Posted by: mcfinder | July 1, 2010

The Battle of the Somme

Today is the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Widely regarded as the blackest day in British military history, approximately 60,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing as Kitchener’s New Army was blooded – quite literally – on the battlefields of France. That’s sixty thousand men…twenty thousand of them killed. Twenty thousand families ruined in a few hours. Think about that for a minute. As a comparison, that was more than 5x more than the combined Allied casualties on D-Day.

Now, popular myth and perception is that the generals and officers that devised this attack were incompetent fools that led their brave new armies to death due to poor decisions, poor planning and a bucket-load of indecisiveness and delays…Well, in my opinion this is not necessarily 100% true. Yes, mistakes were made, however many of these generals and staff officers may not have been quite the bumbling fools that have since been characterised by the likes of General Melchett in the splendid Blackadder Goes Forth.

So were the lions of the Great War really led by donkeys?

No! Let’s blame it on the French.

At the end of 1915, there were considerable tensions rising to the surface between the British and the French governments. The French Commander in Chief – Generale Joffre was demanding strenuously that the British take part in more offensive actions on the Western Front. Up until now, it was his impression that the French were doing most of the fighting. And most of the dying. The 2 million British sailors afloat keeping the high seas safe and free of U-boats were of little consequence to the French who just wanted to get rid of the German invaders. However, the British has a tiny army compared to the French, and wanted more time to recruit, equip and train new conscripts, their argument being you cannot send raw recruits into battle without the proper training and equipment. That would be just madness, right?

The French wanted the Somme to be a battle of attrition – their own attempt at bleeding Germany white. He promised 40 divisions (500,000 men) which would have been double the British representation. Oh and they also said the battle would be in August 1916.

Let’s blame the politicians.

Despite these promises, the British (and specifically Haig) didn’t really fancy a bloodbath on the Somme. He had his attentions turned to those pesky U-boats that were threatening to cut off vital war supplies that were being shipped in from overseas. If the U-boat bases, especially those in Belgium, could be wiped out, that would help everyone. What would winning on the Somme achieve? hmmmm…he had a point. So why did he agree? One word my friends: Politics. He was under enormous pressure by the British government to keep the Frenchies happy, he had no choice really. Merd.

No, Let’s Blame it on the Germans instead.

So, Haig was all set for an August attack with a signficant French army backing him up…then, in February 1916 those ruddy Germans decided to have a go at Verdun. To bleed France white. They almost succeeded too. The battle was ferocious and pretty soon the French army was at breaking point. They demanded help from Britain. And quick. June please. Or July at the very latest. They needed a diversionary attack to draw German troops away from Verdun. Oh, and you know those 40 Divisions of French help? Make that 5.

And so, the scene was set for the Battle of the Somme. An unwanted battle for the British. Fought for the wrong reasons, fought in the wrong place, and fought at the wrong time.

So what about the attack itself. One myth is that the British soldiers were told to stand up and walk slowly across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches. Did this actually happen? Well, yes it did, actually.

Here’s the deal with the ‘walking slowly towards lots of machine guns’ thing. I guess you have 3 options here: walk, run or crawl. The German trenches were at a minimum a quarter of a mile away from the British lines, and in many places more than a mile away. How long would it take to crawl that amount of distance? I suspect too long, so that is the crawling business put to bed. The average Tommy wore kit that weighed about 30-35kg, now, you try running up hill for a mile carrying 30kg on your back and then have a fight with some angry Germans. Chances are you would be exhausted before you got anywhere near the enemy. Oh, and dont forget the terrain would have been annihilated by shell fire and would be very treacherous and uneven. As a result the British attackers were instructed to walk, to take it easy in the first stages of the advance in an effort to save themselves for a short, sharp rush when they got near the oppositions trenches. Kinda makes sense I guess, and it may have worked if it wasn’t for those darned machine guns.

