Daily Archives: 1 April, 2010

RAF Handbook 1939-1945 by David Wragg

I’m a big fan of the Handbook series from Sutton Press. My intoduction to them came by way of the Army counterpart, when researching my Granddad’s war service. This edition of the series focusses on the Royal Air Force between 1939 and 1945.

The Handbook opens with a lengthy chapter on the history of the RAF. Whilst this is interesting and adds context, I feel that it is perhaps a little more detailed than is necessary. We then have a chapter focussing on the state of the RAF in 1939. Then several chapters follow describing the RAF during the Second World War, from the phoney war, to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, the Bomber Offensive, the Battle of the Atlantic, war in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Later Chapters then follow up with focus on the Far East, and the war in Europe after 1944. Whilst this broader context is important, again I feel that perhaps it goes into too much detail – particularly when we consider that there are already a number of authoritative histories of the RAF in the Second World War. The broader, strategic context IS important, but I feel it is a case of getting the balance right.

What really sets this book apart is its focus on the more human aspects of service in the RAF. Rcruitment and training and Personal and Personnel are fascinating subjects and David Wragg covers them admirably. Its only by looking at what the men and women who served in the RAF experienced, that we can get an accurate picture of the wartime RAF. In particular I like the section on training structures – all too often personal stories of wartime serice begin after training – yet surely this has to be one of the most formative experiences of service?

I have been researching the men of Portsmouth who died in the Second World War, and the section on ranks and roles has added to my knowledge and understanding considerably. Its also very interesting to read about Pay and Conditions, Uniforms, Insignia and similar subjects – these are very human aspects that are so important, particularly for family historians. One of the most difficult aspects of military history is investigating medals, and this is covered too.

The Handbook is not limited to the men of Fighter Command and Bomber Command either – passages are dedicated to the Womens Royal Auxilliary Air Force, the RAF Regiment, and anti-aircraft defences. It also includes a comprehensive list of wartime squadrons, with a service history of each, and also a list of wartime airfields. The lists of Squadrons and airfields run well into three figures, so this is a valuable source. To add context to Bomber Command’s war the Handbook includes a list of German cities subjected to Bombing, with the first and last dates they were attacked, together with a total tonnage of bombs dropped. I have never seen this information anywhere else. Finally, a full list and description of all RAF VC winners between 1939 and 1945 pays tribute to some extraordinarily brave men.

One of the most pleasing aspect of this book is the illustrations – its full of great pictures of aircraft, and aircrew and groundcrew at work. I know that there are plenty of training manuals, for example, that might have made good illustrations. But if you want to use it for family history research or just for pleasure reading, its well worth picking up. If you really want to drill down and do some in-depth research, you might like to track down some specialist books, or borrow something from the library. But for off-the-shelf research into the RAF in the Second World War, especially if you are new to military history, this book is very hard to beat.

RAF Handbook 1939-1945 is published by The History Press



Filed under Book of the Week, Family History, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Saladin – Hero of Islam by Geoffrey Hindley


Saladin has a vaunted place in Medieval history, normally tagged along with ‘Crusades’ and ‘Richard the Lionheart’. Its a common feature of history that folklore will find two adversaries and link them together irretrevably. But does this ‘versus’ school of history take anything away from the individuals concerned?

One of the problems about our understanding of Saladin, is that his place in history normally begins when Richard the Lionheart landed in the Holy Land. When in fact, he had a long career much predating the Third Crusade. While western readers may not be particularly interested in anything that happened pre-Lionheart, it is vital to understand how Saladin’s early life led to his development into one of the first – and indeed very few – leaders who managed to achieve pan-islamic unity in a common cause.

I must admit to having trouble following the early chapters, with the numerous caliphs, emirs, vizirs and sultans that existed throughout the Middle East in the 12th Century. As I’m not exactly a Medieval Historian, it is very hard to get to grips with the political situation that affected the Crusades. But what I can substantiate from Hindley’s account, is that Middle East politics were incredibly complex, even 850 years ago. It was an incredible achievement by Saladin to unite such disparate groups.

What does the story of Saladin tell us about the modern era, particularly regarding past troubles in Palestine? Firstly, that viewing the issue of the Middle East in terms of religion versus religion is not adequate – in 1189 islamic unity was extremely fragile to say the least. Also, that there was a significant amount of chivalry between the two sides. Attempts to paint one side or the other as infidels were largely a construction. Saladin much admired the dedication of the crusaders in fighting for their cause, whereas many crusaders keenly absorbed eastern culture.

It would be all to easy to express revulsion at the frequent massacres and atrocites that were committed during the Crusades. But is this right? We are guilty of looking through modern eyes at events that took place long ago, in an era of completely different social codes – the war crime is a twentieth century phenomenon. Yet in the same context, codes of chivalry were prevalent among Christian and Muslim alike.

Perhaps these are events that modern day inhabitants of the Middle East might like to reflect on? Far too often in history old misdemeanours and unpleasant events are dragged up and misused as justification for yet more bloodshed. While past events should not be forgotten, they should be learnt from. When Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade faltered just before Jerusalem, Saladin promised that Christian pilgrims would be allowed ino Jerusalem unhindered. An example of magnanitude that encaspsulates an extraordinary man.

Saladin – Hero of Islam is published by Pen and Sword


Filed under Book of the Week, Medieval history, middle east, Uncategorized

HMS Victory – April Fools!

Sorry to disappoint you all, but apparently the story about HMS Victory being afloat in 1933 was none other than a hoax! I have to admit that it had me fooled, especially given that the story was apparently based on new evidence discovered by the Head Curator of the Royal Naval Museum. Of course, in hindsight at some point in the past 75 years or so the supposedly new evidence would have come to light. And as my brother has suggested, maybe some people who were around at the time might just have remembered it at some point!


Filed under Uncategorized

New evidence shows HMS Victory was afloat in 1933 (Hoax!)

UPDATE – Sorry to disappoint everyone, but I’ve now found out that this was an April Fools Day Hoax!

New evidence discovered in the Royal Naval Museum’s archives has shown that HMS Victory, Nelson’s Flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, was afloat in 1933 for that year’s Navy Week.

HMS Victory afloat for Navy week 1933

HMS Victory afloat for Navy week 1933

While researching Navy Days the Museum’s Head Curator found a logbook kept by a young officer onboard HMS Hood, the famous battlecruiser that was based in Portmouth at the time:

‘The entire Gunroom has had the good fortune to be appointed to the … Victory, which is due to sail for a fortnight’s cruise.’

Previously it had been thought that Victory had entered dry dock in 1922, and had remained there ever since. This fascinating new evidence suggests that in fact 11 years later, with a degree of towing, she managed to sail as far as Dover. The young officer commented further:

‘the greatest advantage gained in this fortnight is the unique experience of how a square-rigged ship – especially the old heavy bluff-bowed type – was handled’

Navy Week began in 1927, and was the forerunner of Navy Days. This years event takes place from 30 July to 1 August in Portsmouth Naval Base.


Filed under Dockyard, event, Local History, Navy