Tag Archives: World War II

Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – talk at D-Day Museum on 16 February 2012

Next Thursday I’m kicking off the ‘Portsmouth World War Two Heroes’ tour with a home gig.

I’m going to be speaking about my book at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth on Thursday 16 February, at 7.30pm. The talk is organised by the Portsmouth Museums and Records Society, and is £1 for members and £2 for guests.

Hope to see you there!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Talks

Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

I really enjoyed Bomber Boys, which was on BBC1 on Sunday Evening. The programme showed Ewen McGregor’s brother Colin – a former RAF pilot who flew with 617 Squadron – learning to fly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster, the only flying Lanc in Britain and one of only two left flying in the world. First McGregor learnt to fly a C-47 Dakota, a classic aircraft that was perhaps as much of a war-winner as the Lancaster and the Spitfire, but has never quite attracted the same glamour. He then progressed to taking the controls of the Lancaster.

I especially enjoyed the insightful contributions of Bomber Command veterans. Of course, so few of those very young men actually survived the war. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any comparable command in the British armed forces during the second world war. I think that their views and remeniscences were very interesting, and it is increasingly important that their recollections of everyday life are remembered. It’s not just their memories of flying and fighting that are important, but also of drinking in pubs, life on airbases and chasing WAAFs, and things like that, that really matter. In that sense the McGregors looked at the social history aspect of Bomber Command more than any other programme I have seen. The McGregors also looked at other aspects of the campaign, such as the Germans raid on Coventry in 1940, the Butt report on bombing accuracy, and the raids on Hamburg and Dresden. They also looked at the bombing from the perspective of the German population.

My research into Portsmouth airmen shows just how history has slanted views. Hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed with Bomber Command. And they were young men, mostly in their early twenties and some in their late teens. Most of them have never even driven a car, but some found themselves piloting big, heavy Bombers on marathon missions over occupied Europe – often two or three times a week. It’s impossible to describe what a strain this must have placed on these young men – flying for up to ten hours at a time, facing imeasurable dangers of flak, night fighters and the threat of accidents. The rate of attrition in aircraft and crews was, in retrospect, terrifying.

Yet for some unknown reason, the Bomber Boys have never quite attracted the attention of Fighter Command. Compared to the hundreds of Portsmouth men who fought and died in the Bomber Offensive, only ONE was killed flying with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I cannot help but think that this is down to two historical developments. Firstly, after the end of the war the strategic bombing of civilian targets became distinctly unfashionable. Even before the end of the war Churchill was distancing himself from the historical legacy of the bombers. Secondly, the RAF being the RAF, it has always done self-promotion very well. And since the Second World War, it has suited far more to play up the Battle of Britain rather than the Bombers Offensive. And thus when we think of the RAF, we think of the dashing young public schoolboy, pre-war regulars of Fighter Command, rather than the diverse, international and unsung men of Bomber Command.

This was a brilliant programme, very well thought out and blending history with remeniscence. I also found it very moving and inspiring, and made me think of such brave Portsmouth bomber men as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, Flight Sergeant Francis Compton, and Flight Lieutenant’s Guy and Arthur Venables. Reading their operational records at the National Archives was a sobering reminder of just what an incredible ordeal they endured.

Bomber Boys is available to watch on BBC iplayer (UK only)

9 Comments

Filed under On TV, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes

Three weeks to Publication!

It’s just under three weeks – 20 days, to be exact! – until my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, is published!

It’s been a long time coming but it’s exciting to know that it’s not far away now. The official publication date is 01 February, apparently the books should materialise sometime later in the month. There should be an official youtube trailer available some time soon too.

If anybody would like to pre-order, you can pre-order from the following online outlets:

Amazon

The History Press

Waterstones

WH Smith

Foyles

Play.com

Book Depository

Telegraph Books

Guardian Books

It should also be on sale in local bookshops, including the D-Day Museum and Portsmouth City Museum.

If anybody is trying to order from abroad, I have seen it listed on American, Canadian, New Zealand and even Polish websites – let me know and I will try and find you a link.

