As you may have seen in the news recently, the remains of a Second World War code-carrying pigeon have been discovered in a chimney in Surrey. The bird had a small red canister attached to its leg, of the type used by SOE – the Special Operations Executive. The code inside cannot be broken with any existing codes, and is currently being worked on by Government code experts at GCHQ.
It is entirely possible that the code may be unbreakable. It could have been written using a unique, ‘once only’ code, which will have long since been destroyed. Alternatively, it could be written using a code written for a specific operations, again, which may have long since been destroyed. Without any contextual information, it will be difficult, even with the use of ‘super-computers‘, to break the code.
Even if the code can be broken, it could well be something completely mundane. It could be a message from a unit confirming that they have achieved an objective, or sending a message back to headquarters for more toilet paper.
El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.
Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it could said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.
On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.
As a football fan, historian and sometime-philosopher (normally after a few pints!), I’ve found these t-shirts form Philosophy Football pretty cool.
They’ve recently released a range of t-shirts to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad – possibly the most pivotal event in the Second World War. Incorporating much of the familiar soviet art work and styling – which, I have to say, I find rather cool – one nice t-shirt in particular features the slogan ‘nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten!’ in Russian script.
They are inspired by an Anna Akhmatova poem:
We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what is now coming to pass.
The hour of courage has struck on the clock
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses will fall, we shall remain.
Ive spent the past month or so working hard on writing my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.
Somehow I’ve managed to write almost 27,00 words in less than a month, which is certainly a record for me and I suspect it’s probably a lot quicker than many a historian writes! All this, of course, while working a day job and you can probably see how I only really have time for sleeping and eating besides.
Writing aboutr WW1 is quite a lot different to writing about WW1, more so than many of you would probably imagine. For two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot more records available – war diaries, rolls of honour, more detail on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and so on. Yet at the same time, it was so long ago – nearly 100 years ago – that there are very few – if any – descendants around who have information about their relatives who were killed in the Great War. When writing Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes I was fortunate enough to hear from many children of people I wrote about; I doubt very much whether that will happen with this book.
I’ve done a lot of secondary reading – I would not be surprised if the bibliography contains 100+ books by the end – but I still have a lot of primary research to do. In particular, sources such as the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm, Portsmouth Military Service tribunal records, records of corporation employees such as tram workers and policemen, and also official documents at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.
I won’t give too much away about the book, but I am writing about:
- Lt Col Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar
- The Royal Flying Corps
- Emigrants and Immigrants
- The Military Service Tribunal
- The early Tank men
- Boy soldiers
- Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia and Palestine
- Royal Naval Division/Royal Marines
- The first day on the Somme
- The Portsmouth Pals
- Prisoners of War
- 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Brickwood
With the wealth of sources available, I have been able to go into a lot of detail about many of the men I am writing about, in particular I have been able to give a fresh insight into the social history of Portsmouth in the period 1914 to 1918, and indeed before and afterwards.
One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).
Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960’s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.
After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:
‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’
‘familiar and elementary stuff’
‘all the old bromides’
‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’
‘flat and wooden in the narrative’
Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?
I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.
At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.