Thursday, 30 September 2010

Video for the book Teashop Walks in Kent

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HItler joins the army

Corporal Hitler

The Great War was a defining experience for Hitler. He later said this period was “the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence”. His experiences as a soldier shaped his political views, his abilities and ultimately propelled him into the political arena. His undoubted bravery and exemplary war record gave him the status of a war hero that was to be so useful when seeking votes.

The years in the trenches were Hitler’s only real experience of soldiering before he became commander of the armed forces of the Third Reich. As such, these experiences had a decisive impact on his later career as a military commander. Although fighting conditions changed greatly between 1918 and 1939, Hitler frequently justified the decisions he took in the Second World War by referring back to his experiences of fighting in the trenches. Nor was this mere bluster. Fritz Wiedemann was a junior officer in Hitler’s regiment during much of the first war and then served for four years on Hitler’s staff when he became F├╝hrer. “His memory of the war was excellent,” recorded Wiedemann later, “I never heard him lying or exaggerating when he told of his war experiences”. If anyone is to understand Hitler as a commander, they must look to Hitler as the commanded.

When war broke out in August 1914, Hitler was enthusiastic. He had recovered from some years of destitution in his native Austria and was earning a living as a freelance artist in Munich. He was already holding forth on political subjects at meetings, but had no burning interests beyond keeping up to date with current affairs. Hitler, at this time, had no intention of becoming a politician, though he was deeply interested in politics, rather he aimed to be an artist or architect.

The declaration of war overwhelmed Hitler. “I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time,” he wrote later. On 5 August Hitler sat down and wrote to the Bavarian King Ludwig III asking permission to serve in the regiment of his adopted city, Munich, rather than the forces of his own nation, Austria. This request was never actually answered, but Hitler was summoned to report to the Bavarian 16th Infantry Regiment on 16 August.


This is an extract from Hitler - Military Commander by Rupert Matthews.

Monday, 27 September 2010



Pirates are people who sail the seas searching for ships to capture and rob. Sometimes pirates also attack coastal towns or villages. There have been pirates in many different places and times, from ancient Greece to the modern day. But the most infamous pirates sailed the seas off North and South America between 1620 and 1740.

A band of pirates bears down on a merchant ship. Pirates preferred to attack unarmed ships whenever possible. They fought other warships only when forced to do so.

You Must Be Joking
Pirates in the Americas did not like being called pirates. They called themselves "the Bretheren of the Coast". They claimed they were better than mere robbers.  Sometimes they were.

Can You Believe It?
Pirates looted entire cities.
YES. Sometimes thousands of pirates would join together to attack a whole city and steal its treasures.

No Peace Beyond the Line.
In 1494 the Pope announced that all land and sea beyond a line in the Atlantic belonged to Spain. Many countries refused to accept this ruling, called the Treaty of Tordisillas. They sent ships to the Americas, but the Spanish said they were trespassers and attacked them. Many of the merchant attacked by Spain used their ships to launch raids on Spanish colonies.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Ancient Scientists

Heron of Alexandria (fl.1st century ad) was an Egyptian inventor who developed a series of machines for use in temples that used steam power, rising smoke and other principles. One invention was a slot machine that used the weight of a falling coin to dispense a measured amount of holy water to worshippers. Another used air expanding from a sealed metal ball inside a fire lit on a sacrificial altar “miraculously” to open temple doors up to 100 feet away. He also developed a metal ball linked to a kettle that could be made to rotate at extremely high speed when the water in the kettle boiled.

Polybius (fl.150bc) was a Greek soldier who invented a system of long distance communication for use by the military. The key to the device was a grid of letters arranged in numbered rows and columns. A soldier would wave a flag, by day, or a torch, by night. By waving to the left he would show the row and by waving to the right the column of the letter indicated. The limits of the naked eye meant that a signal could be sent only over a distance of a mile, but relays of signallers could send a message over a vast distance very quickly. This was why the Romans, who adopted the system, built small towers at one mile intervals along boundary fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall.

The Chinese court scientist Chang Heng (fl.132) invented a seismograph, or earthquake sensor. This consisted of an inverted pendulum set inside a bronze jar and linked via a system of rods and levers to eight dragon heads, in the mouth of each of which was a small ball. When an earthquake struck, no matter how slight, the jar moved with the ground, but the pendulum stayed still. This caused the system of rods to move and push out a ball from the mouth of the dragon facing the direction from which the shock had come. A replica built in 1939 worked perfectly.

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

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Reorganisation of the RAF Fighter Command to get ready for D-Day 1944

The spring and summer of 1944 would prove to be the busiest period of the war for Fighter Command in Sussex, outstripping the hectic days of the Battle of Britain. The reason was, of course, the D-Day invasions of Europe. Located directly north of the Normandy beaches, Sussex was the ideal launchpad for air missions and offered the closest airfields – always a consideration for short-range aircraft such as fighters.

First, however, a great deal of preliminary work was necessary. In November 1943 Fighter Command officially ceased to exist. In its place emerged two new organisations within the RAF. The first of these was named the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB). as its name suggests this consisted of those units whose tasks were solely concerned with defending the air space over Britain itself. It embraced the searchlight, balloon and anti-aircraft batteries as well as the night fighter squadrons and those day squadrons detailed to protect Britain.

The second new command was the 2nd Tactical Air Force (2nd TAF). This was made up of those Fighter Command squadrons that had been chiefly engaged in Sweeps or Intruder missions over occupied Europe. To these squadrons were added a few light and medium bomber squadrons from Bomber Command. The role of 2nd TAF was initially to pound targets in occupied Europe, mostly in preparation for the invasion. Once the invasion had taken place they were to move over to airfields in Europe, following the armies on their planned advance to Germany and the heart of the Reich. Meanwhile, they were based in Sussex and nearby areas.

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

Saturday, 18 September 2010

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RAF fighter tactics, summer 1940

As the smoke cleared from Dunkirk and the panzers were surging across France an American newspaper reporter was interviewing Air Vice Marshal Charles Blount who had been commanding the RAF squadrons sent to France. He was now back in London and was being used by the British Ministry of Information to give the British side of recent events.

As the interview closed the American asked “What’s going to happen when the French are beaten and the Germans can turn their whole air force on to this country?”

Blount thought for a moment then said “They’re going to get the shock of their lives”.

During the fighting over France the pilots of Fighter Command had been growing increasingly unhappy with their standard tactics, particularly when contrasted with those of the Luftwaffe. Although the British pilots had achieved much, there was no doubt that control of the air over France lay with the Germans. One feature all British pilots noticed was that the Germans would not press an attack home unless they had a clear advantage, preferring to break off if the British gained the upper hand. But there was more to it than this combat caution.

Fighter Command tactics had developed during the 1930s as modern variants of the World War I tactics, but updated for the new faster fighters and larger, better-armed bombers. The basis of all RAF fighter tactics was the squadron of 12 aircraft. This was divided into two flights of six aircraft, each able to operate independently. Each flight was further divided into two sections of three aircraft, though this was for tactical sake and the sections were not expected to operate independently. It was set down that the sections would be in the “Vic” formation with the aircraft in the centre ahead of the other two.

There were three basic types of attack authorised by Fighter Command. The No.1 Attack was for use by a flight or squadron against a lone enemy bomber. The fighters would form up in line astern behind and below the enemy. The squadron leader attacked first, closing to 400 yards, firing a short burst and then peeling away to allow the next fighter to attack in similar fashion. The first fighter would then turn away and return to the rear of the line astern.

The No.2 Attack was for use by a flight attacking a formation of bombers. The flight would approach the enemy from the rear and the two sections would separate when about 800 yards from the enemy. Each section would then swerve outward to approach the enemy from a rear flank. After closing to 400 ayrds and firing a burst, the sections would peel outward, then return to repeat the manoeuvre.

