Friday, 31 August 2012

Austrians & Boxers 1900, Part 3


In 1900, China was teetering on the edge of being a "failed state". A huge rural rebellion, known in the West as the "Boxer" rebellion, was sweeping the country, ostensibly against foreigners and Christians, the latter being murdered in large numbers. The weak Imperial government, unsure whether to utilise, or stamp on, the Boxers gave them free reign, so much so that by 1900 the foreign embassies, or "Legations" in Peking were under siege. Fortunately, enough sailors and marines had been scrapped together from foreign warships on the coast to give the bare minimum of defence. There were British, Russians, French and Japanese, but this is the story of the Austrians, with details form Indiscreet Letters from Peking by B.L. Putnam Weale.

SMS Zenta in 1900

The only Austro-Hungarian force available to go to the aid of their legation was from the cruiser SMS Zenta. Consequently, Captain Thormann with several of his officers, 30 men and a machine gun made their way to Peking, where they were trapped in the Siege. Their adventures up to this point are described here and here. We take up the story on the 10th of July.

10th July

Putnam Weale details the various "artillery" available to the defenders. He is not impressed. After the Italian one-pounder ("absolutely useless", "merely a plaything") he describes the Maxim machine gun the Austrians had bought from SMS Zenta...

" a very modern weapon, and throws Mannlicher bullets at the rate of six hundred to  the minute. Yet it, too, is practically useless. It has been tried everywhere and found to be defective. When it rattles at full speed, it has been seen that its sighting is illusory, that it throws erratically high in the air, and that ammunition is simply wasted. It cannot help us in the slightest. The value of machine-guns has been always overrated. "

This was together with a British Nordenfeldt ("absolutely useless and now refuses to work") and an American Colt ("so small, being single-barrelled, that it can only do boy's work. Yet this Colt is the most satisfactory of all, and when we have dragged it out with us and played it on the enemy, it has shot true and straight They say it has killed more men than all the rest put together").
There should have been a Russian field gun, but although 1,000 shells were bought, the gun itself was somehow left in Tientsin Station. Putnam Weale suspects that there had been a deal done between the Chinese and Russian that the Russian legation would not be attacked.

13th July

 Austro-Hungarian naval officers in China

The Chinese exploded a huge mine under the defences, burying the French Commander, the Austrian Charge d'Afaires and four French sailors, but they had a miraculous escape. A second explosion just afterwards somehow shifted the rubble so all but two French sailors could be pulled clear. Following this there was bombardments and rifle fire all along the defences, but they still held.

16th July

The bombardment still continued. Putnam Weale notes that Captain Thormann of the Zenta was killed a few days before, "while he was encouraging his men to stand firm". There has been speculation about this ever since, that Thormann had earlier had a from of nervous breakdown, and how sought death on the parapets. We´ll never know.

The constant bombardment, sniping continued until the final day......

August 14th 1900

Surprised by the sudden quiet, Putnam Weale and some others creep out into the city.....

 The Austrian Legation after the siege

"Still not a sound, not a word. A little encouraged, we crept more valiantly into the Austrian Legation, and stood amazed at the spectacle. Rank-growing weeds covered the ground two or three feet high ; all the houses and residences had been gutted by fire, everything combustible burned, leaving a terrible litter. But the brickwork and stonework stood almost intact, and the tall Corinthian pillars with which it had been the architect's fancy to adorn this mission of His Most Catholic Majesty, stood up white and chaste in all this scene of devastation and ruin; they might have dated from centuries ago. Broken weapons, thousands more of brass cartridges, and sometimes even a soldier's blood- stained tunic could be seen among the weeds. This must have been the site of another camp of Chinese soldiery. Abandoned straw matting showed where rough huts had once been built line upon line. But all these hosts had flown."

Moving on they discovered, to their joy, the advancing Relief Force, although that wasn´t initially clear......

"Dense bodies of men in white tunics and dark trousers were debouching into the street, thousands of yards away, and were then marching due east that is, towards the Palace. They came on and on, until it seemed they would never cease. What were these newcomers ? Were they white troops at last, were they Bannermen of the white Banners? . . . They might be anything, anything in the world, but they might be ... Yes, without a doubt they might be ordinary Russian infantry of the line. Russian infantry of the line! "

It was over.

The Relief of Peking

The first International attempt to relieve Peking, the Seymour expedition having been shown to be hopelessly outnumbered, the allies upped the ante. A fleet assembled outside the port of Tianjin/Tientsin and on June 17th the Taku Forts protecting the city were stormed. This was a gamble, the shallow river Hai meant that only 9 of the smallest vessels in the fleet could used, so only 900 men against four forts and about 2,000 Chinese. Matched in artillery the allies stormed the forts one by one. The northwestern fell to waves of 200 Russians/ Austrians, 380 British and Italians and finally, 300 Japanese, who actually captured the fort. Its guns were then turned on the northern fort, which fell to the British and Italians. The fire power of both captured forts, and the fleet, was turned to the southern forts, and the Chinese fled. Now Tianjin was besieged by the Boxers, but they were driven off and the allies controlled both the port and its defences.

 Russian troops in the Peking relief expedition

With Tianjin under their control, large numbers of troops were bought ashore.and about 20,000 marched on Peking, under the command of British Lieutenant-General Alfred Gaselee. It was a real mixture - 8,000 Japanese (who had already proved themselves in the capture of Tianjin), 4,300 Russians (infantry, Cossacks and artillery), 3,000 British (mostly from India), 2,500 Americans and 800 French from Indochina. This sounds impressive until you consider that there were 70,000 Imperial troops and 50,000 to 100,000 Boxers between them and Peking! Fortunately they didn't have to fight their way through. Whilst there were many cases of stragglers being ambushed and murdered, only two small battles took place, at Beicang and Yangcun, on the march.

Arriving at Peking there was considerable rivalry between the "allies" to be the first to liberate the Legation Quarter. Each of the Japanese, British, Russians and Americans each assigned a gate into the city. The British won, wading through a drainage canal, and were greeted with loud cheers.

The battle for Peking wasn't quite over,, but on the 28th the allies held a victory march through the Forbidden City, marking in the most emphatic way possible, who had won, and who had lost.

Austrians elsewhere in China

Seventy-five members of the crew of the Zenta were part of the ill fated Seymour Expedition to Peking to rescue the Legations, and their comrades, only to be forced back.

 The SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia

Zenta was joined by the armoured cruiser SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia, and 160 sailors from both ships (and two landed guns) were part of the assaults on the Taku forts which defended the entrance to the port of Tientsin (Tianjin). The crew of the SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia incidentally included Georg Von Trapp, of Sound of Music fame, who was decorated for his actions.

Meanwhile in Tientsin (Tianjin) were 2,400 allied troops, mainly Russians but others as well. After the Taku forts were taken the Boxers attempted to storm the city, all but destroying the French quarter and only being back with heavy losses by the Russians. On June 18th 175 Austrian, British, German, and Italian troops sortied across the river and captured eight guns,and killed the defenders, which eased the situation until forces could arrive from Taku.

Over the following months several other Austrian cruisers arrived in China, including the SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth and SMS Aspern, and their sailors were also part of various policing and mopping up operations, up to 500 men being involved in all.

Finally, in June 1901 the Kaiserin Elisabeth and Zenta were sent home, the S.M.S. Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia and S.M.S. Aspern remaining on station. The Zenta arrived back in the Austrian base of Pola in October, where she was awarded a silk Flag of Honour in recognition of the actions of her crew in China.

As well as a huge indeminity paid to all the allied powers, the Austro-Hungarians actually gained territory as well, a sort of mini-Hong Kong of 150 acres at Tianjin. Although small, their first Asian colony still had 30,000 people, who became Austro-Hungarian citizens, and were under Austrian laws. It lasted until 1917.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

From the Black Orchid to Defiants - West Malling airfield 1932-41

West Malling airport had been a civilian site in the interwar years. After obtaining a licence as a permanent airfield in 1932, it had officially opened in 1933 as Maidstone Airport, with a speech by the Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale and a flypast by three Vickers Virginias and two Hawker Audaxes from RAF Manston. The airport offered flying classes with a Puss Moth, Fox Moth and Gypsy Moth.

 Vickers Virginia bomber. Although it's huge size made an impression on the crowd at West Malling, it wasn't terribly effective, and was very unnreliable. Nonetheless, it remained in active service until 1940, when the suggestion was made that it be mounted with cannon as a gunship against invdaing tanks. Fortuntely that was never tried.

Unfortunately, in 1934 the managing director, "Count" Johnston-Noad was jailed for a month for non-payment of rates. Johnston-Noad was an adventurer - in the good and bad senses of the word. In the 1920s and early 30s, he was famous as a speed boat racer, but he later turned to scams and crime.  He was eventually jailed for 10 years for fraud, which he served, improbably, with the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, later giving a newspaper article describing his jail mate ( Meanwhile, his beautiful 2nd wife, Thelma, was known in the underworld as the "Black Orchid" and was involved in a number of frauds and thefts, most famously an £8,000 diamond robbery in Hatton Garden in the 1950s. She committed suicide in 1955 with her lover whilst on the run from the police. Unfortuantely, we haven't managed to find any photos of the Johnston-Noads.

In 1935 the airfield was taken over by Mallling Aviation, and perhaps to avoid association, the name was changed to the Malling Aero Club. Despite this inauspicious start, Maidstone Airport went on to play host to various airshows, and even saw the famous Amy Johnson. Another Gypsy Moth was purchased in 1939, only to crash in nearby Borough Green shortly after.

With war approaching the airfield was taken over by the RAF and set up as an advanced landing field for Biggin Hill. It was upgraded with a concrete runway, and anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. The first aircraft were Lysanders, photo reconnaissance planes, on June 8th 1940.

 Boulton Paul Defiant with turret behind, but unfortunately, no guns in front. Usless against modern fighters, but actually quite good against bombers

On 12th July 141 squadron arrived equipped with Defiant fighters, only for tragedy to strike a week later with 6 of the 9 planes shot down over the Channel, exposing the Defiant as almost useless against modern fighters. On July 25th the 3 surviving planes were evacuated to Scotland.

This disaster was followed by heavy air raids. On August 10th a single bomber took the defences by surprise and 17 builders were injured, one dying. Heavier raids on the 15th, 16th and 17th of August and on September 10th, caused so much damage that it was only on October 30th that Spitfires of 66 Squadron could be stationed there, soon joined by Hurricanes of 421 Flight, though both were soon stationed elsewhere, to Biggen Hill and Hawkinge.

For a while, West Malling was mostly used to receive damaged fighters or bombers. Of both sides. At one point in 1940 a flight of German FW109s, believing that by crossing the Thames estuary they had crossed the Channel, started coming into land! The first crash landed in a nearby orchard, the 2nd taxied right up to the control tower before either side realised he was in the the wrong country! Fortunately, a Beaverette armoured car was nearby and held him prisoner. Then yet another FW190 came in. He realised his mistake and tried to take off, but the same Beaverette chased him and shot up the plane, even then the pilot tried to run away and in a brief punchup was laid out by the station commander.


On Aprils 27th 1941 the Beaufighters of No.29 squadron were stationed in West Malling (a road nearby was later called Beaufighter Road). The Beaufighters were used as night fighters against bombing raids, with considerable success.  One of the pilots, the famous Guy Gibson, said "Of all the airfields in Great Britain ... we have the most pleasant".

Friday, 24 August 2012

Charasiab 1879

In 1940, 93 year old Robert Whiting gave an interview to The West Australian newspaper. A former member of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment he had enlisted in 1870 and swiftly been deployed to Calcutta in India (probably somewhat different to his native Maidstone). A few years later he had found himself in the steamy Malay jungle in the Perak War. That ended successfully, but his travails were not over yet.

Battles Long Ago. A Veteran's Memories, The West Australian, 26 Jan 1940

He served throughout the Afghanistan War, and in 1879 was a member of the redoubtable "Field Force" which, after the victory at Charasla, surged onward and upward in the historic march to Kabul, to avenge the Residency massacre and prepare for the final advance on Kandahar and the routing of the Afghan armies. The outstanding figures of this campaign were Major Sir George White, of Ladysmith renown, and General Sir Frederick Roberts. Private Whiting still speaks of "Bobs" in tones of unashamed hero-worship.

The 2nd Afghan War (of four and counting)

The 2nd Afghan War arose out of the Great Game between Britain and Russia. Afghanistan was viewed as a vital buffer between British India and an ever-expanding Russia, so when the Tsar sent a diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878 the British demanded at least the same. Sher Ali Khan, the Amir, not only refused but said he would turn back any mission sent. The response was 40,000 British and Indian troops who occupied most of the country and imposed the Treaty of Gandarmack, under which all foreign affairs came under British control. Satisfied, most of the British army withdrew.
In September 1879 an uprising in Kabul slaughtered the British Resident and all his staff.

The only British force left in Afghanistan, the Kurrum Valley Field Force was ordered to march on Kabul and avenge the massacre. Fortunately for them they were commanded by Major General Sir Frederick Roberts. Once reinforced he renamed his force the Kabul Field Force, and set off over the Shutargardan Pass into central Afghanistan.
An elephant portered battery in Afghanistan

Lord Robert's official report in the London Gazette is available online at

Briefly this is the story.
Roberts was well aware that as soon as he left his camp at Ali Kheyl the Afghans would mobilise, and so speed was of the essence, especially as he would have to stop every other day to let his supply train and it's elephants catch up. He left Ali Kheyl in September and by the afternoon of the 5th of October had reached the the village of Charasiab, eleven miles from Kabul. The only problems up till then had been at the bridge over the Logar river, where repairs had been necessary to make it fit to take field artillery, and hostile locals had made it "necessary for the covering companies of the 72nd Highlanders and the 5th Punjab Infantry to drive them back at the point of the bayonet."

Punjabi Infantry (the 23rd)

Roberts considered the situation. " It was evident to me, from the feeling and manner of the people generally, from the fact that the Shuturgurdan had been attacked immediately on the bulk of our force leaving it, and from the action of the villages near Zahidabad, that our advance on Kabul would be opposed." The one major obstacle was the mountain range between Charasiab and Kabul, broken by passes at several places, but easily defensible. "Behind these heights lay the densely crowded city of Kabul, with the scarcely less crowded suburbs of Chardeh, Deh-i-affghan, &c., and the numerous villages which lie thickly clustered all over the Kabul Valley. Each and all of these had contributed their quota of men to assist the troops collected to fight us, and it did not require much experience of Afghans to know that the numbers already opposed to us would be very considerably increased if the enemy were allowed to remain in possession of their stronghold for a single night."

