England Invaded by the Dutch: A Conquest by any other name!

Unknown 17th Century Dutch Artist, Embarkation of William III, Prince of Orange, at Helvoetsluis, c. 1688-99, oil on canvas, Royal Collection

On 1 November, driven onward at speed by a strong easterly wind, a vast Dutch fleet left its sheltered harbour at Hellevoetsluis and sailed out into open waters. At a signal from William of Orange the great gathering of ships organised itself into a prearranged formation, ‘stretching the whole fleet in a line, from Dover to Calais, twenty-five deep’. The Dutch began their mission, ‘colours flying’, the fleet ‘in its greatest splendour’, ‘a vast mass of sail stretching as far as the eye could see, the warships on either flank simultaneously thundering their guns in salute as they passed in full view of Dover Castle on one side and the French garrison at Calais on the other’. As the great flotilla proceeded magnificently on its way, the Dutch regiments stood in full parade formation on the deck, with ‘trumpets and drums playing various tunes to rejoice [their] hearts … for above three hours’.

In his diary for the day, Constantijn Huygens junior, William of Orange’s Dutch secretary, recorded how, the morning after they set sail: ‘We arrived between Dover and Calais, and at midday, as we passed along the Channel, we could see distinctly the high white cliffs of England, but the coast of France could be seen only faintly.’ Constantijn junior, and the other children of the distinguished statesman, connoisseur, poet and musician Sir Constantijn Huygens, together with their father, will be important witnesses and guides as the present book unfolds.

Poised between England and Holland (like other members of his family he was an outstanding linguist, whose English and French were as fluent as his native Dutch), Constantijn junior was equally at home in the élite circles of either country. Like his father and his younger brother, the scientist Christiaan Huygens, he moved easily between countries, his international experience proving invaluable to his princely employer.

From the very start, the Dutch fleet achieved its key strategic aim, creating an unforgettable spectacle, inducing a feeling of shock and awe in onlookers on either shore. The iconic image of its offensive sortie into the English Channel was commemorated in countless contemporary paintings and engravings, still to be found today, on display or in store, in galleries on both sides of the Narrow Seas. As the seventeenth-century armada made its way along the Channel, crowds gathered on the clifftops of the south of England to watch it pass. It was reported that the procession of ships had taken six hours to clear the ‘straits’.

The departure from Holland and arrival in England of this great fleet had been contrived with exceptional care, down to the very last detail. As the foremost historian of this period of Anglo–Dutch relations puts it, ‘The boldest enterprise ever undertaken by the Republic of the United Netherlands was stage-managed with exquisite artistry.’ The expedition comprised fifty-three warships, of which thirty-two were ‘capital ships’ designed for combat – thirteen with between sixty and sixty-eight guns, seven with between fifty and fifty-six, and twelve with between forty and forty-eight – the rest escort ships. There were ten fireships and about four hundred other vessels to transport troops, supplies and horses. The army was made up of 10,692 regular infantry and 3,660 regular cavalry, plus gunners of the artillery train and five thousand gentleman volunteers – expatriate Englishmen, Huguenots and other sympathisers. On top of this there were 9,142 crew members and a further ten thousand men on board the transport vessels. William’s plan was that this spectacular floating combination of forces and resources should avoid naval engagement at all costs. Like the D-Day landings, this was a huge feat of transportation, rather than a navy seeking a sea battle.

The munitions, equipment and supplies with which the expeditionary force was provided were formidable, and state-of-the-art. According to one eyewitness (who, as usual, may have slightly exaggerated the numbers), the fleet carried a total of seven thousand horses – mounts for the 3,660 cavalry officers, the Prince, his entourage and the officer and gentleman volunteers, and draught horses for the carts carrying provisions and ammunition. Further draught animals were needed to pull the fifty artillery pieces.

Every possible eventuality had been anticipated. Special equipment for the venture had been manufactured covertly in Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Intelligencers reported in the months preceding the invasion that the Dutch government had ordered ‘at Utrecht the making of severall thousand of pairs of pistols and carabins’, while Amsterdam ‘has undertaken to furnish 3,000 saddles’, and ‘they are also night and day employed at The Hague in making bombs, cuirasses and stinkpotts’. There were ‘muskets, pikes of all sorts, bandoliers, swords, pistols, saddles, boots, bridles and other necessaries to mount horsemen; pickaxes, wheelbarrows and other instruments to raise ground’, and ‘boats covered with leather to pass over rivers and lakes’. The fleet carried a mobile smithy for shoeing horses and repairing weapons, ten thousand pairs of spare boots, a printing press, and a large quantity of printing paper. Additional vessels were hired at Amsterdam to transport hay, provisions, etc. The wind, Constantijn Huygens recorded in his diary for the day after the fleet set sail, was steadily easterly, and the weather good.

The one decision that had not been taken by William and his advisers in advance was whether the fleet would aim to make landfall in the north of England, in Yorkshire, or in the south-west (in either case avoiding the English army, which was massed in the south-east). Pragmatically, and to perplex English intelligence, it was decided to leave that choice to the prevailing winds. In the event, the wind, which had blown ferociously from the west for almost three weeks previously, battering the Dutch coast and thwarting William’s attempt to launch his attack in mid-October, swung round suddenly (some said providentially) in the final days of October.

Responding to the favourable wind, the invasion fleet proceeded in the direction of the English coast, headed towards Harwich, as if to make landfall in Yorkshire. Having sailed just past Harwich, however, William of Orange, commander-in-chief in person of this mighty flotilla, gave new orders for it to proceed instead south-westwards, to take full advantage of the ever-strengthening easterly wind. The English war fleet, trapped in the Thames estuary by the same wind, watched William’s armada go by twice, helpless to follow and engage until it was too late.

Landing of William III at Torbay, 5 November 1688.

The vast Dutch fleet sailed past the Hampshire coast at speed, barely managing to avoid being swept past Torbay, the last port capable of receiving it. It arrived there on 3 November, English style. Since the Northern Provinces, along with the rest of Continental Europe (but not England), used the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar, this corresponded to 13 November (new style) – the day before William of Orange’s birthday. Many in his entourage urged him to take advantage of that propitious day to launch his invasion of England. To the Dutch the choice of date would have had enormous ‘good luck’ significance.

To the English, whose support had to be won by every propaganda means possible, the coincidence of dates would have been entirely lost. For as far as they were concerned, on what the Dutch considered to be William’s birthday, the anniversary was still ten days away. Prince William and his fleet lay to off the English coast for two more days, and then landed. On 5 November 1688 (according to the English calendar) William began disembarking his troops on the coast of Devon.

Thus it was (once again, ‘providentially’) that the landing took place on the anniversary of another great triumph of English Protestantism over the hostile forces of Catholicism – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The convenient match with the familiar date meant that Catholic threats were opportunely on people’s minds. Those who had witnessed the Spanish Armada approaching a hundred years earlier, in 1588, had continued to talk about its fearful appearance for the rest of their lives. Now, a century after that failed attempt at conquering Britain from the sea, a Dutch fleet somewhere around four times the size of the Armada successfully made landfall on English soil, bent on conquest. The frigate Den Briel, carrying William, flew the colours of the Prince and Princess of Orange. Its banner was emblazoned with the motto – announcing the Prince’s justification for his offensive action – ‘For Liberty and the Protestant Religion’. Beneath these words was the motto of the house of Orange, ‘Je maintiendrai’ – ‘I will persevere’.

Constantijn Huygens described their arrival in his diary:

The village where we landed is called Braxton. It is very rundown, with few and poorly constructed houses, built of that inferior stone which this entire coast and the land adjacent to it are made of, and covered in slate. Nearby is a high mountain, and the houses huddle beneath it in short rows, as if stuck to it.

At Braxton he had his first experience of roughing it English-style:

I ran into Willem Meester in front of an inn which was named the Crowned Rose Tavern. He wanted me to join him for a glass of cider, we entered and discovered the entrance hall crowded with a rabble of soldiers, drinking and raging. Coincidentally, I saw My lord Coote in this place, who had been given a room upstairs, and I entreated him to give me a place to put a mattress on the ground, which he gladly did, and we agreed to have dinner together in the evening. We had an exceptionally leathery fricassée of mutton that evening.

Prince William confided to Huygens that he preferred any kind of lodging, however humble, to spending another night at sea.

Unloading troops and supplies began on the evening of 5 November. Local fishermen proposed a suitable landing point for the horses, where the beach fell away steeply so that they would not have too far to swim ashore, and they were unloaded without incident the following day. The landing was completed late on the seventh. Prince William, his Scottish-born chaplain Gilbert Burnet, his private secretary Constantijn Huygens junior, and his most intimate and influential favourite, Hans Willem Bentinck, ‘sitting on very bad horses’ (provided by the locals) watched the swift and efficient disembarkation with satisfaction from a high cliff at nearby Brixham.

Burnet and the Prince agreed (though not entirely seriously) that the easy arrival was probably proof of predestination, and certainly the work of Providence.

Huygens’s first impression of the reception the Dutch were to receive was favourable, in spite of the obvious local poverty (he was clearly relieved):

Wednesday 17 December: The land between consisted of grand and high mountains and deep valleys, everything separated by many hedges and walls, the roads curiously poor, all of stone and strewed with loose bricks, on top of which layers of sludgy filth.

Alongside the roads the people had gathered, as on the previous day, women, men, and children alike, all shouting: ‘God bless you’ and waving to us a hundred good wishes. They gave the Prince and his entourage apples, and an old lady was waiting with a bottle of mead and wanted to pour his Highness a glass. In a little square, five women were standing, greeting him, each of whom had a pipe of tobacco in her mouth, like the large crowds we have seen, all smoking without any shame, even the very young, thirteen and fourteen year olds.

This promising start was, however, not to be sustained. Torrential rain hampered the subsequent march to nearby Paignton, and it was freezing cold. En route from Paignton to Exeter, carts and cannon frequently stuck in the mud. William waited for twelve days at Exeter for the weather to improve, and in the hope that the English gentry would begin to flock to support him.

Meanwhile, some two hundred miles away in the capital, news and rumours of the landing were trickling through in dribs and drabs to anxious Londoners: ‘confusd news of Dutch Landing near Portsmouth: Forces marchd that way early this morning … Dutch seen off the Isle of Wight … Dutch sayd to be landed at Poole … news of yesterdays and this days riots of Rabble’. Unconfirmed stories of military engagements, casualties, naval assaults and civil disturbance proliferated.

The diarist John Evelyn and the wealthy financier Sir Stephen Fox were somewhat better informed about William of Orange’s movements. Evelyn wrote in his diary on 1 November:

Dined with Lord Preston, with other company, at Sir Stephen Fox’s. Continual alarms of the Prince of Orange, but no certainty. Reports of his great losses of horse in the storm, but without any assurance.

On 2 November (old style) these ‘alarms’ were made concrete. Some of William’s horses had indeed been lost in a first, abortive attempt to launch the fleet in late October, but now the armada was well under way. Eyewitnesses had watched it leave Brill on its way to Hellevoetsluis, seen off publicly by William’s wife, James II’s eldest daughter, the Princess of Orange. News of the landing at Torbay reached London three days later, and immediately provoked fears of a breakdown in civil order:

5th [November]. I went to London; heard the news of the Prince having landed at Torbay, coming with a fleet of near 700 sail, passing through the Channel with so favourable a wind, that our navy could not intercept, or molest them. This put the King and Court into great consternation … These are the beginnings of sorrow, unless God in His mercy prevent it by some happy reconciliation of all dissensions among us.

By the beginning of December the Prince of Orange was believed to have reached Oxford and to be on his way to London against little opposition, but there were contrary rumours of a French force coming to James’s assistance from Dunkirk (this news was contradicted later that day), and of Scottish troops marching south: ‘Great confusion of reports, noe certainty. Disturbance at Cambridge, St Edmondsbury and other places.’ On 15 December, the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in London, Robert Hooke (one of those chronicling events as they unfolded in his private diary), reported ‘confusion all’ and succumbed to a depression.

Lingering, in Devon, Prince William and his right-hand man Hans Willem Bentinck were privately disappointed at the absence of support from the English gentry and nobility at disembarkation. The Prince’s English advisers were quick to reassure him that this was simply a matter of everyone hanging back, in order not to be seen to be the first to abandon James II. In the absence of troops gathering to William’s side, and cheering hordes of English men and women welcoming the Prince who would deliver them from servitude and tyranny, it was decided to choreograph William’s arrival with heavy symbolic components, in a bid to proclaim the impeccable moral foundation for the invasion and his good intentions, to be broadcast as widely and as quickly as possible. A hastily written eyewitness account was rushed into print and distributed throughout the area.

