Tag Archives: winston churchill

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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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – Radio appearances and signings

I’ve got a few exciting pieces of news.

Firstly, I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth on Saturday 7th April, between 11am and 3pm.

I appeared on BBC Radio Solent earlier today, talking about Portsmouth’s Women of World War Two. It is available to listen to on the BBC website; my interview is about 1 hour and 53 minutes in. I’m not sure if you can listen to it from abroad I’m afraid, and it is only online for seven days.

At the time of writing my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ is ranked around 13,000 on Amazon, out of 5.6 MILLION books! That works out at me being in the top 0.2%! Currently, the book is also ranked at #99 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Second World War Military History. #100? Only Robert Lyman’s ‘Operation Suicide’, which I reviewed last week! I have some way to go though before I overhaul Winston Churchill and Stephen Ambrose and reach 90 ;)

On Monday I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Solent, and actually ended up recording two segments – one on Portsmouth’s women who served in the Second World War, for their ‘Women in a man’s world’ series, and a second piece promoting my book in general.

My first book talk at the D-Day Museum on Thursday went very well, and the first happy customers went away with signed copies. Pre-ordered copies have been shipping out via Amazon, some of my relatives received their copies towards the end of last week. If you would like to order a copy, please see the various links immediately to the right of the page.

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Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

It’s nice to be able to review a book, for once, that is about more than just ‘words’. I must confess to having a great interest in war art, in particular the propaganda poster. Long before ‘Keep Calm and Carry On‘, I have been fascinated with ‘Let us go forward together’, ‘The few’ and ‘I need you for US Army’. An interesting distinction I found is the difference between propaganda produced by Democracies and Dictatorships. Whereas democratic posters tended to be more subtle and laidback, as free citizens tend to be scornful of being told what to do in an overt fashion. Democratic propaganda tends to be more romantic, and more an attempt to appeal to the reader’s better nature. Nazi and Soviet propaganda was far more akin to a sledgehammer – there was no need to appeal to anyones better nature, as in a one party state nobody had a choice in the matter in any case. In an interesting kind of way, propaganda posters reflect that nature of the societies in which they were created.

British propaganda is something that many people will be familirar with, and is certainly in vogue in shops such as Past Times at the moment. Information posters exhorted the population to conserve food, carry gas masks, or evacuate children. Recruitment posters were generally an attempt to encourage rather than enforce. Many examples show an exemplary man or men, in an attempt to encourage the reader to wish to be like them. Quotes from Winston Churchill were also a staple. Funnily enough Canadian propaganda tended to be more overt, such as the famous poster of a lion and beaver charging, bayonets fixed, and the equally famous ‘Lets go Canada!’. French war posters were also quite interesting. Of couse after 1940, whilst the Vichy French were pleading with the populace to ‘remember Oran’, and attempting to recruit for the Vichy Legions, the Free French were also producing posters for the consumption of exiles in Britain and elsewhere. Soviet propaganda has always interested me greatly. Although to begin with Russian posters were very socialist, and very, well, brutalistic and politicised, in time the regime peformed a volte-face and began to embrace aspects of Russia’s history and culture that had been shunned previously. Attempts to demonstrate continuity with the old Russia, ancient Russian heroes and cultural icons such as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were made in an attempt to inspire the Soviety citizens in the great patriotic war. Examples of heroic soldiers abound, rifle thrust in their air, in defence of the motherland. Like Soviety War Memorials, its very stirring stuff indeed.

American propaganda is also quite interesting. obviously, after Pearl Harbour a desire for revenge was present, and racial stereotypes of ‘the Jap’ were very common. Often Japanese soldiers were portrayed as rat-like, no doubt in an attempt to convince the American public that they were an inferior race and that Uncle Sam would prevail. Talking of which, Uncle Sam himself featured very heavily, in his Kitchener like pose, along with Golden Eagles and lots of  blue, red and white. i cannot help but think also that a lot of American propaganda was inspired by American commercialism, which obviously drew on consumerism and marketing, to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. It could be suggested that the US Government was selling the war in the same way that Ford would sell Model T’s, or Coke would sell Cola.

The Nazi regime had made use of Propaganda since its inception after World War One. In fact, men such as Hitler and Goebbels were consumate propagandists, placing spin at the centre of the regime right from the start. How else do you explain a whole country being made to believe in what turned out to be an illogical and nihilistic ideology? The ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer‘ poster is one of the most famous ever. Much use was made of classical symbols such as the Eagle, and bemuscled, Teutonic males, in an attempt to invoke a heritage supposedly linked with age old Empires. Posters decrying the Jews attempted to arouse old stereotypes, particularly of Jewish looks, and portraying them in an animalistic manner. When the war started to turn against the Third Reich the propagandists had an even harder job, to try and persuade the population that Aryan superiority was not a myth. By contrast, Italian propagandist were facing an uphill struggle, as the majority of Italians were indifferent to the war, and hence Italian posters seen, in retrospect, rather absurd and ironic. Japanese posters really are very different to anything seen in Europe, given the vastly different culture. And, again, in a totalitarian monarchy, there was little need to co-erce or persuade.

The funny thing is, I can’t help but admire totalitarian propaganda more. There’s something about Nazi and Soviet art that is really impressive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with what it is saying. I guess its kind of like Lemmy from Motorhead, who has been criticised for wearing Nazi-like clothes. When pressed, he answered that if the Allied armies had cool looking clothes, he would wear them. It just so happens that the bad guys always seem to have the best uniforms. Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it does sum up my thoughts about war propaganda.

This was a very enjoyable book to read. Some well-known examples, but also some posters that were new to my eyes. Neither is it just a picture book, it is well interpreted and enlightening, looking not only at the art itself, but also the sociological, political and military background. I only wish I had more wall space and funds to decorate my flat with some of them!

Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940′s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940′s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0′s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

As Stephen Bull quite rightly states in this book, the word ‘Commando‘ has become common currency for all kinds of special forces operations.

The ‘commando’ concept originated from the Boer War, when Dutch-descended ‘Kommando‘ units caused havoc for much larger British units in the South African veldt. Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent at the time, recalled the idea in 1940. At the outset of the Second World War, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ special forces. The Commando’s were formed in 1940, partly by initiative amongst the armed forces, but also spurred on by characteristic notes that flourished from Winston Churchill demmanding instant action. The idea was that while Britain was unable to stike back at the enemy in a conventional manner, small groups of nimble special forces could inflict an impact on occupied Europe out of all proportion to their size.

Commando’s made their presence felt on the Lofoten Raids in Norway; at St Nazaire and Dieppe; on D-Day and in Siciliy and Italy. Strictly speaking the British Army C0mmandos were formed from volunteers from Army units, but the Royal Marines also formed their own Commando units later in the war. The Parachute Regiment was formed from No 2 Commando in 1940, and the SAS and SBS were formed by formed Commando officers. Thus it could be argued that the Commando’s formed their embryo for modern British special forces. Ironically, whilst the Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS still exist, the Army Commandos were disbanded soon after the war.

The title of this book focuses on tactics, but Bull goes much further by writing about the wider history of the Commandos, and the impact that the development of the Commando’s has had on British military ethos and development, the effects of which can still be seen today. But the real strength of this book is in the description of the making of a Commando – what went into selecting and training the men, the development of tactics and equipment, and how mistakes were made and lessons were learnt until a well-honed concept was arrived at. The ‘small, heavily armed but highly mobile’ approach has become widespread amongst all special forces to this day. There is also much in the selection and training that will be familiar to anyone who has read Bravo Two Zero or the million and one other SAS memoirs.

 This book adds considerably to the historiography of British special forces during the Second World War. It is an interesting read in its own right, but it also stands up extremely well as an in-depth military study. It contains some fascinating biographies of leading Commandos, and some useful eyewitness accounts. But the real piece de resitance is the inclusion of contemporary documents, such as details of Commando clothing and equipment, the establishment and armanent of Commando units, and a booklet describing Commando Battle Drill.

Commando Tactics of the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword

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Angry protestors attack Royal Coach… dateline 1795…

There have been a lot of historionics recently about the student protests, and in particular about the incident in which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were caught up in ‘the mob’ in Regent Street. This interesting article in the Guardian got me thinking, as well as this one on the BBC website.

One correspondent in my local newspaper even suggested that the protestors who harrangued the royal couple’s car were committing a treasonable act. Please… I thought we’d dispensed with the divine rights of Kings when we cut off Charles I’s head. Assault? possibly. Treason? no chance.

In fact, I would quite like to know what Charlie boy thinks, as the father of an ex-student, and another son who did so badly at A-Level he could never have got into Uni (even though he did make an officer in the Household Cavalry, but that is another class-based story for another day). Charles himself managed to get to Cambridge with very dubious A-Levels results, and hardly distinguished himself when he was there, so it would be interesting to know what his thoughts are – he’s got something to say about everything else that seems to happen in society.

Even well-thought-of national figures are by no means immune to protests. The Duke of Wellington, who ‘in retirement’ turned to politics, was more than once the target of the mob, including when the windows of his Apsley House residence were smashed by angry protestors while he was Prime Minister. It didn’t mean that they were ‘desecrating’ the Duke – many of the same protestors no doubt revelled in his victories and were tearful at his death – they were just mightily pissed off at that moment in time.

And for all the hysteria about students urinating on statues of Winston Churchill, it was the same kind of conservative Government that brought in the national curriculum years ago, which pretty much erased meaningful british history from education. No wonder people of my generation know so little about Churchill and the World Wars, they’ve not been allowed to learn about it. And… on a more biological level, if the Police cordon people off for hours at a time with no toilets, then maybe they might just go against anything that they can? Just a thought.

I’ve even read the usual opinions that we should ‘bring back national service’ to teach the wayward students a lesson in discipline. National Service was never about discipline, it was viewed as a necessary evil to plug a chronic manpower shortage while Britain slowly withdrew from its imperial commitments after the Second World War. It was unpopular, with the Government, with the armed forces, and with society. All it seems to have taught was how to drink and how to smoke, and a conscript military does not equal a professional military, which the modern age calls for. Britain has never really ‘done’ conscription, and an overblown moral panic is no reason to start now.

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Wavell: Soldier and Statesman

 

I must confess I had probably conformed to the wider orthodoxy on British military history when it came to Wavell – everything before Monty was hopeless, surely? This perceived wisdom is partly due to efforts of both Montgomery the self-publicist and Churchill, whose history of the Second World War set the tone for the historiography of the conflict. Victoria Schofield is an authority on the Indian sub-continent, and has also written an official history of Wavell’s Regiment, the Black Watch. Therefore, she is ideally placed to try and redress Wavell’s poor treatment through history.

But reading this book has made me think differently. Prior to El Alamein the British Army and its commanders were swimming against the tide – poorly equipped, poorly prepared, and with far too much being expected of them in the circumstances. Wavell was by no means the only British General whom Churchill castigated for not moving heaven and earth in the way that he demanded, and because he did not fit Churchill’s ridiculous stereotype of what a General should ‘be’. This gives us an insight into Churchill’s failings in terms of working with his commanders – men such as Auchinleck, Dill, and even Montgomery also suffered from Churchill’s outbursts.

As a young Black Watch officer Wavell was seriously wounded on the Western Front (in common with Montgomery), losing an eye in the process. After recovering he was drafted to the Middle East, serving under Allenby during his famous campaign against the Turks in Palestine, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem. Wavell learnt much during this period, and some years later went on to author a Biography of Allenby. During the inter-war years Wavell had a much more active service than many of his contemporaries, with a number of staff and regimental postings, as well as writing on military history and theory. Prior to the Second World War he also developed a correspondence with the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart.

There were in fact some extremely bright moments in the early years of the war in the Desert – not least Operation Compass, where led by Richard O’Connor the Western Desert Force completely routed the Italians on the Egyptian-Lybian border. If it hadn’t been for a London-based directive to intervene in Greece, Wavell and O’Connor might well have been able to rout the Italians from North Africa entirely. The Italians were also completely routed in East Africa too. Yet Churchill’s constant meddling and barracking – added to the wide expanse of Wavell’s command – made his task nigh on impossible.

After leaving the Middle East, Wavell was appointed the Commander-in-Chief in India, at an important time when the Japanese were threatening the Far East. After the outbreak of war with Japan Wavell was made supreme commander of the short-lived American, British Dutch and Australian Command, co-ordinating the war in South East Asia. This task proved a thankless one, with the woeful lack of preparation and resources, combined with the relentless onslaught of the Japanese, culminating in the fall of Singapore. It is hard to apportion any blame on Wavell for these early reverses in the east, given the impossible situation in which he was placed.

After returning to India from his Far East appointment, Wavell was then appointed as Viceroy – the King’s representative in India. Although having little experience of politics, Wavell’s calm, studious personality enabled him to perform reasonably well in dealing with the extreme demands of the post – seeing India through the final stages of the war, and not least handling the growing move towards Indian independence. Wavell’s approach in this respect seems to have been for negotiation between all of the parties, over any and every potential problem. This contrasts with events that transpired after Wavell’s replacement by Mountbatten in 1947 – a pell-mell descent into independence, followed by chaos and anarchy in which thousands died.

The impression I have of Field Marshal Wavell is of a very quiet, private but very intelligent man who did the best that could be expected of him at the time. It should be no reflection on him at all that the Prime Minister of the day found it difficult to trust his subordinates, and at times showed very poor judgement of character. A much-maligned figure in British military history, Wavell seems to have suffered not only from being in the wrong commands at the wrong time, but also from his modest nature, not unlike other commanders such as Alan Brooke and Bill Slim, who have been overshadowed by publicists such as Montgomery, or dashing warriors such as Alexander. How might Wavell and Auchinleck have fared later in the war when resources were behind the allies? By the same token, how might Montgomery have fared commanding earlier in the war when the cards were heavily stacked against Britain?

Hopefully Victoria Schofield’s masterly biography will go some way to redressing the harsh treatment that Wavell has been afforded by history. Schofield makes the case for Wavell very well, which is just as well given that all the evidence suggests that he was, unjustly, one of the most maligned figures of the Second World War. I’m by no means a fan of the official military biography, but this example is very well done indeed.

Wavell: Soldier and Statesmen is published by Pen and Sword

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The Coventry conspiracy

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Covent...

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been aware for a few years of a feeling that somehow Winston Churchill ‘sacrificed’ Coventry to the death and destruction that occured during the infamous bombing raid in November 1941 – see this article on the BBC website. Sadly, I just cannot agree. Even though I understand the sentiment of anyone from Coventry who felt that their city was thrown to the wolves. But whilst the emotions are understandable, the evidence just does not bear out some kind of conspiracy.

I think we need to be careful about castigating every General or politician who made a decision that caused lives to be lost in wartime – it would be a pretty long list. People will die during war, its a sad fact of life. And very often any decision to move resources to save lives in one respect will cost lives in another. That is the balance of decision making. And by the same token, if decisions are avoided just because someone might die, then nothing would ever happen. It was clear to all in 1939 that given the growth of strategic bombing, many civilians were going to die in the coming war. People had a grim cest la vie attitude to it then, why should we impose our hindsight morals now at a distance of 70 years?

Could Churchill, or anyone else for that matter, have done anything to stop the raid on Coventry? Even if every anti-aircraft gun in Britain had been thrown around Coventry, bombers would still have got through – AA fire was more for the morale of civilians than anything else. Even then, the prospect of moving large number of guns, men and associated infrastructure at such short notice is pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff, even before we consider that such a move would have left the rest of Britain undefended. Neither could the city have been evacuated at such short notice – hundreds of thousands of people. Where would they have gone to? Evacuation of children was routine, but complete evacuating a city on the pretext of one incoming raid would have set a dangerous precedent. There were already fears about civilian morale, such as the treckers who left cities for the countryside every night.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of the authorities getting intelligence of incoming raids in the days and hours beforehand. But at that early stage in the war, not much could be done. Advanced warning DID allow the civil authorities and emergency services to be fully prepared. But to act too pre-emptively would have prejudiced intelligence sources, in particular the breaking of secret German codes. Whilst later in the war I believe that more risks should have been taken on the basis of Enigma decrypts, earlier in the war – particularly when Britain stood alone – intelligence sources had to be closely guarded. Saving hundreds of lives in one situation might have meant the loss of thousands further down the line. Such is the cold hard balance of losses in wartime.

People like to take comfort in conspiracies – or flog books off the back of them – but for the most part they are just that – conspiracies.

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Admirals urge re-think on Harrier axing

A group of former senior Royal Navy officers have today urged the Government to rethink its plans to scrap HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier fleet. In an open letter to The Times Admiral Lord West of Spithead, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Julian Oswald, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major-General Julian Thompson argue that the recently announced defence cuts “practically invite” Argentina to re-invade the Falklands, and that such an invasion would be a national humiliation on the level of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. Julian Thompson and Lord West in particular have got more of an insight into this matter than most, having been the commander of 3 Commando Brigade and HMS Ardent respectively in 1982.

Building on Lord West’s recent speech in the House of Lords, the letter goes on to explain that the Tornado fleet will need re-engining in 2014, at a cost of £1.4bn – roughly the savings expected from scrapping the Harrier. They are quite right too that the Harrier can take off from much shorter airstrips, has a much quicker response time, is better at providing close air support, and can remain in service until 2023 with little investment. At risk of sounding like a broken record, the Harrier vs. Tornado face-off clearly had more sinister agendas going on behind the scenes than mere defence and cost-cutting.

Finally – and most pertinently, in my view – the Admirals point out that the last Treasury-driven Defence ’10-year-rule’ came in the inter-war period (prompted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a certain Winston Churchill), and history tells us the folly of that particular policy. I wrote some time ago about the historical parallels between the current Government’s 10 year naval aviation gap and the catastrophic 10-year assumption between the wars. Any aggressor almost always has the initiative; take for instance the Falklands invasion in 1982, and to a lesser extent Germany in 1939. If you leave your defence planning dormant until a threat emerges, the threat has the initiative and will already be on top of you before you have any chance to respond.

There are two kinds of threat: an immediate unidentified threat (such as the Falklands), or the looming threat which is prone to being ignored by weak politicians (such as Hitler in the 1930′s). There’s never much you can do specifically about an unidentified threat specifically, apart from making sure your forces are flexible enough to react quickly if needs must. But wilfully ignoring clear and looming threats is at beat folly, and at worst treasonable.

And the comments from the Defence Minister Nick Harvey are naive in the extreme. Four Eurofighters, an infantry company and an obsolete Destroyer are not a defence against invasion. They’re a better tripwire than in 1982, but a tripwire none the less. The potential for reinforcing British forces in the Falklands is minimal now, and will be non-existent after the SDSR’s effects have hit home. That is the key point that Harvey fails to grasp – if anything were to happen in the South Atlantic, we could do virtually nothing beyond what we already have there.

And while we’re talking about naive politicians, how about the Defence Secretary’s comments recently about how Argentina is a vibrant peace-loving country playing a full role on the international scene – hasn’t he heard any of Mrs. Kirchner’s rants over the past few years? Has he not heard about Argentina’s plans to acquire a landing ship from France? Its the same country, with the same kind of Malvinas complex and social problems as in 1982. Sure, Argentina may not be governed by a military junta, but can you take seriously any ‘democracy’ where the President is the last President’s wife? South America is clearly an un-predictable and volatile part of the world.

A Government getting its military history from the Janet and John books whilst wearing rose tinted glasses. And its policy from an ideology that places swingeing cuts over protecting its citizens. Will Dave and Boy George backtrack? Somehow I doubt it…

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Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War by W.B. Bartlett

I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.

The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.

The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.

The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.

The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.

Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.

This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Empire History, victoria cross

The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 by James Dunning

One of the lingering misconceptions of the Second World War is that ‘Commando’ = ‘Royal Marines‘. True, the Royals might sport the green berets nowadays, be called Commando’s, and even serve in a Commando Brigade. Over the past 60 or so years they have very much made the name their own.

But the birth of the Commando is slightly more complicated than that. The first Commandos were in fact formed in 1940, during the invasion scare. And whats more, the first units were formed from Army personnel – volunteers who were bored and looking for action. Realising that the country was going to be on the defensive for some time, and had a paucity in regular troops, Winston Churchill ordered the raising of Commando special forces, based on the Boer Kommando he had encountered in South Africa years before.

No 4 Commando had an impressive list of battle honours during its short life. Lofoten Islands, Dieppe, D-Day and Walcheren are impressive honours for any unit. But upon reading this history by a veteran of No. 4, its impossible not to admire these fine men. They were clearly trained to a high pitch – sniper training, amphibious training, mountain training, general physical fitness, field craft – these really were some of the best men Britain had to offer.

After opening their account in the daring Lofoten raid in 1941, destroying a fish oil processing port in Northern Norway, No 4 then guarded the left flank of the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Although the raid was nothing short of a disaster, No 4 did extremely well, putting a gun position out of action, and Captain Pat Porteous won a Victoria Cross for repeatedly leading attacks while seriously wounded. I certainly dont agree that Dieppe gave valuable lessons – it shouldn’t have taken such a disaster to learn such elementary lessons. Then on D-Day No.4 Landed at Ouisterham, and hot-footed it across the Orne at Pegasus Bridge. They spent much of the Normandy campaign in the line in the Orne Bridgehead with the 6th Airborne Division, including in the Mosquito-riddled Bois de Bavent. After being withdrawn from Normandy, No.4′s final operation was the little-known but bitter fight to clear the Scheldt, where they carried out an amphibious landing at Walcheren Island. In early 1946 they were disbanded, after ending the war in Germany.

Some very famous men came from No 4 – none other than Lord Lovat, who went on to Command the Special Service Brigade that landed on D-Day and marched to reinforce the Paras at Pegasus Bridge, complete with personal Bagpiper Bill Millin. The spectacle is immortalised in the Overlord Embroidery. The unconventional nature of the Commando’s clearly attracted a lot of ‘individual’ officers and men, who were no doubt misfits to conventional military thinking. But unconventional was the norm in units such as the Commandos – in fact, they had their own organisation, with HQ commanding a number of troops (roughly equivalent to infantry platoons), with no Company level command in between. This meant that the command structure was flexible, and junior officers and NCO’s had to show initiative. In Normandy and Walcheren French Troops were also attached.

I found this a really interesting book to read. A few things really jumped out at me – it was interesting to read that No 4 Commando trained for a long time in the Purbecks region of the Dorset coast – at Worbarrow tout, Arish Mell gap and Chapmans pool. I walked over them all last summer, and its very rugged terrain to say the least. Also, I could not help but be impressed by the rigorous training that the Commando’s went through. Sadly, I have to compare it to the impression I have of the 1st Airborne Division‘s training before Arnhem, and it strikes me that they weren’t as well prepared as the Commandos. A salutory lesson – even in modern warfare, with remote-control fighting, first class training and fitness – healthy mind, healthy body and all that.

I’ve often wondered which unit, if any, could be called the ‘British Band of Brothers’. C Company of John Frost’s 2 Para have always been foremost in my mind, but the story of No.4 Commando is also a very fine one indeed.

The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 is published by The History Press

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

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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