The Forces

The 5th Gurkha Rifles in Afghanistan

Roberts had at his disposal the following;

The 8th (Kings) (2nd battalion) and 67th (South Hampshire) Foot, the 72nd (Seaforth) and 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders
5th Gurkha Rifles, 5th, 21st, 29th Punjabi Infantry, 56th and 58th (Vaughn's) Punjabi Rifles, 23rd Sikh Pioneers
9th Lancers and 10th Hussars (1 squadron)
5th, 12th, 14th and 25th Punjab Cavalry
A Royal Artillery detachment (20 field guns)
2nd Mountain battery

It should be said first that there is no mention anywhere of the Buffs being involved in the 2nd Afghan War, or the Kabul Field Force at Charasiab, but that doesn't mean Bob Whiting wasn't there of course. He might have been on attachment, or just swept up in the desperate draft of troops after the Residency massacre. 

It was later believed that opposing them were 13 regular regiments with contingents  from Kabul and neighbouring villages, to several thousand men  commanded by Sirdar Nek Mahomed Khan, son of the late Amir Dost Mahomed Khan. Twenty guns were captured, many of which, Roberts makes a point of mentioning, had been originally supplied by the British.

The Battle of Charasiab

 Afghan troops

Cavalry patrols were sent out along the three possible roads from Charasiab to Kabul. Roberts chose the road to " Ben-i-Shahr," but that required seizing the crest of the pass at " Sang-i-Nawishta," so at dawn the next day the force set off. The enemy had other ideas, and "troops could be seen in large numbers and regular formation crowning the crest line of the hills, which extended from the narrow defile of the "Sang-i-Nawishta" (both sides of which were held) on their extreme left, to the heights above the Chardeh Valley, which formed their right. From the way they moved it was clear that many of these at least were regular Afghan Army units."

Roberts had already sent the 23rd Pioneers ahead to prepare the road through the pass for heavy artillery, protected by a "wing" of the 92nd Highlanders, and two guns from No. 2 Mountain battery. These he reinforced with the 72nd Highlanders, 6 companies of the 5th Gurkhas, 200 men of the 5th Punjabi Infantry, more sappers, and also 4 more mountains guns and 2 Gatling guns. The whole was placed under the command Brigadier-General Baker, and given the difficult task of clearing the pass. The rest of the 5th Punjabi was sent up to protect Baker´s ammunition stores and field hospital.

"After leaving Charasiab, General Baker advanced over some bare undulating hills, forming a series of positions easily defensible, and flanked by steep rocky crags varying in height from 1,000 to 1,800 feet above the sloping plane which our troops had to cross. The main position of the enemy was at least 400 feet higher. It commanded their entire front, and was only accessible in a few places."

Highlanders (this time the 92nd) in the 2nd Afghan War

Baker was to move forward to artillery range and bombard the enemy, but wait for an outflanking attack by the 72nd Highlanders before launching his main attack, This he did, only to find that both attacks bogged down in the terrible terrain, so he had to reinforce the flank with two companies of the 5th Gurkhas and the centre with two more companies of Gurkhas and the 5th Punjabis. The fighting was very hard, with heavy casualties amongst the 72nd, but they prevailed. The enemy retreated about 6oo yards to another position, but the British advanced in rushes, covered by the mountain guns, and after 30 minutes this too fell. By 3-45 the high ridge was in British hands and they turned the whole Afghan position. The road to Kabul was open.

The war was not yet over, Kabul was besieged in December 1879, and a revolt in Herat lead to the British defeat at Maiwand in July 1880, but after a crushing British victory under Roberts at the Battle of Kandahar in September Afghanistan became, more or less, peaceful.


 "There aren't so many of them left now, though," he says ruefully,  "How is it that I still linger on, when so many have gone? I sometimes ask myself." A recipe for long life? "Well, a contented mind perhaps that, and doing nothing to make It discontented, if possible. Moderation, too, but by no means abstention. I enjoy my pipe as much as ever, and also my beer. As long as you can still enjoy things, there's nothing much wrong with life. In India we could always get good English beer for 2d. a pint (at home it was only 1d.), and tobacco for 1/ a Ib."
"Methods of warfare have altered out of all knowledge since I was in the army, of course. Tactics have changed, equipment has changed, weapons are altogether different. When we were fighting the Afghans, nobody even dreamt of submarines, or fast-flying bombers, or poison gas, or long-range guns."
When the talk is over and farewells have been said, Bob Whiting, Private of the Buffs, draws himself up to his full height, clicks his heels, and gravely salutes.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Buffs at Kota Lama, 1876

In the previous blog I describe an interview with Robert Whiting, a veteren of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment, the "Buffs". Talking in 1940 he describes his soldiering days in the 1870s & 1880s. One of his campaigns was in the Malay state of Perak in 1876 - a typical action involving the Buffs is here described in the London Gazette. It is strangelly reminiscent of actions in South East Asia 100 years later.

The London Gazette 18 February 1876 Issue number 24296
Camp, Qualla Kangsa, January 5, 1876.


I have the honour to report that yesterday morning the force was taken by me for the purpose pf disarming the village of Kota Lama 1 1/2 miles distant, on ihe opposite side of the Perak River. This village, in July last, was visited by Mr. Birch, when the inhabitants came down in considerable numbers, loading their arms, and warning him not to come near. Having no force with him, he was obliged to withdraw. For long this village has been the haunt of all the worst disposed and turbulent Malays. The Queen's Commissioner, deeming it necessary to disarm the inhabitants and to destroy the houses of certain known leaders, I made the following arrangements.

The village of Kota Lama is on the left bank of the river. Lieutenant Colonel Cox crossed with his party (Royal Artillery, 12 men and 1 gun; the Buffs, 10 men; 1st Goorkhas, 25 men) in boats, and moved up the bank a little more than a mile, when he extended the men, the left of the line keeping close to the river, and skirmished through the village.Mr. Maxwell, Deputy Commissioner, accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Cox.

Captain Young moved his party (The Buffs, 50 men, 1st Goorkhas, 20 men) in a similar manner up the right bank, to a village of the same name; his orders were to collect any arms, but not to destroy or injure houses or property, as the inhabitants have been well disposed. Captain Speedy, Assistant Commissioner, accompanied Captain Young,

Major McNair, I, and my staff went with Captain Garforth's party of the Naval Brigade (32 men) in three boats . We landed on the left bank just above the village, and, leaving a few blue jackets in charge of the boats, we moved in the direction of the village, expecting there to find Lieutenant Colonel Cox's party. Twenty bluejackets landed with us, and we were joined by Lieutenant Hare, R.E., with 4 Goorkhas, who had been assisting him to measure the distance along the bank.

We proceeded some distance before we came to some houses which I desired should be searched for arms, they were, with few exceptions, deserted ;after about an hour and a half we came upon several houses close to each other, the largest being occupied by women and children. It being necessary to ascertain whether any men also were in it, Major McNair sent in two of his Malay followers, and himself looked in. After satisfying himself that there were only women and children, he had just got down from the steps, telling those inside not to be alarmed as they would not be harmed, when we heard several shots, and from a jungle close by some 50 Malays rushed out upon us, a few with fire-arms and the rest with spears.

 Naval Brigade sailors taking on Malays during the Perak campaign (Illustrated London News)

The attack was so sudden that we were almost surrounded and had to retire. The conduct of the marines and sailors was deserving of all praise. If it had not been for their steadiness few if any of us would have escaped. As it was I reget to say that our loss was heavy in proportion to the numbers engaged.
Just before this attack was made several officers moved away in the direction of the river, a hundred yards distant Major Hawkins was, it was supposed, following them  when he was fatally wounded with a spear. No one seems to have seen him fall, but Captain Garforth reports that William Sloper, A.B., came up to him on the ground, shot two Malays who were coming towards him, and stopped with him until Major Hawkins said "Save yourself ; you can do me no good now."

Major Heathcoate, who with Captain Badcock, Lieutenant Preston, and Major Twigge, had gone on in front of Major Hawkins towards the river, turned back with these officers and tried to move them, but they had to fall back to the river, before the superior numbers who were getting round them.

Surgeon Townsend was the first to be assailed, he being a little advanced ; three Malays assailed him with spears, the centre one he shot with his pistol, and the man falling forward upon him knocked him down. The other two Malays were driving at him when Harry Bennett, A.B., and William Thompson, A.B., rushed forward and killed them both. The conduct of the three blue jackets abovenamed has been specially brought to my notice, but all behaved admirably in a very difficult position, and very great credit is due to the three officers, Captain Garforth, Lieutenant Wood, and Sub-Lieutenant Poar, who directed and led them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Cox's party had gone all over the ground on which this occurred, and it is supposed that our opponents must have made for the jungle on the approach of the skirmishers, and returned after they had passed. Lieutenant- Colonel Cox returned through the village in the same order, and having destroyed every house that he passed, arrived here about half-past two o'clock, without firing a shot.

Captain Young's party returned about the same time without having met with any opposition. The bodies of five Malays were found, and I have reason to believe that their loss must have been greater. The close and hand-to-hand nature of the engagement is shown by all the casualties having been caused by spear wounds.

I have, &c.
(Signed) J. ROSS,Brigadier-General, &c.
P.S.—A large quantity of arms, spears, muskets, and small wall-pieces were taken, and a large iron 12-pounder gun was spiked and thrown into the river. A list of arms taken shall be forwarded.

A Veteran Remembers - part 1

It's 1940 and from your home in Australia you hear daily news reports of bombs landing on your native Kent, with invasion threatened to roll across the land. War is very much in the air and everywhere young men are joining up. You think back to all those many years ago when you did the same, 70 years ago -  Prussians were threatening Europe even then.

In January 1940 Bob Whiting gave an interview to the The West Australian newspaper. This is based on his interview.

Battles Long Ago. A Veteran's Memories
The West Australian
26 Jan 1940

Private of the Buffs. History comes very much alive again, and there is the sound of invisible drums and trumpets in the air, when you are talking to a certain grand old veteran, Bob Whiting, Private of the Buffs, the oldest soldier in Western Australia. Except for his 93 years there is no thing of the nonagenarian about Robert Austin Whiting, Private No. 2018. His stalwart body still has strength and suppleness, and there is a suggestion of rugged indomitableness in every line of it. His grizzled head is firmly poised, and his kindly old face is alert and full of character. Bob Whiting, doyen of all old campaigners now living in this State, is a sociable chap who loves to sit on the verandah of his East Fremantle home and swap reminiscences with other sociable chaps who drop in for a yarn about the brave days dead.

Robert Whiting

 It was in the year 1870, when the Prusslans were spreading the desolation of war over the smiling countryside of France, that Bob Whiting took the King's shilling and enlisted in the British Army as a full private in the 1st battalion of the old 3rd Regiment of the Line, now the East Kent Regiment, popularly called the Buffs on account of the former colour of the facings on their tunics. Besides being the oldest soldier in Western Australia, Private Whiting is the oldest living Buff anywhere in the world. He was born at Maidstone, Kent, on March 22, 1846, the year of the great Irish famine and of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Soon after he had "'listed for a soldier," in his early twenties, Bob Whiting was drafted out to India, and remained at various stations there until 1875. During that year and the next he took part with his regiment in the hazardous Malay Peninsula campaign, and was awarded the Perak medal, with bar........ (to be continued)

The Perak Campaign

James Birch in Perak

In the 1870s Malaysia was not a single state but a network of native Sultanates with a three British enclaves, Penang, Malacca and Singapore. British influence over the Sultanates was gradually increasing, so that in 1874 The Pangkor Treaty was signed with Perak in the north, allowing a British Resident to take over government administration. That Resident, James Birch arrived in 1875 and set about many reforming the government, especially by outlawing slavery and improving tax collection. Both of these hit the economy of the local chieftains and in July, whilst visiting up country at Passir Salak, Birch and his bodyguards were murdered under the orders of the local chief, and slave trader, Dato Maharajaleda. The British response was swift and crushing, the Perak War.

The British garrison in the Malay states was small, but troops were shipped in from other bases in India. Troops from the 80th Foot arrived from Hong Kong via Singapore in November and were shortly joined by a task force under Brigadier General J. Ross from India. Ross's force was a mixture of the 1st Gurkhas, the Madras Sappers, some Royal Artillery, and a strong Naval Brigade, supported by HMS Egeria, Fly, Modeste, Philomel, Ringdove and Stirling. Last, but certainly not least, he had the 1st battalion of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment of Foot, based in Calcutta, Bob Whiting's battalion.

Arriving in Penang in late November the Buffs set about preparing for Perak, and presumably for Christmas, though their hopes in that regard were to be dashed. Christmas for 200 men of the battalion was spent down in Malacca were they were sent to put down a Chinese riot.

Meanwhile, Perak had been building up it´s forces, and the Residency was attacked in November, though this was easily repulsed. Elsewhere stockades were built and fortified, especially along the Perak river that formed the basis of the state. On December 10th 1875 the British started to move, the 10th Foot storming and defeating a stockade of 400 Malays only 5 miles from the Residency. The coast secured, in January the Expeditionary force started up the River Perak, checking villages and stockades as they went -  a typical action for the Buffs is described in the extract from the London Gazette below.

 British forces camping at Passir Salak 1876

By the end of February, Passir Salak was captured and three of Birch's murderers captured. The rest fled upsteam, pursued by a task force of 200 infantry of the 10th and 80th Foot, 40 artillerymen with two steel guns and a rocket tube and a small Naval Brigade of 40 men and officers, transported and supported by 40 boats including HMS Modeste and Ringdove, each with two steel guns on slides and three rocket tubes. 50 "friendly" Malays acted as scouts. The force reached Blanja on March 13th and disembarked, ready to march to Kinta, where the Sultan Ismail was believed to planning a stand. The road or path from Blanja was through virgin forest
 "it is difficult to imagine, but if endless fallen trees, tree roots, elephant holes, streams, swamps, and clay ditches fifty yards long full of, all jumbled together in different combinations of disorder, could be put on paper in it sketch, it would give a feeble idea of the 'road' over which the guns, rockets, and forty rounds of ammunition were dragged, carried, or pushed with intense labour."
Twice the force was ambushed by Malays behind felled trees, but each time the ambushers were driven off, the rocket tubes roving especially effective. After an uncomfortable night in the jungle they reached Kinta. There was some token cannon fire, swiftly silenced by artillery and rockets, and the British entered Kinta without casualty, pointedly taking over the best houses as their quarters.


Sultan Ismail fled again up stream, aiming for the state of Patani, under Siamese not British, protection. He was captured in March after surrendering to the Rajah of Quedah and was exiled to the Seychelles. Dato Maharajalela was found guilty for the murder of James Birch in December 1876 and was sentenced to death by hanging.

By April 1877, Whiting and the Buffs were on their way back to their base at Calcutta having lost eight comrades as casualties (Lt. Colvill, Col. Sergt. Julian, Corpl. Clune, and Privates Neal, King, Killingbeck, Hobbs and Watson). Reportedly, they were very glad to be leaving, the hot humid climate being regarded as unhealthy, with many more men sick in the local hospital. Apparently, the Gurkhas from the highlands of Nepal hated it even more, and were even more desperate to get away.

This was not to be Bob Whiting's last active service with the Buffs, far from it, but more of that another time.

 The Buffs Regimental Ball in Calcutta 1876 - probably not for private Whiting.

Friday, 10 August 2012

"Fortress Maidstone" 1939-41

The shortest invasion route from Europe to Britain is from Calais to Dover. The primary invasion target for any invasion is London. Slap bang between Dover and London, and controlling one of the main crossing points of the River Medway is Maidstone.

 The Eastern road block on Maidstone bridge.

When England was threatened with invasion in 1940 a rather optimistically named "stop line" was set up from Sussex to Kent - the GHQ line. In fact the GHQ was never intended to "stop" anything, it was supposed to delay and disorganise any invader so a counterattack could be prepared. In this part of Kent it followed the River Medway, a natural barrier, and along it's length were concrete type 24 pill boxes for infantry squads. Bridges were covered by larger anti-tank emplacements and wired for demolition.

Within this scheme Maidstone was a Category 'A' "Fortress". Don't imagine Stalingrad or Tobruk, it's garrison in the event of an invasion was principally the 11th (Maidstone) Battalion of the Kent Home Guard, supplemented with a few Regulars, giving a grand total of 985 men with twenty-four Boys anti-tank rifles, two Bren light machine guns, and five Northover Projectors. And reportedly one Lewis gun, which they had "acquired". In the event of an actual attack they would be presumably be reinforced by advance forces falling back, which in front of Maidstone meant the New Zealand 5th and 7th Brigades and "Milforce" armed with Matilda I and II tanks.

The Medway crossings at Teston and Aylesford were "defended localities", with an anti-tank pill box at Teston. The lock at Allington castle received special attention, with several pill boxes and a type 28A anti-tank gun emplacement with a 6pdr gun defending the lock itself , as well as the medieval castle! Behind this, the villages of Larkfield and West Malling were "defended villages". West Malling was a special case, having an RAF airfield (the former Madstone airport) which would have been of great value to the attackers.

Distribution of crossings over the Medway, marked in red. Dover and the coast is broadly to the East, London to the West, the Thames estuary to the north. Note that Maidstone, and especially Larkfield, are much bigger now than in 1940.


As a "fortress" Maidstone did not even have a medieval wall. But anyway, an outer perimeter was established of roughly the streets west of Bower Mount road up to Oakwod park, the streets north of Buckland Hill, then following the railway line down to the river. On the east of the river the perimeter was more northerly, extending east before curving down to cross the Sittingbourne and Ashford Roads. To the South the perimeter swung down from the A20 to the river and then down to the streets below Shears crescent, over Loose road, and then around Hastings road in the direction of Mote Park before swinging up to the Ashford road.

 Some of Maidstone's defences marked on a modern map. The coast is to the left, London to the right, and the River Medway running north-south, marked in blue. Roadblocks are marked as black rectangles, a flame trap in red (the roadblock on the Chatham Road is above this map. Potential strongpoints are marked as purple rectangles, 1 (Maidstone prison), 2 (Rootes car factory) and 3 (the Archbishops Palace).

Within this outer perimeter was a "Keep" entirely on the Eastern side of the river, and protecting the bridge. This was therefore hard against the Medway, stretching up to the prison to the north, Church street in the east across the Ashford road and down to Moat road in the south, and along Knightrider Street to the river, with strongpoints at the prison in the north and the church, Archbishops Palace and even the Rootes car factory to the south. This gives a battleground of mainly terraced housing around the outside, with a mixture of new shops and factories, and historic buildings in the centre. Unfortunately it was cut right through the middle East West by King Street and the High Street leading straight down to the bridge.

The area was dotted with road blocks which would have been also ambush sites, and in two cases barrel flame traps. Entering Maidstone from the East there was a road block on the Ashford road where it joined New Cut Road, though this would appear to be easily flanked by the railway cutting to the south. To the north east there was a roadblock at the junction of the Sittingbourne Road (A249) and Bearsted Road by the Chiltern Hundreds pub.

To the north, where the Chatham Road (A229) joined the Forstal Road near the Running Horse pub was both a roadblock and a barrel flame trap, whilst to the south on Loose Road (A229)  there was a roadblock at the  junction with the Sutton Road (A274) at the Wheatsheaf pub, and then further into the centre a barrel flame trap at the junction with Planis Avenue. It is noticeable incidentally how many of these roadblocks were by pubs.

 The road block and flame trap on the Chatham Road.

Anyway, assuming an invader had broken through the Keep and reached the bridge, he would still have to fight his way across it. There were 5 large concrete anti-tank cylinders blocking the eastern end, and a further four at the west end. The parapet at the eastern end was removed, presumably so that any invader would have to cross open ground across the bridge.

Kiwis and Matildas

The 5th and 7th Infantry New Zealand Brigades were unusually well equipped for the time, not least because of some strong negotiating by the New Zealand government. By 15th August 1940 General Freyburg the NZ commander could report that "more equipment has arrived and we have now got 50 per cent of our unit transport, together with 100 per cent of our field guns—eight 25-pounder guns and sixteen 75-millimetre (French) guns, 50 per cent or ten 2-pounder anti-tank guns, 100 per cent of our Bren carriers, 100 per cent of our Bren guns, 100 per cent of our Boys rifles. From today we are to all intents and purposes almost 100 per cent equipped."

A New Zealand anti-tank battery practicing on the range at Lydd, March 1940

Having said that, of the three formations involved, two were basically cobbled together
a) 5th Infantry Brigade
More or less as intended, with the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions of the New Zealand army
b) 7th Infantry Brigade
There was originally no 7th Brigade. It was formed of the 28th (Maori) Battalion and various other bits and pieces. Fortunately, later experiance showed the 28th was an exceptionally good battalion.

 A Matilda II tank and crew on exercise in Kent, 1941 (Imperial War Museum)
 c) "Milforce"
Basically a combination of various New Zealand divisional units and the 8th Royal Tank Regiment, under Lt.Col. Custance, the commanding officer of the 8th RTR.
5th Field Regiment, NZA,
7th Anti-Tank Regiment, NZA (31st, 32nd Batteries),
7th Field Company, NZE, C Squadron, 2nd New Zealand Divisional Cavalry,
157th Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA
8th Royal Tank Regiment, one company of Matilda II tanks, and 2 companies of Matilda Is

The plan called for Milforce to be stationed at Charing near Ashford. The 5th Brigade was staioned "east of Maidstone" and in the event of an invasion it would travel along the A20 to Charing to link up with Milforce, before they both swung south or east or north to face the greatest invasion threat. The 7th Brigade had the specific task of providing AA cover from the North Downs as the 5th passed along the A20 (which rather assumed that there would be no effective RAF by this stage) and then it was responsible for neutralising any parachute or glider landings in the area.

Conditions in reality

The invasion preparations above are, of course, based on a "What If" that never occured. The reality was bad enough, as shown by this letter from a Maidstone resident to her firend in Australia, published in the Horsham Times on Friday 3rd January 1941.

 A Bofors anti-aircraft gun set up (presumeably temporarily) on Maidstone bridge.

A Maidstone Resident's Impressions In writing from Maidstone, Kent, Enigland, the sister of Mr.C. Waldoin, of Douglas, on October 14 says
'What endless extra jobs this war has given us. The blacking out is a real trouble unless can get plywood and make shutters, which we were too late to get but managed to get wood for frames to fit inside the windows, covering one side with brown paper and casement curtain the other side. We use it by day in case of the glass being splintered. I have: been fortunate so far. Most of the houses in this street have had broken windows, but we don't. We are just having our 214th air raid warning. This is the record for the 7th day of October, 5.35 until 6.35, a.m. 7.15 to 8.5, 9.40 to 11.20, 12:55 to 2:40 3.50 to 5.15, 8 to 12 midnight. October 8th, 4 am to 7, 8:35 to 12.20 pm., 7:40 p.m. to 5 am. We are not house proud after days like this. We sleep when we can and eat when we can.

For a month we have had to sleep downstairs. I do hope you will take a pinch of salt with all you hear of what is going on. I think it's worse to be at a distance and hear about things than it is to be where it is going on. (Later, October: 20th). We are just having our 227th raid. I wish you could see the wonderful tracing in the sky after an air battle.

 Life goes on - Maidstone Market in 1944


The excellent Defence of Britain site at gives lots of fascinating details on this subject.

Another valuable source of information is the digitalised newspaper archive at Trove ( This deals with Australian newspapers, but these often reported on world events, and the site is free! There are also photos and other digitised material.