The No.3 Attack envisaged a flight approaching a large formation of bombers from the rear with the two sections in line abreast. Again the fighters were to close, fire and peel away.

The No.4 Attack envisaged that a squadron of turret fighters would fly alongside the enemy bomber formation and fire at them from the beam. This would break up the bomber formations, allowing the single-seat fighters to dart in and pick off the stragglers one at a time.

It should be noted that the optimum firing range was set at 400 yards since it was thought that this provided a sensible balance between the accuracy of the guns and the ability of a pilot to react at the combat speeds of a Hurricane fighter. Ten machine guns in the wings of all RAF fighters were angled so that the streams of bullets they fired would meet at a single point 400 yards in front of the aircraft.

The tactics worked well enough in peacetime practice combats, but they did rely on two very big assumptions. The first was that the enemy bombers would behave as the RAF trained its own bomber squadrons to behave. This was to fly straight and level in a tight formation so that the defensive guns of each aircraft could cover the next. The second assumption was that there would be no escorting fighters. Given the distance from Germany to England this latter was a reasonable premise, but as the fighting over Dunkirk showed, the German fighters were actually based at mobile airfields close to the front line and very few Luftwaffe bomber formations went into battle without a fighter escort.

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

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Video for the book Food and Drink in Leicestershire

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Bomber Harris leaves Lincolnshire

The collapse of France and the Battle of Britain that followed brought profound changes to Bomber Command in Lincolnshire. As ever, the men serving in the county were ready for the challenge and proved able to meet it.

First to be affected was the popular commander of 5 Group, Arthur Harris. His efficiency and hard work had been noticed by Charles Portal, head of Bomber Command. When Portal was promoted to Chief of the Air Staff he asked Harris to join him as his deputy with special responsibility for supervising the design and production of bombers. Harris left Lincolnshire with a heavy heart, but kept in contact with many of his men and watched their progress with interest. It was noticeable that in later years, whenever Harris needed a man for a difficult assignment, he turned first to men who had served under him in Lincolnshire.

Harris stayed at the Air Ministry for only a few months before going to America to advise the aircraft industry there on the demands of modern air warfare. His time in London was significant for one incident more than any other. One night in December, Portal summoned Harris and other officers to the rooftop walk of Air Ministry in Westminster. The City of London and the East End were being pounded by hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers dropping high explosives and incendiaries. The ancient churches and modern office buildings went up in flames as London’s firemen struggled to control the all enveloping conflagration. The sky was red with flames towering hundreds of feet into the air.

Portal noticed that Harris alone was silent, glaring at the terrible sight laid out in front of the assembled senior officers.

“What do you think?” asked Portal.

Harris kept his eyes fixed on the burning city as he answered. “They are sowing the wind,” he said evenly. Harris left unsaid the rest of the Biblical quotation from the Book of Hosea, an Old Testament Prophet: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” 

Today a fine statue of Portal stands outside the Ministry of Defence in London. It shows him as so many of his close colleagues remember him, with his head lifted to stare at the skies to the southeast – the direction from which the German bombers came during the Blitz.

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

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The RAF bomb Sterkrade Oil Plant

By the time Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command, sent his main force of bombers back to Germany after the D-Day campaign things had changed. The photos brought back by high-flying Mosquitoes were providing the “boffins” with unparalleled details of potential targets. And the top secret “Ultra” code breaking station was providing much vital information.

It was soon clear that the Bomber Command campaign of area bombing German industrial cities was proving to be horribly effective at reducing German weapons output. There were still industrial centres that offered viable targets for area bombing, but there were now two new priorities. The first was oil, for the Reich had now lost control of the oilfields of southern Russia and was desperately short of fuel. Oil supply facilities had been a priority target for Bomber Command before, but the small targets involved had been difficult to hit at night.