If anybody would like a signed copy, please let me know and I will see what I can do. I am hoping to have a number of signing events over the next year or so.

Happy reading!

11 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes

Christmas Message from James

After I’ve had a few days of down time over christmas – which for me constitutes divorcing myself from the laptop for a few days! – I have had a chance to sit back and reflect on what an amazing year it has been.

This time last year I had just started work on my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The contract was inked in January, and after a mammoth effort the book was handed into the publishers in June. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about the writing process, the publishing industry and much more besides! In particular, in future I would give myself much more time, and in particular, I would try not to move house three days before the hand-in date!

After a bit of a rest – including a nice trip to the Dartmoor Folk Festival, and settling in to my new quarters in Chichester, I have started work on my project looking at Portsmouth’s fallen heroes from the Great War. Research is still ongoing, and I am still considering how best to present this research, but I do very much have my eyes on the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 in 2014, or the 100th anniversary of the Somme in 2016.

The most popular topics on my blog this year have been ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘, a BBC docu-drama in January, and the visit of the US Aircraft Carrier George H.W. Bush to the Solent in May. Anything to do with the Falklands seems to go down pretty well. Sadly I haven’t been able to post as much as I would like, due to work commitments, lack of internet at times of the year, etc, I am still pretty pleased with the hit rate I am getting. But I won’t pre-empt my review of the year, which rightly belongs on new years eve.

When I think back to the time that I started this blog, it’s almost like it was a different person who started it. I literally began blogging through boredom, and thought that if I was going to spend my mid-twenties singledom reading military books and visiting museums, I had might as well do something constructive with it. Now, over two years later, my first book is due out in a little more than a month, I’ve written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower, and certainly by no means least, I have moved in with my Girlfriend Sarah. I don’t mind admitting that when I started my blog in the summer of 2009 I was still recovering from a period of suffering from some pretty severe depression. Realising that what I have to say interests people has motivated me more than anyone could ever know, and its certainly helped me move on and up in life. I just want anyone reading this to know, that if you really want to achieve something, you can if you work hard enough. It doesn’t matter what illness you may suffer from, or what school you went to, or where you grew up. True, that might mean that you might have to work harder, but in the process you will have earnt it so much more.

I would like to thank you all for your support, participation and kindness throughout the past twelve months. You all really help make it happen. I am always very interested to hear comments, feedback, ideas or the like. We live in a very uncertain and very unpredictable world, and it has never been more important for us to champion the understanding of the past, and in particular study and understanding of military history.

From my Girlfriend Sarah and I, a very happy Christmas to you all.

9 Comments

Filed under site news

Sneak peak of the cover!

The History Press have today listed my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, on their website. And alongside the listing, is also a sneak peek of the cover!

Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – The History Press

I’m working through the proofreading as we speak, before I get cracking on the index. Happy days!

Leave a comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes Remembrance Sunday talks a success

Just a quick note to everyone who came down to the D-Day Museum yesterday. My talks went really well, and we had more than 70 people for each. And not all of them were friends and family! I had some very interesting questions about Portsmouth’s World War Two Dead, and none of them too awkward! Just out of interest, the Museum had 1,149 visitors yesterday, which was almost 50% more than Remembrance Sunday last year!

Thank you to my sister Nicola for the picture, to my girlfriend Sarah and family for coming down, and also friends and colleagues for supporting me too. And of course Andrew Whitmarsh at the D-Day Museum for booking me, and the staff at D-Day for helping make the day go so well.

It’s been a good couple of days, last night we (Portsmouth City Museum) won a clean sweep at the Portsmouth News Guide Awards – Best exhibition for Little Black Dress, and runner up for Football in the City!

8 Comments

Filed under d-day, event, Uncategorized

D-Day Museum on Remembrance Sunday

Just a little reminded that I will be speaking at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth this coming Remembrance Sunday.

The Museum is open from 10am. I will be speaking at 12noon and 2pm, giving a short talk on my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. Entry to the Museum is free all day, and there is no need to book.

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my notes. If you come down, feel free to say hello and ask me anything you like!

7 Comments

Filed under d-day, event, Museums, Talks

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

21 Comments

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

WW1 Dead research – some stats on the Army

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been busy beavering away with my research into Portsmouth’s Great War Dead. It’s a mammoth task, and one that will probably never be completed in the true sense of the word. There are just so many names to contend with, and the sources are that much more fragmentary than for the Second World War. But having said that, I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics so far.

So far, I have established that 2,574 men were killed serving with British and Empire Forces between 1914 and 1921. That compares to 2,549 men and women from Portsmouth killed in ALL services between 1939 and 1945. Out of those 2,574, some 890 have eluded identification so far, with around 1,600 odd having been traced on the CWGC. The Army casualties are a lot more difficult to research. This is probably down to the fact that most sailors were serving pre-war, so there is a significant paper trail on their existence. Whereas most soldiers volunteered or were conscripted, hence there is minimal documentation compared to sailors.

The vast majority of those men were killed serving with the Infantry. Most fell fighting with the Hampshire Regiment – 747 to be exact. Out of those, 133 with the 1st Battalion, 148 with the 2nd Battalion, 150 with the 14th Battalion (1st Portsmouth), 154 with the 15th Battalion (2nd Portsmouth), and 46 with the 1/4th Battalion (Territorials). These massive losses led to the War Office spreading men around regiments far more in the Second World War to dilute the effect of heavy casualties.

It is interesting that out of 1,600 men I have managed to identify, almost half of them were serving with the local Regiment. This is a much higher proportion than in 1939-1945. Out of the other Infantry Regiments, the next highest membership was of the Rifle Brigade (28 men) and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps (32 men). Both Regiments had no geographical recruiting area, taking men from all over Britain, and of course had their depots nearby in Winchester. Small numbers of men served in virtually every Regiment of the British Army. This attests not only to the mobility of Portsmouth people, but also that Portsmouth was a Garrison town – Battalions were based here as part of the city defences, and some men may have put down roots here, in the same manner as Portsmouth based sailors tended to.

90 men were Royal Engineers, 100 Field Artillery, 86 Garrison Artillery, 36 Machine Gun Corps, 9 RE Signals, 9 Tank Corps, 19 Guardsmen, 19 in Irish Regiments, 36 serving with Commonwealth Forces (5 African, 8 Australia, 19 Canada, 3 India and 1 New Zealand), 18 Cavalrymen, and 35 Army Service Corps. The tiny number of Cavalrymen killed does suggest that they were not particularly active during what was primarily a siege warfare scenario.

89 men are known to have been Regular Soldiers. 4 ex-Regulars re-enlisted. 60 men were Territorials or reservists mobilised on the outbreak of war. 211 men, by contrast, Volunteered between August 1914 and February 1916. 47 volunteered in August 1914 alone, followed by 27 in September. Once conscription was introduced in 1916 103 men were called-up. 2 men had attested under the Lord Derby scheme. So almost as many Portsmouth men were alreading in the Army system as volunteered for King and Country.

887 men were killed in France, 415 in Belgium, 12 in Germany, 22 in Greece (Salonika), 19 in India, 81 in Iraq (Mesopotamia), 27 in Israel (Palestine), 11 in Italy, 77 in Turkey (Gallipoli). Although we know much about France and Belgium, and to a lesser extent Gallipoli, campaigns such as Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika still need more research for us to understand their impact locally.

22 men are known to have been younger than 18. The youngest man was 16 year-old Private H Rampton, who died in April 1916. The oldest man was 72-year old Quartermaster Sergeant R.F. Robertson, of the Royal Field Artillerywho died in March 1916.

In terms of ranks, the vast majority – 1,242 – were privates. Only 92 were officers, the majority being 2nd Lieutenants. As my WW2 research suggested, historically Portsmouth does not contribute many Army officers. Is this because it was not such a fashionable place for the officer class to live, or that there were not many men in Portsmouth with officer-type qualities who volunteer?

Most men were killed in the bloody battles on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917, but a large number fell in 1918, which is often overlooked by history. 87 men were killed in 1914, 214 in 1915, 441 in 1916, 495 in 1917 and 495 in 1918 up to the Armistice. 112 men died post-Armistice – many, I suspect, from Influenza.

256 men were killed on the Somme, 148 at Passchendaele, 6 at Loos, 165 during the German offensive in Spring 1918, 189 in the Allied Offensive in 1918, 21 at Cambrai, 59 at Arras, 32 at 2nd Ypres in 1915, and 21 at 1st Ypres in 1914. These numbers would appear to suggest that as many men died in the meatgrinder of day-to-day Trench Warfare as died in set-piece attacks.

Where casualties came from tells us a lot about how the population of Portsmouth was made up in 1914, and how it changed by 1939. 76 men came from Buckland, 55 from Copnor, 30 from Cosham, 11 from East Southsea, 39 from Eastney, 69 from Fratton, 41 from Kingston, 216 from Landport, 38 from Mile End, 41 from Milton, 94 from North End, 6 from Old Portsmouth, 74 from Portsea, 119 from ‘Portsmouth’, 333 from Southsea and 61 from Stamshaw. In 1914 the vast majority of people in Portsmouth were concentrated in the city centre and Southsea, with fewer people in outlying areas such as Milton, Copnor, Cosham and Eastney. Paulsgrove did not even exist as we know it, and Cosham covered the whole area of the mainland part of the city.

This is all very interesting, but there are still 890 men I need to identify, which is going to take more work than researching the other 1,600!

11 Comments

Filed under Army, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Speaking at the D-Day Museum on Remembrance Sunday

Sherman

A Sherman tank outside the Museum (Image by Merlin_1 via Flickr)

I’m very pleased to announce that I will be speaking at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth on Remembrance Sunday this year, 13 November.

I will be talking a look at the sacrifices made by 2,549 men and women from Portsmouth who died between 1939 and 1947, and telling some of their stories. It should be an interesting little taster of my forthcoming book, due out in February 2012.

The talks will begin at 12noon and 2pm (same talk each time), and the Museum will be free all day, opening at 10am and last admission at 4.30pm, closing at 5pm.

Look forward to seeing you there!

12 Comments

Filed under event, Museums, portsmouth heroes

The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WW1 by Jim Crossley

I mentioned in my last book review that the naval war between 1914 and 1918 witnessed the advent of some new aspects of warfare that had never been seen before. Alongside the submarine and the aeroplane, the naval mine made its debut in this conflict.

I must confess I had never really understood just how extensive mining was during the Great War. Large tranches of the North Sea, including the German and British coasts, were mined by the allies and the Germans. In particular,shipping routes were heavily targeted, such as the British North Sea coast and the areas around ports in the low countries.

The important thing to understand is that was not just the threat that a ship might strike a mine that made presented such a problem, it was the sheer inconvenience that there might be mines anywhere, and the limitations it put upon the enemy. Ships could only move freely in swept channels, which of course required much effort and danger to clear. Its the threat that mines MIGHT be there that really causes the damage – even if you know that there probably arent, you have to assume that there are until you know otherwise. Mines severely restricted and impeded the free maneouvring of naval forces. And compared to the vast cost involved in building a Super Dreadnought, they were also relatively cheap.

Much like the submarine, to begin with British naval circles scoffed at minewarfare, somehow thinking of it as ‘un-British’ – I suppose its similar to the popular clamourings for a Trafalgar-esque, Nelsonian pitched sea battle – all very nostalgic, but Trafalgar was over a hundred years ago. But by 1918 the Royal Navy had, slowly, and somewhat unconventionally, developed significant experience and expertise in both laying and dealing with mines. In anti-minewarfare in particular, much use was made of smaller ships, such as Trawlers. Paddlesteamers were also utilised for their maneouvreability.

I think its quite telling that whereas the Royal Navy has long led the field in mine counter measures warfare – perhaps motivated by her experiences in the Great War, and her geographical status as an island nation dependant on the free movement of shipping. By contrast, the US Navy never really mastered the concept of the mine, right up until the 1980’s when several of her ships were severely damaged by Iranian mines in the Gulf. Incredibly, the largest and most powerful navy on the seas did not possess its own MCMV force. Yet after the armistice, each  of the allied nations was alloted an area of the North Sea to clear of mines. One of them – the US Navy.

This is a very interesting book, and contains a number of salient points not just about mines, but about naval warfare in general. I enjoyed reading it very much. It is extremely well written, and complements the historiography of the Great War at Sea perfectly.

The Hidden Threat is published by Pen and Sword

4 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, World War One

North Sea Battleground: The War at Sea 1914-18 by Bryan Perrett

Something that has always struck me about warfare, is that sometimes one of the belligerents can win, without actually ‘winning’. Rather, by not losing. And I guess that could be said about the naval war between 1914 and 1918. The onus was clearly on the German High Seas Fleet to knock the British Grand Fleet off of its perch. Given its numerical inferiority this would have taken something qute special. Hence the Royal Navy could afford to go to battle and not win, as long it was not outright defeated. For the Germans, on the other hand, nothing less than decisive victory would do.

The Great War was in part sparked by the Kaiser’s desire to build a blue-water fleet, modelled on the Royal Navy. In this he was eagerly encouraged by Admiral Von Tirpitz. The problem was, the Germans were starting from such a handicapped position – the Royal Navy was by far the largest on the waves, and had known nothing but victory for hundreds of years. Added to this, the Germans desired to develop an overseas empire – which could only be done with the help of a significant ocean going navy.

The Great War was possibly the last European conflict in which it was thought possible that both sides massed fleets could collide in set-piece battle, a la Trafalgar. In fact, this was eagerly awaited by the British public, supremely confident of a knockout blow in Nelsonian style. In fact, the stalemate at Jutland was a great disappointment to a public used to victory at sea. But what was lost on many people, was that unless the Germans could send the majority of the Grand Fleet to the bottom of the ocean, the Dreadnoughts would still keep the German fleet bottled up in harbour.In the end, the Grand Fleet possessed enough strength – muscle and numerical – to maintain superiority in the North Sea.

For the first time in hundreds of years, a foreign fleet actually bombarded the British Isles. Early on in the war German Battleships shelled North Eastern towns, including Hartlepool and Scarborough. Although little damage was done, there was a significant dent in civilian morale. British citizens expected the Royal Navy to keep foes well away. However, the Grand Fleet was stationed at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, in order to guard the exit from the North Sea between Scotland and Iceland. Although this kept the Germans bottled up and the fleet far enough away to strike back flexibly, it meant that, if they got their timings right, the Germans could mount hit and run raids on the North Sea Coast.

In amongst the last throes of Nelsonian battles, the seeds of future conflicts could be seen. Sea mines began to make their appearance on the waves (more of them in the coming days), air power became a factor, in the shape of the new zeppelins and embryonic aircraft, and not least, submarine warfare became a significant factor in the war. The Germans, in particular, identified weapons such as the mine and the submarine as assets that could be used from a position of weakness to attack the allies at sea, in particular Britain. At times later in the war, British Government figures became seriously concerned that German submarines might sink enough merchant shipping to cut Britain’s lifeline and force her out of the war – something that would be a very real risk just over 20 years later.

In fact, the are many echoes of the Second World War, that were first rung in the first. When HMS Hood was destroyed in 1941, it was due to inadequate armoured protection, that had been sacrificed in order to give her more speed. The very same thing had happened to a number of Battlecruisers at Jutland in 1916, yet the lessons were not learnt. It could also be argued that there were enough warnings between 1914 and 1918 about the growing importance of airpower, submarines and mines, but knowledge of these aspects of naval warfare were sadly neglected between the wars, leading to costly mistakes and the re-learning of lessons after 1939.

As someone who, one – is writing a book about the First World War, and two – doesn’t actually know much about the First World War, books like this are a godsend. It helps me put the hundreds of Portsmouth men who died at Jutland into much more fitting context.

North Sea Battleground is published by Pen and Sword

3 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One

Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Histories of World War II edited by Peter G. Tsouras

I’ve always been a bit dubious about alternate histories. I’ve always thought of them as ‘what might of happened, but didn’t happen’. Therefore if it didn’t happen, why are we worrying about it? But then again, I guess thats like saying that just because something is in the past then it’s irrelevant, as its behind us. Just as understanding the past gives us a handle on the future, understanding how past events turned out how they did probably gives us a firmer grip on that handle. Confused? me too! Now that we’ve established that alternate histories and conspiracy theories are not the same thing, lets take a look at this thought provoking book.

One thing you can say about Hitler, is that perhaps no-one in history has shown such inconsistency when it comes to decision making – at times he had an impeccable intuition, and at other times managed to cock things up when it was far easier to get it right. It is, surely, a matter of conjecture to imagine a scenario in which Hitler might have won the war – the strength of the US and Soviet Union made it pretty unlikely in my mind. But, certainly, some aspects of the war might have turned out very differently.

Let’s consider some of the chapters. In ‘May Day’ by Nigel Jones, Lord Halifax becomes Premier instead of Churchill, who is made Minister for War. Churchill is killed flying over France in 1940, the Panzers do not pause before Dunkirk, the BEF is overwhelmed and Hallifax sues for peace. This set of circumstances were by no means impossible. Hallifax seemed to be everyones preferred candidate to succeed Chaimberlain. Churchill was lucky to escape harm during the war. And, above all, Hallifax did not have the gumption to keep up the fight when things got tough.

Operation Felix sees the Spanish colluding in the Axis, and supporting the capture of Gibraltar. Of course without such a strategic port the Mediterranean would have been closed to British shipping, Malta overwhelmed, North Africa seriously weakened and Italy strengthened. Again, if Spain had joined in the war on the Axis side, it is hard to see how Gibraltar could have outalsted a prolonged onslaught, although one suspects its defenders might have put up a serious fight. A couple of chapters consider how the war might have turned out if Mussolini and the Italians had performed better than they did, and although this is mere conjecture, a stronger Italy would have presented less of a millstone to the Third Reich.

One very interesting scenario is the co-opting of Nazi and Islamic interests in the conquest of the Middle East. It is well known that Hitler courted the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an extremist islamic figure. An uprising in Palestine and Iraq would have seriously undermined British control of vital oil reserves, and the route to India. A further chapter sees the Caucasus – on the flank of the Middle East and an oil field itself – captured by Kurt Student‘s paratroopers, following on from Crete. As for the Eastern Front overall, successive chapters see Moscow captured by the Wehrmacht, and the beleagured Sixth Army at Stalingrad breaks out and joins up with the rest of the German Army, avoiding a serious strategic defeat that in the event turned the tide on the Eastern Front.

Going back to the Mediterranean, Malta was lost under prolonged bombardment, after supply convoys failed to get through. The loss of Malta would have removed a thorn in the side of the Axis supply routes to North Africa, removed a key staging post from the Royal Navy, and gave the Italiand and Germans a platform to control the Med. The loss of Malta was something that was a very real risk, I feel.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the last chapter considers what might have happened had the US Generals prevailed and an early invasion been launched in the Cotentin peninsula before 1944. In this scenario, a smaller, poorly trained and unprepared allied army is eventually thrown back into the sea, after landing in too small an beachead. Hitler is then free to concentrate on the Eastern Front, while US and British relations are irreparably damaged. Oddly, this scenario sees Patton and Monty becoming firm friends, reminding us that it is, after all, an alternative history!

I found this a very thought provoking read. Some of the scenarios were more likely in my opinion than others, but considering how various decisions were made and events transpired between 1939 and 1945, the war could have taken a lot longer and cost many more lives, had the allies made more errors and Hitler made less. It would have taken a coincidental set of events, but did not such a course of events derail Operation Market Garden?

Hitler Triumphant is published by Pen and Sword

1 Comment

Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, World War Two

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

5 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, social history, special forces, Uncategorized, World War Two