Friday, 29 June 2012

A Difficult Commanding Officer

James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, (1797-1868)  earned great fame as the man who led the heroic, but futile Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. He insisted on aristocratic manners and once courtmartialled an officer for ordering beer, instead of wine, at dinner. He challenged another to a duel for turning up for dinner with improperly polished buttons. Undoubtedly brave, his prickly temperament and unpopularity with more senior officers led to his retirement in 1866.

from Heroes, Rogues and Rascals by Rupert Matthews.
Buy your copy HERE

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Goering holds a strategy meeting August 1940

Towards the end of August 1940 Goering held another top level conference of Luftwaffe commanders. The senior officers pored over the combat reports, intelligence analyses and other documents before discussing how best to complete the destruction of RAF Fighter Command in southeastern England. The results of that conference proved to be disastrous for Britain and came very close to handing victory to the Luftwaffe in what was now being seen by both sides as The Battle of Britain.

The first fact acknowledged by the Luftwaffe high command was that their intelligence reports were faulty. The strength of Fighter Command in terms of modern fighters had been badly underestimated, so that no matter how many Hurricanes and Spitfires were shot down there were still plenty more coming up to replace them. In fact the intelligence reports had not been so far of the mark as the Germans supposed. They had estimated fairly accurately the strength of Fighter Command, but had got wrong the speed with which Britain could turn out new fighters.

Goering, as a highly experienced fighter pilot from the First World War, would have known that in the hectic swirl of war flying it is quite easy for fighter pilots to claim to have shot down more enemy aircraft than in fact they had. Even when being completely honest, a fighter pilot might claim as destroyed an enemy aircraft that was in fact badly damaged and managed to limp  home. Or two pilots might claim the same victim as they both fired at it as it went down. What was almost impossible to know was the ratio at which the overclaiming occurred. After the war historians compared the records of both sides and found that the British had been overclaiming by about 1.7 to 1 (the ratio was later to rise) at this period while the Germans overclaimed by about 2 to 1.

If the actual aircraft were not being destroyed as fast as hoped, neither were the airfields. The efficiency of repair crews meant that the RAF could get fighter bases back into operation much faster than the Germans thought possible. After a heavy bombing raid the Luftwaffe marked an airbase as destroyed, and estimated it would take at least two weeks to get it working again. In fact most Fighter Command airfields were back in at least partial operation within a day or two.

from Heroes of Fighter Command Sussex by Rupert Matthews
Buy your copy here

Monday, 25 June 2012

RAF Fighter Command goes to the "Circus"

After the change of higher command within Fighter Command towards the end of 1940 there was a rethinking of strategy. It was now clear that any German invasion of Britain could not take place until the good weather of spring arrived again in April or May 1941. The head of Fighter Command, Sholto Douglas, was confident that with the increasing numbers of pilots and aircraft arriving under his command over the winter he would be able to stop the Germans gaining control of the air. Nevertheless a good deal of planning and preparation went on so that Fighter Command would be ready for the fray when it came.

Meanwhile, Douglas had to keep his men busy over the winter. He was as determined to keep his own men in training and ready for action as he was to probe continually and test the strength of the Luftwaffe across the Channel.

The attack on Le Touquet airfield by two Spitfires in December had shown the way forward. These low-level, high-speed missions by two or three fighters were dubbed “Rhubarbs”. A similar mission but carried out with an entire squadron was designated a “Rodeo”. While Rhubarbs could be suggested by squadrons and approved by Group HQ, Rodeos had to be authorised and planned by Fighter Command HQ. “Jim Crows” were regular patrols that were carried out day after day along set routes to search for enemy activity. Most of them took place over the Channel.

Rather more formal, in that they had a definite objective, were “Ramrods”. These were bombing missions undertaken by the squadrons of RAF Bomber Command to which Fighter Command was expected to provide fighter cover. Most such missions had one force of fighters providing cover to the bombers on the way out, with a second force taking off later to escort them back when the first group of fighters began to run low on fuel.

