Category Archives: Royal Air Force

Harrier to make last operational flight

The Harrier - the world's first operational fi...

The Harrier - into history (Image via Wikipedia)

The Harrier GR9 made its last operational flight later today, before it is retired from RAF service.

As many commentators have remarked, it is the end of an era for British engineering. Although the modern GR9 owes much to the McDonnell -Douglas AV version, the basis for the Harrier was still a solely-British engineering project. It’s telling that there was never any chance of Britain actually developing a replacement for the Harrier – we just couldn’t do it, we’re reduced to buying off the shelf from the Americans or going into expensive and difficult partnerships with our European cousins.

It’s like the Concorde being retired – we’re going backwards in the name of economy. All so the RAF can keep zipping their Bugatti Veyrons over the North Sea. Very sad indeed. In hindsight its remarkable that the Harrier lasted as long as it did – the RAF never really took it seriousy, probably because its not fast enough or flashy enough. Never mind that it produced results. The Harrier seems to have become a victim of its own success, and of inter-service politics. The RAF has sought over the past few years to undermine the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm, in an extension of the age-old land based vs. sea projected air power debate. The utility and flexibility of naval air power has been proven over and over again, yet by retiring the Harrier the RAF knew that it would by default retire the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers – something it failed to do in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

A sad end for an aircraft that deserves its place in the Pantheon of historic British military aircraft, alongside the Spitfire and the Lancaster. And like those two aircraft, the Harrier can justly lay claim to having won a war. Just as the only British jets to have shot down enemy aircraft in wartime since 1945 have all come from the Fleet Air Arm. Afghanistan is floated out as a ‘trumps-all’ ace card, the argument supposedly being that the Tornado is better suited to operating in Helmand. Yet the Harrier is more reliable in the heat, more maneouvreable in counter-insurgency conditions, can take off from rough short airstrips, and is cheaper and easier to run and maintain. In any case, even the Harrier is probably overkill for the job they need to do against the Taliban… the Pucara or even the old WW2 Typhoon would probably be sufficient.

The figures suggest that retaining the Tornado at the loss of the Harrier is actually a more expensive option, given that the Tornado is less reliable, far less flexible and more expensive to operate and maintain. In any case the Tornado fleet is due for an engine upgrade in the coming years – how this will be funded has not been adequately explained. These facts – plus the vehement opposition of such esteemed figures as Admiral Lord West, Major General Sir Julian Thompson, and Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward – suggests that the axing of the Harrier was due more to inter-service politics than making savings. I find it very hard not to be furious with people who put their own service above British defence as a whole, to the detriment of the overall picture.

Lord West in particular has been lobbying very strongly for the Government to re-think its decision regarding the Harrier. His argument, as outlined in the Portsmouth Evening News today, is that the Prime Minister and the Government were badly advised by senior RAF officers with ulterior motives aside from national security. As West points out, none of the arguments espoused for keeping the Tornado over the Harrier stand up to any kind of scrutiny. As well as arguing that the Government has been badly advised, you could also go further and to argue that the Government is full of men of such little stature and with no understanding of defence, that it is all the more likely that they will be hoodwinked by bad advice.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

The Ashcroft Gallery: a review

Front of the Imperial War Museum London

Imperial War Museum (Image via Wikipedia)

I was up in London yesterday after seeing Biffy Clyro at Wembley Arena on Saturday evening, so popped into the Imperial War Museum to take a look at the New Lord Ashcroft Victoria Cross and George Cross Gallery.

To sum up, I’m disappointed. The medals, the heroes, the stories are legendary… but the Gallery itself – is that it? I can’t believe it took £5 million – yes, £5 million! – to do that. The interactive touch screens and use of media is very good, but hardly ground-breaking. The medals themselves are displayed in simply wooden boxes, that any reasonably skilled DIY enthusiast could knock together in their garden shed. The room itself is not large at all, and I can’t understand why its on the fourth floor and not the ground floor. There’s no rhyme or reason as to how the gallery is laid out, and its difficult to find any given individual’s medals. I’m told that the 241 medals are arranged in terms of qualities such as leadership, sacrifice, aggression, skill, initiative, endurance, and boldness, but it didn’t seem that logical to me.

It’s disappointing that Britain’s principal military museum cannot do better. I work in local museums and I’ve seen how inventive Exhibition designers have to be and can be with shrinking budgets and rising expectations, and I can’t see for the life of me how the exhibition itself cost £5m. Consultants, feasibility studies, options appraisals, sub-contractors, researchers, over-the-top marketing maybe. But the largest collection of the world’s most hallowed medals deserves an almost spiritual experience, not just another exhibition.

I was there to look for the George Cross and medals of CPO Reg Ellingworth, the Portsmouth Mine Disposal rating killed in 1940. Me and my mate spent a good twenty minutes hunting for his medals, and without the aid of any kind of plan or index it was hard going. We finally found Ellingworth’s display, and on the multimedia screen I found several photos of Ellingworth that I had never seen before, including one of him in tropical white uniform and a rather hazy photo of him at work on a mine – neither of which I had seen before, or even appear on the IWM’s online catalogue of images! But it is nice to see a brave man such as Ellingworth being remembered in such a prominent place – now to make sure that Portsmouth recognises him and his peers too.

Back to the Exhibition, I disagree quite strongly with the way ‘Ashcroft’ gets crowbarred into everything – it should be about the (extra)ordinary medal winners, not a dubious tax-exile whose meaningful contribution to humankind is, errm, hang on a minute… nothing. If he had any kind of humility he wouldn’t insist on plugging his name at every opportunity. Even the Gallery’s website is full of pictures of the man himself, and links to his books. Tasteless. Plenty of philanthropists donate money to causes such as this without demanding that their name is emblazoned everywhere. Just an observation.

I’ve never understood this blind obsession with VC’s and GC’s either. There are plenty of incredibly brave men who were only awarded DSO‘s or DCM‘s. There are also stories of men performing incredibly brave deeds and receiving no recognition at all because their officer did not write the act up properly. My thoughts, as someone who has done a fair bit of research into thousands of men who were killed in the First and Second World Wars, is that bravery is not limited to medals alone.

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Filed under Army, Museums, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, victoria cross, World War One, World War Two

Portsmouth Second World War Dead – An appeal!

British battleship HMS BARHAM explodes as her ...

HMS Barham exploding in 1941 (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m currently working on a book about people from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any information at all about any relatives from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War, seving with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, Merchant Navy, ATS, NAAFI, British Red Cross and the Home Guard.

Any stories, documents, photographs, memories etc would be extremely useful, and I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who may be able to help.

In particular, I am looking for information and photographs about the following:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, a mine disposal rating from HMS Vernon
  • Seamen who were killed serving on the Portsmouth based battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In particular Frederick Bealing (Royal Oak),
  • Portsmouth Submariners, particularly HMS Triumph (disappeared in the Med in 1942), and especially Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston DSM and Bar and Petty Officer Frank Collison DSM and Bar
  • Any Boy Seamen from Portsmouth who were killed (aged 18 or under)
  • Lieutenant Commander William Hussey DSO DSC, the Commander of HMS Lively when she was sunk off Tobruk in 1942
  • Royal Marines from Portsmouth, in particular Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird, a 62 year old WW1 veteran who died in 1943
  • Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, of the Royal Armoured Corps who was killed in Italy in 1944
  • Portsmouth men who died as Prisoners of War, particularly Private William Starling who died after VE Day in Czechoslovakia, and Sapper Ernest Bailey who was murdered by the Gestapo in Norway in 1942
  • Portsmouth men who were killed fighting with the Hampshire Regiment, particularly Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM (D-Day) and Corporal Mark Pook MM (Italy)
  • Men killed on D-Day and in Normandy, especially Sergeant Sidney Cornell DCM and Private Bobby Johns (aged 16) 
  • Portsmouth men killed fighting in the Far East – including in Singapore, Burma, and as Prisoners of the Japanese building the Burma Railway
  • Bomber aircrew from Portsmouth, especially Flight Sergeant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Sergeant Francis Compton DFM
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan DFC, a Battle of Britain and Special Operations pilot
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC, a Bomber Squadron commander who fought in the Mediterranean and North Africa
  • Flight Lieutenants Arthur and Ernest Venables, brothers killed when their Dakota crashed in Southern France after VE Day
  • The Merchant Navy – particularly the SS Portsdown, an Isle of Wight Ferry mined in 1941
  • The NAAFI
  • Women at War – the Wrens, ATS, WAAFS, British Red Cross

Or indeed any other stories that I may have missed.

I have a database of 2,549 Portsmouth servicemen and women killed between September 1939 and December 1947; sadly it is impossible to write about all of them, but hopefully I can pay tribute to them all by telling some of their stories.

Any stories at all will be of interest, its these kind of personal stories that really bring home the impact of war on families and communities.

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Filed under Army, d-day, far east, merchant navy, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

New footage shows WW1 battlefields from above

Extraordinary aerial pictures of First World War battlefields have been discovered, after being hidden for nearly a century.

The dramatic aerial shots show the huge damage wreaked on towns such as Ypres and Passchendaele. The programme, on BBC One this Sunday evening, also includes aerial footage taken by British pilots. These new images give historians of the First World War a new insight into the impact of the fighting on the western front.

‘The First World War from Above’ is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm.

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Filed under Army, On TV, Royal Air Force, western front, World War One

Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on - knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

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Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

Portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Well...

Wellington: he 'got' morale (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m very selective over what I post relating to the SDSR nowadays – otherwise we all run the risk of SRSD-itis, and in any case, a Defence Review where the MOD is a bystander is pretty dubious. But there is a very interesting report in today’s Portsmouth News that I wanted to comment on, and draw on some historical parallels. The funny thing is, the letter that the article is based on is slightly dubious – apparently written by a ‘senior naval officer’, the individual concerned is currently at sea – so no higher than a Captain, and considering only the Carriers, Landing Ships and some destroyers are commanded by Captains, and few of them are at sea, it looks like its someone who is a Commander of below. Not too senior then.

Morale is possibly the most unquanitifiable resource that any armed service can possess. You cannot buy it (well, not in a bottle anyway), and you cannot measure it by any accountant-friendly matrix. But it wins battles, and a lack of it loses battles. Yet all too frequently, it doesn’t feature at all in planning, or in debates.

Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Andrew Cunningham‘s quote before Taranto that ‘ it takes a day to lose a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’ shows how hard morale is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered. You cannot say, ‘I am going to improve morale’, you have to actually do things to lift it, and it doesnt happen overnight. Look at the oft-quoted Japanese Commander, who decreed to his troops that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’.

With the Duke of Wellington in command in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, the British Army knew that it had a gifted commander who was on top of his game, and was not going to squander their lives needlessly. Which does wonders for morale – men are more likely to fight well if they know their Generals are good, if they think they have a chance of winning, and most importantly, if they have a good chance of surviving. The same principles could be applied to Marlborough as well as Wellington.

There are some tragic examples of how things can go badly wrong when morale is ignored. Whilst much has been written in the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘ debate about the Western Front, it would be hard to argue that British Generals in 1914-18 were overly concerned with their men. Its also probably the time in British military history where there was a bigger gulf in understanding between field officers upwards and the rank and file. Living and fighting in miserable conditions, in a war where the men knew very well that the commanders were struggling, could more have been achieved if the men had simply been treated like human beings? It is hard to know for sure, but it cannot have hurt.

The men who commanded the British Army in the Second World War were the platoon, company and battalion commanders of the previous war. As junior officers on the western front they had very much shared the hardships of their men, and most of them came to despise the Generals who had commanded them. Men such as Montgomery, Slim and Horrocks showed a strong concern for their men. Montgomery expressed an opinion that if you want men to risk their lives for you, then you owe it to them to explain exactly WHY. Slim of course was from very humble beginnings himself, having served as Private in a University Cadet unit. Horrocks was famously incredulous when he discovered that the Americans were not giving their men hot meals in the Ardennes. Men fighting in the snow need and deserve a hot meal first, he told them. On the other side of the coin, Generals who had little regard for their men were not liked – Ivo ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for example.

But bringing thinking back to the Royal Navy, the RN is possibly the most prominent example of how an armed service, morale and national identity are inherently intertwined. Rule Britannia, Heart of Oak, Nelson, Victory, Trafalgar… the Navy might not have the vast numbers of ships any more, nor the frequent opportunities to use them, but the tradition is still there. Look at the Falklands… Commander Chris Craig taking HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword on picket duty off West Falkland, and Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant. They are the descendants of Drake, Rodney, Vernon, Hawke, Howe, Nelson, Collingwood, Cochrane, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham.

Yet, if you gut that sense of tradition, and the feeling of being part of something special, you lose a vital resource that has been built up over hundreds of years, and once thrown away, is lost forever. Morale.

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Filed under Army, debate, defence, Napoleonic War, Navy, News, Royal Air Force, World War One, World War Two

War Crimes against Airmen

As I’ve written previously, hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed whilst serving with Bomber Command during the Second World War. Many of them were shot down over France, Belgium and Holland, and indeed Germany, particularly during the vast Strategic Bombing Offensive from 1942 onwards.

Given the huge numbers of bombers going out almost every night, and the German defences of flak guns, night fighters and searchlights. Over time, the odds of survival were rather frightening indeed. And unsurprisingly, more than a few men found themselves parachuting out over occupied Europe, or surviving air crashes. Men who found themselves on the run faced varying treatment – hidden by patriots in the occupied countries, evading via the escape lines, captured by the Germans, or, in the worst case, murdered by German civilians or the authorities.

By rights, RAF crew in uniform should have been afforded the rights of lawful combatants under the Geneva Convention. However, as with the Kommando order and the Laconia Order, Hitler considered that international law need not apply, and ordered that ‘spies’ were to be shot, and civilians were not to be prevented from murdering downed aircrew. There are stories, sadly, of allied airmen being murdered by pitchfork wielding farmhands.

Given that several hundred men from Portsmouth died in downed Bombers, the sad likelihood is that some of them may have faced treatment that would constitute a war crime. It is hard to find out too much about which might have been murdered, as the Bomber Command loss records do not necessarily contain information about what happened.

But I have recently been contacted by a relative of Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, who was killed when his Lancaster PB148 ‘MG-C’ of 7 Squadron RAF crashed on the night of 18/19 August 1944. They were on a mission to bomb Sterkrade, the synthetic oil processing plant in Oberhausen, the Ruhr. And by coincidence, MG-C is the only aircraft lost during the war to have contained two Portsmouth men – also onboard was Pilot Officer Alan Hargrave.

The Bomber Command Loss records only record that MG-C took off from RAF Oakington at 2304. No other information is available, apart from that the men are all buried in Bergen General Cemetery, Holland. The entire crew were:

F/L P.G.McCarthy DFC KIA (Pilot)
F/O K.S.Carr KIA (Air Bomber)
P/O A.B.Hargrave KIA (Navigator)
P/O F.C.Allford KIA (Wireless Operator)
P/O B.F.Blatchford KIA (Air Gunner)
F/S M.S.Layton-Smith KIA (Air Bomber)
F/S J.C.Gay KIA (Flight Engineer)
F/S E.A.Batterbee KIA (Air Gunner)

Notice that there are eight crewmembers. Most Lancasters only had seven. The McCarthy family believe that the crew may have been murdered, as the germans suspected that the extra man was a spy. Apparently the aircraft had crashed near Alkmaar in Holland, very near Bergen. Apart from that, I have no other information. Looking at their roles onboard, the extra man seems to have been one of the air bombers, Carr or Layton-Smith, who might have been flying as an observer or ‘second-dicky’ for the experience. A look at the Squadron Operations Book should show who the regular crew members were. It looks like the Germans mistook the extra man for a spy.

After the war, however, the British Army in Germany investigated reports of War Crimes that took place in its area – including Belgium and Holland. And there are quite a few records in the National Archives in series WO309 about investigations into incidents. On my next trip to Kew I hope to have a look at 7 Squadron’s Operations Record Book, and then sift through the war crimes reports to see what I can find out, and see if I can solve the puzzle of what happened to MG-C.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two

PM and Defence Secretary at odds over Defence Review

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP (Image via Wikipedia)

A leaked private letter to the Prime Minister from the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has shown that the current Strategic Defence and Security Review is nothing more than a cover for the Government-wide Comprehensive Spending Review. The disagreement also shows the complete disunity within the Government over the Review.

I’ve quoted below some of the most important points in the letter:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war.

How do we want to be remembered and judged for our stewardship of national security? We have repeatedly and robustly argued that this is the first duty of Government and we run the risk of having those words thrown back at us if the SDSR fails to reflect that position and act upon it.

Our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments. The range of operations that we can do today we will simply not be able to do in the future.

The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the changes proposed would follow years of mismanagement by our predecessors. It may also coincide with a period of major challenge (and, in all probability, significant casualties) in Afghanistan.

Even at this stage we should be looking at the strategic and security implications of our decisions. It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package. Cuts there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.

Specific cuts mentioned in the letter are reducing standing naval commitments in the Indian Ocean, Carribean and Gulf, scrapping amphibious vessels and auxiliaries, the Nimrod MR4A maritime aircraft. Dr Fox implies that we could not re-do the Sierra Leone operation again, and also that we would have great trouble reinforcing the Falklands in an emergency. The ability to assist civil authorities would be reduced, as would the assistance the military could give in the event of terrorist attacks, and security for the 2012 Olympics.

Liam Fox has long been one of the Tory front-bench who I find it possible to respect – more so than most of the public schoolboy Thatcher-worshipping ilk. A former GP, and thus one of the few prominent politicians nowadays who has had a career other than politics or ‘policy’, he’s spent a long time in the Shadow Cabinet in various roles. Having been Shadow Defence Secretary for almost five years might be expected to have some idea of what he’s talking about.

I think the severe lack of senior politicians with any kind of armed forces experience - or for that matter with any experience of knowledge of history - shows. Any decision-maker with any sense would be looking closely at John Nott‘s 1981 Defence Review as a how-not-to-do-it. Yet that is exactly what Cameron and Osborne propose. It’s rather sad to think that the Conservatives came to power after touting themselves as the party of the armed forces. Even their former pet General, Sir Richard Dannatt, has waded in on Dr Fox’s side.

Fox’s reference to the possible reaction amongst the party membership is interesting. Although it is often thought that the Tory is made up of lots of ex-Guards Officers, via Eton and Sandhurst, the only former soldier of note on the Tory front bench is Ian Duncan-Smith. There are more than a few ex-military backbenchers, but how much influence do they have over ‘Dave’ Cameron and Boy George? I can’t imagine them, nor the Tory old guard around Britain, being too happy about the hatchet being wielded over the armed forces.

It is hard to disagree either with the assertion that the safety and security of the nation is the first duty of any Government. If they fail with that, then we’d all might as well give up. It’s no good having wonderful schools, hospitals and a thriving economy if enemies – either other states or terrorists – are able to disrupt our everyday lives at will. When we’re conducting an intervention abroad, say in Iraq or Afghanistan, we get the security sorted first, in order for the reconstruction to start. Why should the principle be any different when it comes to Defence closer to home?

Another thought that is deeply disturbing… if the Defence Secretary is having to write to the Prime Minister explaining his concerns about how the Review is progressing, who the hell is producing the review? It’s not a Defence Review… its a pure and simple cuts package. At least previous reviews made some attempt at sketching out the strategic direction. That somebody in the MOD feels the need to leak such a letter is indicative of how poorly this is being handled.

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Filed under Army, debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

RAF Benevolent Fund Day of Action

British propaganda poster during the Battle of...

Image via Wikipedia

Today marks the RAF Benevolent Fund’s ‘Day of Action’, and also seventy years since the height of the Battle of Britain over the skies of Southern England. To mark the day, I thought I would share a couple more stories about young fliers over Portsmouth in 1940. I’ve already written about Flight Lieutenant John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC, a Hurricane Pilot who was killed in a secret mission over France in August 1940. The next two men might not have come from Portsmouth, but they died bravely in the skies over the city in 1940, and both were part of ‘the few’ of the Battle of Britain.

Sergeant Hubert Hastings Adair, 23 and from Norwich, was flying a Hurricane of 213 Squadron when he was shot down in the skies over North Portsmouth on 6 November 1940. He has no official grave, and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

Adair had joined the RAF in 1936, and flew Fairey Battles over France in 1940. In August he transferred to the Hurricane-equipped 213 Squadron, based at Tangmere in West Sussex. Adair was last seen in Combat over Southampton Water, and when he failed to return it was assumed that he had crashed into the English Channel. After the war, however, it was discovered that his Hurricane had crashed in farmland a mile north of Portsdown Hill, near Pigeonhouse Lane. Locals were aware of the crash, but the RAF neither investigated the site nor recovered Adair’s remains.

In 1979 the Wealden Aviation Archaeological Group excavated the site. They recovered much of the aircraft, including the Browning Machine Guns and the Merlin Engine. Adair’s remains were also recovered. The coroner, however, stated that an inquest would not be held, and that the remains were to be disposed of. Because of this H.H. Adair is still officially Missing in Action.

A memorial plaque has been erected near the Churchillian Pub on Portsdown Hill, which overlooks the crash site roughly a mile to the north.

Flying Officer James Tillett, 22 and from Northamptonshire, was flying a Hurricane of 238 Squadron from Chilbolton, North Hampshire when he was also shot down north of Portsdown Hill later on the same day. He is buried in Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport. Tillett joined the RAF as an officer cadet in 1937. Graduating from Cranwell in 1939 as a Pilot Officer, he was promoted to Flying Officer in 1940.

On 6 November 1940 Tillett’s Squadron was scrambled to intercept a Bomber formation heading for Portsmouth. Tillett was shot down over Fareham by a Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The crash site was recorded as ‘near Whitedell, Fareham’. His Hurricane was seen to crash land with its wheels in the air near White Dell Farm, North Wallington, Portsmouth. According to eyewitness accounts the plane was in flames; two brothers attempted to rescue Tillett who was slumped over the controls, but the fire engulfed their aircraft. A memorial plaque has also been placed near the site where Tillet’s Hurricane crashed, near the junction of Pook Lane and Spurlings Lane.

In a day of high drama over the skies of Portsmouth, it is believed that both men were shot down by Hauptmann (Major) Helmut Wick, the Commander of 2 Jagedschewader of the Luftwaffe. After claiming 56 kills Wick was himself shot down on 28 November 1940. Wick’s logbook for the day states that he had shot down two Hurricanes over the Portsmouth area on 6 November 1940.

What must it have been like to be a young person in Portsmouth on that day in 1940? Its hard to believe, but my Granddad can remember watching dogfights over the channel and over Portsmouth in 1940. One time, he saw a Heinkel flying so over Portsmouth that he could see the pilot’s blonde hair.

We think of war as something that happens to other people, in far-off places, in a bygone age. Yet Adair and Tillett were killed just a couple of miles away from my house, and were younger than me. Adair and Tillett, and indeed John Coghlan, and all of the other young men who fought and died with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War should never be forgotten. Of course today we remember the few of Fighter Command, but as well we must remember those who died in Bombers, in Transport Aircraft, Ground Crew, the WAAF’s, men and women, young and old, who served and died overseas or at home.

To find out more about what happened in 1940, to find out about the RAF Benevolent Fund’s 1940 Chronicle Campaign, or to donate to the RAFBF, click here

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Filed under Local History, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

First Light by Geoff Wellum on BBC2

I’ve just watched the TV adaptation of Geoffrey Wellum‘s ‘First Light‘ on BBC2. Regular readers will remember that I reviewed the book earlier this year.

The TV version is slightly truncated, dealing solely with Wellum’s experiences during the Battle of Britain. The story begins with him arriving at 92 Squadron as a green, 18 year old pilot. The book describes his schooling and training. The programme also tells us very little about his career after the Battle of Britain – after serving as an instructor with an Operational Training Unit, he served in Malta before suffering a nervous breakdown.

It was a very good programme though, with some cracking action shots and archive footage. It seems to have been researched very well, and im terms of details was loyal to Wellum’s book. In particular I think the screenwriters did a very good job of emphasising the bond between the young pilots, and the emotional and psychological effects of such intense, demmanding combat. The scenes with Wellum looking back on his experiences were very thoughtful, and conveyed the dignified reflections of a distinguished man.

Unfortunately First Light is not available to watch again on BBC iplayer (whoever was responsible for that should be ashamed), but you can read more about the making of the programme here on the Director’s Blog.

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The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1′s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

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Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960′s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

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