Category Archives: Heronfield

Will the real Captain Mainwaring please stand up

I have always loved a good comedy, Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo included. No one, for even one moment, thought that the French Resistance was in anyway like the ‘adventures’ of Rene, yet many people seem to think that the bumblings of Captain Mainwaring and his men somehow epitomised the Home Guard during the Second World War. So, who were these men really?

home-guard 1

It was on 14th May 1940 that Anthony Eden, in his first speech as Secretary of State for War, asked for volunteers to join a Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) with the aim of fighting the Germans if they should successfully land on British shores. In his speech he said ‘We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know…’ Later in the year Winston Churchill changed the name of the volunteers to the Home Guard, saying “Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown

home guard 3

Early 1940 found most of the British public expecting an invasion. Many men had already been called up to serve their country. Some who wanted to fight were either too old, too young, not fit enough or serving in reserved occupations which were vital to the war effort. These men all wanted to do their bit too, to defend their homes and families from the Nazi invaders. They saw the LDV as just the place for them.

The numbers of men who wanted to serve caught the government off guard. They expected around 150,000 volunteers in total yet, just twenty four hours after Eden made his broadcast, 250,000 men had signed up and, by the end of June, there were just under one and a half million men in the LDV. Numbers did not fall below one million until the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. In the first wave of volunteers, approximately 40% had served in the First World War. The age limit for joining the LDV was from 17 to 65, although these limits were often quietly ignored. For example, P. D. Willeringhaus, aged just 16, was mentioned in dispatches for brave conduct; and Alexander Taylor, who signed up when in his eighties, had previous served in the Sudan in 1884. (I wonder if these men were the inspiration for Pike, Godfrey and Jones in Dad’s Army?)

PKT3310 - 235917 1943 H.G. TRAINING Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.
Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.

Initially all members of the Home guard were volunteers, but as 18 was the conscription age for the army, it was decided towards the end of the war that conscripting 17 year olds into the Home Guard would give them training and acclimatise them to the military life before being called up to serve in the regular army.

We are used to seeing the Home Guard portrayed as infantry units, but this was not the whole picture. There were mounted units and waterborne units such as the Upper Thames Patrol, there were factory units formed by workers to protect their factory during an emergency, there were coastal defence units and anti-aircraft units, motor transport and bomb disposal.

home guard 2

Over 1,600 members of the Home Guards died whilst on duty, four of whom were decorated posthumously.* Approximately 1,000 other medals and commendations were awarded to men serving in the Home Guard. Anyone who had served in the Home Guard for three years was entitled to receive the Defence Medal, other medals for service during World War 2 were not available to them as they had not served overseas. If a man had served less than three years but was killed on duty, or left the Home Guard because of wounds received on duty due to enemy action, he would also received the Defence Medal.

Whilst some aspects of the TV series Dad’s Army are highly fictionalised, there are others that are accurate. When first formed, the volunteers had whatever weapons they could find – shotguns and air rifles, pitchforks and scythes, knives and bayonets tied to the end of pieces of wood – before eventually being issued with real weapons. These ‘new weapons’ were, however, mostly relics from the First World War and hardly the best choice to hold back an invading army. Volunteers trained in the evening in unarmed combat, basic sabotage and weapons handling. Training was amateur and ad hoc, leading to many accidents, and it was not long before the government saw the need for more formal training. The first guerrilla warfare school for members of the Home Guard was set up at Osterley Park in London; three mores such schools were soon to follow.

home guard 4

Home Guard duties were varied, ranging from acting as sentries to checking identity papers, from questioning strangers in their local area to removing road signs to confuse the enemy if they should invade. In the spring of 1944, around 100,000 men from the Home Guard were working on anti-aircraft batteries, mainly aiming to down V1 rockets before they reached populated areas.

home guard 5

The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were:

  • Guarding important points
  • Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
  • Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
  • The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.

Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know:

  • The whole of the ground in his own district.
  • The personnel of his own detachment.
  • The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
  • What the alarm signal is.
  • The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.

By the end of 1944 the tide of the war had changed. The Allies were on mainland Europe and pushing towards the German homeland and a ‘Home Gard’ was no longer needed to repel an invasion. Therefore, on 3rd December 1944, the Home Guard was stood down and became an inactive reserve unit. They were finally disbanded on the last day of the year 1945, and the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, ceased to exist.

As recognition of their role, the Home Guard were asked on the first anniversary of their formation, and again on their fourth, to the mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is an honour which many regiments have not held in the centuries of their existence, and goes to show just how important and well respected these volunteers were.

In my novel, Heronfield, I wanted to show that it was not just soldiers, sailors and airmen who served during the war, but that everyone had a role to play. That is why I created the character of Joe, a young man who tried to join the army but was found unfit so he joined the LDV the day after Eden’s speech, protecting the aircraft factory in which he worked. The description of what Joe experienced during the bombing raid on Coventry on 14th November 1940 is an amalgamation of some of the work done by members of the Home Guard, and is my tribute to them.

home guard 7

*Posthumous decorations for Home Guard members

Section Commander G. W. INWOOD – George Cross

“Immediately following an intense air raid on the night of 15th/16th October 1940, Section Commander Inwood was called upon by the police to assist in rescue duty in Bishop Street, Birmingham. Taking charge of a party of six volunteers, he found that several people were imprisoned in a gas-filled cellar. A small hole was made and Section Commander Inwood was lowered into the cavity. With great bravery he succeeded in bringing up two males alive. Although nearly exhausted, he entered the cavern a third time and was overcome by fumes. He was dragged out by one of his comrades, but despite the attention of a doctor and nurse, it was impossible to revive him. He showed the highest form of cool courage and self-sacrifice for others.”

Section Commander Inwood died on 16th October 1940 and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 10th October 1941.

Lieutenant W. FOSTER, M.C., D.C.M. – George Cross

“When Lieutenant Foster was instructing a class in throwing live grenades a Mills bomb rebounded to the firing position. Without hesitation Lieutenant Foster threw himself on the bomb one second before it exploded, thus saving the lives of his comrades nearby. This officer’s gallant action was not carried out in the heat of battle, but deliberately in cold blood, and with full knowledge of the consequences. As a result of this action Lieutenant Foster lost his life.”

The incident in which Lieutenant Foster was killed took place on 13th September 1942. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Alderbury, Wiltshire. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 2nd March 1943.

2nd Lieutenant W. COOK – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“On 3rd April 1943 2nd Lieutenant Cook was instructing in the throwing of live No. 36 grenades set with four second fuses. One grenade fell short, struck the parapet and dropped back into the bay at the feet of the thrower, who stooped to retrieve it. 2nd Lieutenant Cook, realising the danger of delay, dashed into the bay, pushed the man to safety, and himself seized the grenade but before he was able to throw it from the trench it exploded. He was mortally wounded and died three hours later. By his unhesitating action this very gallant officer, at the cost of his own life, undoubtedly saved that of one of his men.”

2nd Lieutenant Cook, who died on 3rd April 1943, is buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Lieutenant L. B. BRUDENELL – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“For bravery and devotion to duty in saving life at the cost of his own during live grenade practice.”

Lieutenant Brudenell died on 28th February 1943 and is buried in Porchester (St. Mary) Churchyard, Fareham, Hampshire.

Record of medals awarded to members of the Home Guard

Food for thought – digging for victory in the Second World War

Spring will soon be with us and many people’s thought will be turning to their gardens. What will you plant this year? Some will plant flowers only, others vegetables, some a mixture of both. But during World War 2 your choices would have been very different.

U-boat attack

How to feed the population of Britain was one of the perennial questions during the Second World War. About 55 million tons of food was imported into the UK at the outbreak of war, but the German U-boats began to hunt the convoys which crossed the Atlantic, causing great losses in lives and supplies. Essential foodstuffs were rationed, and within a month of the outbreak of war the Ministry of Agriculture launched its ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign.

Everyone was encouraged to dig up their flower beds and lawns to create vegetable gardens. The idea was twofold – to provide much needed food for the local community whilst, at the same time, freeing up space in the merchant ships for military supplies. Gardens, sports grounds and parks were soon full of vegetables, even Buckingham Palace gardens and the lawns and moat at the Tower of London became large allotments.

Tower of London

poster-dig-victoryBy 1943 over one million tons of vegetables were being grown in the ‘Dig For Victory’ drive, all encouraged by Ministry of Agriculture ‘food flashes’, literature and poster displays. Two key cartoon characters who encouraged the gardeners were ‘Dr Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ who often appeared on posters in railway and bus stations, and in leaflets. Over 10 million leaflets were distributed during the war. The government also provided innovative recipes, including curried carrot and carrotade (a drink made from carrots and swedes). When there was a glut of carrots Lord Woolton had a novel idea to encourage people to eat more. He said that RAF pilots were eating carrots to help them see better in the dark. Radar was still a secret so the general population had no idea what was behind the increasing success of the pilots. They knew that, like everyone else, pilots were eating a lot of carrots so Woolton’s propogandists got to work. Within no time at all everyone was eating carrots to improve their vision!

DrCarrot

potaot pete

People were also encouraged by Lord Wooton and others to try innovative recipes, and to scrub instead of peeling potatoes to avoid waste. As one poem put it:

Those who have the will to win,
Cook potatoes in their skin,
Knowing that the sight of peelings,
Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.

As well as growing vegetables, people also kept their own chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. About 6,000 pigs were raised; they were especially popular because they could be fed kitchen waste, and by the end of the war 900 ‘pig clubs’ had been set up to coordinate the collection of waste, and to purchase pigs for groups of families who couldn’t afford one of their own.

pig poster

Chickens were also popular. By 1943-44, people who kept hens in their gardens were producing around 25% of the country’s fresh eggs. By the end of the war there were over 250,000 members of the Domestic Poultry Keepers’ Council, raising in excess of twelve million birds.

In my novel Heronfield we get a clear feel for what life was like for civilians when Sarah’s mother turns her garden over to vegetable, bemoaning the loss of her beloved roses. But the importance of ‘Dig For Victory’ is then seen in the aftermath of the bombing of Coventry when people shared the supplies from their gardens in the first few desperate days before help arrived.

coventry-1940-595x498

As the war progressed it became clear to everyone that the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign had been far more successful than could ever have been imagined. However, it was recognised that there would still be a need for home grown food for a long time to come. Civilians were encouraged to keep gardening, keep digging, long after the war was over.

Rationing continued for the British people long after the war was over, and with it the work of growing vegetables. It was a number of years before roses once again replaced radishes, carnations replaced cabbages, and what had been lettuce beds were once more lawns for families to enjoy.

PortlandRoseGarden

Readers’ Favorite reviews Heronfield

I was very pleased to receive a 5 star review fro Readers’ Favorite; after all, it’s my readers who are most important to me!

Reviewed by Trudi LoPreto for Readers’ Favorite

Heronfield by Dorinda Balchin is a six-year saga set in England during World War II. It is a fantastic story that put me on the battlefield and into the lives of brothers Tony and David, their friends, family and loved ones. Heronfield is the home of the two brothers, but is now being used as a convalescent hospital for those injured fighting the Germans. Sarah is a young woman who is volunteering at Heronfield, nursing the soldiers back to health. David joins up and becomes a fighter pilot, making his father, Sir Michael, very proud. Tony becomes a secret agent, parachuting into enemy territory, setting up a resistance group, and working to destroy the strategic spots without getting caught – but he is unable to tell his family what he is really doing. Sir Michael thinks he is a coward and not willing to fight for his country. The story took me into many of the battles and to the horrors in the concentration camp that the prisoners had to endure on a daily basis. Heronfield also shared with me the happy times of falling in love and seeing friends caring for and helping each other through very tough times.

What a wonderful book this is. Dorinda Balchin wrote four hundred and ninety pages of an excellent story. It took me longer than I expected to read it, but each page made me cry, cheer, smile, and anxiously await D-Day and the end of the war. Heronfield is a fictional story with accurate historical events that made for a superb book. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially if you enjoy family sagas and World War II history because it combines these elements in an incredibly good read.

You can take a look at the Readers’ Favorite website here

Spying in Europe – The work of the SOE

SOE

1941 found Britain standing alone against Hitler’s Germany. Britain had had no troops in Europe since Dunkirk, and there was no prospect of troops being able to land in the foreseeable future. Churchill was frustrated by this and set up the Special Operations Executive to train volunteers who were willing to parachute into occupied territories, where they would help the local population to fight the Nazis. More than 400 SOE operatives served in France where they played a decisive role in the preparations for, and days following, the D Day Landings. More than 25% of SOE agents who parachuted into France never returned home.

So how did someone become a secret agent during the Second World War? The initial choice was not of soldiers with military expertise, that training would come later. The key factor was whether someone had any special qualities which would be useful in occupied territory. Maybe they were fluent in a foreign language? Maybe they had a background living in France or one of the other occupied countries? Whatever first attracted the SOE recruiters, all volunteers initially underwent an interview in a foreign language, talking about nothing more sinister than their background. The possibility that they might be asked to work as a secret agent was never mentioned, and it can be assumed that all interviewees left the strange meeting in a London hotel room feeling very confused and, no doubt, curious. If the interviewer felt that the candidate had potential then another meeting would be arranged in the same hotel. If successful, working for the SOE was proposed to them, and any willing to serve their country in such a dangerous and secretive role started their basic training.

Training in Scotland
Training in Scotland

Training needed to be long and hard if operatives were to have the best chance of survival. The first stage was military based, with an emphasis on fitness, handling weapons, map reading, unarmed combat, demolition, how to operate in the field and basic radio communications. Not everyone made it through this first stage of training, but those who did headed north to Scotland. SOE’s staff HQ was at Arisaig in Invernessshire, located on a rugged coastline in a remote part of Scotland.  The location was a perfect place to train secret agents – in secret!  Trainees spent between three and five weeks living in local accommodation in and around Arisaig whilst continuing their weapons training, and working on other skills they had already started developing. By the end of the course they would be familiar with a large number of weapons from all countries, meaning that they would be able to make effective use of any guns they managed to ‘liberate’ whilst behind enemy lines. Alongside this they learnt unarmed combat and how to kill silently, as well as beginning to learn rudimentary coding. As sabotage would play a large role in an agent’s work Arisaig was the place where they learnt and developed their skills with explosives – from simple bombs, to planning and blowing up railway lines or arms dumps. The physical training was hard, with both men and women undertaking the same courses over difficult terrain, although everyone recognised its importance. Who knew when they might have to move silently and swiftly through the countryside to conduct a raid, or make an escape across country with the Germans in hot pursuit?

 

Arisaig House
Arisaig House
Parachute training
Parachute training

Many a recruit failed the physical training. Those who made it through headed south once again, to learn how to jump out of a plane. Training took place at Altricham, with the planes for their five jumps leaving from Ringway (now Manchester Airport). To pass this part of the training the recruits would have to conduct four daylight and one night time jump. Low altitude jumps were the norm as any flight into occupied country would be low in an attempt to avoid German radar.

The next stage of training involved specialization – from demolition to radio operation, industrial sabotage to silent killing. And all the time, more weapons practice, more physical training, more field craft. The training was intense and unremitting. As well as the obvious training recruits underwent tests of which they were totally unaware. Strong drinks were readily available, something which ordinary soldiers undergoing basic training would never experience. The ulterior motive? Could the potential agent drink sensibly and hold his or her drink? Were they likely to talk too much (and too loudly)? Would this be a liability? Any who failed the test would be reassigned elsewhere and never serve behind enemy lines.

The final training took place on Lord Montague’s estate at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where agents studied techniques for passing messages, how to live a secret life in enemy territory, personal security, how to act if they felt they were under surveillance and, of course, how to maintain their cover story. All agents received a new identity with a complete history and family for their ‘previous life’ in occupied territory. This was the most frightening thing for many agents, for it was the little things that could give one away. It was said that one agent looked right first when crossing a road instead of left, momentarily forgetting that the French drive on the other side of the road to the English. This small mistake was said to have been enough for him to give himself away to the enemy.

Beaulieu House
Beaulieu House

Final testing took place at Beaulieu with agents undergoing mock raids, or making contact with trainers posing as resistance members, or losing a tail – the list was endless. But, at last, those who had made it through from the initial strange interview in London to this final testing were given home leave, before preparing to embark on a journey into enemy territory from which many never returned.

The courage of the men and women who served behind enemy lines was remarkable, but people often forget that life for agents was not easy when they were back in England. No one knew their secret work, and this could take its toll on family life. The main character in my novel, ‘Heronfield’, is Tony, a young man who is proud to serve his country by joining the SOE. He knows that it will be difficult but the conflict within his family is far more than he ever dreamed it would be, compared by his father to his older brother who was a fighter pilot, and falling short of what was wanted and expected. As for the girl he loved… Could she love a man who seemed afraid to join an active unit and fight? I wrote Heronfield as a tribute to the brave SOE agents, both men and women, who offered so much for their country, suffered so much, and in many cases, made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mauthausen
Mauthausen Concentration Camp

They achieved much having dared all – Operation Chariot

The Second World War saw many acts of bravery, but the raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 remains one of the outstanding acts of heroism during the war. So much so that ‘Operation Chariot’ has been called ‘The Greatest Raid of All Time’, and immortalised in film and book. So, why was the raid necessary? And what happened?

CHARIOT%20MEMORIAL%20CLOSE%20UP

In 1942 Britain was dependent on supplies from across the Atlantic if she was to survive the war, but that lifeline was constantly under attack. Supply convoys were frequently attacked by German submarines and surface raiders, but the biggest threat to shipping was the Tirpitz. No British or American ship could compete with her 15-inch guns and massively armoured structure. The Royal Navy hoped that a fleet could possible sink her, or at least damage her so much that she would be in need of extensive repairs, so relieving some of the pressure on the convoys. If they managed to damage the ship there was only one port in Axis held Europe large enough to accommodate her – St. Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of France. A massive dry dock had been built there before the war to accommodate a passenger ship called the Normandie. The port was now being used by the Germans to bolster their war in the Atlantic.

The British decided that this facility must not be available to the Tirpitz, and so an attack was planned to take it out. It would not be an easy task. Huge 35 foot thick gates, 167 feet wide and 54 feet high, moved on massive rollers to enclose a dock measuring 1,148 feet by 164 feet. This dock played host to small German warships and a fleet of U-boats which sortied out to seek and destroy the Allied supply convoys. To service and supply these was a collection of wharves, bridges and locks, a power station and underground storage for fuel. Minesweepers and searchlights constantly combed the area to prevent any Allied attack. In support of these were around 100 massive guns. To try to take out such an installation would seem impossible.

U boats at St Nazaire
German U-boats entering St Nazaire

Bombing the dry docks was not an option as chances of a successful raid were remote. 80 anti-aircraft guns surrounded the area, and bombing would need to be accurate to do the necessary damage, but such pinpoint targeting was not possible in 1942. Even blanket bombing the area would not work as there could be no guarantee of success, and such a raid was likely to result in many civilian casualties. An attack by the navy was also impossible as the ships would not be able to get close, thanks to the narrow and shallow estuary protected by submarine nets, which also ruled out an underwater attack.

It was therefore decided that a force of commandos would attack the docks at St Nazaire during the last week of March 1942, which would give them a two hour window of full moon and a flood tide, vital for the attack to succeed. The plan was for some of the commandos to travel on motor launches with a shallow draught so that they could move in the waters of the estuary without entering the heavily fortified areas. The lead boat was to be a motor gunboat which could use radar and sonar to help the attack. The final boat was a motor torpedo boat which would lay torpedoes with delayed fuses.

A British Atlantic convol
A British Atlantic convoy

It was a good plan, but the dock was so huge that it was believed that the boats and commandos would not be able to put it out of action alone. That was when it was decided to take a leaf from the history books. England had caused devastation to the Spanish Armada through the use of fire-ships; perhaps something similar could work in St Nazaire? An old ship reaching the end of her life, HMS Campbeltown, was chosen for this role and underwent a facelift which left her looking a little like one of the German Mowe class warships. Unlike a warship, Campbeltown was lightly armoured and gunned, but she did have 24 depth charges which were the key to the plan. The ship was to smash her way through the massive gates to be scuttled in the dock with her explosives set on a timed fuse. When this triggered it would, it was hoped, put the dock out of commission for the rest of the war. Whilst Campbeltown was being scuttled, the commandos were to target the guns, bridges, lock gates and power stations which made St Nazaire such a dangerous asset for the Germans.

The landing force of what was considered by most to be a suicide mission, was made up of 256 officers and men. Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, told Lieutenant Colonel Newman (leader of the attacking force) that he and his men were, in effect, being sacrificed. He told him that ‘I’m confident that you can get in and do the job, but we cannot hold out much hope of you getting out again. Even if you are all lost, the results of the operation will have been worth it. For that reason I want to tell you to tell all the men who have family responsibilities, or who think they should stand down for any reason, that they are free to do so, and nobody will think any worse of them.’ Not one man took up the offer.

The training for the mission was intense, as was security. It would be a disaster if news of the target got out, so rumours were spread about that the force was going to North Africa, or possibly submarine hunting in the mid-Atlantic. No one mentioned France. By the middle of March, everything was ready. The force set sail from Falmouth on 26th March, heading out into the Atlantic ocean. The next day, the ships hoisted the German flag and changed course for St Nazaire.

At 11pm on 28th March the timer for the explosives on the Campbletown was set as the force made its way into the Loire estuary. Careful navigation of the sandbanks and shallows was essential, which slowed the flotilla down, and the force was spotted just before 1.30am. When the German guns opened up the false German colours were run down and the ships sailed into St Nazaire under the white ensign. As the Campbletown sped towards the dock gates she was raked with gunfire, but did not slow down, smashing into the gates at 1.34am, just 4 minutes behind schedule.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Many commandos never made it to shore, but those who did encountered fierce opposition from the defenders. They fought heroically as they planted their charges, all the time aware of the German guns pouring heavy fire onto the British boats which should have been there to extricate them and take them home. Newman was aware that the boats had been forced to withdraw and that he and his men were, effectively, stranded. He managed to gather together around 70 men, most of them wounded, and gave them the news that they would have to make a break across country, to make for Spain if at all possible, a journey of 350 miles. But the enemy were everywhere and, one by one, the raiders were shot or taken prisoner.

chario17
Captured members of the commando force

Other commandos, who had been on the flotilla as it withdrew, were taken swiftly north towards England, the ships fighting all the way. The enemy were now out in force, though, and not all of the ships made it home. Soon the fighting on both land and sea was over. In the dry dock 40 German officers went aboard the Campbeltown, gloating that the British had underestimated the size of St Nazaires defences. There were also another 400 Germans in the vicinity when the timer on the explosives in the Campbeltown’s bow reached zero and the ship exploded. The damage was so great that the dock was unusable for the rest of the war. The British had not underestimated the job after all.

No-one knows for sure, but it is thought that the Germans lost 60 officers and 300 men when the Campbeltown exploded. Added to those killed or wounded in the fighting, this was a great blow to the Germans. The British lost 169 killed with about 200 taken prisoner, most of them wounded, only 4 men made it overland to Spain.

Many of those who died in the raid are buried here
Many of those who died in the raid are buried here

Operation Chariot was a great success for the British. No one can calculate how many ships were saved, how much food and ammunition reached Britain which would, perhaps, have ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean if the raid had failed, but it was a very significant contribution to the Allied cause. Although the raid was a great blow for the Germans, the defenders recognized the amazing courage of the commandos who had taken part in the attack and mounted an honour guard over the coffins of the dead. This courage was also recognized back at home – 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 74 British decorations awarded, 4 French Croix de Guerres, and 5 Victoria Crosses.

The heavily defended port at St Nazaire features prominently in my Second World War novel, ‘Heronfield’, which also recognizes the courage of those British men and women who served in the SOE behind enemy lines, and the members of the French Resistance who gave up so much to win their freedom from the Nazis. My characters may be fictional, but through them I recognize and pay tribute to the extraordinary courage shown by ordinary men and women in times of war. Ordinary men like these five who received the Victoria Cross for their role in Operation Chariot:

Citations for the five Victoria Crosses awarded to men who took part in the raid

Robert_Edward_Dudley_RyderCaptain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN. For great gallantry in the attack on St. Nazaire. He commanded a force of small unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led HMS Campbeltown in under intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with strong points and close range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his motor boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close range fire was almost a miracle.

