Category Archives: Bomber Command

The problems with researching World War Two (2)

Last time, I wrote about what problems may be caused when the wonderful website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contains no details whatsoever about a particular individual, other than the date of his death:

The name of his regiment, by the way, is of little help. Men were switched between regiments and battalions all the time. It would give you a very large shove, in, probably, the right direction, but you could never be 100% water tight sure.

If all you have is the name and the date of death, I suppose that you could try to find a website that has all the past issues of local newspapers in Britain. Hopefully, you might find Fred Walker in the Deaths section for May 22nd 1946 onwards. But how would you know which newspaper to look in? You would have to try all of the Nottingham ones and then perhaps Mansfield and then perhaps Newark. But what if Fred’s family had moved to Durham after he left the High School at the age of seven? Or Tobermory? Or Armagh? Or, as one did, Paraguay?

The second major problem is that any possibly helpful supporting details about the individual serviceman can be almost impossible to come by. So difficult, in fact, that the whole situation soon becomes an impossible one.

This is because detailed service records after 1922 are still, ninety years after World War Two, accessible only to a direct relative, such as a son or a grandson. And these records are all held in the steely grip of the Ministry of Defence:

To take my own experiences as an example, I decided to buy access to my Dad’s records of his service in the RAF.

I had to send them his death certificate and my own birth certificate, to prove that he was dead and that I was his son. Both of them had to be the original documents, because photocopies were not allowed. I also had to send them a large sum of money. Here’s my Dad, ready to take on the Führer:

And what I got back contained very little indeed of any consequence, although it did make me think of studying for “GCSE Abbreviations (Paper 1 : RAF)”.  The abbreviations included:

“S/GCA”,  “P/R”,  “NVC”,  “A3B”,  “3RC”,  16.B.C.”,  “B/X”,  “S.F.U”,  “W/Mech”,  “W/T Equip”,  “X”, “H”, “HH”,  “HHH”,  “1.S.S.” or perhaps “I.S.S.”,  “S/GCA”,  “2 GCA Unit”  and “15 R.C.”.

Just imagine. All that palaver to get the records and when you get them you can’t understand them.

And that isn’t the only problem  with accessing the records of an individual serviceman. In 1940,  just to provide the splendid celebratory pink icing on the top of the researcher’s celebration cake, heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed up to 60% of all the war records in existence up to that point.

And what the Luftwaffe missed, the various fire brigades gave a damn good soaking to make most of it completely unusable;

And that’s not all. The 1931 National Census was completely destroyed by fire on Saturday, December 19th 1942. All of its documents were being stored in a building at Hayes in Middlesex.

This catastrophe cannot be blamed on the naughty Luftwaffe though. It was just an ordinary fire, although it is difficult to believe that storing huge amounts of furniture right next to tons of census paperwork was a particularly clever move.

At all times, there were six paid firewatchers on duty in the building but it is now known that some of them were smokers and that at least one of them threw a lighted cigarette stub down on the floor at one point. That was not a particularly clever move either.

Don’t be downhearted though. Other countries are just as fond of a nice welcoming fire. A substantial proportion of the USA’s 1890 census went up in smoke. And the Irish! Well, it’s almost unbelievable!

The Irish censuses for 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 were all burned by a large fire at the Public Records Office. Oscar Wilde was Irish. And what was it he said?

“To burn one census may be regarded as a misfortune.

To burn two censuses looks like carelessness.

To burn three censuses might be regarded as third time unlucky,

But to burn four censuses may well be the work of

Der man ‘imself,

Art’ur Brown”

 

 

 

 

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The problems with researching World War Two (1)

During my researches of the High School’s war casualties, I soon encountered one, huge, huge, problem. This was the fact that somebody at the High School, a pupil or a member of staff, might have exactly the same name as a casualty listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website, but beyond that, there was nothing else to link them together, or to keep them firmly apart. No date of birth. No date of death. No parents’ names. No place where they had lived. Nothing.

The reason for this strange state of affairs is that in the huge number of names listed on the CWGC website there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties which provide no extra details at all which would allow any definite links to be made. In particular, no date of birth is ever listed.

I have always presumed that this has happened because, when the new recruit filled in the paperwork early in his military career, there was some kind of option which allowed him to preserve his privacy in this way.

To take a completely random example, Sergeant Leonard Thompson in the RAF was killed on Wednesday, September 16, 1942 and his sacrifice is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial near London. And there are no more details than that provided about Leonard, no date of birth, no age, no parents’ names, no town of origin, and no town of residence, absolutely nothing. So if there is a Leonard Thompson in the School Register, of an age to be in the Royal Air Force, there is no definite way of linking the two together, unless you find it mentioned in another book or on another website elsewhere (something which I have not yet done in five years of research).

