December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

The Second Anglo-Boer War (sometimes referenced simply as the Boer War in the UK although there was an earlier conflict fought between 1880 and 1881) was fought between the British Empire in Africa and the Boers, a combined force from the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on Britain on October 11th 1899 after years of escalation and fears of Britain attempting to annex their territories for their gold and diamond deposits. The war would last until May 31st 1902 with a British victory and the absorption of their defeated foe’s lands in to the British Empire.

In 1899, Britain was overconfident regarding the state of her imperial security in the south African region and as such was woefully under-prepared for when the Boers struck. The Boer forces moved through much of the sparsely defended countryside while laying siege to the fortified British positions in towns like Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Then in one disastrous week beginning on December 10th 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the forces of the Boer Republics. This week would become known as “Black Week”. The first came at Stormberg where Sir William Gatacre’s exhausted forces were beaten after undertaking a night march through heavy rain.

Second 2nd Anglo Boer War South Africa Black Week 1899 1902The next day on December 11th, an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley was also defeated by Boer forces at Magersfontein. Among the 1,000 British casualties at Magersfontein was Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope CB CMG whose loss exacerbated the sense of disaster regarding the battle in Africa and back home.

On the following Friday, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG was defeated attempting to relieve the town of Ladysmith. The battle at Colenso cost over 1,000 British casualties and forced Redvers in to retreat. This defeat brought an end to the “Black Week” and proved a wake-up call to the British who began a massive build-up of reinforcements.

There were several factors that led to these disasters. Firstly, the British forces in Africa were used to fighting rebel tribesmen armed with spears rather than a well disciplined force armed with equivalent weapons to themselves. The British also struggled to organise themselves effectively beyond the immediate battlefield which meant opportunities to take advantage of weaknesses in the Boer lines were missed. Finally, the Boers were fighting in territory they had grown up in whereas much of the British force consisted of troops brought in from across the Empire such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain itself.

All these lessons would be learned and through 1900 and 1901 the Boers would be beaten back until their final defeat in 1902.

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November 2nd 1951 – Ist Infantry Division flown in to Egypt

Up to 6,000 British troops from the 1st Infantry Division were flown in to the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt as Egyptian resentment to the British presence in the area continued to grow. Royal Air Force Handley-Page Hastings and Vickers Valetta aircraft brought in most of the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards from Tripoli in Libya as part of an effort to try to quell anti-British disturbances in the region although this would ultimately have the opposite effect.

In October 1951, the Egyptian government had dissolved the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain a lease on the Suez base for an additional 20 years. However Britain refused to withdraw her garrison from Suez citing that the original agreement still stood. Local Egyptians began to refuse to cooperate with British forces and there were numerous strikes amongst Egyptian workers servicing British assets along the canal.

In the first week of November additional men and equipment would arrive from the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards and 1st Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders. Three weeks later, Britain was forced to move out thousands of its citizens trapped in their homes by sporadic gun battles between British soldiers and Egyptian security forces however British forces remained.

On January 25th 1952, British forces attempted to disarm Egyptian police officers at the barracks in Ismailia following repeated clashes. The police refused and in the gun battle that followed, 41 Egyptians were killed. This sparked anti-Western riots in Cairo which saw the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens, in retaliation. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy which opened the door for a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist ‘Free Officers Movement’ on July 23rd 1952. Among its ranks was future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 259th Birthday

Today marks the 259th birthday of one of Britain’s most famous sailors. Horatio Nelson was born on September 29th 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling.

On January 1st 1771, he began his naval career by reporting for duty aboard HMS Raisonnable then under command of his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He joined the ship’s company as an ordinary sailor but was soon appointed a midshipman and began his officer training. Nelson would serve on a number of ships during his career and would participate in several expeditions including an effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a route through the Arctic to India. In 1778, Nelson received his first command namely the 12-gun brig HMS Badger.

During his career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the Wars of the Second and Third Coalitions against post-revolutionary France. It was during this last conflict that Nelson led a British fleet in the battle that would make him a legend – the Battle of Trafalgar.

On October 21st 1805, the now Vice-Admiral Nelson led twenty-seven British ships of the line from his flagship, HMS Victory and defeated thirty-three French and Spanish warships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war and ended French ambitions to invade England but it would cost Nelson his life when he was shot by an enemy sniper.

Admiral Horatio Nelson nelson's columnIn 1809, Nelson was commemorated with a large granite pillar capped by a statue of his likeness at the top in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. In 1843, the similar Nelson’s Column was erected in Trafalgar Square, London and has become an important symbol of the city. In 1966, over 40 years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the UK, Irish Republicans bombed the pillar in Dublin which sent the statue at the top crashing to the ground. It was never rebuilt.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a wave of protests in the US against statues to Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, Journalist Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian newspaper;

It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US…The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised.

Her article called for Nelson’s Column and a number of other statues of British Empire figures to be taken down but she has been met with strong opposition.

 

September 23rd 1938 – British Anti-Aircraft Units Mobilise During Munich Crisis

On September 22nd 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler to discuss the issue of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the political map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, many ethnic German speakers found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Hitler had vowed to return them to the Fatherland. Chamberlain had agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland but Hitler made demands that he wanted to seize Czechoslovakia completely.

Naturally, Czechoslovakia was opposed to this as were most European powers and began to mobilise for war. As the situation deteriorated, Britain began making preparations for war and on September 23rd 1938 the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army were activated.

Among the units mobilised were;

  • 26th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting London with just 41 AA guns
  • 35th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting the important naval base at Portsmouth
  • 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Glasgow
  • 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Teeside
  • 54th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting towns and cities in the West Midlands

Many of these units found themselves armed with little more than World War I Lewis machine guns until heavier weapons could be distributed to them.

The crisis was eventually resolved as far as Britain was concerned with the Munich Agreement  and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to Hitler’s will. The Czechoslovak government could not hope to fight the Nazis alone and reluctantly agreed although they felt betrayed by Britain and France.

On September 30th 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain and gave one of history’s most notorious speeches proclaiming “peace in our time” however the Territorial Army anti-aircraft units would remain mobilised right up until the following September when peace was finally shattered in dramatic fashion.

March 24th 1857 – Peruvian Rebels & the Pearl

HMS Pearl Peru New Grenada Incident

In March 1857, Captain Sotheby and his men aboard HMS Pearl found themselves off the Peruvian coast as part of their patrol duties. Britain had declared that it was neutral in the country’s ongoing civil war despite having worked with the established government for many years and so was allowed to drop anchor near the disputed Callao port without opposition from either side. On March 24th 1857, the officers of the Pearl organised a soiree aboard their vessel inviting some of the more influential people from Callao and Lima as well as members of the British consul aboard for drinks, music and food.

As the night went on reports began to filter down that would potentially have serious consequences for Great Britain and the Royal Navy in the region. The reports stated that a British supply ship, the New Grenada belonging to the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, had been seized by rebel vessel’s on Peru’s north-west coast. Among the New Grenada’s cargo was a sum of money equivalent to 32,000 dollars as well as personal and official dispatches and other assorted goods. The Admiralty continued to investigate the claims and when it was confirmed that a British ship had indeed been taken by the rebels the Pearl was ordered to sail for Lambayeque and recover it, the crew and the cargo.

For the full story read HMS Pearl and the “New Grenada” Incident, 1857

30th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster

On April 26th 1986, there was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in modern-day Ukraine. It is one of only two nuclear accidents classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale and of those two it was by far the most serious (the other is the Fukishima incident in 2011).

While remembered as a Soviet tragedy the nuclear explosion was in reality a warning to the world of the danger of nuclear energy if not handled properly and an indication of just how much of a threat to all of humanity nuclear weapons are. What makes Chernobyl so frightening is that its consequences went far beyond the immediate disaster area spreading radioactive particles across western Europe and Scandinavia.

Many historians rightly argue that Chernobyl marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War as the calls for a halt to the seemingly restless nuclear arms race became louder and had a rallying cry: no more Chernobyls.

This fascinating documentary covers the details of the accident and the incredible story of the battle to make the site safe.

January 26th 1932

HMS M2 submarine aircraft carrier

On January 26th 1932 one of the most unique submarines in Royal Navy service, HMS M-2 left Portland for an exercise in West Bay off the Dorset coast. What made this vessel unique was that she was able to launch a single Peto light observation aircraft. At 1011hrs the submarine signalled that she was beginning her dive. Just over an hour later a passing merchant ship observed a submarine diving stern first but the crew, unfamiliar with how submarines worked, failed to realize just what they were seeing – the sinking of HMS M-2.

For more on the history of this unique vessel and Britain’s efforts to develop a submersible aircraft carrier CLICK HERE