Tag Archives: World War Two

D-Day on your Doorstep

The D-Day landings and the campaign in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945 are normally thought of as beginning in Normandy on 6 June and ending in Berlin on 8 May 1945. As usual with anything military history related, the real story behind the scenes is much different. The whole campaign from D-Day onwards depended on much preparation in Britain for months, if not years afterwards. In fact, virtually every corner of Britain will have some kind of connection with D-Day.

Millions of troops in Britain – British, American, Canadian and from many other allied nations – had to be accommodated somewhere. They all had to train somewhere. Equipment had to be manufactured and stored; supplies had to be delivered. There were marshalling camps, embarkation points; places where Mulberry Harbours were constructed. Dockyards, airfields, factories. The many units and organisations required numerous different headquarters. It is pretty obvious that in early 1944 Britain was one large armed camp geared up towards becoming a launchpad for the second front.

We’re currently working on a new page on the D-Day Museum website called ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’. Over the coming months we will be adding D-Day related locations to the map, and building a picture of Britain’s role in launching D-Day. We would love to hear from you if your area has any D-Day links, or if you would like to add any detail to the locations that we have already uploaded.

To see the ‘D-Day on your Doorstep’ page visit the D-Day Museum website here.

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Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters honours the father he never knew

I just caught this story at the end of tonight’s ITV News, and I’m glad that I did.

Earlier today Roger Waters, ex of Pink Floyd, unveiled a memorial to his father, near where he was killed at Anzio, during the Italian Campaign in the Second World War – 70 years to the day after the death of the father that he never knew. Waters had had no idea about when and how his father had been killed, but thanks to research by another veteran, Waters now knows the exact location and manner in which his father, Lieutenant Eric Waters, died.

Waters wrote frequently about his fathers death with Pink Floyd. I’m mindful of one particular set of lyrics, from ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2′:

‘Daddy’s gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory’

Read the Telegraph story here

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‘the tail’: US Army logistics in Britain, 1944

It’s the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up soon, and aside from the blanket coverage of the First World War, expect various documentaries about the subject.

One of the things that has always interested me about D-Day and Operations Neptune and Overlord, is the sheer amount of administration, planning and ‘behind the scenes’ work needed to keep an army in action. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I think during the Second World War less than 20% of all servicemen in allied armies fought in the ‘teeth’ arms. War had become so technologically advanced that it took far more resources to keep vehicles, weapons and the men that operated them in action.

One case in point is the huge number of US units based in England from 1942 onwards. American units began to arrive from early 1942 as part of Operation Bolero – the American build up in Europe – but the numbers of troops and units reached a high water mark just before 6 June 1944.

Very few parts of the British Isles did not have US troops stationed near them. There were particularly large concentrations of US troops in places such as Northern Ireland, the West Country in Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire, and Eight Air Force airfields in East Anglia.

Hilsea in Portsmouth was home to a significant US Army supply depot. Under General Depot G-65 came 1 Special Services Company, 51 Ordnance Group, 53 Army Postal Unit, 91 Finance Distribution Section, 120 Chemical Procurement Company, 193 Chemical Depot Company, 196 Quartermaster Battalion, 208 Army Postal Unit, 245 Quartermaster Battalion, 284 Quartermaster Refrigeration Company, 298 Ordnance Company, 321 Ordnance Battalion, 346 Quartermaster Depot Company, 350 Ordnance Battalion, 532 Quartermaster Salvage Repair Company, 555 Army Postal Unit, 604 Ordnance Base Armament Maintenance Battalion, 784 Base Depot Company, 864 Ordnance Heavy Auto Maintenance Company, 1212 Engineer Firefighting Platoon, 3040 Quartermaster Bakery, 3267 and 3269 Quartermaster Service Companies and 4232 Quartermaster Sterilization Company. Clearly, Hilsea was a significant Ordnance and Quartermaster Depot, which supported US units in the Portsmouth area. It must have consisted of thousands of men, none of whom were infantrymen, artillerymen or tank men.

It was a similar situation at airfields. Stoney Cross airfield, in the New Forest in Hampshire, hosted the 367 Fighter Bomber Group Headquarters and 392, 393 and 394 Fighter Bomber Squadrons of the US Army Air Forces.These Squadrons operated P-38 Lightnings and during D-Day and the three days after flew nine missions. But aside from these rather more glamorous units, the station was also home to 17 Station Complement Squadron, 32 Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, 217 Medical Dispensary, 327 Service Group, 807 Chemical Company, 1113 Signal Company, 1180 Quartermaster Company, 1292 Military Police Company 1830 Ordnance Company and 2200 Quartermaster Truck Company. To keep aircraft in the air, the men operating them needed engineering, signal, logistics, transport and ordnance support. And once you have that many men on an air base, you are bound to need medical and provost services to keep them healthy and well-behaved! And Stoney Cross was a particularly small and remote place – check it out here.

