Untold lives blog

3 posts categorized "Central Asia"

23 April 2019

Map showing Air Force of the USSR, 1939

In a previous blog post, I noted that the files of the India Office contain many different kinds of maps, although not always of India.  Another fascinating example, marked ‘Secret’, is a map showing the strength and distribution of USSR Air Forces in 1939.

Cover of file on the order of battle of the Red Air Force IOR/L/WS/1/130 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The map is in a file in the series of War Staff Papers in the India Office Records on the subject of the order of battle of the Red Air Force.  The War Staff was a section within the Military Department of the India Office, formed by the Military Secretary on the outbreak of war in 1939.  Routine military matters continued to be dealt with as normal by Military Department staff, while all administrative arrangements relating to the war were handled by the War Staff.

Distribution map of Soviet Air Force IOR/L/WS/1/130 Distribution map of Soviet Air Force Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The situation in the summer of 1939 would have looked very bleak indeed and the drift towards war seemingly unstoppable.  On 23 August 1939, a German Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed in Moscow by Soviet foreign minister Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.  In September 1939, Germany and Russia invaded Poland, dividing the country between them.  Information on the strength and position of the enemy’s armed forces was therefore vital in defence preparations.  However, access to information was tightly controlled and the first page of the file lists the names of those who were to see it. 

Document about Central Asiatic Military DistrictIOR/L/WS/1/130 Central Asiatic Military District Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The file contains tables of information analysing the strength of the Russian air force, such as the number and type of aircraft, and where they were stationed.  The map accompanies this analysis, and understandably shows the bulk of the Russian air force stationed along the European border.  However, the India Office would presumably have been particularly interested in the 58 aircraft stationed at Tashkent, and the 105 aircraft stationed at Baku, the places closest to India’s northern border.

Detail of map showing European borderIOR/L/WS/1/130 Detail of map showing European border Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Detail of map showing Indian border IOR/L/WS/1/130 Detail of map showing Indian border Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
USSR: Order of battle of the Red Air Force, 1939 [Reference IOR/L/WS/1/130]


26 July 2018

A soldier’s wife in the Crimea

On a recent visit to the Green Howards Museum in Richmond Yorkshire, I was particularly taken with an article on display from the regimental magazine for 1895.  It was a first-hand account of the Crimean War by a soldier’s wife.  I found a copy in the British Library and it makes fascinating reading.

Soldiers loading and firing cannons, during the Crimean War 'A hot night in the Batteries'. Soldiers loading and firing cannons, during the Crimean War – from William Simpson and E Walker, The Seat of War in the East (London, 1855-1856) Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Margaret Kerwin’s story was published in “Ours” – The Green Howards’ Gazette in 1895.  Margaret was the wife of Private John Kerwin of the 19th Regiment of Foot.  John was born in Carlow Ireland and he had enlisted in the British Army in February 1843 at the age of 20.  His first overseas posting was to North America where he served for nearly three years.

On 28 March 1854 Britain and France declared war on Russia. In April, the soldiers of the 19th Regiment who were stationed at the Tower of London were ordered to the Crimea.  People waved their handkerchiefs and threw oranges at the cheering soldiers as they left the Tower.  Margaret and fourteen other women went with the men on their journey.

Having sailed to Scutari, the regiment moved to Varna and then marched on foot to Devna.  Margaret bought a washing tub and carried it on her head with her cooking equipment inside.  She also carried a water bottle and a haversack with biscuits.  As they marched, men were overcome by the heat, and Margaret was kept busy providing them with drink.  In camp she was given the job of washing the clothes of 101 men, standing in a stream for twelve hours a day for very little payment.

Cholera and ‘black fever’ struck, killing large numbers of men.  Margaret fell seriously ill but her husband John had to leave her to fight in the Battle of Alma.  She was taken to the hospital at Varna where she received word that John had survived with just a slight wound.  Margaret refused to be sent back to England, and when she eventually recovered she was appointed as nurse at the hospital.

When the hospital was disbanded, Margaret sailed to Balaclava where she was reunited with John.  Shortly afterwards, the couple were ordered up to the front.  Margaret had a narrow escape when four shells exploded in her tent as she was on her knees ironing, her pet goat lying beside her.  A dozen shirts she was washing for Mr Beans were riddled with holes.

In November 1854, Margaret saw the Battle of Inkerman from Cathcart’s Hill.  She then had another brush with death when a Russian pistol held by a British sergeant went off unexpectedly and knocked the bonnet off her head.  Margaret was stunned but unharmed.

Having survived the Crimean campaign, John Kerwin went on to serve for seven years in India.  He was discharged from the Army in 1864 on a pension of 1s ½d, suffering from rheumatism.  John and Margaret returned to Carlow and lived to old age.  Her account of her experiences given in the 1890s ends: ‘If I was young to-morrow, I would take the same travels, but I would be a little wiser’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
“Ours” – The Green Howards’ Gazette Vol. III No. 25 (April 1895,) pp. 94-96.
Army discharge papers for Private John Kerwin (or Kirwin) No. 1737 can be accessed through findmypast.

 Green Howards Museum

08 September 2016

Dinners, mortars, and cinema trips: the Afghan Military Mission to India

From 4 December 1944 to 30 January 1945 an Afghan Military Mission to India toured the country, visiting army and air force divisions, witnessing weapon demonstrations and training events, and meeting military and civil functionaries.

A stable, independent Afghanistan on friendly terms with India was seen as vital to the defence of India and the Empire.  Led by Lieutenant General Muhammad Umar Khan, Chief of the Afghan General Staff, the tour was an opportunity to strengthen military and political ties between the Government of Afghanistan, the Government of India, and the British Government.

The Military Attaché at Kabul, Colonel Alexander Stalker Lancaster, had been heavily involved in the preparation of the tour programme, and accompanied the Mission group throughout their stay.  He submitted an incredibly detailed report following its completion, which makes for interesting reading.

Cover of report on Afghan Military Mission to India
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 37r


The report consisted of a tour summary, notes on Lancaster’s impressions of the Mission delegates, and a fully annotated tour programme, providing a timeline of events and visits alongside Lancaster’s comments.


  Itinerary from report on Afghan Military Mission to India
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 58r


As might be expected, the report contains details of weapon demonstrations, tours of barracks and ammunition factories, and includes details of the scale of the preparations for war against Japan.  According to Lancaster the Afghan Mission were suitably impressed, although the report does provide information on one hair-raising incident at a firing demonstration for the 4.2” mortar:

  Report of firing demonstration for the 4.2” mortar
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 82r


Interestingly, the report also provides details of the entertainments laid on for the Mission.  These included regular dinner engagements with army and air force personnel, diplomats and Government Officials, and even a number of cinema trips.

On 20 December, following a day of weapons demonstrations, the Mission were shown “Training films on Camoflage [sic] and Use of Compass, War News Reels and an entertainment film”.  On 4 January “[the] Mission attended Dinapur Cinema. By chance a colour film of Afghan scenes taken by the Thaw Caravan expedition in 1939 was shown.  The commentary was given by Lowell Thomas in his well known [sic] style. Fortunately the Afghans treated it as a joke”.  During their trip the Mission saw several other films, including Kismet, Get Cracking (starring George Formby), Lady in the Dark, and the play adaptations Bhagwan Buddha and Charlie’s Aunt.

  Cover of a promotional leaflet for the film Kismet

Cover of a promotional leaflet for the film Kismet, digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Programme project ‘Collection of books and periodicals at the Bali Sadharan Granthagar, Howarh’, reference EAP/341/5/473

Lancaster judged that the Mission had been “an unqualified success”, and positive reports appeared in the Afghan publication Islah.  In the years that followed the Mission, the Government of India agreed to supply arms, equipment and training at a discounted rate to Afghanistan, in what became known as ‘Scheme Lancaster’.

The file containing the report, IOR/L/PS/12/2217, is part of a series of records compiled by the India Office Political (External) Department related to arms, ammunition and arms traffic.  These records are currently being catalogued and digitised, and should be available for access through the Qatar Digital Library portal later in the year.


Alex Hailey
Content Specialist / Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2217
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2218
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2204