Monday, 27 February 2017

His Majesty's Stationery Office at War

One of the many bonuses of my job as a guide, speaker and researcher is being able to indulge myself in one of my old hobbies of collecting old books, although this is something of a double-edged sword, as my home is rapid becoming submerged in an ever growing tide of books both old and new. Indeed, one item firmly on the agenda for 2017 is to build some new bookshelves.

One of the publications I have found myself collecting over the years are the excellent and numerous series of wartime booklets published by HMSO, or His Majesty's Stationery Office to give this organisation it's correct title.

It would be easy to dismiss these works as mere propaganda but this would be to do them a great disservice; of course they tell the stories from a staunchly pro-Allied point of view but there is a great difference between these works and the blunt nature of the works put out by the HMSO's Nazi counterparts. For one thing, the British works do tend to tell things pretty much as they were and some of the photographs pull no punches. For example, in the first of these booklets I acquired, Front Line 1940-41, which tells the story of Britain's Civil Defence Services during this time, the images of destroyed buildings, injured civilians and people being rescued are all real enough and are in no way "manufactured" shots for the benefit of the book. The narrative, although understandably of its time, is thoughtful and well-written and leaves nobody in any doubt that the country has suffered grievously. The underlying message of course, is a positive one - that although times are hard, everything will eventually come right. The books themselves are a masterpiece of good design - the covers are innovative and the standard of some of the photography is first class. The price of these little booklets varied depending on the size of them but were generally between 6d and 2 shillings (between 2 1/2 and 10 pence in today's money) and were an invaluable way for the British public to keep up with events during the wartime years.

Not strictly an HMSO publication but one in which they doubtless had an input is Fire Over London, which tells the story of the London Fire Service during the Night Blitz of 1940-41. Published by the London County Council, who were about to relinquish control of the capital's Fire Brigade into the nationalised National Fire Service, it is a slimmer volume at 34 pages in comparison to most of the HMSO publications, which were generally around the 100 page mark but follows a similar format. It starts with a brief summary of the wartime Fire Service and of the preparations that had been made for war, before going into an account of events of some of the various great raids on London up to that point - 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940, 'The Second Great Fire of London' 29th December 1940 and the heaviest raid of them all on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. It also tells us of the different types of bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe and gives an insight as to how various types of fires were tackled and as with the HMSO booklets, it is well illustrated with some fascinating photographs. Once again, this is not by any means a piece of blunt propaganda.

Another non-HMSO publication but one with which they undoubtedly were involved is It Can Now Be Revealed published in 1945 on behalf of the four major railway companies - GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern Railways, together with London Transport - by the British Railways Press Office. This is an early use of the phrase 'British Railways' as the railways were not to be nationalised until 1948 but had been effectively under state control during the wartime years under the Railway Executive Committee. Interestingly, each of the railway companies, plus London Transport were to publish their own wartime stories in the early years of peacetime but this is another well written piece, which apart from telling us of the railways' work during the recent war, also tells us something of the plans for peace. The booklet starts by telling us not of railway operations but of the war work undertaken by the railway companies - of building tanks, Halifax bombers and Horsa gliders, anti-aircraft guns and even motor boats. This section reminds us that the railway companies contained superb in-house heavy engineering and manufacturing capabilities, all of which were put to good use to aid the war effort. We then turn to the railways themselves and the arrangements put in place for handling child evacuees, war workers, troop movements and war production. We then look at the preparations and arrangement for D-Day, which as well as being the largest sea-borne invasion of all time, was probably the greatest logistical achievement ever likely to be undertaken. The booklet then closes by telling us the work undertaken to maintain services during the V-Weapons campaigns of 1944-45 as well as something of rebuilding for the future.

Staying with the Civilian Services for now, we turn to Merchantmen at War, an HMSO publication that tells the story of Britain's Merchant Navy and the great convoy battles of the war. The booklet starts by telling us of the men of the sea, the Masters, Chief Engineers, officers and men and also tells us of the diversity amongst the crews of the British Merchant Fleet and reminds us that many of the seamen came from places as widespread as Sierra Leone, Bombay and Mombasa. We learn of the convoys themselves, the pre-sailing conferences and of the cargoes themselves, which could be anything from foodstuffs to vital wartime supplies of raw materials and finished products such as tanks, aircraft and ammunition. Like the other booklets, it pulls no punches and there are some pretty graphic photographs of ships being torpedoed and men being rescued who were clearly at the limits of their endurance. We learn of the Arctic Convoys, which were arguably the most arduous of all and finally we see the 'turn of the tide' the preparations for the various landings at Sicily and Normandy. As someone who served in the Merchant Navy in a small way during the 1970s and 80s, this is a fascinating account of a subject close to my own heart.

The fighting services are not ignored either and there is comprehensive coverage of various aspects of the 'sharp end' of the war. A recent acquisition courtesy of the excellent David JB Smith aka @NavalAuthor on Twitter (with whom some swapping of doubles was done), is The Mediterranean Fleet, which is the Admiralty's account of Naval operations in that theatre from April 1941 to Janaury 1943. Like all of the others, this is well written with a copious amount of illustrations and covers some of the hardest moments such as the evacuations from Crete and Greece and the losses of such ships as HMSs Ark Royal, Barham and York, as well as the Malta Convoys, to the more triumphant moments such as the victories at Cape Matapan and Sirte. Once again, the standard of photography is outstanding and leaves the reader in no doubt that before the final victories, there were many moments of tragedy along the way. Some of the photographs of the sinking of HMS Manchester are particularly hair raising and it is hard to imagine anything nearly so candid being published in Nazi Germany at any stage of the war.

Neither are our various Allies forgotten in these booklets either and another recent acquisition  focuses on the exploits of Queen Wilhelmina's Navy or the Royal Netherlands Navy to use the correct title. At twenty five pages, this is a slimmer volume but like the others described earlier, is still well-written and contains a large number of excellent photographs. In common with the other booklets in the series, the narrative doesn't just provide the reader with mindless propaganda but also speaks candidly of the defeat and losses suffered when the Netherlands were invaded and how the Dutch Navy fought a brave delaying action. Despite the loss of their homeland to the German invaders, the Navy fought on and suffered further heavy losses when the Japanese entered the war and attacked Dutch colonies in the East Indies and the booklet tells of the heroic defeat of Admiral Doorman's combined Dutch, American and British force at the Battle of Sunda Straits. Like the other booklets reviewed above, this one also ends on a hopeful note and tells of the Dutch Navy's ongoing fight against both Germany and Japan and looks forward to the day when they will be able to return to a liberated country.

Staying with the Allied theme, Target: Germany examines the work done by the United States 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force in it's first year of operations over Europe. The booklet in my possession is marked "British Edition" so this was clearly something produced for consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. The narrative here starts with the description of two  daylight raids (all American raids were in daylight) on a synthetic rubber factory at Huls as well as the General Motors' factory in Antwerp and tells of how important it was for the American bombers to stick in a close defensive formation. As before, the narrative is quite candid in it's descriptions of massed attacks by German fighters, of bombers exploding and of others coming down in the Channel and the crews awaiting rescue by the British Air-Sea Rescue services. The chapter closes with the post-mission interrogation of the surviving crews and the questions asked of them. Next, we read about the comparisons between the two main American heavy bombers used, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, such as relative bomb loads, speeds, defensive armaments etc. The next chapter steps back in time and gives us the background of the raison d'etre of the Eighth Air Force and the early developments in it's formation and deployment to Britain. All in all, this is another quality piece of work and whilst the narrative is perhaps the most 'gung-ho' of all those reviewed thus far, it is also fairly candid in it's descriptions and like the other books, the standard of the photography is first class.

Staying with the theme of air power, our next booklet RAF Middle East concentrates on the work of the Desert Air Force and air operations in the Middle Eastern Theatre of War from February 1942 to January 1943. This volume tells of operations primarily in the North African desert but also covers the defence of Malta. We hear descriptions of the unique conditions encountered in the desert that made flying so difficult and the maintenance of aircraft challenging in the extreme. Like most of the other volumes, we read descriptions of the early reverses and the back and forth struggles across the desert during this most fluctuating of wartime theatres. The siege of Tobruk is covered as is the later fall of this supposed fortress-port. Air operations in support of the British Eighth Army at Alamein are covered in some detail, when probably for the first time there was really close and effective co-operation between the British Army and Royal Air Forces. This was one of Montgomery's finest achievements and was something of which all those involved could be justly proud. The booklet closes with the pursuit of the Afrika Korps across the Western Desert until their final surrender in Tunisia. Once again, the narrative is truthful and speaks of the reverses as well as the triumphs and the standard of photography is excellent.

We stay in the desert for our next HMSO publication for The Eighth Army which covers this Army from it's official formation in September 1941 through to the brink of final victory in that theatre during January 1943. When the Eighth Army was formed, British fortunes in North Africa were at a low ebb following the earlier brilliant successes achieved by General Wavell's Western Desert Force against the Italians early in the war. Wavell was replaced by General Auchinleck and the book really opens by describing The Auk's (as he was nicknamed) first offensive in November 1941. The book makes a point of describing the cosmopolitan nature of Eighth Army, as besides men from all of the home nations of the British Isles, there were soldiers from Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa. We again hear of the siege of Tobruk, this time obviously from the point of view of the men on the ground. The book tells us of the great advances and retreats that symbolised this campaign before the Army settled on it's defensive line at El Alamein. It was at this point that Churchill decided on another change of command and Auchineck was relieved both as Commander in Chief, Middle East and as General Officer in Command of Eighth Army. He was replaced by Alexander in the former position and the then little-known (outside the Army) Bernard Law Montgomery as Eighth Army Commander. After halting the Afrika Korps at Alam Halfa inSeptember 1942, Montgomery's thoughts turned to the offensive and the booklet covers the ensuing Battle of El Alamein in some details but perhaps understandably considering when the book was written, does not cover any of the later controversies with regard to Monty's perceived over-cautious approach to battle. Seemingly after years of defeats on land, the British at last had a winning General and would not allow dissent in an official publication!

We close by looking at a regiment which formed an integral part of Eighth Army and in The Royal Armoured Corps published in 1945, the narrative gives a brief account of the formation of the regiment during the First World War following the invention of the tank and tells us of how Germany embraced the tank under Hitler and of the early British defeats in France during 1940, during which campaign the Royal Armoured Corps was one of the relatively few parts of the British Army to come out with credit, although they were to lose the majority of their equipment during the hurried retreat and subsequent evacuations. We then learn of the regiment during the Western Desert campaign and the rapid expansion caused by the massive influx of wartime conscripts. There follows a detailed account of the recruiting and training process. The book closes with accounts of the victorious battles in the desert as well as the return to France in 1944 and the future advance into Nazi Germany. Although published in 1945, the book was clearly written in mid 1944 before final victory was achieved but like the other HMSO publications described above, this is a candidly written and well illustrated account.

There is a seemingly endless list of these HMSO booklets and I have yet to see the publications covering the Battle of Britain, RAF Bomber Command, The Fleet Air Arm, His Majesty's Submarines, His Majesty's Minesweepers, The Royal Marines, Australian Forces, Coastal Command and Combined Operations amongst many others that are out there. So far, my acquisitions have come from junk shops, internet auction sites, swaps and the odd gift from friends who know what a sad character they have befriended. They are a fascinating view of the war as written at the time.

HMSO Publications:

The Eighth Army: September 1941 to January 1943 - published 1944 
Fire Over London: The Story of the London Fire Service 1940-41 - published by the London County Council, August 1941
Front Line 1940-41 - published 1942
It can now be revealed: More about British Railways in peace and war - published 1945
The Mediterranean Fleet: Greece to Tripoli - published 1944
Merchantmen at War - published 1944
Queen Wilhelmina's Navy - published 1944
RAF Middle East - published 1945
The Royal Armoured Corps - Through mud & blood to the green fields beyond - published 1945
Target: Germany - The US Army Air Forces' official story of the VIII Bomber Command's first year over Europe - published 1944