How RADAR helped to win the war

It is always an advantage in battle to know what the enemy is up to. In the past the military relied on observers and spies to supply this information, but during the twentieth century technology began to play a more important role allowing the Allies to identify enemy planes, ships and submarines from a greater distance through the use of radar (Radio Detection and Ranging). Planes were first used in war for reconnaissance (1914-18) but as they became bigger and faster it became clear that planes were the weapons of the future and the threat of bombing of civilian centres grew, in 1932 Stanley Baldwin (the British Prime Minister) said that ‘the bomber will always get through’. To try to combat this scientists and technicians turned to radar.

christian-hc3bclsmeyerjpg.jpg
Christian Hülsmeyer

It was in the 19th century that Michael Faraday and James Maxwell predicted that radio waves existed. In 1886 Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments which proved this to be the case and the first primitive radar system, in which radio waves were sent out and reflections from distant objects detected, was patented by German engineer Christian Hulsmeyer in 1904. Little was done to develop this use of radio waves until the late 1930’s when the threat of war led to at least eight countries – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—independently developing radar. Britain’s air-defense radar system (known as Chain Home) was in place before the Second World War actually began as the government was aware of the very real threat from the German Luftwaffe, and during the next six years of conflict scientists and engineers found dozens of ways of using the simple and yet highly adaptable radar.

Chain_home
Chain Home

A committee set up by th British government in the 1930’s to consider the problem of air defence originally come up with the idea of using electromagnetic waves to develop a ‘death ray’, thankfully Robert Watson-Watt convinced them that this was a bad idea and to concentrate on an aircraft detection system instead! He recognised the importance of being able to see planes from a distance and follow their course in overcast weather or at night. Rapid progress was made as Watson-Watt used what he called his ‘third best principle’ – the best is usually unattainable and the second best unavailable until too late – this meant that they went with the ‘third best’ option and devised a system which worked with two antennas, one for transmitting and one for receiving, as they still had to develop a single antenna to do both. By 1939 a chain of eighteen radar stations was set up to cover the south and east coast of England. Chain Home, as it was called, used fixed transmitters to send out a broad beam of radio pulses to detect planes which were approaching at 1,500 – 2,000 feet; the stations were positioned on cliffs and high ground to give them a greater detection range and they could ‘see’ planes up to 200 miles away. The system was further developed in 1940 with the introduction of a new ground-based radar which could detect low-flying aircraft and ships. This was called Chain Home Low and differed from Chain Home by using a rotating aerial to transmit a narrow beam, rather like a searchlight. It could detect aircraft flying at 500ft from 110 miles away and display the information on a circular screen similar to modern radar displays. Stations could be set up on cliff tops, but if the coastal area they were protecting was low lying the transmitter and receiver would be mounted on towers 200 feet high.

radar operatorWomen in the WAAF worked in these radar centres. When a signal was received from approaching aircraft it was displayed on a green cathode ray tube. This showed the pulse sent out by the transmitter moving in from the edge of the screen with the target aircraft positioned in the centre. The screen could be calibrated for anything up to 200 miles which enabled the operator to ‘zoom in’ on the approaching craft. The radar operator would move a cursor over the position of the aircraft and the information was automatically sent to a calculating machine along with further information which enabled it to work out the plane’s height as well as position. This information was then sent to the mapping room with a large table on which the planes were positioned, a visual aid which made it easier for non-technical officers to direct the defending planes.

Chain Home was a massive step forward in air defence but it did have its problems. As the stations faced out to the sea contact was lost with enemy aircraft once they crossed the coastline, and Chain Home Low could not help either as it was difficult to distinguish between planes and signals from the ground. So the Observer Corps was given the job of watching the skies with tradition means (binoculars) and plotting enemy aircraft formations. Another problem was that although Chain Home picked up signals from approaching aircraft the signals could be misinterpreted and so inaccurate information about enemy strength and height could be passed to Air Command which meant that British fighter pilots could be put in dangerous situations, but the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks as the pilots no longer needed to conduct continuous air patrols.

The first serious use of radar came during the Battle of Britain when Chain Home was able to intercept approaching German bombers and fighters. It was even possible to ‘see’ the enemy at night with Air Interception (AI) (which allowed fighter planes to fly directly towards enemy bombers at night), Ground Control Interception (GCI) and the Plan Position Indicator (PPI), all thanks to radar; it was also possible for searchlights to use radar to help target planes for the anti-aircraft guns.

proximity-fuze-diagram
Proximity fuse

There were a number of other developments in the use of radar during the Second World War:

  • Proximity fuse – a tiny radar set built into each artillery shell to trigger detonation when the shell was close to its target. By the end of the war 22 million had been produced and were particularly effective when used by anti-aircraft artillery.
  • IFF – Identification Friend or Foe, which enabled Allied planes to identify each other using radar signals.
  • H2S – an Air Interception system which could display a map of the ground below in an aircraft.
  • Gee – a system of navigation which let bombers know their exact position at any time on their journey to Germany. Without Gee the 1,000-bomber raids would never have been possible.
  • Oboe – a positioning system which allowed two bases back in England to pinpoint planes when they were directly over their target; Oboe made it possible for precision attacks on munitions factories in the Ruhr and on missile bases on the north coast of Europe.
  • ASV – a Coastal Command aircraft carrying an ASV device could use it to pinpoint a U-boat on the surface; in conjunction with a similar device on destroyers and corvettes the Allies were finally able to defeat the German submarine menace which threatened to starve Britain into submission.
Frankreich, Radargerät "Würzburg"
Wurzburg

We often forget that Germany had its own effective radar systems on their bombers during the first months of the war. They also positioned their “Würzburg” system on the north coast of France to detect approaching aircraft. So why did radar seem to be much more successful for the Allies than the enemy? This can be put down, in part, to the attitude of those in positions of power with the Battle of Britain being a prime example. On 15th August 1940, at the height of the Battle, Reichsmarschall Göering decided to halt attacks on Chain Home stations; his reasoning was that “It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked so far has been put out of action.” Unlike Göering, however, ACM Dowding recognised just how important radar was and what a benefit it would be if fully integrated into air strategy. The fact that the Germans stopped targeting the radar stations strengthened the British defence and played a critical role in the final victory of the Battle of Britain. As Sir William Douglas commented, “I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won… if it were not for the radar chain”.

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Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

V For Victory – the sign which Churchill appropriated from the Belgians

victor de laveleyeWe have all seen photos of Winston Churchill giving his famous ‘V for Victory’ sign during the Second World War, but we actually have Belgian tennis star Victor de Laveleye to thank for this iconic sign. de Laveleye competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games for Belgium, but he was also a politician who served as Minister of Justice in 1937. As the Germans pushed west in 1940 de Laveleye fled to Britain where he was put in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Belgium and soon became the symbol of free Belgians everywhere. On 14th January 1941 Laveleye asked all Belgians to use the letter ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry to fight the invaders because, he said, ‘V is the first letter of Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish, like the Walloons and the Flemish who today walk hand in hand, two things that are consequences of each other, Victory will give you Freedom’. He went on to say that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [will] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” The Belgian people willingly adopted the sign and the letter immediately began to appear daubed on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France, and other parts of Europe, a symbolic act of defiance against the Nazis.

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Resistance graffiti on a road in Norway the V sign cradeling the initials of King Haakon VII

churchill v signWinston Churchill realised how successful this symbol was in uniting people against Hitler’s regime and decided to use it during a speech in July 1941 when he said that ‘The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Churchill continued to use the sign as his ‘signature gesture’ for the remainder of the war.

Soon after Churchill’s broadcast Douglas Ritchie at the BBC noticed that the Morse code for V was three dots and a dash ( …_ ) which was the same as the rhythm for the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC used it in its foreign language programmes directed at occupied Europe for the rest of the war. It was not long before the rhythm was used as a symbol of defiance in Europe, one which people could tap out almost anywhere.

In Germany Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was infuriated by the ‘V campaign’, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried to argue that because ‘V’ was the first letter of the German word ‘viktoria’ and the musical representation was from a symphony written by a German composer then it was really a symbol in support of the Nazi’s final victory and was a sign of the conquered population’s support of Hitler, but of course no one believed him. To try to bury the use of the symbol by the resistance the Germans started using the ‘V’ themselves, even the Eiffel tower had a ‘V’ with the slogan ‘Germany is Victorious on All Fronts’ underneath.

the eiffel tower during the nazi occupation, 1940
TheEeiffel Tower during the German occupation of France

churchill reverse v sign

 

When Churchill first used the ‘V’ sign he sometimes did it with palm facing in until it was pointed out to him that this had a rather rude meaning for the working classes; from then on Churchill made a point of holding his hand palm outwards. Of course, the sign appealed to many people precisely because of its ‘double entendre’ meaning – with a simple movement of the wrist they could indicate a belief in victory and also tell Hitler where to go!

poster

 

 

 

 

America also took the ‘V’ sign to heart and it appeared in numerous places, including on this poster from the War Production Board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four years after de Laveleye first urged the use of the ‘V’ sign the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe, and months later came Victory against Japan, but by that time the iconic Second World War symbol of defiance had become so embedded in the minds of the people that it is still used today.

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The ground crew of a Lancaster bomber return the ‘V for Victory’ sign projected into the sky by a neighbouring searchlight crew on VE Day.

There are some interesting pictures of the use of the ’V’ sign during the Second World War in this video

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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

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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.

Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

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.’

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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.