Monday, 20 April 2020

Tangmere, a flight of fancy

Lysander Mk III

The volunteer staff are former RAF personnel and appear older than many exhibits; elderly gentlemen whose active careers are over yet still with the desire, and memories, to speak to the next generation. It was a quiet day and we were probably lucky, but all were ready to reminisce. There was the Canberra navigator who spoke of travelling long distances in the cramped cockpit, the ground engineer who proudly patted one of the planes he had cared for during service life then pointed to himself in a faded photograph of his former squadron. We discussed Cold War politics with another and were shown around the cockpit of a Hunter by someone who truly knew. The atmosphere was that of a convivial gentlemen’s club and we learned so much.

Work is well advanced on the next Fighting Sail instalment; I’m currently about a quarter of the way through the first draft and am aiming for a late autumn release. Meanwhile I am also hoping to add to the Coastal Forces series and, to this end, recently paid a visit to Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. This was partly for research – I had heard there was an informative air-sea rescue display – and partly pleasure. And it was excellent, with a good range of aircraft, displays and memorabilia. But the true magic of Tangmere lies in its attendants.

But there was one short incident that will always stay with me. Tangmere has a fast jet simulator; the cockpit of a Lightning having been wired up with screens and sound to allow amateurs some sensation of being in control while a patient former fighter pilot gives guidance. We enjoyed our twenty minutes and moved on to other exhibits, then the peace of a quiet afternoon was broken by the “engines” of the simulator roaring into life once more.

I quietly returned to the room; another elderly man was at the Lightning’s controls and ‘flying’ it expertly. I think the term is “stooging about at nought feet” but his level would have aroused an angry response from local residents had it been for real, while the speed at which he tree-hopped and banked was truly breath-taking. I watched, transfixed, while this elderly gentleman handled his terrible machine in the way young men have been encouraged to since chariots were invented. He wore glasses and a hearing aid, but neither were needed for the simulator was now a time machine. In my former life I mixed with some top musicians (makes me sound like a drummer) and was fortunate to be present when they practised or improvised; it was a similar sensation: he played that aircraft with an innate talent that surpassed age and I felt honoured to be a silent witness.

Should you find yourself in the South East of England (and when the current crisis is over) do come to Tangmere. It’s a brilliant museum and a great day out; the kids will love it. And there is more; oh, so much more.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Hellfire Corner, first in the Coastal Forces series

Artwork by Geoffrey Huband RSMA

My Fighting Sail series was launched over ten years ago and currently consists of twelve books set during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Most are based around the Royal Navy of the time although I have also touched upon the Honourable East India Company and the merchant service in general. I strayed twice to write two books that concentrated more on the work of the revenue service but, until now, my entire output has focused on the turn of the nineteenth-century. However the urge to explore a later period, and navy, has always been strong.

I was born in the ‘fifties and amongst my school friends there was much talk of World War Two, then a recent conflict. Most of our parents had been in the services or working for the war effort in some way and Southern England still held many reminders in the shape of pill boxes, bomb shelters and anti-invasion measures for youngsters to seek out and explore.

Even then my main interest was maritime history, and I began to read accounts of twentieth-century naval actions as avidly as those from a hundred and fifty years before. It soon became obvious that, once again, the Royal Navy was pivotal in securing peace in Europe and equally major warships had not been responsible for every victory.

The Battle of the Atlantic, surely one of WW2’s longest and most punishing campaigns was arguably won by convoys of merchant shipping, often made up from elderly, dilapidated vessels and frequently escorted by equally aged destroyers and underpowered corvettes. And Dunkirk, though by no means a victory, could still be considered a success due mainly to Royal Naval small craft backed by civilian owned and manned “little ships”. Together the two unlikely allies brought about a rescue as remarkable as it was audacious. Even the immediate defence of Britain’s home waters lay very much in the hands of lighter vessels and I quickly found myself concentrating all my attention on this aspect of WW2 sea power.

During the course of my reading I also noticed a similarity between the Royal Navy of 1939-45 and that of the Georgian era. In both periods Britain placed little emphasis on preparing for conflict and the sudden building programme that saw hastily constructed fleets of warships take to the water demanded an equivalent increase in manpower to sail them. As a result, the relatively few professional seamen available were quickly swamped by untrained civilians brought in to fill the gaps.

6th MGB Flotilla, Robert Peverell Hichens' MGB 64 leading
Thankfully measures such as the quota act and press-gangs were unnecessary during the later conflict, although conscription was exhaustive and not all those called for naval service came willingly. But, as in the past, a good proportion took to the life and prospered with the many news skills that would set them up in well-paid jobs at the end of hostilities. Some even went so far as to volunteer for special service in divisions such as Naval Intelligence, the Submarine Service, the Fleet Air Arm or Coastal Forces, and it was the latter that drew my attention.

Originally formed during World War One, Coastal Forces administered the Royal Navy’s high-speed launches; the Motor Gun Boats, Torpedo Boats and Motor Launches whose role in the defence of home waters was later extended to cover many other areas of conflict. Small, fast and eminently vulnerable, Coastal Forces’ craft undertook a multitude of tasks ranging from convoy and minesweeper protection, through the clandestine delivery and recovery of SOE agents or escaping airmen, to direct attacks on enemy merchant shipping and coastal targets. Their crews were exclusively volunteers drawn from both the regular Royal Navy and ‘hostilities only’ recruits – many of the latter having been in civilian occupations barely months before. And they were supervised in the main by officers equally fresh to Service life, being drawn from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

Much of Coastal Forces’ work was undertaken at night, in the worst of weathers and their main opponents were the Kriegsmarine’s own small craft. These included the heavily armoured VPs that carried far greater weaponry, minesweepers which could be the size of small destroyers and the vastly more powerful E-Boats.

Most of the early British vessels were small indeed, the majority being between sixty-three to just over seventy feet in length, and there could be little formal naval discipline on craft of such a size – something the few regular officers were quick to realise if not always understand. With crews regularly consisting of under ten men, it was not unusual for entire departments in larger vessels to be represented by a single rating aboard a high-speed launch. Inevitably something close to a family environment evolved and, although attention might be paid to the courtesies of rank and uniform ashore, when at sea the attitude was considerably more relaxed.

MGB 66 at speed with the crew at action stations,
off the coast at Fort William
Despite what some maintained to be a dangerously casual approach, Coastal Forces was to become a major influence in the outcome of World War Two. Some of their successes might not have attracted public attention although a few, such as the daring raid on the dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, did come to prominence and all undoubtedly affected the outcome of the war.

Serious research for my Coastal Forces series began over four years ago and the first instalment, Hellfire Corner, is due for release during the early part of 2020. I hope to follow it with another although further Fighting Sail books are also planned.

Outside the Lord Warden Hotel,
the building that became the Coastal Forces base
 HMS Wasp during WW2
Hellfire Corner contains many aspects of what quickly became a private war, including conditions on land. My fictitious MGB flotilla is based at Dover, an English town that suffered more than most from intensive air raids and was also subject to long-range artillery bombardment from the nearby French coast. Investigating civilian social history can be as fascinating as the military aspect, although the focus is very much on time spent at sea and naval action.

Launching a new series has brought back many feelings of trepidation experienced when starting Fighting Sail (I actually began writing His Majesty’s Ship over twenty years ago), but this is definitely not the end of my Georgian naval saga. The next Fighting Sail book has been outlined in rough and there are at least two more to follow. Ideally, I’d like to alternate between the two subjects and eras; there is a massive amount of material in each and many more stories to tell.

Hellfire Corner is due for release at the end of January 2020 and will be available in all popular formats.