Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Melton Mowbray Pies - Glory and Decline

In 1890 the pies hit the international trade. Cargo ships were by then being built with large refrigerated holds to transport quality meat - mostly lamb and mutton - from Australia and New Zealand to Britain. The idea was soon taken up by the beef merchants of North America, greatly boosting the demand for beef raised by cowboys in the Wild West. But the refrigerated ships needed some perishable product to take back again if they were to turn a profit. What better than a consignment of Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, or so thought the company of Evans and Hill. They packed up a crate of pies for chilling and sent them off to Borneo. It was the start of a highly profitable export trade.

But even as the pie bakers of Melton Mowbray were enjoying their boom years, the very basis of their trade was being undermined. The problem was two fold. First the numbers of inferior pies being produced outside the town was increasing. This led the public to mistrust the label “Melton Mowbray” as being synonymous with quality. No longer did buyers in shops across England gravitate toward a Melton Mowbray label when they wanted the best pork pie on offer.

Secondly, and most invidiously, the internal combustion engine had been invented. Motor cars and bikes remained inefficient and unreliable playthings of the rich until after the First World War. By 1920, however, motorised transport had become significantly more reliable, and it was becoming cheaper. A car was still out of the financial reach of most people, but increasingly doctors, lawyers, gentlemen and noblemen were coming to rely on their motor car to get them about. The process accelerated in the 1930s and by 1939 almost anyone who needed private transport - most people relied on public transport at this date - had abandoned a horse or horse and carriage in favour of a motor car.

Riding a horse was becoming what it is today: a sport. No longer did the dashing young A-listers and aspiring gentry desperate to show off their horses and horsemanship go hunting. Instead they took their motor cars down to Brighton for the weekend or drove off to have lunch at ‘roadhouses’, smart pubs and restaurants that dotted the main roads near large towns. There they would meet with other wealthy young types to show off their cars, talk about engine capacity and top speeds or simply to chat with like minded fashionable folk and hope to catch the eye of the young ladies who also flocked to such places.

Melton Mowbray remained a key pivot in the world of foxhunting, but that sport was increasingly confined to country types or to those townsfolk who still liked to ride as a hobby. Because the younger, smarter set from towns were no longer going to Melton Mowbray in large numbers, they were no longer able to enjoy the delights of the genuine pie in its home town. They no longer went home to tell their friends about the fantastic pies on offer. They no longer demanded a genuine Melton Mowbray Pork Pie to be served at their tables in place of whatever the local baker could turn out.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hitler and the Generals

When Hitler became President of Germany in 1934 he automatically became the head of the German armed forces. At that time the high command of the armed forces was a complex organisation of planners, staff officers and field commanders organised into a series of structures and chains of command supported by a feeling of officer corps solidarity. There was space for group decision making, discussion and even dissent, although once a decision had been made the command structure was such that it could be carried out quickly and efficiently. Hitler was to change everything. He wanted absolute power over the military. The way in which he achieved this was ultimately to drive some officers to resign, others to question their duties and some to attempt the murder of the Führer.

During the Nazi rise to power, the army officer corps were not wholly hostile to Hitler and his party. Indeed, Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch in Munich numbered the Great War hero General Erich von Ludendorff among its leaders. Nor were the generals opposed to one of the Nazi Party’s central policies, that the Versailles Treaty which ended the Great War was unfair and needed revising. The treaty had put severe constraints on the German military and many senior officers wanted to shake these off.

Once Hitler came to power, his desire to win over the military to whole-hearted support of himself was a dominant influence in persuading him to destroy the power of the Nazi brownshirt storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung or SA. The army officers jealously guarded the army’s traditional right to be the only body in Germany authorised to carry arms and, as such, the ultimate guarantors of the constitution. Under the Versailles Treaty the army was allowed to be only 100,000 men strong. Ernst Röhm, the SA leader, had 3 million followers in uniform and wanted his SA to form the basis of the armed might of Nazi Germany.

In July 1934 Hitler ordered the murders of Röhm and dozens of other leading SA men, together with the disbanding of large numbers of stormtroopers. The immediate reaction of the army officers was to support Hitler’s actions and welcome the overthrow of the SA. Some officers opposed the brutal and illegal methods used but most were prepared to overlook them.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Horatio Bottomley - MP and Swindler

Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933) was one of the most audacious and successful fraudsters in history. Not content with swindling people out of money, he set about making himself a highly respectable member of British society being elected to Parliament twice.

