Digging through old stuff, the guilty pleasure of archives

Digging through old stuff, the guilty pleasure of archives

I love engaging with people: it’s my passion. But if I couldn’t work with people then I would happily spend my life digging through archives looking for old documents and maps to find nuggets of incredible old stuff

Archives of thoughts

I’m on a train, on my way home from a day looking for documents in a county archive. On the face of it, what I was looking for wasn’t desperately interesting: ownership records of an old farm and the building of a bus depot. And yet, I’ve had a great time. It’s the wrinkles in the stories that you only get from looking at the original documents.

I’ve seen an advertising poster for the sale of cattle.

I’ve seen a plot of land described (by the estate agent) as “reputedly the most productive in this fertile district”.

I love that stuff. It’s the sense of the past being made up of the actions of real people in this case making up real estate agent nonsense in order to sell a farm.



More than that, I love looking at old handwriting. There’s something magical about holding a bit of paper that someone wrote on a hundred years ago or more. It’s as though someone’s writing has a little bit of their soul bound up in it. I get a real feeling of being in contact with an actual human being when I’m reading their handwriting.

Even if all they are saying is that they’ve included a cheque for the sum of…

Oddments and sodments

And then there’s ephemera. All the peculiar things that someone has, for whatever reason, decided is important to be kept for posterity. It can be sublime, like a bird’s eye view of Exeter, or the brochure advertising the launch of a new piece of municipal architecture.

Or it can be the ridiculous. Why on earth did someone decide that the archives needed a flyer for a Morecambe and Wise gig?

morecambe and wise

morecambe and wise

Maps: archives in pen and ink

More than all of that, I love looking at old maps.

Sales particulars are a great source of old maps. They’re beautifully drawn pen maps with pastel washes for the properties in question. I get a real thrill out of trying to piece together where they are against the modern map, but they’re wonderful artefacts in their own right. I could go to an archive and just look at them all day. Maybe I’m a frustrated cartographer?

particular map

particular map

One of the oddest from today’s archives was half an Ordnance Survey sheet. Yup, that’s right: half a sheet. It was torn in two and the record office only had the upper half. What on earth happened? How did the map get torn? Was it an accident? Was it an argument? Had some kind of formally brokered deal between two people who both owned the map? And then, someone decided that this bit of a map should be deposited in the county archive. Why was that? Did they feel that this half an OS sheet should be kept for posterity? I was fascinated. My mind ran away with me thinking of all the interesting stories that could be woven around what was an, admittedly, unremarkable map.

Torn map

Torn map

This kind of thing is oddly gripping.

Poking about

I’m a very lucky man that sometimes my job takes me to archives and record offices. My insatiable curiosity finds the whole thing fascinating. But I’m aware that not everyone has that opportunity, and that you have to be willing to spend a lot of time sifting through the unremarkable before you get to the memorable. I appreciate that not everyone, especially children, is prepared to do this.

And that’s why I try to use archive material in Past Participants’ sessions. So, you can get the same thrill out of seeing someone come to life through their handwriting or a photograph. When we’re talking about someone from history, let me put their own words in your hands. Whether it’s their diary, a letter home to their mum or just an official note. It’s still like them speaking to you from beyond the grave.

There are few things that really drive home the point that these are real people we’re talking about than seeing a physical artefact of something they did. I get a huge kick out of the way children engage with it, even when they struggle with hundred-year-old handwriting.

And that’s cool. And that’s why I do it.

Call to archives action

This year’s remembrance sessions will use the actual words of two soldiers, who served through the final months of the First World War. It will be them telling the story of what being on the front line in those months was like.

One managed to get away physically unscathed. The other was less lucky, losing much of his right hand in the process. Hearing him talk about the process of being sent home from the war because of his wounds is a gripping read. Even when it’s told in a soldier’s understated language.

Get in touch and see about getting Past Participants in for Remembrance, and I can show you all the cool stuff that I’ll be bringing with me.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

St George’s Day marks the centenary of a First World War raid that’s largely forgotten, but not by the Royal Marines.

I know there are a lot of things happening in the news on St George’s Day and I know there are a lot of First World War centenaries kicking about right now, but take a moment to remember this forgotten raid on Zeebrugge from 1918.

When the collective consciousness of the First World War centres on the Western Front and Tommies in trenches, this raid stands out as being something different.

This is intended to be a very brief account, but will give you a flavour of what happened that night.