Bombardment

This was an artillery war, indeed 58% of all casualties during the first day of the Somme were due to artillery fire. As soon as the British poked their heads above their parapets for the advance the Germans let them have it with a huge artillery bombardment on their trenches and in No Man’s Land. But hang on a minute. This was never meant to happen. The Brits had been shelling the crap out of the Germans, at the rate of 3 shells a second, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, since the 24th June. That’s a lot of shells by the way, about 1.7million. That’s got to hurt. Indeed the entire battle plan was that this bombardment would be so devastating that there would be nothing left of the German lines, and the attack troops would just have to ‘mop up’. But it didn’t work out that way. Why?

As I have already alluded to, the Germans had very good defensive positions. And so they should, they had dug in  in 1914 and could pick the best positions at their leisure. The Somme area is very chalky, and chalk is good for deep dugouts that can resist artillery bombardments. Over time the Germans had built a subterranean network of deep dugouts some more than 10m below ground, and were able to hide in relative safety from the guns. Whatsmore, the British artillery failed to cut the German barbed wire defenses, it just didn’t have enough of the correct type of shell to effectively cut wire, this in particular would prove catastrophic. Add to this the fact that around 30% of all shells were duds that failed to explode and the effectiveness of the barrage was significantly reduced.

Can we really blame the Generals in the field for poor quality ammunition and superior enemy defences?

Equipment

In any walk of life if you buy something to do a specific job you would normally expect it to be tested to ensure it can do what it was designed to do. Unfortunately many of the bits of kit that the Soldiers took into battle in 1916 were not tested properly before being issued. Take wire cutter extensions, a natty little gadget that soldiers placed on their rifles..the idea was that you pushed it against the German wire and it would snip neatly through the wire. It worked great on British wire…just didnt work at all on the Germans stuff. Which was a shame.

Logistics.

When you think about it, you can have the best troops in the world, the best equipment, the best training, the best of everything, but if you cannot move your armies, or feed them, or get them to hospital when they are injured, then they are quite useless. The logistics for the Somme battle were incredible. It was like moving a large city over to the middle of France. Don’t forget, this was a time before helicopters, lorries, mobile phones etc. There were no tyres, wheels were wooden and transport was largely horse or mule powered. All rations, ammunition, guns, clothing, railway tracks, gravel and other equipment were all moved about using equine power. And here is another thing, feeding those horses took huge resources as well, in fact some sources suggest that in weight terms, there was more fodder for horses transported to france, than shells. Hat’s off to those logistics people is what I say.

Mines

As the preparations for the attack were being made above ground, preparations underground had been going on for months. Tunnelers were excavating huge mines packed full of explosives directly under the German lines, in a scale never seen before. The British Army was pushing the boundaries of warfare. These tunnels, dug within metres of the enemy It was a master stroke which caused, as intended, massive loss to the enemy.

Communications

The First World War was the only war ever where the commanders could not directly affect the flow of battle by his own voice. In previous wars he would be right there with his troops, shouting instructions, in later wars there was radio. On the Somme the commanders were forced to use carrier pigeon, basic telephones (although the wire was cut almost immediately) and runners. The fact is the technology of killing had vastly out stripped the technology of communication. They simply didn’t know what was going on, and thus were almost unable to make decisions on the spot that would perhaps have changed history.

Haig – Prime Donkey or War Hero

Field Marshall Douglas Haig is widely seen as the prime donkey in all of the donkey kingdom that was the British high command. At the end of 1918 he was a hero. It was his army, he had built it, he had deployed it and he had maintained it in such a fighting state that by the end of the war it was the only army fit enough to defeat the Germans militarily. He won the war. The politicians loved him, his soldiers loved him, the people of Britain loved him. He was a very popular chap.

He was also a champion of technology. He has demanded more than 40 tanks for the opening day of the battle, if they had been delivered on time who knows what would have happened.

