winston churchill

Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80′s and 90′s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – Radio appearances and signings

I’ve got a few exciting pieces of news.

Firstly, I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth on Saturday 7th April, between 11am and 3pm.

I appeared on BBC Radio Solent earlier today, talking about Portsmouth’s Women of World War Two. It is available to listen to on the BBC website; my interview is about 1 hour and 53 minutes in. I’m not sure if you can listen to it from abroad I’m afraid, and it is only online for seven days.

At the time of writing my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ is ranked around 13,000 on Amazon, out of 5.6 MILLION books! That works out at me being in the top 0.2%! Currently, the book is also ranked at #99 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Second World War Military History. #100? Only Robert Lyman’s ‘Operation Suicide’, which I reviewed last week! I have some way to go though before I overhaul Winston Churchill and Stephen Ambrose and reach 90 ;)

On Monday I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Solent, and actually ended up recording two segments – one on Portsmouth’s women who served in the Second World War, for their ‘Women in a man’s world’ series, and a second piece promoting my book in general.

My first book talk at the D-Day Museum on Thursday went very well, and the first happy customers went away with signed copies. Pre-ordered copies have been shipping out via Amazon, some of my relatives received their copies towards the end of last week. If you would like to order a copy, please see the various links immediately to the right of the page.

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Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

It’s nice to be able to review a book, for once, that is about more than just ‘words’. I must confess to having a great interest in war art, in particular the propaganda poster. Long before ‘Keep Calm and Carry On‘, I have been fascinated with ‘Let us go forward together’, ‘The few’ and ‘I need you for US Army’. An interesting distinction I found is the difference between propaganda produced by Democracies and Dictatorships. Whereas democratic posters tended to be more subtle and laidback, as free citizens tend to be scornful of being told what to do in an overt fashion. Democratic propaganda tends to be more romantic, and more an attempt to appeal to the reader’s better nature. Nazi and Soviet propaganda was far more akin to a sledgehammer – there was no need to appeal to anyones better nature, as in a one party state nobody had a choice in the matter in any case. In an interesting kind of way, propaganda posters reflect that nature of the societies in which they were created.

British propaganda is something that many people will be familirar with, and is certainly in vogue in shops such as Past Times at the moment. Information posters exhorted the population to conserve food, carry gas masks, or evacuate children. Recruitment posters were generally an attempt to encourage rather than enforce. Many examples show an exemplary man or men, in an attempt to encourage the reader to wish to be like them. Quotes from Winston Churchill were also a staple. Funnily enough Canadian propaganda tended to be more overt, such as the famous poster of a lion and beaver charging, bayonets fixed, and the equally famous ‘Lets go Canada!’. French war posters were also quite interesting. Of couse after 1940, whilst the Vichy French were pleading with the populace to ‘remember Oran’, and attempting to recruit for the Vichy Legions, the Free French were also producing posters for the consumption of exiles in Britain and elsewhere. Soviet propaganda has always interested me greatly. Although to begin with Russian posters were very socialist, and very, well, brutalistic and politicised, in time the regime peformed a volte-face and began to embrace aspects of Russia’s history and culture that had been shunned previously. Attempts to demonstrate continuity with the old Russia, ancient Russian heroes and cultural icons such as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were made in an attempt to inspire the Soviety citizens in the great patriotic war. Examples of heroic soldiers abound, rifle thrust in their air, in defence of the motherland. Like Soviety War Memorials, its very stirring stuff indeed.

American propaganda is also quite interesting. obviously, after Pearl Harbour a desire for revenge was present, and racial stereotypes of ‘the Jap’ were very common. Often Japanese soldiers were portrayed as rat-like, no doubt in an attempt to convince the American public that they were an inferior race and that Uncle Sam would prevail. Talking of which, Uncle Sam himself featured very heavily, in his Kitchener like pose, along with Golden Eagles and lots of  blue, red and white. i cannot help but think also that a lot of American propaganda was inspired by American commercialism, which obviously drew on consumerism and marketing, to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. It could be suggested that the US Government was selling the war in the same way that Ford would sell Model T’s, or Coke would sell Cola.

The Nazi regime had made use of Propaganda since its inception after World War One. In fact, men such as Hitler and Goebbels were consumate propagandists, placing spin at the centre of the regime right from the start. How else do you explain a whole country being made to believe in what turned out to be an illogical and nihilistic ideology? The ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer‘ poster is one of the most famous ever. Much use was made of classical symbols such as the Eagle, and bemuscled, Teutonic males, in an attempt to invoke a heritage supposedly linked with age old Empires. Posters decrying the Jews attempted to arouse old stereotypes, particularly of Jewish looks, and portraying them in an animalistic manner. When the war started to turn against the Third Reich the propagandists had an even harder job, to try and persuade the population that Aryan superiority was not a myth. By contrast, Italian propagandist were facing an uphill struggle, as the majority of Italians were indifferent to the war, and hence Italian posters seen, in retrospect, rather absurd and ironic. Japanese posters really are very different to anything seen in Europe, given the vastly different culture. And, again, in a totalitarian monarchy, there was little need to co-erce or persuade.

The funny thing is, I can’t help but admire totalitarian propaganda more. There’s something about Nazi and Soviet art that is really impressive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with what it is saying. I guess its kind of like Lemmy from Motorhead, who has been criticised for wearing Nazi-like clothes. When pressed, he answered that if the Allied armies had cool looking clothes, he would wear them. It just so happens that the bad guys always seem to have the best uniforms. Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it does sum up my thoughts about war propaganda.

This was a very enjoyable book to read. Some well-known examples, but also some posters that were new to my eyes. Neither is it just a picture book, it is well interpreted and enlightening, looking not only at the art itself, but also the sociological, political and military background. I only wish I had more wall space and funds to decorate my flat with some of them!

Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940′s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940′s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0′s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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