Daily Archives: 12 January, 2010

Iraq Inquiry: my opinions so far…

Ive been closely following the progress of the Chilcott Inquiry into the events leading up to and during the Iraq War, until British troops left Iraq last year.

The composition of the Inquiry is interesting. Sir John Chilcott is a former senior Civil Servant. Perhaps not a heavyweight by any means, but in my opinion he has chaired it competently so far. There are two military Historians on the panel: Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official Historian of the Falklands War, and Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s official biographer. I am glad that there are historians on the panel, but I wish they were not what you might call ‘establishment’ historians. Somebody like Richard Holmes, David Starkey or Simon Schama might have been a lot more probing. An experienced Barrister would have been wise too, to advise on legal issues.

So far I think the evidence given by the military figures has been very insightful. On the whole, it appears that given the UK’s subservient role in the invasion the military side of things was handled very well. Things were certainly not helped by the US Department of Defences’ lack of planning for the post-war phase – the British Army has huge experience of counter-insurgency, why was this not heeded?

In terms of the politics, however, nothing has changed my mind that there was some serious dishonesty going on. Even IF – and it is a big if – the intelligence led Tony Blair to believe the 45 minute caveat, there was still a lot of creative industry being applied in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’. Alistair Campbell’s appearance today says much: even in front of an inquiry, seeking the truth, his stance is to put on an act, and to lie, spin and slither away. Maybe expecting the truth from Campbell is too much: the man is, after all, a professional liar. The ironic thing is that his demeanour at the inquiry showed exactly what was wrong with British politics at the time: an unelected official, expert at manipulating the truth, was pulling the strings.

The evidence given by commanders about the ineffectiveness of the Department for International Development has been telling. I have long thought that the UK’s approach to overseas aid is a mess: we are happy to hand over millions to countries who do not need it, without strings attached, yet when it comes to a country like Iraq, which desparately needed our help and quickly, DFID stood back idley. Quick and efficient aid would have helped prevent the slide towards insurrection and disorder.

On the whole, I get the impression that the Politics side of things was a monumental cock-up. The military side of things, once we disregard the politics, was handled rather well from a UK point of view. The panel have been more probing and incisive than we might have expected, and from their line of questioning on Campbell, Tony Blair can expect an uncomfortable time.

But it is one thing holding an inquiry, it is quite another to actually take notice of it and absorb its lessons. Will the mistakes and succeses be taken into account with future Government policy? Will the US have a similar inquiry, or take notice of the findings of the Chilcott inquiry?

If you make mistakes and ignore them, then they’re just gonna keep happening again. And in this case, mistakes mean lives lost.

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Filed under debate, Iraq, politics

Portsmouth’s Glider Pilots

The Second World War saw the development of Gliders to transport airborne troops into battle. Alongside Parachute troops, Gliders enabled Armies to develop airborne forces on a substantial scale. The first decisive use of Gliders was in 1940 during the spectacular German coup-de-main seizure of Eben Emael, a border fortress in Belgium. By September 1944 the allies were able to launch 35,000 airborne troops during Operation Market.

One of the biggest problems with Gliders was their manning – just who was to fly them? The RAF was unwilling to waste precious aircrew on what it saw a peripheral task to its main roles or strategic bombing and air defence. Bomber Harris even scoffed at the thought of army troops flying Gliders.

But fly them they did. The Glider Pilot was formed from volunteers throughout the Army. Volunteers were given basic flying training to enable them to fly Gliders while being towed by a transport plane, and then to land them with a degree of accuracy and safety. Senior commanders in the Regiment flew Gliders on operations, including the CO, but the standard Glider aircrew consisted of a Staff Sergeant as Pilot and Sergeant as co-pilot. Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning qualified as a Glider Pilot after his attempts at Parachuting resulted in injury.

When they landed Glider Pilots formed up into infantry units, and provided a useful manpower reserve. In contrast, the American Glider Pilots were not combatants, and actually required troops to protect them. Flying Gliders was indeed a dangerous business: many paratroops remarked that they would rather parachute into battle than fly in an ‘oversize coffin’.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served with distinction at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. Several of those who were killed on operations. Staff Sergeant Roy Luff, 23 and from Buckland, was a member of the 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was killed on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – and is buried in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. Staff Sergeant Leonard Gardner was also a member of 1st Wing. A native of Portsmouth and 27, he was killed on 17 September 1944: the first day of Operation Market. His Glider, carrying Royal Engineers, disintegrated in the sky over England. He is buried in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Portsmouth Glider Pilots is that one of the Gliders they flew in action was designed in Portsmouth – the Airspeed Horsa. The Airspeed Company had a factory at Portsmouth Airport. You can see Horsa Gliders at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Airborne Assault at Duxford, the Army Air Corps Museum at Middle Wallop and the Assault Glider Trust at RAF Shawbury.

A Horsa Glider taking off

A Horsa Glider taking off

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Museums, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two