Friday, 20 March 2020

Romney Marsh, the English Arcadia and Napoleonic War defenses

It is somewhere between late spring and early summer and I am staying at an old coaching inn whose history dates back to the 14th century. It is situated just outside the ancient city walls of Canterbury whose magnificent medieval cathedral still dominates the summer skyline. The city walls or ramparts are still intact in many places around the city and my inn happens to be just outside the city walls and near the West Gate of the medieval city. The inn originally known as the White Hart is now known as the Falstaff Hotel named after the Shakespearian character. There is meant to be three ghosts but happily, as yet,  I have not seen them.

The Falstaff Inn

The West Gate and Tower
Before we start our journey to Romney Marsh and look at beach defences of the early 19th century - a word more about our starting point. The West Gate was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 and replaced an earlier structure that had been built as long ago as 1023.  It was at this earlier gate that William the Conqueror stopped on his way from London to Normandy in 1067 to re-confer the ancients rights and privileges afforded to Men of Kent. "Men of Kent" being those who lived South and East of the River Medway. Those who lived in the west of the county were deemed to be "Kentish Men".  There is a suggestion that this ancient divide owes its origins to the fact,  that in the east the settlers were mainly Jutes and to the west mainly Saxons - these Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in England or should we say Engel-Land the land of the Engels or Angles as written today. It was said that the Men of Kent resisted the Conqueror more strongly than did the Kentish men, but that may not be very fair on the Angles and Saxons.

The White Hart Hotel as it was then known was just outside the city walls. At night the gates to the medieval city were closed and pilgrims unable to reach the city before dark would stay at inns such as the White Hart. It was renamed the Falstaff in Elizabethan times. Sir John Falstaff appears as a corpulent knight in Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Queen Elizabeth was so taken by this character that Shakespear included him as a central character in The Merry Wives of Windsor. To an Elizabethan audience, Falstaff would be instantly recognizable -  not so today.

Nonetheless, the name has become an adjective. In it is described as one "having the qualities of Falstaff, especially his robust, bawdy humour, good-natured rascality, and brazen braggadocio".

"An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,

Comes cracking jokes of civil war

As though to die by gunshot were

The finest play under the sun".    

(first stanza from "The Road at My Door" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

As I start my journey to Romney Marsh through the English arcadia - I notice the buttercups seem more abundant than ever. 

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup.

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup
 Perhaps only a field full of buttercups!

Perhaps only a field of buttercups
 The prickly Hawthorn bush is alive with blossom like snow in summer.
The Hawthorn in full bloom 
Blossom like snow in summer
Romney Marsh is that low lying area of rich green grass and dykes and ditches that lies between the sea on the right,  and the Saxon shoreline marked by the low line of hills that stretch from Hythe to the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings. There's something magical and mysterious about the Marsh  - sometimes described as the fifth quarter of the globe. Richard Barham in "The Ingoldsby Legends" wrote, "the world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa and Romney Marsh". Nonsense of course, but there is something different about the Marsh. When you are on it you see more sky because of its low lying nature and when you look inland you can see the ancient coastline of Roman Britain. Towns like Rye and Winchelsea were once islands. Inland towns like New Romney were once ports. The days of buccaneers and smugglers have gone but left their mark. The sea has retreated,  held back by the sea wall, and Norman churches stand on what were once little islets amongst the salt marshes. There is an uneasy alliance between land, sea and sky.

We catch our first glimpse of Romney Marsh at Lympne - here I am standing on the sea-cliffs of Roman Britain. Nearby there is a medieval castle and an ancient church. The castle is privately owned and said to be haunted. On a spring day, it seemed more enchanted than haunted. In Roman times, ships sailed over the shallow waters of what is now Romney Marsh to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis from which the name Lympne is derived. The Roman port was lower down the hill near to where the remains of Stutfall castle lie today. These old stone walls were part of a Roman,  and later Saxon fort built on the shoreline.

Lympne Castle and the remains (lower down the hill)  of Stutfall Castle  marking the Roman port of  Portus Lemanis

I wander into the churchyard that lies adjacent to Lympne Castle.  Was there ever a more beautiful view of Romney Marsh than from this quiet spot - the Church is built on the crest of the hill and in one coup d'oeil you can see the Romney Marshes stretching out to Dungeness in the glimmering haze of the horizon.

Churchyard with a view

As I look at these ancient graves I am minded of Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard:

"Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-trees shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

(Thomas Gray  - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

General Woolf who took Quebec by an extraordinary feat of arms was reputed to have said of this poem (shown in part above) :

"Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow". 

But lets us move on to military defences before digressing into poetry and the English pastoral arcadia.

I walked past Lympne Castle through wooded glades:

Catching glimpses of the land below:

At the bottom of the scarp, I come across the Royal Military Canal - it stretches along the foot of the low line of hills that mark the old coastline of Roman Britain.  It was built in 1804 as part of the defences against the feared invasion of Britain by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte who had assembled an army on the Channel Coast as long ago as 1798.  In 1803 L'Armee d'Angleterre was assembled at Boulogne and a flotilla of invasion barges was prepared. Napoleon was master of Europe, if only he could cross this narrow strip of water he could conquer and subdue the old enemy.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, the Royal Navy impeded this by their blockade of French ports and their mastery of the seas. However, back at this time, there was a serious concern about the threat of invasion. In preparation for which not only was the Royal Military Canal built but a 100 forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coast

The construction of the Royal Military Canal was commenced in 1804 with the approval of then Prime Minister - William Pitt the Younger. It ran for 28 Miles from Hythe to Rye.  The northern or inland bank of the canal was built up to form a parapet from the excavated soil and a military road was constructed beside it. Gun batteries were built at intervals and positioned to provide enfilading fire. It was finally finished in 1809  by which time the Battle of Trafalgar had been won and the French fleet defeated and the threat of invasion had been lifted. Admiral John Jervis was reported to have said of the French invasion army: 

" I do not say they cannot come - I only say they cannot come by sea".

 The Royal Military Canal today is a peaceful and pretty waterway that runs along the edge of Romney Marsh.

At the time of its construction, it was regarded as a "white elephant" created at enormous expense and critics like William Corbett argued, how we could have expected "those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube to be kept back by a canal 30 ft wide at most"!

Other than the Royal Military Canal and Redoubts built at intervals along the coast a hundred Martello Towers were built along the coast of Southeast England. These were round towers that housed an officer and detachment of soldiers who manned a cannon that could traverse 360 degrees.  Many of these forts still remain today like the one in the car park at Dymchurch shown below.

But my favourite  Martello Tower on Romney Marsh has to be the one in ruins at Rye Harbour also known as Frenchman's Creek.

The British Navy had come across such towers at Mortella in Corsica and one such tower had held of two British warships in 1794. They were formidable defences. They stood 40 feet high with walls that were 8 feet thick. Narrow slit windows provided loopholes for musket fire. Most towers had one cannon that could traverse 360 degrees. Typically manned by one officer and 24 men. 

Now its time to begin my journey back and leave the marsh and from my car you can see the old coastline of Roman and Saxon Britain and some of the flat land that makes up the Romney Marsh with its ditches and dykes  - you can see a lot of sky as always on the Marsh - and finally, the canal lies glittering in the late afternoon sun and the Martello Towers tell their story of long ago.


Wednesday, 18 March 2020

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball on the Eve of Waterloo

These stanzas are taken from a much longer poem by Lord George Byron entitled Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This a book length poem - so not for the faint hearted. I have shortened the several stanzas concerning the Eve of Waterloo to just two,  because it is these two which are most captivating, at least  for me. The first stanza vividly conjures up that ball hosted on 15 June 1815 in Brussels by the charming socialite,  the Duchess of Richmond. All the officers of any importance including the Duke of Wellington had been invited. It must have been a glittering occasion - the ballroom lit by a mass of candles - the officers in their dress uniform and the ladies in all their finery. 

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it? — No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

The Battle of Quatre Bras (painted by Lady Butler)

In the 1970 classic film "Waterloo" in which Christopher Plummer plays the Iron Duke it depicts the Duchess of Richmond's ball brilliantly with the military bands, the Scottish dancing, and the ceremony of the occasion . Here are some stills from that film.

Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington in the 1970 film - 'Waterloo' 

The Duchess of Richmond's  Ball  (from the 1970 film 'Waterloo')
Some poetic license has been employed as in actual fact the ball was hosted on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras fought on 16 June 1815 two days before the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford (1870s)

It was whilst the Duke of Wellington was attending the ball that a messenger arrived from Marshal Blucher with news that Napoleon's army had crossed the border and were advancing towards Brussels. Officers hurriedly left and the next day the army was leaving Brussels heading south to bolster British  and Prussian positions at and around Quatre Bras which were facing the advancing French army.

But let us return to the poem where Byron sets the scene so well that we could almost be there :

 There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily;

What a fabulous line that follows (below) depicting the romance of the occasion and what a vivid description of the music :

and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again

Then we are interrupted by the sound of the gun, the foe is approaching and the officers must make their leave to do battle on the morrow.

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

Poetic license again as the cannonading had not yet commenced nor would it until the following day when the Prussian Army under Blucher which were on the left flank, were attacked and after a short and brutal battle suffered a defeat and had to withdraw and regroup. 

The British led Anglo-Dutch  army at Quatre Bras (literally 'four roads' or 'Cross Roads') on the right flank were attacked by Marshal Ney  who had some 42,000 men outnumbering the British who initially were defending the cross roads with only 6,000 men. Marshal Ney did not press home the attack fast enough and British reinforcements from  the direction of Brussels allowed Wellington to hold the position.

The following day Wellington withdrew his army to Waterloo where he intended to make a stand and …………….the rest as they say is history ! 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

HMS Glorious - The controversy around the tragic sinking of HMS Glorious - June 1940

At a recent lunch in Hong Kong, I found myself sitting next to a friend who had served in the Royal Navy during his national service. I  knew he had an interest in naval history.  I had just been reading about the Battle for Norway and the tragic loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escort destroyers, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta, in June 1940. It turned out that he had a personal connection with HMS Glorious. His father, a naval officer, had served on Glorious and lost his life at the time of the sinking. She was sunk by the German pocket battleships, sometimes referred to as battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. I was curious to find out more about this incident, and in so doing came to learn about the controversy that has surrounded this tragic naval incident which resulted in the death of 1,531 officers and men from the three warships. 
   HMS Glorious had started life as a First World War battlecruiser. She was launched in 1916. She was one of three battlecruisers belonging to the Courageous class which included Glorious, Courageous and Furious. In 1924 Glorious began the conversion process to an aircraft carrier. The conversion was completed in 1930. The three battlecruisers were modified in compliance with the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty, signed in 1922, was an early attempt at arms control by restricting the tonnage and gun calibre of capital ships possessed by the major powers. The treaty allowed up to 66,000 tons of existing ships to be converted into aircraft carriers. The 15-inch gun turrets were removed, a flight deck was built over the main deck with a huge 2-deck aircraft hangar constructed below the armoured flight deck. The gun turrets from HMS Glorious were later installed on the battleship HMS Vanguard

Glorious refitted as an aircraft carrier (Source: IWM)

Courageous before conversion  (Source: IWM)

                                                  An aircraft taking off from Glorious (Source: n/k)

After completing sea trials, Glorious served in the Mediterranean. When war broke out in 1939, she was dispatched to the Indian Ocean to participate in the hunt for the German surface raider Admiral Graf Spee. The Graf Spee was later scuttled off Montevideo, Uruguay. Glorious returned to the Mediterranean from where she was sent to join the Home Fleet.
Glorious at Valetta Harbour Malta (Source: Times Malta Feb. 2015)
In April 1940 she was deployed with HMS Ark Royal to support the British landings in Norway.  She ferried aircraft from Scapa Flow to the Norwegian coast. These included a squadron of RAF Gloster Gladiators, several Walrus amphibians and a squadron of Hawker Hurricanes. These aircraft took off from Glorious's flight deck and landed at airfields ashore. Hurricanes had never before taken off from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Glorious also carried her own Sea Gladiators and Skuas. These were used to support military operations ashore. 

RAF Gloster Gladiator (Source: Wikipedia)

Skuas on the flight deck of HMS Ark Royal  (Source: IWM)

HMS Glorious: Photo was taken in May 1940 from the flight deck of Ark Royal  (Source: Wikipedia)
The photograph above, taken by a member of the crew of HMS Ark Royal, is thought to be the last photograph of Glorious before she sank. The Norwegian operations proved unsuccessful, and in early June a decision was taken to evacuate the troops and aircraft. At the time of the evacuation, Glorious was carrying a reduced number of her own aircraft (nine Sea Gladiators and six Fairy Swordfish) to allow for the embarkation of the RAF Gladiators and Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were landed on the flight deck. It was the first time such aircraft, monoplane fighters, with their higher landing speeds, and without tailhooks had landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. On Saturday 8 June 1940, Glorious set course for Scapa Flow escorted by the two destroyers HMS Ardent (Lt Cdr John F. Barker) and HMS Acasta (Lt-CdrCharles E. Glasfurd). Their smoke was spotted by the German pocket-battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 1546 hours. The battleships closed in at top speed. At around 1600 hours the German ships were observed by the British vessels. The destroyer HMS Ardent was sent to investigate and determine the identity of the vessels. At 1620 hours Glorious closed up for action stations with her five serviceable Fairey Swordfish readied for take-off. At 1627 hours Gneisenau opened fire on Ardent, and minutes later, at 1630 hours, Scharnhorst also engaged the British destroyer at a range of 15 km. The destroyer, although completely outmatched by the two German battleships gallantly went to the attack even scoring hits on the Scharnhorst from her 4.7-inch guns. The destroyer deployed smoke screens and repeatedly fired her torpedoes, but was sunk at 1725 hours by Scharnhorst's secondary armament. 
   The German battleships engaged Glorious with their main armament at 1632 hours at a range of 24 km. At 1638 hours the Scharnhorst secured a direct hit on the carrier's flight deck. The shell went through the flight deck and exploded in the hangar below starting fires which destroyed some of the aircraft. The carrier's aircraft were unable to take off due to the large hole punctured through the flight deck. At 1658, a shell hit the bridge structure killing and wounding most of the personnel on the bridge, including the commanding officer, Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes. The Executive Officer took command of the stricken ship. The smokescreen deployed by Ardent and Acasta was effective in screening the damaged aircraft carrier. However, at 1720 hours, the smoke dissipated and Glorious came under observed fire from the battleships and was hit in the engine room. The ship lost power and steerage and then developed a list to starboard. The German battleships moved in for the kill firing salvos at close range that finally sunk the aircraft carrier at 1810 hours. HMS Acasta gallantly attacked the Scharnhorst with torpedoes and her 4.7-inch guns. The Scharnhorst was seriously damaged by one of the torpedoes, but the plucky destroyer received numerous direct hits and was sunk at 1820 hours with her guns still blazing. The damaged Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau did not stay to pick up survivors. They were concerned that the British vessels had signalled for assistance and the battleships withdrew at full speed to Trondheim. While heading back, the Gneisenau was damaged by a torpedo fired by the British submarine Clyde. After the damaged battleships returned to Trondheim, the German naval commander, Admiral Marschall, was reprimanded and relieved of his command for disobeying orders and endangering his ships.
   William Smith, a seaman on Glorious, made his way from his action station, the dynamo room below decks,  to the stern after the order to abandon ship had been given. He could see the German battleships and the flash from their guns. He recalled the number of dead and wounded lying on the decks. One marine had lost both his legs,  but when offered help, wanted no assistance to get away, simply saying he did not want to go home like that. 
   For the British, it was one of the worst naval disasters of the Second World War. Approximately 900 men from HMS Glorious took to the water, hanging on to Carley Floats in the freezing temperatures of the North Norwegian Sea. A rescue was not ordered, because seemingly the Royal Navy did not know about the loss of the three ships until it was reported on German commercial radio. More than 1,500 men lost their lives in this appalling tragedy. Only around forty men out of the 900 that had abandoned ship were rescued after spending three days and three nights in, or on, the water. Survivors recalled men quickly dying from exposure and just slipping off the rafts to their deaths. 
   The Carley Float is an odd contraption. The men sit on the flotation ring with their feet in the water or stand in the well with water level up their waist. Others, still in the sea held on to ropes dangling from the sides of the raft. William Smith swam out to a raft, but it was full of men. He could not get on until room was made for him by people dying from the cold. Fred Thornton, a Boy Seaman on Glorious, had manned one of the forward 4.7-inch AA guns. He recalled getting on a raft which had twenty to twenty-five men on it. By the time he was rescued by a Norwegian trawler, there were only two men left. Many of the dead had been left in the well because the survivors were too exhausted to heave them over the side. 

Carley Float schematic (Source:
There was no food or water on the rafts. William Smith recalled that some people drank seawater but those who did soon died. After twelve hours he recalled there were only three men left alive on his raft. Vernon Day, an Aircraft Mechanic, recalled the shell coming through the flight deck and setting fire to the Hurricanes in the hangar. He had got on a Carley Float but was one of those standing in the well until one by one the survivors died, and he was able to get on the rim. Squadron Leader Kenneth Cross, who commanded the RAF s Hurricanes, recalled only a handful of men survived on his raft. On Tuesday 11 June, after three days and three nights on a flimsy raft in Arctic waters, they were picked up by the crew of a Norwegian trawler. There were less than forty survivors picked up from the rafts. Given that the survivors had no food or water, had little clothing, and were wet through,  it is a testimony to human endurance that any survived at all. The trawler took them to the Faroe Islands, and from there, an RN destroyer took them to Rosyth, Scotland. 
   The German crew on the battleships had been amazed to find an aircraft carrier, not at full steam, not in convoy, without spotter aircraft in the air, and with only two escort destroyers. They were impressed by the courage and audacity of the two destroyers.  The commander of Glorious was forty-nine-year-old Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes.  He was a veteran of the First World War. He had been a submariner and had won the DSO, DSC and MiD for gallantry. In one incident he had swum ashore at the Dardanelles with explosives which he used for blowing up an important rail link between Constantinople and Baghdad. 

Captain Hugh D'Oyly-Hughes
Undoubtedly brave, and somewhat enigmatic, he has been described by some as being an authoritarian officer without strong leadership, or man-management skills. It has been said he was an old-fashioned Edwardian type of naval officer. A strict disciplinarian who did not always temper authority with understanding. However, other reports suggested that he was popular with the men on the lower deck, if not with always with his own officers. Although he had learnt to fly, and perhaps because of that, he did not always trust the advice of his senior aviators. Some said he did not see the importance of maintaining regular air patrols and reconnaissance. At one stage he had ordered his Commander (Air), John B. Heath, to attack certain ill-defined ground targets in Norway. Heath objected because of the unsuitability of using Fairy Swordfish for this type of ground attack. D'Oyly-Hughes was not an officer to have his orders questioned or challenged. Of course, Commander Heath should have obeyed the Captain's orders to provide air support for the ground forces. It was an order which had emanated from the Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps it was a clash of character, but the row with his senior aviator had been going on for much longer than this one incident. It also involved Lt-Cdr (Air) Paul Slessor, Heath's second-in-command. Slessor had supported his immediate senior and in so doing had also incurred the wrath of the Captain. PO Dick Leggott described how when he joined Glorious he was taken up to see the Captain who had indicated that he (Leggott) would be of more use to him (the Captain) than these two (referring to nearby Commander Heath and Lt-Cdr Slessor). On return to Scapa Flow from that deployment, the Captain had Commander Heath put ashore and placed under arrest for his refusal to obey orders. As a result, Heath was not aboard when Glorious set out on her final fateful voyage. The Captain intended to institute court-martial proceedings against Heath and presumably Slessor when the carrier returned to base at Scapa Flow. Slessor remained with the ship to take charge of air operations and was one of those who lost their lives following the sinking.

This sinking of these ships and the huge loss of life raised several questions and controversies which have never been satisfactorily answered or resolved. 

Why were the three warships sailing on their own rather than in the main convoy to Scapa Flow?
Captain D'Oyly-Hughes asked permission from Vice Admiral (Aircraft Carriers) Lionel Wells, who was embarked onboard HMS Ark Royal, for Glorious with two destroyers as escort to proceeded independently. The reason given was a shortage of fuel necessitating a lower speed. I assume that Wells accepted this explanation, which sounded plausible, and there had been no intelligence provided about the proximity of German capital ships. 
   However, post-war analysis of fuel usage by Glorious on the voyage from Scapa Flow to Northern Norway suggests that there would have been ample fuel. So either the Captain believed that fuel was in short supply, and it may have been, which was consistent with their reduced boiler usage, or he had another reason to return without waiting for the convoy. Some have suggested it was because the Captain wanted to get back to Scapa Flow to initiate the court-martial proceedings against Commander Heath who had defied him. 
   After the death of D'Oyly-Hughes on Glorious, Commander Heath was released and never charged.  He could not be charged without the Captain or other relevant officers to give evidence. The official story remains the shortage of fuel. However, had the ship returned in convoy it would have been at a lower speed than going solo and would have saved more fuel. Going solo at reduced speed, notwithstanding the two escort destroyers, exposed the aircraft carrier to submarine attack. Her sister ship, HMS Courageous, had been sunk by a submarine in September 1939.

Why was no report or signal made requesting assistance by Glorious or the destroyers? 
HMS Devonshire was the nearest vessel, and the signals personnel on Devonshire reported they had received signals from Glorious indicating sighting of German pocket battleships and their positioning. The Gneisenau had also intercepted the signals from Glorious and had attempted to jam them. There are reports that the messages in Morse code lacked signal strength and were relayed on different frequencies. Vice Admiral John Cunningham on HMS Devonshire claimed that the messages were garbled. The Devonshire was carrying the Norwegian King, Cabinet Ministers and Norwegian gold to England. Was this the reason that Devonshire did not alter course and left the Glorious to her fate? Some reports indicate that a radio silence had been ordered, but others indicate that orders had been given to report any enemy sightings. Common sense would suggest that one would break radio silence to report enemy sightings, especially a sighting of capital ships. Were the messages really garbled? Not according to several members of the crew who were interviewed for the documentary film Secret History. Did Cunningham have orders not to stop in any event? If that was the case, why did he not instruct other naval units to assist Glorious? Why were the Admiralty files marked as closed for one hundred years until 2040? They were recently opened but do not offer much more clarity. If Cunningham had not received the message from Glorious, why did Devonshire increase speed and exercise the main armament? Or was that just a coincidence? It is not clear why the two destroyers did not send out enemy sighted signals, which would be normal procedure rather than assuming somebody else would do so.

Why was HMS Glorious not flying a Combat Air Patrol (CAP)
No aircraft were flying. They were not using the vital 'eyes' that a CAP provides. The CAP, assuming clear weather which was the case, could have spotted the enemy vessels at long range and prevented the loss of these three ships. At least one survivor reported that Captain D'Oyly-Hughes had stated there would be no flying on the way back to Scapa Flow. Some reports say there was not even a lookout in the crows-nest. 

Was the Royal Navy aware of the presence of German battleships in the sea area
In Secret History Professor Harry Hinsley, who was an Intelligence Analyst at Bletchley Park, confirmed that his team were aware that the German pocket battleships had left Kiel and sailed northwards. They were tracking the vessels. However, at this stage in the war, the information they supplied was not fully trusted, and while it reached the Admiralty,  it never got passed all the way up the line.

Summing Up 
It was ill-fortune running into two battleships, but there were a series of mistakes, which had they been avoided may have saved the carrier and her two escorts. If Cunningham had received the signal ungarbled could they have prevented the sinking - probably not, but they would have saved many hundreds of lives of those that had taken to the freezing water. If the report from Bletchley of enemy battleships had been relayed, perhaps Glorious would not have been allowed to detach from the convoy, or at least might have had spotting planes in the air. Mistakes happen in war. We will never know all the answers, and the controversy will no doubt continue. The most important thing is that those who gave their lives, and just as importantly, those who survived against all the odds are still remembered for their service and their gallantry, and they are.
The Glorious - Ardent - Acasta (GLARAC) Association helps keep the memory alive and in June 2019 they arranged for a  plaque, shown below,  to be installed at Plymouth Ho in commemoration of all those who gave their lives in the tragic sinking of HM Ships Glorious,  Ardent and Acasta.


Monday, 16 March 2020

My book: Battle for Hong Kong December 1941 - a peep inside.

My book Battle for Hong Kong - December 1941 was published by Amberley in July 2019. The book focuses on the battle which started on 8 December 1941 and lasted eighteen days until the surrender on 25 December 1941.  It is a research-driven narrative, which describes exactly what happened and where it happened. The book includes thirty-three hand-drawn maps and diagrams, and there are thirty-seven photographs.

Dust jacket
33 Maps
There are eighteen chapters, starting with a prelude which gives the historical context. Chapter 2 looks at Hong Kong before the war and preparations for the defence of Hong Kong. Then I take you on a journey through the battle, starting with the fighting on the Mainland, the evacuation of troops from Kowloon, the invasion of the Island, and finally the surrender on 25 December 1941. I cover the war atrocities that occurred at Sai Wan, the Salesian Mission Building, the Ridge, Overbay's, Eucliffe and St Stephen's College.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3
Living in Hong Kong, I was able to carry out considerable field research on the battlefields. Sometimes this involved using a metal detector to find relics left over from the battle. In some cases, personal effects were found including the ID bracelet of a Royal Navy sailor and a wristwatch with the name of a Canadian soldier engraved on the reverse. Spent casings are commonly found, and these can be cleaned with a wire brush to reveal whether they are Japanese,  British or Canadian. From this, one can get a better understanding of where fighting occurred and who was where on the battlefield.
   I particularly enjoy being able to marry archival research with field research. By way of example, the war diaries referred to Canadian troops bringing up a 2-inch mortar to the crest of Notting Hill on 21 December. On this hill, several screw-on caps for mortar bombs were found confirming that a mortar had been deployed there and pinpointing the exact location.
   In another example, the war diaries refer to a Japanese machine gun (MG) positioned at a villa called Cash's Bungalow. The MG was firing on British and Canadian troops deploying along Island Road (now called Tai Tam Road) to attack the Tai Tam X-Roads. This MG was also used to fire on Canadian troops going up Notting Hill and Bridge Hill on the left flank of the attack. The actual  MG position was found by the ruined garden-wall of Albert Cash's bungalow now an overgrown ruin hidden in the trees on a mound above the Tai Tam X-Roads. A large number of Japanese spent MG rounds were found at this location which one could see provided a clear line of fire along Island Road and the hills on the left flank of the British/Canadian advance. This helps brings history alive and helps unfold the story of the battle. 
   Hong Kong was an isolated outpost, a strategic liability. Churchill had said there was not the slightest chance of defending Hong Kong should it be attacked. He would rather have taken troops out than add more troops. Hong Kong was to be sacrificed but not without a fight. After the Japanese effected a landing on the north shore of Hong Kong Island on the night of 18/19 December,   Churchill sent a message to the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Mark Young and the Military Commander, Major-General C. M. Maltby that there must be no thought of surrender, they must resist to the end, and this they did. 

Major General C. M. Maltby with Sir Mark Young  in October 1941
They were fighting a losing battle. They were criticised by some for not surrendering earlier and thereby saving more lives, but they were simply following orders. In the brutality of subsequent incarceration, hundreds of lives were lost due to malnutrition, and many died needlessly from diseases like diphtheria, which were rampant in the camps because the Japanese withheld medicines. The story of the battle is a tragic but gallant tale. The garrison put up a good fight against the odds. The Japanese had complete air supremacy, they had more troops and more guns. The garrison did resist to the end, and as Churchill later conceded in so doing, they won the lasting honour.

Ordering Copies:

The book is available at Amazon and other on-line booksellers.  The book is on the shelves of major booksellers in Hong Kong (including Bookazine) and London (including Waterstones). If not on the shelves the book can be ordered at these book stores. You can also order direct from the publisher (see the links below).

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Sea Echo and The Pipeline under the Ocean (PLUTO) Project

In the early 1960s my parents bought a holiday bungalow at Greatstone-on-Sea in Romney Marsh, South East Kent. I still vaguely remember the family gathering around our kitchen table to think of a name and we chose Sea Echo.  Here's a rather dated photograph, taken with a Kodak Instamatic, of my sister Julie and I standing outside Sea Echo in 1969 or 1970. 

Sea Echo in 1969/1970 (Writers Collection)
My family sold the house long ago but it's still there, little changed and still bearing the name Sea Echo. Here's a photo I took earlier this year as I drove past.

Sea Echo in 2014 (Writer's Collection)
The house was unusual because it had walls that were two or three foot thick, but that's because it had a war history, but more about that later.  The house was in Leonard Road, at that time a small cul-de-sac with five similarly designed flat roofed holiday bungalows surrounded by shingle. Over the years Leonard Road grew longer, and with the development of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, a number of bungalows were built alongside the five original houses in Leonard Road, and likewise all along the coast with whimsical names like Linger Longer and Crackers.

Leonard Road was parallel to the coast road which ran from Littlestone-on-Sea to the rather bleak but fascinating foreland of Dungeness. Close to the road was a miniature railway which ran from Hythe to Dungeness operating steam engines. It still runs carrying day trippers up and down the coast.

The nearest town was New Romney which was linked to Littlestone-on-Sea by a broad tree lined road called the Avenue. New Romney had once been a flourishing port - one of the famous cinque ports. The sea has long since retreated but as recently as Victorian times old maps show a shallow bay open to the sea. Probably salt marshes at low tide with Littlestone-on Sea at the northern end of the mouth and Greatstone-on-Sea on the southern side. This can be seen in the 1816 map below:

Map showing Greatstone-on-Sea in 1816 (
The area marked "The Warren" is now a seaside golf course. The open bite no longer exists and Great Stone and Little Stone are linked. The history of Romney Marsh has been a constant struggle with the sea. In Roman times ships sailed over a large and shallow bay to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis. In Saxon times it must have been largely a  salt marsh with navigable channels, some of which (salt marshes) remains today around Rye Harbour. The Saxons created innings to reclaim land and to harvest salt for commercial use. Sea walls were built  to keep out the sea and ditches and dykes to drain the marsh.

But let's return to Leonard Road and Sea Echo. There was a flight of wooden stairs that led to the wind-swept flat roof where water collected in pools. To the front across the small rail track and the coast road was the shingle beach. At high tide the sea came right up to the shingle bank and at low tide a vast expanse of sand and mud was exposed.  Here fishermen dug for lug worm for use as bait and we would sometimes cross the sands, sinking in patches of soft mud up to our ankles,  to go shrimping at low tide. This involved pushing a wide net along the sea bottom in three foot of shallow water. We would gather plenty of shrimps. It was hard work peeling them and then boiling them but they were sweet and tasty to eat and fresh from the sea.

Looking out to sea you could see across St Mary's Bay to the white chalk cliffs of Folkestone and Dover. Stand up on the highest sand dune at Greatstone near the Jolly Fisherman Hotel and on a clear day you can see bits of France. In the sea just off Littlestone is the wreck of a section of the Mulberry Harbour which was to be used in the invasion of Normandy,  but broke free whilst being towed  to wash up on this stretch of beach.

To the rear of Sea Echo there were miles of shingle and occasional gravel pits.  It's hard work walking on the shingle and in days gone by locals at Dungeness used to wear contraptions like snow shoes with a piece of board under their shoes to facilitate crossing the shingle.

Back then and even today there is a kind of enchantment  brought about by a sense of desolation, the wind ripping across the shingle, the gulls screeching, and that wide expanse of sea and sky. The constant battle with nature. On foggy nights you could hear the mournful blast of the fog horn from the lighthouse at Dungeness.  The long, low line of hills that run from the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight to the hump backed downs at Hythe mark the old Saxon shoreline.  There is so much history in this little corner of England that you are easily caught up under its spell.

The walls of Sea Echo were unusually thick and we knew that it had some connection with the PLUTO Project in World War 2 through which petroleum was supplied to the Allied invasion armies by cable-like pipes that ran under the channel, one of which emanated from Greatstone-on-Sea and another from the Isle of Wight.

I was in Chatham recently visiting the Regimental Museum of the Corp of Royal Engineers. There was a display on the PLUTO Project and there was a photograph (below) of what I thought was Sea Echo in World War 2 at which time it had been built as a pumping-house disguised to look like a seaside bungalow, and therefore escape the notice of German aircraft or German espionage. I am informed by a reader that the photograph is not of Sea Echo, but one off three similar bungalows known as  Boodle's Den at 49, Leonard Road.
Boodle's Den  (Photo from display at Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham)
Here's another war time picture showing the three houses on the western side of Leonard Road with the third one being Sea Echo and showing Leonard Road coming to an abrupt end at the shingle edge in the foreground. The nearest bungalow being Boodle's Den.

The three pump houses disguised as holiday bungalows (www.

Thphotograph below shows Boodle's Den (No 49 Leonard Road) as it today looking quite different with an upper storey added.

In the wartime photograph below you can see the pipeline on huge drums being towed across the channel  to supply the fuel hungry armies with that vital life blood to prosecute the war and liberate occupied Europe from tyranny.

Laying the pipe-line (Source:
 One of the huge drums  on the beach ……….ready to roll

Known as a conundrum (Source:
 These two houses on the eastern side of Leonard Road were used  as accommodation
 Disguised as holiday bungalows (Source:
The pipeline project PLUTO was hugely important to the war effort and allowed over a million gallons of petroleum per day to be carried across the channel. The fuel was transported by pipe line from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey to Greatstone-on-Sea where it terminated at the five PLUTO bungalows - one of which was Sea Echo and from where the pipeline carried on under the Channel to the French Coast.  The huge drums that were towed across the Channel and known as "Conundrums" each carried 30 miles of cable pipe.

Sea Echo with its three foot walls, the shingle, and the Saxon shoreline in the distance gave me an enduring affection for Romney Marsh and history generally.

As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o'er the land
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.

And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe, 
Within the wind a core of sound,
The wire from Romney town to Hythe
Along its airy journey wound. 

As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
I saw above the Downs' low crest 
The crimson brands of sunset fall, 
Flicker and fade from out the West.

 Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
 The stars in one great shower came down;
 Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
 Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.
                                                                                                    (John Davidson)