Monthly Archives: July 2011

Europe in Flames by Harold J Goldberg

Writing a ‘History of the ….war’ is always an ambitious idea, and one that is very rarely pulled off. There’s just so much to cover, it can only ever really be a framework at best. Not since Basil Liddell Hart‘s History of the Second World War has a historian really gone close to covering this vast conflict in one volume. In any case, it’s all been so well written about, what is there that we can add anyway?

I’m not what exactly the purpose of this book is. It gives an overview of the Second World War, year by year, in pretty basic fashion. But it also interweaves some oral history quotes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these quotes have been chosen and not others. There are, after all, millions of oral history testimonies relating to the Second World War, and choosing one or two relating to each major event in history does seem a bit minimalist and arbitrary.

However, if you know absolutely nothing about the Second World War in Europe – and, dare I say it, this might apply to a lot of budding historians stateside – I guess this isn’t too bad a place to start. It does focus very much on geo-political and strategic affairs, but then I guess that is what most history syllabuses tend to begin with anyway. It is telling that the bibliography includes mainly american historians, which would seem to point readers in that direction, rather than the more considerable – and, in my opinion, more scholarly – works that have come from Europe.

Europe in Flames is published by Stackpole Books



Filed under Book of the Week, politics, World War Two

Portsmouth and Southampton: the Geography of Commerce and Defence

Aerial view of Portsmouth

Image via Wikipedia

One of the interesting things about living in South Hampshire, as I did until recently, is noticing that actually, Portsmouth and Southampton are pretty different. And nowhere do you notice this more than sat in the restaurant in IKEA at Southampton! Looking out across Southampton Water you can see some pretty gargantuan container ships and cruise liners. Yet at Portsmouth, naval vessels and passenger ferries dominate. What does history tell us about how this came about?


Since Medieval times Portsmouth Harbour has been a key strategic port for the nation – first for the Romans and early Medieval kings at Portchester, and then Portsmouth itself at the mouth of the harbour. The basing of the kings ships there led to a growth in docking facilities, employment, supportive infrastructures, and had an impact on the local economy and demography as a whole. Knock on effects went even further – for example, the need to garrison and fortify the town, something that is often overlooked.

Obviously, with such a vested interest in the town, much of what happened in Portsmouth was controlled by the Crown, through the Government, and particularly the Admiralty and the War Office. This affected, in particular, land usage, and indeed ‘sea usage’. For example, Southsea Common was kept clear of development for so long as the War Office wanted to keep clear lines of fire between Southsea Castle and the old town fortifications. The Navy continues to maintain a vast sports complex in Portsmouth, on what would otherwise be prime development land.

This control of activity transgressed onto the sea too. The Admiralty was extremely unwilling to allow anything other than small scale use of the seas around Portsmouth – in particular the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour. There has long been a fear over allowing any activity that might impinge upon naval movements. This covered not only ships coming and going, but also facilities. Apart from the very small harbour at the Camber, the Navy controlled practically all of the shoreline in Portsmouth Harbour that could have been used for docks. Only in the 1970’s, with the decline of the Navy, did the Government relinquish land for Portsmouth’s Commercial Ferry Port.

That is not to say that there was no commercial shipping activity in Portsmouth at all – far from it. There was much small-scale trading taking place, but most of it seems to have been in the shape of goods and materials for use in the Dockyard – such as timber, pitch, hemp and tar from regions such as the Baltic. Coal was shipped in to heat buildings such as barracks. Food, in particular fish, was also landed. But it is noticeable that most of the commercial shipping was either directly connected to armed forces activity, or at least not very far removed from it. By and large, strict governmental controls on local industries rarely provide opportunities for private commerce.

One attempt to diversify Portsmouth’s industry came with the advent of the Airport, shortly after the First World War. Not only did it accomadate flying clubs and passenger services, but it also encouraged associated industries, such as the aircraft manufacturers Airspeed, famous for their Horsa Glider of World War Two fame. Yet the Airport had an ill-fated existence. From early in its lifetime the Admiralty opposed expansions to its activity, not wanting aircraft to overfly the Dockyard. A planned seaplane base in Langstone Harbour never came to fruition, and a planned airport on Farlington Marshes did not happen, thankfully. The final nail in the coffin for the Airport was when two planes crashed off the end of the runway on the same day in the early 1970’s. It was clear that the grass runways were too small, and there was no room for development on such a small site.

Fortunately,  as the Airport was declining, opportunities came up to develop commercial shipping. The draw down of the Royal Navy after the Second World War, hastened by the withdrawl from Empire and successive Defence cuts, losened the Admiralty’s grip on the Harbour area. Land became available near Stamshaw to develop a commercial port, which now handles both freight and passengers. It has become the second busiest passenger port after Dover, and imports a substantial amount of the countries fruit. The loss of the airport was more than offset by the development of commercial seaborne trade, which provides a good example of a local authority being on the ball and switching resources from a faltering investment to a growing one.


Southampton, by contrast, had always been free from the controls of the state, and this encouraged more merchant activity than in Portsmouth. The ability to move shipping without interference from naval authorities provided much more freedom than Portsmouth. But, oddly enough, commercial activity in Southampton did not really start to take off until the early Nineteenth Century. Joseph Rankin Stebbing, an instrument maker from Portsmouth, moved to Southampton in the 1820’s. Interestingly, his father George was a very succesful businessman, but his customers were almost solely state bodies and naval and military officers.

Joseph Stebbing was a prominent Freemason and a leading member of the Chamber of Commerce, and it showed in his rapid attempts to pull the people of Southampton together and regenerate the city. The docks were extended, the railway companies were lobbied to make Southampton a key hub, and a succession of shipping companies were attracted to the city. Stebbing was very conscious that the city was stealing a march on cities such as Liverpool and Bristol by luring companies that never could definitely not have operated in Nineteenth Century Portsmouth. Business boomed, with cargo shipping and commercial passengers producing a knock on effect for the whole city. And as the state had no say in what happened in the town, entrepeneurs were free to seize on opportunities much more than their counterparts in Portsmouth.


It’s interesting how while the Navy and Army presence in Portsmouth has given the city its raison detre, much employment and a boost for the local industries. But it also provided something of a stranglehold on any development beyond that point. Whereas a city like Southampton has been almost completely free to go its own way. Having said that, Portsmouth has been relatively good at seizing opportunities that have come its way since the declined of the Royal Navy since the end of the Second World War. Compare the developments and diversification with the stagnation in Plymouth. Whenever naval base closures are mooted, there are howls of protest in Plymouth about the effect it will have on jobs. Pertinent, as there are few other significant industries there. In fact, one wonders what exactly Plymouth City Council has done since 1945. Whereas the city fathers in Portsmouth have at least developed the Ferry Port, developed land, and attracted new industries so the city is no longer reliant on the Dockyard to the extent that it was.

Often you will see or hear of people boasting about the liners that use Southampton. All very nice, but full of wealthy passengers, and profiting large shipping lines. Whereas Portsmouth is home to run of the mill passenger ferries, fruit carriers, and a sizeable proportion of the Royal Navy. I think it’s a good metaphor. Liners are all very nice, but warships, ferries and fruit cargo ships are a whole lot more useful.


Filed under Local History, Uncategorized

‘Don’t judge me!’ – judging, the past and the present

Ever heard someone shreek ‘don’t judge me!’, or ‘don’t judge someone unless you haven’t met them’? It does seem to be a bit of a cliche nowadays, or should I say, an excuse to be an ass and then deflect any criticism?

If we are not supposed to judge anyone we have never met, does that preclude all us historians from researching people who died before we were born? Of course not. History would be in trouble if we didn’t research people who came before us. And of course, we don’t know them.

And I have to say, and this comes as someone who spent 18 months researching somebody who died in 1847, that you CAN come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of person someone was, as long as you start off with a clean slate and see everything in the context of the time. Judging the past by the standards of today is problematic to say the least.

I guess the same stands for the 2,549 WW2 servicemen I have spent two years researching, or the 5,000 WW1 servicemen I am currently looking at. Just because I can never meet them, does that mean they should be abandoned to anonymity forever? Of course not.

If we don’t research people then we don’t have social history, and a society without history is like a ship without an anchor. And by the same token, our deeds and our actions precede us in the present day too. Life is full of judgement, its impossible to get away from it. Job interviews, dates, they are all about judgement – if someone has the skills you are looking for, or if they take care over their appearance.

So, go ahead – judge away!


Filed under historiography, Uncategorized

My Amazon Author Page

My Amazon Author Page is now online. It contain’s a listing of my publications, a biography, and in time will have photographs and details of my speaking events.

In other Amazon-related news, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ ‘entered’ the charts at around 340,000 on Amazon. It’s now sitting at 398,861 (by comparison, the top-selling book on Portsmouth Local History, London’s Lost Route to Portsmouth by P.A.L. Vine, is at 159,812). I think that’s quite impressive considering it isn’t out for seven months and there isn’t even a cover image yet!


Filed under Uncategorized

The Roberts brothers – killed on the same day

Royal Munster Fusiliers

Image via Wikipedia

The fantstic work of Chris Baker on the Long Long Trail website has identified 274 instances of brothers who were killed on the same day in the Grear War. And one pair of brothers came from Portsmouth.

Charles James and Goerge Ernest Roberts were both Corporal Signallers serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Regular Soldiers, they were sent to France on the outbreak of war. They were at garrisoned at Aldershot, and were part of the Guards Brigade in the 1st Division. The Battalion had been in Ireland on garrison duty until 1912. They landed at Le Havre via Southampton on 14 August, and went straight up to the Front.

After the Battle of Le Cateau the British Army retreated. Along with the 15th Hussars the 2nd Munsters fought a stiff rearguard action at Etreux. A single Battalion were facing an entire German Army Corps. In a Rorkes Drift style action the Battalion suffered severe casualties, where they were surrounded and virtually destroyed. The survivors left the front line and became divisional troops.

Charles and George Roberts were both killed on the same day – 27 August 1914 – and are buried in the same grave at Etreux British Cemetery in France.

It was not common – but not unusual – for young British men to join an Irish Regiment. My research suggests that of young men joining the infantry in peacetime, around 50% joined the Hampshire Regiment, and around 50% joined other Regiments. Although the local country Regiment was natually the most obvious choice, perhaps family connections persuaded the Roberts to join the Munsters?


Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes listed online!

I’m pleased to be able to tell you all that my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, is now listed for pre-order on all of the well-known online booksellers.

Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith, Blackwells, and the Book Depository! It’s not actually due out until o1 February 2012, but on a couple of sites you can pre-order if you wish, or reserve a copy. Even though it won’t be out for over 6 months, one of the sites has even got it on offer – and I only handed in the manuscript a few weeks ago!

Obviously it’s great that it’s available to order already. If, on the other hand, anybody would like a signed copy, it might be an idea to hang fire for now and speak to me nearer the publication date and we’ll see if we can arrange something.

I’ve also managed to find out more information about the book. Its going to be a Paperback, will have 128 pages, will be 23.5cm by 16.5cm, and has an ISBN number of 9780752463513.

It’s pretty exciting to finally see that something you’ve worked on for years is finally coming to fruition, and is not only that much closer to being on the bookshelves, but is already on the online ones!

203 days to go!


Filed under portsmouth heroes, site news

More on Lt Col Dick Worrall

Thanks to the good chaps at the Great War Forum, I’ve managed to find out more about Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar.

According to the Montreal Gazette of 18 April 1919, Dick Worrall brought his Battalion home to Canada that weekend from Europe. According to the Newspaper Worrall joined the 14th Battalion of the Montreal Regiment in 1914. Apparently he actually joined via the Canadian Grenadier Guards, who provided a section for the Battalion. A ‘well set man of about 30 years of age walked in, saying that he wanted to enlist’. He soon became a Sergeant in No. 2 Section, before the Battalion had even left Canada.

After leaving for Europe and training in England, the 14th Battalion went to the Western Front, and Worrall was commissioned as an officer after the 2nd Battle of Ypres in Spring 1915. In June 1916 he was promoted to Captain, and was wounded in the same month. He was evidently seriously wounded, as he was away until November 1916, when he was promoted to Major. Initially he was given command of the Canadian Reinforcing Corps as an acting Lieutenant Colonel, but when he Battalion lost a large number of officers he returned as second-in-command. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel McCombe, was wounded during the German’s spring advance in 1918. Worrall took over command, a position he held until the end of the war.

The Montreal Gazette also tells us much about his family background. Apparently the Worralls originated from Birmingham. Intriguingly, Dick Worrall had previously served for a time in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and had emigrated from Britain to America. He then joined the US Army, but when war was declared in 1914 he went to Canada to fight for King and Country once more.

So, Worrall had served in three different armies, won a total of six decorations for gallantry, and had been promoted from Private to Colonel within 4 years. Remarkable.

The Toronto World of 18 February 1920 carries the story of Dick Worrall’s funeral. The service was attended by many senior officers. The Governor General and General Sir Arthur Currie were not able to attend. The band of the Royal Montreal Regiment played, and a firing party and escort accompanied the cortege from St James the Apostle’s Church to Fletchers Field, where three volley’s were fired. The Last Post was then played. The coffin was then taken from the gun carriage to a waiting hearse, and then on to Mount Royal Ceremony.



Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One