Daily Archives: 2 July, 2010

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead: the Army (part 3)


73 Portsmouth men died while serving as officers during the Second World War:

4 – Lieutenant-Colonel (5.48%)
12 – Major (16.44%)
31 – Captain (42.47%)
21 – Lieutenant (28.77%)
5 – 2nd Lieutenant (6.58%)

Overall, 10.83% of the Portsmouth soldiers who were killed in the Second World War were Officers.

A couple of points are interesting here. Notice also how relatively few Portsmouth officers were of a senior rank. Unlike the Navy, it seems that Army officers did not settle in Portsmouth, and also that joining the Army was not seen as a career path for young men who might choose to become officers. And out of the four Lieutenant-Colonels who came from Portsmouth, two were serving with Indian or Hong Kong based units, where commissions were not so popular.

Its intriguing how over 42% of Portsmouth officers who died were Captains. An average infantry Battalion would have had much less Captains than Lieutenants – routinely a Lieutenant would command a platoon, whereas a Captain might be the second-in-command of Company. So even though statistically there were fewer Captains than Lieutenants in the Army, is it that more Portsmouth men happened to be Captains, or that Captains were more at risk of becoming casualties?

Other Ranks

601 men from Portsmouth died serving as other ranks in the Army between 1939 and 1947:

3 – Warrant Officer I (0.5%)
5 – Warrant Officer II (0.83%)
11 – Staff Sergeant (1.83%)
51 – Sergeant (8.49%)
90 – Corporal (14.98%)
48 – Lance Corporal (7.98%)
393 – Private (65.39%)

(ranks also include their equiavalents, ie Private includes Gunners, Sappers etc.)

89.73% of Portsmouth soldiers in the Second World War were serving in the ranks – overwhelmingly more than the equivalent figure in the Royal Navy. It is also noticeable how few soldiers were of senior rank – only 1.3% were Warrant Officers, for example. Many more Portsmouth seamen rose to higher rank in their service. Would, perhaps, there be more senior NCO’s in a town such as Aldershot, where long-serving soldiers were bound to live?

That such a high proportion of soldiers who were killed were serving as Privates is interesting. Certainly, it seems that the majority of Portsmouth soldiers called up to the Army during the war were young men, recruited to add to the numbers of the vastly expanding Army. The pre-war regulars, on the other hand, formed a cadre for promotion to NCO rank.

Did a soldier’s rank affect the likelihood of him becoming a casualty? Unlike in the Navy, where if a ship was sunk all ranks were at equal risk, different ranks had different duties and positions on the battlefield. Inevitably Privates were more likely to be at the sharp end. But conversely, officers and NCO’s often became casualties when they went foward to try and drive attacks on. They were also conspicuous targets for snipers.


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Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 by Mark Rowe

Writing about the summer of 1940 in British History is, in many ways, attempting to write about something that did not, in the event, happen. It is hard for us, 70 years later, to fathom what it must have felt like to live under the threat of invasion. But this new book by Mark Rowe suggests that some of our ancestors might have been just as ambivelent at the time.

This is a very well researched book, based on primary and published sources, including some very useful personal diaries. Rowe also uses some great illustrations, many from publications such as Home Guard handbooks, and many of which are previously unpublished. It’s written from a clear perspective, without letting hindsight get in the way – Dunkirk spirit, the blitz, spitfires and ‘all that… Evidence does suggest that there WERE parts of the population who would have collaborated, and there WERE parts of the population who would have panicked in the event of invasion. False alarms such as the ‘Battle of Bewdley’ suggest that quaint views of British calm might be inaccurate.

With a clever use of case studies, the author makes some very pertinent points. Although the Home Guard attracts a fair degree of nostalgia value, in the summer of 1940 ‘Dads Army’ was ill-equipped, untrained, disorganised and ridden with a multitude of problems. The examples of local worthys assuming command simply based on being, say, the master of the local foxhunt, would be hilarious if they were not so shocking. Could a country resist invasion when class consciousness was so inhibiting?

There were also puzzling issues for many in those uncertain days. Should civil authorities, such as local councils, remain in place if occupied by the enemy, or evacuate to elsewhere? Should the Police force be armed? To what extent should the Police co-operate with the enemy in the event of occupation? Should civilians flee or stay put? As none of these dilemmas were ever put to the test it is hard to be certain. But what is certain, is that we should not allow hindsight and floklore to cloud or judgement.

Another point well made is how Churchill insisted on meddling on military affairs – his attempts to take charge of the local defences of Whitehall are a fine example of the interference, completely outside the chain of command, that bedevilled so many of his commanders. Many of whom were facing the prospect of fighting an invasion with an army bereft of much of its equipment, having to fend off numerous notes from the Prime Minister.

I found this a fun book to read. Which, to be fair, is unusual with history books. Think about it, why just because a book is about the past, does it have to be dry? As this book shows, plenty of amusing anecdotes take place even in the most tumultuous of times, so why not portray this in how they are written about?

What-if’s are a very dangerous territory to stray into where history is concerned. But reading this book, it is only natural to ponder how Britain would have fared had the German Army crossed the channel. And not just the Army, but also the Home Guard, the politicians, the civil authorities, and the population and society as a whole.

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two