Journeys end

After 13 years, 3 weeks, 19 billion pounds, 458 lives lost, and 1000’s changed forever, the UK’s combat operations in Afghanistan have ended.
Yesterday October 27th 2014 Wing Cdr Matt Radnall of the RAF climbed aboard a chinook helicopter, in his arms the folded union flag that flew over Camp Bastion, he was the last British soldier to leave. Almost all the British personnel killed in Afghanistan happened after Bastion was set up in the troubled Helmand province, it is here the bulk of our fighting occurred. It is here that the Taliban still control the areas outside the green zone, it is here that Opium production has skyrocketed and the roads are littered with IED’s ready to indiscriminately kill.
But it is also here that schools are open, the security in the larger towns and villages has improved, girls can read and learn and the local economy is rising.

There’s no clear cut answer to whether Afghanistan was worth it, certainly things are improving but many of the old problems remain, warlords are asserting control and the central government is weak. The Taliban roam the countryside and the tribal areas along the Pakistan Border. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Afghanistan certainly won’t be build in a generation. We have seen the first peaceful transition of power to a leader who certainly has the ability to turn the country around and finish the job. It’s too soon to say whether it was worth it in the end. Some will say “no” whatever the outcome, others will say “yes”, and others, “wait and see.”

But it should never be forgotten that there’s 458 empty chairs at tables today. And with some luck, there won’t be any more.

By: Gregg Smith
Twitter: @GreggSmith1
WordPress: https://myhistoryplace.wordpress.com/

July 19: The loss of the Mary Rose

July 1, 1542, Portsmouth, England.

The flagship of Vice Admiral George Carew, the 91 gun carrack, Mary Rose heels over suddenly to port, as the crew scramble to safety water rushes through the open gun ports accelerating the sinking, the upper decks are in chaos as sailors try desperately to survive over the noise of cannons crashing across the decks, the giant brick oven collapsing and the moans and cries of the men crushed under them.

The Mary Rose as shown in the Anthony Roll

Those who made it to the open decks were doomed, heavy anti boarding nets covered the decks, the men trapped under it unable to break free were dragged under with the ship. as the hulk of the ship slipped between the waves, of 400 men, only 35 survived.

Years of modifications to the ship meant she was riding too low in the water, and as she attempted a tight turn the ship caught the breeze and leaned over to the point the water rushed in to the dangerously close to the waterline gun ports.
Edward Hall’s Chronicle gave the reason for the sinking as being caused by

“to[o] much foly … for she was laden with much ordinaunce, and the portes left open, which were low, & the great ordinaunce unbreached, so that when the ship should turne, the water entered, and sodainly she sanke.” 

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the ship, for example the belief that it is named after the sister of Henry VIII. There is no evidence to support this, however during this period it was uncommon to find a ship named for someone. Most ship names held religious connotations, such as Grace Dieu and a similar ship to the Mary Rose, Peter Pomegranate was named after St Peter and the family badge of Catherine of Aragon.

Another myth that won’t go away is that this was the first engagement the Mary Rose fought in. By the time of the sinking the ship was already a veteran, having fought her first action in 1512, 33 years before the sinking. Although it was practically rebuilt in the 1530’s.

Although efforts were made to raise the ship almost immediately after her sinking, the angle at which she settled ruled out any reasonable attempt at salvage. The wreck remained in the Solent, time and tide resulted in the exposed parts of the ship deteriorating and the shifting sand buried what was left. Because of the changing sands the wreck was rediscovered in 1836 before being lost under the sands once more until 1971.

Following fundraising efforts Mary Rose once again rose above the waves and the long process of conservation began.

The Mary Rose was an archaeological goldmine, artifacts gave an intimate insight into the life of an ordinary Tudor sailor. Her remains and the artifacts can be seen at the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth

July 18, 1792: The US Navy loses a Father.

“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

On the third floor of  No. 19 Rue de Tournon, Paris, a body is found face down. That body is the mortal remains of John Paul Jones, a hero to some, a pirate to many.

Born in a small cottage on the South west coast of Scotland overlooking the Solway Firth on July 6, 1747 Jones began his career at sea joining trade and slave ships out of Whitehaven, Cumbria.

