Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

My Review of the Year 2017


The year began with a visit to Jodrell Bank, on the clearest of winter days. The children got to some science-y stuff, and I got to see the spot where the Fourth Doctor regenerated into the Fifth.

The search for life elsewhere in the universe was something that I would come back to later in the year, but mostly in 2017 I was trying to trying to preserve life on earth.

Family and work kept getting in the way, so I ended up binge-protesting when I got the chance. For example, on 20th January I manage to attend three protests in one day.

It had all started kicking off up in Lancashire, as Cuadrilla planned to be the first company to commercially frack in the UK. They started to constructing their site on Preston New Road, just outside Blackpool, and a daily protest started straight away. Initially, at least, it was fairly lightly policed. There was even an agreement that the protestors could stand for exactly twenty minutes in front of each convoy before it drove in. Save to say that didn't last long, but it was still all very civilised when I paid my first visit.

A bit nearer home, A E Yates of Bolton, who were the main contractors for Cuadrilla, were the scene of another protest. I dropped in on my way back from Preston New Road to lend a bit of moral support.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Trump had been elected. This was bad news for everyone, and there were protests around the world, including in Manchester where a thousand or so people decided to turn out on a cold January evening. I turned up too, for the third protest of the day. A personal record.

However fracking isn't the only, or even the most serious, threat to the climate. January ended with my bi-annual trip to see the students of the Manchester Metropolitan Sustainable Aviation course. Yes, that really is what it is called. Sustainable aviation, like miliary intelligence and Microsoft Works is, of course, an oxymoron, and I told the students that. As usual, they were attentive, bright and informed, but after I showed them the 'graph of doom', and they discussed what to do about it, which was tinkering with holding patterns and straightening trans-Atlantic routes.

Alas that is how most business people think about climate change. There is a vast chasm between problem and solution.


It was back to PNR again this month, as Cuadrilla's fracking site is now known. It was now business-as-usual with lock-ons and lorry surfing.

There's not a lot to do at a fracking site when a bunch of crusties have handcuffed themselves together across the gates, so I didn't do a lot.

Back in Manchester, Earth First! had their Winter Moot at Bridge 5 Mill, so I ambled along on the wettest day of the year to hang out with the anarchists. Apart from the usual debates about theory and practise, it was a chance to meet international Earth First!ers from the USA and Germany, which is always great. I learnt that's possible to sail to America on the ship that brings the EF! journals over, and that the campaign in the Hambach Forest is about as full-on as it gets.

I wanted to go there.


Instead I found myself hanging around car dealers in Greater Manchester.

March had brought better weather, and also a new Greenpeace campaign, banning diesel cars. With that in mind we went round adding health warnings so that these toxic monsters were at least correctly advertised.

I must admit, when when told last year that the objective was the banning of diesel cars as a prelude to ending the age of the internal combustion engine, I thought it was a little optimistic. However over the year it became an issue you couldn't get away from. Stickering car dealers was only the first phase, but it was so much fun we did it twice.


April started with the Manchester Save the Greenbelt rally. A busy international Greenpeace campaigning schedule usually meant we couldn't do much about local problems like this, so it was good to be able to lend a hand and give our long-suffering banner another airing.

The better weather also meant the Porter boys were off camping. We went to mystical Savernake Forest, home to some of the oldest and most interesting trees in England. The trees were still bare, but that made the forest by starlight a magical place, with the barking deer sounded like a troop of demented werewolves. However my boys preferred it when we spent the evening in the pubs of Marlborough, which are pretty good too.

In April Manchester Greenpeace started a collaboration with the ethical tech company Thoughtworks. We were invited to their office, up in the gods at City Tower, and they put on beer and pizza for us. We showed the film Disruption, made before the 2014 climate rallies. Afterwards I say a few words about what happened since, which is Paris and Trump basically. The first promises great things, but probably won't deliver. The second promises terrible things and probably will. It was a mixture of Greenpeace people and computer people, and we had a good discussion afterwards. At least these people got the scale of the problem.

I wanted to attend the Manchester March for Science, and both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were ready to help them out. Unfortunately the organisers decided we weren't welcome as they wanted a 'non-political' rally, so both groups did other things, and I went to see Robot Wars at Event City, which was science of a sort.

Also in April Manchester elected its first mayor. It was never in doubt that this would be ex-Labour Health Minister Andy Burnham, but what was heartening was that all four main candidates were against fracking, including the Tory. Despite this unanimity the environmental hustings was very interesting, as Burnham reiterated his opposition to fracking, and pledged a Green Summit in 2018.