Altogether different were the “Circus” missions. These were designed to appear to the Germans as if they were a normal Ramrod, but in fact were structured so that it was Fighter Command that took the lead. The bombers were present only in small numbers and were there simply to give the illusion of a bombing mission. In fact the half a dozen or so bombers were escorted by as many as fifty or more fighters. The aim was to lure the German fighters up to attack the bombers, then for the British fighters to pounce on them in overwhelming numbers.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Barnes Wallis first thinks about destroying dams

The chain of events that led up to the famous Dambusters Raid began the day before war was declared. Aircraft designer Barnes Wallis, who had designed the Wellington bomber for Vickers, decided to search for a way in which bombers could cripple Germany’s industrial might and so shorten the war. He quickly came to the conclusion that this could best be achieved by destroying either the sources of power or the means of transport. He turned to power first.

The Romanian oilfields were too distant for bombers to reach from Britain and coal mines were too deep underground to be affected by bombs. That left dams. Germany was fortunate in having mountainous regions close to her industrial centres. These mountains had high rainfall and deep valleys, which made them ideal for building dams. These dams provided hydro-electric power, but they also stored the vast quantities of water needed by 1940s heavy industry. And they were often used as reservoirs for the canal system as well. Destroy a dam, reasoned Wallis, and you could badly hit power, industry and transport in one go.

There were three dams that stood out as being key to Germany’s industry, all of them in the range of hills between the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. The Moehne Dam  held 134 million tons of water. The Eder held 212 million tons of water and also fed water into the Mittelland Canal, Germany’s busiest industrial waterway. The Sorpe held around 180 million tons of water and fed drinking water to the surrounding cities. Together the three provided getting on for half the electric power of the vast Ruhr industrial metropolis.

That the destruction of the dams would be a huge blow to Germany, nobody could doubt. The question was how to go about destroying them.

Buy your copy HERE

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Early Christianity in Britain

Christianity came to Britain at least as early as 209, when a man named Alban was martyred in the town of Verulamium, now known as St Albans. The new religion made slow progress, though by 320 there were four bishops in Britain. We don’t know where they were based - though one was almost certainly in London - but the religion was one of townsfolk that had not yet reached rural areas such as Cornwall.

In 429 the church in Britain split from that on the continent. The secular government of Britain had left the Roman Empire 19 years earlier and that may have encouraged a more independent streak in the ecclesiastical authorities. The dispute erupted over the writings of the highly educated and much admired British monk Pelagius. As he grew older, Pelagius became more extreme. In 418 Pelagius was expelled from Rome by Pope Zosimus and his teachings condemned as heretical. Some of the finer points of Pelagianism can be obscure even to modern theologians, but the main thrust of his argument was clear enough. Pelagius argued that whether or not any particular human was to find salvation was a matter between that human and Christ. The human could help his cause through good works, charity and righteousness, but the final decision rested with God.

Of more practical importance, Pelagius stated that priests should teach their fellow humans about God’s grace and guide them along the right path, not to act as intermediaries between humans and God. Still less was the Church to be a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops with a bureaucracy and wealth of its own. This was in direct conflict with the developing doctrine of Papal supremacy developing in Rome. Zosimus and his followers claimed that humans could find salvation only through the intermediary of the Church headed by the Pope.

The split between Britain and Rome prompted Bishop Germanus of Auxerre to travel to Britain. He preached against the Pelagian views, championed in Britain by Bishop Agricola. Although he gained a good deal of support for maintaining links with Rome, Germanus failed to enforce orthodoxy. Next the Pope sent his own deacon, Palladius, to Britain. The official mission of Palladius was to convert the Irish, but he put most effort into an attempt to suppress Pelagianism. He failed, and died on his way back to Rome. His place as the head of the mission to the Irish was taken by the much more famous Patrick, a British Christian, who landed in Ireland in 432 and never left.

from MYSTERIOUS CORNWALL by Rupert Matthews.
Buy your copy HERE

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Aussie VC with RAF Bomber Command

In one hectic week in July 1941 the airmen of Bomber Command in Norfolk were awarded two Victoria Crosses, the highest award for gallantry in action available. Both men came from the colonies, but otherwise were very different characters united only by their outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy.

Hughie Idwal Edwards had been born in Western Australia, the son of Welsh immigrants on 1 August 1914. At the age of 20 he joined the army to serve in the local artillery that protected the port from naval attack, but in 1935 transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) before joining the RAF the following year. In 1937 he began his flying career as a pilot on Blenheim MkI bombers with 90 Squadron. He was, therefore, an experienced professional by the time he was appointed to command 105 Squadron at Swanton Morley in May 1941.

Edwards led his squadron on several sweeps across the North Sea hunting for German ships before, on 4 July he was ordered to lead Operation Wreckage, an attack on the docks at Bremen. This was to be Edwards’ 36th operational flight and he was to have under his command not only 105 Squadron, but also six Blenheims from 107 Squadron. Edwards briefed his men to fly to Bremen in tight formation, but on arrival they were to form up into a line abreast, each aircraft some 400 feet apart from the others. Edwards hoped in this way to ensure that each aircraft found a worthwhile target while keeping to a minimum the chance that two bombers would go for the same victim. The attack was to be quick and destructive, with the Blenheims wasting no time before racing back out to sea towards England.

The formation flew over the sea at around 100 feet to avoid German radar, roaring over the coast at Cuxhaven. As soon as they were over land the aircraft were spotted and the air defences of Bremen soon began to throw up flak and machine gun fire. Edwards led his aircraft through the outer ring of defences and negotiated a field of barrage balloons before giving the order for the formation to form up abreast.

By this time Edwards had his Blenheim down to just 50 feet and only narrowly avoided hitting a telephone wire strung between a pole and an office building. Seconds later Edwards flew under an electricity power line before spotting a large factory. Turning slightly to get over the target, Edwards dropped his bomb dead on target. His navigator, Pilot Officer Ramsay, took a famous photograph looking back over the aircraft’s tail showing the factory just before it was torn apart by the bombs.

Buy your copy HERE

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Bonnie Prince Charlie gets ready for the Battle of Falkirk

The Battle of Falkirk, the second to take place near the town, was the last victory for the Jacobites. The battle was fought in an atmosphere of growing political confusion, but the military victory seemed clear enough.

Having raised the standard of Jacobite revolt in the Highlands in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie quickly gathered an army of clansmen. At Prestonpans he crushed the English army sent against him and as a result gathered much support from the Scottish Lowlands. His march into England was halted when neither the expected French invasion nor the promised English Jacobite uprising materialised. After fighting a successful rearguard action at Clifton, the Jacobite army arrived in Glasgow on 26th December.

On his return to Glasgow, Prince Charles was delighted to find that the French had sent him reinforcements. These were not the professional troops that his army commander Lord George Murray wanted, but half a dozen heavy cannon. These guns were at once sent into the siege lines around Stirling Castle,which was still holding out after five months.

The pursuing English armies had meanwhile combined at Newcastle under a new commander, General Henry Hawley and was marching on Edinburgh. Learning of the new threat to Stirling, Hawley decided to march to the relief of the castle. Despite the successes of the clansmen at Prestonpans and Clifton, Hawley had little time for them. He knew all about their aggressive tactics but believed they could be crushed by well-trained men in a strong position under a good commander. He knew his army was composed largely of veterans and had no doubt that he was a superb leader. All he needed was to find the right position.

Unfortunately for Hawley, it was Murray who got into position first. About noon on 17th January Murray drew his army up on a ridge west of the town of Falkirk where he blocked Hawley’s route to Stirling. The Jacobite army was for a time confused when John O’Sullivan, the mercenary who acted as Prince Charles military adviser, disagreed with Murray about the army’s positioning. But Murray got his way and the army deployed as ordered.

From ENGLAND VS SCOTLAND by Rupert Matthews. Buy your copy HERE

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Propaganda and the Battlefield of Thermopylae

When the sun rose on 21 August 480bc, the battle of Thermopylae was over but the campaign still had some way to run. Xerxes, King of Kings, was determined to exact revenge on those who had stood against him and to continue with the original object of the invasion: the destruction of Athens and Sparta and the reduction of the rest of Greece to the status of a province of the Persian Empire.

First, however, there was some tidying up to do and propaganda to take care of.

Exactly how many of the Great King’s soldiers had been killed it is impossible to say. Herodotus puts the total at 20,000, but this is probably just a guess. What is beyond question is that the casualties suffered by the Persian army were many, far more than those lost by the League army that had fought under King Leonidas of Sparta. But Xerxes wanted to present this battle as a great victory. He kept the bulk of his army and navy away from the battlefield while gangs of workmen dug large pits and hurriedly heaved the majority of the Persian bodies out of sight.

Only then was the rest of the vast army allowed to march through the Pass of Thermopylae. They will have seen the spiked head of Leonidas beside the roadside, the bodies of his men and the far fewer visible bodies of the dead Persians. Relays of boats brought over men from the fleet to see the battlefield. Xerxes wanted the battlefield presented as a stunning Persian triumph in which the impudent Greeks had been crushed by the overwhelming might of the Persian host. The battlefield certainly looked that way, but far too many people knew the truth.

from THE BATTLE OF THERMPYLAE by Rupert Matthews
Get your copy HERE

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What on Earth was the Duke of Parma doing as the Spanish Armada approached?

As the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel in 1588 its commander Medina Sidonia was beginning to worry about where Parma and his army was and what they were doing. He was, after all, supposed to link up with them to invade England. But he had had no news of Parma. Meanwhile, Parma himself was even more worried about what the Armada was up to. In the 16th century communications relied upon men carrying messages. They might carry written letters or verbal messages in their heads, but however they did so they had to physically go from one place to the other. This inevitably meant long delays and, in times of war, the constant danger that messengers might be captured by the enemy.

Parma was, in fact, at his central headquarters at Bruges, where he had been all along, not as Medina Sidonia had hoped down on the coast getting his troops ready to embark into boats. Historians have long argued over Parma’s behaviour during these crucial days in late July and early August. On the face of it his actions were quite bizarre.

This was recognised at the time and rumours abounded to try to explain things. Some whispered that Parma had fallen out with King Philip and was dragging his feet accordingly. It was said that some years earlier Philip had promised Parma that in the event of a Spanish conquest of England he would marry Mary Queen of Scots and so become Philip’s regent in England. Others said that Philip had gone so far as to promise the English crown to Parma in his own right. Now that Philip was going to give the crown to his daughter instead, men said, Parma was angry and saw no point in making much effort over the invasion.

Others suggested that Parma had been bought off by Elizabeth. It was rumoured that Elizabeth and the Dutch rebels had suggested to Parma that he should become independent Duke of the Netherlands - a throne to which he would have had a claim if his mother had not been illegitimate. The price demanded, men gossiped, was that Parma would have to allow freedom of worship to his subjects.

So far as we know neither of these scenarios had any foundation in fact at all. There is nothing in the records to indicate that Parma was anything other than unswervingly loyal to his royal uncle, Philip II of Spain. Nor is there much to show that he was less than a competent general, indeed one of the best of the 16th century. In fact it was probably this fact that explains Parma’s behaviour.

from "The Spanish Armada" by Rupert Matthews.
Buy your copy HERE

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A bloodless victory

In ancient Greece, some phalanxes broke up even before battle was joined. At the Battle of Amphipolis in 422 the Spartans faced an Athenian army. The Spartan phalanx advanced with its customary discipline and determination. They halted to dress their lines, then gave their usual wild war shout. At the sound, the Athenians fled.

from "Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus" by Rupert Matthews. Buy your copy HERE

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Battle of Crecy - intro

The Battle of Crecy changed everything.

This book tells the story of the most dramatic military campaign of the medieval world. It has everything that a reader could want: action, adventure, mystery and much more. As a story, it is thrilling. As an exercise in exploring military history it is fascinating.

Before the Crecy campaign began, France was recognised to have the greatest, most powerful and most modern army in all Christendom. England was thought of as a prosperous but relatively backward kingdom lying somewhere in the sea off the European coast. But six hours of bloodshed, slaughter and heroism beyond imagining changed all that. The pride of France was humbled, her army destroyed and her king made into a wounded fugitive fleeing for his life through a foggy night.

This book explains to the general reader the reality of warfare in the year 1346. It seeks to recreate in our minds the tactics used in the Crecy Campaign and to put them into the context of the time. It shows what the weapons were like and how they were used in action. It describes the tactics of the different military units involved and how these would have impacted on each other in battle. Crucially, it takes the reader inside the minds of the commanders to explain what they did, why they did it and what they hoped to achieve.

This is a gripping book that tells the thrilling story of a campaign from long ago, bringing the thinking up to date and allowing the modern reader to understand what it was really like to stand on a lonely hillside in northern France alongside the King of England while the greatest army in the world charged up the hill towards you. And to see with the King his eldest son and heir knocked down by the enemy weapons. And when asked to send help to the boy to hear King Edward refuse and say only:

“Let the boy win his spurs!”

from "The Battle of Crecy" by Rupert Matthews. Buy your copy HERE