Daily Archives: 9 July, 2010

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians by Ray Westlake

It would probably be best to start off with describing what this book is not. Its definitely not a cover-to-cover bedtime read. Its more something for the military historian to keep on the shelf for reference, and that the family historian may wish to have a look at if they find a Rifle Volunteer ancestor.

The Rifle Volunteers were formed in 1859 as a form of part-time defence force for the United Kingdom. Although the Government was not overly keen on the concept of amateur soldiering, the War Office finally acquiesced on the grounds of national defence in the event of an invasion of British soil. They were, along with the older Militias, the forerunners of the modern Territorial Army.

From the start the Rifle Volunteers took on a strong local tone – they were originally raised by Lord Lieutenants of counties, and were formed around local companies and battalions. There was a degree of central organisation and direction, in the form of certain stipulations and directives from central Government, but on the whole the Volunteers were very much a local force. And only later in the 19th century did the Volunteers begin the long and drawn out process of building links with the regular army. The 1881 Army reforms saw the introduction of Country Regiments, which made local links with volunteer units much more likely.

Volunteer battalions were originally only to be mobilised for home defence. However in 1900 a Special Army Order called upon volunteer companies to fight in South Africa. The Volunteer Force finally ceased to exist in 1908, when it was subsumed into the new Territorial Force. Apparently this change was not popular with the volunteers themselves, as it involved a degree of re-organisation, and some disbandments.

Unfortunately, this book does not really show the reader how to research a volunteer. To do that you would expect to see some examples of documents, how and where to find them, and advice to set you on the road to find out more. However this information is limited to one page at the end of the book, covering Army Lists, Muster Rolls, Published Unit Records, Local Newspapers and the National Archives. The upshot is, sadly, that if you want to research a Rifles volunteer, there isn’t a whole lot to go on – and especially not it if they were not an officer.

Where this book does shine, however, is in the exhaustive list of every Volunteer Rifles Unit in Britain. For example, I can see that the 5th (Portsmouth) Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteer Rifles formed on 16 August 1860. The Commandant was Captain George P. Vallaney, formerly of the Indian Army. In 1880 the 5th (Portsmouth) joined the new 3rd Corps, providing five companies from A to E. In September 1885 the 3rd Hampshire Corps was designated as the 3rd (The Duke of Connaught’s Own) Volunteer Battalion, and in 1908 the Battalion transferred to the Territorial Force as the 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. Interestingly, we also find out that their uniform was scarlet and yellow, later changing to scarlet and white.

More locally, the 23rd Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteers formed at Cosham on 29 November 1860, with Lieutenant Edward Goble and Ensign Henry Monk as the first officers. The 23rd moved its Headquarters several miles west to Portchester in 1869, and became L Company of the new 3rd Corps in 1880.

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians is published by Pen and Sword



Filed under Army, Family History, Local History

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 2)

We know the age of the majority of Portsmouth airmen who were killed during the Second World War. Most of them were incredibly young when they were killed, and also the vast majority of them were killed serving in Bombers.


3 – 18 (0.73%)
14 – 19 (3.41%)
264 – 20’s (64.39%)
51 – 30’s (12.44%)
11 – 40’s (2.68%)
6 – 50’s (1.46%)
1 – 60’s (0.24%)

The age of 60 airmen – 14.63% – is unknown.

Airmen in their Twenties

That such a large percentage were in their 20’s warrants more detailed examination:

40 – 20
62 – 21
39 – 22
31 – 23
16 – 24
26 – 25
9 – 26
9 – 27
14 – 28
18 – 29

As we can see, the majority of Portsmouth airmen were in their early twenties. Overall, 46% of RAF servicemen from Portsmouth who were killed during the war were 23 or younger.

Another feature of RAF service is that men could reach quite senior rank whilst still relatively young. For example, Wing Commander Guy Gibson was 23 at the time of the Dambusters raid in 1943. By contrast, to command a Battalion an officer would have to be in their 30’s, and a major naval ship older still. But as the junior service, the RAF perhaps was less wedded to tradition and more open to promotion on merit rather than seniority.

It will be interesting to look at what parts of the RAF men came from, and whether, for example, Fighter Command or Bomber Command had younger aircrew.

Types of Aircraft

Of the 410 members of the RAF from Portsmouth who died during the Second World War we know what aircraft 267 of them were flying in at the time of their death.

