A trying day on the Somme

On the 1st July 1916 the British Army attacked the German Army along the line of the Somme. The aim was to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. The result was the greatest disaster in British military history. At the end of the day the British had suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead.

The losses were particularly heavy along the northern part of the line. The Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out before Beaumont-Hamel ["A great many fell before they even crossed the British line. Many more were hit as they picked their way through the gaps in the British wire. With exemplary courage, the survivors picked up their assault formations as best they could and "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard" continued toward the German line about 400 metres further on"].  Several Pals battalions from the north of England suffered very heavy losses attacking the fortified hamlet of Serre.


The Pals battalions suffered particularly heavy losses all along the Somme. These volunteer units had been raised with the promise that recruits could serve alongside men from their own town [e.g. the Accrington Pals], the same school [The "Grimsby Chums" was formed by former schoolboys of Wintringham Secondary School in Grimsby] and the same organisation [Glasgow Trams]. There was even a Stockbrokers’ Battalion.


The moving photograph above [not mine] is looking north and shows the Beaumont-Hamel cemetery in the foreground. Then the Redan Ridge N0. 2 cemetery and the Redan Ridge No. 3 cemetery at the top. Over the rise are the last resting places of the men who attacked the heavily fortified village of Serre. Many of the headstones mark the graves of men who are ‘Known Unto God’. Serre Road No. 2 has over 7,000 burials with nearly 5,000 unidentified. Many of the bodies from the 1st July 1916 lay on the battlefield until 1917 when the Germans moved out of the area.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] web site has a KMZ file of the locations of commonwealth cemeteries and monuments in France. It holds over 3,000 locations and can be imported into Google Earth. The image below shows the area around Beaumont-Hamel and the GWGC] sites.

Somme Cemeteries

At Serre, the soldiers of the first wave left their trenches, passed through the British wire and lay down in No Man’s Land to await the end of the bombardment. This ceased at 7.30 a.m., and the men of the 12th York & Lancaster (Sheffield City Battalion) and the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals)  stood up and tried to cross No Man’s Land. Just to the south, the attackers were of the 15th West Yorks (Leeds Pals) and the 16th West Yorks (1st Bradford Pals). The attackers were mown down by machine gun fire, and there was an almost total lack of success, although one company of the Accrington Pals did reach Serre, but were lost.

Serre trenches

British trenches in blue, German trenches in red.

The fate of the Sheffield Battalion is described in  “A Covenant with Death” by John Harris, 1961. This is probably the best British novel about the Pals and the Somme and is still in print. It is fiction but could easily be factual. It starts with the recruitment and training of the Battalion and culminates  with the  attack on Serre. Seven hundred and ninety five men took part in the  attack. When the battalion mustered after the battle there were seventy eight unwounded.


Sheffield City Battalion volunteers parade before Sheffield Midland Station

In the history of the Essex Regiment, whose losses had nearly all been in its Regular battalions [one of which had taken part in the attack on Beaumont-Hamel], the 1st July is just described as ‘A trying day on the Somme’. To them it was just another day in a long war.

It was different for the Pals battalions. In the memorable words of John Harris: “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”

Back in England the effects on communities was devastating as the War Office telegrams began to arrive, sometimes to many houses in a single street. Later the survivors started to come home, some blinded, some crippled and many severely shell shocked.

Somme parents


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized



Leave a comment

June 28, 2014 · 9:21 am

Operation Starvation

Operation Starvation

B-29_Aerial_mineOperation Starvation was a WW2 American campaign to starve Japan into surrender by dropping 12,000 mines from B-29s into the narrow entrances to the Inland Sea and off Japanese ports. The idea was to deprive industry of coal, oil and raw materials and civilians of food. [see Lessons from an Ariel Mining Campaign. Project RAND. 1974. and
Operation Starvation. G A Mason. 2002.]

It is one of those historical events which I have never seen portrayed in  book, documentary or movie. Yet it was extremely effective.  The mines sank or damaged 670 ships totalling more than 1,250,000 tons for the loss of only fifteen B-29s. Even more shipping capacity was lost because ships were held in port waiting for mines to be cleared.

Operation Starvation was part of one of three strategic options for ending the war against Japan.

End Game

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified by claiming that the alternative would have been a very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. That was not true. There were three, not two,  strategies by which Japan could have been induced to surrender.

