Thursday, 28 April 2011

War comes to the RAF in Sussex

Despite its designated role as a second line of defence, Sussex got off to a flying start when the war actually broke out. Within hours of the news breaking that Germany had invaded Poland, the head of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, was in Tangmere. He had come to see squadron Leader P.  “Bull” Halahan, the commander of No.1 Squadron and he had a lot to say.

No.1 Squadron was one of those Hurricane squadrons earmarked for service in France. Preparations had been made weeks before to transport the squadron staff and all its ground equipment to France. Now Dowding came to give Bull Halahan some very specific instructions personally. He was not, Dowding said, to risk his aircraft or men unnecessarily. There was to be no fancy flying, just workmanlike missions. Above all, Halahan should expect no reinforcements. He had his 12 aircraft and 12 pilots which was what Dowding had been forced to promise the French. No more would go to France. Every fighter was going to be needed at home to protect British cities and British bases from attack.

Halahan did not record his reactions to this news. He led his squadron out to France to await the German onslaught. That left only No.43 Squadron at Tangmere, though they were soon joined by No.92 Squadron.


Monday, 25 April 2011

The Luftwaffe's Steinbock Offensive on Britain in 1944

As 1944 opened the long-planned invasion of France by combined British, Empire and American armies was becoming close to reality. England was groaning under the weight of men, tanks, guns and supplies – a contemporary joke had it that southern England might soon sink.

By January 1944 Fighter Command had achieved a clear superiority over the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain, the North Sea, the Low Countries and northern France. That superiority had not yet become the total control of the skies that the planners of D-Day demanded had to be achieved, at least temporarily, but things were moving in the right direction. Yet even as the Luftwaffe was being defeated in the skies, Fighter Command was broken up.

On 15 November 1943 RAF Fighter Command was divided into two. The nightfighter Beaufighters and Mosquitoes, plus the older models of Spitfire and other fighters were formed into the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) force. Their task was to defend the skies over Britain from attack by German bombers by day or night.

The increasingly effective ground attack Typhoons and Hurribombers were allocated to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF), along with some lighter bombers from Bomber Command. Their role was to attack those targets on the Continent that it was necessary to destroy before the invasion could take pale. These were chiefly transport links, but also coastal defences and supply depots.

The commander of Fighter Command, Leigh-Mallory, was transferred to take over the 2nd TAF, while the ADGB was given to Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill. He would soon be very busy.

Soon after dusk on 17th January British radar station began to pick up large formations of German aircraft taking off from the Low Countries and Denmark. Then everything suddenly went blank. The Germans had developed a new and highly effective method of jamming radar, which they named düppel. Behind that mask a total of 227 bombers flew towards London.

Fortunately for the British, the jamming affected only the ground based radar, not the air-to-air radar sets carried by the Beaufighter and Mosquito nightfighters. In all 25 German aircraft were brought down by anti-aircraft guns or nightfighters. This loss rate of over 10% could not be sustained, but the new assault had been ordered personally by Hitler.

This Steinbock offensive was designed to damage cities and towns in England in the hope that this would somehow delay the expected Allied invasion of France. In fact it caused the deaths of 1556 civilians, and seriously injured more than 3,000. The losses to the Luftwaffe were heavy, around 300 bombers shot down out of 700 employed. The offensive petered out in early May.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Bomber Harris and Dambuster Gibson in Lincolnshire in 1939

Bomber Command’s 5 Group, based in Lincolnshire, was lucky in 1939 that it had two of the finest airmen of the war on its strength. Throughout the conflict, the thinking of these two men would have a profound impact on the bomber force based in Lincolnshire, and on how it was to perform.

The first was Arthur Travers Harris who, when war broke out, was the commanding officer of 5 Group, which was based in Lincolnshire. Although he was later to be widely known as “Bomber” Harris, the tough, taciturn officer was at this point rather better known for his enthusiasm for mine-laying.

Born in 1892, Harris had moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1910 in search of adventure and a fortune. He tried his hand at gold mining, wagon driving and cattle driving before getting a job on a remote tobacco farm. When news arrived at his settlement in 1914 that war had broken out, Harris at once volunteered to serve in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler. He spent the following months footslogging through the African bush as the British colonies went to war against the German colonies.

