Today marks the 30th anniversary of the tragedy at Zeebrugge when the MV Herald of Free Enterprise, a roll-on roll-off ferry owned by Townsend Thoresen, capsized in shallow water as it left the harbour. On board was a crew of 80 and 459 passengers. In all, 193 passengers and crew perished in the incident.
Inevitably, as seems to be the case in every such tragedy, others responded swiftly and with much courage to rescue the survivors and, over the coming days and months, to help treat the injured and traumatised passengers and crew. The selfless gallantry of crew-members, passengers and rescuers was rewarded with two George Medals, ten Queen’s Gallantry Medals, and two Queen’s Commendations for Brave Conduct. Less well known were awards in the Order of the British Empire to those who had assisted in the rescue and in helping the injured and bereaved; these included a number of honorary awards to Belgian citizens. Continue reading
The Burma Gallantry Medal, 1939-1945 Star, Burma Star and War Medal 1939-1945 awarded to Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment. His award was for his gallantry during the attack on Aradura Spur on 29 May 1944 during the Battle of Kohima when he brought into action an abandoned machine gun and held off a heavy enemy counter-attack, during which he was wounded. (Photo © Dix Noonan Webb.)
Following the partition of British Burma from British India in 1937, two new awards were introduced on 10 May 1940 the Order of Burma and the Burma Gallantry Medal.
The Burma Gallantry Medal was to be awarded to Governor’s Commissioned Officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the Burma Army, Burma Frontier Force, Burma Military Police, Burma Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Force and Burma Volunteer Air Force for ‘…an act of conspicuous gallantry’. This remained the case until 1945, when the Royal Warrant was revised to elevate to the award to the status of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Continue reading
Letters From The Front tells the story of one of the men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers—John Adams—who twice earned the Military Medal and was twice wounded. In a series of podcasts his letters are read by his family 100 years after they were written. The podcasts for January and February 1917/2017 also feature a piece by me about how I came to write Blacker’s Boys. Each is only about 10 minutes long—have a listen!
Sergeant John Adams MM
Letters From The Front, Podcast January 2017
Letters From The Front, Podcast February 2017
Distinguished Service Order
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the New Year Honours and when he returned from leave at the beginning of January 1917 he assumed temporary command of 108th Brigade. Nonetheless, he still found time to visit and comment about the activities of the Battalion. His letters home written in January have now been published and they can be read on the project’s website.
Seventy-six years ago, on the evening of 29 December 1940, a German bombing raid caused what become known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’. Taken in the aftermath of this raid, the iconic photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral in the blitz came to symbolise London’s defiance. The attack on 29 December targeted the City of London where the high explosive and incendiary bombs started a firestorm that swept all before it. The area destroyed was more than that devastated by the Great Fire of 1666. It cost the lives of over 160 civilians and 14 firemen.
St Paul’s Cathedral, 29 December 1940
The attack and the response to it by the emergency services and the people of London is explored in detail by Margaret Gaskin in her excellent book Blitz: The Story of 29th December 1940—a most thorough description of the night’s events told largely through the memories of those who were there. Although Gaskin describes in some detail the bravery of those responding to the fires, she only alludes to the gallantry awards that were made in consequence of those acts. In all, the fierce bombing raid and firestorm of 29 December resulted in 44 gallantry awards—one MBE, eight George Medals, 22 British Empire Medals and 13 Commendations for Brave Conduct—more than for any other single event during the blitz. Continue reading
The interior of the 36th (Ulster) Division card for 1917
As we approach Christmas, I thought I would share a selection of the First World War Christmas cards that have been sent to me, for one reason or another, over the years.
These cards are of two types—those commissioned with an appropriate theme for a unit or formation, and those produced locally for soldiers to buy. The locally produced cards were made to a very high standard and were not confined to Christmas greetings. Made year-round as general souvenirs and to commemorate specific events, many were embroidered in rich colours with patriotic designs. Early in the war the embroidery, on silk organza or similar fine material, was done by women as piecework for companies who then mounted the embroidery on cards with printed messages. Later, the popularity of the cards resulted in machine embroidered cards assembled in factories. It is commonly estimated that as many as 10 million such cards were produced during the war, mainly in France. Continue reading
It is always a great pleasure to help someone out with research and then be contacted sometime later to be told that their project has come to successful fruition. A new book—Names Carved in Stone—tells the story of 69 men from The Mall Presbyterian Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland who served during the Great War. It is an excellent, small community, commemorative work that has been produced to the very highest standards. The layout and illustrations are beautifully done by Jason McFarland at ArtworkArmy. I’m very pleased to host this piece by the author, Fiona Berry, who describes the inspiration behind the project and a little bit about the men it commemorates.
The Memorial Tablets in The Mall Presbyterian Church, Armagh
The book began with the more modest ambition of an article for the Church magazine, profiling the story of one of the soldiers named on the War Memorial. In many projects like this the inspiration often comes from a family story. I had grown up hearing of three great-great uncles who fought in the First World War—William, Joseph and John Johnston of Disraeli Street, on the Crumlin Road. Joseph’s death at Gallipoli in August 1915 was a devastating loss for the family. The next generation of the family were to suffer again during the Belfast Blitz of 1941 when their house in Duncairn Gardens suffered a direct hit and was completely destroyed. Our family left Belfast for Newtownards and the connection with their Belfast community was broken. Continue reading
The letters written by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker in November 1916 have now been published and they can be read on the project’s website. The letters cover a wealth of subjects from equipment and clothing, to promotion and the award of medals, and, of course, the weather. In a few days Lieutenant Colonel Blacker will go home on leave and we won’t hear from him again until early January 1917/2017.
The Thornton Trench Coat – “New Thornton coat and long gum boots kept me quite dry in spite of rain and flood.”
In memory of:
Naval Airman 1st Class Kenneth Admiral Brown, Royal Navy
Died, 22 April 1940
Acting Sub-Lieutenant (Air Branch) Arthur Stephen Griffith, Royal Navy
Killed in action, 18 January 1941
Leading Airman Alfred Samuel Rush, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
Sub-Lieutenant (Air Branch) Philip Donald Julian Sparke DSC**, Royal Navy
Killed in action, 11 May 1941
Twice a year I specifically write a story about Remembrance—for Memorial Day here in the United States and for Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. A few days ago, I saw seemingly unconnected lines of research come together that led me to a story of wartime gallantry and sacrifice 75 years ago. I was researching a group of Royal Signals soldiers awarded a King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct when I noticed an award to a Maltese Sapper, who had rescued an airman from the sea. Curious (I grew up in Malta), I searched for his story and, in doing so, identified the man that he rescued, his link with three other airmen who died in 1940 and 1941, and discovered a related painting by the renowned Maltese artist Edwin Galea, the father of one of my childhood friends. The story that pulls together these threads is worth telling on this Remembrance Day.
HMS Illustrious at Malta 1941 by Edwin Galea
The tiny island of Malta in the central Mediterranean had a strategic importance out of all proportion to its size during the early years of the Second World War. Bombing of the island began immediately after Mussolini’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 and, besieged by Axis forces in Sicily, the island suffered a gruelling fight for survival that lasted until November 1942. Continue reading
Lieutenant Colonel S W W Blacker DSO
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker’s letters home in October 1916 are all now published and you can read them all on the project’s website. His comments about the weather are reminiscent of those written the year before; this time, however, the Battalion must contend with the nearby River Douve, which regularly breaks its banks flooding the trenches. These letters reflect the routine of life for many in the line south west of Ypres—cold and boring in the most part with occasional flurries of activity and noise, described by Blacker as ‘hideous’.