Tag Archives: World War II

First names inscribed on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first batch of names on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial have been inscribed recently.

I haven’t had a chance to read through the panel in detail yet, but upon first glance it looks like most if not all of the several hundreds missing names I submitted are there.

Among them is my great-uncle, Leading Stoker Thomas Henry Daniel Daly who died after the SS Laconia was torpedoed in 1942.

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Author Talk at Portsmouth Central Library Saturday 12 May

Central Library - Portsmouth Viewed from the s...

I will be giving an author talk this coming Saturday at Portsmouth Central Library (12 May 2012) as part of Adult Learning Week. Starting at 1.30pm I will be talking about my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, and giving an insight into how it was researched and written.

David Percival, library service learning and engagement manager, said:

‘We’re delighted to welcome James Daly to the Central Library, for what we are sure will be a fascinating afternoon. There is a huge amount of interest in the city’s local history, so this will be a great way for residents to discover Portsmouth’s personal war stories. This author talk is part of packed programme of events to mark Adult Learners Week in our libraries.’

Tickets are free with a valid Portsmouth Library Service card and £2 for non-members. Please note that library membership is free, so this would be a great chance to join up when coming in for your ticket. To book tickets or for more information, call in to your local Portsmouth library, or email libraries@portsmouthcc.gov.uk

I will also have a LIMITED number of books available for you to buy on the day, signed of course!

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Falklands 30 – the sinking of the Belgrano

The Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano lis...

The first heavy loss of life in the Falklands War occured when the British Submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine Crusier, the General Belgrano on 3 May 1982.

The ARA General Belgrano was a Brooklyn Class Cruiser, originally built for the US Navy as USS Phoenix. In that guise she served throughout the Second World War, before being sold to Argentina and renamed in 1955. In 1982 she had an armament of 15 6-inch guns, 5 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. In 1968 she was retro-fitted with Sea Cat missile systems, which we obsolescent in 1982. As a WW2 vintage ship she had relatively thick armour compared to other Falklands-ear ships, her main belt of armour being 5.5 inches thick, and her deck armour 2 inches. The Belgrano did not actually take part in the operations to invade the Islands – Operation Rosario – but eventually put to see from Ushaia in southern Argentina on 26 April, accompanied by her two destroyer escorts, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA ARA Bouchard (both also ex-US Navy ships).

The British battle group had entered the north east of the exclusion zone around the islands on 1 May. The Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, feared that the Belgrano and her escorts would form the southern part of a pincer attack by the Argentine fleet, with the northern pincer formed of the aircraft carrier Vienticino de Mayo. The de Mayo had actually been preparing to launch a Skyhawk strike on the British fleet on 2 May, when light winds made it impossible to launch aircraft. She was also escorted by two Type 42 Destroyers, Santissima Trinidad and Hercules. HMS Spartan had been assigned to track down the de Mayo, and although she never located the carrier, Woodward’s memoirs suggest that if she had, she would have been sunk.

There seems to have been a lot of controversy in recent years about the sinking of the Belgrano. It has been painted as a monstrous, heavy-handed or even illegal act by left-wingers, anti-war activits and Argentines alike. Nobody in Argentina – in particular men on the Belgrano – seems to have been aggrieved that the Conqueror attacked the Belgrano whilst she was outside the exclusion zone. Hovering around the edge of a war zone, with clearly hostile intent, is asking to be sunk. On 23 April a message was passed to the Argentine government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, to inform that although the British Government had announced a maritime exclusion zone, it would not limit its actions to within this zone if hostile threats occured outside of the zone. This is an important point to make. Essentially, any Argentine ship leaving port was liable to be attacked.

Sandy Woodward later said that “the speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention”. The decision to torpedo the Belgrano was taken after much deliberation, though the military chain of command and at war cabinet level. It was not a decision that seems to have been taken lightly. Indeed, Conqueror seems to have been tracking the Belgrano for three days before she attacked – hardly ideal, militarily, as it placed the Conqueror at much risk, but it does show that due diligence was taken. We also need to recognise that the sinking of the Belgrano did represent a fine feat of arms by the Conqueror’s crew and her Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown. It certainly suggests that British submarine’s were very effective, not surprising given that they had spent years practising their craft in the North Atlantic shadow-boxing with the Soviet submarine fleet.

Interestingly, a book published in 2011 suggested that signals intelligence showed that the Belgrano was actually steaming towards a rendevouz inside the exclusion zone, which clearly would signal hostile intent. Accounts from survivors suggest that the ship was not in a high state of defence – neither the Belgrano nor her two destroyers were zig-zagging. Compare this lax state to some of the vigorous anti-submarine actions taken by the British task force during the war. It is absolutely tragic that over three hundred young men died when the Belgrano was sunk. But it is even more tragic that they were condemmed to their deaths by a Government and a Navy that sent young, poorly trained conscripts sea in an obsolete ship, with inadequate anti-submarine defences, lifejackets or liferafts.

What might have happened had the Belgrano not been sunk? Certainly, her 6-inch guns outranged and outgunned anything that the British fleet had. They were almost certainly outranged by surface missiles such as Exocet, but none the less the Belgrano and her task force, could, potentially, have caused some damage to the task force. In particular, if the de Mayo had managed to launch air strikes, and the Belgrano had appeared from the south, a double threat might have been a bit of a problem. Add into that mix the potential for Super Etendard Exocet strikes, then we can see that it was important for the British to remove whatever threats they could, however they could.

The sinking of the Belgrano not only removed the Argentine Navy‘s second most dangerous ship from the war, it also had a serious morale effect – not only did it provide a boost early in the war, but it also compelled the Argentine Navy – agitators in starting the war in the first place – to scurry back into port and not sail out again for the rest of the conflict. This superiority of the waves made the British Task Force’s job that little less difficult when it came to gaining a degree of air superiority, and then eventually landing on the Falklands.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Merchant Seamen

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the chapters in my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ concerned Merchant Seamen who were killed in the Second World War. Whilst I did argue that the fate of merchant seamen had been overlooked compared to their counterparts in the three ‘main’ armed forces, merchant seamen in the Second World War have had a relatively high profile compared to their predecessors of the First World War.

Whilst we all know about the U-Boat wolf packs of the Second World War, it is less well known that Germany first attempted what it called ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ in the First World War, in an attempt to bring Britain to her knees by choking her maritime links with the rest of the world. Just to give some kind of comparison, in the Second World War the British Merchant Navy lost 11.7 million tons of shipping – around 2,828 ships, with the los of around 30,000 men. In the First World War, the total was 7.7 million tons – 14,661 Merchant Seamen were lost. Less than in the Second World War, but clearly not insignificant either.

26 Merchant Seamen from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1919. The interesting thing is, that three were killed in 1915, then two in 1916, before 8 were killed in 1917 and then 6 in 1918. It was in 1917 that Germany really ramped up it’s U-Boat offensive, and it really shows in the statistics of casualties.

Henry Kinshott, aged 33, was a waiter onboard the liner RMS Lusitania. A Cunard Liner, on 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-20, 13miles off of Kinsale in Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 of her complement of 1,959. 128 of those lost were American, and the disaster arguably played a part in encouraging the US to come into the war on the side of Britain and France. Kinshott is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Born in Fareham, Kinshott lived at 3 Hampshire Street, Landport. Although thousands of people were killed, the Lusitania is relatively unknown compared to the Titanic.

A number of Hospital Ships were also lost at sea. On board the 12,000 ton HMHS Asturias was Greaser Stanley Cross, aged 2. On 21 March 1917, the Asutrias – formerly a Royal Mail ship – was damaged by U-66, 6 miles off Start Point in Devon. She was running between Avonmouth and Southampton, presumably carrying war casualties. The ship was beached and salvaged, but 35 men were lost, among them Stanley Cross. He is buried in Southampton Cemetery. Although Born in Landport in Portsmouth, he lived in Southampton.

One merchant ship actually had two Portsmouth men onboar. On the  SS Joshua were Master Thomas Jarrett, 48, and from 47 Derby Road in North End; and Mate Arthur Puddick, 40, from 27 Fourth Street in Kingston. The Joshua, a 60 ton coaster carrying china clay between Fowey in Cornwall and Dieppe in France, was stopped on 11 October 1917 by UB-57 west of the Isle of Wight. 3 of her crew were lost. Jarrett is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, while Puddick’s body was recovered and buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

A number of Navy Yachts were also lost during the war. The Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of smaller vessels, particuarly for Patrolling coastal waters. In most cases their civilian crews served onboard throughout hostilities. At least seven Portsmouth men were lost crewing Yachts.

The WW1 U-Boat offensive seems to have been a lot more indiscriminate than that of 1939-1945. As an illustration of this, even a Trinity House Pilot vessel was sunk. On 26 September 1915 the Vigilant, a 69 ton wooden ketch built in 1879, was sunk by UC-7 off the South Shipwash Buoy off Harwich. 14 of her crew were lost, uncluding Steward William Barley, 41, who lived at 42 Darlington Road in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial.

 

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Portsmouth and Jutland: the forgotten battle?

Photograph of British destroyer HMS Spitfire a...

If you had to pick one sea battle with which Portsmouth is irrevocably linked, it would probably be the Battle of Trafalgar. In terms of Portsmouth’s place in the nation’s history, Trafalgar, Nelson and 1805 probably represents the most glorious example of how Portsmouth helped to launch the Royal Navy onto the worlds seas.

Yet 111 years later, thousands of Portsmouth sailors and literally hundreds of ships with Portsmouth connections fought out one of the largest sea battles in history. Almost 9,000 men were killed on both sides, compared to ‘only’ about 1,500 at Trafalgar. Why is it that hardly no-one knows about the Battle of Jutland? Why has Portsmouth’s role in supporting the Royal Navy of 1914-18 been almost completely overshadowed?

HMS Victory at Trafalgar – of her crew of 846, only FIVE men were born in Portsmouth. True, most of the other 841 may well have lived in or at least visited Portsmouth at some point in their lives, but five people still represents only 0.6% of her entire crew. My research has shown that at Jutland, on the capital ships this figure was nearer 10%.

So far, I have found 492 men from Portsmouth who were killed at Jutland. By ‘from Portsmouth’, I mean people who were born here, or were born elsewhere and moved to the town. The true figure of Portsmouth dead at Jutland will in all likelihood be much higher, as many men entered on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission‘s website have no location details, so it would take an awful lot of work to go through each of the 6,000 Royal Navy fatalities to identify if they had any Portsmouth connections. I would guess that the likelihood is that out of a Battlecruisers crew of say 1,000, a large percentage are likely to have either lived in Portsmouth, or been born there. And what about the men who might not have been born here or lived in the town, but spent significant time in the Naval Barracks, or on runs ashore in Portsmouth?

HMS Acasta – Acasta was the lead ship of a class of Destroyers, and was launched in 1912. She was damaged at Jutland, with the loss of six of her crew, one of whom was Chief Stoker George Howe. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, so either he died of wounds or his body was recovered.

HMS Ardent – Ardent was an Acasta Class Destroyer launched in 1913. She was sunk at Jutland on 1 June 1916, by the German Battleship Westaflen. Of her crew of 75, 10 of those killed were from Portsmouth.

HMS Barham – a Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship, Barham has a pretty interesting place in Portsmouth’s history, as possibly the only ship that suffered fatalities of Portsmouth men in both world wars. Commissioned in October 1915, Barham was hit five times at Jutland. 25 of her crew were killed, including her Chaplain, who came from Portsmouth. Reverend Henry Dixon-Wright was born in Wallington in Surrey, but in 1916 was living in Stanley Street in Southsea. He obviously died of wounds, as he is buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow.

HMS Black Prince – Black Prince was a Duke of Edinburgh class armoured cruiser launched in 1904. She was sunk at point blank range by five German battleships on the night of 31 May and 1 June 1916. All of her crew of 857 were lost, with 99 of them coming from Portsmouth.

HMS Broke – Broke was a Faulknor class Destroyer Leader launched in August 1914, originally built for the Chilean Navy but taken over by the Royal Navy after the outbreak of WW1. HMS Broke was devestated by fire from the Westfalen, killing 50 of her crew and wounding 30. 2 of the dead came from Portsmouth. After Broke was hit, she went out of control and rammed HMS Sparrowhawk, causing further casualties (see below).

HMS Castor – Castor was a C class light cruiser. She suffered relatively light damage at Jutland, with ten of her crew becoming casualties. One of those killed was from Portsmouth – Chief Yeoman of Signals Daniel MacGregor, aged 38.

HMS Chester – Chester was a Town class light cruiser, launched in 1915 for the Greek Navy, but taken over by the Royal Navy after the outbreak of war. At Jutland she was hit by 17 150mm shells; out of her crew of 402, 29 men were killed and 49 were wounded. Two of the dead were from Portsmouth – Chief Yeoman of Signals William Roy, 38 and from Southsea; and Lieutenant George Walker-Williamson, also from Southsea. Boy John Cornwell won a posthumous Victoria Cross on HMS Chester at Jutland. Photos show that the Chester suffered serious damage, and it is remarkable that so few of her crew became casualties.

HMS Defence – Defence was a Minotaur class armoured cruiser, launched in 1907. At Jutland she was hit by two salvoes from five German battleships, causing her after 9.2in magazine to explode. It is believed that up to 903 men were killed, including 14 from Portsmouth.

HMS Fortune - HMS Fortune was an Acasta class Destroyer, sunk by fire from the Westfalen. 67 men were killed, and only one was rescued. 14 of those killed came from Portsmouth.

HMS Indefatigable – 10. HMS Indefatigable was the lead ship of a class of Battlecruisers, launched in 1909. Shells from the German Battlecruiser Von der Tann caused a catastrophic explosion of her magazines. Of her crew of 1,017, only three survived. Ten of the dead were from Portsmouth, suggesting that she was not, in the main, a Portsmouth-manned ship.

HMS Invincible – Invincible was the lead ship of a class of Battlecruisers, and was launched in 1908. Having fought at the Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of the Falklands, by 1916 she was an experienced ship. At Jutland Invincible was sunk by fire from Lutzow and Derfflinger, a shell from which penetrated the Q turret, and caused a huge explosion of the midships magazine.  1,026 men were killed, including 130 from Portsmouth. There were only six survivors.

HMS Lion – HMS Lion was the lead ship of another class of Battlecruisers, and was Vice Admiral Beatty’s flagship at Jutland. Lion was hit 14 times, suffering 99 men dead and 51 wounded. 8 of those killed came from Portsmouth She had fired 326 rounds from her main guns.

HMS Malaya – HMS Malaya was a Queen Elizabeth class Battleship, and had only been commissioned in February 1916. At Jutland she was hit eight times, and 65 of her crew were killed. One man came from Portsmouth – Cooks Mate Frederick Watts, aged 23. He is buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow, suggesting that either his body was recovered, or he died of wounds.

HMS Nestor -HMS Nestor was an M-class Destroyer, launched in 1915. She was sunk at Jutland. Many of her crew of 80 were lost, including one man from Portsmouth – Petty Officer Stoker George Hawkins, 29 and from Harley Street in Fratton.

HMS Nomad – The Nomad was a sister ship of HMS Nestor, and was only launched in February 1916. She was sunk by fire from the German battlecruisers. Out of her crew of 80 only eight men were killed, but two them were from Portsmouth – Able Seaman Walter Read, 30 and from Norland Street in Southsea; and ERA 2nd Class George Willis.

HMS Princess Royal -Princess Royal was a Lion class Battlecruiser, launched in 1911. Princess Royal was hit eight times at Jutland, by Derfflinger and Markgraf. 22 of her crew were killed, and 81 were injured. Among the dead were Portsmouth men Leading Stoker George Daniels, 34 and from Southsea; and Royal Marine Gunner Ernest Gamblin, 36 and from St Helens Road in Southsea. The sight of a seriously damaged Princess Royal returning to Portsmouth after the battle shocked many.

HMS Queen Mary -Queen Mary was a Battlecruiser, the sole ship in her class, and was launched in 1912. Early in the battle she was hit twice by Derfflinger, causing a catastrophic explosion in her magazines. Out of her crew of 1,284, only eighteen survivors were picked up. 124 of the dead came from Portsmouth.

HMS Shark -Shark was an Acasta class Destroyer, launched in 1912. Attached to the Battlecruisers at Jutland, she led a torpedo attack on the German scouting group. She was heavily damaged, and her Captain lost a leg. The ship was abandoned, and only 30 of her crew survived. Among the dead were 15 Portsmouth sailors.

HMS Southampton – A town class light cruiser, Southampton was damaged at Jutland but survived the battle. Out of her crew of around 440, 31 men were killed. Five of them came from Portsmouth.

HMS Sparrowhawk – Sparrowhawk was another Acasta class Destroyer, sunk after a collision with HMS Broke (above). One Portsmouth man was killed, Petty Officer Stoker Albert Jones.

HMS Tipperary – Tipperary was a Faulknor class Destroyer leader. Launched in 1915, she was originally ordered by Chile, but taken over by the Royal Navy at the start of the war. After contributing to the sinking of the German battleship Frauenlob, Tipperary was sunk by Westfalen. Of her crew of 197, 184 men were lost, including 22 from Portsmouth.

HMS Turbulent – Turbulent was a Talisman class Destroyer, launched in January 1916. She was sunk at Jutland by a German Battlecruiser, with the loss of 90 out of a crew of 102. One man came from Portsmouth – her Engineer Lieutenant Reginald Hines, 32 and from Hereford Road in Southsea, an old boy of Portsmouth Grammar School.

HMS Warrior – Warrior was a Duke of Edinburgh class armoured cruiser, launched in 1905. Heavily damaged at Jutland, she sank the next day. 743 of her crew survived, 67 were killed. Two of the dead came from Portsmouth – Officers Steward 1st Class Harold Parker, 23; and Royal Marine Bugler William Willerton.

Looking at the casualty information, several things appear to be clear. Firstly, the loss sustained by Portsmouth was significant. Secondly, many of the men lost were on battlecruisers – indeed, there was ‘something wrong with our bloody ships’ that day. Sadly, the lack of armoured protection in battlecruisers was not rectified in HMS Hood, leading to even more casualties in 1941. Thirdly, although the German High Seas Fleet had given the Grand Fleet a bloody nose, it was nowhere near bloody enough to wrest supremacy of the North Sea.

Much has been written about Portsmouth and Jutland, albeit not in recent years. There are a number of statements that have been made about Jutland and its effect on Portsmouth, that were never substantiated by evidence, and have been perpetuated throughout time. Apparently one street in Portsmouth lost a huge number of sailors killed, it is believed to be 39. Also, it has been said that ‘virtually’ every street in Portsmouth lost at least one sailor at Jutland. It would be interesting to challenge, and either prove or disprove these potential urban myths.

Having said that, we know for a fact that many of hundreds of Portsmouth men were killed on 31 May and 1 June 1916. It was almost certainly the bloodiest day – or days – in Portsmouth’s history. It almost certainly had a bigger impact on Portsmouth than any of the Pals Battalion‘s losses on the Somme did on their hometowns. Yet whilst we know plenty about the Northern working class towns that suffered on the Somme, we know virtually nothing about the sailors neighbourhoods of Portsmouth that had their menfolk decimated at sea, particularly at Jutland. People just don’t seem to think of the Great War as being a naval war.

Jutland has been almost completely overshadowed by Trafalgar and the Titanic as precursors, the Western Front as a Great War contemporary, and D-Day and ships such as the Hood and the Royal Oak as Second World War successors. Yet Jutland saw much heavier losses  than any of these events.

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Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes awarded 4.5/5 ‘mines’!

My book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ has received a brilliant review from the Mine Clearance Diving Officers Association website, being awarded 4 and a half mines out of a possible 5! This is of course very poignant, given the inclusion of a mine warfare CPO, Reg Ellingworth GC.

I hope the MCDOA do not mind me quoting some of the ‘best bits’ here:

James Daly is a Portsmouth historian who runs the extremely informative and thought-provoking Daly History Blog which contains well-researched articles and analysis of military history and contemporary news events.

Full of fascinating detail, this book is engaging from cover to cover.  The way in which the author manages to bring alive such a wide variety of characters and their deeds makes it eminently readable and a valuable acquisition for anyone with a general interest in naval & military history and with Portsmouth in particular.  I learned about some rarely described aspects of the war and thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

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Signing at Waterstones Portsmouth tomorrowng

I’ll be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth tomorrow, from 11am until 3pm.

If you want to buy a copy and get a special dedication – either for yourself, or as a gift for a relative or friend maybe – or you would like to talk to me about the book, fee free pop by and say hello.

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Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.

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War Graves desecrated in Benghazi

I’m absolutely appalled by the footage of armed men desecrating British war graves in Benghazi in Libya. Click here to watch.

Footage on the BBC website shows a large group of armed men – accompanied by what appears to be a reasonably professional film crew – smashing numerous CWGC grave stones. A man is then shown climbing a ladder to try and damage the cross of sacrifice that is present in all larger cemeteries. One gravestone is clearly seen to be engraved with a star of David, denoting that it is the grave of a Jewish serviceman. At no point does anybody seem to stop them, least of all the camera crew. The group act calmly and casually – this is not the work of a few idle youths.That it was filmed does suggest that it was organised. Of course the Libyan Government has condemed the attacks, but did they do enough to stop them? Will they do enough to stop them in future? I’m intrigued about who exactly the film crew were.

War graves in Libya have been pretty inaccessible for many years, since Colonel Gaddafi came to power. One Portsmouth man is buried in Beghazi – Bombardier Henry Herbert, aged 22 who was killed on 8 January 1942 serving with 51 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The CWGC have confirmed that graves have been damaged, and will be carrying out a full survey soon.

Desecrating war graves is a particularly cowardly thing to do. Especially considering British servicemen have done a lot to help ordinary Libyans, both during the Second World War when the Eight Army fought to push back both the Italians and the Germans, and in the past year or so when NATO forces helped the overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It is a cowardly thing to do, because the man buriede beneath the gravestone cannot fight back. And more important than that, a war grave is deserving of respect, no matter who is buried there. A person who died doing their duty deserves dignity and peace regardless of the uniform that they wore, or the mistakes of their political masters.

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Why we write

I spent 28 years of my life dreaming about writing a book. It’s something that not many people ever manage, let alone many 28 year olds. Unless you’re Justin Bieber, in which case someone writes your autobiography for you when you’re 16. But – thankfully – I’m not Justin Beiber.

Having written my first book, naturally I’ve been thinking about the future. When you dream about something for so long, and finally achieve it, what do you do next? Well, the obvious answer is write more books. But on a more philosophical level, the whole experience has got me thinking about why exactly we write.

As far as I can see, there are seven reasons to write:

  • To make money. Or, at least, cover your costs
  • To inform, educate, and entertain
  • To boost your CV
  • To write a wrong, or clear up a mystery
  • To argue, persuade or convince
  • To massage your ego
  • To win yourself brownie points with other academics

Of course, some authors are motivated by any combination of the above.

Unless you are in the fortunate situation of not having to worry about money – ie, you work for an institution and writing comes as part of the job, or you are simply minted – basic economics mean that you have to at least cover your costs. Unless you write the next Birdsong, you’re not going to make a fortune from writing history. Of course, it’s no good writing something that nobody wants to read, whether it is too niche, too boring, or simply, crap. No publisher will touch a book that doesn’t have the prospect of selling well. Which can be a double edged sword – some authors, clearly, end up writing books that sell, but don’t have much historical merit.

I must admit, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ would not win me any academic awards. I doubt it would even do very well as a PhD thesis. But, after being on sale for a month it has probably sold more copies than many of my erstwhile lecturers ever will with of some of their books. And I think that’s a very important point – historians tend to write just for each other. No wonder much popular history ends up being rubbish – gifted historians tend to concentrate too much on academic journals, that only academics read. Is anything you write in a journal article really likely to change the world? Is it going to convince a 15 year old to choose a career as a historian? No, I don’t think so either. I know of more than one critically acclaimed history book that has actually sold pitifully few numbers. Whatever you write, or how important you think it is, if no-one reads it, what difference does it make?

I guess its similar to music. The Bay City Rollers sold more records in the 70′s than anyone else, but did they have any effect on music? Not really. Black Sabbath didn’t sell many records in the 70′s, but their musical legacy inspired a whole genre. There are probably hundreds of bands out there who are cult heroes to many geeky musos – you know, the arty types – who didn’t sell any records, hardly anyone heard of them at the time, and no-one can remember them now.

Historically, I guess I’m trying to plot a course somewhere between Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath territory – credible, but appealing to normal people. I want people to actually be able to read it, but then I think it is very important to have things like a bibliography, and endnotes, so your work stands up to scrutiny and is useful to people.

I’m trying to think of a way of concluding this post, that makes sense. But having realised that I have basically described myself as a historical cross between the Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath, I think I will simply leave it there.

Any other historians have any thoughts on the subject?

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Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990′s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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Thinking about Great War communities

My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.

So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.

One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.

But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.

Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.

Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?

There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.

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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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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes Book Tour underway

Last night I have my first talk based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The audience at the D-Day Museum were the Portsmouth Museums and Records Society, a group that I first joined as a committee member at the age of 17! I’ve lectured the Society three times now, so you could say I’m something of an old hand by now!

As always it was great to get out and present some history, hear some comments and answer some questions. For me, that’s why you should want to write history – to take it to people. I can’t stand why authors wouldn’t want to take their book out to people and interact with the public?! It’s like a band producing an album and then never going on tour or doing any interviews!

The first copies of the book arrived at the Museum for sale in the afternoon, and were on the shelves in time for the talk. Five lucky guests went away with the first signed copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The book is now for sale at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, and hopefully early next week will be available at the City Museum as well.

I have several more talks booked – in Gosport, ironically – and a signing and talk at the D-Day Museum for the general public in March, please see my Talks page for details. I am in discussions with another couple of venues and groups about some more events. If anyobody out there is a talks organiser for a local group and you think you might like to book me, please feel free to get in touch.

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Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes arrives!

Yesterday I received the first advance copy of my new book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ through the post.

The publishers inform me that the book will be leaving the distributors warehouse early next week, so hopefully we should start seeing books appearing on the bookshelves and through the online outlets in the near future!

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