Category Archives: Uncategorized

Message from James

Hi all, firstly I would like to apologise for the lack of updates recently. Unfortunately I have been very busy with various things which have made made blog posts pretty difficult to schedule.

However I do have a few posts in the offing, and some interesting projects ongoing. Stay tuned!

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Featured in Who Do You Are? Magazine

I’ve been featured in this month’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine, on page 54.

I was asked to name my ‘experts choice’ of website for researching the home front during the Great War, and plumped for the British Newspaper Archive.

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First sales figures for Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes

I thought might all be interested to know that my first book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ sold more than 500 copies in its first six weeks on sale, from mid-February until the end of March 2012!

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The Hillsborough cover-up

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fence onto the safety of the pitch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week over 450,00 pages of official documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 were released into the public domain, most of them for the first time. Some of the documents are illuminating, some of them are harrowing. If you have an interest in stadia, crowds or 1980’s politics and society, I would strongly reccomend having a read of some of the documents available here.

96 men, women and children were killed in crushing at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, at the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The Taylor Report immediately after the disaster largely absolved the authorities, principally the South Yorkshire Police, of any serious culpability, and senior police officers on the day have escaped responsibility in the decades since. Crucially, in 1989 Taylor did not have the wealth of material that we have available to us now.

There are hundreds of witness statements, from survivors, police officers, medics, Kenny Dalglish, Forest supporters, local Sheffield residents and many expert witnesses. There are official letters, reports and other documents covering organisations such as 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FA, Home Office, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council, Liverpool Football Club, Nottingham Forest Football Club, Sheffield Hospitals, South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and UEFA.

However, resolute campaigning on Merseyside led to the release of official documents before the 30 year rule, and the outcome has been significant. For years there had almost been an un-written, un-spoken assumption that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism and crowd disorder, and the Liverpool fans in particular came in for much criticism, unfair as it turned out. Of course many fans who go to football matches drink alcohol, but having a couple of pints doesn’t mean that you are incapable. And it’s always been a common problem that fans wait until the last minute to enter the stadium, but that was well known and should have been adequately planned for and managed.

Whilst the South Yorkshire Constabulary have come in for particular criticism for their approach and crowd management, one wonders how much of this goes back to something that will be harder to trace – the attitude of the Thatcher Government to working class disorder, and football supporters in particular, and the pressure that was exerted on police forces post Heysel. This surely shaped how local police forces handled football matches, and how grounds were constructed. True to form Thatcher was no fan of a working class sport such as football, and it showed. After the dramatic summer of 1985 – which after riots at Luton-Millwall, Birmingham-Leeds and at Heysel, not to mention the Bradford fire, the Prime Minister is well known to have vowed to ‘sort out’ football. Post Heysel she even lobbied UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions. Was the prologue – and the epilogue – to Hillsborough a part of this campaign?

Viewed against the wider background of the 1980’s, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath can be placed very firmly in the context of class tensions at the time. There was significant civil unrest throughout the period,  including riots on Merseyside that would have politicised many a young working class Liverpudlian, and also and the miners strike which encompassed much of Yorkshire and involved much of South Yorkshire Police in resisting what was working class movement. It is hardly surprising that a police force that had been involved in what was essentially counter-insurgency on behalf of the government viewed football fans as a de-humanised rabble. Through all stages of the planning for the day, the dealing with the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, the Police emphasised again and again hooliganism, even when it was clear afterwards that hooliganism had not played a part. That the blood alcohol levels of those who were killed were thought relevant is telling indeed – they would have died whether that had drunk ten pints or a couple of cokes.

Witness statements suggest that most of the rank and file emergency service personnel on duty at Hillsborough performed admirably, given the nature of their training, briefing and leadership, which gave scant priority to safety and huge emphasis on hooliganism. Many police officers suffered serious psychological problems after their frantic work pulling bodies out of the crush and attempting to resucitate victims. By contrast, many of the senior commanders were paralysed, and not effectively in command and unable to make informed decisions. The match commander had minimal experience of policing football crowds. The Police Control Room was closely overlooking the Leppings Lane End, but even after the match was stopped it was still thought that a pitch invasion was underway. Consequently many police officers were deployed forming a cordon on the pitch, when they could have been assisting in the rescue.

