Thursday 21 May 2020

Romney Marsh, the English Arcadia and Napoleonic War defenses

It is somewhere between late spring and early summer and I am staying at an old coaching inn whose history dates back to the 14th century. It is situated just outside the ancient city walls of Canterbury whose magnificent medieval cathedral still dominates the summer skyline. The city walls or ramparts are still intact in many places around the city and my inn happens to be just outside the city walls and near the West Gate of the medieval city. The inn originally known as the White Hart is now known as the Falstaff Hotel named after the Shakespearian character. There is meant to be three ghosts but happily, as yet,  I have not seen them.

The Falstaff Inn

The West Gate and Tower
Before we start our journey to Romney Marsh and look at beach defences of the early 19th century - a word more about our starting point. The West Gate was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 and replaced an earlier structure that had been built as long ago as 1023.  It was at this earlier gate that William the Conqueror stopped on his way from London to Normandy in 1067 to re-confer the ancients rights and privileges afforded to Men of Kent. "Men of Kent" being those who lived South and East of the River Medway. Those who lived in the west of the county were deemed to be "Kentish Men".  There is a suggestion that this ancient divide owes its origins to the fact,  that in the east the settlers were mainly Jutes and to the west mainly Saxons - these Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in England or should we say Engel-Land the land of the Engels or Angles as written today. It was said that the Men of Kent resisted the Conqueror more strongly than did the Kentish men, but that may not be very fair on the Angles and Saxons.

The White Hart Hotel as it was then known was just outside the city walls. At night the gates to the medieval city were closed and pilgrims unable to reach the city before dark would stay at inns such as the White Hart. It was renamed the Falstaff in Elizabethan times. Sir John Falstaff appears as a corpulent knight in Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Queen Elizabeth was so taken by this character that Shakespear included him as a central character in The Merry Wives of Windsor. To an Elizabethan audience, Falstaff would be instantly recognizable -  not so today.

Nonetheless, the name has become an adjective. In it is described as one "having the qualities of Falstaff, especially his robust, bawdy humour, good-natured rascality, and brazen braggadocio".
"An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun".    

(first stanza from "The Road at My Door" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

As I start my journey to Romney Marsh through the English arcadia - I notice the buttercups seem more abundant than ever. 

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup.

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup

 Perhaps only a field full of buttercups!

Perhaps only a field of buttercups

 The prickly Hawthorn bush is alive with blossom like snow in summer.

The Hawthorn in full bloom 
Blossom like snow in summer

Romney Marsh is that low lying area of rich green grass and dykes and ditches that lies between the sea on the right,  and the Saxon shoreline marked by the low line of hills that stretch from Hythe to the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings. There's something magical and mysterious about the Marsh  - sometimes described as the fifth quarter of the globe. Richard Barham in "The Ingoldsby Legends" wrote, "the world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa and Romney Marsh". Nonsense of course, but there is something different about the Marsh. When you are on it you see more sky because of its low lying nature and when you look inland you can see the ancient coastline of Roman Britain. Towns like Rye and Winchelsea were once islands. Inland towns like New Romney were once ports. The days of buccaneers and smugglers have gone but left their mark. The sea has retreated and today Norman churches stand on what were once little islets amongst the salt marshes. There is on the marsh an uneasy alliance between land, sea and sky.

We catch our first glimpse of Romney Marsh at Lympne - here,  I am standing on the sea-cliffs of Roman Britain. Nearby there is a medieval castle and an ancient church. The castle is privately owned and said to be haunted. On a spring day, it seemed more enchanted than haunted. In Roman times, ships sailed over the shallow waters of what is now Romney Marsh to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis from which the name Lympne is derived. The Roman port was lower down the hill near and situated close to where the remains of Stutfall castle lie today. These old stone walls were part of a Roman and later Saxon fort built on the shoreline.

Lympne Castle and the remains (lower down the hill)  of Stutfall Castle  marking the Roman port of  Portus Lemanis

I wander into the churchyard that lies adjacent to Lympne Castle.  Was there ever a more beautiful view of Romney Marsh than from this quiet spot - the church is built on the crest of the hill and in one coup d'oeil you can see the Romney Marshes stretching out to Dungeness in the glimmering haze that marks  the horizon.

Churchyard with a view

As I look at these ancient graves I am minded of Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard:

"Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-trees shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

(Thomas Gray  - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

General Woolf who took Quebec by an extraordinary feat of arms was reputed to have said of this poem (shown in part above) :

"Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow". 

But lets us move on to military defences before digressing into poetry and the English pastoral arcadia.

I walked past Lympne Castle through wooded glades:

Catching glimpses of the land below:

At the bottom of the scarp, I come across the Royal Military Canal - it stretches along the foot of the low line of hills that mark the old coastline of Roman Britain.  It was built in 1804 as part of the defences against the feared invasion of Britain by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte who had assembled an army on the Channel Coast as long ago as 1798.  In 1803 L'Armee d'Angleterre was assembled at Boulogne and a flotilla of invasion barges was prepared. Napoleon was master of Europe, if only he could cross this narrow strip of water he could conquer and subdue the old enemy.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, the Royal Navy impeded this by their blockade of French ports and their mastery of the seas. However, back at this time, there was a serious concern about the threat of invasion. In preparation for which not only was the Royal Military Canal built but a 100 forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coast

The construction of the Royal Military Canal was commenced in 1804 with the approval of then Prime Minister - William Pitt the Younger. It ran for 28 Miles from Hythe to Rye.  The northern or inland bank of the canal was built up to form a parapet from the excavated soil and a military road was constructed beside it. Gun batteries were built at intervals and positioned to provide enfilading fire. It was finally finished in 1809  by which time the Battle of Trafalgar had been won and the French fleet defeated and the threat of invasion had been lifted. Admiral John Jervis was reported to have said of the French invasion army: 

" I do not say they cannot come - I only say they cannot come by sea".

 The Royal Military Canal today is a peaceful and pretty waterway that runs along the edge of Romney Marsh.

At the time of its construction, it was regarded as a "white elephant" created at enormous expense and critics like William Corbett argued, how we could have expected "those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube to be kept back by a canal 30 ft wide at most"!

Other than the Royal Military Canal and Redoubts built at intervals along the coast a hundred Martello Towers were built along the coast of Southeast England. These were round towers that housed an officer and detachment of soldiers who manned a cannon that could traverse 360 degrees.  Many of these forts still remain today like the one in the car park at Dymchurch shown below.

But my favourite  Martello Tower on Romney Marsh has to be the one in ruins at Rye Harbour also known as Frenchman's Creek.

The British Navy had come across such towers at Mortella in Corsica and one such tower had held of two British warships in 1794. They were formidable defences. They stood 40 feet high with walls that were 8 feet thick. Narrow slit windows provided loopholes for musket fire. Most towers had one cannon that could traverse 360 degrees. Typically manned by one officer and 24 men. 

Now its time to begin my journey back and leave the marsh and from my car you can see the old coastline of Roman and Saxon Britain and some of the flat land that makes up the Romney Marsh with its ditches and dykes  - you can see a lot of sky as always on the Marsh - and finally, the canal lies glittering in the late afternoon sun and the Martello Towers tell their story of long ago.


Saturday 2 May 2020

No. 1 Battery, HKVDC

The Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC) was mobilised following the declaration of a State of Emergency on Sunday 7 December 1941.  No. 1 Battery, HKVDC, was responsible for a battery of two 4-inch naval guns located on a hillside at Cape D’Aguilar on the south-eastern extremity of Hong Kong Island. The battery, known as D'Aguilar Battery, consisted of some 69 men and three officers. The senior ranks were as follows:

Captain George F. Rees, Commander Officer

Lt H.S. Jones, 2 i/c 

2/Lt Hugh G. Muir

Battery Sgt-Major John L. G. Oswald

Battery Quartermaster Sgt Michel J. Harkins

It was a coastal defence battery designed to engage enemy vessels rather than landward firing. The battery formed part of Eastern Fire Command along with other coastal defence batteries in the eastern sector of the Island, including Collinson (2 x 6-inch), Fort Bokhara (2 x 9.2-inch), Stanley (3 x 9.2-inch) and Chung Hom Kok (2 x 6-inch). Fort Bokhara was situated below and within a kilometre of D’Aguilar Battery. The large calibre 9.2-inch guns at Stanley and Bokhara were capable of traversing and firing inland. However, the bulk of the ammunition for the coastal defence batteries was armour piercing which was more suitable for the coastal defence role of firing at seaborne targets. There was insufficient anti-personnel (shrapnel) and high explosive (H.E.) ammunition for landward firing. 
   On Sunday 7 December, the battery personnel were ordered to report to HKVDC HQ at Garden Road. They were issued with rifles, ammunition and grenades. At 1700 hours they set off for their battery position in trucks.  It took an hour along the narrow roads to reach the battery at D’Aguilar. Equipment had to be man-handled to the battery position above Cape D'Aguilar Road. The next morning Monday 8 December, the war started. The battery personnel were mustered at 0800 hours and informed that war had started.

Battery Observation Post at Bokhara 9.2-inch Battery
The period from 8 December until 19 December was relatively uneventful for No. 1 Battery. Some Japanese vessels were spotted but they were well out of range. The nearby Bokhara Battery fired some rounds at Japanese vessels at extreme range. The guns at Bokhara were also used extensively for landward firing at Japanse troops on the Mainland. Generally, the Japanese Navy stayed well back because of the array of coastal defence batteries, contact and remote-controlled mines and the presence of British MTBs. 
   The D’Aguilar Battery manned by No. 1 Battery, HKVDC, also included a Fire Command Post and a Fortress Observation Post, manned by the regular Army, in addition to the two 4-inch gun emplacements and BOP manned by the Volunteers.

Battery Buildings at D'Aguilar 4-inch Battery
Possibly the Fortress Observation Post (FOP) at D'Aguilar Bty
During the night of Thursday 18 December, the Japanese landed, an estimated, 8,000 infantry and artillery on the northeast shore of the Island. The Japanese troops moved quickly inland, and by the mid-morning on Friday 19 December, there was a concern that troops and gun positions in the eastern sector of the Island may be cut off. Accordingly, a decision was made to withdraw all troops in the eastern sector to Stanley, and form a defensive perimeter in the hills around Stanley. Sgt Leslie Millington recalls that at 1000 hours they were ordered to put the guns out of action and withdraw.

At about 10 a.m., the Master-Gunner from the Fire Control Post below us came running up and gave orders to blow up our guns and retreat to Stanley Fort. … We marched most of the way and the chaps who had cars ran a shuttle service to and fro. When we arrived at Stanley Fort we were put to work digging trenches around the peninsula.

The trenches were on the south side of Stanley Fort and facing out to sea. The battery personnel manned these trenches at night and rested during daylight hours in Stanley Fort. The fort was subjected to aerial bombing and then artillery fire as the Japanese drew closer. The Japanese advanced on Stanley and the final, fierce battle for Stanley took place on 24/25 December. 
   On Wednesday 24 December, the battery personnel were moved from Stanley Fort to St Stephen's College, Stanley. They were to fight as infantry and man a support line.  Earlier that day Captain Rees took an advance party, consisting of a sergeant and four gunners down to the 1/Mx HQ at St Stephen’s Prep School. A regular officer showed them the positions that they were to occupy later that evening after nightfall. Their positions formed a second line of defence, or support line, between Stanley Village and the fort. The first line of defence ran across the peninsula from east to west with the police station at Stanley village being the centre of the line. The support line extended east-west across the grounds of St Stephens College.

Prison Officers Club - used as East Brigade HQ 
Sgt Harry Millington’s MG detachment was positioned on the right flank near the entrance to St Stephen's College on the Prison Road (Tung Tao Wan Road). His brother, Sgt Leslie Millington was positioned with his MG detachment some 100 metres to the left, closer to the college main building and the tennis courts. The remaining two detachments were spread out across the line of staff bungalows and Fort Road (Wong Ma Kok Road). Captain Rees established his HQ at one of the staff bungalows, possibly Bungalow ‘A’ since it was positioned at the centre of the line and had been vacated by Royal Rifles of Canada. They had used it briefly as Battalion HQ. 2/Lt Muir garrisoned Bungalow ‘C’ on the extreme left flank of the line.  The battle for Stanley Village began that night. The defenders on the support line could hear the cacophony of battle, artillery fire, machine-gun fire, grenade and mortar explosions as the Japanese using tanks and waves of infantry attacked the front line in Stanley Village. The front line was defended by No. 2 Coy, HKVDC, the Stanley Platoon, HKVDC, made up of prison officers many of whom were veterans of WW1. The Royal Artillery manned anti-tank guns and members of the Middlesex Regiment armed with Vickers machine guns manned a bungalow at the junction of the Prison Road and Fort Road. The senior officer in command was Major Forsyth commanding officer of No. 2 Coy, HKVDC. He was armed with a Tommy gun and positioned himself in the centre of the village. He was fatally wounded and carried into the police station. After fierce and close-quarter fighting the Japanese were able to break through on the flanks. The line broke and the survivors withdrew to the support line.  Sgt Leslie Millington and his brother Sgt Harry Millington heard the sound of running men coming along the Prison Road from the village.  These were followed by Japanese troops and Sgt Harry Millington opened fire at the Japanese on the road. Sgt Leslie Millington was soon in action as Japanese troops were seen advancing near the college tennis courts on which his detachment had a line of fire. The Japanese responded with machine-gun fire and mortar fire during which Gunner Eugene Yourieff was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar bomb. 
   The exchange of fire continued until around 0500 hours on Christmas Day. Japanese troops had infiltrated closer to Sgt Leslie Millington’s positions and were able to utilise an incendiary device (flame-thrower) which set fire to the machine gun and the nearby magazine area. With the Lewis gun now out of action, Millington gave orders to his men to withdraw to the right towards Sgt Harry Millington’s position on the Prison Road. When they regrouped after the withdrawal they found Gunner George Sloss was missing. It was later found that he had been captured.
   At dawn, a regular officer, from HQ at the Prison Officers Club, ordered Sgt Leslie Millington to go back to his previous position. By this time, they could hear Japanese at or near the main college building. The main building was being used as a Relief Military Hospital. The Japanese went in at dawn and in an unfettered rage, they killed a large number of patients and medical orderlies. Many of the patients were bayoneted as they lay in their beds. Two doctors were killed and European and Chinese nurses were raped and three of them were mutilated and killed. It was difficult for Millington to reoccupy his position. His detachment consisted of eight men armed only with rifles, and only one grenade between them. Their position was untenable on a level with the main college building. In the impending daylight, they would be easily seen by Japanese troops located in and around the main school building. Millington recalled their effort to reoccupy the position that they had manned the previous night.

I had to go, so with my chaps, I crept quietly up to the bank. … We peeped over the top onto the flat space, nobody was more surprised than we were to see about fifty Japanese sitting around having their chow. The grenade was thrown and, as I didn’t feel like leading a bayonet charge, we opened up a rapid rifle fire. The Japanese beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the flat area and began to lob grenades at us. They seemed to have an endless supply. We stayed like this, exchanging fire for about five minutes, and as I thought it was pretty hopeless I again ordered the lads to re-join Harry, which we did with the loss of another chap, Skinner.

In fact, Gunner Skinner was wounded but not killed. He was hospitalised but it is not clear where. He may have made his way back to the prison road and sought medical assistance at the Prison Hospital. St Stephens College Hospital was nearer but was occupied by Japanese troops. Sgt Leslie Millington re-joined his brother Sgt Harry Millington on the prison road. However, they were coming under sniper fire from the Annex one of the college buildings which overlooked the road.  They took shelter behind a bank on the road and returned fire. They lost two men from Sgt Harry Millington’s detachment, Gunner Sam Gerzo and Gunner Graham Lawson, during this exchange of fire.

Modified sketch map from Millington's Diary (IWM)
They decided to move back towards the prison. Sgt Harry Millington died whilst providing covering fire. Leslie Millington recalls bullets hitting the road behind him as he rushed towards the Prison Officer’s Club. The colony surrendered that afternoon. Those at the Prison Officer’s Club Building were notified of the surrender by either a dispatch rider or runner from Stanley Prison at around 1700 hours on 25 December.  They were ordered to leave their weapons and ammunition and walk down to Stanley Prison about 200 metres away. The volunteer and regular soldiers at the prison remained there until Saturday 27 December when they were taken to Stanley Fort to join the other surrendered military personnel from the Stanley area. On Monday 29 December they were marched from Stanley Fort through Tai Tam Gap to North Point where they started the three-and-half-year period of brutal incarceration. 
   In the course of the fighting at Stanley, the battery suffered 35 fatalities. A death rate of over 50% incurred within a 24-hour period.

Members of the Battery

Last NameFirst NameRankDate of Death
AlexanderWilliam LGnr24-Dec-41
AllenDouglas  GeoffreyGunner
BenuchLeonard  John Gunner
BlissArthur Sydney (Sonny)GNR25-Dec-41
ButlinStrathmore  TathamGnr25-Dec-41
Collins-TaylorDouglas HarleyL-Bdr25-Dec-41
Duffy Jocelyn TierneyGunner25-Dec-41
Engelbrecht Raymond JGunner
GerzoSamuel  DanielGunner25-Dec-41
GriffithsRonald  HannamGunner25-Dec-41
HarkinsMitchell JosephBQMS
HenningsenFrederick Forbes Gunner
HoLok Kee Gunner25-Dec-41
JohnsonLloyd  GeorgeGunner25-Dec-41
Johnson George EdwardSgt
JongeDe GillaesGunner
LanderJohn Gerard HeathGunner25-Dec-41
LawsonW  GrahamGunner25-Dec-41
LodgeCyril JohnGunner25-Dec-41
MackenzieNorman  HGunner
McCabeLawrence  HughGunner25-Dec-41
MillingtonLeslie CharlesSgt
MillingtonHenry  (Harry) JamesSgt25-Dec-41
MuirHugh Gordon2nd Lt25-Dec-41
NashRobert  CharlesGunner25-Dec-41
OswaldJohn Lee GuinnessBSM
PedersenKay  WGunner
PomeroyJohn  BernardGunner
ReesGeorge FrederickCaptWounded in action
RudrofWladyslaw PawelGunner25-Dec-41
Samuel  HerbertGunner25-Dec-41
SayersMax W Gunner25-Dec-41
SlossGeoff  DuncanGunner
SmithCharles  AGunner25-Dec-41
SmithJohn Reginald MartinGunner24-Dec-41
StoneGeoffrey  Paul L-Bdr25-Dec-41
SwanMalcolm McDonaldGunner
TseninEugene AlexesGunner
TuckerNorman FosterGunner
WalreeErik  VanGunner
WatsonRussell  A E Gunner
WellerFrederick Anthony ("Tony")Gunner
WyllieRoy LeslieGunner25-Dec-41
YourieffEugene  GGunner
Yung Yue Wang Gunner25-Dec-41

Millington's Diary held at IWM