Sunday 30 June 2024

The Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746)

Sixty years ago a visit to the Culloden battlefield would have meant following forest trails and trying to make sense of the seemingly random placement of inscribed boulders marking the mass burials of the clansmen killed during what was effectively, the final major battle involving regular troops on British soil. Venturing further through the trees, visitors would pause to admire a large memorial cairn built on the part of the battlefield where the dead lay the thickest. Both the cairn and the markers were laid in 1881 some 135 years after the battle had been fought. Happily, the trees were cleared in 1963, revealing a windswept moor virtually unchanged from that fateful day, 16th April 1746, when the Stuart cause came to an end in just an hour or so of bloody fighting.

The Culloden Cairn on Drumossie Moor

I had been told that the battlefield at Culloden is a moody atmospheric place where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the skirl of the bagpipes on the wind. Having driven up from Stirling, I was somewhat disappointed to find the visitor centre car park packed out with cars and coaches. It would seem that I would need to join the tourist throng and work my imagination a little harder than normal. Happily though, the visitors were all in the cafe, shop and exhibition space so as I ventured on to the moor, I found myself alone in a spectacularly evocative landscape. The start lines for both the Jacobite Army and Cumberland's troops are marked out with flags. To the south, blue flags for the former and to the north, red flags for the latter. I decided to walk the length of both and then explore the area in between where the now exposed 1881 cairn stands as an orientation point.

The Jacobite line and trail

Before I visited, I had read John Prebble's excellent book 'Culloden' (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1961). The Jacobite Army had reason to be optimistic despite the serried ranks of infantry and fearsome artillery layed out in front of them. The Highland Charge had proved to be highly effective in previous times, including just a year before at the Battle Of Falkirk. The clansmen would rush the opposing troops, absorbing the first volley of the defenders before crashing into the opposing lines and routing the remaining riflemen. It took a brave man to stand his ground in the face of such an onslaught. At Culloden, broken logistics had left the clansmen hungry and a failed night attack on Cumberland's Army in nearby Nairn had been aborted leaving Charles Stuart's troops frustrated and keen to 'finish the job'. 

The King's line and trail

Battlefield map 

In walking the battlefield, the reasons for the Jacobite failure are very evident. Firstly the opposing lines are not equidistant to each other. As can be seen from the map above the lines diverge on the east to west axis. The clansmen on the left would have a lot further to run than those on the right. The paths along the lines were dry when I visited but as I walked the line of attack conditions changed. Within a few yards, the ground surface changed to a watery quasi-swamp - quite difficult to reverse at speed. Not only would the clansmen on the left have further to charge but the ground would also be more difficult than where the lines were at their closest. History records that Stuart did not secure his right flank, and upon walking the ground it is easy to see how a flanking attack could have been prosecuted without much warning given the cover which would have been provided by the walls of the Leanach Enclosure (see map above).

Stone marking the start point of the Fraser Clan

Marker - Fraser burial pit

Following the lines, beneath each flag there is an inscribed slab recording the name of the unit that was deployed in that spot. By walking both sides, it is possible to see exactly where the various regiments and clans started the battle. From the Jacobite line I picked my way across the sodden ground towards the memorial cairn and came across the spot where the Frasers met their denouement - marked by an inscribed boulder. The vicious hand to hand fighting that produced the most casualties took place in the very centre of the battlefield. It is here that the ghosts of the highlanders linger profusely, at least that's how it seemed to me as I stood on this profoundly moving memorial site - the topography as it was in 1746. Pulling myself together I walked back to the superb visitor centre before heading off to explore other sites associated with the '45.

The ruins of Ruthven Barracks

A few miles to the south, lies Ruthven Barracks, one of four garrisons built under the orders of the Hanoverian government following the earlier Jacobite rising of 1715. The strongpoint served to defend three military roads built by Major-General Wade to Inverness, Perth and Fort Augustus. Prior to Culloden, in August 1745, twelve redcoats under the command of a Sergeant, had repelled an attack by 200 Jacobite highlanders. The garrison fell to the Jacobites in February 1746 and after Culloden remnants of the defeated Jacobite Army returned to Ruthven where they received their final instruction from Prince Charles Edward Stuart. 'Let every man seek his own safety in the best way he can'. Many did not survive the cruel retribution which followed on from Cumberland's decisive victory.

Monument to the Young Pretender at Glenfinnan

It had all seemed so different back in the summer of 1745 when Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender) returned from France to claim the crown. Encouraged by his first benefactor, Donald Cameron of Lochiel, on the 16th August 1745 Charles raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. Charles claimed the British throne in the name of his father, James Francis Edward Stuart - exiled after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Nowadays the spot is marked by a striking column built by a member of the Campbell Clan in 1815 - the figure of a highlander placed on top twenty years later. The setting is truly spectacular - befitting the drama, romance and tragedy that it represents.

Friday 14 June 2024

Clevedon's Pathfinder (1943)

Yesterday, I was privileged to spend time with 103 year old RAF Bomber Command veteran Arthur Spencer, who lives just a few hundred metres from my home. Brought up in Southampton, where his father - a veteran of the Great War - supplemented his disability pension by working as a postman, Arthur joined the RAF as soon as he left school in 1940 aged 19 years. I asked him why he had joined up, and his answer couldn't have been clearer.

There was a madman marching his armies all over Europe and something needed to be done to stop him.

Apparently so many young men had applied to join the Royal Air Force in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, that there was a delay in the start of Arthur's training. The gap was filled through service as an Air Raid Precautions Warden (ARP) in his home town. At that point Southampton hadn't experienced what Arthur describes as 'the big raids' but it had been hit quite hard.

A flyer for Arthur Spencer's autobiography

In November 1940 Arthur put on a blue RAF uniform for the first time, and started on an accelerated training schedule that was to take him to various locations around the UK and to North America. Along with fellow cadets he spent time manning air defences at RAF Watton in Norfolk in between 8 week training courses which had been collapsed down to 5 weeks in order to feed the demand for fully trained flyers more quickly. After a difficult journey to Halifax in Canada via Iceland Arthur trained on Stearman PT-13s down at Lakeland in Florida before progressing to monoplanes. After being 'washed out' in Florida, Arthur trained as a Navigator back in Canada and subsequently returned to the UK where he completed advanced training, was allocated to Bomber Command and underwent 'conversion' to Lancasters at RAF Swinderby. In December 1942 Arthur was allocated to 97 Squadron based at RAF Woodhall Spa (coincidentally the town where I grew up, indeed my first job was as a waiter at the Petwood Hotel which served as the Officer's Mess during the war years).

One of the buildings which still stands at RAF Woodhall Spa

After teaming up with his new crew, which included pilot Jimmy Mullen, Arthur begun his operational career at the start of the new year (Sadly, Jimmy was killed on active service during his third Tour of Operations and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial). On Arthur's second operation over Dusseldorf in January 1943, the reality of war was writ large.
By the time we got to the target, the navigator's job was done. We would sit behind the pilot in a space blacked out with dividers and curtains so the route could be plotted in decent light. After my job was done, I pushed the curtain back and climbed through to the pilot. I was amazed to see the sky illuminated with searchlights and flak. I thought to myself 'can we really fly through that!'. I was scared at the time, but we all got used to it.

 After about 20 Operations from Woodhall Spa, 97 Squadron was chosen to join the Pathfinder Force. 3 crews were allocated to 617 Squadron (The Dambusters), several were stood down, and the rest of the men were posted with 97 Squadron to RAF Bourn where they undertook new training on the use of more sophisticated radar and bomb aiming. Their job would be to light up and mark targets. The former by using Target Indicators which were flares that ignited at 3,000 feet.

Avro Lancaster at RIAT in 2014

In all Arthur would complete two Tours, one of 30 Operations and One of 15. just under half of these were with the Pathfinders. Many of the Operations that Arthur was involved with, are recounted in his book. Having visited Peenemunde in Germany a few years ago, I was particularly interested in hearing about Operation Hydra (17/18 August 1943). Peenemunde, near Rugen Island on the Baltic Coast was a special weapons establishment where V1 and V2 rockets were being developed under a cloak of secrecy.

At the briefing we were told that a new type of radar was being developed at Peenemunde. We were to hit the target in the following sequence: The living quarters of the scientists, the development works and the factory. We were also warned about a nearby Polish PoW Camp. It was the first raid to be conducted with a Master of Ceremonies (A Master Bomber who would oversee the target marking in real time). We were told that if we weren't successful, then we would need to go every night until it was!

 Eight mosquitoes were sent over Berlin to mark targets as a decoy, so as to keep the German night fighters busy. It worked, we got back safely. However, once the Luftwaffe knew was happening the night fighters tracked north and 40 Lancs were lost in subsequent waves. We did see one shot down 20 miles or so away over Flensburg, They must have gone off course and we watched as the aircraft was 'coned' by searchlight beams.

Peenemunde - now a 'dark' tourist attraction

My Aunt Joan & Friends - V1 Ramp (1948)

Another memorable Operation was the bombing of Frederikshaven which was so far into Axis territory that the Lancasters flew on and landed in North Africa. On the way back to their home base at Bourn the Lancs dropped bombs on the Italian naval base at La Spezia. Arthur recalls the Lancaster pilots competing to get back to their bacon and egg breakfast at Bourn, with some encouragement from the CO.

I didn't want to outstay my welcome, so I will wait for the book to hear more, but to complete the wartime story, Arthur unsurprisingly turned down the opportunity to fly a third Tour and moved down to Foggia in Southern Italy as an instructor. Following the war he settled down to civilian life with his wife of 79 years Eva, and two daughters. Arthur worked for BOAC for a while before undertaking a successful career in education. 

Details of Flight Lieutenant Arthur Spencer's book can be found here: A Pathfinder in the Peenemunde Raid

An account of my visit to Peenemunde is here: A Visit to Peenemunde

My portfolio of photos taken at the old RAF Woodhall Spa airfield in 2007 here: RAF Woodhall Spa