Nothing had changed by 1944, which was why a force of Halifaxes of 463 Squadron left Foulsham on 6 October to bomb the oil plant of Sterkrade in daylight. On his 18th sortie was Sergeant Cecil Baldwin the bombaimer. On the immediate approach to the target the aircraft was hit by a flak shell that started a major fire. The pilot, Flying officer Edward McGindle, ordered the crew to bale out, but as the third man dropped clear a second flak shell hit the aircraft wounding Baldwin slightly and the navigator more seriously.

Baldwin reported to McGindle that the navigator was too badly wounded to use his parachute, then turned to bind the man’s wounds. The pilot decided to try to reach Norfolk in the damaged aircraft. He turned away to the west, ordering the wireless operator, Sergeant Edward Whelan, to tackle the fire. Baldwin, who had had some elementary training as a navigator took over the wounded man’s station and navigated the aircraft back cross the North Sea to England.

The flight engineer, Sergeant Stuart Soames had meanwhile been trying to keep the damaged port inner engine going, but eventually gave up the struggle and switched it off. He then walked to the rear of the aircraft to inspect the damage, reporting back that the tail control surfaces were badly shot about and most of the fuselage skin burnt away. He then nursed the wounded man for the rest of the trip. It was not until the aircraft crossed the coast that Baldwin told Soames that he had been wounded, by which time he had lost so much blood that he passed out. McGindle managed to put the damaged bomber down safely at his home base.

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

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Stirling Bridge - The build up to war 1296

The Battle of Stirling Bridge has a place in Scottish folklore. After years of growing English influence and interference in the affairs of Scotland, the ordinary people rose against the outsiders. At Stirling Bridge the men of Scotland proved they could defeat the English.

After the Battle of The Standard, Scotland underwent dramatic changes. The Western Isles were won back from the independent power of the Viking Lord of the Isles and the outer islands taken from the Norwegian kings. Loyalty to the Scottish king was enforced throughout the Highlands, though the semi-independent chieftains continued to make their own laws and to fight their own private wars.

Successive kings gave a number of Anglo-Norman knights lands in Scotland and made them powerful nobles. In return the nobles taught the Lowland Scots the new tactics of mounted warfare from Europe. Among the most powerful of this new barony were the Bruce and Balliol families, both originally from Normandy but now based largely in England. These families held lands in both England and Scotland, which fact did not matter much while the two kingdoms were at peace with each other, but was to prove a cause of some trouble in the future. Opposed to what was seen as inroads of English culture and sympathy which these men represented were the old nobility of the Picts, Scots and Britons led by the Comyn family.

In 1286 disaster struck Scotland. King Alexander III died when his horse stumbled over a cliff. The only legitimate heir was his infant granddaughter, Margaret, who was in Norway. A Regency Council was established to rule the kingdom until “The Maid of Norway”, as she was known, was adult.

It was at this point that King Edward I of England took a hand. The Kings of England were now far more powerful than they previously were. They had inherited vast lands in France  and had almost entirely subdued the Welsh. The English economy was booming and the population was increasing rapidly. Filled with self-confidence and a belief in the power of England, King Edward saw the Scots’ misfortune as an opportunity. He suggested that his son, the future Edward II, should marry young Queen Margaret. The Scots nobles extracted a promise that Scots laws and customs would be respected, and then agreed.

But in 1290 the Maid of Norway died. There was no direct heir and no fewer than 12 Scottish nobles announced that they had a claim to the throne. Unable to resolve the conflicting claims by themselves, the Scots asked King Edward to choose the rightful king. In November, at Berwick Castle, Edward rejected the claims of all except John Balliol and Robert Bruce, both of them from the new Anglo-Norman nobility. Edward finally chose Balliol as the King of Scotland, having first extracted a promise from Balliol that he would recognise Edward as his overlord.

