The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command. The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.
The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.
63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.
Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteer members across Britain of the Mass Observation Archive team – a community that had been set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war.
This is from her diary for Saturday 13th September 1941 and Nella simply records seeing a child:
‘He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’
The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.
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.
On Saturday 25th May 1940, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens. They did not attack Dunkirk.
Calais was held by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and surrendered on Sunday 26th May.
On that same Sunday 26th May 1940, at 15:30, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defenses vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille. The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians, many of whom considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Another called it “one of the great turning points of the war”, and a third described it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes”. Hitler himself believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never return. The retreat itself was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.
Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicized. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 26th May, which was declared a national day of prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers “for our soldiers in dire peril in France”. Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.
It was just before 7 pm on Sunday 26th May that Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation code-named also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk – to begin. Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation. As it turned out only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.
On Friday 24th May 1940 Hitler paid a visit to Army Group A headquarters and endorsed the order of the previous day.
The German forces had captured the port of Boulogne and had now surrounded Calais. The engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division had built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk.
Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B) finish off the British, to the consternation of Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was dependent upon the weather and air crews were worn out after two weeks of battle. Rundstedt issued another order. That was sent un-coded and was picked up by the RAF at 12:42: “By order of the Fuhrer … attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens-Bethune-Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. The Canal will not be crossed.”
Later that day, Hitler issued Directive 13, which called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the trapped Allied forces and stop their escape.
Franz Halder was a German general and the chief of the Army High Command from 1938 until September 1942, when he was dismissed after frequent disagreements with Adolf Hitler. Until December 1941 his military position corresponded to the old Chief of the General Staff position, which during World War 1 had been the highest military office in the German Imperial Army.
The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk in the 2nd World War is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Over the next few days I want to tell you the story.
Our story begins on Thursday 23rd May 1940 when the German Field Marshal Karl Rundstedt ordered his Panzer units to halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops.
He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for tanks and he wished to conserve them for later operations. Even so, in some units, some 30 to 50 percent of his tanks were lost. Hitler was also recorded as being apprehensive.
None-the-less – a dye was cast.
30 years ago, on Tuesday 5th May 1987 saw the death of Wing Commander Robert Roland Stanford-Tuck – one of Britain’s greatest fighter piolets of the Second World War conflict. Born on the 1st July 1916 in London, England he became one of the highest-scoring fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, having taken over the leadership of 257 (Hurricane) Squadron at the height of the battle in 1940.
After leaving school he joined the Merchant Navy before moving to the Royal Air Force in 1935. He gained his Wings in 1936. When the 2nd World War broke out he was with 92 Spitfire Squadron, bringing 8 enemy aircraft over Dunkirk. He later moved to 257 Squadron and built up its morale to make it a powerful force in the Battle of Britain. He went on to become a Wing Commander flying out of RAF Biggin Hill. He was forced to bail out several times during operations and was captured in 1942 after crash-landing in occupied territory. He escaped – on his third attempt – in 1945, returning to England. He retired in 1949.
The above is based on text from the 1988 Britannica Book of the Year.
In 1956 a biography of Stanford-Tuck, ‘Fly for Your Life’, was published.
Other stories can be found on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stanford_Tuck and http://www.historynet.com/robert-stanford-tuck-world-war-ii-raf-ace-pilot.htm
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!