Monthly Archives: October 2010

Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

A Tank in a Glider. How the hell do you fit a Tank in a Glider, and then fly it hundreds of miles, land it, and then fight from it? It seems ridiculous, but this really did happen during the latter stages of the Second World War.

Although Britain was woefully slow in developing Airborne Forces, one aspect in which she was far in advance of her allies and enemies was that of developing means of transporting tanks into battle by air. Obviously it would have been impossible to carry anything like Sherman or Churchill by air, but it was found that the Tetrarch – a small light tank – could fit inside a General Aircraft Hamilcar Glider. Hamilcars were the largest glider used by British Forces during the war, and flew in action in Normandy, at Arnhem and during the Rhine Crossing. Flying a huge Glider loaded with a light tank was an impressive feat for the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, who upon landing became infantry in their own right.

Flint gives us an impressive overview of the development of both the Tetrarch and Locust, and also of the Hamilcar glider that carried them into battle. Not only are we informed about the machines, but also the men and the units that fought with them. It was indeed a surprise to me to learn that once the ground forces linked up with the airborne recce units the airborne men swapped their light tanks for heavier Churchill tanks, which gave the Airborne Division much more firepower and enabled it to act as a regular infantry Division, such as in the advance to the Seine in the summer of 1944 and from the Rhine Crossing to the Elbe in 1945.

One aspect I am particularly interested in is the lack of any serious Armour in the 1st Airborne Division that landed at Arnhem. As Flint has shown, this was more by accident than by design. It would be reasonable to suggest that while Tetrarchs or Locusts might not have fared too well against Mark IVs, Tigers of Panthers later in the battle, in the early advances to the Bridge tanks might have fared better in the infamous ambush than lightly armed Jeeps. Even better, a troop of tanks in front of each Battalion heading for the Bridge would have been most effective. The 1st Airborne Recce commander, Major Freddie Gough, suggested that some of 6th Airborne’s tanks could have been used at Arnhem, but this suggestion was not taken up. This more than fits in with the impression that the Arnhem operation was badly planned and opportunities were missed.

Keith Flint has made valuable use of some original documents, particularly from the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. This is the kind of history I like – original research, on a new subject, that focuses on both the men and the machines. This is a significant addition to both the armoured and airborne historiographies of the Second World War.

Airborne Armour is published by Helion Press

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Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on - knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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Time Team at Governors Green

Domus Dei, October 2007.

Domus Dei (Image via Wikipedia)

Well Time Team last night didn’t disappoint. Or rather, it did – but it was so disappointing from a historical point of view, it didnt disappoint my premonitions!

The expressed aim of the programme was to uncover the history of the medieval Hospital at the Governors Green area of old Portsmouth, adjoining what is now known as the Garrison Church, which has its origins as part of the Hospital complex. Known originally as Domus Dei, or God’s House, the Hospital was razed in 1540 during Henry VIII’s disolution of the monasteries. The chapel survived, however, and the adjoining land was used to build the Governors House.

The concept of a medieval hospital is very different from our image of operating theatres, accident and emergency et al. Medieval hospitals did exactly what they said on the tin – provided hospitality in a godly setting and manner. In particular pilgrims would use hospitals during their travels to shrines – such as nearby Winchester of Chichester, and places further afield such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They have a very rich and interesting social history, particularly in a port such as Portsmouth, a place that was so important to the defence of the realm too.

The feeling I had from the programme was that the team had not done their research properly at all. They were speculating about things that we already knew about, if only they had bothered to listen to people who tried to tell them! The geophysical survey told us everything that we needed to know, namely that there is an impressive range of buildings under Governors Green, and with some clever use of maps, documents and overlays it shouldnt take too much to interpret them, without the need for digging. I’m also surprised that they thought they could overlay an old tudor map on the current OS map without any errors at all – of course there are going to be anomalies. How you make such a cock-up in the most mapped town in the kingdom is beyond me.

What’s also disappointing, is that Time Team found plenty of interesting 18th Century finds, such as military uniform buttons and clay pipes, but these weren’t shown in the programme – probably because the aim of the programme was to look at the medieval hospital. Yet it would also have been interesting to find out more about Portsmouth’s history as a garrison town. All of the finds, incidentally, have been handed over to Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, as the local Museum.

Predictably we also had the ubiquitous Portsmouth Grammar School kids turning up in their blazers, as always happens when anything of any significance happens in Portsmouth. You would think there aren’t any other schools in the city. A chance to involve other young people in Portsmouth’s history was missed.

So, essentially, much research, three days digging, much expertise and resources were spent telling us that what we already knew was there, was in fact, actually there all along! I’m really not sure what the programme achieved at all. It seems to be more about the programme than any kind of historical importance. Don’t get me wrong, Time Team have done some fascinating things over the years, and I used to love it when I was younger, but finding out about how the programme works behind the scenes has been kind of like meeting your idols, only to feel let down.

If anyone would like some light entertainment, Time Team at Governors Green can be watched on Channel 4 On Demmand here.

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Youtube Picks

A Visit to The Tank Museum

This short film, entitled ‘A Visit to The Tank Museum’, was produced by Film Production Students from Bournemouth, on a budget of just £1,500! This is a great example of a good tie-up for a Museum – the students get a good project and excellent exposure, and the Museum get a cutting edge promo at a great budget!

Royal British Legion TV advert

This year’s Poppy Appeal is almost upon us, and this is a TV advert by the Royal British Legion which you might have seen on screen recently.

Exercise Joint Caterer

Think of Army Catering, and you tend to think of Bully Beef. Whilst I’m sure many serving and former Squaddies will disagree, military catering does seem to have moved on a lot from the western front. Events like this seem a great way of inspiring and encouraging cooks to be inventive with limited rations. An army really does march on its stomach, and eating the same food every day for 6 months cannot be good for morale…

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Tuesday’s Gone

I’ve always liked this song, right from when I first heard Metallica’s cover. Its got a special resonance for me at the moment. Enjoy!

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A Long Long War by Ken Wharton

I’ve always had an interest in ‘the troubles‘, as the war in Northern Ireland has euphemistically been called. I’ve already reviewed Ken Wharton‘s book ‘Bloody Belfast‘ which I enjoyed immensely, so I’m very interested to be able to read his first book on the war in the province, which has just been reprinted by Helion in paperback. The title really is ‘ronseal’ – Northern Ireland was the longest continuous operation fought by the British Army, and virtually every British soldier from 1969 to 1998 would have experience of the province.

Historiographically, at present it isn’t quite the ‘done thing’ to try to write about Northern Ireland ‘as it was’ – the peace process and the Good Friday agreement have meant that a certain political correctness has prevailed. Between Paisley and McGuinness shaking hands, the British soldier has vanished. Just as political prisoners were freed, much of the history has been ignored, whether it be the role that certain republicans played, and also the experiences of the British Squaddie on the streets and in the countryside. I suppose its the adage that ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’, and at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the IRA are seen as freedom fighters by many. Many of the stories in this book are extremely callous – the murder of female soldiers, indsicriminate bombings, using schools and children as cover, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the massace at Enniskillen in 1987.

I think its absolutely critical to really understand as much as we can the experiences of the British Squaddie on the ground in Belfast, Londonderry, Crossmaglen and elsewhere. Not only in terms of the lessons in counter-insurgency, of which there are many, but also in terms of what they, as men, went through. Its incredibly harrowing to read some of the traumatic stories of shootings and bombings. To be honest its hard to know where to begin recounting stories, but suffice to say I was incredibly moved reading some of the incidents that took place. And these are only case studies. Its all the more poignant when you know of relatives who served in Northern Ireland too. But amongst all the moving tales, there also some typical tommy-humour anecdotes too. Time and time again, the British soldier somehow manages to make light of even the most dire situation.

On a more strategic and tactical level, this book shows just how professional the British Army and its soldiers became at counter-insurgency and fighting amongst the civil population. This was a very different war to most others. There was never going to be any kind of surrender, or victory parade. The Army were there to support the civil power in bringing about peace, and not to defeat the nationalists. The Army in Ulster could in all likelihood have gone all out to destroy the IRA, but that would only have polarised the situation and recruited more terrorists for the cause. The Army therefore found itself in an all-but impossible position of having to be on the streets, but only being allowed to fire if fired upon or under threat. A testing ordeal indeed for any soldier. Fighting among the people was also a different experience – soldiers interaction with society, good and bad and with both protestant and catholic, was crucial. Verfy often the squaddie cuts to the chase where officers, historians or politicians would be prone to waffle, and I cannot help but agree with the one soldier who felt that Ian Paisley recruited more young catholics for the IRA than anyone else.

One thing I have always wondered, is to what extent the IRA – and this might apply to other paramilitary groups also – drew its membership from politically-motivated men, or rather from a thuggish element who would have turned to crime in any case. Some of the stories shared by soldiers here suggest that political motivation may not have been as strong as we might first think. Here the importance of civil and military co-operation is clear – if living conditions, employment etc are sorted out, people are less likely to turn to terrorism, as with most types of crime.

