Monthly Archives: July 2010

work starts on ‘Portsmouth’s heroes’

In the past week or so I have started researching the stories of some of Portsmouth’s fallen Sailors, Soldiers and airmen from the Second World War. To begin with I am focusing on a handful of men and their stories, and by finding out all I can about them I hope to try and give an impression of their sacrifice.

This week I have been researching Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC (RN Bomb Disposal), Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM (D-Day Para killed in Germany in 1945) and Lance Corporal Les Webb MM (1st Hants, seriously wounded on D-Day on Gold Beach and died of wounds a week later). I have a list of other names who I think will be very interesting to research and write about, and hopefully people will enjoy reading their stories too.

I have already had some successes early on – finding Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth’s service record on the National Archives online was a real bonus. The Evening News has given me some pretty useful death notices and thanks for sympathy messages, and announcements about medals. Personal notices in the local newspaper give a wonderful insight into the feelings that went with the loss of a loved one, as well as the names of family members, addresses, and other details that add so much depth and understanding to what is initially just a name, rank and a number. You cannot help but remember that these men were all someones husband, boyfriend, fiance, son, brother, father, grandson, nephew or uncle. The local Kelly’s directories and Electoral Registers also give a good idea of who was living where and when, and I have several certificates on order from the General Register Office.

It would be all too easy to just write about the battles and medals, but I think its important to look at the social side of these inspirational people, to find out who they were and what made them tick. That way we can try to understand that they really did come from the same streets that we do, and were human beings the same as us. We should be careful not to put them on a pedestal so much that their stories are out of touch, especially as the passage of time makes them seem from a different world in any case.

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40 years since the end of the Rum Ration

Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.

The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.

Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.

There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.

Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.

There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.

The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.

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Trident to be funded from MOD budget

The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.

Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.

The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.

Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.

The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960′s.

The RUSI proposes four alternatives:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.

Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.

Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.

Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.

Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.

Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.

Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War: Aftermath of the Somme

On 10 July 1916 the 1st Hants left billets in Bertrancourt to take over front line trenches from the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – this only nine days after the Battalion had been decimated on the first day of the Somme. – in the Beaumont Hamel-Serre sector. There they found trenches in a very bad condition. In some places Mills Grenades were buried in the mud – B Company lit a fire which exploded some grenades, killing one man and wounding two. There were only six officers in the front line, excluding Battalion HQ.

On the 13th a big fire demonstration was put on along the front line of the whole Corps. Gas, Smoke and High Explosive Shells were sent over all night, but retaliation from the enemy was light. By the next day trenches were beginning to dry out. Two patrols were sent out that night, and found that the German front line was strongly held. On the 15th the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Mailly-Maillet. They were still close to the front line, and had to sleep in cellars to avoid shelling.

On the 16th the men attended a church parade in the morning, followed by 100 men forming a working party on the communication trenches. A draft of 15 men arrived, most of them men who had recently been lightly wounded. This suggests both how seriously understrength the Battalion was, and how desparate Britain’s manpower situation had become after the losses on the Somme. The next day a draft of 300 men arrived, mostly from the 16th (Depot) Battalion, but some from the 14th (1st Portsmouth) Battalion. Again, taking on such a huge number of men in one go suggests how depleted the Battalion was. The War Diary notes that the physical condition of these men was very poor – one man was sent to the Hospital within two hours of arriving. More new arrivals appeared on the 19th, including, as the War Diary puts it, ‘our old friends Capt Lockhart and Lt. Smythe’. Slowly, the Battalion was rebuilding. The influx of men who were no doubt volunteers or conscripts marked the point at which the Battalion lost much of its regular make-up.

On the 22nd the Battalion paraded for inspection. The next day they marched at 3am from Beauval to Doullens (Nord) Station, where they boarded trains for a 5 hour journey to Esquelbeeq (Nord) in Belgium. From their the men were billeted in farms. Battalion HQ was in Wormhoudt. The move to Flanders was evidently unpopular, as the War Diary records ‘those of us who were in Flanders before showed no zeal at renewing our acquaintance with this part of the world’. This is somewhat intriguing, given that the Battalion had suffered crippling losses on the Somme only weeks earlier, and that during 1916 the Ypres Salient proved to be relatively quiet. It is very possible that the 1st Hants were sent to this quiet sector in order to rest, rebuild and integrate their new recruits.