Neither Balliol nor the other Scottish nobles thought the promise anything more than a vague undertaking not to attack England. But Edward was taking it seriously and began issuing orders to Balliol. In 1296 the Scots repudiated the agreement, signed an alliance with France and began preparing for war. Edward, however, moved first. He captured and destroyed Berwick then led his army into Scotland before his enemies could gather enough men to face him. The few Scots who had mustered to defend Edinburgh were brushed aside in a fight on the banks of the Spotts Burn near Dunbar. Balliol was captured and sent to the Tower of London. To show his determination that Scottish independence was over, Edward removed from Scone Abbey the sacred stone on which all Kings of Scots had been crowned. He sent it to Westminster Abbey to be placed beneath his own throne.

In the autumn of 1296 Edward returned to England. He left behind John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who had won the fight at Dunbar, together with a tax official named Cressingham and a lawyer Ormsby. Unfortunately for all concerned, Surrey promptly fell ill and for months was unable to leave his room. This left Scotland in the hands of Cressingham whose greed for other people’s money was legendary and Ormsby who knew little about Scots law and cared less. By the time Surrey had recovered to realise how his subordinates were behaving it was too late. Scotland was in revolt.

Most of the Anglo-Norman nobility of the Lowlands remained quiet, worried about their lucrative estates, but the Douglas and Stewart families expelled English garrisons from their lands and Robert Bruce, son of the Bruce who had lost the throne to Balliol, soon joined them. The heart of the rebellion, however, was in the wilder hill country around Selkirk and Moray. The rising in Moray was led by a knight named Sir William Murray and that around Selkirk by another member of the minor gentry – Sir William Wallace.

Wallace’s background is rather obscure. He had received an education typical of the less wealthy knights of the time and had certainly travelled beyond his own country. His surname marks him out as a member of an old Strathclyde family which could trace its ancestry back to the days before Strathclyde was ruled by the King of Scots. He is said to have held lands in Renfrewshire, but is also linked to lands around Stirling.

Wherever he came from, Wallace got involved in a fight with some English soldiers near Dundee. It is said one of them insulted or struck Wallace’s wife, for which the Scotsman killed him. Instantly outlawed, Wallace took to the hills and gathered a band of other Scots who had suffered at the hands of the English. He led a successful raid on English barracks at Ayr, then captured and burnt Lanark where he executed the English sheriff Hazelrigg. By August 1297 Wallace had joined forces with Murray and had captured or expelled all the English north of the Forth except those at Dundee,which he had under siege.

Faced by a popular revolt, Surrey gathered the English soldiers in Scotland together and marched to Irvine, where he forced the submission of most Scottish nobles, before moving on to relieve Dundee. At Stirling, Surrey found his path blocked by the army of Wallace.

This is an extract from England vs Scotland by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Video for the book Heroes of RAF Bomber Command in Lincolnshire

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The Strange Behaviour of the Spartans at the Olympic Games

The Spartans were the most feared warriors in the ancient world. They routinely outfought armies three times the size of their own. And they did so with a steady courage and discipline that amazed all who saw them. When it came to fighting, every body wanted to have the Spartans on their side.

But it must be said that the Spartans were a strange people.

Their contemporaries in ancient Greece recognised that they were particularly peculiar. Writers went out of their way to comment on Spartan customs, Spartan dress, Spartan food and how odd it all was. For a start, the Spartans gave their girls an education every bit as good as that they gave their boys. And, for an ancient Greek, you don’t get much odder than that!

An event at the Olympic Games some years after the Persian invasion shows quite clearly an attitude among other Greeks to the Spartans. An old man was trying to find a place to sit down, limping and stumbling as he did so. He walked haltingly along the front of the grassy banks where the spectators sat, looking for a spare patch of ground, but there was none and nobody was prepared to give up his seat. Then the old man reached the section reserved for Spartiates. At once, every single man stood up to offer the old man his place. The rest of the audience broke out into applause for the Spartiate’s behaviour. The old man looked around and called out. “I see what this means. All Greeks know what is right – but only the Spartiates do it.”

To understand Sparta and the Spartans, it is necessary to understand that theirs was a society geared for war. The state had been born in war, formed by war and existed solely for war. And the entire society was dedicated to winning wars.

This is an extract from The Battle of Thermopylae by Rupert Matthews

Sunday, 5 September 2010

England's land defences against the Spanish Armada in 1588

Those at sea knew that the Armada had been beaten by the morning of 9 August. Those on shore knew nothing of the kind. The last they had known for certain was that the Armada had fled east to escape the fireships on the night of 8 August. Next morning the English fleet had set off in pursuit. Since then there had been nothing but stray sightings and occasional reports.

In England the defences remained on full alert. Queen Elizabeth did not have much in the way of an army as we would understand it, but that does not mean that the kingdom was defenceless - far from it. In addition to the handful of regiments under royal control, Elizabeth also had a number of fortresses and strongpoints in her ownership and garrisoned by her men.

Some of these fortresses were rather old and obsolete, such as the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. Others were of the very latest design and equipped with the most modern of weapons. Berwick was probably the greatest of these modern strongholds, but smaller forts were scattered along the coasts.

While the older castles and fortified towns were of limited use in warfare, they did provide vital support services. Troops could be stationed there in comfort, and administrative staff had their headquarters offices there. Their prime purpose, however, was as arsenals. Huge quantities of swords, halberds, pikes, bills, shields, helmets and guns were stored in these castles ready for when they might be used. They also contained great chests of coin to pay for supplies, men and munitions when war came.

The newer forts were expected to withstand the most determined attacks made by the most modern of armies. These fortresses were very different from the old castles with their towering walls and turrets. The new style of fortification had been developed in the early 16th century as siege guns became more effective and easier to drag about the countryside on campaign. In effect, the anti-cannon defences were sunk down into the ground rather than standing up above it.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada by Rupert Matthews.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great is one of the few figures from the ancient world who is widely known today. His reputation as a military genius was established by defeating armies far larger than his own with relentless consistency. His exploits in conquering most of the known world were stupendous. And yet it is easy to forget, looking back on his lifetime, that there was a time when Alexander was an untried and relatively inexperienced youth. That time is the subject of this book.

Alexander unexpectedly inherited the Kingdom of Macedon when his father, Philip II, was murdered. At the time Alexander was only 20 years old. He had fought alongside his father on several campaign, but had never held an independent command. Outside the Macedonian royal family he was known only as a good-looking boy who could be charming when he wanted to be, who read Homer’s heroic verses with passion but who drank more than was good for him. Those opposed to Macedonian power caricatured him as a beardless boy who dreamed of the deeds of ancient legend. Time would show that Alexander was far more than that, but at the time the view was widely held and had much evidence to support it.

The Granicus Campaign would establish Alexander as a capable and talented commander, though it also revealed him as one liable to make mistakes by getting carried away with excitement.

The story of Alexander’s career is relatively well known. The events were dramatic, exciting and far-reaching in their importance so they were well recorded at the time and have been much explored by historians since. Hollywood has made two biopics about Alexander the Great.

What marks all these accounts is that they tend to concentrate on the political side of the conflict. Battles and campaigns, though they are often dealt with in some detail, are seen as background to and results of the intrigues and machinations of the rulers and politicians who fill the pages of these writings. This is understandable, for the ancient sources that we have focus on pretty much the same things.

For a military historian, this can all be rather frustrating. The reasons for battles are given clearly enough and who won them, but only very rarely is there any discussion about how the battles were fought. We read almost nothing about weapons, tactics or logistics. But how were the armies kept supplied with food? How did a Macedonian soldier fight? Why were Alexander’s cavalry so devastating in battle?

This book is an attempt to explain to the general reader the reality of warfare in the year 334bc. It seeks to give a plausible recreation of the tactics used in the Granicus Campaign and to put them into the context of the time. It explains what the weapons were like and how they were used in action. It describes the usual tactics of the different military units involved and how these would have impacted on each other in battle. I have walked the battlefields on foot and have handled replica weapons at some length. I have then used this information to put together an account of the campaign itself.

This is an extract from Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews