Meet Tom Bennington, the Web Manager for Forces Reunited and Military Expert for Forces War Records. Tom has been with the company for almost four years, and often acts as a company representative in TV or radio interviews. He’s also one of our go-to men when there’s an important project for which a lot of background research is needed.
1.) How did you first develop an interested in military history?
I’ve had an interest in the military since I was a young lad growing up watching ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Top Gun’ on TV. My family has always been involved in the military in some way. My father works for the Ministry of Defence, so we’ve lived close to military bases in the UK and on one in Germany at Rheindahlen; my uncle was an RAF pilot on Nimrods, and my ancestors fought in both World Wars. The stories my grandparents told me about the Second World War played a very important part in sparking my interest, and I will always remember my Nan relating her experiences building Wellington Bombers and watching the Spitfires in the British skies. It wasn’t until my A-Levels and Degree course that I got to explore Military History in any depth, though.
2.) Was there any particular incident that you remember which turned that interest into something that you knew you wanted to do?
I wouldn’t exactly call it an incident, but by the end of my A-Levels I’d grown rather tired of being told what I could learn in school. I understood schools couldn’t cater to every whim, but did I have to study the Irish Potato Famine or Franklin Delano Roosevelt again if I chose History at GCSE and A-Level? When I saw Military History & War Studies courses at universities such as Wolverhampton, Kent and King’s College, I knew exactly what I wanted to do if I made the grade.
3.) You read Military History at Wolverhampton University; what sort of subjects did that cover?
The degree covered all sorts really, and even crossed into American History and Politics. My first year was dominated by introductions to military history, with one module covering war from the Stone Age and the beginning of civilisation right up to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were ongoing at the time. Here the lecturers and professors were trying to break the shackles of our A-Level and GCSE teachings, which weren’t really good enough for degree coursework and in some cases had rather outdated arguments to particular subjects. Second Year started to focus on a tighter range of topics and introduced subjects like Counter-Insurgency and Conflict Resolution, presumably to steer students towards an MA in Conflict Studies, which is a niggling desire in my mind right now! Final year focussed almost entirely on our projects, the 20,000 word dissertation on a topic of our choosing, but also zeroed in on specific topics rather than the range provided in First year. There was an excellent year-long course on the British Army in the World Wars, titled ‘Citizen Soldiers’, which gave me the idea for my dissertation comparing the British and German armies during the Second World War, contrasting their different approaches to strategy and tactics.
4.) How do you feel your knowledge has grown and developed since taking up the position?
My knowledge has certainly broadened to the kinds of Primary Sources that are still available such as Medal Index Cards and Unit Diaries. On a degree course there is a lot of theory work, comparing the arguments of different historians, and you only really get to work with primary sources on your third year project, so it has been refreshing to delve into the National Archives on occasion and come up with transcripts of Royal Navy communications in the Pacific or the battle records of a German Panzer Grenadier regiment that surrendered to the British at the end of the Second World War. I don’t think it really relates much to the work I was doing on my degree, most Forces War Records users don’t need to know what David Glantz thinks of Soviet Airborne Forces or Operation Barbarossa when looking for their ancestor’s service information.
5.) What has been your single most satisfying day working at Forces War Records and why?
There are many, but the one that sticks to mind is sitting down at the edge of our ‘Who Do You Think You Are Live’ stand in 2014 and talking about X-Class Midget Submarines and Royal Navy trawlers with a lady whose ancestors had all served in the Royal Navy. Everything I knew came from memory, reading at university. She went away very happy with what I had told her about the X-Class Subs helping to sink Tirpitz and exactly what the Royal Navy was using trawlers for!
6.) What’s the most exciting document or piece of information that you’ve ever found on our site?
The diary of a Royal Navy Lieutenant sailing aboard a Tribal Class Destroyer during the Second World War, in particular describing his actions in taking out an Italian Cruiser during the battle of Cape Bon in the Mediterranean.
7.) If you had to give the site users one top tip on how to enrich their research, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of our staff, there are no stupid questions and if we don’t know the answer we will try and find it for you. Get over to British-Genealogy or onto our support system and fire away! I have also taken part in Q and As on the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ site, so look out for more of those in the future, perhaps even hosted on Forces War Records itself.
8.) Do you have any military or genealogical interests outside of work?
Not really any genealogy interests, I’ve helped my mum look into her military ancestors, which means there’s actually very little family genealogy for me to do! As for military interest, oh, there’s loads! I help a colleague to run a Facebook page called Tank Lovers which is basically a site for sharing pictures of tanks, there’s a lot of excellent historical pictures from the wars, as well as some modern stuff direct from service personnel. The same colleague and I also attend a variety of military shows every year, from Bovington Tank Museum’s Tankfest to the War and Peace Revival in Folkestone. We both aspire to become reenactors, but it’s a lot of money to get the replica kit together! In my spare time I am also an Army Reservist.