Zeebrugge? Where? Why?

The raid on Zeebrugge was conceived to combat the threat of German submarines on cross-channel traffic. As everything from Britain to the Western Front had to cross the channel, they were a real problem. That submarine threat came from a triangle of canals that centred on Bruges in Belgium, so a plan was hatched to hinder them by blocking the Bruges Canal where it emerged into the sea at Zeebrugge.

The only issue was that, in order to get to the mouth of the canal, the block ships would need to get past the guns on the fortified mole, or harbour wall.

The job of occupying those guns fell to the Royal Marines and sailors from the Royal Naval Division.


The plan was very simple: that the troops would load up on HMS Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil (the latter two being more commonly known as the Mersey ferries), disembark at the outer end of the mole and keep the defenders’ attention long enough that the block ships could be sunk in the mouth of the canal.

Simple plans ever turn out that way. Vindictive “went to Zeebrugge ungainly and odd-looking, and returned a twisted mass of metal and debris.” According to S. M. Holloway.

Vindictive Bridge

Vindictive Bridge

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The plan had been to arrive under cover of darkness and smoke. According to Captain Arthur Chater RMLI: “Star Shell started coming over us and I realised how well we were concealed by our smoke. Then the wind changed, and the smoke suddenly drifted away…A moment later there was a burst of shell fire and shells came whistling round us.”

Sergeant Harry Wright RMLI noted that: “The slaughter was terrible, Col. Elliot and Maj Cordner was both killed with the same shell…while waiting to give the order to ‘Advance’.”

Added to this, the fire coming from the mole destroyed 12 of the 14 gangways or “brows” that were fitted to Vindictive for the Marines to get on the mole.

Private Bill Scorey RMLI remembered that “…our section was the first to land, what was left of us, and we were lucky too, for no sooner were we on top of the wall, than the German machine gunners had the range, and were playing hell with us,”

Sgt Wright’s No. 10 Platoon wasn’t quite so lucky: “Our casualties were so great before landing that out of a platoon of 45 men only 12 landed. No. 9 Platoon, led by Lt Lamplough, had also about the same number.”

Up close and personal

It turned out that Vindictive had come up against the mole about 120 yards from its intended position, which threw many of plans up in the air. In some cases, this only became apparent to the Marines, such as Lt Lamplough, as they landed: “On arrival at the brows I realized for the first time that the ship was berthed in the wrong position and we were…close to my objective.”

Private William Hodgson was part of No. 12 Platoon’s Lewis Gun section and explained what he carried ashore: “Loaded as I was with full equipment, small arms, ammunition, rifle and two panniers, each with four trays of Lewis gun bullets, it was not easy but somehow I scrambled over and dropped off the parapet wall.”

Private James Feeney RMLI was focussed on the task in hand: “in the anxiety to keep balance on the see-saw of the gangway, I forgot about the rain of lead, and really felt comfortable when I put my foot on the concrete.”

Once ashore, the Marines set about causing trouble wherever they could. Pte Feeney threw bombs at defenders of a dump-house in preparation for blowing it up. Pte Scorey and his No. 5 Platoon attempted to board a German Destroyer “but she sent oil fumes at us, and we replied with liquid fire.” Lieutenant Charles Lamplough also attempted to harass a destroyer and “dealt with a few Germans who came down the mole…as if in attempt to interfere with our scaling ladders.”

You will note that none of these things are what they went ashore to accomplish.

Vindictive Foretop

Vindictive Foretop

Home Again, Home Again

By 12:30 am thoughts were beginning to turn to withdrawal. Lt Lamplough was not relishing the return to the Vindicitve: “The whole time we were there German coast defence guns bombarded the Vindictive and Mole and a considerable number of shells burst at the base of the wall alongside the ship, not and encouraging prospect for our retirement.” Private Feeney was of a similar mind: “I felt rotten to hear the rattle of shells striking the funnels [of Vindictive], and could do nothing just then.”

Getting back on the boats as almost as difficult as getting off them, Pte Feeney RMLI: “we retired in twos to the ladders; it was running the gauntlet over that fire-swept zone…The gangways were heaving up and down now, the hail of shell was awful. Then for the first time it occurred to me that I might get hurt if I hung around any longer, so I was getting careful at last.” He described himself “getting nervous and funky from looking at the dead and listening to the dying.”

Pte Scorey’s No. 5 Platoon met more immediate resistance: “One fired point blank with his revolver at one of our lads, but he paid dearly for it, for our Captain [Bamford] crowned him with his loaded stick…we had to climb up the wall by ladders, which was about 15 to 20 feet high so it was no easy job. No sooner were we at the top than a shrapnel shell came and scattered us…I went in the water myself, but managed to get on board by a rope that was flung to me, she pushed off then leaving some men behind. I think I was the last man aboard.”

Worse was to fall to Harry Wright: “we took it for the signal to retire and commenced doing so when …the order was passed to return to our posts. W obeyed the order, and very shortly afterwards had the horrible ordeal of watching our only means of escape move slowly away.” Harry and his mates spent the rest of the war in German prison camps.

Was it worth it?

Pte Feeney summed up the scene as Vindictive sailed away: “one thing was evident- it cost a great deal of blood. I shall never forget the sight of the mess decks; dead and dying lying on the decks and tables where, but a few hours before, they ate, drank and played cards. In the light of day it was a shambles.”

The feeling on the way home seems to be one of failure. Understandably, as the message that the attack was diversionary appears not to have made it down to Lieutenants, according to Cpt Chater: “I discussed the operation with Bamford. We had failed to gain any of our objectives…We felt that our part in the operation had been a complete failure. We had lost many good men…We felt extremely despondent. We did not know then that…the attack on the mole had created the necessary diversion to enable the blockships to enter the canal.”

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

It seems that, for all the feelings of failure, that the raid on Zeebrugge had been successful and the returning Marines were greeted as heroes. Captain Bamford and Sergeant Norman Finch were awarded the Victoria Cross for their deeds. Of those whose voices I’ve used here Captain Arthur Chater was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Lieutenant Charles Lamplough to Distinguished Service Cross and Sergeant Harry Wright the Distinguished Service Medal. Harry Wright had to wait until his repatriation at the end of the war for his medal.

Norman Finch RMA VC

Norman Finch RMA VC

Any discussion of the value of an operation in the First World War is open to interpretation, I teach a school session on it. So I am not going to pass judgement, merely to pause for a moment and remember those who went to Zeebrugge a hundred years ago, especially those who did not come home.

I will leave the last word to Private James Feeney RMLI: “There were some deeds done that night that make words seem light and not able to touch on the thought you wish to express.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
It’s been a bit quiet around here lately

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately

I am aware that I’ve been a touch taciturn recently, please bear with me: there is exciting stuff just around the corner.

It’s been a difficult autumn here at Past Participant Towers. Things have been happening behind the scenes that have conspired to distract me from writing and updating things as often as I’d like. I’m not going to go into any detail but suffice it to say that autumn has brought bad news for us on a number of fronts.

I can only apologise for the break in service, it wasn’t what I had in mind during the summer but it’s what happened.

Consider this post an announcement that Andy is back in the saddle and that we will be updating things much more frequently in future. There is plenty to look forward to over the next few weeks. I’ve got a backlog of stuff to go up that should be a lot of fun.

I’ll keep you posted: I hope you like it.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Puttees for everyone!

Puttees for everyone!

I’ve just booked to visit a school in my First World War guise. We’ll be learning to tie puttees together.

Time to get some revision in, I think:

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 0 comments
We shall Remember them.

We shall Remember them.

As the dust settles on the Remembrance season for another year and we lay to rest the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I have a story of personal struggle and personal triumph to tell.

How did we end up here?

It is 10:50 on Friday November 11th. I have just delivered the second of six sessions I am due to deliver today but already my brain has moved on and is focussing on the next appointment of the day.

When I say focus, I mean a laser sharp, all-encompassing focus on what I am about to deliver.

I am not going to lie to you: I am feeling the pressure. I am about to deliver a one-off, single-take, no second chances, must be perfect first time session.

I am definitely nervous.

Why am I feeling so much strain? Let me take you back in time a little.

Of course I can…

When I made the booking to visit a school on November 10th and 11th, away back in May, I was really excited to be delivering Remembrance sessions to an entire school. I love the opportunity to make an impact and to leave a lasting impression. Talking about Remembrance on Armistice day is just such an opportunity.



Part of the booking was that I would deliver an assembly to the school on both days. No problem, I could do a session teaching drill. It’s a great wee session that works better the more people you have.

Then, a month or so before the visit, the teacher asked me if I would do an assembly on the Thursday and lead the school Remembrance assembly on the Friday.

“Of course I can.”  The enormity of what I had offered hit as soon as I pressed send.

I was offering to lead a service of Remembrance for an entire school. Some things are important. Some things have a very precise, correct way of doing things. Some things you are morally and ethically obliged to get perfectly right. A Remembrance service is all three of these things.

I have attended many services over the years, I have formed up groups of students for the 2 minutes silence, but I had never actually led the service. This was new territory. This is not the time to be hoisted on my own petard.

There is no wriggle room, no chance to improvise. This needs to be perfect. First time. With no notes.

So I set about memorising the order of service. I set about memorising the Exhortation. I set about knowing the whole of the Last Post and I practised my bosun’s call.

All in all it’s a lot to remember. Especially when you slot it into the middle of a day where I had to deliver six sessions about D Day.

Back to the present

So that’s why I’m feeling nervous. I am acutely aware of everywhere my Second World War uniform is not sitting quite right. Every pace it’s digging in. I am abundantly aware of how hot the school is and I am beginning to get sweaty palms.



“I can do this, and I can do it right.”

I walk into the hall to be met by hundreds of small faces and the entire school staff looking at me. Also I am greeted by a Corporal from the REME who has offered to attend the service. I suddenly feel that my battledress is very out of place for this service, but there is no time to change and therefore I must focus and get this right.

Everyone sits down.

The lights go down.

I nod to the teacher with the laptop and the Last Post sounds from the PA.

It takes an eternity to finish.

Deep breath. Commit

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning:
We shall Remember them.”


Announce the two minutes silence.

Sound the call. Glance at my watch and remember the time.


Think about all the things I ask the children to remember. Think about the people who I talk about in my remembrance sessions. Think about the people I have known who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Glance at my watch.

Sound the call to end the silence.



Now back into my comfort zone

And then finish the service by taking the children through their drill before dismissing them.

They were absolutely brilliant. They managed to be silent and, relatively, still for the whole two minutes. Their drill was perfect.

I have never felt such a wave of relief and pleasure at having successfully completed something.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right, because it was important. It was important to me to make sure I did this properly and it’s important to other people that I did this right.

I’m not kidding myself. Compared to being involved in a conflict, I was risking very little apart from opprobrium. Compared to the fear that soldiers feel going into combat, I felt very little. However, I had done my bit to remember their experiences and to help others remember them. I had treated the occasion with the respect it deserved.

I had done my bit to remember and to keep the memories alive.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uniforms, 0 comments
The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

Remembering Remembrance

Last week I was delivering drill sessions in Portsmouth schools. I was in the playground in the baking heat of an Indian Summer. In layers of wool and cotton I was beyond toasty warm. I was sweating buckets marching around playground suntraps.

Looking stern

Looking stern

It’s easy in such conditions to kid yourself that it’s still summer and not the last week of September. It’s easy to revel in the warmth of the moment and ignore the inevitable fact that the year is turning.

September. The turn of the seasons means one thing here at Past Participants: it’s time to start gearing up for November. It’s time to start gearing up for Remembrance.

It’s the best of times

I apologise for paraphrasing one of Portsmouth’s most famous sons.

I love Remembrance season. It’s a subject that really seems to connect with teachers and students alike. It’s a subject where I feel I really make an impact. It’s a subject that’s important.

It’s also the busiest time of the year because of all of that.

I shall spend most of November visiting the schools of Hampshire delivering Remembrance sessions. More often than not that also means delivering drill sessions in their playgrounds. The same playgrounds that, in September, were dappled in late summer sun are now blasted by a freezing wind. They really give an immersive feel to the whole Remembrance experience. It can also be really cold so the children are wrapped up against it while muggins is in the same kit that he was wearing back in September. It’s thick wool so it’s warm and, to a certain extent, waterproof but it’s not windproof.

I can live with that, it’s what I signed up for.

The stories we tell in our remembrance sessions are really powerful. Some are from the Great War discovering the experience of soldiers on the front line. Some are from the Second World War where we find out about the crews of Landing Craft as well as the soldiers on the beach.

It’s the worst of times

Not all of the stories turn out well for those concerned. That only makes them more powerful. Telling them properly and doing them justice means putting everything into it. It’s only fair.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Think about it for a moment. Every time I deliver a Remembrance session, I introduce the group to a person who, I know, isn’t going to make it to the end of the session. Every session, I put myself through the emotional wringer to make sure I’m doing it properly. Every single session. There’s no shortcut, no way of insulating myself from it: it’s got to be done properly.

What that means for me is that the season really takes its toll on me emotionally. It’s important and I don’t begrudge it but, by the end of it, I am pretty wrung out from going through that process so often.

Am I looking forward to it?

Of course I am.

The effect that the sessions have on students and teachers alike make all the hard work, the cold, the emotional challenges all worthwhile. The fact that students remember these people years after they’ve taken part tells me this is worth doing.

I get a huge reward out of teaching Remembrance and from feeling that I am making a small but positive difference to the world.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

July 1st marks one hundred years since the whistles blew on the offensive that would start the battle that would later become known as the Battle of the Somme.

This campaign has become indelibly etched on the consciousness of the country. The Somme has come to stand for the horrors of trench warfare, for the Sheer awfulness of the Western Front and for the First World War as a whole.

In fact, so large is the shadow of the Somme, you could be forgiven for believing it was the only thing that happened in the entire war.

Sadly, for all the unimaginable scale of the Somme and everything it entailed, this is not the case. Service personnel were in harm’s way and paying the ultimate price long before July 1st 1916 and long after November 18th.

In spite of banging the drum for widening consciousness of the war beyond the Somme, its shadow is just too big not to commemorate.

A single person losing their life is tragic enough, fifty-seven thousand casualties is beyond imagining.

Fifty-seven thousand men killed or injured.

In one day.

And then the campaign went on for four and a half months.

Adding to the clamour

Much has been said on the horror of the Somme. Writers, poets and commentators far more eloquent than I have created a huge canon of judgements, commentaries and moving tributes about the battle and its impact.

I will not muddy the waters.

Instead, as I have done before, I will clear the stage and move aside to let someone else have the spotlight. Allow me to introduce you to William Charles Brown RMLI.

William Charles Brown

William Brown Joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in November 1914. In April 1915 he was given a sun hat shipped out for Gallipoli.

No words can describe it. The conditions were horrible, lack of water, disease, stench, heat and most horrible of all: the flies and lice!


He was a man who very quickly became used to the discomforts of the field. Then, on the second Sunday in July he was

Up to the line once more trench digging. I was carrying a pick…and I was hit by a shrapnel bullet through my right thumb, it didn’t break or remove it…


He was offered medical leave but chose to remain to look after an old friend who had contracted dysentery. Eventually the wound became infected and he was invalided to Egypt.

At hospital he was offered a medical discharge but thought he had recovered enough and opted instead to return to active service

Probably the biggest regret and mistake of my whole life.


He was instead sent to the Western Front to join the Royal Naval Division.


And we finished up on the Somme.

By Autumn 1916 he was in the Somme as a Vickers machine-gunner in the Royal Naval Division. He seems relatively sanguine about the conditions:

Autumn had set in and we had a lot of rain and the trenches and land had become a quagmire. To make matters worse it had turned bitterly cold. From now on we were invariably soaked to the skin and often up to our waist in mud and water. Its most amazing that anyone could possibly survive such conditions.


This is without the enemy even getting a mention.

His moment came with the Battle of Ancre, at the end of the Somme.

We took up our positions and waited for zero hour at 5.45am. The Res had mined …Jerry’s trenches and these mines were being sprung at zero…Bang on the dot up went the mines and every machine gun along the front opened up, the attack was under way.
From the brow of the hill…was a quagmire and unoccupied….I shared a shell hole with 2 or 3 mates. We had suffered pretty heavily by this time but the attack was going very well all along the line.
When we got the order to advance I heaved my gun up on to my shoulder and climbed out of the shell hole pulling myself up with my right hand. As I put my hand on the rim to get to the top I had a bullet through it. I stopped and looked at it; then had a good mutter as it didn’t look like enough to go back with yet it would be damned inconvenient to carry on with.


This seems bad enough but then he had a proper look at it:

The bullet had gone through my knuckles in front of my little finger and it appeared to have split my thumb.


Bear that in mind when he decided to carry on rather than getting it seen to. However pretty soon it seemed he had underestimated it.

…so I had another look at my hand. The two middle fingers were hanging down there was a gaping hole through the palm. I could have poke four fingers through, and instead of the thumb being split it was gone. And when I lifted it up for a better view the two fingers hung down the back of my wrist and a slab of meat flopped down the front of my wrist from where my thumb had been.


Ouch. So he carried out a little first aid on the wound.

I lifted the fingers back up and over into the palm, and slipped my fingers under the slab back over the stump and held it in place.


It was all up for him so he handed off his gun to a member of the Honourable Artillery Company called Beresford and set off for the field station. Just then a shell exploded right behind him.

When the smoke cleared both Beresford and the gun had vanished.


He then began a long and fruitless quest for a dressing station. When he eventually found one..

I poked my head round the entrance, saw a table and a form so I sat on the form and promptly passed out.


William Brown’s involvement in the offensive had lasted about two and a half hours.

The tale of his treatment and recovery is one for another day, but he lived until March 1971.

The numbers game

I know this is a graphic account but there is a reason. William Brown sustained a relatively minor injury. This graphic tale was repeated nearly half a million times over the course of the Somme. Half a million tales, all as bloody as this one. Half a million men, each of whom had to experience the kind of injury and pain that, thankfully, few of us have to face now.

When I think about the Somme, it’s not the numbers that get me. It’s the fact that even a single one is too tragic to bear. It’s too tragic and yet, in the scheme of the war, insignificant.

That’s the power of the Somme: to make something as traumatic as this insignificant.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Getting to the beaches: D Day landing craft remembered.

Getting to the beaches: D Day landing craft remembered.

The experience of a 19 year old Landing Craft Coxwain

Today is the seventy-second anniversary of Operation Neptune. It was the largest amphibious assault, the largest Royal Marine operation of the war and signalled the opening of the northwest European front.

By any stretch of the imagination it was, and still is a massive event. There were something like 160,000 allied personnel involved, of whom 16,000 were Royal Marines. If you think the scale of the event and what it signalled about the Second World War were massive, then spare a thought for the individuals who were actually there and how significant it was for them…

Many people will write many things about D Day today, some will insightful and well thought out. Many of them will invoke images of beaches and smoke and something reminiscent of a certain film starring Tom Hanks.

I’m going to wind the story back a little further than that. Before the Commandos and all the other troops could run up the beaches, they had to get there. More than that, someone had to get them there.

Over half of the Royal Navy landing craft were crewed by Royal Marines. Allow me to introduce you to a chap called Sergeant Drew:

I was 19, a Royal Marine, and Coxswain of a landing craft (LCVP) approaching the D Day beaches of Normandy.

Sgt Drew RM LCVP 1013
Think about that for a moment: he’s 19 years old, probably has never left Britain before and he is tasked with delivering a boat full of soldiers safely onto Juno Beach to take part in D Day. He has to make sure that the landing craft and all its passengers arrive in the right place in one piece. Just imagine the pressure.

So how did he feel?

Full of apprehension, fear of the unknown and the many discomforts associated with a small craft crossing the channel…


That pretty much sums it up to be honest. In case he wasn’t afraid enough, he drops this little bombshell too:

The losses were expected to be so heavy that in the next few days a spare crew arrived for each craft.


That’s right: they were so confident that the crew were going to get killed that they had a spare crew for each craft. The craft were needed to outlive the crew and still be useful. If you weren’t afraid before, you would be now.

The Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel was a little over 36 feet long by 10 feet across with a draft of between 2 and 3 feet. It had a crew of 4 and carried up to 36 troops. It was capable of 12 knots (just under 14mph). Sergeant Drew coxed this craft across the channel in darkness and rough waters.

we had been issued with chewing gum to prevent seasickness, but with the rough seas and our craft being flat bottomed, the continuous buffeting made a lot of the troops and some of the crews seasick.


Just imagine how miserable that crossing probably was for the Coxwain.

Then, as dawn broke:

As we approached the beach we saw the whole coast ablaze and I thought “My God, we’ll never get in there alive.”


Not only Was he expected to do it, but he was expected to do it several times.  The dangers facing in incoming landing craft were many: the rough surf, mines, underwater obstacles and fire from defending forces. In fact Drew describes this chilling moment:

At one point I said goodbye to the crew, for on the starboard side was a huge mine and I was sure we would hit it.


Imagine realising that you are about to hit a mine and what you would do about it. His diary doesn’t record exactly what happened but the fact we have his diary means they must have avoided it.

Sadly, their luck didn’t last:

We were hit amidships by a torpedo and literally blown out of the water. We had gone through hell for days and nights, Stukka Bombers, Coastal batteries…the lot. It was a terrible experience and one that I will never forget as long as I live.