Some of the units that we see here are not the kinds that we think of. I love Band of Brothers, but how many men behind the scenes worked to get Easy Company into action? Sometimes it is all too easy to overlook the many unglamorous units and roles in an army, but they are all part of the same spear, with the infantry, armour and artillery being the sharp tip.

For more information about US Army units in GreatBritain in 1944, have a look at these invaluable documents prepared by Phil Grinton.

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Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 by Mark Rowe

Writing about the summer of 1940 in British History is, in many ways, attempting to write about something that did not, in the event, happen. It is hard for us, 70 years later, to fathom what it must have felt like to live under the threat of invasion. But this new book by Mark Rowe suggests that some of our ancestors might have been just as ambivelent at the time.

This is a very well researched book, based on primary and published sources, including some very useful personal diaries. Rowe also uses some great illustrations, many from publications such as Home Guard handbooks, and many of which are previously unpublished. It’s written from a clear perspective, without letting hindsight get in the way – Dunkirk spirit, the blitz, spitfires and ‘all that… Evidence does suggest that there WERE parts of the population who would have collaborated, and there WERE parts of the population who would have panicked in the event of invasion. False alarms such as the ‘Battle of Bewdley’ suggest that quaint views of British calm might be inaccurate.

With a clever use of case studies, the author makes some very pertinent points. Although the Home Guard attracts a fair degree of nostalgia value, in the summer of 1940 ‘Dads Army’ was ill-equipped, untrained, disorganised and ridden with a multitude of problems. The examples of local worthys assuming command simply based on being, say, the master of the local foxhunt, would be hilarious if they were not so shocking. Could a country resist invasion when class consciousness was so inhibiting?

There were also puzzling issues for many in those uncertain days. Should civil authorities, such as local councils, remain in place if occupied by the enemy, or evacuate to elsewhere? Should the Police force be armed? To what extent should the Police co-operate with the enemy in the event of occupation? Should civilians flee or stay put? As none of these dilemmas were ever put to the test it is hard to be certain. But what is certain, is that we should not allow hindsight and floklore to cloud or judgement.

Another point well made is how Churchill insisted on meddling on military affairs – his attempts to take charge of the local defences of Whitehall are a fine example of the interference, completely outside the chain of command, that bedevilled so many of his commanders. Many of whom were facing the prospect of fighting an invasion with an army bereft of much of its equipment, having to fend off numerous notes from the Prime Minister.

I found this a fun book to read. Which, to be fair, is unusual with history books. Think about it, why just because a book is about the past, does it have to be dry? As this book shows, plenty of amusing anecdotes take place even in the most tumultuous of times, so why not portray this in how they are written about?

What-if’s are a very dangerous territory to stray into where history is concerned. But reading this book, it is only natural to ponder how Britain would have fared had the German Army crossed the channel. And not just the Army, but also the Home Guard, the politicians, the civil authorities, and the population and society as a whole.

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 is published by The History Press

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – The Army (part 2)

The proportions of Portsmouth men who served in particular arms of service in the Second World War tells us much about the structure and state of the British Army at the time:

Infantry – 252 (37.39%)
Artillery – 138 (20.47%)
Supporting Corps – 119 (17.66%)
Engineers – 64 (9.5%)
Armour – 35 (5.19%)
Imperial Forces – 30 (4.45%)
Special Forces – 25 (3.71%)
Miscellaneous – 12 (1.78%)

Churchill might have castigated Brooke for the amount of ‘cooks and bottle washers’ in the Army, but compared to their forefathers in the First World War the soldiers at the sharp end were a smaller, but better honed spear backed up by a stronger support network. Particularly with the advent of armoured warfare and other technological advances, support services acted as force multipliers.

Infantry

Despite the development of armoured warfare, coupled with a growth in supporting services and a desire to avoid large, pitched land battles, the majority of Portsmouth Soldiers killed between 1939 and 1947 were killed whilst serving with the PBI – the Poor Bloody Infantry:

