Battle of Britain: Why we remember the Many and the Few
The First Phase in July 1940 saw the start of a major blockade by air and sea to stop our economy from functioning. This centred on a relentless campaign to sink the small ships which brought down the east coast so much of what Southern Britain needed to survive: for example coal for the power stations. This also involved blitz type raids on Dover, Southampton, Bristol, Swansea, Liverpool, Hull and Falmouth. It has been estimated that in the Merchant Navy alone some 1,730 seamen died through the official battle period compared to 544 Fighter Command aircrew.
The Second Phase was the destruction of Britain's air power starting on 13th August 1940 – Eagle Day: airfields and aircraft factories across the country were targeted from Southampton, Luton, Bristol, Birmingham and Coventry to Leeds and Manchester. The RAF survived these attacks on its capability much better than is often allowed.
In September 1940 when the Third Phase began with the Blitz against London. Londoners then experienced death and destruction that was being experienced elsewhere. The German emphasis was to destroy the British people's morale and social cohesion so that Churchill would be thrown out of office and peace would be sought.
We remember therefore the Few and all of those who suffered the effects of bombing throughout our country, and all of those who fought heroically alongside them to keep society functioning, from police, firemen, civil and ground defence, ambulance workers and medical staff to the Navy and the crews of the ships which kept Britain supplied with the necessities of life, and the ground staff, Observer Corps and reconnaissance aircrews who lost their lives in support of Fighter Command.
In remembering the Few we also have reason to be particularly grateful to the 145 Polish and 83 Czech pilots who fought so valiantly. The Few, including the Fleet Air Arm, epitomised this spirit of never giving in and defending this country when so many were defenceless against the unrelenting air attacks.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton wrote in 2010 “ During the Battle of Britain the front line was everywhere and involved everyone”. So we should remember the Few and the Many.
Reference: Battle for Britain, James Holland
The Legacy of 9/11: 15 Years On
Article by Dr John Bahadur Lamb
'Never forget' is the oft repeated refrain used when talking about the attacks of September 11th 2001. Yet, it often seems an empty phrase brought out yearly for memorial services and invoked by politicians seeking to justify the latest round of new counter terrorism efforts.
Read more here: www.forces.tv/85983178
I am a Seenager! (Senior Teenager)
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution during the First World War
By Raymond Hirst
Before giving you a flavour of the considerable service the Royal National Lifeboat Institution gave to the war effort, I thought it would be interesting to mention the founder of the RNLI, as he was a former military man.
Sir William Hillary was born in 1771 and although not rich he had enough money to enjoy London society and he mixed with the aristocracy, eventually becoming equerry to Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex and the 9th child of King George III. It was during his travels in the Mediterranean with the Prince that he became interested in seafaring.
He lived in Essex and was fortunate enough to marry a wealthy heiress and during the Napoleonic wars, despite his interest in the sea, he spent £20 000 on raising the largest private army in England, the 1st Essex Legion of Infantry and Cavalry. He took the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and in 1805 he was made a baronet in recognition of his service to the country.
However all this cost a lot of money, which resulted in the break up of his marriage and he became almost bankrupt, so in 1808 he moved to the Isle of Man to start a new life. His
house overlooked Douglas Bay and he witnessed many maritime disasters and was involved in many rescues.
It was the rescue of a Royal Navy cutter, the Vigilant, in Douglas Bay that Sir William and a few retired naval officers organised that was the catalyst for the founding of what was to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It convinced him that there was a need for a national rescue organisation, so in 1823 he published a pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the British Nation on the Humanity and Policy of Forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck”. One of its objects was: “The people and vessels of every nation, whether in peace or war, to be equally objects of the Institution”. On the 4th of March 1824 the Institution was formed.
Conditions during wartime made rescue at sea much more hazardous than in peacetime. Money which might have gone to the RNLI was given to the war effort. Many coastguards were withdrawn and replaced by boy scouts who obviously lacked experience, but quite soon became very proficient and performed a very valuable service.
Lifeboat crews were called up for war service, so older and often less experienced volunteers took over. Navigation was made more difficult as some navigation aids were removed, coastal lights extinguished and offshore minefields were sown.
The war began on the 4th of August 1914 and the RNLI was soon in action. On that very day a new lifeboat was put on station at Fraserborough and on the 8th of August was launched to rescue fourteen people from the coaster Glenravel of Belfast which was sunk by a German submarine fifteen miles from Fraserburgh.
One of the most dramatic rescues was to the hospital ship Rohilla during which the lifeboat crews displayed incredible bravery, skill and determination. She had 229 people on board and was bound for Dunkirk to take wounded from the western front. In a very strong south easterly gale, poor visibility and without shore based navigational aids, in the early hours of the 30th of October 1914 she ran aground on rocks just off Whitby and broke in two. About sixty people in the stern section were swept overboard and drowned.
There were two lifeboats at Whitby, but due to the conditions only one, the John Fielden which like most lifeboats at that time was a rowing boat, was able to be launched. However to get her to the sea she had to be dragged along the shore on skids and lowered into the water. In the process she was damaged, but the coxswain, Thomas Langlands, decided it was safe to attempt a rescue. In horrendous conditions he managed to save seventeen people. He then made a second rescue and took off eighteen people, but by this time the lifeboat was too badly damaged to make any more rescue attempts.
Another lifeboat, the William Riley, from Upgang, northwest of Whitby, was drawn by horse to Whitby and lowered down the cliffs to help, but by now it was dark and the weather was too rough to attempt a launch. Early the next morning the boat did launch but it was unable to reach the Rohilla. However some on board the wreck, seeing that help appeared to be close at hand, jumped into the sea. Some of them drowned but others, probably about twenty-five, were helped ashore by onlookers.
Lifeboats from Scarborough and Teesmouth tried to reach the wreck but were unsuccessful. Eventually a telegram was sent to Tynemouth lifeboat station which had a motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. It made a hazardous passage of forty-five miles in the dark with no coastal lights and as it approached the Rohilla it released gallons of oil to calm the sea and forty people were transferred to the lifeboat. The remaining ten people were rescued at its second attempt.
The picture shows the John Fielden coming to the rescue of the Rohilla.
On the 27th of December 1914 the destroyer HMS Success ran aground in very severe weather near Crail on the Fife coast. The Crail lifeboat, the Edwin Kay, was launched but despite the skill of its coxswain, Andrew Cunningham, it was holed as it approached the rocks but was able to continue. Shortly after that a huge wave washed the coxswain and one of his crew overboard. Fortunately they were wearing lifejackets and attached to safety lines and were recovered.
The lifeboat came alongside the destroyer and rescued twenty crew. It then made two further rescue attempts saving another thirty-four men. There were still thirteen men waiting to be rescued but Cunningham was concerned about the condition of his lifeboat. However the situation was resolved by the appearance of the St Andrews lifeboat which took off the remaining crew.
There was at least one direct war service when on the 24th of November 1917 the North-Deal lifeboat took four Navy officers to an abandoned German submarine preventing it from taking any further part in the war.
I have only described three rescues, all with a military connection, but of course many other rescues took place. World War 1 was a very busy time for the RNLI. Lifeboats launched 1808 times and rescued 5332 people. 549 of these launches were to war ships or ships on government business. Among those saved were twenty-two from seaplanes, mostly in 1918. Allies were also rescued: ninety-eight Frenchmen, ninety-one Italians and ninety-eight from the United States owed their lives to the RNLI. Sadly all this came at a cost. Four lifeboats were lost, twenty-two seriously damaged and twenty-one lifeboat men were drowned.
It must also be appreciated that most men were older than would normally be accepted to crew a lifeboat. By 1916 the average age of crews was as high as fifty and on one occasion the Lowestoft lifeboat had a scratch crew of eighteen men of whom two were over seventy, twelve over sixty and four over fifty. They were in boats exposed to the elements, mostly powered by oars and many were not very experienced, but they soon learnt. They were prepared to go out in terrible and very dangerous conditions, often at night and sometimes for a long time and they were all volunteers.
Sir William Hillary’s motto was: “With courage nothing is impossible”. I think you will agree that the men of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lived up to that motto then, as indeed they, and now women as well, still do today.
The Lifeboat Service by Oliver Warner. Published by Cassell & Company Ltd.
Heroes All! by Alec Beilby. Published by Patrick Stephens Ltd.
Riders of the Storm by Ian Cameron. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Sir William Hillary and the Isle of Man Lifeboat Stations by Robert C. Kelly and Gordon N.Kniveton. Published by The Manx Experience.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution during the Second World War
by Raymond Hirst
Lifeboat call outs, or shouts as they are known by the RNLI, can be hazardous enough in peacetime, but during wartime the dangers are considerably increased.
Navigation was very difficult as the lights of most lighthouses, lightships and buoys were extinguished. The coastline was plunged into darkness and ships and boats had to make passage with no deck or navigation lights. The blackout was strictly enforced and lifeboats had to comply. Also for lifeboats radio communication was at first completely banned, but this was relaxed later in the war but had to be kept to a minimum. Listening however was permitted. Crews could not be summoned by maroon and each member had to be called separately by messenger and as many lifeboat crew and shore helpers joined the armed forces, much older men had to man the boats, many in their sixties, and not a few over seventy.
The enemy made matters worse in the early months of the war by laying magnetic mines in shipping lanes and harbour entrances. When the answer to the magnetic mine was found, acoustic mines were used which could be detonated by a boat’s engine or the rattle of its anchor chain. Mines were also laid by our own forces on beaches near lifeboat stations and the sea often shifted them in an alarming way. Then there was the possibility of attack by aircraft.
As an anti-invasion device, at low tide steel spikes were driven into the beaches. When the tide came in they could not be seen and would add to the difficulties of a lifeboat coming to the aid of a ship driven onto the beach. Beaches were also blocked by barbed-wire barriers with a small gap left for the lifeboat which sometimes had to be negotiated in the dark. In one incident a lifeboat carriage was guided through the barrier by the glow of cigarette ends.
The very first wartime rescue as a result of enemy action took place on 10 September 1939, the 8th day after the outbreak of war. The steamer Magdapur struck a mine two miles offshore and broke her back. Five of her crew were killed, but the Aldeburgh lifeboat brought the seventy-four survivors ashore. Of these, twelve were wounded and most were covered in fuel oil. It took two and a half hours to clear the lifeboat of oil and blood. This was the start of a very busy time for the RNLI. The first seven months of the war were the busiest since the founding of the institution in 1824.
On 26 November 1939 an unusual rescue took place in the middle of a minefield. The naval trawler Blackburn Rovers was on anti-submarine patrol off Dover when her propeller fouled drifting wire. Her crew dropped anchor, but in the high wind and heavy seas it failed to hold and the disabled trawler started to drift into a minefield. The Dover lifeboat, Sir William Hillary, was launched and in worsening weather found the Blackburn Rovers on the edge of the minefield and drifting further into it. Aboard the trawler was top secret equipment, including experimental Asdic, so rather than risk further damage and possible capture, it was decided to transfer her papers and sensitive equipment to the lifeboat and scuttle the trawler.
The rescue that followed would have been difficult in any case and the lifeboat coxswain, Colin Bryant, needed all his skill to hold the two vessels together. An added danger was that while the transfer was taking place, lifeboat and trawler drifted deeper into the minefield and could be blown up at any time. They could have rushed the job and run for safety, but they didn’t and the Sir William Hillary spent an hour alongside the trawler and did not leave her until every member of the crew and all the sensitive equipment had been taken off. Only then did the lifeboat edge cautiously out of the minefield and set course for home. By now the weather had worsened and the lifeboat had to reduce speed, but she was almost swamped by mountainous waves and it took three hours to cover the fifteen miles back to Dover.
When the evacuation from Dunkirk was ordered, the RNLI was asked to send as many lifeboats as it could to Dover. Nineteen lifeboat stations responded, but the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats headed for France straight away, a fifty mile passage. The crews had steel helmets, gas masks and cans of fresh water for the soldiers. The Ramsgate boat towed eight flat bottomed wherries across the English Channel which proved invaluable in ferrying men from the beaches to waiting bigger boats. Altogether the Ramsgate boat, in three days of magnificent effort, rescued 2800 men.
The Margate boat was equally heroic. She rescued six hundred men and on the way home she took in tow a near-foundering naval whaler manned by seventeen exhausted seamen, sole survivors from a ship’s company of one hundred and fifty men. After twenty-one hours at sea the lifeboat returned to Margate. The commander of the destroyer Icarus wrote: “The magnificent behaviour of the crew of the Margate lifeboat, who, with no thought of rest, brought off load after load of soldiers under continuous shelling, bombing and aerial machine-gun fire, will be an inspiration to us all as long as we live”.
The coxswains of both lifeboats were awarded the DSM.
The Battle of Britain, which followed closely after the Dunkirk evacuation, extended officially from 8 August to 31 October 1940. During that period lifeboats launched two hundred and sixty four times. A typical rescue was that of Pilot Officer Richard Hillary
who was shot down in the English Channel. The Margate lifeboat was launched to search for him in bad visibility and after searching for nearly an hour and a half he was found.
He was very badly burned and on the point of collapse. He was taken on board, bandaged, made comfortable and given a brandy, with wonderful results. Hillary lived to write his own story, The Last Enemy; the title taken from chapter 15 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”. Sadly he was killed in 1943. Many people have claimed that he was a descendant of the founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary. However Richard Hillary’s father disclaimed any family connection, so although it is a good and often repeated story, it may be apocryphal.
Although I have only mentioned a few rescues, the demands on the lifeboats were many and varied. They not only went to the aid of ships that had been wrecked, mined, torpedoed or bombed. They towed to safety vessels loaded with explosives (one blew up, fortunately just before the hawser was attached), they dealt with mines, they ferried food to remote islands where people had been cut off by storms and to remote villages cut off by snow, they brought doctors to the injured and priests to the dying. However, not all wartime rescues stemmed from enemy action. The elemental forces of wind and wave still took their toll of shipping.
All told and exclusive of Dunkirk, lifeboats launched 3760 times and saved 6376 lives. Many lifeboat men went through horrific experiences and a number were killed and a great deal of damage was done to lifeboats and lifeboat stations. All were volunteers then and almost all are now.
As Sir Winston Churchill said: “The lifeboat drives on with a mercy that does not quail in the presence of death; it drives on as a proof, a symbol, a testimony, that man is created in the image of God and that valour and virtue have not perished in the British race”.
S.O.S. The Story of the Lifeboat Service by Cyril Jolly. Published by Cassell & Company Ltd.
The Lifeboat Service by Oliver Warner. Published by Cassell & Company Ltd.
Lifeboat In Danger’s Hour by Patrick Howarth. Published by the Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd.
Heroes All! The Story of the RNLI by Alec Beilby. Published by Patrick Stephens Ltd.
Riders of the Storm by Ian Cameron. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.