Category Archives: Conflict

This is a story that perhaps we wish had not happened

It was on this day – Monday 16th July 1945 – that the first atomic bomb was detonated at a desert site in New Mexico, close to the Los Alamos laboratory where the device had been built.

Three weeks later, on Monday 6th August 1945, a similar device was used on Hiroshima.

Quoted in the New York Times on Saturday 25th May 1946 Albert Einstein commented:
‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’

The day Pegasus delivered a bridge

One of the great films of my time is the 1955 story of ‘The Dam Busters’ – a British 2nd World War film that starred Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. The film recreates the true story of 1943 when the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked 3 German dams with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb.  What is rarely mentioned though is Richard Todd’s involvement in the war itself.  He had volunteered the day after the conflict had begun and, in May 1943, was posted into the 6th Airborne Division.  He later admitted that he had kept his pre-war job as an actor a secret because he wanted to do useful things in the war itself rather than being transferred to ENSA.

His first practice jumps were from moored balloons but he was soon doing practice jumps from Whitley bombers.  This training was the lead-up to parachute jumps into enemy territory – and this became fact for Richard on D-Day Tuesday 6th June 1944.

It was on that day that Richard Todd – and a great many more – dropped into Normandy to help change the course of the war.  He and many others were there to defend a bascule/moveable bridge built in 1934 that crossed the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy and was a major objective of the British airborne troops during Operation Deadstick.

On the night of Monday 5th June 1944, a force of almost 200 men, led by Major John Howard, took off from an airfield in southern England in six gliders to capture not just this vital bridge but also “Horsa Bridge”, a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River. They were to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The attack was successful and played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of counter-attacks in the days and weeks that followed.

It was following the success of D-Day – Tuesday 6th June 1944 – that this whole successful attack was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation – the name being derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces – the flying horse of mythology Pegasus.

Evacuate and fight another day

On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.

In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations.  Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.

In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.

The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

A Snippet from 4th May

In China this is Youth Day – an official national holiday that commemorates the anti-imperial student demonstrations that took place in Beijings Tiananmen Square on 4th May 1919.  The protests were specifically against the Chinese government’s foreign policy and the pro-Japanese stance of some of its ministers.  They were, however, also the climax of what subsequently became known as the May the Fourth Movement – a nationwide cultural and political campaign among China’s young intellectuals.

Students and others again protested at Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989 when hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators lost their lives when the army opened fire.

Every so often the scenes of the latter event come back into focus.

Buster Crabb and a note of his past

It is interesting how one thing can lead to another – and that the ‘other’ can be in the past rather than the present.

On Wednesday 19th April I posted the first part of the Buster Crabb story and promised that the next step would appear on Saturday 29th April.  That promise remains – however I’ve found a few bits about his past that we may find significant in the present.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Buster was an army gunner.  However, in 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and went to Gibraltar where he worked in a mine and bomb disposal unit.  This involved the removal of Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of Allied ships!

On Tuesday 8th December 1942, during one attack, two of the Italian frogmen died, probably killed by depth charges. Their bodies were recovered, and their swim-fins and Scuba sets were taken and used by Commander Lionel Crabb and a colleague. Lionel was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

In 1943 he became the Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy and was assigned to clear mines in the ports of Livorno and Venice.  He was later given an OBE for these services. By this time he had gained the nickname “Buster”, after an American actor and swimmer Buster Crabbe.

After the war Buster was stationed in Palestine leading an underwater explosives disposal team removing mines placed by Jewish divers during the years of Mandatory Palestine. (see note below)

Buster was demobbed in 1947 and moved to a civilian job where he could use his wartime skills. He explored the wreck of a Spanish Armada galleon near the Isle of Mull and then located a suitable site for a discharge pipe for the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. He later returned to work for the Royal Navy and twice dived to investigate sunken Royal Navy submarines.

In early 1955 he and frogman Sydney Knowles went to investigate the hull of the Soviet cruiser ‘Sverdlov’.  They were going to evaluate its superior manoeuvrability and, according to Knowles, they found a circular opening at the ship’s bow and inside it a large propeller that could be directed to give thrust to the bow. In March 1955 Buster was made to retire due to his age.

By this point his heavy drinking and smoking had taken its toll on his health, and he was not the diver that he had been in World War II. But a year later he was recruited by MI6!

NOTE
This was an area that was treated as a geopolitical entity under British administration having been carved out of Ottoman Southern Syria after the First World War.  The British civil administration in Palestine operated from 1920 to 1948. During its existence the territory was known simply as Palestine, but, in later years, a variety of other names and descriptors have been used, including Mandatory or Mandate Palestine, the British Mandate of Palestine and British Palestine.

A strange 20th century story begins

There are many, still unanswered, questions in Britain’s history. The story I am beginning today is just one of them.  I use the word ‘beginning’ because the end has yet to be confirmed!

The story starts when the Russian Sverdlov class cruiser ‘Ordzhonikidze’ brought Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin on a diplomatic mission to Britain.  While it was berthed in the Portsmouth dockyards Lionel Kenneth Phillip ‘Buster’ Crabb, OBE, a Royal Navy frogman and MI6 diver, was sent to investigate the Russian ship’s propeller – a new design that Naval Intelligence wanted to examine.  On Tuesday 17th April Buster and a companion booked in to the Sally Port Hotel in Old Portsmouth.  On the evening of the 18th Buster went to Havant and caught a train back to Portsmouth and on Thursday 19th April 1956 a frogman was seen entering the sea at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour – that frogman was Buster Crabb.  Buster’s MI6 controller never saw him again!

Buster’s companion – a ‘Mr Smith’ – settled the Sally Port hotel bill and collected all his and Buster’s belongings.  He – or was it some plain-clothed police officers – also took the pages of the hotel register on which Buster, his ‘friend’ and the other guests – had written their names.

Ten days later British newspapers published stories about Buster Crabb’s disappearance in an underwater mission. The next steps will appear here on Saturday 29th April 2017!