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Alexander Wilson – the puzzling story of a Second World War spy

Alexander-Wilson.jpg
Alexander Wilson

Not all battles during a war are fought between armies in the open field. There have always been the men and women who work in intelligence and whose stories can often be very complex and difficult to understand, if we can unravel the truth of them at all. One such example was brought to our TV screens in December 2018 when many people in the UK were enthralled by the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ which told the story of Alexander Wilson, author, spy and bigamist. What most people found fascinating was that almost eighty years after some of the events took place we still don’t know the truth about Alexander Wilson as the government has still not released all the papers relating to his work. Who was Alexander Wilson? What role did he play in the murky world of espionage before and during the Second World War? Was he a patriot or an inveterate liar? Is it possible that a look at the situation in Egypt, and specifically Cairo, during that period may lead to some answers, or will it simply lead to more questions?

Alison Wilson
Alison Wilson

One thing that we do know about Alexander Wilson is that he was a bigamist. After serving in the First World War (with wounds which meant that he could not go on active service in World War 2) he left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis to go to India as a Professor of English Literature, and it was there that he began to write spy novels. Whilst in India he also married his second wife, Dorothy, without getting a divorce from Gladys. There is no evidence that Wilson worked for MI6 at the time, although that claim has been made by some.

When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he left Dorothy and their young son, Michael, and returned to his first wife, Gladys. About eighteen months later (in 1935) he moved to London, leaving his legitimate wife behind yet again. We do know that Wilson was working for MI6 at this time as he met his third wife, Alison, when she was his secretary there (again, no divorce); Alexander and Alison had two sons, Gordon and Nigel. In 1942 Wilson told Alison that the authorities were about to say that he had been dismissed from MI6 but it was all part of an elaborate cover story which would enable him to work as a spy in the field – specifically enabling him to get close to fascists and other targets in prison. The reason MI6 gave for his dismissal was that he had embellished a story about alleged Egyptian espionage and could not be trusted; he was also later accused of burglary and declared bankrupt.

Nahas Pasha
Nahas Pasha

The key reason for Wilsons ‘dismissal’ by MI6 was that they said his reports that the Egyptian Ambassador in London was spying for the Nazi’s were pure fabrication. Yet it was well known by the authorities at the time that a number of factions in Egypt were actively helping the Nazis in the hope that they would gain independence if Britain was defeated. And the Egyptian Ambassador in London was none other than Nahas Pasha, a key nationalist who had already plotted to overthrow the pro-British Egyptian government. To understand Wilson’s story we may need to understand more about Egypt during the Second World War.

Egypt had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 but western countries, including France, German, Italy, and Britain began to have more influence in the 19th century. In the 1850’s Ferdinand de Lesseps was given permission to build the Suez Canal which was underwritten by the Egyptians who were more or less forced to give the Suez Canal Company generous concessions, so much so that Egypt had to borrow large amounts of money to keep her economy going. Egypt was soon over £100 million in debt and had to allow the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to buy up many of their shares in the Canal. France and Britain understood the importance of the Canal for trade and took over the Egyptian economy in 1876, declaring that they would maintain this role until the debts had been paid. When influential Egyptians tried to take back more control of their country British forces moved in and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882 with the country becoming a Protectorate in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Many Egyptians felt cheated at the end of the war when the independence they thought they had been promised was not forthcoming, in fact they were not even allowed at the conference to decide the fate of their country. This led to riots in Cairo which spread throughout Egypt. Political instability continued until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which required Britain to withdraw troops from all parts of Egypt except at the Suez Canal by 1949.

King Farouk
King Farouk

Nahas Pasha served as Prime Minister of Egypt before the war but was pushed out because of his nationalistic and ant-British feelings. When young King Farouk came to the throne in 1936 things changed – he wanted an end to British occupation of his country and was very friendly with the Italians. When war broke out many (but not all) Italians and Germans were interned at the insistence of the British, but Egypt refused to declare war on Germany and remained technically neutral until 1945. At the end of May 1940 Cairo was declared an ‘open city’ which meant that as the war in North Africa ebbed and flowed through the desert British troops rubbed shoulders with Italians and Germans on the streets of Egypt’s capital city. King Farouk refused to dismiss his Italian servants who kept lines of communication open with Rome, there were rumours of a powerful transmitter at the king’s Inchasse Palace, and he kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria despite the black-out imposed because of the Italian bombing of British facilities. It didn’t take a member of the intelligence community to see that although nominally British those in power in Egypt were firmly on the side of the Axis.

In Cairo itself there was a vocal if ineffectual contingent of Axis spies who frequented nightspots looking for information useful to Rommel, and it was believed by many that the barman at Shepheard’s Hotel (which was frequented by British  officers) was a German spy who listened in on conversations and reported back to his superiors. Hekmet, the most famous belly-dancer in the city was later arrested and accused of being a German spy. Ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army Aziz el Masri formed a secret anti-British organisation in the Egyptian armed forces, and students held rallies in support of German advances chanting ‘press on Rommel’; at one point Anwar Sadat was imprisoned by the British for trying to get help from the Axis powers to throw the British out of Egypt and Sudan.

One of the novels written by Alexander Wilson
A novel by Alexander Wilson

It is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction when looking at Alexander Wilson so we have little hope of understanding his motives, yet nobody disputes that Wilson was a fervent patriot who clearly wanted to serve his country in any capacity. One wonders why with all of the knowledge they had of the nationalists anti-British activities in Cairo Wilson’s superiors at MI6 said that his reports on Egyptian espionage were wrong and he could not be trusted. Was this and the later accusation of burglary and declaring him bankrupt all part of an elaborate cover as Wilson claimed? Why else would MI6 continue to meet with him until his death in 1963? He said he was still working for them while they said they had him under surveillance, but if he was so disgraced and no longer had access to sensitive information why would they feel the need to keep him under surveillance for more than twenty years?

After the war, Wilson entered yet another bigamous marriage with Elizabeth although he continued to live with Alison who knew nothing of the intricacies of his private life. Everyone accepts that he was dishonest in his relationships, but that did not necessarily transfer to his work for the intelligence services. Was Alexander Wilson simply an inveterate liar or did he work under deep cover during the war and for many years after? One thing is certain, until the British government finally releases their files on Alexander Wilson we will never know the answer.

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The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

Some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England – cemeteries of the First World War

7a185080f8d2876c58cfd766d74f102e4796ccf5As we commemorate the ending of the First World War it is fitting that we remember all those who paid the ultimate price. We are all aware of cemeteries around the world which contain the graves of soldiers who died far from home, and if you have ever visited one you will have been impressed by the standard of care which is taken to keep these places of remembrance at their best. This work is carried out by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) which was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware. The CWGC builds and maintains cemeteries and memorials in more than 150 countries and territories and also creates and preserves archives with extensive records of the fallen. Ware was 45 when war broke out and so too old to fight but he was determined to play his part so became the commander of a mobile unit in the British Red Cross. Arriving in France in 1914 he was appalled and saddened at the huge loss of life he saw, and also by the fact that there was no official way of documenting and recording the graves. Determined that none of the fallen would be forgotten he organised for his unit to begin recording and caring for all the graves they could find. Municipal cemeteries were soon full and Ware negotiated for France to grant land in perpetuity to Britain which would become responsible for the management and maintenance of the graves there. People heard about Ware’s work and he began to get letters from people asking for photographs of the graves of their loved ones. By 1917 17,000 photos had been sent. At the same time graves were being recorded in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia as well as France.

1 Canadian_Corps_-_Canadian_war_graves
These soldiers were all members of the Canadian 14th Battalion, killed over several days in May 1916 and buried near the advanced dressing station

Many people were impressed with this work which was officially recognised by the War Office when the unit was incorporated into the British Army in 1915 and became known as the Graves Registration Commission. Ware wanted his Commission to show the same Imperial cooperation that could be seen in the armed forces so he approached the Imperial War Conference for their help and advice. With the support of the Prince of Wales the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917; Ware was Vice-Chairman and the Prince of Wales was the first President.

NPG x85421; Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware by Bassano
Sir Fabian Ware

When the war ended in November 1918 land was found for the new cemeteries and memorials and the terrible task of recovering and re-interring the bodies of the dead began. Conscripted soldiers undertook this work which must have been very difficult and resulted in emotional and mental problems for many as they recovered thousands of bodies, some four or more years old. Using Ware’s existing records as a foundation around 587,000 graves had been identified by the end of 1918, and the register of those having no known grave had reached 559,000. It was decided that the bodies should not be repatriated but lie beside their brothers in arms, it was also decided that all of the graves would be identical so that men of all ranks would be treated equally.

The Commission were determined that the work they had undertaken would be carried out to the highest of standards and so they employed three of the most important architects of the time – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – to design and build the memorials and cemeteries; Rudyard Kipling (who lost his son in the war) was asked to help with the inscriptions. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, helped the architects to created a walled cemetery with a garden. This became the template for all other cemeteries which were ready to receive the dead by 1921, and between 1920 and 1923 4,000 headstones were being shipped to France every week. By 1927 the majority of the work had been completed with over 500 cemeteries built and over 400,000 headstones in place; in addition 1,000 ‘Crosses of Sacrifice’ designed by Blomfield and 400 ‘Stones of Remembrance’ designed by Lutyens were also in place.

5 cross of sacrifice
Cross of Sacrifice

When the war ended the British Army was responsible for the exhumation of remains, by September 1921 the 12-man teams had exhumed and reburied 204,695 bodies. No more searches were conducted after that, but bodies continued to be discovered (in the following 3 years alone the remains of another 38,000 soldiers were found). In the mid-1920’s 20 to 30 bodies were being discovered every week, and even today around 30 bodies are found every year.

Some of the latest bodies of First World War soldiers to be recovered include:

  • In 2006 eight bodies of Canadian soldiers from the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), CEF were discovered in a backyard in Hallu, France.
  • The remains of four British soldiers discovered by a French farmer clearing land with a metal detector in 2009 were re-interred at H.A.C. Cemetery near Arras, France in April 2013.
  • In March 2014, the remains of 20 Commonwealth and 30 German soldiers were discovered at Vendin-le-Vieil, France. The Commonwealth soldiers were reburied at Loos British Cemetery.

When the remains of a Commonwealth soldier from the First or Second World War are discovered the Commission is notified, and a burial officer collects any artefacts found with the body which might help to identify the individual. The details of the find are then registered and archived at the Commission’s headquarters.

All of the cemeteries created and cared for by the Commission have a similar design. They are usually enclosed by a low hedge or wall with a wrought-iron entrance gate. Inside all but the very smallest of the cemeteries you will find a plan of the site and register of all the burials there, this is kept in a metal cupboard which can be accessed by anyone searching for a particular soldier. The cemeteries are laid to grass with no pathways, and each headstone has flowers planted beside it (except in very dry countries). The flowers are often native species which closely resemble flowers of England. If there are a lot of cemeteries in an area (e.g. along the Western Front or in Gallipoli) a team of local gardeners will care for them, in large cemeteries there will be a dedicated staff whilst small ones may just have one gardener who works part-time.

If a cemetery has more than 40 graves it will also have a Cross Of Remembrance designed by Reginald Blomfield, which is a free-standing cross (usually carved from limestone) with a bronze medieval longsword embedded in its face. The cross is intended to represent the faith of the majority of the dead whilst the sword is an expression of the Christian concept of self-sacrifice. The larger cemeteries (those with more than 1,000 burials) also have a Stone of Remembrance designed by Edwin Lutyens; this stone is inscribed with the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’. Unlike the Cross Of Remembrance, the Stone deliberately avoids reference to any particular religion.

6 Stone_of_Remembrance,_Tyne_Cot_Cemetery
Stone of Remembrance, Tyne Cot

Every grave is marked with a headstone which contains the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty carved above an appropriate religious symbol, sometimes it will also have a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. If the cemetery is in an area which may be at risk of earthquakes a memorial plaque is placed at ground level rather than using a headstone which might fall. If the person who had died had been awarded wither the Victoria Cross or the George Cross and image of this will also be engraved on the headstone. There are, sadly, many graves where the casualty has not been able to be identified, in such cases the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War known unto God’ will be used in place of a name.

2 CWGC_-_Headstone_carving
Headstones were carved by hand and would need at least a week to complete

Unfortunately, the First World War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars’ and the Commission was called upon to continue its work during the Second World War and other conflicts which have followed. Winston Churchill recognised that civilians were paying an increasingly heavy price in war and so the Commission was given the task of recording the names of civilians who had died due to enemy action during the Second World War. The Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour is housed in Saint George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
In 1960 the name of the Imperial War Graves Commission was changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The work of remembrance continues; in 2008 mass graves were discovered on the edge of Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. Two-hundred and fifty British and Australian bodies were recovered and re-interred in a new cemetery, the first to be opened in more than fifty years.

4 Fromelles Pheasant Wood
Pheasant Wood, Fromelles

Since its creation the CWGC has created 2,500 war cemeteries, but there are many fallen soldiers who have no known grave – there were 315,000 in France and Belgium alone – and their names are written on permanent memorials. Reginald Blomfield designed the Menin Gate which was the first of the large memorials to be completed and was unveiled on 24th July 1927. Despite its size there was not enough space to list all of the names as had been planned and so Herbert Baker designed Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing which recorded a further 34,984 names. Other large memorial for those with no known grave are:

the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli

the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme

the Arras Memorial

Basra Memorial in Iraq

neuve-chapelle-indian-gj12_orig
Cemetery of Indian soldiers at Neuve-Chapelle

The Dominions and India also erected memorials on which they commemorated their missing:

the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial for the forces of India

the Vimy Memorial by Canada

the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial by Australia

the Delville Wood Memorial by South Africa

the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial by Newfoundland

So, as we commemorate the end of the First World War and all those who have given so much in service of their country let us take a few moments to pause and reflect on the sacrifices they have made.

The Soldier by Rupert Brooke 1887 – 1915

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

3 menin-gate-cbart-vandenbroucke_tcm13-8856
The Menin Gate

 

 

 

Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal

‘Peace for our time’ – the Munich Agreement and the road to war.

80 years ago today Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. History records this as a great act of appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and many people feel that if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler he could possible have prevented the Second World War. But is this true?

The Sudetenland was part of the country of Czechoslovakia which had only been created 20 years earlier with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. The new independent Czechoslovakia was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles, but the world powers who dictated the treaty failed to realise that there would be problems arising out of three million German speaking people – 24% of the population – being included within the new country. Most Czech Germans lived in an area called the Sudetenland which bordered Austria and Germany, and they resented the fact that they had not been consulted about whether or not they wanted to be a part of Czechoslovakia. The constitution of the new country guaranteed equality for all citizens but, in reality, the Germans did not have fair representation in either the government or the army, and felt that their needs were being ignored. In an attempt to address the concerns of Sudeten Germans Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP) in 1933. While Czech and Slovak citizens voted for a variety of parties Sudeten Germans put all of their focus on the one party which enabled the SdP to become the second largest party in the country by 1935. Even so, life for the Sudeten Germans was becoming increasingly  difficult as the Sudetenland was more industrialised than the rest of Czechoslovakia and relied heavily on exports which resulted in a higher impact on the region from the Great Depression. Although only 24% of people in Czechoslovakia were German they made up 60% of the unemployed in 1936.

sudetenland

Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28th March 1938 to discuss how to improve the situation for the Sudetenland. The Chancellor ordered that Henlein should make impossible demands on Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia, in order to provoke a ‘crisis’. Hitler had begun the re-armament of Germany in breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938; the taking of Czechoslovakia was to be the next step in his plan to create a ‘Greater German.’ On Hitler’s orders, one of Henlein’s demands was that autonomy should be granted to Sudeten Germans; the Czech government tried to be placatory and said that they would provide more rights for minorities but they would not grant autonomy, which is just what Hitler had hoped for. He used this as an opportunity to support the demands of Germans living in the Sudeten region.

The Czechoslovak government felt under pressure from their belligerent neighbour and hoped that Britain and France would assist them if Germany were to invade, they were therefore disappointed to find that Prime Minister Chamberlain was willing to compromise with Hitler. Chamberlain took this position in part because he felt that many of the Sudeten German grievances were justified, but he also wanted to avoid another war at all costs and so advised the Czech government to give in to Hitler’s demands. Benes, the Czech President, could not agree to this and so on 19th May 1938 he ordered a partial mobilisation to oppose any possible threat of a German invasion.

Bundesarchiv Bild 121-0008, Sudetenland, Besuch Wilhelm Frick
Henlein

Hitler had already drafted a plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, codenamed Operation Green, as well as ordering that U-boat construction should be speeded up, and the completion dates for the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz brought forward in the hope that these preparations for war would deter Britain and France from intervening on behalf of Czechoslovakia. He wanted to move against Czechoslovakia as quickly as possible because the country’s defences were still being improved and so left the Czechs vulnerable; he also felt that British rearmament was behind that of Germany and so Chamberlain would be less likely to intervene on behalf of the Czechs than if Hitler waited until Germany was fully prepared for an extended European war.

To ensure support at home and put pressure on western powers to intercede on his behalf Hitler turned to his propaganda machine. August 1938 saw the German press full of stories of Czech atrocities against Sudeten Germans, whilst at the same time 750,000 German troops were sent on ‘manoeuvres’ to the Czechoslovakian border. Early in September President Benes offered to grant almost all that Henlein had asked for; but Hitler instructed the SdP not to compromise, instead they held demonstrations and provoked the police into arresting two of their members of parliament. This was the perfect excuse for the SdP to make other false allegations of atrocities and call off negotiations. Hitler continued to demand that Sudeten Germans should be re-united with their homeland, and made inflammatory speeches against the Czechoslovakian government, accusing them of violating international law, branding Germans as traitors and forcing them from their homes, and conspiring with France against Germany. War seemed almost inevitable.

Things came to a head on the 12th – 13th September when Hitler encouraged Henlein to rebel against the Czech government and demand that the Sudetenland be reunified with Germany. When Benes refused and declared martial law Hitler threatened to go to war. Chamberlain asked for a personal meeting with Hitler to try to defuse the situation and flew into Germany on 15th September for a meeting at Berchtesgaden. The German leader insisted that Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise their right of self-determination and join with Germany. To avoid a possible European war Chamberlain agreed, in principle, that Hitler could claim all parts of Czechoslovakia where Germans made up more than 50% of the population and Britain would not interfere. On his return home Chamberlain persuaded the French (who were allies of Czechoslovakia) to agree to this on condition that Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. No one consulted the Czechoslovakians who rejected the proposal.

On 16th September the Czechoslovak government dissolved the Ordnersgruppe (which was an organization of ethnic Germans living in the country) because of its link with a number of terrorist attacks. The next day Hitler set up a paramilitary group called the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps to take over from the Ordnersgruppe. The new organization was equipped and trained by German authorities and conducted cross-border raids into Czechoslovak territory provoking yet more unrest.

Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung
Bad Godesberg

On 22nd September Chamberlain flew to Germany to present the joint British-French proposal to Hitler at Bad Godesberg. He received a great welcome from the German people who felt that the agreement to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland would ensure peace. Hitler himself, though, was irritated that Chamberlain should think that Germany needed the approval of Britain to further his plans. Hitler put his foot down and told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely broken up with her lands divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Chamberlain was stunned, but Hitler said that it was all because of the atrocities committed by the Czechs since his last meeting with the British Prime Minister. To support this one of Hitler’s aides came into the room (a pre-arranged event) to say that more Germans were being killed in Czechoslovakia. Hitler flew into a rage and vowed to avenge the deaths by destroying Czechoslovakia. For a time it looked like the meeting would fail, but later that day Hitler told Chamberlain that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland as long as Czechoslovakia began the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from German majority territories by 8am on 1st October; if this happened Germany would have no more claims on Czechoslovak territory and would enter into an agreement to guarantee the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovaks saw this as a provocation and excuse to provoke war, and so ordered a general mobilisation on the 23rd with one million men joining up to defend their country in the first 24 hours. The French also ordered a partial mobilisation on the 24th, whilst on the same day Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum saying that Czechoslovakia must give up the Sudetenland by the 28th or Germany would take it by force. Many people in Britain felt that Hitler’s demands had gone too far and they wanted to stand up to him, even if that meant going to war. On the other side of Europe the Soviet Union said that they would come to the assistance of Czechoslovakia if they could cross Polish and Romanian territory to do so, but both countries refused to allow it.

Czechoslovakia could see that things were looking hopeless and so, on the 25th September, they agreed to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. Instead of accepting this victory however, Hitler now insisted that the demands of ethnic Germans in Hungary and Poland should also be met at the same time. On the 28th, with Germany’s deadline running out, Chamberlain invited Mussolini to join the negotiations in an attempt to get Hitler to delay the implementation of his ultimatum. Mussolini agreed and persuaded Hitler to accept a 24 hour delay (he also promised, in private, that whatever happened he would support Hitler!)

Münchener Abkommen, Chamberlain, Mussolini, Ciano
Chamberlain and Mussolini

To try to prevent war breaking out Chamberlain, Daladier (the French Prime Minister), and Mussolini flew to Munich to meet Hitler on the 29th September. No Czech or Russian representative was invited to the conference, and although Chamberlain asked the Czech ambassador to Berlin to come to Munich as an adviser he was not allowed in the same room as Hitler. The Czechs were presented with a stark choice – to accept the loss of the Sudetenland or face Germany alone. They chose to accept.

Signing the Agreement - Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini
Signing the Agreement – Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini

On the 30th September Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement stating that Germany would complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by the 10th October whilst an international commission would be set up to decide what would happen to other disputed areas. Chamberlain had a separate pact drawn up, based on the Munich Agreement, which would guarantee peace between Germany and Britain, it was signed by the two leaders on the 30th. When Chamberlain arrived back in Britain later that day he waved the paper in his hand, declaring that it guaranteed ‘peace for our time’. At the same time, German troops were marching into the Sudetenland where they were welcomed as heroes.

Chamberlain returns to Britain with 'The Pact'
Chamberlain returns to Britain with ‘The Pact’

Chamberlain was greeted by ecstatic crowds whom he told that he had achieved “…peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”  Winston Churchill immediately criticised Chamberlain by declaring that “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

The following months seemed to prove Churchill right. Elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland in December 1938 resulted in over 97% of the population voting for the NSDAP. Around 500,000 Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party making it the most pro-Nazi region in the Third Reich (17.34% of Sudeten Germans joined the party whilst the average in Germany was 7.85%). Then, in March 1939, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia to become a separate state which was highly supportive of the Nazi Party; Hitler sent his troops into the remainder of Czechoslovakia and occupied it as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Poland was now surrounded by German possessions and people in Britain began to fear that this country would be the next target for Hitler, to prevent this an Anglo-Polish military alliance was signed. Chamberlain felt betrayed by Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. His policy of appeasement had obviously not worked so he now began to mobilise British forces. France did the same. Italy felt threatened by the mobilisations and invaded Albania in April 1939. The final nail in the coffin of ‘peace for our time’ came with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939. Chamberlain declared war on Germany two days later.

Since 1939 the Munich Agreement has been seen as a classic example of the futility of trying to appease totalitarian states who are set on expansion. Yet was it as simple as all that? Did Chamberlain sacrifice Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement, or did he see it as a necessary evil? It is true that after the horrific losses of the First world War he would have done almost anything to avoid the same thing happening again. But is it also possible that he knew that war was inevitable but that Britain was not yet ready to face the rapidly growing German military machine? Could it be that the Munich Agreement and Pact were his attempt to buy time to rearm and prepare for the conflict ahead? Perhaps we will never know.

Greater Love Has No Man Than This – Noel Chavasse

Following on from my previous article about the Royal Army Medical Corps I wanted to pay tribute to one of the heroes from the Corps who dedicated his life to helping those who had been wounded in battle, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse.

Noel Chavasse VC

Chavasse was born in Oxford on 9th November 1884, 20 minutes after his twin brother Christopher. The family moved to Liverpool when their father, Rev. Francis Chavasse, was made Bishop of Liverpool. Both boys did well at school where they excelled at sports, before going to Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating with a First-class honours degree Noel continued to study medicine at Oxford, and during that time both he and Christopher represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games. In 1909 Noel joined the Officers Training Corps Medical Unit at Oxford University, later being promoted to Lance-Sergeant. He passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was awarded the Oxford University’s premier medical prize, the Derby Exhibition. In 1913 Chavasse joined the Royal Army Medical  Corps as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Territorial 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.

Christopher (left) and Noel

When war broke out in 1914 Chavasse, like many other young men, was eager to serve and was happy to be in France by the end of the year. He initially wrote home to say that as he was not particularly heroic he was pleased that doctors were not allowed in the trenches so he would run little risk. Yet the young doctor soon saw the horrors of trench warfare as men were rotated back from the frontline in terrible condition, and he wrote home to say that they all came to hate the war worse than they had thought they could. Yet, despite everything, Chavasse continued to work hard, being amongst the first doctors to use the new anti-tetanus serum to help the wounded, and when the troops in nearby trenches were terrified by the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans he arranged for his father to send a gramophone to help raise their spirits.

For a man who did not feel heroic Noel Chavasse was to become the most highly decorated officer of the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Bellewaarde near Ypers on 16th June 1915 where he spent 12 hours helping to treat and rescue casualties in no man’s land (more than 1,000 men died during that offensive). Chavasse was promoted to Captain in 1915, and was also mentioned in despatches later that year.

In 1916 Chavasse was awarded the first of two Victoria Crosses. His unit suffered heavy casualties at Guillemont on 9th August with 230 out of 600 men killed, wounded or missing. Chavasse worked for more than 24 hours, disregarding sniper, machine gun and mortar fire to tend the wounded, bury fellow officers and collect ID from the dead. Although wounded in the back by two shell splinters, he refused to retire behind the lines and worked on, rescuing men from as close as 25 yards to the German line. His VC citation read:

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, M.C., M.B., Royal Army Medical Corps.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.

During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.

Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy shell fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey. The same night he took up a party of twenty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.

Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands. His courage and self-sacrifice, were beyond praise.

In a letter to his parents Chavasse described his work at the front line: “We found a man bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood… The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud…We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.”

Memorial to Noel Chavasse

Chavasse’s second Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions during the period of the 31st July to 2nd August 1917, at Wieltje in Belgium. On 31st July Chavasse’s unit were trying to recapture Passchendaele Ridge at Ypres, and whilst tending the wounded he was hit in the head but refused to be sent from the line. The weather was terrible and he was under constant heavy fire, but time and again Chavasse went into no man’s land to help the wounded. Early on 2nd August he was resting in his first-aid post when it was hit by a shell. Everyone in the post was killed or wounded; Chavasse himself had at least six injuries but crawled for half a mile to get help for his colleagues. He was taken to a casualty station suffering from a serious stomach wound and died there at 1pm on 4th August 1917, aged 32. The citation for his medal read:

War Office, September, 1917.

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of a Bar to the Victoria Cross to Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V.C., M.C., late R.A.M.C., attd. L’pool R.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.

Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.

During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground.

By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.

This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.

One soldier who witnessed Chavasse’s actions said “Gee! He did work! I was beginning to think he was not human, because nothing made him flinch or duck…The first wound that he received was in the head, and all he did was to take his tin hat off, put a bandage around his head, and carry on…This he did all day and all night until the next wound he got, in the side, did for him…a VC is too small a reward for such a man”.

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Chavasse is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge. His military headstone is unique as it depicts two Victoria Crosses, underneath is an inscription chosen by his father: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Chavasse’s heroism is still remembered by the people of Liverpool where he came third in a BBC poll in 2003 to find the 100 Greatest Merseysiders, above Bill Shankly, George Harrison and William Gladstone, and behind only Ken Dodd and Lennon and McCartney.

Chavasse has had at least 16 memorials dedicated to him, more than any other VC holder, including one at Liverpool Cathedral. He is the only VC and Bar of World War I and one of only three since the honour was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857.

In this video athlete Sally Gunnell talks about Noel Chavasse.

To war in an ambulance

As part of my background work for the novel I am currently writing I have been researching the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) which has proved to be a fascinating subject. Their Corps Day is 23rd June so it seemed appropriate that my article this month should be about these brave men and women who serve our soldiers in so many different ways.

The Royal Army Medical Corps (affectionately known as the ‘Linseed Lancers’) serve both at home and wherever in the world the British Army is on deployment as they are responsible for ensuring that servicemen and women, and their families, are fit and healthy. Members of the Corps not only provide emergency care on the front line or during humanitarian operations (such as after earthquakes or hurricanes) but are also responsible for providing routine treatment or long term care for soldiers as well as instituting health programmes and preventing disease.

The RAMC is non-combatant and subject to the Geneva Conventions. As such Corps members do not take part in attacks and are only allowed to use their weapons for self-defence. This has led to two traditions which make the RAMC stand out when on parade; firstly, officers do not draw their swords but salute with the right hand whilst holding their scabbard in their left; secondly, other ranks do not carry weapons when on parade. The Corps is also identifiable by its insignia which shows the Rod of Asclepius (a rod with a serpent entwined round it which was carried by Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine), above the rod is a crown, and below it the Regimental motto In Arduis Fidelis (Faithful in Adversity).

The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898 (120 years ago today) but the history of army medical services goes back much further than that.

A Standing Regular Army was only formed in Britain after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and it was at that time that each infantry and cavalry regiment was assigned a Regimental Surgeon with a Warrant Officer as his Assistant. Although this was a step forward in the treatment of soldiers the Duke of Marlborough wanted to give even better care to his wounded men and so set up ‘Marching Hospitals’ to accompany his armies during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), but it was not until the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon (1808-1814) that the army medical services were organised on a more formal basis.

James McGrigor

During the Napoleonic Wars Sir James McGrigor made changes to the army medical services in an attempt to make them more efficient, he continued that work following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Thanks to Sir James a system of casualty evacuation was set up which included the setting up of pre-fabricated huts to treat the wounded, and McGrigor’s system of registering casualties is still the basis of the recording of medical statistics today. McGrigor also set up the Benevolent Fund and the Widows and Orphans Fund to care for soldiers and their families.

Britain was at peace for almost forty years after the Battle of Waterloo and, unfortunately, during that time many of the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars were forgotten. When the Crimean War began in 1854 civilian departments were given responsibility for medical support and often met to make plans without consulting with anyone from the army. Needless to say, the results were disastrous. At this time a medical officer would be commissioned and wear the uniform of the Regiment he was assigned to but held no rank and so was under the command of his Colonel. The medical officer had no trained staff to help him treat the wounded, just a few men from the Regiment who he would try to give basic first aid training to. The lack of care meant that many soldiers died from wounds and disease who could have recovered under a better system. The telegraph (developed in the 1830’s and 40’s) meant that people back in Britain soon learned of the inadequate care being given to our troops abroad and the scandal caused a national outcry which led to Sir Andrew Smith, (the Director General of the Medical Services) urging the War Office to set up a proper medical corps. The response of the politicians? To create and send to the Crimea an ambulance force made up of 300 old army pensioners. Smith said that they could hardly carry themselves and would not be able to care for the sick and wounded. Smith’s prediction was proved true as the new corps was depleted by deaths from cholera with many of those surviving turning to alcohol. Smith finally saw progress when the Medical Staff Corps was formed in 1855, the instruction was that it should be made up of ‘Men able to read and write, of regular steady habits and good temper and of a kindly disposition’.

A tinted lithograph by William Simpson illustrating conditions of the sick and injured in Balaklava

The Medical Service continued to evolve, and by 1873 doctors who wanted to sign up needed to be qualified, single, and at least 21 years old; they also had to pass exams in physiology, surgery, medicine, zoology, botany, and physical geography including meteorology, as well as reaching a number of other standards including having been present at 12 births and having dissected the whole body at least once. Despite the changes, well qualified army doctors still did not hold military rank which often left them feeling excluded from decision making, they also had to serve longer in India than other members of the British Army (6 years at a time) and received less pay when serving there. Many members of the service felt that their treatment was discriminatory and they needed to have an identity of their own which would give them some kind of parity in service and in the awarding of honours. Finally, the two distinct parts of the Army Medical Services – the Medical Staff Corps (ordinary ranks) and the Medical Staff (officers) – were reorganised into the Roya Army Medical Corps by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898; officers were now given executive and administrative powers and the Corps was soon serving in the Sudan, and in South Africa during the Boer War when the Corps lost 743 officers and 6,130 soldiers in other ranks.

Stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, including the future leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Middle row, 5th from left).
Alfred Fripp

Many of the soldiers in South Africa were treated by civilian doctors who volunteered their support; their hospitals were much more efficient than those of the RAMC and, at the end of the war, some of those volunteers campaigned for the radical reform of the Corps. Alfred Fripp was key to this as he was friends with the new king, Edward VII, who made sure that the army paid proper attention to Fripp’s ideas. Fripp, and his colleague Cooper Perry, were instrumental in setting up the Hospital and Medical School at Millbank, London; in 1903 both were knighted for their services to the RAMC Committee of Reform. During the Boer War the medical services had treated 22,000 wounded soldiers yet spent far more time and resources on the 74,000 who suffered dysentery or typhoid fever. It became clear that the Corps needed to focus on preventing disease as well as treating the wounded, and by the outbreak of the First World War an anti-typhoid vaccine had been developed which had such an impact that a disease which had killed 8,000 in South Africa had a negligible effect in the trenches of Northern Europe.

Alfred Keogh

Sir Alfred Keogh (who had worked with Fripp and Perry on the RAMC Committee of Reform) was made Director General of the RAMC from 1904 -1910 and worked hard to ensure that the medical services were seen not as something separate from but as an essential part of the British Army. Keogh was again made Director General of the Corps (1914 -18) and presided over its rapid expansion. At the outbreak of war there were approximately 9,000 members of the ranks, at the end of the war there were around 154,000 as well as 13,000 RAMC Officers in service in all theatres of the war. Thanks to Keogh’s planning a chain of evacuation was set up to move the wounded back down the line through a series of posts, which streamlined and speeded up the care which could be given to wounded soldiers. A patient would typically go through the following posts:

 

Regimental Aid Post
Collecting Post
Advanced Dressing Station
Main Dressing Station
Casualty Clearing Station (some could take up to 1,000 patients at a time)
Hospital (either in France or England)

Please click here to see a remarkable video showing the work of the RAMC during the First World War. The film is held by the Imperial War Museum.

By the Second World War the RAMC was much more mobile and able to work more effectively on the front line, there were also developments such as the use of penicillin and blood transfusions which helped to improve the survival rate of the wounded. Since the end of the Second World War the RAMC has served with the British Army wherever they have been posted, from Northern Ireland to Cyprus, Korea to Afghanistan, and many more. There are a variety of careers open to anyone wanting to join the RAMC. Officers can serve as doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, environmental health officer, medical support officer, or a technical officer (e.g. biomedical scientist, radiographer, clinical physiologist etc.) whist ordinary ranks can serve as combat medical technicians, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians and many more.

RAMC World War I memorial, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

It takes a special kind of courage to be in the middle of a battle and not to focus on the enemy but on the wounded instead; this has been recognised by the awarding of 29 Victoria Crosses to medical personal as well as 2 bars (a bar means that the recipient has been given a second Victoria Cross, and only 3 have ever been awarded). The corps also has one recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Iron Cross, one officer was awarded the George Cross in the Second World War, and Private Michelle Norris became the first woman to be awarded the Military Cross following her actions in Iraq on 11 June 2006 when she was aged just 19.

Michelle Norris MC

In1856 Queen Victoria laid a Victoria Cross beneath the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in recognition of the courage of those who have fought and died for their country. When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the VC, which is known as ‘The Netley VC’, was taken to the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot where it is now on display.
Those members of the Royal Army Medical Corps who have been awarded the Victoria Cross have truly lived up to the motto of the Corps – ‘Faithful in Adversity’.

Name Award Awarded while serving with Medal held by
Harold Ackroyd VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Royal Berkshire Regiment Lord Ashcroft Collection
William Allen VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d Royal Field Artillery Army Medical Services Museum
William Babtie VC Royal Army Medical Corps AMS Museum
William Bradshaw VC 90th Regiment (The Cameronians) AMS Museum
Noel Chavasse VC
and Bar
Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)
Bar: same
Imperial War Museum
Thomas Crean VC 1st Imperial Light Horse (Natal) AMS Museum
Henry Douglas VC Royal Army Medical Corps AMS Museum
Joseph Farmer VC Army Hospital Corps AMS Museum
John Fox-Russell VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Royal Welch Fusiliers AMS Museum
John Green VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Sherwood Foresters AMS Museum
Thomas Hale VC 7th Regiment (The Royal Fusiliers) AMS Museum
Henry Harden VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d 45 Royal Marine Commando AMS Museum
Edmund Hartley VC Cape Mounted Riflemen, SA Forces AMS Museum
Anthony Home VC 90th Perthshire Light Infantry AMS Museum
Edgar Inkson VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers AMS Museum
Joseph Jee VC 78th Regiment (The Seaforth Highlanders) AMS Museum
Ferdinand Le Quesne VC Medical staff Corps Jersey Museum
Owen Lloyd VC Army Medical Department AMS Museum
George Maling VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Rifle Brigade AMS Museum
William Manley VC
Iron Cross
Royal Regiment of Artillery
Awarded Iron Cross 1870
Private Collection
Arthur Martin-Leake VC
and Bar
VC: South African Constabulary
Bar: Royal Army Medical Corps
AMS Museum
Valentine Munbee McMaster VC Royal Army Medical Corps
Winning his VC during the relief of Lucknow, while serving with the 78th Highlanders
James Mouat VC 6th Dragoons (Inniskilling) AMS Museum
William Nickerson VC Royal Army Medical Corps Privately held
Harry Ranken VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d King’s Royal Rifle Corps AMS Museum
James Reynolds VC Army Medical Department AMS Museum
John Sinton VC Indian Medical Service AMS Museum
William Sylvester VC 23rd Regiment (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) AMS Museum