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Who were ‘the Free French?’



Germany attacked France in May, 1940. 136 German divisions faced 125 British, French and Belgian ones. The Germans had over two thousand tanks, but even their commander admitted half were obsolete. The Allies had a little more than three thousand six hundred tanks, among which the French armour was better than anything the Germans had. But they had many more aircraft. Only the French, with their thousand aeroplanes, could provide much opposition. 400 British fighters, mostly Hawker Hurricanes were based in France. The French seemed paralysed by ther audacity and skill of Guderian’s Panzer tanks and troops, and watched with their mouths open as the Panzers crossed the Meuse,, open a fifty-mile gap in the Allied front, and then raced along the valley of the Somme towards the channel (q.v.). By 20 May they had got there. Gamelin, the French commander, seemed immovable and was replaced by a seventy-three year old – Weygand, who had been sitting in Syria. By 28 May the Germans were in Calais, cutting off the French, British and Belgian forces in the north from the remainder of French forces. The Dutch and the Belgians surrendered. The British got to Dunkirk where, miraculously, they evacuated nearly four hundred thousand troops back to English shores, unfortunately leaving tanks and ammunition behind, as there was not sufficient time to load them on to the Royal Navy ships sent, along with hundreds of small motor and sail craft which had also crossed the Channel to help. Meanwhile the French retreated to the Loire, thus separating themselves from those still holding the Maginot line, which Guderian had contemptuously avoided. In June two million Parisians left their homes and scuttled south, joining the six million who had already fled from northern France and Belgium. Weygand was replaced by Marshall Petain, who instantly accepted German surrender terms. The Atlantic coast and all Northern France were to be occupied and controlled by German forces. The rest of the country would be governed, hand in glove with the Germans, by Petain, in what became known as Vichy France. The French Army had been beaten in six weeks. (more…)

War at sea (part III)

The sinking of HMS Sheffield /

The sinking of HMS Sheffield /

The sail and massive oars had been the chief propelling medium for centuries when during the middle part of the nineteenth century, steam power first used by railway locomotives replaced them both, in fighting ships at least. Schooners with enormous sail areas continued right through the century and well into the 20th century, but warships needed the tremendous advantages of steam power. The Americans introduced a vessel powered by a propeller in 1843 (the Princeton). Great Britain followed in 1844 with her first screw-driven ship, Dauntless, always a popular name in the Royal Navy. By 1870 we are told by historians that the Navy had abandoned sails altogether.

   Then came a really staggering concept, ships made of iron which could not only float, but be driven at high speeds (for those days) by engines. These were the Ironclads, which first saw battle in the American Civil War, and very frightening they were too, even for the intrepid sailors who manned them. The Confederate side used another entirely new idea, semi-submergible boats firing torpedoes. The submarine, like the helicopter, both came from the minds of Spanish engineers and designers, though crude plans for each had already been drawn up by Leonardo da Vinci. (more…)

By | 2014-10-09T18:05:48+00:00 October 9th, 2014|World History|0 Comments

War at sea: (part II)

Cape St. Vincent by Donald Macleod /

Cape St. Vincent by Donald Macleod /

Spain’s royal champion don Juan of Austria was commander of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). This was a battle of galleys, luxuriously illustrated by many painters. Both the Turks and the Spanish sailors had the use of cannon mounted on the forecastle. It is said Turkey never truly recovered from defeat in this fight, though they did rebuild their galley fleet. It is interesting to scholars that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote fought at Lepanto in one of the galleys.

   In the seventeenth century rivalry for an eventual domination of the seas raged between Britain and the Dutch. Having cut off the king’s head, Oliver Cromwell as England’s Lord Protector continued the late Charles’ policy of building up a royal navy. Among other things, he introduced the idea of three decks carrying guns, giving enormous fire power from port and starboard. He also developed naval training so that broadsides could be fired more often during a battle. Ships’ crews began rivalling each other in the time taken to load, fire and re-load again, ready for use. Many a bloody scuffle occurred in the Portsmouth taverns as a result of murderous competition; bottles, stools and insults were thrown.

   It was during the reign of the unfortunate king’s son Charles II that his squadrons were first called ‘The Royal Navy’. Diarist Samuel Pepys in his role as a naval administrator also carried out many reforms. Royal Navy or not, they never really dominated the Dutch, but Holland’s economic decline brought naval re-building and reforms almost to a standstill.

   In the eighteenth century it was the French with their fast, elegant warships who put a brake on Britain’s slower-moving, older and heavier ships of the line. But the French ships were less strongly built and more expensive to maintain.By this time most navies’ vessels had copper bottoms for better protection, and occasionally a double hull which helped reduce damage by cannon balls. The epoch had arrived when European navies were composed of state-owned ships especially built to suit conditions.

   During the French Revolution (q.v.) and the Napoleonic wars that followed, the Royal Navy at last began to emerge as the most feared state-owned squadrons. Pressing by the naval press-gang, which was in effect legal kidnapping of able-bodied men from the poorer streets, provided the crews. Discipline was harsh, and depended on the character of the commander. Some used the lash or noose constantly, others did not believe in it, like Nelson, which explains why this little man was so popular. When he was killed at Trafalgar, half the crew of H.M.S Victory, not usually crybabies, were in tears.

   The Royal Navy won a series of spectacular victories against the French and the Spanish, both nations with a deserved reputation for magnificent seamanship: the Glorious First of June in the Atlantic in 1794, Cape St. Vincent in February, 1797, Camperdown in October of the same year, Aboukir Bay in 1798 and Trafalgar in 1805, a sea battle which deeply affected Napoleon’s war plans at least for while. Rear-Admiral Nelson suffered his only defeat in the silly and ill-planned assault on Santa Cruz, port and capital of Tenerife in the Canaries, when local militia and the townspeople fought off Nelson’s attempt at invasion and capture of treasure ships. But Great Britain’s Royal Navy was at last established as the planet’s premier sea power. This reputation lasted a very long time, and the people joyously sang Britannia rules the Waves! Bonaparte had to concentrate on land-based campaigning, for which he had developed great abilities, though his invasion of Russia, like all invasions of Russia, was unsuccessful.

War at sea:part I

Carthage v. Rome /

Carthage v. Rome /

Historians are convinced that navies, squadrons of fighting ships, were first developed by the ancient Greeks and they are probably right. In the seventh century B.C. The Greeks had built true warships with specially constructed bows designed for the deliberate ramming of other vessels, and decks from which marines (half-soldier, half sailor) could operate catapults or hurl javelins and other missiles, or launch boarding assaults. Oars were the main propelling force, forwards or backwards, but sails of a primitive type could be hoisted for sailing in favourable winds. The Greek ship was called trireme, on account of its three banks of oars at starboard and port sides. The trireme was capable of high speeds, and was, perhaps more importantly, highly manoeuvrable. Greek warships dominated the eastern Mediterranean for two hundred years. (more…)

By | 2014-10-08T18:18:30+00:00 October 8th, 2014|World History|0 Comments

The Campaign in Normandy, June & August, 1944

British and Commonwealth soldiers in Caen, 1944 /

British and Commonwealth soldiers in Caen, 1944 /

This was the real turning point in the Second World War, although it came much later than it should have done, due mainly to inappropriate weather conditions for a sea-based landing. The British Isles were undergoing one of those violent climate changes to which we are now more accustomed. It was summertime, but Britain’s east coast ports and resorts were lashed by wind and near freezing rain. The sea between British and French coasts choppy and crossed with currents. The cold at sea was appalling, as if the breezes were blowing directly from the Russian steppes. Only the tempers of the soldiers, sailors and airmen waiting, waiting, and still waiting in the barracks, manor houses and homes to which they had been invited by English people in the villages and towns of the south-east, were hot and getting hotter. (more…)

The Reparations in Germany

J.M. Keynes said the reparations could not be paid /

J.M. Keynes said the reparations could not be paid /

Even if the end of the Great War was, or at least to many people seemed to be, unsatisfactory, the victors still demanded ‘compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied . . . Powers, and to their property’. This, I suppose, is the way a World War should end, though many parts of this planet were untouched by the 1914 – 18 War. ‘Damage done to the civilian population and their property’? What about the billions spent by the warring governments on their armies and armaments. Who was to pay? The civlian population of course, through their taxes.

  The victors set up a reparations commission which would decide how much should be paid by Germany. Their studies completed in 1921, they announced that 132 billion gold marks should fit the bill. This was around £6,600 millions in the pound sterling of that date. I presume the commission had inquired if Germany had (or could raise) such an astonomical sum in gold marks? Payment would be made in annual instalments. (more…)

By | 2014-10-07T17:43:54+00:00 October 3rd, 2014|German History, World History|1 Comment

The Committee for the Liberation of Upper Italy

'Let's find some fascists!' /

‘Let’s find some fascists!’ /

(Comitato di Liberazione nazionale Alta Italia) Rather a mouthful both in English and Italian, this was a committee established in January, 1944 in an attempt to coordinate anti-Nazi as well as anti-Italian Fascist partisans. Actually they had already been grouped within purely local Committees of National Liberation, but the CLNAI wanted more: they wished to combat not only the Germans and fascists but also the Allies and the anti-fascist government in Rome. (more…)

By | 2014-09-30T19:00:02+00:00 September 30th, 2014|Italian History, World History|0 Comments


/ from a painting by Angus McBride -

/ from a painting by Angus McBride –

These days the word strikes a sour note, arousing images of rough settlements, starving ‘piccaninies’, whips, shackles, thoughtless government from a distance of thousdands of miles etc. If there are any ‘colonies’ left after the post-war rush to be rid of them I think it is because the ‘colonists’ prefer it that way. 90% of colonies which achieved independence have suffered under bad or atrocious rule since being ‘freed’, with the possible exception of the United States, and even there half the settlers in the Thirteen Colonies claimed they did not wish for independence from British rule, and after 1776 sold up lock, stock and barrel and moved to Canada, where they were welcomed. (more…)

Chinese dynasties in antiquity

Glazed Tang Dynasty flask /

Glazed Tang Dynasty flask /

Civilization in Europe is an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes compared with China’s. The Shang dynasty, for instance, began 1766 years before Christ, according to reliable records, and lasted until 1122 B.C – six hundred and forty-four years making some of our modern dynasties look rather short-lived. Archeological evidence suggests that the Shang monarchy emerged from an earlier, actually Neolithic culture. Shang territory stretched from the Yellow River plain to Shandong in the east. A sort of capital region was established is what is now a northern Henan province. There might have been others, but the capital that lasted was that at Yin (now Anyang). Inscriptions on the royal tombs are the oldest form of Chinese writing. (more…)

By | 2014-09-26T09:55:27+00:00 September 26th, 2014|History of China, World History|0 Comments

War in the air Part III: the Pacific



The carrier-based Japanese air force began the war in the air over the Pacific Ocean by attacking without prior warning the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. The damage to American capital ships and the loss of life were enormous, but as pointed out in another post on this site, no US aircraft carriers were present on 7 December, 1941.

   The Japanese, as industrious as ever, had made great strides in the design and construction of these floating airfields, and at Pearl Harbor they made full use of them. Four hundred bombers and fighters were launched from the six carriers used in the assault. Surprise too was an essential element, as Japan had not declared war on the United States, though everyone from the President in Washington to the Texan cowpokes knew the two countries were on a war footing, and that Japan had joined the Axis. (more…)

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