Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Stone Age Cooking in England

The delicious range of foods and drinks to be found in Leicestershire did not suddenly spring into being fully formed. They are the result of generations of experiments in cooking, farming and food production that has seen successes and failures with every passing century. People have lived in this area that was to become Leicester for at least 10,000 years - perhaps longer.

Mammoth steaks were on the earliest menus in Leicestershire, along with grilled aurochs and roasted wild boar. Such hearty meals have long gone, but they have been replaced by new ingredients and more refined cooking methods to produce the delights of today. It has been a long process, one shaped by violence and hardship as much as by the years of plenty and the cooking skills of the people.

When humans first came here, Britain was still joined to the continent of Europe by a land bridge of vast extent. The Soar and Trent emptied not into the North Sea via the Humber Estuary but on to a broad plain that stretched to Germany. The sea did not come in to make Britain an island until around 4,000 bc, by which time a well established culture of hunting game and gathering wild plant foods was well established. The people of Leicestershire were part of a nomadic culture that stretched across northern Europe.

Fishing was a well established part of life with delicate fish hooks being carved out of bone and ivory and attached to lines. Fishing baskets of woven twigs served as effective nets, catching eels, trout and salmon as they did successfully almost into living memory. When a glut of fish was caught the flesh might be smoked to preserve it for a few days, but the nomads had no way of storing food and so they tended to gorge themselves, then rest up for a few days. Similar bouts of feasting affected the hunting of game animals. By around 5,000bc the people in what is now Leicestershire were killing and eating deer, boar, hare and beaver as well as a number of birds such as duck, heron, grebe and swan. The fruit and vegetables eaten by these nomadic folk included blackberries, sloes, crab apples, dewberries, elder berries, nettles and wild celery.

Cooking methods at this date were simple in the extreme. Camp fires were made of wood, and any foods that were not eaten raw had to be cooked by fire. Meats were roasted or grilled over the flames, or they were slapped down on stones next to the fire for a gentler, more prolonged roasting. Some cuts might be placed into a deep pit in the ground, then covered with stone heated in a fire and covered over with leaves and then earth. This produced a longer, slowing cooking method more suitable for tougher cuts when the preservation of moisture within the meat was essential.

This is an extract from Leicestershire Food and Drink by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 27 March 2010

HItler turns to the West, winter 1939

With the conquest of Poland complete, Hitler could turn to deal with the unwanted war in the West. The declarations of war by Britain and France had provoked the Fuhrer to one of his rages and, for once, he was in complete agreement with his generals about the dangers of a war on two fronts. The speed of victory in Poland and the slow rate of French mobilisation had saved Hitler from such a prospect. The war in the East was over before that in the West got under way.

Hitler now hoped that the fait accompli in Poland would lead to peace with Britain and France, for the Reich was not yet ready for this war. The Army High Command, the OKH or Oberkommando Heer, was wary of attacking France, convinced that even if victory were gained it would only be at enormous cost in bloodshed and material. The Navy was even more dubious of gaining victory in the autumn of 1939. There were only 39 U-boats fit for sea and many of the larger warships, including Bismarck, were incomplete. Navy chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder believed the Kriegsmarine would not be ready for war until 1943, and would not be able to face the Royal Navy with any confidence until 1946.

Hitler, as usual, was more optimistic than his military professionals though this optimism was based more on political than military considerations. He held the French in utter contempt after they had failed to intervene when Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936. He believed that the Wehrmacht needed only to achieve one swift victory for the entire French army to collapse. The invasion of France was given the code name Operation Yellow.

The British, he considered, were quite different. Hitler did not expect them to collapse like the French, but he did believe them to be a pragmatic people. His experience of the British government to date had been that it mouthed fine principles, but was willing to accept realities. If France could be crushed, thought Hitler, Britain would accept the generous and honourable peace he would then offer.

Even so, it would be better for Hitler’s long term aim of attacking Russia if war with Britain could be avoided. With this in mind Hitler sent his unofficial envoy Birger Dahlerus to Britain. “The British can have peace if they want it,” Hitler briefed Dahlerus on 26th September, “but they will have to hurry.” On October 5th Hitler followed this clandestine approach with a very public one. At a speech in Berlin, Hitler portrayed himself as a reasonable man seeking only to reach a just and lasting settlement in Europe to replace the unfair and flawed arrangements of Versailles. He went on to offer to meet Britain and France at the conference table “before millions of men are uselessly killed and billions of riches destroyed”.

Three days later Hitler issued War Directive No.6 which outlined a plan for invading France and again set the date for implementation as 12 November 1939. The OKH was aghast by the imminent date and even Göring was taken aback. Hitler argued that peace in the East was only temporary and that Stalin remained unpredictable and dangerous. Moreover the French and British were rearming with modern weapons at an alarming speed. Time was on the side of the enemy, said Hitler, so even if the Wehrmacht was not perfectly prepared it was better to strike now than to wait.

Although the timing of the attack caused consternation among the generals, the strategy laid out in War Directive No.6 was welcomed as being sensible and pragmatic.

“An offensive will be planned on the northern flank of the Western Front, through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland,” the Directive read. “The purpose of this offensive will be to defeat as much as possible of the French Army and of her allies, and at the same time to win as much territory as possible in Holland, Belgium and northern France to serve as a base for the successful prosecution of the air and sea war against England.” This was sensible strategic thinking which made no undue demands on the abilities of the German war machine.

This is an extract from Hitler, Military Commander by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 25 March 2010


During the 1620s, English and French sailors settled on Hispaniola (now Haiti). They were called ‘boucaniers’, a name which came to be known as ‘buccaneers’. In the 1630s the Spanish attacked them and drove them from Hispaniola, but they built a stronghold on the island of Tortuga and hit back, attacking Spanish ships whenever they could. In 1655 the British fortified Port Royal in Jamaica, and many buccaneers moved there from Tortuga.

You Must Be Joking
The buccaneer capital was destroyed by the Spanish.
Port Royal was destroyed on 7 June 1692 by a massive earthquake. The whole city slid into the sea and 2,000 people died.

Can You Believe It?
Buccaneers are named after their favourite food.
YES. The first buccaneers made a living by smoking meat and selling it to passing ships. This meat was called "boucan" in the local language, so the men who made and ate it were "boucaniers", or buccaneers.

The Buccaneer Author
In 1683 the buccaneer Alexander Esquemeling retired from the sea and wrote a book about his adventures. "Buccaneers of America" was an instant bestseller. Esquemeling made more money from the book than he had done as a buccaneer. The book is still in print today, and many of our pirate legends are based on it.

This is an extract from History Makers - Pirates by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The bloody career of Wyatt Earp

Of all the men to pin on a lawman’s badge in the old West, none was as famous, as successful nor as controversial as Wyatt Earp (1848-1929). He is most famous today for his leading role in the “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, but in his day was as well known for other exploits - not all of them particularly law abiding or respectable. Born into a farming family in Illinois, Wyatt moved west to California with the rest of his family in 1864. He then spent three years as a teamster, driving freight wagons across the western territories and states of the USA. He began his career as a lawman in Missouri in 1870, but after his wife died Wyatt seems to have taken to drink and in 1871 was charged both with failing to fulfil his duties and with stealing a horse. Wyatt went on the run and his movements over the next three years are unclear.
In October 1874, however, he arrived in Wichita, Kansas, where he was hired as a law officer in the city marshal’s office. The main task of the marshal’s office was to keep order among the hard-drinking cowboys who were paid off in the town when they delivered cattle from Texas to the railroad yards. Wyatt proved to be expert at handling the drunken disputes and outbreaks of violence. By 1876 the cattle trade had moved on to Dodge City, so Wyatt moved with it to become Assistant Marshal. It was in Dodge City that he met the professional gambler “Doc” Holliday who would become a long term friend. Wyatt’s time in Dodge City was again a success, though it was marred when he was fined $1 for hitting a woman - a prostitute with whom he was having an altercation over public behaviour.

In 1879 he moved on to the silver mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona, where his younger brother Virgil was Marshal. Wyatt was hired as sheriff for the rural areas around the town. Two other brothers, Morgan and Warren, arrived in 1880 and so did Doc Holliday. In February 1881 Wyatt found a stolen horse in the possession of local cattle rancher and suspected rustler, Ike Clanton. Clanton handed over the horse saying he had bought it in good faith, but the incident began the ill feeling between the Earps and the Clantons plus their friends the McLaury brothers.

On 26 October 1881, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton met at the OK Corral in Tombstone to discuss unspecified business. They were armed, contrary to local laws. The Earps went to arrest them, being joined on the way by Holliday. Virgil Earp called on the cowboys to throw down their guns, but they did not so Holliday drew his gun and this caused the Clantons to open fire. Soon a general gunfight was in progress. It lasted barely 30 seconds, but cost the lives of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury, while everyone else apart from Wyatt and Ike were injured.

