Daily Archives: 15 March, 2010

Portsmouth’s ‘old contemptibles’ – part 2

After the battle of the Marne in September 1914, the next phase of the war on the western front consisted of the ‘race for the sea’. Both the Western Allies and the Germans attempted to secure the Channel ports of Belgium and France. The North Sea coast formed the northern flank of the western front, and the channel ports were also crucial. Ypres was the last major obstacle to the German advance on Boulogne and Calais – if the Germans had captured these ports, as they did in 1940, the BEF would have been effectively cut off.

The First Battle of Ypres began on 19 October, and was over by 22 November.

Corporal Frank Atherton, age 22 and from Southsea, was serving in 104 Battery, 22nd Brigade of the Royal Artillery. 22nd Brigade were part of Rawlinson’s IV Corps. Atherton was killed on 31 October 1914. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.

Private John Copping, 28 and from Southsea, was serving in the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He was killed on 2 November 1914, and is remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial. Lance Corporal Reginald Aspinall was killed on 7 November 1914, and Lance Corporal Albert Brown was killed on 11 November. They are both remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial.

Portsmouth men also served in other regiments. Private Albert Boyett, 27 and from Buckland, was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. He was killed on 7 November 1914. Corporal Albert Brett, of the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, was killed on 13 November. They are both remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.

After the first battle of Ypres the western front solidified into trench warfare, that was only truly broken with the Kaiserschlacht of early 1918. The heavy losses that the BEF suffered at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and te first Battle of Ypres meant that by the end of 1914 hardly any of the pre-war regulars were left. From 1915 onwards the Territorial Force and the Kitchener Battalions would bear the brunt of the fighting.

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A Genius for Deception by Nicholas Rankin

Deception has a long history in warfare, but only truly came to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century. From experimenting with camouflage and designing Observation Posts disguised as trees on the western front, deception progressed to new levels in the Second World War. At Alamein deception convinced Rommel that the attack would come from the south and not the north. Prior to the invasion of Sicily ‘the man who never way’ deceived the Germans about where the invasion would take place. And prior to D-Day the presence of the fictional First US Army Group convinced Hitler that the ‘real’ invasion would come in the Pas-de-Calais.

Sadly I found this book difficult to read. Whilst it tells some fascinating stories, at times it veers off on tangents to describe careers or peripheral incidents, leaving sparse room for actually writing about deception itself. Colonel Turner’s bombing decoys receive two pages worth of analysis. There is also relatively little about Operation Fortitude, which was surely the biggest and most succesful deception operation during the Second World War.

Perhaps the title is slightly misleading, as Rankin writes about a lot more than deception itself – at times he strays into writing about intelligence and security. Although clearly the lines between deception and intelligence do become blurred, a stronger focus on deception would have been preferable. Writing history is just as much about what you leave out as what you leave in.

What Rankin does do well is illustrate the development of deception from 1914 to 1945, by chronologically describing the evolution from amateurish projects to full-scale strategic operations. He also leaves a distinct impression that deception is something that the British have a real flair for – there is indeed something very British about the amateurish but innovative attempts to disguise tanks, and also in the countless tales of intrigue. Another salient point that Rankin make is that while in 1914 deception was an activity far down the food chain, by 1945 it had become integral to all military planning.

It does feel like this book is intended for a more general interest readership than readers with a more serious interest. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact I can imagine a less critical eye might find it a fascinating read. But when you know that many leads are not taken up, you cannot help but feel frustrated. There is little original research here, although admittedly many of the operations described by Rankin have not previously been considered alongside each other in one book.

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Filed under Book of the Week, World War Two

Fighting Fit? pt 2

So, its a week into my new big push to ‘get-fit’. And, apart from the odd lazy day off, I’ve been out running most nights. Im still huffing and puffing like a smoker (which I’m not) but I’m gradually running that bit further… and not stopping!

Clearly I’ve still got a long way to go, and I’m still in that awkward early phase of getting fit where if you stop then its back to square one. Its a barrier that I’ve come up against many times before, so the real test is to stick with it and not give in. But I can see the benefits already. When you’re out running most nights, you feel seriously guilty about indulging in cakes and chocolate. And, believe it or not, I’m actually making more of an effort to actually eat some veg!

I went to watch my brother do a cross-country yesterday, which was a real eye-opener. The finish was at the top of a particularly nasty slope, and just after the finish line many of the runners were collapsing in near-exhaustion. Its really inspiring to see how far some people can push themselves. But also, I could probably enter a run like that tomorrow, and while I wouldn’t win, I probably wouldn’t finish last!

And apparently, my brother and my dad have joined their running club as a family so, I can join and go along to their weekly training sessions at no extra cost!

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