This is all there is to link Leonard to anybody else:

Certainly, photographic evidence is of little value. Are these the same person? The little bugler boy at the High School:

And the rear gunner on an Avro Lancaster bomber (front row, right) ?

Let’s take another completely random example. In the School Register, Boy No 4959, John Taylor, is an orphan and has no parents listed. Only Mrs AM Cooke is recorded as a “Father or next Friend”. She is most probably a relative of one of John’s parents and is now the adult legally responsible for John Taylor’s welfare. Clearly, the original Mr Taylor has passed away and so too, probably, has Mrs Taylor.

But was young High School boy, John Taylor, Boy No 4959 in the School Register, the same person as Private Taylor, 4748560, of the York and Lancaster Regiment? Or was he Able Seaman Taylor, D/JX 303159, in the Royal Navy? Or perhaps he was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class,  John Taylor, D/MX 75819. Or maybe Stoker 1st Class JohnTaylor,  P/KX 601918 ?

Or perhaps the High School’s John Taylor was Flight Sergeant Taylor, Service Number  1079856? Or was he Gunner John Taylor, 4385260 ? or Private John Taylor, 3909612 of the South Wales Borderers? Or Sapper John Taylor 1888052 of the Royal Engineers? Maybe  he was Gunner John Taylor, 941298, of the Royal Artillery ?

Back to Leonard Thompson. Another war casualty to bear the same name was Gunner Leonard Thompson. He was killed on Thursday, May 18, 1944 and he is buried in the Beach Head War Cemetery at Anzio in Italy. He was a member of the 92 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. There are no more details about him either. There is no age, no parents’ names, no town of origin, no town of residence, nothing. He might well be the Leonard Thompson in the School Register but then again, he might not. There is nothing definite to link him to the High School. Here is the beach at Anzio, as usual, full of Americans in their flashy, cheap tanks:

Still, at least it kept the Germans’ towels off the sunloungers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vandalism in the School Archives? Or is it Art?

A few months ago, I went into the School Archives to photograph the School Lists. They are quite boring little booklets to be brutally honest, but they are very informative and record the names of all the members of all the forms in the School for every year. The oldest ones date from the late 1860s, but because I was researching the school’s casualties in World War II, I started my James Bond activities with 1892 and then went forwards as far as 1950. Just for the sake of argument, here’s one, with a particularly famous ex-pupil on it:

With all that information, it is actually a Victorian Excel Spreadsheet!

The only thing out of the ordinary that I found in 3.96 GB of School Lists was in the edition for 1941:

Once again, some young man was feeling the ‘Call of the Skies’:

Below the printers’ name, he had knocked out a couple of bombers;

Here’s the larger of the two bombers blown up as best I can:

It is called the 320 and has a range of 3,000 miles, with an endurance, I think he means, not ‘duration’, of 6 hours 8 minutes and a bomb load of 3,000lbs. It also has 8 machine guns. Looks a bit like a Blenheim with the nose of a Heinkel, the tail of an Airspeed Oxford perhaps and inline engines.

Here’s the smaller of the two bombers blown up as best I can:

It is called the 350 and has a range of 1,000 miles, with no armament. It looks a bit like a Blenheim with the nose of a Heinkel, the tail of an Airspeed Oxford perhaps and inline engines. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

I have also tried hard to blow up the first of the fighters:

It has one 1 inch cannon, in the propeller boss, by the look of it, and 8 machine guns.

The other fighter is rather Spitfire like:

It is called the 398 and has 4 cannon, 4 machine guns, an endurance of 5 hours and a range of 3,000 miles. I’m sorry to say that Maths was not necessarily this young man’s strong point! The German fighter has no names or specifications:

For me, it is mainly Focke Wulf Fw 190, but there is a little dash of Mitsubishi Zero in it as well perhaps.

I often think that we regret what we do not do far more than what we do do. When I was in the Sixth Form at Ashby-de-la-Zouch Boys’ Grammar School, we used to have French lessons in a smaller room because there were only 12 of us. One of the desks had a fantastic carving of a B-17 Flying Fortress, deep into the wood of the lid, with all the ailerons, all the machine guns and all the ventilation holes in the gun barrels. It was fabulous. This is the closest I can find on the Internet:Looking back at how much money the school had, I suspect it dated from  1943 rather than 1963 and the Airfix kit of that era:

My regret is that I did not find any way of preserving this work of art rather than it be thrown into a skip in the middle 70s.

Not much survives of the pupils in any school. And what does would have been classified as vandalism at the time. Such as this example from 1922:

or this one from 1942:

or this one from a young man who upset the High School more than he could ever imagine:

 

 

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My Book (3)

I am still quite proud of the fact that I have found out so much information about the vast majority of these young men. I feel that I have done them all justice and that I have done my very best to keep them in people’s memories, even as they seem to be receding further and further into the anonymous grey mists of time. Here is the School Rugby team in 1926-1927:

I have made great efforts to drag the complete ghost out of the past and to write not just about their fiery deaths but to try and unfold the full and energetic lives they led. It’s only too easy to see a name on a war memorial, to read that name and then to forget it, all in the same moment. For that reason I have tried to describe their families, their fathers, their mothers, their brothers and sisters. I have tried to find out what their father did as a job, where the family lived, in some cases occupying just one or two houses in their lifetime, in others half a dozen. What were their houses like? How might they have travelled to the High School? I have tracked their Forms, their teachers, what they did at School, how their exams went, what position they came in class and what prizes they won, all the things that would have been so important to them at the time. I have written about what their Form Masters were like and talked about their careers. This is Mr Kennard. He definitely took no prisoners:

I have tried to find out what sports our future heroes played:

What school plays they were in. The French farce of the 1920s, “Dr Knock”, perhaps? And which one of these boys became the war hero?:

Or perhaps a play with a chance to wear a lovely frock and a string of pearls? :

Which person collected stamps and who loved to make home movies? I have tried to identify other boys in their Forms who might have been their friends, even if that is just a case of saying who won the Form Prize and where they lived, what job their father did and so on. Here is a class of really small boys, eight and nine year olds, before the First World War:

The worst thing I could have done would have been to have written three thousand words about their death and thirty about their lives. So whatever I could find, I have included. Their sports, their hobbies, their jobs between school and the forces, and, if possible, what their abilities and talents were.
By doing this I revealed, even to myself, just how many different places have provided High School pupils over these years and just how many hundreds of different jobs their fathers have done, some of them long gone and requiring a search on the Internet.

At least one High School hero of Bomber Command had come straight from Waring & Gillow’s shop to fly his Lancaster. He apparently said one day in the shop that selling double beds and three piece suites was not a worthy job for a man when his country was at war, and off he went. Waring & Gillow sold luxury furniture of all kinds, and they appear to have made a lot themselves, because here is their factory. :


And when I have written about the boys’ streets and houses, some simple directions are usually included. Without them, which of us could ever locate Balfour Road or Conway Avenue or Derby Terrace or Florence Road? And many old streets have completely disappeared. This is a very different Forest Recreation Ground, only a few decades before the first of the World War Two casualties was born. Look at the windmills, and the race course for horses. It was one of the very few ever to be a figure-of-eight, in the hope of some juicy crashes:

It is, of course, the young readers who are my ultimate target audience. It would be a tragedy indeed if they were never to realise who died for their right not to be brainwashed, not to speak German as their first language, not to be slave labourers in a foreign land and to have the right to make their own decisions at all the different stages of their young lives. Freedom does not come cheap, and I’m not talking about money. The situation is perhaps best summed up by what one Old Nottinghamian war hero has inscribed on his grave:

HE GAVE THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
HIS UNFINISHED LIFE.

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My Book (2)

With the books that I eventually produce, my main intention will be to preserve our knowledge of the sacrifices made by these men, but at the same time, I do feel that I have one other main aim, which is to demonstrate that, as we live our own lives, we are surrounded by history of all kinds.

History is always there, hiding in the streets we walk down and in the houses we walk past. It is there, hiding in the buildings of a great city and it is hiding even in the corridors and rooms of the High School. It hides behind the modern frontage of the Park Salon and Quality4Students on Derby Road, up near Canning Circus:


History even hides behind the steamed up windows of the City Chicken Cafe and the Istanbul Off Licence on Mansfield Road:

It hides catastrophic defeats:

And it hides catastrophic accidents:

 

There’s no blue plaque to remember Peter Vernon, though. No flag flies over the home of “Watty” Watson. We have no statue in Edwards Lane of “Farmer” Richardson. No films are ever shown on our televisions of George Brown, the young man:

“whose fast in-swinging yorker on the leg stump was so devastating on its day.”

But I do not want this secret history of ordinary people to be forgotten. The modest men in these books all died for our freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from racism, freedom from random prejudice, from arrest without reason, from chance execution, from a quick death in a gas chamber or a slow death as a slave labourer :

They saved us from a society without free speech, without choice and with no discussion of the future of us all:

They saved us from a political system which, at the end of the war, was quite willing to kill a substantial percentage of its own citizens as the best way forward towards a better life.
In this book, therefore, you will find as much as I could discover about well over a hundred men from Nottingham High School who gave their lives willingly in the cause of freedom.
That sounds a great many people and it was, for a school with total numbers of between five and six hundred at any one moment during the period under review.

The criteria for being added to the list were, for the most part, inclusion in the long list kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which uses its own date limits for the casualty’s death of September 3rd 1939 to December 31st 1947. I did stretch the definition slightly to include the men who died while working to support the Allied cause. A university lecturer who is killed in an aircraft crash as he travels from place to place on a lecture tour around the Mediterranean theatre will be in the list, just as much as the man who organises food for a million refugees in India and who prevents the outbreak of a typhoid epidemic. Both are clearly making contributions to the war effort. They are both, to quote a famous football manager, “Getting us closer to the top of the hill.”

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My Book (1)

It is a long time since I shared with you what I was up to, away from the knockabout world of blog posting. Some of you will know that for the last four years at least I have been researching the boys of the High School who gave their lives in the Second World War. At first, it was seven days a week, four hours a day, but I am now down to six days a week with three hours as a minimum and the usual being around three and a half hours. It’s difficult to describe what a huge job it was:

I began this mammoth task because as far as I was aware, nobody had ever carried out any research whatsoever about the brave Old Nottinghamians who gave their lives during the Second World War. At the moment I have around 120 people to include in an eventual book, of which 110 are men who qualify 100% as war casualties. Because of the volume of information I have discovered, hundreds of thousands of words, the final work is likely to be in three volumes if not four:

The majority of research I have carried out on the Internet which has supplied me with details which have never been known before. Most of all, I have discovered a large number of former pupils who deserve to be recognised as Old Nottinghamian war casualties but who were not included when the original lists were being compiled:

That is far from a criticism. In the late 1940s, how could anybody have found out that a little boy of eight or nine who spent just a couple of terms in the Preparatory School in the early 1920s had been killed in a tank three miles east of Hamburg five years before? Communication by letter:

and communication by postcard:

with other information distributed in newspapers could not possibly have coped with demands of this kind:

On occasion, the School Magazine, the Nottinghamian, got me started with my researches, but overall, the solutions were largely provided by the men who have dedicated their entire lives to the recording of the minutest details of the Second World War. Men who have recorded the names of every RAF man killed in an aircraft of Bomber Command. Men who have recorded the names of every sailor who did not come home from the sea in World War Two. Every U-boat captain and his every kill. Every nightfighter pilot and every bomber he shot down:

I just felt that, unless I did produced some committed and detailed research of my own right now, there was a real risk that nothing would have been done by the time we reached the centenary of the beginning of the conflict in 2039.
In many ways, that absence of detailed research by others might even be seen as a bonus, because there would be very few people out there who could contradict what I had written. On the other hand, I do feel that after so many thousands of hours working on the project, there should be no huge errors in what I have produced. (Touch wood). Even my best guesses have often proved later to be quite reasonable ones, based on what, in many cases, is a paucity of actual facts.

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The Nightingale and Bomber Command

This is a very famous recording of a nightingale singing its little heart out, only to be interrupted by the enormous noise of a large number of Bomber Command aircraft approaching and then flying over. Undaunted, the nightingale carries on with its beautiful song as the bombers leave and the roar of their engines gradually fades away. The recording lasts quite a long time but it is well worth listening to in its entirety, particularly if you have never heard it before. It comes from spud4x:

The recording was made from a garden in Surrey, England during the evening of May 19th 1942 as 197 aircraft flew over on their way to bomb Mannheim. There were 105 Wellingtons, 31 Stirlings, 29 Halifaxes, 15 Hampdens, 13 Lancasters and 4 Manchesters:

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47 men would be killed and 23 would finish up as prisoners of war. Eleven days later would come the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. And in the woods of England, and indeed Germany, the war would count for very little. The bluebells would be lingering on and the nightingales would be starting to sing.

The nightingale has a very powerful, very famous, but not necessarily hyper distinctive song. On birdwatching trips, I have often seen people listen to a hidden blackcap or garden warbler and walk away happy that they have heard a nightingale. John Keats too, may have been misled. Some critics have mentioned that the bird’s behaviour as Keats describes it, is on occasion not dreadfully nightingaley. But the poetic thoughts are dreadfully, well, poetic:

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown”
Perhaps John Clare, of whom I wrote long. long ago, had a better idea:
“See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.”

Anyway, there’s only one nightingale and here it is…

And here’s another version of that BBC recording:

If you’re interested, this is also to be found on Youtube. It is a recording made of a Bomber Command crew on a bombing mission over Germany:

As a fully paid up very sad person, I have two CDs  of this type of thing, bought many years ago from Amazon and I have listened to them many times.

This is the first one and this is the second one. They are particularly good for driving through rush hour traffic on your way to work. Goggles optional.

 

 

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