Friday 2 October 2015

Recommended Wartime Reading

Over the past few weeks, several new and recently published books have been flooding into Blitzwalker Towers and whilst this blog isn't usually in the business of book reviews, such is the quality and importance of these publications, it seems only right to share the news around our many readers.

Being Silent They Speak (David JB Smith)

The first to arrive on my doormat wasn't exactly a new book but Being Silent They Speak is one of those titles that I have been meaning to getting around to reading since it first appeared on the scene in 2012 and which tells the story of HMS Unbeaten, a 'U' Class submarine lost in tragic circumstances in November 1942. The author, David J B Smith served with the Royal Navy for 23 years and this sense of being a part of and understanding the Navy's sense of 'family' shines through in this meticulously researched and well written volume on the birth, life and premature death of one of the Royal Navy's unsung heroines, as well of course as the men who served in her during some of the most difficult days endured by the Senior Service.

HMS Unbeaten wasn't a headline grabbing submarine of the Royal Navy, such as the Upholder (a squadron-mate of Unbeaten's and the most successful British submarine of the War) under the command of Lt. Cdr David Wanklyn VC, or the Torbay, commanded by another VC winner, Lt. Cdr. Anthony Miers, but was instead one of the many efficient, hard working ships that made up the backbone of the British Fleet. Unbeaten spent much of her brief career in the Mediterranean under the command of Lt. Teddy Woodward, who was quite a character in his own right, and was based on Malta as part of the Tenth Submarine Flotilla. HMS Unbeaten built up an impressive haul of enemy tonnage, including the Italian submarine Guglielmotti, the German U-Boat U-374 as well as sinking or damaging merchant vessels supplying the Axis forces in North Africa. During her times not on patrol, Unbeaten and her crew members had to endure the almost constant bombing of Malta during the height of the virtual siege of that island fortress. So bad did this bombing become, Unbeaten had to resort to remaining submerged whilst in harbour in an attempt to avoid being sunk at her berth.

David J B Smith tells the story of the submarine's building and commissioning and skilfully manages to interweave the story of the vessel with that of the men that crewed her and paints a picture of a happy ship, with a typical wartime complement that was a mixture of regulars and 'Hostilities Only' ratings, or 'Hostile Ordinaries' as they were sometimes known! 

The story is enhanced by many personal accounts from surviving crew members from Unbeaten and the author goes on to describe all facets of life on board one of His Majesty's Submarines, from the day-to-day proceedings ashore and at sea, to life at 'Action Stations' including what to this writer is the unimaginable terror of being depth charged. One surviving crew member's son said that his dad could only state that the nearest thing to an explanation he could come up with was to watch the classic wartime movie 'Das Boot', which in his opinion, best captured the experience. As the author says though, the only way that one would really know what it was like to be on the receiving end of 100 kgs of TNT exploding all around you at regular intervals, would be to actually experience it first hand.

The final two chapters of this fascinating book are of necessity, based on a certain amount of supposition because of the circumstances of HMS Unbeaten's loss. Without wanting to ruin the read, all that is known is that having completed a top secret mission entitled Operation Bluestone and heading for home, the submarine was sunk in the Bay of Biscay on 11th November 1942 by an RAF Coastal Command Wellington in one of those most tragic of wartime occurrences, what is nowadays called a 'Friendly Fire' incident.

HMS Unbeaten was lost with all hands, thirty six officers and men, so we will never know for sure what happened in those last fateful moments but David J B Smith has produced a remarkable testament to these brave men and indeed, all submariners during wartime. Being Silent They Speak at last.

I thoroughly recommend this book to you and look forward to the author's forthcoming volume on the French submarine Surcouf that is due out later this year.

Being Silent They Speak costs a modest £8.99 for the print version, is published by Stand Easy Books and is available from all the usual sources, or direct from the publisher either in conventional printed format or as an e-book.

The next book to arrive on my doormat, or rather in view of the size of it, into my arms, is this recently published work, The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945.

This can best be described as a coffee table book and is massive both in it's size and the scope of it's subject matter. It has been compiled by Laurence Ward, a principal archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives and features as it's centre piece, new high definition images of each of the 110 Bomb Damage maps that were compiled during and immediately after the war by the London County Council. At the time, this was a truly herculean task, as the maps were meticulously hand coloured in order to record the damage inflicted on London's built up environment. Each colour used records whether a particular building was destroyed, damaged beyond repair, seriously damaged, repairable at cost and so on.

The maps themselves are things of great beauty and when studying them, it is sometimes easy to forget that each carefully coloured in building represents death, injury, personal loss and at the very least the loss of, or damage to, a place to live or work. These maps are also an important part of London's social history and it is right that they have at last been made available to a more general audience than just people like myself, who has frequently studied some of them at the archive.

Apart from the maps themselves, Laurence Ward has written several chapters that explain the raison d'etre behind the maps as well as a brief summary of the history and timeline of the various attacks on London, i.e. The Night Blitz of 1940-41, subsequent 'Tip and Run' raids carried out by fighter bombers, the Baby Blitz, or Little Blitz of early 1944 and the V-Weapons campaigns of 1944 and 1945. The author then goes on to describe the work of the LCC Architects and District Surveyors in wartime as well as the Light & Heavy Rescue Departments. The methodology of the recording of incidents is also described and a sample list of London-wide incidents is also given, which gives the general reader a good idea of the sheer number and range of incidents that the Civil Defence Services (as well as ordinary Londoners) were likely to encounter. A useful chapter on researching war damage at the London Metropolitan Archives is also included, followed by the maps themselves, which rightly take centre stage in this fascinating book.

The book is then supplemented by a selection of the remarkable bomb damage photographs taken by two City of London Police Officers, PCs Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, both keen amateur photographers who were tasked with the job of making a photographic record of the bomb damage within the City of London Police area. These photographs were nearly all taken the morning after a major raid and some of them show rescue work still in progress. Some of these photographs I had seen before but many of them are new to me and in this large format are remarkable in their detail and clarity.

There are really not enough superlatives for this truly magnificent work, which is an essential possession for the serious researcher but one which will not be out of place in the home of any Londoner, or indeed anyone with an interest in the history of our capital city and the men and women who lived and worked there at this time. Don't be put off by the list price of £48.00 - it is quite easy to make a considerable saving on this by shopping around.

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 is published by Thames & Hudson and is available from all booksellers and also online from the usual sources.

The next book to arrive with me was another with a distinctly 'London' feel to it being entitled The Isle of Dogs During World War II and is written by a local boy, Mick Lemmerman. The author was born on the Island and grew up there during the 1960s and 70s and is part of a trio of local historians who have made it their mission to collect and organize information and images of the Island as well as to foster interest in the locality. Any student of the London Blitz will be aware that the East End and the Dock areas in particular suffered the brunt of the early attacks on the capital and therefore, the Blitz is an integral part of the recent history of this historic area. The other thing that attracted me to this book as soon as I started reading the introduction was Mick's statement that his interest is not so much on the people but on the place - the docks, streets, schools, churches, pubs, bridges etc., and of the timeline of events. A man after my own heart!

In my opinion, some historians of this time have too much of an over reliance on personal accounts, which unsupported by facts, tend to become rather tedious after a very short time. In this comprehensive history, Mick manages to get a nice mixture of personal accounts and hard facts, well supported by a wealth of period photographs and some present day shots to give a 'then and now' perspective of many of the locations mentioned in the text.

The book starts with a brief introduction explaining something of the history of the Island and the construction of the docks, as well as providing the reader with some social history as to the demographic of the residential areas. The author then goes on to give a synopsis on the rise of Hitler in Germany and how Europe slipped inexorably into war during the 1930s.

There then follows a lengthy and useful chapter on the British preparations for war, covering the setting up of the Air Raid Precautions or ARP Sub-Committee in the late 1930s, which began to make provisions for the Civil Defence network across the country. This included the distribution of gas masks to the population, Gas Decontamination training, lighting restrictions (the 'Blackout'), air raid shelters, first aid posts, Air Raid Wardens, Rescue Squads, the Auxiliary Fire Service and Ambulance Service. Also covered in this chapter is the provision of anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons, conscription and the evacuation of school children and pregnant women from the main centres of population to the relative safety of the countryside.

The scene is now set for the main focus of the book and Mick devotes a chapter to the First Day of The Blitz - 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940.  The timeline of the evening's events is given on an incident-by-incident basis, with some useful maps to provide the reader with a good idea as to where the bombs fell as well as a good number of personal accounts to illuminate the text and to give the human touch to what was happening on the ground. This chapter really brings home what it must have been like for the local residents and for the Civil Defence workers doing their best to keep the fires at bay and to keep the populace safe.

The following chapter focuses on the remaining days of the Night Blitz and summarize on a daily basis, each raid that affected the Island. Once again, the author provides a nice mixture of hard facts, personal accounts, contemporary news items as well as many photographs that bring the whole period to life very vividly. The following chapter looks at the period after the Blitz and tells of Home Guard exercises with mock battles, 'Tip and Run' raids, daily life in post-Blitz London, the 'Little Blitz', the construction of the Mulberry Harbours for D-Day (of which a considerable portion were built locally) and of course, the V-Weapons and the impact that these had on the already war-weary Islanders.

The final chapters concentrate of the aftermath of the war and the effect on the local population as well as the devastation caused that now had to be rebuilt, including the rise of the once ubiquitous 'pre-fab' as well as the difficulties in dealing with the unexploded wartime ordnance that is unearthed from time to time. The book closes with a chapter on the various memorials to the victims of the Blitz and subsequent attacks that can be found in the area.

All in all, this is a well researched and well written book that is a credit to it's author and a deserved memorial to the people of the Island who suffered so much during times of great hardship. I noticed one small typo (the 7th September 1940 is inadvertently given as 1941 in a couple of parts of the text) but this is a minor quibble. This self published book is very good value at £10.95 and is available direct via the author's blog as well as usual internet sources.

The final book to reach me is another recent publication dating from 2014 and concentrates on an often overlooked aspect of the German air attacks on Britain, the 'Little Blitz' of early 1944. The official name given by the Luftwaffe was Operation Steinbock, but to Londoners hardened by five years of war, it was dismissively known as the 'Baby Blitz' or The Little Blitz and it the latter name from which this book takes it's title. Written by John Conen, the author provides one of the few detailed studies of what was very much the Luftwaffe's last throw of the dice against London, certainly when it came to conventional, manned aircraft.

Operation Steinbock was a strategic failure for the Germans for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Luftwaffe of 1944 was a different animal to that of 1940-41. The losses incurred during the Battle of Britain and subsequent campaigns in the Mediterranean and Russia had weakened it irreparably both in terms of numbers of aircraft and experienced crews. Secondly, the Luftwaffe had not really modernized it's bomber fleet in any meaningful way and still relied largely upon the same obsolescent types of medium bomber that had failed to deliver the knock out blows against Britain in the Night Blitz; the only new type to see service during The Little Blitz was the Heinkel He177, an attempt to produce a heavy bomber with a comparable bomb load to the British and American 'heavies' but a design which suffered many teething problems with it's engine design and which did not appear in sufficient numbers to make any difference to the outcome of the war. The final factor in the failure of Steinbock were the great developments made in the British night fighter network, with all aircraft radar equipped and vectored onto their targets by a well drillled network of controllers and the anti aircraft guns by now equipped with the new proximity fuse.

John Conen begins his book with a chapter devoted to putting the Little Blitz in context which gives a brief run down of the Luftwaffe's previous attacks on British cities before getting down to a month by month breakdown of the Steinbock raids. As the author states, the first raid on the night of 21st/22nd January 1944 was an inauspicious start to the campaign, with only around 40 of the 200+ bombers despatched actually managing to reach London. Of the 500 tonne bomb load, only 268 tonnes fell on land and of this, only 32 tonnes actually hit anything in London. Bombs were scattered all across southeastern England. From a German point of view, things had gone badly wrong and a combination of poor navigation, effective British counter-measures and bad weather were all reasons put forward for this ignominious failure.

The author goes on to describe each raid in some detail and although these raids were nowhere near the scale of the 1940-41 attacks, much death and destruction was caused and as well as the many tons of High Explosive dropped, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on incendiary bombs than previously - perhaps in some measure retaliation for the vast quantities dropped almost nightly on German cities by the RAF.

One incident in the Little Blitz was comparable to anything that happened in the 1940-41 raids and was indeed the worst wartime incident in Chelsea, despite this borough being the third most bombed in London. This was the 'Guinness' incident of the night of 23rd/24th February 1944, so called because the bomb devastated a block of flats belonging to the Guinness Trust. This incident was recounted in the February 2012 edition of this blog and resulted in the award of the George Cross to Tony Smith, a member of the Heavy Rescue squad, who rescued several people from the flooded basement ruins of the building. Despite Smith's heroism, 59 civilians were killed on this terrible night.

The raids petered out in April 1944, with what proved to be the last bomb dropped on London from a conventional aircraft in the early hours of the 19th of that month. Operation Steinbock lingered on with further desultory attacks on southern coastal targets and came to an end on 30th/31st May with attacks on Falmouth and Portsmouth.

Operation Steinbock had no adverse effect on Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe which began just six days after the final raid on Falmouth. To the contrary, Steinbock helped the Allies; at the start of Steinbock, the Luftwaffe had 695 serviceable bombers to call upon in Western Europe but the heavy losses incurred meant that by D-Day, they could only muster 133 bomber aircraft, against which were ranged some 45 squadrons (over 800 aircraft) of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) plus the huge Tactical Air Forces at Eisenhower's disposal.

John Conen has produced an excellent and very detailed summary of Operation Steinbock and The Little Blitz is to be commended. At £14.99, the price is perhaps a little steep for a book of only 128 pages but by shopping around online, it is quite easy to obtain this book for considerably less.

All of the books reviewed above are well recommended and are a worthy addition to the libraries of either the serious historian or anyone with an interest in the Second World War.

Being Silent They Speak - David J B Smith - Stand Easy Books, 2012. ISBN 9780957392502

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 - Laurence Ward - Thames & Hudson, 2015. ISBN 9780500518250

The Isle of Dogs During World War II - Mick Lemmerman - self published 2015. ISBN 9781507746110

The Little Blitz - John Conen - Fonthill Media, 2014. ISBN 9781781553084

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