John Paul Jones

However John Paul Jones is more known for his actions during the revolutionary war. As Captain of the USS Ranger he was ordered to France carrying dispatches telling of General Burgoyne’s surrender to the commissioners in Paris. On the voyage over, two British prizes were captured. Ranger sailed from Brest 10 April 1778, for the Irish Sea and four days later captured a prize between the Scilly Isles and Cape Clear. On 17 April, she took another prize and sent her back to France.

On April 23, 1778, Jones and 30 of his crew landed at his old stomping ground of Whitehaven. As reported by the Lloyds evening post:

“Whitehaven, April 23.

LATE last night, or early this morning, a number of armed men (to the amount of
thirty) landed privately at this place, by two boats, from an American privateer, as
appears from one of the people now in custody. Whether he was left through
accident, or escaped by design, is yet uncertain.

Thus much has however been proved, that a little after three o’clock this morning he
rapped at several doors in Marlborough street, (adjoining one of the piers) and
informed them that fire had been [benn] let to one of the ships in the Harbour,
matches were laid in several others; the whole would be soon in a blaze, and the
town also destroyed; that he was one belonging to the privateer, but had escaped for
the purpose of saving, if possible, the town and shipping from destruction. The alarm
was immediately spread, and his account proved too true. The Thompson, Captain
Richard Johnson, a new vessel, and one of the finest ever built here, was in a flame.
It was low water, consequently all the shipping in the Port was in the most imminent
danger, and the vessel on which they had begun the diabolical work, lying close to
one of the steaths, there was the greatest reason to fear that the flames would, from
it, be communicated to the town. The scene was too horrible to admit of any further
description; we shall therefore only add to this part of this alarming story, that by an
uncommon exertion, the fire was extinguished before it reached the rigging of the
ship, and thus, in a providential manner, prevented all the dreadful consequences
which might have ensued.

The man who remained on shore was examined by the Magistrates, Merchants, &c.
about eight o’clock in the morning. The following is the purport of his affidavit:

“The Ranger privateer is commanded by John Paul Jones, fitted out at Piscataqua, in New-England, mounted by 18-six pounders, and 6 swivels, but is pierced for twenty guns. She has on board between 140 and 150 men; sailed from Piscataqua for Brest the 1st of November, 1777, arrived at Nantz the 2d of December [November]. Took in the passage two brigs, one commanded by Captain Richards, the other by Captain Goldfinch.

“Sailed from Nantz for Quiberon Bay; lay there about three weeks and returned to
Brest; left that Port about three weeks ago, in which time she has taken one ship
from London to Dublin, (having on board Gen. Irwin’s baggage) and sent her to Brest.
She also took and sunk a brig laden with flax-feed, a schooner with barley and oats,
and a sloop from Dublin to London, in ballast.

“On Sunday, or Monday night, from the intelligence she gained by a fishing boat, she
sailed into Belfast Lough, with an intent to attack an armed vessel, (the Drake sloop
of war) stood within half gun shot of her, hailed her, and then stood out again.”
David Freeman, the person who was examined and gave the above information,
says, that the name of the Commander of the Ranger is John Paul Jones, the First
Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, Second Lieutenant Elisha Hall, Sailing-Master David
Cullen, Lieutenant of Marines Samuel Willinsford.

The above John Paul Jones, alias John Paul, it further appears, served his
apprenticeship to the sea in a vessel called the Friendship, belonging to this port,
was afterwards in the employ of some Merchants here, latterly had a brig out of
Kircudbright, and is well known by many people in this town. David Freeman, it is
said, has also declared, that the said Paul Jones commanded the party which landed
here this morning, and was himself on shore.

While this infernal business was transacting, the ship laid to with her head to the
Northward, distant about two miles, until the boats put off to go on board, which was
between three and four o’clock. By this time some of the guns at the Half-moonbattery were loaded, two of which were fired at the boats, but without the desired
effect. The boats then fired their signal guns, and the ship immediately tacked and
stood towards them till they got along-side, and then made sail to the North
Westward.

The Incendiaries had spiked most of the guns of both our batteries, several matches
were found on board different vessels, and other combustible matter in different parts
of the Harbour.

It appears that this infernal plan, unprecedented, except in the Annals of John the
Painter, was laid at Brest, where, for a considerable sum of money, Paul, or Jones,
(the latter is only an addition to his name,) engaged to burn the shipping, and town of
Whitehaven; for which purpose he was convoyed through the Channel by a French
frigate of 38 guns.

