On the night of the legendary mission, “O for Orange" was amongst the last wave of Lancaster Bombers to take off from RAF Scampton, captained by Bill Townsend. Airborne at exactly ten minutes past midnight, the aircraft climbed from the runway, and, weighed down by Barnes-Wallis’ incredible invention, Navigator Lance Howard recalled:
“I had visions of the bumpy grass take-off causing the lights under the fuselage to be shaken loose so that instead of being 60 feet above ground, we would finish up 60 feet underneath it.”
Wireless Operator George Chalmers breathed a sigh of relief as ‘she brushed through the airfield boundary hedge like a steeplechaser’, whereas pilot, Bill Townsend, would later maintain that they actually went through it, semi-stalling as he just got AJ-O into the air.
The figures of the legendary PQ-17 convoy are staggering. Assembled at Reykjavik on 27 June 1942 was a formidable gathering that comprised 22 American, 8 British, 2 Russian, 2 Panamanian and 1 Dutch merchant vessels. In their holds they carried sufficient supplies to re-arm a good portion of the Stalin's forces: 297 aircraft, 594 tanks, 4246 military vehicles and over 150,000 tons of other vital military stores and cargo: but most of this equipment never reached Russia, for just a few days later, following Sir Dudley Pound's fateful order for the convoy to scatter, no less than 23 of the ships were lost.
At the start of WWII, the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, created Radio Security Service (RSS). It was a secret intelligence network housed in the cells of Wormwood Scrubs after the prisoners had been evacuated. In command was Major J.P.G. Worlledge , a high-ranking Royal Signals stalwart, who up until 1927 had commanded a Wireless Company in Palestine. Worlledge was to becaome known as ‘Controller RSS’ and his simple brief was to ‘intercept, locate and close down illicit wireless stations operated by enemy spies in Great Britain.' As a security precaution, RSS was given the cover designation of ‘MI8c’.
The S.S. Arabic was the first White Star Liner passenger ship to be sunk during WWI, having served the Liverpool to New York and Liverpool to Boston routes. On 19 August 1915, the German submarine U-24 torpedoed Arabic, and the ship sank in 9 minutes. 44 lives were lost with 390 survivors. American reaction to the Arabic sinking led to Germany suspending unrestricted submarine warfare until 1917. Miss Dorothy Kelk was just 21 years old, but rejected the old adage of ‘women and children first to the lifeboats’, when she gave up her position in one to another passenger. This is her story.
Every time a WWII documentary featuring aircraft is screened on television, we are treated to frighteningly real and understandably shaky footage of tracers, bomb runs and dogfights. Spare a thought for the untrained cameramen who held nothing other than a 35mm camera for protection. The RAF hand-picked a number of men and women to form the ‘Film Production Unit’ based at Pinewood Studios. Like wartime correspondents in the modern age after him, Flying Officer Sidney Woodcock sacrificed his life for the screening of his Newsreels. The following extracts are taken from an original detailed letter written by the Air Ministry Director of Public Relations to Sidney’s widow, Violet, explaining what contribution Sidney’s life at Pinewood Studios made to the Allied victory.
What’s it like, waiting to fly?
It was pretty cold. I had put on the whole rigmarole: flying suit, fleece-lined boots, sweater, parachute harness and Mae Mest. Things were very quiet. There was no sensation of being part of an air armada waiting to take off. It was 1640 hrs when the Pilot said: “Well, better be getting in.” The engines at 1650 hrs and the pilot started going through the checks with the engineer. I stood behind them in the gangway where the bomb aimer, John Bell, was reclining.
On the eve of D-Day, many men of the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers requested to see their parents prior to sailing, envisaging it could be for the last time. In contrast, their Commanding Officer threatened deserters with hanging during his final fire-eating speech, rousing them to display courage befitting the only Welsh unit taking part.
“Without Colonels Cyril Wilson and John Bassett there would be no Arab Revolt. Without them there would be no call for Lowell Thomas to promote T.E. Lawrence as a hero, no iconic 1960s, film, and libraries around the world would have space for other subjects. Wilson and Bassett shored up the revolt when collapse was a serious threat. Their lost stories show that the Arab Revolt could not have had its success without their unsung interventions.”
William Yates flew in Sunderland Flying Boats, hunting submarines and evacuating 'VIPs' from secret locations. His remarkable story starts right at the outset of WWII war in 1939 and peaks with the daring rescue from Tivot Bay on the day the Yugoslav Army surrendered. His Sunderland then fatefully engaged an Italian submarine off Tobruk and was shot down with eight of his colleagues killed. He was one of five men fished out of the water and made POW at Sulmona. In 1943 he led an escape, only to be recaptured by the Germans. This is his account of the sea/air evacuation mission at Tivot Bay:
The previous August had seen the bombing of Inglis Barracks, Mill Hill, London by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. One soldier had been killed and a further ten were wounded. It was the I.R.A.’s first successful bomb attack on the British mainland since 1984 and the attempt on Margaret Thatcher’s life at the Brighton hotel Conservative Party Conference, killing 5 and wounding 30. 1989 would be the year that saw two further barracks attacks take place. The first to be targeted was Clive Barracks, Tern Hill; then the home of the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment.
H.M.S. E14 was an early British submarine launched into the water in 1914. Few could have foreseen the fortunes and disasters set for those thirty men on board. By sinking ships ten times its size in the sea of Marmora, it would return to friendly shores amidst a fanfare, with the Victoria Cross bestowed upon its Captain and gallantry medals for all the crew. The next Captain would be awarded the same accolade, but there would be no chest to pin it on – for his last words were 'We are in the hands of God' as he piloted the stricken and surfaced submarine under a hail of shell fire.
On the night of the legendary mission, “O for Orange" was the last of the Lancaster Bombers to take off from Scampton, captained by Bill Townsend. Airborne at exactly ten minutes past midnight the aircraft climbed from the runway, and, weighed down by Barnes-Wallis’ incredible invention, Chalmers reckoned she brushed through the airfield boundary hedge like a steeplechaser.
As the crew headed across Holland and Germany at extremely low level, Chalmers observed the Lancaster's progress from the dome on top of the fuselage. He was conscious that he stood ‘watching history from the astrodome, although everything happened so quickly at 100 feet that incidents came and went almost before the mind could appreciate them’. Les Munro’s “W for Willie” had already been forced to turn back for base after being severely damaged by flak and Rice’s “H for Harry” also returned after flying so low that it clipped the sea, losing the bouncing bomb into the water.
Bhawal was a huge estate in Bengal owned by three brothers known as kumars, princes. The second brother, Ramendra Narayan Roy was 25 years old and indulged in his pastimes of hunting and womanising to the point where he had many near scrapes with Bengal tigers and had contracted syphilis. The kumar left for rest and recouperation in Darjeeling on 18 Apr 1909, accompanied by his wife and a handful of servants. He was treated by an English doctor and skilled physician, John Telfer Calvert, who was of military stock and had risen to the rank of Colonel in the Indian Medical Service. However, the kumar's health deteriorated suddenly and a telegram was sent to summon his brothers and royal family: "Kumar seriously ill. Frequent watery motion with blood. Come sharp."
The Augsburg raid was one of the most daring in Bomber Command history, second in reputation and renown only to the Dambusters. It may have had a higher degree of difficulty than the dams raid, particularly given that the low level sortie was undertaken in broad daylight. 44 Squadron had been given a Christmas present on 24 Dec 1941: the new Avro Lancaster was delivered, with long-range Rolls Royce Merlin engines and high bomb-load capabilities. Bomber Command devised a plan that the new Lancaster could cross the English Channel at a weak point and penetrate deep inland towards a target. Operation Margin was devised to attack the MAN Diesel Factory at Augsburg, Bavaria; a major producer of diesel engines for German U-boats. 6 aircraft were provided from both 44 Squadron and 97 Squadron to fly in ‘vic’ formations led by Sqn. Ldr. John Nettleton and John Sherwood, respectively.
"Men have sailed the seas for so many years and have there done such amazing things in the face of danger, difficulty and death, that no one tale of heroism exists which cannot be equalled by at least scores of others. But since behaviour of bodies of untried men under trying circumstances is always interesting, I am trying to tell again the old story of the Sarah Sands, as an example of long-drawn-out and undefeatable courage and cool-headedness." –Rudyard Kipling
On Halloween 1944, British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services put into action the daring Danish raid on the Gestapo HQ at Aarhus University. They had discovered that the Gestapo were planning to execute, after trial, members of the Danish Resistance and needed to act swiftly to liberate a number of captured resistance fighters. The Gestapo HQ was flanked on both sides by civilian hospitals, so the master of the precision attack, the de Havilland Mosquito, was selected to hit the target at low-level. “Destroy the building – and the incriminating documents with it” were the order of the attacking force. It was reported that pilots were hand-picked by Winston Churchill himself, such was the importance of the mission.
Nine-victory Spitfire ace Arthur Allan 'Pinky' Glen flew with 41 Squadron in 1941 before commanding the unit in 1944. He claimed his final two victories flying the Supermarine Spitfire XII when he destroyed a pair of Fw 190s over Northern France on 24 Sep 1943, earning the bar to his D.F.C.
"I Just arrived at Alexandria after the worst experience of my life aboard the RMS “Ivernia”. Everything was going well until the Jan 1st and it will be a New Year’s Day that I shall never forget as long as I live. We were torpedoed about 10 mins to 11am; at that time I was standing on the boat deck just above the place where the torpedo struck and the next thing I knew was that I was hurled to the deck below and before I could recover myself I was pinned to the deck with what seemed to be tons of water, and I can tell you love – I thought it was all over."
It was whilst at St Pierre Divion on the Somme that Pte. Herbert Quey Howard, of the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment, was called to the extremes of duty. Captain Corfield set the wretched scene as the Germans retook the Scwaben Redoubt:
'The Battalion is all to pieces; in your next draft include all possible signallers, Lewis gunners and N.C.O.s'
"Dear Mrs Ellis, I very much regret to confirm the sad news of the death of your son, Pte. William Ellis, RAF Kite Balloon Section. He was admitted two days ago suffering from heart affection. He was not complaining at all and seemed very well and comfortable. This afternoon he complained of a sharp pain at his heart. The Medical Officer saw him and ordered some remedies, but he grew rapidly worse and died quite suddenly at 6pm. He did not suffer long and died very peacefully. He left no message and spoke of no one at home. His personal effects will be sent to you later through the War Office. With very sincere sympathy, Yours truly, H.M. Fergusson. Sister."
The S.Y. Morning was relief ship to Scott's British National Antarctic Expedition. J.D. Morrison was her Chief Engineer, photographer and diarist. Here follows some of Morrison's first-hand accounts of events, taken from his personal log. It offers a very candid take on events at sea and ashore, including his colourful criticism of the state of the Shakleton's Terra Nova, and the bitter anger at the superior attitudes of the Royal Navy to officers of the Merchant Service. It sold at Bonhams for £9500.
Described as ‘one of the more romantic and exciting episodes in the whole of the short-lived history of the Camel Corps’ by officer and author Geoffrey Inchbald, the story of T.E. Lawrence’s attack on the Hejaz Railway combines the sweeping cinematic Panavision of Lawrence of Arabia with the brutal bombastics of War Horse. Only with camels.
The ship's surgeon, James Marr Brydon, was taking a break from tending to yet another bout of scurvy. His crewmates aboard H.M.S. Thunderer were in disarray ever since Nelson's had personally stepped on board – usually an honour, Nelson had personally overseen the trial of Boatswain Keefe, who was charged with embezzling from the stores. Salt meat rations had been reduced for everyone since Plymouth and Acting Captain John Stockham had been so embarrassed, he had begged to be relinquished of the Thunderer and prove himself to Nelson on the Victory.
“The sun finally rose above the trenches; it was a perfect morning – the world bathed in beautiful light, birds singing, no sound or gun or rifle, just a lovely, peaceful summer day – and at my feet the sun shone on a dry pool of blood. A few yards further up the trench, it shone on a dead man, the top of whose head had been shot clean away. The contrast was too dreadful: one seemed to be unreal; the usual world and these unusual, awful things. And yet reality kept coming back as I remembered Colonel Pierce, and Harbord, and Wilson, and Bowen, and Dixon, and Martin, and Cuthbert Stonor, and how many others, who had laid down their lives, as it seemed then, for nothing.” - Reverend Devas, Army Chaplain’s Department.
Freetown, Jan 28th 1955
Anthony Sheriff Keeling arrived in the capital of Sierra Leone, after sailing from Liverpool with his wife, Marjorie. He picked up their luggage in a hurry and kissed her briefly on the cheek.
"Now, make sure you get Manie to lock the security gates when you get in," he instructed.
