Tag Archives: dunkirk

Alan Cumming – Who Do You Think You Are?

The Battle of Kohima March - July 1944: View o...

Alan Cumming's Grandfather fought at the Battle of Kohima (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s WDYTYA was possibly one of the best yet. And what’s more, this remarkable story focussed on just one ancestor. Alan Cumming (actor, x-men: I didn’t have a clue who he was!) knew that his grandfather had served in the Army during the war and had died suspiciously in Malaya, but very little apart from that.

Tom Darling joined the Cameron Highlanders – a Scottish Infantry Regiment – in the 1930’s. After a period as a cook at the Regimental Depot, he was assigned as a motorcycle despatch rider, and saw action in France in 1940. He was awarded the Military Medal for an action in May 1940 when he drove his motorbike between Headquarters and the Rifle Companies carrying ammunition, along an exposed road in full view of the enemy.

After being evacuated to Britain and promoted to Sergeant, Darling was sent to Burma in time to fight in the Battle of Kohima. He was wounded, probably by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a Hospital India. Then, his service record is mysteriously vacant. It appears that he spent time in hospital with battle-related mental illness, as he was in an institutionĀ  in India known for treating mental illness, and which gave its name to the term to ‘go dolally’. After recovering and seeing out his service with the Army, he was demobilised. His family did not see him again after 1945. Originally it was thought that he had simply been serving abroad.

After a year working as a sales clerk at a garage in St Albans. He obviously found civvy street not to his liking, for he soon applied to join the Malay Police Force. In his application, Alan Cumming found a shocking discovery – he listed his marital status as ‘separated’. That explains why his family did not see him again after the end of the war, and also why he possibly travelled to the other side of the world.

Whilst in Malaya, Tom Darling was part of a police force that was involved in a bitter counter-insurgency campaign against communist guerillas. Darling’s job, as a Police Lieutenant, was to guard villages against insurgents. Other police units were tasked to go out into the countryside and capture and kill communists, whose bodies were then brought back to the villages for identification and display. Darling was evidently well thought of, as the locals state when Cumming visits the area.

The circumstances of Darling’s death turned out to be even more shocking than feared. It transpires that he was playing Russian Roulette with a revolver, and either his luck ran out, or he misjudged it, or both. He was killed by a gunshot wound behind his ear. Apparently he would regularly play Russian Roulette, and the local people would bet on the outcome. Such a tragic end for a very brave and distinguished man. Its difficult not to imagine how a man who had been through traumatic experiences, was wounded in battle, had experienced combat stress and who had separated from his family possibly felt nothing to lose by playing Russian Roulette.

For me this was one of the best WDYTA episodes ever. Focussing in detail on the story of one man, it was excellently researched, across some difficult subjects andĀ  locations. Not only that, but it gave us some idea of the human toll of war, something that we very rarely get to hear about.

Alan Cumming’s Who Do You Think You Are? is available to view on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010



Filed under Army, Family History, On TV, World War Two

70 years ago: the fighting after Dunkirk

After the Dunkirk evacuation ended on 3 June 1940 British involvement in the Battle of France changed dramatically. While thousands of troops were evacuated back to England, many were still trapped in France, particularly the 51st (Highland Division). Also, a second BEF was being sent to France, and was based around Normandy and Brittany. In addition, the RAF was still operating over French skies.

Sergeant (Wireless Operator) Ronald Astbury, aged 20 and from Cosham, was killed on 11 June 1940. A member of 77 Squadron of the RAF, Astbury was flying in Whitley Bomber N1362 on a raid on Turin in Italy. On the return flight the Whitley crashed in flames at 2230. All of the crew were killed. Astbury is buried at Lignieres-Orgeres, France. Italy had entered the war when it became clear that France was going to fall.

Sergeant (Pilot) Leslie Keast, 25 and from North End, was killed on 11 June 1940. A member of 10 Squadron of the RAF, Keast was piloting Whitley P4954, which crashed ‘in the battle area’. This suggests that he was flying in an operation in Northern France against the German Army. He is buried at Abbeville, France.