If I have to single out some stories, it is those of the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment that really have my admiration. Mostly territorial, the members of the UDR had normal day jobs, and served in the evenings and weekends. Living in the communities that they were serving, they were extremely vulnerable to terrorists 24/7, any many of them – including a number of female members – paid the price.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe very much in balance in history. For too long the history of Northern Ireland has been completely out of balance. Ken Wharton has done some crucial work in redressing the balance, and I’m sure these eyewitness history accounts will be useful for historians for years to come. Not just for the major incidents, but also for the recollections about barracks, equipment, food and morale. The photographs, many of them personal images taken by soldiers on the ground, are fascinating too. The men in this book, and those that they represent, deserve the utmost credit for the job that they did. The troubles might have deeply scarred Northern Ireland, but they must also have scarred many thousands of British soldiers and their families.

A Long Long War is published by Helion

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Portsmouth on Time Team tomorrow night, Channel 4

Domus Dei church.

Garrison Church (Image via Wikipedia)

Tomorrow night’s episode of Time Team on Channel 4 comes from Portsmouth.

Last year the arachaeology programme carried out a dig in Old Portsmouth, on the Governors Green area. The existing Garrison Church used to be part of a larger Governors House, and prior to that it used to be part of a much larger complex – the Domus Dei, or Gods House. Domus Dei acted as a hospital and travel lodge.

I’ve had a bit of secondhand inside knowledge on what happened on the dig, but I’ll let you all watch the programme and make what you will of it before I spoil it with my gossip!

Time Team at Governors Green is on Channel 4 tommorrow night (Sunday 24th October) at 5.30pm

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Trafalgar Day – Historical Irony

Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758 1805

Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Image via Wikipedia)

How about this for historical irony? Only two days after the biggest defence cuts since 1945, and the day after a spending review that will change the face of Britain as we know it, Royal Navy warships in harbour are dressed overall in honour of Britain’s greatest ever naval victory.

21 October 1805

On 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar in Spain Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson‘s fleet closed with the combined French and Spanish fleet, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. Nelson proposed a revolutionary tactic, sailing two Squadrons into the enemy line at right angles, in order to split the French and Spanish into three and engage and defeat them piecemeal. Previous convention had been for fleets to sail in line parallel to each other, pounding away but making a decisive result difficult. But the ‘Nelson touch’, as outlined to his Captains by Nelson prior to the battle, brought about a pell-mell battle where the British crews superior gunnery almost always won out against the French who had been bottled up in port for long periods.

The victory at Trafalgar was the high water mark of British sea power, building on a fighting ethos and reputation that went back to Drake, and other lesser-known figures such as Vernon, Hood, Hawke and Howe. The daring and spirit shown by Nelson on that day in 1805 became a byword for British naval action, and men such as Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham expanded upon this example.

Modern historians and politicians may like to ignore Trafalgar and its significance (mainly given that we decimated the French and Spanish fleets), but it did mark the beginning of the end for Napoleon, a dictator who waged war across Europe and caused the deaths of millions. Trafalgar limited Napoleon’s ambitions, to the point where he was eventually defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815. 50 years peace in Europe was the result.

Whilst the British Empire had its origins far earlier than 1805 – the fleets of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the defeat of the Armada, anti-piracy operations in the West Indies and the growth of British India – Trafalgar heralded a prolonged period of British control of the worlds seas, that lasted arguably until the Second World War. Control of the seas allowed Britain to extend a commerical empire across all four corners of the globe, in North America, the Carribean, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.

21 October 2010

Only two days ago it was announced that the Royal Navy would be losing one aircraft carrier immediately and one soon after, one major landing ship, one destroyer, four frigates, and an auxilliary landing ship. This will leave the Royal Navy without air cover of its own, paper-thin amphibious capability (which is pointless anyway without air cover to protect it) and woefully short of escort hulls. Essentially, a whole task group is being mothballed.

Ever since 1805 British officers – and indeed sailors – have been brought up and trained that they are the ancestors of Nelson, Collingwood, Hardy and their men, and that even though weapons, ships and uniforms may change, the spirit remains the same. During the First World War Admirals and the public longed for a ‘second Trafalgar’ that would cripple the German fleet. And even though large fleet actions are a thing of the past, the sprirt has still been there – witness the service of officers such as Gerard Roope, William Hussey and David Wanklyn in the Second World War, and David-Hart Dyke, Chris Craig and John Coward in the Falklands. History matters.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the days of the British Empire and Britannia ruling waves are a distant memory, but even so since 1945 Britain has been riding the tail end of the global influence wave, thanks to the manner in which Britain and the Royal Navy are respected around the world. That respect will be a distant memory.

Not only are we talking about global influence and defence. Since time immaterial the Royal Navy has been a central part of British culture – Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column, Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak, Portsmouth, Greenwich… people who go to see have always been romanticised, whereas soldiers are frequently seen as the scum of the earth.

It’s probably too early to tell, but 19 October 2010 may well be the day on which British Sea Power really did sail into the sunset. There is not much, after all, that you can do with a clapped out Helicopter Carrier, one main landing ship, three auxilliary landing ships and 19 Destroyers and Frigates of varying quality.

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Wojtek the Soldier Bear to be honoured

A picture of Wojtek ov Voytek the bear-soldier

Wojtek the Soldier Bear (Image via Wikipedia)

Wojtek the soldier bear has to be one of my favourite stories from the Second World War.

Adopted as a cub by Free Polish soldiers who were serving in Iran, Wojtek the Brown Bear grew to 6 feet tall and 500lbs, and went on to serve with Polish Forces in Italy, helping carry ammunition throughout the mountainous terrain in Italy. After the war, when Poles who had served with the allies were not allowed to return home, Wojtek saw out his days in Edinburgh zoo in Scotland.

It’s such a heartwarming story, in fact I’m surprised that Disney have never made a film about it. When Prince Charles, William and Harry visited a Polish Museum and the curator showing them round started to explain about Wojtek, Prince Charles told the curator that the young princes were familiar with the story.

Now a £200,000 monument is planned to commemorate Wojtek. A maquette of the planned work, by sculptor Alan Herriot has been unveiled, showing Wojtek and his handler, Peter Prendys. Herriot has deliberately chosen to show the interaction between man and animal, rather than the usual image of Wojtek carrying shells. He must have provided a welcome relief from the horrors of war. I hope the project happens, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Poles during the Second World War.

Animals have always had a poignant role in war – not having much of a choice, but serving loyally none the less. The play War Horse is receiving rave reviews in the west end at the moment, and the animals in war monument in London is incredibly moving. Wojtek has to be one of the most heart-rendering stories of animals serving during war.

Thanks to John Erickson for the tip-off on this story, which came from the Daily Telegraph.

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Saxon event at Portsmouth City Museum this Saturday

No, not the heavy metal band (sadly!), but a Saxon log boat excavated from Langstone Harbour goes on display for the first time this weekend at Portsmouth City Museum. The boat is over 1,500 years old and is the oldest known watercraft to have been retrieved from the Solent!

There will also be a chance to see Saxon artefacts from Portsdown and Horndean, including jewellery, spear heads and shield bosses. Speak to costumed interpreters to discover what a Saxon warrior carried with him on the battlefield and the clothes and jewellery a fashionable Saxon woman would have worn. Members of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology will be on site with their Maritime Bus, packed with interactive displays, models, games and hands-on activities.

10.30am to 4.30pm, Saturday 23 October. For more info click here

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HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

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The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

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possible portrait of George Stebbing located

It’s early days, but it is possible that a portrait of George Stebbing has surfaced. For those of you not in the know, I spent a couple of years immersed in George doing my undergraduate dissertation on him. Stebbing was a nautical instrument maker in Portsmouth in the early to mid Nineteenth Century, and in a typically Georgian/Victorian way he had connections with all kinds of important characters – Captain Matthew Flinders, Reverend James Inman ad Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham. He also played a central role in Portsmouth life, forming the Literary and Philosophical Society and being a senior member of local freemasonry. His son sailed on HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin.

Previously we had no idea what Stebbing looked like. There is reference in the Lit and Phil records to a self-portrait that George Exhibited in the early 1930′s, but there whereabouts of this have remained a mystery despite my continued digging. It’s tantalising to think that this might not only be a portrait of Stebbing, but also one by his own hand. Having a picture of him would really complete the ‘Stebbing Story’, as its so much easier to portray or visualise someone if you know what they looked like.

I have very few details other than that, but keep an eye out for more information as I get it.

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MOD organisation structure released

The Government has released organisation diagrams of all Departments, including the Ministry of Defence. It makes for pretty interesting reading indeed.

The diagrams show just how many deparments there are in the MOD. The chains of command are incredibly complicated, with all manner of civilians and officers involved. In most cases the diagram shows how many civilians and militarty personnel work for each person or department. In total it runs to 48 pages, covering the MOD centrally, the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force.

The first interesting point is that the main components of each service – eg Fleet, Land Forces, Air Command, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Defence Estates and Defence Equipment and support – are treated as separate from their services when it comes to budgeting. Divide and conquer perhaps, by making the services financially separate from their main components?

Another thing that strikes me is just how many senior officers work in MOD Head Office, and also civilian civil servants, all on significant salaries. This probably accounts for the oft-quoted figures about how the armed forces have more Admirals than major surface ships.

Thought it might make interesting reading for my regulars!

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Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.

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