About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

Lee Divides and Conquers at the Second Battle of Bull Run

Outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee and his corps commanders Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet outgeneraled the Union’s pompous and unpopular John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The reputations of three Confederate generals rose to mythic proportions as yet another Union military leader—Lincoln’s latest candidate for top command—suffers not merely defeat but humiliation. The outcome was another blow to Northern morale and a grave political threat to Abraham Lincoln. At this point, the Union was losing the Civil War.

George B. Mccellan, the vaunted “Young Napoleon” on whom Abraham Lincoln relied to redeem the Union Army from the humiliation of the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), had promised to capture Richmond in what he called the Peninsula Campaign, a name that echoed Napoleon’s “Peninsular War,” fought for possession of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807–1814. It was not the best Napoleonic parallel to evoke. The Peninsular War was one of the defeats from which Napoleon could not recover.

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign spanned March to July 1862, culminating in the so-called Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), the last of which was Malvern Hill (July 1). That battle ended in a tactical victory for McClellan, but a victory fought not on ground to which he had advanced, but to which he had retreated. Having set out to capture Richmond, the Young Napoleon ended up farther from the Confederate capital than he had been at the start of his endeavor. Moreover, while McClellan defended his high ground position expertly at Malvern Hill, bombarding Robert E. Lee’s attacking forces with fire from massed cannon that were positioned nearly wheel to wheel, he refused his field officers’ pleas to seize the initiative, hold Malvern Hill, and counterattack Lee. This might have revived and redeemed the Peninsula Campaign. Certainly, it would have taken a greater toll on Lee than the mere defense did. But George B. McClellan was completely cowed by the Confederate general, even when, as now, Lee committed a great blunder in fruitlessly attacking uphill. No sooner did Lee break off his attack than McClellan completed his withdrawal from the campaign against Richmond by returning to Harrison’s Landing, the location on the James River from which the Army of the Potomac had originally embarked.

Commanding a larger army than Lee, McClellan had failed in his mission. Nevertheless, his 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) were 4,000 fewer than what he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Tactically, the Union forces had come out ahead. Strategically, they were humiliated. As if to certify his failure, Major General McClellan sent an abject telegram to the War Department on July 2, 1862: “I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world—but they are worn out. Our losses have been very great. I doubt whether more severe battles have ever been fought—we have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”

The telegram did not appease Abraham Lincoln. Astoundingly, McClellan assessed Lee’s strength at almost 200,000 men. It was actually between 55,000 and 65,000. Feeling that McClellan was not just making poor use of the magnificent army he had built, but virtually no use of it, Lincoln summoned Major General John Pope to a conference. He assigned him to command a force to be known as the Army of Virginia. It would consist of numerous units in and around Virginia that had been slated for incorporation into the Army of the Potomac. As if this weren’t a sufficient demonstration of Lincoln’s loss of confidence in McClellan, who seemed not only unwilling but incapable of leaving Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln ordered him to return to northern Virginia and detach three Army of the Potomac corps to be put under Pope’s command and used in coordination with the Army of Virginia.

From today’s perspective, few would argue that Lincoln was wrong to shift the initiative away from McClellan; however, he could hardly have chosen a less popular officer to turn to. Pope had shown a certain brilliance as commanding general of the Army of the Mississippi against Confederate General Sterling Price in Missouri and in the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River (February 28-April 8, 1862). His far greater military talent, however, was his unerring ability to alienate virtually everyone in the army, both officers and enlisted men. When he assumed command of the Army of Virginia in July 1862, he addressed his soldiers with a level of condescension that makes one cringe even to read it:

Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you

Amazingly, Pope also provoked a special outrage from the enemy. The Army of Virginia occupied a sliver of northern Virginia. Instead of trying to win over the populace there, Pope tyrannized them. He seized from the people whatever food supplies he wanted, and he repeatedly threatened to hang civilians as well as prisoners of war and traitors. Robert E. Lee found Pope’s conduct so unbecoming a military officer that he condemned him as no better than a “miscreant” in need of being “suppressed.”

It was not idle trash talk. Lee saw Pope as an inept and bombastic commander who was supplanting a timid one, McClellan. This made both the Army of Virginia and at least the three corps of the Army of the Potomac that were assigned to Pope’s command especially vulnerable—provided that Lee could strike before those three corps could link up with the Army of Virginia. Accordingly, on August 9, 1862, Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson to attack a portion of the Army of Virginia at Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper. The resulting Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862) was a minor Confederate victory that did no more than force Pope to withdraw to the north bank of Rappahannock River. But that was precisely where Lee wanted him. Lee could now attack before the reluctant, petulant, and slow-moving McClellan arrived with his three Army of the Potomac corps.

For the first time in his military career, Lee decided to violate a very basic tenet of military practice in the field. He put half the Army of Northern Virginia under Major General James “Old Pete” Longstreet, charging him with the mission of occupying Pope’s front. The other half Lee gave to Stonewall Jackson, ordering him to lead his wing on a roundabout march to the northwest, so that he could hit the rear of the Army of Virginia with a surprise attack as Longstreet attacked Pope’s front. It was a strategy Lee would use again in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). The idea was to hold the enemy by the nose while kicking him in the rear.

Pope observed the movement of Longstreet and Jackson, but he did little enough about it, except to launch a harassing raid on the encampment of Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart. The aim of the raid was to capture or kill Stuart. While the raiders did manage to bag the cavalryman’s adjutant, Stuart himself got away. In his haste to leave, he forgot to take with him his trademark ostrich-plumed hat and crimson-lined cape. Pope’s raiders took these items as prizes—something that delighted them almost as much as having captured Stuart himself.

Jeb Stuart was outraged. Bad enough that his adjutant had been taken, but the raiders went too far when they stole that hat and cape. Duly provoked, on August 22, Stuart and a small raiding party rode full gallop into Major General Pope’s headquarters camp at Catlett’s Station. They captured 300 prisoners and “appropriated” $35,000 in Union army payroll money. Worse, perhaps, they rifled through Pope’s personal baggage, taking his dress uniform coat and also his battle plans. Four days later, on August 26, Stonewall Jackson attacked and destroyed Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction, Virginia, very near the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. As serious as the loss of supplies was, Jackson’s raid did far worse by severing Pope’s telegraph and rail lines. This partially cut off rapid communications to and from the field and greatly limited Pope’s ability to transfer large numbers of men rapidly. The Union commander pursued Jackson, but was unable to locate him—at least until Jackson wanted to be found.

On August 28, Stonewall suddenly materialized. He attacked a Union brigade under Brigadier General Rufus King at Groveton. The skirmish was intense. Not only were two of Jackson’s division commanders seriously wounded, but King’s “Black Hat Brigade” (later called the “Iron Brigade”) fought with a fervor Jackson had never before seen in a Union military unit. While King took a toll on Jackson, however, he also suffered heavy losses. Nearly a third of his brigade were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

Together, the Manassas raid and the Battle of Groveton were overtures to the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). For all the problems Jackson had caused him, Pope was actually given an important advantage. The Confederate commander had revealed himself and thereby sacrificed the element of surprise. Pope knew exactly where he was, and he began concentrating his forces accordingly, deploying near Groveton with the intention not only of defeating Stonewall Jackson, but boasting that he would “bag the whole crowd.”

Pope did what McClellan seemed unable to do. He took the initiative, and he attacked Jackson on August 29. The trouble was that the attacks came piecemeal. I Corps, under Franz Sigel, started in on Jackson, and then the Pennsylvania Reserves under John Reynolds joined in. Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, Army of the Potomac, to get between Jackson’s Corps and Longstreet’s—but it was too late. Longstreet had already made contact with Jackson on his right. Porter was stymied, not knowing where to attack.

Another of Pope’s commanders, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, bore down on Jackson with his corps, as did elements of Major General Jesse L. Reno’s IX Corps and two divisions under Irvin McDowell, the Union commander defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite this impressive array of forces, Pope proved utterly unable to coordinate them. Individual Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac units made inroads against Jackson’s line here and there, but, lacking effective overall command, were unable to consolidate any of their gains. Each Union attack was repulsed in turn, and, after heavy fighting, Jackson remained in control of his position by the end of the day on August 29, while Longstreet, on his right, actively extended the Confederate line. Noting Longstreet’s advantage, Lee urged him to attack, but, always cautious, Longstreet declined, protesting that he had no idea of Pope’s strength to his right and front. Longstreet did launch a reconnaissance in force to ascertain what lay ahead. This resulted in some confused nighttime skirmishing, which prompted Longstreet to recall his brigades to their starting positions.

Although Longstreet had not intended this withdrawal to deceive Pope, Pope was nonetheless deceived. At daybreak on August 30, he assumed that both Jackson and Longstreet were in full and final retreat. He assumed that the Second Battle of Bull Run was over and that he had won. When it became evident that the Confederate commanders were not giving up, Pope was confused. Unsure what to do, Pope launched a massive attack against Jackson’s front. Porter’s V Corps attacked just after three in the afternoon. Although the attack was bold, it discounted the presence of Longstreet, who used his artillery to enfilade the attackers, firing along the length of Porter’s advance and cutting his men down like reaped wheat.

Lee was quick to take advantage of Porter’s repulse. He ordered Longstreet to make a general advance, and, this time, Longstreet did so wholeheartedly and with absolute confidence. His troops surged forward, smashing into Union positions on much the same ground that had been contested at the First Battle of Bull Run. Still, two Union corps managed to hold out, and federal troops were able to hold a position on Henry House Hill. This made it possible that the tide of battle could still be turned in the Union’s favor. But Pope had lost both situational awareness and the will to fight on. He saw only that his forces were being mauled and generally driven back. He did not grasp the significance of the action on and around the high ground of Henry House Hill. Accordingly, he ordered a general retreat back across Bull Run. Longstreet rushed in to take over Henry House Hill, and Pope continued to fall back, withdrawing the combined Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac to the outer defenses of Washington itself. Of the 75,696 troops under John Pope’s command, 1,724 were killed, 8,372 wounded, and 5,958 went missing. It was a devastating 21 percent casualty rate. Lee had a total of 48,527 men engaged, of which he lost 1,481 killed, 7,627 wounded, and 89 missing, making for a casualty rate almost as heavy as Pope’s—19 percent.

President Lincoln wasted no time in disposing of a general he hoped could have effectively replaced McClellan. Three short days after the Second Battle of Bull Run, Pope was ordered to service in the Department of the Northwest, where he was tasked with battling the Santee Sioux, who had staged an uprising in Minnesota. In effect, Lincoln exiled him, altogether removing him from the Civil War. His Army of Virginia was dissolved, and most of its units and personnel incorporated into the Army of the Potomac, whose three corps were also returned, all under the command of George B. McClellan—at least for the time being. McClellan was apparently rehabilitated, but—at this point—the Union was losing the Civil War.



The British set out to capture the Bogue forts on the Bocca Tigris River between Canton and Hong Kong. A Chinaman at Macao told a British army surgeon: ‘Same time you Englishman take that fort, same time that sky make fall down.’ But the forts were taken, the sky did not fall, and the Chinese were forced to sign, on 20 January 1841, an agreement known as the Convention of Chuenpi.


IN the preceding century and until the end of the wars with France it had been the Royal Navy which had been the most important arm of Britain. In Queen Victoria’s reign it was the Army which played the key role in building and preserving the Empire. Still, the Royal Navy had its part to play, not only in transporting troops and supplies and sometimes providing naval brigades to fight side by side with the soldiers on land, but occasionally taking a direct active role in the growth of the Empire, as it did in Syria in 1840 when, in conjunction with Austrian and Prussian ships, it thwarted the expansionist tendencies of Mohammed Ali.

A year earlier a smaller but in the long run far more important naval operation took place in southern Arabia. In December 1836 a British ship was wrecked and plundered on the coast of Aden, then an independent sultanate. After prolonged negotiations, the sultan promised compensation, but he died and his son refused to honour the agreement. So on 19 January 1839 a military and naval force under Captain H. Smith in the 28-gun frigate Volage captured Aden, and this small but strategic piece of real estate was added to the Empire. Captain Smith then sailed off to Hong Kong where, on 4 September, he fired the shots which began the Opium War.

The cause of the Opium War has been attributed simply to the greed of the British merchants in China, but the real causes of the war were cultural rather than commercial: British opium smuggling and the vigorous attempts of the Chinese government to suppress it only sparked the war, which would have taken place sooner or later in any event.

The Chinese and the British were alike in that both regarded their own culture, civilization and way of life as infinitely superior to all others. It was only natural, then, that where the two cultures met there was friction: Chinaman and Briton were astonished at the pretensions of each other; to each, the other was a barbarian. Neither made much of an attempt to understand the other, and doubtless it seems surprising to most Englishmen even today that the Chinese regarded them as inscrutable.

The Chinese wanted foreign merchants to obey Chinese laws, submit to Chinese justice, and to conform to stringent Chinese regulations regarding their export-import business, demands that do not seem unreasonable considering that the foreigners were trading with Chinese in China. The foreign merchants, principally British and Americans, did not like Chinese laws, which they flouted; they thought Chinese notions of justice were unjust, preposterous and barbaric; and they felt unduly constrained by the, to them, peculiar restrictions put on their trading methods. But what annoyed them most was that they were treated, every day, in word and deed, as if they were the inferiors of the Chinese. And the British found this hard to bear. They complained, but they did adjust to the situation. All might have gone on peaceably enough had the Chinese government been strong enough to enforce its rules and had the British government not appeared on the scene in the shape of a series of envoys, consuls and trade commissioners, who were followed in due course by soldiers and sailors.

The war might have been called with greater propriety the Kowtow War, for, as John Quincy Adams told the Massachusetts Historical Society, opium was ‘a mere incident to the dispute, but no more the cause of the war than the throwing overboard the tea in Boston harbour was the cause of the North American revolution’. Adams correctly diagnosed the case when he said, ‘the cause of the war is the kowtow’.

When the first British official arrived in Pekin in 1792 he refused to kowtow when presented to the emperor. That is, he refused to make the prostrations, face touching the floor, which protocol required in the presence of the Son of Heaven and Emperor of China. It was an attitude much admired at home and was copied by later official British representatives. The British thought the kowtow humiliating; the Chinese regarded their refusal to perform it as inexplicable and decided that it would be better if they simply avoided seeing the ill-mannered barbarians altogether: British diplomatists were not even permitted to meet provincial governors. Consequently, British officials joined the merchants in complaining of the humiliating treatment they received at the hands of the Chinese, and, as the complaints of officials, being addressed to other officials and to politicians, always carry more weight than the cries of mere merchants, there was a good deal of irresponsible talk by responsible men about teaching the Chinese a lesson and putting them in their place.

When Lord Napier (William, 8th baron, 1786–1834) went to China as Chief Superintendent of Trade in 1833 he was not even allowed to stay in the country, except at the Portuguese colony of Macao, and he indignantly wrote home asking for ‘three or four frigates and brigs, with a few steady British troops, not Sepoys’. The ships and soldiers were not sent, but there was a growing feeling in England that something would have to be done to defend British prestige in China.

Meanwhile, the harvests continued in the poppy fields of Bengal and the opium clippers, in the season, swiftly and efficiently carried their chests to China, off-loading on the coasts, in the rivers or on islands just offshore. Often accused of being hypocritical, Victorian Britons rarely were, although they often succeeded in honestly deceiving themselves. Regarding the shipment of opium to China, however, they were indeed hypocritical. The East India Company, which then ruled most of India, refused to allow opium to be transported in their own ships, but they encouraged the trade, and for a very good reason: export taxes on opium came to provide more than 10 per cent of India’s gross revenue. As to the morality of the business, many Britons tried to justify it by saying that opium smoking in China was really no worse than gin drinking in England (although gin drinking in England had grown out of hand and at best this was a poor excuse).

At Canton, where foreigners were allowed to establish their offices and warehouses (called factories), the opium trade flourished. All the great British trading companies in China indulged in it and the local Chinese officials were easily bribed. Then, in January 1839, the Emperor sent an unbribable mandarin, Lin Tse-hsu, as Imperial High Commissioner to stamp out opium smuggling. Lin gave fair warning, then he struck.

Lin first tried to show the foreigners in little ways that he was indeed serious in his determination to stop the opium trade: in Macao and Canton some smugglers were publicly strangled in front of the British and American factories. An Imperial edict was issued flatly stating that opium smuggling must cease and that stocks now in store must be surrendered. When the foreigners refused to comply with the edict, they were shut up in their factories without Chinese servants or workers, forcing them to cook their own food and clean their own houses. It was considered a great hardship. This incident in May 1839 became known as the Siege of the Factories. It ended when the British, greatly humiliated, gave up 20,000 chests of illegally imported opium. Obviously the British could not go to war over this issue, even though dignity and prestige were involved; a larger issue was needed.

Six weeks after the Siege of the Factories, some British and American sailors started a brawl in a village near Kowloon and a Chinaman was killed. The Chinese authorities demanded that the murderer be given up; the British refused, maintaining, perhaps correctly, that it was impossible to discover exactly who had done the deed. Commissioner Lin withdrew all supplies and labourers from British homes and factories and ordered the Portuguese governor of Macao to expel all the British from his territory. Men, women and children were loaded on British ships, which sailed over to Hong Kong, then a virtually uninhabited island, and anchored. Here floated the entire British colony, a westernized version of the sampan communities commonly found in Chinese ports. It was at this juncture that Captain Smith arrived in the Volage, fresh from his successful operations against the Arabs at Aden, and he was presently joined by the 20-gun frigate Hyacinth.

Without British officials and the samples of British power on the scene all might have ended peaceably enough, for both the Chinese and the merchants wanted to trade, but now merchants, officials and sailors were delighted by the opportunity to humble the arrogant Chinese and to pay them back for the years of indignity. Chinese were found who were willing to supply the floating British community with food under the protection of the frigates. When the Chinese government sent war junks to stop the trade, Captain Smith drove them off with the fire of the Volage. The Chinese then sent a fleet of twenty-nine war junks against the two frigates, and in the battle that followed four junks were sunk and others were badly damaged at no loss to the British ships. The war had begun.

There was the usual debate in the Commons, in which the Palmerston government pointed out that not only had British property been confiscated but British officials had been insulted; Gladstone protested that ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of’; still, the approval was given for the government to prosecute the war. Troops were sent out from India – the Royal Irish, the Cameronians, men from the Hertfordshire regiment, and some sepoys: 4,000 men in all – and more warships were provided. Captain the Honourable Sir George Elliot was in charge of the naval operations, joining his cousin, Charles Elliot, who was the ranking civil official in China; they were shortly to be joined by Major General Sir Hugh Gough, who took charge of the army. Their orders were to occupy Chusan, blockade Canton, deliver a letter of protest to the chief minister of the Emperor, and force the Chinese government to sign a treaty. All this was done. Chusan was occupied without a fight and British troops were left there to die in great numbers of oriental diseases; eventually a Chinese official was forced to accept the letter from England; then the British set out to capture the Bogue forts on the Bocca Tigris River between Canton and Hong Kong.

A Chinaman at Macao told a British army surgeon: ‘Same time you Englishman take that fort, same time that sky make fall down.’ But the forts were taken, the sky did not fall, and the Chinese were forced to sign, on 20 January 1841, an agreement known as the Convention of Chuenpi. In it the Chinese agreed to give Hong Kong to the British, to pay them six million dollars, to reopen trade at Canton and to deal with British officials as equals, but both the Emperor of China and Her Majesty’s government repudiated the treaty: the Emperor because his representative gave too much and Palmerston because his representative had not got enough.