114 – Hampshire Regiment
12 – Queens Regiment
6 – Wiltshire Regiment
5 – Royal Berkshire Regiment
5 – Royal West Kent Regiment
5 – Grenadier Guards
4 – Dorsetshire Regiment
4 – East Surrey Regiment
4 – Royal Fusiliers
4 – Somerset Light Infantry
4 – Royal Sussex Regiment
3 – The Cameronians
3 – Coldstream Guards
3 – Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
3 – East Yorkshire Regiment
3 – Kings Regiment
3 – Kings Shropshire Light Infantry
3 – Lancashire Fusiliers
3 – Rifle Brigade
3 – Royal Scots
3 – Middlesex Regiment
3 – York and Lacaster Regiment
2 – Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
2 – Cheshire Regiment
2 – Devonshire Regiment
2 – Essex Regiment
2 – Green Howards
2 – Kings Own Royal Regiment
2 – Kings Own Scottish Borderers
2 – Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
2 – Kings Royal Rifle Corps
2 – Lincolnshire Regiment
2 – Northamptonshire Regiment
2 – Ox and Bucks Light Infantry
2 – Royal Welsh Fusiliers
2 – Seaforth Highlanders
2 – Suffolk Regiment
2 – Royal Warwickshire Regiment
2 – Worcestershire Regiment
1 -Beds and Herts Regiment
1 – The Black Watch
1 – The Buffs
1 – Durham Light Infantry
1 – Duke of Wellington’s Regiment
1 – Royal East Kent Regiment
1 – East Lancashire Regiment
1 – Gloucestershire Regiment
1 – Gordon Highlanders
1 – Highland Light Infantry
1 – Loyal Regiment
1 – Royal Ulster Rifles
1 – Sherwood Foresters
1 – South Staffordshire Regiment
1 – Welsh Guards

Despite a slight weakening in local regimental affiliations, the vast majority – 45.24% – of Portsmouth infantrymen served in the Hampshire Regiment. Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment were engaged principally in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, and in North West Europe from D-Day onwards. Its noticeable also that the next largest contingents of Portsmouth infantrymen served in county regiments close to Hampshire – Surrey, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset, for example. Even though men were no longer necessarily joining their county regiment, there was still clearly a policy of assigning men regionally. The wide range of other units that Portsmouth men served with can be accounted for by transfers between Regiments and as the war went on a policy of recruiting men into any Regiment that needed them, regardless of geography.

Artillery

138 men from Portsmouth died whilst serving with the Royal Artillery or the Royal Horse Artillery during the Second World War:

136 – Royal Artillery
2 – Royal Horse Artillery

The 136 men killed whilst in the Royal Artillery is the largest number of fatalities for any Army Regiment -evidence, if any is needed, of both how large the Royal Artillery was, and how involved it was in the fighting in every theatre of war. Gunners served in Field Artillery, Medium and Heavy Regiments, Coast Regiments, Anti-Aircraft Regiments, Searchlight Regiments and Anti-Tank Regiments. Men seem to have been pretty broadly dispersed around Artillery units, although a sizeable amount of men were killed serving with 57 Heavy AA Regiment and and 59 Anti-Tank Regiment.

Other Supporting Corps

As the British Army became more diverse, more technical and more mechanised, more supporting arms were needed to keep the ‘teeth’ arms fighting effectively.

64 – Royal Engineers
25 – Royal Army Ordnance Corps
25 – Royal Signals
23 – Royal Army Service Corps
15 – Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
12 – Royal Army Medical Corps
10 – Pioneer Corps
4 – Military Police
2 – Army Catering Corps
1 – Army Dental Corps
1 – Army PT Corps
1 – Royal Army Chaplain’s Department

The Royal Engineers performed a vital role in every theatre -bridging, mine clearance, bomb disposal, demolition, and all manner of tasks. The RAOC and RASC also performed vital roles in keeping the Army supplied. Royal Signals were also present in every theatre, and serving with every unit. In modern warfare communications were all-important. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers were formed during the war, to reflect the important of mechanical maintenance of vehicles and equipment. Other units were responsible for looking after the wide range of soldiers physical, nutritional and spiritual welfare.

Armour

Although the Second World War saw great advances in the use of tanks and other armoured vehicles, a relatively small amount of men from Portsmouth – 35 – were killed whilst serving with Armoured units:

28 – Royal Armoured Corps (inc Cavalry)
7 – Recce Corps

Imperial countries

30 men from Portsmouth died whilst serving with units from the British Empire:

9 – Indian Regiments
8 – Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps
5 – Malayan Regiments
4 – African Regiments
2 – Canadian Regiments
1 – Australian Regiments
1 – New Zealand Regiments

There are several reasons that may account for Portsmouth men serving with Imperial Forces. They may have originated from abroad, but gained a Portsmouth connection along the way. They may also have emigrated from Portsmouth and then joined their resident country’s forces. Others, particularly officers and NCO’s, served on attachment. The Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps was comprised of men working in Hong Kong Dockyard, and the various Malayan volunteer forces were made up of men working in the country.

Special Forces

15 – Parachute Regiment
7 – Army Commandos
3 – Glider Pilot Regiment

Various special forces were formed during the war. Men could volunteer for the Parachute Regiment from their parent unit, and 15 Portsmouth Paras died in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, France, Holland and Germany. The Army Commando’s were another unit formed along similar lines, as was the Glider Pilot Regiment – a force of qualified pilots, ranked as Sergeants and Staff Sergeants. That more men died serving in special forces than any infantry regiment apart from the Hampshire Regiment suggests how important they had become.

Miscellaneous units

5 – Auxilliary Territorial Service
2 – General Service Corps
2 – Home Guard
1 – Army Technical School
1 – General List
1 – Allied Control Commission

The ATS was an auxilliary service formed to allow women to support the Army – all died whilst in Britain, presumably from illness or accidents. The General Service Corps was a reception unit formed in 1943 to provide recruits with initial training – the two members who died whilst serving in it evidently died before they were assigned to a Regiment. The Army Technical School provided training to boys too young for active service. The General List was a ‘unit’ to which surplus officers were assigned when unattached to any other Regiment or Corps. The man who died while serving with the Allied Control Commission was in Germany after the end of the war.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead: the Royal Navy part 2

Medals

93 Royal Navy officers and ratings from Portsmouth were either decorated during the Second World War, or had won medals previously – 7.2% of all Portsmouth sailors who were killed. Its noticeable immediately that most of the men who were decorated were older servicemen, and were either leading rates, Petty Officers or Officers. This is not surprising, as their leadership role gave more potential for performing bravely. And, arguably, older more experienced men were likely to be calmer in action.

Two Portsmouth sailors were awarded Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy – the George Cross. Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth was killed while defusing a bomb in 1940, and Able Seaman Henry Miller was lost in the sinking of a Submarine in 1940.

The most highly decorated naval officer from Portsmouth to die during the Second World War was Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. Hussey was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Service Cross, and was twice mentioned in despatches. 4 officers were awarded the Distingished Service Cross, and one officer – Lieutenant Charles Lambert – was awarded a bar to his DSC.

39 Sailors were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Three of these men were also awarded a mention in despatches, and one man – Able Seaman William Laing – was mentioned in despatches twice along with his DSM. Two men – Petty Officer Frank Collison and Electrical Artificer 1st Class Arthur Biggleston – were awarded a Bar to their DSM.

Five men were awarded the British Empire Medal, One man was awarded a CBE, and two men OBE’s. One man was awarded a BEM and a mention in despatches. 33 Sailors were mentioned in despatches. One man was awarded a Reserve Decoration for long service with the Royal Naval Reserve, and another the Royal Vctorian Medal for long service on the Royal Yacht pre-war. Another sailor had been awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal during the First World War. Another man had been awarded a George Medal earlier in his career.

Areas of Portsmouth

Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Second World War came from the following areas:

282 – Southsea (21.84%)
145 – Copnor (11.23%)
133 – North End (10.3%)
110 – Cosham (8.52%)
56 – Milton (4.34%)
50 – Fratton (3.87%)
43 – Stamshaw (3.33%)
33 – Buckland (2.56%)
26 – Eastney (2.01%)
26 – Mile End (2.01%)
23 – Hilsea (1.78%)
20 – Landport (1.55%)
14 – Drayton (1.08%)
13 – Farlington (1%)
13 – Portsea (1%)
11 – Kingston (0.85%)
7 – East Cosham (0.54%)
7 – Tipner (0.54%)
6 – Paulsgrove (0.46%)
2 – East Southsea (0.15%)
2 – Wymering (0.15%)

171 men – 13.25% – are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’.

What can we say about these figures? Southsea was at the time the largest and most populous part of Portsmouth, and although Southsea is best known as a seaside resort, ‘Southsea’ also describes the area as far north as Goldsmith Avenue, and what is now known as Somers Town. Hence it was the home not only to wealthy officers, but also many ordinary sailors, and working class men called up during the war. It seems that sailors came overwhelmingly from the southern Part of Portsea Island, near the Dockyard, and the laterr 19th Century suburbs such as Copnor and North End. Outlying, less populated areas such as Paulsgrove, Drayton and Wymering provided few sailors.

It will be interesting to compare these statistics with those for the other Armed Services, and also to take a closer look at each area itself to see if we can learn anything about their social composition.

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70 years ago: after Dunkirk and the Lancastria

The British Army continued fighting in France after the fall of Dunkirk. Records of Portsmouth men who were killed in the Second World War suggest that the British Army suffered very heavy losses on 17 June 1940.

After some quick research, it transpires that many of these men were killed in the sinking of the RMS Lancastria, a troopship evacuating British troops from Western France in the aftermath of Dunkirk. She was sunk of St Nazaire on 17 June 1940. 1,738 men are known to have died, with 2,777 survivors.

Sapper Reginald Cole, of 1 Supply Base Depot Royal Engineers, is buried at Rennes in France. Aged 20, his Army Service number suggests that he had originally joined the Hampshire Regiment.

Private Peter Hale, of 4 Base Ammunition Depot Royal Army Service Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 20 and from Hilsea.

Sapper William Shannon, of 663 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers, is buried at La Berniere-en-Retz in France. He was 36 and from Gosport.

Private Joseph Diviani, of 1 Base Ordnance Depot Royal Army Ordnance Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 22 and from Copnor.

Private William Mcdonald, of 46 Company Auxilliary Military Pioneer Corps, has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He was 33 and from Copnor.

Air Force men were also onboard the Lancastria. Aircraftman 2nd Class John Peters, of 98 Squadron RAF, has no known grave and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial. He was 20 and from Southsea.

Aside from the Lancastria, the losses in France continued. Gunner Robert Brown was killed on 18 June 1940. Serving with 3 Battery of 1 Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery, he is buried in a joint grave at Dunkirk War Cemetery. He was 34 and from Southsea. His Amy Service number suggests that he had originally joined the Cameronia Rifles.

Gunner Henry Male, of 490 Independent Searchlight Battery Royal Artillery, died on 21 June 1940. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth. He was 23 and from Fratton.

The final British soldier from Portsmouth to die in the aftermath of Dunkirk was Sergeant Edgar Cocks, of the Royal Army Service Corps. He died on 16 July 1940, and is buried at La Berniere-en-Ritz, France. He was 49 and from Copnor.

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De Gaulle – the myth

Theres been plenty in the media today about how the French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in London to mark the 70th anniversary of a supposedly important speech given by Charles De Gaulle, the then Leader in exile of the Free French Forces.

The consensus among historians appears to be that at the time hardly anyone heard the speech first hand – it was only broadcast on the limited BBC French service. Yet somehow it has come to be revered in French national history as a speech that rallied the French, leading to eventual victory in 1945. But the obvious question is, how can this have been the case if no-one actually heard it? Of course, many people will claim to have heard it, but how many of them actually did? Even former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing states that when he heard the broadcast he had never heard of De Gaulle before, who was then the most junior General in the French Army.

Most historians seem to tacitly agree that the speech’s important was not in the days, weeks or even months after it was given. It was afterwards, when the text of the speech gradually became more widely known that it became a convenient turning point in the low tide of 1940. Of course, this is very much in hindsight. To be a true turning point, a speech has to be effective in its time, not in hindsight.

De Gaulle’s leadership of the Free French during the war was very important. Granted, he was a very difficult character – Churchill once quipped that ‘the only cross I have to bear is the cross of Lorraine’. But he was far more palatable than Petain and the Vichy Regime. And it is imperative not to forget that many french citizens risked their lives fighting during the war, with the resistance or assisting allied fugitives.

Sadly, however, a fair amount of re-writing of history has gone on regarding the French experience of World War Two. While the usual stereoypes are perhaps unkind, France was defeated convincingly in 1940, and for all De Gaulle’s posturing during the liberation in 1944, France was largely liberated by the Allied armies. Indeed, one statue in France which marks the spot where De Gaulle landed after D-Day gives the impression that he liberated France single-handedly. In reality, De Gaulle was little more than a spectator, so untrusted was he by the allied command that he was not involved in any of the planning for the Invasion of Europe.

Its all the more curious how De Gaulle came to be regarded as a French national hero. True, he provided leadership and a focal point during an extremely low period. But he did not win any battles. Yet generals such as Montgomery, who did, are all but forgotten in Britain. Perhaps, due to the traumatic French experience between 1940 and 1945, De Gaulle and his speech have been ready-made focal points for the rebuilding of French self-pride? The desire to forget 1940 possibly also explains some of the more prickly French policy decisions of the latter half of the twentieth century.

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Saturday at MI9 by Airey Neave

Airey Neave has to be one of the most interesting British characters of the twentieth century. The first British officer to make a home-run from Colditz, co-ordinating escape lines in occupied Europe, part of the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials and later a Conservative MP, sadly he will probably best be known for his cold-blooded murder by Irish Republicans in 1979.

This book is a re-print of his memoirs of his time working with MI9. It begins after his return from Colditz, and his recruitment by Brigadier Norman Crockatt. Crockatt felt that as Neave had experience of escaping from captivity in Nazi Europe he would be an ideal person to work for the organisation tasked with assisting captured servicemen to do the same. This is a point that Neave makes frequently – only someone who has been on the run themselves can understand the stresses and strains of escaping.

Neave worked specifically on setting up and assisting escape lines in France, Belgium and Holland. MI9 provided higher direction and assistance, but most of the most dangerous and important work was carried out by the incredibly brave men and women of occupied Europe. In particular it is impossible not to admire the heroism of Dedee of the famous Comet line. Neave was also involved in escapes such as those of the survivors of the Cockleshell Heroes, the camp set up to accomodate hundreds of airmen at the Foret de Freteval, and Motor Torpedo Boat rescues from Brittany.

A common thread that appears during Neave’s account is how frequently ‘the establishment’ failed to see the important of rescuing captured men. At times it seems that the armed forces and other agencies such as SOE were at best ambivelent, and at worst hostile to MI9. While escape and evasion are part of military training nowadays, in the second world war there still seems to have been a deep distrust by many of anything new or irregular, and MI9 fitted into this category.

Not only was it important to bring back men who were capable of fighting again, in many cases – particularly with aircrew – they had cost thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours to train. And quite apart from the material aspect, it is important for men to know when going into battle that if they were captured, then every effort would be made to get them home safely. If medical care of the wounded had been revolutionised by the Crimean War and the First World War, why did it take so long for the armed forces to accept MI9′s work? Its a seemingly obvious lesson – agencies on the same side should put turf wars aside and find ways of working together.

It evidently gave Airey Neave great satisfaction to be given the duty of reading the indictments to those on trial at Nuremberg. He had been involved in some of the operations that led to the execution of allied personnel and civilians. Of the latter Neave is quite clear – their contribution to the escape organisations was crucial. He is particularly scathing of historians who have attempted to belittle the contribution of these very brave people.

Early on in the book Neave states that an official history of MI9 is yet to be written, and due to the limits imposed on the relevant documents may be some way off. Whilst he was no doubt writing under the restrictions of the official secrets act, and many documents may indeed still be closed, it is quite possible that Airey Neave’s account is an official account in all but name. I found it a rivetting read.

Saturday at MI9 is published by Pen and Sword

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Solent Overlord Show 2010

Scimitar light tank

I spent a couple of hours earlier at the Solent Overlord Military Show 2010 at the Horndean Showground.

Organised by the Solent Overlord Executive, a group of military vehicle enthusiasts, this annual show brings together hundreds of military vehicles from the Second World War to the modern era – plenty of WW2 jeeps, half-tracks (includking a German one), several guns, a host of Land Rovers, Bren Gun Carrier, a Scimitar light tank, and an FV432 Armoured Personnel Carrier. There was even a Rapier Unit to provide anti-aircraft cover!

Rapier 2000 anti-air missiles

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It obviously takes real dedication to own and run a classic military vehicle. Obviously something like a WW2 military jeep is going to be harder to maintain than a Ford Focus. But there is usually something pretty redoubtable about a Jeep or a Land Rover. Military vehicle enthusiasts are a dedicated bunch. The only comment I would make, is that too few vehicles had any kind of information. I suppose I come from a museum background, but when I eventually get my Land Rover I will set up display boards about it, its history, the equipment, markings, and such like.

They might seem a bit nerdy but these kinds of shows are certainly popular, especially with the kids. And you can always see people huddled around vehicles, inspecting each others work and swapping notes. Throw in a host of military surplus stalls to rummage over, a beer tent and arena events and you've got a pretty good day out. And whats more, any surplus income from the show goes towards a suitable military charity, this year the Gurkha Welfare Fund.

Have a look at my flickr album of pics here - let me know if you can help identify any of the vehicles, or if I have made any mistakes!

56th (London) Division Jeep

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70 years ago: Blitzkrieg

On 10 May 1940 the phoney war came to an abrupt end when the German Panzers rolled into Holland, Belgium and France in the west. In accordance with the plan agreed with the French, the British Expeditionary Force moved up into Belgium to the line of the Dyle River, after the Germans invaded Belgium.

Private Louis Ayling, 21 and from Eastney, was killed on the first day of the campaign. Serving with the 1st/6th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, he was killed on 10 May 1940 and is buried in Avelgem, Belgium. A territorial unit, the 1/6 East Surrey’s were undergoing training and labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

The attack further north in Belgium was not the main thrust, however. The main attack came further south through the Ardennes. As the German Panzers advanced west there was a serious risk that the BEF would be cut off. The run to the coast at Dunkirk was already falling into place.

The RAF contingent serving alongside the BEF was called into action almost immediately in an attempt to stem the advance. On the first day of the battle Sergeant (Pilot) Alfred Robertson was killed over Holland. 26 and from Southsea, he had taken off from Wyton in England. He was flying a Bristol Blenheim with 40 Squadron, and is buried in Voorburg, Holland.

Sergeant (Observer) Herbert Trescothic was serving with 142 Squadron, who were flying Fairey Battles. Taking off from Berry-au-Bac on 14 May, they were targetting bridges and roads around Sedan. His aircraft crashed at Cherey, where he is buried. He was 25 and from Southsea.

Also killed on 14 May was Flight Lieutenant Harold Sammells. 24 and from North End, he was serving with 105 Squadron, a unit operating Fairey Battles in France. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

Leading Aircraftman (Air Gunner) Walter Lawes, 21 and from Copnor, was killed on 16 May 1940. He was serving with 13 Squadron, a Westland Lysander unit. Lawes is buried at Vieux-Conde in France. Westland Lysanders were often used for dropping off and picking up special agents behind enemy lines.

Private Albert Voysey, 21 and from Mile End, was serving with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was killed on 18 May 1940 and is buried in Abbeville, France. The 7th Royal Sussex were also serving under 12 Infantry Division.

Sapper Leslie Parsonage, 26 and from Eastney, was also killed on 18 May. He was serving with 17th Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Aaigem, Belgium. 17th Field Company were serving under Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Sergeant William Northey, 22, was serving with 5 Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery when he was killed on 19 May. He is buried in Le Doulieu, France. 5 Medium Regiment were a Corps Artillery unit attached to I Corps.

Sapper Henry Ward, of Cosham, was killed on 20 May 1940. He was serving with 263 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Pont-de-Metz, France. 263 Field Company were performing labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

Private Alfred Williams of the Royal Army Service Corps was also killed on 20 May. Aged 24, he is buried at Candas in France.

2nd Lieutenant Reginald Stevens, 19 and from Southsea, was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers when he was killed on 22 May. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkik Memorial. The 2nd Lancs were serving in the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, II Corps.

Even by the 22nd of May, however, the BEF was already fighting a stiff rearguard action towards the coast. Its noticeable from the losses in the opening stages of the battle that it was not just the infantry who were caught in the front line – due to the manner in which the BEF was outflanked and almost cut-off, gunners and sappers were also casualties. And as desribed in Tim Lynch’s Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown, many territorial units still undergoing training were thrown into the battle.

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Portsmouth men and the fall of Hong Kong

The fall of Singapore in February 1942 has been a significant event in British military history, as one of the largest and most shameful capitulations in the long history of the British Empire. Yet several months before in December 1941, the stratgically important port of Hong Kong was attacked by the Japanese, simultaneously with the strike on Pearl Harbour. A large number of men from Portsmouth were caught up in the fighting.

A large number of men caught up in the fighting were from the support services. Staff Sergeant Lawrence Benford, 29 and from Buckland, was serving with 12 (Hong Kong) Company of the Royal Army Service Corps when he was killed on 8 December 1941. Staff Sergeant Walter French, 35 and from North End, was serving with the same unit and was also killed on the 8th. Both Benford and French have no known grave, and are remembered on the Sai Wan Memorial.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Yale, 44 and from Southsea, was commanding the Hong Kong Royal Artillery when he was killed on 19 December 1941. He is buried in Sai Wan War Cemetery.

Corporal Kerry Ryan, 25, was killed on 19 December 1941. He was serving with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and is buried in Sai Wan War Cemetery. At some point Corporal Ryan was mentioned in despatches.

The Japanese perpetrated a number of War Crimes during the Battle for Hong Kong, one of which involved the murder of a Portsmouth Officer. Captain Robert Bonney of the Royal Army Service Corps, was 47 and from Southsea. He had surrendered when he was murdered at Repulse Bay on 20 December 1941. He had served in the ranks during the First World War.

37 year old Lieutenant Frederick Southwell, of the Royal Signals, was killed on 23 December. He is buried in Stanley War Cemetery in a collective grave.

The death and suffering did not end after the Hong Kong Garrison surrendered on Christmas Day 1941. As elsewhere in the Far East, the Japanese treared their Prisoners brutally, with no accord to any international conventions.

Corporal Leonard Hunt (23, Copnor) of the Royal Air Force died on 4 August 1942, and is buried in Sai Wan War Cemetery.

Five Portsmouth men died on 1 October 1942 in captivity in Hong Kong, suggesting some kind of massacre or epidemic. Corporal Walter Hodge (43) of the Royal Signals, Lance Corporal Henry Moxham (28, Southsea) of 40 Fortress Company Royal Engineers, Lance Sergeant Thomas Newman (25, Cosham) of 22 Fortress Company Royal Engineers, Staff Sergeant Edward Kehoe of 40 Fortress Company Royal Engineers, and Gunner Arthur Johnson (26, Copnor) of 12 Coast Regiment Royal Artillery are all remembered on the Sai Wan Memorial.

Also captured at Hong Kong were several men of the Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps. These were civilian Dokyard workers who served in a Home Guard-like defence unit. As the biggest and most important Dockyard in Britain, its not surprising that many Portsmouth men found themselves working in the Hong Kong Dockyard. Corporal Gilbert Budden (23, Cosham) died on 11 October 1942. Private Alfred Lee (43, North End) died on 12 December 1942. And Private Henry Budden (from Cosham, and the brother of Gilbert Budden) died on 9 October 1943. All three are buried in Stanley War Cemetery.

The final British casualty in Hong Kong during the war was Gunner Norman Travis of Cosham. He was serving with 80 Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, and died on 8 April 1945. He is buried in Sai Wan War Cemetery. Interestingly, he had been captured in Singapore.

Many other men who were captured in Hong Kong ended up dying in Japan, having been shipped there for slave labour.

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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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BQMS Stanley Thayer MM

Lance Bombardier Stanley Thayer, 27 and from Cosham, was serving with 5th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Artillery. 5 HAA Battery were part of 2 Heavy AA Regiment, and were based in Northern France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. They landed in France in November 1939.

As a 27 year old Lance-Bombardier in a regular Artillery unit in 1940, Thayer was almost certainly a pre-war regular soldier. During the German invasion of France and Belgium in the Spring of 1940, Lance Bombardier Thayer found himself facing an attack by German aircraft.

At 6am on Sunday May 11th, eleven Dornier 215 aircraft flew at a height of about 50 feet very near to the gun position at which the L/Bdr was stationed. The aircraft appeared to be about to attack the gun site since they were flying in line astern formation in the direction of the site. Although a burst of machine gun fire came from one of the planes, and he was standing quite unprotected by any form of emplacement, L/Bdr Thayer opened fire with his Bren Gun. The approach of the aircraft was turned away from the site, five planes flying to one side and six to the other. He engaged each plane as it appeared and one plane appeared to be hit a large number of times.

By his exemplary conduct and coolness in action, L/Bdr Thayer set a very fine example to the remainder of the section and saved the gun site.

Thayer’s Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 20 December 1940.

Thayer served on throughout the war, and at some point he was also mentioned in dispatches. In 1944 he was a Battery Quartermaster Sergeant with the 80th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Brigade. 80th HAA Brigade came directly under the command of 21st Army Group in the invasion of Europe.

BQMS Thayer died on 8 October 1944, at the age of 31, and is buried in Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in France. He may have died of illness in hospital as Dieppe was some way behind the front line, or his anti-aircraft unit may have been stationed there.

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The Germans who fought Hitler

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article on the BBC’s online Magazine about German citizens who fought for Britain against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

Its not the first time I have come across this story. In my research into the Battle of Arnhem, it transpires that a number of exiled German and Austrian Jews took part in the battle. Having fled Germany and settled in Britain, on the outbreak of war they were interned as enemy aliens – even Jews.

Gradually though, the assumption that all enemy nationals were hostile was re-evaluated. Many of those of Military service age were allowed to join the Pioneer Corps – the part of the Army that performs hard physical labour – easily the least glamorous Corps in the entire British Army.

Remarkably, many of the German and Austrian Pioneers were champing at the bit to get back at Hitler, and they soon realised that digging trenches and building roads was not enough. Some of them not only volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, but for the 21st Independent Company – the elite unit that landed first and marked out the Drop Zones for the rest of the Division.

According to Mark Hickman’s Pegasus Archive, around 25 Germans and Austrians joined the Company. They were thought to be particularly useful due to their bilingual abilities and tenacious fighting skills. All of them fought under assumed names, to try and avoid the dire consequences if their true identities were discovered by the Germans.

Two of them died at Arnhem. Corporal Hans Rosenfeld, 29, was killed on 23 September. Rosenfeld fought under the assumed name of John Rodley, and is buried in Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Private Timothy Bleichroeder, 22, was killed on 25 September, the last day. He fought under the name of Bleach. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Groesbeek Memorial.

These men were incredibly brave. Whilst it is often said that the average soldier is fighting for himself and his comrades, the German and Austrian anti-Nazis had an added motivation for wanting to see the end of the Nazi regime – most of them had suffered under their persecution. And for each of them, the consquences of being captured were acute. Not only would they have been shot out of hand as traitors, given their nationality, their status as Jews would have led them on a one-way journey to the concentration camps.

They more than anyone must have known why the Allies were fighting.

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