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Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The first day on the Somme

After a hiatus of a few months, its time to find out more about what happened to the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War. We left them on 30 June 1916, the night before the British Army launched its attack on the German lines on the Somme.

The Somme offensive was originally planned as a joint British and French effort to break the German front line. After the German offensive at Verdun, however, the battle evolved more into an relieve the pressure on the French defenders of Verdun by diverting German reinforcements. The ground had not been chosen for any reason other than that it was at the boundary between the British and French sectors of the Western Front.

There were arguments among the Generals about the tactics to be used. The commander of the Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was mindful of the limitations of the New Army units, and proposed to use a ‘bite and hold’ strategy of assaulting the front line, and then reinforce these gains before moving on to the next objective. He was overruled by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig -the Commander in Chief of the BEF -however, who ordered a more ambitious strategy of aiming to over-run the whole front line.

The Battalion had formed up in their assembly trenches the day before the attack was due to begin. A huge artillery barrage was planned, to neutralise the German front line, cut barbed wire and kill Machine Gunners. At 7.30pm the whole line assaulted. The 4th Divisions objective was the German front line between Beaumont Hamel and Serre. The Brigade’s front line consisted of the East Lancs and Somerset, and the second line was made up of the Hampshires and the Rifle Brigade. As soon as the troops left their trenches they encountered heavy machine gun fire from all directions, and it was impossible to even reach the German front line.

After hiding in shell holes in no mans land throughout the day, the survivors trickled back to the British lines. That same night the remains of the Brigade were relieved, and went back to billets at Mailly. From Mailly, the remnants of the Battalionwent back to billets at Betrancourt. On 10 July the Battalion relieved the Lancashires in the line near Beaumont Hamel, and stayed in the trenches until the 16th.

Losses were so great on the first day of the Somme, that the Battalion’s War Diary does not even give figures for men killed, wounded or missing. The stark figure of 100% casualties amongst officers tells its own story. Thousands of Tommies had been thrown against the German line, which despite a massive preliminary artillery barrage was still intact. Casualties among the officers amounted to 100%, and was also very heavy in other ranks. If these levels of losses are replicated across the whole Army on the Somme, only then do we get an idea of how heavy a price was paid for so little. The British Army on the Somme had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners. In ONE day.

Among the dead from Portsmouth were Private Frank Goldring, Private Henry Bushnell and Corporal Phillip Brymer who have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, Private Reginald Buckland (27, Copnor) who is buried at Serre Road War Cemetery, and Sergeant Norman Blissett (23, Southsea) who is buried in Beaumont Hamel War Cemetery. Corporal Walter Gubby (21) died the next day, and is buried at Doullens Cemetery.

Among the officer casualties on 1 July 1916 was the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lawrence Palk. Born in 1870, Palk was the second son of Lord Haldon, and fought in the Boer war between 1901 and 1902. He had served with the 1st Battalion since the start of the war, and had been awared the French Legion d’Honneur, the DSO and was mentioned in despatches. He is buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps. Colincamps is back from the front line, suggesting that Palk died of wounds received. Another officer killed was Lieutenant Charles Goodford, who had won the Military Cross the previous winter for leading a daring raid across no-mans-land. He is also buried at Colincamps.

The Battalion would not take part in another attack on the Somme until October. Its not difficult to see how the devestating losses on the Somme – and the first day in particular – cut a swathe through the British Army. Losses amongst Officers, NCO’s and experienced men were keenly felt, especially among regular battalions such as the 1st Hants. The Portsmouth Pals Battalions – the 14th and 15th Hants – would suffer even bigger losses when their turn to fight came in September 1916.

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The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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Happy 1st Birthday to me!!!

Its a year ago today that I made my first post here on Daly History. I started out simply as a way of airing my thoughts, I never imagined that it would take off like it has. Apart from a few snobby comments in some quarters – which you are always going to get! – it seems that there is a demand for relating the past to the present, and the future.

I would like to thank everyone who has visited, whether its just to have a quick browse or to get involved. In particular I would like to thank my friends and family for their support, and some of the friends I have made through my blog – Mike Burleson at New Wars for kindly promoting my work, Pen and Sword, The History Press, Ospey and Little, Brown for allowing me to review their books, the guys at WW2talk for their input and interest, savetheroyalnavy, thinkdefence, and basically anyone and everyone who has helped kick this project along!

553 posts… 624 comments… 34,464 hits from 139 Countries!

The most popular posts have been:

652 The Sinking of the Laconia
534 Falklands Then and Now: Aircraft Carriers
474 Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: The Small ships of WW2
451 Type 45 Destroyers face further worries
438 Refighting the Falklands War?

The highest rated posts have been:

Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith (6 *****)
The Sinking of the Laconia to hit our screens soon (5 *****)
Escape from Arnhem by Godfrey Freeman (5 *****)

I’ve really enjoyed writing the ‘Refighting the Falklands War’, Arnhem 65 years on, Victoria Cross Heroes, Portsmouth Heroes and 70 years on from 1940 series. Writing about the Shoreham airshow, touring HMS Daring, the Solent Overlord Show at Horndean and about my talks has been great fun too.

There should be plenty more to write about over the next 12 months too, with a Strategic Defence Review due to be completed soon, and events such as Navy Days coming soon. On a personal level, I’ve got plenty of talks booked, and a number of exciting projects on the drawing board.

As ever, if anyone has any comments, suggestions or feedback I would be more than glad to hear from you -after all, a blog is nothing without the people who visit it!

Thanks again for all your support,

James

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940′s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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Fox warns on Defence Spending

The Defence Secretary Liam Fox has warned British Defence companies that they will have to cut costs or face losing out on future business from the armed forces, BBC News reports. He was speaking at the Farnborough air show, a gathering of Defence industries, with a particular focus on aviation.

The issue of defence procurement is a tricky one. Undoubtedly, there are many examples of spending being badly handled from the MOD side, and this has driven up costs in many cases. But in a more competitive market, where the MOD will have to make every penny count more than ever, it is right for the Defence Secretary to warn companies to offer value for money. An uncompetitive company is unlikely to be an efficient one where its products are concerned.

No doubt Defence contractors will argue that they already do, and will point to the high costs of basing production in the UK – such as salaries and running costs. but they seem to have a choice – adapt to the changing economic situation, or risk going out of business if the MOD looks elsewhere for its equipment. Whilst its nice to provide work in Britain, in a time of collapsing budgets the priority has to be getting the best kit at the best price, regardless of where it comes from. Going back to competitiveness, is a company that knows its 99% likely to get a contract going to pull out the stops to put together a good product?

The question does need to be asked, why it is possible to buy more and better for less money than from a UK firm? Have companies cottoned onto the MOD’s lax spending controls, combined with the policy of buying British, and worked out that they can name their price? As I have previously mentioned, British Defence Companies have almost always been assured of gaining contracts, thanks to robust lobbying from MP’s over providing work for their constituencies.

Fox’s comments follow on from those made by General Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff designate. It makes a change to hear a Defence Secretary and the Chief of Defence Staff singing from the same hymm sheet. Whether thats down to teamwork or Richards’s political views remains to be seen. It might be a coincidence, but their comments are remarkably similar…

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Alan Clark ‘dodged National Service’

An interesting story transpired earlier this week, when The Independent revealed that Alan Clark, a well-known military historian and Conservastive MP, dodged national service.

According to Clark’s biographer, Ion Trewin, papers recently discovered in his castle prove that his only personal experience of the military was in the army reserve at Eton and a single day as a member of the Household Cavalry. He later avoided a call-up from the RAF by pleading his earlier ‘service’. Clark, however, later went on to make numerous references to army life, and referred to his military service in his famous diaries.

Its an interesting thought I am often faced with – do you have to have served in the forces to be a military historian? In these days of a small, professional military, I do not believe it is essential. And I think sometimes that not having a military mind can be an advantage, and can offer different insights – in some ways a training as a historian equips you more for military history than Sandhurst. But when military service was widespread, for somebody of Clark’s class and interests to sidestep national service was most bizarre, if not uncommon. If anything, several years serving as a junior officer would have been a great experience for a budding military historian. But it seems that although Clark liked writing about war, he did not want to get his hands dirty.

Sadly, I also think it says something about someone if they shirk away from something that most of their peers do, thanks to a loophole. My Grandad and most of his generation did national service, why should Alan Clark have dodged it? Not only that, but to then go on to make a career out of posturing as some kind of military expert, is slightly bad form. But then again, a look at Alan Clark’s political career and private life tells us that morals were hardly his strong point. Even his own wife is quoted in The Independent as saying “…I come from an army family – my father was a colonel and my grandfather a brigadier. If I had known, I would probably have lined him up against the wall and shot him for deserting.”

In a profession where integrity and honesty counts for so much, poor judgement can ruin a career overnight. Reference Hugh Trevor-Roper and the Hitler diaries, David Irving and Holocaust denial, and Orlando Figes and his negative amazon reviews of his rivals books. Clark is bound to draw parallels with figures such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton who dodged the Vietnam draft, although at least in Bush’s case he did join the Air National Guard, and Clinton was studying in Britain. Somehow Clark’s episode is rather more dishonest and odious.

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Portsmouth WW2 dead research – the next step? Thoughts please!

So i’ve finished posting up my analysis of the men and women from Portsmouth who died during the Second World War. And over previous months I have posted up thousands of stories, of medal winners, brothers, special forces, senior officers, men involved in famous battles, and other historical points of interest.

But… what next?

Having spent about 9 months researching these 2,000+ names, I’m inspired even more by their stories, their experiences and their sacrifices. And there are so many stories to tell – even the ones that are, on the surface, unglamorous – they are still stories of a life lost, a family bereaved. I think they deserve to be told, and compiled properly so people can access them, and find out about their ancestors, or even add information where I may have dropped off! And not only that, but it gives a unique insight into life and society in wartime Portsmouth.

I’m thinking along a couple of lines…

1) Writing up a selection of interesting stories, based on the blog posts that I have made, about medal winners, commanders, interesting stories, and in broader terms about specific battles. The idea would be to pick a handful of men and women, whose stories would represent their peers.

2) A full reference book containing all of the names, along with their details from my database. I’m not sure if this has been done elsewhere, but its an interesting concept and would be like the National roll of WW1, but more detailed. Maybe its even something that could be rolled out to other cities too?

3) An online, searchable database, that could contain photographs, links, references, etc… almost like a wiki

All of these ideas are very much at the thinking stage, and all depend on time, funds, feasability, and not to mention whether any publishers would take on the book ideas, and if my technical skills can reach to web design!

But I would be very interested to know what you guys, my readers, think – especially those of you who know much more about writing, publishing, web design etc than I do!

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, site news, World War Two

HMS Cumberland added to Navy Days

The Type 22 Frigate HMS Cumberland has been confirmed to appear at the Navy Days event in Portsmouth at the end of the month. Cumberland is normally based in Plymouth, so it will be a rare opportunity to take a look round a Type 22 Frigate in Portsmouth. It also goes some way to bolstering what is a rather weak-looking line-up.

Despite this new announcement the line-up for Navy Days is still looking decidedly anaemic. HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean, HMS Albion, HMS Liverpool, HMS Sutherland, RFA Fort George and RFA Largs Bay are all off the east coast of the US for the AURIGA deployment and are obviously unavailable. HMS Invincible is rusting in 3 Basin and in no condition to be on display, and HMS Illustrious is in deep refit at Rosyth. HMS Bulwark is in refit in Plymouth. As Portsmouth is the home port of the Type 42 Destroyers at least one of those should be on display, but perhaps the Navy is keen to emphasise the future where Destroyers are concerned. The survey ship HMS Echo is currently undergoing operational sea training and might be available, or how about the other survey ship, HMS Scott? Navy Days might also be an ideal opportunity for the Royal Navy to show off the new Astute submarine – even if visitors could not go onboard, it would be a PR coup to even be able to see her tied up alongside, and with some suitable displays about her next door.

There have been noticeably few announcements about foreign warships too. Apart from the French fishery patrol ship FS Cormoran Navy Days is looking like a solely British affair. The last Navy Days in Portsmouth had French, Danish, Chilean and Japanese ships on display. Hopefully we’ll get some announcements in the next couple of weeks – there was talk at one stage of an Italian warship, which would be great if it turned out to be one of the Italian Navy’s new Destroyers, which are almost identical to the Type 45′s and would make for an interesting comparison.

The Royal Navy has never been good at PR, even its own senior officers have dubbed it the ‘silent service’. Its not difficult to work out that poor PR makes you vulnerable when it comes to cuts, as politicians, civil servants and the public at large will be poorly-informed about who you are and what you do. The RAF, on the other hand, has a strong heritage of promoting itself – it has always had to, right from its early days. You can be it will not be wasting a single opportunity to emphasise what it does in these critical days while the Strategic Defence Review is ongoing.

Officials will cite ‘operational commitments’ for the poor showing at Navy Days, but in the case of exercises such as AURIGA would it not have been possible to either move the dates of Navy Days or scale down our involvement so at least one major ship might have been available? Of course it must be nice for Admirals to go on flag-waving exercises and to practice the rarity of fixed-wing flying on a UK Aircraft Carrier, but with bad PR this might end up being a thing of the past entirely.

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Filed under defence, Dockyard, event, Navy

New Chief of Defence staff threatens to pull plug on UK Defence Industry

The new head of the British Armed Forces has criticised the UK Defence industry as ‘ailing’, in an article in the Mail on Sunday yesterday (18 July 2010, page 2). General Sir David Richards – the current Chief of General Staff of the British Army, and future Chief of the Defence Staff, warned that it was not the role of the military to spend money simply to ‘prop up’ British defence industry companies.

On that point, her certainly does make sense. Questions have been raised over UK Defence procurement for some time. In the same article, the Mail cites the £1.7bn paid for 62 Lynx Westland Helicopters, costing £27m each, from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland. Apparently the MOD was repeatedly offered the option to buy American-built Black Hawk helicopters – far superior to the Lynx Wildcat – for £8m each. A similar situation took place years ago, when the MOD decided to purchase the SA80 rifle, largely as it gave business to British companies. The end-product was inadequate and needed large-scale modifications by Heckler Koch – bizarre given that the MOD could simply have bought from H&K in the first place.

What no-one seems to consider is, why is the UK Defence industry so expensive? Possibly due to prohibitively high costs of basing production in the UK, whereas foreign companies can pay staff less, and run on cheaper bills. Is it an option for companies such as BAE Systems and QinetiQ to up their game and become more competitive? Given the Generals comments, it sounds like ‘adapt-or-die’ will have to be their mantra. Thats probably why, in the recent BBC documentary, QinetiQ seemed to be moving into more civilian markets.

Not so long ago the British Defence Industry was the most productive and succesful in the world. Vosper Thorneycroft built ships for a multitude of navies around the world. Tanks such as the Centurion graced numerous battlefields during the Cold War. Even during the Falklands War, the Argentinian Navy had two Type 42 Destroyers. It does seem that in the past 20 or so years the British Defence Industry has lost its role in the export market – of recent British Defence projects, the only foreign interest in the Type 45 Destroyers is apparently ‘rumoured’ interest from Saudi Arabia. Only Austria and Saudi Arabia have purchased Eurofighters, and only Oman operates the Challenger 2 Tank. It seems that rather than buy British, many countries that might have done so in the past go for the cheaper American equivalents. Of course, there are very few truly British defence projects any more anyway. Its a sad state of affairs for what was once a thriving industry.

Where procurement is concerned, frequently the Government comes under pressure to buy British, in order to safeguard jobs. Defence debates in Parliament are always hallmarked by MP’s ready to stand up and speak out for jobs in ‘my constituency’. Recently thinkdefence analysed a Strategic Defence Review debate, and the words ‘my constituency’ featured more than any others. Of course MP’s have to stand up for their constituents – an MP who lets thousands of people lose jobs without a fight wont be an MP for much longer – but by the same token, this kind of lobbying leads to some hamstrung decision-making. For example, the Royal Navy is simply not large enough to warrant having three large main bases, but robust lobbying has protected jobs so far. At some point this will come to a head.

What astounds me most, however, is his comparison with Thatcher’s strategy of destroying loss-making industries such as coal and steel in the eighties. Although maybe not quite so overt as his predecessor, Sir Richard Dannatt, reading between the lines it IS a political statement. Hero-worshipping Margaret Thatcher leaves no illusions as to Richard’s politics.

Of course its important that the Defence budget is used to maximum effect by employing best value, but that doesn’t mean the threat of thousands of job losses should be talked about so flipplantly either.

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Filed under defence, News, politics, technology

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Merchant Navy

Over 30,000 British Merchant Seamen were killed during the Second World War alone. U-Boats alone sank 11.7 million tons of shipping, 54% of the Merchant Navy’s fleet at the start of the war. More than 2,400 British Merchant ships were sunk.

42 Portsmouth men were killed serving with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Although men were killed in the Atlantic, the South Seas, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the biggest losses were suffered in local waters. On 20 September 1941 the Isle of Wight paddle steamer SS Portsdown hit a mine in the Solent with the loss of seven Portsmouth crewmen. And on 8 May 1941 the tug SS Irishman hit a mine in Langstone Harbour. Two Portsmouth sailors were killed.

Years

1 – 1939 (2.38%)
3 – 1940 (7.14%)
16 – 1941 (38.1%)
12 – 1942 (28.57%)
3 – 1943 (7.14%)
4 – 1944 (9.52%)
3 – 1945 (7.14%)

Most seamen were killed during 1941 and 1942 – particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, 9 of the men killed during 1941 were lost on the SS Irishman and the SS Portsdown in local waters. Its noticeable though that there was a marked decline in merchant seamen deaths after 1942. Given that most merchant seamen were killed by U-Boats, this backs up the conclusion that from 1943 onwards the allies had largely defeated the U-Boat menace. The Luftwaffe was also in less of a position to attack allied shipping, either directly or by minelaying.

Areas

15 – Southsea (35.71%)
4 – North End (9.52%)
3 – Buckland (7.14%)
3 – Eastney (7.14%)
2 – Cosham (4.76%)
2 – Fratton (4.76%)
2 – Stamshaw (4.76%)
1 – Landport (2.38%)
1 – Milton (2.38%)

The origins of 3 men are unknown, and 6 men are listed as ‘from Portsmouth’. Its noticeable that most of the Masters and Chief Officers came from Southsea, and most of the junior seamen came from the working class areas such as North End and Buckland.

Ages

The age of Portsmouth’s WW2 Merchant Seamen is starkly different to the other services:

6 – Teenagers (inc one 16 and one 17 year old) (14.29%)
10 – 20′s (23.81%)
11 – 30′s (26.19%)
7 – 40′s (16.66%)
6 – 50′s (14.29%)
2 – 60′s (4.76%)

Its interesting to note both the relatively high number of men who were either teenagers – 14.29% – or 40 or older – over 30%. There are several explanations for this. Traditionally boys would go to sea young to learn their trade. The large number of older seamen may have been former naval servicemen who had left the Royal Navy for the Merchant Navy. Although most merchant seamen were in their 20′s or 30′s, the merchant fleet’s manpower took far less men from this age group compared to the Army, Navy or RAF.

Ships

Portsmouth’s Merchant Navy sailors who were killed during the war were lost on a variety of different vessels:

15 – General Cargo (35.71%)
7 – Isle of Wight Paddle Steamer (16.66%)
4 – Tanker (9.52%)
4 – Troopship (9.52%)
2 – Tug (4.76%)
1 – Auxilliary Anti-Aircraft Cruiser (2.38%)
1 – Cable Ship (2.38%)
1 – Fleet Auxilliary (2.38%)
1 – Hospital Ship (2.38%)
1 – Motor Launch (2.38%)
1 – Whale Factory Ship (2.38%)

The wonderful Uboat.net tells us much about Merchant Navy vessels lost in the war. The majority of men were killed onboard General Cargo ships, and mostly in the Atlantic by U-Boats. All of the men killed on General Cargo ships were killed on separate ships. Seven men were killed on SS Portsdown. Four men were killed on Tankers carrying fuel. The number of other different ships sunk during the war show the extent to which the Merchant Navy was mobilised by the war effort. Ships were sunk mainly by U-Boats, but several were sunk by air attack or by mines dropped by aircraft in coastal waters. One ship was sunk by German Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel. The Hospital Ship SS Amsterdam was sunk by a mine off the D-Day beaches in 1944.

The largest ship was the SS Queen Elizabeth, an 80,000 ton cross-Atlantic liner pressed into service as a troopship. She was not sunk during the war, but one of her crew members from Portsmouth died whilst serving in the Royal Navy. The smallest ship was the 99 ton Tug SS Irishman, mined in Langstone Harbour. These statistics again suggest the huge diversity of the Merchant Navy.

Cemeteries and Memorials

One Seaman is buried in Morrocco. Apart from that, all Portsmouth merchant seamen are either buried in the UK, or were lost at sea and are commemorated on the various memorials – mainly the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London, where 31 men are remembered. One man is remembered on the Naval Auxiliary Service Memorial in Liverpool.

Four men were buried in Kingston Cemetery, and three in Milton Cemetery. One man was buried in Highland Road Cemetery. Most men who were buried ashore either died of illness or injuries while their ship was either in port or close to shore. One man was buried in Falmouth, after his ship was attacked in harbour there by aircraft.

Roles

One of the most characteristic things about the Merchant Navy is the wide range of different roles men performed. Unlike in the regular armed forces, there was no formal rank structure, and seamen’s titles seem to have been based more on the function that they performed than seniority of command:

2 – Able Seamen
1 – Apprentice
1 – Baker
1 – Barkeeper
1 – Boilermaker
1 – Cadet
1 – Chief Engine Room Artificer
1 – Chief Engineer Officer
4 – Chief Officer
1 – Coxswain
2 – Deckhand
1 – Donkeyman
1 – Engine Officer
4 – Fireman
1 – First Radio Officer
1 – Fourth Engineer Officer
1 – Greaser
3 – Master
1 – Mate
2 – Ordinary Seamen
1 – Plateman
1 – Purser
1 – Second Engineer
2 – Second Radio Officer
1 – Stoker
2 – Third Engineer Officer
1 – Third Officer

Some of the interesting ranks include Baker, Barkeeper, Donkeyman, Greaser and Plateman.

3 men were serving as Masters. Elias Barnett, 58 and from Southsea, was the Master of RFA Moorfield. Benjamin Bannister, 48 and from Southsea, was the Master of the Tanker MV Arinia sunk by a mine of Southend in December 1940. And John McCreadie, 42 and from Southsea, was the Master of the SS Denmark, a troopship.

Decorations

Officer of the British Empire (OBE)
Chief Engine Room Artificer William Skinner (SS Southern Empress)

William Skinner’s OBE was announced in the London Gazette on 9 July 1941.

Royal Naval Reserve Decoration (RD)
Chief Officer Sidney Allen (SS Beaver Dale)

Sidney Allen was a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve. The Reserve Decoration was awarded to officers who had served over 15 years with the Royal Naval Reserve.

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Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two