The customarily sober and understated William entered Exeter in triumphal procession: ‘Armed cap a pee. A plume of white feathers on his head. All in bright armour, and forty two footmen running by him.’ Fifty gentlemen and as many pages attended him and supported his banner, which bore the inscription ‘God and the Protestant religion’. William rode on a ‘milk white palfrey’ and was preceded by two hundred gentlemen in armour, English and Scottish for the most part, mounted on heavy Flemish horses. For further dramatic effect, these knights were accompanied by ‘two hundred blacks brought from the [sugar] plantations of the Netherlands in America [Surinam]’, all dressed in white, turbaned and befeathered. No clearer symbolism could have been used to represent William as God’s appointed champion, as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘I saw and behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.’ The white-clad ‘blacks’ reinforced the millennial theme – William was a global ruler, whose dominion extended to the limits of the known world.

From Exeter, Bentinck wrote to the commander of the Prince’s fleet, Admiral Herbert, still expressing concern at their lukewarm reception by the local gentry. The arrival of the Prince’s army would, he said, have looked less like an act of military aggression – less like an invasion, indeed – if the local landowners had only ridden out to welcome them:

I doubt not that the Good God will bless the cause, the people appear everywhere here extremely well disposed, it is only the gentlemen and the clergy who are somewhat more cautious, and do not espouse our cause. I am surprised at the latter, it seems to me that fear of the gibbet has more effect on their minds than zeal for religion.

In fact, the gentry were busy hedging their bets, trying to ascertain whether William’s bold adventure would succeed. They were preoccupied, too, with covering their backs – politically and financially. As early as 11 November, Sir Stephen Fox, anticipating his imminent dismissal from his office at the Exchequer, hastily approached the Royal Surveyor, Sir Christopher Wren, for written confirmation that building works he had carried out on his Whitehall lodgings (which belonged to the Crown) ten years earlier had cost him £1,000. Wren obliged with the certification of expenditure, and on 17 November issued a royal warrant guaranteeing Fox the right to remain in his Whitehall property until the money had been refunded to him.

Fox’s attempts to put his finances in order were part of a growing recognition at Whitehall Palace that the royal administration there was in the process of collapse. Support began to ebb away from the King’s party, and officials started discreetly to leave their posts. King James’s own first attempt at flight on 11 December contributed strongly to the confusion, since while attempting to remove himself and his family to safety abroad, he took steps to disrupt affairs of state, allowing him time (he hoped) to get French backing and to return. Before he left, he called for the most recent batch of Parliamentary writs and burned them. As he was being rowed across the Thames from Whitehall Palace to Vauxhall en route for the Kentish coast, he dropped the Great Seal, which he had retrieved from Lord Chancellor Jeffreys two days earlier, into the river. ‘He believed – correctly as it turned out – that there could be no lawful parliament held without his writs of summons under the Great Seal. His going thus created a hiatus in government, or interregnum, which was to be exploited by his enemies.’

James was right in thinking that his decision to flee would cause a constitutional crisis. Until he did so, William’s mission appeared to be one of ‘restauration’ – to restore English government to stability by any means necessary. With the throne apparently vacant, and government suspended, the Prince of Orange could for the first time openly express a willingness to fill the political vacuum by taking political control for himself and his wife, ‘to prevent the effusion of blood’. ‘Affaires being now altered by the King’s retirement’, William wrote to the Earl of Danby, James’s supporters like the Earl should disband their forces, return to their homes and ‘stand for to be chosen parliament men in their counties.’ His satisfaction turned out to be premature, however. In London, peers largely loyal to James had already set up a provisional government or Convention, which sat for the first time on 12 December, and continued to govern the country uninterruptedly, and without William’s interference, until James II fled for good just before Christmas.

William III of England at the Battle of the Boyne.

On 12 December, as the Dutch army made its way towards London, reports began to reach them that James II had fled to France. Gilbert Burnet, Prince William’s Scottish chaplain, told Huygens ‘at table’, that a ‘Convocation’ or ‘free Parliament’ had been set up at Westminster to govern the country. On 14 December they reached Henley. As they marched from Henley towards Windsor, the weather was fine, and Huygens – an accomplished amateur artist, some of whose exquisite watercolour landscapes survive – marvelled at the beauty of the countryside:

Because the weather was so beautiful, we marched from Henley to Windsor. My Master was riding along with me, and we went off course, too much to the left, and headed toward the river, to the extent that we made a detour of an entire mile, yet alongside that same river we saw the world’s most beautiful views. That of Henley, when one reaches a certain height, is magnificently beautiful.

We rode through a large hamlet, named Maidenhead, where my Master stayed behind because his horse had some pebbles in his horse shoes and consequently had gone lame. I continued on my own, and closer to Windsor came on an empty road. For a long stretch, I had to wade through water, which came up to the horse’s belly. I could find no one to ask directions because all the people had gone to the street where his Highness was scheduled to make his procession.

Windsor Castle, when they arrived, provided Huygens with an opportunity to indulge one of his favourite pastimes – appraising the fine art in princely collections:

At Windsor I saw once in haste the King’s apartment, which had many good Italian paintings in it, among them those by Titian of the Marquis del Guasto and his wife, one of a woman leaning on her elbow, lying and reading, a naked youth of the manner of Michel Angelo da Caravaggio, and many others. There were also some very beautiful tapestries.

On 18 December the Prince of Orange and his army entered London in another carefully organised ‘triumph’, to be welcomed, this time, by cheering crowds of Londoners. In spite of miserable weather, people in coaches and on horseback, as well as on foot, lined the streets. Huygens reports with evident relief that many of them wore orange ribbons, while others had stuck oranges on sticks and waved them in the air. One of those who has left us his own on-the-spot account of these events records:

The universall joy and acclamation at his entrance was like that at the Restauration [of 1660] in all things, except in debaucheries, of which there was as little appearance as has been known upon such occasion and such a publick concourse. An orange woman without Ludgate gave diverse baskets full of oranges to the Prince’s officers and soldiers as they marched by, to testifie her affection towards them. Divers ordinary women in Fleet Street shooke his soldiers by the hand, as they came by, and cryed, welcome, welcome. God blesse you, you come to redeeme our religion, lawes, liberties, and lives. God reward you. etc.

William’s London entrance was designed to ensure that his arrival would be remembered as a liberation rather than a conquest. Crowds could be fickle – the same people had also lined the streets for King James, who had returned to the capital, after a first attempt at joining his wife and baby son in France had been thwarted, two days earlier. The Prince had therefore taken precautions to ensure that there was no unseemly opposition to his arrival. He had sent a senior troop commander on ahead of the main army, with units of the trusted Dutch Blue Guards, to take up positions protecting Whitehall, St James’s Park and St James’s Palace, in advance of his coming into residence. One of his key instructions was to replace the guard protecting James II with a contingent of élite Dutch troops, and to move him out of London, ostensibly for his own safety.

Three battalions of Dutch infantry and supporting cavalry entered London at about ten o’clock on the night on 17 December. ‘Having secured the posts at St James Palace, they marched on Whitehall in battle formation, their matches lit for action.’ As King James was going to bed around eleven o’clock, he was informed of their presence in St James’s Park. Thinking there was some mistake (’he could not believe it, because he had heard nothing of it from the Prince’), he sent for the Dutch commander, Lord Solms.

Then Count Solmes pressed the adding of some new [Dutch] Troopes of the Prince’s, just then come to town, to the Guards at Whitehall. The King was unwilling of that. But Count Solmes said it was very necessary.

Having vainly ‘argued the matter with him for some time’, James ordered Lord Craven (long-time devoted servant of James’s aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia, and now in his eighties), commander of the Coldstream Guards protecting the King at Whitehall, to withdraw his men. Craven protested that he would ‘be rather cut in pieces, than resign his post to the Prince’s [Dutch] guards’. James, however, insisted, ‘to prevent the possibility of a disturbance from guards belonging to several masters’. The King retired to bed, a prisoner in his own palace, only to be woken during the night and escorted out of London to Rochester.

The Coldstream Guards marched reluctantly out of London to St Albans. Solms ordered all English army regiments in and around London to move out to towns and billets scattered throughout Sussex and the home counties, thereby ensuring that the troops were thoroughly dispersed. The Life Guards were packed off to St Albans and Chelmsford. ‘The English souldiers sent out of towne to distant quarters,’ John Evelyn recorded – they were ‘not well pleased’.

So the Prince and his highly disciplined Dutch army marched into London down Knightsbridge, confident that they would meet no resistance, along a two-mile route lined with Dutch Blue Guards. In the absence of any actual military drama to mark this final act in the well-orchestrated invasion, it was an entrance as carefully staged, in a long military tradition of ‘glorious entries’ into conquered cities, as that first entry into Exeter a few weeks earlier. William again wore white, with a white cloak thrown over his shoulder to protect him from the heavy rain. There was some consternation when the Prince, who disliked crowds, did not actually remain at the head of the cavalcade the full length of the official route to Whitehall, but instead cut across St James’s Park and gained access to his new residence at St James’s Palace from its ornamental garden.

Some historians have argued that William’s route across the park and through the palace gardens was a genuine mistake on his part (leaving his future subjects, thronged several deep along Whitehall to welcome him, disappointed). There is, however, a more plausible explanation. William, in a tradition of Dutch Stadholders going back several generations, was an enthusiastic amateur gardener, taking a keen interest in the latest garden designs and their execution at all of his numerous Dutch royal palaces.

Almost twenty years before the invasion, at the time when William was engaged in consolidating power in the United Provinces for the house of Orange, a former royal gardener to Charles II, André Mollet, had published a book on the design and execution of ambitious formal gardens, The Garden of Pleasure. Lavishly illustrated, with plates depicting the formal layout of shrubberies, kitchen gardens, flowerbeds and parterres, the book was a celebration of the garden designs of various European royal estates for which Mollet had been responsible, including Charles II’s London gardens at St James’s Palace. Since William of Orange’s own ambitious garden for his palace at Honselaarsdijk, outside The Hague, was included, we may be sure it was a ‘coffee-table’ book with which the Dutch Prince was familiar.

Mollet’s description of the garden he had created for the Stuart royal family at St James’s particularly emphasised the originality and ambition of its design. Because the site was low-lying, with no elevated viewing point from which ‘Embroidered groundworks and Knots of grass’ could be admired, the garden designer had instead ‘contrived it into several Parallelograms, according to its length’. These lozenges were ‘planted with dwarf-fruit-Trees, Rose-trees, and several sorts of Flowers’. The outer perimeter of the garden Mollet had marked ‘with Cyprus-Trees and other green Plants, to make Pallissade’s of about five foot high, with two perforated Gates to every Square’. The formal avenues were planted with ‘dwarf-fruit-Trees and Vines; the great Walk on the Right-hand is raised Terras-like, and Turff’t’, and at their intersections Mollet had designed an imposing fountain, and a ‘Round of grass whereon to set up a Dial or Statue, as also in several places Cut-Angles, as may be seen upon the Design’. To offset all this formality, there was also a carefully designed wilderness:

And in regard it falls out, that at one end there happens to be wild Wood, we have contrived another of green trees over against it, of which the great Tree which was found standing there in the middle makes the Head, both of the green Wood and the rest of the Garden; which tree we thought to leave as a remembrance of the Royal Oak [within whose branches Charles II reputedly took refuge from Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War].

The elegant complexity of the St James’s Palace gardens is still to be seen in engravings of the period, and on the many surviving London maps.

When, on his triumphal progress into London, Prince William came to the edge of St James’s Park, the sight of a garden project about which he had read, and which was closely related in plan and execution to his own much-loved pleasure gardens in the Northern Provinces, surely proved irresistible to him. He had already made more than one detour in the course of his military advance on London from Exeter, to indulge in a bit of tourism in the form of excursions to celebrated English stately homes and their formal gardens.36 Now he simply detached himself from the splendid cavalcade, and commenced his experience as King-to-be and owner of a string of magnificent royal palaces and grounds (including St James’s), with a short tour to admire the park, shrubbery and elegant gardens.

Strategically the advance deployment of Dutch troops, and the withdrawal of their English counterparts, ensured that London was secured for William before his arrival, and that King James was at his mercy even before the Prince himself reached London. The King had indeed been ‘escorted’ out of St James’s by Dutch guards on 18 December, ‘under pretence of keeping off the rabble’, and taken to Rochester, only hours before William took up occupancy. Just over a month had elapsed since the invading forces had landed on English soil. Less than a week later, King James absconded from his Rochester house-arrest, and left England for France. The Dutch Blue Coats guarding him had been carefully instructed to let him get away.

The Blue Coats continued to guard Whitehall, St James’s Palace and Somerset House for many months, ‘to the general disgust of the whole English army’. The entire London area remained under Dutch military occupation until the spring of 1690. No English regiments were allowed within twenty miles of the city. The English and Scots regiments of the States General’s forces, which had led the triumphal entry (in order not to alarm the citizens of London too much) were stationed at the Tower and Lambeth. Dutch and German regiments encamped at Woolwich, Kensington, Chelsea and Paddington, while another crack regiment was positioned at Richmond, and the Huguenots put up in various parts of London. As far as possible, the Prince avoided billeting his troops on private households, and insisted that they behave courteously, and pay for any goods acquired. Nevertheless, in spite of his efforts to avoid the appearance of foreign occupation, the continuing presence of large numbers of heavily armed troops in the city caused growing consternation and unrest.

