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Friday, 30 May 2008

A casualty

Being a history freak is really quite an extraordinary occupation. A Russian friend visited some years ago and she made the comment that England, or Britain, is really just a vast museum. And so it is. Wherever I go & whatever I do there is always something to stir the imagination or give cause for reflection.

I have been checking out memorials close to home over recent weeks, going over old ground and expanding into Dalton & Barrow, and in the course of these perambulations I came across this small alabaster memorial in Dalton Methodist church that made me pause awhile.

572144, Aircraftsman 1st Class Cecil Readhead, son of John & Ethel Elinor Redhead of Dalton in Furness, was serving with 11 Squadron, RAF when he died on May 22, 1941. Such a young guy, just 19 years of age.

11 Squadron has a proud history.

Formed at Netheravon, Wiltshire on February 14, 1914 it lays claim to being the oldest fighter squadron in the world. (The twin Eagles on the crest represent the twin seat Vickers Gunbus of the First World War.) In September 1939 the squadron was in India flying the Bristol Blenheim I fighter but in May 1940 was moved to Egypt, to meet the imminent threat posed by Italy's aggressive posturing, and on June 10 to Aden from where it launched bombing raids on Italian bases in East Africa after that country went to war with Britain. This began a series of movements that saw the squadron move to Egypt (December 1940-January 1941) and then to Greece (January-April 1941).

Greece was a disaster. German forces sent into the country to support the Italians advanced swiftly down to Athens and the Peloponnese. Until April 19 the Blenheims of 11 squadron had continued their attempt to delay the enemy advance. However, on April 20, the surviving aircraft concentrated on the work of flying key airmen to Crete—first air-crew, then ground staff. On April 22 - 23 the squadrons took off from Menidi and Eleusis for the last time. A planned consolidation at Suda Bay on Crete was aborted after the German capture of that island through May, and the squadron moved to Palestine from where it took part in the campaign to occupy Syria.

It was during the devastating German airborne invasion of Crete that young Redhead died. He was buried in Ramleh War Cemetery, Palestine.

During the Second World War this cemetery was used by the Ramleh (Ramla) RAF Station and by various Commonwealth hospitals posted to the area for varying periods. These facts, and the wording of the dedication on his memorial, suggest that he died either of illness or of wounds incurred in Greece or Crete, a young man, a long way from home.

I don't know where the quote on the memorial is from!

Now I do! Courtesy of friend Howard Martin, former Sunday School boy, - it is from Jeremiah!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Lancaster - Kendal canal, Hincaster

Throughout my early life my family and I used to go to France every few years to visit the grave of my Grandfather, killed in 1918. As a hippy boy in the '60s I called to say 'hello' on a couple of occasions as I set off on my travels to eastern climes. But few others did. At that time the Great War, and its memorials, were largely ignored or forgotten, their origins laid over with another terrible war. Then the tide changed and that amazing generation of 14 - 18 became honoured again and their memorials rediscovered - or at least, most were, but not all!

When researching these things at Lancaster one memorial emerged almost by accident. I put out a mail drop to all parish councils in South Lakes and got two replies. One was from Hincaster, south of Kendal. This informed me that on the western bank of the Lancaster canal alongside the former basin at the northern end of the Hincaster tunnel there was a line of Sweet Chestnut trees that were planted in memory of men killed in the Great War.

But who do they commemorate? Canal Company men? Who Planted them, why & when?
I have no answers to these questions. The Lancaster Canal Company was apparently purchased by the London & North Western Railway Company in the 1870s(?). So do these trees commemorate canal or railway men? Or do they commemorate bargees who lived on the cut?
Mr Arboretum, the tree man at South Lakeland District Council, might be willing to put a tree preservation order on them if their status as memorials can be substantiated, but he cannot do it simply on hearsay, which is all there is at present.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Dr Jackson, Prisoner of War, Verdun, 1807

On Tuesday, February 7, 1807 The Times of London carried an article detailing recent events in the naval war against France. At end of of the article is a small footnote describing the death at Verdun of Dr Jackson on the 2nd of the month of a 'Putrid fever'.

I dug up this reference after yet another visit to lovely old Kirkby Stephen to get pictures of the memorials in the parish church, one of which commemorates the very same Dr Jackson, aged 29 and presumably of this town. Erected by a grieving parent the epitaph is taken pretty much verbatim from the article.

So why was he in Verdun?

The war with revolutionary France which had continued unabated since 1793 was temporarily suspended on March 25, 1802 with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens. It was a shaky peace and lasted only until May 18, 1803 when a declaration of war was laid before the British Parliament. As a response Bonaparte issued an order on May 22 that all British subjects within the borders of the French Empire be detained. Initially concentrated at depots in Fontainbleu, Valenciennes, Nismes & Nice they were in December ordered to Verdun.

The Times for September 20, 1805 carries a long article with lurid tales of how these events affected some of the higher caste detainees, such as the Marchioness of Tweeddale and Lord Elgin who was on his way home from an ambassadorial position in Constantinople with his marbles. Not a happy chap; at this time time his nose was rotting off with syphilis and while he was imprisoned his young wife, who was allowed to return home, struck up with one of her escorts. The pic shows His Lordship with a whole nose.

Indeed, one has also to feel sorry for Mr Churchill who had set out to France
to bring home a brother, who, by too copious use of quack
medicine, was in a state of imbecility.
It must be presumed that the fortress of Verdun became the holding centre for captured British seamen for on January 7, 1807, a further article in The Times describes the poor conditions they had to endure as prisoners. Their rations were a small square of Bullock liver, a slice of black bread and a glass of 'new brandy'. Both they and the civilian detainees had to pay for their own keep other than this and also pay their guards, the Gens -d'-Armes, ' a brutal set of people', at the rate of 6 francs per day. These frenchy rascals also claimed the right of sleeping in the same room as their prisoners, a suggestion that must have gone down like a lead balloon with the likes of the Marchioness of Tweedmuir! The author of the article suggests this poor treatment was part of of an attempt to subvert the seaman into joining French service, efforts that
to the eternal honour of our brave but unfortunate tars, were rejected with contempt and indignation. They resolved to perish rather than prove traitors to their country.
A few renegade Irishmen, we regret to state [ ...] gladly accepted the proposals of the French, and were accordingly employed in their service.
Quite a tale behind just a simple memorial! But it would be nice to know more about Jackson.

Monday, 19 May 2008

An interesting aside!

As the years of my life have passed the realisation has dawned that I have become part of history. My memories of the '60s could now form part of a History module at University, and how I regret not talking more to my Gran about Victorian Burnley or to my Father about his desert war. And there are other missed opportunities. When I first came to Ulverston some 30 years ago a cousin of my Father's, Aunt Renee Ferrier, told me that she knew the town well. From 1940 - 45 she was an ambulance driver at Conishead Priory, now the Manjushri Tibetan Buddhist Centre but at that time a military hospital.

I wonder whether she knew Maximilian von Herff?

Born in Hanover on April 17, 1893 Von Herff served throughout the Great War attaining the rank of Colonel and winning the Iron Cross first and second class. During the second war he fought in North Africa under Rommel, most notably during the German attack of spring 1941 and the subsequent investment and siege of Tobruk. During this action he led Kampfgruppe Herff westwards beyond the Cyrenaican/Egyptian border liberating Fort Capuzzo and Bardia and capturing the town of Sollum and by the end of April the strategically important Halfaya Pass. In June of that year he was awarded the Knight's Cross.

However, on April 1, 1942 Von Herff joined the Nazi Party, (member no 8 858 661) and the SS (no. 405894). From October 1942 until May 8, 1945 he was in charge of the SS-Personalhauptamt, the personnel department of the SS, being further promoted to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and General in the Waffen SS during April 1944.

After his capture he was a Prisoner of War at Grizedale Hall POW camp but was taken ill and died at Conishead Priory.

The first pic shows Grizedale camp during the war.
The pic below shows the hall as it featured in the film The One That Got Away, relating the story of Oberleutnant Von Werra a Luftwaffe pilot who attempted an escape.

Initially Von Herff must have been buried in Ulverston cemetery but together with all the other German war graves in the UK he was subsequently reinterred at Cannock Chase German War Cemetery, Staffs. There is, however, an added irony. Had he lived he would, as a high ranking member of the Schutzstaffel, almost certainly have been indicted to appear at Nuremberg to answer charges of War Crimes. Here he would have faced Norman Birkett KC, deputy to Lord Justice Lawrence, Britain's chief prosecutor.

Norman Birkett was an Ulverston lad who in 1958 was created 1st Baron Birkett of Ulverston. So it seems that the unfortunate Von Herff was destined to engage with Ulverston whatever his fate!

It might be a mere coincidence but in his memoirs that most decent and chivalrous soldier, Feld Marschall Erwin Rommel, briefly describes the actions of the Kampfgruppe but never mentions Von Herff by name.

As a final note - Lord Birkett has an excellent quote listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations:

'I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain they are still

Friday, 16 May 2008

Ulverston Victoria High School

After the Great War schools, particularly Grammar Schools, were keen to establish memorials to old boys, & occasionally girls, who had served or died. That at Ulverston Vic, formerly the Grammar School, is a rather fine example. The school magazine for Christmas 1919 describes the unveiling by Lord Richard Cavendish of Holker on December 12 , as a 'solemnly-impressive ceremony'.

The memorial's cost was £194 1s 9d. It was made by James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd, London, commonly abbreviated to Powell of Whitefriars. The firm, established in 1834 when James Powell bought the Whitefriars glass factory, was a major manufacturer of scientific glass, fine art glass and stained glass windows but it also established itself as an enterprise able to create memorials and ecclesiastical pieces in a variety of styles. Going round Cumbria I have a suspicion that quite a number of unascribed memorials are works by Powell. Ulverston Vic's however, is a classic example of craftsmanship in glass. The main body of the memorial is of a beautifully veined green marble inlaid with decorated black marble name panels. The names themselves are cut and gilded, as is the dedication at the bottom -

In grateful memory of members of this School who died for England in the Great

At the top is an alabaster cartouche of the Royal coat of arms. However, the banding around the panels and the central figure of St George is made as a mosaic of coloured glass, a style perfected by Powell's and known as Opus Sectile.

The cartoon for the central figure of St George in this memorial was drawn by Lilian Josephine Pocock (1884 - ????), possibly utilising a sketch by Mr Nott, the school's art master. She was the daughter of Lexden Pocock, a Victorian painter and sculptor of some repute and father of a family of artists. As well as creating cartoons Lilian was also a theatrical costume designer, book illustrator and watercolourist - pretty much in the Pre-Raphaelite genre.

Her cartoon of St George for Ulverston would be employed again by Penwarden, one of Powell's principal designers, at Bungeo, Herts; Stapleford, Sussex; the Congregational church at St Helens and in St George's church, Barrow, where it forms part of the memorial to Capt George Fisher of the 4th Norfolks, killed in Gaza in 1917. Baptised in St George's in 1879, he was the son of George Carnac Fisher, one time vicar of the church.

Powells had been creating objects utilising Opus Sectile from the middle of the 19th century and would continue to do so until the 1930s when the firm sold of much of its surplus stock including glass tiles at knock down prices so that it could concentrate on its core business of scientific and domestic glass with a much reduced workforce.

Personally, I really like these opus sectile tablets, the colours retain their astonishing vibrancy and they are of exquisite craftsmanship.