Private Edward Niven, 1st Bn Black Watch, was one of the oldest Privates from Portsmouth in the Second World War, at the age of 37. He was killed on 12 June 1940. The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch were a regular army unit who were part of the 51st (Highland) Division. Not encircled at Dunkirk, the Highland Division was left in France, largely as a political sacrifice to the French Government. The Division was eventually trapped at St Valery on the Channel Coast, and forced to surrender on 12 June 1940. However Private Niven is buried at Houdetot, nearer Le Havre. This suggests that he had been evacuated away from the front line.


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

70 years ago: the evacuation begins

By the end of May 1940 the evacuation from Dunkirk was well underway. While men were being plucked from the beaches, the rearguard were fighting to hold the Germans back to allow as many men to escape as possible.

Rifleman George Clements was killed on 28 May 1940. Aged 33 and Portsmouth, he was serving with the Rifle Brigade. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. The only Rifle Brigade unit to serve in France in 1940 was the 1st Battalion, who were part of the 30th Infantry Brigade, of the 1st Armoured Division.

Gunner Ralph Cairns was killed on 29 May 1940. Aged 25 and from Buckland, he was serving with 1 Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. His service number indicates that he had originally joined the Northumberland Fusiliers. 1 Medium Regiment were a Corps Artillery unit of Brooke’s II Corps.

Lieutenant Harold Asser was killed on 29 May 1940. From North End, he was serving with 4 Field Park of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial.

Private Thomas Sewell was killed on 29 May 1940. Aged 20 and from North End, he was serving with the 5th Battalion of the Kings Own Royal Regiment. He is buried at Les Moeres in France. The 5th Kings Own were part of the 126th Infantry Brigade, in the 42nd Infantry Division. As Les Moeres is 10 kilometres east of Dunkirk and was at the front line of the British perimeter it is believed that Private Sewell was killed in the rearguard fighting.

Sapper Francis Wiseman was killed on 31 May 1940. Aged 35 and from Cosham, he was serving with 59 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 59 Field Company were part of the 4th Infantry Division.

The Royal Navy was also suffering losses while attempting to evacuate the Army from the beaches. 42 destroyers were assigned to support Operation Dynamo, initially to bombard German shore positions to support the Army, but gradually they were pressed into service carrying men back to England.

On 27 May HMS Wakeful carried 631 troops to Dover. While crossing the Channel she came under air attack and suffered minor damage below the waterline. She returned to Dunkirk, embarking another 640 troops on 28 May 1940. On 29 May she was torpedoed by the German E-Boat S-30. One torpedo hit the boiler room and the ship quickly split in two. Only one of the 640 soldiers survived, and only 25 of a crew of 110. One of the sailors killed was Warrant Engineer Harold Tucker, 37 and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial.

On 28 May HMS Grafton carried 277 men to Dover. On 29 May she hard returned to Dunkirk and was in the process of taking men back to Dover when she was called to assist the survivors of HMS Wakeful. Whilst doing so she was torpedoed by U-62. She suffered serious damage, and the Captain and one officer were killed, along with four men. One of them was Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Thomas Kean, 26 and from Eastney. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial. The Grafton was too badly damaged to be towed and was scuttled.

Unfortunately it is impossible to tell, but some of the soldiers killed and who have no known grave may well have been killed on HMS Wakful and HMS Grafton.


Filed under Army, Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

70 years ago – the Battle of Dunkirk begins

By late May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and elements of th French and Belgian Armies were becoming bottled up in a small pocket based on the English Channel, cut off by the advance of the German Panzers. The situation was so serious that General Sir Alan Brooke wrote that “nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now”. Lord Gort, the BEF’s commander, informed the Secretary of State for War that there was a risk that a large part of the BEF would be lost in France.

Yet for reasons which Historians have never been able to substantiate with any certainty, on 24 May Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt and to leave the task of finishing off the Dunkirk perimeter to the Luftwaffe and the infantry. This may have been one of the most critical decisions of the war, for by the time the Panzers began their advance again on 26 May the BEF had managed to withdraw relatively unhindered towards the coast. The vital breathing space also allowed the Royal Navy to begin planning the evacuation.

