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Out damn book!

I'm done with physical media. It's taken me 10 years to realise that a small flat in London and a love of books, music, films and TV don't necessarily make for good bedfellows. After failing to find space for a book on a shelf one Monday evening a few weeks ago I came to the sudden revelation that my home was full of stuff I didn't actually use.

While my move from physical media to digital media over those last 10 tears has been almost total I've always kept my books, DVDs and CDs on the assumption that I'll read, watch or listen to them all again at some point, and then one Monday in May you suddenly realised you're standing in a shrine to stuff you no longer use but keep due to an oddly redundant emotional attachment. An emotional attachment that has taken over my living space.

The DVDs were easy to get rid of, anything I want to watch had already been ripped and was stored in iTunes. The fact that I could watch any of my films on a computer, TV, iPad or even my mobile phone had long since relegated the actual discs to ornaments.
Some of the books not long for my world
The books were trickier. As good as the availability of eBooks is today it tends to concentrate on bestsellers. Despite a desire to get rid of them all the simple fact is that the only way to read some of the books I have enjoyed is to hold them in my hands. But revelations about 'pointless stuff' and the appeal of a less cluttered living space can embolden one's killer instinct, so the pile of books to go ended up being larger than the pile to stay.

Which brings me to the main area of my failure. Music. The mountain of stuff to go contained not a single CD. That's not an exaggeration, the culling within the ranks of books and DVDs was frankly brutal, but I couldn't bring myself to dispose of even a single CD. Not a one. The irony of this is not lost on me, music was the first thing to move to the digital realm, and the most complete. I haven't purchased music on physical media for several years now, yet it was the one area I couldn't make a even the slightest cut.

Moving images and books are an immersive experience which demand and reward attention, but music is different. I clean, cook, work, drive and walk to music, it has become the internal soundtrack to my life and I think that it why it's bond is so much more difficult to break. I can't see myself buying another CD in my life, but I know that in 10 years time those boxes of CDs will still be stored in that cupboard.


The Shard

I perhaps don't pay as much attention to the London skyline as I should. Even though I knew the 72 story, 310 metre tall Shard was being built, it wasn't until this morning that I actually looked up while on the train into Waterloo. I should have looked up earlier because standing clear of London's other skyscrapers the Shard is a pretty impressive building. While on the 16:09 Farringdon to Wimbledon train this evening it kept appearing and disappearing between buildings as we headed south. Despite a long liquid lunch I managed to grab my camera, point it through the train window and grab a couple of shots, the best of which was this.

While the top of the Shard appears to be somewhat unfinished the final steel structure and all glass panes are already in place, the building has been topped out. I may have to plan a trip to London bridge to get a better shot than one grabbed from a passing train.


The Daily Mail gets it wrong "shocker"

A fact I enjoy boring my friends with is that Bushy Park in South West London was home to the US Army Air Corps (the precursor to the US Air Force) during the Second World War. The Camp was named Camp Griffiss in honour of Lieutenant colonel Townsend Griffiss who had the misfortune to be the first U.S. airman to be killed in the line of duty in the European Theater in World War II. The Daily Mail did a profile on him earlier this year and at the bottom of the article is an aerial shot of Camp Griffiss in Teddington's Bushy Park.

Except, the photo has a dirty great runway through the middle of it, and I was pretty sure Bushy Park never had a runway. Sure enough, it appears that the Daily Mail used a photo of Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, and not Camp Griffiss in Teddington, Middlesex.

Photo reproduced by the Daily Mail incorrectly placing Griffiss Air Force Base in West London rather than upstate New York

Even more embarrassingly, the Daily Mail managed to identify it correctly as Griffiss AFB, but incorrectly located it in West London rather than it's actual location of Upstate New York. I expect to see the odd inaccuracy creep into newspaper articles, and I can understand how 'Camp Griffiss' and 'Griffiss AFB' could be mixed up, but surely the suggestion that a runway the same size as one of Heathrow's, was located on the Thames, next to Hampton Court, should have have been worth a quick fact check?


Argyle Road, Teddington

For the last decade I have lived in the leafy London Suburb of Teddington. While Teddington's history dates back to Saxon times most of what is now modern Teddington was developed following the construction of Teddington Lock in 1811 and the railway in 1863. The close knit network of Victorian and Edwardian streets that forms the heart of modern Teddington was complete by the turn of the 20th century.

For those who know Teddington well there is a conspicuously large development of much more modern buildings between Somerset, Stanley, Church and Walpole roads. I had always assumed that these more modern buildings and spaces were a result of urban renewal during the 1960s, but it turns out that it had less to do with the plans of developers, and much more to do with the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

The council work in November 2011 that started it allMy interest in this oddly 'modern block' was piqued by a council road crew and a conversation with a neighbour. In November of 2011 Richmond Council removed a drop kerb from outside the playground on Church Road. While chatting about the work to a neighbour who had lived and worked in Teddington for the last 70 years he mentioned that the drop kerb had originally marked the entrance to a road that no longer exists. He went on to reminisce about playing on the bombed out houses that had stood on the site, homes that had been destroyed, not by a bomb dropped from a Luftwaffe bomber, but by a V1 flying bomb, Germany's first vengeance weapon and the world's first guided missile built by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War. After 68 years the council were removing the last visible traces of the road the Germans had destroyed in July 1944.

Teddington seemed to have suffered more than other suburban areas of London. While it was far from the industrial or agricultural heart of the UK it did have some high value targets. In Bushy Park, just 500 metres from Teddington station, the Americans built Camp Griffiss which was to serve as the European Headquarters of the US Army Air Corp, and as the war progressed the park also served as the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force as they planned the D-Day landings. The National Physical Laboratory on the perimeter of Bushy Park was involved in military aviation research and is where Barnes Wallace conducted tests for the bouncing bombs used in the bombing raids on the Möhne and Edersee Dams immortalised in the 1955 film Dambusters.

It wasn't until recently that I recalled this conversation with my neighbour. During a recent clear out of  books I found an old London street Atlas and it contained a map showing Argyle Road in Teddington, a road that should be just opposite my front door yet I had never heard of before. The Atlas was printed in 1937 so Argyle road was clearly there before the war started and it's location matched the spot where the council had recently removed the old road entrance.

The streets surounding Church Road as they appeared in 1937 Church Road as it appears in 2012

While London suffered significant bomb damage in the early stages of the war the frequency of the attacks reduced as the war in Europe in expanded. As the war drew to a close the bombing attacks on the Capital started up again but now using the V1 'doodlebug' flying bomb and the V2 ballistic missile. In July 1944 one of those V1s flew over London on it's way towards Teddington. Given the rudimentary guidance system fitted to the V1 – the operators set a compass bearing and the time that the V1's pulse jet engine was to run for – it seems unlikely that Argyle Road the intended target, but Argyle Road is where it fell, and is where 40 people and an entire road met their end. 

While the doodlebugs distinctive 'droning' pulse jet gave those on the ground some warning, the V2 fell to earth at such high speed that the first indication of a V2 was the sound of it exploding as it crashed back to earth. The only V2 that landed in Teddington exploded in Fairfax road in July 1944 (only a few hundred metres from the US Army Air Corp's Camp Griffiss) and led to the evacuation of 7,000 women and children from the local area.

It seems odd to me that I've lived so close to the location where over 40 people lost their lives and yet I knew so little about it. I wasn't brought up in London, or even the UK, but even my family has extremely close links to the UK during the war. (My grandfather was in the RAF and his cousin lost his life while serving in the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz). Since I re-discovered that 75 year old street Atlas I've been in contact with the National Archives in Kew with a view to looking at the Bomb Census to look at the details of the bombing activity in Teddington, and ultimately finding out more about the history of the street I have now lived on for over 10 year.


V for Victory

It has now been 30 years since the Falklands war started and the various anniversaries surrounding the events that led to the British recapturing the islands are being remembered. While there are many stories from the islands' recapture to be told, the one story that continues to capture the imagination is how the RAF's cold war era bombers flew 15,000 km to undertake the longest bombing mission in history.

While the Black Buck missions were a fantastic example of just what the RAF could do when called upon, the seven missions flown were arguably the greatest moment for Britian's force of V bombers. While there are many articles going into great details about the war, and black buck missions in particular, it also piqued an interest in the V bombers.

The three V bombers, the Vickers Valiant, the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor, were all designed in the 1950s to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. In the 50s the biggest threat to Bombers were fighter aircraft and the best way to protect a bomber was to fly high and fast, so the three V bombers were designed to fly medium range missions fast and at high altitude. Unfortunately the V bombers were designed before the development of surface to air missiles, and following the introduction of frontline missiles it became clear that speed and altitude were no refuge for a bomber. Over night the V bombers became vulnerable at altitude so the RAF had to quickly change tactics and retrained the bomber crews to fly low level attack runs. Flying through the 'thick' turbulent air at low altitudes puts very different stresses on an airframe and the switch from high to low altitude flying was to have a significant impact on the V bombers.

The Vickers Valiant (photo courtesy of Flickr user kitchener.lord)Introduced to the RAF in 1955, the Valiant was the first to fly and was to be the most traditional of the three V bomber designs in case the more advanced Victors and Vulcans failed to meet their design goals. While the Valiant retained the bombing role until it was retired, it was already being moved to the mid-air refuelling role when, in 1964, a Valiant suffered an in-flight failure of its rear spar (the main structural member of the wing). Despite causing significant structural damage to the wing, including the loss of sections of the flaps, the crew managed to successfully land the aircraft. The metal fatigue caused by the higher stresses of low level flying doomed the Valiant, and within six months the entire fleet of over 100 aircraft had been grounded.

Avro Vulcan (photo courtesy of Flickr user cooldudeandy01)Ironically the high altitude Vulcan proved to be a rather good low level bomber. The huge wing area afforded by the Vulcan's futuristic delta wing design gave it a very low wing loading (loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wing) which made it by far the most suitable of the V bombers for flying the more demanding low level bomb runs. For this reason the Vulcan was the last of the V bombers to actually drop bombs.

Handley Page Victor (photo courtesy of Flickr user kitchener.lord)Despite suffering from the same low level flying fatigue problems as the Valiant, the Victor faired somewhat better.  In 1964 the early versions of the Victor, which were already surplus to the strategic bomber role, were converted to fill the tanker role left by the retirement of the Valiant fleet. The later versions of the Victor were all retired from the strategic bombing role by 1968 and were converted to tankers replacing the earlier first generation Victor tankers. These more capable Victor tankers literally had their wings clipped as 18 inches was removed from each wing-tip to reduce the stress on the wing to extend the airframe's life. The Victor's history as a bomber gave it a advantage that few other ariel tankers have, as well as the ability to refuel aircraft it could itself be refuelled in mid-air, in fact it was this feature that allowed the RAF to even contemplate the Black Buck missions.

In the early 80s the UK government was pushing for defence cuts that would alter the structure of the armed forces to concentrate on its role within NATO. Given that the RAF could provide air cover for UK Forces within the area of its Nato responsibilities the planned cuts were to reduce the Royal Navy's ability to conduct independent operations outside of NATO. Despite the RAF lack of a long range deployment capability the proposed cuts required the Royal Navy to decommission large number of Destroyers, Frigates and Amphibious ships and to sell its Aircraft Carriers. That all changed on the 2nd of April 1982 when Argentinean forces invaded the Falklands, the very type of crisis that the defence review assumed could not happen. The nearest suitable airfield to conduct air operations from was on Ascension Island, but the RAF station on Ascension was still over 7,000 kilometres from the Falklands, a range that was far beyond the operational capability of RAF fighters and bombers. Plans to sell the Aircraft Carriers were halted and a task force built around the Royal Navy carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible was put together to recapture the islands.

While the Royal Navy's fleet of carrier based Sea Harriers would drop the vast majority of bombs during the war, the RAF put together a plan to bomb the airfield at Port Stanley. The 15,000 km return trip from Ascension to the Falklands was aproblem for the Vulcan, it's maximum range of just over 4,000 km required it to be refueled in-flight. The Vulcans had been assigned to NATO for nuclear operations within Europe which meant that neither conventional bombing nor air-to-air refuelling had been practised for several years. The mid-air refuelling systems were reinstalled and after some bombing practice a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor refuelling tankers arrived at Ascension. Even with the Victor's greater range of over 9,000 km they would also still need to be refueled mid-flight. In total, each of the bombing missions required two Vulcans (in case of problems in the early stages of the mission, the second aircraft would take over) and eleven Victors to get 21 1,000 lb bombs to Port Stanley. Each bombing run used 137,000 gallons of aviation fuel (enough for 260 bombing runs using the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers), with the seven missions using almost 1 million gallons of fuel. Despite having to steam from Portsmouth to the Falklands before being able to launch ground attacks with the Sea Harriers the RAF only beat the Navy to dropping bombs on Port Stanley by a matter of a few hours.

An updated version of the Sea Harriers that saw action in the Falklands (Flickr user sasiphus)What is less well known about the Black Buck missions is that they significantly shortened the remaining life of the Victor fleet, the only mid-air refuelling platform the RAF had.  While the RAF had planned to retired the Victor tankers with the introduction of tankers based on the newer Vickers VC10 and Lockheed Tristar commercial airliners, the black buck missions burned through so many of the Victor fleet's remaining flight hours that the RAF had to convert six Vulcans to tanker configuration as a stopgap measure before the VC10 and Tristar aircraft could be introduced.

While the Valiant was gone by 1964, and the Vulcan retired in 1984, the Victor remained in front line service until 1993. Despite being the only V Bomber to never serve in war as a bomber the Victor did see active service in the Falklands and the first Gulf war. While historians will argue about the strategic value of the black buck missions for years to come, their tactical success was minimal. While the raids on Port Stanley turned the Vulcan into a hero it was perhaps the more conventional looking Handley Page Victor that was the most successful of Britain's 1950's V bombers.


As for the carriers, HMS Invincible was commissioned in 1980, retired in 2005 and ultimately scrapped in 2011. Despite work on HMS Hermes starting during World World 2 she wasn't commissioned until 1959. Decommissioned in 1984, she was sold to the Indian Navy in 1986, renamed INS Viraat and is expected to remain in service until 2020

Interestingly, despite their very different size and roles, both HMS Invincible and Avro's Vulcan were each powered by four Rolls Royce Olympus engines. Invincible's four Olympus engines could propel the 22,000 tonne carrier at over 50 km/h, while the four Olympus engines could get a 92,000 kg fully laden Vulcan into the air, and up to 15,000 metres at over 1,000 km/h