Tag Archives: World War Two

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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