Friday, 30 December 2011

Leicestershire - built for food

Most of Leicestershire is built on clay. The ground rises, swells and falls in a series of rolling hills that stretch to the horizon dotted by trees, topped by church spires and everywhere clothed in lush vegetation. The low lying, wetter grounds make for magnificent summer grazing for the cattle and sheep that form the basis for so many of the meat dishes of the county. Areas where the clay soil is better drained produce heavy crops of grain, potatoes and fruits or vegetables of all kinds. Mixed arable and livestock farming is typical of the county, producing a range of ingredients that has gone to produce some classic dishes.

The keeping of pigs has long been characteristic of eastern Leicestershire where root vegetables and whey, a by product of the dairy, have long provided an ideal food source for pigs. The uses to which pork has been put by the good people of Leicestershire has been hailed as their greatest contribution to English cuisine. It is not only Melton Mowbray pork pies that have benefited from the large number of hogs kept in the area.

The rolling clay east of the county is divided from the more rugged west by the defining waterway of the county: the Soar. This river flows north through a broad, fertile valley until it empties into the Trent on the county's northern border near Nottingham. Most of the county drains into the Soar by way of streams such as the Rothley, Blackbrook, Fishpool and Wreak. These streams and rivers answer the one culinary demand that a land-locked county like Leicestershire might otherwise lack: fish. Without a coast there are no sea fish here, but the rivers and lakes of the county have traditionally been rich fishing grounds for a range of freshwater fish that have between them offered up some tasty and very tempting treats.

To the west of the Soar, the landscape is more broken than to the east and the clay soil less prevalent. In medieval times Charnwood Forest was a deep and near impenetrable woodland covering some 60 square miles. It was characterised by craggy bluffs and tumbled boulders. These days much of the woodland has been cleared and the land improved for pasture. The trees still cling to the heights of Birch Hill, Cliffe Hill, Beacon and Bardon all of which offer magnificent views over the county - even as far as Belvoir Castle on a clear day. It was on the cleared land that the Leicester sheep was developed, adding its own distinctive edge to the cuisine of the county.


Monday, 19 December 2011

Hitler's relationship with the German Army in the 1920s

Before the Nazis took power in Germany the armed forces had a definite and vital role in German society and government. It was not a role with which Hitler was comfortable. He wanted to have total control over all aspects of the German state and from 1933 onwards set out to achieve dominance over the armed forces. By 1938 he had very largely succeeded.

The senior officers of the army and navy believed that they were the natural guardians of the German nation. Although they considered it improper for the armed forces to become involved in politics, they did believe the army had a right and a duty to preserve what they considered to be the best in German national spirit, pride and honour. It was a fine line to walk, but the officer corps had no doubt that it was one they were called upon to follow. In part, this was a duty inherited from the landed aristocracy who had made up the bulk of the army officers in the days of the Kaiser.

Many officers had resented the forced abdication of the Kaiser in 1918 and still wanted a return to monarchy in Germany. Some wanted a constitutional monarchy, such as that in Britain, others looked on this as an effete compromise and wanted a return to full absolutism. The one thing all officers could agree on, however, was that communism was bad for Germany and must be crushed. Hitler believed the same.

Before Hitler had come to power, the officer corps had been involved with the government and with maintaining the constitution for many years. It had also had close dealings with Hitler himself. In 1923 Hitler launched a Nazi coup in Bavaria. The aim was to replace the civilian government with one led by Hitler. The Nazi stormtroopers seized key government buildings while Hitler announced his assumption of power in a meeting room in a beer cellar. A large march of over 2,000 armed stormtroopers was brought to a bloody halt by a hail of gunfire from police marksmen, while soldiers waited in support. Hitler was arrested and briefly imprisoned for the abortive coup.

The coup was crucial to Hitler’s relationship with the army. He had on his side Erich Ludendorff, the highly respected World War I general, who had been second only to Hindenburg in the German High Command. Despite this, the serving army officers had preferred to support the constitutional republic rather than follow their old general. Hitler learned, and did not forget.

At his trial after the failed coup, Hitler declared. “We never thought to carry through a revolution against the Army. We believed we should succeed with the Army.” Hitler subsequently made much of the fact that the 1923 march had been halted by armed police, not the army - though he conveniently forgot the army had been hostile and would have been on the scene soon enough if the police had failed. He thus began to build up a legend that he had always been friendly to his old colleagues in the army and wanted to gain power legally, allied to the officer corps.

from HITLER: MILITARY COMMANDER by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 16 December 2011

Dorothea Dix - social reformer

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was born into a wealthy Boston family and at first sought a career in teaching. At the age of 38 she decided to devote herself to campaigning for what she termed the “indigent insane”, by which she meant people suffering mental health problems who had no family to care for them. She amassed evidence on the hardship these people suffered, but was unable to make the US government of President Franklin Pierce take action as Pierce said social welfare was a state concern. Her ideas and campaigns finally won through in the years after the US Civil War and she is generally credited with having massively improved the lot of those suffering mental health problems in the USA.

from HEROES, RASCALS AND ROGUES by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 12 December 2011

Hitler's Conference on the Invasion of Britain

On 31 July 1940 Hitler held another top level military conference to discuss the invasion of Britain.

The army put forward its plan which envisaged the main landings taking place between Folkestone and Brighton using the 16th and 9th Armies while the 6th Army carried out secondary diversionary landings in Lyme Bay and along the Hampshire coast. Paratroops would be used to capture Dover and Ramsgate. After four days establishing a secure beachhead the panzers would break out to thrust north between London and Reading. They would then fan out to surround London while the infantry came up to capture the cities and towns left isolated by the panzer thrust. If that did not force Britain to surrender, the panzers would head for Birmingham and Liverpool to cut Britain in half from the Channel to the Irish Sea. Britain would surrender within six weeks of the first landings it was predicted.

Admiral Raedar then put the naval view. He said that he could not guarantee to keep control of the entire English Channel and suggested dropping the landings at Lyme Bay. There was also the problem of transport ships and landing barges. Raedar estimated that he could gather enough to transport ten divisions at a time. Allowing for wastage and casualties he thought it would take four days to get the 16th and 9th Armies ashore. He was relatively confident, he said, that his ships and U-boats could maintain control of the seas between England and France from Brighton to Ramsgate for at least those four days. But again he emphatically insisted that this would be possible only if the Luftwaffe had control of the air.

Goering smiled. He now had the measure of the RAF and its much-vaunted fighters, he said, and the Luftwaffe was ready to strike. Hitler ordered him to begin on 10 August. The invasion was now scheduled for the first week of September to allow for the barges to be gathered. RAF bases would be bombed to destruction so that they could not be used and the British aircraft shot from the skies. Goering was confident he would achieve and maintain air supremacy over the key sea areas.

The heads of the army and navy were deeply relieved. They had never wanted to invade Britain in the first place, preferring to starve the island nation into surrender by a war of attrition. Now the responsibility for success or failure rested with the Luftwaffe.


Friday, 9 December 2011

Goering and Luftwaffe intelligence summer 1940

In June 1940 the radio listening posts that the Germans had set up in northern France to eavesdrop on British military radio signals reported that on certain wavelengths they were picking up the most peculiar signals. It was early July before a scientist at Luftwaffe HQ in Berlin recognised them as being radar. The Germans were by this date developing their own radar system, based largely on captured French sets, but even so they did not fully appreciate the importance of radar to the British air defence system. Such errors of intelligence were to prove crucial in the month of August 1940.

Not only did the Germans think that British radar was able to pick up their aircraft only when they were close to the British coast, they also thought it could not detect an aircraft flying at under 500 feet - neither of which was true.

The pre-war general intelligence that the Germans had acquired on the RAF – known in the Luftwaffe as the Blue Study, was excellent. It contained accurate data regarding the location of aircraft factories as well as RAF bases and civil airfields that could be converted to military use, and most such places had been photographed from the air from German civil aircraft. There was also an accurate estimation of RAF strength both in peacetime and when fully mobilised for war.

Once the war got underway, however, the Germans found themselves cut off from any up to date information that could not be gained from aerial photographs. Thus the entirely accurate pre-war estimate of maximum fighter production of 200 aircraft per month was not updated to take account of the emergency factory expansion programme that by July 1940 was turning out 460 fighters per month. The British could replace losses much faster than the Germans thought they could.

Similarly, the Germans tended to write off an airbase after it had been bombed. This was the result of experience in both Poland and France where the pressures caused by rapidly advancing German army units meant that the air forces of those countries had not been able to repair their airbases once damaged and get them operational again. Britain had no such problems and was able to get even the most devastated airfield back into operation again within a few days. The British habit of filling in only those bomb craters that were blocking the runway misled the Germans who analysed aerial photos. They saw airfields pockmarked by bomb craters and assumed this meant they had not been repaired when, in fact, they had.

These factors came into effect slowly during August, but by September were becoming serious. Goering’s strategy was based on his intelligence reports, and those proved to be faulty. For the men of Fighter Command in Kent, however, such high level intelligence matters were somewhat academic. So far as they were concerned throughout that August of glorious sunny weather the only thing that really mattered was that the German aircraft formations kept on coming, and they kept on coming in vast numbers.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Bomber Harris and GEE

When Air Marshal Arthur Harris took up his command as head of Bomber Command on 22 February 1942 he found an urgent order lying on his desk in High Wycombe. Dated one week earlier, the directive came from Air Marshal Portal, head of the Air Staff in London. At first sight it appeared self-contradictory.

The order began by repeating the already established policy of “area bombing”, naming four cities – Essen, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Cologne – as the prime targets with fourteen others as secondary targets. the bombing of these cites was, Harris was told, his “primary objective”. However the instructions went on to accord “top priority” to eight specific targets, made up of four power stations, three oil plants and one rubber factory.

The key to Portal’s thinking in formulating this order was the development of a new, top secret navigational aid codenamed “Gee”. In 1940 the task of solving the chronic problems of navigating bombers at night over enemy territory had been given to Robert Dippy of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE). After a year’s work, Dippy produced the answer. He developed a “Gee Box” that could be carried in a bomber and operated by a navigator after only minimal training.

The box received radio pulses sent out at regular intervals by three powerful transmitters in England, each 100 miles from the other. The pulses were sent out at precisely the same instant by the transmitters, but would arrive fractons of a second apart at the receiving box. A simple triangulation carried out on the signals would give the navigator his position. Dippy estimated the equipment accurate to just 100 yards at a range of 350 miles. He also estimated that it would take the Germans about six months to produce effective countermeasures from the time they first captured an intact “Gee Box” from a downed bomber. Crews were given strict instructions to destroy the “Gee Box” if they were forced to land in enemy territory, but even so it would be only a matter of time before the Germans got hold of one.

from Heroes of Bomber Command, Lincolnshire by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 2 December 2011

Heroic Czech Pilots fighting in RAF Bomber Command

Not all the men who fought in Bomber Command from Norfolk were British. A great many came from Empire and Commonwealth countries. Most of these men were at first integrated into the RAF, but later they formed their own squadrons. No.75 Squadron was composed chiefly of New Zealanders, as was 487, while 464 Squadron was recruited in Australia. Of course, these various servicemen were not really considered foreigners in 1939 – the Canadians were especially seen as part of the larger British family. But there were some real foreigners flying in the RAF.

In Norfolk there were two squadrons in particular composed of men who had no duty to fight for the RAF, but whose heroic help was much appreciated. The first of these was 311 Squadron, which was formed on 29 July 1940, moving to East Wretham in September. This squadron was composed exclusively of Czech airmen who had managed to flee that unfortunate country after the German invasion of 1939.

At first these men had been based in France, officially fighting in the armed forces of the Czechoslovak government in exile of President Eduard Benes. When France fell to the Germans, the Czechs hastened to get to Britain as quickly as they could. Those with aircraft flew out – taking as many of their ground crew as they could. Those on foot hijacked trucks and cars to get to western ports where the Royal Navy risked Luftwaffe bombers to take off the Czechs, isolated British units and other refugees.

When 311 Squadron was formed, it was given new Wellington bombers to replace the Bloch 174 and LoirĂ© 451 aircraft in which they had arrived in June 1940. The squadron continued to operate on Wellingtons out of East Wretham until April 1942 when it was transferred to Coastal Command and given the task of patrolling the North Sea to search for German ships and U-boats. In its time with Bomber Command, 311 had flown over a thousand operational sorties in 150 missions, dropping 1,300 tons of bombs on the enemy. The squadron’s airmen were awarded no fewer than 18 DFCs, which was an impressive total given the number of men serving with the unit.

The outstanding figure of 311 Squadron was Squadron Leader Josef Ocelka. As the squadron prepared to transfer to Coastal Command, the station commander was moved to write of him “He has always displayed conspicuous determination and devotion to duty and the recent successes of the squadron are in no small measure due to the high example he has set.”

A typical example of his dedication came on 28 March 1941 when he took off to attack Cologne. Soon after take off the wireless failed. When the wireless operator traced the fault he found that the entire electrical system of the bomber was in danger of failing. Such a fault was grounds for abandoning the mission, but Ocelka refused to be put off. He flew on to reach and bomb Cologne. On the return trip, however, the navigator was unable to keep track of where the aircraft was. After crossing a stretch of open sea that Ocelka hoped was the English Channel, he spotted an airfield. Ocelka warily landed on the runway, but kept his engines running while he sent a crew member to find out where they were. Fortunately they were in England.

Like the Poles, the Czechs gained a well earned reputation for dashing bravery in action. Sadly many of the men of 311 Squadron did not live to return home, being killed in action. Several are buried in the churchyard of East Wretham, in a small corner reserved especially for them. Each year on Remembrance Sunday, the Czech government sends a representative to East Wretham to lay a wreath by their graves.

from RAF BOMBER COMMAND, NORFOLK by Rupert Matthews