After the gunfight, Morgan Earp was murdered by men loyal to the Clantons, causing Wyatt to begin the so-called “Earp Vendetta Ride”, during which time he and Holliday shot dead all those they thought were involved in the murder of Morgan. The gunfight and the killings that followed marked the end of Wyatt’s career as a law officer. He opened a saloon in San Diego, later moving to Alaska to run a series of saloons during the gold rush.

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” Wyatt Earp when asked about the skills needed for gunfighting.

Wyatt Earp in Hollywood
In his old age, Wyatt Earp moved to Hollywood where he earned money advising film directors and actors on the old West. Movie legend John Wayne met Earp several times when he was a young actor and later said that he modelled his cowboy persona on Earp.

This is an extract from Heroes, Rascals and Rogues by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Channel Dash 1943

The winter of 1942/43 was spent quietly by Fighter Command. The advent of the Focke Wulf Fw190 had made Sweeps over northern France highly dangerous affairs that offered few benefits. Only Ramrods against vital targets and Rhubarbs in favourable circumstances were flown. But if the end of 1942 was bad for Fighter Command, the start of 1943 was to be even worse.

The greatest fiasco of the war grew out of a number of successful operations in 1942. The German pocket battleships, technically battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had long been the most potent threat to the Atlantic convoys. Each of the two ships was armed with nine 11inch guns plus a mass of anti-aircraft weapons and secondary armament. At full speed they could top 31 knots and had armour up to 14 inches thick. If they found a convoy, they could sink it in minutes.

The two battlecruisers had taken part in the invasion of Norway, sinking a British aircraft carrier and two destroyers as well as fighting a British battlecruiser to a draw. In January 1941 they steamed into the Atlantic, sinking 22 merchant ships and forcing every convoy at sea to head for the nearest port and all convoys in harbour to stay put. The Royal Navy constantly worried that the two ships, berthed in Brest, would again put to sea to play havoc among the convoy routes.

The RAF had been called in to try to bomb the two battlecruisers to destruction. Raid after raid was launched on Brest by RAF Bomber Command, with Fighter Command’s 10 Group providing escorts. Swift reactions by Luftwaffe fighters and accurate flak over Brest meant that no serious damage was done to the ships, though the harbour facilities were badly hit. In December 1941 raids by Commandos convinced Hitler that the British were about to try an invasion of northern Norway so he ordered the navy to bring the two battlecruisers back from Brest to Kiel.

The British were aware that the Germans might try to get the two ships back to Germany, and had plans in place. If the ships sought to steer north around Scotland they would be handled by the navy, if they tried to go up the Channel they would be the target of the RAF. The codeword for the operation to stop them was Fuller, and all the squadrons of the RAF, both bomber and fighter, had a role to play. It was assumed that the Germans would time their run to pass through the narrow seas between Dover and Calais in darkness.

As night fell on 11 February the German naval crews went into action. The weather forecast was for unremmitingly bad weather for at least 24 hours, which the Germans hoped would give them cover from the RAF. Crucially, the German plan called for them to leave Brest at night when they would be unobserved even though this would put them off Dover in daylight.

When the usual high-flying dawn reconnaissance flight sent out from Britain arrived over Brest next day it was to find solid cloud cover. Nothing could be seen. Meanwhile the long-range aircraft of Coastal Command that was patrolling the western entrance to the English Channel suffered a breakdown of its air to surface radar. By the time a replacement had taken off and arrived on station, the German ships had slipped past. A ground-based radar in England picked up the array of small ships escorting the two giants, but these were dismissed as being an E-boat patrol.

Meanwhile No.91 Squadron’s Squadron Leader R. Oxspring of Tangmere had gone up to investigate a radar report of German aircraft over Le Touquet. No Fighter Command operations were due that day, so Oxspring had the skies to himself as he pushed through the murk and cloud. Oxspring came out of the cloud cover off Le Touquet to find himself confronted by a vast whirling mass of circling German fighters. Peering down to see what the Germans were guarding, Oxspring saw the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau together with their escorting ships. He hurriedly radioed the news back to base, then dived into cloud before the German fighters could catch him.

Thus it was at 11.30am that a Fighter Command officer telephoned Bomber Command to alert them of the need to implement Operation Fuller. Unfortunately both the head of Bomber Command, then Air Vice Marshal Jack Baldwin, and his deputy were in a car on the way to a conference at Air Ministry and could not be contacted. A rather gallant staff officer of lowly Squadron Leader rank took it upon himself to issue the instructions to get things moving.

Squadrons throughout southern England were scrambled into the air. Unfortunately all the RAF plans had been drawn up assuming that the German ships would be spotted hours before they got off the Sussex coast, never mind off Le Touquet. Squadron Leader Humphrey Gilbert out of Westhampnett was escorting a force of bombers on a raid to attack the ships. The force failed to find the ships, never mind attack them, but they were found in their turn by a squadron of Bf109s. In the fighting that followed Gilbert managed to shoot down one Bf109 and damage another. This was his fifth confirmed victory since he first flew a Spitfire into combat in August 1940.

In all 242 bombers took off that day, escorted by a cloud of fighters sent up from Tangmere and other stations. Given the bad weather, the lack of warning and the position of the warships, most RAF aircraft failed to find their targets. Eugene Desmond and six torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm did find the ships and attacked, but all six aircraft were shot down. The only damage suffered by the ships came when Scharnhorst hit a mine off Holland.

The embarrassing failure to halt the Channel Dash was all the worse as it came as the Japanese were capturing Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong as well as sweeping through the Dutch East Indies and Philippines. It seemed as if the British could not even control their own backyard. There followed an inquiry into the debacle. While the bulk of the blame was laid on sheer bad luck, the lack of close liaison between 11 Group of Fighter Command and Coastal Command was highlighted. Nobody came out of it very well.

For the men and women based at Tangmere the humiliation of the Channel Dash was, in part at least, alleviated by a visit from the entire company of the Windmill Theatre in London. Two shows were staged starring the Crazy Gang, Bud Flanagan and a full supporting cast. It was a huge event for the airbase.

This is an extract from Heroes of Fighter Command Sussex by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

RAF fighters escort an unusual mission in the Battle of Britain

Through all this defensive mayhem, Fighter Command were called upon to fly escort missions to protect the aircraft of RAF Bomber Command that were flying over to the continent to try to destroy the gathering German invasion fleet. In ports from Normandy to Denmark craft of all types were being brought together to act as troop transports to carry the German army over the Channel.

Such combats mirrored those taking place over Kent, but this time in reverse. It was the British fighters that had to stick close to their bombers and the German fighters that could choose the time and place to attack. On one such mission Wing Commander John Gillan was leading No.615 Squadron as escort to a force of Blenheim IV bombers when the formation was bounced by German fighters over the Channel. Gillan led his squadron’s Hurricanes to meet the threat, bringing down one 109 and seriously damaging another before the Germans withdrew.

These cross-Channel raids by Bomber Command received much less publicity both at the time and since than did the defensive exploits of Fighter Command over Britain. They were nonetheless vital. By mid-September they would succeed in sinking 11% of the gathering German invasion fleet.

On the 2 September the pilots of No.66 Squadron, then at Gravesend, were asked if they would volunteer for a secret mission to start at dawn next day. Among the hands that went up was that of Hubert Allen, then a simple Pilot Officer, but later to be a Wing Commander and noted writer on air subjects. He and the two comrades selected were told nothing except that they were to be ready to take off at dawn next day and would be led by one Sqn Ldr Oxspring.

At dawn the puzzled pilots found Oxspring on the runway together with an Avro Anson, an elderly twin-engined type of reconnaissance aircraft. Oxspring’s instructions were simple, the Spitfire pilots were to follow him and keep Jerry off his back. The four aircraft climbed into the sky and headed south. It transpired that the British army had decided to try shelling the invasion ships moored in Calais harbour with long range artillery. The crew of the Anson were to “spot” for the guns, radioing back instructions on where to aim for maximum damage.

At just 10,000 feet the British aircraft circled Calais warily. The British guns opened up, sending shells splashing around their targets. Suddenly a large group of 109s was seen approaching fast. The Anson bolted home at maximum speed while Allen and his men fought a delaying action before following in the race for Kent. The experiment was not repeated.

This is an extract from Heroes of Fighter Command Kent by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 15 March 2010

Sgt Maurice Garlick (RAF) escapes the Gestapo

In March 1944, Harris - head of RAF Bomber Command - was ordered to take the full strength of Bomber Command off Germany and instead direct it to France. The proposed D-Day landings that would take the Allied armies into Europe by way of Normandy were only a few weeks away. The high command deemed it necessary to use the heavy bombers to prepare the way.

The move was not without controversy. The targets Harris was asked to hit were primarily rail junctions, road bridges and road junctions with garrison camps and ammunition dumps as secondary targets. Most of these objectives were in or near French towns, meaning that stray bombs would kill French civilians. Harris argued that while specialist squadrons, such as 617 Dambusters, could hit such targets, the majority of his force were not trained in precision bombing and would most likely inflict massive collateral damage and, perhaps, miss what they were aiming at as well. Harris preferred to send his heavy bombers against only those targets that lay outside French towns, and keep the bulk of his force pounding at German industry. He argued that destroying German tank factories was just as effective as halting their progress to Normandy by blowing up bridges.

Churchill, Portal and others recognised that Harris had a point. Unfortunately they did not have enough low-level medium bombers flown by crews with precision bombing training to do the job instead. Harris was overruled.

In the following weeks Harris sent his bombers again and again to France. They totally destroyed 60% of targets they were given, and put another 30% out of action for varying lengths of time. It was a fantastic achievement, but Harris had been proved sadly right in one respect. His main force was not accurate enough to avoid heavy civilian casualties. Bombing the rail depot at Lille caused 456 French deaths and the attack on a target at Ghent killed 482 Belgians. Elsewhere the totals were lower, but no less damaging to morale among both Harris’s crews and the civilians awaiting liberation from German rule.

One such raid was the attack on 3 May on a panzer depot near the village of Mailly-le-Camp. The raid proved to be a disaster for the RAF after signalling failures meant the message from the master bomber to begin the attack were not picked up by the main force. As a result the bombers were left circling over France longer than they should have been, allowing night fighters to concentrate and shoot down 42 bombers. Among those brought down was Lancaster of 12 Squadron flying out of Wickenby. the navigator was a 31 year old Londoner named Maurice Garlick, who landed with burned legs in a field near Romilly.

Garlick was able only to crawl, it took him two days to reach the cover of a small wood about two miles from where he landed and three days more to reach a farmhouse he could see beyond the trees. The farmer and his daughter dressed his wounds, gave him food and drink but refused to let him stay for fear of German reprisals. By 14 May he had run out of food so he knocked at another farm, near Bucy. Garlick had by luck arrived at the house of Charles Decreon, the head of the local Resistance Group.

Garlick was given medical aid and a bed to rest in. On 29 May he was joined by his crewmate Paddy O’Hara and a few days later by John Crighton, also from the downed crew. One day in July the Gestapo arrived to carry out a random search of the farm. The three fugitives fled to nearby woods, escaping just minutes before their hiding place was searched. On 10 August they left Decreon’s house to join an active Resistance group in the densely wooded Forest d’Othe. Arms were dropped to the group by the RAF and soon the three downed airmen were joining the band of Frenchmen in attacking German outposts and patrols.

On 2 September an American armoured column arrived in the forest to drive the Germans from the area. The three RAF men were quickly sent off back to newly-liberated Paris and thence to Britain. Back at Wickenby they met their pilot, Peter Maxwell who had walked to Spain with the aid of the Resistance. All four men survived the war.

This is an extract from Heroes of Bomber Command Lincolnshire by Rupert Matthews.

Friday, 12 March 2010

PUBLISHED TODAY - Teashop and Pub Drives in Kent

I really enjoyed doing the research for this book  - all those pubs and teashops in Kent!

This book is aimed at those looking for a day out in Kent. It features 14 guided drives through the Garden of England, each with clear and detailed route instructions plus notes on where to stop and what to see along the route. Each drive starts at a pub that serves a hearty lunch and ends at a teashop that serves a nice hot cup of tea and a mouthwatering selection of cakes. Who could ask for more.

Watch the video about the book HERE.

Buy your copy on Amazon.co.uk HERE. or visit your local bookshop.

The RAF destroys Hamburg 1943

According to the Book of Genesis, the people of the city of Gomorrah, and its neighbour Sodom, committed an abomination in the eyes of the Lord due to their wickedness. “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire out of Heaven and he overthrew those cities. ... And Abraham looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.”

Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, knew his Bible. So when he chose the name ‘Operation Gomorrah’ for his next major assault on Germany, it boded badly for the target that he chose: Hamburg.

Hamburg was the second largest city in Germany after Berlin and the most important industrial area outside the Ruhr. The city had already been attacked over 90 times by Bomber Command, but with only indifferent results. Now Harris decided to put all the lessons learned so far, plus the new aircraft and technology to good effect. He intended to launch a series of major raids by massed formations of heavy bombers to overwhelm the defences and flatten large areas of the city.

The first raid took place on 24 July when 790 aircraft were concentrated in a stream that took just 50 minutes to pass over the city. This was the first time that a new weapon was used: window. Window consisted of thousands of strips of aluminium foil dropped by aircraft sent out ahead of and on the flanks of the bomber stream. As the foil fell to earth it jammed German radar, making it impossible for the air controllers to guide nightfighters to the bombers. Losses among the bombers were light at just 1.5%. The raid caused much damage to the docks and city centre.

It was on this raid that Sergeant John Parkinson of 218 Squadron got the fright of his life. He was flight engineer on his Lancaster, code number J, when a 30lb incendiary bomb crashed through the roof of the aircraft, having been dropped by another bomber higher up in the stream. Parkinson scooped up the bomb and threw it out of the aircraft, which then continued on its mission without further incident.

For the next two nights Hamburg was subjected to nuisance raids by Mosquitoes of 139 Squadron operating from Marham. Then, on 27 July the main bomber force returned to Hamburg. This time the weaker Stirlings carried incendiaries to allow them to gain height and keep up with the faster Lancasters. Hamburg had been basking in a long spell of dry weather and the bombing of the previous raid had smashed buildings, scattering rafters and floorboards across the dry city. Hamburg was a tinderbox. The raid was the spark.

The fire began in the damaged blocks of flats and apartments in the eastern part of the city centre. As the fire took hold, the hot air began to rise, sucking in fresh cool air from the surrounding area. This oxygen-rich wind fanned the flames at gale force. A fire-storm was created in which temperatures rose to such an extent that anything that could burn did. A large area of the city was utterly destroyed and, although the death toll was never clearly known, as many as 40,000 may have been killed. Around 800,000 people were made homeless and long columns of refugees streamed out of the city.

The next night 139 Squadron returned again, followed 24 hours later by the main force again. This time the outer suburbs were hit and, although no firestorm was created, there was widespread destruction of housing. On 2 August another raid inflicted more damage.

The scale of damage was unprecedented. About two thirds of the city buildings had been destroyed, along with half the factories and almost all the port facilities. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments, visited the city. For the first time he began to believe that Germany could lose the war and estimated that if the RAF hit six more cities in like fashion, Germany would be unable to produce the weapons needed by its armed forces.

In the event, Bomber Command was never again able to repeat the awesome destruction visited on Hamburg. The circumstances that gave rise to the firestorm were unique to Hamburg that week, and German defences were soon improved markedly.

This is an extract from Heroes of Bomber Command Norfolk by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Battle of Degsaston ad603

The first clash between the English and the Scots came about because of the collapse of the post-Roman British power in the area around Hadrian’s Wall. At the time both the English and the Scots were small in numbers and occupied only a fraction of the territories now covered by England and Scotland. The battle which took place at Degsastan looked at the time to be decisive, but was in fact just the opening round in what proved to be over a thousand years of warfare.

The Scots were, in ad600, one of the less significant peoples in what was to become Scotland. They were recent arrivals from Ireland, to which they retained strong cultural links and important blood ties.

The Scots had begun arriving some time in the early 5th century. At first they came as isolated bands of settlers along the coasts and islands of Argyll and neighbouring areas. For a while, the Scots kingdom was ruled from the ancestral base near Coleraine. Then, in about 500, the Scots King Fergus left Ireland and established the centre of his kingdom on the Kintyre Peninsula. He brought with him a large stone on which the Kings of the Scots had for generations stood when being inaugurated as kings. Fergus and his grandson Gabran were famous soldiers and Scots power increased steadily. By 600 the Scots ruled the lands from Loch Linnhe south to Loch Long and probably exercised some form of overlordship over Mull, Skye and the Hebrides.

The remaining lands north of the Forth and Clyde were occupied by the Picts, a wild people who had never been tamed by Rome and who may have been descended from the pre-Celtic population of Britain.

South of the Forth and Clyde the land was divided between two Celtic kingdoms. The east was ruled by Mynydawc, King of Gododdin, whose power stretched from the Forth Valley to beyond the Tweed. The West was held by Riderch, King of Clyde. As the name suggests, Clyde was centred around the fertile lands of the Clyde Valley, but it reached south as far as Carlisle.

Both these kingdoms had bordered Hadrian’s Wall in the days of the Roman Empire. Their lands were criss-crossed by Roman-built roads and studded with Roman forts where legionnaries rested when on patrol. It is most likely that both Gododdin and Clyde had been client states of Rome – paying tribute and absorbing much Roman culture.

The English, meanwhile, had arrived in Britain in a series of waves of immigration from the 350s onwards. By ad600 their power in northern Britain was based around two kingdoms: Deira and Bernicia. The Deirans were based around Driffield in Yorkshire and seem to have been the more numerous of the two English peoples. They were, however, more inclined to farming and trade than fighting. They seem to have lived on relatively good terms with their British neighbours.

Bernicia was very different. Based on the fortress rock of Bamburgh, Bernicia was a warrior kingdom. Its kings were eager for power and they brought large numbers of land-hungry warriors over from Germany to help them secure it. King Athelferth came to the throne in 593 and began by raising a fresh army, before steadily increasing his lands and raiding deep into British territory.

In 598 the British of Gododdin marched south to fight the aggressive Bernicians. It is likely that Mynydawc was hoping for support from the British who still lived in large numbers around York, or even from the Deirans, for he led his army south on the west coast before crossing the Pennines to enter Bernician territory down the valley of the Tees.

The two armies met at Catraeth, now Catterick, and the English achieved an overwhelming victory. Mynydawc and nearly all his men were killed – later tradition says that only one man returned home from this expedition. With its army wiped out, Gododdin was helpless. Bede, writing a century later, recorded of Athelferth “He ravaged the Britons more cruelly than all other English leaders. He overran a greater area than any other king, exterminating or enslaving the inhabitants, making their lands either tributary to the English or ready for English settlement.”

Before long English warriors were stationed in the Forth Valley. It was this which brought the Scots into the picture. Their king, Aedan, could not ignore the growing might of the English, whose lands now bordered his around Callender.

Aedan realised that in Athelferth and the Bernician English he had a dangerous enemy. The Scots had traditionally recognised the Kings of Ulster as their overlords in some vague way. So Aedan asked the Ulstermen for help. Mael Uma, brother of the King of Ulster, promised to come to help in the expectation of acquiring rich loot.

It is most likely, though the chroniclers are unclear on this point, that Aedan also received help from King Riderch of Clyde. The two kings knew each other well and both owed religious allegiance to the Abbots of Iona. It is more than likely that they would have united against the pagan Bernicians. It is possible that Riderch may, in turn, have appealed to the Britons of Rheged, the land between Hadrian’s Wall and the Dee. However, Rheged was in the midst of a murderous civil war at the time and it is unlikely many men would have marched north to join the allies.

Athelferth, meanwhile, received news of the forces gathering against him. He sent out urgent orders to his scattered forces. They were to break off from pillaging or forcing tribute from the Britons of Gododdin and instead to gather for war.

This is an extract from England versus Scotland by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 5 March 2010

PUBLISHED TODAY - You Wouldnt Want to Be a Chicago Gangster!

A great read for children of all ages.
You Wouldnt Want to Be a Chicago Gangster

The Athenians consult the Delphic Oracle as the Persians invade, 480bc

It is one of the frustrating aspects of the Thermopylae campaign that the key factor in determining the actions of the Athenians is clouded in mystery. Like other Greek states, Athens sent an embassy to Delphi to ask the Oracle for the advice of the god Apollo. The message given was of profound importance, so it is most annoying that we have only the vaguest idea of when this event took place.

Herodotus places the Athenian embassy to Delphi in the early spring, but it is clear that the debate on the answer and vote on what action to take did not take place until after the expedition to Tempe, perhaps in late June or early July. But whenever the visit to Delphi took place, it was a dramatic one.

The Athenian envoys travelled to the sacred city, climbed the holy hill and washed themselves in the sacred spring. They were then admitted to the precincts of Apollo and escorted up the Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. So far everything had been carried out as prescribed by tradition and as expected. But when the envoys entered the room where the oracle priestess herself awaited them, they were in for a shock.

They had not even had time to approach the priestess with their enquiry, when the oracle priestess shrieked at them in fury.

“Why sit you, doomed ones?” she demanded. “Fly to the world’s end leaving
Home and the heights your city circles like a wheel.
The head shall not remain in its place, nor the body,
Nor the feet beneath, nor the hands, nor the parts between:
But all is ruined, for fire and headlong god of war
Speeding in a Syrian chariot shall bring you low.
Many a tower will he destroy, not yours alone,
And give to pitiless fire many shrines of gods,
Which even now stand sweating, with fear quivering,
While over the roofs black blood runs streaming
In prophecy of woe that needs must come. But rise
Haste from the sanctuary and bow your hearts to grief.”

The Athenians were stunned, as well they might have been. This was one of the most dramatic, lengthy and most detailed utterances ever given by the Delphic Oracle – and it was all bad news for Athens. There could be no doubt that the city would be destroyed, its temples defiled and its people doomed.

What happened next is rather obscure. Herodotus describes how the Athenians returned to the oracle a second time, on this occasion carrying olive branches as a symbol of their supplication and devotion. The priestess was this time moved to give a different message from the god Apollo.

“Not wholly can Pallas win the heart of Olympian Zeus,
Though she prays him with many prayers and all her subtlety.
Yet will I speak to you this other word, as firm as adamant:
Though all else shall be taken within the bound of Cecrops
And the fastness of the holy mountain of Cithaeron
Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children.
But await not the host of horse and foot coming from Asia,
Nor be still, but turn your back and withdraw from the foe.
Truly a day will come when you will meet him face to face.
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women’s sons
When the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in.”

This second divine message was not much more encouraging than the first though, as we shall see it was to lead the Athenians into changing their plan for the war.

There are a couple of interesting allusions within the prophecy which would have had a great impact on religious people at the time. First, as in the message to the Spartans, Apollo makes it clear that Zeus is on the side of the Persians. Second, Athene is shown to be on the side of the Athenians – so Xerxes’s sacrifice to the goddess at Troy had not worked. Pallas, incidentally, is a title of Athene meaning “maiden”.

There are also clues that some time had elapsed since the first prophecy. Herodotus implies, but does not state, that the two messages were given during the same visit to the oracle by the envoys of Athens. However, his insistence that it was the bringing of branches of olives to Apollo that caused the new message to be given hints differently.

High on the Acropolis in Athens, outside the temple of Athene, grew a sacred olive tree. The Athenians believed that the olive had been a special gift from the goddess Athene to her beloved city in the remote past. The sacred tree was the direct descendent of this original plant, tended by priests since the dawn of time. It would make sense for the Athenians to do something special to try to gain a change of heart from the gods. What better than to return to their city, arrange for their fellow citizens to pray to Athene and then take sprigs of the sacred olive to Apollo. The Oracle’s statement that Athene was pleading with Zeus to spare Athens would imply that some such action had been taken.

If this were the case, the journey to and fro would have taken some time. The interval between the two trips to Delphi may have coincided with the Tempe expedition.

This is an extract from The Battle of Thermopylae, a Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Spanish Armada reaches the English Channel

On 29 June 1588 a small trading bark left Mousehole in Cornwall heading for France, where it was to pick up a cargo of salt and return. The craft was entering French waters when it encountered a patrolling French warship. The French craft altered course and came within hailing distance of the Cornish vessel.

“As you love your life,” bellowed the French captain, “do not go on. The Spanish fleet is up the coast.” He waved his arm to the west, then passed on.

The Cornish master held a hurried discussion with his men. They decided that the salt should be abandoned. Instead they would sail directly west to try to find the Spanish ships. In an unarmed bark this was bravery indeed, but every Englishman knew that what their fleet needed most was definite news of the Armada. Three hours later the Cornishmen saw masts and sails coming up over the horizon. They kept steadily on, veering off to make sure they stayed up wind of the ships.

As the range narrowed, it was obvious that somebody on the ships had spotted the small bark. Three of the ships turned to intercept him. The Cornish captain decided it was time to go. He had counted nine ships, the largest of about 800 tons and the smallest around 200 tons. He noticed that each of them had a red cross painted on its foresail.

When he got back to Mousehole, the Cornish captain wrote out a quick report and rode with it to the home of Sir Francis Godolphin, who sent a rider to take it to Plymouth. It was the first firm news of the Armada, but not the last. Before nightfall two other craft had come in with sightings of Spanish ships. There were 15 south of the Scillies and six north of the islands.

Howard at once put to sea. He led most of the English ships toward the Scillies, while Drake led a smaller force toward Brittany. By the time they got to their stations there were no Spanish ships to be seen. The vessels had been the storeships rounded up by Esquival in his patache and they had by this time turned south to rejoin the Armada at Corunna. Drake did, however, pick up the Scottish merchant ship that had been captured by the Paloma Blanca. The Spaniards thought that they had moved the entire crew to their own ship for questioning, and had later cast it adrift when they thought it was sinking. Yet here it was with three men and the cabin boy left aboard limping on for France. The Scots told all they knew, then passed on. Drake now knew that the mystery ships had been storeships scattered by a storm, not the great Armada itself.

Meanwhile, one of Howard’s scout ships ran into what it took to be an unarmed Spanish merchant ship. The English craft closed intending to overawe the enemy with a show of gunfire, only to receive a mass of musketry in response and a salvo of cannon fire. The scout hauled off, having orders to report back with sightings not to get involved in battle. Thus English orders to avoid a fight were mistaken by the Spanish as fear of open battle. Natural enough in the circumstances, but a mistake that later lead the Spanish into trouble.

Howard and Drake raced back to Plymouth. Wherever the Armada was, it had been dispersed by a storm and possibly damaged. Now was the time to strike.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada, a Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.