Category Archives: cold war

Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap?

In reading about the possible land battles that might have ensued in a Third World War in Europe, I’ve found an interesting parallel with the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 and the Manstein Plan of 1940.

General Sir John Hackett, in his book The Third World War, predicted that the main Warsaw Pact thrust would come through the North German Plain. A strong Soviet thrust from northern East Germany would have fell upon NATO’s Northern Army Group, cut off Denmark and effectively sealed the Baltic. There were also fewer natural obstacles in the area, and an advance in the north would have allowed the Warsaw Pact to avoid more difficult terrain in the south and also outflank US forces in central and southern Germany. NATO forces would have been hamstrung by a need to defend as much German territory as possible, but would almost inevitably have had to fall back to soak up the Soviet advance. A strong advance along the North Sea Coast might have cut occupied Holland and possibly threatened channel ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. This would in turn have threatened NATO lines of communications, especially for Britain.

An attack along the North German Plain to outflank NATO forces in Europe would have been very similar to both the Schlieffen Plan in terms of a northern advance through easier territory, but also the Manstein Plan in terms of outflanking a Maginot line like obstacle. It also shows a more British-like thinking, with a policy of attacking the point of least resistance. Remember also that in September 1944 Montgomery wanted to attack the North German Plain, only in the opposite direction.

US strategists, on the other hand, seem to have focussed on the Fulda Gap, a low-lying and open plain between the East German border and Frankfurt. A thrust through the Fulda Gap would have been in the centre of the front-line of Cold War Europe. An attack near Fulda would have met the bulk of the US Army in Germany head on, and given that the US provided most of the forces in the theatre a defeat there would have been catastrophic to the rest of NATO. A Fulda Gap operation would have been more in line with US military thinking, namely a strong frontal attack against the bulk of the enemy’s forces.

Both options, however, would have been hampered by pressing concerns on the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Given the numerical weakness of the NATO armies, it was assumed that the US would use nuclear weapons on targets in Poland and East Germany to disrupt reinforcements reaching the front-line. Therefore the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces would need to reach as far as possible as quickly as possible before this might happen. Some Soviet exercises, such as Seven Days to the Rhine, assumed that the Rhine would be the limit of the advance before the communist forces were forced to halt.

Its an interesting dilemma indeed. Thinking as a Soviet General in the 1980’s, I must admit the North German Plain looks inviting. Less natural obstacles, weaker opposition, the possibility of cutting off Denmark and the Baltic and reaching the North Sea and Channel Coast quicker, isolating the British Army of the Rhine and outflanking the bulk of US in Europe would have been pretty appealing. But then maybe thats too predictable? On the other hand, it does seem that NATO thinking – always led by an American, remember – saw the Fulda Gap as the most likely route, followed by the North German plain.

I’m sure its a scenario that war game enthusiasts have played out many a time…

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‘The Third World War': History and its effect on Defence Policy

I’ve just finished reading a quite remarkable book by General Sir John Hackett (he of Arnhem fame, who commanded by Grandad’s Parachute Brigade there). Known as the finest Soldier-Scholar of his age, and with a wealth of degrees to his name, Hackett put part of his retirement to imagining the circumstances, strategy and tactics of a Third Word war in the mid-1980’s world. Not only did this far-sighted book look at military, but also social and geopolitical factors. Also, Hackett showed a rare intelligence and fair-mindedness when commenting on Air Force and Naval issues.

Whilst it is ever so slightly in the realms of ‘what-if’ – something of a bane for historians – it is a very educated ‘what-if’. But something that was fairly concrete, was British Defence Policy from around 1947-ish until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone knew that the main threat emanated from Soviet Russia and the Warsaw pact, and the only discourse among the armed forces and politicians was about how exactly to face up to this threat. Certainly, there were disagreements – such as the RAF altering maps to support its claim that it could provide air cover for the Navy anywhere in the world – but on the whole, the arguments were about the how, not the what.

It also harks back to a time when British Defence policy had a firm anchor – ie, the Cold War. The Government was under no illusions as to the major commitments facing the British armed forces – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact as the likely opponents, with a large army based in Northern Germany, an anti-submarine based Navy, and a constant nuclear deterrent. Lesser commitments included Northern Ireland and defence of an ever-decreasing number of possessions abroad. But, largely, these commitments were known, and planned for accordingly.

Since the collapse of communism, defence policy has, to an extent, been in a vacuum. And given that the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland has effectively wound down since the Good Friday agreement, defence policy has been at even more of a loose end. British Forces have been involved in conflicts – principally in intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building – in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leonne, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The British Army in particular has built up quite an experience base of wars-among-the-people, originating in Northern Ireland. Indeed, others – such as the US – have often wondered if the UK has ‘gone soft’ when it comes to traditional warfighting.

Its an often quoted phrase that armed forces plan to fight the last war. This might be over-exaggerating things – in some cases, such as in the Second World War, officers like Monty were at pains to fight their wars to avoid the errors of their predecessors in the Great War. But in the same sense, the last conflict does inevitably have a huge bearing, in one way or another, on the planning for the next one. It could also be said, that in a strategic vacuum where no threat is perceived, then senior officers are liable to plan for the kind of war that they would like to fight – witness the British Army after 1918 going back to its Imperial policing roots, or the modern RAF with its Cold War-like stance over fighter jets.

So, where do we find ourselves now? In the short to medium future, it would be hard to argue that the UK faces the threat of a state-on-state war. The large countries that might pose a threat in the long-term – China and Russia, for example – might produce bluff and bluster with the west occasionally, but this is a long way from all-out war. The over-riding threats do seem to be asymetric – in terms of extremist terrorists, or perhaps in terms of failed states that might implode and require intervention – Yemen, or possibly even Pakistan for example.

And, in the present economic climate, where funding is likely to be tight for the forseable future, it will be impossible to be completely prepared for any eventuality – the funds simply do not allow it. It is a case of priorities, and – in a world where it is hard to assess threats and priorities – the most prudent course of action would seem to be to retain a capability to adapt at short to medium notice as threats emerge. But, also, it is fair to ask ourselves, are we holding onto capabilities and assets simply because we’re not sure what to do with them, or because they would have been useful in the last war?

The example of the pre-war mechanisation of the Cavalry is a case in point. The First World War should have made it clear to all and sundry that the tank was going to be a force in wars of the future. Yet after 1918 the Cavalry clung onto their horses well into the 1930’s – largely for sentimental reasons, or through a fear of change itself. Therefore the British Army of 1939 found itself far behind Nazi Germany when it came to armoured warfare. There were undoubtedly officers in the Army who would gladly have kept their horses, and would have seen British soldiers galloping off to war against the Panzers. Britain only formed its Airborne Forces in 1940 – long after Russia, Germany, or indeed Poland – because the Army as a whole looked on special forces as ‘not cricket’.

Are – and I am asking myself the question here, as much as anyone else – main battle tanks and fast fighter jets relics of the Cold War, much as the horse was a relic of Nineteenth Century British Army? Its perhaps not a perfect comparison – after all, I would not advocate completely scrapping all Challengers or Eurofighters – but maybe retaining a core element, expandable in times of crisis, would be more sensible? These are the kind of tough but searching questions that should be asked.

I guess the lesson from history is, you never have the luxury of picking what war you get to fight, nor of picking exactly how you want to fight it – unless you start it, of course. But when threats are not apparent, you should leave yourself able to respond as quickly as possible. And you do this by not over-commiting yourself in any one direction.

But to do that, we would need politicians who firstly won’t let the Treasury hold them hostage, and secondly, senior officers who can think holistically about UK Defence rather than their own service and their own places in the history books…

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Talking to Rudolf Hess by Desmond Zwar

This really is quite some book. In fact, its a book about two other books!

