Sunday 29 November 2015

Book Review: The Last Big Gun

Front cover (Author's image)

Regular readers of this blog might remember that in the October 2015 edition of this blog, we broke new ground by printing some book reviews of some new additions to my library. I'm pleased to say that following a positive response that was reflected in comments received via social media and in the readership figures for the blog, I have decided to include a few more reviews in the coming weeks and months as and when new books are received.

The latest new title to arrive on my doormat is another from one of the foremost naval historians of our times, Brian Lavery, entitled The Last Big Gun: At War & At Sea with HMS Belfast and is a 352 page, full narrative 'biography' of the ship, the first such account to be written.

Since 1971, HMS Belfast has been an integral part of the London tourist scene and in the 44 years that she has been berthed in the Upper Pool of London, she has become a familiar sight to Londoners and visitors alike; in fact the imposing and purposeful looking cruiser has served in her current role for longer than she saw active service with the Royal Navy.

In this well written and lavishly illustrated book, Brian Lavery tells the story of the Royal Navy's last surviving 'big gun' cruiser from the inception of her design and building at Belfast's famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard, via her near demise just months after commissioning following massive damage caused by a German magnetic mine, her subsequent repairs that amounted to a major reconstruction at Devonport Dockyard, service on the Arctic Convoys and her part in the Battle of North Cape, in which the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst was sunk. The author then goes on to describe HMS Belfast's role at Normandy in 1944, followed by her service with the British Pacific Fleet in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese surrender.

The cruiser's post war service, which was largely in the Far East, is also well covered. These duties varied from traditional peace time 'showing the flag' duties to further active service during the so-called 'Yangtse Incident' of 1949 and during the Korean War from 1950-52, where she provided invaluable gunfire support to Allied forces. HMS Belfast's second major reconstruction from 1955-59 is also covered as are her final years of service, once again mainly as part of the Far East Fleet before her relegation to the Reserve Fleet in 1964 and what looked the inevitable ignominy of the breaker's yard, a fate shared by so many of the Royal Navy's wartime fleet.

Brian Lavery covers the rescue of the wartime cruiser in some detail and explains that whilst the British have a fine maritime tradition and an enviable array of preserved ships from the age of sail and the early days of steam, such as HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose, Cutty Sark and the Great Britain, our record of preserving great warships from the more modern era, especially in comparison with the United States, is less than enviable. The saving of HMS Belfast from what looked her certain end in the scrapyard began to at least partially reverse this 'sea blindness' when it came to preserving our historic warships and we do at least now have the destroyer HMS Cavalier and submarine HMS Alliance to swell the ranks a little, although in this reviewer's opinion, it is nothing short of a national scandal that we failed to preserve for future generations at least one of our fleet of battleships at the end of the Second World War.

Of course, the history of any ship would not be complete without the stories of the crew members and this book is as much of a social history of the Royal Navy during the years of HMS Belfast's existence as that of a history of the ship herself as these two facets are intertwined very skillfully by the author. Fortunately though, the personal accounts never become the centre of attention and Brian Lavery has achieved a nice balance between these accounts and the hard facts behind the ship's various activities both in war and peacetime.

Brian Lavery has produced a very readable biography of HMS Belfast, that should appeal to both the serious naval historian and those with a more general interest in the Royal Navy and it's history alike. The book costs a very reasonable £25.00, is published by The Pool of London Press and I highly recommend it to you.

The Last Big Gun: At War & At Sea with HMS Belfast -  Brian Lavery - The Pool of London Press Ltd, 2015. ISBN 9781910860014

Sunday 15 November 2015

Remembering "The Heroes with Grimy Faces"

The newly unveiled plaque (author's photo)

On Thursday last, 12th November, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Euston Fire Station to attend the unveiling of the latest memorial plaque to London's fallen Second World War firefighters provided by the charity Firemen Remembered organized by the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman.

This plaque, the most recent in an ongoing project, commemorates two London Fire Brigade firefighters and one from the AFS or Auxiliary Fire Service, who lost their lives on the night of 16th/17th September 1940, whilst tackling a fire in Great Portland Street in the midst of an air raid.

The three men, Senior Fireman Thomas William Curson, Auxiliary Fireman Albert Evans and District Officer Joseph Leonard Tobias, inevitably known as 'Toby', were fighting fires that were started by German bombs falling on office buildings in Great Portland Street. The first incident was logged in the St Marylebone Civil Defence Incident Log at 22:15 as a fire above the air raid shelter, which was located in the basement of a five storey office building. At 22:35, a further bomb fell which set fire to a gas main, followed by what turned out to be a false alarm of a UXB. However, no chances could be taken and the nearby BBC studios at Broadcasting House and Western House were evacuated whilst a search for the unexploded device could be undertaken. In the meantime, the men from Station 73 as Euston Fire Station was known, were racing to the scene, under the command of District Officer Tobias. Upon arrival, they encountered a nightmarish scene but one which London's firefighters, both regulars and auxiliaries, had become accustomed to over the past ten days since the beginning of the London Blitz. The two upper floors of the building were already well alight and the fires were rapidly spreading to the other parts of the building. Quickly, Tobias deployed his men and lines of hose were laid and jets of water were soon at work both from inside the building and from the roof of an adjacent building. Euston's Turntable Ladder or 'TL' was put to work, with a lone fireman at the very top of the massive ladder, directing his jet onto the flames beneath him.

The scene of devastation in Great Portland Street (author's collection)

All this was going on whilst the raid was still progressing and with further bombs falling all around. Shortly after 23:00 disaster struck; a High Explosive bomb scored a direct hit on the TL, throwing it's main chassis through the front of 112 Great Portland Street and killing outright Thomas Curson and Albert Evans. District Officer Tobias was caught in the blast and mortally wounded. The frame and extensions of the Turntable Ladder were blasted upwards by the explosion and came to rest on the roof of the building, whilst the upper extension, the part being manned by the lone fireman came to rest hanging precariously down the front of the building. Of the fireman, there was not a sign and the survivors at first feared the worst and felt that he must have been thrown into the blazing building. Amazingly though, a faint cry for help was then heard coming from beneath a pile of debris in the street. The firemen frantically cleared the debris and discovered an Army officer who had just happened to passing when the bomb exploded but beneath him was the injured fireman from the top of the ladder - badly injured but still alive!

Close up view showing the chassis of the Turntable Ladder embedded in the shop front of 112 Great Portland Street (author's collection)

The blast from this bomb, apart from devastating the TL, severely damaged surrounding properties, fracturing both water and gas mains, as well as sending falling masonry tumbling into the street. Apart from those killed, two further firefighters, Fireman Arthur White and Auxiliary Fireman Tom Witherwick were badly injured . At this point, Station Officer Ted Morgan assumed command of the situation and under his calm leadership, the injured were rescued, an alternative water supply was located and the fires were successfully tackled. An extract from the subsequent official report states:

"Station Officer Morgan showed initiative and set an excellent example to the men under his command in taking charge of and extinguishing a fire in Great Portland Street on 16th September 1940, after renewed bombing of the fire had wrecked a turntable ladder and killed or injured a number of the crew and the officer in charge. Recommended for George Medal."

This recommendation was subsequently downgraded to the British Empire Medal, perhaps because Morgan had already been awarded a George Medal for rescuing a lady from a burning building on 29 December 1940. Edward Morgan was obviously a very gallant man because in addition to these two decorations, he went on to be awarded the King's Police & Fire Service Medal for Gallantry for the rescue of a family in March 1941.

A view of the crater in Great Portland Steet (author's collection)

As for 'Toby' Tobias, he died from his wounds the following day, on 17th September 1940.

Apart from Stephanie and other members of Firemen Remembered, last Thursday's ceremony was attended by Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn & St Pancras as well as the Reverend Anne Stevens, vicar of St Pancras and the Reverend Mia Hilborn, Senior Brigade Chaplain for the London Fire Brigade. Also present were many of the members of White Watch from Euston Fire Station, paying tribute to their Wartime counterparts.

Members of White Watch, Euston Fire Station pay tribute to their wartime counterparts (author's photograph)

As might be expected of those who put their lives on the line to protect others, London's firefighters from the London Fire Brigade, Auxiliary Fire Service and from August 1941, the National Fire Service paid a heavy price and by the end of the war, some 327 had been killed in the line of their duties.

Therefore, the work of Firemen Remembered is far from complete and further plaques across London are planned for the future and will be reported on this blog as and when they appear.

The plaque unveiled last Thursday at Euston Fire Station will soon be mounted on the exterior of the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, which is close to the scene of the original incident.

Published Sources:

A Wander Through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword, 2010
London Fire Region Deaths on Duty during the Second World War - WF Hickin, The Watchroom, 2005

Unpublished Sources:

Account of Great Portland Street incident - Mike Pinchen, Firemen Remembered
Metropolitan Borough of St. Marylebone Civil Defence Incident Log