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Britain in the balance

RIGHT, we’ll dispense with the obvious straight

A contentious submariner

THE Silent Service has always embraced colourful, slightly renegade characters. Colourful. Renegade. Anthony Cecil Capel Miers – generally known by colleagues as Gamp Miers, hence the title of Brian Izzard’s excellent Gamp VC (Haynes, £19.99 ISBN 978-1- 84425-725-6) – was both. And uncompromising. Ruthless. Brave. Possibly war criminal. Anthony Miers left school to join the RN with a tutor predicting he would either be court-martialled or earn the VC. He managed to do both. Miers was a prickly character. His temper was infamous. He gave more than one of his subordinates black eyes. He cashiered a stoker who ‘helped himself’ to the contents of the wardroom wine cupboard on Torbay. It was a case which went all the way to the Admiralty. His anger early in his career led to a court martial. He almost punched a stoker in a silly row over a football match. Miers was dismissed his ship and severely reprimanded. But there was another side to

Miers. He earned his sobriquet by brandishing an umbrella to ward off tropical storms; gamp was a popular nickname at the time for large brollies. Miers was also charming, sen- timental, cried watching films, and always demanded the best for his men.

from Greenwich ‘acquired’ some cannon from Sandhurst and threw bags of soot through the windows of the Army’s alma mater. Miers gave them an “almighty blasting”, then added: “And if you ever do anything like this again, I want to be involved.” And there is Miers the born

leader, the ‘ball of fire’ in charge of a submarine. He was, one rating in HMS Torbay said proudly, “a skipper I’d follow anywhere”. The Victoria Cross came

When some young officers


Why is the Royal Navy’s official newspaper interested in the Battle of Britain? Why? Because James Holland’s

account, The Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History May-October 1940

(Bantam, £25 ISBN 978-0-593- 05913-5), takes a far more holistic view

showdown this nation faced since Trafalgar.

Service is written into rather than out of an account detailing the months which have shaped much of Britain’s image over the past seven decades – and helped, ultimately, decide the war. Holland is a narrative historian par excellence who believes that people should be at the heart of any story and brings the characters of the age to life. There’s the corpulent Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring listening to light opera before briefing his commanders on how they would bring England – the Germans rarely referred to Großbritannien – to her knees. There’s ERA Andrew Begg of

HMS Icarus at Dunkirk who loved life in the boiler rooms of the destroyer, but was fearful of the pipes above his head – carrying pressurised steam at 675˚F. “In any action,” he recalled, “I hoped nothing would come through the side and hit one of those.” There’s Luftwaffe bomber pilot

And as such, for once the Senior of the most important

For M*A*S*H get Uganda

IF IT’S hospital dramas you’re after you can forget Holby City et al. The story of the Hospital Ship Uganda’s role in the Falklands Conflict is stranger than fiction, and has the power to move, to amuse and to astound.

In White Ship – Red Crosses

(Melrose, £13.99 ISBN 978-1- 907040-49-8) former naval nurse Nicci Pugh tells a remarkable tale which demonstrates the enduring ability of sailors (and their civilian colleagues) to make the best of a difficult situation – as a starting point, the only MOD manual available for setting up such a facility had ‘Disestablished, Disused and Not to Be Used In Action’ stamped on the cover. There’s a strong hint of M*A*S*H, with helicopters clattering in and weary medics preparing for another long session of saving life and limb. Uganda was rapidly converted from floating classroom to hospital, with ingenuity required at every turn, including the assembly of vital machinery which arrived with no instructions. Swift and effective remedies were found to problems, and the efforts of military staff and civilian P&O crew resulted in a negligible infection rate and only three deaths from the 730 cases treated on board, many in a critical condition.

Hans-Joachim ‘Hajo’ Herrmann who relished the prospect of attacking the Royal Navy should it try to stop an invasion of the mother country. “I dreamed of bombing the Rodney or the Nelson – battleships that were 30 metres wide, and I think it would have been possible.” And there’s former docker Joe Steele who joined the RNVR and served with ‘Harry Tate’s Navy’ to safeguard UK waters in patrol vessels and converted trawlers. The men enjoyed drinking in port. A lot. “There wasn’t a semblance of discipline,”

king here

told the author.

courtesy of a daring attack on a convoy off Corfu. Two ships were sunk. Torbay endured 40 depth charges as the enemy kept her pinned down for nearly 18 hours. As for the ‘war crime’, it boils

down to the killing of a handful of German soldiers whose small fishing boat – known as a caique – was intercepted by Torbay off Crete in July 1941. The Germans were armed. At

In August 1940, she was drafted into protection duties, shepherding coastal convoys around the UK.

of the sailor

Darthema, was one of the ‘bricks’ in the fabled ‘Wall


England’. he o

Steele’s ship, HMS one o fabled

S f


ere of

the sailor HM

● Ferocious fi re from a warship’s pom-pom gun trying to defend a coastal convoy from aerial attack during the early stages of the Battle of Britain

was not the end of the ill-starred convoy’s

German torpedo boats attacked. The tanker Elmcrest sank in two minutes. The steamers British Corporal and Hartlepool had to be towed back to Weymouth th

where they were beached.

In all, reach

In all, 16 ships in OA178 never reached their destination; in

indeed, they never left h

c 67

we 7

the brunt of the Kanalkampf – struggle for the Channel – as the Germans tested Britain’s defences by attacking shipping in the Channel.

These convoys bore ore e



OA178, bound for Nova Scotia, in early July 1940

least two were killed as they tried to shoot or throw grenades at Torbay. The rest were “accounted for” by machine-gun so they could never rejoin battle. All of which was reported by

hounded by Stukageschwader 2 – Stuka Squadron 2 – led by the ruthless Major Oskar Dinort (he’d flattened the Polish town of Wielun five minutes before war began in 1939). The ships sought shelter in Portland Harbour, defended by floating ack-ack battery HMS Foylebank. Lord Haw Haw warned the


Miers in his log – no cover-up, although senior submariner Max Horton was worried by the rami- fications. What happened off Crete blurs the distinction between right and wrong in war.

appears to be a rather cavalier Ludovic Kennedy – “a sanctimo- nious shit” in the words of Miers’ cousin – plus a media willing to lap up stories of ‘war crimes’. Kennedy wrote of “a subma-

rine atrocity” in his memoirs. The Sunday Telegraph filled in the blanks and named Miers as the culprit... although by then the submariner had been dead nearly four years. The late great naval author

John Winton wrote of the affair: “In the luxury of peace we can criticise men like Miers. In war- time, we desperately need them.” It is a warning sadly still unheeded by Fleet Street.

The real villain of the piece

As a prelude five dozen bombers targeted Portsmouth naval base, where HMT Darthema was taking a break from convoy duties. Joe Steele was transfixed by the destructive power of the raid – “it was the most tremendous

Foylebank’s crew the Luftwaffe would sink her. The men scoffed, but on July 4 the fates of Dinort, Foylebank and OA178 converged. The Stukas pounced on convoy


upon Foylebank, which took a pummelling. AB Ron Walsh watched the

fatally-wounded Jack Mantle remain at his post, concentrating his pom-pom fire at a Messerschmitt 110 fighter, before succumbing to his injuries. OA178 was mauled, Mantle

in harbour – and

watched a destroyer throw up a wall of flak while crew aimed rifles at a German airman floating down on a parachute. They or the flak succeeded. When the body landed, it was riddled with bullets. It’s Holland’s

all of flak ed riflles airma on a r the hen it

an a


Oran, the blockade of Briitain by U-boats, the aerial assault on the UK, the RAF’s bombing of Berlin – which lift it above more traditional histories of the Battle of Britain focusing on the struggle in the skies.

overall view of the summer of 1940 – the invasion

of France, Dunkikkirk th

would earn the VC subsequently, and Foylebank would sink – but not before Ron Walsh witnessed some horrific sights: the surgeon lieutenant sitting on a capstan holding his guts, dead gun crews scattered around the upper deck and one man slouching next to a bulkhead. Foylebank’s First Lieutenant approached the man. “He touched him on the shoulder and he fell apart,” Walsh recalled.

sight”. Het. H destro

of the most

came Adlme Adlertag – Eagle Day – Augy – August 13 and the openi opening of the decisive phase of the Battle of Britai

cam Day open phas

min A

were victims of German mines. After


ere v nes.



in July and the first week of August 1940, 67 of 170 ships were sunk, we

home waters. They were typical of the cost of Kanalkampf: in

although most

The bombing that July afternoon misery. That night,

too much into German invasion plans which were never carried out.

polish, Nicci’s account – and the testimony of many key participants – breathes life into a bizarre, sometimes nightmarish world where delicate operations are carried out in a pitching ship, with trolleys lashed down, with medical staff fearing the next jet screaming overhead may be an enemy bomber with Uganda in their sights.

But he does make excellent use of the many and varied archives in Britain and Germany which are rich repositories of personal testimony, as well as interviewing the ever-dwindling number of men and women who remember the fateful summer. The Battle of Britain will always be seen as a largely RAF victory, but thanks to this excellent, highly- readable volume, it is at least set in its wider – and proper – context. ■ In keeping with the ‘spirit of

1940’, the Forgotten Voices of

Dunkirk (Ebury, £19.99 ISBN 978-0-0919-3220-6) is the latest in a series of oral histories which digs into the goldmine which is the Imperial War Museum. The title will, of course, grab the attention, but this

more a story of the experience of the British Expeditionary Force (a hangover title from the Great War) and its subsequent rescue by the RN and Merchant Navy. There are some excellent first- hand accounts here, gathered by expert oral historian Joshua Levine (who gave us an enthralling book on WW1 aviators a couple of years ago).

he Dunkirk,

And then there’s Seelöwe – Sealion – the greatest ‘what if’ in modern British history. Although Seelöwe was never executed, there were numerous invasion alerts and false alarms during the summer of 1940. HMS Icarus steamed at full tilt from Immingham to Dover one night. When they arrived off the Kent port, all was peaceful. “We never found out what that panic was about,” said ERA Begg. “Even our skipper never told us.” Sadly, the author doesn’t delve

Dunkirk show that despite the flag-waving in the contemporary press, the reality of the evacuation was invariably much more horrific. OS Stanley Allen aboard HMS Windsor passed the wreck of the Crested Eagle, a Thames pleasure steamer, which had been bombed and settled in the water. “German aircraft were still machine-gunning her – and that wasn’t cricket,” he fumed. “That wasn’t the right way to win a war – having a go at wounded people.” And yet amid the inhumanity, there were oddly touching moments. As well as collecting hundreds

of soldiers, Windsor

picked up a French dog. Rather than kill him – in line with anti- rabies legislation – the canine, Kirk, was handed over to the PDSA and later adopted.


Andrew Begg, cropping up again. Indeed, the various accounts of

HMS Icarus’

such as ERA

is much

A totally absorbing book – when can we expect the equally exciting film?


The collected drivel, doodles and ditties of a dedicated dabtoe

£10.99 + £1.70 p&p/copy

to order in first instance please phone 01835 830606 or email

Although the book may lack

● Jack Mantle, who earned his posthumous VC trying to ward off an attack by the Stuka squadron of the uncompromising Major Oskar Dinort (below)

Indeed, you’ll find some of the people featured,


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