When the colonial campaigns were over, Harris volunteered for service outside Africa. Determined never again to march to war, he transferred to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. He proved to be a natural pilot: his instructor passing him fit for a solo flight after just 30 minutes in the air. Harris spent the remainder of the war as a fighter pilot guarding London from Zeppelin raids, interspersed with spells on the Western Front. After the war, Harris gained a promotion to Squadron Leader, which involved changing to flying bombers and to being stationed in India. After some years in India, Harris returned to Britain to take command of 58 Squadron which he trained so well that they won the RAF bombing championship and logged more night-flying hours than the rest of the RAF put together.

Harris then moved to the Air Ministry where he was put in charge of Operations and developing new weapons. It was here that Harris began the research programme that would eventually lead to the production of the mighty four-engined bombers of the later war years. Of more immediate use he sponsored the development of a marine mine that could be dropped from an aircraft in enemy waters. In 1938 Harris was promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal and sent to command the RAF in Palestine and Transjordan. The dry heat had a terrible effect on Harris’s health, so he was brought back to Britain to take command of 5 Group.

Harris was a supremely capable airman who had a sound and instinctive grasp of air combat. Throughout his career he was determined that his men would have the best equipment and training that was possible, and was dismissive of new fangled ideas until they proved their worth. In part, this gave Harris a reputation for being rather old-fashioned and doctrinaire. This was far from the truth. It was simply that Harris knew the dangers and risks his men would face in enemy skies. Time and again he refused to risk men’s lives unless he was certain that the effort was in a good cause. He came close to turning down the dambuster raid, perhaps the most famous event in Lincolnshire’s war, until convinced by Barnes Wallis that the bouncing bombs would actually work.

He was not, however, a particularly chatty or approachable man. He enjoyed his food and, even in 1939, was becoming rather portly as his job kept him increasingly tied to a desk. Indeed, he was known in Lincolnshire as “Tubby” by the men he commanded and the name persisted here even when the newspapers came to call him “Bomber”. Nor was Harris one to spend time visiting stations and bases on morale-boosting duties. He was firmly of the opinion that both he and his men had more important things to be getting on with. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Harris proved to be popular with those serving under him. He trusted them to do their jobs, and they appreciated that trust.

There was a second man in 5 Group when war broke out who would later become one of the most skilled and famous squadron leaders of all time, though in September 1939 he was one pilot among many. This was Guy Gibson, flying with 83 Squadron. Like Harris, he was a gifted pilot and, again like Harris, he was a natural leader of men. While Harris toiled to get aircraft and equipment for his men to use on realistic targets, Gibson was working to improve bomb-aiming and air-gunnery at a squadron level. The partnership was one that was to last.


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The RAF bomb Gelsenkirchen oil plant 1944

Oil was a major target for RAF Bomber Command in 1944. One oil target bombed in daylight was the refinery at Gelsenkirchen, attacked by 462 Squadron flying out of Norfolk on 12 September. The bombaimer on one of the Halifaxes was Sergeant John Gibson, who was on the 30th and final flight of his first tour of duty. The bombers had been promised partial cloud cover over the target, but they found the sky bereft of any cloud when they arrived. Naked and open to the defences though they were, the squadron went in on their bombing run. A flak shell exploded beneath Gibson’s aircraft shattering the perspex canopy through which he was peering to aim the bombs. Shards of perspex peppered his face, blinding him with blood and debris. Despite this, Gibson calmly kept counting down to the moment of release. Although unable to see what he was doing, Gibson managed to release his bombs on cue and alongside the other aircraft so that they must had landed close to if not on the target. His calm counting when in great pain was so effective that the rest of the crew did not realise anything was wrong until Gibson called them on the intercom to report that he would appreciate a bit of help.


Monday, 18 April 2011

The Nechtansmere Campaign, England vs Scotland 685

The Battle of Nechtansmere took place some centuries before either England or Scotland were united kingdoms. It was, nevertheless, a defining moment in the warfare between the two peoples for it set a clear limit to the extent of English settlement in what is now southern Scotland.

