Ordnance

Ordnance
Stokes Mortar - one of the simplest inventions

Friday, 12 December 2014

Salute the Soldier week

This is the speech that Controller of Ordnance Service, Major-General 'Bill' Williams, gave in Halifax in July 1944

I am deeply conscious of the honour of being asked to open the “Salute the Soldier" Week for your great Town.
When my good friend Sir Harold Mackintosh and your Committee asked me to do so, I said "Yes, certainly, I will do anything to help. Perhaps you would call it a selfish gesture, as the more money you save the easier my job becomes.
As Controller of Ordnance Services, I handle practically the whole of the· equipment with which our Army fights.It is your money that buys that equipment, so I act as your agent.
It is rather like an enormous ·industrial concern, you are the shareholders and I am the Director of the firm responsible for placing orders and delivering the goods to the customers. The customers are the Army, every unit; every soldier to me is a customer to be clothed and equipped .
My Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, incidentally is one of the oldest Corps in the Army, as in bye-gone days it was responsible for supplying the Army with bows and arrows and armour for the men at Arms, in fact, I believe in the early stages of our history we planted the yew forests, from which the bows were made.
Well, to continue, the R .A .O.C. of to-day supplies the soldier with all his equipment, weapons, vehicles, tanks, guns, wireless equipment, ammunition and explosives, Radar equipment; accoutrements, clothing, camp equipment, in fact, almost everything which he needs to fight with: so that the firm in which you are shareholders holds stocks of stores ranging from trouser buttons to tanks and big guns.
I think I will give you a few figures to bring home to you the large sums of money which are needed to equip and maintain a modern Army. A tank costs something in the neighbourhood of £14.000. spare parts to keep it going for a year entails another £4,000.The 25 pdr. gun which is the best Field gun in the world costs £2,250, with a further £1,000 for the tractor. Both these in turn need large quantities of spare pats to keep them going.
The R .A .O .C. to-day are handling over 750,000 different types of stores, all these have to be purchased and sent to the right place at the right time, if we are to wage war successfully against the Germans and the Japs. This is no mean task and without your money it would be an impossible one.
I have been fortunate enough to see at first hand how your savings are helping to win the war.I have been round the great production centres, both in England and America and Canada, and I have seen the vast spate of munitions of war pouring out to all the theatres of war throughout the world, and particularly during the last few months to this great European theatre which will be probably the greatest military operation which has ever taken place in the history of the world.
In addition to seeing the way your money is being spent and the manufacture of this vast and formidable array of equipment, I also, like a good business man, go to see my customers, the fighting men in the theatres of war, and during the last eighteen months I have visited firstly Tunisia and Algeria when we were formulating our plans to push Rommel out of North Africa and then to Sicily and Italy for the invasion which now seems to be going pretty well, thanks again to the vast range of equipment which has been purchased with your money.
Next, I visited Middle East, Iraq and Persia, India and Burma, or as near as I could get to it. All these different theatres of war have their own special problems. They require equipment of different types; equipment has to be specially preserved and packed, according to the climatic conditions in which it will be handled and used.

The war with the Japs presents us with an entirely new state of conditions, and if we don't look well ahead and plan and get our equipment together, we cannot hope to win that war in a reasonable period.
I know you all realise how vitally important it is that our fighting men are equipped with the best. We all want them to have the best and finest weapons which we can provide.

Now, war in itself is essentially wasteful and if we are to be victorious we must waste more, or what appears to be waste, than the enemy. This is the cost of war.

It is rather like a business: you have two courses open to you, either you carry on with your old-fashioned plant and gradually fall behind in the race, or you constantly instal the very latest and best plant, and thus get ahead of your rivals. So it is in war. It is even more essential, in fact it is vital that we should be ahead of the enemy in all of our equipment. Our fire-power must be greater than his. Our tanks must be more powerful, faster, better armoured, in fact we must ruthlessly scrap equipment before it is out of date if we are to win our way to final victory, and that costs money.
You will realise, therefore, that your money must constantly roll in,. but please don't think we in the Army take that money for granted. Believe me we make it go as far as we can and we only scrap equipment and buy new equipment when we know it is essential and vital for Victory.
We know that to save it you have to sacrifice many of the little luxuries which in peacetime you have always enjoyed.
It is our aim to make the most of th.e equipment at our disposal.
By the savings of the people in this country, our Empire is now being equipped with the latest and best and deadliest weapons in the world and I am confident that our fire-power is now superior to that of the enemy. We know that our Tommy should be armed with the best and finest weapons obtainable.I am here to-day as I have already told you to ask you to lend even more to fight our way to Berlin and Tokyo.
I know you all realise that you are getting more for your money than the interest paid on your savings. You are helping to ensure for yourselves and your loved ones, a future which we all sincerely hope will be free from the horrors of war.
Your pennies, shillings and pounds are building up a rampart against those who would destroy England, or at any rate leave it as a little island off the coast of Europe and not the centre of the greatest Empire that the world has ever known.
Halifax has its own Regiment, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, one that I know personally and have had the honour of serving alongside on at least two occasions. This is a regiment with great traditions and a fine record, and I would like you to feel that all that you save will help to give your local boys the best possible equipment for their own regiment, and the best possible equipment and fire-power in the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery, and the Royal Armoured Corps, to support and enable them to reach their objectives in the field of battle with the minimum loss of life.
I hear that Halifax holds the War Savings record for any Town in the amount subscribed per head. The more heads that lend their money to their country, the greater the chance of beating previous records, in support of your own Regiment and all your gallant boys.
Let "Salute the Soldier" be the greatest of all your record weeks, and don't forget that this campaign is the personal inspiration of your own great citizen and Chairman of the National Savings Committee, Sir Harold Mackintosh.
A final word regarding our mutual friend, Sir Harold. He is a Halifax man and I am sure you must be very proud of him. I have had the good fortune to be closely associated

Monday, 1 December 2014

The challenge of civilian 'experts' working alongside soldiers

The presence in all of the depots of men direct from industry with technical expertise in aspects of logistics posed management problems when they were put with men who had served in the BEF and who had built up a resentment for having field promotions forgotten. The direct entrants would be promoted to management positions and so command, or try to command, troops who were in effect their workforce. That this was a live issue is clear from Bill Williams’s 1942 speech. 

“To some or these men we gave direct commissions - just as the other branches of the army, such as the Engineers, the Medical Corps, also gave direct commissions. We gave these commissions for two reasons. Firstly, we were desperately short of officers. We had to have men who could carry the load at once, whilst others went through the ranks and were trained . Secondly, we wanted new blood and new experience as soon as possible. We wanted to get on with the job.

“We have been criticised for opening the door to people who received direct commissions. How else would you have tackled the problem?”

It required a great deal of effort on the part of senior officers to create an effective unit staffed in this way. It is interesting to read about the issue from two points of view. De Wolff was very much at the sharp end as COO trying to draw it all together. Stamford came from the regimental background with an understandable loyalty to his soldiers.

“The climax came when I received a draft of 350 privates who were mostly ‘departmental managers’ from a vast chain store. Their Managing Director had dug himself into the War Office and was now a field officer with one month’s service. Their wives had driven to the camp in expensive limousines and parked them around the parade ground while they searched for billets….The mutterings among ex-corporals back from France became a steady rumble, especially when one private, with a foreign name, announced incautiously that he expected to be a sergeant in three day’s time…That evening I heard on the telephone the high-pitched voice of the deaf commandant. ‘I understand you’ve got in your company a Private X who handles a million pounds’ worth of packing a year for Fuchs and Bieber.?” 

This man was found and his skills put to good use, nevertheless good management was needed to integrate these skilled men into an Army.

De Wolff was invited to visit British businesses to get from them advice and ideas on setting up Donnington. It was to have the best possible chance of efficiency. Even in De Wolff, though, it is possible to detect a hint of disapproval at this new way of doing things, what Stamford refers to as the New Army whose performance is bolstered by buns and cigarettes (one assumes as opposed to old fashioned army discipline).

“There were many ‘experts’ in civil life who were given Commissions, but they were just ‘civilians' in uniform. Those who were posted to the War Office did not know the difference between standing to attention and standing at ease! One of these ‘experts’ was given the rank of Captain at the War office and six months later he was promoted to Major. He was bachelor and lived in rooms in London. He had nothing to do when his duties ceased for the day and so he haunted all the night clubs and made himself a nuisance. This came to the ears of the QMG who told my General, ‘I am demoting that officer to Captain. Send him to de Wolff and let him have go at him.’  


It seems that this was thoroughly successful as the officer emerged 18 months later as a Lieutenant Colonel described as First Class. de Wolff applied his discipline to a number such officers with equal success.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Waste of War

The writing of a book is a process and crystallises from time to time in the 'blurb' that seeks to describe it. This is the latest iteration.

In the Second World War, the Army grew from having just 4,000 old and battered vehicles in 1935 to being a fully mechanised force with 1.5 million, ranging from tanks and giant tank transporters to jeeps, mobile baths and offices, and scout cars. At the same time the way in which the Army was provided with all it needed was transformed: arms and ammunition, to say nothing of radio, clothing and places to sleep and to wash. On D Day, some 375 million items were packed ready for the invasion force to use.

None of this materiel endured; it was all expended to achieve victory. The title, the Waste of War, was born out of a speech made by Bill Williams, the head of the RAOC during WWII. He had witnessed massive waste of human life in both world wars, but a colossal expenditure of materiel in WWII. As he put it, the side prepared to waste the most would emerge victorious.

The Waste of War is the story of the 250,000 men and women of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and volunteers who mechanised the Army and who made sure it had all it needed for victory. It is a story of an organisation growing by learning through its mistakes. It is the story of that waste.


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Vauxhall Motors, WWII and the Churchill Tank

This may be an example of those who choose to record their role in an historic event gaining a voice for posterity. Whether this is the case or not, the story is important.

Vauxhall Motors in Luton began the war with the delivery of many thousands of Bedford trucks. In time a number of variations on the basic model were produced including an all-wheel-drive that would revert to a single axle drive in normal road conditions.

With the poor performance of existing tanks largely of a Great War generation, there was a major initiative to produce a tank that would take on the Germans. Initially Vauxhall contributed to its development, but were then asked to design and manufacture a brand new and more powerful engine of 350 b.h.p., six times greater than the Bedford engines currently in production. A new test bed had to be built, but the prototype of the new engine was running only 89 days after the request had been made.

The Ministry of Supply then decided that it needed a very much heavier tank and Vauxhall were commissioned to design and build it. In his account of Vauxhall during WWII, W.J. Seymour is at pains to point out that no self-respecting engineer would produce a brand new vehicle without extensive testing and a whole sequence of prototypes. However, England after Dunkirk was in a desperate hurry to get into a position when it could stand up to Germany. The Churchill, as it was called, was put int production. It was not a success on day one, but rather developed through modification into a machine that did the job. Vauxhall were developing a successor when hostilities ceased.

The Churchill was perhaps best known in the many ways it was adapted, from flame thrower to bridge transport and anti-mine flail.



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A square mile of weeds and rubbish

Eighty years ago this month, my father,  temporary Lieutenant Colonel Bill Williams, was summoned from Catterick Camp in Yorkshire by the War Office to visit a derelict shell filling factory just outside Nottingham. He stood on a hill surveying the site and saw a square mile of weeds and rubbish. Yet, it was in the right place: good road and rail links, a plentiful supply of staff, but above all Coventry. Chilwell, on the outskirts of Nottingham was near the motor industry and that held the key. Wars in the middle of the 20th century would be fought on wheels.

The factory, which had been the largest shell filling factory in Britain, was said to have supplied most of the ammunition fired on the Western Front. It had been created by Viscount Chetwynd, a man of great vision, but in 1918 it suffered a disastrous explosion which cost the lives of 134 munition workers and rendered most of the site useless.  One of Bill’s first acts on taking command was to put in place a tradition of honouring these men on each Armistice Day. After the war what remained of the site  became a general Ordnance depot until it closed in 1926.

When Bill returned to Catterick his mind was buzzing. The War Office had asked him to create an Ordnance Depot specifically for Motor Transport.

The full story is told in War on Wheels

Saturday, 1 November 2014

It had never been done before and probably would never be done again

A morning at the National Archives has clarified for me the astonishing truth about the RAOC operation in WWII: it was monumental because of its scale, because there was no depth of experience to fall back on, because, at least initially, and there was grossly insufficient resource. Time and again documents refer to learning new ways and to me to begin with this seemed a luxury, surely better just to get on with the job. It then occurred to me that the job was something entirely new and so the seeking of new ways was business as usual. The RAOC was perhaps one of the first learning organisations.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Operation Market Garden 17 September 1944

Seventy years ago the largest ever airborne operation was gathering at RAF Barkston Heath in Lincolnshire.

Amongst those who would take off for Arnhem were men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, some of whom formed the Ordnance Field Park Recce Party whose job it was to seek out large garages and commandeer suitable vehicles to help transport the troops from the drop points. It was a group of seven men, including Private Ted Mordecai who wrote a gripping account of the five days he spent face to face with the enemy.

The beginning was unexceptional. The Dutch civilians, all wearing Marigolds,  welcomed the soldiers as saviours. A small village pub offered beer which they had been told to refuse. Local people gave them cups of ersatz coffee.

With the news that the battalion ahead of them was encountering tough opposition, they were ordered to press forward at all speed. Further orders came that their intended role had been shelved and they were to take an active part in securing the bridge across the river.

Ted's words paint the picture better than mine ever could:

"As we moved up the road parallel to the river we could see the span bridge outlined against flashes of gunfire against the sky. At the same time the Germans on the other side of the river were concentrating all their fire in our direction and at the bridge...the sound of shot and shell was deafening, but we inched our way forward up to the bridge..."

They successfully occupied a house within reach of the bridge. It was 2000 hours on 17 September.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The tough tasks of some of the women of WWII

I want to hear from any ATS, soldier or civilian who worked at RAOC depots in WWII.
Here are the links to pieces in the Bicester Advertiser, the  Shropshire Star, the Nottingham Evening Post , the Ealing Times, the Derby Evening Telegraph and the Melton Times


Friday, 18 July 2014

COD Donnington

I am writing the story of a quiet revolution which transformed a vital part of the British Army. During the interwar years it had been made moribund by cautious civil servants and dithering politicians. It became the muscular artery which ensured that the troops landing on D Day had all they needed to do their job.

The organisation was the Royal Army Ordnance Corps whose job it was to supply the Army with all it needed, apart from food and fuel.

The story begins with a massive leap forward from the trenches of the First World War to the motorised world of the 1930’s, a time when companies like Ford, Austin, Hillman and Vauxhall were transforming people’s lives and the economies of towns like Coventry, Luton, Dagenham and Cowley where their factories were located. 

It continues through the stuttering attempt to make real the benefits of mechanisation in the British Expeditionary Force which crossed the channel in support of France but was miraculous rescued by the armada of small ships from the beaches of Dunkirk. 

Dunkirk is where the story of Donnington really begins. From the declaration of war Whitehall had paid lip service to the need to relocate the great arsenal from Woolwich in east London to a place safe from German bombers. So there was a plan, there were contractors, but progress was painfully slow. This was until they began to load railway trucks at Woolwich.

There were to be three vast sheds at Donnington, but in June 1940 only one was near completion and even then lacked the vital overhead crane and lighting! No 2 shed’s floor was still being concreted as the trucks started to arrive. The 1500 houses that would be needed for civilian staff was still in a civil servant’s in-tray. 

Unloading 500 railway trucks in 48 hours was its baptism of fire for Central Ordnance Depot Donnington. The story goes that everyone from the Brigadier downwards took off jacket and rolled up sleeves to clear the railway lines that had become jammed with the Woolwich trucks and the Dunkirk evacuation.

Donnington in the Shropshire countryside had been chosen by the War office as the perfect site for an armaments
depot, exactly the opposite of the depot it was to replace. There were problems. Far from vulnerable conurbations might mean safety from bombing, but it also meant distance from a work force. Hence the need for housing, but that would take time and time was one thing they didn’t have. They say good comes out of bad. One result of the Dunkirk evacuation was that there was no shortage of troops in England and so sufficient numbers were soon drafted into Doddington but to a life under canvas until Nissen huts could be erected, a low priority given the need safely to store what little ammunition there was that hadn’t been left behind in France.


That was the beginning. Under the command of Brigadier de Wolff (‘Wolffy) Donnington grew into a huge depot employing some 15,000 soldiers, 3,200 ATS, 2,000 Italian prisoners of war and 4,000 civilians. It was state of the art and hugely effective in doing it job. It suppled many tanks to Russia. It had some of the first mobile radar. de Wolff had reputation for discipline and he used this well as he blended together the essential business skills of warehousing and distribution with soldiering. An Ordnance depot must have been like a vast ‘Amazon’ distribution warehouse but without computers. Delivery wouldn't be by courier who’d leave card if the customer was out; it was by soldiers often under fire and always under pressure. The King and Queen visited in June 1942.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

COD Derby

The Derby Evening Telegraph reported on 31 July 1943 how, in the run up to D Day, Derby school children packed stores which would be landed with the troops on the Normandy beaches. The children were volunteering to help the Royal Army Ordnance Corps with the huge task it was given to pack some 375 million items ready for the invasion. It wasn't only children, but all sorts of volunteer groups.

Turning to the central ordnance depot, I found a daily news sheet first published on 4th October 1943 to give soldiers, ATS and civilians at the Derby RAOC sites news of the war, topics about the depot and forthcoming entertainment, sport and recreation. Just a few examples paint a picture. 

Operation Market Garden, the Arnhem mission, is described day by day without any hype and not hiding the terrible losses. An earlier edition had piece about gaskets and how they have to be handled carefully (later there is a piece telling how, in view of shortages, some gaskets were being made from wrapping paper.) On the subject of paper a new recruit is quoted as asking why there is so much paperwork - the answer, ‘it’s all about checking; if everyone took more care it wouldn’t be needed!’ Entertainments were the expected round of films and dances, but interestingly also discussion groups - on 20 October 1943 one on science and religion. 



Also from COD Derby is a thick book setting out the system and organisation of the depot. Here the reason for all the paperwork becomes clear. Supplies come in from manufacturers (who need paying) but also USA and Canada. The depot needs to be able to predict usage of individual items so that re-ordering can be done before the stock runs out and without excessive stock being held. All this without computers. It must have been like some sort of Amazon warehouse, but seventy years earlier. The depot produced a wonderful little book entitled ‘Good Storekeeping’, all aimed at accuracy and methodical working. 

COD Chilwell

‘A square mile of junk, weeds, railway lines’ was what we might have seen when Brigadier Williams  visited Chilwell one cold November day in 1934; what he saw was the site for the ‘finest depot for the mechanisation of the Army in the world’. Chilwell had been a major Ordnance factory until partially destroyed by an explosion in 1918. It had lain empty since 1926. There was much work to be done. F Perks & Son of Long Eaton did much of this. 

Armies of the 1930’s had to be mobile. Brigadier Williams saw Chilwell as the  place where he could develop an entirely new organisation which would become the blueprint for many other depots and where he could assemble and train regular officers and men to go anywhere in the world where they were needed to open up overseas bases.

A whole new way of doing things was needed. Brigadier Williams picked the brains of the then blossoming motor industry and recruited some of their most able managers. There was a joke at Chilwell that it had become The Rootes Rifles or Lucas Light Infantry. I have read of a coach trip from Chilwell to Fort Dunlop in Birmingham (followed by a night out listening to Larry Adler!). There must have been more. 

There were many visits to Chilwell. Photographs record the Duke of Kent and Captain Margesson, the War Minister. The head of the American Ordnance came, as did General Horrocks. Motor companies came including Commer Cars and Solex Carburettors. 


At Chilwell men and women worked side by side, as did soldiers and civilians. I have read that, at least to begin with, ATS women had the job of delivering lorries, but without windscreens and so a very cold job. Also I have read of an argument about whether ATS could wear trousers (skirts weren’t a good idea when climbing up into a lorry!)

More to come....


Saturday, 12 July 2014

The waste of war

My father fought in both world wars; he was sixty when I was born. I have been reading through the scrap books my mother kept when she was his PA and have found some wonderful material painting a vivid picture of that time. 

One particular piece was the text of a speech my father delivered in Halifax in Salute the Soldier Week seeking to encourage more people to put their money in National Savings in order to help meet the ever increasing monetary cost of the war. One sentence in this speech struck me very hard and it was this:

‘War in itself is essentially wasteful and if we are to be victorious we must waste more than the enemy. This is the cost of war.’

My father’s role was to supply the troops with all they needed and so this seems all the more odd; a grim acceptance of a reality.

My father spoke very little about his experiences in the Great War although I recall him saying that in the horror of the Somme quite by chance he met up with his brother. My father was a young officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and my uncle in the Royal Engineers. I wonder what they may have said to each other? Their father had died in 1906 and their mother was alone in England working as a housekeeper at the Conservative Club in St James’ Street, London. 

I remember my uncle telling me with incredulity how on that 4th of August 1914 he and very many other young men had rejoiced in the streets at the prospect of standing up for King and country. The Somme campaign was some two years later. The two Williams boys, as their mother still regarded them, were certainly no longer boys. They had witnessed barbarism on a monumental scale. So, would the conversation have been about the horrors, or, perhaps, on an altogether more banal level. Concern for mother and how she must be worrying, but then perhaps the conversation that any two brothers might have, the telling of stories, a joke or two, then a glass or two. It can only be conjecture. What it tells me though is that during all the horror, somehow life did go on. People thought ordinary thoughts, did ordinary things, had ordinary conversations. 


Yet some things stick. I know my father had nightmares right up until his death. I can’t help feeling that the inherent wastefulness of men and material must have struck him hard in the trenches and then followed him as he strove to do his job and so work for victory against Nazism, but always in the knowledge of the awful waste this entailed.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Some more forgotten men and women of WWII

Earlier this month as the world marked the 70th anniversary of D Day we saw with great admiration veterans of operation Overlord and the battle for France that followed. I watched my TV impressed by the story that the sons of the inventors of the Mulberry Harbour had to tell. I then pondered the simple question of how on earth did all that equipment get to France in the right quantities and when it was needed.
To begin to answer the question, I dusted off the first volume of the scrap book my mother kept of my father's war. He had headed that part of the army (The Royal Army Ordnance Corps, R.A.O.C.) responsible for the task of getting what was needed to the right place at the right time. The book was a treasure trove of press cuttings, speeches, photographs and oddments like the guest lists from formal dinners (formal dinners in wartime?). The content took me wholly by surprise: the scale was far greater than I had ever imagined: so many people, so much organisation and planning, such imagination and creativity, such drive.
This is a story that needs to be told to do justice to those tens of thousands of soldiers, ATS and civilians who worked their socks off to make sure the 'front line' soldiers were properly equipped. I have put 'front line' in inverted commas, since many Ordnance soldiers were very much front line. But it is more than just them, it is about how the skills of so many parts of the world of work were drawn together in this 'great enterprise'. The inverted commas this time come from seeing how my father, and I suspect many others, possibly quite unconsciously used Churchillian idioms when speaking. 
It was the most extraordinary period in the history of these islands (there, I am doing it too!). I have now begun to research the Corps' own records and the story just becomes richer. I plan to try to find some of those who were part of the R.A.O.C. and have their story to tell. 

I plan to write blogs as I progress the project and look forward to any feedback.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Ashley Jackson's Very Short Introduction to the British Empire

Ashley Jackson's Very Short Introduction to the British Empire

This book sets out to answer questions without bias since this subject attracts strong views on both sides. One point he seems to miss early on is just why the British sought to impose their ideas on the peoples they governed. 
Let us suppose that I have a better way of thinking that you have. Common sense would suggest that I keep my secret to superiority rather than share it. The British thought their way was better but then went on to try to share it with most of the world's population. 
I suggest that this was central to the 19th century view that people could be improved and so be more likely to be among the saved of God. It is a mindset we can no longer readily grasp but I think it unlocks some of 19th century thought 

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth

This book is a celebration in plotting. Dickens would have been proud. It takes the reader through half forgotten streets of the political stresses of the seventies. The three day week, Northern Ireland and Heath v Wilson. It takes us close to the literary world almost mixing history with fiction. His characters condemn nihilist writing and then he gives us a nihilist ending.
He just gets better

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Magna Carta - The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015

Third Millennium are publishing a quite excellent book on Magna Carta edited by Professor Nicholas Vincent. It has a special Lincoln edition which highlights the particular role of this city in the Magna Carta story.

There is currently the opportunity to subscribe to this edition. Here is the link http://tmiltd.com/products/magna-carta-lincoln

I have had a sneak preview and find something totally absorbing. This ranges from the nature of law to the detail of just what the pressures were that brought it all together. But there is much more, it is the legacy of Magna Carta that truly matters. This is seen clearly in the constitution of the United States, but it is much wider. It is almost the legal air we breath, in much the same way as the christian heritage of 1000 years is the air we in the western world breath. It may not have detailed application but its influence in unmistakeable.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter

Easter presents the greatest challenge to faith, surely as experienced most by the first followers of Jesus, yet it contains too the rock upon which faith is built; or so they say.
There is a prayer I used to use as a Reader which went something like, ' I believe, help thou my unbelief'.
These two states live together.
Giles Fraser's article in today's Guardian (http://bit.ly/1hbNYsD) articulated this conundrum very well. He did not, though, grasp what to me is an increasing crucial distinction between faith and religion.
Philip Pullman's excellent short book, the Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, explored, through a fictional account of the gospel stories, how Jesus was in effect stolen from ordinary people by men of religion. Jesus was and is a man for all people, not just the religious or righteous. So it is a tragedy when good people turn away from religion to atheism abandoning Jesus on the way.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

12 Years a Slave

This is a film you watch with an sense of reverence. The fully deserved plaudits for its makers are one reason, the gravity of the subject matter the other. Throughout the film the sound in my ear was 'Gott' the first word uttered by Florestan at the start of his aria in Beethoven's masterpiece, Fidelio. Florestan was imprisoned as a result of an abuse of power and it was only the love of his wife that saved him. But it is the parallel of abuse that struck me most strongly. Let no one say that Magna Carta is irrelevant. Power is abused each and every day and this only happens because ordinary people like you and me do nothing.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Magna Carta

What has Magna Carta to do with me?
Someone wrote to me the other week complaining about all the fuss being made about Magna Carta; surely there are more important things? It makes you wonder.
In 1213 it was a group of wealthy barons, not top of most people’s list for sympathy, who were crying ‘unfair’; the remainder of the population might well have been too, but no-one heard them, or bothered to write down what they said. The barons’ many complaints were legitimate; we would recoil at the thought of a widow being at the mercy of the king. The core of the complaint was as it so often has been over the centuries: money; the king needed it and the barons had it, and the king used, or rather abused his power to obtain it. Was King John then a uniquely bad king? Opinions differ, the issue was rather more what kingship meant and this is where Lincolnshire’s Archbishop Stephen Langton comes onto the stage. 
It seems that Langton had thought long and hard about kingship. He had a huge resource to inform his thinking: the biblical book of Kings and a particular commentary on it which is still among the Cathedral medieval manuscripts. The ancient Jews had agonised for generations over whether or not to have a king and, if they had one, just how would he fit between them and God? The thinking set the ground rules and from the start the king was not an absolute ruler. Langton took this thinking and brought it into a debate with a family of kings who clearly saw their power as absolute. It is many years since monarchs saw their power as absolute, or is it?
21st century ‘monarchs’ tend not to be kings; most are individuals or groups who wield power given to them through a demographic process or taken by them through all kinds of violence. There others: organs of government, some of those who control the media and digital technologies, those who take massive risks in banking; the list goes on. The Magna Carta question is about the boundaries to be placed on their power. Power is a fact of life, but power must be exercised responsibly, fairly and within the rule of law.
Parliamentary democracy followed on quite quickly after Magna Carta with the De Montfort parliament in 1265, itself greatly influenced by another man of Lincolnshire Robert Grosseteste. It is and always has been Parliament that wrestles with the boundaries of power and all too often it is a complex and uneven fight. The whole question of surveillance is a very clear illustration.

So does Magna Carta matter? You bet is does. What child has never said, ‘it’s unfair’? How often is it truly unfair? How often do the powerful simply get away with it? Magna Carta is the weapon; society simply needs the bravery and determination of the barons to give it true voice.  

Fighter Boys - The Battle of Britain, 1940 - Patrick Bishop

Why read a book such as this, unless you are flying mad? Well, it's not about flying. There are many flying scenes and the course of the battle is mapped in impeccable detail. The book is about young men and women caught up in a maelstrom.
It is clear from a variety of sources that Hitler both expected a peaceful relationship with Great Britain and wished for one. It was with this in mind that he pressed his attack against the RAF; if it collapsed there would be no need for an invasion. Bishop makes it clear that Hitler's big mistake was switching the battle away from the aerodromes to the civilian population. This was in retaliation for Churchill's decision to bomb Berlin, in turn in retaliation for bombs dropped on London in terrible error. It gave the RAF vital space to draw breath and to be effective in its destruction of the day bombing raids.
The book though is about people. Bishop paints a an utterly human picture with extracts from letters and diaries and interviews with survivors. He traces the shift of mood from almost schoolboy joy at flying, through a conscious light hearted approach to daily event of death, to the raw pain of hate, loss, injury and love.