Lance Sergeant Albert Reypert, 30 and from Portsmouth, was killed on 23 May 1940. He was serving with 9 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 9 Field Regiment were part of the 5th Infantry Division, a unit that was part of BEF GHQ reserve.

Corporal Alexander Boag, 29 and from Southsea, was killed on 26 May 1940. He was serving with the 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, a Cavalry unit. He is buried at Essars in France. 4/7 Dragoon Guards were the armoured reconnaisance unit in the 2nd Infantry Division. Essars is a communal cemetery, just south of Bethune. Boag was killed during a fierce battle where the resumed German advance pinned down the 2nd and 50th Divisions. The 2nd Division in particular suffered heavy losses. But they managed to keep a corridor open through which much of the BEF could reach the coast.

Bombardier Harry Short, 34 and from Eastney, was killed on 26 May 1940. He was serving with 5 Battery, 2 Searchlight Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 2 Searchlight Regiment were part of 5 Searchlight Brigade, which was attached to BEF GHQ.

Gunner Frederick Morgan, 28 and from Stamshaw, was killed on 27 May 1940. He was serving with 5 Battery, 1 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He also has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 1 Anti-Aircraft Regiment were part of BEF GHQ.

Lance Corporal Henry Bonner was killed on 27 May 1940. He was 28 and from Portsmouth. He was serving with 7 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He is buried in Comines, Belgium. 7th Field Company were part of the 4th Infantry Division. Comines is 12 Kilometres south of Ypres. On 27 May General Brooke was conducting a holding operation near Ypres, which became known as the battle of Wytschaete.

Two things become immediately clear from what we know about the men from Portsmouth who were killed in the early stages of the Battle of Dunkirk. Looking at their ages, most of them were obviously pre-war regular soldiers. In addition, that some of them were serving with Anti-Aircraft units or Searchlight units, who might expect to be some way back from the front line, suggests that the fighting was extremely muddled, and/or that the Luftwaffe was attacking the Dunkirk pocket with ease during this period.


Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

70 years ago: Blitzkrieg

On 10 May 1940 the phoney war came to an abrupt end when the German Panzers rolled into Holland, Belgium and France in the west. In accordance with the plan agreed with the French, the British Expeditionary Force moved up into Belgium to the line of the Dyle River, after the Germans invaded Belgium.

Private Louis Ayling, 21 and from Eastney, was killed on the first day of the campaign. Serving with the 1st/6th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, he was killed on 10 May 1940 and is buried in Avelgem, Belgium. A territorial unit, the 1/6 East Surrey’s were undergoing training and labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

The attack further north in Belgium was not the main thrust, however. The main attack came further south through the Ardennes. As the German Panzers advanced west there was a serious risk that the BEF would be cut off. The run to the coast at Dunkirk was already falling into place.

The RAF contingent serving alongside the BEF was called into action almost immediately in an attempt to stem the advance. On the first day of the battle Sergeant (Pilot) Alfred Robertson was killed over Holland. 26 and from Southsea, he had taken off from Wyton in England. He was flying a Bristol Blenheim with 40 Squadron, and is buried in Voorburg, Holland.

Sergeant (Observer) Herbert Trescothic was serving with 142 Squadron, who were flying Fairey Battles. Taking off from Berry-au-Bac on 14 May, they were targetting bridges and roads around Sedan. His aircraft crashed at Cherey, where he is buried. He was 25 and from Southsea.

Also killed on 14 May was Flight Lieutenant Harold Sammells. 24 and from North End, he was serving with 105 Squadron, a unit operating Fairey Battles in France. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

Leading Aircraftman (Air Gunner) Walter Lawes, 21 and from Copnor, was killed on 16 May 1940. He was serving with 13 Squadron, a Westland Lysander unit. Lawes is buried at Vieux-Conde in France. Westland Lysanders were often used for dropping off and picking up special agents behind enemy lines.

Private Albert Voysey, 21 and from Mile End, was serving with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was killed on 18 May 1940 and is buried in Abbeville, France. The 7th Royal Sussex were also serving under 12 Infantry Division.

Sapper Leslie Parsonage, 26 and from Eastney, was also killed on 18 May. He was serving with 17th Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Aaigem, Belgium. 17th Field Company were serving under Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Sergeant William Northey, 22, was serving with 5 Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery when he was killed on 19 May. He is buried in Le Doulieu, France. 5 Medium Regiment were a Corps Artillery unit attached to I Corps.

Sapper Henry Ward, of Cosham, was killed on 20 May 1940. He was serving with 263 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Pont-de-Metz, France. 263 Field Company were performing labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

Private Alfred Williams of the Royal Army Service Corps was also killed on 20 May. Aged 24, he is buried at Candas in France.

2nd Lieutenant Reginald Stevens, 19 and from Southsea, was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers when he was killed on 22 May. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkik Memorial. The 2nd Lancs were serving in the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, II Corps.

Even by the 22nd of May, however, the BEF was already fighting a stiff rearguard action towards the coast. Its noticeable from the losses in the opening stages of the battle that it was not just the infantry who were caught in the front line – due to the manner in which the BEF was outflanked and almost cut-off, gunners and sappers were also casualties. And as desribed in Tim Lynch’s Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown, many territorial units still undergoing training were thrown into the battle.


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

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown by Tim Lynch

One of the biggest probems with writing history is the danger of hindsight. Its often far too easy to look at a long-gone event, and for our understanding of it to be influenced by what came after. Dunkirk is certainly one of those events. Over the past 70 years it has become part of the British psyche that in 1940 the French turned tail and ran, while the BEF was gallantly rescued from Dunkirk to fight another day. While there are some elements of truth to this, there are also many more aspects to Dunkirk than we hear about. This book by Tim Lynch goes a long way to shedding new light on an often misunderstood campaign.

while the book is titled ‘Dunkirk’, the analysis goes much deeper. Lynch looks at the British Army’s preparations for war, and how these were inadequate and too little, too late. The Army’s leadership and organisation was also not up to the job of fighting a modern war. In particular Lynch looks at the men of several territorial divisions that were sent to France as labourers, but ended up fighting in the front line. They were seriously undertrained and unprepared for the task that fell to them.

Regarding the question of the French Army’s conduct in 1940, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the French Generals seriously let down their men. While there were many examples of French troops fighting hard – often in hopeless positions – Gamelin had virtually no grip on the battle, and Weygand was far too unstable. Among this unsatisfactory set-up the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort, was far too passive and was out of his depth. Unbelievably, it is generally agreed that Gort was only sent to France as the Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, could not stand him and wanted him out of Whitehall. Whether he was right for the job does not seem to have mattered.

The fate of the Lines of Communication come in for special attention from Lynch – in particular, the Labour Divisions aforementioned. The manner in which the British and French allowed themselves to be turned, outflanked and cut off led to the vulnerable lines of communication being flayed open. Therefore many non-front line troops found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This turbulent situation also led to the loss of so much equipment. While some historians might criticise Montgomery as a materiel commander, this ‘insult’ holds no water, given Gort’s ignorance of logistics and the disasters that this caused.

Another misconception about Dunkirk is that the whole of the BEF was evacuated through the sand dunes of the channel port. On the one hand, much fighting went on elsewhere. And in terms of the lines of communications, they were forced to fall back on places such as Dieppe, Rouen and even the Brittany ports. A second BEF was also landed in Normandy, but swiftly evacuated.

Lynch also suggests that the 51st Highland Division was sacrificed at St Valery as a sop to encourage the French to keep on fighting. Given the evidence this assertion is clear. Furthermore, the authorities should have realised at that point that the battle was lost – another Division evacuated to Britain would have been a godsend. While Anglophobes in the French Government and society might hold to the contention that Dunkirk represented the British abandoning their allies, it is hard to see what else the BEF could have done.

This book is a credible effort. I found it very readable indeed – Lynch’s experience as a writer for Britain at War Magazine no doubt helps. Lynch makes a good balance between personal stories and strategy, has found some good illustrations, and has used a wealth of sources.

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown is published by The History Press


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

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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