On July 12th the Germans pulled out of Verdun, so I suppose in a funny kind of way the early days of the Somme were a strategic success in that it relieved the pressure on our French friends and allowed them to regroup and recover. And another thing, after the Battle had ended in November 1916, the German High Command conceded that it couldn’t take another Somme battle. It therefore resumed its U-Boat war, that in the end brought the USA into play, another indirect consequence of the Somme.

Disagree? Post a comment – we love a good bit of banter!

Posted by: mcfinder | June 25, 2010

Using Ancestry.co.uk to find your family heroes

Almost all of us have a family member who fought for King and Country during the First World War. With digitisation of army and pension records, as well as medal cards, ancestry.co.uk is a great resource for anyone wanting to find out more about their family heroes from WW1.

There are a vast number of service records available online (Although the search is a bit clunky and don’t forget that about 80% of all service records from WW1 were destroyed during the Blitz). Some of the details you can find on these records are great, obviously there is the basic name, age, place of birth, next of kin, but then there is extra details such as hair and ey colour, tattoos or scars, any wounds during engagement etc.

Nearly everyone who served in WW1 received a campaign medal. The Medal Index Cards have also been digitised onto ancestry.co.uk and will tell you what campaign medals they won, as well as rank/regiment/service number and perhaps the date they went to war and the theatre (i.e Western Front, Egypt etc.) they served in.

Another fascinating search is the De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour which has short (a single paragraph mostly) biographies of many of the fallen soldiers. It only covers a small percentage of the total war dead, but can be a rewarding search.

Posted by: mcfinder | June 6, 2010

D-Day thoughts

I always think back on this day – the anniversary of the allied beach landings on the Normandy coast – about a trip that I did with a good buddy of mine, Andy Wootten, a few years back. (I want to say 2004, but my memory is shocking and that could be wrong).

Andy’s Dad took part in the Normandy landings as part of the British/Canadian landings at Juno Beach and we set about following in his footsteps and also having a good look around the entire landing site and surrounding areas. Andy had some photo’s of his Dad taken in the area and we managed to find the exact spots the pictures were taken and take our own, modern versions of the photos, which was fantastic. To this day it is one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on. There is history and stories every where you look, from bunkers to gun emplacements to war cemeteries, memorials and of course the beaches themselves. Just standing on the beach, looking out to sea, and then looking at the coast and still seeing bunkers and guns and knowing that just a few short years ago, men (actually most were mere boys) actually walked up that same beach you are standing on with what felt like half the German army lobbing bombs, shells, grenades and machine gun fire in their general direction. There are not many places in Europe like it. You can almost taste it in the air when you breathe.

The American cemetery above Omaha Beach is one of the most moving places I have ever been, Pointe du Hoc is awe-inspiring and some of the gun emplacements are just mind-blowing. If you have never been, I strongly urge you to go and visit – it is a remarkable piece of France.

I have been asked a few times if I would have liked to have been there as it was all kicking off. It is an interesting question. Part of me is perhaps a little bit jealous of these men that they witnessed at first hand, indeed were intrinsically part of, such an important historical day. They must all have amazing and often sad personal stories and memories. I am not sure I would have behaved so impeccably, so calmly, so professionally as these guys did. I would probably have become hysterical with fear and no good to man or beast. Perhaps if I could have been invisible so the Germans couldn’t shoot me then I would give it a go.

All of the soldiers and men from the Allied forces who took part in the landings should be remembered today – the anniversary of D-Day. They are all heroes. All of them.

Posted by: mcfinder | May 23, 2010

Why not follow me on Twitter?

I have been a regular ‘tweeter’ for a while now and have a growing ‘army’ of followers that has just hit 750 people! I tweet about all things military history including news and tips on how to uncover your family heroes.

http://twitter.com/military_search

Surrendered to Britain by Germany at the end of the First World War, the UB-88 was given to the U.S. for study and a victory lap from New York, around the Panama Canal and back up to the coastal waters off California. The agreement called for the German submarine to be sunk within two years. So on January 3, 1921, the U.S. navy sent it to a watery grave off Long Beach, without revealing the exact location. 72 years later Gary Fabian, exploring USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) maps, noticed something unusual: It was long and bore a shape that could indicate a submarine. The multi-beam sonar images are free to anyone who cares to view them on the internet, although they are very complex and need a good level of technical understanding to decipher them. However, Gary Fabian, being a bit of a geek, managed to figure it out and after forming a search group called UB88.org, starting checking it out.

In an interview with  a local paper, Gary takes up the story, 

“We can take those numbers that I get from that (the USGS map), put it in the GPS on a boat and the divers can go right to the site. I mean it’s accurate to within less than 30 feet. The divers took cameras along as they dove to between 200 and 300 feet.

ub88 in 1921

ub88 in 1921

“We were able to watch the video onboard the boat,” he said, “so we’re obviously gathered around this tiny little screen watching it. You can see the conning tower sticking up and the torpedo tubes and dive planes. Yeah, that’s a sub! So it was exciting!”

It didn’t take long for the powers-that-be to take notice.

“We were contacted by the navy because they found out in short order that we had located the sub,” said Fabian. “They informed us that it’s considered sovereign immune property, which means it still belongs to Germany or Great Britain technically, and we’re not to disturb it. We’re fine with that because our divers aren’t into looking for relics or bringing anything up. That’s not what they do.”

I think this is very cool – a WW1 Submarine re-discovered after the best part of 90 years… a bit geeky, but very cool. So in my very best American I say ‘Good Job Gary!’

ub88 wreck

ub88 wreck

I had the pleasure of hosting my European marketing colleagues at work this week, along with some senior members of our corporate marketing management team. During the meetings I put together a ‘cliché tax’ system where a small fine (20p or 20c depending on where you came from!) was paid every time someone said one of a set of pre-defined ‘clichés’. These words included ‘Leverage’ (I hate that word), and stuff like ‘boil the ocean’, ‘let’s take that offline’, ‘holistic view’, win/win, and ‘work smarter not harder’. 

To my delight all my colleagues they all embraced this idea fully and were really great sports! In total we raised £22.30, $2.00 and 17.70Euros. A total of roughly £38.00. I am going to match the total, so a cheque for the Royal British Legion is on its way in the post for £76.00. In my opinion this is a great way of raising a bit of cash for a great charity. The do an amazing job looking after our soldiers. 

Why don’t you try it next time you have a meeting? If we all did something small like this, the combined effect could be very powerful. 

bruce the bear and the fines

bruce the bear (meeting mascot) and the fines

Posted by: mcfinder | April 20, 2010

A new fundraising idea for the Royal British Legion

While cycling home today I had an idea for a new fundraising idea for the Royal British Legion, which I would like your feedback on. Some of you may remember my Cycling the Line trek last November which I did with my good buddy Steve, well, while I want to do some more fundraising for the Legion this year, I am going to give my back and knees a rest from the bike for a while. So, this year my thought is a charity auction, to take place on November 11th with all proceeds going to the Legion.

The loose plan is that I talk to a friendly auction house (someone like Bosely’s) and see if they are willing to host a charity auction and then set about convincing people to put some stuff up for auction. I am thinking celebrities could offer some signed photo’s or other stuff, and as this is a military themed auction I was going to contact medal collectors and dealers that I know to contribute odd medal or other piece of militaria they no longer need in their collection to the auction. I have other contacts that I can talk to about other stuff military – uniforms, hollywood props and other stuff, plus contacts in the media and publishing where I may be able to get some interesting things for the auction.

So there is my plan. What do you think? Realistic or fanciful and naive? Do you think I will get enough pieces for the auction, do you have any ideas/contacts/advice. I would like to try to raise a similar amount to what we raised last year on the cycle ride – that being about £3500. So I am probably looking at 100 – 150 lots…

I would be very interested to hear/read your thoughts..

Posted by: mcfinder | April 16, 2010

A very interesting find…

When my wife texted me yesterday saying she had bought me a surprise present I thought that I had finally worn her down enough to give in and buy me a Mustang. When I finally got home and didn’t see it all shiny and new on the driveway I thought to myself ‘Aah, she has parked it somewhere or we pick it up tomorrow, there is probably a picture of it in a card, or the keys are hanging up… 

There were no keys. There was no picture. There was, instead, a little wooden box, with a couple of engraved plaques on. Now, I will be honest, I was a little bit disappointed (but not totally surprised) that there was no mustang, but on closer inspection this box could be a little gem all of its own. 

The box is maybe 4 or 5 inches square with a large etching of Jerusalem on the lid, and at the front an inscription to the giver and recipient of this box. The inscription reads: 

Presented to Vice-Admiral Sir R Halliday DGI 

By M.G. E. Barak DMI/IDF 

 Hmmm. Vice-Admiral huh? Interesting! Was my initial reaction and an hour later I discovered that this Vice-Admiral was a WW2 Naval officer who earned multiple gallantry awards, was shot down by the Japs, rescued by royalty and went on to become a Knight of the Realm… 

The little box

The little box

Roy William Halliday was born on June 27th 1923 studied at William Ellis School and University College School before volunteering in 1939 for the Royal Navy solely in an effort to avoid at all costs the infantry.  His previous seagoing experience had been the hardship of a deckhand’s life in a Lowestoft fishing trawler. Initially entering service in 1941 as a naval rating at HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness, he was quickly offered a commission as an officer in the RNVR  and asked to train as a naval airman. He immediately accepted without hesitation and probably didn’t make the connection that one telling reason for his quick promotion was the casuality rates for naval airman at this time! 

Although not yet at war, the US was secretly providing training for British airmen. Halliday was shipped to Canada and then to the US naval air station at Grosse Ile, near Detroit, followed by highly intensive flying training at Pensacola, Florida, where he obtained his “wings” after 300 hours solo. 

Pearl Harbor enabled the British at last to wear uniform. Halliday was appointed to a squadron of Grumman Avengers, a sturdy US-designed carrier-borne bomber, and joined the escort carrier Chaser in the Gulf of Mexico.  

Three months of anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic were followed by deployment to the Royal Naval Air Station HMS Sparrowhawk at Hatston in Orkney, as a guard against the escape of German heavy warships from Norway into the convoy routes. 

Interesting inscription

Interesting inscription

Halliday’s squadron was then embarked in the large carrier HMS Illustrious, which arrived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in January 1944. It thereafter carried out bombing raids on Japanese installations in Java and Sumatra, as well as operations in support of General Slim’s 14th Army in Burma. 

Halliday had transferred to the HMS Victorious by January 24, 1945, the day of the largest raid carried out by the Fleet Air Arm, on oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra, which were bombed by aircraft from four large carriers. During the raid Halliday’s Avenger was shot up by a Japanese Zero fighter, and after a hair-raising flight, on fire, over mountainous jungle he ditched in the Java Sea and was picked up in his dinghy by the destroyer HMS Whelp, part of Force 63, a group of destroyers whose job it was to patrol the waters around Sumatra. 

As the downed men struggled to inflate their life raft, and with the plane rapidly filling with water, the first lieutenant of HMS Whelp dispatched a rescue boat to haul them to safety. 

In an interview with the BBC Halliday’s air-gunner in that plane, Norman ‘Dickie’ Richardson, recounts the moment of rescue. “The first lieutenant was leaning over the rail and introduced himself as Lieutenant Philip,” recalls Dickie. He arranged clean, dry clothes for them, and ensured they were fed and watered. At the time, they had no idea who he was – but his friendliness and efficiency remained with them. 

It was some time later that they were to discover they were rescued by Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Greece, soon to be HRH Prince Phillip.  

Returning to HMS Victorious, Halliday found that his cabin mate had been shot down and was a PoW. He was one of nine British naval aircrew who were paraded in Changi Prison, Singapore, two days after VJ Day and beheaded, to Halliday’s great distress. 

Vice-Admiral Sir R W Halliday KBE DSC

Vice-Admiral Sir R W Halliday KBE DSC

In the meantime, Halliday had continued in Victorious, taking part in raids on Formosa (Taiwan), the Ryuku islands and finally the Japanese mainland. Soon after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs ended the war, he was shipped home in the troop ship Rangitiki, having been awarded two Mentions in Dispatches and the Distinguished Service Cross for his gallantry and skill. 

More research needs to be done into exactly where/when/why/how he won these 3 gallantry awards, a quick check through the online London Gazette has come up blank, which is not surprising as the search engine is rubbish. A search of the National Archives list of recommendations for gallantry awards between 1935 and 1990 also came up blank, although not that many RNVR awards are in there…so I will have to keep looking! 

He took up the offer of a permanent RN commission and was appointed as a test pilot to the experimental establishment at Boscombe Down, where an exciting tour meant that he flew the newest types of jet aircraft. 

From 1973 to 1981 Halliday was part of the defence intelligence network, initially as Director of Naval Intelligence in the Ministry of Defence. His tour in Washington as head of the British naval mission and naval attaché had a high intelligence content — unlike the other two services the naval staff was based in the Pentagon itself. 

On return to the UK in 1978 he was promoted to vice-admiral and appointed Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Intelligence), in charge of the intelligence function of all three services. He was appointed KBE in 1980 and, as a mark of his undoubted acumen and his sound judgment about Cold War issues, was, unusually, continued in the quasi-civilian post of Director-General (Intelligence) as an under-secretary of state for a further three years, finally retiring in 1984. This period included the Falklands conflict. He was also chairman of trustees of the Burma Star Association and chairman of the British Military Power Boat Trust, which restores and preserves boats of historical interest. 

So…an interesting character. It’s amazing what you can find in your local charity shop isn’t it? 

Biography researched from the following pages:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Halliday
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4646270.stm
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2962440.ece
Posted by: mcfinder | April 6, 2010

‘Walking’ Soldier May Lose Insurance Claim.

Now this has made me angry.

Private Dave Tatlock is a soldier in the British Army, a couple of years ago he was blown up on active duty and told by his doctors he would never walk again. I suppose it was a good thing he took out special insurance with a company called Abacus before he went on tour in Afghanistan. The 25 grand he would get if he was injured on active service would certainly help.

If you happened to watch the Carling Cup Final earlier this season you may have seen this young chap as it was him who carried the cup onto the Wembley turf infront of 80,000 respectful supporters.

Seems though, that some eagle eyed mother-fucker from Abacus also clocked Pte. Tatlock walking on to the pitch that day, and as a result this anonymous piece of shit called up the rehab centre where he is learning to walk again to say that his insurance claim is being put under review because he has been seen walking. He/she didn’t even have the guts to tell Pte Tatlock to his face.

Now, I am not against insurers (my best man is in the insurance trade – and he is a fine fellow!). But when a lifelong Manchester United fan is invited to Wembley as a small token of appreciation for what he has recently been through, and then is at risk of losing a big insurance payout because some little jobsworth low life thinks it is big and clever to try and stop the insurance claim – I think this is out of order.

Whoever you are little insurance person, you are nothing compared to Pte Tatlock. I hope you are proud of what you have done. Maybe a 6 month tour of the front line would wake you up to realities of what these guys have to go through..

Fucker.

Read the full story here.

Posted by: mcfinder | April 3, 2010

WW2 Campaign Medals: 1939-45 Star

This was the most common star awarded for any overseas service during 1939-45 although airmen/aircrew who took part in the Battle of Britain also were awarded this star. This star was authorised during the war, so personnel are often pictured wearing the ribbon whilst still engaged in the war. It’s ribbon has three equal stripes of dark blue, red and light blue representing the Royal Navy, Army and Air Force.

This medal had one possible clasp: Battle of Britain.

1939-45 Star

1939-45 Star

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