Saturday, 29 December 2012

From Calcutta to Pekin - The Taku Forts [1860]


With 2012 drawing to a wet and windy close, I'm beginning to anticipate some of the walks planned for 2013.  One that I'm particularly looking forward to in March of next year (2013) is an exploration of the Taku Forts near Tianjin in China.This place has a particular significance because my Great, Great Grandfather fought there in 1860 whilst serving with the 67th Hampshire Regiment. Here's his story.


My Great, Great Grandfathers' China medals
Alfred Baker was born in Liphook, Hampshire in 1840 - the son of Henry Baker, a labourer. He married Ellen Sheehan - the daughter of a labourer at Fermoy in the County of Cork, Ireland on 21st December 1861. Alfred and Ellen travelled the length and breadth of the British Empire over the following twenty years during which time they had three children - Mary (my Great Grandmother), another daughter and Alfred Jacob who died aged eight on board ship en route back to the mother country from India.



Alfred joined up in March, 1858 and served a year with the 64th (2nd Staffordshire Regiment) before transferring to the 67th (South Hampshire Regiment). His number was 761.

The photographs on the right show Alfred as a Private, a Corporal (attained April 1867) and then a Sergeant (attained October 1872).

In September 1858 the Regiment embarked for India (from Portsmouth) arriving in Calcutta in December of the same year. The Regiment transferred to Hong Kong and then China for the 2nd China War (1857-1860). Alfred took part in the attack on the Taku Forts on 21st August 1860 (an action which saw four Victoria Crosses awarded to the 67th). Alfred was awarded the China Medal plus clasps for 'Taku Forts' and 'Pekin'. These were subsequently made into brooches and have now been passed into my care through the generosity of my father's cousin, Don Smith (I also have Alfred's 67th Regiment cap badge).

Following the Pekin operation the Regiment spent the period 1860 through to 1865 in actions against the Taeping Rebels. Then from 1865 to 1866 in the Cape Colony and Natal, South Africa. In June 1866 the Regiment went back to Fermoy, Cork, Ireland (where Alfred got married).

In 1868 the Regiment returned to England. The 1871 census shows Alfred living at the Citadel Barracks, Western Heights, Hougham, Dover and living with his wife Ellen, daughter Mary (aged two) and son, Alfred (aged 2 months). This picture shows Mary and her sister. Mary is on the right.

In 1872 the Regiment embarked for Burma (Rangoon - Thayetmyo - Toungoo) and then in 1876 to Madras, India. Two years later the Regiment was ordered to Afghanistan. On reaching Lawrencepore (India) Sergeant Baker was found unfit for further service and in February 1879 when the Regiment left for Kabul, Alfred was left behind. He was formally discharged on 23rd June 1879 after what the archivist for the Royal Hampshire Regiment described as '21 hard years'.


Alfred died at the age of 42 years in 1882, and is buried in Petersfield, Hampshire.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Clevedon Blitz - Night of 4th and 5th Jan 1941

Today the only aircraft sounds I hear above my house are holiday flights banking over the Severn Estuary before heading South towards the sun. However, during the Second World War the sky held a very real danger as German bombers followed the same route travelling in the opposite direction. Between 1st Sept 1940 and 18th May 1943 the town suffered 16 raids - all 'overspill' from attacks on Bristol, Bath and Cardiff.

Pill Box on Wain's Hill, Clevedon
My battlefield walk today was very close to home. I set off on foot on a cold windy morning to investigate some of the WWII connections which can be found in the town of Clevedon, Somerset. The pill box pictured above is on Wain's Hill overlooking a popular local beauty spot called 'Poet's Walk'. Some 100 yards from the pill box, hidden in the bushes, is a derelict ammunition store. Ideally placed to monitor the raiders heading towards Bristol.

On the night of Jan 4th 1941, 103 aircraft from Luftfloffe 1 & 2 raided Avonmouth a few miles to the North of Clevedon. The weather was moderately good at the start of the raid but as it progressed cloud cover obscured the target areas. To overcome the lack of visibility the Heinkel IIIs bombed using guidance systems. As a result most of the 106.5 tonnes of H.E. bombs and 27,722 incendiary devices fell along the shores of the estuary.

