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Vive l’Empéreur !!

I watched a fantastic programme, or rather series of programmes, last winter on BBC2, I think it was. They were so good that I bought the book:

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They were all about Napoleon.
I had always wondered why the British hate Napoleon so much and the French love him. Why the British call him names and the French name streets after him.
Both the programmes and the book were by Andrew Roberts:

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He did a great job at explaining exactly why this situation has arisen.

It was because on the one hand, the England of the Napoleonic era had always prided itself on being full of free men, free to say what they wanted, to go where they wanted and so on. With a parliament and a monarch beloved by all, bless him, who never interfered in the running of an almost perfect society. Deep down though, the English knew that this portrait of their land was a complete load of rubbish.

They knew that Napoleon was a child of the Enlightenment, the fullest and finest flowering of ideas in the history of Mankind:

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Napoleon wanted to export the values of the Enlightenment across Europe. And the British wanted none of it. That’s why they coughed up £65,000,000 over the years, paying for countries such as Austria and Russia to attack and annihilate him, without any English lives being lost:

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The British saw Napoleon as a direct threat to “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”.

A “Green and Pleasant Land” where the rich seized the poor’s common land and called it their own.

Where Corn Laws prevented hungry poor people from eating bread made from cheap imported foreign wheat, so that rich English farmers could stay wealthy.

Where all of the people in charge of anything, the army, the navy, the government, everything, was a nobleman and had a title:

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And parliament was full of greedy men elected by unbelievably tiny numbers of voters. This practice made use of “Rotten Boroughs” and Pocket Boroughs”. Here are two of the “Four Prints of an Election” by William Hogarth.  You can see them in greater detail here.

This is the “Election Entertainment“:

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This one is called “Chairing the Members”:

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Next time, we will look at the achievements of Napoleon. They are many and apply to so many different fields, from giving a mole catcher a more important job to making the arrangements to educate young women:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Criminology, France, History, Politics

The Luftwaffe comes to Cornwall (and stays there)

For many, many, years, we have spent our summer holidays in Cornwall, in the very westernmost part, which is called Penwith, and where the major town is Penzance, the birthplace of the pioneer chemist, Humphry Davy. Ten miles or so to the north west of Penzance is the even smaller town of St Just. Just look for the orange arrow:

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In the nineteenth century, there were any number of tin mines around the town, which is made up for the most part of stone buildings with slate roofs.

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It has a beautiful ancient parish church with its centuries old frescoes of Christ and St.George.

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There is also the old battleflag of an old Great War battleship.

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Nearby is the medieval “Plen an Gwarry”, which is a small area of open grass, used for watching plays or sporting contests or perhaps just for relaxation.

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As you relax, you might want to eat a pasty or a pie from Mcfaddens, who are often quoted as making the best Cornish pasties in the world. The day I took these photographs, they had sold out. Fortunately, they do mail-order, although the pasties will not always be piping hot.

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St Just also hosts its popular Lafrowda Festival, a community and arts celebration that lasts for seven days.

There is the old bank, with its many changes of owner and cryptic lettering.

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More subtly famous is the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel which was built in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is an enormous stone building, and I remember reading somewhere that, as vast numbers of impoverished Cornishmen were forced to emigrate overseas, given its position so close to the cliffs of Land’s End, this building was usually the very last thing that thousands of emigrants saw as they set off towards the mines of the USA, Canada, Australia or South America.

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Some of the very best and most spectacular cliff scenery is at either Carn Gloose or the nearby Cape Cornwall. This is the Brisons, a pair of storm battered sea stacks.

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It was here that a very, very lost Steller’s Sea-lion lived in the late 1980s and 1990s. It should have been living in Eastern Siberia or Western Alaska.

 

Every time that I have ever driven down Cape Cornwall Road to look at the cliffs or to watch the fierce ocean storms, I have always looked up at the old Methodist School on the left, to check that the conspicuous gap on the ridge of the roof is still there.

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From a tourist leaflet that I read many years ago, I know very well that, during an air raid in the Second World War, this gap was caused by a German bomber in its last few seconds before it crashed into Chapel Road.

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This year I decided to research the story more extensively, so I called in at the library in St Just, where the helpful staff tried very hard to check any references to this event in the books of their Local Collection. They were unfortunately unable to find anything but, not for the first time I suspect, they contacted long time St Just resident, John Harry, who came round to the library straightway to recount the full story. Mr Harry told me that the events had taken place in the autumn or winter of 1942.

As a little boy, he was always very excited indeed when the St Just air raid warning was sounded, and he always had to be dragged very reluctantly up to bed. In their home in Chapel Street, the family had a simple home-made air raid shelter downstairs in the kitchen. It consisted for the most part of a rather robust kitchen table which, in theory, should be able to withstand the majority of shocks which an air raid might cause. On most occasions, though, John’s aging grandmother would refuse to get inside it, but instead, ostrich like, would merely stick her head underneath.

This particular night, they could hear distant gunfire, which gradually grew louder and louder. Some kind of aerial dogfight was clearly taking place, as they could all hear the noise of aircraft engines, machine guns and a series of explosions. Granny kept shouting “We’ll all be killed! We’ll all be killed!”, but her daughter replied, “Be quiet! Don’t keep saying that! You’ll frighten the child!”.

“The child” himself thought that it was all extremely exciting, and was clapping his hands in sheer glee. Suddenly, there was a huge crash. John shouted, “We’re winning! we’re winning!”. Auntie went upstairs to see what was happening. She looked out of the bedroom window. Below her, she could see flames down in the street. “All of Chapel Street is on fire!”, she shouted, “All St Just is ablaze !”

The stricken bomber had destroyed two houses, but fortunately, nobody was injured. The first house was owned by an old lady, but she had gone away to her daughter’s for a two week holiday.

The other house was a second home for the newly married Mr and Mrs Vague. (sic) They did not normally bother to use their air raid shelter, but on this particular evening, their cat had kept making a huge fuss, walking repeatedly backwards and forwards from the bedroom to the shelter. In an effort to keep the cat quiet therefore, the two of them finally moved down to the air raid shelter. From this place of safety, they were able to feel their house shaking as if it were an earthquake.

When it was safe to do so, both Mr and Mrs ran to the emergency shelter in the St Just Town Hall. All they possessed at this moment were their night clothes. In later years, though, of course, Mr and Mrs Vague would dine out regularly on the fact that they had had their lives saved by the cat.

The next morning, more than half the town was cordoned off by the Home Guard. Hundreds of windows had been blown out by the explosions. On the Methodist School (look for the orange arrow), huge numbers of tiles had been knocked off.

street map

Fragments of the crashed plane were everywhere. In the nearby village of Kelynack, some mile and a half away, (see the previous map after Paragraph One), one member of the German crew had landed by parachute. He had a broken leg, and, a forlorn figure, he was duly arrested by Mr.Matthews, the owner of a small local farm. The rest of the crew, three men, sadly, were all killed.

In a house in Cape Cornwall Street, a woman stepped forward in the darkness to open the bedroom curtains. She tripped over a German’s dead body, which had been blown in through the window. A few days later, in another house in the town, a frightened woman was to find a German’s leg on the top of her wardrobe.

And for a very long time afterwards, John Harry was too frightened to leave his mothers’ side.

Even now, though, at nearly eighty years of age, John was still unaware of where the three dead Germans were buried. And seventy years ago, his mother had been equally unable to ascertain their final resting place. Equally unsuccessful was her friend, who was actually a member of the local Home Guard. Indeed, at the time, everybody in St Just was curious about where the dead Germans were. They kept asking the Home Guard, who always replied with the same “Dunno”. It was thought, however, that some of them did know, but they were just not saying.

My own researches have been equally unsuccessful. I was unable to find the Germans’ last resting place either in the cemetery at St Just, or in the war graves section of Penzance Cemetery. Subsequent inquiries, however, reveal that most German war dead at this time were taken to the German Cemetery on Cannock Chase, and that after the end of hostilities, many of them were then re-interred in Germany. Let’s hope so. It is certainly a very long way from the frequently wet, windy and misty West Penwith to whatever churchyard in Germany where they rightfully belong.

The two destroyed houses were never rebuilt. Instead they were replaced by a row of garages. When the foundations for these buildings were being dug, the workmen found Mr.Vague’s gold watch.

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Amazingly, this was not the only air raid on tiny St Just. On another occasion, the Luftwaffe bombed Holman’s Foundry, which produced munitions for the Allied Forces, down in the Tregeseal Valley. Ironically, Mrs Holman had herself been born in Germany. She had originally come over to England around 1900 as a governess, and then married into a local family.

This particular bombing attack was actually mentioned in one of his broadcasts by Lord Haw Haw. He said, in very sinister and threatening fashion, “Don’t think we have forgotten you, St Just. You have not been forgotten.”

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The foundry’s owner, Ken Olds, lived in a house right next to the foundry. At the height of the bombing raid, when the grandparents went to look for the baby, they found that he was no longer in the bedroom. In actual fact, he had been blown out of the window, and they found him in the front garden. He was still in his cot, fast asleep and completely unharmed. Nearby houses had lots of cracks caused by the explosion of the bombs. In later years, this seems to have led to large scale subsidence, and all of the houses eventually had to be demolished. So too the foundry itself had to come down, and it was replaced by a housing estate.

I was genuinely surprised that after seventy years that it was still possible to talk to an eyewitness of all these amazing events. I will never forget my afternoon spent in the company of John Harry. He is a most charming man, and an amazing source of knowledge of the St Just area, the people who have lived there, and the people who live there still.

Subsequent, subsequent, subsequent researches on the Internet have now revealed the excellent website of Shauney Strick whose hobby is “The History of World War 2 in Penwith, Cornwall:Uncovering the evidence with a metal detector”.

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With his metal detector, Mr.Strick recently uncovered several small parts of a Luftwaffe aircraft buried in West Place, St.Just. (see street map above). The various objects of wreckage were from a Dornier Do. 217E, aircraft U5+1H of 1Staffel KG 2, which had crashed on September 27th 1942 as it made its way towards Penzance, after being pursued and shot down by a Bristol Beaufighter Mark IF of 406 Squadron from RAF Predannick. The Beaufighter was  flown by Squadron Leader Denis Chetwynd Furse with Pilot Officer John Haddon Downes as his radio operator.  

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One additional detail was that one of the diesel engines from the stricken bomber flew an enormous distance before smashing through three garden walls in West Place. 

As I mentioned above, my search for the final resting place of the Luftwaffe bomber’s crew led me to Penzance Cemetery, where, although I did not have any success with the Dornier, I did find that the World War II graves there had some very interesting, and very, very sad tales to tell. But that, as they say, is for another time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aviation, Cornwall, History, Humour

Schweinfurt Two: sixty B-17s downed, 650 airmen killed

I hope that you were able to read my blog post about the American Eighth Air Force’s first raid on the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. This brave action took place on August 17th 1943, and was a catastrophe. As I wrote a few weeks ago…

“The raid caused a 34 per cent loss of production at Schweinfurt but this was soon made up for by surplus supplies from all over Germany The industry’s infrastructure, while vulnerable to a sustained campaign, was not vulnerable to destruction by a single raid.”

I quoted the casualty figures…

“230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were destroyed. Five hundred and fifty two men were killed in the air, and seven poor souls made it back home, but, alas, had already succumbed to their injuries. Twenty one men were badly wounded. Beyond the sixty B-17s shot down, between 55-95 further aircraft were badly damaged. Of these many were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.”

Despite these huge losses, the Eighth Air Force plan had always been to go back to Schweinfurt a second time. It was to take the best part of two months to rebuild their forces, but on October 14th 1943, the B-17s returned to attack the factories where, at the time, American wartime intelligence thought ball bearing production had been permanently reduced by up to a third.
This time, changes would be made. Instead of a two-pronged attack on the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft works at Regensburg, the entire force would attack Schweinfurt alone.

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Secondly, additional fighter escorts were added to protect the vulnerable bombers as much as was possible during both the outward and return journeys of the operation. Each of the three bomber wings, therefore, was to be escorted by multiple squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts. For an unknown reason, though, none of the P-47s were equipped with drop tanks, an important mistake which significantly limited their escort range. And one outfit of fighters previously allocated to the Flying Fortresses was given the job of acting as an escort to the 29 B-24 Liberator bombers on a diversionary mission to Emden.

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At first, though, things went quite well. When the bombers were initially intercepted as they crossed the coast the P-47s succeeded in shooting down seven Bf 109s. But over the Netherlands the P-47s came to the end of their range and the B17s were left alone and virtually defenceless.  Large numbers of Focke-Wulf FW 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s  made repeated attacks exactly as they had done in August. The 305th Bomb Group lost 13 of its 16 B-17s in just a few minutes. Further into Germany, this second Schweinfurt Raid would soon follow the same pattern as the first one.

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As well as single engined fighters, twin engined Messerschmitt Bf110s and Junkers Ju88s were encountered. They carried much heavier cannon.

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This time, many more aircraft were armed with Werfer-Granate 21 rocket launchers, firing unguided stand-off rockets.

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Here are two wonderful pictures from the Life Magazine of  the day, showing the heroic efforts of the brave young Eighth Air Force gunners.

As in August, although the ball-bearing factories were badly hit, the mission did not achieve any long lasting effects. Ball bearing production was halted for around six weeks but these losses were again easily made up by the large stocks the Germans already had. After this second attack, all of the ball bearing facilities were dispersed from Schweinfurt across the whole of Germany to reduce the risk of their being bombed for a third time.
General “Hap” Arnold claimed that “Black Thursday” and its losses were just incidental, but daylight bomber raids deep into Germany without fighter escort were suspended until further notice. Cynics might well have asked just how many B-17s did the Eighth Air Force have left on strength anyway?
Long distance bombing raids would only recommence in February 1944 with the advent of Operation Argument, a series of missions later to be called the “Big Week”. By then, escorts were available in the form of P-51B Mustangs.

Arnold’s “incidental losses” on the second Schweinfurt raid were astounding. Of the 291 B-17s on the mission, 60 were shot down over enemy territory.

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Another 17 bombers were damaged so heavily that they had to be scrapped. A further 121 B-17s were damaged to a greater or lesser extent and many of the crippled bombers would require a great deal of time and effort to repair them.

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These B-17 losses represented more than 26% of the attacking force. The losses of aircrew were equally devastating, with 650 men killed out of 2,900, some 22% of the bomber crews. Certain units were hugely affected. The 306th Bomb Group lost 100 men, with 35 either killed in the air or died of wounds and 65 made Prisoners of War. The 305th Bomb Group lost 130 men with 36 killed outright. This constituted 87% of their complement.

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My own father, Fred, even if he seems never to have had a great deal of contact with the Americans of the Eighth Air Force, always had enormous respect for their almost unbelievable bravery. Some thirty years after the war, as I returned from university, Fred was to accompany me, one dull autumn day, on a visit to the American Cemetery at Madingley near Cambridge.

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How strange to think that these neatly kept graves may well have been the last resting place of some of the brave young airmen he had watched flying high above him in the frosty blue sky of East Anglia so many years previously.

If your navigational skills are up to it, this is Part One of a ten film series about  the Schweinfurt raid.

In another blog post, I will look at what the Eighth Air Force did after the two disastrous raids on Schweinfurt, and how their airmen’s lives were saved, and arguably the Second World War was won, thanks to Ronnie Harker, a New Zealander who at the time was working at Hucknall in Nottinghamshire, just six miles to the north west of where I am sitting right now as I write the conclusion to this post.

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Filed under Aviation, History

Teasels: the best plant in our garden

This amazingly spikey plant is called a “teasel”, and it is easily the most fascinating plant in our garden.
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It is a very thrilling plant from an English point of view, for, alas, we just do not seem to have the same exciting inhabitants in our gardens as they have in the USA…..
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These American killers are deadlier than wolves or bears.
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Our English plant, though, can consume a reasonable number of insects, medium sized mammals and small children.
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It performs this valuable service by drowning them, and then absorbing their nutrients. Equally well, you can easily feed the plant yourself by tipping in the dregs from your cup of tea or coffee. On this caffeine based diet, our plant has now reached an amazing twenty seven flower heads. Here are two of them….
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The biggest flower heads are now in bloom. They provide a fabulous source of nectar for all kinds of interesting flying insect, especially butterflies….

This is a Peacock…
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This is a Red Admiral. Its Latin scientific name is “Vanessa atalanta”, which sounds a little bit like one of the old Admiral’s girls in every port…
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The flowerheads are a lovely bluey-pink colour…
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Eventually seeds will appear. Indeed, in our worryingly early autumn, many have already arrived as early as the fifth of August.

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The seedheads are an absolute magnet to England’s most colourful bird, the improbably beautiful Goldfinch…
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The population of these splendid birds is gradually increasing, and teasels are an excellent way to entice them into your garden.

This could easily be your garden…
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I would be very surprised, though, if you managed to attract as many of these beautiful birds as Gunnar Fernqvist has done, although, to be fair, he does seem to have a VERY large garden.

Interestingly, the Goldfinch has always been of great symbolism in medieval European art. According to Wikipedia, because of the thistle seeds it eats, and the spiky nature of the adult thistle plant, the goldfinch is associated with Christ’s crown of thorns. When it appears in pictures of the Madonna and child, the bird is thought to represent the knowledge both Mary and Jesus had of the latter’s Crucifixion.

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Teasel seeds can be found fairly easily on your local brownfield site in late summer or early autumn. Otherwise, it’s another expedition up the Amazon.co.uk….

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Filed under My Garden, Nottingham, Uncategorized, Wildlife and Nature