London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.

Magna Carta revisited

Where Magna Carta was signed

Charting the dawn of democracy: Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede

You expect revolutions to take place in crowded cities. Yet the event that marked the dawn of modern democracy took place in a peaceful meadow next to the River Thames at Runnymede, Surrey. This is where King John sealed Magna Carta, the agreement that forced rulers – in those days kings – to obey the rule of law.

Continue reading

How a 13 year old taught me about Rosa Parks

We never stop learning. And it’s a special feeling when a child teaches you things you never knew.

I’ve had two examples of this in the past week. My six year old son Owen started teaching me the piano, passing on what he’d learned in his first piano lessons. Then the older brother of one of his friends opened my eyes to the extraordinary story of Rosa Parks. Continue reading

The end of the Victorian era, 114 years on

Ethel Land, Britain's last Victorian

Ethel Land, Britain’s last Victorian

Queen Victoria died 114 years ago this month. Her last subject in Britain died last week. Ethel Lang was born in 1900 as the Victorian era drew to a close.

Me and my Victorian grandmother

Me and my Victorian grandmother on her 100th birthday, 1991

It was a poignant moment for me as I was always rather proud that all four of my grandparents were Victorians, born between 1890 and 1893. Amongst my six great aunts and uncles, only Auntie Mabel was born after Victoria died – in 1903.

At a time when stress is defined as having to produce a PowerPoint presentation in hours, my Victorian relatives knew what a tough life was. Imagine living through the Great War, and losing friends and relatives to war, only to be faced with the Great Depression and another world war.

We are very lucky.

Winston Churchill, 50 years on

Churchill by Karsh of Ottawa

Winston Churchill, the man who saved Britain

Fifty years ago this week, Britain and the world mourned the man who defied Hitler. Winston Churchill’s long and extraordinary life had ended after 90 years.

It was the end of an era. Few other people’s passing prompt or justify that hackneyed phrase. For Britain, it marked a moment in history perhaps only matched by Queen Victoria’s death 64 years earlier. (How appropriate that the last Briton born during Queen Victoria’s reign, Ethel Lang, died this very week.)

I’ve always been enthralled by Churchill’s life. When my O level history teacher Dr Davies set us an essay in 1979, I deliberately ignored the instructions so I could write more about WSC. I loved ITV’s 1981 Sunday night series on his Wilderness years starring Robert Hardy. Later, I read several Martin Gilbert volumes of the monumental official biography.  Continue reading

Great War memorialised: Tower of London poppies

Poppy pageant: London's Great War centenary memorial

Poppy pageant: London’s Great War centenary memorial

The 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War has been movingly commemorated at the Tower of London by the planting of a ceramic poppy for every one of the almost 900,000 British and Commonwealth deaths during the war.

We visited on Wednesday evening as it was getting dark. The sea of red was a stark reminder of the scale of the carnage. How lucky we are to live in an era of relative peace.

Poppies in the moat, Tower of London

Poppies in the moat, Tower of London

The poppies themselves are beautiful. Here, near Traitor’s Gate, you can see the stems.

Not everyone is so moved. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian mocked the poppy pageant as false and trite. His argument hardly convinced: he says the poppies represent British losses and so represented a nationalistic tribute. Hardly – they include Commonwealth losses. In any case, his view of the poppies as glorifying war is the same as the regular criticism of the annual poppy appeal as perpetuating war. The British people are more sensible than newspaper writers.

Remembering Arnhem, the bridge too far

Operation Market Garden

The bridge too far: Arnhem 1944

It was the bridge too far: the operation designed to end the second world war by Christmas 1944. The airborne assault was audacious and partly succeeded. Nijmegen was captured. Yet Arnhem proved the bridge too far, as Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning was claimed to warn in the famous film A Bridge Too Far. The allies lost twice as many casualties in Operation Market Garden as at D-Day.

That film was one of the last great movies about the war. I saw it with my friend Gareth in Cardiff when it came out in the autumn of 1977. (I remember having to pay full fare on the train into Cardiff as I had just turned 14.) I enjoyed the film, but didn’t really understand the story. You needed some understanding of Market Garden.

Continue reading

The Great War, 100 years on

To war, Gare de l'Est, Paris

High hopes and hidden fears: to war, Paris, 2 August 1914

It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children. 

The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.

Continue reading

D-Day remembered

Omaha beach, Normandy, France

Into the jaws of death: the Americans land, Omaha beach, 6 June 1944. Photo courtesy of the Nationals Archives & Records Administration, USA

The D-Day Normandy landings were awe-inspiring for countless reasons: the bravery of young men who risked everything. The sacrifice made by those boys a world away from their homes in America and Canada as well as Britain. The courage of French people resisting a brutal enemy to support their liberation. And the unimaginable scale of the assault on Hitler’s European fortress – one of the greatest feats of organisation as well as arms.

This week’s 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was humbling and inspiring. Not for the inevitable array of heads of state and government, but for the sight of hundreds of ageing veterans of Operation Overlord visiting the landing beaches for the last time. My generation can hardly imagine what they went through. Next time you’re fretting over a PowerPoint presentation or a cancelled train, think of Normandy 1944.

My mind went back to my mother-in-law Aline’s account of growing up in Sussex during the second world war. Here’s her graphic description of how she and her family found out that D-Day had begun:

“There appeared on the horizon day after day more and more objects; we didn’t know what they were. They covered the horizon as far as you could see, right the way along. And then one night the tugs were going – all night long you could hear them ‘woop-woop; woop-woop’. And my father, who used to go out about seven in the morning came back and said, “You’ll never believe it, they’ve all gone. And we found out later they were the Mulberry harbours.” These were extraordinary prefabricated harbours the size of Dover docks, built in Britain and towed at 5mph to Normandy.

Britain was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier at this stage in the war because of the millions of troops of many nations stationed here ready for the great invasion. Aline talks about how she and her older sister were befriended by a Canadian solder who was part of the Commonwealth forces encamped near Bognor. Her sister nearly missed an 11 plus exam because a convoy of tanks was passing as she waited to cross to the exam hall. One tank stopped to let her across – stopping the whole convoy! Then one day they discovered the Canadian soldier and his comrades had gone, like the Mulberry harbours, across the channel to France.

Back in 1998, I got the ferry to Ouistreham (Sword beach) and cycled along the D-Day coast to Arromanches. As I freewheeled down the hill towards the town, I could see the remains of the Mulberry harbour in the bay. It was a bleak scene in the rain, but my discomfort was nothing to that experienced by the seasick liberators of 1944, wading ashore to deadly gunfire. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit the excellent D-Day museum at Arromanches, with the story of the harbour that handled 4 million tonnes of supplies and 500,000 vehicles in the 10 months it was used.

D-Day echoes down the years. Nearly 40 years after the liberation of Europe began, the British carried out another audacious landing at San Carlos in the Falkland islands to begin the end of Argentina’s occupation of the islands. On Friday 21 May 1982 I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme’s account of the invasion. Growing up on memories of the second world war, I never imagined that Britain would once again be sending men to war in assault ships. The echoes of the 1944 operation were evident – just weeks after Britain had sunk Argentina’s Pearl Harbor survivor, General Belgrano. The war may have been controversial, but the courage displayed was timeless.

Weymouth D-Day memorial

D-Day remembered: Weymouth, Dorset

Back to 1944. England’s south coast was the launchpad for the invasion. Weymouth in Dorset was a key location, and the American rangers who suffered such a toll scaling the cliffs of Normandy embarked here. In 2010 I was moved to see a British veteran paying tribute in Weymouth to those who died in the D-Day ‘Tiger’ training exercise in Lyme Bay.

Weymouth Lyme Bay D-Day memorial

Paying tribute to the fallen

You can see a US tank recovered from the Tiger disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon.

We all owe a huge debt to the men and women who risked everything for our freedom.

Think tank: Dorset’s wonderful tank museum

Display at the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset

The Great War dawn of the tank age

We never imagined a tank museum could be such a moving and fascinating day out. The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset bills itself as the home of the tank. We lost count of the number of tanks and other armoured vehicles at the museum.

But this is no dry display of long silenced fighting vehicles. We were really impressed by the videos telling the story of the tank, and the audio interviews with tank men from the Great War to the current Afghanistan campaign.

Great war tanks at the Tank Museum, Bovington

Tanks for the trenches

For me, the first world war displays were the highlight of the visit. I was amazed by the number of Great War tanks on display. We’ll be commemorating the centenary of the war to end all wars this August, and it’s poignant to think about the sacrifices of my grandparents’ generation in those desperate days. Britain invented the tank to try to break the deadly stalemate on the western front.

At first, serving in a tank would have seen like a blessing compared with life as an infantry soldier in the trenches. But tank men soon realised this was no safe option. According to a Tank Museum podcast, second world war tank veteran Jack Baker felt far more comfortable armed with a rifle & shovel than being confined within a turret. It must have been similar to serving in a submarine, living and fighting in a cramped tin, knowing that you faced a grim death if your machine was hit. No wonder veterans refer to tanks ‘brewing up’ when struck by enemy fire.

Long ago, I learned how Britain sent its men into battle in the second world war in desperately ill-equipped tanks. Tank crews in Normandy feared coming face to face with the deadly German panzers. They found their ammunition bounced harmlessly off the Nazi tanks. No wonder the breakout from the D Day beach head was so slow and costly.

The final section of the Tank Museum is devoted to the current campaign in Afghanistan. This is surely one of the most unlikely story in the British army’s history. How could we ever have become entangled in a 21st century occupation of Afghanistan that lasted twice as long as the second world war? (Clue: political folly.) As ever, the British army has had to cope with the foolish decisions of our political leaders.

Great War memorial, Richmind

We will remember them

I close this post with a detail from the war memorial at Richmond, Surrey. I don’t know if any tank men are immortalised here. But it captures perfectly the determination of a grieving nation to remember the young men who went to war and never came back. Tragically, Britain and countless other countries went through similar horrors barely 20 years later. I am very lucky that my generation was spared the terror of total war.