Bomb Damage - Facade of the Curzon Cinema
Today, the Curzon Cinema is purported to be the oldest working movie theatre in the country. In the war years it was a popular spot for civilians and military personnel alike. At 21:38 on the 4th Jan 41, a bomb fell at the bottom of Old Church Road, opposite the cinema, killing an off duty soldier and wounding one other, plus two civilians. The casualty was a 22 year old Yorkshireman from Rotherham serving with the 4th Battalion, the East Yorkshire Regiment.

Private William Wraith (Regimental Number 4346197) passed away the next day in Clevedon Hospital and is buried in the Clevedon Town Cemetery.

It later transpired that nine high explosive bombs and six hundred incendiary devices fell in Clevedon that night. Weston-Super-Mare to the South suffered to an even greater extent. Five high explosive bombs and three thousand incendiaries fell on the town, killing 34 people and injuring a further 85.

Of the attacking force, 102 aircraft returned to their bases in Germany and the low countries unharmed. One aircraft crash landed on the return but there were no casualties.

As for the heavy explosive bombs that landed in Clevedon, in addition to the explosion outside of the cinema, two bombs straddled the Council House and several fell in Clapton Lane.

During my walk this morning I thought I'd follow up on one local legend that I'd heard from an elderly neighbour. He had told me that on this fatal night an incendiary bomb had fallen through the roof of Copse Road Chapel. A knock on the door produced a helpful parishioner who showed me the damage to the roof.

Copse Road Chapel, Clevedon
The hole was patched up and a swastika was painted on the repair. A crucifix was subsequently painted over the top. A potent symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Apparently the Chapel would have burnt down had it not been for the presence of off duty soldiers who were billeted in the hall next door.

(My thanks to Rob Campbell and John Penny for providing many of the facts quoted above).

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Siege of Mostar - 1992 & 1993

 The huge tragedy which occurred in the Balkans following the disintegration of Yugoslavia is difficult to comprehend. Having visited the area recently I find myself struggling to understand how ethnic cleansing, genocide and appalling brutality on such an unprecedented scale could have occurred in the heart of Europe in the late 20th century.

The wounds of the conflict are raw and many of the communities involved carry an enduring legacy which on an individual level manifests itself in a range of emotions ranging from unbridled animosity through to optimism about the future.

Pocitelj - on the road from Dubrovnik to Mostar
The story of the siege is in itself complex - it started with Croatian and local Bosniaks defending the town from Federal (or Serbian) forces. Later it became a territorial struggle between a largely Muslim Bosnian force and Croatian formations.

To understand more I hooked up with a local Muslim man called Jakic. Jakic had fought with the Bosnian Army before being airlifted to a German hospital having being shot by sniper whilst trying to lead civilians to safety. We spent a couple of hours walking the areas where the fighting had been most intense - in particular the main front line between the Bosnian Army (ARBiH) and the Croatian Defence Council's forces (HVO).

Standing in 'No Man's Land' looking East
Gutted Building on the Eastern bank of the Neretva
I had thought that the front line was delineated by the Neretva but actually it ran on the Western side following the line of the main street. Once the main bridges had been blown to stop the advance of Serb tanks the old bridge was the only means of crossing the river which runs through a deep gorge which effectively splits the town in two. The lines were just a few metres apart and the bullet ridden buildings are silent testimony to the ferocity of the fighting.

An infamous sniper position
Some areas around Mostar are still covered in deadly landmines and there are a few locations in the City itself which remain dangerous. Nevertheless we did venture into some buildings which were known to be clear. In many instances firing positions and bunkers have been left as they were. The example below is on the East side facing towards the Croatian frontline which was just a few yards away. These lines were static for nine months through 1993.

Sandbagged firing post
It's a sad fact that post war the city is very much divided. Following ethnic cleansing the Muslim population has settled exclusively in the East and the Christians in the West. The towering minarets and church towers (competing for height) are symbolic of the role religion continues to play in this troubled part of the world.