Desmond Zwar, an Australian journalist living in London, was sent by a downmarket Aussie Newspaper on the trail of an English artist who, aparenly, painted ‘nudes on horseback’. Although the equestrian nudes turned out to be an urban myth, it did however transpire that the artist in question was employed by the British Government to paint proceedings at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. Zwar’s fascination with Nuremberg led the artist to put him in touch with an old friend, Colonel Burton Andrus of the US Army, who had been the Governor of Nuremberg Prison at the time of the trials. Andrus had kept numerous documents of his time at Nuremberg, and Zwar and Andrus collaborated to write The Infamous of Nuremberg.

From there, the natural path by Zwar was to write about Spandau Prison, where the leading Nazi figures who had not been executed at Nuremberg were taken. By the mid-1960’s the only occupant of Spandau was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy who had flown to England in a bizarre attempt to negotiate for peace. Spandau was managed by the US, Soviet Union, UK and France in a bizarre arrangement throughout the Cold War, whereby each country would control the prison for three months each year. Spandau was almost certainly the only place in the world where quadripartite co-operation continued on such a basis for so long.

Zwar made contact with Eugene K. Bird, the US Governor of Spandau for three months each year. After some persuasion Bird was convinced to secretly interview Hess, with a view to a book. For several years Bird carried out the painstaking task of visiting Hess and recording his thoughts about his life, the Nazi regime, the War and all manner of subjects. Hess himself even gave his consent for the project. After several years Bird’s superiors in the US authorities in Berlin learnt of his actions and shipped him back to he US, in effect ending his career.

Bird was interrogated at length by the CIA, and both he and Zwar were lent on severely to try and forestall the publishing of the book. After much intimidation and legal wrangling the ‘establishment’ consented to the book, after making a token protest for the benefit of the Soviets. Bird’s actions had been a breach of the quadripartite agreement over the running of Spandau, and were a severe embarassment to the US Government. Finally, however, The Loneliest Man in the World was published.

On first impressions, a book written about the process of writing two other books might not be the most interesting. But when we consider that the books in question are about the Nuremberg Trials and Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison, this book takes on a whole new meaning. Sneaking in and out of Spandau to interview Hess reads like something out a spy novel, and Bird and Zwar’s encounters with the CIA afterwards could have come straight out of a Robert Harris thriller.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not only does it chart some pivotal events in history, it is also a very entertaining read. I virtually read it from cover to cover.

Talking to Rudolf Hess is published by The History Press

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UK-US Spy agreement revealed

The National Archives have today released into the public domain the text of a landmark agreement between the British and American intelligence communities. Agreed shortly after the end of the Second World War, the pact led to the sharing of information during the Cold War, an arrangement that is still in place today.

During the Second World War ad-hoc arrangements were in place regarding the sharing of intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts. In March 1946 the UKUSA Agreement was signed. In later years the Agreement was extended to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The agreement has long been known about, but this is the first time that its existence has been acknowleged by either Government, and the first time that its exact has been released. The release follows separate Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside documents relating to the agreement itself, the National Archives have also released examples of the kind of information that was shared. The newly-available documents are likely to be a gold-mine for Historians of Stalinist Russia. Intercepts shed light on private conversations and correspondence between Soviet citizens, military personnel, Party officials and religious leaders between 1946 and 1949.

The bulk of the intercepts focus on military issues, and give an important sense of the Soviet build up during the early years of the Cold War. There are reports of a “stormy meeting” taking place and one person says, ominously: “of the Moscow representatives nothing remains but a wet spot”. A Soviet Major says he can be “patient no longer”, as his son, who had been “foully killed”, was yet to receive justice. The war-readiness of the population is illustrated by an intercept which picks up a mother saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”

Intercepts also gleaned information about Political repression behind the Iron Curtain. Folksongs were banned on the grounds that they were “inartistic and trivial”. Songs such as “Why do you destroy me, you foolish woman”, were popular with the peasantry but not the authorities and were forbidden. The Kazakh Communist Party reported its local crime statistics to Moscow, crimes which included ‘anti-party activities’, ‘concealment of social origin’ and ‘desertion from the Soviet army’.

Reports also gave information about ordinary everyday life in Soviet Russia. Measures were taken to prevent infected grain reaching the food chain, and there were also reports of food shortages, diseases and plagues. One file reports a “widespread sickness” among all kinds of animals and reports that “vets are unable to cope”.

Stalin himself also featured in reports. In 1948 Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that special prayers and singing will take place in all of Moscow’s churches for the “preservation and long-life of our state and its leader”. The files also contain personal messages addressed to Stalin.

During the immediate post-war period Russia was facing the dual challenges of reconstruction after the war and cementing her status as a world superpower. Reports described various problems in Agriculture, Industry and the Economy, for example. Agricultural workers in Kamchatka complain to Comrade Molotov that they have failed to receive living accommodation, cattle, seeds and fodder, four years after their resettlement in the region. The unsatisfactory progress being made at a gas construction site is blamed on “hooliganism” and low morale.

Given that these documents refer only to a three year period, hopefully in the future we can look forward to the release of a mass of material on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This should shed a whole new light on our understanding of the Cold War.

To find out more about the Agreement and the Documents, click here

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Solent Overlord Show 2010

Scimitar light tank

I spent a couple of hours earlier at the Solent Overlord Military Show 2010 at the Horndean Showground.

Organised by the Solent Overlord Executive, a group of military vehicle enthusiasts, this annual show brings together hundreds of military vehicles from the Second World War to the modern era – plenty of WW2 jeeps, half-tracks (includking a German one), several guns, a host of Land Rovers, Bren Gun Carrier, a Scimitar light tank, and an FV432 Armoured Personnel Carrier. There was even a Rapier Unit to provide anti-aircraft cover!

Rapier 2000 anti-air missiles

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It obviously takes real dedication to own and run a classic military vehicle. Obviously something like a WW2 military jeep is going to be harder to maintain than a Ford Focus. But there is usually something pretty redoubtable about a Jeep or a Land Rover. Military vehicle enthusiasts are a dedicated bunch. The only comment I would make, is that too few vehicles had any kind of information. I suppose I come from a museum background, but when I eventually get my Land Rover I will set up display boards about it, its history, the equipment, markings, and such like.

They might seem a bit nerdy but these kinds of shows are certainly popular, especially with the kids. And you can always see people huddled around vehicles, inspecting each others work and swapping notes. Throw in a host of military surplus stalls to rummage over, a beer tent and arena events and you’ve got a pretty good day out. And whats more, any surplus income from the show goes towards a suitable military charity, this year the Gurkha Welfare Fund.

Have a look at my flickr album of pics here – let me know if you can help identify any of the vehicles, or if I have made any mistakes!

56th (London) Division Jeep

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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.

This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980’s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.

The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.

Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.

It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.

This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.

What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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Vulcan needs £580k repairs to stay airworthy

Vulcan XH558 at Shoreham 2009

Vulcan XH558 at Shoreham 2009

The worlds only flying Vulcan Bomber is in desparate need of £580,000 worth of repairs, reports the Mail on Sunday.

In what is becoming an annual event, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust have launched an urgent appeal for the funds needed to keep Vulcan XH558 airworthy in time for this years airshow circuit. Reportedly it took a battering performing in poor weather conditions last year. Weak points on the wings on the wings require replacement steel and aluminium reinforcing plates, all onboard fire extinguishers have to be replaced as do the braking parachutes.

There are amibitious plans for the 2010 flying season, in what will be XH558’s 50th anniversary. The Trust also hopes to feature in a flypast over Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Having been lucky enough to see a Vulcan flying twice at airshows – Lee-on-Solent in the early 90’s and 2009 at Shoreham – this really is a special aircraft. Apart from its role delivering the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent for many years, and the famous Black Buck bombing raids in the Falklands War, there is something enigmatic about the delta winged airframe appearing over the horizon.

It really is quite sad that in a world where the country can find £50million for a Titian painting – just how many paintings does this country own anyway? – and millions for the Royal Opera House, we’re struggling to keep historic aircraft in the air. This news comes shortly after rumours that the RAF will offer up the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Red Arrows for the axe in the next Defence Review. Such historically important aircraft should be protected.

To Donate to keep Vulcan XH558 flying, visit the Vulcan to the Sky Trust’s website here

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The making of the British Army – Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The British Army, which can traces an almost unbroken lineage back to the days of Cromwell, often appears to outsiders as a curious institution. Why is the Navy the ROYAL Navy, and the Air Force the ROYAL Air Force? The answer is inherent in the Army’s culture – the Regiment is the primary loyalty in the Army, and the Army has for hundreds of years evolved to become a confederation of regimental tribes.

Allan Mallinson’s book is not a quick read. But then, the development of the British Army has not been a quick process. Several regiments in the modern Army can trace their lineage back to Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The story of the British Army is one of hard-won military experience. Of campaigns on all continents, in defence of Empire and against tyranny. Yet British culture has almost always placed the Royal Navy in the ascendancy. As an island nation the Navy defends us. With a strong Navy, the need for an Army is minimal, or so naval advocates have argued time and time again. The Army is a bullet, to be fired by the Navy.

So for many years the Army found itself fighting small, colonial wars around the globe, punctuated by rare forays onto the European mainland. But for the most part, at least until the twentieth century, the British Army was not a major factor in British defence planning.

What stands out most of all, is that often the British Army has managed to exert an influence out of all proportion to its size. Why? For one, apart from during and immediately after the two world wars, it has overwhelmingly been a volunteer force. Smaller than most continental Armies, never the less this small, volunteer ethos has continually led to the British Army having a stronger discipline, better training and professionalism. Over time, particular in the past 50 years, the Army has come to have a stronger identity, and a stronger grip over its constituent parts.

The British Army is also one in which people and events have always had an impact way beyond their time. Leaders such as Marlborough and Wellington still influence young army officers today. In particular, valiants stands at Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem have a powerful motivational effect on officers and men alike. As Mallinson so aptly tells us, at Goose Green in the Falklands, one 2 Para officer told his men two simple words: ‘remember Arnhem’.

The Army is undergoing a period of change once more: it is engaged in a savage fight against a formidable foe in Helmand province. This is taking place against a background of continual defence cuts and reforms, with many famous old names disappearing as local regiments become increasingly regional in make-up. This might dilute local loyalties, but still I suspect it is easier to feel loyalty to a name than a number. Perhaps for the British Army more than any other, heritage makes it what it is. From the shining examples of victories – and defeats – to the uniforms, names, museums, quirky traditions and pomp and pageantry, history oozes out of every pore.

To try to understand the culture of the British Army, especially from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside, is no easy task. It was once said that an Army should be a mirror of the society that it comes from, but it is much more complicated than that. To explain the history of the British Army by simply charting battles and campaigns is not enough. This book by Allan Mallinson, although by no means an academic text, brings a complex story up to date. Although he is himself an ex serving soldier, his writing is refreshingly free of the ‘old boys’ style where old officers are respected regardless of their achievements – or lack of – and where officers live in the past, with no eye on the future.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, cold war, Falklands War, Iraq, Korean War, Napoleonic War, World War One, World War Two

USN F-4 Phantom vs VPAF MiG 17/19 – Peter Davies

Phantom vs. MiGs

Phantom vs. MiGs

I am a big fan of Osprey’s Duel series of books. The approach of comparing two contemporary machines, that fought against each other, makes for a very good read. And by also looking at the men involved, Osprey are onto a winner. This book charts the ongoing battle fought between the US Navy’s Phantom fighters and the North Vietnamese MiG fighters in the later part of the Vietnam War.

The US Navy developed its Cold War aviation from its successes in the Pacific in the Second World War. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, relied on significant Chinese and Soviet assistance. In the US Navy, ‘MiG killers’ became something of an elite within an elite. The US Navy’s Phantom’s performance was far superior to that of the US Air Force phantoms during the same period. After 1972 the US Navy’s statistics improved considerably, after more emphasis had been given to training crews in air combat. Originally designed as a stand-off interceptor, innovative Navy pilots showed that the Phantom could be used for dogfighting.

Interestingly, although one Phantom crew ended the Vietnam War having shot down 5 MiG’s, the next highest crews only accounted for two. In a highly intense war, that must have involved many missions, clearly many operations saw little action. It is, however, difficult to compare losses compared to the overall amount of aircraft deployed, as Hanoi has never released details of just how many MiG’s fought in the war.

One very interesting aspect that this book stresses, as early as the introduction, is to what extent do we compromise between technology and skill? This is all the more pertinent given the Cold War context. Particularly when it came to dogfighting, technology was useful but not the be all and end all. Aerial combat is an extremely complicated business, involving the aircraft itself, the weapons, electronics, and finally the crew themselves.

There are some disappointing aspects, however. The book focusses exclusively on Vietnam, to the exclusion of any other factors. Other air forces around the world were flying Phantoms and MiGs at the time – what was their approach? The more you separate history into little sections, the more compartmentalised it becomes. This book is about Vietnam, and rightly so – but a little more wider comparison would be a useful literary garnish.

Otherwise it is a great read. Packed with technical descriptions and specifications, and with a plethora of photographs and drawings, this should put the Phantom-MiG duel on the same level as Spitfire/Hurricane vs. Messerschmitt and Harrier vs. Mirage. The very essence of military aircraft is how they perform against their rivals, and the Duel series is an ideal way to showcase this.

There is a side story to this book too. Rowland White’s Phoenix Squadron, published earlier this year, describes how a British Fleet Air Arm Pilot went to America and saw that the US Navy’s Phantom training consisted of a number of experienced pilots, all telling their pupils different things. ‘This is how I flew in Vietnam!’ seems to have been the message, even if if it was a different message from room to room. According to White the British pilot submitted proposals on how to centralise the US Navy training and introduce more of a coherent policy. The result was the famed Top Gun programme.

To what extent was the Top Gun programme, of Tom Cruise fame, inspired by the less well-known but equally skilled Top Guns of the British Fleet Air Arm?

Published by Osprey Publishing

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Victoria Cross Heroes: The Battle of the Imjin River

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Certain battles come to have a defining influence on the armed forces out of all proportion to their size, for many years later. The battle of the Imjin river is just one of these.

During the Korean War in April 1951, The North Koreans – with heavy Chinese Communist support – launched a strong attack on UN positions near the Imjin river, just north of Seoul. The sector was defended by the 29th Infantry Brigade, with a Belgian Battalion under command. This relatively tiny force held their positions for over 2 days, against overwhelming opposition. Although many were killed or captured, their actions did much to blunt the Communist offensive. Not only did it have a tactical and strategic influence, but also a moral one. The heroic stand on the Imjin river captured the world’s imagination.

In particular the stand of the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glorious Glosters – has come to have a huge legacy on the traditions of the British Army. Not because they were SAS, or Paras, or Marines, but ordinary line infantry, young men from a peaceful country recruiting area, many of them national servicemen. It showed what ordinary people are capable of when making a stand.

The Glosters CO, Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, was awarded the VC. Although he had won a DSO in the second world war, he was seen as an average officer at best. However during the battle he moved constantly amongst his unit under heavy fire, and twice personally led assault parties to drive the enemy back – a tactic H Jones would employ at Goose Green. He was eventually captured and subjected to brutal treatment in captivity, including being drugged and forcefed communist propaganda.

Lieutenant Phillip Curtis, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry but attached to the Glosters, had learnt of the death of his wife just before the battle. He went on to charge an enemy machine gun post alone. Not once, but twice, even after being wounded the first time. He was killed yards from the position, and was awarded the VC. His story is certainly not the only one where a soldier has reacted to personal loss by disregarding their own safety.

Among the other British officers decorated was Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley, who was awarded a Distinguised Service Order. He had originally enlisted as a Private in the Glosters in second world war, whilst underage. After earning a commission and serving with the Parachute Regiment in Greece, he spent two years as a prisoner after the Imjin battle. He went on to command Allied Forces Northern Europe, retiring as a General.

The Battle of the Imjin river deserves a place in British military history alongside Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem as examples of how soldiers know what has gone before them, what their forefathers have done, and what they are capable of doing themselves. In an army which places tradition higher than any other, these are valuable stories indeed.

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The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria

The Six Day War: Jordan and Syria

The Six Day War: Jordan and Syria

Nowhere in the world are historical rights and wrongs held onto so bitterly and for so long as in the Middle East. And all too frequently, the subsequent divisions end up in violence and armed conflict.

This volume in Osprey’s Campaign series is a companion to Simon Dunstan’s earlier book on the Six Day War in the Sinai. Following the swift and pre-emptive strike on Egyptian Forces, Israel turned its attention towards Jordan and Syria further north. Having signed a mutual defence pact with Egypt, both of these countries were obliged to attack Israel. With varying levels of morale.

By the end of the war, the Israelis had launched a daring and succesful invasion of the daunting Golan heights. Whilst victory against Jordan was not in the Israeli Generals plans, they could not resist a symbolic assault on the Holy City. Whilst they may have won plaudits for recapturing Jerusalem, this highly volatile act sowed the seeds of resentment and division in the Middle East for a generation, and arguably beyond. What the Israelis hold up as one of their greatest victories has also proven to be the cause of many of their problems.

Simon Dunstan gives us a comprehensive look at a very complex conflict. The incredibly bitter international politics of the middle east and the historic background to the state of Israel are key factors that underpin this war. Israel, for most of its existence, has lived under the threat of annihilation, and this has left its armed forces with no choice but to train to a high state. People fighting to defend their homeland more often than not fight the hardest, and this is a thread that Dunstan stresses. To view anything that happens in the Middle East without looking at this background is to lose all context. Crucially, the whole conflict in the Middle East was also broadly part of the range of proxy wars that took place during the Cold War. This was a very important war – the outcome was always likely to shape the future of the Middle East, evidenced by how the US and the USSR forced a ceasefire when it looked like the outcome might be too emphatic.

With Osprey’s trademark map graphics, and some pretty smart illustrations, Dunstan goes effortlessly from grand strategy and international diplomacy to low level unit actions, and the stories of inidividual soldiers.

The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria is Published by Osprey

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Youtube picks

Soldier Set for Miss England

New target system for Apache

Cold War – the Berlin Wall

Biffy Clyro – The Captain

And for more historical videos and music, check out the Daly History Youtube Channel

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Book Review – latest releases from Osprey Books

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

Osprey have been publishing books in the field of military history for many years. I have long been a fan of their well-presented and accessible style, complete with smart looking maps and fantastic artwork. I have made a lot of use of them over the years, especially their books on Operation Market Garden and Fairmile Motor Torpedo Boats.

These three interesting looking books landed through my letterbox over the weekend, so here are my impressions of them!

The Six Day War 1967: Sinai

This volume comes as part of Osprey’s Campaign series, which now numbers over 200 publications. They are well regarded as among the best introductions to any particular battle of campaign in history.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was part of the long running dispute that took place in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century, which is arguably still smouldering today. Since its inception Israel had long lived under the threat of annihilation. Under pressure in 1967, Israel launched a devastating pre-emptive strike on its enemy Egypt, eventually reaching the Suez Canal in just five days.

This book charts the story of this short but sharp war, in particular one of the most daring and successful operations in modern military history. As with all Osprey books it contains some crisp and accurate maps, well researched original photographs and some incredibly detailed artwork of aircraft, armoured vehicles and battlefield scenes. The text itself looks at the deep political reasons behind the war, and also the complex internal politics of the Israeli state. Along with chronologies and orders of battle, this strikes a helpful balance between detail and accessibility, which in my experience is the hallmark of the Campaign series. Whilst they may not have the detail and referencing of a full academic work, if you know absolutely nothing about the 1967 war – much like myself before picking this up – then you certainly would after putting it down.

M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural: Operation Desert Storm 1991

This account, part of Osprey’s Duel series, focuses more on the machines that were pitted against each other, and the men who fought in them.

The Cold War often seen clashes between American and Soviet built tanks, but curiously, never directly between those two countries. Never the less, commentators and intelligence analysts took a close interest in how each sides weaponry compared.

The last armoured clash between American and Soviet produced armour took place in Iraq in 1991, during the first Gulf War. The US M1A1 Abrams battle tank, which made up the bulk of the coalition armour, was barely two years old, and certainly one of the worlds most advanced tanks. The Iraqi T-72 was built by Soviet Russia. Compared to the Abrams it fielded second-rate sights and ammunition, as well as inferior training of its crews. As such the T-72 were never going to be a match for the Abrams, as this book argues. Indeed, the first Gulf-War saw some of the most one-sided armoured fighting in history.

Tech-heads, and fans of vehicles, armour and weaponry will love this book. It delves deep into the development and design of the respective tanks, full of technical drawings, close up photographs and specifications. Crucially, however, it also looks at the human aspect, especially the training of the men who crewed the T-72 and Abrams. Without this, there is a risk that it might be something of a Haynes Manual – very interesting but narrow, only nuts and bolts. Thankfully, by combining the men and materiel, wet get a full picture. Too often the human and machine elements are separated.

Special Operations Forces in Iraq

Military History should never be confined to ‘history’, and this book brings us right up to date with a reminder that servicemen are fighting around the world right as we speak. Some of them of the ‘talking trees’ variety.

Anything to do with Special Forces is a big seller. Look at the explosion of interest in the SAS after the Iranian embassy in 1981 and after the Gulf War. And this book from the Elite series does not disappoint. Looking at the initial deployments and engagements during the first phase of the Iraq War in 2003, through to the insurgency period, the hunt for Ba’ath party officials, Al Qaeda operatives and militiamen. It looks at battles around the port of Um Qassar, in the Kurdish mountains of the North, and the urban warfare in Baghdad and Basra. Refreshingly, it doesn’t just focus on US Special Forces, as many books tend to.

One of the fascinating things about Special Forces is in their name – the special nature of their weapons, equipment and tactics. This book more than delivers, with some cracking illustrations of US, British, Australian and Polish Special Forces. Each illustration has a detailed description. If you were looking to make military models, something like this would be right up your street.

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Book Review – the Berlin wall by Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall - Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall - Frederick Taylor

One of my favourite memories of College – and to be fair, there arent many of them – has to be travelling round Central and Eastern Europe in 10 days. Out of all the places in Europe, I think perhaps the most fascinating city for me has to be Berlin. History wise, its got something of everything – some classic ancient history museums, the legacy of Frederick the Great, the stunning Bismarck era buildings, the sights of two world wars, and of course no other city captures the absurd conflict that was the cold war better than Berlin. Berlin really was the 20th Century under a microscope.

Frederick Taylor’s masterful book serves as an ideal chronological history on the Berlin Wall, but also covers such a complex subject by delving into broader themes along the way – the end of the war, soviet control, the lifestyles of the East German leaders and their people. Perhaps most fascinating is the story of Lyndon Johnsons visit to West Berlin around the time of the building of the Wall. We all know the names, the dates, the soundbites. But these just form a skeleton, and the depth that Taylor deploys adds flesh to the bones, in the shape of extensive research in East German archives and countless interviews, brings this story to life.

Too often history is written blandly, about people far away, in long forgotten times. How then, are we supposed to associate with it, to empathise? But here, you cannot help but feel that Conrad Schumann, the East German border Guard, or Peter Fechter, the East German boy who was left to die on barbed wire after being shot, could have been anyone. It was just their fate to be born in a city divided. How consuming, and overbearing, must it have been to live in the shadow of the wall.

I cant think of many places I would reccomend more for a city break than Berlin,and having a look at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. But in the meantime, this book does the job nicely.

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