The Fighting 51st

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If you have not yet seen Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill in the Darkest Hour, it is worth making the effort to do so. It is a very good film rather than a ‘great film.’ Despite some ludicrous rewriting of history, such as a scene in the London Underground when an apparent indecisive Churchill is swayed by ordinary folk who he questions on the tube, and some obviously politically correct casting of minor roles and extras, it has value in the retelling of an especially trying period of our history. Similarly, Oldman’s craft is very good without, in my view, touching greatness but he nonetheless deserves the praise received. The Darkest Hour is certainly a better movie than was Dunkirk which anyway was probably aimed at a younger audience. It was good for example to see Admiral Ramsey at Dover, (the architect of the Dunkirk evacuation, receive some airtime although I think the screenwriters misjudged the Admiral’s character; specifically his resolve and bold, robust leadership throughout the crisis in France. One thing that both films have in common though is neither mention the 51st Highland Division at St Valery. Not a peep. What then happened at St Valery and why does it matter?

When growing up in the Highlands, events that led to the surrender and capture of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery in June 1940 were very real, almost visceral, in the collective memory throughout Scotland where hardly a village and certainly not a town were untouched by events. Certainly in the Highlands, there was scarcely a family or community that had not known someone who had been killed or captured during the retreat and fighting at St Valery. Most families were not to learn of the fate of their loved ones for many months, such was the chaos of the large area over which they fought and those captured were not to return home for five years.  That collective memory has become dimmed by time but where the candle still burns it burns with intense resentment over Churchill’s actions. The charge being that he needlessly abandoned the Division to their fate in order to put some backbone into the French fighting spirit, thereby buying time for the defence of Britain.

On the 22nd April 1940 the 51st Division was detached from the rest of the BEF to come under command of the French Third Army after Churchill assured the French that Britain would 'never abandon her ally in her hour of need’. The move was intended to persuade the French to fight on against Hitler as Britain withdrew from the continent.  The Division was stationed in front of the Ouvrage Hackenberg fortress of the Maginot Line and so was not encircled with the rest of the BEF during the Battle of France, and was not involved in the retreat to Dunkirk for evacuation. Instead, it was pulled back to a new line roughly along the River Somme, where it was attached to the French Tenth Army. The 51st Highland Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme. The plan suffered from poor co-ordination between Allied artillery, tanks and infantry, and the attack on the 4th June resulted in heavy casualties. The Germans launched a counter-attack the next day, outflanking the Allies and trapping the 51st Highland Division and elements of the French 9th Army Corps. For some time, it was forced to hold a line four times longer than that which would normally be expected of a division. The first major attack initially fell on the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders before the other battalions of the 154th Brigade were enveloped. The Argylls' losses were heavy, the worst day for casualties in their history. Being overwhelmed, 154th Brigade was forced to retire to the west. During this period, the 154th Brigade was detached to form "Arkforce" and was able to escape the German drive into central France and Normandy. However, the 152nd and 153rd Brigades were trapped, with the French 9th Corps under Lieutenant General Marcel Ihler, at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, and surrendered on the 12th June, along with the Division's commander. 

 General Fortune with Erwin Rommel

General Fortune with Erwin Rommel

Major General VM Fortune, commander of the 51st, had asked to be evacuated on the 11th June. But the Germans were determined to avoid another Dunkirk and four divisions were put into attack to prevent an evacuation. Despite fierce Allied defence, the 7th Panzers soon held cliff-top ground overlooking the harbour, making an evacuation highly dangerous. The Highlanders were conducting a desperate defence against advancing Germans while trying, without success, to eject the 7th Panzers from their positions. The night of the 11th June was the Highlanders' last chance to evacuate, but Fortune remained unable to contact the ships he hoped would rescue him and his men. That night, although Fortune was still hoping for evacuation and elements of the 51st were still counter-attacking, the French surrendered. By 12th June, Fortune realised that his position was hopeless and also surrendered. Dense fog had delayed the Navy's rescue attempt and, although they intended to arrive the next day, it was too late to save the men who fought at St Valéry-en-Caux from spending the war in a PoW camp. The long march to Germany to the camps was arduous and peppered with ill treatment from their captors. Many more men died before they reached the comparative safety of POW camps. More than 10,000 members of the 51st (Highland) Division were taken prisoner at St Valery. They were marched to Germany, via Belgium, following the route over which the Germans had advanced against them. Their destination was Stalag XX-A at Toruń, about 120 miles (190 km) north-west of Warsaw. Some were loaded into canal barges for part of their journey, but all eventually travelled by train in cattle wagons. There were some notable escapes, mostly in the early stages of the march. Of the 290 British Army POW escapers who had returned to Britain by the end of June 1941, 134 were members of the 51st (Highland) Division. Major-General Fortune was one of the most senior British officers taken prisoner in the war. He was knighted by King George VI after the war.From the British point of view, the defeat of the 51st (Highland) Division was the end of the Allied resistance during the battle of France.

After the war the 51st Highland Division held a special parade at St. Valery on the Somme to pay honour to those who fell in the rear guard action of 1940. 

For such a proud Division, defeat and surrender was a very bitter pill. Some of these men had fought in the Great War, most others were sons or nephews of those who had fought. Many came from generational regimental families and to be the guardians of their regimental lore behind a white flag was a crushing blow. Indeed, one group of Seaforth officers when surrounded and out of ammunition during the retreat had an intense debate about fighting on with bare hands and shovels rather than be the first in their regimental history to surrender. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and they went, 'in the bag.'

Incidentally, David Saul's book, After Dunkirk: Churchills Sacrifice of the Highland Division is a purchase I can heartily recommend as I can a perusal of the 51st Highland Division website which contains first hand accounts and maps of various actions during the period.

As a postscript, my favourite story of the whole Battle of France and the evacuations and surrender is a simple one. Stanley Allan, a British rating on HMS Windsor was embarking troops off Dunkirk. A file of Scottish soldiers wearing khaki aprons over their kilts and led by an officer with his arm in a sling approached the ship.

'The wounded officer called out to the bridge, "What part of France are you taking us to?" One of the naval officers replied," We're taking you back to Dover". The Scotsmen were disgusted and said they were not bloody well coming. They promptly turned round and went back to continue the war with the Germans on their own. It really was remarkable.'

Historical note: The Territorials of the 5th Gordons were much put out by the directive from the War Office to return their kilts to stores before embarking for France and had marked the removal of their kilts in January prior to embarkation with a symbolic ritual. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alick Buchanan-Smith, arranged a parade on the square at Bordon in which a single kilt was ceremoniously burnt as a symbol, so he said, that for 200 years the English had wanted to take away the kilt from the Highlanders and now they had succeeded. A little stone memorial to this effect was built on the spot, the inscription ending with the words: 'We hope not for long'.

Only one Highland battalion (not part of the 51st Division) managed to defy the War Office and go into battle wearing the kilt -the 1st Camerons. Some members of the battalion were still wearing kilts as they were herded off to prison camp. The men alluded to above were therefore very probably, Cameron Highlanders.

Stranger Than Fiction

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The following tale is a repost from the Sandhurst Trust's Facebook page. They publish a bio of an old officer every Friday and a very entertaining read they are too. This one though, takes the biscuit. The most fertile minds in fiction writing couldn't come up with this story and deliver it in any way that would appear in the least believable. 

The son of a Warrant Officer awarded the MBE for services in the First World War, Douglas Clay was born in 1917. After a short period as a cavalry trooper he married and drifted between jobs until the outbreak of WW2. Initially joining the RAF he failed the aircrew exams, went AWOL, bigamously married his girlfriend, worked in an armaments factory and joined the Home Guard. He also began wearing his father’s old uniform complete with additional pilot’s wings and, after a traffic accident whilst in uniform was mistakenly sent to an officers’ hospital. There, he stole a cheque book before being charged with obtaining money by deception and impersonating an officer. However the charges were dropped as he repaid the money and, in order to cover his tracks, he changed his name to Berneville-Claye.

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Enlisting as a Private in the West Yorkshire Regiment he claimed to have been educated at Charterhouse School and Magdalen College, Oxford and, based on these falsehoods, was selected for officer training. Commissioned from Sandhurst in October 1941, he served with 11th Bn West Yorks in Egypt. Again charged with cheque fraud he managed to convince the authorities he was a barrister, conducted his own defence, and was acquitted. By now having supposedly inherited his father’s title and calling himself ‘Lord Charlesworth’ his regiment was probably glad when he volunteered for, and was accepted for service in L Detachment of the SAS. After taking part in operations behind enemy lines, he was captured and sent to POW camp firstly in Northern Italy and then to Oflag 79 in Germany.

Fellow POWs became aware that there was an informer in their midst and planned to court martial and execute Berneville-Claye so he was moved by the Germans for his own safety. A few weeks later, a POW working party spotted him wearing civilian clothes in Hanover. He next appeared in early 1945 appointed to the staff of III SS Panzer Corps as a Hauptsturmführer (SS Captain). Soon afterwards the Corps Commander, after being told he was a Lord and Captain in the Coldstream Guards, appointed him to head the British Free Corps (BFC). (The BFC was an attempt by the Germans, at the behest of the British Fascist, John Amery, to recruit disaffected Prisoners of War. However, between its inception in 1943 and the end of the war, only 54 men were recruited and its strength never totalled more than 27.)

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Berneville-Claye, however, managed to persuade another member to accompany him and they surrendered to the British. Unbelievably, as the only officer to serve with the BFC, he managed to avoid any repercussions. The prisoners in Oflag 79 had no hard evidence of his informing, he stated that he had, as was his duty, escaped from the camp and stolen the SS uniform in order to blend in. Furthermore, the evidence of the misfit traitors of the BFC was too tainted to be used in a Court Martial.

Returning to England as a Captain and, ironically, Adjutant of a POW camp, he was Court Martialled and demoted for wearing the ribbon of the DSO and again for an inappropriate relationship with a female soldier and thirdly for theft, after which he was cashiered and imprisoned. After yet another bigamous marriage, he achieved a measure of respectability as a manager at Rank Xerox living in the country, riding to hounds and playing the role of a retired Guards officer.

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In the early 1960s he emigrated to Australia becoming a much-respected school teacher in New South Wales. For many years after he died in 1975 the school had a Douglas Berneville-Claye Memorial Trophy.

Still Waters

For reasons I won't bore you with I found myself trawling through the obituaries from the Second World War of old boys from my children's school. The most famous of them was the indomitable Roger Bushell, remembered for his exploits as Big X at Stalug Luft III in what became known as the Great Escape, (although at the time of publishing in 1949 it was more modestly known as the great break away). Bushell though is only one of many old boys who gave their lives. 

The forward to the Wellington College Roll of Honour, said this,

"Perhaps it was this feeling of the inevitable which was responsible for a greater forbearance in the attitude of boys to each other in the years immediately preceding the war-and it was this generation which suffered most. In this brief period of spring before the autumn storms, the tree blossomed with the promise of abundant harvest. Games, though still holding pride of place, ceased to be the only passport to success. Scholarship, music, art, literature and drama, claimed and secured recognition and a devoted following. Yet in all this there was a feeling of frustration and unreality. Boys talked little of their future, and we hesitated to speak of it to them. They knew, and we knew, the road along which destiny pointed the way. They were neither boastful nor morbid. They turned the gifts they had acquired to the stem uses of war and went forth, without any heroics, to play their part in securing the freedom of mankind. Their lives in epitome are a record of men and boys, confident in themselves, confident in their cause. They did not live to see the triumph."

The short obituaries tell of success on the sports field and in the classroom at school and of heroism and fortitude in battle. From the Boer War and Great War veterans who pushed and pulled to get into uniform again to the youngest eighteen year olds, straight into service from the Upper Sixth. Of them all, this simple obituary of a 2/Lt Money left the deepest impression. Still waters run deep.

Second Lieutenant ROBERT COTTON MONEY, The Cameronians, was in the Hardinge from 1932 to 1937. He was a quiet boy, wrapped up in his books and field sports. On May 27th, 1940, during the retreat on Dunkirk, he heard that a friend in the Hardinge had been left behind seriously wounded. Towards dusk against advice and orders he set out to look for him and from that journey Roy Money did not return.

 

March of The Cameron Men

Brian Hopkins, singing The March of the Cameron Men (in Gaelic and English) 

I came across a piece of music this morning on a Regimental Facebook page which I would like to share. Although somewhat eclectic for some tastes the joy of this being my own blog is that I can post whatever I please. So I shall. 

The clip above is a recording of Brian Hopkins, made when he was a member of the Queens Own Highlanders regimental Band. The Queens Own Highlanders of course were the young offspring of the forced marriage between the Seaforth Highlanders and Cameron Highlanders, an amalgamation among many that happened in the period between the late fifties and late sixties following the 1957 Defence White Paper. Some regiments such as the Cameronians chose the abyss of suspended animation or disbandment rather than amalgamation. Having taken their pain early the Queens Own Highlanders took another political sucking chest wound when they amalgamated with the Gordon Highlanders, another fine regiment, in 1994, to form The Highlanders. Then, ten years ago all the Scottish regiments were brought together to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and Royal Scots amalgamating to form one regular battalion of four in the RRS, (plus two reserve battalions) with the Argylls reduced to company strength, (Balaklava Company). 

(picture by Graham Bonnyman)

If you are losing track don't worry. It's been difficult enough for former members of regiments to keep up with the rapid change both to Scottish regiments and others throughout the Army. However much we wish it the clock is not going to be turned back and we all are duty bound to get behind and support the young soldiers of the new entities. Some new regiments such as The Rifles have succeeded following 'buy in,' from all their constituent parts from the retired cadre of more individual regiments than I could possibly remember from the Devon & Dorsets to the Durham Light Infantry, to the newest recruits. Others will take longer. That is probably the case in Scotland, which is historically more tribal, but there are deep seated cultural and historical reasons for that. 

One other consequence of military downsizing, (the Army is now 50% of the size it was when I first enlisted), is that the military and pipe bands have also been compressed in size. The Royal Regiment of Scotland for example has been reduced from one military band in each of the old seven regiments to just one regular band. Does it matter? Well, not to anyone in government, of whatever hue, and certainly not to anyone in the Ministry of Defence. I happen though to think that it does matter a great deal. 

Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland

I'm firmly in the camp that believes the MOD has been misguided in downgrading military music over the last 20 years. The failure to appreciate it's positive impact on the Army way of life, it's ability to strengthen the bond between civilians and military and as an aid to recruitment has been unhelpful in every way. Moreover, the musicians were always the unofficial custodians in battalions of deep seated and hard won tradition through music, song, poetry and with some traditions, dance. Importantly, they sustained and renewed those traditions by writing new music but it tended to be music that maintained the cultural thread with the home and hearth of the individual battalions recruiting area. In this regard, pipe tunes such as The Barren Rocks of Aden, The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain and The Sands of Kuwait spring to mind. I have no doubt the current band of the RRS do a fine job and are very fine musicians but the game has changed for it cannot be the same. As an aside and of passing interest, much American Bluegrass, Country and Gospel music has it's roots in Appalachian ballad singing which has a direct line through Scots emigrants to the style and tradition of the song above.

My view from the cheap seats then, is that recordings such as the one above by Brian Hopkins are something to celebrate, not just because it is a fine and gentle melodic piece in its own right but also because it echoes with rich history and deserves to be remembered. I'm told that Brian taught himself the Gaelic with help from native Gaelic speakers in the Pipes & Drums and that another Corporal from the band, Tommy Graham, taught himself the clasarch (small harp) to accompany the song. The song would often be given a formal rendition after dinner at an Officers Mess dinner night. With so few bandsmen available I wonder what they do today? Put on a CD? Or perhaps the Adjutant makes the youngest subaltern learn and sing it which, however painful it might be to hear, would be better than letting such gems fade from the collective memory. 

The Rev Dr Donald MacDonald

Finally, as you sit there reading and wondering what all this blether about amalgamations is all about and why it is an emotional subject, may I direct you to a previous post about the Cameronians amalgamation which offers one of the finest pieces of oratory I have ever heard by their regimental Padre, the Reverend Dr Donald MacDonald. For good measure, this was the response of the Massed Bands of the Scottish Division after the announcement.

Armistice Day; An Epic Tale

Men of the 16th Bn HLI in 1914

It’s Armistice Day and I would like to share a tale with you. A tale so epic it is scarcely believable. It is a howling shame that this story is not more widely known for among the many moments in our proud history that men have done great deeds this surely merits a place in the collective history of our nation. It concerns an incident in the mud and blood of Flanders in the Great War, of very ordinary volunteers of Kitchener's Army; clerks, storemen, conductors, drivers, roadmen, milkmen, schoolboys and such. Men whose courage, tenacity and fighting spirit went beyond anything that was expected of them.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the ‘Pals,’ Battalions. One such was the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry which was formed predominately by members and ex-members of the Boys Brigade in the City of Glasgow. The Battalion was formed very early in the war, on the 2nd September 1914, and in May 1915 moved to Shropshire where it joined the 97th Brigade of the 32nd Division HLI. In November 1915, the Battalion sailed for France.

The Battalion endured a rough time on the first day of the Somme at Thiepval. When the Battalion retired from the line on the 3rd July 1916 the casualty list ran to 20 officers and 534 other ranks. Having lost two thirds of its strength just four months later they were back and at the final battle at the Ancre in November casualties again were grievous.

16th Bn HLI Church Parade

On the 18th of November the Battalion, reinforced with soldiers from the Highland Cyclist Battalion, attacked at Beaumont-Hamel. The whistles blew at 06:10hrs and the men, laden with half a hundredweight of arms and equipment, launched themselves into No Mans Land. The 2nd Manchesters, 2nd KOYLI and 11th Borders to their left were counter attacked after initial success and were beaten back. Six to eight enemy machine guns on the Battalions half right pinned down A and B Companies. C and D Companies on the half left though penetrated the German front line, Munich Trench. While the rest cleared the trench, three platoons of D Company pushed on to the second objective under heavy shell and machine gun fire, Frankfurt Trench. The trench was taken and 50 prisoners sent back under escort. This group arrived back at Munich Trench in time to be attacked from three sides by the enemy in overwhelming numbers. The guards were killed as was the mopping up party clearing the trench. In fact, according to the Battalion war diary every man became a casualty. The attempted capture of the Beaumont Hamel spur had failed and the 16th alone had lost 13 officers and 390 other ranks.

While the Germans now held Munich Trench, three officers and 60 other ranks of D Company, with men from 11th Borders, still held Frankfurt Trench, cut off and deep in enemy territory.

By nightfall, some stragglers joined the men of D Company to leave them with a strength of 45 fighting men and a similar number of wounded. Two dugouts remained in the captured trench. One was allocated to the wounded with a Corporal in charge, the other to the fit men. There were four Lewis guns and the men handed over their own ammunition to supplement the Lewis guns and armed themselves with German weapons. The machine gun NCO, L/Cpl Veitch, was a tower of strength. A survivor of the Somme he was later recommended for a Victoria Cross. Grenades, food and water were all in short supply as were any medical supplies save for a few field dressings.

By the second day the trench had been revetted, Lewis guns placed at  vital points, The men were surrounded and in a state of siege. The senior NCO, Sergeant Lee, a Glasgow Corporation roads foreman before the war, encouraged and cheered his men throughout the day. Later described as ‘the heart and soul of the defence,’ he too, would later be recommended for a VC. As dawn broke on the third day the Germans, supported by trench mortars and bombs launched a determined attack. It was repulsed but left the HLI with more wounded than they had fit men. They shortened the line to make it easier to defend and that night a heavy British barrage fell around them but a relief effort failed. On the fourth day hopes rose when a signaller managed to attract the attention of British plane with a piece of torn shirt. More aircraft arrived and signalled that help was on the way and to hold out. Help though, which was attempted on the fifth day in another attack, was beaten back and the relief assault suffered 300 casualties. Conditions in the trench then deteriorated further as a result of heavy shelling.

New Munich Trench Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel

Lack of sleep and food, gangrenous wounds and constant fire took its toll. On the sixth day the Germans again assaulted the trench under heavy shellfire. After brutal hand to hand fighting with the bayonet and entrenching tools the Germans were beaten back leaving eight prisoners. The exhausted defenders then suffered the loss of the indefatigable L/Cpl Veitch, killed by a sniper. On the seventh morning an Inniskilling Fusilier prisoner of war appeared with a German message, ‘Surrender and get good treatment or stay where you are and be killed.’

The defenders were then subjected to the heaviest bombardment yet. Sgt Lee was killed by shrapnel. The promised German attack came in force and from all directions on the morning of the eighth day. The men fought but were overwhelmed. The killing was only stopped by the screaming of the German POW’s. The last stand of D Company, 16th HLI was at an end with only fifteen men left unwounded. Exhausted, they stumbled into captivity. The remainder were roughly removed on stretchers or buried where they lay. Two men died on the way to captivity and a third was shot for accepting a piece of bread from a Frenchwoman.  

In 1919, General Sir Hubert Gough wrote, in a letter sponsoring awards for valour, ‘I consider that these men deserve great recognition for the magnificent example of soldierly qualities they displayed.’ It seems likely that every survivor was decorated because the 16th received one DSO, two MC’s, 11 DCM’s, and 22 MM’s; the highest number of awards by a margin to any one battalion. This was unusual, not least because gallantry awards were rarely given to prisoners of war. The two NCO’s recommended for a VC each received a Mention in Despatches.

This is an extract of a speech given by the chaplain of the regiment, Rev A.H. Gray, during a memorial service in Glasgow in July 1917.

"From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign field - from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us - our dead men are asking us when we mean to erect that monument From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call - young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life's threshold. Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?".

Not Forgotten.

General Roy Gets His Wish

 General Roy Urquhart; famously advised his daughter, 'Never trust a man who buys a half bottle of wine.'

General Roy Urquhart; famously advised his daughter, 'Never trust a man who buys a half bottle of wine.'

As a postscript to that last post, just before the parade I was chatting with my Godsons grandfather. He told me his best job during his own service was working as a military assistant in Vienna in 1952 to General Roy Urquhart of Arnhem fame. General Urquhart commissioned originally in the Highland Light Infantry and served in Malta along with the actor David Niven in the 1930's. Later, toward the end of his military career, he became Colonel of the HLI but when the Army Board announced that the HLI were to amalgamate with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers, a terrible row broke out. 

The HLI had traditionally been kilted whereas the RSF wore trews. The Army Board in it's wisdom decreed that the new regiment would follow the other Lowland regiments and wear trews. General Urquhart was having none of it. This Pathe newsreel clip is pure gold and if you don't understand why these things mean so much then.... well, you just don't understand.

As it happens, the RHF are now 2 SCOTS, part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland formed in 2006. All of the battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland now wear the kilt. While some RHF veterans, and those of the other Scots regiments, struggle to get behind the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, I like to think that General Urquhart would quietly approve that at the minimum, his Jocks have got their kilt back.

A Thundering Good Read

Like half of the rest of the English speaking world, I am currently racing though the latest Jack Reacher novel, 'Make Me; an easy going three day popcorn read and we love Lee Child for it. (Why did they miscast Tom Cruise in the movie btw? Surely they need to find a gritty Lee Marvin type or was it because TC personally bought the rights?). Anyway, I offer this literary post not in praise of Big Jack but of another book I've recently finished, a thundering good read called 'War Beneath The Sea,' by Naval historian Peter Padfield.

In the book, Padfield walks the reader through submarine warfare in the Second World War from start to finish from both an Allied and the Axis powers, including Japan, perspective. His skill is in articulating the war from both a strategic and tactical view, giving us a window on the geopolitical challenges faced by different Navies, the design, build, supply, training and different fighting doctrine used by the Royal Navy, the Americans, Germans Italians and Japanese. 

The crew gathered around the gun platform of HMS Unruffled while in Valetta Harbour, Malta. Extreme right is Lt J S Stevens DSO, DSC (Commanding Officer), behind him is Lt O Lascelles MBE, DSO

Thankfully, none of the enemy got it quite right, nor did we. Many of the glaring deficiencies of the Allied effort that have their roots in hubris and dogma at the highest levels of Allied command have been glossed over with the passing of years but Padfield lays them out in brutal and honest fashion. Had we in Britain for example, not allowed Harris to be so dogmatic in his pursuit of area bombing in Germany and released more aircraft to cover the Atlantic then hard won lessons in the Great War might have been put to more timely use and many lives in the convoys would have been saved. .

