Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Wrens and The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

A familiar view (author's photo)

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I'm a Southeast Londoner, born in Greenwich and continue to be a proud resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich as we are now honoured to be called.

Centrepiece of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1696 and 1712 and originally designed to serve as the Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired and disabled sailors, in which role the magnificent buildings served until 1869. It was established as The Royal Naval College in 1873 and was designed to act as a centre for further education of officers - indeed it was described as "The University of The Navy" and over the years became an established part of officer training within the Senior Service. In October 1939, it gained a new function when the training of officers of the Womens Royal Naval Service, the WRNS or Wrens as they were affectionately known, began to be undertaken here.

The WRNS had originally been established in 1917 during the First World War and having been established solely as a wartime expedient, was disbanded in 1919. The coming of a new conflict in 1939 saw the WRNS re-born with a greatly expanded list of duties on offer for new recruits, which included piloting aircraft on ferry duties, acting as mechanics for a vast range of equipment and serving aboard small boats such as harbour launches. In their new incarnation, the Wrens made an invaluable contribution to the running of the Royal Navy.

They were again perhaps seen as a temporary expedient for wartime and one of their wartime recruiting posters which proclaimed "Join the Wrens - and Free a Man for the Fleet" tended to support this feeling. This time however, the sterling work done by the Wrens during wartime, ensured that they had a role to play in the peacetime Navy and the training of new officers continued at Greenwich until 1976. Over the years, the WRNS gradually became more and more integrated within the main service. The first Wrens served at sea from October 1990 in HMS Brilliant and in 1993, achieved complete integration with the Royal Navy when the WRNS was abolished as a separate service. 

Join The Wrens (author's collection)

Sadly, since the war, a succession of governments have suffered from "sea blindness" and have taken any possible opportunity to slash the defence budget, especially that of the Royal Navy and one of the consequences of this was the closure of the Royal Naval College as a service establishment in 1998. Fortunately, the buildings continue to serve in an educational function, today being home to the University of Greenwich as well as the Trinity Laban College of Music.

To mark the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and acknowledging the important role played by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a special exhibition - WRNS Untold Stories: The Women's Royal Naval Service at Greenwich - is being held at The Visitor Centre until 5 December 2017 and I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to this fascinating exhibition last week.

The exhibition tells the story through a mixture of film, still photography and oral histories of how the Wrens overcame initial skepticism and sometimes downright hostility in a predominantly male environment, to win the respect and affection of their colleagues. During the First World War, they were given menial tasks such as serving as cooks, drivers and telephonists, thus releasing men to serve with the fleet but as mentioned previously, during the WRNS' second incarnation, in the Second World War, the roles given to the Wrens were far more varied and responsible.

W/T Operator (author's image from the exhibition)

Torpedo Wren (author's image from the exhibition)

To emphasise this growth in the range of roles available, the exhibition is illustrated by some delightful drawings showing some of the new roles given to the young Wrens, which must have seemed completely alien to the vast majority of the new recruits. We also see some newsreel footage of the time shot at Greenwich showing the Wrens in some of their more traditional roles, such as cooking and being taught how to cater for large numbers of hungry sailors. Other new responsibilities for the Wrens included jobs such as Radio Operators, Meterologists, Cypher Officers and Boat Crews.

Sadly, as with all service personnel in wartime, there were casualties and the worst incident came when the ss Aguila bound for Gibraltar, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of twenty one Wrens who were heading for their first overseas posting as Cypher Officers. The author Nicholas Monsarrat, aluded to this tragedy when he included a similar incident in his masterful novel on the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea.

The wartime training at Greenwich had to contend with the Blitz and the building attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable incident came on 20 January 1943 during one of the so-called Tip and Run raids following the main Night Blitz of 1940-41, when the Admiral's House in King Charles Court was bombed with the loss of life of a Royal Navy Officer, Commander Alexander Reginald Chalmer. This was a day when for some unaccountable reason, the capital's balloon barrage was not deployed and the FW190 fighter-bombers used on the raid were also able to bomb Sandhurst Road School in Catford at low level, killing thirty eight children and six staff. The attackers also machine-gunned the streets of Greenwich and Charlton, with one eye-witness claiming that he could "see the pilot grinning as he gunned up the tram yard."

The Admiral's House after the bombing on 20 January 1943 (author's collection)

In 1949 with the war over, it was decided that the WRNS would continue as a part of the peacetime Royal Navy and the exhibition continues to tell the stories of the peacetime training that took place at the Royal Naval College right up until 1976, when the training of Wren officers was transferred to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

A group of Wrens being shown around the Painted Hall in 1961 (author's collection)

In closing, I feel it appropriate to include below, the following piece which was written by Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS in 1945 about her experiences in joining the Wrens during the winter of 1940/41. The experiences Nancy Spain refers to are relevent to the exhibition and as I was born and grew up within a stone's throw of the Royal Naval College, I make no apologies for repeating it verbatim below, with acknowledgements of course.

"The lorry stopped inside a courtyard, I think, where dusk was already falling and I saw nothing but a dark hall and cold grey stones and a strip of carpet and the superintendent of the OTC reading out names from a list held in the left hand.

This moment was not altogether a shock to me. The superintendent had once taught me history at school when I was eleven years old and I was prepared for her to be there, as she was for me.

She nodded at me as she called my name and I knew that the years had not impaired her perception, nor the war her kindliness, nor circumstances her friendly interest in human nature. Just the same, I felt she knew there was a hole in my stocking. But the moments that followed. They were like a blow between my eyes.

Like many people in England, many Wrens indeed, I was still unaware of much of the inheritance that Nelson, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and the rest, fought for and held for us serenely and splendidly over five centuries."

Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS

"Until the moment that I walked out into the January dusk and saw the white Palladian colonnades and domes of which Samuel Pepys wrote "The King (Charles II) is mightily pleased with his new building", I was almost unaware of Greenwich.

But that evening, rising from the snow, like a conception of God rather than of man, all English history spread itself before my eyes.

The history of England, of which Nelson is a part and which I, and so many others like me, had taken for granted. And I knew that I too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

So, with Pepys, to dinner.

A joy, the selection of a table napkin from the pigeon-holed erection under the blind, marble stare of Nelson and St Vincent....and then....the Painted Hall, for which no contemporary eulogy, nor nineteenth century engraving, had wholly prepared me.

How could I know what I ate, under the lovely, silly paintings of Sir James Thornhill, from the perfect copies of Queen Anne tables, carved from the timbers of ships that had fought at Trafalgar, that had sailed against the enemies of England. The lights blazing from a thousand points in silver candlesticks, again 'after' Queen Anne, seemed limelight as much as illumination. The echoing floor, the lofty grandeur of the high tables under rarer, sillier paintings recalled the cold to me.

It certainly was cold.

And what was that?

We had to sleep in the air raid shelter?


And sure enough, through the Painted Hall there echoed the sound of the guns from Woolwich. England's enemies, at it again.

The Blitz punctuated the whole of that fortnight. It held up our trains, it disturbed our sleep, it smashed the buildings around us, it sent us to bed at 2200 hours like a lot of gloomy, eiderdown-trailing sheep, but it did one good thing, for me at any rate. It made me appreciate still more the beauty and power of those buildings which mere Luftwaffes could not damage."

The exhibition encourages visits from past members of the WRNS and features a 'Memory Board' at which former Wrens who trained at Greenwich are asked to share their reminiscences and experiences.

The exhibition, to which entry is free and which runs until 5 December 2017, is well worth an hour of anyone's time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit either as part of a wider day spent in Greenwich, or as a stand alone visit.

Internet Sources:

WRNS Untold Stories website 

Printed Sources:

Red Alert - Lewis Blake, self-published, 1982
Thank You, Nelson - Nancy Spain, Hutchinson 1945

Monday, 26 June 2017

"Not just a name on a memorial" - The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede

Per Ardua Ad Astra (author's photo)

As has been mentioned on this blog on numerous occasions, a major part of my job - if it can be described as such - is research. Sometimes, this is part of the process of developing a new walk, or on other occasions, it can be part of a larger project such as a family history commission or for a forthcoming publication.

It was for the latter reason - details of which will be forthcoming nearer to the time of publication - that I recently made a visit to the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and which commemorates some 20,456 airmen and women from the Royal and Commonwealth Air Forces who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Second World War in the skies over North and Western Europe but who have no known grave.

This impressive memorial, which is a place of tranquility and great beauty, is situated on Coopers Hill and overlooks Runnymede Meadow, where Magna Carta was signed and is also close to the Kennedy Memorial. It was designed by the architect Sir Edward Maufe and was formally unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in her Coronation year of 1953 on 17 October. It features sculptures by Vernon Hill and has impressive ceilings and engraved glass designed by John Hutton. Interestingly, it was the first post-war structure in the United Kingdom to be listed for architectural merit and from having now inspected the memorial myself, this is an eminently justifiable award.

The impressive first view of the memorial (author's photo)

I had previously made a note of the airmen whose panels I wished to see from the information recorded on the excellent CWGC website and the memorial is laid out with correspondingly numbered panels that makes the process of finding a specific person an extremely easy one.

The first name that I was seeking out was Sergeant Ronald William Ebsworth of 214 Squadron in Bomber Command. In peacetime, Ron had been an accomplished amateur footballer, firstly for his local club Ilford FC, before he signed for Dulwich Hamlet FC in the summer of 1936. By the time of the declaration of war in September 1939, Ron was 33 years of age and perhaps having thoughts about retiring from football but despite his relatively advanced years (for a footballer and for aircrew), he volunteered to serve as aircrew and enlisted into the RAF on 13 July 1940. Upon completion of his training, Ron had qualified as a Wireless Operator/Gunner and was posted on 17 September 1941 to 214 Squadron, flying Vickers Wellingtons, based at Stradishall in Suffolk. Ron and his all-Sergeant crew had flown four operational sorties by 30 November 1941, when they departed for their fifth - a mission to Germany's second city of Hamburg. It was a mission from which they were destined not to return, as the squadron's Operational Record Book simply records "Failed to return" alongside his crew's aircraft. The circumstances of the bomber's disappearance are shrouded in mystery; no German night-fighters were operating in the area that the aircraft was flying and in any case, no claims were ever made by German pilots that could not be matched against other losses. A couple of weeks later, the body of the Second Pilot, Sergeant John Boland was washed up on the coast of the German occupied Dutch island of Texel and was buried with due honours by the occupying forces there. Of the remaining crew members, including Ron, there was no trace and today he is commemorated on Panel 42 at Runnymede, with his similarly missing crew mates all remembered in alphabetical order on adjacent panels.

Sgt Ron Ebsworth commemorated on Panel 42 (author's photo)

Before seeking out the other names for whom I was searching, I decided to explore the memorial more fully and decided to climb the steps, culminating in quite a tight spiral staircase, up to the viewing platform on the roof. The day of my visit had dawned with some pretty heavy spring downpours but by the time I reached the memorial, the weather had moderated somewhat and even though the sky was still angry in places, visibility was pretty good. The Thames stretched out below me and away to the east could be seen Heathrow Airport and whilst looking at the steady stream of modern airliners taking off, I speculated as to what the airmen commemorated here would have made of the sleek jet aircraft passing overhead every few minutes that were so different to the piston engined machines of war that they had flown. Further away still, landmarks such as Wembley Stadium and the London Eye could be clearly seen - a rebuilt London vastly different from the Blitz-scarred capital that these airmen would have known. Looking to the west, the view would have been more familiar with Windsor Castle still dominating the skyline.

The scene from Viewing Platform on the roof (author's photo)

Descending the steps once again, I next studied the words on the Great North Window and subsequently discovered that they were the words to the 139th Psalm, apparently sometimes known as the Airman's Psalm, which even to someone like me who is not particularly religious, could have been written for an airman.

If I climb up into heaven, Thou art there;
If I go down to hell, Thou are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
And remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, 
Even there also shall Thy hand lead me;
And Thy right hand shall hold me.

I then paid a visit to the central courtyard at which many wreathes and more personal tributes to loved ones were on display. Some of these tributes were official and had been laid by representatives of the various Commonwealth nations, whilst some were from bodies representing different sections of the RAF, such as Bomber Command and Air Sea Rescue. There were also poignant tributes from the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the War Widows' Association. One particularly moving tribute was a personal one, left by the family of one Sgt Edward Buckingham and I hope that they do not object to my having photographed it, as the words at the beginning of the tribute eloquently summed up the essence of the work that I do, stating as it did "It is not just a name on a memorial, it is the story behind the name..."

"It is not just a name on a memorial..." (author's photo)

Looking through to the Central Courtyard (author's photo)

Tributes from far and wide (author's photo)

I then set out to find the other names I had been seeking out, two of whom I have previously written about on this blog. The first of whom was Warrant Officer Peter Leopold Godfrey, whose story I had told November 2012. Pete had been a member of Ickenham Cricket Club, of which I am a member and whose name features on the Club's Roll of Honour. He had been shot down into the sea whilst piloting a Hawker Tempest on flak-suppression duties on 17 September 1944 as part of the air operations connected with Operation Market-Garden. Having written about him and seen a photo of the impossibly young looking pilot, it was nice now to see his memorial.

Pete Godfrey's memorial panel (author's photo)
W/O Pete Godfrey (author's photo)

The other airman for whom I was searching was the subject of a much more recent post, as I had written about Flying Officer James Farrar as recently as January of this year. James had been a Navigator with 68 Squadron based at Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire, where they flew the De Havilland Mosquito. James was also a poet and would surely have become better known had he survived to see peace in 1945. Sadly, whilst his aircraft was on 'anti-diver' patrols, in other words attempting to shoot down V-1 Flying Bombs, his aircraft disappeared over the Thames Estuary. The body of his pilot was washed up in the Thames soon afterwards but Farrar was never found.

