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.

 

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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

January 17th 1991 – First strikes of Gulf War cost RAF two Tornado aircraft

Tornado GR.1 Desert Storm

The Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado GR.1 was one of the most versatile combat aircraft available to the Coalition forces poised to remove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from Kuwait. A total force of sixty Tornado GR.1s participated in Operation: Granby, the British contribution to Desert Storm, flying from Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia as well as Muharraq in Bahrain. The aircraft were instrumental in helping keep the Iraqi Air Force on the ground and flew most of its missions at very low level under the cover of darkness.

Naturally, with such a dangerous mission there would be casualties and two aircraft were lost on the first night when Iraqi defences were at their heaviest. ZD791/BG flown by Flight Lieutenants Peters and Nichol was shot down attacking Ruma airfield. Both crew were captured. The other aircraft was ZA392/EK flown by Wing Commander Elsdon and Flight Lieutenant Collier. Their aircraft was lost attacking Shaibah air base and both crew were killed.

For more information read

November 23rd 1996 – First mission of Operation: Purposeful

Canberra PR.9 XH131

In 1996 few places in the world rivalled Rwanda for misery. Ethnic tensions that had been building up for decades finally erupted in to open violence and the word “massacre” became well used in the world’s media. With the threat of violence thousands fled their homes risking starvation or murder from roaming gangs across the countryside. There were calls for a massive peacekeeping force to be deployed to find these missing refugees but that would be time consuming and risk the lives of the peacekeepers and the refugees themselves.

The RAF came up with an alternative…

Read the whole story in Operation Purposeful – Finding Rwanda’s Missing Refugees.