My hopes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

As we approach December 31, it’s a time to reflect but also to look forward to what 2014 may bring.

Top of my wish list for the New Year is a hope that a little girl from Burslem will move further down the road to recovery.

I’ve not met Francesca Allen but I’m one of the hundreds of people locally who’s done a little bit of fund-raising for her.

In August she was diagnosed with leukaemia and since then her courage and beautiful smile have inspired many of us.

Whatever 2014 brings, let’s hope it is a happier and healthier one for a three-year-old who has touched the hearts of people across the Potteries.

In February pop superstar Robbie Williams turns 40 and here in his home city we’re having a bit of a do to celebrate.

RWFanFest is a month-long festival which honours the achievements of Britain’s top-selling music artist and someone who has given £5 million of his own money away to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire.

There’ll be an exhibition of never-before-seen memorabilia and photographs at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a charity gig in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice, a fans’ art exhibition at Burslem School of Art and bus tours around the ‘Robbie trail’.

That’s not all. Expect a lot more too as Stoke-on-Trent finally embraces its celebrity son. Watch this space…

This year Sentinel readers campaigned hard to help save the name of their local regiment.

The Staffords, or 3Mercian as they are now known, had been under threat from Ministry of Defence cutbacks.

But a 17,000-strong petition taken to 10 Downing Street showed the strength of feeling locally and Army top brass gave a commitment to preserve the name.

Our boys are currently on active service out in Afghanistan so spare a thought for them as you tuck into your left-over turkey and mince pies.

Here’s hoping they can complete their final tour as 3Mercian successfully and ALL return home to their loved ones safely.

Sticking with the military theme, 2014 promises to be a big year for commemorating conflicts.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and events and initiatives are being planned all over the country.

The Sentinel has a number of special supplements planned – including the re-publishing of interviews with First World War veterans as well as letters from The Front.

We will also be working with a variety of organisations to ensure that the county’s rich military heritage is celebrated.

On that note, June marks 70 years since D-Day and world leaders, veterans and tourists will gather in Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen of arguably the greatest invasion the world has ever seen.

The Sentinel has interviewed surviving veterans from all three branches of the services – both for the newspaper and on film for our website – and will be producing a souvenir pull-out to coincide with the anniversary.

Regular readers of this column will know I’m a big believer in celebrating our heritage and so I’ll be supporting Fenton residents in their campaign to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War Memorial.

The fight has already received the backing of celebrities including Stephen Fry, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the building to be returned to public ownership rather than sold off to a private buyer by the Ministry of Justice.

Let’s hope justice prevails and the people of Fenton are allowed to retain this civic gem in 2014.

I’ll also be doing my bit in the New Year to help raise the profile of RW388.

That’s the serial number of the city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, housed in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which is in urgent need of some tender loving care.

Here in the birthplace of its designer Reginald Mitchell, I think it’s vital we do all we can to help restore and conserve this wonderful aircraft for future generations.

Expect plenty of coverage of the battle to save RW388 in The Sentinel and, if you want to make a contribution, you can pick up a copy of a fund-raising Spitfire calendar comprising terrific archive photographs from our reception, priced at £7.99.

If you do pop up to Hanley you’ll notice that work on the much-maligned Central Business District continues apace.

Given that I can’t see the powers-that-be at the council changing their mind about plans for the city centre, I just hope the CBD progresses quickly and there is movement on the long-awaited City Sentral shopping development.

I’m not holding my breath for the latter, given the delays and curious lack of communication from the developers but perhaps we will see a scaled-down version of the original plans. Anything would be better than nothing at this stage.

Turning to sport, I’d like to wish Peter Coates and Stoke City all the best for the remainder of the season.

Potters manager Mark Hughes is lucky to have such a passionate and reasonable bloke at the helm – one who will give him the time and resources to mould his own team in the hope of taking them to the next level.

Meanwhile, at my beloved Port Vale my only wish is for a period of stability – or rather, an end to any financial uncertainty.

Fingers crossed Micky Adams signs a new deal, anyone who is owed any money by the club gets paid, and Vale fans are given closure with regard to the activities of certain individuals who brought the club to its knees in 2012.

I know I speak for The Sentinel when I wish chairman Norman Smurthwaite and his team all the best for a successful and prosperous 2014 – hopefully free of media bans and full of goodwill to all fans… and journalists.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Let’s hope Army bosses use common sense and spare The Staffords

The first paragraph of the correspondence from the nice man at the Metropolitan Police is wonderfully quaint and reassuring.

‘Hello Ma’am, Your application to deliver a petition by hand to the door of number 10 Downing Street has been booked in for Thursday, November 1, at 1.15pm.’

After months of campaigning Sentinel journalists including yours truly together with Staffordshire Regimental Association representatives will be calling in on the Prime Minister later this week.

We will be presenting a 17,000-name petition calling for the name of the name of our county regiment to be preserved amid brutal Army cutbacks.

Our campaign was prompted by the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) decision to remove 3 Mercian (the Staffords) from the Order of Battle (ORBAT) – thus ending the county’s 297-year link with the British Army.

It is part of a huge reduction in the Army which will diminish its fighting strength from 102,000 to just 82,000 over the next few years and place a much heavier reliance on the Territorial Army.

Of course, it isn’t just the Staffords who have the axe hanging over them and other proud units are facing oblivion too.

But here in North Staffordshire feelings are running high and veterans and their relatives, serving soldiers and their families and the general public have united to oppose the MoD’s proposal.

We can’t speak for other areas or other units, but what can definitely say is that the Staffords are hugely important to local people.

Since the beginning of July The Sentinel has published more than 100 stories detailing the courage and selflessness of those who have served with the Staffordshire Regiment from the Great War to the present day.

Of course, this newspaper has been able to trawl its archives for reports on the breaching of the Hindenberg Line in 1918, the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and the infamous raid on the Al Jameat Police Station in Iraq on Christmas Day in 2006.

But the vast majority of the articles The Sentinel has published in recent months have been prompted by readers who have written in with personal stories to tell of their association with the Staffordshire Regiment.

Some were former Staffords telling of their service during WWII, in Northern Ireland or more recent conflicts.

But many more were relatives of those who wore the cap badge and distinguished themselves all over the world.

These tales have shown just how proud the people of North Staffordshire are of their links with the military and of the Staffordshire Regiment’s battle honours.

That’s why they were sending goodwill parcels to Our Boys out in Iraq as part of this newspaper’s Operation Christmas Cheer campaign a full 12 months before General Sir Richard Dannatt was asking the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

We don’t need to be told around here, you see. We’ve been doing it for years.

It was one thing to have the North and South Staffords merged. It was one thing for the regiment to become known as 3 Mercian (Staffords).

It is another thing entirely for the name ‘The Staffords’ be scrubbed from ORBAT altogether.

No-one involved with our campaign realistically expects the MoD to do a complete about-face and retain 3 Mercian.

But by the same token they have shown that the name The Mercian Regiment, derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, means little or nothing to the people of Staffordshire.

It is a convenient construct which allowed Army chiefs to mash together the Staffordshire Regiment, Cheshire Regiment and Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters under one banner.

The truth is the people of Staffordshire and those with links to the Staffords have no great affiliation with the other counties or their respective regiments – and vice versa.

Any sense of pride for the Mercian Regiment relates instead to its antecedents, such as the Staffords, and their roles in various wars and conflicts over the centuries.

It is to be hoped that Army chiefs, when considering whether or not to retain the name The Staffords, and indeed the antecedents of The Mercian Regiment’s 1st and 2nd battalions, think long and hard about the consequences of making a clean break with tradition.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails and that future generations of young recruits from our neck of the woods will continue to want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and serve with The Staffords – rather than opting instead for another unit with no links to our patch but equally good or perhaps better prospects.

Readers have until tomorrow (October 31) to sign our petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or calling in at The Sentinel’s HQ in Etruria to sign the forms.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Our proud links with the Staffords must never be severed

In September of 1918 another stalemate loomed in the War To End All Wars.

The German Army had retreated behind the Hindenberg Line – a vast system of defences in Northeastern France stretching from Lens to Verdun.

Fortifications included concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, masses of barbed wire, tunnels, deep trenches, dug-outs and command posts.

Built by Russian prisoners of war, it was considered nigh on impregnable by the German commanding officer – General Ludendorff.

However, he hadn’t factored in the men of the British 46th (North Midland) Division.

On the morning of September 29, under the cover of a dense blanket of fog, the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – formed up and fixed bayonets for what seemed to many to be an attack that couldn’t possibly succeed.

They had to wade across a wide waterway – the St. Quentin Canal – and faced 5,300 Germans in heavily fortified positions.

But just over three hours later the Staffords and their comrades had completed all their objectives – smashing a hole in Hindenberg Line and ultimately penetrating 6,000 yards into enemy territory.

On that day the 46th Division captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns and suffered less than 600 casualties which, given the enormity of the achievement, could be classed as nothing short of miraculous.

This spectacular success, the breaching of the German Army’s last line of defence on the Western Front, undoubtedly shortened the Great War and saved countless lives.

What’s more, it was potters and miners from our neck of the woods who were instrumental in that decisive blow.

Men of the Staffords.

Fast forward now a quarter of a century and the 2nd Battalion (South Staffords) is part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade which arrives in North Africa and routes a battalion of crack German paratroopers.

Two years later, in September 1944, a butcher from Burslem by the name of John ‘Jack’ Baskeyfield wins a Victoria Cross for his actions in the Battle of Arnhem.

While defending the Oosterbeek perimeter three days into the battle, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield commanded a pair of anti tank guns that destroyed several enemy tanks before their crews were killed.

Despite being badly wounded himself he crawled from one destroyed gun to another and continued to fire upon the advancing German armour before he was killed. His body was never found.

Jack Baskeyfield VC served with the 2nd Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

His comrades in the 1st Battalion, South Staffords, formed part of the Chindit Force which flew into Burma in 1944 and were never defeated in a series of battles against the fearless Japanese.

Some 30 years later, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Staffords establish for themselves a reputation as firm but fair peace-keepers. It leads one veteran helicopter pilot to describe them as ‘better than the Marines and the Paras’ at the difficult helicopter missions around Armagh where road travel was impossible.

More recently, during the Iraq War the Staffordshire Regiment was posted to the hot spots of Al Amarah and Basra where the lads were attacked, as their C.O. told me, ‘on an almost daily basis’ by insurgents.

Their textbook Christmas Day raid on the infamous Al Jameat Police Station on Christmas Day 2006 made headlines across the world.

That year the regiment was voted BBC Midlander of the Year by television viewers and in 2007 the Staffords picked up The Sentinel Editor’s Award just months before they became part of the Mercian Regiment.

These are mere glimpses into the long and distinguished history of our local regiment.

However, they perhaps go some way to explaining the response of the people of North Staffordshire to the Ministry of Defence’s decision to disband 3Mercian.

Most people in the Potteries know someone, a relative or a friend, who has served or is currently serving with the Staffords.

This has been a fertile recruiting ground for the Army and North Staffordshire has a proud history of producing fighting men.

In September 2007 General Sir Richard Dannatt was espousing the need for the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

What perhaps he didn’t know was that 12 months earlier the people of North Staffordshire, through The Sentinel newspaper, were sending boxes of treats to Staffordshire Regiment soldiers on the frontline in Iraq as part of our Operation Christmas Cheer campaign.

On their return from operations, Staffordshire Regiment soldiers were invited to watch Stoke City and Port Vale matches free of charge – long before it became commonplace for football clubs to show their appreciation of what our Armed Forces were doing for us overseas.

Our current campaign – entitled ‘Save Our Staffords’ – has attracted more than 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

It has touched a chord with young and old alike and not simply ex-service personnel or people who have direct links with 3Mercian.

So we have a rich heritage and hopefully that will count for something in the coming weeks as Army top brass sit down to plan the reorganisation of the Mercian Regiment.

But if it doesn’t then I would just ask the powers-that-be the following questions:

Why should an 18-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle or the Staffordshire Moorlands in the coming years choose to join the Mercian Regiment over say The Rifles or any other another unit which seems to offer greater possibilities?

If our proud local links with the military are severed why should young recruits from our patch or the people of North Staffordshire consider what’s left of the Mercian Regiment as their local unit?

I would suggest those charged with reorganising the Mercian Regiment don’t put themselves into a position where these questions need answering.

The Staffords are our boys and that precious name must be saved.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

A tribute to Gareth: One of ours

Private Gareth Bellingham.

Private Gareth Bellingham.

For a couple of months now I’ve been wearing one of those rubber wristbands.

It carries the words: ‘Supporting 3 MERCIAN (Staffords) in Afghanistan’.

Through my job I’ve been lucky enough to get to know some serving soldiers and their COs and I’m immensely proud of the work they do.

This weekend we lost one of our own.

Private Gareth Bellingham, of Clayton, was shot while on duty in Helmand on Saturday. He was 22.

Having witnessed the humbling sight of the bodies of our servicemen being repatriated through the little town of Wooton Bassett, the news brought it all back to me.

My heart goes out to Gareth’s family and friends.

There will be some who will say ‘we shouldn’t even be there. Nobody has to die if we bring the troops home now’.

I’m afraid it isn’t quite as simple as that.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Afghanistan, our boys and girls are there NOW and we should be supporting them.

Every day as we go to work, sit at home watching the telly, walk the dog, take the children out or go to Vale or Stoke, they are in the heat and the dust risking their lives for freedom and democracy.

I, for one, am in awe of the job they do.

These people don’t do politics. They do duty.

I will continue to wear my wristband with pride until every last one of the Staffords is home safe.

Our armed forces personnel deserve better

Today I’m at a meeting down at the Civic Centre in Stoke to help organise this year’s Armed Forces Day event in Stoke-on-Trent (Saturday, June 25). I, personally, am proud to be a part of the process – and, of course, this kind of thing is exactly what any local newspaper worth its salt should be doing. What staggers me is that this small group of senior citizens is having to beg, borrow and steal (so to speak) in order to stage an event to honour our Armed Forces veterans and serving personnel. It may be no different in other cities but, as our lads in the Staffords (3 Mercian) prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, I can’t help but feel embarrassed that we are again scratching around for sponsors at this late stage. Our lads and lasses, past and present, deserve better.