Tag Archives: World War 2

The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II was a teenager during the Second World War and life for her was, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of other teenagers. Her father, King George, insisted that the royal family should not have any special treatment, they had the same rations as everyone else and even applied this to visitors to Buckingham Palace – including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President!

Princess Elizabeth was 14 years old when Britain declared war on Germany and her safety as heir to the throne was of great concern to many people. Viscount Hailsham, a well respected former Conservative politician, spoke for many when he suggested that Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, should be evacuated to Canada for the duration of the war. The Queen, however, was adamant that this should not happen and told the Viscount that ‘The children won’t go without me, I won’t leave without the King, and the King will never leave.’ This was a very public statement that the royal family intended to stay in the United Kingdom but, in private, King George VI made plans for the two princesses to be evacuated if, and only if, a German army landed in England and there was a real threat that the royal family might be taken prisoner. (see article on George VI) Although his children would be taken abroad to safety King George intended to stay after any invasion to help with the resistance.  This plan was kept secret in order to keep up the morale of the British people and, thankfully, there was never any need to put it into action. During the first winter of the war Elizabeth and Margaret stayed at the Balmoral estate in Scotland, moving to Sandringham after Christmas 1939 and then back to Windsor where they lived for the remainder of the war. Each year they ‘did their bit’ by putting on a pantomime to raise money for the Queen’s wool fund to buy wool for the manufacture of military clothing.

The relentless bombing of British cities in the Blitz meant that many children were evacuated to the countryside and, in October 1940, Princess Elizabeth broadcast a radio message to them on the popular Children’s Hour programme. Her message offered thanks to the host families and support for the children who were living with strangers in a strange environment. The core of her message was that the children should stay strong, and face the war with courage, determination, and hope. She said that ‘We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.  When peace comes,” she said, “remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.’ (Princess Elizabeth’s broadcast)

Although Elizabeth felt an affinity for the children of the United Kingdom her position as heir to the throne meant that she would have a unique role and responsibilities. In 1941, at the age of 15, she was appointed Colonel-In-Chief of the Grenadier Guards, and her first public appearance alone was a visit to inspect the regiment when she was 16. Yet she could sympathise with those who had lost family members in the war for she, too, lost her beloved uncle Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was the first member of the royal family to be killed on active service for 500 years. Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of his death; Prince George was an RAF pilot and set out alone on a secret mission, when his body was recovered from the hillside in Caithness where his plane had crashed he was found with a bag containing a large number of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to his wrist.

In 1944 Parliament changed the law to allow Princess Elizabeth to act as one of the five Counsellors of State who were senior members of the royal family who would effectively take over the role of the monarch should the King be incapacitated or out of the country. She performed this role when George VI went to Europe to visit the troops after the D Day landings. (see article on George VI)

When she was 18 Elizabeth wanted to join the ATS but this was opposed by the King; it was not until February 1945 that he finally agreed and the princess signed up as an honorary Second Subaltern with the service number 230873. After five months of training as a mechanic and military truck driver in Camberley the future queen was promoted to the rank of honorary Junior Commander (the equivalent of a Captain in the army). Throughout her training Elizabeth worked for seven hours a day before returning to Windsor Castle at night; she appears to have taken her duties very seriously and, although some people were excited by her presence, it is reported that she was hard working and humble during the time she served in the ATS. The Queen is the only female member of the British royal family to have served in the armed forces. The ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) was the women’s branch of the army during the Second World War, but although the women had full military status they were only paid two-thirds of the wage of a man of the same rank even when serving overseas. Women in the ATS served in a number of roles from the mundane clerical to the most dangerous, including manning anti-aircraft guns (Mary, the daughter of Winston Churchill, served on anti-aircraft batteries for the duration of the war).

Watch a Pathe News report of the King, Queen and Princess Margaret visiting Princess Elizabeth on a driving course at a training centre.

There were great celebrations when the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe. On VE Day, 8th May 1945, the royal family made numerous appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the cheers of massive crowds. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret looked down to the joyful celebrations and wanted to join in; surprisingly, the King gave his permission for the sisters to go into the streets incognito. So the heir to the throne strolled down Whitehall arm in arm with her sister, possibly the only time that she has been able to be just one of the crowd, as she later described it ‘We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.’

Although the Second World War ended in 1945 rationing was only phased out gradually and did not finally end until 1954. The royal family continued to follow the restrictions and Princess Elizabeth even saved up ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress in 1947.

Queen Elizabeth II is the only remaining living head of state in the world who served during the Second World War and remains the only female member of the royal family to have served in the armed forces.

 

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The Windsors at War – Part 1 King George VI

King George VI was a reluctant monarch. He grew up with the expectation that his elder brother would become king, a situation he was more than happy with as he was a rather shy man who suffered from a stutter. Unfortunately for George his plans for himself and his family were turned on their head when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936 so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. George suddenly found himself in a position he had never wanted and, what was worse, at a time of impending crisis. But George also had a profound sense of duty and honour, things he found sadly lacking in his elder brother, and vowed to be the best monarch he could as the world faced up to the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

George VI had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when Britain lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men. As with many of his generation the King wanted to avoid another war like the one which had blighted his youth and so was in favour of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, but as time passed he realised that this was hopeless and war against Germany was unavoidable. In 1939 George VI travelled to America and Canada in an effort to build support for the inevitable conflict. By 3rd September of that year, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, he was resigned to what was to come; he wrote…

“As 11 o’clock struck that fateful morning I had a certain feeling of relief that those 10 anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable…were over. Hitler would not and could not draw back from the edge of the Abyss to which he had led us. Despite our protestations that the Polish Question could have been settled without force, Hitler had taken the plunge.” The King went on to compare his situation in 1939 to the one he had been in at the outbreak of war in 1914 when he was “keeping the middle watch on the bridge of HMS Collingwood… Today we are at War again, and I am no longer a midshipman in the Royal Navy.” The King obviously felt that Edward VIII had shown a great lack of character, and remarked in his diary that, before the abdication, he had “never expected to have all this responsibility on me”.

On the day that war was declared the King spoke to the nation in a radio broadcast, something he always found difficult as those who have seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’ will know. In his address George VI said “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history…for the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain…The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead and war is no longer confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commend our cause to God…with God’s help we shall prevail. May He bless and keep us all.”

(You can listen to the full speech here.)

King George VI made it a matter of principle that, no matter how busy he was, he would write a diary entry every night for however long the war lasted, and his writings give an insight into the reluctant monarch, his relationship with his government, and his sense of duty and service.

In May 1940 Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and the King, along with many others, wanted Lord Halifax to take his place; the monarchs role in appointing a Prime Minister is, however, little more than a symbolic confirmation of the will of the ruling party and George was reluctantly persuaded that Winston Churchill should be made Prime Minister. The King initially found Churchill difficult to get along with, but as time passed they developed a deep respect for each other and a close personal relationship, meeting for lunch every Tuesday to discuss the war in private in a very open and frank way.

At the outbreak of the war some of the King’s closest advisors suggested that he should move from London to the countryside to avoid enemy attacks, but both he and the Queen were adamant that they would stay in the capital as a symbol of strength and unity. George VI was not reckless, however, and personally set up the Coats Mission which was to be enforced if a German army invaded the British Isles. The key to this was the creation of a personal bodyguard of Coldstream Guards and Royal Lancers led by Major Coats to protect the King, the Queen and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The Lancers had specially adapted armoured cars which were to be used to take the royal family from Buckingham Palace to either Windsor or one of four other country houses which had been secretly prepared to conceal them, and where they would be met by the Coldstream Guards. King George was firm in his instructions that the royal family should not be handed over to the enemy and the guard were to fight to the last man if necessary. The second stage of the plan was to fly the Princesses abroad whilst the King and Queen remained behind to bolster resistance.

Thankfully the invasion never came and the Coats Mission was never put into operation, but there were other actions which did take place to ensure the safety of the royal family and Britain’s heritage. Hiding the Crown Jewels in a biscuit tin is just one example. This may sound like a comedy sketch but it did, in fact, happen. Some of the most precious jewels, including the Black Prince’s Ruby from the Imperial State Crown, were taken to Windsor Castle where they were put into a biscuit tin and buried under what is known as a sally port (a secret exit which could be used in an emergency). A large hole with two chambers protected by steel doors had been dug in preparation and was accessible by a trap door which, reportedly, still exists today.

The royal family spent most of the war at Buckingham Palace, although they often spent the night at Windsor Castle during times of heavy air raids. The King and Queen were at Buckingham Palace on 13th September 1940 and narrowly missed injury or death when two bombs exploded in the courtyard. In a letter to her mother-in-law the Queen wrote that they had gone to the Palace to collect some possessions after a previous bombing raid when they heard the approach of a German plane closely followed by the scream of falling bombs. At the first explosion they all dived for cover, after the second they all made their way to the shelter. The Queen describes how everyone remained calm whilst the three people who had been injured were treated. She later went on to say that “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face.”

King George VI believed that he had an important role to play in keeping up the morale of the British people and so frequently visited bomb sites and munitions factories, accompanied by the Queen who took a great interest in what was being done to help people whose homes had been destroyed in the bombings. The Royal couple were also interested in the war work which was being done by civilians, often women, and their visits had a profound effect. The Ministry of Supply found that production figures inevitably dropped on the day of a royal visit, but the workers found it such a morale boost that they worked even harder and the weekly production figures always rose after such a visit. Both King George and Queen Elizabeth were compassionate by nature and also toured hospitals to visit wounded civilians and troops.