The British government’s policy on China was debated in Parliament and came under attack by Gladstone, ever the champion of the noble savage, who horrified his opponents by maintaining that it was even right for the Chinese to poison wells to keep away the English. But Queen Victoria agreed with her ministers. She took such a keen interest in China that Palmerston sent her a little map of the Canton River area ‘for future reference’.

Palmerston was thoroughly disgusted with Elliot, and as for the barren little island he had acquired Palmerston told him: ‘It seems obvious that Hong Kong will not be a mart of trade.’ But the Royal Family was fascinated by the acquisition of a territory with such a quaint name as Hong Kong, and Queen Victoria wrote to Uncle Leopold to say that ‘Albert is so much amused at my having Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal’. But the Queen, reflecting Palmerston’s views, was not pleased with Charles Elliot, and in the same letter to King Leopold she expressed her displeasure: ‘The Chinese business vexes us very much and Palmerston is deeply mortified at it. All we wanted might have been got, if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot . . . who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could.’ Clearly, more war was wanted.


The Emperor of China, being closer to the scene, was naturally able to register his displeasure sooner than Palmerston and Queen Victoria. Elliot had not yet learned of London’s reaction to the Convention of Chuenpi, but when he saw the Chinese preparing for action he decided to strike first. Captain Elliot moved up the Bocca Tigris River, sending off landing parties to subdue the forts and defeating a squadron of forty war junks sent to stop him. The British did not hesitate to prepare an attack on the great city of Canton itself with its one million hostile inhabitants nor to pit their small force of 2,500 soldiers and 1,000 sailors and marines against a Chinese army of 45,000. They successfully occupied the heights overlooking Canton, the Chinese army retired in some confusion, and the inhabitants began to evacuate the city. At this point, much to General Gough’s disgust, Charles Elliot stopped the war and entered into negotiations with the Chinese, who agreed to pay six million dollars and to compensate the merchants for the destruction of their factories if the British would not press the attack on Canton. This deal, generally known as the ‘ransom of Canton’, was accepted.

Aside from the superior leadership and discipline of the British force, the main reason for the success of the British over such large numbers of the enemy was the inadequate weaponry of the Chinese. The army of the Manchus was not much better armed than it had been when it conquered China more than two hundred years earlier: antique muskets and even bows and arrows were in use. While the sepoys were armed with old flintlocks – which made it almost impossible to fight in the rain – the British marines were equipped with percussion-lock Brunswick muskets which, although invented thirty years earlier, had just been adopted for issue and were far superior to anything the Chinese carried.

There was a pause in the war after the ransom of Canton – and a change of faces on the China station: Charles Elliot, who had displeased his Queen and her ministers by signing the Convention of Chuenpi, was exiled to the newly created Republic of Texas, where he was appointed chargé d’affaires; he was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger, uncle of the ‘Hero of Herat’; Captain George Elliot was invalided home and was replaced by Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker, a veteran sailor who had commanded a frigate under Nelson. Only General Gough remained. A fresh regiment, the 55th Foot (later 2nd Battalion, Border Regiment), newly equipped with Brunswick muskets, was sent out to him from India, and by August 1841 the British were ready to resume the war; an expedition was made ready and sent up the coast to attack Amoy.

It was a bold adventure. As the Duke of Wellington later told the House of Lords:

Little was known of China except its enormous population, its great extent, and its immense resources; we knew nothing of the social life of the country; we knew nothing of its communications than a scanty acquaintance with its rivers and canals; and whether their roads ran along rivers, or in any other way, nobody in this country could give any information, nor could any be acquired.

Nevertheless, Amoy was easily taken with only two killed and fifteen wounded on the British side. Moving further north, Gough took Tinglai, Chinhai and Ningpo; then the British went into winter quarters at Ningpo and Chinhai.

The spring campaign of 1842 was opened by the Chinese, who launched a massive counter-offensive, attacking the British both at Ningpo and at Chinhai. The Chinese were defeated at both places with heavy casualties. No attempt was made to count the bodies of the Chinese left on the battlefields, but old Peninsular veterans maintained that they had not seen so many dead since the siege of Badajoz. The British then moved out to attack the forts guarding the port of Hangchow. There they encountered the strongest resistance they had met within China from Tartar troops, but they captured the forts with a loss of only fifteen killed and fifty-five wounded. It was estimated that the Chinese lost more than 1,200 men, not counting the hundreds of civilians, men and women, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the British barbarians. Shanghai was occupied without a fight in June. There was a last battle at Chinkiang, and then the army stood before the walls of the great city of Nanking.

By now it was obvious, even to the Emperor, isolated as he was at Pekin, that the ‘foreign devils’ must be appeased, and so three Imperial Commissioners were sent to soothe the barbarians. Pottinger had his treaty terms ready and, as he would not tolerate any discussion, there was nothing for the commissioners to do but sign, which they did in August 1842. This, the Treaty of Nanking, was the first of a series of such treaties, giving special privileges to foreigners, which are known in Chinese history as the ‘unequal treaties’; they were to be a source of grievance and humiliation to the Chinese for a hundred years. The Treaty of Nanking gave the British 21 million dollars, the right to trade in five ports – the ‘treaty ports’ of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai – moderate tariff rates, legal jurisdiction over British residents, and other points concerned with trading methods. Opium was not mentioned.

What the British did not get, however, was the respect of the Chinese. Some nationalities respect naked military power, but the Chinese, at least in the last century when the most venerated man was the scholar, did not. Instead, they regarded the British much as the Romans regarded the Goths in the last days of the Empire. So, even after the war was won, the humiliating indemnification paid, and the special privileges obtained, the basic thorn of prejudice remained embedded in Anglo-Chinese relations.

From a military viewpoint, the most remarkable thing about the Opium War is that it was one of those rare occurrences when a war was successfully directed by a committee. There was no supreme commander: Gough, Parker and Pottinger were practically independent agents in China for their own branches of government. That they cooperated so well, the military, naval and diplomatic functions meshing almost perfectly, was undoubtedly due to the great tact and diplomatic skills of Sir Henry Pottinger.

Queen Victoria was pleased with the turn of events in both China and Afghanistan, and on 25 November 1842 she wrote to Sir Robert Peel saying,

The Queen wishes Sir Robert to consider, and at an early period to submit to her, his propositions as to how to recompense and how to mark her high approbation of the admirable conduct of all those meritorious persons who have by their strenuous endeavours brought about the recent brilliant successes in China and Afghanistan.

After the Treaty of Nanking, General Gough returned to India to fight the Sikhs and Mahrattas, but the Royal Navy remained on the China station throughout what historian Edgar Holt called the ‘gunboat years’. On 10 December 1846 Palmerston wrote Sir John Davis, then the British plenipotentiary in China, a significant dispatch: ‘Wherever British subjects are placed in danger, in a situation which is accessible to a British ship of war,’ he said, ‘thither a British ship of war ought to be and will be ordered, not only to go, but to remain as long as its presence may be required for the protection of British interests.’

Even when British subjects were not directly threatened, gunboats were needed on the China station to fight pirates. Between 1843 and 1851 the Royal Navy captured or destroyed about 150 pirate junks – at a considerable profit to the sailors who were paid £20 for each ‘piratical person’ killed or captured. British warships ranged as far south as Borneo in their search for pirates, and in 1845 landing parties even went ashore to destroy pirate lairs. Here they were aided by James Brooke, an Englishman who, acting on his own and without support from his government, carved out a country of his own, Sarawak, becoming its rajah in 1841.

Gunboats were also necessary from time to time to impress the Chinese afresh by seizing a fort or making menacing gestures. After 1851, when the Taiping Rebellion started, the Chinese had too many domestic problems to be over concerned with the foreigners perched on their shores, but the two races did sometimes get in each other’s way and the result was often bloody, as it was in April 1854 when the Battle of Muddy Flat was fought – on absolutely dry ground.

When an Imperial army camped on Soochow Creek near Shanghai and started to molest Europeans as well as Chinese, Rutherford Alcock, the British consul in Shanghai, demanded that the Chinese move their army elsewhere. Although Alcock had practically no force at his disposal, he couched his demand in imperious language: the camp must be moved by 4.00 p.m. the following day. The Chinese did not reply but moved a fleet of war junks up Soochow Creek to defend the camp. Alcock, with typical Victorian audacity, at once put together a tiny army of European civilians from the International Settlement, merchant seamen and a few sailors, including about a hundred men from the USS Plymouth. With two field guns and two howitzers, a drum and British and American flags, he marched off for the camp of the Imperial army. The war junks fired on them from Soochow Creek but, as Alcock had rightly anticipated, the Chinese soldiers fled when he brought his own guns into play. The battle was short and ludicrous, but 300 Chinese and four Europeans were killed.


WWII Gliders

Oblique aerial view of parachutes and Airspeed Horsa gliders on Landing Zone N of the British 6th Airborne Division near Ranville, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944. (Royal Air Force Official Photographer/IWM via Getty Images)

A glider is an aircraft without an engine that is most often released into flight from an aerial tow aircraft. During World War II, both the Axis and Allied militaries developed gliders to transport troops, supplies, and equipment into battle. Although this technique had been discussed prior to the war, it had not been implemented. Gliders were to land behind enemy lines, often at night, and the men carried by them would then become infantrymen once on the ground.

The Germans were first to recognize the potential of gliders in the war, in large part because of extensive pre–World War II scientific research and sporting use. The Germans embraced gliding because it did not violate military prohibitions in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Gliding clubs, which developed in other countries as well, increased interest in the sport worldwide. Sport gliders used air currents to climb and soar for extended periods, while military gliders simply descended on release from aerial tows.

The Germans employed gliders in their invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940, especially in securing Fort Eben Emael (May 10), the key to overrunning Belgium. The Germans also used gliders in the invasion of Crete (May 21–June 1, 1941) and during fighting in the Soviet Union in the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942–February 2, 1943).

Great Britain was the first Allied nation to deploy gliders. The Air Ministry’s Glider Committee encouraged the use of the Hotspur to transport soldiers in late 1940. The Hotspur had a wingspan of 61 feet 11 inches, a length of 39 feet 4 inches, and a height of 10 feet 10 inches. It weighed 1,661 pounds empty and 3,598 pounds fully loaded. The Hotspur was designed to transport two crewmen and six soldiers. A total of 1,015 were built.

In 1941, the British developed the Airspeed A.S. 51 Horsa. It had a wingspan of 88 feet, a length of 68 feet, and a height of 20 feet 3 inches. It weighed 8,370 pounds empty and 15,750 pounds fully loaded. It had a crew of two men and was capable of carrying 25 passengers or two trucks. In all, some 5,000 Horsas were built. They were employed in Operation OVERLORD east of the British invasion beaches, most noteworthy in the successful effort to seize control of Bénouville Bridge (Pegasus Bridge) spanning the Caen Canbal.

The largest Allied glider was the British General Aircraft Limited GAL 49 Hamilcar. With a wingspan of 110 feet, a length of 68 feet 6 inches, and a height of 20 feet 3 inches, it weighed 18,000 pounds empty and 36,000 pounds fully loaded. It had a crew of 2 and could transport 40 troops, a light tank, or artillery pieces. A total of 412 were built.

By the time of the Normandy invasion, only 50 Hamilcars had been produced. Thirty-four were employed as part of Operation MALLARD in support of the British 6th Airborne Division. They transported Tetrarch light tanks and antitank 17-pounder guns. Several gliders were damaged on landing and their cargo lost.

The U.S. Navy explored the possibility of military applications for gliders as early as the 1930s. In February 1941, chief of the Army Air Corps Major General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold ordered specifications drawn up for military gliders. The Waco Aircraft Company in Troy, Ohio, received the first U.S. government contract to build training gliders, and the army began organizing a glider training program.

Constructed of plywood and canvas with a skeleton of steel tubing, the Waco CG-4A had a wingspan of 83 feet 6 inches, a length of 48 feet 4 inches, and a height of 12 feet 7 inches. Its empty weight was 3,300 pounds, and its loaded weight was 7,500 pounds. It had a crew of 2 men and could carry 13 troops or 3,800 pounds of cargo, including artillery pieces, a bulldozer, or a jeep. The Ford Motor Company plant at Kingsford, Michigan, manufactured most of the U.S. gliders, although 15 other companies also produced the Waco. In all 13,908 Wacos were built, making it the most heavily produced glider of the entire war by any power.

Towed by the Douglas C-47 transport, the Waco was first employed in the July 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. A number of Waco gliders were used in Operation OVERLORD to land men and equipment east of the invasion beaches. A number were damaged or lost, and there were heavy casualties.

Because the gliders were so fragile, soldiers dubbed them “canvas coffins.” Men and cargo were loaded through the wide, hinged nose section, which could be quickly opened. Moving at an airspeed of 110–150 miles per hour at an altitude of several thousand feet, C-47s towed the gliders with a 300-foot rope toward a designated landing zone and then descended to release the glider several hundred feet above the ground.

En route to the release point, the glidermen and plane crew communicated with each other either by a telephone wire secured around the towline or via two-way radios. Glider duty was quite hazardous; sometimes the gliders were released prematurely and did not reach the landing zones, and on occasion gliders collided as they approached their destination.

The U.S. 11th, 13th, 17th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions were organized with two glider infantry regiments, a glider artillery battalion, and glider support units. U.S. gliders were sent to North Africa in 1942 and participated in the July 9–August 22, 1943, Sicily invasion, accompanied by British gliders. High casualties sustained in that operation led General Dwight D. Eisenhower to question the organization of airborne divisions and to threaten to disband glider units. A review board of officers convinced the military authorities to retain them, however. Improvements were also made in structural reinforcement of the glider and in personnel training.

By mid-1944, gliders had become essential elements of Allied invasion forces. Occasionally they were used to transport wounded to hospitals. During the Normandy invasion, U.S. glidermen with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions flew across the English Channel in 2,100 gliders to participate in the D-Day attack. Many gliders and crews were lost. New gliders were manufactured for Operation MARKET GARDEN, the assault on the Germans in the Netherlands, three months later.

Initially the military did not authorize hazardous-duty pay for glidermen, who also did not qualify for wing insignia worn by parachutists. Some of the men created posters; one read “Join the Glider Troops! No Jump Pay. No Flight Pay. But Never a Dull Moment.” By July 1944 glider wings were authorized for glider soldiers, and they received hazardous-duty pay. Also in 1944, the modified Waco CG-15A appeared, offering improved crash absorption. The Waco CG-18A could carry 30 soldiers and was deployed during the 1945 Rhine campaign. Gliders were gradually phased out of military inventories after the war, although the Soviet Union retained them through the 1950s.

Airborne Forces, British and American

The concept of airborne forces originated in 1918 during World War I, when Colonel William Mitchell, director of U.S. air operations in France, proposed landing part of the U.S. 1st Division behind German lines on the Western Front. Thus was born the idea of parachuting, or air-landing troops behind enemy lines to create a new flank, what would be known as vertical envelopment. The concept was put into action in the 1930s.

The U.S. Army carried out some small-scale experiments at Kelly and Brooks fields in 1928 and 1929, and in 1936 the Soviets demonstrated a full-blown parachute landing, with some 5,000 men taking part. British reaction to the reports of experiments with airborne forces in the Soviet Union was of mild interest only, although the Eastern Command staged some antiparachutist exercises. There the matter rested until the Germans showed how effective parachute and air-landing troops were when they carried out their spectacular air assaults in Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands in 1940.

Although manpower demands in Britain in 1940 were such that it should have been impossible to raise a parachute force of any significance, at the urging of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, 500 men were undergoing training as parachutists by August 1940. Fulfillment of Churchill’s order that the number be increased to 5,000 had to await additional equipment and aircraft, however. Inevitably, such a new branch of infantry was beset with problems, mainly of supply, but there was also resistance to the concept within the regular units of the British Army. This often led battalions to post their least effective men to such new units merely to get rid of them.

The War Office, representing the British Army, and the Air Ministry, representing the Royal Air Force (RAF), had to agree on aircraft. Because the Bomber Command was becoming aggressively conservative of aircraft, the only plane initially available for training and operations was the Whitley bomber. Aircraft for the airborne forces were thus severely limited until a supply of Douglas C-47 Dakota (Skytrain, in U.S. service) aircraft was established, whereupon the parachute troops found their perfect drop aircraft. The British were also the first Allied nation to develop gliders as troop-carrying aircraft.

Progress in developing British airborne forces was slow; RAF objections were constant, in view of the pressure to carry the continental war to Germany via the strategic bombing campaign. Once the United States entered the war, however, the situation eased enormously, and equipment that Britain was unable to manufacture became readily available.

To provide more men for the airborne forces, the War Office decided in 1941 that whole battalions were to be transferred, even though extra training would be needed to bring many men up to the standards of fitness required of airborne troops. At the same time, the Central Landing Establishment became the main training center for airborne forces. The 1st Parachute Brigade, consisting of four parachute battalions, was established under Brigadier Richard N. “Windy” Gale. Initially three battalions were formed, which exist to this day in the British Army as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, Parachute Regiment.

The Glider Pilot Regiment was also formed in 1941. Pilots were selected from army and RAF volunteers, but they were part of the army once trained. Airborne forces are infantry, but they had to be fitter than the average soldier, and training was rigorous. Troops were trained to endure in the cold, in wet weather, and in heat. They also had to be fit to withstand the impact of the landing, to fight alone with light weapons, and to fight without support for some days.

The airborne concept at that time was twofold: to raid, in which case troops would be extracted by land or sea after the operation (such as the attack on the German radar station at Bruneval in northern France on February 27–28, 1944), or to land at the rear of the enemy to capture a strategic target. Two examples of the latter are the Orne bridge landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and Operation MARKET GARDEN (MARKET was the airborne portion) on September 17–26, 1944, when the 1st Airborne Division tried to secure the bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland.

U.S. Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall was an enthusiastic advocate of airborne forces. The first U.S. airborne division was the 82nd, a conversion of the 82nd Infantry (all-America) Division, formed in March 1942. Major General Omar N. Bradley commanded the division, with Brigadier General Matthew B. Ridgway as his assistant. Ridgway was appointed divisional commander as a major general in June 1942, and the division became the 82nd Airborne Division that August.

The 82nd went to North Africa in April 1943, just as German resistance in that theater was ending. The division took part in operations in Sicily and Normandy and, under the command of Major General James M. Gavin, participated in Operation MARKET GARDEN in the Nijmegen-Arnhem area and also in the Ardennes Offensive (December 16, 1944–January 16, 1945).

The 101st Airborne Division was activated in August 1942 with a nucleus of officers and men from the 82nd Airborne Division. The 101st was commanded by Major General William C. Lee, one of the originators of U.S. airborne forces, and left for England in September 1943. Lee had a heart attack in the spring of 1944, and Major General Maxwell D. Taylor took over, leading the division through D-Day and Operation MARKET GARDEN, when it secured the bridge at Eindhoven. The division distinguished itself in the defense of Bastogne during the German Ardennes Offensive.

Three other U.S. airborne divisions were established: the 11th, which served in the Pacific, jumped onto Corregidor Island, and fought in the February 3–March 4, 1945, Battle of Manila; the 17th, which was rapidly moved to Europe for the German Ardennes Offensive and then jumped into the Rhine crossing with the British 6th Airborne Division; and the 13th, which, although it arrived in France in January 1945, never saw action. British airborne forces also saw limited service in the Pacific theater.

There was close cooperation between British and U.S. airborne forces. When the U.S. 101st Airborne arrived in England, it was installed in a camp close to the training area for the British 6th Airborne Division. Training and operational techniques were almost identical, and there were common exercises and shoots to create close bonds among troops. There were also frequent personnel exchanges to cement friendship. Similar arrangements were made between the U.S. 82nd Airborne and the British 1st Airborne Division.

Parachute training in the United States was centered at Fort Benning, Georgia, and in 1943 some 48,000 volunteers commenced training, with 30,000 qualifying as paratroopers. Of those rejected, some were kept for training as air-landing troops.

One great contribution made by the United States to the common good was the formation and transfer to England of the U.S. Troop Carrier Command. As noted, transport aircraft shortages bedeviled airborne forces’ training and operations from the outset. The arrival of large numbers of C-47 aircraft was a major assist. The RAF in 1944 had nine squadrons of aircraft, or a total of 180 planes, dedicated to airborne forces.

Polish troops were also trained in Britain as parachutists to form the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, which fought at Arnhem in MARKET GARDEN. Contingents from France, Norway, Holland, and Belgium were also trained, many of whom served operationally in the Special Air Service Brigade. The British Commonwealth also raised parachute units. The 1st Australian Parachute Battalion served in the Far East, and the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion served in Europe.

Several small-scale operations had been carried out before 1943 with mixed success, but the big date for airborne forces was June 6, 1944. Plans for D-Day required the flanks of the invasion beaches to be secured in advance, and only airborne forces could guarantee this. Available in Britain for the invasion were two British airborne divisions (the 1st and 6th) and two American airborne divisions (the 82nd and 101st). The plan was to use all the available airborne and glider-borne troops in the initial stages of the operation. Unfortunately, even in June 1944 transport aircraft available were insufficient for all troops to be dropped at once. All aircraft were organized in a common pool so that either British or American troops could be moved by mainly American aircraft. This was another fine example of the cooperation that existed at all levels within the Allied airborne forces.

Operation OVERLORD (D-Day) began for the paratroopers and gliders in the dark early on June 6. To the west, American paratroopers dropped at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula to secure the forward areas of what were to be Omaha and Utah Beaches. Despite many dispersal problems, most of the troops managed to link up and were soon in action, denying the Germans the ability to move against the beachheads. The troops fought with great gallantry despite their weakened strength (caused by air transport problems), and by the end of the day contact had been established with the invasion forces from the beachheads. In the east, Britain’s 6th Airborne Division was charged with controlling the left flank of the British invasion beaches.

Perhaps the most startling operation (for the Germans) was the coup de main attack by glider-borne air-landing troops of 11th Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who landed so close to their target that they were able to capture bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River. On a larger scale, the 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to take out the Merville Battery, which posed a threat to the invasion beaches. The 9th Parachute Battalion, which planned to attack with 700 men, was so spread out on landing that only 150 men were available. With virtually no support, the men attacked the battery and captured it. The battalion lost 65 men and captured 22 Germans; the remainder of the German force of 200 were either killed or wounded.

All Allied parachute and glider troops in the war were of a high standard, and their fighting record bears this out. Even when things went wrong, as often happened when troops were dropped from aircraft, the men made every effort to link up and carry out the task they had been given.

Further Reading

Devlin, Gerard M. Silent Wings: The Saga of the U.S. Army and Marine Combat Glider Pilots during World War II. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

Lowden, John L. Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Masters, Charles J. Glidermen of Neptune: The American D-Day Glider Attack. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Mrazek, James E. Fighting Gliders of World War II. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977.

Mrazek, James E. The Glider War. New York: St. Martin’s, 1975.

Seth, Ronald. Lion with Blue Wings: The Story of the Glider Regiment, 1942–1945. London: Gollancz, 1955.

Smith, Claude. The History of the Glider Pilot Regiment. London: Leo Cooper, 1992.

Gale, Sir Richard Nelson. With the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. London: Smason Law, Marston, 1948.

Harclerode, Peter. Para. London: Arms and Armour, 1992.

Imperial General Staff. Airborne Operations. London: War Office, 1943.

Otway, T. B. H. Official Account of Airborne Forces. London: War Office, 1951.

Rottman, Gordon. World War II Airborne Forces Tactics. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2006.

Wright, Robert K., and John T. Greenwood. Airborne Forces at War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007.

British Glider development I

British Glider development II


The Woodbridge Intruder

J. J. ‘Jack’ Lee

How often have those of us who operated over Europe during the war years seen an aircraft in distress, either coned by searchlights, mauled by fighters, or shot up by flak, wondered if the aircraft and its crew ever made it back home?

J. J. Lee, rear gunner, Lancaster PB797 VN-Z-‘Zebra’ on 50 Squadron. On 22 March 1945 227 Lancasters and eight Mosquitoes of 1 and 8 Groups raided Hildesheim railway yards. Some 263 acres – 70 per cent of the town – was destroyed and 1,645 people were killed. Four Lancasters were lost. Another 130 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 4 and 8 Groups bombed Dülmen in an area attack, which was without loss and 124 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 6 and 8 Groups bombed rail and canal targets at Dorsten, which also was the location of a Luftwaffe fuel dump, again without loss. One hundred Lancasters of 3 Group carried out a ‘G-H’ attack on Bocholt, probably with the intention of cutting communication. All returned safely. 138 Another 102 Lancasters of 5 Group in two forces attacked bridges at Bremen and Nienburg without loss. The bridge at Nienburg was destroyed though no results were observed at Bremen.

‘We were engaged on a daylight raid over Bremen on 22 March 1945. The aircraft was piloted by Pilot Officer Pat Reyre and crewed by Flight Sergeant Ken Shaw, navigator; Flying Officer Jack Andres RCAF, bomb aimer; Flight Sergeant Alan ‘Shorty’ Thorpe RAAF; Sergeant Gerry Jones, flight engineer; and Sergeant Alf Robinson, mid-upper-gunner. ‘Z-Zebra’ was at the rear end of the ‘gaggle’ formation and bombs had been released over the target. It was a perfect day for the operation; the sky was cloudless. Anti-aircraft fire can only be described as moderate and fighters were conspicuous in their absence. We were escorted by American air force ‘Mustangs’.

‘Like most crews ‘flak’ was not an undue hazard unless it got too close and it was only by a stroke of misfortune should an aircraft fall victim to the big guns. Having said that, as we left the immediate target area I saw bursts of flak creeping dangerously close to the Lancaster directly below and astern of me. ‘Poor Blighter’ I thought. No sooner had this thought passed through my mind when two almighty explosions shook our aircraft. A dark trail of smoke appeared from the starboard wing, at the same time the aircraft swung to starboard and began to descend rapidly. I watched as we descended and saw the gaggle drift further and further from our view.

‘Within seconds of our being hit those dreaded words came over the intercom; ‘Jump, Jump.’ I swung my turret to the beam, snatched the doors open and prepared to make a hasty exit. I can’t recall to this day why I hesitated but I replied to the skipper; ‘Did you say jump?’ Back came the reply; ‘No, hang on.’ In the course of further conversation it transpired that both starboard engines were damaged and the props feathered. Our descent continued and then, by some great fortune, one of the engines was restarted and our sided descent was corrected. It now became obvious that we had suffered serious damage. However, we were fortunate not to have any casualties. In a matter of minutes we were on our own at a height of about 5,000 feet on a perfectly clear day and a sitting duck for enemy fighters.

‘As I surveyed the sky for fighters my attention was drawn to what appeared to be long strips of brown paper drifting from the aircraft and spiralling earthwards. I was completely puzzled at the appearance of this phenomenon. I rotated the turret and peered into the fuselage where I saw the wireless operator ‘Shorty’ Thorpe and the mid-upper gunner Alf Robinson engaged in stripping lengths of ammunition from the ammunition tracks situated on the starboard side of the aircraft. Both tracks had been damaged by flak which rendered my two left hand guns U/S. On reflection this course of action would have virtually no effect on lessening our overall weight. However, it did seem a good idea at the time and was good for morale. By the time we had reached Holland some considerable height had been gained. Further assessment as to the amount of damage inflicted to the aircraft drifted over the intercom to the effect that the ‘George’ control system had been shot away, numerous fuel lines had been severed, our starboard aileron was useless and we had no brake pressure.

‘Our situation was bad, but not hopeless. However, it was decided to discharge a distress signal with a view to obtaining assistance from any of our fighter escort who may still be in the vicinity. I watched as the red flare ascended then fell gently away. It was within a matter of seconds after the flare had been discharged that three ‘Mustangs’ appeared on our port beam, two of the fighters peeled off whilst the third positioned himself some fifty yards to the port side of my turret. The pilot waved his hand as a gesture of encouragement and maintained his position. This ‘Mustang’ escorted us right across Holland and over the Dutch coast. The Frisian Islands came into view. Later as we flew over the islands our aircraft was once again subjected to heavy anti-aircraft fire. As the flak opened up the ‘Mustang’ pilot opened his throttle and headed out to sea. No further damage was sustained to ‘Z- Zebra’ and we made headway towards the English coast.

‘At the main briefing prior to our take off it had been stressed that Woodbridge, one of the two emergency runways catering for aircraft in distress, was out of use for reasons which I recall were never disclosed. Only Manston was available. It was due to the set of circumstances prevailing at that time that our pilot was forced to set course for Woodbridge. We still maintained height and the weather remained nigh perfect. At this stage an intercom discussion was held during the course of which our skipper gave us an ultimatum stating there was a fifty-fifty chance of putting our aircraft down in one piece. The two options open to us were either bale out or stay with our aircraft. The response was unanimous and an instant decision was made to stay together.

‘As Woodbridge came into view there were excited comments over the intercom. The emergency runway was lined virtually from end to end with ‘Halifax’ aircraft and various types of gliders. Here was the answer to the airfield being closed. Flying control was contacted and a request for landing made. Needless to say our request was refused and we were instructed to divert elsewhere. Owing to the state of our aircraft, plus the fact our fuel situation was becoming critical, this course of action had to be refuted. Despite an almost superhuman effort by our skipper the kite was becoming almost impossible to control and our crash landing procedure was put into operation.

‘There was to be only one approach to the runway due to the fact alterations to course could not be achieved owing to the failure of our controls system. Wheels were down and the undercarriage locked. The approach was made and we touched down halfway along the runway. We had no flaps and brake pressure was nil, the result being that we careered along the runway at a fast rate of knots. The end of the runway was reached and we carried onto the overshoot area which was in a similar state to a newly ploughed field. The vibration was such that I thought we were going to break up. I had rotated the rear turret facing starboard and as we trundled on I had a shaky view of a football match which was in progress some several hundred yards away. As their attention was drawn to us, players and spectators alike stopped as though riveted to the ground and gazed in amazement as we roared past them. The aircraft finally came to rest with our undercarriage intact. I virtually fell out of my turret, whilst the rest of the crew with the exception of our skipper followed suit via the main door. On making my way to the front of the aircraft I saw our skipper still sitting in his cockpit, no doubt finding it difficult to believe we had made it down in one piece.

‘As we took account of the damage sustained we noticed that the bomb doors had crept open several inches. Closer inspection revealed one of our 1,000lb bombs nestled on the bomb bay doors. It became obvious we had a hang up which had not registered on our instruments and the bomb had broken loose during our bumpy entry onto the overshoot area. Had we known the bomb was still in the aircraft I doubt very much if we would have brought ‘Zebra’ home. Needless to say there was much twittering at the thought of what might have happened had it exploded.

‘Bladders were relieved and the crew then congregated awaiting transport to the flights and our de-briefing. Ken Shaw the navigator produced a fair sized piece of shrapnel. This had become lodged in his ‘Mae West’. He then went on to explain having felt a blow in the lower part of his ribs as though he had been kicked. It transpired the shrapnel had torn through his life jacket and struck the large ‘rat trap’ type of buckle of his battle dress jacket. The buckle had been bent almost double by the impact but had no doubt saved him from serious injury. The emergency vehicles were on the scene very promptly and we were transported to the flights for de-briefing whilst our navigator attended the sick bay where he was given a check up. It was only at the debriefing stage we were informed that Woodbridge was on standby for the forthcoming Rhine crossing operation. This explained the presence of the large numbers of aircraft stationed on the main runway. We were further informed that strict security was being imposed on the station and all personnel confined to base. It was also made clear no mail would be allowed to leave the base until the glider force had left for its destination. After a meal we were billeted and then we commenced to have a look around the base. There were literally thousands of aircrew and army personnel scattered around the station and we met many old friends with whom we had trained prior to our operational posting.

‘The giant armada finally left; a sight we shall never forget as the aircraft set off into an almost cloudless sky. The crew went into Ipswich to celebrate our survival and on our return to the base the following day arrangements were made for our return to our Squadron at Skellingthorpe. We had been absent for several days and some of the other crews thought we had been written off.

‘This brief account of the experience of a Lancaster crew carrying out its duties does not highlight any acts of heroism or brave deeds, but it does bring home the occupational hazards faced by all crews engaged on operations. It also emphasises the determination of a crew and the outstanding efforts of an exceptional pilot to survive and return with their aircraft to continue the struggle.

‘We returned to Woodbridge three days after the defeat of Germany and flew ‘Z-Zebra’ back to Skellingthorpe. She flew for two more years before joining hundreds of other redundant Lancasters in the scrap yard’.

Home Defence Mid-July 1940 Part I

Both Germany and Britain were hindered by their lack of military or political intelligence throughout the summer of 1940. A central explanation for Hitler’s ill-judged speech at the Reichstag was that the Germans had no inside knowledge of the British political scene, and were still relying on the preconceived notion of Churchill as an unpopular plutocrat.

Although the Nazis had cracked some of the Admiralty radio codes, thereby gaining useful information about ship movements, they knew little about the army, the RAF or the strength of Britain’s defences. In fact, Hitler once bewailed Germany’s ignorance about its enemy, given that she lay only 21 miles away from occupied territory: ‘It seems incredible that we do not have a single informant in Great Britain.’ British military leaders complained just as bitterly about being kept in the dark, largely because the German occupation had destroyed the Allies’ networks of agents across Western Europe and resistance cells had not yet been established.

But Britain did have one advantage over the Germans: the work of the government’s Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, where the pioneering use of semi-electronic computers was beginning to yield results in decrypting the latest codes employed by the German military on their ferociously complex Enigma machines.

A crucial breakthrough came on 22 May 1940 when the decoders succeeded in unlocking the traffic between Luftwaffe operational units and Goering’s headquarters. The intelligence from the Enigma decrypts was known as Ultra and was regarded as so important that it was circulated to only a handful of military and political leaders, including the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill and Ismay.

The Ultra decrypts were personally taken to the prime minister each day by Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, another indicator of their importance, and were carried in a special buff-coloured box, for which Churchill alone in Downing Street had the key. Indeed, the existence of Ultra was so secret that it was kept from the public until the 1970s, when the retired senior intelligence officer Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham, who was in charge of the Ultra decrypts, published his memoirs. Churchill himself approvingly described the Bletchley Park staff as ‘the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’.

In late June 1940, the Bletchley listeners were able to provide one intriguing detail that appeared to indicate that the Germans were planning major landings on the British Isles. The message ran: ‘on 20 June, a request from Flakcorps 1 (anti-aircraft corps) for the following maps to be delivered, among others, immediately to their HQ: i) 800 copies, England and Ireland, scale 1/100,000 and 1/300,000; ii) 300 copies, France and England, scale 1/1,000,000’.

Perhaps even more valuable was an analysis of the decrypts in early July by air intelligence, which seemed to show that German bomber strength was much lower than expected. Instead of the 2,500 front-line bombers previously thought to be held by the Luftwaffe, the estimated number was now believed to be 1,250, or half that. Describing the figures as ‘heaven-sent’, the air staff said that the forthcoming German aerial offensive could be viewed ‘much more confidently than was possible a month ago’. Yet over the coming months, the Luftwaffe traffic did not yield as much solid information as the British government had initially hoped when the Luftwaffe code was broken.

In fact, Ultra was of limited benefit in mid-1940, for two reasons. One was that the German military, including the Luftwaffe staff, tended to use secure telephone landlines rather than the radio throughout their occupied territory. Another was that Goering, puffed up with arrogance, was completely detached from the invasion planning process and had no interest in cooperating with the other commanders, as he showed by his regular non-attendance at conferences.

Given Ultra’s limitations in July, the British therefore still had to turn to other sources of intelligence, whose varied quality gave rise to constant empty rumours and false alarms. Indeed, after submitting a report stating that ‘a fairly reliable source gives 5 July as the date for invasion’, MI14, the German section of British Intelligence, admitted candidly, ‘we doubt if any source open to us can be in possession of such accurate information.’ Nevertheless, the defence authorities had a duty to consider every piece of data that might shed light on the invasion plans. At the end of June, for instance, Lord Halifax circulated a report from Polish sources in the Turkish capital Ankara, warning that the invasion would be mounted in the second week of July. Partly as a result of this report, speculation grew about the imminence of an attack on 8 July, although such talk was never taken too seriously. ‘This is the zero hour for Hitler’s invasion of England – the actual date favoured by tipsters being about 8 July,’ Sir Alexander Cadogan recorded drily.

When that day passed without incident, Thursday 11 July became the rumoured new date of destiny. John Colville wrote in his diary with a hint of cynicism, ‘The invasion and great attack is now said to be due on Thursday.’7 When the day came and the Channel crossing similarly failed to materialise, he noted that new intelligence pointed to Norway as the possible base for a German assault.

In the same vein, on 10 July, another intelligence report to the committee stated that ‘training for combined operations is being carried out in the Baltic’, and, even more disturbingly, that ‘Germany intends to use poison gas in the attack on Great Britain.’ But two days later, in a further sign of how poor the intelligence was, another report admitted that the sudden, recent focus on Scandinavia might have been misleading.

Other information sent to the defence authorities pointed elsewhere. Admiral Drax, the commander of the Nore, circulated to the Chiefs of Staff an ominous rumour he had heard from three Dutch army officers who had escaped from occupied Holland. According to this Dutch trio:

The German preparations in Holland for the invasion of England are obvious and the German slogan is ‘London on 15th July. Every craft that can be made capable of making the crossing is expected to start on 11 July, and one and a half million men are being transported in various small craft. A very large number of parachute troops are in Holland and are continually practising. Large quantities of troops are to be airborne and special underground starting places complete with runways have been constructed. Planes have been specially constructed to land in small places, i.e. – the size of a football ground. The plan for invasion is the launching of a parachutist attack which is intended to withdraw the troops from the coast, thus facilitating the task of the first landing parties which will come from all ports from Norway to Belgium. After the first parties have secured a footing, the main landing force will arrive in larger ships. The Germans estimate there will be a total invasion force of three-and-a-half to four million.

The absurd scale of this supposed operation, as big as Barbarossa if it had been mounted, rightly undermined the credibility of the rumour.

Amidst this miasma of false trails, exaggeration and gossip, there was one unintentionally comedic result. The prime minister decreed that all the intelligence reports and Bletchley decrypts about the potential invasion should be classified under the code name Operation Smith, since the British knew nothing about the German title, Operation Sea Lion. Indeed, it was not until late September that Bletchley discovered that the Germans’ invasion plan was called Seelöwe. However, Churchill’s choice of name was unfortunate, as the government scientist R.V. Jones later recounted:

It turned out that the War Office had its own ‘Operation Smith’ that was concerned with the invasion. It was the code name for the movement of one of its minor administrative branches from its current headquarters in Tetbury to some place further north if the Germans should have invaded and posed a threat to south Gloucestershire. The result was that when the Bletchley teleprints were received in the War Office, duly headed according to the Prime Minister’s instruction, they were immediately sent to a Colonel in Gloucestershire, who no doubt impressed by the service that the War Office was providing but realizing that the material was too secret for general circulation, locked them in his safe and told nobody.

For all the conflicting advice from the continent, the government had to prepare for the worst eventuality. As Churchill said in his radio broadcast of 14 July, perhaps the invasion might ‘never come’ but he knew Britain could not rely on such blind optimism. Everything possible had to be done to secure the country’s defences, since it was in Germany’s essential interest to conquer her last remaining foe in Western Europe. Ironside wrote in his diary: ‘This looks like the decisive month’ for ‘there can be no doubt that vast preparations in the way of air and sea invasion are being made’.

Always fascinated by military strategy, the prime minister himself was considering the nature of the invasion threat and the effectiveness of Britain’s resources. In a paper of 9 July, he struck a dismissive note about Germany’s chances of launching a successful assault, particularly because of the strength of the Royal Navy. ‘I find it very difficult to visualize the kind of invasion all along the coast by troops carried in small craft and even in boats. I have not seen any serious evidence of this class of craft being assembled and except in very narrow waters, it would be a most hazardous and even suicidal operation to commit a large army to the accidents of the sea in the teeth of our very numerous patrolling forces.’ With remarkable boldness he expressed his disbelief that ‘the south coast is in serious danger at the present time’, because ‘no great mass of shipping exists in the French ports’, with the Dover mine barrage acting as a deterrent.

Partly in response to Churchill’s paper, the First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound produced a more circumspect analysis, setting out his view of the German threat. On the seas, it was true that Britain enjoyed naval superiority, but this could be countered by air power. Following the launch of an invasion, ‘large numbers of German air forces will be concentrated on our warships in the narrow seas in an endeavour to prevent them operating against invading forces’. Contrary to Churchill’s positive view, he said that it would ‘never be possible for the Admiralty to guarantee’ that German landings could not take place in the south, partly because of advances in naval technology. ‘In the hundred years since invasion of this country was last seriously talked about the Channel and North Sea have become very much narrower because of the greatly increased speed of the craft that might be employed and the crossing of these waters by large numbers of high speed, small boats is now a practicable matter. The whole crossing can now be undertaken in many places in the dark hours.’

Continuing in this pessimistic vein, Pound wrote that the most likely launch points for such barks were between Calais and the Netherlands. ‘The enemy may well have prepared a considerable number of these fast craft and it is not impossible that, say, 400 of these vessels, each capable of holding 40 men, may be in readiness.’ If these fast vessels were to travel across to England at 30 knots, ‘the likelihood of our destroyers being able to get to the spot in time to take any considerable toll is not great. The coastal patrols themselves, being slow and of weak armament, could not be expected to stop more than 20 per cent of such a force.’ Taking account of potential embarkation from Nazi-occupied Denmark and Norway, as well as from ports in Germany, Pound believed it was probable that ‘a total of some 100,000 men might reach these shores without being sufficiently intercepted by naval forces.’ It would be difficult for the invader to maintain supply lines, but, on the other hand, ‘he could make a quick rush on London, living off the country as he went, and force our Government to capitulate’.

On seeing Pound’s paper, Churchill struck an emollient tone. Rather than dismiss the First Sea Lord’s arguments, in his reply of 15 July sent to the Chiefs of Staff, he said he was certain ‘that the Admiralty will in fact be better than their word, and that the invaders’ losses in transit would further reduce the scale of the attack’. However, he urged the chiefs to review their invasion plans and make sure that they had the land forces to repel a German attack of 100,000 men, which in practice meant at least 200,000 troops in the home defences.

Churchill’s demand to the chiefs for a minimum defence force of 200,000 was in fact rather modest in the context of a growing strength at home. Since the dark days of May, when the country seemed hopelessly ill equipped to cope with an assault, Britain’s security had radically improved. On every front, the nation was becoming better prepared. Fighter Command, having proved its capabilities over Dunkirk, was rapidly expanding its fleet. Between 29 June and 2 August, 488 Hurricanes and Spitfires came out of the factories. In early May, Fighter Command had an establishment of little more than 600 aircraft. By mid-July the figure had reached over 900, with Hurricanes and Spitfires making up the vast majority of planes. In addition, the radar stations and the Royal Observer Corps, now both fully operational, gave the RAF an invaluable warning system about hostile Luftwaffe activity; while the technically minded head of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, had devised a highly efficient command structure for processing information about enemy movements, which meant that fighter resources could be directed to where they were needed most.

Similarly, the Royal Navy was an increasingly strong obstacle against invasion, with the coastal fleet, gun batteries and mines all being reinforced. It was the same reassuring story with the coastguard, which, having been taken by the Admiralty from the Board of Trade, had been ‘doubled in strength and armed, so that the maximum patrol beat between posts was only half an hour,’ reported Pound to a meeting of government ministers on 15 July. As regards the main Home Fleet, Pound’s news was equally heartening. There were now, he said, at least fifty destroyers, thirteen cruisers and nineteen corvettes in home waters.

Home Defence Mid-July 1940 Part II

Two Local Defence Volunteers receiving instruction on either a Pattern 1914 or M1917 Enfield rifle. The two Volunteers are wearing the denim overalls over their ordinary clothes, one of them is wearing a collar and tie underneath. Note also the field service caps, the LDV armlets and civilian shoes worn without gaiters. The sergeant instructor is wearing standard Battle Dress.

The army had long been seen as the weakest of the three services, but even here the deficiencies should not be exaggerated. Contrary to the myth that Dunkirk had left the British army hopelessly denuded, the total number of men under arms in the United Kingdom in mid-July 1940 was 1,313,000, and that did not include the 600,000 men who had registered as Local Defence Volunteers. This huge force included 595,000 troops in the regular field army, 42,000 in home defence battalions, 13,000 in coastal defence, 365,000 in training units and 38,000 from the Dominions. However, the real effectiveness of the force was not nearly as impressive as these numbers suggested, since 220,000 were in support organisations and had not been trained to fight, while 150,000 of the soldiers had less than two months’ service. In addition, sixteen of Ironside’s twenty-eight divisions were still re-equipping and regrouping after their disastrous ordeals in France. Nevertheless, when it came to equipment, the army’s position was improving compared to early June. It now had 710 field guns, 198 medium and heavy guns, 263 towed anti-tank guns, 291 tracked light tanks, 10,000 Bren guns and 4,500 anti-tank rifles, although this was all far below the armoury of the Germans in the West.

Static fortifications were the centrepiece of the Ironside plan, made up of trenches, sandbagged strongpoints, roadblocks, mines and tank traps. Allied to natural obstacles like rivers or woods, these man-made barriers formed the local and GHQ ‘stop lines’ that Ironside hoped would halt the advance of the invader.

While worried about the numbers of troops and the quality of their training, Ironside was pleased with progress on his stop lines and beach defences. ‘Our fortifications are getting better every day,’ he wrote on 8 July. One indicator of this progress was the delivery of a new, more powerful type of anti-tank mine filled with ammonal, an explosive largely made up of ammonium nitrate and TNT. From mid-July, these were sent to the army commands at the rate of 20,000 a week.

As well as the beach defences and the stop lines, work had continued on obstructing fields that could be used as potential landing grounds for German airborne troops, although progress here was hampered both by the need to maintain agricultural production and by severe shortages of labour. At the beginning of July, Churchill became concerned that the effort to block open spaces was ‘not being pressed with sufficient vigour, particularly in the Western and Midland areas. Local authorities or owners should be made personally responsible for the execution of this work.’

In the mood of wartime emergency, the construction of anti-invasion defences was sometimes accompanied by a degree of ruthlessness, with the normal respect for private property and individual rights often being ignored by the military under Emergency Powers legislation. One of the toughest in this regard was Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, who was put in charge of No. 3 Division, based near Brighton, on his return from Dunkirk. Typically, he was quite unashamed about his uncompromising attitude, boasting in his memoirs that his division ‘descended like an avalanche on the inhabitants of that area; we dug in the gardens of seaside villas, we sited machine-gun posts in the best places. The protests were tremendous. Mayors, County Councillors, private owners, came to see me and demanded that we should cease our work; I refused and explained the urgency.’ Monty’s harshness was witnessed by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Horrocks, commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade based in the South-East. ‘Monty used to pay constant visits. “Who lives in that house?” he would say pointing to some building which partly masked the fire from one of our machine gun positions. “Have them out, Horrocks. Blow up the house. Defence must come first.” ’

Sometimes the destructive mood of haste could be counter-productive. According to a report to the Home Defence Executive on 11 July, some soldiers who were trying to obstruct fields near the RAF base at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire ‘dug up in the course of a few days an aerodrome and eight miles of piping which had taken the Air Ministry 18 months to do’.

Fighter Command’s key role in the summer of 1940 was, of course, to prevent the Germans gaining air superiority over the south-east of England, but in July the Air Ministry also drew up plans to use almost every available aircraft in the country, no matter how old, obsolete or ill equipped, in a last-ditch fight against the invader. Code-named Operation Banquet, the scheme essentially meant that all aircraft, apart from those in Fighter Command, would be absorbed into a series of striking forces to bomb the enemy as they landed. Under this operation, even training planes and unqualified students would be sent into action. The most unorthodox element of the plan was a separate initiative called Operation Banquet Lights, by which 350 Tiger Moth biplanes from the Elementary Flight Training School would each be fitted with eight 20-pound bombs and then fly to the landing beaches. Despite its almost suicidal nature, given the planes’ slow speed and vulnerability, the plan for Banquet Lights was taken seriously, and trainee pilots at the Elementary Flying School in mid-1940 were instructed in bombing, although shortages of dummy bombs meant that they often had to use bricks during such practice.

Another vital step in invasion planning was to maintain effective and secure communications between the three service headquarters and the front-line forces, made up of the five army area commands (Scottish, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western), the Home Fleet commands and the RAF Fighter Groups. Normal radio and landline links were insufficiently reliable in an emergency as well as carrying the danger that they might be used by the Germans. So a separate network was developed, code-named the ‘Beetle’ scheme, which had two main elements for use in the invasion: first, a point-to-point wireless service to pass information from the headquarters to the commands; second, a medium-power radio service to enable instructions to be broadcast by the commands to the lower units. The transmission of the code words ‘Beetle’ or ‘Stand-By Beetle’ by either of these means indicated that enemy action was under way.

In addition to Beetle, several other warning systems were developed. The General Post Office installed special alarm circuits that connected their local and main telephone exchanges in the vulnerable areas of the South, with the aim of preventing the enemy sending bogus messages. In similar fashion, the Admiralty gave new instructions to naval ships for sending coded messages about the invasion, either by wireless or by pyrotechnic signal. On top of all these sophisticated systems there remained the ancient method of ringing the church bells as a warning to the public and the LDVs that the invasion had started. Although simple, the move into campanology was ultimately to cause deep confusion in September.

The overall mood in the government and the armed forces was one of resolution rather than fear or panic. The Information Minister Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary, ‘We half know that the odds are against us, yet there is a sort of exhilaration in the air.’ It was this widespread optimism that impressed several American observers, like the journalist Virginia Cowles, who wrote in the Sunday Times on 21 July: ‘No one could fail to admire the deep gallantry with which the English people wait, almost hour by hour, for the mass air raids which may signal Nazi Germany’s final bid for European domination. But as an American what has struck me most has been that since the fall of France, the people seem to reflect an even deeper confidence than before.’

Cowles explained that this confidence had been emboldened by the success of the RAF, faith in the Royal Navy and Britain’s long history of resisting invasion. But as an American she might have mentioned another, more immediate factor: the arrival of large quantities of arms and equipment from the USA, strengthening the army and transforming the capability of the Local Defence Volunteers. Organised by President Roosevelt’s government with heroic cunning to circumvent the USA’s neutrality laws, the first large consignments of rifles, machine guns, field guns and mortars started to reach Britain on 8 July. Most of this matériel was destined for the LDVs, although the 900 75-mm field guns and mortars went to the regular army. ‘There was no need to worry. The equipment will soon be here and then you will have guns galore,’ Churchill told General Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealander in charge of the army on Salisbury Plain. In fact, the USA was even more accommodating than the original deal had outlined: instead of the agreed 500,000 rifles, the Americans sent 615,000, each with 250 rounds of ammunition.

It has often been suggested that this act was not nearly as helpful as it seemed, since the M1917 rifles were supposedly antiquated and ill matched to British needs. ‘The ancient rifles,’ wrote the historian Norman Longmate, ‘arrived caked in heavy grease, like congealed Vaseline, which had protected them during their long years of disuse.’ Cleaning them up with paraffin was a laborious task.

The negative image of these American M1917s, sometimes called just M17s, was in fact unjustified. On joining up, volunteers had expected to be handed the much loved, standard-issue British infantry weapon, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), so they were disappointed when instead they were supplied with an alien one using American .300 rounds. Nor did the tough work of removing the congealed grease initially endear the M1917s to their users in Home Guard. Moreover, the American shipments tended to be associated with the 75,000 Ross rifles that had arrived from Canada in June. But the Ross, cumbersome and prone to jamming, was an unsatisfactory weapon and had been rejected by the British army for service before the First World War; the M1917 was far superior. The idea that it was badly outdated or ineffective is one of the more persistent myths about the summer of 1940. It was no more antique than the Short Magazine Lee Enfield, whose original concept dated back to 1907, whereas the M1917, as its name suggests, had been designed in the penultimate year of the First World War and it went on to be used during both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. Clifford Shore, a Home Guardsman who later became a sniper instructor, said that the M1917 ‘was probably the most accurate rifle I have ever used’. To distinguish the M1917s from British rifles, a red band two inches wide was placed round the barrel so guardsmen would not attempt to load them with British .303 bullets.

It is another myth that in the summer of 1940 the LDVs were desperately short of ammunition. Thanks to the American shipments, each guardsman on duty could be issued with fifty rounds, the same as the standard issue for the regular army.

The influence of folk memories, allied to the enduring appeal of the TV show Dad’s Army, have obscured the truth about the equipment for the LDV. Not only was the M1917 an excellent rifle, but other American weapons supplied in 1940 to the LDVs were also highly efficient. These included a total of 25,000 Browning automatic rifles, which had a rate of fire of 500 rounds a minute, and 22,000 Browning water-cooled machine guns, which, like the M1917, used .300 bullets and were fitted with red bands to differentiate them from British weapons. Again, as with the M1917, some volunteers preferred the American Browning machine gun to its British counterpart, the .303 Vickers machine gun.

By the end of July 1940, with more than 600,000 well-armed men in uniform, backed by machine guns and improvised bombs, the LDVs were nothing like the hapless, clowning rabble of legend. Altogether, by the beginning of July, 1.166 million men had registered to serve in this force. Churchill was not indulging in fantasy when, in his inspiring radio broadcast on 14 July, he proclaimed that the Local Defence Volunteers, ‘a large proportion of whom have been through the last War, have the strongest desire to attack and come to close quarters with the enemy wherever he may appear. Should the invader come to Britain, there will be no placid lying down of the people in submission before him as we have seen, alas, in other countries.’

That spirit was recalled by Jimmy Taylor, who served in his village LDV unit in Hampshire as a bicycle dispatch rider: ‘I think the Germans would never have had such resistance as they would have had in England. Every village and hamlet, every corner, every ditch, every river would have been defended, even with obsolete guns. They would never have had an inch that they wouldn’t have had to fight over. The scenes we knew in France and Belgium during the blitzkrieg would not have been repeated in Britain, in my estimation.’

Serving in the Bristol LDV in his spare time from his job as a clerk at the local Corporation’s Electricity Department, Jack Yeatman recalled: ‘We were under no illusions as to what would happen if the invasion did take place, but the invasion forces would not have the rapid and easy dash across country which they had enjoyed in Belgium and Northern France. We wouldn’t have been able to stop them but their progress would have been slow and their casualties high. The LDV were a very real part of the defence of the realm.’

The novelist and poet Cecil Day Lewis, who joined the LDV in Devon, thought that a powerful sense of local pride helped to galvanise the force: ‘One thing we did have – and that’s the thing that made the LDV such a roaring success in the country districts: we had the familiarity and pride of the village, the moral strength – that is the only word for it – of men used to working and living together in a small community. We were to defend our own little patch of England. As one recruit said to me, “That’s all right, I’ll join. But us don’t have to go and fight for those bastards at Axford, do us?”, naming the next village.’

Churchill may have been impressed by the resolve of the LDVs, but he loathed the name. With his historical romanticism and lyrical gift for language, he found the title Local Defence Volunteers far too utilitarian, bureaucratic and mundane. The Minister for Supply, Herbert Morrison, sharing this dislike of the acronym LDV, had already put forward two alternatives, the Town Guard or the Civil Guard. Churchill, in whose view both of those names were ‘too similar to the wild men of the French Revolution’, offered another. ‘Home Guard would be better. Don’t hesitate to change on account of already having made armlets etc, if it is thought the title of “Home Guard” would be more compulsive.’

War Secretary Anthony Eden, partly on practical grounds, rejected the suggestion. Not only had the term LDV ‘passed into military jargon’, he told the prime minister, but more than 1 million armbands with LDV on them had been manufactured. ‘On the whole I should prefer to hold on to the existing name.’ In an attempt to bypass Eden, Churchill approached Duff Cooper to ask whether the Ministry of Information would encourage newspapers to use the term and make it part of popular currency, telling him on 6 July, ‘I am going to have the name “Home Guard” adopted, and I hope you will, when notified, get the press to put it across.’ Through the simple tactic of repeatedly referring to the Home Guard rather than the LDV in his correspondence, broadcasts and Parliamentary speeches, the prime minister ensured that the phrase became increasingly popular with the public. Towards the end of July he got his way, the force of Churchillian pressure having broken the resistance of the opposition.

By September, the Home Guard was moving towards something more like the volunteer wing of the regular army, complete with army-style ranks, stripes, appointments and discipline. Even with their improvements in equipment, arms, uniforms and training, the essential tasks of the Home Guard remained largely the same during the summer months of 1940: protecting vulnerable points, manning roadblocks, dealing with sightings of paratroopers, carrying out defensive patrols and passing on information to the regular armed forces.

An atmospheric insight into the experience of one Home Guardsman comes from the memoir of Eric Hart, who served in the Folkestone Battalion and was regularly out on patrol at night by bicycle.

The prime evil at this time threatened us from 25 miles across the Channel, in the form of the German Panzer divisions assembling there. The modest size of our platoon meant that each member was called upon to carry out a tour of duty at least two nights per week, on the basis of two hours on duty and an hour rest period. The cycle patrol took us along the restricted [no-go zone] undercliff road. Before the outbreak of war this had been a local beauty spot, with … a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowered borders, but all this had to pay the price of being in the front line. It was replaced with borders of barbed-wire barricades and awesome skull-and-crossbones ‘Danger Mines’ signs. Sometimes the night patrols were quite rewarding – clear skies and quiet calm as we made our almost silent progress along the deserted coast road.

Ironside saw the Home Guard as crucial for the continued implementation of his plan. Indeed, as the volunteer force grew in strength, he wanted to have more of them operating the stop lines, thereby freeing increasing numbers of the regular troops for other duties. But at the very moment he was pondering his future strategy, his authority within the military establishment and the government was crumbling. As the invasion threat deepened, so disillusion with the Home Forces commander grew, the high hopes of success when he had succeeded Kirke in May having been dashed by mid-July.