Tag Archives: battle of britain

Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80′s and 90′s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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Filed under Bombing, News, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

I really enjoyed Bomber Boys, which was on BBC1 on Sunday Evening. The programme showed Ewen McGregor’s brother Colin - a former RAF pilot who flew with 617 Squadron – learning to fly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster, the only flying Lanc in Britain and one of only two left flying in the world. First McGregor learnt to fly a C-47 Dakota, a classic aircraft that was perhaps as much of a war-winner as the Lancaster and the Spitfire, but has never quite attracted the same glamour. He then progressed to taking the controls of the Lancaster.

I especially enjoyed the insightful contributions of Bomber Command veterans. Of course, so few of those very young men actually survived the war. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any comparable command in the British armed forces during the second world war. I think that their views and remeniscences were very interesting, and it is increasingly important that their recollections of everyday life are remembered. It’s not just their memories of flying and fighting that are important, but also of drinking in pubs, life on airbases and chasing WAAFs, and things like that, that really matter. In that sense the McGregors looked at the social history aspect of Bomber Command more than any other programme I have seen. The McGregors also looked at other aspects of the campaign, such as the Germans raid on Coventry in 1940, the Butt report on bombing accuracy, and the raids on Hamburg and Dresden. They also looked at the bombing from the perspective of the German population.

My research into Portsmouth airmen shows just how history has slanted views. Hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed with Bomber Command. And they were young men, mostly in their early twenties and some in their late teens. Most of them have never even driven a car, but some found themselves piloting big, heavy Bombers on marathon missions over occupied Europe – often two or three times a week. It’s impossible to describe what a strain this must have placed on these young men – flying for up to ten hours at a time, facing imeasurable dangers of flak, night fighters and the threat of accidents. The rate of attrition in aircraft and crews was, in retrospect, terrifying.

Yet for some unknown reason, the Bomber Boys have never quite attracted the attention of Fighter Command. Compared to the hundreds of Portsmouth men who fought and died in the Bomber Offensive, only ONE was killed flying with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I cannot help but think that this is down to two historical developments. Firstly, after the end of the war the strategic bombing of civilian targets became distinctly unfashionable. Even before the end of the war Churchill was distancing himself from the historical legacy of the bombers. Secondly, the RAF being the RAF, it has always done self-promotion very well. And since the Second World War, it has suited far more to play up the Battle of Britain rather than the Bombers Offensive. And thus when we think of the RAF, we think of the dashing young public schoolboy, pre-war regulars of Fighter Command, rather than the diverse, international and unsung men of Bomber Command.

This was a brilliant programme, very well thought out and blending history with remeniscence. I also found it very moving and inspiring, and made me think of such brave Portsmouth bomber men as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, Flight Sergeant Francis Compton, and Flight Lieutenant’s Guy and Arthur Venables. Reading their operational records at the National Archives was a sobering reminder of just what an incredible ordeal they endured.

Bomber Boys is available to watch on BBC iplayer (UK only)

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Filed under On TV, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Find my Past: The TV series

The other day I stumbled on a new genealogy programme on the Yesterday Channel. Under the banner of the commercial family history website findmypast, this series takes climactic historic events, andfollows the journeys of people whose ancestors were involved.

This trailer is for the episode looking at the hundreds of British soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences such as falling asleep on duty on the Western Front during the Great War:

Other episodes look at the Battle of Britain, the Mutiny on the Bounty, D-Day, Jack the Ripper and the Titanic.

I watched the Jack the Ripper episode the other day and found it very engaging. It is nice to see family history with ‘normal’ people and not just celebrities. The Jack the Ripper episode featured Dr Nick Barratt (genealogy’s own Troy Mclure who crops up everywhere), and a host of other experts.

As I have often said, anything that heightens awareness of family history is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t gloss over the long yet rewarding work that is involved.

Related articles

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Filed under Family History, On TV, western front, World War One

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Mike Spick

I guess it’s always going to be a dilemma. What kind of book do you take with you to the Hospital to read while your other half is having a camera put somewhere unpleasant? Topiary? Chess? micro nutrients in the reef aquarium? All very tempting, but in the end I went with Luftwaffe Fighter Aces.

And very interesting it was too. What startled me most is the high number of kills that the Luftwaffe’s top aces had – over 200 in many cases. Whereas in the western allies – RAF, USAAF for example – any pilot who shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft was considered an ace. The RAF’s leading ace, Pat Pattle, accounted for 51 enemy aircraft. The difference is partly that German Jagdwaffe pilots spent a lot more of the war in combat, from Poland in 1939 onwards, but also that many of them were in action in Russia during Barbarossa, when the hordes of poorly trained, poorly equipped Russian fighters provided rich pickings. Erich Hartmann might have shot down an incredible 352 enemy aircraft, but all but seven were Russian. Men such as Adolf Galland and Werner Molders, renowned as among the greatest, actually scored very low compared to some of their compatriots.

The book is structured chronologically, looking at the development of the Luftwaffe, the Spanish Civil War as a proving ground, the early campaigns, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa, North Africa, and then the Allied Bomber Offensive later in the war. Spick has looked admirably at the technical issues, the tactics involved (including some nice diagrams of dogfighting maneouvres), and woven into the narrative details of the careers of some of the Luftwaffe’s greatest pilots. Also of note are the considerable political problems that the Luftwaffe had to overcome, not the least the interference of the Fuhrer, and the refusal of Goring to accept that air combat had changed since he was in action over the Western Front in 1918.

Two Luftwaffe aces I have a particular interest in are Helmut Wick and Hans Wolfgang Schnauffer. Helmut Wick is believed to have shot down Flight Sergeant Hubert Adair in his Hurricane over Portsmouth on 5 November 1940. Wick is also believed to have shot down Flying Officer James Tillett near Fareham on the same day. Wick himself was killed on 28 November 1940, when he was shot down over the English Channel. He had claimed 56 victories – low in the context of the war, but very succesful considering most were gained within a year of flying, and were against the RAF rather then the Red Army Air Force.

Hans Wonfgang Schnauffer is renowned as the Luftwaffe’s greatest night fighter pilot, with 121 victories. This is even more incredible, when we consider that he only began flying in June 1942, straight from flight training school. Schnauffer shot down the Halifax Bomber of 35 Squadron, in which Sergeant Francis Compton was a tail gunner. On the night of 29 June 1943, Schnauffer intercepted Halifax HR812 over Belgium.

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces is published by Pen and Sword

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

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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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Royal Air Force, World War Two

The National Archives: Day Two

Another hectic day in the National Archives at Kew. After my wise words about being prepared etc yesterday, I somehow managed to sleep in a little bit later than I planned… but didn’t lose too much time thankfully.

I’ve managed to look at the war diaries for all of the units that Robert Easton was with – the 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers from 1939 until 1941, and then the 109th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (Lancs. Fus.) until they were disbanded in 1942, and then with the 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps in North Africa and Italy until he was killed in September 1944. A regular officer, he was posted to the 1/6th Lancs Fusiliers early in the war. A territorial battalion, most of the officers – including the C.O. – were part-time soldiers. So as Adjutant and a regular soldier, Easton would have been the backbone of the Battalion. I’ve also found out that he was mentioned in despatches for Dunkirk, which I hadn’t previously known. I’ve also got details for all of the courses that he went on, especially during the Battalion’s conversion to armour in 1941.

I found a real gem in Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan’s original leather-bound pilot’s log book. Only a small number of these remain, so it was a great find. It lists every flight he took in RAF service, from training in Tiger Moths up to flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain in 1940, and also his instructors and commanders comments on his progress and abilities. I now know how many flying hours he had, and in what types. Sadly, his log book simply finishes on 3 August, with no clue as to what happened after that. Neither does 56 Squadron’s Operations Record Book shed much light, other than that he was posted to the Parachute Practice Unit at Ringway, Manchester.

I found time to take a look at some war diaries related to Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who died serving with the 1st Royal Welsh in Italy in February 1945. As soon as I flicked through the diary, I was perplexed… they had gone to the rear to rest in early February. Brown even went to Rome on leave for a week. All became clear, however, when the war diary recorded that Brown died in his sleep on the night of 24-25 February – it seems that he died of natural causes. There is of course something tragically ironic about a decorated Medical Officer, and a qualified surgeon, dying of natural causes in his sleep.

I also took a look at some documents related to Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. I’ve found damage reports for when his ship – HMS Lively – was shelled in the Mediterranean in 1942, and then from when it was sunk off Tobruk later in the same year. I also found a document recommending officers and ratings for awards after HMS Lively was sunk – including some very detailed descriptions of what happened, how the ship sank, and the circumstances in which Hussey went down with her.

Finally, I had a look at a few documents about Major Maurice Budd, who won a Military Cross in Burma in 1945 with V Force, a special forces unit. I found a document containing the minutes of a conference, chaired by General Bill Slim, about the role V Force was to play in the war in Burma, and how it was to be constituted – how many men – Indian and English – and how the unit was to be structured.

All in all a very succesfull day – apart from dropping Fl. Lt. Coghlan’s log book while queuing up for the photocopier, and getting a crick in my neck looking at the microfilm reader – why do they scan documents onto film, and then set them up landscape instead of portrait? And why dont the microfilm readers have a rotate option? Even the one in Portsmouth Central Library does!

So far I haven’t found anything truly earth-shattering, but plenty of useful material none the less – it all goes towards building up the bigger picture. Last day tomorrow, then back to reality!

Tomorrow: More about Captain Bernard Brown and Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, plus (hopefully) Wing Commander John Buchanan and more.

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RAF Benevolent Fund Day of Action

British propaganda poster during the Battle of...

Image via Wikipedia

Today marks the RAF Benevolent Fund’s ‘Day of Action’, and also seventy years since the height of the Battle of Britain over the skies of Southern England. To mark the day, I thought I would share a couple more stories about young fliers over Portsmouth in 1940. I’ve already written about Flight Lieutenant John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC, a Hurricane Pilot who was killed in a secret mission over France in August 1940. The next two men might not have come from Portsmouth, but they died bravely in the skies over the city in 1940, and both were part of ‘the few’ of the Battle of Britain.

Sergeant Hubert Hastings Adair, 23 and from Norwich, was flying a Hurricane of 213 Squadron when he was shot down in the skies over North Portsmouth on 6 November 1940. He has no official grave, and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

Adair had joined the RAF in 1936, and flew Fairey Battles over France in 1940. In August he transferred to the Hurricane-equipped 213 Squadron, based at Tangmere in West Sussex. Adair was last seen in Combat over Southampton Water, and when he failed to return it was assumed that he had crashed into the English Channel. After the war, however, it was discovered that his Hurricane had crashed in farmland a mile north of Portsdown Hill, near Pigeonhouse Lane. Locals were aware of the crash, but the RAF neither investigated the site nor recovered Adair’s remains.

In 1979 the Wealden Aviation Archaeological Group excavated the site. They recovered much of the aircraft, including the Browning Machine Guns and the Merlin Engine. Adair’s remains were also recovered. The coroner, however, stated that an inquest would not be held, and that the remains were to be disposed of. Because of this H.H. Adair is still officially Missing in Action.

A memorial plaque has been erected near the Churchillian Pub on Portsdown Hill, which overlooks the crash site roughly a mile to the north.

Flying Officer James Tillett, 22 and from Northamptonshire, was flying a Hurricane of 238 Squadron from Chilbolton, North Hampshire when he was also shot down north of Portsdown Hill later on the same day. He is buried in Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport. Tillett joined the RAF as an officer cadet in 1937. Graduating from Cranwell in 1939 as a Pilot Officer, he was promoted to Flying Officer in 1940.

On 6 November 1940 Tillett’s Squadron was scrambled to intercept a Bomber formation heading for Portsmouth. Tillett was shot down over Fareham by a Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The crash site was recorded as ‘near Whitedell, Fareham’. His Hurricane was seen to crash land with its wheels in the air near White Dell Farm, North Wallington, Portsmouth. According to eyewitness accounts the plane was in flames; two brothers attempted to rescue Tillett who was slumped over the controls, but the fire engulfed their aircraft. A memorial plaque has also been placed near the site where Tillet’s Hurricane crashed, near the junction of Pook Lane and Spurlings Lane.

In a day of high drama over the skies of Portsmouth, it is believed that both men were shot down by Hauptmann (Major) Helmut Wick, the Commander of 2 Jagedschewader of the Luftwaffe. After claiming 56 kills Wick was himself shot down on 28 November 1940. Wick’s logbook for the day states that he had shot down two Hurricanes over the Portsmouth area on 6 November 1940.

What must it have been like to be a young person in Portsmouth on that day in 1940? Its hard to believe, but my Granddad can remember watching dogfights over the channel and over Portsmouth in 1940. One time, he saw a Heinkel flying so over Portsmouth that he could see the pilot’s blonde hair.

We think of war as something that happens to other people, in far-off places, in a bygone age. Yet Adair and Tillett were killed just a couple of miles away from my house, and were younger than me. Adair and Tillett, and indeed John Coghlan, and all of the other young men who fought and died with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War should never be forgotten. Of course today we remember the few of Fighter Command, but as well we must remember those who died in Bombers, in Transport Aircraft, Ground Crew, the WAAF’s, men and women, young and old, who served and died overseas or at home.

To find out more about what happened in 1940, to find out about the RAF Benevolent Fund’s 1940 Chronicle Campaign, or to donate to the RAFBF, click here

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Filed under Local History, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

First Light by Geoff Wellum on BBC2

I’ve just watched the TV adaptation of Geoffrey Wellum‘s ‘First Light‘ on BBC2. Regular readers will remember that I reviewed the book earlier this year.

The TV version is slightly truncated, dealing solely with Wellum’s experiences during the Battle of Britain. The story begins with him arriving at 92 Squadron as a green, 18 year old pilot. The book describes his schooling and training. The programme also tells us very little about his career after the Battle of Britain – after serving as an instructor with an Operational Training Unit, he served in Malta before suffering a nervous breakdown.

It was a very good programme though, with some cracking action shots and archive footage. It seems to have been researched very well, and im terms of details was loyal to Wellum’s book. In particular I think the screenwriters did a very good job of emphasising the bond between the young pilots, and the emotional and psychological effects of such intense, demmanding combat. The scenes with Wellum looking back on his experiences were very thoughtful, and conveyed the dignified reflections of a distinguished man.

Unfortunately First Light is not available to watch again on BBC iplayer (whoever was responsible for that should be ashamed), but you can read more about the making of the programme here on the Director’s Blog.

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Filed under Book of the Week, On TV, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960′s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

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Filed under debate, defence, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC

On 17 August 1940, Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan, from Southsea and of 56 Squadron RAF, was killed in France. He was 25. There is a full biography of John Coghlan here.

Born in 1914 in Shanghai, Coghlan attended the Imperial Services College, before joining the RAF in 1937. His address in Southsea was 16 Worthing Road. Apparently he was a short, well-built man with darkk brushed back hair and a large moustache, and was friendly and unflappable. However he was also described as overweight and unfit, and had a ‘prodigious intake of ale’. He took over command of A Flight just before the Squadron departed for France in 1940. At one point during an air battle he had exhausted the ammunition in his machine guns, so proceeded to fire his Browning pistol at his enemy, earning the nickname of ‘Nine Gun’.

56 Squadron were based at RAF North Weald in Essex, and were flying Hurricanes in 1940. Part of 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, 56 Squadron were in the front line of the Battle of Britain. The Squadron had earlier provided air cover for the evacuation from Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain his personal aircraft was Hurricane US-N.

His was DFC gazetted on 30 July 1940:

This officer has been a flight commander in his squadron on most of the recent patrols and has led the squadron on some occasions. At all times he has shown the greatest initiative and courage and has personally destroyed at least six enemy aircraft.

The citation for his DFC suggests that he was in the thick of the air battles raging over southern England in the summer of 1940 – to have destroyed at least enemy aircraft was no mean feat. It is also notable that his DFC was announced in the London Gazette on 30 July – several weeks before his death, and indeed, the recommendation for an award would have predated the announcement by some time too. Therefore he may have accounted for even more aircraft.

But there’s more… Coghlan was not actually serving with 56 Squadron at the time of his death. According to acesofww2.com, he had attended a course at the Parachute Practice School at Ringway, Manchester on 7 August 1940. He took off on the night of 17/18 August 1940 in a Lysander aircraft to perform a special duties flight, but both he and the agent he was carrying were captured and executed. Whether this was a war crime or not depends on whether he was in uniform. If he was, Coghlan was entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. If not, then he was liable to be shot as a spy.

So, a pilot who appeared to be one of ‘the few’, was in actual fact not only one of the few, but one of the earliest of the RAF’s special duties pilots, who was sadly captured and executed in occupied France.

Operational Records and Log Books should – hopefully – tell us a lot more about John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan.

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Honour Restored: The Battle of Britain, Dowding and the Fight for Freedom by Sqn. Ldr. Peter Brown AFC

Unless you’re planning to live under a rock for the rest of the summer, at some point you are bound to notice that it is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. This book by a Battle of Britain veteran is really two books in one. The first charts the progress of the battle itself, with some interesting anecdotes and opinions thrown in for good measure. The most interesting aspect of this section is Brown’s argument that the weather played a more important part than previously thought.

But the biggest and most controversial aspect of the first half of Brown’s book is the Big Wing. While Keith Park’s Group was at the forefront of the battle, it seems that Leigh-Mallory, with the connivance of Douglas Bader, pioneered a ‘Big Wing’ tactic, using up to six Squadrons in one wing. Although this was publicity-grabbing, it was inefficient, and proved of little use in action.

Yet even weeks after the battle had ended, Leigh-Mallory and his allies in the Air Ministry were making selective use of statistics to promote the Big Wing, at the expense of the performance of Dowding and Park. At a so-called meeting of shame, Dowding in particular was treated unfairly, and eventually forced into retirement and denied due credit for his fine service. Brown argues that retired senior RAF offices such as Trenchard and Salmond were pulling the strings behind Downing’s scapegoating – given the sway that Trenchard held over the RAF in general, this would be by no means surprising.

Reading Brown’s arguments – and indeed, reading most other books about the Battle – it is not hard to come to the conclusion that Dowding and Park were shamefully treated during and after the Battle of Britain. And on the other side of the coin, men such as Douglas, Leigh-Mallory and possibly Bader stand accused of attempting to further their own careers regardless of the outcome of the battle and the country’s security. The RAF does seem to have had its fair share of unpleasant characters in the Second World War – witness Tedder’s guerilla campaign against Montgomery in 1944.

I found this a very interesting and engaging book – it is far more than the usual veterans account, Brown actually involves himself in the historiography. And his rants against New Labour and the EU certainly lighten the tone too!

Honour Restored is published by The History Press

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The Battle of Britain Pitkin Guide by Roy C Nesbit

Visit any museum gift shop, and you’re bound to find a couple of spinners loaded with Pitkin Guides. For years the Pitkin model has been a extremely popular way of presenting gentle introductions to a subject, something that is particularly useful for younger people and those of us who are completely new to a subject.

As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, it is an appropriate time to take a look at Pitkin’s Guide to the Battle of Britain, written by Roy C Nesbit. Although I describe myself as a military historian, the Battle of Britain is by no means my strongest subect – I really should know more about it than I do!

The Guide starts off with a look at the outbreak of war in September 1939, and how Blitzkrieg broke out in Europe on 10 May 1940. This is of course very important, as event leading up to Dunkirk led in turn to the Battle of Britain. A look at the Dunkirk spirit of May and June 1940 is very important – it would be all too easy to focus on Spitfires, Dowding and the like, and to ignore the bigger picture. We find out about Civil Defence and the formation of the Home Guard, the Land Army and the other Womens voluntary services. There is also a healthy emphasis on the Home Front throughout.

A section on the German invasion plans is also important, as it was exactly this that the Battle of Britain was trying to prevent. We are then told about the structure of Fighter Command in 1940, its men and women and its aircraft. We are then given a detailed summary of the Battle, describing the major engagements, such as Adler Tag and the bombing of London. Another interesting inclusion is an aerial combat report compiled by a Spitfire pilot – its gripping stuff.

Overall, the Guide is extremely well illustrated, with a handful of insightful pictures on each page. It is also very well-written – its easy to write in a complicated manner, but to reduce complex events into simple terms is a real skill, and a very important one given the guide’s target audience. Granted, if you already know about the Battle of Britain theres not much here to learn, but as an introduction to the subject it serves very well.

The feature I really like about this Guide, however, is the final page, entitled ‘A Nation Remembers’. It tells s about the range of memorials that can be visited, such as the RAF Church at St Clement Danes, the Battle of Britain and RAF Memorials in London, the RAF Museum, the memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent, and – from my point of view, most importantly – advice on how to access RAF records in the National Archives.

The Battle of Britain is published by Pitkin, part of the History Press

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RAF Museum unveils the Battle of Britain Beacon

The RAF Museum have just released this video on Youtube showing their plans for a Battle of Britain Beacon.

This really is quite an innovative idea, and I think its exactly the kind of thing that Museums should be doing to bring history and heritage into the 21st Century. A Beacon is a great idea, giving the building exactly the right kind of image – of light, and hope. I really like how its a museum building, but it has a real purpose from the outside too. The planned new building is part of the Museum’s broader modernisation programme. It will allow wider public access to to the Museums Collections, something I always support.

Of course its very fitting to be focussing on the Battle of Britain, in the year of its 70th anniversary. The provision of suitable funding, and the agreement with interested parties and authorities with whom the Museum is consulting widely, will dictate when the Trustees of the Museum will take the final decision to proceed with construction.

Click here for more information about the Battle of Britain Beacon

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70 years ago this year: Churchill, Dunkirk, the few and the blitz

We’re coming up to the time when a lot of Second World War 70th anniversaries will be taking place. As usual you can expect to read about all the anniversaries, books, and special events right here. I will also be looking at local stories, and the experiences of local people, including my own family.

April marks 70 years since Nazi Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. In May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, and the very same day Germany invaded Belgium, France and Holland. After being outwitted the British fell back to Dunkirk and were evacuated, and France reached an armistice with the Nazis. As a prelude to the planned invasion of Britain, the Luftwaffe fought Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. Ater the Germans failed to gain air superiority the Luftwaffe resorted to Bombing towns and cities, in what became known as the Blitz. So many momentous events in such a short space of time. How I tend to think of 1940, is that although winning the war came much later, in those dramatic days we didn’t LOSE the war. And if you lose a war, you’ve no chance of winning it in the end at all!

There are some fantastic books due to be released later this year to mark the anniversaries. As always you can expect to read reviews here on Daly History.

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First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

I’ll sat it again, I’m a big fan of the veterans first-hand account. I much prefer reading about the normal guy at the sharp end to hearing about the tit-for-tat arguments between Generals. Even with a fighter pilot, traditionally a well-covered part of the war, there is much to be learnt from personal stories.

Geoffrey Wellum volunteered for the RAF just prior to the Second World War, and this book charts his wartime experiences. From learning to fly in a Tiger Moth, and then a Harvard, Wellum brings alive the dedication and training required to make the grade as a fighter pilot. He was posted to an operational squadron at Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain. He was thrown pretty much straight into combat, demonstrating just how fast some of the few had to learn. For his efforts Wellum was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Then after a tour as an instructor Wellum took part in the epic Operation Pedestal convoy to reinforce Malta. Transported into the Mediterranean onboard the Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious, Wellum took off just after HMS Eagle was torpedoed. After landing on the besieged island he witnessed the cripplied Tanker Ohio limping into Valetta Harbour.

Wellum writes warmly of the cameraderie of a front line fighter squadon. We are also reminded just how young many of ‘the few’ were. But what really sets this book apart is the way that Wellum describes the rigours of air to air combat. He writes in a manner that brings the emotions, the intensity alive for the reader. He takes you into the cockpit with him. It is quite remarkable that he is able to recall those experiences all these years later.

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