From Banana to Vesuvius…
When one thinks of the RAF in the Second World War, most people have visions of squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes over Kent in 1940, or the Dambusters of 617 squadron. The Operational Record Books (‘ORBs’ or more formally RAF Forms 540 and 541) of the squadrons have always been very popular records and are now online. But nearly every unit of the RAF had to compile and submit ORBs, and the majority of these units were not squadrons at all, but an amazing variety of other units, and their ORBs have been gathered together in record series AIR 29 as ‘Miscellaneous Units’.
1 Armoured Car Company, Khormaksar, Aden 1946 (AIR 29/57)
For the last two years, a small team of staff have been working through the AIR 29s up to the end of the Second World War, improving and expanding the catalogue descriptions, to make the records easier to locate. Many of the original descriptions were very brief, and relied heavily on unexplained abbreviations, which didn’t make searching very easy (anyone want to guess at what ‘AACU’ or ‘Beam ATF’ stood for?).
In going through the first 1,212 pieces of the series, we have found units completely missed from the catalogue, unravelled all of the abbreviations, corrected dates and detailed the changes of unit name or location. A typical description before the project was ‘AIR 29/811: No. 428, Buc’. This has now been expanded to ’428 Repair and Salvage Unit, based at Buc, France (RSU)’. Unit abbreviations were retained as they often appear on airmen’s service records from this period. Place-name descriptions were also improved so that researchers can use the records even if they do not know which units were in which locations. Continue reading »
The Colonial Office library photographic collection contains 12 Malta albums with photographs ranging from the 1870s to the 1950s, as well as including some earlier engravings dating from the 1850s. Malta had a magnificent and unusually Italianate architectural heritage inspired by the Knights of St John and many fine architectural studies can be found amongst the collection.
The two photographs of the Valletta Opera House included here come from an album of architectural studies and views of the Grand Harbour taken by Captain R D Lyon.
Valletta Opera House, Malta (reference: CO 1069/716 (6))
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Plan of the Café de Paris, showing the effects of the bombing (reference: HO 193/68). The plan is shown laid out with weights to keep it flat.
Seventy-two years ago, on Saturday 8 March 1941, the Café de Paris, a London nightclub and restaurant was bombed during the Blitz. A 50 kg high-explosive bomb hit the building, on Coventry Street, at about 21.45. At least 34 people died and dozens more were seriously injured. Continue reading »
D-Day, 6 June 1944, the turning point of the Second World War, was a victory of arms, a heroic feat of military strategy and raw courage. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of skill: it was an astonishing feat of paperwork.
Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. It was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring that Hitler kept an entire army awaiting a fake invasion, saving thousands of lives, and securing an Allied victory at the most critical juncture in the war.
The Double Cross system depended on a filing and archive system that was vast, complex and meticulous. It is not too much to say that without the extraordinary record-keeping system devised by the spy-runners, the great D-Day deception might have failed, and the history of the 20th century would have been very different.
The great British talent for keeping and maintaining records played a vital, but largely unacknowledged role in winning the Second World War. Most of the wartime files relating to the Double Cross deception, once top secret, have now been released to The National Archives. That material has formed the evidential basis for my last three books: Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross. Each of these books tells a story extracted from the wartime files. Indeed, without this huge trove of documents, these books could not have been written.
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In my last post (Watch out Aliens!) I discussed the records I had based the Polish Community in Leicestershire project on and described the Alien Certificates and Alien Cards in detail. Today I would like to focus more on the stories told to me by the Poles who came to Britain in the late 1940s. Through visiting and interviewing these generous people, I managed to make several oral history recordings which have been essential to the project.
Winston Churchill and Wladyslaw Sikorski reviewing Polish troops in England (by Anonymous photography, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Polish people who came to Britain in the 1940s arrived here as a result of the Second World War. They were either serving under the British Command once Poland collapsed after the attack of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939, or as dependants of relatives in the army. Most of the Poles who settled in Britain originated from Eastern Poland and were deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940 and 1941. After the Nazi attack on Soviet Russia, Polish and Russian authorities signed an agreement which allowed deported Poles to leave Siberia and join the Polish Army under the British Command (approximately a million people were taken into Russia and only about 15% of them managed to get out). Continue reading »
Kew and environs, as seen on BombSight.org
The title of today’s blog post comes from the first stanza of the poem Slough, by John Betjeman.
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
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Heavens above! Could a star save your life?
Sometimes, when searching through the catalogue (inevitably for other things), files leap out that simply have to be investigated. For instance HO 199/301 “British bombs and other devices accidentally dropped on England by British aircraft” (somewhat shamefacedly subtitled “also British mines”) does essentially what it says on the tin. But it’s an intriguing tin. However, even better is the neighbouring file from 1942, the bafflingly monikered “Journalistic astrology”. I wanted to know what journalistic astrology was. My guess was that newspaper columnists were making uncomfortably accurate predictions of military decisions but the truth is slightly stranger.
- The home front in black and white: a survivor of an air raid receives first aid, Aldwych, central London, 30 June 1944. (From a photograph album with the document reference AIR 20/6185)
Luxury is not a word that naturally springs to mind when we think about the Second World War, but last month I went to a fascinating lecture that connected these two topics. Design historian Neil Taylor’s talk, which formed part of the Archives for London seminar series, offered a thought-provoking insight into the place of luxury goods in the UK’s wartime economy.
I was struck by Neil’s observation that the black and white photographs of the period encourage us to think of the ‘home front’ as drab and grey, when the truth was rather more complicated. For many of the economic and social elite, life remained rather colourful. The onset of war actually opened up new luxury markets. (My favourite example was a crocodile-skin gas mask box!) In later years, rationing and the ‘make-do and mend’ spirit encouraged a brisk trade in high-quality second-hand furniture and clothing. A little luxury certainly helped to boost the morale of those who could afford it.
Although most wartime industry was given over to munitions or essential goods, a small trade in manufacturing and selling luxury items, such as silk scarves, continued throughout the war. Most of these were intended for the export market, particularly to the USA. The government encouraged this small-scale export of luxury items because it made wealthy Americans more likely to think of Britain and use their influence support its cause.