The Dutch invasion of 1688 was a brilliantly stage-managed sequence of events, forever vivid in the memory of those who witnessed them. A number of contemporary diarists record the intensity of their feelings as events unfolded – whether they were for the overthrow of the Catholic James or against. John Evelyn (one of those apparently unsure of his own response to the imminent regime change) had recorded in his diary the sense of dread with which the news was received in late October that William’s immense fleet was poised ready to sail. There were ‘tumults’ in London as ‘the rabble’ attacked and demolished Catholic places of worship. Evelyn reported a ‘universal discontent’, which had ‘brought people to so desperate a passe as with uttmost expressions even passionately seeme to long for & desire the landing of that Prince, whom they looked on as their deliverer from popish Tyrannie’. For those like Evelyn who had lived through the turmoil of the Civil War years, the upheaval caused by William’s intervention in England’s national affairs seemed all too likely to herald another period of instability. Figuratively wringing his hands, he recalled in his diary his fearful state of mind as he witnessed the arrival of William’s invading army, when ‘To such a strange temper & unheard of in any former age, was this poore nation reduc’d, & of which I was an Eye witnesse.’

The complexity of the political response to James’s ‘abdication’ and William’s ‘peaceful’ arrival has been much discussed by historians, particularly since the three hundredth anniversary of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was celebrated in 1988. In the end, the decision of the English people to accept William and Mary as joint monarchs had a good deal to do with a general reluctance to return to the bad old days of public disorder and civil unrest. Regime change was preferable to another civil war.



The war on the civilian population of Britain began on 7 September 1940 when London was subjected to mass bombardment from the air. The British people had endured many shocks in the course of 1940 – the Norway fiasco, the retreat to Dunkirk, the desperate days of the evacuation, the collapse of France, the invasion threat, and the uncertainty about the outcome of the great air battles that raged above them. Could they endure a direct assault? How robust was the mood of the country on the eve of the Blitz? Public mood is notoriously difficult to assess but there are some guides through this minefield. In 1940 the measurement of public opinion was in its infancy but the authorities considered the matter important enough in wartime to make an attempt. From May 1940 the Home Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Information (MOI) and a private organisation later hired by the Ministry (Mass Observation or MO) compiled daily or weekly ‘morale’ reports. The information in these reports came from a variety of sources – the Regional Information Officers of the MOI, postal censorship, bookshop owners, cinema proprietors, and a group of investigators who listened in on the private conversations of people whom they considered to be a representative sample of the population. At their peak, however, only about 2,000 investigators were employed in these organisations. Moreover, most of the staff were middle class, male and well educated, factors that at least had the potential to skew the reported views of women, the working class and groups outside the social milieu of the investigators.

By focusing on ‘morale’ the government hoped to obtain some measure of the civilian population’s willingness to continue working. But the definition of morale for survey purposes was open to wide interpretation. Both the MOI and MO thought they knew what was meant by this most slippery of terms. To them, more often than not, high morale was equated with ‘cheerfulness’, a commodity in pretty short supply in Britain after recent events in Europe. Nevertheless, cheerfulness was considered crucial by the investigators, who assumed that only the cheerful could contribute effectively to the war effort. But even when circumstances were grim (and in MOI or MO terms morale had slipped) it was possible that those with so-called low morale could still do a decent day’s work, as suggested by this comment made at the end of a raid: ‘there was little time for grief, for after all the next raid was imminent and every air-raid warning in the night was followed by a new day when people had to work’.

Without a correlation between cheerfulness and the performance of the war economy the daily fluctuations in morale detected by the MOI and MO are virtually worthless as an indication of how the population might respond to the Blitz. Nevertheless, the MOI/MO reports can be instructive – not to track fluctuations in morale – but to identify frequently occurring themes that indicated ongoing concerns and attitudes.

The most constant of these themes is approval for any action taken by the Churchill government to prosecute the war more vigorously and a corresponding disapproval of any policy that seemed inadequate to the situation or harked back to the bad old days of appeasement. So the Emergency Powers Bill of May 1940 had ‘an excellent reception’, even though this bill stated that all persons might be called upon to ‘place themselves, their services and their property’ at the disposal of the government. It was an indication of the stern temper of the times that this measure was greeted with satisfaction among all regions in Britain. It was ‘well received’ in Northern Ireland, ‘welcomed’ in Birmingham and Leeds, ‘excellently received’ in Manchester, and met with a more sober ‘general approval’ in Cambridge.

In contrast was the public response to a broadcast by the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, urging the public to show the courage now that they had displayed in past crises. The reply the MOI conveyed to the minister was that the people had no doubt about their own courage but considerable doubt about the resolve of the government of which Duff Cooper was a part.

This concern was most often expressed over the extent of unemployment in Britain. This figure had stood at over 1 million at the beginning of the war and due to the lethargy of the Chamberlain government was taking some time to reduce. In June the MOI noted that whereas the French were said to be ‘staking all’ in their battles, Britain still had 500,000 unemployed. In particular, the high levels of unemployment in Belfast drew the ire of the Northern Irish – why did the government not place more war orders in the area to soak up the jobless?

Perhaps the most forthright comment on the government’s perceived tardiness to mobilise the economy came in response to one of Churchill’s most famous speeches. The MOI noted that in some quarters it had been said that ‘Phrases like “We will never surrender”, “We will fight in the streets, on the hills” are being criticised in the light of the inadequate mobilisation of men and materials.’ Even the finest of phrases was deemed no substitute for action.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, was never thought to be adequate for his position. His interim budget in July 1940 raised taxation from 7s 6d to 8s 6d in the pound, increased taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and entertainment, and foreshadowed a purchase tax. All the comments the budget brought forth were critical of its feebleness. The opinion that it ‘did not go far enough to carry the tremendous burdens of expenditure needed to win the war’ was typical. Leeds, Cardiff and Reading all thought the budget ‘too timid’. General criticism of the budget continued into August: ‘Not nearly drastic enough’ was the usual comment.

There were other indications of the resolute mood in the country after the shock of Dunkirk. On 3 July Churchill ordered that the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria be sunk to prevent it falling into German hands. The French command was given the options of joining Britain or of sailing to a neutral port, but rejected both. Churchill gave the order with great reluctance and the British admirals carried it out with even greater reluctance. But the move proved highly popular with the public. Home Intelligence reported that the news of the action was ‘received in all Regions with satisfaction and relief’, the only criticism being that some French ships escaped.

This incident highlights the high approval given by the public to Churchill and his policy of victory at all costs. His great speeches were ‘much appreciated’ or held to have had a ‘steadying effect’. His determination to defend London ‘street by street’ was taken as an indicator that ‘we shall not be sold out as the French were by their government’. Generally his messages were well regarded even (or perhaps especially) when they painted the strategic picture exactly as he saw it without glossing over the peril in which the country found itself. It was said that ‘if he [Churchill] says things are all right … people know they are all right; if he says things are bad, we know they are bad’. His warnings against complacency in the invasion period were ‘widely welcomed’. His speech on the ‘few’ was thought to be ‘the most forceful and heartening he has yet made’ and ‘created a strong feeling of confidence’. Even critics who thought that he might have to be voted out after the war considered ‘he’s the man for us now’.

The most frequently mentioned members of the government apart from Churchill were Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. The attitude of the public towards these men was almost universally hostile. The adverse remarks began just after Churchill had seen off efforts by Halifax (sometimes supported by Chamberlain) to seek some kind of compromise peace with Hitler. On 12 June the MOI reported that the most that could be said about Chamberlain was that the view that he should resign from the War Cabinet was not increasing strongly. A week later there were reports from Newcastle, Scarborough, Brighton and London that both appeasers should go. The Ministry reports reveal that the public was ‘angry’ that they remained in power and even prepared to accuse them of treachery. These feelings did not diminish as the year went on. There was ‘puzzlement’ that Chamberlain in particular was still in office. ‘Demands’ were expressed that members of the previous government (with the exception of Churchill) ‘should be removed’. Criticisms such as these were almost a weekly occurrence throughout the year. Even after the Blitz had started, people found time to observe that Chamberlain should be dismissed. In October when Chamberlain finally resigned due to ill-health, he got scant sympathy. One remark was that ‘I think it is a damned good thing … We’re going to win the war now.’ Only when he died of cancer in November was ‘some’ sympathy expressed, but that emotion was far from universal.

Halifax did not escape censure either. His reply to Hitler’s ‘peace’ overture in June was a public relations disaster that brought down some criticism on Churchill’s head for giving him the job. But that criticism was mild compared to what was said about the Foreign Secretary. Home Intelligence felt moved to give the replies verbatim: ‘Too much like a bishop’, ‘Depressing’, ‘Disappointing’, ‘Unsatisfactory’, ‘What about the Burma Road?’, ‘A statesman has to be a fighter these days’, ‘He didn’t explain anything’, ‘Old-fashioned diplomacy’, ‘Too much like the Chamberlain days’, ‘It was a dull speech: I switched off … It’s no use treating a mad dog like that.’ Someone commented that he liked the ‘high moral tone’ in which the speech was delivered, but that was drowned out by the chorus of disapproval. The MOI tried to put the best gloss on this that they could. Perhaps, they reasoned, what Halifax said went over the heads of a large section of the public. Reading the comments, however, it seems that the public understood Halifax only too well.

Nor did Halifax’s image improve. In October hope was expressed that he would soon join Chamberlain in retirement, ‘as he has been living in a fool’s paradise for years’. Later in the month the view that he was only fit to be a bishop resurfaced in what Home Intelligence reported as a ‘growing feeling’ against him. This negative view remained. Churchill eventually shipped Halifax off to be ambassador in Washington in December. As far as the British people were concerned the Prime Minister could have acted earlier and not necessarily rewarded him with a plum job.

Another indication of the mood of the people was shown by attitudes towards feeding those in Europe under German occupation. Ex-President Herbert Hoover warned Britain that its blockade was threatening millions in Europe with starvation. The government’s policy was to maintain the blockade, as any food sent would be seized by the Germans. The MOI found that 82 per cent of the population supported the policy whereas only 3 per cent disapproved.

Finally there was the attitude to bombing the enemy. Bombs had fallen on London (by accident as it happened) in late August. Even before Churchill could respond, the public were calling for reprisal raids on Berlin. When the enemy capital was eventually bombed on 25 August, the raid caused ‘great satisfaction’ and evoked a ‘wide expression of approval’. Among the public there were ‘no scruples’ about the fact that some of the bombs might fall on civilians. On the contrary the only criticism of the raids was that they were not heavier. Later there was a another criticism – that ‘further accounts of the damage done by our raids on Germany’ should be published.

To sum up, the attitude of the British public (mobilise more rapidly, sink the French Fleet, remove the appeasers from office, call for victory at all costs, maintain the blockade of Europe, bomb Berlin and don’t mind the civilians) pointed in one direction. On the eve of the Blitz there was a remarkable unanimity in Britain around the general proposition of waging vigorous war. The arrival of the Blitz found the British people in good heart.


It is conventional to think of the Blitz on London as commencing on 7 September. Certainly, that date saw the first day of concentrated bombing of the capital. But bombs had been falling on Britain consistently since late May. After Dunkirk, Goering had ordered the Luftwaffe, as well as preparing the way for invasion and destroying the RAF, to carry out ‘dislocation and nuisance raids on Britain’. Such raids commenced in some strength in late June. Many of them were made at night by (usually) small numbers of aircraft. The idea was to dislocate British industry by forcing factories to cease work while the bombers were in range or by bombing factories that could be definitely identified. The method was for small flights to range far and wide across Britain so that no area could be considered safe. For example, on the night of 6–7 July bombs were dropped on the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. On the following night Peterborough was overflown, while on the night of 10–11 June bombers were in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Brighton, Horsham, Ipswich, Colchester, Grimsby, Hull, Lincoln, Boston, Canterbury, Norwich and King’s Lynn, causing sirens to be sounded and work in factories to cease for some hours.

From late August the attacks against industrial cities such as Birmingham, Coventry, Liverpool and Swansea were stepped up – on some nights over 100 tons of bombs being dropped. Little lasting damage was done to industry by these raids. The only vital target damaged in this period was the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, which was hit on 27 August. Some machine tools were destroyed but the overall effect on Spitfire production was slight.

However, there is no doubt that these raids did cause dislocation. The siren policy adopted by the government meant that on most occasions when the sirens sounded, work would stop. Later the siren policy was changed and tools were only downed when raiders, identified by spotters on the roofs, were immediately overhead. But even in this period the production indices of most war materials increased, indicating that the greater numbers entering war production offset the dislocation or that workers went on working unless in immediate danger.

There is also no doubt that despite the lack of damage, these raids assisted the Luftwaffe in honing their night-flying skills. In addition the raids killed or maimed about 4,000 people – 6 to 7 per cent of the total bombing casualties for the entire war. However, there is another side to this story. Most raids were small scale so the damage they could do was limited. And the wide-ranging nature of the raids meant that a high proportion of the British population acquired some experience of air raids and sleeping in shelters before being subjected to ferocious bombing. This experience would prove useful preparation for the much sterner ordeal that was to follow.

That ordeal began for London on 7 September. In the afternoon a mass of German bombers crossed the coast and instead of following their past practice of peeling off to attack airfields or ports, they continued on to London. This wrongfooted Fighter Command which had scrambled its squadrons to protect its airfields, leaving the way to the capital fairly clear. This raid, it needs to be emphasised, was not in retaliation for the bombing of Berlin by the RAF. The leader of Luftflotte 2 (Kesselring) had always wanted to bomb London. Now he was convinced that the RAF was down to its last few aircraft, which would have to come up to defend the capital.

There were two main raids that day. The first was between 5.00 a.m. and 6.15 p.m.; the second lasted much longer – from 8.10 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. the following day. The statistics of the raids paint a formidable picture. In all the Luftwaffe dropped 649 tons of high explosive and 27 tons of incendiary bombs on London. The bombing was concentrated on the East End, especially on the docks around Stepney, Rotherhithe, Woolwich and Bermondsey, although 45 other London boroughs were also hit. Over 1,000 fires were started, nine of which were categorised as ‘conflagrations’ requiring the attendance of at least 100 fire engines. An area to the north of the Thames for a distance of about one a half miles was obliterated. Many from Silvertown, which lay in this area, had to be evacuated by river. Fifteen large factories were hit and three of these were totally destroyed. Five docks were put out of action. The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was damaged, severely restricting its output of ordnance. Three power stations were crippled and the Beckton Gas Works, the largest in Europe, was badly damaged. Transport along the river halted and almost 30,000 tons of shipping was sunk in the Thames while an additional 170,000 tons suffered damage. Over 400 people were killed and 1,600 severely injured.

The effect of this raid on London and Londoners was severe. A fireman attempting to fight the conflagration on the wharves thought of the destruction of Pompeii. Another fireman in West Ham was ‘frightened out of my life’. To him the bombs seemed to be saying ‘here comes death’. The docks to the south of the river were ‘a square mile of fire’. At night the scene at the Beckton Gas Works was chaotic: ‘Gasometers were punctured and were blazing away’, shrapnel rained down from destroyers firing (in vain) at the raiders. Many residents near the north Woolwich docks were trapped and were rowed to safety along the Thames.


Shortly after the bombing, the Isle of Dogs, one of the worst affected areas, was visited by a Mass Observation investigator. He found considerable damage in the area, with a bomb having fallen about every 50 or 60 yards. Many shops were shut or destroyed, although all the pubs were open. Transport was chaotic, with the main routes out of the area (the Blackwall Tunnel and the Greenwich foot subway) closed. The only way out was to walk or wade through mud to an improvised ferry. Gas and electricity supply was non-existent, which meant that most food had to be consumed cold. Immediately after the raid there had been no water for 12 hours. Telephone services were only available from the police station and postal deliveries were unreliable. After the raid there had apparently been a certain amount of panic and many had left with the few belongings they could muster. Some had decamped to Greenwich Park but others had trekked into the country. All told, the MO investigator estimated that two-thirds of the population of 5,000 had gone, with the caveat that most of the men seemed to be at work. He added apprehensively that there ‘was very little smiling and few jokes’. We will return to this theme later.

For London this was just the beginning. During the remainder of September the capital was bombed on most days and every night, the emphasis gradually shifting to night bombing because of the toll taken on the bombers by the RAF. That month on average 238 tons of high explosive and 14.5 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on London every 24 hours. About 7,000 people were killed in the raids and about 10,000 seriously wounded. In all 15,000 fires were started, the worst night being 19 September when there were 1,142 fires.

Bad weather reduced the number of large raids in October. The days when more than 100 tons of high explosive were dropped decreased to 19 out of 31. However, London suffered some form of raid on every day and the total tonnage dropped was approximately 5,000. The number of incendiaries is not known with any accuracy but the Germans, for reasons that are obscure, seemed to use fewer per raid than in September. About 4,300 people were killed in these raids and 6,500 seriously wounded. Some 8,200 fires were started, the worst night being that of 14 October when there were over 1,000.

In November, London was raided on most nights but on a much reduced scale. Bad weather often kept German incursions to a minimum. In all there were just eight occasions when over 100 tons of high explosive were dropped and only four occasions on which more than 100 people were killed.

This was not the end of London’s ordeal. It was heavily bombed on 28–29 December, 11 January, 8 March, 17 and 19 April and, finally, on 10 May 1941. Nevertheless these were sporadic raids and it is the experience of the concentrated raids that will be dealt with in depth here. By the time that bad weather in November 1940 limited the raids, London had been bombed for 56 consecutive days. This was unprecedented in the history of aerial bombing. Before the war, the small town of Guernica had been destroyed in an afternoon, Rotterdam had been bombed on just one occasion and Warsaw for eight days. The civilian population of London had therefore undergone an unparalleled and shocking experience – 13,000 had been killed, 18,000 severely wounded and about 24,000 fires started. Homes were damaged or destroyed at the rate of 40,000 per week in September and October 1940 but the severe raid on 19 April 1941 in itself affected 178,000 houses. The number of homeless in rest centres was never much less than 20,000 on any given night in the first months of the Blitz. A total of 200,000 people were made homeless from September 1940 to June 1941.

How did this onslaught further the German aims of breaking the morale of the country and crippling its industry? There are a number of factors that have to be considered. The first is the sheer size of London. In 1939 it encompassed 1,156 square miles of territory and had a population of 8,500,000. It was the largest city in the world. However, it has been estimated that just over 1 million people (evacuated women and children, and men moving into the armed forces) had left London in 1939 and they were followed by another 900,000 during the period of the bombing. Offsetting this was a considerable drift back to London from evacuation points during the whole period. Perhaps it would be conservative to estimate the population at about 7 million during the Blitz. If, taking the figures already cited, we estimate that about 12,000 people were killed in the concentrated bombing period, this amounts to 0.17 per cent of the population. If the seriously wounded are added in we have a figure of about 30,000 or 0.43 per cent. This means that the vast majority of Londoners came through the Blitz unscathed so far as major injury or death is concerned. The Luftwaffe had a long way to go before it could kill or maim widely across the capital. In this sense London was just too big a target for the Luftwaffe.

Some light is shed on this by examining the composition of the force that was attempting to reduce London to ruins. The Luftwaffe had about 1,400 bombers operational during the period of the Blitz. But in order to conserve aircraft and rest crews it was usually impossible for the Germans to send more than 300 or 400 bombers over London on any given night. When they occasionally exceeded this number, as they did on 7 September 1940 and on 17 April and 10 May 1941 (to select just three examples), they were not able to match this effort again for some days. And it must be remembered that in the pre-war years the Germans had built up a force of tactical bombers, well designed to aid the army but unable to carry the heavy bombloads of the later Allied aircraft such as the Lancaster and the B17. Most German bombers could carry approximately 1 ton of bombs and in a large raid drop 300 or 400 tons of high explosive. With the introduction of the Max, a bomb of 2,500 kilograms, the Luftwaffe was occasionally able to deliver a heavier load, but their efforts never matched the raids on Hamburg when Bomber Command was able to deliver 10,000 tons of bombs on just four nights.

Of course some areas of London were bombed much more heavily than average figures indicate. We have noted that after the raid of 7 September two-thirds of the population of the Isle of Dogs decamped. Although Chelsea was not a prime target for the Germans, the vagaries of bombing in 1940 meant that because it was on the river and proximate to Westminster it was hit hard. One air-raid warden in the area (Jo Oakman) noted every ‘event’, as bombings were called, which she attended. Between 4 September and 29 December she was called out on over 400 occasions. If these are plotted on a map of an area bounded by Sloane Street, Cheyne Walk and the Brompton Road, the detail on the map disappears under a mass of red dots. And some of the ‘incidents’ she attended had multiple victims. On 11 September she visited 57 Cadogan Square, only to find that a shelter had been hit and some occupants ‘crushed beyond recognition’. Her comment ‘heaven help us all’ summed up the helplessness of those in the Air Raid protection squads. Almost every diary from the period contains the words ‘frightened’, ‘terrified’ or something similar. One account was entitled ‘Journal Under The Terror’, a reference to the period under Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. The diarist described the night of 8 September as ‘a night of horror, a hell on earth’. The proprietor of a cinema in East Ham, one of the worst affected areas, wrote:

This week has turned us into a very frightened and a very desperate crowd of people … Men on my staff that were in the last war show their misery in the present situation more openly than the rest … Stranded in the theatre all night with half a dozen of them it was very pathetic … These old sweats are very defeatist in their views and keep rubbing in the terrible future they think we have in store for us. All my friends and acquaintances are quite sure they ‘can’t stand much more of this night after night’.

Nevertheless, despite the anxiety and fear, we know that even in areas that were badly bombed the Germans failed in their attempt to induce mass panic. Certainly some left the city. There were 25,000 ‘unauthorised evacuees’ to various towns and villages in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire by 15 September. Others trekked out to areas such as Epping Forest and the Chislehurst Caves at night, but many came back to work during the day. Indeed, special trains were laid on to assist them. In this regard it is worth noting the MO finding that of the 301 inhabitants of one street, 23 per cent of the women and children had gone but just 3 per cent of the men – no doubt because most of the men had to remain in reasonable proximity to their work.

How did people cope with the Blitz and carry on with their normal lives? Many factors seemed to have helped. Some are quite mundane. Most people simply had to go to work, for without work there was no pay and without pay there was no sustenance. And for most people work was an ingrained habit. This factor is often overlooked in analyses of the Blitz but it cannot be emphasised too strongly. Work was the bedrock of industrial society then as it is now. Many diarists mention this. Phyllis Warner made much of the fact that the horror was mixed with everyday routine. She picked her way to work past bomb craters and still did her job although there was a large hole in the roof. Even in the most difficult of circumstances people would stick to their jobs. One bank employee walked to and from work, although it was a journey of 12 miles and it took him three and a half hours each way. Only unexploded bombs kept him away. Others were just too busy or were in such key areas that stopping work never occurred to them. A sister on a children’s hospital ward records the daily terror, regularly notes her lack of sleep, but is only concerned about the babies and children under her care and their screams of terror when the bombs fall. There are innumerable other examples, but work and the routine of work should not be underestimated as providing the spur to continue.

Another factor was the sheer difficulty of leaving. Those who left either had a relative in the country or trekked back during the day. But for most, their support network in the form of family and friends was nearby. And the services they needed to sustain them if their house was demolished were also local. There were rest centres, mobile canteens and other facilities run by the local council. Few had the resources to move away from this network. Indeed, the majority of people did not own a car, the most immediate and personal means of transport. There was always the railway and some availed themselves of it, but the question remained of where to go and to whom to appeal for support on arrival. At other times it was German bombing that prevented this particular escape route from functioning. In short, there were powerful reasons to remain in the familiar surroundings of street and suburb.

It is in this context that statements to the effect that ‘over the first weekend, the nerve and spirit of those in the East End came close to breaking’ should be taken. That there was some panic is beyond doubt. That some of these people fled to safer areas is unquestionable. It also seems unquestionable that for many, removing themselves from where the bombs were falling was not so much a panic reaction as a sensible precaution. But most remained – either because they had no alternative or to utilise the local support networks. How many of these ‘came close to breaking’ can never be known. All we can observe is what actually happened. Most stayed in place and went to work when they could, hardly indicative of broken morale or mass panic. Perhaps the last word should be that of a keen observer of Britain (and of human nature). Before the Blitz had even started, Raymond Chandler predicted its outcome. He wrote to a friend, ‘as for bombing it will be bad but … the English civilian is the least hysterical in the world’.

It is even possible that the bombing stiffened the resolve of Londoners. Certainly they developed, unsurprisingly, a deep antipathy for the people bombing them. Most diarists record this fact. Vere Hodgson, that most sane and broad-minded of Londoners, thought she might never bother with Germans again.63 Ida Naish hoped to see Hitler in Hell. Winifred Bowman spoke of ‘those swines of Jerries’. Mrs Brinton-Lee compared British soldiers with the ‘bombastic’ or ‘craven’ German prisoners she had met. Finally a survey taken by Home Intelligence recorded that after three months of bombing 68 per cent of the people were in favour of subjecting Germany to a harsher peace settlement than Versailles. The diaries certainly show no overwhelming desire by Londoners to come to any kind of settlement with the country that was bombing them.