Stephen Halden BeattieLieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown. For great gallantry and determination in the attack on St. Nazaire in command of HMS Campbeltown. Under intense fire directed at the bridge from point blank range of about 100 yards, and in the face of the blinding glare of many searchlights, he steamed her into the lock gates and beached and scuttled her in the correct position. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant-Commander Beattie in recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship’s company, many of whom have not returned.

 

William Alfred SavageAble Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN. For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as gun-layer of the pom-pom in a motor gun-boat in the St. Nazaire raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire he engaged positions ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun. This Victoria Cross is awarded in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion to duty of Able Seaman Savage, but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.

Thomas Frank DurrantSergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE Sergeant Durrant, attached to No.1 Commando, was in the Royal Engineers. On 27th March 1942 at St Nazaire he was in charge of a Lewis gun on HM Motor Launch 306 which came under heavy fire during the raid, and although he had no protection and was wounded in several places he continued to fire until the launch was boarded and the survivors were taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day.  (It is believed that Durrant was wounded at least 25 times. He was captured and taken to  a German military hospital where he died of his wounds. A week later, the commander of the German destroyer which had captured Durrant met Newman in a prisoner of war camp and suggested that the Colonel might wish to recommend Durrant for a high award. Durrant’s Victoria Cross  is unique as it is the only award given to a soldier taking part in a naval action, and it was awarded on the recommendation of the enemy commander).

Augustus Charles NewmanLieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman The Essex Regiment was attached to No.2 Commando. During the St Nazaire raid on 27th March 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Newman was in charge of the military forces and was one of the first ashore, leading his men and directing operations without regard for his own safety. The troops fought well under his command and held superior numbers of the enemy at bay until the demolition parties had done their jobs. Newman then attempted to fight through into open country and did not surrender until all the ammunition was exhausted when he was then taken prisoner.

 

Other awards were granted for the St. Nazaire Raid: 4 DSO; 17 DSC; 11 MC; 4 CGM; 5 DCM; 24 DSM and 15 MM. Another 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 22 of them posthumously.

For King and Country – VAD nursing auxiliaries

Have you heard of the VAD’s? You may have read about them or seen them in a movie. But who exactly were they, and what did they do?

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was a voluntary organisation which provided field nursing services which were of vital importance during the two World Wars as well as during other conflicts. The VAD was founded in 1909 when the War Office put forward a scheme which allowed the British Red Cross to provide supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war. In 1914 The Red Cross was joined with the Order of Saint John (the St John’s Ambulance) to form the Joint War Committee (JWC). The idea was to make sure that they worked together efficiently in helping the military hospitals; it was thought safer for the St John’s volunteers to work under the protection of the internationally recognised Red Cross symbol. There were over 2,500 Volunteers in Britain at the outbreak of WW1, by the end of 1914 there were 74,000, two thirds of whom were women and girls who also wanted to do their bit during the conflict.

WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD's
WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD’s

The British Red Cross were reluctant to send civilian women to work overseas as most of the Volunteers were from the middle and upper classes and would have found it difficult to cope with the unaccustomed discipline and hardships. The Military authorities also refused to accept the VAD’s at the front line. It was not until three VAD’s, led by Katherine Furse, went to France in October 1914 as canteen workers that things began to change. The women were unexpectedly caught in a battle where they helped out in the emergency hospital. Those in authority on the front line saw how well the women acquitted themselves and, as there was a growing shortage of trained nurses, this opened the door for the VAD’s to serve overseas – as long as they were over 23 and had more than 3 months hospital experience.

Coming from privileged backgrounds and with no real medical training the VAD’s were often critical of the nursing profession on the one hand and criticised for their own lack of experience and discipline on the other. It made for an uneasy relationship with the military and the doctors to begin with, but relations improved as the Volunteers gained more experience.

Between 1914 1nd 1918 over 38,000 VAD’s served as cooks and ambulance drivers and worked in hospitals in all theatres of war from the Eastern Front and Middle East through Gallipoli and on the Western Front. They also served in convalescent hospitals back in the UK. From being resented at the outbreak of war the VAD’s came to be highly respected and many were decorated for distinguished service.

Between the two World Wars the VAD were reorganised and Volunteers were trained to work as nurses, radiographers, pharmacists, clerks and laboratory assistants. When the Second World War broke out the British Red Cross and Order of St. John joined together again to form the Joint War Organisation (JWO). There were also women who had been living abroad with their husbands, notably in the Far East, when war was declared, and they formed local VAD groups. A number of these became prisoners of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. During WW2 the VAD’s consisted of some 14,155 Red Cross members, 1,695 from the Order of St John’s cross and 21 from the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association.

Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2
Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2

The VAD’s were opposed to the Governments proposal in 1942 that they should join with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and they were supported in their campaign to remain a separate organisation by The Times newspaper. There was a commission of enquiry and The War Office eventually ruled that they should retain their identity and be given new responsibilities.

Being a member of the VAD was just one of many roles that women took on during the two great wars of last century, proving that they had just as much to offer as their male counterparts and spearheading the way for future equality for women.

Please click here to see an example of what life was like for one VAD during World War 2. Kath Lewis served as a VAD at RAF Halton. You can also find out about VAD’s by reading about my fictional heroine, Sarah, in Heronfield.

Were you or one of your relatives a VAD? Do you have a story to tell? If so please leave a comment and tell us all about it. Thank you!
Please see here for further information on the VAD’s

Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Isobel Mary Cumming 1941
Thank you to Alison Bilynskyj for this photograph of her mother, Isobel Mary Cumming, who was a VAD. The photo was taken in 1941. I’m afraid I don’t know where she served.

Canada and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. This last week has seen the world remembering the horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The use of these bombs issued in a new phase in world history, the nuclear age. As such the events of August 1945 are something which we have all heard about. But history is about more than ‘the big picture’. Many people, myself included, are fascinated by the way these major historical events affected the lives of ordinary people, moving from the impersonal to the personal.

Until a few months ago I was unaware of the fact that many Canadians suffered radiation poisoning caused by their involvement in the building of the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sad fact is that these Canadians themselves were also unaware of what had happened to them during the Second World War, and the part they had played in such a devastating episode in world history.

The nuclear cloud above Hiroshima

The story was only recently told to me by Julie Salverson, professor of drama and cultural studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. For more than ten years Julie has investigated the story of the atomic bomb and Déline, a tiny community on the western shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Towards the end of the war many of the men from Déline were employed in the transportation of goods. What they did not know was what was in the sacks they were transporting across the lake from the mines at nearby Port Radium to Port Hope in Ontario. The sacks contained uranium. Of course, the workers were never told that the ore they carried on their backs was to be used in the experiments at the Manhattan Project, and in the building of the bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the years that followed there were many unexplained illnesses in the community, and far more than the average incidence of deaths from cancer.

When the truth about their connection with the events of August 1945 finally came out, the people of Déline were devastated. They could now understand the illness and suffering which had plagued their community. In a global sense, they could also identify more fully with the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, what was the response of this small community of Canadians? Anger at the people who had used them and caused them suffering? A focus on the devastating effects on their own lives? No, they immediately sent a delegation to Japan to make their own personal apologies to those who had survived the bombs.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki

Julie Salverson first heard this story in 2001. She has since followed the trail from Canada to Japan; a journey which has touched her deeply, and is recorded in her book ‘Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir’. During her research Julie visited Déline, New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, following the stories of people thousands of miles apart yet linked by such terrible events. Personal stories of pain and suffering, from both Canada and Japan, have saddened her. Yet she has also been encouraged by the strength and fortitude of the people on both sides, and their capacity to forgive.

Like Julie, I am interested in the stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Unlike Julie, I choose to tell these stories through fiction, as in my Second World War novel, ‘Heronfield’. In ‘Heronfield’ the bombing of Coventry is seen through the eyes of the civilians; the story of the French Resistance told from the perspective of one small family; the secret life of a spy seen from the perspective of his family and loved ones, as well as his own. ‘Heronfield’ follows the war in Europe from Dunkirk to VE Day – the dates, the bombing, the battles all historically accurate; but what brings it to life is the people. Ordinary people like you and me, people who were never famous but whose stories tell us so much about life in this fascinating period of history. Ordinary people like those who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Déline.

Heronfield