Lancaster LL828 was flying to Stuttgart on 15 Mar 1944 with a cosmopolitan crew: the pilot was the Australian, Flt. Sgt. P.A. Thomspson, Bomb Aimer “Doc” Hyde from Canada, Rear Gunner “Tommy” Maxwell from Ireland, Navigator G. Stevens originally from Mexico, Mid-Gunner “Taffy” Peake from Wales and Frank Harmsworth and Peter Jezzard from the UK. Bomber Command recorded the plane as being shot down somewhere over Rouen: 'Last heard on W/T at 0141 transmitting "Baling Out". Reports from the crew tell of attacks from night-fighters and from a fix taken of the wireless message it is likely the engagement took place SE of Rouen in France'.
Robert Julian Taylor served as a sledge dog physiologist at Hope Bay in 1954/55. He took part in eight sledge journeys involving 248 days in the field, travelling nearly 2750 miles. Working with Alan Precious and Ron Mottershead, he studied the dogs' diet, work output and breeding, gaining a ground-breaking insight into the dogs' stimuli which was discovered after travelling with them throughout the year.
Somewhere in the darkest vaults of MI9 is a sheaf of wartime documents marked ‘Most Secret’. They might shed light on to the sea bed where the remains of submarine HMS Triumph and her crew have been resting for 75 years. Next year, due to the determination of Gavin Don – a former Royal Navy officer and relative to a Lieutenant on board in 1942 – the quest to find the wreck site of the Triumph will be launched.
On the verge of the Great War, the census marks down the name Mary Lucas of Coulsdon, Surrey. Her status entry is simple and stark: 'WIDOW'. Mary's husband, the late Capt. B.W. Lucas of the old 59th Regiment, would barely recognise the war that was about to be unleashed across Europe and beyond; a war of trenches, mustard gas and flying machines. But before 1914, Mary's house, 'Fairmount' was never a lonely place, as it contained her three young sons who would follow in their father's marching footsteps and serve their country as officers, as leaders of men.
"SIEGE OF MAFEKING ALLEGED RELIEF BY PLUMER! No further message has been received from Colonel Plumer, who, with a column of the Rhodesian Regiment, was heard of some days ago at the Gaberones, 76 miles north of Mafeking, where his troops had arrived in three armoured trains and routed the Boer Patrol there. A report from Transvaal, however, states that Colonel Plumer arrived at Mafeking on the 23rd and accomplished the object of his expedition by relieving the gallant garrison under Colonel Baden-Powell from the siege it has endured since the commencement of war in October last." ~The Age 29 Jan 1900
Captain Woodgate joined the 1st Bn. King's Own in the Le Touquet sector in the winter of 1914, engaged in mining operations. His unit held the part of the Railway Barricade Trench. Woodgate was positioned in a listening gallery which was being extended towards enemy lines when he saw unfamiliar flashes of light in the tunnel.
The little-known intelligence organisation called ‘BRIXMIS’ worked throughout the Cold War years from 1946 to 1990 gathering intelligence in the former Soviet Occupation Zone of East Germany on the threat posed to the West and NATO by the Soviet and East German forces.
There is a Naval Memorial in Plymouth on which is inscribed the name of a Welshman: Able Seaman Ernest Thomas of Trealaw, Glamorgan. His is a tale of gallant acts upon terrible, burning, black Spanish waters, recognised by an honour bestowed by King George VI. For Thomas was a crew member aboard H.M.S. Hunter; a seaman and ship both destined to rest in eternity on the freezing Norweigan seabed near the mouth of the harbour at Narvik.
Major Charles Burrard was a seasoned veteran of the India campaign at the turn of the 20th century, but nothing could have prepared him for the horrors of his battalion's first major action of WWI. During the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers disastrous attack on Pietre at the Battle of Loos on Sep 25th 1915, Lt. Col. Madocks was shot through the head by a sniper and Burrard found himself in command of the Battalion. The following account of the fateful day is taken direct from his War Diary entries:
The term ‘Mystery Ship’ evokes a misty maritime image of the Marie Celeste’s famous flotsam. However, it is term also connected to the First World War, and a tactic devastatingly more real than the dressed-up decoys used in Pirates of the Caribbean.
It was noticed by some shrewd seadog that when German U-boats sank smaller, unescorted merchant ships in the Atlantic, in order to save torpedoes, they would first surface then destroy the vessel with gunfire. In response to this, the Royal Navy started to use Mystery Ships, also called ‘Q-ships’ after their home port of Queenstown, Ireland.