I ended the month by camping in the woods under Kinder Downforce for Beltane with some of the Greenpeace team. One keen person decided to jog there over Kinder Scout from Glossop, and was guided down from the plateau to the campsite by torchlight. My camping gear consisted of a tent, a sleeping bag and a litre of Jack Daniels, which certainly made the night go with a swing. The weather was kind and a good time was had by all.


In May I mainly did nostalgia.

For the May Day Bank Holiday I had decided to organise a walk to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, which my grandfather went on. We'd planned it as a social for our Greenpeace group, but soon dozens, and eventually hundreds, of people said they were interested.

In the end just short of a hundred people turned up, and I led the walk despite a fairly major Jack Daniels related hangover. I was able, with a little help, to climb onto Benny Rothman's rock to address the crowd. It was an attempt to win back the memory of the trespass for the radical end of the protest movement, so we did a bit of Greenpeace campaigning on the side.

And radical protesting we carried on doing. Some of our supporters were unable to make the walk, as they were training for Greenpeace's contribution to the PNR lock-ons. I wasn't part of the team, but decided to turn up anyway. The practise paid off, and they deployed their yellow boxes across the entrance to the site in less than 90 seconds, right under the noses of the police put there to prevent lock-ons.

By the time I get arrive there is a row of familiar faces, all in their red hats, waiting in the sun for the Lancashire plod Protester Removal Team. They duly arrived, and described themselves as "very impressed" by the lock-ons. Eventually the first pair were cut free, and the others unlocked after that. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, even the police, who told as that usually they have "Aldi protesters" but today they had "Marks and Spencers".

The only downside of the day was that there had not been time for the team to deploy the really big banner they'd brought with them. As it really needed to be shown off a group of us went back the next week to give it a proper airing.

There was more nostalgia in May as well, as it was twenty years since my days as a tunneller trying to stop Runway 2 of Manchester Airport. I decided to organise a little reunion of old eco-warriors, and managed to persuade the BBC to turn up. In the end the weather was as wet as it had been in 1997, but a dozen or so middle aged radicals turned up. I managed to find an old tape player so we could listen to the album we recorded under the flightpath.

The BBC seemed reasonably pleased with the result, and gave us a prime slot on the local news.


In June we had a General Election. Initially my reaction was similar to Brenda from Bristol's, but once it got going the campaign was actually a lot of fun. In the High Peak we had a Progressive Alliance between the Green Party and Labour. This took a bit of arranging. but it meant I was out campaigning for Labour for the first time since 1997.

The whole mood of the country appeared to be changing. London-based pundits laughed at the Yougov poll that showed young people intended to vote heavily for Corbyn, and instead predicted 'strong and stable' May would walk it. However that was not our experience out an about.

Knocking on doors, many older voters, even ones who claimed to be lifelong Labour supporters, recycled the Daily Mail line that Corbyn was a commie and a terrorist, but in the pubs and clubs we were meeting young people who got their information from other sources. Never before have I been mobbed by teenagers on Glossop High Street just because I was carrying a Labour Party bag.

The result was a 14% swing to Labour and the election of Ruth George as the new MP for the area. Suddenly the future changed.


In July Manchester got itself a statue of Engels whilst Manchester Greenpeace got Spongebobs Squarepants. He was part of our campaign to stop oil drilling off the newly discovered reef at the mouth of the River Amazon. We took him out and about in a number of places, including to Manchester Pride.

If people don't destroy it this reef, at least, has a chance of surviving climate change, it was an important campaign to win. As the year ends we still can't be sure we've done that, but the signs look hopeful.

Also in July we had our second film showing with Thoughtworks. We watched Black Ice, the film about the Arctic 30. Phil-of-the-Arctic comes along, with the rest of the Greenpeace climb team in tow, to tell us about his experience, or at least about the less grim bits.


It was now time for a holiday, so the family were packed up we all headed north to Northumberland for a week of Roman remains, historic castles and beautiful beaches.

Then it was the Cropredy Festival, and a special 50th anniversary of Fairport Convention one. Pretty much every ex-member who could make it did, and it was a very special occasion. Judy Dyble and Ian Matthews recreating the very early Fairport, including their cover version of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne was a highlight, but there were plenty more.


Having ousted a useless and Tory and replaced him with a Trade Union campaigner, our Red and Green 'progressive alliance' held a meeting at Glossop Labour Club to decide what to do next.

As well as hearing from Ruth George herself, we ran a couple of workshops. The transport one led to some lively debate about the proposed bypass, but my talk on fracking in the energy workshop went down well, as does Matthew Patterson from Manchester University, Jonathan Atkinson from the Carbon Coop and Richard Body who talked about the Torrs Hydro project.

We ended by visiting the camp at George Street Woods, although the rain out paid the the idea for a picnic.


The Tory's were in town again in 2017. I guess they'd been hoping to celebrate their election victory and boast about the Norther Powerhouse, but instead they found themselves besieged in hostile territory arguing about why they 'lost' the election. Inside it was empty seats and recriminations. Outside it was a party.

I was part of the anti-fracking feeder march that joined the main anti-austerity demonstration. This ended in Piccadilly Gardens, after some careful navigation to avoid crashing into the anti-Brexit march going in the other direction. We had the extra-large Greenpeace banner, and we found we'd been placed behind the communists. Extra police had been drafted in, including some from Lancashire, who recognised the PNR lock-on team.

Back in Glossop I had to dust off some brain cells I'd not used for a while to give a talk about space exploration to the Glossop Guild. Apart from forgetting what the atmosphere of Mars was made of, I think I managed all right.

The Greenpeace group managed another trip up to Preston New Road again in October. Cuadrilla's site was more-or-less finished, and they had even managed to sneak a rig in in the middle of the night. However they weren't fracking, and we weren't sure why. The highlight of the day was the redoubtable Anne Power taking a stand and getting in the papers.

Plastic pollution, especially in the oceans, was a major issue that many environment groups started to seriously tackle in 2017, and Greenpeace was one of them. In Manchester we did our bit by fishing several bags worth of crap out of the Bridgewater Canal. A surprisingly large number of people turned out to help, but not too surprisingly we all ended up in the pub afterwards. Not surprisingly many of the plastic bottles had been made by Coca Cola.

The end of the month saw me down in Canonbury Villa for the annual Networker Coordinator's meeting. On the Saturday evening the warehouse was the scene of annual Networker Coordinator's piss up. By staying to the end and helping tidy up I earned myself some free beer, which meant the people I shared a room with had to put up with my snoring. It was the weekend the hour went back, but rather than have an extra hour in bed I spent the time in Tavistock Square trying to sober up enough to take part in the second day. Despite my self-inflicted problems it was an informative and inspiring weekend. The Antarctic is going to big next year.


The Greenpeace PNR lock-on people were in court in November, and so I went up to provide moral support. Their main legal rep. was Mike Schwarz of Bindman's, who helped get me acquitted in 2000. They were in good hands, but we expected a guilty verdict. Almost everyone else who'd locked-on had been convicted, and one judge had even questioned whether impoverished defendants should be allowed legal aid, so we weren't optimistic.

But how wrong we were! Judge Jeff Brailsford decided that what Greenpeace had done had been fully fair and proportionate and let them all off. The party afterwards was quite good fun I believe. I'd not been officially on the action, and just gatecrashed the event, but apparently I appeared on all the police videos. That's not really the way to do these things.

As a Greenpeaker I get to go out and about telling people about Greenpeace. Schools aren't my favourite places to do this, but Altringcham College's Year 10 students were good. Some of the teachers didn't exactly encourage an open debate, but they showed some interest in the story of the Arctic 30. If only Greenpeace was supported by some celebrities teenagers had actually heard of!

#HolidaysAreComing and other mindless hashtags told us that Christmas was on its way. Coca Cola claims it invented Christmas. It also claims to be environmentally friendly, but as we were fishing its bottles out of the canal last month we had our doubts.

In order to try to make them better we took to the streets get people sending them messages. It helped that Blue Planet II was on the telly, and some people made the connection between the billions of bottles coke makes every years and what David Attenborough was talking about.


By now the season of colds and NHS crises was upon us, and the campaigning season came to an end.

It's difficult claim the world was a better place than it was twelve months ago, but at least the resistance seems to be alive and well. There were certainly signs of hope: young people are both as liberal as ever but more politically engaged than before. They also seem to be able to filter out the fake news and actually user the internet to both learn about the world and change it.

The twin enfolding disasters of Trump and Brexit show that right wing Popularism is a political dead end. Fracking appears to be going nowhere and the campaigns against diesel cars and plastic pollution made great progress. However none of these problems actually went away, so it looks like we're going to have to do it all over again in 2018.

So love and peace to everyone who campaigned with me this year. Apologies I couldn't do more to help you.

Enjoy the party season. Next year we change the world.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The SOE's Greatest Hits

The Special Operations Executive was set up in July 1940 in response to Winston Churchill's call to "set Europe ablaze". A band of secret agents trained for sabotage and assassination, this was a massive case of "poachers turned gamekeepers", or rather the other way round, as the British Empire was now copying the very resistance movements that had sprung up to oppose it.

Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Gubbins had fought against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence, and he had used his experience to set up the Auxiliary Forces, who would have fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis if Britain had been invaded in 1940. He proposed a force to carry out "terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders". The government took him up on his idea and he set to work organising "movements in every occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland".The set up base in a number of buildings on Baker Street in London.

Not everyone appreciated this move into "ungentlemanly warfare". 'Bomber' Harris, of all people, initially refused to allow the RAF to carry it's agents as he regarded assassins in plain clothes as against the rules of war. His preferred method of fighting was obliterating entire cities from the air.

7. The Swedish Steel
Operation Rubble January 1941

SS Elisabeth Bakke
Swedish steel and heavy engineering was vital to both sides in the Second World War. However the fall of Denmark and Norway cut off Britain from Sweden. France had ordered several thousand tons of iron, steel, machine tools and ball bearings from Sweden before it fell, and whilst the order was taken up by Britain, the problem was getting the goods to the UK. There were also 26 Norwegian merchant ships in Swedish waters, and which belonged to the Norwegian government-in-exile, but were trapped too. The government desperately wanted to get is hands on those Swedish balls, so the SOE was put on the case.

The plan was for Norwegian volunteers, helped by the survivors of two Royal Navy destroyers, who had made their way to Sweden after their ships were sunk in Norway, to sail them back to Britain. A trial run had discovered that the alleged German minefields in the Skagerak were a bluff, and so in January 1941 they were ready to go with four ships carrying steel and a tanker in ballast. The vessels were modified to make them easier to scuttle of things went wrong, and the wheel houses were reinforced with concrete to give some protection to the crew.

SS Tai Shan
Snow covered their escape, and kept German aircraft grounded for the morning. When they were finally spotted, the German saw the Norwegian flags and assumed they were friendly. Eventually the penny dropped and the last two vessels were attacked with bombs and machine guns, killing the captain of the tanker. However by this time they had cleared Swedish waters and the Royal Navy was able to come to their assistance and escort them to Orkney.

Operation Rubble had been an unqualified success. One million pounds worth of Swedish steel, and the same value of merchant ship, had been saved from the Germans and delivered to Britain.

The Gay Viking
Rubble was followed by Operation Performance in 1942, when ten ships tried to break out. Five had to be scuttled, one after taking heavy damage, two returned to port in Sweden, but three made it to the UK. The Swedes weren't pleased and no more ships were allowed to get away. However the war effort still needed Swedish ball bearings, so another plan was hatched, this time to use fast Royal Navy Motor Gun Boats to take off the cargoes of the two ships marooned after Performance.

Appropriately perhaps for such a queer mission, one of the MGBs was called Gay Viking.

6. Maid Honour Force
Operation Postmaster 14 January 1942

SS Duchessa d'Aosta
The island of Fernando Po, now called by it's real name Bioko again, lies off the coast of West Africa. During the Second World War it was owned by Spain.  Spain was fascist, but neutral, and so regular British forces couldn't go there. Not so the SOE, who were very interested in the Italian freighter Duchessa d'Aosta, which they feared could be used to send intelligence on shipping movements.

By chance there was a small party patrolling west Africa, in a trawler called Maid Honour, searching for any secret German U-boat bases up African rivers. The SOE hatched a plan to use the Maid Honour force to cut out the vessel. The crew of the Axis vessels were apparently all pretty miserable, and most of them had caught VD, so the cover story would be that they had mutinied and, by chance, had bumped into the Royal Navy. The mission was incredibly sensitive politically. There must be no evidence left that Britain was involved. 

The SOE started planning, and they were helped by catching the Spanish governor with his native mistress, after which he stopped being suspicious of their motives and was very helpful. The wife of the chief electrician was bribed with a diamond necklace, and she ensured the worker on duty would cut the power when necessary.

The plan was for the Italian officers, and those of two smaller German ships, to be lured ashore with the offer of a party, with free booze and the best of the local ladies of the night, whilst the assault team stole into the harbour, blew the anchor chains, coshed any crew that resisted, and towed the vessels out to sea to meet a Royal Navy corvette, who would take them off their hands in international waters.

And that is exactly what happened. As far as the citizens of Fernando Po were concerned, there was a bang in the middle of the night, the town's lights went off, and when they turned them on again the Italian and German ships were gone. The only casualty was a ship's cat who had been sleeping in the anchor locker.

The Calcutta Light Horse in 1944
So successful was the operation that SOE effectively repeated it in March 1943 with Operation Ehrenfels in Portuguese Goa, but this time the operation was rather less James Bond and rather more Dad's Army. Instead of elite raiding forces, the assault team was made up of middle aged civilian of a unit called The Calcutta Light Horse, that had last seen action in the Boer War and was now little more than a social club.
Creek. This time the target was the German freighter the

Again, the ruse of a free party ashore worked and the Calcutta Light Horse snuck aboard, sank the ship with explosives and escaped with no serious injuries. Again everyone knew who'd done it, but the secret was kept until 1978.

