Thursday, 9 June 2022

"Soldiers and Sportsmen All": The Great War story of the 24th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers by Dr. Robert Wynn Jones


Bob Jones is a retired professional geologist and palaeontologist, as well as being a keen amateur historian specialising in the pre-1666 City of London. He writes an excellent blog which can be found at www.lostcityoflondon.co.uk/ and so this interesting history of the 24th (2nd Sportsmen's) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers, is something of a departure for him.

Dr Jones explains in his dedication that he had a family interest in writing this book; his maternal grandfather, Private Charles Reuben Clements served in the battalion until he suffered serious wounds at the Battle of Havrincourt on 12 September 1918 and spent the remainder of the war in hospitals in the United Kingdom, before returning to civilian life in 1919The Sportsmen’s Battalions were an extension of the idea of the various “Pals” Battalions of Kitchener’s “New Army”, except that these men were not work or professional colleagues but instead were bound together by their love and proficiency at the chosen sports. 

These Sportsmen’s Battalions were the brainchild of Emma Pauline Cunliffe-Owen, a remarkable woman of mixed Anglo-German parentage, who reputedly met two big-game hunters in London shortly after the outbreak of war and jokingly asked them why they had not enlisted. When they asked her in reply why she had not raised her own battalion, the idea stuck! 

The 23rd (1st Sportsmen’s) Battalion had been raised in September 1914 and had quickly become over-subscribed, leading to the formation of the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion during the following November. As the Battalion’s title suggests, the vast majority of the recruits came from a sporting background, or could at least shoot or ride. 

The author explains that there were three professional footballers amongst the recruits – Serjeant Adams of Southend United and Fulham, Serjeant Arthur Evans of Manchester City, Blackpool and Exeter City and Private Henry George Purver of Brentford – the latter two of whom were killed at Delville Wood on 31st July 1916. Another of the recruits was Charles Percy “Charlie” McGahey, one of Wisden’s “Cricketers of the Year” in 1901, who played for Essex as well as representing MCC in two test matches in Australia in 1901-02. In common with many of his contemporaries, McGahey was also an excellent footballer who appeared for Millwall, Woolwich Arsenal and Spurs. 

We hear of the Battalion’s training regime and later of their involvement during the various battles and campaigns of the war on a year-by-year basis and learn of the casualties inflicted upon the Battalion at each of the battles they were involved in. 

The author has managed to glean many photographs of the personnel involved in the narrative and finishes the book with some useful appendices in which we can read many biographical sketches of the various men who served with the Battalion, as well as a separate appendix that tells us something of the life of Charles Reuben “Charlie” Clements, the author’s maternal grandfather, another accomplished footballer – this time at club level – for Ealing Wednesday, a team formed largely of shopworkers, who preferred to play on their early closing day rather than on Saturday, so as not to lose their best day’s takings. 

As one would expect when considering the author’s background, this is a meticulously researched and nicely written book that manages to combine the wider history of the Battalion with some family history and I have no hesitation in commending it to you. The book is available to buy direct via the author’s website as detailed above.


Published by Amazon


Price: £8.99

Softback, pp 296

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Book Review: Zeppelin Inferno: The Forgotten Blitz by Ian Castle



This is the second book in a planned trilogy by author Ian Castle and is a detailed study of the German air offensive against Great Britain during 1916.

As with the previous volume which covered the years 1914-1915, the author deals with each individual raid in some detail, whether it was carried out by conventional aircraft, or as was more often the case, by airships either the lesser-known wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz type, or those constructed by the Zeppelin Company, which give the book it’s title. The descriptions of these raids are enlivened by eyewitness personal accounts by those on the ground and in the air, as well as reports from contemporary newspapers.

As well as describing each raid, the author also deals with the countermeasures introduced by the British such as the improvement of the anti-aircraft defences on the ground and the work done to bolster the squadrons devoted to home defence. We also learn about the work done to develop and introduce into service incendiary ammunition for the fighter aircraft that was capable of bringing down the hydrogen-filled airships.

We also read about the personalities on the German side, vilified by the British press as “Baby Killers”, such as Joachim Breihaupt, Heinrich Mathy and Peter Strasser, the commander of the Imperial German Navy’s Airship Division. We also learn about the development and introduction into service of the “R” Class Zeppelins, known to the British as the “Super Zeppelins”, impressive machines that were 198 metres long, with a diameter of 24 metres, capable of carrying a bomb load of up to four tons.

Although the British had brought down their first Zeppelin on 31 March 1916, it had crashed into the sea off the Kent coast. The British public had to wait until 3 September before an airship was shot down over British soil, when the SL-11 was brought down by the guns of a B.E.2c aircraft piloted by Lieut. William Leefe Robinson, who was awarded a VC for his work. The fact that this was a Schütte-Lanz airship rather than a Zeppelin was kept from the public as this stage of the war, as it was felt that this might detract from the achievement!

This was a portent for the future and during the remainder of 1916, the German side lost a further five Zeppelins and although the British weren’t to know it at this stage, 1916 marked the peak of the Zeppelin offensive against the United Kingdom; the majority of future air attacks against this country would be made by conventional aircraft.

The book is well illustrated and also contains many useful maps charting the location of German airship bases in 1916, Air Raid Warning Districts, the penetration of the various Zeppelin raids during the year, location of RFC Home Defence squadrons, and tracks of the final flights of many of the destroyed airships. There are also several useful appendices, which explain the airship numbering systems used by both the German Navy and Army, lists of airship and conventional aircraft raids in 1916, which give the numbers of casualties and the values of material damage caused. The final appendix follows the pattern introduced by the author in the first book, by providing a list of the names of those killed in Britain by enemy air attacks during the year in question. Unlike the later Blitz, there is no central register as such and Mr Castle has done a considerable amount of detective work to identify all but six of the 300 British deaths on the ground in 1916.

As one would expect from this author, this is a superbly-researched and well-written work that will interest anyone who wishes to discover more about this sometimes overlooked aspect of the air war in 1914-1918 and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.

Published by Frontline Books

RRP £25.00

hardback, pp 382

Sunday, 27 March 2022

The Last Rocket: The Tragedy of Hughes Mansions

One block of Hughes Mansions as built in 1929 (Evening News)

As we head into March and a new spring, perhaps we should cast our minds back to the early spring of 1945; Germany was in its death throes, assailed on all side by the Russians in the east and by the British, Americans and Canadians in the west. In Berlin, Hitler was already in the bunker where he would soon meet his end but lived in a fantasy world where he still spoke of some miraculous final victory.

In the capital of arguably the biggest thorn in Hitler's side, war-weary Londoners were still under fire from the most technically advanced of his so-called Vergeltungswaffen or  "Vengeance Weapons" which still fell upon their familiar streets, as well as on eastern England and across the North Sea in Antwerp with disheartening regularity.

The other day, I paid a visit to the site of where the very last of these missiles to hit central London impacted, on a now quiet estate in Whitechapel, in the inner eastern suburbs. 

The surviving original block of Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road (author's photo)

Hughes Mansions, on Vallance Road consisted at that time of three roughly similar apartment blocks which contained 93 flats spread over the three buildings. They had been completed in 1929 and were regarded as a welcome improvement on the old "back to back" slums that had once stood here. The blocks were named after Mary Hughes JP, a Quaker philanthropist and erstwhile member of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney's Housing Committee.

Born in Mayfair in 1860, Mary, or "May" as she was often known, was the daughter of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. She had left home in 1883 to become her uncle John Hughes's housekeeper in Newbury, where he was a vicar and had soon become involved on the Board of Guardians at the local workhouse, where she soon caused a stir by insisting on better conditions for the paupers who lived there. Upon her uncle's death in 1895, she moved to Whitechapel to live with her sister, who was married to the Rev. Ernest Carter and whilst there, continued her work as a Poor Law Guardian, as well as becoming a volunteer visitor to the local hospital and children's home. She had joined the Quakers in 1918 and in 1926, purchased a former pub in Vallance Road, which she renamed the Dewdrop Inn (a play on the words "Do Drop In"), which she turned into a community centre and refuge for the homeless.

Blue Plaque to Mary Hughes in Vallance Road (author's photo)

Mary was an indomitable character, who had once been run over by a tram. Before being taken to hospital, she had insisted on writing a note stating that the tram driver was not to be blamed for the accident and when she was in hospital and told that she was recovering faster than expected, she apparently sat up and shouted "Three cheers for vegetarianism and teetotalism!" 

She had died, aged 81 in 1941 but today is commemorated by a blue plaque on the former Dewdrop Inn building in Vallance Road, which stands opposite the blocks that bear her name. Mary would doubtless have been appalled at the terrible fate which would befall Hughes Mansions just four years after her passing.

Hughes Mansions on the bomb damage map, showing the two blocks marked in purple at the top, centre (author's photo)

On Tuesday 27 March 1945 at 07:12 GMT in the Haagse Bos area of Den Haag in The Netherlands, Battery 3/485 fired a V-2 rocket in the direction of London and just nine minutes later, reports came in to the Stepney Borough Civil Defence Control of a major incident at Hughes Mansions. The missile had scored a direct hit, on the very centre of the three blocks, making a crater some 30 feet by 10 feet and totally destroying the centre block in the process. The block immediately to the east was almost completely destroyed, whilst the rear of the western block, which faces on to Vallance Road was severely damaged. 

The impact crater and aftermath of the V-2 (UK National Archives)

Some victims were never found, vaporised by the blast whilst many others were trapped where the blocks had collapsed. Rescue work continued apace, with sixteen heavy rescue teams and five cranes on the scene, as well as eleven light rescue squads and over seventy National Fire Service personnel assisting in the work. The last survivor was extricated at around 22:00 that night, after which the squads concentrated on the grim task of recovering the victims. Many of the rescuers were veterans of the Blitz but found this particular job, especially at this eleventh hour of the war, the hardest they had ever encountered.

The Hughes Mansions site after clearance (Evening News)

Hughes Mansions, in common with much of the East End of London at this time, was home to a considerable Jewish population and so no doubt Hitler with his twisted mind, would have been extremely pleased had he known that what proved to be his penultimate missile fired at London had taken 120 Jewish victims out of the total of 134 people who perished in their own homes that morning.

Hughes Mansions was rebuilt after the war and ironically, some of those who survived the V-2 incident were rehoused here. Today, the demographic of the area has totally changed and the residents here are overwhelmingly from London's Asian community.

The replacement block at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

There is a very modest memorial to those who died here in the garden area of the rebuilt portion of the estate; so modest in fact, many of the local residents appear to be unaware of what happened here. Whilst I was taking my photographs, I was challenged by a resident and asked what I was doing - when I pointed out the memorial, showed him some of the archive photos and told him what had happened here almost 76 years ago, he was visibly shocked and thanked me for informing him. Perhaps this will lead to the memorial being better cared for, or perhaps supplemented by something more fitting.

The memorial plaque at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

At 16:48 the same Tuesday, one further rocket was fired which impacted a few minutes later at Kynaston Road in Orpington in suburban Kent, killing 34-year-old Ivy Millichamp in her own kitchen and seriously injuring twenty three other people. These proved to be the final civilian casualties in Great Britain of the war, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.


Published Sources:

Hitler Passed This Way: 170 pictures from the Evening News - Evening News, 1945
Hitler's Rockets - Norman Longmate, Front Line Books, 2009

Unpublished Sources:

HO 182/808, Ministry of Home Security, Air Raid Damage Region No. 5 London (Stepney) - UK National Archives, Kew



Thursday, 17 February 2022

Battle of Britain Day, Churchill and The Few

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few."

Winston Churchill was a master of the use of the English language, whether in it's written or spoken form but of all of his inspirational wartime speeches, his address to the House of Commons on August 20th 1940, in which the above passage formed a part, is arguably his most famous. Certainly the phrase 'The Few' which was how Churchill described the RAF's pilots and aircrews, passed immediately into folklore.

The origins of this phrase go back to a few days before Churchill made this speech to the House and appears to have been the result of a spontaneous piece of emotion on the Prime Minister's part. During the Battle of Britain, Churchill, always wanting to be close to the action, made a habit of calling into the Uxbridge Operations Bunker of Number 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command to see the battle developing. Uxbridge was conveniently en route from London to Chequers. His first visit came on August 16th and he was accompanied by his Chief Staff Officer, General Sir Hastings Ismay. As the afternoon's battle developed, the two watched Keith Park, AOC 11 Group, deploying his forces and seemingly having no reserves to spare. What the 'plot' in the Uxbridge bunker did not show, was that Park did in fact have reserves to call upon from the neighbouring 10 and 12 Groups. This was the strength of the defensive system perfected by Dowding and Park but all Churchill could see was that all forces had seemingly been committed. He was also very conscious of the fact that just a few weeks previously, before the fall of France, he had asked General Gamelin about the location of his strategic reserve, only to receive the terse answer "Aucune", meaning "None."

It was perhaps with this experience still fresh in his mind and unknowing of some of the other factors involved in Park's deployments, such as the neighbouring Groups' reserves, sizes of raids and the turnaround times on the ground of the RAF's fighter squadrons, that Churchill and Ismay departed by car for Chequers. The first thing Churchill said to Ismay was "Don't speak to me; I have never been so moved." Then about five minutes into the journey, he leant across and said to Ismay: "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." Ismay was so struck by this comment that he repeated the phrase to his wife upon his return home.

So, the phrase that would mythologise the RAF's fighter pilots was born, but when Churchill made his speech just four days later, he spoke of the RAF as a whole when he said:

"The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…"

It was clear that the Prime Minister was speaking equally of the RAF's bomber squadrons, who were committed to attacking the German invasion barges and targets in Germany and their occupied territories. But to the British public, who could see the battles developing overhead on a daily basis, the phrase of 'The Few' struck a chord; it was the fighter pilots who were the saviours of the country. Whilst this was undoubtedly true, the men of Bomber Command felt somewhat hard done by that their equally vital work was going unnoticed by the British public and was summed up eloquently, although with natural overstatement by one Bomber Command veteran and quoted in Stephen Bungay's excellent work, The Most Dangerous Enemy:

"There was no fighter Battle of Britain. I was at Lympne in light bombers in 1940. There was some fighter activity overhead but no more than you would expect. We went out every night, destroying the German invasion barges in the Channel Ports. That was why the Germans never came. We fought the real Battle of Britain."

Despite this, the fighter battle continued and on Sunday September 15th 1940, whilst having breakfast at Chequers, Churchill decided once again to visit Uxbridge. By now, the Blitz on London had started and the Premier had decided that the weather being fine, that it was a "Blitzy Day" to use his own phrase. At just after 11 a.m., the British Chain Home radar at Dover picked up the first raid of the day forming up over Calais. During the day, some 1,120 German fighters and bombers would be pitted against 630 Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command. 

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (IWM)
As the first raid approached the Kent coast, Keith Park deployed his forces with his customary skill and this time because of the numbers approaching, he requested 12 Group's involvement and ordered the Duxford Wing to patrol over Hornchurch. Leigh-Mallory and Park had clashed over tactics during the Battle of Britain. The New Zealander Park was anxious to hit the attackers with smaller numbers of squadrons and break up the enemy formations before they reached their targets, whereas Leigh-Mallory believed in attacking in large numbers and it was irrelevant to him whether or not the bombers had reached their targets. In reality, Park's tactics were the correct ones - the 'Big Wing' frequently took too long to assemble and then had to climb to reach it's designated height and often being led by the brave but maverick Douglas Bader, the Wing would frequently not patrol where ordered, but would go where Bader felt the action should be. 

The bottom line was that Park did not really trust Leigh-Mallory and although Park's tactics would win out in the Battle of Britain, in the longer term, his 12 Group counterpart would be the winner. Because of his closeness to Sholto Douglas at the Air Ministry, Leigh-Mallory would replace Park at 11 Group and eventually indeed, take the top job of AOC Fighter Command. All this was in the future but it was just as well for Britain and the RAF that he was a more peripheral figure at this stage of the Battle.

Sir Keith Park (IWM)
To return to September 15th, Churchill watched as it became clear that the Luftwaffe formations were indeed heading towards London. This was the day of Sergeant Ray Holmes' collision with what turned out to be an abandoned German bomber, a fact obviously unknown to him at the time. The attacking force, whilst not exactly routed, suffered heavy losses all the same; eighteen German aircraft had been shot down, representing 12.5% of their strength. However, due to massive overclaiming on the part of the RAF, especially the Big Wing, the claims had been for eighty one aircraft. The bomber brought down in the collision with Ray Holmes' Hurricane had been claimed nine times! This overclaiming was not deliberate but was understandable in the melee of a pitched battle. Dowding and Park realised this and had previously sought to take a more measured approach when dealing with claims - matching claims against wrecks of crashed aircraft was one way of doing this for example. Leigh-Mallory and his Air Ministry friends realised it too but on this occasion chose to ignore the overclaiming, partially for propaganda purposes but also to further their own ambitions to oust Dowding and Park for their own ends. The afternoon's air fighting saw similar overclaiming and by the end of the day, the RAF had claimed an incredible 185 German aircraft for the loss of 28 RAF machines. The actual German losses were 56 - still a resounding defeat but hardly decisive. 

Park was furious when he learned that these inflated figures had been released. He understood as well as anyone the need for maintaining the morale of the British public but he also knew what else lay behind these figures; of the 185 claims, no fewer than 105 of them came from the Duxford 'Big Wing!' 

When Churchill spoke to Park upon leaving the Uxbridge bunker, he was once again profoundly moved - he had seen the RAF's fighters handled with great skill by Park and his controllers and with great bravery in the air by the pilots. Park explained to Churchill that he was still not satisfied with the outcome and that he was disappointed that the German bombers had reached London. That was not good enough for Park but Churchill was impressed, especially with the claims from the Big Wing. They were beginning to be noticed.

As Stephen Bungay says, Fighter Command did not win the Battle of Britain on September 15th - it had done that already. It had won because it had endured the battles in August when it's airfields were attacked by repairing damaged machines, filling in craters on airfields and because of the faulty tactics of their enemy. It had won because it had enough brave pilots who overcame their own fears and doubts and it had won because of leaders like Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, who would soon be shamefully replaced by Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas.

September 15th merely encapsulated this victory that had already been won - forgetting the overclaims, the appearance of the Big Wing over London, whilst not an effective military weapon in it's own right, made a massive psychological impact on the Luftwaffe's crews. They had been led to believe that the RAF was on it's knees and down to it's last fifty Spitfires. On the contrary, they had appeared stronger than ever and as the Luftwaffe could not master the skies over Britain, the proposed invasion of this country was never going to be a viable prospect. Operation Sealion was postponed indefinitely on September 17th 1940, just two days after the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day.

For this reason if for no other, The Few deserve to be mythologised. Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Pan Macmillan 2001
Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001







Monday, 3 January 2022

Book Review: "Richard Eager" - A Pilot's Story from Tennessee Eagle Scout to General Montgomery's Flying Fortress


Richard Eager cover (author's photograph)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that starting back in 2014, we began to tell the story of Captain Richard E Evans who became the pilot of Bernard Law Montgomery's personal B-17 Flying Fortress, that Monty had "won" in a bet with General Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith concerning the capture of of the Tunisian city of Sfax.

I was already aware of this bet and how by claiming his winnings, Monty had managed to upset pretty much everyone from Bedell Smith (who had wrongly assumed that Monty was joking) to the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, one of the few who could normally keep Monty under some sort of control. It was left to Ike to smooth things over and despite his annoyance at having to kow-tow to Monty, he recognised the importance of keeping him happy and so authorised the use of a Boeing B-17, complete with American crew to satisfy the British general's ego.

However, in December 2014, I had the honour of guiding Barbara (Bobbie) Kinnear and her husband John on a wartime walk around Westminster but before we had met, Bobbie had mentioned that her late father had been Monty's pilot. Bobbie expressed a certain amount of surprise that I was aware of this particular wartime oddity and when we did finally meet before our walk, I was delighted that she had brought along some copies of photos of her dad, proudly standing alongside a genial looking Monty. This photo, Bobbie explained, was one that her dad had unofficially entitled "Friends at Last" after a series of mishaps, mostly born of bad luck and the occasional misunderstanding, had threatened to sour the relationship between the two men.

"Friends at Last" (courtesy of Bobbie Kinnear)



Following our walk, we parted as friends and promised to keep in touch. Bobbie and John were as good as their word and apart from continuing in email contact, we have managed to meet up on their every subsequent visit to London in those pre-Covid days, with the friendship extending to John and Bobbie's wider family.

Before he passed away aged 87 in 2006, Colonel Richard E Evans (as he had become) began writing the story of his very full life but sadly, the work was not completed by the time of his death. Fortunately for us, Bobbie decided to complete the work but writing and editing isn't always an easy process, especially when one is trying to juggle it around work, family matters and life in general!

It is difficult to review a book of this nature without giving away too many spoilers but suffice to say, this is a well-researched and well written story that alternates between stories of Richard's childhood and growing up in the Tennessee Valley and Great Smokey Mountains and of his service in the USAAF and in particular, of his time as Monty's personal pilot, as well as his post-war service with Strategic Air Command.

The book is well illustrated with photographs both from the family collection as well as from the Imperial War Museum and other archives. There are also copies of some remarkable - and very sincere - personal correspondence between Monty and the then Captain Evans, which form part of an irreplaceable family archive.

From my own point of view as a military historian, the chapters covering Richard's service during the Second World War are of the most interest but those dealing with his young life in Tennessee are fascinating and give an insight to a life that this "Limey" can only imagine but which in some ways echo my own father's young life growing up in rural England before the war.

I commend this book to anyone with an interest in family or in military history, or for anyone interested in the often overlooked "human" side of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. 

And why is the book called Richard Eager? Well, you'll have to buy it to find out!

I should point out that I did have a very small role in assisting with some of the research for this book but the writing and the editing is the work of Colonel Richard Evans and Barbara Evans Kinnear and theirs alone.


All profits from the sale of this book are being donated by the family to the Air Force Aid Society and copies can be purchased online from www.richardeagerbook.com