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 »
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.
Continue reading »
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 »
When thinking of war posters, the slogans ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ or ‘Make-do and Mend‘ might spring to mind, or perhaps the darker ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ During the First and Second World Wars, posters were a vital method of communication; the government used them to increase morale, reduce panic and boost both agricultural and industrial output.
You could argue that they’re now embedded in the culture of the country. It’s highly likely every one of us will recognise Lord Kitchener’s ‘I Want You’ designed by Alfred Leete, in 1914. We have a collection of over 150 posters at Manchester Archives.
'Which is it be, Bonds or Bondage?' poster
Take this poster from the collection ‘Which is it to be; Bonds or Bondage?’ issued by the War Savings Office in Salford (date not known), which is unique to the area. Continue reading »