Tag Archives: World War II

Bomb Sight – mapping the blitz in London

This fantastic website was launched yesterday. It maps every bomb – high explosive, incendiary, parachute – that landed on Greater London during the Blitz, from 7 October 1940 until 6 June 1941. Produced by the University of Portsmouth (my alma mater), the National Archives and JISC, it’s a great example of geography and history working together.

Researchers used the WW2 Bomb Census in the National Archives, and painstakingly plotted the site of every bomb onto a map of London. From this we can see obviously the hardest hit areas. Whilst an overall look at the map shows an overall spread, when you zoom in closer, the Docklands – in particular the area around the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks – were hard hit. Whilst the Luftwaffe were bombing London in general to attempt to subdue the civilian populations morale, and for this indiscriminate bombing across the whole city would suffice – bombing the important docks also seems to have been a priority. There are two reasons for these dual approaches – firstly, they probably lacked the accuracy to actually pinpoint small targets inland, however the docks were relatively easy to find as all the bombers had to do was fly up the Thames Estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated with the use of geographical plotting to give context to historical events. Data that sits in a chart or a spreadsheet comes alive when interpreted onto a map. I’m very interested in the thought of using similar techniques to plot war dead from Portsmouth. It could really help us to understand not just the impact of losses in Portsmouth’s communities, but also the nature of Portsmouth Society in general – for example, blue dots for sailors and red dots for soldiers.

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Filed under social history, World War Two

WW2 Pigeon discovered; code may never be broken

As you may have seen in the news recently, the remains of a Second World War code-carrying pigeon have been discovered in a chimney in Surrey. The bird had a small red canister attached to its leg, of the type used by SOE – the Special Operations Executive. The code inside cannot be broken with any existing codes, and is currently being worked on by Government code experts at GCHQ.

It is entirely possible that the code may be unbreakable. It could have been written using a unique, ‘once only’ code, which will have long since been destroyed. Alternatively, it could be written using a code written for a specific operations, again, which may have long since been destroyed. Without any contextual information, it will be difficult, even with the use of ‘super-computers‘, to break the code.

Even if the code can be broken, it could well be something completely mundane. It could be a message from a unit confirming that they have achieved an objective, or sending a message back to headquarters for more toilet paper.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20164591

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20458792

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Filed under News, World War Two

The Battle of El Alamein: 70 years on

English: El Alamein 1942: British infantry adv...

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.

Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it could  said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.

On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.

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Filed under Uncategorized, World War Two

Philosophy and Football T-Shirts

As a football fan, historian and sometime-philosopher (normally after a few pints!), I’ve found these t-shirts form Philosophy Football pretty cool.

They’ve recently released a range of t-shirts to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad – possibly the most pivotal event in the Second World War. Incorporating much of the familiar soviet art work and styling – which, I have to say, I find rather cool – one nice t-shirt in particular features the slogan ‘nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten!’ in Russian script.

They are inspired by an Anna Akhmatova poem:

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what is now coming to pass.
The hour of courage has struck on the clock
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses will fall, we shall remain.

 

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Filed under World War Two

Working on Portsmouths World War One Heroes

Ive spent the past month or so working hard on writing my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

Somehow I’ve managed to write almost 27,00 words in less than a month, which is certainly a record for me and I suspect it’s probably a lot quicker than many a historian writes! All this, of course, while working a day job and you can probably see how I only really have time for sleeping and eating besides.

Writing aboutr WW1 is quite a lot different to writing about WW1, more so than many of you would probably imagine.  For two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot more records available – war diaries, rolls of honour, more detail on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and so on. Yet at the same time, it was so long ago – nearly 100 years ago – that there are very few – if any – descendants around who have information about their relatives who were killed in the Great War. When writing Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes I was fortunate enough to hear from many children of people I wrote about; I doubt very much whether that will happen with this book.

I’ve done a lot of secondary reading – I would not be surprised if the bibliography contains 100+ books by the end – but I still have a lot of primary research to do. In particular, sources such as the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm, Portsmouth Military Service tribunal records, records of corporation employees such as tram workers and policemen, and also official documents at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.

I won’t give too much away about the book, but I am writing about:

  • Lt Col Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar
  • The Royal Flying Corps
  • Emigrants and Immigrants
  • The Military Service Tribunal
  • The early Tank men
  • Boy soldiers
  • Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia and Palestine
  • Brothers
  • Royal Naval Division/Royal Marines
  • Submariners
  • Jutland
  • The first day on the Somme
  • The Portsmouth Pals
  • Prisoners of War
  • 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Brickwood

With the wealth of sources available, I have been able to go into a lot of detail about many of the men I am writing about, in particular I have been able to give a fresh insight into the social history of Portsmouth in the period 1914 to 1918, and indeed before and afterwards.

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Filed under western front, World War One, writing

Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960′s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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News – Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes book

I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, site news

Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think of a ‘Pals Battalion‘, you will invariably think of a bunch of lads from a northern, industrial working class town. Say, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, or Liverpool. So ingrained has this perception of the pals become, that you could be forgiven for thinking that nowhere south of Watford Gap raised any similar units. I even remember reading on a military history forum that, in the opinion of one member, a Battalion had to be from the North of England to be entitled to be called a Pals Battalion.

I’ve just taken Peter Simkins excellent ‘Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916′ out of the library. It is without doubt a great history of how the New Armies were recruited and raised, and launched into action, and Simkins does give good coverage to some non-Northern Pals – the Royal Sussex Downs Battalions, for example, and the Cardiff Pals. Yet I am slightly amazed to find not one mention of the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, or, as they were otherwise known, the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals.

I don’t think that history has been too kind to the Portsmouth Pals. Formed by the Mayor of Portsmouth and recruited locally, overwhelmingly from local young lads, many of whom no doubt knew each other, I think they are perfectly entitled to be called Pals. They served in the same manner as other better-known Pals Battalions, in particular at Flers and Guillemont on the Somme and again at Third Ypres, and were in New Army Divisions. Obviously, by the end of the war the numbers were being made up by men who were not from Portsmouth, but all the same, losses were horrific. The 14th Battalion lost 644 men killed, whilst the 15th lost 781 men. When we consider that the amount of wounded was often three times the number of those killed, then the two Portsmouth Pals Battalions lost their entire strength several times over as casualties.

For Portsmouth to raise two Pals Battalions – or three if we count the 16th Battalion, the Depot Battalion – was nothing short of magnificent. Remember that a very large proportion of Portsmouth’s young men were already serving in the Royal Navy, working in the Dockyard or were perhaps already serving soldiers, Portsmouth being a significant garrison town at the time. Nowhere else south of London managed to equal this feat. The Royal Sussex Regiment did have three ‘Downs’ Battalions that could be refered to as Pals, but these recruited from a much wider area and didn’t quite have the same link to place as the Portsmouth Pals did.

To put things into context, Southampton – at the time comparable in size to Portsmouth – did not raise any Pals Battalions of its own. Perhaps the people of Portsmouth were so keen to do their bit, as they were well used to sending young men off to fight, and it did not take too much to stir the martial spirit in a town that would have been full of serving and retired sailors and soldiers. I’m looking forward to reading the Portsmouth Evening News editions from those heady days in the summer of 1914. To what extent did these brave young men answer Lord Kitcheners call?

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Flying Among Heroes by Norman Franks and Simon Muggleton

With the Bomber Command Memorial in London only having been unveiled a couple of days ago, I guess it is pretty fitting to be reviewing the story of a Second World War Bomber pilot. I’ve always been in awe of the job that these very brave young men did, and it’s always interesting to hear of their stories.

This book is the story of a Second World War RAF aviator, Squadron Leader Tom Cooke DFC AFC DFM AE. Joining the RAF as an 18 year old in 1939, he graduated to flying bombers. Cooke won the DFM as a Sergeant Pilot flying Whitlet Bombers, and was later commissioned as an officer. He later served tours flying Wellington’s and Stirlings. He was awarded the DFC and AFC. In between tours with Bomber Command Squadrons he also served as an instructor in Operational Conversion Units, teaching new pilots. In this capacity he took part in the famous thousand Bomber raids on Cologne and Essen, when Bomber Harris combed out the OCU’s in order to put up as many Bombers as possible.

He returned to operations flying Halifax Bombers, but this time in a slightly unorthdox manners – namely, Special Duties, dropping special agents behind the lines in occupied Europe. On his twelfth mission he was shot down over France, and managed to evade his way back over the Pyrenees, and home to Britain via Gibraltar. Having been in contact with the French Resistance he was not allowed to fly operationally over Europe again, as he knew too much about vulnerable contacts in occupied territory. Instead, after ‘escape leave’ he was transferred to South East Asia and Burma. After leaving the RAF in 1946 he re-enlisted, finally reaching the rank of Squadron Leader, and after finally leaving the service worked as a commerical airline pilot.

It’s quite possible to do a lot of research piecing together the career of RAF Bomber Crew. If the man’s log book survives then that’s a real bonus. Also, Squadron records state the aircraft that flew on specific missions, who exactly was on board, what bomb load they carried, when they took off and landed, and a brief report of their experiences. Some crewmembers, in particular gunners, filled out air combat reports when they encountered enemy fighters.

In an interesting way, this book is quite similar to some of the research I have done on Portsmouth RAF Bomber Crew, using the same sources. Only here, Franks and Muggleton were able to call on some oral history interviews in the Imperial War Museum, with not only Cooke but also some of his crew. My one criticism would be that the text does not perhaps flow as well as it could. The authors have chosen to include stories about other men, aircraft and raids, presumably to add context. Whilst these additions do this, they do have the side effect of breaking up the narrative of Cooke’s story. I would probably rather have read Cooke’s story, as there are plenty of good books on the Bomber Offensive in general. None the less, it is still very much an interesting and gripping read.

Flying Among Heroes is published by The History Press

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

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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Filed under Bombing, News, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Mosquito Menacing the Reich: Combat Action in the Twin-Engine Wooden Wonder of World War II by Martin W. Bowman

I must confess I’ve always known OF the De Havilland Mosquito – apart from the fact that it was constructed from almost entirely from wood. But equally, I’ve never known very much about what it accomplished during the war. This book is an ideal remedy for what I suspect is a common affliction for those of us who know all about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters but have a knowledge gap when it comes to other Second World War aircraft types!

The Mosquito was originally conceived as a Medium Bomber, but ended up serving a number of roles with the RAF, and indeed with the USAAF as well. With its speed and high operating altitude, it served as a medium bomber, a precision strike aircraft, a pathfinder and marker, an anti-shipping strike platform, in North West Europe and in South East Asia. That it was also used by the Americans speaks volumes of its reputation.

For much of its service, only the Luftwaffe’s new jets could outperform it, speed wise. It had a higher operational ceiling than most other aircraft, and indeed German flak, so could quite often avoid danger. It proved to be ideal for precision bombing, where accuracy was needed that could not be obtained by Heavy Bombers. Leonard Cheshire VC used a Mosquito to perfect precision bombing of railway yards in the run up to D-Day, and Mosquitos were also used against the Tirpitz. Perhaps the Mosquito’s most famous raids were those on German Headquarters in The Hague, Aarhus and Oslo. Popular consesus might think that precision bombing came with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the Mosquito’s effectiveness came a clear 40 odd years before.

Mosquitos were also often used in daylight, and for diversionary raids at night when Bomber Command’s main force was attacking elsewhere. They also famously raided Berlin night after night, just as much for the nuisance value as anything else. Hermann Goring was apparently furious that a Mosquito raid knocked out a radio station, thus putting one of his speeches off air.

At times perhaps there are more personal accounts than there are history, but the story is much better told in the words of the men who were there. With a crew of only two -a pilot and a navigator – they seem to have had to show more initiative and shoulder much more of a responsibility than other aircrew, given the highly specialised roles in which their aircraft were employed, often with a much greater degree of independence than say a Bomber crew with the main force.

This is a brilliant book my Martin Bowman. It’s choc full of accounts from men who flew and navigated the Mosquito. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It’s a great tribute to not only a wonderful aircraft – which deserves a more prominent place in aviation history – but also the incredibly brave men who flew it. It’s such a shame that there aren’t any surviving in airworthy fashion – I’m sure it would be quite a sight.

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

 

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

To Caen and back

On Monday I travelled to France and back, without actually setting foot in France!

To go back to the start of the story, my employers very kindly asked me to give a lecture onboard Brittany Ferries MV Normandie, on the route between Portsmouth and Ouistreham-Caen. I gave a talk on my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ on each leg. It wasn’t actually worth me getting off the boat while it was docked at Ouistreham, so I stayed in my cabin and took some pictures of the gorgeous looking beach. Of course, those sands formed part of Sword beach on 6 June 1944.

Both talks were very well received. It is a new venture that Brittany are trialling, and it seems to have been appreciated by many people who attended. It was also a new experience for me, as I had never sailed on this route before. Hence for the first time I was able to take pictures, up on deck, of the warships in Pompey Harbour, and also experience sailing out past the Round Tower, down past the Solent forts, then round Bembridge ledge and past the round tower.

HMS Bristol

ex HMS Liverpool and ex HMS Ark Royal

a Batch 3 Type 42, Endurance and Illustrious

USS Normandy

mid-Channel on the way out

Ouistreham. The beach was part of Sword beach on D-Day

mid-Channel on the way back

late evening sun off the Isle of Wight

 

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Falklands 30 – Atlantic Conveyor

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Fa...

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Falklands. About 19 May 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic Conveyor was a twelve year old merchant container and vehicle transporter. Requisitioned on 14 April 1982, she was hurriedly refitted at Devonport Dockyard for service with the South Atlantic task force. She sailed from Plymouth on 25 April after undergoing trials, and was carrying 5 Chinook and 6 Wessex Helicopters.

Merchant vessels taken up by trade during the Falklands War present an interesting scenario.  Although most of their civilian crew stayed onboard and came under the naval discipline act, vessels also had a Naval party of officers and ratings onboard. Obviously, a merchant vessels master will know how to sail the ship better than a naval captain might, but would not necessarily know as much about naval warfare. Hence evidence suggests that the relationship between a ships master and senior naval officer, and indeed her civilian and naval crew, could be critical. The Atlantic Conveyor sailed with 31 merchant Seamen onboard, but 126 military personnel. Of these 36 officers and men formed the ships naval party, the rest were working on the aircraft carried.

She arrived at Ascension on 5 May, where she embarked 8 Sea Harriers as reinforcement for the Squadrons already in the South Atlantic, and 6 RAF Harrier GR3. Along with the amphibious group she left Ascension and arrived in the TEZ on 19 May, carrying a total of 25 aircraft. While entering the TEZ one Harrier was actually kept on deck alert, armed with Sidewinder missiles.

Although the Harriers were disembarked to Aircraft Carriers, the Altantic Conveyor retained her Helicopters onboard and remained with the Carrier Battle Group to the East while the landings at San Carlos began. She was due to sail into San Carlos Water on the night of 25 May to deliver her cargo. At 1940 that evening an air raid warning was received. Captain Ian North ordered an immediate turn to port by 40 degrees, to present th Conveyor’s strong stern doors to the direction of the threat. Emergency stations were piped, and the ships siren was sounded as an extra warning. HMS Invincible launched a Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol. At 1942 an approaching missile was sighted by several ships, including HMS Brilliant. All of the naval ships in the vicinity fired off chaff decoys, but the Conveyor had not been given chaff. She was hit by two exocet missiles at

The missiles penetrated her main cargo deck, and a fireball spread through the ship. As a merchant ship she was not equipped with the kind of damage control that naval warships are, such as bulkheads or sealable sections. Fires spread through her vast, cavernous hold. Firefighting was therefore impossible, and she was abandoned in an orderly manner thirty minutes after being hit – even though cluster bombs were beginning to be ignited by the fires. After burning for another day, she sank whilst under tow on 28 May. Only one of her Chinook helicopters had left – and that only for a test flight.

One of the sad statistics about the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor is that of the 12 men who lost their lives, 9 of them had actually managed to escape the ship but died whilst awaiting rescue in the water. Among them was the ships civilian Master, Captain Ian North. North had made it into the sea, but slipped between the waves before boarding a lifeboat. The Senior Naval Officer survived but was deeply moved by the loss of his friend. That 139 of her crew of 149 – 92% – were rescued is testament to the great efforts made by ships and helicopters in the area. One of the helicopters assisting in the rescue was reportedly co-piloted by Prince Andrew.

The loss of the Atlantic Conveyors considerable troop-carrying helicopters meant that the land forces would, in the main, have to tab or yomp across East Falkland towards Stanley. This no doubt made executing the war a much harder porposition, than if six Chinooks had been available to lift the Paras, Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas right from Stanley to the Mountains. The Argentines might have prefered to have sunk one of the Aircraft Carriers, but sinking the Atlantic Conveyor was a remarkable piece of luck which probably prolonged the war for days if not weeks.

The Board of Inquiry into the Atlantic Conveyor found no fault with anyone involved in the loss of the ship, only raising minor points that could not possibly have been foreseen, especially given the speed with which merchant vessels had been co-opted into the war effort. It had been nigh-impossible, in the time available, to give much thought to the loading of explosive cargoes, as would have been the case in peacetime. Obviously she didn’t have the same kind of Magazine arrangements that a military ship might have.

It’s an interesting thought, that with a lack of platforms for flying helicopters, and an uncertain world, might it be possible to use ships such as the Atlantic Conveyor in an emergency once again? Her use was very similar to some of the Merchant Navy ships in the Second World War that were fitted to operate a small number of aircraft. Of course, the Harriers were ideal for this as vertical take off aircraft. And do we have enough spare naval personnel nowadays to provide naval party’s in a hurry? Being able to fit merchant vessels with Chaff in an emergency would also seem to be a lesson learn from the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.

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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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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One