Option 1   InvasionOperation Downfall [the codename for the invasion of the home islands of the Japanese Empire] was scheduled for October 1945. The Japanese knew they could not win the war but hoped to avoid unconditional surrender by making invasion very costly. They had held 10,000 planes in reserve and had a good idea of the likely invasion sites. Downfall would have resulted in enormous casualties for both sides. There were various estimates of  Allied casualties. Five hundred thousand dead and over one million wounded was not unlikely.

Option 2    Atomic bombardment

Option 3    Blockade and conventional bombardment by air and sea -

Blockade had  proved very effective in cutting Japan off from its overseas possessions.


A glance at a map of the Japanese Empire in 1943 shows the reality of Japan’s strategic position and the actions necessary to ensure Japan’s defeat. The only way to connect the various parts of the Empire was by sea. Supplies had to go by merchant vessel.  If an enemy could destroy its merchant fleet they could defeat Japan.  Supplies would not be able to reach Japan and overseas garrisons would be cut off. The Japanese Navy was irrelevant except to protect the merchant fleet.  Nazi Germany did not need to maintain control of the sea, Japan did.

Mining and submarine attacks had almost destroyed Japan’s shipping.  Japan started the war with 6,500,000 tons of  merchant shipping and 1,200,000  tons of smaller craft. By 1945 it had 1,466,900 tons left.  Allied submarines proved to be very effective in destroying Japanese shipping. So much so that it was submarines, not battleships and aircraft carriers, that destroyed most of the Japanese merchant fleet.

Losses of merchant vessels combined with the capacity loss  due to convoying significantly reduced Japanese economic strength. Imports of 16 key materials fell from 20 million tons in 1941 to 10 million tons in 1944 and 2.7 million tons in the first 6 months of 1945. The specifics were impressive: “Bauxite imports fell off 88% just between the summer and fall of 1944. In 1945, pig iron imports plunged 89%, pulp 90%, raw cotton and wool 91%, fats and oils 92%, iron ore 95%, soda and cement 96%, lumber 98%, fodder 99%, and not one ounce of sugar or raw rubber reached Japan.”  Though the Japanese prioritised food shipments  the average caloric intake fell 12% below the minimum daily requirement for the non-farming population in 1944.

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 18.38.22

Japanese oil imports fell from 1.75 million barrels per month in August 1943 to 360,000 barrels per month in July 1944. The Japanese Navy alone required 1.6 million barrels monthly to operate.  After September 1943, only 28% of the petroleum  shipped from the southern regions  reached Japan. In the   last 15 months of the war the figure was 9%.

After the firestorm raid on Tokyo that killed over 100,000 people B-29 raids had continued and had devastated large areas of many Japanese cities.  Napalm proved very effective against Japanese buildings.  Warships had bombarded industrial targets and carrier based aircraft carried out regular attacks on military targets and transport infrastructure.


The US Chiefs of Staff and the Army strongly favoured invasion. Certainly there would have been a bloodbath but what an opportunity for a general to show his mettle and earn a place in the history books.

The air force and the navy opposed invasion and favoured option 3. Both Nimitz and MacArthur, the commanders in the field, strongly favoured option 3. They considered that blockade and bombardment could  make Operation Downfall pointless.

The wrong choice?

The US chose atomic bombardment to force Japan to surrender. Was that the right choice?  Should they have chosen option 1 or option 3?

I doubt if US politicians would have chosen invasion in 1945 without giving option 3 at least another year.  Invasion would have been very costly, in every sense.  In contrast, blockade and bombardment was very cheap in men and material [the US only lost 614 aircraft during its raids on Japan] and would perhaps have not taken much longer to force surrender. There would, however,  have been a lot of civilian casualties with both options..

Atomic bombardment was probably the cheapest and quickest option in the short term. It  probably led to fewer casualties on both sides. In the long term it was a bad choice. The US demonstrated that it had and would use atomic bombs. That led to the Cold War which cost the US trillions of dollars and could have destroyed most life in the northern hemisphere.


How effective is Blockading?

The WW2 German  blockade of Britain [mainly by submarine] cost Britain  11,000,000 tons of shipping but did not produce mass starvation or drive it out of the war. In WW1 the British blockade of Germany is estimated to have killed 600,000 German civilians through starvation.  Even the German Army was affected. When soldiers captured British trenches in the 1918 Spring Offensive they were astonished at the quality and quantity of the food available to the ‘Tommy’.

The little known British naval blockade of Spain [particularly of oil] deterred Franco from entering WW2 on Hitler’s side.

Pointless Battles

The US had to capture the Mariana Islands to bring its bombers within range of the Japanese mainland. Fighting anywhere else was pointless because if Japan could be forced to surrender its outposts would have to follow. It is hard to escape the conclusion that much of the land fighting in Japan’s outer empire was unnecessary, particularly the Philippines campaign. Garrisons could have been left to wither.  Many were already in dire straits. There were many instances of cannibalism in the Outer Empire garrisons whose supplies had been cut off.

Submarine Losses

In addition to the  merchant ships U.S. submarines sank 700,000 tons of naval ships (about 30% of the total lost) including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship and 11 cruisers. Of the total 288 U.S. submarines deployed throughout the war (including those stationed in the Atlantic), 52 submarines were lost with 48 lost in the Pacific. American submariners, who comprised only 1.6% of the Navy, suffered the highest loss rate in the U.S. Armed Forces, with 22% killed. The Germans lost 784 U-Boats and 28,000 men [a 68% loss rate]. The Royal Navy lost 79 submarines.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Firestorm Raid 1

Four thousand pound bombs. Each Lancaster carried at least one.

The nine Windows Openers aircraft were the first to arrive over the darkened city. The Mosquitos had been marking the route from the coast for the Main Force bombers, now they began illuminating the target area with bombs and flares. They also dropped Window [aluminised-paper strips] to confuse enemy radar and provided information on weather conditions, particularly wind speed and cloud cover.

Soon after 24 Blind Marker-Illuminators and 62 Supporters arrived. The Blind Marker-Illuminator [aka fire starters] Lancasters were flown by elite crews and carried radar. Their task was to mark the target area for the 800 aircraft of the Main Force; to set out a box in which, if all went according to plan, tens of thousands of people would die. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Before the welfare state Britain had the workhouses. These were places were the indigent could be taken off the streets and provided with food and shelter.

This is the workhouse in Ripon in Yorkshire. It was built in 1854. Part of it is a museum and the rest is used as accommodation for Ripon’s Social Services Departments.

Workhouse 40x

Workhouse 39x

Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly desperate destitute would apply.   Poverty was seen as the fault of the poor and deserving of punishment. A philosophy that would seem familiar to some US Republicans and UK Conservatives.

Demand for accommodation often exceeded its supply so supply was rationed by making the workhouses unpleasant. Sometimes very unpleasant.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The WW2 Russian Prisoner of War Holocaust

This post is about Nazi Germany’s murder of millions of Russian Prisoners of War. A holocaust that few remember.

In Summer 1941  Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In the following months they won a series of battles of encirclement. Few in the West have heard of these but they were military victories on a scale that the world had not seen before and has not seen since. They were only possible between such unmatched foes and in the vast steppes of Russia.

These victories produced huge numbers of prisoners of war.

Vyazma and Bryansk           512,000

Kiev                                            452,000

Smolensk                                 300,000

Bialystok/Minsk                   290,000

Uman                                        103,000

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 21.55.47

During the war in Russia German forces captured 5,700,000 Russian POWs.  About 3.3 million of the POWs died in German camps, 2.8 million of them in the short period between the start of Barbarossa and the Spring of 1942.

About half a million escaped from the camps or were liberated by the advancing Red Army. About a million were taken as forced labour when manpower shortages started to hit the German economy. Finally, some 930,000 more were found alive in the camps after the war.

Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im Lager

Some were shot or gassed. In Gross-Rosen concentration camp  the SS killed more than 65,000 Soviet POWs by starvation. In Flossenbürg, they burned Soviet POWs alive. In Majdanek, they shot them in trenches.

However, the vast majority were killed in Dulags [POW transit camps] and Stalags [POW camps] by starvation, desease and exposure. The Germans set up a number of camps, usually by doing nothing more than stringing up some barbed wire. Prisoners were herded inside and then left in the open with little or no  food, sanitation or shelter. Starvation, exposure and epidemics (especially typhoid and dysentery)  did the rest.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


In the late 1600s the men of Naples and Palermo were afraid of their women. A woman called Toffana sold a compound called Acqua Toffana. It contained arsenic and her customers used it to poison husbands and fathers, or any unwanted man.  Toffana must have had many customers because it has been estimated that over 600 men were killed, including two Popes.  She operated undetected for several decades.  A substantial number of women must have known of her existence and passed her name and address amongst themselves.  The men eventually realized what was happening, but what could they do?   Which loving smile might conceal a murderous heart? Which gentle hand might prepare a fatal cup? Should they fear their wife, a daughter or a female servant?

Arsenic could be administered to kill swiftly, or provide a lingering death that could easily pass for an  illness. It was difficult to detect.  How could they protect themselves?

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Slavery Redux

After those Northern spoilsports made slavery illegal some ingenious good ol’ boys came up with a way of enslaving black people that was entirely legal. The system was called convict leasing. It began in 1865 and lasted until 1928.

The idea was simple. Convicts were leased out to plantations etc. to replace the slaves that had been emancipated. If normal criminality did not provide sufficient recruits then people could be arrested on trumped up charges.  Plantation owners could hire rather than buy and their capital outlays were less than when they had to buy their slaves. Also, since they did not own their labour force they had no particular incentive to look after their leased convicts.

Convicts did not only work on plantations. Alabama kept the system from 1875 to 1928 and most of the state’s convicts worked in the coal mines around Birmingham.

Often just convicted of minor offences, the leased convicts  served long periods of hard labor. They lived in  filth, were poorly fed, suffered torture and cruel punishments, and had no protection whatsoever from the labor contractors who hired them. Mine owners often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer. A blind eye was turned to whippings and other forms of  abuse. Mines had high death rates.  Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.

Convicts were whipped, a man standing at the head and another at the feet, while a third applied the lash with both hands. Men who failed to perform their task of mining from two to four tons of coal per day were fastened to planks by the feet, then bent over a barrel and fastened by the hands on the other side, stripped and beaten with a strap. Out of the fifty convicts worked in the mines from one to eight were whipped per day in this manner. There was scarcely a day, according to the testimony of the witness, James Frazier, in which one or more were not flogged in this manner.  In many cases convicts were forced to work in water six inches deep for weeks at a time getting out coal with one-fourth of the air necessary for a healthy man to live in, forced to drink water from stagnant pools  and the reports of the prison officials showing large numbers killed in ‘attempting to escape’.”

States made a lot of money from convicts leasing. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. No doubt corrupt officials also made a lot of money.

Whilst everybody knows about the practice of lynching in the South I doubt if many people are familiar with convict leasing, yet it probably claimed more lives and was equally a method of social control. Any black person who became ‘uppity’ could easily be arrested on a false charge and sent off to the convict leasing system for ten or twenty years.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Selection and Retribution


Two trains from Hungary have arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau extermination camp and selection is taking place. Sometimes those capable of working are separated  and sent to one of the many satellite work camps. The rest, most women, the old and children, are sent for immediate gassing. At other times everybody on a train is gassed.


Walking to the gas chamber

Clearing up afterwards. A crematorium chimney is visible in the background.

What a happy group.

Auschwitz guards at a rest centre.


Stutthof concentration camp was located in the north of Poland, near Danzig. Some 85,ooo prisoners died in the camp. The Russians and Poles held four trials of former guards and kapos , charging them with  crimes against humanity. The first trial was held against 30 ex-officials and kapos.  Eleven of them, including five female guards, were sentenced to death. The executions were carried out at Biskupia Górka on the 4th July 1946.

Both Steinhoff and Barkmann were reported as being involved in the selection of women and children for gassing.

The above Stutthof guard photographs are from this page.

Albert Pierrepoint, the British executioner, hung a total of 202 German war criminals  between 1945 and 1949, including Irma Grese for crimes at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Auschwitz (aged 22), Elisabeth Volkenrath (Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz), and Juana Bormann (Auschwitz). The execution of Grese and some other war criminals was portrayed in the 2006 film Pierrepoint.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Tramp Chair

A tramp chair was used by small town police forces in the USA to retrain and torment individuals.  As its name suggests it was often used against vagrants.  A person would be locked in the chair and left in a public place exposed to the elements and public abuse, particularly by children.  Sometimes the victim would be stripped naked before being put in the chair.

The caption on the photograph below states that the use of the chair ‘eradicated tramps entirely’.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized