The Eleventh of the Eleventh 2021

War, maps, art

A few years ago I posted a blog about the life of my great uncle, Harold Whidby Speight, and his service in the First World War.

I had mentioned that, aged 21, he was mobilised to Belgium as a sergeant with the 50th Northumbrian Division, arriving just in time for the second battle of Ypres (with neither gas mask nor steel helmet). I also mentioned that he painted in watercolour and, recently, I have come across an undated work of his at the intersection of graphic design, cartography, history and personal experience.

It is an example of ‘map art’ and represents his account of the second battle of Ypres. It’s in a rather fragile state and was torn in two at some point, but I’ve photographed it and included it below. (You’ll need to zoom in to see the detail.)

The Second Battle of Ypres.

I think it’s rather impressive and worth restoring and preserving for the archives of the Durham Light Infantry (anyone know the number of TV’s The Repair ShopūüėÜ?).

My second post about Harold’s war time experience referenced his pay book and a poem that he’d copied into it in lieu of a short form will. The poem, The Steel of the DLI, was about the Division’s experience in early August 1915, a few months after the Second Battle of Ypres, when it fought to re-take the area around Hooge, and its costly heroics in holding Hooge Crater.

The Hooge Crater in 1915

Although Harold’s artwork pre-dates the latter event it does, nevertheless, contain one reference to the crater in the roll of honour at upper right. Most of those named died on May 24 1915 (the penultimate day of the Second Battle of Ypres), but one named officer, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, is recorded as having died at Hooge Crater on 30 July. That was the day when the German army first used flame throwers (flammenwerfers). It must have added hugely to the terror felt by the opposing infantry. Talbot died leading his men in a counter attack following the flame thrower offensive.

Talbot was not directly linked to Harold; however, there is a clear motivation to his inclusion in Harold’s artwork. Talbot’s elder brother was an army chaplain who, along with others in December 1915, established a rest and recreational centre named Talbot House in honour of Gilbert. This became known Toc H based on the house’s initials (TH was represented as Toc Aitch in the radiotelephony phonetic alphabet of the time¬† analogous to Tango Hotel in the modern International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet).

In 1920, Toc H developed into an international, inter-denominational Christian social service of which Harold was a member. One of its aims was to promote reconciliation, something that would have been close to Harold’s heart. (The organisation still exists as a voluntary movement.)

Postscript: The Hooge Crater was created by the detonation of a mine laid at the end of a 190-foot tunnel (dug by the 175 Tunnelling Company) on 19 July 1915 and was estimated to be 120 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep.

National Refugee Day 2021


June 20th is National Refugee Day. This opinion piece by Alf Dubs in the Graun points out that if the current policies of the UK government were extant in pre-WWII days, then thousands of Czech refugees, including those of the kindertransport, spirited away from the Nazi occupation by the actions of Doreen Warriner, Nicholas Winton and others would not have been saved. Sad, but true.

As one of the kindertransport children himself, Dubs credits the saving of their lives to the  compassion of one man, Winton, and the humanity of the country.

Personally, I find it rather sad that Dubs remains unaware of the real driving force behind the exodus of the Czech refugees, Warriner, but that’s not nearly as sad as the loss of this country’s humanity, particularly as demonstrated by its current government.

Dubs may not have known of the wider history of the kindertransport, but you can read my take on the bigger picture from the perspective of my father and paternal grandparents  pictured below, here.

Czech refugees at High Cross Castle, an English Lake District youth hostel. My grandfather is at the extreme left and my grandmother and father are front row left.

… and to top it off, the grand-parental origins of my family comprise more than just a political refugee; they include a displaced person, an economic migrant and a geordie. #diverse

Anglo-Czech, Irish-Italian, European. #WeAreScotland

The Eleventh of the Eleventh 2020

A family at war

I have previously written about the life and experiences of my great uncle Harold, a wounded survivor of the First World War who also volunteered in the Second World War in support of the D-Day landings (see here and here).

I also had three uncles who served in the Second World War; Tot, who died at sea, Jack, who survived the land war and Doug, the eldest of his siblings, an electrical engineer in a reserved occupation who was unable to volunteer for active service or to be conscripted.

Tot was the second oldest of the brothers and served as an engineering officer in the Merchant Navy as poor eyesight caused him to be rejected by the Royal Navy. In 1941 he broke his leg when ashore in the United States and, although permitted to recuperate there, he chose to travel home on his convoy vessel, the SS Empire Crossbill, as a supernumary Fourth Engineer.

Empire Crossbill was an American cargo ship built in 1919 as the West Amargosa and laid up in 1937. In 1940 she was transferred to the UK Ministry of War Transport and renamed the Empire Crossbill. After several successful crossings of the North Atlantic, she mustered in Cape Breton in August 1941 as part of Slow Convoy 42 bound for Liverpool.

The West Amargosa, subsequently SS Empire Crossbill, before transfer to the UK Ministry of War Transport

SC42 was attacked by the Markgraf wolfpack of 14 German submarines that was on patrol southeast of Greenland. The attack extended over three night nights, 9-11 September. Empire Crossbill was torpedoed by U-82 east of Cape Farewell at 03.11 GMT on 11 September 1941 and sank with all hands: 38 crew, 10 gunners, and one passenger – Thomas Lang Forster, aged 23.

The reported location of Empire Crossbill’s sinking

Of the 65 merchant vessels that comprised SC42, sixteen Рalmost one quarter of the convoy Рwere lost. U-82 was itself sunk with the loss of all 45 crew just a few months later on 6 February 1942, north of the Azores, having been depth charged by HMS Rochester and HMS Tamarisk. Its captain, Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Rollmann, was 27 Рjust four years older than Tot.

Tot’s name (Forster T.L.) on the Tower Hill Memorial to merchant seamen

Jack, the youngest of the three brothers, survived the war having experienced both the Dunkirk evacuation and the D-Day landings.

Prior to the Dunkirk evacuation, he had been with 285 Battery, 72nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery 50th Northumberland Division, a part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). His Division was one of the last to leave Dunkirk as it had been tasked to destroy any installations as the BEF retreated. Jack and his companions joined one of the last ships, if not the last, that departed Dunkirk. He landed at Margate on 2 June 1940.

As far as his family was concerned, Jack was missing in action, so it was a great relief to them that a telegram arrived from him on 3 June. No “Hello Mam, I’m fine”, but just one line asking her to ‘wire’ 10 shillings (50 pence) to him care of the General Post Office in Rugely Staffordshire!

The 50th Northumberland Division (and Jack) then went on to fight in the North African desert war with General Montgomery and landed on Sword beach on D-Day itself. He was on active service from the time of the BEF to VE Day.

Jack being Jack, he was almost court martialled on VE Day itself. He had been listening on the radio to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech announcing the end of the war in Europe when a senior officer sent for him. He refused to attend the officer and told the messenger to go away saying that he was busy. Jack was subsequently escorted under armed guard to the officer’s room.

I don’t think the officer could have seen much action, certainly not compared to Jack, and on learning of his involvement at Dunkirk, in North Africa, and on D-Day, the officer absolved him of any offence. Many years later they were reunited on Breakfast TV in a segment to mark the 40th anniversary of VE Day and retold their story on air. (I have never watched breakfast TV apart from that one morning, but, unfortunately, despite viewing it from 6am until about 9.50, I never saw his contribution – my employer’s flexitime limit meant that I had to be clocked in by 10am and Jack’s contribution only came later – we had no video recorder at that time.)

NB. Some of the above is taken from archived records detailing the events mentioned, the rest is taken from the family matriarch’s tome ‘A European Family’ and archival material held by family members.

Postscript: This is Jack’s personal recollection of the D-Day landings…


The journey we made from Portsmouth to Normandy in France was unforgettable. We travelled in a ‘Landing Craft Tank [L.C.T]’ and to some, the journey was a veritable nightmare. The transport consisted of very long barges, designed to carry eleven tanks, and acted like huge white whales; they would rise from the water towards the sky and then crash onto the sea again after each swell.

It was a welcome relief to land on Sword beach with the main assault troops of the 3rd British Infantry division. The tanks, which went straight into action, left first and at the same time the ramp was in about 15 feet of water.

We were a signal section, part of the advance signals H.Q. and were issued with only handcarts containing wireless equipment. We managed to get a line ashore and the carts, being waterfproof and containing air, floated just below the surface. During this time shells were falling closer and closer. The L.C.T. Captain bawling “Get the hell out of here”, added to the threatening atmosphere. Fortunately we made dry land with only one casualty and that was the barrage balloon we were painstakingly carrying for the beach defence. It was shot down!

We struggled over the beach and found some protection in a farm just inland from the French holiday resort of Lion-sur-mer. Some holiday! Leaving the wireless operators to set up their equipments, driver Morgan and I set about clearing up the area following the tank and infantry assault. My binoculars and watch had been damaged by the sea water but I was able to replace them with those of a German Officer who sadly had no further use of them.

One of our tasks was to search the sleeping quarters below the fortress which had been designed to keep us out. While a young Welsh soldier covered me with my revolver I found two young Germans cowering in the upper bunks. They were terrified and I had to drag them out as they were convinced they were going to be shot. They were no more than seventeen years old and begged us not to shoot them. Having survived the previous infantry attack when many of their comrades had been killed, they were relieved to find out that they were destined for prison camp and safety.

It was unfortunate that our D-Day objective, Caen, was not taken for a further two weeks due to the arrival of Rommel and his famous Panzer troops. They had come north in an attempt to hurl us back into the sea. Rommel must have been extremely unhappy when he realised that both the 3rd. and the 50th. Divisions of the British Army were the ones that prevented him from doing so because he knew that they were the last ones to leave Dunkirk in 1940.


Postscript: Since this was originally posted, I have been able to access some further documents relating to Tot. These are presented below:

(i) Tot looking resplendent in his Merchant Navy engineer’s uniform…

(ii) The families of the Empire Crossbill’s crew would have all received the following notification a few days after the vessel was sunk. It holds the forlorn hope that its crew may have been saved…

(iii) When it was known that no-one had survived the sinking, the families received the sympathies of King George VI…

(iv) Tot’s service medals accompanied by regrets that he never lived to receive them…

(v) Finally, a personal reminder. Tot’s business card…

A limerick a week #208

How low can you go?

‘How low can you go’ used to be the audience chant at limbo dance competitions. Now it is the astonished proclamation of the less-sociopathic politicos and media outlets in the UK as it appears, from this week’s news, that Boris Johnson, Donald Trump’s wannabe ‘Mini Me’ and the yes men and press men of the UK’s right wing cabal think it’s okay to break international law in pursuit of their nationalistic political ends.¬†

The Conservative party has been more than willing to garner votes through nationalistic and xenophobic ‘populism’, but there have been honourable exceptions, like this (that I’ve quoted before), from the former conservative government minister, David Gauke:

‚ÄúA willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúRather than recognising the challenges of a fast-changing society require sometimes complex responses, that we live in a world of trade-offs, that easy answers are usually false answers, we have seen the rise of the simplifiers.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúIn deploying this sort of language, we go to war with truth.‚ÄĚ

Well, it seems that we are now at war not only with the truth, but also with legality and judicial oversight.

Not only is the current UK government seeking to limit the scope of judicial review over its actions, simply as a result of the UK Supreme Court ruling that the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks in 2019 was unlawful, but it is even willing to acknowledge in Parliament that it is putting forward legislation that it knows is in breach of international law.

I’d like to think that most British people would be horrified by this prospect, but as with nationalistic pursuits through the 20th century and into the current millennium, it seems there some, too many, who are more than happy to dispense with any veneer of decency that would otherwise coat them.

That it is happening in the UK now is down to those right wing politicians and their media taskmasters who choose to point the finger of blame for any of the public’s woes at minorities and immigrants instead of at their self-interested pursuit of political dogma-dressed-up-as-austerity since the 2007-2008 financial crisis (itself a product of the business and financial deregulation propounded by the Voodoo economics of Ronald Reagan).

When a government knowingly puts forward unlawful legislation, when it seeks to deny judicial oversight, and when its public accepts it without demur because of entrained and xenophobic nationalism then  at that point, society has become diseased.

Albert Einstein experienced it personally and it led him to say that “Nationalism is an infantile thing. It is the measles of mankind”. It truly is. Unfortunately Johnson and his cronies are now no more than the vectors and political ‘anti-vaxxers’ for this particular disease.

When you thought that it couldn’t get worse
The Tories, it seems, aren’t averse
To breaking the law
With a ‘screw you!’ guffaw.
Those f**kits are wholly perverse!

Postscript: Worrying, isn’t it, that the Brexit nationalists wanted to do away with legal oversight from the European Court of Justice so they could get back ‘our sovereignty’, only to call out British judges in the UK’s (sovereign) Supreme Court for meddling in politics whenever they simply uphold UK domestic law that is inconvenient to the nationalist agenda. Subsequently to seek to prevent future judicial review of governmental actions is Trumpian hubris writ large – precisely the same sort of hubris that interpreted a non-binding referendum on EU membership to be binding and that now sees a treaty signed under international law to be non-binding.¬†

Not worried yet? You should be!


That most paradoxical of things

Another coincidence…¬†

… they should never happen, but they always do.

The day after I posted a limerick that looked back at a canal cruise last year aboard the narrowboat Rachel, I played late-night-catch-up for a TV programme that I’d recorded but had yet to watch. It was about the building of the Grand Union canal.

And guess what? Of the 38,000 currently licensed narrowboats in the UK, the programme featured the presenter aboard the very same boat that we had hired. It’s a small world.

Our narrowboat “Rachel” moored in the centre of Stratford.


… and on the Lapworth Link, a short branch that connects the Grand Union and South Stratford canals where they ‘kiss’ at Kingswood Junction.


… and now it’s on the tele!


Worth another look…


I was apalled to see Nigel Farage wearing an over-sized poppy in the run-up to Rememberance Day. His were not the values that so many lost their lives for.

So, why not click on the headlines, below, for a reminder of the life of a man who served in two world wars, a peace-loving, true gentleman and internationalist; a man that was the polar opposite of those whom the Scottish actor Brian Cox has described as ‚ÄúThe opportunistic clowns of Brexit, Gove, Johnson and the little Englander Farage and the feudalist Rees-Mogg”.

The eleventh of the eleventh

The eleventh of the eleventh plus one

A limerick a week #119

“A Chancellor who will be judged harshly by history”[1]

It’s a serious one this week, I’m afraid, and it was Osborne wot made me do it…

Anyone that read¬†ALAW #116¬†will have been left with the advice that “sometimes the first thing you have to do is to suspend belief and the second thing you do is to suspend disbelief”.

I had to do that just a couple of days before Christmas when listening to George Osborne on the radio. He had the brass-neck to deny that his blueprint for austerity after the Tories’ election victory in 2010 had any r√īle to play in the UK’s current homelessness crisis. Instead, he blamed ‘bad policy’.

Er, that would be policy related to housing, benefits and council services then? Policies that he and his chums in the Conservative Party have imposed on the UK over the last eight years!

And what was Osborne’s great contribution to housing policy? Well, from the Independent newspaper’s analysis it was this: In the end, aggressive monetary loosening from the Bank of England came to the economy‚Äôs rescue, along with one the Chancellor‚Äôs very worst policies, a “Help To Buy” scheme that stimulated consumer confidence in 2013 but only at the terrible price of perpetuating the country‚Äôs housing disaster. (See this, from the Guardian, to understand why.)

Homelessness not enough? Then how about the prison crisis, a crisis led by “budget cuts, poor political decisions and frequent changes of political direction” according to a former¬† Director-General of HM Prison Service. Or the crisis in special educational needs provision that is directly attributable to cuts in local government funding? Or the crisis in social care for vulnerable adults? Or the crisis in support for young people presenting with mental health issues? Or the wider NHS crisis with the lowest per capita number of doctors, nurses or beds in the western world?

Osborne’s political manoeuvre was to masquerade his ideological cuts to public services as austerity. “Money doesn’t grow on trees” was the ideologues’ battle cry! Except it did if you were a banker, with ¬£435 billion ‘spent’ up to August 2016 on ‘aggressive monetary loosening’, so-called ‘quantitative easing’ (‘printing money’ in old parlance), to bail out the banks after their affair with the sort of casino capitalism engendered by Thatcher’s deregulation of the 1980s.

And it is Thatcher’s ideological experiment in neo-liberalism that has since been fostered by the likes of Osborne and his Bullingdon Club cronies.

“Trickle-down”, they said when “flood up” was what they meant and the great British public swallowed it hook, line and sinker; its 30 pieces of silver transformed during the 1980s into a few measly shares in British Gas or a short-lived and quickly spent windfall from building society de-mutualisations to be followed by a global financial collapse sponsored by sub-prime free-market think-tanks.

An austere political trope
Left the homeless with nary a hope,
So let no-one deny
That censure must lie
On the shoulders of Osborne the Dope!


A limerick a week #100

The most pathetic cycling event ever!

Cyclists in and around Aberdeen got rather excited when it was first revealed they would have the opportunity to ride the pristine tarmac of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route before its opening to vehicular traffic (after which bikes will be banned from it).

But to demonstrate that the road’s sponsor, Transport Scotland, comprises a bunch of pillocks, they have turned a terrific PR opportunity into an absolute shambles. How? By banning bikes, or at least the riders’ own bikes.

Yup, in another “I don’t believe it” moment, the imbeciles in charge of the event have decided that cyclists will be bussed to the road and then loaned a bike¬†so that “cyclists of all levels can (sic) wiz, wobble or weave on the closed road, promoting active travel and greener transport”. Frankly, I’d rather ‘wiz’ on Transport Scotland!

‚ÄúBefore you say anything nasty about someone, just pause for a second and browse through some really good adjectives in your head‚ÄĚ (Ian Martin).

The move led to the online road cyclists’ website and forum,, to question “Is this the worst cycling event EVER?”. I¬† pretty much think so…

Sadly, it won’t happen, but…

It’s a thing that we should not let pass
So, perhaps, we should set off en masse
Like at Kinder Scout
When the walkers strode out
And took part in a large-scale trespass!