And even in these circumstances people displayed that normal tendency to come to terms with their situation. Phyllis Warner, who found the first days of the Blitz an appalling experience, reported on 18 September ‘that I’m glad to say that I’m not as frightened as I was. Last week I couldn’t sleep at all, and found the greatest difficulty in getting through my day’s work, but this week I feel much stronger … It’s just a case of getting over the first shock.’ Others felt the same. G. Thomas reported that by 15 September ‘we seem to be getting used to these battles’, while Ann Shepperd, although near an anti-aircraft battery, was sleeping well by 17 September. These individual impressions are supported by the statistics. Mass Observation noted that those getting no sleep decreased from 31 per cent on 12 September to 9 per cent on 22 September and 3 per cent on 3 October. And the numbers recorded by Home Security as sheltering in Underground stations reached a peak of 178,000 on the night of 27–28 September, but decreased to 105,000 on 5 December, 84,000 on 15 January, and just 63,000 on 11 March as more and more people decided to sleep at home. As the head of Mass Observation put it:

For the first few days of the London blitz, social life was shocked almost to a standstill: one left work in the evening to go home to an air-raid. One emerged from the air-raid in the morning to go back to work, maybe late, that was all; and while it was new, exciting, overwhelming, it was enough. Few had the time or the emotional energy for anything else – at first. Gradually, as the nights went by, priorities began to shift. Home life began to acquire some patterns again. New infrastructures were evolved, suited to the new conditions. Routines were established – going to the shelter or not going to the shelter; eating early before the sirens or packing up a picnic. The repetition of bombing on London, every night, helped give such routines both urgency and rhythm.

A comment is needed at this point on the shelters, both public and private, that were made available by the government. Mass Observation reports are highly critical of public shelters. They were unsanitary, there were too few of them, and some of the surface shelters were shoddily built and in effect little more than death traps. The government, including the new Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison, who had replaced the rather ineffectual Sir John Anderson in October, was reluctant to allow the Underground stations to be used as deep shelters. Why, given this situation, was there not some kind of rebellion? There was of course anger – after specific incidents – and many local authorities suffered a backlash due to the inadequacy of the shelters provided. The fact is, however, that most people did not repair to shelters during the Blitz. At its peak only 15 per cent of the population of London used a public shelter and this figure declined from late October to under 10 per cent. Hence the dissatisfaction that did exist had no widespread implications for the war effort.

The final factor to thwart the Germans was Churchill. It is easy now to adopt a cynical attitude to politicians touring disaster areas. But this was 1940 and Churchill’s visits to bomb-damaged areas fulfilled a number of needs. He was often moved to tears at the sight of the homeless and he developed an instant empathy with those whose houses and lives would never be the same. But he also represented something else. He had come to power at a desperate time when a fear was expressed that a British government might go the way of the French. A common call to him as he toured the devastated areas was ‘Give it ’em back’ or ‘when are we going to bomb Berlin?’ His resolute responses were invariably described as ‘reassuring’. In the course of the Blitz, Churchill toured most of Britain’s major cities, cheering people with his obvious concern but also letting them see that as long as he was in charge the war would be fought to the end.

This symbiotic relationship between Churchill and the people is often overlooked. He was seeking to comfort them and assess the response of the local authorities to their plight, but they were also assessing him as an indicator that there was no defeatism in the higher ranks of the government.

He made other interventions as well. It was his minute of 21 September in favour of allowing people to shelter in the Underground that broke the paralysis on the issue that had developed in Cabinet. And it was his experience of destroyed homes on the south coast that resulted in the War Damages Act that saw compensation paid to people for bomb damage.

If the German bombing did not cause a breakdown of society in London, to what extent did it achieve its other aim, that of stifling the capital’s war effort? During the war the ‘key points’ in the city were identified. These were facilities that, if hit or destroyed, could substantially damage the functioning of London as part of the war economy. They encompassed transport facilities, water storage, telecommunications, factories, radar, government buildings and docks. In 1940, 840 such points had been identified in London, a number that increased to 1,109 in 1941. One half to two-thirds of these were factories, 35 were electricity power stations, 23 were gas works, 15 ordnance factories and so on.


Let us examine two nights of heavy bombing to investigate what damage the Luftwaffe could inflict on these targets in London. On the nights of 14–15 and 15–16 October, London was repeatedly bombed. On the first night five factories were hit, including one that made instruments for aircraft. In addition six gas works, three electricity supply substations and a water main were damaged, two telephone exchanges were put out of action and six hospitals. No. 10 Downing Street and the Treasury were hit, 10 major roads blocked and five Underground lines affected. Railway services had to be suspended from Broad Street, Fenchurch Street, Marylebone, Charing Cross and London Bridge. Only restricted services could run from Euston, St Pancras and Waterloo.

The next evening the Luftwaffe returned in equal strength. On this night seven factories, two gas works, four electricity supply substations and three water supply facilities were hit, and five docks put out of action. One water culvert at New Bridge Road, Edmonton, supplied London with 46 million gallons of water per day. Fifteen million gallons were restored within 24 hours, but it took 2,000 workers some time to excavate the 2,000 cubic yards of soil to get to the source of the problem. Meanwhile many London suburbs had no running water. Also that night, railway services were again hit badly and the position deteriorated further from the previous bombing. Damage was inflicted on four additional Underground lines, and services from three telephone exchanges were suspended. Finally Marlborough House, the BBC and four hospitals were hit.

This amounted to substantial damage. It made everyday life difficult, getting to work inconvenient, and it did affect the efficient running of the capital. But what the bombing did not do was radically affect the war effort. A total of twelve factories were hit but over 600 were not. The docks were back in operation in short order. The railway lines could be repaired. Buses could replace damaged Underground lines. Routes could be found around blocked roads. Interruptions to electricity and gas supplies were usually short. Couriers could be used by some firms instead of the telephone. The Home Security Report on electricity supply was an indicator of a more general trend:

London suffered the most [of any city in this area]. 30 power stations and three transformer stations were hit, while 1,393 main and secondary transmission cables and 8,590 distribution cables were involved in the general damage. Despite all this it was unusual for stoppages of supply to last longer than an hour. The most seriously affected generating station was that at Fulham, where a 190,000kw plant was not in full operation for a year. The load, however, was taken over by the grid system and the supply was only interrupted for a matter of hours.

This situation applied generally to all of London’s facilities. As for its output of war materiel, it was just too widely spread for the Luftwaffe to make much of an impact. Overall just 35 factories were totally destroyed. Damaged factories were usually soon back in operation and a sophisticated system of sub-contracting provided many alternative sources of supply.


So far we have dealt only with the Blitz on London. But there was another aspect of the German air assault – the assault on British provincial cities. These phases of the Blitz are not discrete events – there was much overlap between the raids on London and those on the provinces. As we have seen, the Luftwaffe never gave up on attacking the capital. And some heavy raids on the provinces took place while London was being bombed. However, as a generalisation and with one notable exception, London bore the brunt of the enemy attacks from September to December 1940, whereas the Germans concentrated more on the provinces in the early months of 1941. And in this case we cannot stop the story on the last day of December 1940. The campaign to break the British people and the industrial capacity of the country was just as severe in the New Year as it had been in 1940.

The main problem for the Luftwaffe was that provincial Britain was what would now be called a target-rich environment. In the north there were the industrial cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry, Sheffield and Leeds. South Wales also had a concentration of industry around Cardiff and Swansea. Along the south coast lay the major ports of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton. In the north-east were major shipbuilding and industrial areas around Hull and Newcastle. Major shipbuilding centres were located at Clydeside and Belfast. Each group of cities could be given a high priority. Spitfires were made around Southampton and at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham. The south coast ports commanded the Channel. The west coast ports saw vital supplies of oil and raw materials arrive from the United States. The ships that kept the trans-Atlantic trade flowing were built and based at Liverpool, the Clyde, the Tyne and Belfast.

Given the plethora of targets and given the fact that the Luftwaffe was hard pressed to assemble many more than 400 bombers per night, it was vital to the fulfilment of their objectives that a plan be developed to maximise the effectiveness of their bombing. No such plan eventuated or even formed in the minds of Goering, Kesselring or Sperrle. All they knew was that the attack on London had neither reduced the RAF to manageable proportions nor collapsed morale. Nor had the capital’s industry and infrastructure been reduced to rubble. Yet they would continue to attack London, while at the same time sending small packets of bombers to a variety of targets around Britain and mounting major raids on a selection of provincial cities. This was the opposite of a concentration of effort, but it was what the Germans would carry through from November 1940 until March 1941.

In that period heavy raids (defined as the dropping of over 100 tons of bombs) would be carried out on London on 12 occasions. Cities such as Southampton, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, Manchester and many others would be visited by small numbers of bombers and occasionally attacked in force.

The limitations of such methods can be demonstrated by examining one of the best-known provincial raids, the attack on Coventry on 14–15 November 1940. In many ways the city was an ideal target for the Luftwaffe. Coventry was small (a population of just under 250,000 in 1940) but it had many factories making such warlike goods as aero engines, motor vehicles and munitions. Some of these works (such as Daimler) were large, but there was a great number of smaller factories clustered with houses in the city centre around the medieval cathedral. The raid was carefully planned by the Germans. The special pathfinder group (Kg 100) led the way, guided by radio beams that the British failed to jam. Around 7.00 p.m. they dropped a mixture of high explosive with some accuracy on the city centre. The fires started guided the main force of about 440 bombers to the city.

Around 11.45 p.m. the raid reached its height but bombing continued until 6.15 a.m., some German aircraft returning to France to refuel and then bombing a second time. In all over 500 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. The havoc caused was considerable. The medieval cathedral of St Michael was destroyed beyond repair. A total of 41,500 houses (three-quarters of all houses in the city) suffered some damage. Of these 2,300 were totally destroyed and 6,000 rendered unliveable. In addition 624 shops and 121 offices were destroyed. The war economy was badly hit. Overall 111 out of 180 factories were damaged and 75 of them completely destroyed. The casualties (570 dead and 1,100 wounded) would have been more severe had not a proportion of the population been out of the city on their nightly trek.

Mass Observation rushed a team to Coventry and they reported on 18 November. The investigators found the damage greater than in any other city including London. They found a feeling of ‘helplessness’ among the population, many of whom had no idea what to do. There were signs of hysteria, terror and neurosis. It would indeed be surprising had there not been such feelings in a city small enough for almost everyone to know one of the dead or injured and with such widespread property damage. The mood soon improved, however. The army was drafted in to help clear rubble and essential services slowly returned. Two days after the raid, arrangements had been made to transport 10,000 people out of the centre, but only 300 actually left.

Nevertheless, considerable damage had been done to the war economy. One of the Daimler aero-engine factories was completely wrecked. It was estimated that it would take a month to restore production. A further 14 factories making engines or components for aircraft had suffered damage, as had such firms as Triumph that made parts for tanks and armoured cars.

Coventry, if not quite ‘finished’ as one observer put it, was certainly on its knees. Further raids of this nature by the Luftwaffe were greatly feared. Home Security concluded that ‘Another such raid might well have put Coventry beyond the possibility of repair.’ But the Luftwaffe did not return. In subsequent days and weeks it turned its attention back to London, then to Birmingham, then Bristol and then to other cities. Coventry did not suffer another major raid for some five months, when 100 aircraft dropped 100 tons of high explosive and incendiaries on it. Casualties were high – some 281 killed and 525 severely wounded. The Daimler works was again put out of operation for several weeks. On the night of 10–11 April there was a further major raid but on this occasion no important target suffered significant damage. These raids were certainly intense, but the five-month interval had allowed Coventry to recover – both in spirit and in productive capacity. By repeated bombing the Germans probably could have obliterated Coventry and that would have slowed British aircraft production significantly. This was a lesson that its citizens were happy for the Luftwaffe not to learn.

This pattern of dreadful destruction and then neglect was repeated by the Luftwaffe throughout the Blitz. Bad weather drastically curtailed their operations in January and February 1941, but by then some in the German High Command were becoming disturbed by the lack of results. On 4 February Admiral Raeder, General Jodl and Field Marshal Keitel expressed their concerns to Hitler. Raeder emphasised the importance of British dependence on imports and its need to continually build escort and merchant ships for the trans-Atlantic trade. As a result Hitler issued a new directive that gave the Luftwaffe at least some direction. He ordered that major raids be concentrated on the western ports that either built ships or received imports. Accordingly, when the weather cleared the Luftwaffe launched a major raid on Clydebank, which contained some of Britain’s largest shipbuilding yards. On the night of 13–14 March over 400 bombers dropped 1,100 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Clydebank. The loss of life was massive because many workers lived close to the shipyards – over 1,200 were killed and 1,000 injured. Clydebank was a rather self-contained area just to the west of Glasgow. Of its 60,000 inhabitants, just 3,000 remained after the raids – the rest had fled to safety. Indeed, there was not much to return to – only seven houses out of a total of 12,000 remained undamaged. The damage to the actual shipyards was not extensive, but the dispersal of the population had serious repercussions for the industry. John Brown’s shipyard normally employed 10,000 workers, yet a week after the raids just 6,500 had reported for work. Another week was to pass before the yard was 75 per cent effective.

For one of the very few occasions during the Blitz the deductions drawn by Home Security were alarming:

There is a real danger that continued and concentrated attacks on the residential areas of the ports will lead to a large-scale movement of the population, as a result of damage to houses and public services. These attacks may prove more effective in hampering the work of the ports than accurate bombing of the port facilities themselves. Undoubtedly provision of relief for the homeless and facilities to enable the workers to get back to work is of vital importance.

Home Security was no doubt correct. Many more raids on this scale would have seen vital works such as John Brown’s shut down through lack of labour. Yet once again the Luftwaffe did not follow up the attack. Over time the workers were rehoused and returned to their tasks.

In keeping with Hitler’s directive, Belfast suffered a major raid in mid-April. The shipbuilders Shorts and Harlands were out of production for three weeks. Some 20,000 people were made homeless by this single raid. Yet there was again no follow-up and shipbuilding in Northern Ireland was soon back to normal.

If we follow the pattern of bombing during February, March and April 1941, we can see that the Luftwaffe attempted to follow Hitler’s directive. There were raids on Swansea, Hull, Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Barrow and the Tyne in this period. But the pattern of one or two night raids repeated itself. Plymouth was hit particularly hard in April to the extent that civil administration almost broke down. Mass Observation reported much dissatisfaction with the local authorities. Yet Plymouth survived. This time there would be no more raids because Hitler had begun to regroup the Luftwaffe for operations against Russia.

The last period of the Blitz presents one of the great question marks over German strategy. Liverpool was the port through which flowed most supplies from America. Before May 1941 the weekly tonnage handled by the docks was 181,562 tons. It was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. Indeed, Liverpool was raided on over 60 occasions between the outbreak of war and May 1941. Yet many of these raids were flights by just one or two aircraft and most did not attain the status of a major raid. The main exceptions were the nights of 12–13, 13–14 and 14–15 March. In these three nights over 450 tons of high explosive were dropped, causing damage to the docks and to commercial and residential buildings.

Despite these three nights it could be reasonably stated that before May 1941 Liverpool had not received from the Germans the attention warranted by its importance. That all changed in the first week of May. From 1 May the city was bombed for seven consecutive nights. In all 839 tons of high explosive were dropped along with hundreds of thousand incendiaries. The raids killed 1,900 people and seriously injured 1,450. At one stage four miles of docks were engulfed in flames. On the night of 3–4 May the SS Malakand, which had 1,000 tons of ammunition on board, was hit and exploded, virtually destroying the Huskisson Dock. A total of 70,000 people, almost 10 per cent of the total population, were made homeless and trekking became a way of life for many. Mass Observation reported widespread dissatisfaction with the local authorities and described an atmosphere of ineptitude, lack of energy and drive on their part. A strong rumour circulated that martial law had been declared. It had not but this was probably a comment on the population’s view of the local leadership.

By the end of the week the capacity of the docks had been reduced to just 25 per cent, a potentially disastrous situation for Britain. Yet even during the Merseyside Blitz the Germans could not concentrate on just one target. In the middle of their campaign against Liverpool they diverted major forces of bombers to Barrow, Belfast, Glasgow and Hull. Thus the number of bombers over Merseyside dropped from 293 on the night of 3–4 May to 55 on the following night, to 27 on the following two nights, then back up to 166 on the final night.

But the surpassing folly from the German point of view was that this series of devastating raids came at the very end of the Blitz. After one more massive attack on London on the night of 10–11 May, the bombers were gradually withdrawn to the east for the impending attack on the Soviet Union. Slowly Liverpool returned to some kind of normality. By mid-May the docks were unloading just less than half their normal tonnage and by mid-June they had returned to full capacity. The thousands of trekkers also returned. In fact most of the dock workers who trekked only did so at night and returned to their jobs during the day, so the same everyday imperatives that acted to keep London going through the Blitz applied at Liverpool as well. For the remainder of the war Liverpool continued to be the main destination for American imports. Any chance that the Germans might have had to cut this lifeline had gone.


The Blitz failed in its objectives. The Germans could neither cow the British people into surrender nor destroy the fundamentals of their war economy. The Luftwaffe, which was never developed as a strategic weapon, proved inadequate to the task. It had too few aircraft that carried inadequate bomb loads, had too many targets to hit and lacked a coherent overall plan. Civilians, it was proved, could stand up to bombing over a prolonged period without cracking, despite the rather feeble defences the British could deploy against the night Blitz and the government’s ramshackle shelter policy.

However, this is much more apparent now than it was then. When they put their minds to it the Luftwaffe could deliver concentrated blows – against London, Coventry, Glasgow, Belfast, Plymouth, Birmingham and other centres – that caused havoc and destruction to an extent never witnessed in Britain before. To those under the bombs this certainly did not seem like an air force too feeble to prevail. No city or country had ever been subjected to the level of aerial bombardment experienced by Britain in these months. In this sense those in charge of Home Security were only being prudent in their attempts to test the daily ‘morale’ of the people. Their methods might appear amateurish today but there seems little doubt that the overall tenor of the reports must have given some comfort to those in authority. Panic at times was reported; there was some looting; defeatist talk was occasionally expressed. But the solidarity of the population was no myth. Most carried on with their lives as best they could. After the constant series of reverses that marked the first part of the year, the ordeal suffered by the British might have been the last straw. That it came nowhere close to delivering a knock-out blow says much about the resolution of a determined people. They had accepted Churchill’s proposition that this war had to be fought to the end. Indeed, there was some concern that the government might fall below this level of resolve. Churchill’s presence in the bombed cities reassured them that this would not be the case, as did his assurances that when the time came Nazi Germany would receive a greater measure of destruction than had been meted out to Britain. He was as good as his word.

The Battle of Cheriton I

On the night of 28 March 1644 the Parliamentary army lay encamped close to the Petersfield–Winchester road, the Royalists a mile and a half or so to the north, but with an advance guard of brigade strength on the southern spur of the arena under the command of George Lisle. The number of cavalry in each army was very similar. Waller and Balfour had about 3,000 horse, but the Royalists may have had 200 or so more. In infantry, however, the Parliamentary generals had a distinct numerical advantage, and this was to have a very significant effect on the course and outcome of the battle. Adair accepts Sir Arthur Haselrig’s estimate of 7,000 musketeers and pikemen, but this seems very much on the large size. Using Adair’s own estimates of the strengths of the seven infantry regiments that fought at Cheriton, 5,000 to 5,500 would be a more credible estimate. In addition Waller and Balfour had two regiments of dragoons, size unknown. According to Hopton, he and Forth had 3,200 foot soldiers. They comprised his own troops 2,000 strong, and 1,200 that Forth had brought with him from Oxford. Sir William Ogle described the Oxford contingent as the Queen’s forces, that is infantry Henrietta Maria had brought from the north in May and July 1643, but it apparently included a contingent from the Oxford garrison, and also some troops from the Reading garrison, as George Lisle was colonel of one of the regiments stationed there.

The encounter stage of the battle, which began early the following morning as soon as the mist cleared, was initially an extension of the feint and counter-feint that had characterized the previous day’s skirmishing. Roe claimed that the general officers and colonels had decided to retreat at a council of war held on the evening before the battle, but Waller and Balfour seem to have decided to stand their ground, not to retreat. However, there remains a slight element of doubt. Balfour’s use of language in his post-battle report can be read as an attempt to pre-empt any rumours that the initial decision had been to retreat rather than to defend the Hinton Ampner ridge: ‘We having taken a resolution (by reason of your Excellency’s and the Committee of Both Kingdom’s commandments) to be wary and cautious to engage ourselves in a fight with the enemy but on advantage, yet we finding them resolved to put us to it …’. Possibly a decision to retreat had been overtaken by events if, as Roe suggests, energetic patrolling during the night by Birch’s regiment made it impossible to separate the two armies the following day. On the other hand the occupation of Cheriton Wood suggests resolution, not indecision, unless, of course, the intention was not to encourage Lisle’s advance guard to fall back but to secure the left flank of the Parliamentary army as it retreated towards Petersfield.

The force in Cheriton Wood was made up of 1,000 musketeers from Colonel Potley’s and the White regiment of the London Trained Bands supported by a regiment of horse and two pieces of regimental artillery. Waller and Balfour had also sent another body of musketeers to defend Harley’s little village that commanded the pass between the far end of the southern spur of the arena and the high ground on the west bank of the River Itchen. This may also be seen as a move to secure the other flank of the army in case the Royalists, denied the chance of attacking its right wing by the forces in Cheriton Wood, launched an assault against the left wing instead.

Cheriton Wood lay to the right of George Lisle’s position, but overlooking and flanking the southern spur of the arena along which the Royalists intended to deploy if, the wood was smaller than it is today. It was not until the mist began to lift, about two hours after sunrise according to Hopton, that the Royalist generals became aware of what had happened, but continuing with the policy of aggressive defence they had employed throughout the short campaign, they almost certainly moved the entire Royalist army forward to the southern ridge to support Lisle’s brigades of horse and foot. The line of battle extended from the end of the ridge adjacent to Cheriton to a point some way to the east where their troops were within range of Waller’s musketeers in Cheriton Wood. Hopton’s infantry occupied the part of the line nearest to the wood, Forth’s that nearest to Cheriton, but Hopton took care to draw up his infantry and cavalry in dead ground, possibly on the slope of the middle ridge where they could not be shot at by the enemy in the wood. Where the rest of the Royalist horse were deployed at this time in the morning is uncertain, but they are unlikely to have been on the right flank of the army. The valley of the Itchen and the arena were full of enclosures, and thus most unsuitable for cavalry fighting. It can therefore be assumed that the cavalry brigades were drawn up somewhere to the east, but in a position from which they could be brought quickly forward to harry the enemy army as it retreated. Sir John Smith had apparently been sent orders the night before to be ready to lead the pursuit with 1,000 horse.

After the Royalist army had been put into battle formation, Hopton apparently ordered 1,000 musketeers from his own corps under Colonel Matthew Appleyard to expel the enemy from Cheriton Wood. However, on emerging onto the open hillside from the dead ground, the fire they experienced from the western edge of the wood was so intense that there was every possibility that they would be forced to fall back if they remained where they were. Hopton therefore ordered one of Appleyard’s four divisions to move up the dry valley between the middle and northern spurs of the arena and attack Cheriton Wood from the north or the north-west with artillery support. This would have been easy to arrange if, as seems likely, the train of artillery was using Bramdean Lane to move from Sutton Down to the southern spur of the arena.

This assault from an unanticipated direction supported by cannon fire was too much for the brigade defending Cheriton Wood. It quickly took to its heels, but not so quickly as to necessitate the abandonment of its artillery pieces. There were few casualties, but Colonel George Thompson, the commander of the cavalry, may have had his leg shattered by a cannon ball at this point rather than later in the battle. The Royalists probably gained the impression that a disorderly withdrawal was getting under way, as ‘we could discern several companies of thirty, of forty, and more in some, running over the fields in the rear of their army half a mile and as well discern their horses spanned in their carriages and to their artillery’. Hopton claimed that he was keen to take advantage of the confusion by launching an attack from the environs of Cheriton Wood against the rear of Waller’s army with 1,000 foot and 1,000 horse. Forth, however, advised against it and Hopton claims to have been ‘very satisfied’ to accept his opinion.

The Lord General would have had good reason for waiting on events. With their left flank now totally secure, the Royalists’ position on the southern spur of the arena was so strong that the enemy were almost caught in a trap. In order to escape from it, Balfour and Waller had a number of choices any one of which could have ended in disaster. They are unlikely to have considered advancing down the Petersfield road towards Winchester, as their army’s march would have been across open downland with no protection against the enemy. Taking a more southerly route towards the city, on the other hand, would have involved moving across difficult country, more downland but interspersed with wooded valleys, where they could easily fall into a trap sprung by the Royalist cavalry operating with infantry support. Moreover, in both cases the enemy’s falling in behind them would have completely cut their best line of retreat back into Sussex. Other alternatives were little better. They could have ordered a general attack, but to do so most of their troops would have had to move across open ground towards an enemy drawn up in an excellent defensive position. Alternatively they could have fallen back towards Petersfield, which risked the army falling into disorder and brigades being cut off and destroyed.

However, there was probably another reason for Lord Forth’s caution, though it is not mentioned in any of the Royalist accounts, namely the disparity in numbers between the force he and Hopton commanded and the one led by Waller and Balfour. The Royalist generals would have been well aware of this, as they had a very good view of the whole of the Parliamentary army from George Lisle’s position on the southern spur of the arena. A swift advance towards the Petersfield–Winchester road at Bramdean by 2,000 of Hopton’s troops, a body only a fifth the size of Waller’s army, which threatened to cut off the latter’s best escape route, might be very risky. If the Parliamentary generals kept their heads, they could easily reinforce their right wing and possibly inflict great damage on Hopton’s men before Forth could send support.

Eyewitnesses are rather hazy about what happened next on the morning of 29 March, but a conflation of the reports of observers on both sides results in quite a high level of consensus on how thrust and counter-thrust led to a fully fledged battle developing that neither side seems to have wanted. It appears from Sir Arthur Haselrig’s account of the battle to the House of Commons, and from an estimate of the time it would have taken Lord Hopton to re-deploy the Royalist left wing in and around Cheriton Wood, that a period of between one and one and a half hours elapsed before the next significant development. Balfour claimed the Parliamentarians decided to remain where they were after the loss of the wood because the enemy was determined to fight them, and this was as good a decision as any, given the dangers they faced if they tried to move away. He therefore drew up his horse in the small heath to the north of the Petersfield–Winchester road, that is, between the enemy and the rest of his army, thus shielding it from attack by the forces on the southern spur of the arena. The cavalry were nevertheless in a very exposed position, but behind and above them was the massed firepower of the Parliamentary artillery and most of Waller’s musketeers. The length of the Parliamentary line is uncertain, but it is doubtful if it stretched in one direction as far as Bramdean village. The western end, however, was anchored in the little village mentioned by Robert Harley, and this was essential for the security of the entire army. If the Parliamentary musketeers lost control of it, not only would Forth and Hopton have turned Waller and Balfour’s flank, the enemy infantry would also be in a position to pour devastating fire into the regiments at the western end of the Parliamentary cavalry line.

When all these arrangements were complete, Waller and Balfour had as strong a position defending the Hinton Ampner ridge as Forth and Hopton had defending the southern spur of the arena. Meanwhile, on the Royalist side Hopton had drawn up his corps in a defensive posture covering all the approaches to the wood and to East Down, whilst the Lord General’s troops clustered around the position that Lisle’s brigade had occupied during the night. Forth’s infantry may even have moved down the slope of the southern spur as far as a substantial hedge that probably marked the boundary between fields on the southern spur of the arena and the heath where Balfour had deployed the Parliamentary cavalry. What is certain at the start of the next stage of the encounter, however, is that Waller’s army was in the bottom or on the north-facing slope of the Hinton Ampner ridge, and that the Royalists could look down upon them.

The exact circumstances surrounding what happened next, however, are a mystery. The key, I believe, is to appreciate that Waller and Balfour were behaving in a way that the Royalist generals had not anticipated. Instead of retreating or attacking, they had remained exactly where they were, but deployed their army in a defensive formation, which, as Harley commented, involved facing north rather than west. The only vaguely offensive move, apart from the brief occupation of Cheriton Wood, had been sending musketeers to defend the little settlement in the pass by the Itchen. There followed the Royalists’ first tactical mistake, but one from which Hopton was very careful to disassociate himself in his narrative. Having put the Royalist left wing into a defensive posture, he was making his away along the brow of the hill to consult with the Lord General when he saw to his amazement Forth’s troops ‘too far advanced, and hotly engaged with the enemy in the foot of the hill, and so hard pressed, as when he came to Lord Forth he found him much troubled with it for it seems the engagement was by the forwardness of some particular officers without order’. The form of words is interesting. Not only is Hopton saying that it was no responsibility of his, he is also hinting ever so slightly that Forth had ordered the attack by his use of the word ‘seems’. Colonel Slingsby was much more forthright. He stated in no uncertain terms that ‘we were ordered to fall on from both wings’, and thus, by implication, by somebody holding a higher rank than his own. This cannot have been Hopton’s major general of foot, Sir John Paulet, who was carrying messages between Hopton and Forth, and who had no jurisdiction over Forth’s troops. As Sir Jacob Astley, the major general of the Oxford army, was not present at Cheriton, the officer concerned can only have been the Lord General himself. The behaviour of the enemy during the night and early morning suggested that enemy generals were considering retreat as one of several options. This view would have been further strengthened if Forth had received intelligence from Hopton’s wing after the capture of Cheriton Wood on the lines of the passage from Slingsby’s account reproduced above. If so, it would surely have crossed Forth’s mind that all that was needed to induce Waller and Balfour to withdraw was a thrust against their other wing which, if successful, would render their position along the Petersfield–Winchester road untenable.

The Battle of Cheriton II

What Hopton saw from the brow of the southern spur was almost certainly the final stage of the engagement when some Royalist troops hurrying to help their fellows were being cut to pieces by enemy cavalry. The incident is described in considerable detail by eyewitnesses on both sides, and there is no doubt that the formation being destroyed was under the command of Henry Bard, colonel of a regiment of foot that had arrived from the north as escort for the first great munitions convoy of May 1643. According to Slingsby, Bard ‘leading on his regiment further than he had orders for, and indeed with more youthful courage than soldier-like discretion, was observed by the enemy to be a great space before the rest and out of his ground, who incontinently thrusts Sir Arthur Haselrig’s regiment of cuirassiers well armed between him and home and there in the view of our whole army kills and takes every man’. Slingsby’s identification of the attacking force is incorrect. Harley is very clear about the identity of the attackers. They were a commanded party of 300 men drawn from several of Sir William Waller’s cavalry regiments, including two troops of his own regiment and probably all four of Colonel Norton’s. Moreover, Sir Arthur’s account of the battle delivered to the House of Commons as reported by Yonge makes no mention of his own regiment’s involvement in the destruction of Bard’s infantry. Instead Haselrig claims to have taken ten men out of every troop of Waller’s horse to create the shock force. This is an unlikely story. The chance of destroying Bard’s regiment can only have been seen at the last moment, leaving insufficient time to complete such a complex reordering of the cavalry. Possibly Yonge misunderstood what he was hearing. It is also interesting that Royalist cavalry did not intervene, either because there was none on or close to the right wing at that juncture, which seems most unlikely as the cavalry engagement had not yet begun, or because it was all over in the flash of an eye, as may have been the case if Bard’s men were entirely musketeers or if the speed with which they advanced broke up their close order, something that could easily happen to infantry formations crossing rough ground.

The background to the incident on the left wing in which Bard’s regiment was destroyed is given only in Robert Harley’s account, but it is supported in general terms by Slingsby, Haselrig, and the writer of the report in Mercurius Aulicus. Harley wrote that a party of 1,600 Royalist foot, which, even allowing for exaggeration, must have comprised almost the whole of Forth’s infantry, had attacked the ‘little village’. This was probably at about 10 or 10.30 a.m., that is after Hopton had received Forth’s rejection of his proposal to attack the rear of the Parliamentary army from Cheriton Wood. At first the Royalists made good progress, according to Harley, driving the enemy from their hedges and setting fire to a barn, but Waller sent in reinforcements, the wind changed direction, sending smoke into the eyes of the attackers, and they began to fall back. Such an outcome is not at all surprising. Allowing for the fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved at this point, Forth could only have committed a maximum of 1,000 foot soldiers to the assault on the little village, as Hopton’s infantry regiments were all on the left wing of the Royalist army. The formation he was attacking, on the other hand, was probably much larger. Harley described the original force as ‘very strong’, and Waller drew a further 600 (Haselrig) or 1,200 (Harley) foot soldiers from the reserve to support the left wing when the attack began. The length of the engagement is uncertain, but it may have been quite lengthy as Balfour implies that he did not deploy his cavalry in the heath until after the attack had begun, and it was from the heath that the assault against Bard’s regiment was launched.

The fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved from the start suggests that it was Forth’s infantry reserve, possibly guarding the artillery. Bard therefore behaved in an appropriate manner in one respect. Seeing the main infantry body under attack, he had launched his regiment towards the fray, probably with the intention of attacking the advancing enemy foot in their right flank. The trouble was that in his determination to hit them hard, he almost certainly cut corners. First, instead of making his way to the village using the hedges that covered the slopes of the western end of the southern spur and the valley beyond, he led his men across a corner of the heath. Second, he advanced across open ground without a cavalry escort, taking a route that would have taken him to within a few hundred yards of where Balfour had drawn up Waller’s regiments of horse. If this was Bard’s most direct route towards the fighting, his regiment was almost certainly positioned in the centre of the Royalist front line rather than on the right. Otherwise a march through the enclosures followed by a short hook to the left over open ground just before he reached the enemy would have been more appropriate. That he had erupted from the centre of the Royalist line is apparent from Slingsby’s remark that the whole of the army could see the destruction of Bard’s regiment. If it had met its fate any further to the west, it would have been hidden from Slingsby’s line of sight by the gentle northward curve of the southern ridge of the arena as it neared Cheriton village. The corollary of this is that Bard’s regiment must have been close to Forth’s own position, which makes one wonder why the Lord General did not order it to halt as soon as the attack began. Possibly Bard was also under orders, but had exceeded them in his enthusiasm to get at the enemy. This may possibly explain Hopton’s statement that Forth was ‘much troubled with it, as the engagement was by the forwardness of some officers without orders’, which can be read as if it was Bard’s forwardness and its probable effects that caused Forth such concern, not the original attack.

The destruction of Bard’s regiment seems to have had a highly significant effect on morale, raising the spirits of the Parliamentarians whilst dampening those of the Royalists. However, Forth and Hopton had only suffered a reverse, they had not yet lost the battle. Indeed, Forth was able to stabilize the situation in the Itchen valley, possibly by withdrawing infantry from Cheriton Wood, possibly by drawing his own retreating infantry behind hedges on the southwest corner of the southern spur, as nothing much seems to have happened on the Royalist right wing for some hours. However, elsewhere the battle flared into life. According to Hopton, Lord Forth’s response to the setback on the right was to order Hopton to launch a cavalry attack, probably against the centre of the enemy position on the heath. The decision seems an irrational one, as the southern slope of the ridge and the heath beyond were not good cavalry country – first enclosures, then a hedge line and finally a small, narrow piece of rough heath, which would have made it difficult for the Royalist horse to maintain close order in a charge, and where the Parliamentary horse were already drawn up under the cover of their artillery and musketeers. Moreover, for the king’s horse at Cheriton as for Sir Phillip Stapleton at Newbury and Sir Thomas Fairfax at Marston Moor, there was only a single entrance into the heath, which meant that his regiments could not deploy in close order until they had passed the hedge line. Slingsby goes so far as to say that they did not have time to deploy, as the Parliamentary horse were upon them as soon as they emerged from the entrance. However, this is not confirmed by any of the Parliamentary sources, which is rather surprising if it had had a major effect on the outcome of the battle. Possibly Hopton managed to stop it as soon as he realized it was happening by moving down some musketeers to provide sufficient firepower at the entrance into the heath to deter the enemy. There were certainly Royalist foot in the valley when the cavalry fight was under way, but this still leaves unanswered the question of why Forth ordered a head-on attack on the enemy horse, backed as they were by the firepower of their musketeers and artillery pieces. A possibility, but no more than that, is that the resources committed to the attack on the little village and the fierce enemy reaction to it combined with Hopton’s defences in and around Cheriton Wood left very few infantry in the centre of the Royalist line. To make matters worse enemy horse and foot were drawn up on the little heath and on the slope behind it in such a way that they could easily move forward and divide the Royalist army in two. Thus, as at the northern edge of Wash Common during the First Battle of Newbury, cavalry were required to plug a gap caused by shortage of infantry at the critical point in the battle line, with attack being seen as the best form of defence.

To carry out the Lord General’s orders, Hopton chose Sir Edward Stowell’s brigade, 1,000 strong. It fought bravely for almost half an hour before falling back, ‘broken and routed’ in Hopton’s words, leaving the brigadier in enemy hands ‘with five wounds upon him’ after he had managed to penetrate their gun line. Another brigade commanded by Sir John Smith apparently attacked the left of the Parliamentary cavalry formation. The evidence for this is slight, but his biographer wrote of ‘both lanes and hedges lined with musketeers’, which fits the part of the battlefield around the little village better than any other. However, the brigade’s performance apparently left much to be desired. When Smith was wounded, all except his own troop made a disorderly retreat. This may explain why none of the other Royalist accounts describe the encounter, but it may have been only a tiny episode inflated into something bigger by his biographer Edward Walsingham. Parliamentary accounts of the battle only portray the enemy horse in an unfavourable light when they retreated from the southern spur at the end of the battle. Jones in particular commended the Royalists for their valour and Harley praised them for their desperate and bold charges.

From this point onwards the traces of the past, almost always less common for the middle part of a battle than one would wish, become highly fragmentary. They are often no more than brief snapshots of the fighting, which are not only impossible to relate to one another but also rarely capable of being allotted a specific place in the timeline of the battle. On the Royalist left wing the rest of Hopton’s command may have been more successful than Stowell’s brigade. Slingsby wrote of the left wing as well as the right being ordered to advance after the capture of Cheriton Wood, and E.A., the writer of one of the Parliamentary reports, describes a defeat suffered by some or all of Waller and Balfour’s cavalry in that part of the battlefield:

The enemy presently came on with their main body of horse very powerfully, and were met courageously, yet being of the greater number (for our whole body was not then together) forced ours to a disorderly retreat, at which time the day was doubtful if not desperate, our foot all the while being engaged on the left wing.

This cannot be either the episode in which Smith was mortally wounded, or the one in which Stowell was captured, and the clear implication is that it took place on the Parliamentary right.

Slingsby also recounts an episode that occurred on the Royalist left wing soon after the battle became general, but it is not the encounter that E.A. described. Hopton’s regiment of infantry repulsed an enemy cavalry charge on three separate occasions by performing classical parade ground drill for pike and musketeers. There is enough detail in the account to show that the regiment was positioned on open ground some way in advance of the crest of the spur. Lord John Stuart then sent the Queen’s regiment of cavalry down to its assistance, but it made ‘an unhandsome charge’, after which the cavalry action became general. Interestingly, Stuart’s obituary talks of his receiving his mortal wound in an action that took place in a large open low-lying expanse of ground, not a hill full of hedges and bushes. This description neatly fits the lie of the land to the south and east of Cheriton Wood as I have depicted it.

A series of engagements lasting for between three and four hours then ensued across the centre and east of the battlefield, which seems impossibly long for what appears to have been primarily a cavalry engagement. Possibly the situation in the valley in front of Hinton Ampner became completely chaotic by midday, with a seething mass of horsemen pushing backwards and forwards across the small heath under no control, a scene first suggested by Burne and taken up by many historians since. However, it is more likely that fighting was intermittent, but such as to force both sides to feed in all except their last reserves. Initially, the Royalists were on the offensive pushing back the enemy cavalry to the foot of the Hinton Ampner ridge but, as we have seen, they were unable to break through. When the brigades commanded by Stowell and Smith fell back in disorder, the Parliamentary horse appear to have gained complete control of the heath, but they in their turn found difficulty in making progress against enemy infantry drawn up behind the hedge that marked the northern boundary of Balfour’s Little Heath. Haselrig indeed uses very similar words to those used by Hopton in describing Stowell’s difficulties in breaking through the Parliamentary position in the centre: ‘their horse were surrounded by musketeers who lined the hedges and beat us back always when we drove them back.’

The nature of the landscape in which the heath was set, that is, with enclosures both to the north and the south, probably explains why neither the Royalist nor the Parliamentary cavalry was able to achieve a breakthrough. It may also explain why those accounts of the battle written by Parliamentarians had very little to say about the part their horse played in the major cavalry action. The report of Sir William Balfour, Essex’s lieutenant general of horse, was completely silent about the cavalry actions, but this may be because Essex’s regiments had failed to distinguish themselves yet again. However, in the end, inspired, E.A. says, by some London Trained Band musketeers, the right wing of the Parliamentary cavalry accompanied by some infantry appears to have pushed back a weak Royalist cavalry screen and gained the brow of the southern spur of the arena somewhere near Cheriton Wood.

Long before the cavalry and infantry moved forward on the right, however, the tactical manoeuvre that would decide the outcome of the battle was under way on the opposite side of the battlefield. In mid-afternoon Waller’s infantry and dragoon regiments supported by some of the London brigade began pushing around the west side of the cavalry mêlée safe in the knowledge that they would not be attacked. Moving out of the Itchen valley, they began to ascend the slopes of the southern spur of the arena from the direction of Cheriton village, where they were successful in pushing back the Royalist infantry, a body which by then included troops that had earlier taken part in the attack on Cheriton Wood, as it was here that their commander Colonel Matthew Appleyard was wounded.

The advance of the enemy foot on both flanks put the Royalist army in great danger of being surrounded. Hopton took the credit for securing the retreat of the shattered brigades of horse and their supporting infantry from the heath using a small body of Oxford army cavalry, with which he successfully defended the entrance into the enclosures on the southern spur of the arena. That the withdrawal from the heath was successfully accomplished is confirmed by other sources, but Hopton’s role in it rests on his testimony alone.

Initially Forth and Hopton attempted to make a stand on top of the southern spur, probably where it was crossed by Broad Lane, but the fire coming from the Parliamentary infantry and dragoons making their way along the southern spur towards them was too strong, and they decided to retreat to the place where the Royalist army had camped on the night of 27 March, the high ground to the south of Alresford.

There followed a pause of anything up to an hour, which gave the Royalist generals time to collect most of their infantry into a body and also some of their horse, and to plan their army’s escape to Basing House, eighteen miles to the north. Eventually Waller’s artillery commander, James Wemyss, brought some cannon into play, and the Royalist army ran for cover. The artillery train started off in the direction of Winchester, but then quickly turned northwards into a landscape of woods and valleys that made cavalry pursuit difficult, whilst the infantry with a small cavalry escort pursued a parallel course using a lower route with plenty of passes to delay the enemy. A small body of foot remained behind in Alresford to win the rest of the infantry and the artillery train time to reach the safety of the woods. Some were killed or captured, but most also managed to make their escape. Finally the horse took off over the downs, pursued for some miles by the enemy. All three sections of the army arrived safely at Basing House just after midnight. Both Harley and Birch’s biographers blame senior commanders for showing too much caution once the battle was clearly won, but Adair is probably right to absolve Waller (and by implication Balfour) from blame. Even if Harley’s own troop was fresh, and keen to harry the Royalists as they retreated, the rest of the Parliamentary cavalry were probably too exhausted and too scattered to do much against an enemy that had not broken and run.

The immediate reaction of the London newspapers and of the Parliamentary officers who had fought at Cheriton and written reports of the fighting was that through God’s mercy the army led by Waller and Balfour had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, once under way, the battle had been an uninspired slogging match, which appeared to develop its own momentum (or lack of momentum) after the initial Royalist error of attacking Parliament’s left wing with too small a body of infantry. To Birch’s biographer Roe it was ‘the worst prosecuted battle I ever saw’. It is therefore surprising that only he was of the opinion that there was a logical order of events, beginning with the decision not to retreat and ending with the infantry advance on both wings at about 4 p.m.

1938 River crossing by A9E1 Mk I cruiser tank

A9E1, with its gun removed, was also used in 1940 for submerged river-crossing trials in the Stour at Christchurch. The prototype Medium Mark IV (A9E1) in its original form. It had a nasty habit of shedding its tracks and had to be redesigned, although it still featured Sir John Carden’s `Bright Idea’ suspension.

During 1940 the prototype A9E1 was used to test out the idea of an amphibious tank. While the production tanks had been of riveted construction the prototype had used bolts, many of which were missing. The two machine gun turrets added extra problems, and the light-weight tank was surprisingly buoyant. Despite these problems the A9 successfully crossed the River Stour underwater on 24 May 1940.

Cruiser Tank Mk I (A9)

What became known as the A9 cruiser tank Mk I was originally conceived as a medium tank to replace the Vickers A6 medium tanks Mks I and II. Development work had started in 1934 under the direction of Sir John Carden of Vickers-Armstrongs, with a view to coming up with a cheaper and more effective design. The A9 was notable for being the first British tank to incorporate a ballistically designed hull, albeit that the maximum thickness of armour was not sufficient and the machine-gun turrets were vulnerable. It was also the first to be fitted with a centrally positioned hydraulically powered turret, and was the first to incorporate the Vickers-Gerlach tank periscope, rather than using direct-vision heavy glass blocks. The A9 was also a pioneer in deep wading and, in 1939, one example was successfully driven completely submerged.

The tank was relatively small: the low hull had a length of just 231in and a width of 100in. Riveted construction was used throughout, with a maximum thickness of armour of 14mm, giving a combat weight of around 12 tons. There was no separation of the driving and fighting compartments and the hull must have been a tight fit for the standard six-man crew. Vickers had proposed that a Rolls-Royce Phantom II engine be used, but production vehicles were powered by a rear-mounted AEC A179 six-cylinder petrol engine, producing 150bhp from 9,630cc, and driving the rear sprockets through a five-speed manual gearbox. Utilising the Vickers ‘slow motion’ suspension, the road wheels were arranged in threes on a pair of bogies, the front and rear wheels on each side being of larger diameter. A large single spring was provided for each bogie, together with a Newton and Bennett telescopic hydraulic shock absorber. Top speed was in the order of 25mph on the road and 15mph across country, with a range of 100–145 miles.

For the prototype, the main gun was a 3-pounder (47mm) but all production vehicles were armed with the standard 2-pounder (40mm), together with three Vickers .303in water-cooled machine guns: one coaxial with the main gun, the other two in auxiliary turrets on either side of the hull. A fan was fitted in the hull to clear the gun fumes. There was also a close-support variant–cruiser tank Mk I CS–which mounted a 3.7in howitzer in place of the standard 2-pounder (40mm) gun.

A total of just 125 vehicles were constructed: fifty by Vickers-Armstrongs and seventy-five by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. The Mk I cruisers saw service in France in 1940 and in the Middle East the following year; however, although the main gun was effective against the Italian tanks, it was no match for the more sophisticated German machines. The crews also complained that the design was unreliable and was prone to shedding tracks.

British East Indies Fleet 1945

The British battlecruiser HMS Renown operating with other capital ships of the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean area, 12 May 1944. The battleship HMS Valiant is in the right distance. The French battleship Richelieu is in the left background.

While naval power had contributed mightily to the rolling up of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific from the Battle of the Coral Sea onwards, it had been much less influential in dictating the progress of the war in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. This was about to change in January 1945 with the success of the third Arakan offensive. A start was made with Operation Lightning on 2 January when Rear-Admiral Bernard Martin left Chittagong with TF 64, part of Vice-Admiral Sir Arthur Power’s British East Indies Fleet (BEIF), to put 1,000 Commandos ashore on the Akyab Peninsula so that they could capture the port city of Akyab (Sittwe) from which Japanese troops had already withdrawn. Securing Akyab would provide the Allies fighting in northern Burma with a very useful port for the landing of both additional troop reinforcements and sup- plies – a point underlined by the landing shortly thereafter of the Indian 74th Brigade. A few days later TF 64 was again on hand to land more Commando units further south near Myebon on Hunter Bay (Operation Passport). These were small-scale affairs and mere precursors for Operation Matador which put the British 4th and Indian 71st Brigades ashore from eighty-four landing craft on the northern coast of Ramree Island off the Arakan coast on 16 January. Martin, with his ?ag in the Australian destroyer Napier, was assisted in this enterprise by the presence of a ?re support group, containing the battleship Queen Elizabeth, which pounded the landing sites ahead of the invasion and by an air wing pro- vided by the escort carrier Ameer which soon proved its worth by repelling an attack on the invasion fleet by eighteen Japanese aircraft bent on its destruction. Another incremental incursion followed on 26 January with the landing further south on Cheduba Island (Operation Sankey) of 500 Marines and an even smaller contingent found their way to the island of Sagu Kyun on 30 January (Operation Pendant).

Power’s BEIF may have been sufficient for mopping up what was left of Japanese resistance on the Burmese coast, but it was not sufficient to take issue with the real centres of enemy power concentrated around the oil industry in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. For these the four carriers Illustrious, Indefatigable, Indomitable and Victorious of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) were required not only to cope with the threat posed by the Japanese land-based air- craft, but also to deal effectively with onshore refineries that were situated, for example, in the hinterland of Sumatra, so far removed from the coast that they were not accessible to even the guns of the largest battleships. If the BPF was going to be representative of its name, however, it would need to move much closer to the Pacific than Trincomalee. So on 16 January Admiral Fraser steamed eastwards away from the Ceylonese naval base with the battleship King George V, all four carriers (listed above), three light cruisers and nine destroyers in order to get much closer to the scene of the action. Also known as TF 63, the BPF would collect the light cruiser Ceylon, a couple of destroyers and four oil tankers en route to Sumatra before making a successful surprise attack on the oil refineries of Pladjoe (Plaju) and Soengi Gerong near Palembang in late January (Operation Meridian). In this operation Vian’s carrier planes destroyed 132 Japanese planes for the loss of forty-eight of his own aircraft – more of which succumbed to crash landings rather than enemy action. Air frames could be replaced, but experienced air crew were always at a premium and in this respect the Japanese war effort was doubly hit, losing far more planes and pilots than the Allies did in the Pacific and failing to replace either with the same urgency and dispatch.

In the Indian Ocean the IJN no longer featured. Their military was being pushed back relentlessly in Burma with bridgeheads being established across the River Irrawaddy both north and south of Mandalay by mid-February and the supply route to and from China – the Burma Road – having been re-opened for business by 27 January. What naval activity there was in this theatre was mostly, if not exclusively, generated by the Allies. While for the most part this meant the British East Indies Fleet, Indian vessels were also employed in bringing additional troops to bear on the Burmese front. In this way the sloops Jumna and Narbada oversaw the landing of 6,635 Commandos and other units on the banks of the Myebon River on 22-23 February. Nonetheless, the BEIF was the usual naval catalyst for Allied action in the early months of 1945. Apart from maintaining a lively presence in and around the Andaman Islands, where its ships took turns to raid Japanese coastal shipping and shell the infrastructure of Port Blair on a monthly basis, the BEIF also conducted reconnaissance surveys of the Isthmus of Kra, Sumatra, Penang and other ports on the Malayan coast as far south as Port Dickson (Operation Stacey) in late February and early March, and indulged itself in raids on oil installations on Sumatra (Operation Sunfish) in mid- April. This type of activity could be planned in these days without too many safety concerns as the last of the German U-boats sent out to East Asia had returned to Germany in the early months of 1945.