Sunday, 8 May 2022

Victory Day - 9th May - Reflections from a Brit

One of the saddest consequences of Putin's war in Ukraine is the enmity that is building between erstwhile friends and allies. On the 9th May, as the Victory Day parades that will take place in virtually every Russian city and town unfold, the false narrative which has been so assiduously propagated by unscrupulous politicians and media commentators will manifest itself in overt displays of anti-Western sentiment.

Twenty years ago today (9th May 2002) I attended the Victory Day parade in the city of Volgograd. In the Winter of 1942 / 43 the city, then known as Stalingrad, had been reduced to ashes in an encirclement battle which ended in the comprehensive defeat of an entire German Army. A great many veterans were still alive and as they marched from Victory Square down to the shores of the River Volga, local children pressed bunches of flowers into their arms. Joining hundreds of thousands of jubilant people making their way up the highest point in the city, the Mamayev Kurgan, was an incredibly moving experience. At the top, in the shadow of the awe inspiring 'Motherland' statue veterans basked in the atmosphere of joy and adulation - happy to tell their stories to curious locals.

Red Army Veterans - Rossoschka - 9 May 2002

Later that day I sat near the newly constructed German cemetery at Rossoshka with a couple of women who had fought with the Red Army. Whilst sipping vodka, I asked them to write down their thoughts in my notebook. Polina Ivanovna Batayeva, who had experienced the battle in the city centre wrote:

The people of Russia and England have always been friends. Thank-you to the British for their help in rebuilding our home city of Stalingrad.

Polina Fyodorovna Yatsenko (previouly Chekhlova), who had driven trucks from Tehran to the eastern bank of the Volga in the war years, wrote:

I had the great honour of receiving a gift from Her Majesty the Queen during the Great Patriotic War 1941-45. Heartfelt thanks to the British nation for their help in the struggle against fascism. We remember everything - the clothes, medicine and food. You saved us in a difficult time. We wish you health, happiness, peace and success. We bow our greying heads to her majesty, may her memory live for ever.

Over the last two decades I have attended eight Victory Day parades in as many different towns and cities, including one in Sevastopol, Ukraine. Over that period much has changed, and I fear that the biggest transformation of all will come this year when a new generation will speak for the veterans, delivering a message that many of them would have been saddened by. The two friends whom I spent time with on the Soldier's Field at Rossoshka would certainly not have recognised the narrative that Putin and his cronies have inculcated into the minds of many Russian people.

Leningrad Siege Survivors - 9th May 2006

Perhaps as many as 24 million lives were lost in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Four in every five German soldiers killed in combat, died on the Eastern Front. No wonder then, that the legacy of the conflict should still be alive. The city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) endured a 900 day siege during which tens of thousands of civilians died of hunger and cold in an episode that shames the civilised world. Victory Day in St Petersburg has a special poignancy and I will never forget the sight and sound of siege survivors marching with linked arms - singing patriotic songs, on the Nevsky Prospect. Video clip here. Such stoicism in the face of evil.

Russia & Ukraine - Crimea - 9th May 2004

A couple of years later I attended the Victory Day celebrations in Sevastopol, Crimea. Volgograd had offered up a day of celebration, St Petersburg was a veneration of the siege survivors but in Sevastopol the day was a purely military affair. I stood on the empty streets watching the rehearsal on the 8th May and it was quite surreal seeing large formations of sailors and marines marching under Russian and Ukrainian flags. Somehow more impressive than the actual event the following day.

There will be no blue and yellow flags on Grafskaya Wharf this year.

Veterans - Sevastopol - 9th May 2004

Now the veterans are fewer and less mobile. They no longer join the parade, but sit on podiums awaiting the crowds that flow into the main thoroughfares and city squares. In May 2016 I was able to experience two very different Victory Day parades in the Kursk region. The first was in the small town of Bolkhov and the second in the nearby major city of Orel. The contrast was striking.

In Bolkhov, it seems that the whole town had turned out. What seemed like the entire population paraded down the main street before congregating in front of the main Government building to pay respects to the veterans and listen to patriotic speeches from local politicians. Unlike Victory Parades I'd seen elsewhere virtually all of the young people were in uniformed groups - reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Komsomol organisation.

Bolkhov - Parade - 9th May 2016

Bolkhov - Veterans - 9th May 2016

The scenes in Orel were truly awe inspiring. The public buildings were draped in huge images of the Great Patriotic War and the streets were thronged with excited onlookers. Myself and a small group of friends stood on the main street for three or four hours watching a constant stream of people walking by and singing. The vast majority were carrying pictures of relatives who served in the Great patriotic War and many children were dressed in 1940s era uniforms. Video clip Orel. A truly monumental demonstration of national pride and patriotism.

Orel - The Big Parade - 9th May 2016

So, what are my main impressions? Firstly, the difference between the way in which the Russian people mark the end of the Second World War and the way we, in Britain, do so. For the Russians, it is a celebration of victory and a day to honour those who survived. For us, in the west, the annual 11th November Remembrance Day is a sombre commemoration of those who were lost. Secondly, the way that Victory Day events have changed over the years - as the veterans have faded away so pride in family members who have served has come to the fore (see below).

Orel - Four Generations - 9th May 2016

 Finally - this year - the usurping of history to fit a narrative that will do nothing but disrespect those who fought as allies to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War.  

Thursday, 7 April 2022

The Woodspring Bay Wrecks (1944)

 At low tide two Second World War era shipwrecks are visible in Woodspring Bay, to the west of the village of Kingston Seymour. Indeed they are visible for walkers covering my Clevedon Military History trail which can be accessed here. Although the coast is not easily accessed in direct proximity to the wrecks, I had the pleasure of spending a day with three local farmers who share my passion for history and were an encyclopedia of knowledge about the impact of the war on this fascinating spot on the North Somerset coast.

HMS Fernwood and HMS Staghound

Apparently it is possible to walk out to the wrecks on a very low tide, if you have the local knowledge. Having witnessed the RNLI rescuing people from the mudflats I opted for a shoreside view through binoculars. However, one of my companions, a third generation Kingston Seymour farmer, was able to share photographs and observations from trips he had made in the past.

The picture above, shows the two ships at low tide. They are resting on the side of a mudbank (Langford Grounds) with a flow of shallow water behind. The larger of the two ships, HMS Fernwood is on the left with her two boilers clearly visible, even from the shore. According the Historic England archive, HMS Fernwood, the larger of the two vessels at 1,892 tons, was a British collier vessel which from the outbreak of the Second World War was used as a coal storage hulk - permanently moored midstream at Dartmouth.

Fernwood's boilers - Photo by Ken Kingcott

At 11:30am on 18th September 1942, the Fernwood was sunk, with 700 tons of coal aboard, at its Dartmouth moorings during a Luftwaffe attack. Sadly one of the 20 man crew was killed. John Emlyn Evans a 27 year seaman from Barry in Glamorgan is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. At the time of the loss, she was coaling a minesweeper aboard which, four more seaman were killed. The Fernwood was subsequently salvaged and the forward section of the ship was towed to its current location in 1944 where it was filled with ballast and used for gunnery practise by the military gunnery range at nearby St Thomas's Head.

Staghound with Fernwood (behind) - Ken Kingcott

HMS Staghound is located 140 metres away from Fernwood. Historic England research records show that she was destroyed off Torquay on 27th March 1942 without loss of life. Staghound was a 468 ton steamer originally requisitioned as a distilling ship (for fresh water) and was used as a block ship. After the attack she was raised and berthed alongside Haldon Pier before being towed to her current location on Langford Grounds (probably in 1944 as per Fernwood). Like the Fernwood, she was used for gunnery practice by the personnel at the St Thomas's Head special Weapons establishment.

Ken Kingcott on board HMS Staghound

Ken Kingcott has visited the site a number of times, and being a boat owner himself, has spent time identifying the remaining parts of both ships. I'd previously heard that the ships had been filled with concrete for ballast but Ken has concluded that both hulks are full of building rubble, probably from the Bristol Blitz. It is known that debris from Bristol was transported to various places including New York where it was used in the construction of the famous East River Drive.

For my blog about the Military Gunnery Range at St Thomas's Head click here.

Friday, 21 January 2022

The First Arnhem Casualties (1944)

In November 2021 I was invited by the Royal British Legion to attend a ceremony of remembrance at the Commonwealth War Graves plot in Milton Cemetery, Weston-super-Mare. The particular focus of this event, were twenty three men who had been killed when their Horsa glider broke apart in mid-air over the village of Paulton near Bristol. On Sunday, 17 September 1944 at 10:25, a Short Stirling of 299 Squadron had taken off from RAF Keevil in Wiltshire, towing Horsa Glider RJ113. The entire complement of the glider was lost when the glider disintegrated - twenty one men of 1 Platoon, 9th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers and two crew from the Glider Pilot Regiment. 

Wreaths were laid on behalf of The Volunteer Training Development Team at Regional Command, The Bristol Royal Engineers Association, The Glider Pilot Regiment Society, The Royal British Legion and The Double Hills Arnhem Commemoration Committee. Fittingly, a final wreath was laid on behalf of Mrs Valerie Austin, daughter of Sapper John Fernyhough - one of the casualties. After the Collect of The Army Air Corps and the Collect of The Royal Engineers, the padre asked those present to remember with thanksgiving all those who have died on operational service, especially the 23 soldiers who died aboard glider RJ113, the first casualties of Operation Market Garden. The customary two minutes silence was observed and flags were paraded.

Whilst researching his book 'Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle', Martin Middlebrook tracked down the tail gunner of the 299 Squadron Stirling that was towing the glider in question. Sergeant Wally Simpson's eye-witness account does not make comfortable reading. 

I was watching the Horsa trailing behind when suddenly, the glider just seemed to part in the middle; it looked as if the tail portion parted from the front. Horrified, I shouted to the skipper, "my God, the glider is coming apart". As the tail section of the glider fell earthwards, its front section was still in tow with the Stirling and falling like a rock to earth. As it fell, the tow rope gave way and fell with the glider still attached to it. Had the tow rope not broken when it did, I shudder to think what might have been.

The pictures below show a Horsa under tow by an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle during the earlier D-Day campaign. Photo credits: Jonathan Ware.

After the incident the Stirling tow aircraft returned to RAF Keeble. The crash site had been marked and the crew of the bomber resolved to travel back to Somerset by jeep and find their lost comrades. Simpson remembered what he and his skipper found.

We left the formation and gradually lost height and turned back to locate the wreckage. Noting the spot, we reurned to Keevil and then drove by jeep to the crash location. I described it at the time as being like a matchbox that had been stepped on. The bodies of the men had remained inside. I had no way of estimating how many dead there were. There were no survivors.

Apparently the other half of the RE platoon was flying a glider just below and watched, with understandable horror, the wreckage floating downwards. The tail fell in a roadway and the fuselage section fell in a field on a feature known locally as Double Hills. The cause of the accident was never established. 

One can get a sense of what the interior of a Horsa was like by visiting the example in the Cobbaton Military Vehicle Collection in Devon. The replica shown in the image above was built for the film A Bridge to Far.

A couple of months after the ceremony in Weston-super-Mare I took a trip out to the crash site which is a short walk out of the village of Paulton in the Mendip Hills. The spot is marked by a rather impressive memorial which lists the names of those who were killed. A plaque informs the visitor that the memorial was unveiled - very appropriately - by the commander of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, Major General R.E. Urquhart CB. DSO. on the 23rd September 1979. 

My photo Jan 2022
My photo - Jan 2022

Earlier photo - Undated

The memorial is clearly looked after. Indeed some of the names of those who have been involved in its upkeep are recorded on the site. The memorial was flanked by two striking sculptures but both are gone (presumed stolen) - as shown in the second undated photo. A plaque records the one on the right has having been a sapper of the 9th Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers. Created and donated by SPR Roy Cleeves 2008.