LVCP (or in some cases LCA) 1013 is listed as having been lost during the operation.

So, when you’re thinking about the undoubted bravery of the troops on the beaches on D Day, spare a thought for those who put themselves in harm’s way to get them there in the first place.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
The tales of Captain Bourne and Private Lambert at the Battle of Jutland

The tales of Captain Bourne and Private Lambert at the Battle of Jutland

Today is the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War. It’s a battle that provokes argument and debate amongst people who know about it and looks of blank incomprehension from people who have only encountered the Western Front narrative of the war.

I am not going to try to tell the story of the battle here, or even say which side of the various arguments I come down on. Instead I am going to explain why I find it so haunting.

For me Jutland really highlights the completely impersonal nature of naval warfare. It is completely different to land battles Read this quote:

Shots were continually passing over or falling short. The suddenly out of the mist, only 10,000 yards away, emerged a battle cruiser of the Lutzow class.

Cpt Hill, RMLI HMS Colossus

Yes, it really does describe the enemy as being “only” 10,000 yards, or slightly over five and a half miles away. Ships were engaging over vast distances where they could only see each other through binoculars. Sailors were engaging enemy ships rather than individual enemies, in this case not even an individual enemy ship but one whose class they can work out. Just think about that for a moment.

Admiral Beatty’s quote

One of the most famous lines from the battle was, allegedly, uttered by Admiral Beatty:

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”

It was uttered in response to the catastrophic loss of HMS Invincible at 1830, HMS Indefatigable at 1603 and, worst of all, HMS Queen Mary at 1626. All of them blew up suddenly and sank with the loss of almost all hands. There really did seem to be something wrong with the ships.

It appears that the way that cordite was handled meant that a direct strike on a turret stood a good chance of setting fire to the magazine where the cordite was stored. This caused the ships to explode. It’s not quite as straightforward as that.

But this is where it gets interesting.

Alan Bourne on HMS Tiger

Captain (later General) Alan Bourne RMA was a Royal Marine in X Turret on HMS Tiger  at the battle and kept a diary of the day. It gives a very interesting, human scale view of the battle:

…when I could not see any enemy ships, I got the gun house crew onto the top of the turret to give them a change, and we passed the remains of the “Invincible” sticking up out of the sea- she had broken in half + the broken parts were on the seabed with the ends sticking up. The 3 or 4 survivors were standing on a raft + cheering as the ship went past.

Cpt. Bourne, MVO RMA HMS Tiger

So there were opportunities for a pause in the hostilities, but there is also the haunting sight of the wreckage of Invincible with only “3 or 4 survivors”.

However, it gets even more interesting with the tale of Private Lambert. I’d never heard of him either, but listen to this:

…to avoid this, Private Lambert, a young soldier of 19 years age who had been brought up as a spare No. 5 at the left gun in place of the No. 5 on leave, suggested to the second captain of the turret that the main cage should not be brought up until the Gun-loading cage was raised.

So, here’s a lad of 19 years, who is only temporarily in the crew, suggesting to his superiors that there might be another way of doing gunnery drill. You can imagine how that went down.

For some reason they listened to him, which is important because:

At 3.56 pm “X” Turret hit by 11” shell on the barbette, directly between the guns. The body of the shell and a large piece of the barbette lodged on top of the lever for jacking up the guns, and two more large pieces covered the manhole between the centre sight setter’s position an the working chamber. The central training shaft was knocked into the dynamo compartment and bent across the dynamo. There was a shower of sparks, like a rocket, in the gunhouse and working chamber, and thick fumes.

Indeed, Private Lambert’s suggestion was only

… completed some minutes before “open fire” and before the German 11 inch shell entered the turret. Burning material fell all over the empty receiving trays, and the fact of them being empty of exposed charges probably saved the ship from blowing up.


Or, to put it another way: there is a fair chance that, without the actions of the Private Lambert, HMS Tiger could have suffered a similar fate to Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary.

Without Private Lambert’s actions I would not be reading Alan Bourne’s diary and he would not have gone on to the stellar career that he had.

The simple actions of one man potentially saved the lives of over a thousand.


Clr. Sgt. Magson got a “mention in Depsatches” but Pte. Lambert got nothing- to my regret, as I think he deserved it,

Often, when I think about the Battle of Jutland, I think on the poignancy of this simple story, and wonder how many others there were of simple bravery, intelligence and humanity that have gone unrecorded.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments