Category Archives: News

National Archives drop digital download fees

The National Archives, Kew, London.

The National Archives, Kew, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The National Archives have dropped many of their fees for downloading digital scans of documents.

Previously First World War Unit Diaries were something like £7 per download, as were Service Records and Medal Citations. However, now all digital downloads are priced at £3.50 – a significant saving for those of us who have to download quite a few such documents for our research!

It’s a sensible approach that should help generate more historical research, particularly for people who find it hard to get to Kew.

Other documents you can download from the National Archives online include Naval Service Records (pre 1922), Royal Flying Corps and RAF Records 1914-1919, BEF War Diaries, and WW1 Campaign Medal Index Cards.

Now just to sort out institutions charging mortgage-level reproduction fees!

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Army 2020 unpicked

Now we’ve had a bit more time to look at what last week’s Army 202 statement means, lets take a bit of a look at some of the finer details.

Among the announcements, articles and suchlike, there was an accompanying brochure on the Army’s official website that received very little publicity, but details the Army 2020 cuts and restructuring in much more detail than I have seen anywhere else.

Of course, some of the most high profile cuts have come in the Infantry, with the loss of some famous names.

The Argylls are currently an Air Assault Battalion, based in Canterbury, so moving to Edinburgh as an incremental company will obviously arouse quite a few howls north of the border. It is a similar move to the manner in which the second Battalions of Guards Regiments were reduced to incremental company status in the early 1990’s.

The Following Infantry Battalions, and the traditions of some of their antecedent Regiments, will be lost:

Two threads seem to emerge – a reduction in armoured infantry in particular, and a cut in Germany-based units in preparation for the units that remain there being brought back to Britain in the forseeable future. Apart from one case the MOD has chosen to cut the junior Battalions of each Regiment, apart from in the case of the Green Howards, who are a relatively senior Battalion with the 3rd Bn (Duke of Wellington’s) being junior. It was obviously felt that a theatre reserve Battalion was not necessary and easier to cut in terms of operational tempo.

The following Armoured units are to merge:

  • 1st and 2nd Royal Tank Regiments to merge; 1st RTR currently at Warminster and RAF Honington as CBRN, and 2nd RTR are currently at Tidworth as an Armoured Regiment.
  • Queens Royal Lancers and 9th/12th Royal Lancers to merge; QRL are currently at Catterick as a recconaissance Regiment, and 9/12 are currently in Germany as a reconaissance Regiment.

Obviously in terms of armour, the decision was to merge where there was commonality – reducing to a single Tank Regiment, for example, and creating a new Regiment of Lancers. Merging similar Regiments should cut down on overheads.

The loss of two Regiments from the Royal Artillery:

  • 39 Regiment RA. Known as the Welsh Gunners and recruiting from Wales, currently operate MLRS in Newcastle.
  • 40 Regiment RA. Known as the Lowland Gunners, recruiting from Lowland Scotland, currently operating the 105mm light gun.

These are two most junior Artillery Regiments, apart from 47 Regt RA who operate the UAV systems, which are presumably too important to cut what with UAV’s being a growth area for the future. Again, the MOD seems to have gone with cutting the most junior Regiments first.

Royal Engineers:

  • 24 Commando Regiment RE, currently based at RMB Chivenor near Barnstaple. Leaving 59 Independent Commando Squadron RE.
  • 25 Regiment RE, already disbanded.
  • 28 Regiment RE, an amphibious bridging unit currently based in Hameln in Germany.
  • 38 Regiment RE, based in Antrim.
  • 67 Works Group RE

The cutting of 24 Cdo RE suggests that it is not felt that a full Regiment will be needed to support 3 Cdo Bde in an expeditionary capacity, or at least not to the extent that another Engineer Regiment could not be attached to augment the independent Commando Squadron. The disbanding of 28 Regiment seems sensible, given that it was only ever intended to facilitate the withdrawl of the British Army of the Rhine from Germany in the face of the Warsaw Pact. With the withdrawl of British Forces from Germany, it would seem un-necessary to re-home them in the UK. The cutting of 38 Regiment seems to be part of the move to de-militarise Northern Ireland.

Royal Signals:

  • 7th Signal Regiment, ARRC, at Elmpt (old RAF Bruggen)

Probably not a surprising move given that the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps has relocated from Rheindalen to Innsworth recently, and with the withdrawl of the rest of the British Army from Germany.

Army Air Corps:

  • 1 Regiment AAC and 9 Regiment AAC to merge, both Lynx Wildcat Regiments.

Royal Logistics Corps:

  • 1 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 2 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 23 Pioneer Regiment; Oxford
  • 8 Regiment RLC; Catterick
  • 19 Combat Service Support Bn
  • 24 Regiment RLC; Germany

REME:

  • 101 Force Support Bn; a hybrid regular and TA unit

RMP:

  • 5 Regiment RMP

I actually had trouble finding out much information about the RLC, REME and RMP units concerned. Any contributions would be gratefully received.

Looking at it, it does seem like a salami-slicing exercise. The promised dramatic reductions in Armour haven’t happened, and various Infantry Regiments were protected due to political concerns. Aside from a few cases more junior Regiments were cut, with the Army having its age-old concern with seniority above much else. It seems inaccurate to describe Army 2020 as a restructuring exercise. The Mike Jackson led cuts in the mid 2000’s at least dealt with the problems of arms plot and lots of tiny infantry Regiments.

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Leaks and Rumours on impending Army Cuts

There have been a number of leaks and rumours recently regarding the impending cuts to the British Army. Naturally, with the Army faced with losing 20% of its manpower strength, the current structure of Regiments and Corps will be unsustainable with this smaller footing.

And with the British Army being as tribal as it is, there have been numerous articles, letters, meetings and the like lobbying to keep certain Regiments. No lobby group swings into action like an old-boys network when ‘the Regiment’ is under threat. This kind of layalty is very admirable, particularly when it fosters a closeness among serving soldiers, but it also makes decision making very uncomfortable, particularly when political considerations come into play.

An article on the BBC News website reported that a letter from the honorary Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to the CGS had been leaked. Apparently draft plans appear to show the two Fusiliers Battalions being merged into one – obviously not a good move for any Regimental Colonel, the tribal elder. The CGS will probably have had letters from every Colonel of every Regiment no doubt. A further article in the Daily Telegraph reported that at least five infantry Battalions are to be cut, along with a third of the Royal Artillery and a third of the Royal Logistics Corps.

An article in the Guardian reported that a Battalion each of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Regiment of Scotland would be cut. Under the leaked document the Army’s troops would be reformed into three categories – spearhead (namely the Royal Marines and Paras); adapatable forces to take over from the spearhead, but taking 18 months to train for the specific theatre; and force troops, ie support units such as artillery, etc. Mergers have also been proposed within the Royal Armoured Corps, with the Queens Royal Lancers merging with the 9th/12th Lancers, and the 1st and 2nd Royal Tank Regiments merging. The Parachute Regiment’s three Battalions will also be spared.

Finally, today’s Portsmouth News contained a report fearing for the future of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. The Tigers were only formed by a merger just over two decades ago, and as a two Battalion Regiment are vulnerable to either being cut and or merged. The News understands that there are proposals to merge the PWRR with the Royal Anglian Regiment and the Fusiliers to form an East of England Regiment. This would be the next step on from Mike Jackson’s Regimental reforms some years ago. Whilst it is sad that centures old traditions are being lost, the size of the Army and the recruiting patterns of todays Army do not support the old structure.

One would hope that the Government and the Ministry of Defence take into account recruiting patterns, capability and future developments when they are thinking about which Regiments to cut and which to merge, and not just quaking in the face of Alex Salmond’s predictable jibes. When we have to plug gaps in Scottish Regiments with Commonwealth volunteers, then it’s no wonder the downsizing is to be considered.

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Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80’s and 90’s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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Hammond: Army Regiments facing Axe

English: Infantry of the British Army recruiti...

Infantry of the British Army recruiting areas by regiments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hot on the heels of the Aircraft Carrier u-turn rumours came the Secretary of State’s speech at the Royal United Service Institute’s Land Warfare Conference. With the Strategic Defence and Security Review calling for a reduction in the size of the Army’s manpower, it was inevitable that at some point proposald would crop up to trim the Army, in terms of regiments, Battalions and capabilities.

The programme is euphemistically being called ‘Army 2020′, as part of ‘Future Force 2020′. Interesting, when the 2010 Defence Review was pretty much out of date with three or four months!

“Army 2020, as we call it, will deliver a new structure designed to meet the needs of a smaller, more flexible and agile Army. Set on a firm foundation, in terms of both men and materiel. Well-trained, well-equipped, and, crucially, fully-funded.”

Apparently three key considerations underpin the structuring of the Army – sustainability, capability and integration:

“That requires the UK’s Armed Forces to be intelligent, flexible and adaptable, both in approaching the fight and during the fight. With an expeditionary capability and a theatre-entry capability.”

Expeditionary capability is hanging by a thread as it is, and any future cuts might render it a thing of the past.

“But all of us here recognise the reality that this process is not taking place in a vacuum. The wider national interest requires that we build for the future with strict financial discipline. Tackling the fiscal deficit and returning the economy to sustainable growth are themselves strategic imperatives. Efficiency and the successful application of military force are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, military productivity, which binds them together, is a key concept in the future management of our Armed Forces. The value that our Armed Forces produces for the country is based on their capability to deliver standing military tasks and project formidable power when national security requires it. That, not balancing the books, is the raison d’être for the existence of our Armed Forces and the MOD.”

The talk about financial discipline is of course welcome. Of course, the thing about balancing the books is just lip service – even the dumbest observer knows that slash and burn is the name of the game.

Hammond had something interesting to say about logistics:

“Working closely with partners to operate logistics more rationally through Alliance structures. Looking, sometimes, to others to provide the tail, where Britain is providing the teeth.”

This has been tried before many a time. When we think back to NATO, early on there was a strong movement to adopt the same calibre small arms, and standardise as much as possible – hence how military equipment has a NATO stock number (even the hull of a warship, it seems!).  But standardising on 7.62 and 5.56 is one thing, but what about when it comes to rationing, uniforms, fuel, and the myriad of other cultural differences? It’s one of those things that sounds great to an accountant – get rid of the support lines and just buy it in when you need it – but you can’t just hire in military tail whenever you need it. A tail doesn’t just bolt onto the teeth effortlessly. Would other countries be able to handle supporting the cultural diversity in Britain’s army, for example? We’re talking leather in beret bands (anathema to a vegan!).

In terms of Reserves:

“The Future Reserves must be structured to provide, as they do today, some niche specialist capabilities that simply aren’t cost-effective to maintain on a full-time basis – for example in areas of cyber, medical or intelligence. But the Future Reserve must also be able to provide on a routine basis those capabilities across the spectrum of tasks requiring less intensive complex training.”

I feel this is slightly cynical. Again and again we find ministers attempting to replace regulars with reserves. And that is what it entails. No disrespect to reservists, but it is always going to be a downgrading in capability. I know that there are some success stories with use of reservists – some of the medical reserves, for example, and the Royal Engineers railway guys, but I can’t help but wonder if we have already pushed the reserve agenda as far as we can? Maybe he’s thinking in terms of reducing Regular Logistics?

Or, more ominously, is he thinking in terms of privatisation of logistics? This, if true, is rather worrying. My personal feeling is that privatisation in defence has been pushed too far by successive governments, and that the cost savings pale in comparison with the problems experienced. Wherever privatisation is heralded, I cannot help but fell that it is motivated by a desire to help wealthy businessmen make even more money. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Haliburton springs to mind.

On the Regimental System:

“I also understand that people worry about how, in the midst of all this change, we will maintain a strong thread of continuity. Retaining the ethos, traditions and connections that are part of what makes the British Army so effective – particularly a regimental system and regionally-focused recruiting. Of course, a Regular Army of 82,000 will have a different structure to one of 102,000. And some units inevitably will be lost or will merge. But let me be clear, we value the history and the heritage because they deliver tangible military benefits in the modern British Army. There is no question, as some have suggested, of abandoning the regimental system in the British Army. But that does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions as the Army gets smaller. That means focusing on analysis of recruitment performance, demographic trends and future recruiting needs.”

Thinking wider about the Regimental system, one wonders if it might mean an extension of the restructuring that occured in 2006.

In the current British Army, there are 37 Regular Infantry Battalions:

  • Grenadier Guards (1 Bn)
  • Coldstream Guards (1 Bn)
  • Scots Guards (1 Bn)
  • Welsh Guards (1 Bn)
  • Irish Guards (1 Bn)
  • Royal Regiment of Scotland (5 Bns)
  • Duke of Lancasters Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Yorkshire Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Mercian Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Royal Welsh (2 Bns)
  • Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Royal Fusiliers (2 Bns)
  • Royal Anglian Regiment (2 Bns)
  • Royal Irish Regiment (1 Bn)
  • Parachute Regiment (3 Bns)
  • Royal Gurkha Rifles (2 Bns)
  • Rifles (5 Bns)

One would imagine that if the MOD is intent on reducing infantry manpower and infrastructure, it will attempt to reduce the number of parent Regiments through mergers, and then reduce the amount of Battalions. For example, in 2006 the Royal Greenjackets (2Bns), the Light Infantry (2 Bns), the Devon and Dorsets (1Bn) and the Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshires (1Bn) merged to form the 5 Battalion Rifles Regiment. There are a lot of 2 and 3 Bn Regiments in the order of battle that might make sensible mergers.

One wonders how Hammond – and indeed Cameron – will fare when it comes to the inevitable decision that the Royal Regiment of Scotland cannot sustain 5 Battalions. As outlined by Mike Jackson years ago, demographically it just isn’t sustainable. Yet when Alec Salmond and his ilk start their bluff and bluster about Scottish heritage, who will blink first? In 2006 Blair called in Jackson and said, to quote, ‘I need you to help me out of a hole here’. There have already been unfounded rumours in some Scottish media outlets about disbandment of Regiments. Hell hath no fury like an old boy whose Regiment is threatened. In particular, regional pride in the form of Ireland and Wales might also be heavy going. The Guards, although seemingly out of date, are bombproof from any kind of change when it comes to the Army’s respect for all things senior and historic.

The traditional Regiment structure has been evolving ever since the early nineteenth century. The Cardwell Reforms in the 1880’s saw the establishment of country Regiments, which in turn were merged into what might be call sub-regional Regiments between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. The County Regiment structure which appears to be held up as a traditional golden age only existed for around 60 years. History suggests that where Regimental structures are concerned, a state of flux is actually the norm.

That things have to change is, sadly, non-negotiable. As with the Royal Navy, we would all swell with pride if the Army regained some of its former glory. But strategic necessity and my tax bill just don’t warrant it. But on the flip side, we don’t want to see a rerun of previous defence cuts, with cuts so savage that the guys that are left have an impossible job to do, and are then asked to do too much by the very same politicians who slashed the Armed Forces in the first place!

Interesting times ahead indeed. My predictions – more mergers and cuts in Infantry units, cuts in Armour and Artillery, and cuts and increased reliance on reserves in specialised support functions – in particular logistics.

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Another Aircraft Carrier U-turn

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class,...

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class, two of which are under construction for the Royal Navy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m several days late in reporting this one, but earlier in the week it emerged that the current governing coalition is planning to perform a u-turn and introduce both Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers into service. Previously, it had planned to mothball one. Both will enter service with the Royal Navy once completed, as was originally planned by the previous Labour Government.

The mothball option emerged in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which also opted to purchase conventional ‘cat and trap’ versions of the joint strike fighter rather than the vertical version -a decision that was also reversed earlier this year. Yet another defence u-turn raises questions about the coalitions judgement – whilst changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of if the situation demands it, that decision makers have got so many things wrong in the first place is worrying. If decisions about acquiring equipment appear to be unsound, how much confidence can we – or more importantly our servicemen – have about the decision making when it comes to commiting troops?

I have always been a firm believer that there is no point in having just one of anything in defence terms. If you only have one aircraft carrier, it can only be fully operational half of the time. At best. And if you feel that you can do without it 6 months of the year, do you really need it that other 6 months? The French have had all kinds of trouble with their carrier Charles de Gaulle, and whenever she’s in port, the French have no other carrier. The Falklands – and the Royal Navy’s recent operational tempo – shows that to have one ship effective at any one time, you need at least one, preferably two more in refit or working up. One suspects that the current era of no strike carriers was prompted by the RAF trying to prove that we do not need them at all. That philosophy has clearly proved to be unsound, with carrier-borne air cover proving to be effective – militarily and financially – over Libya.

According to Defence sources, the first Carrier – Queen Elizabeth – should be undergoing sea trials by 2017. Sections being constructed in shipyards around Britain are currently being assembled in Scotland. Both ships will be based in Portsmouth, and extensive work is going on in Pompey to configure jetties and supporting infrastructure to take them. Seeing them steam into Portsmouth for the first time is bound to be an impressive sight. They are perhaps overkill for out financial means nowadays, and probably bigger than we really need militarily, but on the flip side, it is difficult to overestimate what an impact a 60,000 ton flat top could project.

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River Pageants and Fleet Reviews

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Si...

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Sir Alan West on board HMS Endurance at the Trafalgar Fleet Review in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did find it quite amusing watching the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant. A lot was made of how we haven’t had one since the times of Charles II. Presumably, we are led to believe that such an event is incredibly rare and fitting for such an occasion. The reality is, that for virtually every coronation or Jubilee in recent centuries, we have held a Fleet Review, normally at Spithead in the Solent.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was marked by a fleet review, as was the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. George V’s coronation was marked in a similar fashion in 1911, as was his Silver Jubilee in 1935. A Coronation Review followed in 1937 for George VI. A Coronation Review was held for our current Queen in June 1953 (plan of the fleet at anchor), and then another for her Silver Jubilee in 1977 (plan of the fleet at anchor). The first major Royal event for over a century to not be marked by a fleet review was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 – ostensibly on the grounds of cost, but one suspects because we haven’t got anywhere near enough ships to make a decent review. A Fleet Review was held in 2005 to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (list of ships present), and one suspects that this event was given primacy because international navies were probably more likely to attend a fleet review for this than one for a Golden Jubilee.

Much has been made of the fact that the Royal Navy has shrunk so much in intervening years that we do not have enough ships to form a large fleet review. In the opinion of this historian, it’s just a sign of the changing of times. Britain no longer has an Empire, and thus no need for a navy the size of that that it had in the late Victorian period. I’m sure none of us would like the tax bills – and no doubt the bankruptcy – that would come from maintaining a massive fleet of warships without the finances to do it. Also, a cursory glance down the Royal Navy’s Fleet Bridge Card shows that most ships are either on operations, about to go on operations, have just returned, or are in refit. There isn’t much time for spit and polish in the modern, threadbare operational tempo.

But, as a Portsmouth person, it is a shame that the Solent cannot play its traditional part in marking such a major royal event. For all the wonderful post-modernist rhetoric about the Thames River Pageant, it is a face-saving event, make no mistake about it. Whatever the rights or wrongs about it, it is a sign of change.

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