Bombers – 208 (77.9%)

78 – Avro Lancaster (Bomber)
32 – Handley Page Halifax (Bomber)
29 – Vickers Wellington (Bomber)
19 – Bristol Blenheim (Light Bomber)
15 – Short Stirling (Bomber)
6 – Armstrong Whitworth Whitley (Bomber)
5 – Martin Baltimore (Bomber)
4 – Fairey Battle (Light Bomber)
4 – Consolidated Liberator (Bomber)
4 – De Havilland Mosquito (Light Bomber)
3 – Bristol Beaufort (Bomber)
2 – Douglas Boston (Light Bomber)
2 – Boeing Flying Fortress (Bomber)
2 – Vickers Vincent (Light Bomber)
1 – Avro Manchester (Bomber)
1 – Martin Marauder (Light Bomber)
1 – Lockheed Ventura (Bomber)

That such a large percentage of airmen died serving in Bombers is not surprising. Bomber Command was by far the largest part of the RAF, in terms of manpower and aircraft. Each aircraft had up to seven crew members, whereas most fighters had only one. And – particularly from 1943 onwards – Bomber Command launched hundreds of thousands of sorties over Germany and occupied Europe, leading to an incredibly high attrition rate. Research suggests that for every 100 airmen in Bomber Command 55 would be killed on operations, 3 would be injured, 12 would be taken Prisoner, 2 would evade capture, and 27 would survive the war unscathed. Sobering statistics indeed.

The statistics above also suggest the prime importance of the RAF’s big workhorse Bombers – the Lancaster, the Halifax and the Wellington.

Fighters – 22 (8.24%)

9 – Hawker Hurricane (Fighter)
8 – Supermarine Spitfire (Fighter)
3 – North American Mustang (Fighter)
1 – Boulton Paul Defiant (Fighter)
1 – Gloster Meteor (Jet fighter)

On first impressions, we might be suprised that such a small percentage of airmen were killed flying Fighters – after all, we all associate the Spirtfire with the RAF more than any other aircraft, do we not? Yet it is important to remember that Fighter Command was much smaller than Bomber Command. Also, while Bomber Command was in action virtually every night, Fighter Command experienced short periods of frenetic activity, intersersed with defensive patrolling. It would be accurate to think of Fighters as a smaller, more specialised force than Bombers, hence the lower losses – Fighter Pilots were indeed ‘the few’.

Between 1939 and 1945 Fighter Command lost 3,690 men killed. 4,790 aircraft were lost. During the same period Bomber Command lost 55,573 men killed.

Transport – 11 (4.12%)

6 – Douglas Dakota (Transport)
2 – Westland Lysander (Special Ops)
1 – De Havilland Albatross (Transport)
1 – Avro Anson (Transport/Trainer)
1 – Avro York (Transport)

Transport Command was one of the unsung parts of the RAF. Transport Command itself was formed in 1943 from Ferry Command, and other Transport aircraft also served with Army Co-operation Command. Although Transport Aircraft did not routinely go into action in the same manner as Fighters or Bombers, long-laul flying in various theatres meant that accidents were bound to occur.

Coastal/Maritime 11 (4.12%)

7 – Lockheed Hudson (Maritime Recce/Bomber)
2 – Consolidated Catalina (Flying Boat)
2 – Short Sunderland (Flying Boat)

Coastal Command played a crucial but little-known role in the Second World War, particularly in the defeat of the U-Boat menace. Coastal Aircraft flew over 240,000 sorties, sinking 212 U-Boats. 1,777 aircraft were lost, and 5,866 men were killed. Its interesting that these losses were higher than those of Fighter Command, yet perhaps Coastal Command’s less glamorous role has led to it being overlooked.

Ground Attack 7 (2.62%)

4 – Bristol Beaufighter (Ground Attack)
2 – Hawker Typhoon (Attack)
1 – Vultee Venegance (Dive Bomber)

The RAF also played a role in supporting Army operations – this can be seen to a lesser extent at Dunkirk, but the practise was pioneered by the Desert Air Force in North Africa and then the Second Tactical Air Force in North West Europe after D-Day.

Other units and roles

Of the 143 men and women of whom we have no aircraft details, we do have information about some of them. 1 was serving in an Airfield Construction Squadron, 3 with Barrage Balloons, 1 with Bomb Disposal, 3 with maintenance units, 1 was an Officer Cadet in training and 1 other man was serving with the RAF Regiment.


Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two