By Charlie Trumpess, 09-Jan-2014 13:45:00
The Tank War by Mark Urban tells the tale of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment (5 RTR) or “Filthy Fifth” during World War Two. The book focuses on the various exploits of a number of officers and men, some of whom survived the conflict while others perished. A professional journalist, military historian and former tank soldier, Mark Urban brings personal experience and meticulous research to bear on the subject. To build up a vivid picture of the changing fortunes of 5 tanks, Urban uses a combination of archive records, personal letters, diaries and interviews with veterans. The story starts with the fall of France and humiliating evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1940 and quickly moves to the desert battles of North Africa.
The swift victories of the German panzer forces in the early war years stand in stark contrast to Britain’s complete lack of strategic, tactical and technological prowess in armoured warfare. After stealing an early lead in the use of tanks during World War One, Britain quickly wasted its advantage during the inter-war years. Mark Urban’s book illustrates just how poorly prepared the British Army was to take on Hitler’s panzers in 1940, and how quickly the tank corps was forced to change once on a war footing. The book reveals the tensions and politics played out between an established cadre of old school, regular soldiers and a massive intake of conscripted citizen soldiers.
Britain’s armoured forces were never blessed with a tank of British manufacture that had enough firepower, protection, speed and reliability throughout the war. The British Comet only entered service at the end of the war, and so made zero contribution to the outcome. For the lads of 5 RTR, the American “Honey”, M3 “General Lee” and Sherman proved far better in terms of overall design and performance. However, the Sherman did gain something of a reputation for bursting into flames when hit – “brewing up” in the vernacular. The Germans called the Sherman a “Tommy cooker”.
Mark Urban’s book reveals how the men, vehicles, strategy and tactics of the 5th RTR changed and adapted based on its years of frontline battle experience. Those men not killed, wounded or transferred out of the unit became increasingly hardened and professional. Killing Germans became something like an obsession for some of them. Urban’s book also reveals “the old sweats” or veterans of the unit often struggled to manage combat fatigue, and hide its symptoms from senior officers and comrades.
The Tank War takes you on an amazing, terrible and funny journey of nearly 5 years duration. A bloody journey of courage and sacrifice started on the shores of France that stretched to the deserts of North Africa, Italy, Normandy, Belgium and Holland. Journey’s end finally came with the Rhine crossing and drive to Hamburg, Germany. A journey that would see around 240 members of the Filthy Fifth killed in action and another 1500 wounded or missing.
By Charlie Trumpess, 03-Oct-2013 19:58:00
Very loosely based on the trials and tribulations of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and the de Havilland Aircraft Company, the 1952 movie The Sound Barrier is a fascinating, albeit fictional, snapshot of the UK’s aviation industry following WW2. Written by Terence Rattigan, directed and produced by David Lean, The Sound Barrier tells the tale of a British aircraft manufacturer and its autocratic boss John Ridgefield played by Ralph Richardson. Ridgefield single-mindedly determines to produce the world’s first supersonic jet fighter. The steely-eyed industrialist Ridgefield, based on Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, will stop at nothing to see his ambition realised.
The first victim of Ridgefield’s dangerous obsession is his son Christopher (Denholm Elliott) who is killed on his solo flight. Next, his daughter’s husband and company test pilot Tony (Nigel Patrick) crashes the prototype Prometheus fighter (nicely played by a Supermarine Swift) and is also killed. Finally, the sound barrier is broken by company test pilot, ex-Spitfire pilot and all-round-good-egg Philip Peel (John Justin). It’s the last section of the film that remains in the public consciousness and has become something of an urban myth: that an aircraft’s controls behave in reverse as it reaches Mach 1. Naturally, the hard-hearted Ridgefield is finally reconciled with his widowed daughter (Ann Todd), and they live happily ever after. Of course, things didn’t turn out quite so rosily for Britain’s aviation industry.
Besides its entertainment value, the film is interesting for a number of reasons. It’s clearly a piece of marketing propaganda for Britain’s aircraft industry. The various jets used in the film all receive star billing in the opening credits, as do the test pilots. The film also uses real events, such as the death of Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr., to illustrate key points about the dangers and importance of staying ahead in the new jet age. Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. was killed in 1946 testing a de Havilland DH 108 "Swallow". To underscore the commercial opportunities and benefits of jet-powered flight, test pilot Tony takes his wife Susan for a quick flight to Cairo in a de Havilland Vampire fighter and then hitch a ride home in a de Havilland Comet – the world’s first jet airliner. The couple make the round trip to Egypt and back in less than a day.
Later in the film the maniacal John Ridgefield walks through his factory stocked with shiny, new Comets just waiting for customers. In retrospect the scene is chilling, as the Comet was to suffer a number of catastrophic failures and two high profile crashes in 1954. The Comet disasters are often blamed for the terminal decline of the UK’s commercial aircraft industry, which is almost certainly unfair. The Sound Barrier is definitely worth a look and is available on DVD. One last thing, Britain didn’t actually break the sound barrier, although our technology helped. The credit goes to American test pilot Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier in level flight on 1 October 1947 in the Bell X-1.
Watch a clip of The Sound Barrier on YouTube
By Charlie Trumpess, 30-Aug-2013 12:38:00
It’s been a busy summer. We’ve been to numerous military history and re-enactment events such as The War and Peace Revival, The Military Vehicle and Flying Machine Show and Military Odyssey. It was my first time at Military Odyssey this year. The show is promoted as the world’s largest multi-period military re-enactment show, and featured everyone from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Japanese samurai warriors, American Civil War, Zulu Wars, WWI and WWII groups. There was a smallish scattering of WWII armoured vehicles including the mock StuGs and Panzer IIIs of the LSSAH. Next on the list is the Duxford air show on September 7th, 2013.
You will find plenty of photos of recent military history events on my Flickr photostream.
You can also see videos from War & Peace Revival, Military Vehicle & Flying Machine Show and Military Odyssey on my YouTube channel.
Beside the military history events, I’ve been playing a couple of fun WW2 themed games on my iPhone. Developed by Hyperspace Ltd, The Dambusters is 3D flying game inspired by the famous WW2 bombing raid on the great dams of the Ruhr Valley, Germany 1943. You get to fly the iconic Avro Lancaster heavy bombers of 617 Squadron, and must drop your bouncing bombs exactly 420 yards from the dam walls at 60 feet. The game is easy to play, using the native functionality of the iPhone to enable you to pilot your aircraft to and from the target. You must fly at ultra-low level and avoid various obstacles such as electrical pylons, search lights and anti-aircraft fire or flak. The game offers various levels of difficulty, practice mode, history on the raid, and even features Eric Coates stirring music from the Dambusters movie.
Visit The Dambusters game site: http://www.thedambusters.co.uk/index.html
Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders
Keeping with the WW2 aerial combat theme, I’ve also been playing the free version of Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders on iPhone. The game offers excellent quality graphics, is very responsive and uses real WW2 combat aircraft and locations. The game really feels like something you’d normally play on a PC or console. However, if I have one criticism, it’s the game has tried to replicate the joystick or paddle controls using numerous on-screen buttons and icons. The result is the screen is a little cluttered, and the controls don’t always respond by touch as desired. Otherwise, it’s a great game. I’m playing on an iPhone 4 so I’m not getting the benefit of iCloud or AirPlay to save and play on multiple devices or play on a big screen Apple TV.
Take a look at Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders: http://www.atypicalgames.com/StormRaiders/index.html
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