By the 680s, the English kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the Humber to the Forth and from the North Sea to the Pennines. It also included stretches of countryside west of the Pennines north of Chester. The kings of Northumbria were the most powerful in Britain, but they now sought to extend their control north into lands held by the Picts, Britons and Scots. At this time the Picts inhabited the lands north of the Forth and Clyde and the island of Skye. The British kingdom of Clyde occupied the lands bounded by the Solway Firth, the Clyde and the Cheviots. The Kingdom of the Scots occupied the islands and peninsulas of Argyll, Mull and the surrounding area.

In 655 King Oswy of Northumbria launched a major invasion into the territory of his northern neighbours. He defeated the Scots and Britons, and demanded regular tribute of gold and silver. The Picts were crushed and divided. The southern Picts were put under a puppet ruler and their lands opened up to extensive English settlement. The northern Picts remained free, but also had to pay tribute and they were restricted to the Highlands. When Oswy died in 670 the northern Picts took the opportunity to marry the heiress to their kingdom to Bridei mac Beli, from the royal family of the Clyde Britons, and so forge an alliance. The new King of Northumbria, Egferth, was too busy establishing his power to interfere.

In 681 Bridei, by now King of the Picts, took over the Orkneys. Feeling confident, he refused to pay tribute to Northumbria. Egferth could not ignore such a blatant challenge to his power. He gathered an army and marched north in the spring of 685. His enemies were waiting for him near the modern town of Forfar.

Although records of the campaign are scanty, it is relatively easy to reconstruct the routes that brought the rival armies to the place of battle. Bridei and the northern Picts were clearly determined to free the southern Picts from the puppet rulers who did English bidding, and to conquer the English villages and farms established after Oswy’s conquests. As an opening move, Bridei marched south from his powerbase around Aberdeen. He ordered provocative raiding of Strathmore, where the native Picts outnumbered the immigrant English.

Egferth marched out of the English fortress of Edinburgh and along the southern shores of the Firth of Forth. This area had been part of English Northumbria for over a generation and Egferth was marching through friendly territory. Turning north, Egferth crossed the Forth near Stirling and marched into Strathallan. This area had seen the densest English settlements after the conquests of Oswy and the English probably outnumbered the Pictish population.

Egferth was following the old Roman road which had been built many years before to supply Roman forces on their patrols into hostile Pictish territory. Even after some generations of neglect, the road would have made for easier marching than dirt tracks. The Roman road would have taken him through Perth and then up the valley of the Isla to Inchtuthil. Here lay the Roman fortress of Pinnata Castra which, although ruined, would have provided a secure forward base for the English army.

It is unclear if the English king realised at this point that he was facing a full scale invasion rather than a larger than usual raid. Certainly, Egferth behaved as if he did not realise the true strength of his enemies. Nor did he have any real idea of where the Picts were. The Picts, on the other hand, knew exactly where the English were and how many had marched north. They set a careful ambush for the English along the route they knew Egferth would choose on his march from the ruined Roman fortress towards the west coast.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Spanish Armada, A Campaign in Context - The Video

In this, the fourth book of Spellmount's "Campaign in Context" series, Rupert Matthews looks to the ill-fated invasion of England by King Philip II of Spain. The Armada of 22 warships and 108 converted merchant vessels sailed under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1588, but found itself harried by storms, fireships, and the redoubtable English fleet. In "The Spanish Armada", Rupert Matthews considers the characters of the commanders such as Francis Drake, Medina, and the opposing monarchs, and as with his previous titles in the series he carefully balances the evidence from textual sources with knowledge of the theatre and reconstructed weaponry in order to explain the events of the battle to the general reader, and the context in which it took place.


Thermopylae, Spartans and Persians prepare for battle

Behind the Phocian Wall that blocked the pass at Thermopylae, Leonidas King of Sparta was likewise getting ready for the battle. He brought a young female goat to the wall, watched by the commanders of the other troops. The flautists who played the marching songs of the Spartans began to play sacred hymns. Leonidas called out to the skies, invoking the aid of Artemis Agrotera, who was the goddess of hunters and the forest. Then he killed the goat with a single stroke of his sword. The religious preliminaries over, he set to work ordering his forces to meet the attack that was obviously coming.

Xerxes had already decided on the plan of attack and must have discussed it at some length with his senior officers. Foremost among these were Mardonius and Hydarnes. Mardonius had commanded the army that had put down the revolt of the Ionian Greeks and had long been a supporter of war with Athens and Sparta. He was the son of Gobryas, one of the six Persian noblemen who had organised the coup that put Darius on the throne. This made Mardonius a member of one of the richest and most noble families in Persia, so it is no surprise that he was married to the daughter of Xerxes. He was now in overall command of the infantry.

Hydarnes was in command of the Immortals, the elite unit of the entire army and had responsibility for the 1,000 Royal Guards although these men were under the direct control of Xerxes and stayed with him at all times. Like Mardonius, Hydarnes was a highly placed Persian nobleman. His father, also named Hydarnes, had joined Gobryas in the coup that put Xerxes’ father on the throne. He was never far from the Great King and there are clues that he was more of a professional soldier than some others on the expedition.

The other two men who formed the high command with Xerxes were the brothers Harmamithras and Tithaeus. These noblemen commanded the cavalry, so their men were not to be heavily involved at Thermopylae. No doubt the cavalry were busy elsewhere, perhaps patrolling the surrounding areas, keeping an eye on the Thessalians to the rear or scouting the roads to the west. The brothers were sons of Datis, the commander of the Persian army at Marathon who had been killed by a Spartan executioner after the battle. They would have had a very keen and personal interest in the Spartan hoplites now facing the Persians at Thermopylae.

Of rather more immediate importance was one of the second rank commanders: Tigranes. This man was a member of the royal family, but seems to have come from a fairly junior branch as nobody bothers to record the names of his parents. Perhaps he was illegitimate. In 490bc, Tigranes was in command of the Median infantry. The Medes were tough mountain men who were counted almost as Persians within the empire, enjoying many of the honours and privileges of the ruling nation.

It was Tigranes that Xerxes now ordered to advance with his Medes to attack the Phocian Wall. The Medes had been chosen by Xerxes and his commanders as they believed these men had the best chance of success.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

The 16th Century Galleass of the Spanish Armada

The galleass was a hybrid warship which first appeared in the 1520s and remained in use until the early 17th century. Essentially it was an oared galley fitted with an extra deck on which were mounted cannon. It was an attempt to produce a ship able to move in dead calms, or to move directly upwind, which had the firepower of a galleon. It was first produced in the Mediterranean, where it remained most popular, but within a decade or two was being used in Atlantic waters. Outside of the Mediterranean the main use of this type of ship was as a harbour guard. The oars enabled her to work in or out of a port no matter what the wind direction or state of the tides, while her guns made her able to halt any ship that was attempting to evade customs or seeking to leave without paying harbour dues. The English used them at major ports as early as 1535 and in 1588 London was guarded by two of these ships. The galleasses used in northern waters tended to be quite small and restricted to inshore work. The oarsmen were free men, hired at a rate of pay similar to that of an unskilled farm labourer. Galleasses from Italy and Spain - including those sailing with the Armada - were substantially larger warships that were expected to take their place in large scale sea battles. The oars on these ships were manned by slaves or convicts. There were two main varieties of galleass, those with the guns below the oars and those with the guns above the oars. Having the guns located lower down made for a more stable craft and enabled larger guns to be carried, but meant that the oars had to be lifted in unison out of the water every time the guns were fired. It is thought, but by no means certain, that all the Armada galleasses had large guns fitted below the oars.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Royal Bodyguard of Alexander the Great

The Bodyguard were all young men drawn from the nobility of Macedonia. There were probably 200 of them when the Granicus campaign began, but their number subsequently fluctuated widely. Perhaps there was no fixed number. Alexander may have appointed men to the unit as and when he wanted to show favour to individuals or families.

This bodyguard certainly had the task of guarding the king, and it may have been divided into seven sections - one for each day of the week. Beyond that the bodyguards were used to carry messages, attend the king and his generals and undertake various ceremonial and other duties. There is some indication that the bodyguard formed a sort of unofficial training school for army officers. The men of the bodyguard would certainly have been close to the decision-making process at the highest level and under the eyes of the experienced senior officers. We know of several higher commanders who had previously served as bodyguards, but we do not know of any who had not. The bodyguards seem to have been equipped as hypaspists and, on a few occasions, are recorded as fighting alongside them in battle.

In charge of the bodyguards were seven Royal Bodyguards. These men came from the same group as did the commanders of the larger units in the army. Indeed, some unit commanders became Royal Bodyguards, and Royal Bodyguards became commanders. Individual senior officers could serve as either at the king’s pleasure. The Royal Bodyguards had the duty of organising the bodyguard, but they were more important than that.

The Royal Bodyguards were in constant attendance on the king. In effect they were his war council. While the final decision in any circumstance lay with the king, he would ask for advice from his Royal Bodyguards. Indeed, the Royal Bodyguards felt that they had the right to give advice whether or not it was asked for. It is likely that the king chose these men for their technical knowledge or experience. He would seek to have one who knew about the cavalry, another who was an expert on siege warfare, a third who had visited the territory through which the army was moving and so forth. That at least is the theory. There must have always been a temptation for the king to appoint men who would agree with him rather than those who would give useful advice. Philip does not seem to have fallen into this trap, nor does Alexander - at least in his early years.

Waiting on the king and the Royal Bodyguards as servants were the royal pages. These were boys aged between about 10 and 15 who came from the noble families of Macedonia and the associated tribes that owed allegiance to the Macedonian kings. It seems that recruitment into the royal pages was obligatory rather than being either a choice or an honour.

There was probably an element of cold statecraft in this institution. Noblemen and the leaders of hill tribes were surely less likely to rebel or cause trouble if their sons were with the king. The Macedonian kings had, in the past, been ruthless with the families of those who caused them trouble. Imprisonment was the least that could be expected, execution was more likely.

On the other hand, the pages were given a sound education in philosophy, mathematics and other sciences. They were also taught all the skills needed in warfare, both on the practical fighting level and in the fields of command and organisation. They earned their keep, as it were, by working as the personal servants to the king and his high commanders. We know that they ran the king’s bath, served his food at table and - at least in the days of the womanising Philip - escorted the concubine chosen for the night to the royal bedchamber. They wore a distinctive uniform which might have included a white cloak with a red border.

When they grew too old to be royal pages, the young men would be assessed by the king. They would then be allocated to the bodyguards - presumably if destined for command roles - or to the companion cavalry or the hypaspists.

Fitting somehow into this inner circle of pages, bodygaurds and secretaries were men known as the King’s Friends. We do not know how many of these men there were, nor is it entirely clear if they were a distinct group or if the title was a rank. Perhaps the most senior of the pages or bodyguards were King’s Friends.

Finally there was a select group of workmen who had the job of looking after the royal tent. This was an impressive structure made of wooden poles and linen or woollen cloth. It contained several rooms, including among others the royal bedchamber, the chamber of the Royal Bodyguards - presumably a council chamber of some kind, the royal dining room, the outer chamber, the guardroom.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Historyman in Ticehurst

This morning I motored down to Ticehurst in Sussex to speak to the local Probus Group. I only had 24 hours notice as the speaker they had booked for the event had been forced to pull out to attend a funeral. I gave my talk on the Real St George, and hopefully they were not too disappointed not to be learning about the fjords of northern Norway.

The High Command of the English army in 1346

The commander was Edward himself but his choice of senior officers was to have a profound influence on the way the campaign was to be fought. As convention dictated, Edward divided the army into three more or less self-contained divisions for supply, movement and tactical purposes.

The central division was commanded by the king himself, the advance guard was given to his eldest son, Prince Edward who is better known as the Black Prince. The rearguard was put under the command of the Bishop of Durham and the Earl of Arundel. The Earl of Northampton, who had been brought back from Brittany the previous autumn, was appointed Constable while the Earl of Warwick became Marshal.

The Black Prince was, if anything, even more devoted to the concept of chivalry than was King Edward himself. In 1346 he was aged just 16 and although everyone knew him to be tall, tough and handsome his military abilities were entirely untested. He could sit a horse well enough and was famously dextrous with his sword, but how he would behave when brought face to face with an enemy intent on killing him, nobody knew. Nor was the boy’s education over for he took with him on campaign his tutor Bartholomew Burghersh.

No doubt King Edward wanted to give his son and heir experience of command, but he was pragmatic enough not to risk the safety of one third of his army on the decisions of an inexperienced teenager. Edward gave his son some talented and experienced knights to act as his staff and advisors. Among these were Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir Thomas Ughtred, Sir Richard Stafford and the colourful figure of Sir Thomas Holland.

Sir Thomas Holland was more than twice the age of the Black Prince and one of the toughest and most respected knights in England. He had been active in the earlier campaigns against France and fought on Crusade against pagans in Prussia. He had lost an eye in battle and wore a large black eyepatch that covered not only the empty socket, but also the hideous scarring that surrounded it. Some years before the campaign began, he had become engaged to Joan, a young girl whose good looks earned her the nickname of The Fair Maid of Kent. Joan was heiress to the enormously wealthy Earl of Kent and a grand daughter of Edward I.

Before the actual wedding could take place, however, the Earl of Kent changed his mind and engaged Joan to the wealthy Earl of Salisbury. The resulting legal action was still dragging on when Edward summoned both Sir Thomas and Salisbury to join him in Portsmouth in the spring of 1346. There seems to have been no ill will between the two men.

Although the Black Prince was in nominal command of the advance guard throughout the campaign, nobody was in any doubt that real power lay in the hands of the older and more experienced men that Edward had put to serve with his son.

Putting Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham, in command of the rear guard might be though an odd decision by Edward. But in the 14th century men of the cloth were not necessarily men of peace. At this date Durham was a county palatine, meaning that it ran many elements of government for itself. Most importantly the Bishop of Durham was expected to organise his territories for defence against any Scottish invasion, so Hatfield would have brought plenty of experience in the organisational side of warfare to the army.

Durham was the Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1346. As such he was a key figure in the national government and so almost duty bound to follow the king wherever he went. In any case, Durham’s command was almost as nominal as that of the Black Prince. The rearguard had the earls of Arundel and Suffolk as joint second in command.

Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, was after the king probably the richest man in England. In 1346 he was aged 33 and had an impressive career behind him. His father had been executed on trumped up charges during the Mortimer regime in 1328, but Edward had ensured that young Richard inherited his father’s lands and titles intact. Trusted without hesitation by Edward, Arundel had been appointed Sheriff of Shropshire and chief justice of Wales, both posts that he had filled confidently and well. In 1341 scandal struck when he fell in love with the married Eleanor of Lancaster, sister to the Earl of Derby who was fighting so well in Aquitaine. Eleanor’s husband died conveniently in 1344 so, after allowing a suitable time for mourning, she married Arundel in 1345.

Superb administrator though he was, Arundel had never served in a major military campaign. Presumably he was there to look after the organisational side of things.

Arundel’s colleague, Robert Ufford, Earl of Suffolk was neither rich nor young. His rise to importance had begun when he joined the gang of younger men who helped Edward arrest Mortimer and end that baron’s rule. In 1346 Suffolk was 48 years old and at heart still a minor rural nobleman despite his elevation to an earldom in 1337 and the acquisition of the spreading landed estates that went with the title. He retained his links to his old home and friends and seems to have been popular with the lesser gentry.

Friday, 1 April 2011

William Tell and the crossbow

William Tell (fl.1307)
According to legend, Tell was a Swiss farmer living in Uri when Duke Albert II of Austria tried to impose his rule on the area. Tell refused to obey the new laws and taxes introduced by Albert’s governor Gessler. As a punishment, Tell was ordered to shoot an apple off the head of his own son using his crossbow. Tell succeeded, going on to kill Gessler and lead an uprising that expelled the Austrians.

Crossbow Factfile
Weight;    5 - 8kg
Length:    1.2 metres
Date:        ad900 - 1650
Range:     500 metres
Place:        Asia and Europe

Injuries and treatments
The bolts from a crossbow were heavier and wider than arrows from a bow. They too inflicted deep wounds, but the greater force of impact often caused broken bones or massive bruising and bloodloss. Crossbow bolts would kill instantly if they smashed into the skull, and would prove fatal if they struck the body.