Lieutenant-Commander Henry Southcott Burge

During lockdown I’ve been walking a lot round my local cemetery, Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth. Actually, it’s very local – I can see it from my back window. And as you would expect, it has a lot of war graves – over 500 to be exact.

When I was doing some research last year on casualties related to D-Day, I came across one naval officer who had a fascinating career. And with the National Archives free downloads during lockdown I have been able to piece together his career. While on the face of it he may not have seen active service in the Second World War, he did serve 41 years including two world wars, and rise from Boy Shipwright to an Engineer Lieutenant-Commander.

Henry Southcott Burge was born in Portsmouth on 2 September 1884. He joined the Royal Navy on 28 May 1903 for an initial engagement of 12 years. After initial training as a Boy Shipwright in Portsmouth Dockyard he was rated as Shipwright from July 1903, onboard HMS Duke of Wellington (depot ship), HMS Firequeen, HMS Thames (submarine tender at Sheerness) and HMS Drake (armoured cruiser). On 1 October 1905 he was promoted to Leading Shipwright – at the age of 21 and after only two years service. He then served at HMS Victory II (Portsmouth naval barracks), HMS Emerald and HMS Essex (Armoured Cruiser) before being promoted to Carpenters Mate on 3 December 1909. In this rank he served on HMS Essex, HMS Fisgard (Engineer training, Portsmouth) and HMS Vernon (Torpedo school, Portsmouth). On 1 December 1912 he was promoted to Shipwright 1st Class, and served on HMS Vernon and HMS Cochrane (Armoured Cruiser). Then on 5 October 1913 he was made a Chief Shipweight, in which rank he served on HMS Cochrane, HMS Victory, HMS Attentive (Scout Cruiser) and HMS Arrogant (Submarine depot ship).

On 1 April 1915 he was made an Acting Carpenter, a Warrant rank. He served as such at HMS Pembroke (Chatham naval barracks) for serving on board HMS Lord Clive (monitor), before being confirmed as a Carpenter on 1 April 1916. He then served in this rank for nine years, on HMS Lord Clive, HMS Vivid (Devonport naval barracks) for HMS Hood, HMS Victory, HMS Maidstone, HMS Lucia (both submarine depot ships) and HMS Columbine (stone frigate at Port Edgar on the Forth, depot for Torpedo Boat Destroyers). While at Columbine he was made a Commissioned Shipwright on 1 April 1925. He then served on HMS Columbine, HMS Vulcan, HMS Victory for service on HMS Malaya, HMS Malaya proper, HMS Vivid for trials on HMS Malaya, HMS Victory for service on HMS Barham, HMS Warspite and HMS Victory for service on Warspite.

On 2 September 1934 he was placed on the retired list and promoted to Shipwright Lieutenant, after more than 31 years service. However on 12 September he was recalled and served at HMS Royal Arthur, a training establishment for hostilities only personnel at the Butlins camp at Skegness. On 12 September 1942 he was promoted to Engineer Lieutenant-Commander. However on 21 December 1943 he was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital in Chatham with lung cancer. His condition did not improve and he was discharged home, where he died on 6 July 1944. He was 59.

A couple of things jump out from Burge’s career. Firstly, 41 years is a long career in anyones book, and that is a lot of different ships and stone frigates. Secondly, it is noticeable how joining a specialised trade in the Royal Navy opens up prospects for promotion – it is a similar situation today with in demand trades like engineers. And thirdly, while Lieutenant-Commander Burge may not have served on D-Day for example, one of the ships that he was a Shipwright on did, and he no doubt trained many sailors who did, particularly in the hostilities-only dominated landing craft. That pretty much sums up total war – everyone playing their part, in the way that they best can.






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‘new museum are(nt) rubbish’

It’s been really interesting, over the past few years, visiting newly redeveloped museums. And even more interesting reading the various reviews.

Lets face it, we all like a good moan. And even more, we like to try and knock down something thats new or different – we all think that we could do better. But it almost seems to be an assumption among many people that if something is new that it must inherently be worse. Cue cries of ‘they’ve ruined it!’

Criticism can be a particular problem in areas that are often very insular or based around long-held traditions, such as military museums. Often regimental museums, for example, are the preserve of a small number of retired senior officers – tribal elders – who get a position on the museum committee once they reach a certain rank, and have spent most of their lives in the military. It is understandable that people who have existed within a military environment stick with what they know. But, as the military shrinks, so will the number of potential visitors if the scope of the museum is limited. And with government funding contracting, it is a case of adapt or die. Aside from funding, surely military museums also have a role in promoting the role of the military within society, and increasing awareness, advocacy and support for the armed forces covenant?

Visitors can become very attached to a particular museum, display or object in terms of the when they first saw it, and struggle to accept that anything else could possibly be better. We like what we know and know what we like, after all. The removal of the blitz experience from the Imperial War Museum was greeted with much criticism, yet the same display was much criticised when it was first installed.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that many enthusiasts and specialists fail to understand or accept that a museum – or any other institution for that matter – does not exist just for them. Ownership is on thing, but suffocating is quite another. I cannot help but feel that a lot of specialists resent anyone else playing with their train set. I struggle to understand that – if you really are an enthusiast about a subject, you should be glad about the thought of it being shared with more people, and new people getting the opportunity to enjoy it as much as you have.

I think that part of the problem is that museums, on the whole, are not very good at why the have made the changes that they have. The museum jam-packed full of objects for a small number of enthusiasts to gaze at lovingly has got very little in terms of impact or effect to argue for it. Some museums that have been criticised for supposedly putting less objects back on display were actually re-displaying more objects than were there before. But, interestingly, they did not communicate this.

Resilience matters. A museum that atracts more people – especially from outside its core audience – will inevitably make more money. Therefore its very existence is assured, and it can look to continue developing. But a museum that preaches only to the converted will not only be in a precarious position financially, but its impact will be miniscule. Specialist and enthusiast audiences will almost always be small.

And, put simply, the goalposts have moved since the old days. And rightly so. With the advent of Heritage Lottery funding came a responsibility to think about the very people who were funding heritage through their lottery playing. And with greater scrutiny of public finances, taxpayers are more demanding of – and deserve – an awareness of what their hard earned taxes are being spent on. Museums just do not exist any more for their own gratification or for their core audiences.

Another aspect of modern museums is that the visitor experience is given much more emphasis now. Some of the ‘holy grail’ museums that are invoked with misty eyes were dark and dingy jumble sale-alikes, difficult to navigate, inaccesible, had poor cafes and just weren’t much fun to look round. And I say that as an enthusiast and a specialist. Quite rightly, visitors want their spare time to be spent in ennjoyment, not migraines.

Nobody ever tries to wreck a museum. For a start, if you want to wreck a museum you’re really working in the wrong job, and secondly most curators really don’t posess that kind of malevolent power. But most curators are passionate about showing their collections to as many people as possible, and to people who may not normally think about coming to their museum. If that is a bad thing, then you really should think about why.

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What is Military History Now?

I’ve been watching some of the debates centred on military history with great interest. The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres (or is it Paschendaele?!) and the release of the film Dunkirk have inspired much navel-gazing and hand-wringing from military historians.

I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on military history have evolved somewhat over the years. My interest was piqued at a very young age by my family history. Of course I went through the watching-war-films phase, and the button-counting and badge-checking and predictable-self-righteous-indignation-when-something-was-wrong phase.

But over time I think – and hope – that my motivation for ‘doing’ history has grown up somewhat. Accuracy is great, but what does it achieve? Yes, it is misleading if things are wrong, but is it possible to worry far too much about things that are details, and completely forget about the bigger picture? That is, what people are thinking and feeling, and what the bigger lessons of conflict are?

I guess I am quite lucky in that I have been ‘doing’ my history in quite a public way, and I get to interact with a lot of ‘normal’ people (even if that has involved writing books that are longer than a PhD thesis but most ‘proper’ historians would not lower themselves to cite as a source…)  But it has reallt reinforced my belief that preaching to the converted on the minutiae is one thing, but making a real difference to people who are not enthusiasts is the real coal face of history.

The more I have worked in public history, the more I have become more and more convinced over time that echo chamber history is virtually pointless – what purpose does it really serve? Recent events – Brexit, for one – suggests to me that history, and especially military history – has failed in terms of its broader role in society. Or, at the very least, history has not exactly covered itself in glory.

If the most important thing about a war film, for you, is that one of the cap badges is wrong or the repro battledress is the wrong shade of khaki, personally I think that you’re kind of missing the point. Anal retentiveness really will have overtaken the bigger issues. It reminds me of an account I read of the BEF in 1939-40. Apparently Lord Gort issued numerous orders regarding uniforms and standards of dress, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Guardsman. Yet sartorial elegance did not stop the debacle that led to Dunkirk.

I think the crux of all history is that what you do is affected very much by why you do it. If your primary interest is checking cap badges and counting buttons and then getting smugly outraged when not everything is completely right, chances are you’re probably less worried about what effect your work is going to have on people. Which does lead me to wonder if some historians really aren’t all that fussed about what effect their work has. After all, there are plenty of supposedly influential academic tomes that retail at £80 and have probably sold four or five copies, and can only be found in impenetrable libraries somewhere. What effect is that kind of history really having on anyone? Yet I have also seen plenty of sneering posts on twitter bemoaning arts projects, interpretive dance, and well, anything that isn’t either a book or a lecture. Aside from showing a complete lack of understanding of the modern world and the potential to reach new audiences, it seems possible to me that many enthusiasts would not be unhappy if militaty history stays in a position where they could bemoan the lack of interest of the general population, but they can also also smother the field so that said population are less likely to become interested in it. Schrodingers geek, you might describe it as.

To put it quite bluntly, I started out on the path of military history because of my family history. That family history tells me quite unequivocally that war is pretty awful, and really, isn’t that the whole point of military history, letting people know that war is a god-awful business? To be quite blunt, aside from making sure that something does not look completely ridiculous, I’m really not all that fussed about counting badges. However, if something I write or a display that I put together makes people go away and think something or feel something, that’s an outcome I can feel proud about.

The centenary of the Great War does feel like a missed opportunity in some respects. Not, I hasten to add, to just re-energise interest, but for military history as a concept to take a deeper look in the mirror. Maybe the nature of military history in 2017 is the problem. Caught between the ivory towers of academic military history on the one hand and the geekier end of the spectrum, there is more than ever a need for a middle way that takes into account the nature of the world we live in today, and the needs of the people who live in it.

For that to happen all parts of the field would need to take a hard look at themselves. It would require less factionalism between sectors, and academics, museum professionals, enthusiasts, tour guides and broadcasters. Getting away from secret societies and closed shop conferences and journals that won’t acknowledge your existence if you are not a PhD. Ironically, I think these kind of factors that have been in evidence during recent debates, are also part of the problem. And, even more ironically, military historians are showing signs of fighting todays problems with yesterdays tactics.

But most of all, thinking long and hard about why we do military history, and what it is all for.



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HNoMS Helge Ingstad

HNoMS Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian Navy Otto Svedrup class Frigate entering Portsmouth last week escorting the USS George HW Bush.

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USS Phillipine Sea

USS Phillipine Sea, a Ticonderoga class cruiser of the US Navy, called in at Portsmouth last weekend escorting the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush.

It’s on it’s way home after a week-long exercise. Time for a paint job I think!

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Book Signing – Saturday 2 August 2014

Hi all!

I know that it’s been a long time – I’m still recovering after D-Day 70! – but just to let you all know that I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth this coming Saturday, 2 August, between 12 and 2pm.

See you there!


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IT Band = History?

Well it seems like weeks since I’ve last updated here – in fact, its been months!

After getting frustrated with the lack of progress with my IT Band, I finally bit the bullet and went to see Cliff at Kings Road Clinic in Southsea for some physio. After a session of ultrasound, heat treatment and deep tissue massage, all aimed at breaking up the scar tissue, I could barely walk! But a couple of days after I could run, and run more comfortably. Then, the next couple of weeks I ran 9.2, 13.1 and 11.2 miles respectively. Considering I had been running 3 miles a week – if that – then getting into double figures again was a significant achievement. And the progress has carried on since, apart from a few quiet weeks due to work commitments. I’ve been running more comfortably, and further, and faster – all gradually. A couple of weeks ago I ran 6.8 miles for my long run, and I’ve done a couple of 5ks at 23:50ish, which considering my PB is 20:12, isn’t bad after three months injured.

I’ve been doing a lot of strengthening work to try and help out with the muscles that have allowed my IT Band to get weak – abs, hip, glutes etc. And so far it seems to be working. I do squats and planks every night, along with a few other random exercises thrown in for variety. Cliff gave me some stretches to do. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the lying down IT Band stretch – as it says, you lie down, raise one leg up with your feet near your other knee, then cross it over your body and use your hand to apply some stretch. Doing this little and often – 3 to 4 times a day – has definitely helped to stretch my Bands.

I’m almost fit enough to start running with Pompey Joggers again – I’ll probably start with one of the slower groups and do 5 miles or so at 8-9 min/mile pace. All being well I’m getting back to fitness just in time for the Lakeside 5k series over the summer, the run leg of the Portsmouth Triathlon (doing it as a team with my dad and brother) and the Hampshire Road Race League which kicks off again in September, with the Overton 5 and Victory 5.

Early tomorrow morning I’m going over to France to take part in the Courant de la Liberte 10k in Caen, as part of the Portsmouth team in a challenge against runners from our twin city Caen, and their twin city Wurzburg in Germany. It’s my first race since early March, so I’m not sure how I’ll get on – my PB is 42:48, but I won’t get anywhere near that – I hope to run under 48:00 at least, and 45:00 would be a real achievement.

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Military History: is there anything new to learn?

Last weekend I spent a very interesting couple of days working at our D-Day 70 Community Conference. As well as a visit to Southwick House which served as Eisenhower, Montgomery and Ramsay’s headquarters in the days prior to D-Day (I’d never been before), we also had talks from a range of different speakers. And hearing Dr Simon Trew from the War Studies Department at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst talking about whether there is anything new to learn about D-Day really got me thinking.

My first love in military history was – and still is – Arnhem. For family reasons the airborne battle in Holland in September 1944 has always been very close to me, and I’ve spent years poring over every book I can possibly find on the subject. Even when I have been working on radically different topics, Arnhem has always been there in the background. It’s always been an ambition of mine to write a book about Arnhem, but at the same time I’ve always been hesitant. It’s been written about so extensively that there are literally hundreds of books on Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. There are a wide plethora of specialist books on particular units or individuals, but my biggest bug bear has always been the sheer number of general books on the battle. There are so many, to the extent that with many of them, you could swap the authors names around, and the texts appear to be almost identical in content. Very few of them offer any kind of new research or new insight. Why would I want to wade into that historiography, just to cash in? No, I like to feel that if I am going to spend 2+ years of my life working on a book, that it will contribute something new to people’s understanding.

Hence I’ve left Arnhem well alone. But hearing Simon’s talk about the state of ‘1944’ historiography really got my thinking. And I have to agree, that despite the apparent extensive coverage of the subject, if you look beyond the surface, there is still plenty of work to be done. Very little of the Arnhem historiography is ground-breaking. Surely there must be some documents out there, at the National Archives perhaps, that have not been looked at? Or, are there assumptions in the historiography that need re-visiting? For example, has it occured to anyone that there is no credible evidence that General Browning’s of-quoted ‘Bridge too far’ was ever said? Can more work be done on the large number of oral histories and personal testimonies of other ranks involved in the battle?

One immediate area that occurs to me is the time period between 6 June and 17 September 1944. The British airborne landings in Normandy were an almost complete success, in particular the Pegasus Bridge and Merville Battery operations. How, just over three months later, did the same planning staffs manage to oversee a debacle like Arnhem? Many of you may know the well-known line in ‘A Bridge too Far’ when General Browning refers to fifteen airborne operations being cancelled since D-Day. How much do we know about these plans? Very little, it seems – some of them do not even seem to have received a code name. But they must have generated planning documents, and references in unit war diaries. Do these planned operations explain how Operation Market Garden transpired?

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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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The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!


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Afghanistan, Vehicles, and Urgent Operational Requirements

This week’s Top Gear had a very interesting segment about the British Army’s use of ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in Afghanistan. It is a subject that has been well written about, but now that Operation Herrick is winding down, is it time to pose some questions on British military procurement? It is well known that the British Army entered the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan relying almost solely on the faithful Land Rover for patrolling. Was this a case of simply retaining equipment that had been intended to fight previous wars? Did budgetary constraints prevent proper planning?

One thing that the recent, ‘post-modern’ conflicts have brought about is a re-assesment of the traditional dichotomy of ‘armoured’ and ‘soft’ vehicles. For ‘wars amongst the peoples’, main battle tanks are clearly too big and heavy – physically it is hard to move them around villages, and psychologically they are rather intimidating. Yet the Land Rover proved to be far too lightly armoured to protect servicemen when on patrol, in particular against the roadside bombs and other forms of Improvised Explosive Devices which proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007 – four years after the British Army went into Iraq, and a year after Britain’s commitment in Helmand province escalated to Brigade and then Divisional level, it was becoming clear that the Land Rover was no longer fit for the task in hand.

The first of the new breed of vehicles to be ordered were the Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound, which are all variants of the American-produced Cougar. Designed by Force Protection Inc – by a British team! – the British Army has in service around 400 Mastiffs, 125 Wolfhounds and 160 Ridgebacks. The original order from the MOD was for 108 vehicles at a cost of £35m. This first batch of vehicles were deployed to Iraq in late 2006, before a further batch of Mastiff’s were ordered in October 2007, at a cost of £100m. These orders came via Urgent Operational Requirements – essentially, when the troops on the ground need something yesterday, in order to make up for the accountants not letting them buy it beforehand. Further purchases have been made since then, taking the total to almost 700 Cougar-variant vehicles. The British variants seem to be heavily armoured compared to the American version.

The Warthog is actually based on a design by the Singapore-based ST Kinetics, called the Bronco. In December 2008 the MOD ordered 100 Warthogs from ST Kinetics, at a cost of £150m. Incidentially, the purchase of the Warthogs came as part of a package of £700m worth of UORs. The Warthogs replaced the lighter-armoured Viking which had been used in Afghanistan previously, but had proved vulnerable to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Vikings were being used in an environment for which they were not procured, having originally been purchased as amphibious vehicles for the Royal Marines. Post Afghanistan the Warthogs will be used by the Royal Artillery as support for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Jackal and Coyote were designed by the British company Supacat. The first batch of Jackals – 172 – were ordered in 2008. In 2010 another 140 were ordered. Whilst the Jackal is a 4×4 chassis, the Coyote is a 6×6 variant. Many are believed to be used in different forms by Special Forces, and have not been declared in fleet totals. The Foxhound is a light patrol vehicles, based on the Ocelot, designed by Force Protection. The Husky is produced by International Trucks.

In the space of armoured six years, the MOD has purchased over 1,000 vehicles, at a price of hundreds of millions of pounds. From a procurement point of view, it is hard to believe that Urgent Operational Requirements will ever represent value for money – the troops on the ground need it urgently, the politicans will always sign it off to avoid adverse publicity, and therefore the contractors know that they can ramp the price up. Whereas if such purchases were made in ‘peacetime’, without the rush to get them into action, a more efficient procurement exercise would probably deliver better value for money. Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of vehicles will be needed in any war, as wars don’t always tend to give us plenty of warning, and any conflict will require unique modifications for any equipment, down to climate, local cultures, and so on.

But by the same token, if we don’t know exactly what we will need, should we therefore think not about having equipment that is great in one scenario, but rather having flexibility that allows for easy modification to suit particular needs? There is only so much you can do with a Land Rover Chassis, after all. The same approach applies to air and sea assets – are giant aircraft carriers the right platforms for the wars of the next 50 years? The Type 45 Destroyers are marvellous anti-aircraft warships, but are they flexible enough to react to a range of scenarios? Whilst the Eurofighter is a finely tuned dogfighter, but was any thought given to how it might contribute to a similar range of scenarios? The British Army’s new camouflage was unveilved in the past few years, and the MOD’s policy was that it should be able to work in all environments, rather than just being excellent in one.

The MOD has recently produced a policy entitled ‘Generic Vehicles Architecture’ or GVA. The idea seems to be to create a single standard architecture for British military vehicles – sensible, given the experience of vehicles in Afghanistan. The first ‘post-Afghanistan’ British Army vehicle is the Panther – 401 of these four wheel drive, light multi-role vehicles have been ordered. The Panther is an Italian vehicles, based on the Iveco LMV. With a contract worth £160m contract, they are being assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The Panther does appear to be a long-term procurement, and is slated to replace the CVRT series of light armoured vehicles (Scorpion et al), the FV432 and Saxon personnel carriers and the Land Rover Wolf. That the Panther is replacing light armoured vehicles and the Land Rover Wolf, suggests that it represents a shift in vehicle policy and doctrine.

Several lessons seem clear from the experience of military vehicles in Afghanistan. The first lesson seems to be that poor military procurement in peacetime – often based on the assumption of there not being a war in the forseeable future and hence money can be saved – actually ends up costing lives and even more money once war inevitably happens anyway. Secondly, it has often been thought that the British Army prepares to fight the last war. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Army’s mobility was based overwhelmingly on the Land Rover – a vehicle used extensively by the Army tearing up and down thw Autobahns during the Cold War, and in Northern Ireland. After the end of the Cold War, did it occur to anyone that Britain would find herself fighting different kinds of wars, and that it was not necessarily equipped properly? Granted, it is difficult for anyone to forsee events such as 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts, but did anyone in the Army or the MOD foresee the need to be flexible, to expect the unexpected? Short term economies always seem to cost more money – and lives – in the long term.

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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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The land at the end of our toes, goes on… and on… and on… and on…


Last May, some, hmm…8 months ago, I took up long distance running. A slightly unusual thing for a military historian to do, I concede.

One of the problems with writing and researching history is that it is very much an indoor job. Couple that to a day job, then it is completely possible to hardly see sunlight for months on end. As interesting and productive as it can be, it isn’t always conducive to  good health, mentally or physically. I had been having a tough time with aspects of my life last year, and realised that I needed to do something positive to try and get some endorphins going and make a change. I’d spend months on end in doors, practically welded to my laptop. I had to get out and do something.

But why running, a seemingly insance pursuit? To regress, some family history. My dad took up running during the ‘running boom’ in the late 1980’s, and ran some very good times – 59 minutes for 10 miles, and a marathon in 3:04:00. He also had a rather intriguing obsession with running up and down Butser Hill, for which I believe there is professional help. But I grew up watching my dad train, while also being a dad and working full time. The smell of deep heat stays with you for many years! Years later my younger brother, Scott, took up running, and within a few years had also run 10 miles in 59 minutes.

I grew up seeing the benefits of long distance running, but also the extreme hard work that it takes to not just complete, but compete. Having been the black sheep of the family and having never run more than a mile for many years, on a whim I signed up to run the Great South Run for Mind, the mental health charity. It is a cause that it very close to my heart, and completely appropriate given the benefits of exercise in beating mental health problems.

Make no bones about it, if you’re not in good shape, starting to run is incredibly hard. Those first few miles are no doubt the hardest, breaking the three mile barrier is like an ever-present brick wall. But to a bloody-minded individual like myself, I find it hard to just complete something, I always want to do it to the best of my ability, to push myself and see what I am capable of (and also prove people wrong too!). I’m never happy with my time in any race, as soon as I finish, I’m thinking how I can break the next milestone – what does it take to run 10k in under 40 minutes, of 10 miles in under 1 hour 10 minutes?

In some respects, long distance running is like planning a military operation. You have to think about what you want to achieve – a time target, or a certain distance, whatever – and the resources that you have – time, money, nutrition, your body etc. Think about the time that you have, and plan how you are going to get there. Looking back, it seems quite ironic that I was writing about thousands of servicemen, who would have been at the peak of fitness and displaying supreme feats of endurance, and I was a couch potato, stuck to my laptop!

There are other military parallels. I had always marvelled at the physical feats of some of the people I have read and written about – Chris Ryans epic march out of Iraq after the Bravo Two Zero operation,  the epic yomp across the Falkands, or the advance of the Paras from their drop zones outside Arnhem to the outskirts of the town, almost ten miles, heavily laden and under fire. Sometimes these feats seem super-human. You wonder how people manage it – are they like the rest of us? And it dawned on me, after watching a video by CT Fletcher, the inspirational American bodybuilding guru. He explained that most servicemen are in the best shape of their lives during basic training. As he says ‘what you didn’t think you could do, your drill Sergeant MADE you do’.  And that probably explains why standard for the Paras is 10 miles in 1 hour and 10 minutes – a time that few runners manage, in running gear and on flat courses. A big, scary bastard shouting at you helps, but if you want it bad enough, you will be able to beast yourself towards it.

The funny thing is, that although there are more people running now than ever, the average times have dropped compared to when my dad was running in the 1980’s. Why is this? Are people happy to complete rather than compete? It’s hard for me to say; I’m by no means an elite athlete, far from it. But I do sense that people do not tend to push themselves in terms of intensity – what can I achieve? What am I capable of? Personally I feel that when I am pushing myself to the limit, that is when I’m really getting the benefits. If you say, ‘I don’t think I can run that fast’, that’s the biggest impediment to you doing just that. I know it is possible to do things that you have never thought possible – I’ve seen people do it. I also think that you need to have a strategy. The marathon is obviously the ultimate symbol of long distance running, and has a mythology all of its own. But I don’t want to get drawn into the 26.2 just yet – I’m not really interested in running 26.2 miles at an ‘ok’ standard, if I can’t really push myself at 10k and 10 miles first. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me to try and ‘run’ before I can ‘walk’!

There is plenty of literature out there about running. I have particularly enjoyed ‘ Running with the Kenyans’ by and ‘Running with the Mind of Meditation’ by Sakyong Mipham. Running with the Kenyans looks at the secrets of the Kenyan runners who have been the best long distance runners in the world for the past two decades. Many people have tried to find some supposed ‘secret’ as to why the Kenyans are so good. It transpires that there is no ‘secret’ as such, just a combination of factors, and a lot of hard work. Meditation and running also have strong parallels – breathing and thinking are very important to both, and the power of the mind, when harnessed, can take you places. Sakyong Mipham is a Tibetan meditation master, and ran the Toronto Marathon with a new pair of socks – a classic error. After a few miles he developed a blister, and by the end of the race his shoe was full of blood. He managed to finish the marathon by telling his mind that the blister simply ‘wasnt there’. Inspiration stuff (if a silly mistake in the first place!)

Running really is a lifestyle. I joined Portsouth Joggers Club last year, and have found running with likeminded people to be not only beneficial to my training, but also great fun. A little tip – run with people who are just a little bit faster than you – it pulls you along much faster than you would ever run on your own! When I run on my own I always run with music – I have a playlist of songs that are just the right tempo to push me along. Although running keeps you healthy, there is a downside – if you are eating for stamina and putting in the miles, you are looking at lots of carbs – and that means pasta, rice or potato. And day in day out, there is only so much that you can do with staple foods like that!


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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – book talks

ImageI’m going to be giving some talks based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’, courtest of Portsmouth Library Service:

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes

  • Saturday 8 February – 1.30pm, Carnegie Library (Fratton)
  • Saturday 8 March – 1.30pm, Southsea Library
Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during WW1. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a
wealth of sources available, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before.

Researching your World War One Ancestors

  • Saturday 29 March – 11am, Central Library

A special talk for the ‘Lost Hour’ event, this talk will show you how you can research your ancestors who took part in the First World War, using examples of men from Portsmouth who fought and died, and shwoing you the sources available to help with your research.

All talks are fully illustrated, and copies of my book will be available for purchase. Hope to see you there, come and say hi!

For more information about how to find the venues, and about other events taking place at Portsmouth Libraries over the next few months, click here.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes is also available to purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers, Waterstones Commercial Road, Blackwells at the Student Union, the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson and the City Museum.

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