Flying Officer James Farrar (author's collection)

James Farrar's memorial tablet (author's photo)

Obviously, the vast majority of the aircrew recorded within the memorial are those of airmen but there are also women commemorated as well, both from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and the Air Transport Auxiliary. I have not yet had the chance to research any of the female names on display but will hopefully get around to this at some point in the future.

Women are remembered too (author's photo)

Before leaving this memorial which is a place of great beauty and also incredibly moving, I took a final walk through the cloisters which were lined with names and recalled the tribute I had read earlier "It is not just a name on a memorial...." Name after name, each one a son, a husband, a brother, a father and as I had learned, in some cases a daughter, a wife, a sister or a mother. Some of the panels had photographs, individual poppy crosses and personal messages beneath. Incredibly moving and proof that these men and women are still honoured by family and friends.

Just some of the 20,456 names (author's photo)

As I left the memorial to return to my car, I remembered the words engraved on the gallery window, written by a student, Paul H Scott shortly after the memorial was unveiled:  

The first rays of the dawning sun
Shall touch its pillars,
And as the day advances
And the light grows stronger,
You shall read the names
Engraved on the stone of those who sailed on the angry sky
And saw harbour no more.
No gravestone in yew-dark churchyard
Shall mark their resting place;
Their bones lie in the forgotten corners of earth and sea.
But, that we may not lose their memory
With fading years, their monuments stand here,
Here, where the trees troop down to Runnymede.
Meadow of Magna Carta, field of freedom,
Never saw you so fitting a memorial,
Proof that the principles established here
Are still dear to the hearts of men.
Here now they stand, contrasted and alike,
The field of freedom's birth, and the memorial
To freedom's winning.

And, as evening comes,
And mists, like quiet ghosts, rise from the river bed,
And climb the hill to wander through the cloisters,
We shall not forget them. Above the mist
We shall see the memorial still, and over it
The crown and single star. And we shall pray
As the mists rise up and the air grows dark
That we may wear
As brave a heart as they.

If you haven't previously visited this memorial, I would strongly recommend doing so. It is open during the hours of daylight every day of the year except on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Source for background information: Commonwealth War Graves Commission 
All photos in this article © Steve Hunnisett unless stated otherwise

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A visit to Hamburg

The Hasselbrook shelter rises from the trees (author's photo)

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I've been visiting the city of Hamburg on a fairly regular basis since the late 1980s and over that period of time have come to know and love the city as well as building a great liking and respect for the people of that great Hanseatic port on the River Elbe.

On my most recent visit to the city, I had a little more free time than usual and so took a day to seek out and photograph some of the surviving relics of the Second World War, mainly but not exclusively in the shape of air raid shelters.

I wrote about one of the surviving shelters in February 2013 when I was lucky enough to visit the Shelter Museum at Hamm and would highly recommend a visit to anyone who has the chance to do so. This type of shelter is the conventional (to the British at least) underground type and is known in German as a Rohrenbunker or literally Tube Bunker, consisting as it does of four parallel tubes, linked by a connecting passageway and each, in theory, capable of housing fifty people, although in practice, considerable more than this number were crammed in each night of the 'Gomorrah' raids of July and August 1943. 

A view along one of the tube shaped bunkers at the Hamm Shelter (author's photo)

Unlike the British, who began their Civil Defence preparations in 1938, albeit on an inadequate scale, Germany did not seriously start thinking about arrangements to protect civilians from air attack until after the Blitz on British cities in 1940-41, at which point it began to dawn on the authorities that German cities were highly vulnerable to air attack and that Reichsmarschal Goring's words, uttered in 1939, that "No enemy aircraft shall fly over Reich territory" rang somewhat hollow. Construction of the Rohrenbunker was achieved in 1940 and many of these structures were built across Hamburg and other German cities. Most of these are now derelict and in many cases have filled with water but the one in Hamm was restored by a dedicated team of volunteers and is well worth a visit.

Many of the German shelters took the form of above ground bunkers, extremely sturdy structures built of brick and concrete, of which large numbers still survive. These were known as Rundturm, literally Round Towers and were quite elegant looking buildings in their own way, built of concrete clad in brick with conical roofs designed to deflect incendiary bombs. These were typically built at or near public transport hubs, such as S-Bahn or U-Bahn stations and because of their stout construction, many survive to this day, sometimes derelict but more often than not, in use for more peaceful purposes.

Baumwall Shelter - now in use as a Portuguese Restaurant (author's photo)

The shelter pictured above is conveniently located adjacent to Baumwall U-Bahn Station as well as being withing easy walking (or running) distance of Landungsbrucken on the S-Bahn and today serves as a Portuguese restaurant, although I have yet to sample their wares. The building was built in 1940 and like all of the Rundturm, was built with a nominal capacity of 600, although during the great raids of 1943, would have undoubtedly held many more than this. It also has the remnants of a Nazi eagle or Reichsadler embossed above the main entrance, although as the Swastika understandably remains an illegal symbol in modern Germany, this has been removed and replaced by a blank panel.

The Nazi eagle above the Baumwall shelter - minus Swastika (author's photo)

I paid a visit to a few more of these shelters which remain dotted across the city and two of the more interesting examples can be seen below. The first, immediately adjacent to Sternschanze S-Bahn Station, has been attacked over the years by graffiti vandals. This does seem to be a serious problem in Hamburg and hasn't been tackled with as much vigour as in London but on this occasion and for this structure, the graffiti has softened the warlike appearance of the structure, although as it is still partially in use by a local football club, the occupants may take a different view!

Sternschanze shelter (author's photo)

There is no graffiti on the Hasselbrook shelter, which once again is located adjacent to the S-Bahn Station but like the Baumwall example mentioned earlier, this tower has a Nazi eagle above one of the entrances, albeit of a simpler, perhaps more stylized design. Of course, the swastika has been removed and in this instance, has been replaced by a simple panel showing the year of construction, in this case 1941. The other entrance is adorned by a representation of the City of Hamburg coat of arms.

The Nazi eagle and year of construction at Hasselbrook shelter (author's photo)
Hamburg coat of arms at Hasselbrook shelter (author's photo)

There are other similar examples of this type of shelter at Berliner Tor, Barmbek (which has a 1939 date embossed above the door) and Billhornerbrucke Strasse (dated 1940) all of which seem to be in varying uses today. There are other shelters surviving which I will try to visit and photograph on my next visit. 

The final type of shelter still very much extant in Hamburg, as well as other German cities, is the Flakturm or Flak Tower. These massive structures doubled up as shelters and defensive positions, armed (as the name suggests) with heavy anti-aircraft, or flak guns. There are two of these to be seen in Hamburg, one at Heiligengeistfeld, close to FC St Pauli's Millerntor Stadion, which is now in use as a nightclub and music school.

Heiligengeistfeld Flakturm (author's photo)

These vast structures had concrete walls in the region of 3.5 metres thickness and contained air raid shelters with accommodation for a staggering 10,000 persons, gas proof rooms (the fear of poison gas attack dominated thoughts on both sides), hospital facilities and were surmounted by gun emplacements for heavy 128mm anti-aircraft guns, as well as lighter 37mm and 20mm cannon, although these latter would have been next to useless against the high-flying British and American bombers. The second Flak Tower in Hamburg is located south of the River Elbe, at Wilhelmsburg and has been converted into a most interesting peacetime use, being today known as the Energiebunker, a renewable energy power station which supplies power to the local power grid as well as providing an exhibition space, cafe and spectacular views across the city.

The Energiebunker (

There are many more relics to be seen in Hamburg but alas, time ran out for me on this visit as I had to meet some friends for lunch before leaving for the airport for my return flight to London. My next visit won't be too far delayed and hopefully, I will get the chance to visit and photograph some more Hamburg history.

All photos used in this article are © Steve Hunnisett, with the exception of the Energiebunker photo which is duly credited.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Book Review - Crime in the Second World War: Spives, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse

Think of the British 'Home Front' during the Second World War and the inevitable image is that of a community spirit not equalled before or since, the British people at their absolute best with everybody striving for a common cause and bravely overcoming all of the obstacles and setbacks placed in their way, whether they be the effects of German bombs, rationing and shortages or worse. By and large, this picture is an accurate one and the majority of people did at least try to carry on as normally as possible. As always though, there was a darker side to the Home Front and although frequently overlooked by historians, there was a dramatic fifty seven percent increase in crime during the wartime years. Some of the perpetrators were seasoned criminals and low life, taking the opportunities presented to them by the blackout and the Blitz, the lack of Police resources and an influx of new overseas customers to exploit, whilst others were new at the game and had a hitherto untarnished reputation but were perhaps tempted off the straight and narrow by hardship or by the wartime conditions imposed upon them. Some of these latter 'criminals' probably didn't even think of themselves as such and once peace returned, resumed their normal law-abiding lives.

In her latest book Crime in the Second World War, historian and author Penny Legg examines crime and criminals as well as the differing types of illegal behaviour in Britain during the Second World War. The book, which is subtitled Spivs, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse begins with a look at an aspect of wartime criminality frequently overlooked by historians of the Blitz. Looting was quite widespread, whether it was stealing property from bombed out houses, theft from gas and electricity meters or removing items from bomb damaged businesses. Some of the perpetrators were opportunist thieves, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, whilst others were people who should have known better, such as ARP Wardens or members of the Fire Services, who abused the trust placed in them by the authorities that had appointed them. As the author explains, the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1940 were amended in October of that year to take the crime of looting into account and in theory at least, permitted looters to be punished by death, although this particular sentence was never carried out. We read of a one unfortunate lady in Camberwell who was bombed out of her house during the Blitz and having stayed with friends until her house was made habitable again, then discovered that a neighbour had stolen her piano and a sewing machine. Another householder, this time in Bristol stole £3 7 shillings from her next door neighbour. On this occasion, the thief was sentenced to twenty eight days in prison. A notorious Blitz incident in Central London was the bombing of the so-called 'Bomb Proof' Cafe de Paris in Piccadilly in March 1941. This seemed to bring out the absolute worst in some people, as it was reported that looters cut off the fingers of some of the victims in order to remove rings and other jewellery. Such looters were known as 'Bomb Chasers' - people who swooped as soon as a likely target was bombed and who took advantage of the blackout and the general confusion following a major incident in order to obtain the rich pickings on offer in a wealthy part of London.

In the following chapter, we read of the Black Market and the ways and means used to get around the rationing of food, petrol and clothing in wartime Britain. When one thinks of the Black Market, initial thoughts sometimes stray to Joe Walker, the lovable 'spiv' in the television comedy Dad's Army, always able to procure and supply just about anything for a price. Penny explains that before the war, Britain imported fifty five million tonnes of foodstuffs yearly from around the world, mainly by sea. With the coming of war, much of this was curtailed, either due to the diversion of shipping into transportation of war materials or later, due to the effects of the U-Boat campaigns against British merchant shipping. Rationing was introduced in early 1940 and whilst it was a system designed to ensure that everyone got a fair share of what was available, the reality of the situation meant that almost everybody tried to ensure that they received a little extra food along the way. We learn of how Black Marketeers obtained their wares; sometimes this was achieved by looting bombed out warehouses and shops, sometimes goods were stolen from the docks - often with dishonest dock workers complicit in the operation. Sometimes, livestock was stolen from farms and we read of how Kentish farmers were reported in April 1941 as having to patrol their fields armed with shotguns in order to deter thieves stealing sheep from fields. The Home Guard were also employed to keep an eye open for the so-called 'Butcher Gangs' of livestock thieves. Petrol theft was also a problem, as was the theft of petrol coupons, which were supposed to be the legal method of obtaining fuel for the very few private cars remaining on the roads during the war. The theft of food and clothing coupons was also a problem and it was also an offence to sell ones own legally obtained coupons to others. Sometimes, shopkeepers were involved and it was during this time, that the phrase 'Under the Counter' became a part of the language. An unscrupulous shopkeeper could be discreetly given a list of required items by a known and trusted customer and would usually find a way to produce the goods. Such shopkeepers would never serve strangers in this way for fear of the stranger being an undercover Police Officer. Organised criminal gangs were invariably involved in the Black Market, whether as part of the initial theft of goods, or in the supply of them to the public or to smaller operators.

We then move on to crimes committed in the blackout. Designed to hinder enemy aircraft in identifying targets on the ground, the blackout was also a boon to criminals, as it presented a curtain of gloom in which they could continue their activities. Breaking the blackout was a serious offence in it's own right and whilst some early offenders were simply absent-minded in not covering windows or by showing lights, some people clearly couldn't be bothered and the usual penalty for showing a light was a fine of £5, no mean sum in 1940. By the end of the war, there had been 114,000 prosecutions for blackout violations. As mentioned earlier, the blackout itself presented ample opportunities for offenders, ranging from theft of luggage from blacked-out trains to more serious offences such as prostitution and murder. The darkened streets of major cities presented an ideal opportunity for street walkers and pimps and in London, the darkened parks were a favourite haunt of prostitutes and the influx of servicemen, particularly the Americans who generally had more money to spend, ensured that there was no shortage of customers. Unfortunately, whilst many prostitutes did well out of the war, there were those who were unlucky enough to encounter the 'mad or the bad' as the author describes them. Such an individual was Gordon Cummins, a Royal Air Force pilot cadet who became known as 'The Blackout Ripper' who was eventually convicted of murdering four women and attempting to murder two others in 1942. It was during one of the attempted murders, when Cummins was disturbed by a delivery boy whilst attacking his victim, that he fled the scene and left behind his gas mask, which was stamped with his RAF service number. The first victim had been murdered in an air raid shelter and apart from the incriminating evidence of the service number, the gas mask also contained grit from this shelter. Cummins was also left handed and forensic evidence from wounds on the victims had determined that the attacker was also left handed. This, aided by other solid police work by Chief Inspector Ted Greeno, ensured that a solid case against Cummins was built up and when he came to trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1942, it took the jury just thirty five minutes to find him guilty of murder. He was duly executed at Wandsworth Prison on 25 June 1942.

Penny Legg tells us that the murder rate went up by twenty two percent in the period from 1941-45. Some of these crimes were premeditated, such as that described above, whilst others such as the death of Royal Navy Captain Ralph Douglas Binney CBE, were a result of crimes that went wrong. I wrote about this incident in one of the very first pieces to appear in this blog in June 2010, updated in February 2015 and so will not repeat the story in full again, suffice to say that the Captain intervened in a raid on a Jeweller's shop and would today have no doubt been described as a 'Have a go Hero' in the media. Unfortunately, he was run over and killed by the getaway vehicle and following a huge manhunt, Thomas Jenkins and Ronald Hedley were swiftly arrested. Hedley was identified as the driver of the getaway car but whilst having  been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he was reprieved just two days before sentence was due to be carried out on 28 April 1945. He was sentenced to life imprisonment instead but only served nine years and was released in 1954. Many people were angered by this seemingly soft treatment of a murderer and claimed that it was a major factor in the rise of armed gangs after the war.

We also learn in this book of the 'Babes in the Wood' murders as well as John George Haigh, the 'Acid Bath Murderer' and also John Christie, who whilst not convicted until after the war, committed some of his murders at 10 Rillington Place during the war whilst employed as a Special Constable. Whilst some of these cases are well known, the author gives many insights into the circumstances of the crimes and explains how in the case of Christie, an innocent man also went to the gallows as a consequence of his actions.

Moving away from murders, we next take a look at some other crimes such as Fraud, Theft, Bootlegging and Treason amongst others. Examples of fraud included bogus or exaggerated claims under the War Damage Compensation Act - this was effectively simple insurance fraud and was very hard, if not impossible to check upon. People submitted multiple claims for loss or damage, or sometimes claimed for damage that had never occurred. People learnt how to play the system and a lack of enforcement staff ensured that this particular avenue of criminal behaviour was not closed until after the war when more personnel became available. Bootlegging, or illegally supplying alcohol was rife. Sometimes, this was simply stolen booze from bombed out houses, pubs or warehouses or which was intercepted by criminals whilst it was in transit but more often than not was illegally produced alcohol made from wood spirit, meths or worse, which could lead to illness and in the worst cases, permanent blindness of those unfortunate enough to drink it.

Treason or espionage was less frequent but there were instances of this occurring and we read of the bungled attempts of George Johnson Armstrong, a 39 year old marine engineer to sell shipping information to the German Consul in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1940 whilst he was visiting the USA on business. Armstrong was a known Nazi sympathiser who made little secret of his views. Unknown to him, he was already on a 'watch list' and his letter to the Consul was intercepted by the American authorities and duly reported to the British. Upon his arrival back in Britain, he was immediately arrested and charged under the Treachery Act. He was tried 'in camera' on 8 May 1941 and was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 9 July 1941, having failed in his appeal. We also learn of Charles Amery, who was one of the few people to join the British Free Corps, a unit of the Waffen SS and who actively toured POW Camps looking to recruit British and Dominion Prisoners of War into changing sides.  Amery was the son of the MP Leo Amery and was arrested in Italy in April 1945. At his subsequent trial in November 1945, Amery who was a committed Fascist, pleaded guilty to all eight counts of treason that he had been charged with and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in December 1945. We also hear of the story of William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, another committed Fascist whose broadcasts from Nazi Germany achieved notoriety during the war but in reality, were largely treated with derision by the majority of people in this country, who listened illegally to his broadcasts. As has often been pointed out by other authors, the legality of his arrest and subsequent execution is somewhat questionable as Joyce, an Irish-American who had a British passport on account of having a British mother, was captured near the German border with Denmark by the British in May 1945. He was charged with treason against Great Britain between 3 September 1939 and 2 July 1940, which was the date his British passport had expired. He therefore had ceased to be a British citizen from that date and had already taken up German citizenship. However, neither the Americans or the Irish claimed Joyce after the war and the prevailing mood in the UK in 1945 was unsympathetic towards him and he too was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, in his case on 3 January 1946.

We also learn of Helen Duncan, the last person prosecuted in this country for witchcraft, as well as crimes committed by overseas servicemen such as rapes, riots and desertion.

This is a nicely written, well illustrated and attractively presented book which covers an important and often overlooked aspect of the Home Front during the wartime years and which should appeal to both the general reader as well as those with a more specialised interest in crime or the history of the Second World War - I highly recommend it to you.

Crime in the Second World War: Spivs, Scoundrels, Rogues and Worse by Penny Legg is published by Sabrestorm on 28 April 2017 and is priced at £19.99

ISBN 9781781220092

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Firemen Remembered at Invicta Road

The Invicta Road plaque in situ overlooking the school playground (author's photo)

On Thursday last, 16 March 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend the unveiling ceremony of the latest memorial plaque erected by the charity Firemen Remembered which took place at Invicta Primary School, Blackheath and which commemorated events at the school some seventy seven years ago when the then vacated school premises were in use as London Auxiliary Fire Service Sub-Station 54X.

The day of the ceremony was a beautifully bright and sunny early spring day, which made it hard to imagine that this now happy place which today once again resonates to the cheerful sound of children playing, was once the scene of one of the worst tragedies in wartime Southeast London, when twelve London Auxiliary Firemen and three civilians were killed when the school received a direct hit from a Luftwaffe parachute mine.

Invicta Road School shortly after opening in 1900 (Invicta Primary)

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his now famous radio broadcast in which he informed the British people that they were "now at war with Germany" but two days prior to this, schoolchildren from across London were being evacuated, in the case of those from Invicta Road School, to the relative safety of the Kent countryside. The school buildings dating from 1900, in common with many across the capital were taken over by the London Fire Brigade as a wartime fire station, being given the somewhat functional title of Sub-Station 54X. It then became home to members of the Auxiliary Fire Service, men and women who had volunteered to serve in the fire brigade should war come. These men and women have often been the subject of writings on this blog, most recently in November 2016 when we reviewed a book that concentrated on participation by the Jewish community in the Fire Services. Those who served were paid the princely sum of £3 per week and were exempt from the call-up to the Armed Forces for the duration of their service with the AFS and before the coming of the Blitz, met with hostility from some quarters, being dismissed as "£3 a week Army dodgers" from certain members of the public. They also met initial resistance and prejudice from some members of the regular Fire Services and it wasn't until after the Blitz started that Churchill's tribute to the "Heroes with Grimy Faces" gathered currency.

When the Blitz did begin on 7 September 1940, the men based at Invicta Road School would have seen plenty of action, since the school was located very close to the River Thames, adjacent to which were situated many factories, wharves and associated industries, all of which were by now undertaking vital war work. At 23:05 on 13 September, the school itself suffered its first damage of the war when a small bomb - probably of the 50 kg variety - fell through the roof of the School Assembly Hall. Fortunately for all concerned, the bomb failed to explode and it was carried out of the building by Fireman Arthur Grant into the Playground, where he then proceeded to bury it beneath a large pile of sandbags. The bomb did subsequently explode but because of being shielded by the sandbags, did little further damage to the school buildings. For this act of extreme bravery, Arthur Grant was recommended for a George Medal, the award of which was confirmed on 12 November 1940.

The ruined school following the bombing (Author's collection)

London suffered nightly bombing from 7 September 1940 for fifty seven consecutive nights but the evening of 14 November proved to be a quieter one than usual for the nation's capital, because on this night the attention of the Luftwaffe switched to Coventry, where one of the worst raids of the war took place. So bad was the destruction resulting from this raid that a new word entered the language, to "Coventrate" which came from a word that had similarly entered the German language at this time "coventrieren", meaning to raze a city to rubble from the air. The death toll from this raid was 568 people killed, with a further 863 who suffered severe injuries. Some 500 tonnes of high explosive bombs were dropped on the industrial city and around 3,600 incendiaries, which started so many fires that firemen were sent from as far away as London to help extinguish them. The industrial output of the city was disrupted but factories were quickly repaired or relocated to new "shadow" factories elsewhere and production recovered within a few months.

Whilst this raid was occurring in the Midlands, the situation in London remained quiet but at 19:30 the air raid sirens sounded and the men at Sub-Station 54X settled down waiting for their first "shout" of the evening. The first bomb in the Borough of Greenwich was reported just ten minutes later at 19:40 when a High Explosive bomb fell on the premises of J Stone & Company, a ship propeller manufacturer in Anchor & Hope Lane, Charlton but on this occasion the men of Invicta Road were not required to attend and they continued to wait patiently, little realising that they would in fact become the subject of the next incident to be reported. At 21:20, a one tonne parachute mine floated silently down and became entangled in the trees that lined Invicta Road and then exploded with the terrific air-burst effect that these weapons, converted naval mines, were capable of. These mines could flatten large areas from their blast and so the adjacent school buildings did not stand a chance.

Parachute Mine at the IWM London (author's photo)

The school buildings collapsed like a house of cards and left many firemen trapped and seriously injured beneath the rubble. These men, usually the rescuers, now found themselves in need of rescue themselves and help quickly came from their colleagues in surrounding fire stations. The work to free them went on well into the next day but sadly, when everyone had been accounted for, twelve firemen were dead, along with a further three civilians who had been in the school premises when the mine exploded. Amongst the firemen killed was Firemen Arthur Grant, whose award of the George Medal had been announced just two days previously and who had not yet received his decoration. One of the civilians killed was Mr White, the School Caretaker who died in his house on the school site. We shall probably never know the reasons as to why the other two visitors were at the school. One of them, Cecil Smith lived at 2 Invicta Road, so perhaps was visiting a newly found acquaintance amongst the firemen or perhaps was a friend of the caretaker. The reason behind the other civilian casualty, 21 year old tailoress Rosetta Florence Johnson, being at the school will remain an even bigger mystery, as being a resident of Islington, she was far away from home on this bleak November evening.

Ironically, despite the unfolding tragedy at Invicta Road, it was to be a relatively quiet night in Greenwich, with just three reported incidents.

Rescue and recovery work goes on (Invicta Primary/LFB)

The idea to place a memorial plaque at the present-day Invicta Primary School was first mooted as far back as 2010 but was delayed for various reasons, not least of which was the rebuilding of the school's temporary premises, first erected in the early 1950s, with a more permanent structure. The modern school is a splendid facility and they are rightly proud of their reputation of having a friendly and stimulating environment for the pupils and are also very conscious of their heritage and local history. 

Therefore, the ceremony, whilst under the overall auspices and guidance of Stephanie Maltman from Firemen Remembered, was very much driven by the school and for this initiative, Mrs Marie Corbett, the Executive Head Teacher and Emily Perfect, Creative Arts Leader, as well as the children themselves, deserve much credit. The ceremony started with Mrs Corbett welcoming everyone to the school and explaining to the pupils what was about to take place. There had been much excitement and anticipation amongst the children, not all of whom were in on the secret!

The Museum curators read the Roll of Honour under the watchful eye of Mrs Corbett (author's photo)

The Year 2 choir opened the ceremony with a delightful rendition of the popular wartime song "We'll Meet Again" before some of the curators of the School's own museum showed photographs of the aftermath of the bombing. A certain local historian and Blitz guide (who shall remain nameless) gave those present a brief description of the events of the night of 14 November 1940 before four pupils from Year 6 read poems that they had written about the war. We then heard the Roll of Honour read to us by fifteen of the School Museum's curators before Mrs Corbett, assisted by two hand-picked pupils from the assembly unveiled the plaque. A minute's silence followed after which the entire school sang "Tipperary", a song perhaps better known as a First World War number but which was sung with great enthusiasm and which seemed very fitting as it was undoubtedly a song with which all of the firemen would have been familar. The indoor part of the ceremony was then repeated with the older pupils coming to join in - this was because the Assembly Hall was too small to accomodate the entire school, such was the interest shown in the proceedings.

The plaque is unveiled as Stephanie looks on (Ken Sinyard)

Amongst the guests present were Ken and Graham Sinyard, whose Grandfather Frank Smart had been a member of the AFS based at Invicta Road, although fortunately not present on the fateful night. Fellow guide and official historian of Charlton Athletic FC, Clive Harris was also present, as was Darryl Chamberlain co-author of the Charlton Champion blog and an old boy of Invicta School from the 1980s (from the "old" school, not the "old old" school as the wartime premises are now known!) 

After the indoor ceremony was complete, we then repaired outside to the school playground, where the plaque was installed in it's new permanent home, fittingly located onto the last surviving retaining wall of the original Victorian school, which now overlooks the present school's playground.

Lest we forget - and the reason we were there (author's photo)

We left the school just as the children were emerging into the playground for their lunch break and the final photograph taken of a group of them inspecting the newly unveiled plaque spoke volumes.

Thanks are due to Stephanie Maltman and Bill Hickin of Firemen Remembered for continuing to raise awareness of the work done and sacrifices made by the men and women of our wartime Fire Services and also to Marie Corbett, Emily Perfect as well as all of the staff and pupils of Invicta Primary for making us all so welcome and for arranging such a wonderful ceremony, of which the fallen of 14 November 1940 would surely have been proud.

The unveiled plaque (Ken Sinyard)

Invicta Road School - Roll of Honour - 14/15 November 1940

David (or Davis) Appleby - Fireman AFS - 432 Bancroft Road, Mile End
John Arthur Axcell - Fireman AFS - 10 Archbishop's Place, Brixton
Charles William Barrow - Leading Fireman AFS - 18 Hassendean Road, Blackheath
Henry Arthur Charles Dixon - Fireman AFS - 35 Alberta Cottages, Kennington
Edmund Francis Emmett - Fireman AFS - 1 Lewis House, Greenhundred Road, Peckham
Edward James Fox - Fireman AFS - 12 High Street, Pinner
Arthur Hugh Grant - Fireman AFS - 107 Footscray Road, Eltham
Ronald Francis King - Fireman AFS - 71 Evan Road, Catford
Reginald Francis William Knight - Fireman AFS - 196 Croydon Road, Hayes
John Phelan - Fireman AFS - 151 Grove Lane, Camberwell
Stanley Sargent - Fireman AFS - 21 Havelock Road, Bromley
Frederick Charles Sutherland - Sub Officer LFB - 203 Kidbrooke Park Road, Blackheath

Rosetta Florence Johnson - 117 Southgate Road, Islington
Cecil Critoph Smith - 2 Invicta Road, Blackheath
Charles White - School Caretaker - School House, Invicta Road, Blackheath

Monday, 27 February 2017

His Majesty's Stationery Office at War

One of the many bonuses of my job as a guide, speaker and researcher is being able to indulge myself in one of my old hobbies of collecting old books, although this is something of a double-edged sword, as my home is rapid becoming submerged in an ever growing tide of books both old and new. Indeed, one item firmly on the agenda for 2017 is to build some new bookshelves.

One of the publications I have found myself collecting over the years are the excellent and numerous series of wartime booklets published by HMSO, or His Majesty's Stationery Office to give this organisation it's correct title.

It would be easy to dismiss these works as mere propaganda but this would be to do them a great disservice; of course they tell the stories from a staunchly pro-Allied point of view but there is a great difference between these works and the blunt nature of the works put out by the HMSO's Nazi counterparts. For one thing, the British works do tend to tell things pretty much as they were and some of the photographs pull no punches. For example, in the first of these booklets I acquired, Front Line 1940-41, which tells the story of Britain's Civil Defence Services during this time, the images of destroyed buildings, injured civilians and people being rescued are all real enough and are in no way "manufactured" shots for the benefit of the book. The narrative, although understandably of its time, is thoughtful and well-written and leaves nobody in any doubt that the country has suffered grievously. The underlying message of course, is a positive one - that although times are hard, everything will eventually come right. The books themselves are a masterpiece of good design - the covers are innovative and the standard of some of the photography is first class. The price of these little booklets varied depending on the size of them but were generally between 6d and 2 shillings (between 2 1/2 and 10 pence in today's money) and were an invaluable way for the British public to keep up with events during the wartime years.

Not strictly an HMSO publication but one in which they doubtless had an input is Fire Over London, which tells the story of the London Fire Service during the Night Blitz of 1940-41. Published by the London County Council, who were about to relinquish control of the capital's Fire Brigade into the nationalised National Fire Service, it is a slimmer volume at 34 pages in comparison to most of the HMSO publications, which were generally around the 100 page mark but follows a similar format. It starts with a brief summary of the wartime Fire Service and of the preparations that had been made for war, before going into an account of events of some of the various great raids on London up to that point - 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940, 'The Second Great Fire of London' 29th December 1940 and the heaviest raid of them all on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. It also tells us of the different types of bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe and gives an insight as to how various types of fires were tackled and as with the HMSO booklets, it is well illustrated with some fascinating photographs. Once again, this is not by any means a piece of blunt propaganda.

Another non-HMSO publication but one with which they undoubtedly were involved is It Can Now Be Revealed published in 1945 on behalf of the four major railway companies - GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern Railways, together with London Transport - by the British Railways Press Office. This is an early use of the phrase 'British Railways' as the railways were not to be nationalised until 1948 but had been effectively under state control during the wartime years under the Railway Executive Committee. Interestingly, each of the railway companies, plus London Transport were to publish their own wartime stories in the early years of peacetime but this is another well written piece, which apart from telling us of the railways' work during the recent war, also tells us something of the plans for peace. The booklet starts by telling us not of railway operations but of the war work undertaken by the railway companies - of building tanks, Halifax bombers and Horsa gliders, anti-aircraft guns and even motor boats. This section reminds us that the railway companies contained superb in-house heavy engineering and manufacturing capabilities, all of which were put to good use to aid the war effort. We then turn to the railways themselves and the arrangements put in place for handling child evacuees, war workers, troop movements and war production. We then look at the preparations and arrangement for D-Day, which as well as being the largest sea-borne invasion of all time, was probably the greatest logistical achievement ever likely to be undertaken. The booklet then closes by telling us the work undertaken to maintain services during the V-Weapons campaigns of 1944-45 as well as something of rebuilding for the future.

Staying with the Civilian Services for now, we turn to Merchantmen at War, an HMSO publication that tells the story of Britain's Merchant Navy and the great convoy battles of the war. The booklet starts by telling us of the men of the sea, the Masters, Chief Engineers, officers and men and also tells us of the diversity amongst the crews of the British Merchant Fleet and reminds us that many of the seamen came from places as widespread as Sierra Leone, Bombay and Mombasa. We learn of the convoys themselves, the pre-sailing conferences and of the cargoes themselves, which could be anything from foodstuffs to vital wartime supplies of raw materials and finished products such as tanks, aircraft and ammunition. Like the other booklets, it pulls no punches and there are some pretty graphic photographs of ships being torpedoed and men being rescued who were clearly at the limits of their endurance. We learn of the Arctic Convoys, which were arguably the most arduous of all and finally we see the 'turn of the tide' the preparations for the various landings at Sicily and Normandy. As someone who served in the Merchant Navy in a small way during the 1970s and 80s, this is a fascinating account of a subject close to my own heart.

The fighting services are not ignored either and there is comprehensive coverage of various aspects of the 'sharp end' of the war. A recent acquisition courtesy of the excellent David JB Smith aka @NavalAuthor on Twitter (with whom some swapping of doubles was done), is The Mediterranean Fleet, which is the Admiralty's account of Naval operations in that theatre from April 1941 to Janaury 1943. Like all of the others, this is well written with a copious amount of illustrations and covers some of the hardest moments such as the evacuations from Crete and Greece and the losses of such ships as HMSs Ark Royal, Barham and York, as well as the Malta Convoys, to the more triumphant moments such as the victories at Cape Matapan and Sirte. Once again, the standard of photography is outstanding and leaves the reader in no doubt that before the final victories, there were many moments of tragedy along the way. Some of the photographs of the sinking of HMS Manchester are particularly hair raising and it is hard to imagine anything nearly so candid being published in Nazi Germany at any stage of the war.

Neither are our various Allies forgotten in these booklets either and another recent acquisition  focuses on the exploits of Queen Wilhelmina's Navy or the Royal Netherlands Navy to use the correct title. At twenty five pages, this is a slimmer volume but like the others described earlier, is still well-written and contains a large number of excellent photographs. In common with the other booklets in the series, the narrative doesn't just provide the reader with mindless propaganda but also speaks candidly of the defeat and losses suffered when the Netherlands were invaded and how the Dutch Navy fought a brave delaying action. Despite the loss of their homeland to the German invaders, the Navy fought on and suffered further heavy losses when the Japanese entered the war and attacked Dutch colonies in the East Indies and the booklet tells of the heroic defeat of Admiral Doorman's combined Dutch, American and British force at the Battle of Sunda Straits. Like the other booklets reviewed above, this one also ends on a hopeful note and tells of the Dutch Navy's ongoing fight against both Germany and Japan and looks forward to the day when they will be able to return to a liberated country.

Staying with the Allied theme, Target: Germany examines the work done by the United States 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force in it's first year of operations over Europe. The booklet in my possession is marked "British Edition" so this was clearly something produced for consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. The narrative here starts with the description of two  daylight raids (all American raids were in daylight) on a synthetic rubber factory at Huls as well as the General Motors' factory in Antwerp and tells of how important it was for the American bombers to stick in a close defensive formation. As before, the narrative is quite candid in it's descriptions of massed attacks by German fighters, of bombers exploding and of others coming down in the Channel and the crews awaiting rescue by the British Air-Sea Rescue services. The chapter closes with the post-mission interrogation of the surviving crews and the questions asked of them. Next, we read about the comparisons between the two main American heavy bombers used, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, such as relative bomb loads, speeds, defensive armaments etc. The next chapter steps back in time and gives us the background of the raison d'etre of the Eighth Air Force and the early developments in it's formation and deployment to Britain. All in all, this is another quality piece of work and whilst the narrative is perhaps the most 'gung-ho' of all those reviewed thus far, it is also fairly candid in it's descriptions and like the other books, the standard of the photography is first class.

Staying with the theme of air power, our next booklet RAF Middle East concentrates on the work of the Desert Air Force and air operations in the Middle Eastern Theatre of War from February 1942 to January 1943. This volume tells of operations primarily in the North African desert but also covers the defence of Malta. We hear descriptions of the unique conditions encountered in the desert that made flying so difficult and the maintenance of aircraft challenging in the extreme. Like most of the other volumes, we read descriptions of the early reverses and the back and forth struggles across the desert during this most fluctuating of wartime theatres. The siege of Tobruk is covered as is the later fall of this supposed fortress-port. Air operations in support of the British Eighth Army at Alamein are covered in some detail, when probably for the first time there was really close and effective co-operation between the British Army and Royal Air Forces. This was one of Montgomery's finest achievements and was something of which all those involved could be justly proud. The booklet closes with the pursuit of the Afrika Korps across the Western Desert until their final surrender in Tunisia. Once again, the narrative is truthful and speaks of the reverses as well as the triumphs and the standard of photography is excellent.

We stay in the desert for our next HMSO publication for The Eighth Army which covers this Army from it's official formation in September 1941 through to the brink of final victory in that theatre during January 1943. When the Eighth Army was formed, British fortunes in North Africa were at a low ebb following the earlier brilliant successes achieved by General Wavell's Western Desert Force against the Italians early in the war. Wavell was replaced by General Auchinleck and the book really opens by describing The Auk's (as he was nicknamed) first offensive in November 1941. The book makes a point of describing the cosmopolitan nature of Eighth Army, as besides men from all of the home nations of the British Isles, there were soldiers from Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa. We again hear of the siege of Tobruk, this time obviously from the point of view of the men on the ground. The book tells us of the great advances and retreats that symbolised this campaign before the Army settled on it's defensive line at El Alamein. It was at this point that Churchill decided on another change of command and Auchineck was relieved both as Commander in Chief, Middle East and as General Officer in Command of Eighth Army. He was replaced by Alexander in the former position and the then little-known (outside the Army) Bernard Law Montgomery as Eighth Army Commander. After halting the Afrika Korps at Alam Halfa inSeptember 1942, Montgomery's thoughts turned to the offensive and the booklet covers the ensuing Battle of El Alamein in some details but perhaps understandably considering when the book was written, does not cover any of the later controversies with regard to Monty's perceived over-cautious approach to battle. Seemingly after years of defeats on land, the British at last had a winning General and would not allow dissent in an official publication!

We close by looking at a regiment which formed an integral part of Eighth Army and in The Royal Armoured Corps published in 1945, the narrative gives a brief account of the formation of the regiment during the First World War following the invention of the tank and tells us of how Germany embraced the tank under Hitler and of the early British defeats in France during 1940, during which campaign the Royal Armoured Corps was one of the relatively few parts of the British Army to come out with credit, although they were to lose the majority of their equipment during the hurried retreat and subsequent evacuations. We then learn of the regiment during the Western Desert campaign and the rapid expansion caused by the massive influx of wartime conscripts. There follows a detailed account of the recruiting and training process. The book closes with accounts of the victorious battles in the desert as well as the return to France in 1944 and the future advance into Nazi Germany. Although published in 1945, the book was clearly written in mid 1944 before final victory was achieved but like the other HMSO publications described above, this is a candidly written and well illustrated account.

There is a seemingly endless list of these HMSO booklets and I have yet to see the publications covering the Battle of Britain, RAF Bomber Command, The Fleet Air Arm, His Majesty's Submarines, His Majesty's Minesweepers, The Royal Marines, Australian Forces, Coastal Command and Combined Operations amongst many others that are out there. So far, my acquisitions have come from junk shops, internet auction sites, swaps and the odd gift from friends who know what a sad character they have befriended. They are a fascinating view of the war as written at the time.

HMSO Publications:

The Eighth Army: September 1941 to January 1943 - published 1944 
Fire Over London: The Story of the London Fire Service 1940-41 - published by the London County Council, August 1941
Front Line 1940-41 - published 1942
It can now be revealed: More about British Railways in peace and war - published 1945
The Mediterranean Fleet: Greece to Tripoli - published 1944
Merchantmen at War - published 1944
Queen Wilhelmina's Navy - published 1944
RAF Middle East - published 1945
The Royal Armoured Corps - Through mud & blood to the green fields beyond - published 1945
Target: Germany - The US Army Air Forces' official story of the VIII Bomber Command's first year over Europe - published 1944