In his role as monarch George VI held the ranks of Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and Field Marshall, and he made a particular effort to visit every type of unit within the armed force; whenever he toured work places or inspected troops he would invariably do so in uniform. The king often visited troops in the UK, but it was not always so easy for him to do so abroad because of fears for his safety, although he did visit military troops in France in December 1939 during the ‘Phoney War’, Malta and North Africa in 1943, Normandy 10 days after D Day in June 1944, southern Italy in July 1944 and the Low Countries in October 1944. His trip to the Mediterranean in 1943 is an example of how he saw his role as that of a ‘morale booster’ for armed forces and civilians alike as he inspected the Roya Navy (and also the US Navy), the Merchant Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army, and the Royal Air Force before going on to the island of Malta. As well as visiting troops George VI also took a keen interest in the planning and strategy of the war and it was after he made a personal request to be kept informed that Dwight Eisenhower briefed him on the plan for Operation Overlord – the invasion of Europe via the Normandy beaches in 1944.

King George VI created the George Cross which is awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger” and can be awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces. During the war air raid wardens, fire men, policemen and other individual civilians were awarded the George Cross, but one of the best known awards went to Malta. The people of the island had suffered dreadfully when besieged by the Germans and Italians who bombed the island round the clock. Malta held a strategically important position in the Mediterranean and so the people were determined not to give in even though whole towns and villages had been reduced to nothing but rubble, and there was a terrible food shortage. King George made a personal decision to award the George Cross to the island of Malta saying that “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. During his visit to North Africa in 1943 King George was determined to visit Malta and spent a day touring the island where he was greeted by cheering crowds and the ringing of the island’s church bells.

Although he was the monarch George VI believed that he and his family should share the same difficulties and dangers as his subjects. He insisted that the royal family should have the same rations as everyone else and follow all other war time directives; what’s more, this also applied to visitors. When Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President, visited Britain she commented on her time at Buckingham Palace which was unheated and boarded-up and where she was only allowed limited bathwater and was served rationed food. The royal family also knew what it felt to lose a loved one to the conflict with the King’s brother and the Queen’s nephew both killed.

Prince George, Duke of Kent, was a member of the Royal Air Force and set off alone on a mission about which little is known. His plane crashed into a hillside in Caithness in Scotland, and his body was found with a briefcase full of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to one wrist.

After sharing the dangers and deprivations of a country at war it was only fitting that the royal family shared in the jubilation when victory was finally achieved in Europe. At 6pm on the 8th May 1945 the King made a broadcast to the country, and during the afternoon and evening of that day the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the city celebrated VE Day, huge crowds cheering the royals who had refused to leave Britain and stayed to play an active part in the war effort. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had become symbols of national resistance, as had Princess Elizabeth who served in the ATS. The man who had only reluctantly taken on the role of king at his brother’s abdication had proven to be the one most fitting to lead his country in a time of war and, as such, was greatly loved. It is sad that he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of peace as he died in February 1952, aged 56, the beloved king of a country which still had another two years before rationing was finally over.

A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

(New York Times Bestseller)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.

Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.

Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven  historical novels you will probably enjoy this.

The Orphan’s Tale can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here

You can  find more of my Recommended  Reads here

 

Joy Lofthouse – the girl who flew Spitfires for the RAF in the Second World War

During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.

One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.

Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.

RIP Joy Lofthouse.

 

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.

Men of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) camouflaging a gun position at Mersa Matruh, 28 May 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193447

Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.

I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.

Signallers at Homs

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.

The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.

Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.

On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.

Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.

Desert Graves

The only thing that ever really frightened Churchill – The Battle of the Atlantic

What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.

A German U-Boat commander tracking a British merchant ship through his periscope during an attack on a convoy, 10-20 June 1942. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194304

The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194526

The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.

A seaman on watch at sea. Copyright: © IWM. object/205139887

Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.

Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board HMS DIANTHUS. Copyright: © IWM.
object/205194536

It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

On board a destroyer on escort duty Copyright: © IWM. object/205139891

The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.

28 NOVEMBER TO 10 DECEMBER 1941, ON BOARD THE DESTROYER HMS VANOC. (A 6633) The officer of the watch dressed for the weather during an Atlantic winter. Copyright: © IWM. object/205140741

Allied losses during the Battle of the Atlantic

36,200 sailors killed
36,000 merchant seamen killed
3,500 merchant vessels sunk
175 warships sunk
741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties

1943 (AX 44A) The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, probably the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM. object/205133324

Bibliography

The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams

Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams

In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore

The Battle of the Atlantic by Macintyre, Donald.