Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Campaign to restore Victorian soldier's reputation

Another item from the BBC News today:

One of the most celebrated soldiers of the Victorian era is to be commemorated in his Highlands home town of Dingwall more than 100 years after he died.

Maj Gen Sir Hector MacDonald was a household name.

But campaigners say a scandal surrounding his death led to his true place in history being ignored.

Nicknamed Fighting Mac, he was the son of a Ross-shire crofter but rose from the ranks as a teenage soldier to become a senior officer.

He was regarded by his peers to be a brilliant military strategist.

Some of his techniques are still taught at the British Army's Sandhurst military academy today.

He led his men from the front and after conspicuous bravery in the Afghan wars and in north Africa he became an aide to Queen Victoria.

However, rumours about sexual activity with young boys led to threats of a court martial and he shot himself in a Paris hotel in 1903.

Now the Clan Donald Society wants to rehabilitate his reputation and will hold a ceremony this weekend to mark almost 150 years since his birth at a tower built in Dingwall in honour of Fighting Mac.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Last surviving Scottish Dunkirk little ship on sale on eBay for £1

An interesting tale from the BBC today. It would be nice to see this ship rescued and restored. I notice that the Ebay listing has been ended - I hope this is a good sign...

The last remaining Scottish little ship used in the Dunkirk landings has been put up for sale on eBay for £1.

The Skylark IX played an important role in Operation Dynamo, which saw hundreds of thousands of soldiers evacuated from the shores of France during WWII.

After the war the vessel was used for cruises on Loch Lomond for 33 years.

Since 2010 the boat has been lying in a sunken state at Balloch. The Leven Cruising Club hopes to sell her off to someone who will restore the ship.

Operation Dynamo took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

It involved 900 naval and civilian craft, including fishing boats, pleasure crafts, paddle steamers and lifeboats, which were sent across the Channel under RAF protection.

The Skylark IX played a crucial part, rescuing about 600 soldiers from Dunkirk.

Dougie McCann, vice commodore of Leven Cruising Club, said: "She saved a lot of lives.

"She ferried the soldiers backwards and forwards from the beach, 150 at a time, which was 50 or 60 over her capacity, so they must have been absolutely crammed on.

"Then for more than 30 years here on the loch she has ferried the veterans up and down each year for their remembrance service.

"She's a well kent face. But she has reached sad times at the moment and the whole point of this is to try to find a good home for her."

The boat is being sold by the owner on behalf of Leven Cruising Club.

The commodore of the club, Stuart Davidson, said they hoped the ship could be salvaged and made into a museum piece, but he stressed time was running out.

"The way she is at the moment, unfortunately, we have probably got a couple of weeks at the most to try and do something, or get somebody to come along with a viable option, and perhaps a budget in place, to actually move her," he said.

"She is breaking up under the water, unfortunately."

The club has offered to provide a team of volunteers to help any buyer lift the boat from the water.

The entry on eBay says: "The Skylark IX is in pretty bad condition but we are sure that it could be restored if it was raised.

"This boat would make an excellent restoration project as a museum piece, or for anyone who has the skills to restore this historic ship."

The Ebay listing has a short video showing the current condition of the ship as it lies underwater:

Monday, 27 February 2012

Last Spanish Civil War Scot Thomas Watters dies

Sad news from the BBC today:

The last surviving Scot who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War has died at the age of 99.

Thomas Watters, originally from Glasgow, had been a corporation bus driver in the city before he went to Spain in 1936 as part of the Scottish ambulance unit.

Some 500 Scots joined the International Brigade to fight against Franco's army.

Mr Watters had been living in Hertfordshire for many years.

He received honorary Spanish citizenship in June 2009 at a ceremony in the Spanish Embassy in London.

The award was presented at that time to all survivors who had gone out to Spain between 1936 and 1939.

He subsequently returned to Glasgow in 2010 to speak at the ceremony rededicating the Pasionaria statue on the Clyde following its restoration.

Mike Arnott, who represents Scotland on the Committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, said: "I met Thomas on a number of occasions over the last two years.

"He was a truly inspirational and a lovely man, who will be greatly missed by his many friends and by all who knew him."

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Loss of the "Birkenhead" - On this day in Scottish military history - 1852

“Women and children first”. You may not know it but this chivalrous shout when disaster strikes has a name. It is known as The Birkenhead Drill.

It’s so called because on this day one hundred and sixty years ago the actions of the soldiers and sailors on board a Royal Navy transport ship called the ‘Birkenhead’ changed the way men behaved when a passenger ship foundered. Although never enshrined in maritime law, for decades after the H.M.S. ‘Birkenhead’ sank off Africa in 1852 it would have been unheard off for a gentleman to board a lifeboat if there were women and children still on board the sinking ship.

The ‘Birkenhead’ had sailed from Cork on 17th January 1852 with five hundred and two soldiers from ten regiments. (Over two hundred were from three Highland regiments. The 73rd Highlanders, 74th Highlanders and 91st Highlanders) Most were destined for service in the 8th Cape Frontier War in Cape Colony but because some were heading on to India for garrison duty there were twenty five wives and thirty one children on board too.

On 26th February the ship had called in at the Cape naval base at Simon’s Town to drop off some passengers and take more on for the short journey round the coast to Port Elizabeth. That was the town nearest the Xhosa homelands where the Cape Frontier War was in progress and where the 74th and 91st were going to disembark. The ‘Birkenhead’ left Simon’s Town with six hundred and thirty one crew and passengers on board, but soon ran into trouble.

The Captain had taken the ship nearer the Cape Colony coast than usual to cut down his voyage time. This was at the urging of Governor Sir Harry Smith in Cape Town because the new recruits were urgently needed for the war. Unfortunately a large swell forced the ship even nearer land and it hit a submerged rock* about a mile offshore at the aptly named Danger Point in Gans Bay. The situation at that stage was not hopeless but a decision by the captain to order his ship astern to get it off the rocks broke the back of the ship.

It was obvious to all that the ship was doomed so the priority was to launch the three small boats the ship carried and get as many people off it as possible. Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton of Mounie of the 74th Highlanders had the most recruits on board (seventy -three 74th Highlanders) and was also the most senior army officer on the ship, so was in charge of all the soldiers. Seton immediately grasped the situation and ordered the soldiers to help the sailors clear debris of the deck, get the horses off the ship** and help the sailors get the seven women and thirteen children into the boats first. Once they were safely on one of the small cutters the other two boats were filled with soldiers. There were still hundreds of men on board.

Their hope would have been that the small boats would row to shore and then return for more men but the ‘Birkenhead’ was breaking up under their feet. Only twenty five minutes after hitting the rocks and just a few minutes after launching the small boats it was obvious that if the remaining soldiers and sailors headed for the water before the ship sank they would swim to the small boats and swamp them.

Seton quickly issued his orders. The soldiers would fall in on deck as if on parade and this would allow the boats with all the women and children to row away from the sinking ‘Birkenhead’.

According to eye-witness reports the soldiers behaved impeccably. Many were new recruits but they all stoically followed their orders. Lined up on the sea-washed deck they held their position as the ship broke-up beneath them. Seton’s calm authority had ensured that not one of the women or children on board the ‘Birkenhead’ were lost; every boat reached the shore unharmed.

The men left behind on the ship were not so lucky, the ‘Birkenhead’ was close enough to shore to allow strong swimmers the chance of survival but Great White sharks and a nasty clinging seaweed claimed many who had not already drowned when the ship sank. A few managed to swim ashore and a handful managed to cling to debris until picked up the next day by a rescue ship. Colonel Seton and forty seven of his officers and men of the 74th were amongst the four hundred and forty five men lost with the ship.

In Glasgow Cathedral there is a plaque to the 74th Highlanders. It lists the campaigns the regiment had fought in between its first action in 1789 and 1886 when the plaque was unveiled, after the 74th had become the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry. It lists the battles of the Napoleonic Wars the colonial wars of the nineteenth century. It also lists the "Birkenhead".

For the 74th Highlanders the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Seton and his new recruits on the ‘Birkenhead’ were important as any in the history of the regiment. The bravery and fortitude shown by his men on that day matched any of the battles the regiment had been in over the previous one hundred years. That bravery not only inspired the men who enlisted into the 74th and later the HLI in future years but also other people around the world. The King of Prussia made every man in his army listen to the tale of the ‘Birkenhead’ to make sure they knew how proper soldiers should behave in adversity.

Colonel Seton’s example inspired generations of Victorians and Edwardians. The poet of Empire couldn’t let it pass and Kipling’s “Soldier an' Sailor Too” published in 1896 devotes a verse to the Drill.

Men who survived the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ were sometimes branded cowards because it was suggested that they had ignored the Birkenhead Drill. That was unfair because many boarded the boats at the orders of the ship’s officers. The public were shocked when they read how many women and children had perished and surviving men faced a backlash.

One hundred years on from the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ and one hundred and sixty years to the day from the foundering of the ‘Birkenhead’ would the men of 2012 stand back when disaster strikes? The recent foundering of the ‘Costa Concordia’ suggests otherwise.

* Now known as the Birkenhead Rock.
** According to Wikipedia some of the horses which swam ashore from the ‘Birkenhead’ were the ancestors of a feral herd that roamed the plains east of Gans Bay until late in the 20th century.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Plymouth Argylls Surrender - On the day in Scottish Military History - 70 years ago

It has been widely recognised that of all the troops in Malaya in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked, the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were one of the most prepared for war*. The unreal situation in Singapore, of almost peacetime conditions whilst London was burning under the Blitz and Britain and her empire stood alone against the Nazis did not impress the officer commanding the Argylls.

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart wanted his men in the jungle to learn how to fight amongst the tropical rainforest and not be tied to the roads like the other units tasked with defending 'the Gibraltar of the East'. Many senior officers in Singapore dismissed the threat of the Japanese but the soldiers they under-estimated had been fighting a hard war in China for five long years. Many of the British Imperial troops defending Malaya and Singapore had never even fired a shot in anger so had little basis for their feelings of superiority over the supposedly  short-sighted enemy. Stewart was more of a realist and knew he had to get his men out into the steaming jungles if they wanted to stand a chance. At the time he was mocked by some of his peers for training his 'Jungle Beasts' but when the invasion came in December 1941 Stewart's Argylls were ready when many units looked amateurish.

It was soon obvious to the army commanders that the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were the men to hold the line while they retreated back to Singapore. Time and again as the Japanese poured through the jungle and outflanked the British the Argylls were the fire-fighters who saved the day. One battalion could not stop the invading Japanese and they were decimated at Slim River on 7th January 1942. The remnants were withdrawn back to Singapore and formed the rearguard at The Causeway to Singapore on 31st January.

In Singapore the 250 men left of the battalion had returned to their pre-war home of Tyersall Park Camp where they had been joined on 29th January by The Naval Battalion. Five days later the two units merged to form a composite battalion. The 210 Royal Marines of the Naval Battalion had survived the sinking of HMSs 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' off Malaya on 10th December 1941. They had since been engaged in guard duties at Naval Establishments in Singapore over the previous month and some had been seconded for a few weeks to Roseforce (a small saboteur force which worked behind Japanese lines, led by Major Angus Rose of the Argylls) but now they were regrouped to fight in the front line against the impending Japanese invasion of Singapore.

The home port of both ships and men who manned the two sunken warships was Plymouth so the composite unit formed from both depleted battalions soon became known as the Plymouth Argylls. Plymouth's football team had taken the name Argyle in 1886 and one theory is that it was taken from the successful Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders football team of that time (however it is just as likely that it was from the name of a local pub where the team met - The Argyle Tavern). Plymouth Argyll therefore seemed an appropriate, if unofficial, name for the combined unit when they were formed to take part in the defence of Singapore Island.

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart commanded the new unit but had less than a week to train his new command before the Japanese crossed the Straits of Johore in strength. The Plymouth Argylls were rushed forward and were in action on the 9th of January near Tengah airfield. There was bitter fighting over the next two day but they were too lightly armed to put up much resistance to the combined Japanese attacks by land and air and the final straw was an attack by a Japanese armoured column.

In the confused situation in the next few days the companies lost contact with each other. Some men headed back to their camp at Tyersall Park; others headed for the port where some were allocated as guards on the ships taking civilians to Sumatra. Many ships were sunk or captured and some were captured in Sumatra when the Japanese arrived but seventy four men of the composite unit avoided Japanese bombers and warships and made it back on the ships which reached Ceylon.

For the men of the Plymouth Argylls who had not been killed in the fighting, or escaped on one of the evacuation ships, the end came quickly. On this day seventy years ago, just twelve days after it had been formed, and six days after first going into action, General Percival ordered the surrender of all Allied troops in Singapore and the composite battalion of Royal Marines and Highlanders ceased to exist. Two days later the survivors of the Plymouth Argylls marched into captivity behind a piper after having added fresh laurels to the reputations of its parent units.

* Field Marshall Lord Wavell - "There was one battalion, a battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, commanded by a remarkable commanding officer, which he had trained most intensively in jungle fighting. "  

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A request for help - Scots Guards pipers 1972

We've had a request for help from @laesarsavage on Twitter.

Does anyone know where, or if, you can get any footage or pictures of the 1972 Trooping the Colour rehearsal with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards pipers?

If anyone can help please leave a comment or contact @laesarsavage directly on Twitter. Let us know too on @S_M_R_G

Monday, 6 February 2012

All that's shiny on a war memorial isn't bronze...

A recent report in the Linlithgow Gazette has highlighted another shocking case of metal theft. Or has it?

The newspaper photograph shows that something is clearly missing at the top of the Blackness War Memorial. A closer inspection of the Blackness thread on the Scottish War Memorial Project shows that in 2008 what was there was a slab of dark grey granite and not a bronze plaque.

More information on the SWMP tells us that what was there before the slab. 'The Scotsman' of Wednesday 27th December 1922 reported on the memorial's unveiling:

BLACKNESS.—The memorial to the men of Blackness district takes the form of a clock tower, built of Rubislaw granite...The cost of the memorial was £200, which was raised by voluntary effort.

So no bronze plaque then. The fact that no-one knew that the hole at the top of the memorial used to be a clock suggest that it was replaced quite some time ago. What a shame that Blackness couldn't maintain an integral part of its memorial. The reasons for the clock's removal may now be lost in the mists of time but hopefully when the unsightly gap is filled on the Blackness memorial they can find something more suitable than a plain grey slab? Perhaps this is a perfect opportunity for something decorative to be added? Perhaps that is already happening and no-one told the local councillor?

Blackness has lost its clock but there is another Scottish village which still has a war memorial clock tower and is in very serious danger of losing it. The Parish of Clyne War Memorial in Brora, Sutherland has chimed for nearly ninety years but age has taken its toll. The clock mechanism and the tower it sits in, are both in urgent need of renovation. The local authority does not have the funds to repair it so locals are looking into setting up a Friends of Clyne War Memorial group to help find the funds to save their memorial. You can visit their Facebook page here to lend your support.

Perhaps this recent case at Blackness highlights the need for a proper database on Scottish war memorials which could easily have shown that no bronze was stolen. There is the Scottish War Memorials Project but it is an unfunded and voluntarily run database. Should that data be taken on by a national body? (And by national I mean Scotland not UK). The UK National Inventory of War Memorials listing of Blackness does not mention any metal and there are no photographs so it really wouldn't have been much use here. Do we need a SIWM based on SWMP data with locations and photographs there for the taking...

As always we'd welcome your comments on anything discussed above.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Falklands War - 30 Years On

Wit the 30th Anniversary of the Falklands War approaching, I expect a number of television programmes and books devoted to the subject.

The first of these comes from the History Press:

Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories from the Falklands Campaign

Previously unpublished accounts of the Falklands War from the men at the sharp end

In 1982, 8,000 miles from home, in a harsh environment and without the newest and most sophisticated equipment, the numerically inferior British Task Force defeated the Argentinian forces occupying the Falkland Islands and recaptured this far-flung outpost of what was once an empire. It was a much-needed triumph for Margaret Thatcher’s government and for Britain.

Many titles have been published on the Falklands War, some offering accounts from participants in it. But this is the first one only to include interviews with the ordinary seamen, marines, soldiers and airmen who achieved that victory, as well as those whose contribution is often overlooked – the merchant seaman who crewed ships taken up from trade, the NAAFI personnel who supplied the all-important treats that kept spirits up, the Hong Kong Chinese laundrymen who were aboard every warship.

Published to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the conflict, this is the story of what ‘Britain’s last colonial war’ was really like.

  • Interviewees drawn exclusively from lowest ranks of services
  • None previously interviewed for publication 
  • Includes those normally overlooked, e.g. Merchant Navy (STUFT), NAAFI
 This looks like an interesting publication. Unlike many accounts of war written by veterans, this one is still fairly fresh in the memory, so the accounts will hopefully be fairly accurate. The Falklands War is one I can remember, but I was quite young at the time, and I am interested in learning more. I've read a few books on the conflict in the past, and I think this one might be added to the list.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Our Armed Forces post-2014

It's still two years until we get to vote on our country's future and what that will mean to the armed forces. It is seldom out of the news and just yesterday it cropped up again in First Minister's Questions.
The 'Telegraph' is like a dog with a bone and has been lining up old colonels to take a pot-shot at Alex Salmond over the SNP's post-independence plans. Their comments are then being picked up by opposition parties to fuel this seemingly never-ending saga. Do we really have another two years of this? I hope not because I'm already heartily sick of it but without taking sides I'd like to discuss some things which have occurred to me about the armed forces debate. These are just my thoughts so I would welcome any challenges to my opinion. Although a lot of the jaw-jaw is about the army I'll start with the senior service.
The Royal Navy is a blue water navy, one which can react to incidents anywhere in the world. Would Scotland need that capability? No, we would have a green-water navy; similar to one we had in 1707 (one frigate and two sloops) which would only need small ships capable of protecting our oil-rigs, fishing fleets and support the police and coastguard. Would we need marines -unlikely. Would we need submarines, again unlikely. Would we need aircraft carriers - no of course not. So what would happen to Faslane and Rosyth? What about building the frigates and destroyers for the future Royal Navy; could the Clyde bid for them? Unlikely that a British MoD would award contacts for them to Scotland when there are English shipyards who can build them. There are about 30,000 people employed in Scotland working for the MoD and defence-related companies. How many of them would be needed post-independence?
What about an air force? The SNP plans are for one air base so which one is retained and what would be based there? Kinloss is being converted to hold a UK infantry battalion coming back from Germany but with four infantry battalion barracks in Scotland already (Redford, Dreghorn, Glencorse and Fort George) would Lossiemouth need to be retained. In fact if we have only three battalions of infantry (the brigade proposed by the SNP) would one of  existing barracks close too? The answer would probably be no, because our artillery, signals, engineers and logistics troops would need a home too. But would all of those units actually need to be full-time soldiers? Assuming the SNP get their way and Scotland gets the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Scots Guards would we need those six battalions of infantry. Why would we need six full-time battalions of infantry, why couldn't a territorial force do the same job with just a few regulars?
If Scotland didn't get the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Scots Guards could they use old regimental names. Would the Cameronians return? The Scottish Rifles came into existence in 1881 but the old Cameronians were raised before 1707 and disbanded in 1968 (although a TA unit lasted until 1997). Would the MOD object to the use of the name? How about the Gordons and Seaforths and HLI? The 2nd and 4th battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland still carry on their traditions if not their names, so could they be re-used. How about Jacobite regimental names instead. The Atholl Brigade or Bagot's Hussars? Since we won't be a republic or have a Stuart monarch then probably not.
Maybe the answer is a three battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland without any affiliations to former units. No battle honours or hackles to tie them to their past. The unit would be kilted of course because we've covered that in a previous article. In fact would all units become highlanders: The Highland Engineers or the Highland Logistic Corps? Probably not, but maybe a tam o'shanter would replace a beret in the corps. Given some folk like to trumpet the famous Auld Alliance would we ditch or embrace the French headgear if we separate from the Auld Enemy?
Unlike the politicians and the media I am now tiring of this subject and I've barely scratched the surface. I've still not mentioned the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (or dare I say it the Scots Greys). I've not gone into detail about the numbers of ships or planes we'd have. What about a Scottish SAS, we'd need that I'm sure, and for heaven's sake what about the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo!
There are the bombing ranges at Garvie, Tain and Benbecula used by the Royal Navy, RAF and NATO. Would we share them or close them, or use them ourselves? Would that be a good thing or bad thing for Scotland as a whole and what would be the impact to the locals who may benefit from their presence or be delighted to see the back of them? Just starting a list like this has given me lots to think about. Maybe you too. Don't worry though, the papers and internet will be full of it for the next thirty months - Lucky us!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Castle Commando

BBC Scotland aired an excellent documentary last night about Lochaber's place in training Britain's Commandos during the Second World War. Here is the blurb from the BBC website: 

Narrated by Rory Bremner, the film looks back on the larger-than-life characters that helped shape Winston Churchill's legendary raiding troops trained at Achnacarry in 1942-45.

You can watch it on BBC's i-player: