SMHS Study Day - Generations of Warfare

26 May 2013

In his commentary on the 2012 Remembrance Day London Parade, David Dimbleby observed that although the veterans marching before him were both young and old, had fought in different conflicts in different decades, wounded or well, this diverse group had one thing in common; they had all, when required, taken to war for our country, they marched as ‘Brothers in Arms'.

The SMHS Study Day 2013 adopted the theme ‘Generations of Warfare' with presentations covering the Great War, WWII, the Cold War era and the Falklands Conflict. Our day was overseen by one of SMHS's greatest friends, Robert Peedle MBE TD, who guided us through a jam-packed programme with consummate ease.

Starting the day, for the second year, was Geoff Bridger, author and military consultant. Geoff assists with identifying bodies recovered from the battlefields and as a former specialist Royal Engineer has an enviable knowledge of firearms and other weapons. Geoff spoke about the March 1915 Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Describing how the British were poorly equipped with aged artillery pieces; old style tactics were failing them in what is considered the first modern war. Poor communications, with those at the Front sending messengers back to those commanding them some distance behind was costly in time and there was no direct communication with those positioned immediately to the left and right. Geoff calls Thursday 11th March the Day of Confusion”, no-one knew who was where, vital supplies were not received but Battalions pushed forward nonetheless. He showed poignant photos, including graves of unknown German, British and Indian soldiers, little cemeteries, before and after views of the village, where very little remained.

Our second speaker, Major Freddy Hunn, joined the 12th Royal Lancers in 1937. Raised as a Cavalry Regiment in the Jacobean uprising, it was mechanised in 1928 originally with Manchester armoured vehicles. In 1938 they were issued with Morris armoured cars, already obsolete, armed with a Bren gun and a Boys rifle, which they were told would penetrate any German tank. The Morris had a crew of four; Commander, Gunner, Driver and Wireless Operator - plus a basket of carrier pigeons! In 1939 they were deployed to France and spent a freezing, uneventful winter not far from the previously discussed Neuve Chapelle. It was so cold that one of the men had to get up every two hours throughout the night to start the engines of the vehicles to prevent them freezing up! Major Freddy hadn't heard a shot or bomb until May 1940. They were then ordered to the Belgian border, where as a reconnaissance Regiment were instructed to observe the strength of the enemy, their weapons, materials, the lay of the land, rivers etc. They had an old radio set with a range of 12-15 miles. Major Freddy was wearing the outsized headphones associated with this set when he saw planes overhead; he said wearing those headphones you couldn't hear anything. He saw something dropped from a plane and shouted to his mates excitedly that he thought it was a crate of beer. When the bomb exploded Major Freddy (still wearing those headphones) noticed all his mates had taken cover, there was not a man in sight! It is testament to the naivety of those young soldiers that Freddy hadn't conceived that the object coming down could be a bomb.

In a later incident Major Freddy had cause to use that Boys Rifle they had been told would penetrate any German tank. He came across three German tanks 800 yards up ahead - took aim, fired, and…nothing! He repeated the process and it was clear the bullets were just bouncing off the tank. When the tanks started firing back with 75mm shells Major Freddy realised it was time to turn tail and retreat!

The Major had many more stories, the human horrors of war, culminating in the evacuation at Dunkirk. After being ordered to destroy their armoured cars they proceeded on foot to Dunkirk where they saw the multitude of men awaiting evacuation, under constant fire from the German planes overhead. Having organised the evacuation they were the last out. Around 10.00pm with Messerschmitt's menacing overhead they boarded their little boat” and were pulled out to a mud-dredger. At midnight the Major looked back towards Dunkirk which he described as a crescent of smoke and flames, effectively the closest thing there is to hell. Received in Margate he felt ashamed having to leave all their equipment behind in France, the Army was impotent; so much so he believed now only the Navy and RAF were left…

After a superb tour of the Fort by Ed Tyhurst and a well-earned lunch break we moved onto the Cold War era with Roy Taylor. Roy was a Radar Operator 1956-57, is the author of a history of Truleigh Hill and is Custodian of the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham.

In 1935 German aircraft production was increasing and the Luftwaffe was formed under Goering. Scientists were working on methods of detecting incoming planes using radio waves. A chain of radar stations appeared in coastal areas; Chain Home, Chain Home Low, Chain Home Extra Low and Ground Control Interception came about in the following years. By the 1950s the ROTOR plan saw the refurbishment of 28 old, wartime stations, which accounted for the nuclear threat by positioning these new radar stations underground. Many over ground elements were built to resemble residential properties and Roy took us through a series of photos showing these clever designs and their present day uses. He was also able to describe the facility at Truleigh Hill in detail and what it was like to serve there.

Our final speaker introduced himself as Mac”. Kevin MacDonald joined the Royal Navy in 1976 straight from school and served on HMS Antrim as a Radar Operator in the Falklands.

HMS Antrim, known as the Grey Ghost was a County-Class destroyer. With a crew of 471 of an average age of 22 she was captained by Brian Young, who had seen service flying Sea Hawks in the Suez and as a Squadron Commander in Borneo.

On a training exercise in Gibraltar on 19th March 1982, Mac was oblivious to the Argentinians raising their flag in South Georgia, but by 24th March information was beginning to filter through and suddenly the submarines on the exercise were recalled. On 29th March Antrim departed Gibraltar, Captain Young being tasked with retaking South Georgia.

On 21st April the first reconnaissance party landed on South Georgia in appalling weather. The following day two Wessex helicopters were lost trying to evacuate them. Mac showed great fondness for their Wessex HAS.3 helicopter, known as Humphrey”, which completed the task. Humphrey succeeded again and again, attacking the Santé Fe submarine with depth charges and landing the Special Boat Service behind enemy lines on the Falklands. By 21st May Antrim was in Bomb Alley” where the task force was subjected to continuous attack from the air by the Argentinian Air force. Mac described how when the Sea Slug was fired no-one could see anything for ages until the smoke cleared, which left them highly vulnerable.

The crowd greatly appreciated all the speakers. The common theme, ‘Generations of Warfare' illustrated that throughout the decades British people have fought with courage and skill; however it was often obsolete equipment that let them down.

Newhaven Fort was a fantastic venue for the day. Its own future, like that of many important historical buildings, remains in the balance in these times of austerity. SMHS hopes a favourable outcome can be found to keep this vital educational facility and inspirational location open to the public.

A total of £800 was raised for Blind Veterans UK.

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7.30pm for 8.00pm start
Function Room of the
Royal Oak Public House,
Station Street, Lewes,
East Sussex.

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