Similarly, the British hating American Admiral King could have considerably shortened the Pacific war had he targeted Japanese supply convoys transiting through Asian waters to Japan in the manner employed by the German wolf packs. Given Japan has no natural resources to speak of, how obvious was that?  King wasn't a very imaginative individual. Releasing even small amounts of Liberator aircraft to cover the ' Atlantic Gap,' would have had the same positive impact on the war in Europe. No one country emerges with a faultless reputation . We made plenty of errors ourselves. We all know for example of the stunning effect intelligence derived from Enigma and Bletchley Park had on the war effort but did we know that German Naval intelligence had also cracked our codes? I didn't. It seems odd that we deployed so much effort into cracking their codes but didn't think they might be doing the same to us.

Wanklyn (left) with his First Lieutenant and senior engineer J. R. D Drummond (right), 13 January 1942

Where the book finds common ground in all the different Navies is in the descriptions of the privations, tenacity and courage of the submariners themselves. It was a filthy job. The Germans for example had a worse life expectancy than did our boys in Bomber Command. Submariners generally are a close knit and secretive group of men. Any sort of publicity has been deeply frowned upon throughout the post war years, given the nature of their roles in the Cold War. Driving nuclear subs around the Soviet coast was never something they wanted on the front pages. That is quite understandable and one wonders if the Cold War submarine story will ever be told in the same way that Special Forces deeds have become fairly accessible reading. With that closed group mentality though there is a cost and part of the cost is that the bravery of their forebears has become lost in the national collective memory. That is a shame because names like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn VC DSO and Two Bars ought to be known by every schoolboy in this country. There are many others. Read Padfield's book and you'll discover them.

I can't recommend this book enough. It ought to be mandatory reading for officers of all services, politicians and multi national business leaders. It lays out is clinical fashion, the high cost of arrogant and inflexible thinking and of uncoordinated planning at the highest levels evident in all the combatant nations. Criminal really. 

'... the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril'. Churchill

Tales from the Lines; Whisky Galore 2

Listening to Norman Wisdom on Desert Island discs, (recorded in 2001) the other day, I was struck when he said his six years in the Army in India were the happiest and most carefree of his life. That was true for many of us and some of the experiences, well, you just couldn't make them up…… 

Way back when, well; 1974 in fact was the year of the protestant workers strike against the Sunningdale agreement in Ulster. They were turbulent times. A million workers went on strike and the Province very quickly ran out of foodstuffs, fuel supplies, and even more drastically, heaven forbid; booze. Spirits were still plentiful but beers and lagers, draught or cans/bottles quickly disappeared from pubs and clubs and more importantly, from the soldiers 'Choggi-Wallahs,' (the equivalent of a roadside burger van inside the security bases in Northern Ireland run by Pakistani gentlemen under very trying conditions but who served the soldiers needs at all hours). Here then, is a story from those days of the strike and the resultant drought, passed on by a friend from the Pipes & Drums of the Royal Highland Fusiliers and participant in events.  

 “This would test resolve to the limit as Regiments throughout the Province reported a massive rise in church attendance, as thirsty squaddies sang their hearts out in the hope of receiving a wee wafer and a glug of wine. Our very own Jock Regiment, (1 RHF) felt the "drouth" more than others, and a bunch of "Blue-noses" from the 'Soo-side' changed their name from the Thornliebank True Blues to the "Thornliebank Temperance Tank-Rule Loyals" 

The lack of public services, especially rubbish removal was causing problems in the security bases, and the CQMS's (Company Quarter Master Sergeant), had to find ways to sort out the problem. Many things were tried but proved to be of no use until someone decided that 'incinerating' the rubbish in a skip would quickly get rid of the problem. Our support company CQMS soon became a 'dab' hand at the 'Towering Inferno' lark using keroscene to jolly things along, until one day.....one day, he took his duties to new heights.

 The CQMS was going about his business, standing by watching our rubbish going up in smoke. Our foot patrols were out and about our area chatting to the goodies and the baddies, just letting everyone know that we were there, and our mobile patrols were doing their thing further afield, mainly ’snap’ VCP’s between Woodburn and Twinbrook.

With the rubbish well ablaze in the skip there he was, standing by, perhaps adding a few pieces of cardboard here and there, when…………”BOOM!” “Whit the fu?!” First thoughts were that we were under RPG or mortar attack and everyone stood to. Now, just after the explosion, there was a period of complete silence. No shouting, no running about like headless chickens, just complete silence. Then it started, slowly at first; Clang!....Clang!.... Clang!... Clangety –Boing!-Boing! Kerplunckety.. Clang! As, from the sky there fell all around the base, Stewartstown road, Blacks Road and the homes across from our base, hundreds of empty beer cans.  I kid you not, the whole area around our base was littered with empty cans. Long Life lager, Tennents Lager, McEwans beer and lager, Carlsberg, Tuberg and many others. No-one was hurt, but remember, the whole province was dry and had been for many weeks.

Where did we get the booze? We kept that to ourselves until we were leaving (the P&Ds had to leave early for KAPE tour), then we passed the location on to the ‘Chunkies’ (Assault Pioneers), but the Mortars had eventually ‘found’ our source themselves. I will never say where it was, although it was 40 years ago. Things did go ‘quiet’ on the ‘booze,’ run for a few days but thirst became a priority again after nothing was found in any of our accommodation blocks (but no one could ‘search’ the wee “Tea stop” I had right across from our base). I had the back door key to the house, to use at any time day or night. So there you have it , yes, we were ‘dry’ after the “Big Bang!” but only for a couple of days. 

CONTACT! Wait out!

“Hello zero, this is 55c CONTACT Blacks Road wait out!”
“Hello zero, this is 55c, we are being bombarded with missiles from the sky over!”
“Hello 55c, This is zero, we seem to be under attack also, take cover, and go firm where you are, over”
“Zero, this is 55c Wilco, out”

Ops officer shouts for CSM. “Sergeant Major, where is all that smoke coming from?”
CSM: It is coming from our ‘rubbish’ skip sir”
Ops Offr: “Why is our rubbish skip on fire Sergeant Major?”
CSM: “Today is the day the colour sergeant ‘incinerates’ our rubbish sir” Due to the workers strike, we do not get our rubbish uplifted, so the CQMS just, sort of, sets it on fire.”

OC: Sergeant Major, we have never had this problem before, so why now?”
CSM: “Once we put the fire out sir, we found the remains of a Calor gas cylinder. I know the troops were told not to put them in the skip, whether they were empty or not, but someone slipped up this time.”

OC: “Er sergeant major, where do you think all those empty beer cans came from?”
CSM: “I don’t know sir, but I will be having words with our ‘choggi-wallah’ ASAP sir”.

55c: “Hello zero, this is 55c, things have gone quiet out here and we only have one injury, sustained when one of my section thought he would ‘show off’ to the local kids, by trying to ‘head’ one of the empty beer cans as it dropped from the sky, but unfortunately for him, it was not an empty can, someone had mistakenly thrown away a ‘full’ can. Is it OK to RTB?”

Zero: “55c, return to base now and after ‘clearing’ your weapons, report to the CQMS stores where you will collect brushes and shovels and help clean up our part of “Andytown!”

55c: (without transmitting) “Clean up Andytown, fur fexsake the only thing that would clean up that shithole would be an A-10 Tomcat or a B-52 dropping bucket loads of Napalm!”
“Right lads, after we finish this ‘clean up job’ report to my room for a wee ‘swally!”

“Yeehaw, let’s hear it for 55 Charlie”……….”Cheers”..….psssshhhtttt (that is the sound of a cool can of lager preparing to disappear.)   

I often wondered what the RHF NIREP (daily Battalion report), would have read like up at Brigade HQ in Lisburn. I can just see the Brigade commander chatting to the Brigade Ops Officer. "Clarence dear boy, what is this nonsense from the "Jocks" in Andersontown?" "The company based at Woodburn Camp Belfast, came under attack from 'Airborne' frigging BEER cans, are you having a laugh Clarence?" Anyway, how come when the whole province is 'gasping' for some light refreshment, the only people with access to any booze are some musical "Bootlegging" Jocks!" "But sir........!"......."Never mind the 'buts' Clarence, get your backside up to Andytown and source their 'supply', I am fed up at "Mess Nights" with the PMC ringing the bell, and all we can frigging pass is bloody MILK!"’’



"Every man once before any man twice"

The "Silver Badge," given to all returning veterans became the badge of the British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers

Today, the 11th November, I’m going to step to the side and invite you to remember one pretty extraordinary ordinary soldier, a Lance bombardier Tom Lister from Lancashire.

You, like me, may have grown up believing that Earl Haig  started the British Legion and indeed, he was responsible for creating the environment which led to the amalgamation of disparate charitable efforts for ex-soldiers to form the Legion after the Great War. In fact, after he finished active service Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-soldiers and remained more popular among them until his death than revisionist historians would have us believe, (although his reputation has been recently somewhat restored with the publication of some more balanced biographies).

 

Back to Tom Lister. At the end of the Great War not a family in Britain was unaffected by the loss of 888,000 souls and the 1.75m who suffered some form of temporary or permanent disability. The Government was unable or unwilling to alleviate their physical and financial distress so Tom Lister rolled up his sleeves and decided to set about improving their lot. He himself was invalided out in 1916 and after the war started to raise funds to buy tables and beds. He convinced landlords to let their dilapidated buildings to ex-servicemen and widows conditional on him attending to repairs and maintenance and he persuaded Burtons to supply suits for the men to use for interviews. He also gained access to old drill halls to use as soup kitchens for his British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers.

Subsequently, Earl Haig persuaded Lister and other organisations to meet and discuss consolidating their efforts into what was to become, in 1921, the British Legion. The Unity Conference was held at the Queens Hall in Langham Place where a draft constitution was adopted. On May 15th, 1921 at 9am at the Cenotaph, the shrine to their dead comrades, the ex-Service men sealed their agreement. The Legion was born.

The Legion was formed with the amalgamation of four associations:      

The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (1916).

The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (1917).

The Comrades of The Great War (1917).

The Officers' Association (1920).

Men of the British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers marching on the occasion of the Armistice in 1918 before such events became formalised.

The amalgamation of these four diverse bodies can be attributed largely to Field Marshall Earl Haig and Tom Lister By the time of the Legion's formation in 1921, the tradition of an annual Two Minute Silence in memory of the dead had been established. The first ever Poppy Appeal was held that year, with the first Poppy Day was on 11 November 1921.

Lister became chairman of the RBL until 1927, was appointed CBE in 1927 and was knighted in 1961. He died in 1966. As I said, an extraordinary ordinary man and I’m proud to say, a fellow Gunner.

Moreover, we are a country that throws up Tom Lister’s in happy abundance, not just working for ex-servicemen, and there are a great many indeed that do,  but throughout the charitable universe. Something we can all join in giving thanks for and to be proud of. It’s one of the things that we actually have left that binds us together and that politicians have no claim on.


A.D. Wintle; The Real Deal

"This umbrella was stolen from Col. A.D. Wintle" - note left in his permanently furled umbrella

Following yesterday's mention of the passing of the great eccentric Peter Lunn I'm reminded of so many more of his ilk who were a product of their time, who squeezed every last drop out of life right up to the end and who added colour to the pages of our modern history.

Comparisons to todays "eccentrics," largely just flatter those who find themselves on todays front pages for one reason or another. Let me give you an example.

Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines last week following his remark that public sector strikers should be taken outside and shot. This was of course, a phrase which was in widespread popular use in the sixties and seventies when men like Mr Clarkson and I were growing up. Rarely though, was it used with malice or evil intent; it was simply a standard response to hearing that the Leyland workers, or whoever, were downing tools and striking again.

One man though, used the phrase and meant it; he really meant it.

They don't though, make Englishmen like Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Wintle MC anymore. Monocle wearing Wintle, (he lost his eye "and a few other bits,"at Ypres), fought in both World Wars and was the first non-lawyer to achieve a unanimous verdict in his favour in the House of Lords, (you can find the full story of his fascinating legal adventure here, chap 13). Having been hospitalised in England to recover from his injuries, and desperate to get back to the front, he disguised himself as a nurse to make his getaway; the monocle though was something of a giveaway. He is said to have found the inter war years, "intensely boring."

On to the Second World War and after the French surrender, Wintle had demanded an aircraft (with which he intended to rally the French Air Force to fly their planes to Britain and continue fighting Germany from British air bases) and upon being prevented from this had threatened a bureaucratic officer of the RAF, Air Commodore Boyle with a gun. It was alleged that he had threatened to shoot himself and the unfortunate Boyle. For this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

When his case arose, Wintle was read the charges against him, of which there were three. The first was that he had feigned defective eysight (and therefore infirmity in order to avoid active duty). This charge was dismissed after Wintle's defence provided medical evidence to disprove it.

The second charge was assaulting Air Commodore Boyle; and the third was conduct contrary and to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. To the latter was added the claim that he had drawn a gun in the presence of the RAF officer, and stated that ‘people like you ought to be shot.’  Wintle admitted the act, and produced a list of people, mostly government ministers, who he felt should likewise be shot as a patriotic gesture. The list must have been a topical one, for after he had read out the sixth name upon it, (Hore-Belisha then Secretary of State for War), that particular charge was also dropped. The government - embarrassed by his accusations - upheld the court decision to drop all charges, bar one, the assault on Commodore Boyle.It seems though, that Wintle was in the pretty safe position of being tried by an Army court whilst on charges brought by the RAF.

So you see, Clarkson is a tame pussy cat compared to the real thing and I rather suspect that Clarkson would be the very first to agree.

Incidentally, should you ever come across this autobiography in a second hand book shop, just buy it; there aren't many around.

Richard Todd & TED

 

Well, what a week to forget and as we go into the weekend I note The Mail are running an indignant story about the remake of every big boys iconic movie, The Dambusters.

Somewhat predictably though, their guns are pointing in the wrong direction. The journalists focus on the gall of script writer Stephen Fry in renaming Guy Gibson's dog from "Nigger," to "Digger." Now, as young lads watching it for the first time we all sniffled back a tear when Nigger was run over outside the guardroom, but the fact is that it's a grossly offensive word in the US. Try using it over there sometime. If you're lucky, a cop will get to you before some enraged local. It's the social semtex equivalent of calling the Queen a hooker would be here. You just don't do it, in jest or otherwise. Moaning about historical revisionism then is largely irrelevant; Nigger, was a dog for goodness sake.

The story of the Dambusters is the story of the courage and fortitude of the aircrews, (53 of whom died on the raid; an attrition rate of 40%), and of the persistent obsession of Barnes Wallis, a brilliant man who never psychologically recovered from those losses for which he felt personally responsible.

 

Richard Todd

The real question here though is why make a new movie at all. How on earth can the original be bettered? It was made by people who lived throigh the war and in some cases, like Richard Todd, (who was an utter gentleman and a privilege to meet), actually fought through it. Apart from the inevitable blizzard of special effects I just don't get it. Leave well alone, they'll only cock it up - the name of the dog is the least of it.

So, enough of ranting for the week, lets attempt to end on a higher note. It's been a wee while since we've visited TED and whenever I do I'm reminded that there really are some jolly clever and special people out there with a vision and imagination that I love to share. 

I found this, unusually original and uplifting,