5. The Gorgopotamos Viaduct
Operation Harling November 1942

SOE and Andartes
The SOE rarely worked alone. Usually they linked up with local resistance groups, providing weapons, communications and expertise to help their struggle. In Greece they were hampered by rivalry between the National Republic Greek League (Εθνικός Δημοκρατικός Ελληνικός Σύνδεσμος or EDAS) and the much larger communist Greek People's Liberation Army (Ελληνικός Λαϊκός Απελευθερωτικός Στρατός or ELAS). 

However the Greeks weren't the only ones failing to get along. MI6 and the SOE both had separate Greek missions, and their failure to cooperate delayed operation in Greece.

Eventually a small SOE team was airdropped into Greece, carrying the entire Middle Eastern supply
The aftermath
of plastic explosives, and managed to get the two guerrilla groups to work. Their target was a vital bridge on the main Thessaloniki to Athens railway. 

Andartes, armed with British hand grenades, attacked the Italian bunkers guarding the bridge whilst the SOE explosive experts set their charges on the steel pillars. A train carrying Italian troops was stopped by the Greek covering party before they could influence the battle. 

It had all gone well and hopes were high for more cooperation between EDAS and ELAS in future. However it was not to be. Within weeks the two groups were shooting each other and Greece was sliding towards civil war.

4. The abduction of General Kreipe, April 1944

In Crete resistance to the Nazis started as soon as the first German paratroopers landed in May 1941, with andartes fighting alongside British and Commonwealth troops. When British troops left the island, the guerrillas fought on from the hills. The SOE were sent to assist and they were joined by Allied soldiers left behind during the evacuation and even escaped Russian POWs.

When Italy signed an armistice in September 1943 the Germans occupied the whole of the island and the Italians were interned. General Angelica Carta, who had not gone in for the wholesale massacres practised by the Germans, didn't fancy this much, so he made contact with SOE agent Patrick Leigh Fermor, who arranged for the General to be smuggled off the island by the Royal Navy. This gave the SOE man an idea, and with fellow agent Bill Stanley Moss he returned to Crete with a  plan to take a German general next.

One dark night the two SOE men dressed as German police and stopped the car of General Heinrish Kreipe as he returned to his villa and commandeered his car. With Fermor wearing the General's hat in the back seat Moss was able to drive through 22 German roadblocks before they abandoned the vehicle and made their getaway.

The German garrison turned out in force once they realised Kriepe was missing, but with the help of the Cretan Resistance the party made an escape across Mount Ida and met up with a Royal Navy landing party. Once his staff finally realised Kreipe wasn't coming back they responded by - drinking a toast, as they'd never liked him much.

3. Heavy Water
Operation Gunnerside October 1942

The fall of France left Hitler with all the ingredients he needed to make an atomic bomb: Europe's only cyclotron in France, uranium mines in Belgium, and Heavy Water in Norway.

Fortunately Hitler regarded quantum mechanics as 'Jewish science' and the allies were always ahead of the Germans in the race for the atomic bomb. Knowing how to make one themselves, they also knew how to stop the Nazis making one. Top of their list was stopping the Heavy Water needed to moderate a nuclear reactor getting to Germany.

The SOE had sent a team to stake out the Norwegian plant, called Operation Swallow. The first attack was made by paratroopers in gliders. It failed disastrously, so the SOE decided to do the job themselves. A team of four Norwegians were parachuted in.

The operation was mainly an exercise in survival in arctic conditions. Armed with intelligence from a
spy in the plant, they attacked by stealth. When a bridge over a river was found to be guarded they crossed undetected via an underwater ice bridge.

The Gunnerside Team
The explosion in the bowels of the factory was initially ignored by the Germans, but when they eventually realised what had happened 12,000 soldiers turned out to search for the SOE agents, but the team managed to make a clean getaway, skiing 250 miles to neutral Sweden. They were back in Britain by the end of the month.

Swallow was still out on the plateau though, and one of the team, Claus Helberg, bumped into three German skiers who pursued him. He out ran two and killed the third in a gun battle. That wasn't the end of his adventures and not long afterwards he found himself on a bus taking him to a concentration camp. Despite a broken arm he was able to jump off and escape.

The SOE later evaluated the operation as their most successful sabotage of the war.

2. The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich
Operation Anthropoid June 1942

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis
Heydrich was one of the most ruthless of all the Nazis, but also one of the least mad. Put in charge of the Final Solution in Europe he was probably responsible for the deaths of two million civilians.

The task of assassinating him was given to seven members of the Free Czech army operating in England. The were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the in June 1942, and set about planning the hit. Ruling out an attack on his train or an ambush in the woods, the team opted for the dangerous option of an attack in the middle of Prague.

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were the agents chosen for the job. At 10:30AM on 27 May 1942
Heydrich's car
Heydrich set out for his daily commute to Prague Castle. Too impatient to wait for a police escort, Heydrich and his driver were alone. Gabcik stepped out into the road and tried to shoot Heydrich with his Sten Gun, but British technology failed hum and the gun jammed. Heydrich tried to shoot back, but his German gun didn't work any better. Gabcik threw a grenade and ran, pursued by Heydrich's driver, who the SOE men shot with their American pistols.

The SOE team were convinced the attack had failed, but in fact Heydrich had been wounded. The Nazis didn't trust a local Doctor to operate on him, so Himmler sent his own team of surgeons. However, either because of infection in the wound, or because Heydrich had become a rival to Himmler, the Reichprotector died.

The German's reprisal were brutal, including the complete destruction of two villages, and made the SOE wary of assassinating any other senior Nazis. Despite this the death of the ruthless, but resourceful, Heydrich probably ultimately saved lived.

7. The French Connection
Station F May 1941 to August 1944

France was the main target of SOE operations. 480 agents, including 39 women, and 10,000 tons of gear, were sent to help the Resistance. But it was also the most difficult country to operate in, with the average life expectancy of an SOE radio operator was six weeks, and overall one in four of the French section were lost.

The SOE used a variety of techniques: from blowing up railway lines to planting fake rats filled with explosives, which would explode when the driver or fireman of a locomotive tried to dispose of the body by throwing it into the engine's firebox. Other tactics were more sublte. Trains would have their axle grease removed or their travel plans switched so they ended up hundreds of miles from where they were supposed to be, without anyone even knowing the SOE had been involved.

The greatest success in France was on D Day, when sabotage operations destroyed another 52 locomotives and cut the railway in 500 places in the 24 hours before the landing. The SS Das Reich Panzer Division, based in the South of France, should have been able to get to Normandy in a day. Instead a series of attacks by the SOE and the Resistance lengthened the journey to nearly two weeks. They missed the main battle and ended up being surrounded and destroyed by the American Army.

By the end of the war, Station F had destroyed more trains and locomotives in France than the entire Allied air force had managed. According to Eisenhower the SOE played a "very considerable part in our complete and final victory


The SOE was officially dissolved in January 1946. However it lived on in a series of books and films: Operations Postmaster and Creek were combined into the 1980 film The Sea Wolves, elements of Operation Harling inspired 1961s The Guns of Naverone, Moss and Fermor wrote books about their war, as did George Psychoundakis of the Cretan Resistance, and Moss's book, Ill Met By Moonlight, became a film in 1957 in with Dirk Bogart playing Fermor, Operation Gunnerside became the 1965 film The Heroes of the Telemark whilst Operation Anthropoid has been filmed no less than ten times, most recently in 2016.

The main fictional legacy of the SOE, and its secret agents with unusual weapons and a license to kill, is of course James Bond. However, given the original inspiration of the organisation, the film that you should really watch to understand how a resistance group can defeat enemy occupation using unconventional tactics, is Michael Collins.


Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss
Churchill's Secret Warriors by Damien Lewis 
Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings
Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War by Ian Dear 
The use and effectiveness of sabotage as a means of unconventional warfare -  an historical perspective by Captain Howard L Douthit III

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Harold Porter: A Real Dunkirk Hero

Porter is an uncommon enough surname that I'm always interested in where we turn up in history. It's doubly interesting when we turn up in a bit of history I'm particularly interested in.

Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk renewed my curiosity about the crucial events of May and June 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force found itself outmanoeuvred the German Army and had to fight, with occasional help from the French and Belgians, a tenacious defence against Hitler's panzers.

King and Doyle take on Rommel
It's a terrifically emotive bit of history. The British Army fought as hard, and as well, as it did in any other theatre of the war.. At Arras, a British armoured counter-attack caught Rommel by surprise. Two British Matildas went on a rampage where they took out a German supply convoy, destroyed five panzers, squashed a battery of anti-tank guns, and even came out best in a duel with one of Rommel's feared 88mm guns. Had they been German Sven Hessel would probably have written an entire trilogy about them. Alas Major King and Sergeant Doyle's exploits are almost forgotten.

However what is remembered most is the armada of little boats that rescued the soldiers from the beaches, and rightly so. In Nolan's film we have the story of Mark Rylance's Mr Dawson, who takes his day cruiser Moonstone to France and back. As he is leaving, his son's friend George, played by Barry Keoghan, jumps aboard. We learn that George dreams of one day doing something important enough to feature in the local paper, something that, we suspect, at the time seems about as likely as the BEF escaping Hitler's tanks.

George doesn't return, but he does get into the paper. He's a fictional character, as is everyone in the
film, but Nolan's story is based on real events, and the person who's story most matches George's, is a Porter; Harold Graham Porter.

Harold was eighteen in 1940. The son of a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, he had just finished school. His health had not been good, and probably because of that he had done badly at schol. He felt a failure. Shortly before he finished, he told his father he intended to do something, one day, that would make his school proud of him.

Like most people in Britain, Harold would have had no idea how dire the situation had become across the Channel. Belgium had surrenedered, and France was unlikely to last much longer. The 400,000 soldiers of the BEF, almost all of Britain's trained soldiers, need to get home, or Britain would be next. The task of rescuing them fell to Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey.

The operation was put together in a matter of days, and Ramsey rapidly saw the limiting factor was getting the troops off the beach and the mole and onto the destroyers, ferries, freighters and fishing boats that would take them home. That's where the little boats like Moonstone came in. Able to operate in shallow water, they could go inshore and bring the soldiers out to the bigger ships. Fortunately, a few days earlier, the Royal Navy had compiled a list of all the small ships available to help. Ramsey ordered the job of rounding them up to begin.

But it wasn't just middle class pleasure boats that made the trip to France, working vessels went too. Amongst them was a flotilla of cockle boats from Leigh: the Letitia, the Endeavour, the Resolute, the Reliant, the Defender and the Renown.

Renoun had been built in 1928, and belonged to the Osbourne family. The crew on the day consisted of two fishermen, Frank and Leslie Osbourne, a young seaman from the Merchant Navy, Harry Noakes, and Harold.

31 May had been a difficult day for the evacuation. A heavy swell had stopped the smaller boats getting to the beach for part of the day. The minesweeper Devonia had been beached and abandoned after being hit by bombs, but it was actually the French that taken the heaviest losses that day: the destroyer Sirocco had been damaged by a German E-boat and then sunk by aircraft, at a cost of 180 of her crew and 600 soldiers. The French merchant marine had lost the trawlers St Achilleus, Puissant, Costaud and Adjader and the steamers Ain El Turk and Cote D'Azur.

However, just as dusk fell Rear Admiral William Wake-Walker, in charge of shipping off Dunkirk looked out to sea and "saw for the first time that strange procession of craft of all kinds that has become famous. Tugs towing dinghies, lifeboats and all manner of pulling boats, small motor yachts, motor launches, drifters, Dutch schoots, Thames barges, fishing boats [and] pleasure steamers." Amongst them were the Leigh cockle boats.

The sea was still too rough for them to go onto the beach, so instead they operated a shuttle service from the end of the mole. As the little vessels made their way out for the third time, a shell burst between them. Never-the-less, they turned round and went back a fourth time.

Endeavour today
Their last run finished at about a quarter past one in the morning. Each cockle boat had probably rescued about a thousand men each.

It had been a long day for the boats, and the strain was too much for the Renoun's engine, which started to fail. The crew signalled to Letita to take them in tow. Letita was being towed herself by a tug, and soon the Renoun was bobbing along behind her, on a ten yard rope, heading back to England.

It was pitch dark in the Channel and the boats were unable to see each other. About thirty five minutes had gone by since the Renoun had been taken in tow, and everyone was starting to wind down after the excitement of the day. Suddenly there was a huge explosion. Splinters of wood rained down on the deck of the Letita and the tow rope went slack. The Renoun had gone. Most likely she had hit a drifting sea mine, and the crew probably killed instantly.

A few days later Harold's parents received a letter. It said that their son had "died doing his duty ... helping to evacuate troops from the coast of Belgium" and added that he had "done well". His parents were sad for their lost, but not only were they proud of their son, but they knew that he had died doing something that would have made him proud of himself, and that he had achieved his dream of making his school proud of him.


Operation Dynamo was expected to rescue 40,000 men, but in the end over 338,000 made it back across the Channel.

Admiral Ramsey was in charge at Dover for two years. He was then put in charge of organising the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Operation Torch, and Sicily in 1943, Operation Husky, before being given the biggest job of his life, Operation Overlord, or D-Day. Eisenhower said he was the only man who could have done it. He never lived to see the end of the war he did so much to win, dying in a plane crash in January 1945.

There is a memorial to Harold Porter, and the other cockle fishermen who died, in St Clements churchyard, Leigh-on-Sea.

The Osbourne family still fishes for cockles there today.


Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Woodsmoke and Wild Garlic

This is my diary describing my arrival at the protests against Manchester Airport's Second Runway.

Sunday 23rd March 1997

Pack my tent into my rucksack, put on my combat jacket and head off to Manchester. Yesterday two van loads of riot police arrived whilst myself and half a dozen others were leafleting a BP station in Cosby so I'm in the mood for a bot of radical direct action. The police were actually very nice. The weekend traffic to Southport had backed up towards Liverpool and someone had seen us handing out our leaflets. The message had been passed on to the police as 'Greenpeace are blocking the road'.

Greenpeace's campaign is about stopping oil drilling in the wilderness of the Atlantic Frontier, a campaign set to run over the summer to build up to the Kyoto Conference on climate change at the end of the year. Greenpeace want an end to the supply of new oil in order to prevent global warming, at Manchester Airport we will be opposing the fastest growing users of fossil fuels - aeroplanes.

However Manchester Airport's PR department has been putting out the story that 50,000 jobs will be created by the project, and as I arrive at Piccadilly Station and make my way to the bus station I see why a line like that will sell here. Despite my own ragged appearance, I am approached by beggars as I walk, and some of the city's homeless can be seen sitting in the sun in Piccadilly Gardens, surrounded by the concrete buildings, noise and pollution of the city. By comparison with the life of this urban underclass, the prospect of living in a makeshift camp in the middle of the wilderness is highly desirable. Poverty isn't just a lack of money or housing, it is being cut off from the natural world that should be our common heritage.

I end up on the slow bus to the airport, which winds its way through grey suburbs to the main entrance to the current site, where I leap out. I am in a different world to the concrete and brick jungles I have passed through. This is a land of  verdant hedgerows, stone walls and black and white houses set in lush gardens. Away from the main road I walk along country lanes. Immediately I see the first red and white 'No Runway Two' signs. These people evidently are doing well for themselves and don't need the dubious employment prospects beign offered by the airport.

I meet my first eco-warriors on the lane just before I get  to the site. These are Adrian, a tall young man with a pronounced West Country accent, and a young woman who is very well spoken and truns out to be local. They lead me to the main entrance to the site, a gap in the hedge by the main road. A few years away is the main entrance for the contractor's vehicles. I can see the start of the fence that was started earlier in the week, and which caused the first confrontations with the security guards employed by the construction company.

Adrian leads me up the grass slope towards the woodland that crowns the heights. All the trees are bare of leaves, and the tree houses, 'twigloos', can be seen looking like overgrown birds nests of plastic and wood.From the two occupied trees up ahead a banner reading "No Runway Two' hangs defiantly. This is Flywood. A shallow ditch and barbed wire fence surrounds the camp as a defence against dawn raids. A more effective defence is the clinging mud that surrounds the entire camp. Two planks cross this and lead to a couple of rough benders and a central fire pit. A couple of crusty characters are sitting in a bender drinking cider. Other benders on the edge of the camp appear to service the tree houses and tunnels. One of the tunnellers emerges as I enter, caked in red clay, with his head torch like a third eye.

I am greeted cordially and I explain I'm here to stay and ask where people are needed. I an told that a camp called Wild Garlic has just been set up and needs people. I ask for directions and are given some meaningless stuff about avoiding Cliff Richard, going through Zion Tree and past Bollin Bay, and I'm pointed vaguely in the direction of the current runway.

I slither off over the muddy grass and eventually come across a sign saying "Sir Cliff Richard OBE Vegan Revolution" and what appears to be a well fortified camp. Following the directions I was given I follow the edge of the woods and eventually come to a cheerful sign saying "Welcome to Zion Tree" which is at the top of a slippery, muddy slope through the trees. Struggling under the weight of my rucksack I slowly work my way down the hill and come out into the Bollin valley itself. A broad water meadow completely hidden from the surrounding fields, where the river meanders through the wooded slopes. A small copse by the water's edge contains an empty bender. Multi coloured ribbons are tied to the leafless branches.

To reach Wild Garlic I have to cross the Bollin. It turns out there are two ways of doing this:by a bridge made of planks and scafolding poles, or a rope walkway. Choosing the easier route this time I cross and scramble up the slope towards the camp. Separated from the grass by a channel of water, the camp is a wooded hillside covered by, of course, wild garlic. The trees appear to be a mixtures od ash and birch, and several tree houses are in in the process of being constructed.

The camp itself is reached by a rickety wooden bridge over the stagnant and filthy water. On the other side is a large, communal bender and two smaller ones, for cooking and tool storage. Various eco-warrior types can be seen moving around and doing things ....

Alas it ends there. After that I was too busy tunnelling to write ...