A number of Expresses have been dispatched to all the capital sea ports in the
kingdom where any depredations are likely to be made; all strangers in this town are,
by an order of the Magistrates, to be secured and examined: Similar notices have
been forwarded through the country, &c. and, in short, every caution taken that the
present alarming affair could suggest.

The privateer is the same ship which chased the Hussar cruizer last week, but the
cutter, or smack, did not belong to her.

They took three people away with them and staid some time in a public-house on the
Old Quay.

The Hussar, Capt. Gurley, and other vessels, are sent to different ports in Ireland
express with the news.

There has been almost a continual meeting at Haile’s Coffee-room to-day; a number
of men are raising for the defence of the town by subscription; and the forts, guns,
&c. it is expected, will now be put into proper condition

The effect was shocking to the people of Britain, who believed themselves safe, if this pirate can attack a port deep in the heart of the British Isles what could a large force do. Coastal defenses were improved and more men rushed to join the militias. Ships were dispatched to the Irish sea in an attempt to stop Jones. One of them was a 14 gun Brig, HMS Drake.

After an hours battle she too was captured by Jones who then sailed down the west coast of Ireland and returned to France with her prizes in tow on May 8.

Jones was then placed in command of the Bonhomme Richard and on August 14, as a vast French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, he provided a diversion by heading for Ireland at the head a flotilla including the 36-gun Alliance, 32-gun Pallas, 12-gun Vengeance, and Le Cerf, and two privateers, Monsieur and Granville. 

Sailing up and over Scotland news of this force terrified the east coast of England On September 23, 1779, the squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, east Yorkshire. The 50-gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22-gun hired ship Countess of Scarborough.

The Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard, and soon afterwards, the Alliance fired, from a considerable distance, at the Countess. Quickly recognizing that he could not win a battle of big guns, and with the wind dying, Jones made every effort to lock Richard and Serapis together during a lull a taunt from one of the British sailors asking if he gave in prompted Jones to remark that “I have yet begun to fight.”

The fighting was fierce and both ships were badly damaged, the ensign on the Bonhomme Richard was shot away one of the officers of the Serapis asked if Jones had struck his colors, Jones remarked that “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.”

With his shipped locked in a deadly duel and the Alliance raking his ship with shot the captain of the Serapis Captain Pearson surrendered his ship to Jones. While the crew transferred over and following desperate attempts at repair the Bonhomme Richard was beyond repair and allowed to sink. Jones then sailed his battered fleet to the Netherlands.

Following the exploits in British waters Jones’ career began to falter, with commands and ships passing him by he entered the service of the Imperial Russian Navy, again he was passed over for commands, and political enemies plotted against him, inventing charges of “Sexual misconduct” which were disproved.

Leaving Russia a year after joining he offered his services to Sweden who eventually declined. Ending up in Paris he was given an assignment to secure the release of US captives held by the Dey of Algiers. However Jones died before carrying out this duty.

A small gathering of servants and Friends accompanied his body the 4 miles to  Saint Louis Cemetery Jones’s the body was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin “in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified.” where with the passage of time and the French revolution his final resting place was forgotten.

That isn’t the end of Jones’ story

In 1905 the by U.S. Ambassador to France Gen. Horace Porter, who had searched for 6 years for Jones’ remains exhumed a number of lead coffins. The preserved body was identified and an autopsy conducted. Brought back to America on the USS Brooklyn On April 24, 1906, Jones’s coffin was installed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, On January 26, 1913, the Captain’s remains were finally re-interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel

“The future naval officers, who live within these walls, will find in the career of the man whose life we this day celebrate, not merely a subject for admiration and respect, but an object lesson to be taken into their innermost hearts. . . . Every officer . . . should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.”

US President Theodore Roosevelt, in an address to The US Naval Academy, Annapolis (24 April 1906).

Sources
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Paul_Jones
http://www.kirkbeanheritagesociety.org.uk/                                                                 Account of the Whitehaven Raid http://www.jpj.demon.co.uk/whitehaven.pdf

On this day: July 3, 1940

Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria.

Following the French surrender and armistice with Germany, the British were concerned that Germany may gain control of the French navy, adding their fleet to the Kreigsmarine would tip the naval balance of power in the Axis’ favour resulting in additional difficulty in receiving supplies vital to continue the war.

The British government feared the possibility despite the fact that the Armistice terms at Article 8 paragraph 2 stated that the German government “solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations” and similar terms existed in the armistice with Italy. Furthermore, on 24 June, Admiral Darlan had given assurances to Churchill against such a possibility. However Churchill ordered that the French Fleet should either turn themselves over or be neutralised.

The fleet were dispersed in various ports in the mediterranean and in Portsmouth and Plymouth. Those ships were simply boarded during the night of the 3rd, although the French put up limited resistance resulting in the deaths of 3 Royal Navy personnel  and one French sailor.

On July 3, 1940 the greatest concentration of French ships were at the port of Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria. Force H consisting of the carrier HMS Ark Royal and accompanied by the battlecruiser HMS Hood, Battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Resolution and accompanying destroyers and cruisers. On arrival the commander of force H, Admiral James Somerville delivered the ultimatum to the commander of the French Fleet:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty’s Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment.

If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies — Martinique for instance — where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours.

Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.

However the commander of the French fleet omitted all the terms other than the scuttling of the ships.
Before negotiations were formally terminated, British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by  Blackburn Skuas were dispatched from the Ark Royal to drop magnetic mines in the path of the French ships’ route to sea. This force was intercepted by French Curtiss H-75 fighters. One of the Skuas was shot down by French fighters and crashed into the sea, killing its two-man crew, the only British fatalities in the action.

The British opened fire at extreme range on 3 July 1940 at 17:54. The French eventually replied but ineffectively. The third salvo from the British force and the first to hit resulted in a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne, which sank with 977 of her crew dead. ProvenceDunkerque and the destroyer Mogador were damaged and run aground by their crews.

Strasbourg managed to escape with four destroyers. As these five ships made for the open seas, they came under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal. The French ships responded with antiaircraft fire and shot down two of them, and their crews were rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler. The bombing attack had little effect and Somerville ordered his forces to begin pursuing at 18:43. The British cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise reported engaging a French destroyer. At 20:20, Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill-deployed for a night engagement. After weathering another Swordfish attack at 20:55 without damage, Strasbourg reached the French port of Toulon on 4 July.

Battleship Bretagne exploding
Battleship Bretagne exploding

On November 27 1942, German forces attempted to capture the remains of the French fleet at Toulon, Admiral Darlan true to his word scuttled the fleet to prevent this. Darlan wrote to Churchill stating:

“”Prime Minister you said to me ‘I hope you will never surrender the fleet’. I replied, ‘There is no question of doing so’. It seems to me you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right.””

At Mers-el-Kébir, 1,297 French sailors were killed and about 350 were wounded compared to the two british fatalities. The attack left Anglo-French relations severely strained and many – including Somerville felt ashamed at their orders.

On this day: July 2 1863

July 2 1863, Gettysburg Pennsylvania.
Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac positioned around the village of Gettysburg comes under assault from the Confederate army under the command of Robert E. Lee during the second day of battle.

The Unions extreme left flank consisting of the 358 men of the 20th Maine regiment and the 83rd Pennsylvania stretched to the point they are in single file comes under attack by Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s Alabama Brigade. Defending against 2 charges over 90 minutes and with very little ammunition left and with the knowledge that another charge could not be repelled the commander of the 20th, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain orders his left flank to swing around and when in line with the rest of his men orders a full charge against the 15th Alabama regiment. Breaking the line and helping to secure the hill.

Gettysburg raged for another day culminating in “Picketts charge” Although it was not enough to force the Union army off the field and Lee, without a large portion of his forces was forced to retreat.

Joshua_Chamberlain_-_Brady-Handy
Joshua Chamberlain
800px-20thmaine.svg
Flag of the 20th Maine volunteer regiment
800px-20th_Maine_Volunteer_Reunion
Veterans of the 20th Maine at Little round top Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1889

How to Capture an FW190

June 23, 1942. Oberleutnant Armin Faber of the III fighter Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 2 received special permission to fly a combat sortie. His aircraft was the new FW 190 A-3 just introduced to front line squadrons.

While intercepting a flight of bombers returning to the UK he got into a dogfight with the escorting spitfires over South Devon. Following a number of turns he managed to shoot down his attacker Sergeant František Trejtnar of No. 310 Squadron ( who survived.) However Faber was confused after the fight and mistook the Bristol channel for the English Channel and flew north. Mistaking RAF Pembrey for a German Airfield he waggled his wings in victory then made a textbook landing.

The on duty Air traffic controller Sergeant Jeffreys grabbed a flare gun and jumped onto the taxiing aircraft wing and captured the pilot.

Faber spent time in a POW camp in England before moving to Canada, while there he convinced the authorities he was epileptic, the authorities believing this repatriated him to Germany, where he ended up serving on front line fighter units.

Richard III

As a schoolchild you’re taught quite a lot in History, some of it is even true. Others however are completely wrong or stray from the truth. One of those is the story of Richard III, at school your taught he was a bloodthirsty hunchback, who killed his nephews in the Tower of London before being killed by Henry VII who’s only notable for that act and being Henry VIII’s father.

Today after months of waiting the remains found in a Leicester car park were confirmed to be Richard III, what is remarkable and immediately noticeable is the curvature of the spine

This pretty much confirms that in that respect More and Shakespeare were partly true (although grossly exaggerated) although there is no evidence to support the “withered arm” description. What is for certain, the last moments of his life were brutal, 2 blows to the head one of which could have dug into his brain, multiple other wounds sustained in battle and more macabre than the others, the wound to the pelvis, sustained from a weapon entering through the buttock, post mortem.

Richard is an enigma, a lot is buried under Tudor propaganda foisted onto school children today, they remember the princes in the tower, but is killing your own family to secure the crown unique to him? His Brother, George was killed by his other Brother Edward IV, William II was killed in circumstances that point to his Brother Henry I, people who have an opinion on Richard normally commit what I call the cardinal sin of History, they judge everything with a 21st century mindset. Richards actions if true are no worse than those done by those who came before and after him, other accounts portray Richard as a good King who introduced reforms to the legal system that are still in use today.

Irrespective of this, Richard III has finally been found and a chapter in our history can finally be written.

The Olympics and a pointless defence.

The news has been quite busy this week over the security arrangements for the Olympics. Much was written about HMS Ocean sailing up the Thames and how there are Typhoon fighters at Northolt just in case.

However one of the more controversial ones is the placing of anti air missiles on an apartment block adjacent to the Olympic park. United Shades of Britain (Oh here’s a conflict of interest that’s on a Jeremy Hunt level) had an article published a few days ago:

By Jane McCallion

If you are in the UK, you are probably aware by now that being awarded the Olympics is apparently the equivalent of issuing some kind of giant “come at me bro” to all the terrorist organisations and deranged individuals in the world.

It is also unlikely to have escaped your attention that, having painted a giant target on the country, the way to deal with this threat is to deploy surface to air missiles in some of the most densely populated areas of London, the most populous city in Europe.

I’m not quite sure why the government has engaged in this strange and polarised rhetoric about how the Olympics are simultaneously the best thing that has ever happened to the country and the most dangerous thing to ever happen in this country, but they have. As such, there is a pervasive need to be seen to be doing something to address this hyperbolic threat. The most recent iteration of this is announcing that the roof of an apartment complex is the ideal place to locate a missile battery.

Yet this show of strength is impotent.

In a replay of 7/7, missiles will not save us. From Omagh to Oaklahoma to Oslo, terrorists have struck not from the air but on the ground, with homemade bombs hidden in unremarkable vehicles or about their person. And really, by the time the bomb is in place, it is sadly too late.

Even in a 9/11 situation, are we really going to start shooting down planes over previously mentioned densely populated areas and Olympic venues? From some of the busiest skies in Europe?

There probably are people out there who would love to blow London sky high during the Olympics, or crash planes, or release toxins. However, I trust our security services and police to stop them in advance, like they did on 21 July 2005, or with the liquid bomb plot. This is surely what we all want.

Missiles on rooftops and heaths are not reassuring, they are ludicrous and give the impression that the government has not only lost the plot, but lost control. If we get to the stage where we are blowing things up ourselves in the name of safety, then God help us all.

I can understand having Ocean docked, not only does it act as a launchpad for helicopters closer to the Olympic park but it had medical facilites and a pretty impressive command and control capability. However a few AA missiles will destroy a rogue aircraft but also create a shotgun effect of Aircraft debris. Naturally these missiles are a last ditch attempt to stop an aircraft and probably will never be used.

However thanks to the UK border force the chance of anyone being on these aircraft is slim since they’ll be still in Terminal 5 bitching to BBC that they’re 3 hours late.

I can’t help but think this is just the Government over reacting to a trillion to one chance.  Security during the Olympics has to be number one on the priority list. Although this is OTT and offers little to no security and is more an attempt at some general trying to score a few brownie points. Although I have it on good authority there is a hunter killer submarine in Hyde Parks pond and Nelsons column has been replaced with a Trident nuclear missile.

Next time I go with the Baldrick Answer (Degree Update)

So after a wait which was extended due to personal circumstances my result for TMA02 finally landed today. Now for a bit of background I had to apply for an extension on this and struggled insanely with it. The question related to whether WW1 was a calculated gamble on Germany’s part (FYI it was.)

Now I was expecting to fail this outright no matter what I couldn’t fit everything in I wanted to especially within 2000 words. However despite the nagging doubt I did manage to clear that magical 40 mark with room below it to put in a games room, maybe a pool table and a jukebox too.

I was quite happy with the mark, the work was pap, it was something a 3 year old could come up with. Instead of writing 2000 words I should have just wrote “It was because a man called archie duke shot an ostrich.”

Next TMA is due in next week about the barbarity of the first world war. Frankly a score lower than what I got today will result in me questioning everything about my self and what I’ve read since I can remember.

Up diddly up.

John Byng. Good to kill an Admiral?

John Byng was born in Bedfordshire on 29 October 1704. He was the Son of  Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng so a Naval Career was a certainty. He joined the Navy aged 13 in 1718 and rose to the rank of captain when he was 23. His Naval career was uneventful, he found himself in comfortable posting which owed to his Fathers status in the Admiralty. However all this changed in 1756, when the Duke of Richelieu, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, godson to Louis XIV and around 15,000 men landed on the Island of Minorca, laying siege to the local garrison there.

Byng was dispatched to the area but delays, and a disagreement with the governor of Gibraltar meant that when he finally got to the islands on May 19 the French had overrun the island leaving only Fort St. Phillip holding out. Byng found a fleet of 12 Ships of the line and 5 Frigates which were equal to his 12 ships of the line and 7 frigates. The battle lines were drawn the following morning.

Things were looking promising for Byng he had the weather gage and formed his line of battle ordering his ships to go about and come alongside their opposite numbers in the French fleet. However, resulted in a delay closing the line and bringing the cannon to bear on the French. The lead ships encountering the French were badly damaged and Byngs own ship, The Ramillies, didn’t get within firing range. During the battle Byng displayed considerable caution and an over-reliance on standard fighting procedures, Byng had previously been a member of the court martial of Thomas Matthews who had led a disorganised fleet into battle with an inferior force which resulted in him “fleeing” and being dismissed from the service.  Indeed it could be said that Byng’s experience of that trial and the lessons were to be his undoing.

A council of war convened and decided to break off and leave the island, instead deciding to  return to defend Gibraltar against possible invasion. News of this spread like wildfire through France and then -with the help of smuggled newspapers- across England, before Byng’s dispatch had been received.

The response was one of anger, Byng was accused as a coward and cartoons began to emerge such as one showing a Lion (Britain) with a paw removed while a cockerel pecks at the white ensign. Byng returned to a court martial and while they couldn’t make a case for cowardice they used the 12th article of war

“Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence or Disaffection, shall in time of Action withdraw or keep back, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a Court Martial, shall suffer Death.”

Byng was charged with not doing his utmost to remove the French fleet and sentenced to death, attempts at clemency from the King resulted in angry exchanges and political manoeuvring in Parliament. William Pitt could not contest the sentence as much as he would have liked since Lord Newcastle, the man partly to blame for Britain’s poor start to the 7 years war, was now in an unstable coalition with Pitt.

Clemency denied, on the  on 14 March 1757 Byng was executed on board HMS Monarch which is recorded in the ships log:

[A]t 7 A.M. his Coffin came on board; at 10 A.M. all the Ships’ Boats, manned and armed, came to attend his Execution; hard gales, lowered down the lower yards: at noon all hands were called up to attend his execution; he was shot on the larboard side of the Quarter Deck by six Marines.” 

Byng’s last act was to lower a handkerchief at which point the marines fired. While the execution was described as the “the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals” it served as a lesson to Officers in the navy and instilled an aggressive determination to succeed for the consequences of not engaging were now clear.  A lesson that helped the Royal Navy become the dominant force in the world for 200 years.

As Voltaire observed in his novel Candide “”in this country, it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others”