Bottomley was born in London in 1860 and grew up in an orphanage. He trained as a lawyer, but chose to go into the stock exchange. In 1888 he founded the Financial Times newspaper, now one of the most respected financial journals anywhere in the world. He established the newspaper as a reputable and independent commentary on the banking and stock market activity of the City of London, but also slipped in entirely fictitious stories that boosted the market price of stocks and the was trying to sell, or undermined the value of those he was trying to buy. He joined the Liberal Party and in 1905 was elected a Member of Parliament for Hackney.

In 1908 he was arrested by the police and charged with fraud relating to a number of Australian gold mining shares that he had been selling, but which were worthless. The case dragged on for four years before he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. The failure of the prosecution was largely due to the fact that Bottomley had kept almost no written records of his transactions. He had, instead, remembered the details of thousands of deals in his head. Although acquitted the details that had come out ruined his reputation in the City and politics. The Liberals ousted him from his seat.

When World War I broke out, Bottomley turned a magazine he was running, John Bull, into an unofficial journal for the rank and file soldiers. As the numbers of men in the army increased, so did the sales of John Bull. Bottomley went on a series of recruitment drives, using his magnificent oratorical skills and flair for publicity to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers into the army - and so to become purchasers of his magazine. Throughout the war he maintained a highly patriotic stance, while earning a fortune from the magazine and the products it promoted. On several occasions he was accused of profiteering from these products, but each time he sued for libel and in most actions he won. So good was Bottomley’s grasp of the law and so powerful an advocate was he that after one trial the judge, Mr Justice Henry Hawkins, offered Bottomley his wig.

In 1918 he stood as an independent candidate for his old seat of Hackney and won a landslide victory. He then began the John Bull Victory Bond Club, a form of savings club in which investors were not paid interest, but instead given the chance to win a large cash prize each month. In 1921 he was charged with fraudulently siphoning funds out of the Bond Club into his own bank account. This time he was convicted and sent to prison for seven years.

After his release, Bottomley went on the stage with a one man show in which he recounted the story of his life, recreated amusing courtroom events and explained how his fraud had worked so as to warn the public against other fraudsters. He was by these means amassing a third fortune when he died suddenly in 1933.

A prison visitor came across Horatio Bottomley at work stitching mailbags and said “Ah, Bottomley, sewing?” Bottomley replied “No, reaping.”

Monday, 22 August 2011

Messerschmitt Month - October 1940

The Messerschmitt 110 had proved to be something of a disappointment during the Battle of Britain. It had been designed as a long-range fighter to protect bombers on missions beyond the range of the Messerschmitt Bf109. In the event such missions had not proved necessary due to the sudden collapse of France. In any case, the Me110 had been outclassed in combat by the Spitfire and Hurricane. Despite the impressive hitting power of its two cannon and four machine guns, the Me110 was neither fast nor agile enough to match the RAF’s single-seat fighters.

The Me110 was, however, able to fly higher and faster than any bomber and its range was greater than that of the Bf109. Its use in decoy raids during the Battle of Britain had shown that it stood a good chance of out-running British fighters if they were seen in time. Ever since it had been designed, Messerschmitt had had a conversion kit to turn the long-range fighter into a light bomber by the addition of under-wing bombracks. Now the bulk of the Me110s were withdrawn from combat to be converted. By early in October 250 converted fighter-bombers were ready for action.

These fighter-bombers proved to be a real problem for Fighter Command. Used against targets near the coast they could fly in, bomb and get out again before the RAF had time to respond. Used in small groups, or even singly, they could penetrate quite a long way inland by flying at low level to deliver surprise assaults on all manner of targets. Carrying a maximum of 2,000lb of bombs, and considerably less on long raids, the Me110 was never able to inflict serious damage on its targets.

These raids did, however, put a serious strain on Fighter Command’s pilots and aircraft. Patrols had to be flown constantly from dawn until dusk, and other crews kept on standby for hour after hour. The overworked fighter aircraft began to break down with increased frequency, while pilots grew tired and often exhausted. So numerous did these raids become that Fighter Command pilots dubbed October 1940 “Messerschmitt Month”.

The month opened on 5 October at 10am when four waves of Messerschmitt 110 fighter-bombers came over, escorted by Bf109s. These came over Kent, one force reaching London. In the afternoon it was the turn of Sussex and Hampshire to be struck by the new tactic. Combats raged over Chichester and Southampton, with losses to both sides being about equal. The old cat and mouse game of decoy raids and dummy runs was continued by the Luftwaffe to try to catch Fighter Command out, while the British continued to misidentify Bf109s as the elusive wonder fighter, the Heinkel He113.

One Hurricane pilot from Tangmere got a nasty shock on 25 October. Aircraft were reported over Crawley when this pilot was already on patrol, so he was sent off to investigate while the rest of No.145 Squadron got airborne. The pilot got close enough to recognise the intruders as 50 Me110s and reported the fact back by radio. He was ordered to head back toward Tangmere, rendezvous with his squadron en route and then join them in the attack on the fighter-bombers over Crawley.

As he flew southwest, the pilot saw a force of six fighters flying straight and level toward Crawley. Taking these to be a flight of No.145 Squadron, he dropped down and took up position behind them. A few minutes later the formation made a turn to the southeast, heading for Hastings. The pilot was puzzled by the move, but assumed the flight leader had seen something worth investigating. Suddenly the earphones of the hapless pilot burst into life as his squadron comrades dived to attack the Me110s over Crawley. Their excited warnings and reports, so typical of air combat, came flooding through the pilot’s ears. And yet here he was flying serenely over Hastings.

And that was when he realised that he had joined a formation of Messerschmitt Bf109s. In his sudden shock the pilot pulled his aircraft’s nose up. This must have caused one of the German pilots to look at him, for the enemy formation suddenly broke up as the pilots turned around to attack their unwelcome colleague.

The Hurricane pilot opened fire as a 109 flew in front of him and saw pieces fly off the enemy aircraft. Then he barrel rolled left and dived. A Bf109 got on his tail, so he threw his aircraft around the sky until the enemy broke off. The hapless Hurricane pilot saw his rival climbing away to rejoin the now reformed Messerschmitt squadron, one of which was streaming glycol.

Turning for home, the Hurricane pilot was congratulating himself on a narrow escape when six more Bf109s came diving down on him. The British pilot pulled his nose up into a tight climbing turn to face the onslaught and opened fire. One of the Germans pulled up suddenly, usually a sign the pilot was hit, then flipped over and dived steeply. Once past the oncoming force of Germans, the Hurricane pilot himself went into a dive to gain speed as he headed towards the English coast. He saw no more of the enemy before landing back at Tangmere.

Heroes of Fighter Command in Sussex
Heroes of Finger Command in Kent
Heroes of Fighter Command in Surrey

Thursday, 18 August 2011

10 May 1940 - First RAF operation to counter the Blitzkrieg

In late April and the first week of May the men flying with the squadrons of Fighter Command that had been sent to France noticed a distinct change in the war. While most others had their eyes on Norway and still talked about the Phoney War, the men of Fighter Command in France found themselves up against increasing numbers of Luftwaffe intruders. Most German aircraft were scouts, rather than bombers, but it was obvious to those with eyes to see that some major operation was in the offing.

The storm broke just before dawn on 10 May when the German panzers surged over the borders of France, Belgium and Holland. Even before the Fighter Command squadrons in France were alerted to the invasion their airbases were shaken by bomb blasts as German bombers screamed in to wreak destruction and gain control of the air. Many of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground that morning.

To try to make up for the unfolding carnage, No.600 Squadron was ordered off from Biggin Hill to attack Rotterdam airport, where large numbers of German airborne troops were landing. The six Blenheims flew low all the way, and launched their attack from rooftop height. The damage they inflicted was impressive, but unknown to them a large force of Messerschmitt 110s was circling above. Down came the 110s and in less than two minutes five of the six British aircraft were smoking wrecks.

The lone survivor was piloted by Flying Officer Norman Hayes with air gunner Corporal George Holmes. The first spray of bullets from the Germans ruptured a fuel line, spraying fuel around the interior of the aircraft. While Holmes fired back at the pursuers he calmly gave instructions to Hayes on evasive manoeuvres to take to avoid the incoming fire. After several tense moments the 110s gave up the chase, allowing the Blenheim to head for home.

As they tore at low altitude across the Dutch landscape, Hayes spotted a German Junkers Ju52 transport aircraft ahead and above them. Despite the damage to their own aircraft, the British pair attacked, sending the enemy down with one engine on fire. Only after this did they take their damaged aircraft home to Biggin Hill.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

1943 - new German nightfighters attack the RAF

By the summer of 1943, the nocturnal battles in the skies over Germany were changing rapidly as new equipment and new tactics came into operation.

For the men flying from Lincolnshire the conversion to Lancasters from two-engined bombers or from Stirlings was rapidly reaching completion. They were also acquiring important aids to navigation. The “Oboe” system enabled a navigator to plot his approximate position over western Germany. The much newer “H2S” radar was very different. It scanned the ground ahead of the bomber to produce a rough, but accurate image of hills, mountains, built up areas and stretches of water. Using Oboe to get into position for an attack, then H2S to zero in on a target, a Lancaster could drop its bombs with some degree of accuracy at night. At first only a few bombers could be supplied with both sets of equipment. They acted as “Pathfinders”, dropping coloured flares to mark the target for the main stream of bombers following behind.

The Germans, too, were improving their defences. The number and accuracy of anti-aircraft guns around important targets was increased dramatically. By 1943 the gunners were assisted by searchlight batteries that had short-range radar sets to show them where the bombers were in the sky. A master blue-coloured searchlight was aimed at the radar plot, allowing the other searchlights to weave around searching the correct area of sky to pick up a bomber.

But it was the nightfighters that were rapidly proving to be the most deadly of Germany’s defences. From 1940 through to the end of the war, Bomber Command estimated it lost about 1% of aircraft on a raid to flak. But nightfighters were very different. In 1940 there were very few German fighters in the skies at night. Those that did appear were simply day fighters patrolling the skies over potential targets in hope of spotting a bomber by moonlight. By the winter of 1941 the situation had changed as the Germans introduced new aircraft and tactics.

Leading the way in nightfighter design were Junkers with their Ju88C and Messerschmitt with their Bf110G. The designs of both aircraft were based on those of pre-war fighter-bombers that had proved less than successful in daylight aerial combat against the more nimble single-seat Spitfires and Hurricanes. Both aircraft had two engines and carried three crew members. They were large enough to hold airborne radar sets and the men to operate them, but agile enough to overtake bombers and attack them with deadly precision.

The Ju88C entered service in 1942 and some 3,200 were built over the next 18 months. The Bf110G began fighting a few months later but soon overtook the Junkers in terms of numbers with an impressive 1,580 entering service in 1943 alone. Both aircraft were fitted with twin 20mm cannon and two 7.9mm machine guns firing forward, while the Bf110G had  a pair of machine guns in the rear cockpit as well.


Friday, 5 August 2011

RAF Bomber Command (Norfolk) goes to War in 1939

Even before war broke out, RAF Bomber Command in Norfolk was preparing for conflict. On 26 August telegrams were sent to all personnel not on base ordering their immediate return. On the same day aircraft were dispersed around the airfield perimeters in case of sudden Luftwaffe attacks.

On 1 September War Plan 7b was issued to Bomber Command. This restricted bombers to attacking purely military targets when there was no risk whatever of causing civilian casualties. In practice this meant that only ships at sea or in naval docks could be attacked, all army and Luftwaffe bases being too close to civilian areas to be certain that only military personnel would be killed. Bomber crews were told that they could fly over Germany, but only for reconnaissance purposes or to drop leaflets.

The policy was not popular, but it was practical. As head of Bomber Command, Ludlow was worried that his aircraft were unable to operate deep into enemy territory with any degree of safety. And the French were terrified that any German civilian casualties would result in massive Luftwaffe raids on French cities – which would be much easier for the Germans to reach than British cities.

The first few days of war were quiet ones for Bomber Command in Norfolk. No.214 and No.101 Squadrons were stood down to Reserve status as soon as war was declared. Although other squadrons remained active, they took no part in the early attacks on German naval ships that occupied other units in both 2 Group and 3 Group. That changed dramatically on 3 December. A strong force of 24 Wellingtons drawn from Nos38, No.115 and No.149 Squadrons, the former two operating from Marham, took off on a seek and destroy mission across the coastal waters off Germany.

The Wellingtons flew in the pre-war approved tight formation at medium height. Off Heligoland Island the force sighted a pair of German cruisers and raced in to the attack. Most bombs missed their target and those that hit inflicted negligible damage. One wide miss hit Heligoland itself. Although the bomb fell harmlessly on to open fields, it caused a stir as it was the first bomb to explode on German soil in the war.

Meanwhile the formation of bombers was coming under attack from a swarm of Messerschmitt Bf109 and Me110 fighters. The Germans kept warily away from the British defensive machine guns, but a long range burst damaged the starboard wing and rudder of the No.38 Squadron Wellington flown by Sergeant O’Doire. The aircraft veered off course and left the protective formation of bombers. At once a 109 dived in for the kill. The German pilot approached from below and behind, holding his fire until he was just 40 yards from the Wellington. At the same moment that the German opened fire, Aircraftman John Copley in the rear turret of the Wellington let loose a burst of 20 rounds. The Messerschmitt was hit and climbed steeply, exposing its underbelly to the delighted Copley, who poured in a long burst of fire. The Messerschmitt stalled, turned on its back and dived into the sea.

Copley was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for the action, but his success had the unfortunate effect of convincing several senior officers that modern bombers, protected by machine guns in powered turrets could fight off fighters. It would take some months, and the loss of many men, before minds were changed.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Build-up to the Battle of Dunbar, 1650

After 1603 England and Scotland had been two different kingdoms ruled by the same king. Their legal systems, parliaments, nobility and other state systems had remained quite separate, but the personal union of the kingdoms in the body of the same king appeared to be firm.

Then in 1649 the English tried King Charles I for treason against England, found him guilty and chopped off his head. This man was also the King of Scots and the Scottish people did not take kindly to having their king executed. England declared itself to be a republic under Parliament, but Scotland opted to remain a kingdom and hailed the eldest son of the executed king to be their King Charles II. It was unclear if the two nations would go their separate ways as in the past or if they would again unite. The question led to the Battle of Dunbar.

Almost as soon as Charles entered Edinburgh, the English gave their army orders to march into Scotland and expel the 19 year old prince they termed “Mr Charles Stuart”. The English believed that Charles would not be content to rule only Scotland but would, sooner or later, make a play for England. They decided to strike first.

Inevitably it was Oliver Cromwell who led the English army, he took with him Lambert who had fought at Preston, and the remarkably able George Monck. On 22nd July Cromwell crossed the border with 20,000 men, supported by a fleet cruising off the coast. Cromwell was determined to crush the Scottish army, capture Edinburgh and force the Scots to get rid of Charles.

Facing Cromwell was David Leslie, victor of the Battle at Newburn Ford. As a professional soldier, Leslie had been fighting in the Swedish army while Cromwell was still a farmer in East Anglia. Leslie had an army of some 16,000 men, most of them raw recruits. Realising he could not face Cromwell in open battle, Leslie opted for a grinding summer of attrition. His first move was to strip the countryside bare. People, livestock and supplies were packed into the cities and fortresses so that the English could not get at them.

Then Leslie turned to his army’s one true strength. If his men were inexperienced at fighting, they were experts at marching. When Cromwell attacked Edinburgh from the east he found himself faced by strong defences manned by Leslie’s Scots. When he marched on Leith, Leslie got there first and manned the defences. When Cromwell marched far to the west in a feint then came back to attack Edinburgh, the Scots again got there first.

By the end of August, Cromwell had had enough. His army was footsore and hungry. Supplies were running out and disease was rampant. Barely half of Cromwell’s army was fit for service. On 1st September Cromwell retreated to the fortified harbour of Dunbar, unloaded his remaining supplies from the fleet and allowed his troops a day of rest and full rations. Then he gave the order to march out of Dunbar and head south towards England.

Again, Leslie had got there first. The entire Scots army was drawn up on the formidable Doon Hill, blocking the road south.