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REVIEW: Hampshire at War 1939-45

Hampshire at War 1939-45
Murray Rowlands
Pen & Sword Military
Price: £12.99

New Zealander, Murray Rowlands, has continued publishing in Pen & Sword’s Military series, Your Towns & Cities in WW II, with this latest book on Hampshire’s role in the Second World War. The region was critical in the context of a possible German invasion because of its geographical position and because Portsmouth was a major British naval base.  

In the mid-1930s, the actions of Italy and Germany were eroding confidence in the ability of the newly formed League of Nations to keep the peace. Only the Labour politician, Ernest Bevin seemed to counter the prevailing view that rearmament would not be necessary.  Stanley Baldwin thought that the key risk to Britain was an economic not a military one and Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister, appeased Hitler in 1938 and refused to accept the demands for more military spending.

The civilian population were prepared for war with the building of Anderson Shelters in gardens and Morrison shelters indoors, plus other home-built protections. As war approached, children were evacuated out of Portsmouth, Southampton and Gosport. Between September 1939 and May 1940 the ‘Phoney War’, so-called by the Americans, to describe the stand-off between Germany, Britain and France, gave time for the British Expeditionary Force to move to France out of the Southampton Docks.

During the invasion of Dunkirk, every vessel in Portsmouth Harbour was requisitioned to leave for France on 29 May 1940. Aldershot, Southampton and Portsmouth became fortress towns having their own defensive perimeters. The Hampshire beaches were part of the coastal crust of defence. Meanwhile, on the civilian side, the Home Guard was recruited. Some 250,000 had joined by the end of May 1940. This rose to 400,000 by September 1943 and to 1.7 million ultimately. One in four men were veterans of World War I.

Portsmouth Command covered the area from Newhaven to Seaton and built, maintained, converted and repaired scores of ships. Sailors were also trained here in new techniques as the war developed. Some 40,000 men and women were engaged in repairing ships here. Midget submarines were also developed and a fleet of trawlers with anti-submarine devices, minesweepers and patrol vessels for harbour defence.

At Middle Wallop, 200 Bristol Blenheim Bombers were equipped with four machine-guns and flew with the first air-borne radar. Also at Middle Wallop were three fighter squadrons which included Spitfires, Blenheims and Hurricane fighter planes. Many of the critical fights in the Battle of Britain took place in the skies above Hampshire.

A chain of radar defences to protect Britain from aerial attacks had been established by 1940, including one at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and twenty others. They swept the coastline at a low level, warning of incoming planes.

Portsmouth during the Blitz experienced 67 raids by the Luftwaffe with nearly 1000 civilian deaths but by this time training in techniques of secret war was well underway at Beaulieu in the New Forest. These including training to plant explosives, burglary, sabotage and silent killing. The double spy, Kim Philby, wrote a training manual incorporating the Soviet training he had already followed in his high-level position in British Intelligence.

Murray Rowlands has written a lively account of the importance of Hampshire in the defence of Britain in World War II, packed full of detail, interesting anecdotal material and photographs from those who lived through the war and participated in it. Hampshire at War 1939-45 follows his earlier book, Aldershot in WW1, published last year in the same series. He has also written about his two New Zealand uncles and their experience in World War I in Innocents into War and has regularly spoken to local history associations and study groups on topics related to military history such as his talk on Earl Haig and to the New Zealand Studies Network on the New-Zealand-born surgeon Sir Harold Gilles.