Archive for the ‘british history’ Category

The book I read to research this post was The British Empire A Very Short Introduction by Ashley Jackson that is a very good book which I bought from kindle. The British Empire comprised a 1/4 of the world’s land mass and over 500 million people. If you include countries Britain occupied for shorter periods and countries where Britain installed compliant governments or rulers the it is around 1/3 of the world’s countries. Many have left the commonwealth subsequently and one thing not many realize is the British Empire was less cruel than other empires and in a lot of cases it was about money where as money as the goods and supplies rolled in Britain would often leave the rulers to their own devices. Uprisings were a different matter with Britain crushing them ruthlessly and often putting the leaders in exile. World War 2 is an excellent example of how when Britain went to war she could mobilize huge numbers of commonwealth troops. Even nowadays there are the Ghurkas a left over from Britain’s colonial days in India who are a part of the British Army and fought for example in The Falkland’s War. Nowadays much of the Commonwealth has either gone independent or like in the case of Hong Kong been handed over to another country with a stronger claim over it. The British Army in peacetime has rarely numbered more than 200,000 and is relatively small considering Britain’s population. They have maintained bases in key positions like Gibraltar and Cyprus. One thing is that at one time freight from Commonwealth countries at one time could only be carried by British Merchant ships giving us the biggest fleet in the world and this meant a ready supply of sailors and ships in times of war. More recently the armed forces have become more a rapid deployment force if there is trouble in other countries than an anti-invasion force which they feel isn’t necessary. One controversial aspect has been that when Britain has taken a country they have often brought unwelcome diseases like smallpox and syphillus and often populations have been decimated and replaced with white people. Also often they haven’t kept local names for locations and given them British names, often names from places in Great Britain. I really enjoyed this book which is well written and very educational.

The book I read to research this post was Obstruction Danger by Adrian Vaughan which is a very good book which I bought from a local secondhand bookstore. This book is a kind of history of railway from 1890 – 1986 and looks at over 30 railway accidents and their causes with in this period. The book was published in 1989 and the start point 1890 is significant because there was a major accident in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1889 caused by a runaway train without air brakes that couldn’t stop. It caused a public outcry and an act of parliament was passed forcing the various railway companies to adopt safety measures like airbrakes on the coaches and wagons, interlocking signals which nowadays are electrically powered and the token system on portions of single track. This act was the most significant event in the history of British railways until they were amalgamated in to major groups in 1921. The railway companies had a very difficult time incorporating these measures into their networks. There was a shortage of companies and trained workers capable of building interlocking signals. They had to meet a deadline which even if they could train people and get them to do the jobs would mean laying off many of these people once the job was done. Interlocking signals are signal levers that are dependent on each other and will only let you pull them in a certain order. This was very advanced technology at the time. Another factor was the cost of implementing all these measures at a time when most railway companies weren’t making a lot of money and felt they could maybe do it gradually but doing it to a deadline was out of the question. I really enjoyed reading this book and it’s amazing how something that can seem trivial like the signalmen not logging twice in the logbook when a train passes through can contribute to accidents. A lot of more recent accidents were caused by insufficient training and experience. At one time signal men spent years doing one job and knew it inside out. There was an incident where a signalmen had a weeks instruction on working signals and then left to do it. I would recommend this book and if you see it for sale cheap could be a good buy.

The book I read to research this post was British Military Operations 1945-85 which is an excellent book which I bought from a car boot sale. This book was published around 1986 and covers the various theatres of conflict Britain has been involved in, in quite a lot of detail and is quite informative. Britain at least up until 1985 had been involved in armed conflict somewhere in the world every year with the exception of 1968. Britain has a relatively small but extremely capable army that has unsurpassed experience in dealing with terrorists or insurgents. Most of these conflicts the British armed forces have achieved notable victories. There were conflicts like the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya when they had to move all the villagers out of the war zone when the civilians weren’t too happy but even in that they did have success in dealing with the Mau Mau. One thing they did was use ex Mau Mau who had changed sides to hunt down the others in small groups often accompanied with one soldier. They had a lot of success with this in the Boer War too. The enemy would have no idea if these units were friendly or not and could be captured etc. In Northern Ireland a ploy used by the security services was taking people off the street and questioning but because they couldn’t interrogate them they let them contribute information if they wanted to. This was done on such a large scale the PIRA couldn’t work out who had told them what as they were overwhelmed with the number of people involved. I learned a lot from this book and it is a very interesting read certainly worth the 50 p I paid for it. If you see it for sale secondhand I definitely recommend it. Britain wanted wealth from the empire just after World War 2 to help pay off the loans from America but gradually decided the best path was to let her subject countries become independent which allowed her to scale back her military. As with things like the Suez Crisis she couldn’t stick to one policy and couldn’t accept the Egyptians nationalizing the Suez Canal. This was partly to pay for the Aswan Dam which the West was threatening to pull the finance for. Britain in particular feared British ships might be banned from the canal. It wasn’t just loss of earnings. Of course at this time Britain just couldn’t afford to fight a war and hadn’t thought it out properly.

The book I read to research this post was A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre which is an excellent book which I bought from kindle. This book which is a kind of controversial recent history is about Kim Philby but is also about the spy ring for the Russians and is in particular about Anthony Burgess and the game of cat and mouse the British spy services played with the KGB around the 40’s and 50’s. Funnily enough when Philby fled to Russia despite being a double agent and a communist he was far from happy even slashing his wrists on occasions. Philby was head of the British spy service at the time of World War 2 and one thing it says is he wasn’t concerned about the consequences of the information he passed on to the KGB. At one stage MI6 produced a list of staunch anti communists in Germany who might resist the Russians and he passed this list on. To their dismay MI6 later found out every person on the list had been shot. We don’t know how many names were on the list as that is classified. On another occasion a Soviet spy offered information including identities of more or less the entire network of Kim Philby and his fellow double agents in exchange for money and political asylum for him and his family. He was eliminated and it was obvious a person of the rank of one of the spies he had mentioned had messed the case up namely Philby. The people who worked with Philby were so inept they didn’t realise this and he had had the spy assassinated. This is an amasing story and I must admit Ben does write absolutely fantastic history books and his consistency astounds me. It reads almost like a novel and is absolutely enthralling. I did thoroughly enjoy this book and would enthusiastically recommend anything by Ben Macintyre.

The book I read to research this post was Modern Sea Power by Bernard Brett which is an excellent book which I bought from a car boot sale. This book was written at the height of the Cold War so apart from looking at the history of navies tends to look at the rivalry between NATO & the Soviet Bloc. Bernard is an art teacher who has a strong interest in the navies of the world and I think he has done a commendable job with this book. Much of it looks at the 2 World Wars and it is around 250 pages so is a reasonable length with sumptious photos. The book mostly looks at the development of the modern navy which started with HMS Dreadnought in 1905 which was the first ship to have big guns and heavy armament and of course the dreadnought class of ships was named after her. In World War 2 American ships were limited to 61,000 tons which was all that could pass through the Panama Canal & the Japanese took advantage of this with their Yamamoto Class 72,000 ton ships though which only saw limited production. Another big development in World War 2 was the submarine and the German developed an engine for these which was high performance and used hydrogen peroxide instead of pressurized oxygen to provide combustion. After the Americans looked at nuclear power with the potential that the submarine could almost run indefinitely underwater. Yet another big development has been the change from battleship to aircraft carrier as the most expensive ship in a fleet. The British developed a kind of catapult that would launch a Hurricane aircraft into the air and the fact it couldn’t land and the pilot had to bail out once the enemy had been destroyed was seen as an acceptable loss. Many of the Atlantic convoys had this. It was primarily to take care of enemy battleships. The periscope which allowed a submarine to run submerged but at the same time be able to see above the surface was a Dutch invention during World War 2. Around that time Britain had more merchant shipping than any other nation but they were catching up rapidly. This was largely due to the British Empire. I really enjoyed reading this book which is on an interesting topic and the author has done a good job with it.

The book I read to research this post was London’s Lost Railways by Charles Klapper which is a very good book which I bought from a local secondhand bookstore. Charles wrote this book in 1976 and rather unfortunately died in 1980 but had a distinguished career in transport and transport journalism. This book which is somewhat dated is about the railways in and near London which have either closed or been relegated from passenger and freight to freight only. In many cases large companies oversaw the building of lines and owned and operated their own engines on these lines. Since this book was published the Chunnel has been built and a series of extensive upgrades like the expansion of Farringdon station have taken place. Of course TGV’s even operate between London & various destinations on the continent. One thing mentioned in the book is often coal was brought in to London from the North and various railways linked this to the docks where it could be exported. Apparently 11 national lines terminated in London at one time. Shoreditch for example was the terminus for the Eastern Counties. There was a high level Crystal Palace station which was an important goods depot. The big competitors to the railways were the underground trains & buses. It’s interesting to note there were orbital railways around the suburbs of London which are run particularly by buses. This book is only around 130 and many of the lost lines I have never heard of. I enjoyed reading it though & I think if you see it for sale maybe going cheap is probably worth buying.

The book I read to research this post was Deltics At Work by Allan Baker et al which is an excellent book which I bought from a local secondhand bookstore. Allan was Depot Manager at Finsbury Park where these train, Deltics were based for many years and this book is mainly about what made them so popular and also there is some stuff on their handling and the engineers faced with them. In the late 50’s and for many years afterwards Deltics were the most powerful diesel trains in the world. They had two 2,000 hp diesel engines and rarely needed all there pulling power. They weren’t the fastest trains in the world which was probably the Bullet Trains in Japan but they were capable of 105 mph although weren’t supposed to go over 100 mph as that was limited by the track and signals. They had problems maintaining them in particular if it was hot and the train was going fast the oil lubricant in the engine would congeal and this would result in spark coming from the engine which could start lineside fires and also if unchecked could damage the engine. They started a monitoring program of analyzing the oil which cost £100 per train per year and was cheap compared to the £50,000 it cost to overhaul a damaged engine. They also had problems with the piston rings coming loose which could result in the piston coming through the crankcase. Despite these problems they had a better reliability record than many later diesels although not as good as the Duchess steam locomotives they replaced. Duchesses averaged about 80 mph so with the Deltics greater pulling power and higher speed British Rail did save a fortune. They were only on LNER line from Kings Cross to Edinburgh & Glasgow. Less powerful trains were used on the LMS line. There was a train built later on for the American Railroads that had a single 4,000 hp engine so that probably equalled these in power. In Britain there was a diesel prototype called Kestrel which was more powerful but never entered service. The Class 58 were the next diesel locomotives in Britain to beat it in terms of power. Deltics were so powerful that often if one engine failed the other engine would still run the service with little noticeable difference. I really enjoyed this book and although it is quite old and probably been out of print if you see it going cheap secondhand like I did is worth reading. There are also loads of photos of these very impressive trains including one of a HST, a Duchess & a Deltic parked next to each other.

The book I read to research this post was Six Armies In Normandy by John Keegan which is an excellent book which I bought on kindle. This book is about the D-day landings in Normandy in World War 2 which ultimately were a key factor in ending it. The six armies refers to the Canadian, American & British forces who landed their and comprised 6 divisions and of course were complemented by various groups like the Free French & the Poles who had their countries invaded but fought on regardless. Interestingly even though Poland would come under a communist government at the end of the war, 55,000 would return to their country. A key element in the liberation was the use of paratroopers which for the Germans had proved so effective in the invasion of Crete where they dropped behind the Royal Naval lines and were devastating. The Allies knew many of the paratroopers they used would probably face fates like being swept out to sea or getting stuck in a tree but the ones that landed unscathed would be vital to the operation. One important element was seizing bridges vital to the Allies getting around. The Germans were largely caught unawares and there was at least one case where the German troops sat to breakfast oblivious to what was going on and were mown down by an Allied paratrooper. The sheer size of the invasion force overwhelmed the Germans who had let there army in the west run down in an attempt to shore up their army on the Eastern Front. It was also vital to open another front to relieve the forces on the Eastern Front that were predominantly Russian and were suffering very heavy casualties despite their success. The British were very cautious even to the extent that the American high command wondered had they the bottle to finish the job. It was widely expected casualties would be much higher than what they would ultimately be. This book covers this story as far as the liberation of Paris and the way the book is written is like a really good thriller carefully researched and very readable. I really enjoyed this book and I am a big fan of the books of John Keegan who always writes brilliant books.

The book I read to research this post was The First World War by John Keegan which is an excellent book which I bought from kindle. This book is possibly the definitive text on World War 1 and was hugely popular in Britain upon publication. It sets out the reasons for this war and it compounded to cause World War 2 and also the timeline of World War 1 perfectly. It’s one of the best history books I have ever read. After World War 1 they buried an unknown soldier who couldn’t be identified in Westminster Abbey to commemorate all the unidentified corpses. In many of the capital cities in Europe they did similar. The German fatalities were largely forgotten about and in contrast to the nice cemetries for the allied bodies were often just buried in any graveyard that could take them. To the Germans Hitler who was a soldier hero of World War 1 and had been decorated and been a corporal, was the embodiment of the unknown soldier. At the First World War the Australian troops would be considered the finest troops in the world. If you look at Gallipolli which was largely Australian troops against Turkish troops many on the Allied side thought the Turkish would be as easy to defeat as the armies of Asia & Africa and they were poorly equipped but were tough soldiers and were patriotic. Of course at Gallipolli the Australian soldiers were massacred. They made a mistake about where there boats had to land and the didn’t defend the landing area because they thought nobody would land there. The Aussie’s tried to get to higher ground and once the shooting started had nowhere to retreat to. No one knows why they were landed in the wrong place. In another battle between German and Russian troops the German’s got massacred because the Russian’s fought well and the fleeing German troops were shot by their own rearguard who misstuck them for the enemy. Also in Egypt the British had to keep a certain amount of troops there due to the insurgency by the Arabs for independence, Parliament wouldn’t agree to British troops fighting on the Turkish front because they felt their troops were spread too thinly as it was. I did really enjoy this book, it’s quite compelling and is really well written.

The book I read to research this post was Locomotive Engineers Of The GWR by Denis Griffiths which is a very good book which I bought from a local secondhand bookstore. This book was published in 1987 so might still be in print I suppose although with train books they only tend to print them for a short while. It’s a history of the Great Western Railway in Britain told from the engineering aspect of both building the railway lines and building the steam trains. The first boss of GWR was Isambard Kingdom Brunel who couldn’t see any reason to have a 4ft 81/2ins gauge which was a leftover from the coal wagons and insisted on a 7ft gauge which eventually had to be changed to match the rest of Britain so they could have long distance expresses from other lines. He was by trade a civil engineer and did make some costly mistakes through having a little bit of a lack of knowledge on steam engineering and his belief that everything should be the best rather than the cheapest. He built the railway from Bristol to London and initially was alarmed they were looking for the cheapest contractor but he persuaded them he wasn’t the cheapest but was the best. He was one of the first people to realize if they wanted truly efficient steam trains they must be pressurized but early experiments failed because they used leather pistons and technology had not advanced to that stage. He is famed for building the Clifton Suspension Bridge across a wide gorge of the River Avon. One story told of a later boss who was one of his successors is he was asked to build a streamlined locomotive and merely got a model of a King locomotive and added plasticine to modify it which was much later on but made a lot of sense. I did really enjoy this book and it is an interesting subject.