However, not withstanding the divisions that split the population there are reasons to be positive about the future. The most striking example of this is the rebuilt 'old bridge' - a bridge that has a significance that goes way beyond its' primary purpose. The original bridge was destroyed by Croat artillery fire on the 10th November 1993. The restored bridge was opened on the 23rd July 2004.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Army Group North - Supply Lines (1941 - 44)

Some historians argue that during what the Russian's call 'the Great Patriotic War', the Germans never really occupied parts of the Western Soviet Union - rather they held the main conurbations and maintained some control over the transport lines that were so vital to armies in the field.

Relief - 'Partisan's Glory' Memorial, Luga District, Russia
Certainly the supply lines for Army Group North were under constant threat from the many partisan groups operating between Leningrad and Lake Ilmen.

The German 16th Army was the main lynchpin of the Southern flank of Army Group North. With a front line running South along the River Volkhov, around Lake Ilmen and then down to the Demjansk / Cholm area the logistical challenge of supply was a constant area of concern for the German command.

Travelling South from the fortified German headquarters area around Gatchina (to the West of Leningrad) the road to Kiev was the main route of supply for troops stationed in Staraya Russa and beyond. Recently I was sent some excellent photographs taken by an airmen of the 9th Luftwaffe Field Division which show various areas at the Northern end of the supply route.

'Krieg 53 KM'
The scene depicted on the image shown here is typical of the landscape found to the West of Leningrad. The photo was taken near Ceremykino, a small place due South of Oranienbaum (Lomonossow). The captions read "At the Rollbahn Leningrad - Narwa" (left) and "Blasting Operation" (right). 

To the south West of Leningrad in the immediate vicinity of the Luga River valley, the vast Partisan's memorial is located in very similiar surroundings. The memorial which is about 80 km from St Petersburg on the road to Novgorod is truly monumental. It marks the valour of partisans from Leningrad, Pskov and Novgorod and was opened on Victory Day in 1975.


We were travelling down to Staraya Russa and had deliberately avoided the highway that runs directly North from Novgorod on the basis that travel through the rear echelon areas would be more interesting. Turning off the St Peterburg - Kiev highway we travelled down a pot holed minor road which in 1941 -  44 had been a major arterial route.

The partisan threat was brought to life for us when we arrived at the important rail and road crossing at New Osvina on the River Luga. Time had stood still over the last 60 years and we came across a German strongpoint just South of the ruins of 'Old' Osvino.

The destroyed river crossing at Osvino, Luga District
German Positions on the south Bank of the Luga River
Walking this battlefield was a hugely gratifying experience. The river crossing was 'guarded' by mile after mile of gun pits, machine gun posts, trenches and deep bunkers. All untouched and ready to be interpreted. We walked the full length, stopping to appreciate the carefully positioned emplacements which gave a superb field of fire across the surrounding flat lands.

Crossing the new bridge and turning left we soon reached the vicinity of the old supply depot at Peredolskaya where, on the 27th January 1944 the 5th Brigade of the Russian Leningrad Front met up with the 59th Army from the Volkhov Front. A meeting which effectively rendered Leningrad safe from German intrusion. The spot is marked by an impressive memorial surrounded by tank traps retrieved from the river bank.
Memorial at Peredolskaya, Luga District, Russia
The several days loop circuit from Gatchina, South across the Luga to Saraya Russa, down to Demjansk and then back via the Novgorod and the Volkhov highway is one of the most fascinating battlefield tours I've undertaken. There's plenty of opportunity for walks as well!


Thursday, 31 May 2012

Gettysburg connection in Clevedon, England

Ten minutes walk from my home in Somerset, England there is an interesting reference to the Battle of Gettysburg. In the graveyard of St Andrew's church lies the burial plot of the Durbin family. The church is an idyllic location overlooking the Severn estuary in countryside not dissimilar to the field in Pennsylvania, USA where one of the family died on a hot summers day in July, 1863. That person was Fred Durbin who, at the age of 21, had joined the Union Army of the Potomac at a Recruiting Station near the suspension bridge in New York City.

Durbin Gravestone in Clevedon
The large Victorian tombstone at St Andrew's is on the right hand side as you enter the churchyard. The stone marks the burial site of William and Caroline Durbin who died January 21st 1883 and January 14th 1879 respectively. The stone also commemorates their daughter, Caroline Wreford who died June 14th 1863 aged 10. Fred Durbin, eldest son of William and Caroline is 'affectionately remembered'.

Earlier this month I spent a few days with friends walking the civil war battlefields of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Gettysburg was the first stop on our tour so we braved the driving rain to traverse the 'fish-hook' shaped Federal front lines looking for the spot where Fred Durbin met his untimely death.

The Battle of Gettysburg - Panorama
Fred Durbin served with the 78th New York Regiment (known as the Cameron Highlanders) and by the time of Gettysburg he had attained the rank of Sergeant. Fred was killed on the 2nd July (the second day of the battle). The 78th had moved into the line at Culp's Hill on the morning of that day. The deployment started quietly. Later Battery K, 5th US Artillery placed five guns near the positions occupied by the 78th and men of the Regiment helped with supply. In this first local action of the day the 78th lost one killed and one wounded.

Union artillery piece on Culp's Hill, Gettysburg
Later in the day Colonel Hammerstein was ordered to take his men forward in support of skirmishers on the forward slope of Culp's Hill. The troops were in place just in time to receive an attack from Johnson's Confederate Division at Rock Creek. 

Memorial to the 78th and 102nd New York Regiments
The 78th resisted stubbornly on the skirmish line and toward evening time completed a fighting withdrawal back to the breastworks where the rest of the Brigade was entrenched. The 78th held the line adjacent to the 102nd New York Regiment. After a fierce firefight the Confederates withdrew though they subsequently attacked in force the following morning. By the time the 78th came out of the line they had lost 30 (killed and wounded) out of a roster of 198 men. Fred Durbin was one of those killed on the morning of the 3rd.

Gettysburg National Cemetery
Like many of his fallen comrades of the 78th and 102nd, Fred Durbin was originally buried in Henry Spangler's field, near the woods behind Culp's Hill.

Latterly Durbin was re-interred in the vast National Cemetery at Gettysburg. (New York Plot, Section F, Site no. 10).

On the the 19th November 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous 'Gettysburg Address' at the cemetery on the day that the site was formally dedicated.

The commemorative stone back in Durbin's home town of Clevedon reads 'In affectionate remembrance of Frederick, eldest and much beloved son of the above (He fell in battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, America) July 3rd 1863 aged 22 years'.

Fred Durbin referenced at St Andrew's Church, Clevedon
I will write about the rest of the trip later. We covered a lot of ground. Washington, Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Drewery's Bluff, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Richmond, City Point. Petersburg and Five Forks. To see my photographs from the trip click here.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Siege of Dunottar Castle, Scotland (1651)

A recent business trip to Aberdeen, Scotland produced an unexpected bonus when a client took me out to see the spectacular Dunnottar Castle which is about thirty minutes drive from the 'granite city'. The site is spectacular. The castle sits on the flat top of a rocky outcrop which can only be reached by traversing a single track narrow path or by boat. The cliffs surrounding the castle are sheer vertical inclines and the way up to the castle is secured by a single entrance way set into the rock itself.

Dunnottar Castle
Oliver Cromwell's army laid siege to the castle for eight long months in 1651. The broken parapets which are evident today, are the result of the damage inflicted by the new model army's siege guns. The siege was unsuccessful but as a precaution, the Scottish Crown Jewels which were hidden in the castle, were smuggled out by the wife of the minister (Reverend Grainger) at nearby Kinnef Kirk church. Legend has it that these precious objects were lowered to Mrs Grainger who was waiting on the beach to the South of the outcrop.

Defences at the Gate
There had been a number of earlier sieges at this site. The first couple when Dunottar was known for its' status as a Pictish fortress. These sieges occurred in 693 AD and 934 AD respectively.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence the castle was garrisoned by troops carrying the flag of Edward 1st of England. This after Edward had crushed the forces of John Balliol, King of the Scots.

In 1297 (a year later) William Wallace and his rebel army attacked and took Dunottar. The English garrison was totally destroyed - many in the wooden buildings where they had taken shelter.

The Scottish poet, Blind Harry, wrote an account of this terrible time in his epic poem 'Wallace'. The words, which are shown below,  make chilling reading.

Therefore a fire was brought speedily:
Which burnt the church, and all those South’ron boys:
Out o’er the rock the rest rush’d great noise;
Some hung on craigs, and loath were to die.
Some lap, some fell, some flutter’d in the sea;
And perish’d all, not one remain’d alive.

The bay to the Nouth of Dunottar Castle
Now, the castle is a peaceful place. Though privately owned, the ruins are accessible at set times. On the occasion of my visit the door was firmly locked. The walk along the causeway and around the foot of the mighty rock on which the castle stands, served to show what a formidable fortification this would have been.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Operation Husky, Sicily (1943)

Sicily is a beautiful place at this time of year. The weather is generally good, the fields are a riot of spring colours and the historic sites are not heaving with tourists. My wife and I have just come back from a week on the island. A week that was full of pleasures and interest - one aspect being the opportunity to visit sites associated with the Allied invasion in July 1943.

82nd Airborne Memorial
We spent a few days in the fantastically well preserved medieval town of Modica before moving up to Taormina in the shadow of the awesome Mount Etna. These places have the added advantage of being close to the main 'Operation Husky' battlefields.

The allied armies came ashore in the South East of the island. The British and Canadians on the right in the vicinity of the Pachino Peninsular and the Americans on the left primarily through the flatlands around Gela and Scoglitti.

Our first stop was at the Point Dirillo where, on the 11th July, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (82nd Airborne) under Colonel James M. Gavin fought a series of actions in the Acate Valley and the Biazza Ridge to support the American beach assaults which had happened the previous day.

The 82nd Airborne memorial (above) is located at the strategically important Point Dirillo pass which lies between the two primary American beachheads. Above the monument the Italian defences are easily explorable. There are a couple strongpoints linked by a system of trenches on two levels.

Point Dirillo, Sicily
We visited the beach at Scoglitti where the US 45th Infantry Division came ashore - a huge expanse of flat sand giving easy access to the plain beyond.

Somewhat to the North of the American landing beaches the British 5th Division landed at Cassible and immediately struck out towards Syracuse via the Ponte Grande where a force of British Paratroopers Had been badly battered by a strong Italian counter attack on the morning of the 10th July. The bridge was forced by the Bren Gun Carriers of 5th Division and Syracuse fell to the Allies on the evening of the first day. The 926 burials at the CWGC cemetery at Syracuse bears silent testimony to the intensity of the fighting.

Commonwealth War Graves  at Syracuse

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Brean Down Fort (1870 - 1945)

One of my favourite battlefield walks is just a short drive from my home in Somerset, England. Brean Down is a spectacular rocky outcrop that juts out into the Severn Estuary. On a clear day and after a steep climb, it is possible to see the Black Mountains in Wales, the North Devon coast, the Somerset Levels and the urban sprawl of Weston Super Mare. It is a beautiful place - devoid of cars and abundant in wildlife. It also has a fascinating military history. In particular Brean Down Fort at the tip of the peninsular.

Brean Down Fort with 1941 hardstanding in the foreground
The Fort was built in the 1860s - part of a grand scheme of defences devised to see off the threat of a French invasion. Such fortifications have since become known as Palmerston's Follies on account of the fact that they became obsolete within just a few years of being built as a result of large scale improvements in naval gunnery. Brean Down Fort was home to three 7 inch rifled muzzle loading guns. Working with similiar batteries on the Welsh coast and on the islands of Steep & Flat Holm the fort served to protect the city of Bristol from raiders navigating up the Severn Estuary. The fort was destroyed in 1900 by a rogue artilleryman who discharged his weapon down the ventilation shaft leading to No. 3 magazine. The site was rendered unusable and remained out of use until WW2.