What is even more inexcusable is that having caused the disaster by their ineptitude, senior officers in South Yorkshire Police then presided over what was a formally organised cover-up, consisting of altering large parts of police officers statements of their recollections of the day. Statements were reviewed by commanders and the force’s solicitors, and many damming and critical statements were deleted. Why did the police feel the need to cover themselves? Some sources in South Yorkshire Police referred to the force as having its ‘backs against the wall’, and this might have led to officers to wish to give themselves some breathing space. Whilst people always want to defend their corner, to go to the extent of a de-facto smear campaign against innocent victims is inexcusable. Certainly, in the 1980’s the police had been deployed by the Government to police working class unrest and disorder, and for a police force to be found guilty in such a situation would not have fitted in with the prevailing political mood regarding class tensions and football being plagued by hooliganism. Hence, there was probably not any significant pressure from above to investigate South Yorkshire Police further.

Against this background of new material, it is difficult not to look back on many of the developments of the past 23 years – not least the Taylor report, the inadequate inquests, and the lack of criminal charges – and conclude that much of the prevailing wisdom regarding Hillsborough has been undermined. The disaster was caused by inadequate and incompetent policing, combined with the perimeter fences and dividing of the Leppings Lane terrace into pens with radial fences. Factors that were supposedly contributory – drinking, late arrival for example – are still present in football grounds today. German football grounds still have terracing, and have some of the best safety records in world stadia. Whilst I know acknowledge that Taylor did not have the benefit of much of the evidence that we do have now, and was probably under much political pressure to reach certain conclusions, I remain convinced that the introduction of all-seater stadia was more about gentrifying football than ensuring that there was no repeat of Hillsborough.

As a historian, a football enthusiast and someone who keeps a close eye on access to official documents, the Hillsborough case is a landmark. It demonstrates that those in authority can no longer expect to hide behind the closure of official papers, and that they should be held accountable to the general public whom they are paid to serve and protect. It should teach people in responsible positions that they can no longer sweep problems under the carpet for them to re-emerge 30 years later when it is too late.

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VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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New Design Images of Type 26 Frigates

Earlier today the Royal Navy released new images of the planned class of Type 26 Frigates.

The images show a rather sleek looking vessel, stealthily like the Type 45 Destroyers, with a very similar, albeit shorter and set back. It looks very similar to a lot of the other recent European designed Frigates such as the Dutch Zeven Provincien, Danish Absalon and Spanish Bazan classes. As with the Type 45’s, its nice to see us designing modern warships, but why are we essentially designing ships now that the rest of the world built a decade ago? What is it with out defence policy and procurement that takes so long?

Some more technical specifications have also been divulged:

  • Displacement – 5,400 tonnes
  • length – 148 metres
  • crew – 118, with space for up to 190
  • Vertical launch missile silo
  • Medium Calibre Gun, that looks suspiciously like an Oto Melara
  • A Phalanx-style CIWS
  • Hangar to accomodate Merlin or Lynx Wildcat
  • A flexible mission space for UAV, seaboats, special forces or humanitarian operations

According to reports the planned order is for 13, although given the manner in which warship classes almost always end up consisting of a lot less than the original order, the Royal Navy might do well to get 10. There are currently 13 Type 23 Frigates in the fleet. According to the Portsmouth News the final decision for ordering these ships will be taken in the 2015 Defence Review, so of course that is vulnerable to cuts.

The first ship is scheduled to enter service, but again, expect this to slip once the project goes through the various hoops at the MOD. Mind you, Phillip Hammond announced today that 25% of senior military and civilian staff at Commodore/Brigadier level and above will be cut over the next few years, so things might actually start to run smoother!

Some of the quotes from the Defence Minister, Peter Luff, refer to how the project will sustain shipbuilding jobs in Britain. The design IS modular, a la Type 45 and CVF, but if the first ship is due to enter service in 2020, work will have to start in about 2015 at the very latest one would imagine (unless the ‘in service’ date is actually delivery date, but the two are different). One suspects that there will end up being a gap between the end of the QE programme and the Type 26 work, which might leave shipbuilding jobs in Portsmouth in particular vulnerable.

I’ve gone on record before in my belief that these will be the most important ships in the 21st Century Royal Navy. One only has to take a cursory glance a the operational taskings of the fleet, and 95% of what Royal Navy ships are doing is Frigate work. The Type 26 seems like a step in the right direction for chasing pirates and insurgents in RIB’s.

See the MOD, BBC or Portsmouth News articles for more information. There’s also a nifty looking animation on the BBC website.

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Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960’s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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Government confirms new 20 year rule for official documents

The National Archives website has confirmed that the long-standing 30 year rule for the release of official documents will be reduced to a new 20 year rule from 2013 onwards. From 2013, two years worth of documents will be released each year, until the ‘backlog’ is cleared by 2023.

The change follows a review of the 30 year rule that I covered way back in 2009. We can look forward to important documents being released on key events in history, much sooner after they actually happened – it should be a real bonus for historians and researchers.

Some of the records that we should get to see early in the next few years include Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, the miners strike, Lockerbie, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War.

Traditionally the 30 year rule had given protection to politicians and civil servants, that there actions would not be scrutinised too closely in the immediate aftermath of events. Of course, there is a fine balancing act between confidentiality on the one hand, and transparency and probity on the other.

One restrictive rule that is still in place is the 100 year rule for the release of census information. However, the 1911 census was released a couple of years early in 2009, and there is a Freedom of Information appeal ongoing for the wartime ‘mini-census’ to be released early.

I would also like to see a radical shift from the shortsighted British practice of charging for access to records, compared to countries such as Canada and Australia who make many documents available online for free. It stifles historic research to a degree that the mandarins and accountants could never understand.

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The Home Front during the Great War

In hindsight, maybe one of my (self) criticisms of Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes is that I didn’t look enough at the social factors behind some of the stories, in particular, I maybe should have added a chapter on Portsmouth society leading up to 1939-1945, to give some kind of background to the inndividual stories.

So while I’m beginning to write the chapters for my next book, I am also doing a fair bit of research into the social history of Britain – and Portsmouth – at war between 1914 and 1918. What can we find out about Portsmouth society in 1914 that sheds light on the more than 6,000 people from Portsmouth who were killed? I think it’s something that a lot of military historians tend to ignore, but it is crucial if we are to understand unique institutions that are the British Army and the Royal Navy in the Great War, then we need to grasp an understanding of the broader society that these soldiers and sailors came from; how it shaped them, and how it dealt with their losses. Surely if you’re going to look at the war diary of a Pals Battalion on the Western Front, you need to give due credence to the local Newspapers from around the time that it was formed?

The standard text for looking at the Home Front during the Great War is still Arthur Marwick’s The Deluge, almost 50 years after the first edition was published in 1965. And there are a plethora of other books that are pretty interesting on the subject too. It’s a rather intriguing sense of de-ja-vu, having done a lot of research on social history and war whilst at University. Of course, on the flip side, social historians tend to snigger at anything that strays too much into the military sphere. One lecturer at my alma mater thought that the most significant thing about the First World War was that women began smoking and riding motorbikes. Apparently the millions of men killed weren’t too significant.

I must confess I had never really thought about the home front during the First World War. We think of the Home Front and we think of 1940, the Blitz, and Roll out the Barrell. Yet social phenomena that are usually associated with the Second World War – such as rationing, aerial bombing, war socialism, government intervention, welfare, registration to name but a few – first occured over 25 years earlier during the Great War.

Just a stab in the dark, but I actually suspect that in terms of social change, the Great War had a much bigger effect on Portsmouth than the Second World War. Not only from the more than twice as many men who were killed, but the disruption and dislocation to communities changed Portsmouth forever from what had been more than a century of constant development centred around the Royal Navy and the Dockyard. Portsmouth in 1914 was remarkably similar to Portsmouth in say 1860, or certainly after the Great Extension of the Dockyard. Yet the Portsmouth of 1939 was very different indeed.

To paraphrase Churchill about Alamein, it might not have been the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.

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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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Warship preservation: HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth

This is HMS Caroline (1914) in the Titanic Qua...

HMS Caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been following with interest the stories of two particular ‘grey navy’ warships of the twentieth century: the Great War vintage Destroyer HMS Caroline, and the Falklands veteran Frigate HMS Plymouth.

I’ve gone on record before with my opinion that warship preservation in this country is woeful. We have a marvellous collection of older historic ships – Mary Rose, Victory, Warrior, Trincomalee, Great Britain to name but a few. But HMS Belfast aside, we have a terrible record of preserving twentieth century warships for the future admiration of British people who did not live through those turbulent years. It’s an inadequate tribute to the millions of British men – and women – who served with distinction during some of Britain’s finest years.

Portsmouth was perhaps the first place to really tap into the naval heritage idea. Of course, HMS Victory went into dry dock here in the 1920’s, around the same time as which the Royal Naval Museum was founded. With the freeing up of space and docks in the yard as it was run down, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose joined in the 1980’s, making a fine collection of ships. There was definitely a concerted effort to develop the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, with an awareness that the Royal Navy and the Dockyard were winding down, and that tourism would be a growth sector.

Yet what is really missing is a ship from the ‘grey navy’, the twentieth century. Time and time again ships have been decomissioned, and ideas for preservation mooted, with nothing happening and a flood of fine old ships going to the breakers yard. Personally I think that HMS Fearless would have made a fine museum, with a flight deck for various events, and a tank deck that would have given plenty of potential for exhibitions etc. It also would have made a useful link up with the Royal Marines Museum.

At present HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth are the two most prominent warships up for grabs. But both, steeped in history, are at serious risk of going for razorblades. HMS Caroline was built in 1914, and served at Jutland. After the end of the First World War she was decomissioned and has served as a naval reserve depot ship in Northern Ireland ever since. She was finally decomissioned in March 2011. She is formally under the ownership of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, based in Portsmouth. There have been plans to open her up as a museum ship in Belfast, but nothing more than public pronounciations. It’s time for definite action if they want to keep her there – such an important ship should not be allowed to sail into oblivion because the city leaders in Belfast can’t come up with a plan to make good on their promises. The MOD will commence disposal procedures soon if a concrete plan is not formed for her future use, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy have promised that if Belfast cannot get their act together she will be brought to Portsmouth. Presumably if that happens then we’ll hear a lot from Belfast about the pesky English stealing their ship. If it matters that much, they’ll find a way. Somehow I doubt it. Whatever happens, she should be preserved as closely to her 1914 appearance as possible, where as many people as possible can see her and appreciate her.

The Falklands War veteran HMS Plymouth, a Type 12 Frigate, is also in a vulnerable state at present. Decomissioned in 1988, for some years she was a Museum ship in Birkenhead. However, In 2006 the Trust that owned her closed, leaving her homeless. She is still in Birkenhead, but time is running out to find a permanent home for her. Plymouth has expressed a trust in homing her, fittingly in her old home port and namesake city. However, the offer of a berth at Millbay Docks was withdrawn in 2007, and it has been rumoured that she has been sold for scrapping – these reports are, as far as I can tell, unconfirmed. The situation with inactivity is similar to that in Belfast – Plymouth City Council has ‘expressed an interest’, but nothing more. Plymouth’s record on naval heritage isn’t so much woeful, but non-existant. Time and time again we hear MP’s Plymouth pleading that the loss of the naval base would decimate the city. Yet virtually nothing has been done to develop any kind of alternative industries or maritime heritage sector. We’re constantly being told that Devonport is the largest naval base in Europe. Look on google maps, and then the list of RN ships based in Plymouth, and you can see that there is plenty of superfluous space there. There was a possibility at one time that she could come to Portsmouth, but to be honest she has very little connection with Pompey, and if it comes to a choice between Caroline and Plymouth, the authorities will probably choose Caroline.

Personally I would like to see both preserved, and maintained to their 1916 and 1982 appearance respectively, in a setting that does them justice. But we just don’t do warship preservation in this country. I’ve done a bit of research on Museum ships in the US – they have seven battleships, five aircraft carriers, once cruiser, five submarines and two destroyers. Considering Britain’s proud naval history, what we have left is a poor return. Although they are large and expensive to maintain, ships should be seen in the same context as how museums develop their collections of other historically important artefacts. And what better way to display naval heritage than in a ship? Any other way seems inadequate in my opinion. Reading about the Nelsonian navy is one thing, but going onboard HMS Victory is on a different planet. It just needs more planning and foresight – potential museum ships need to be identified before they leave service, and chosen for their suitability.

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Falklands 30 – The Argentine surrender

Español: Galtieri (presidente de Facto) y Mari...

Menendez (right) with Galtieri (left) on his only visit to the Falklands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although the Argentine Governor in the Falklands, General Mario Menendez, had considered withdrawing from Stanley and occupying the Airfield peninsula with his remaining men, he quickly realised that this would be a futile gesture. According to Argentine sources Menendez had visited the local hospital, and the sight of military surgeons treating wounded men left an indelible impression upon him. According to one of his subordinates, Brigadier-General Jofre, the decision to surrender was also motivated by a desire to make sure that none of the Falkland Islanders would be harmed, which would have inevitably happened had the fighting entered Stanley itself.

Menendez contacted the President of the ruling Junta, Galtieri, to ask for permission to surrender. Out of touch with the situation, Galtieri ordered Menendez to fight on, reminding him that under the Argentine Army Code surrender was illegal unless 50% of his men were casualties, and he had expended 75% of his ammunition. Although he still had around 8,000 men left, including three Battalions worth of men who had not yet fought, as a professional soldier Menendez knew that the morale of his men had cracked. Mindful that the majority of them were inexperienced conscripts, that they had been outfought and that he had no support from Argentina, Menendez realised that he could not ask any more of his men after all that they had endured. He made up his mind to surrender. Galtieri had called him a coward, and ordered him out to fight. But these were easy accusations for a dictator to make, hundreds of miles away.

Some Argentine units had maintained their discipline, and prepared for urban warfare in Stanley. There is evidence that some Argentine conscripts were ordered by their officers to be prepared to shoot Falkland Islanders if they resisted, but thankfully no such situation arose. British artillery had already wisely ceased shelling Argentine troops as the flooded back into Stanley.

British units were ordered to advance to Stanley, and await developments on the outskirts. They were given instructions not to fire on the demoralised Argentines, while negotiations were taking place. 2 Para advanced down the track from Wireless Ridge into Stanley, followed by 3 Para. The Gurkhas scaled the now unoccupied Mount William without any opposition, and the Welsh Guards, reinforced by two companies from 40 Commando, occupied Sapper Hill.

A British delegation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Rose of the SAS, and including a Spanish speaking Royal Marine Officer, flew into Stanley. After negotiations with Menendez, Major-General Jeremy Moore, the Commander of British Land Forces on the Falklands, flew in and received Menendez’s surrender. The ceremony was private and low key, and under the terms of the surrender the Argentines were allowed to keep their flags, and the officers retained their sidearms – fearful of being lynched by their own conscripts. That they were thinking of this suggests in part how bad officer-men relations had become. The surrender was effective from 2359 British time, on 14 June 1982.

Although the Union Jack was now flying again over the Falklands, the problems were far from over. Thousands of Argentine prisoners had to be processed, cared for, fed and sheltered while they were awaiting repatriation. Many of them were held at the Airport. There were also masses of captured equipment to be dealt with:

  • 100 Mercedes Trucks
  • 20 Unimog trucks
  • 20 Mercedes Jeeps
  • 12 Panhard Armoured Cars
  • 1 Roland and 3 TigerCar Anti-Air missile launchers
  • 1 improvised surface to surface Exocet launcher
  • 3 155mm field guns
  • 10 Oto Melara 105mm cannons
  • 15 Oerlikon twin 35mm and Rheinmetall twin 20mm anti-air cannons
  • 11 various fire control radars
  • 14 airworthy helicopters, including 2 Augusta 109, 10 Huey, 1 Chinook, 1 Puma)
  • 10 Pucara attack aircraft
  • 1 Patrol Boat
  • 11,000 small arms weapons
  • 4 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition
  • 11,000 105mm artillery shells

Some of this equipment can now be seen in British military museums, or as trophies for units who were involved down south. In some cases was used by British forces – the SAS are rumoured to have utilised some of the folding stock FN FAL rifles captured from the Argentines – and other equipment also provided useful spare parts.

Clearly, the Argentines had not been lacking in heavy equipment or weaponry. They had artillery pieces that outranged the British artillery considerably, and formidable air defences. Some of the Panhard armoured cars were delivered to the islands and then seem to have been forgotten about – when they were captured, some still had their packaging on them. These could have caused problems for the British troops had they been utilised effectively. Logistics seems to have been a problem for the Argentines, in terms of getting the right equipment and making good use of it. Some sources suggesting that what was wanted and what was sent from Argentina were very different. One of the first cargo planes to the Islands after the invasion in April carried not reinforcements, but Televisions for the Islanders as a cyncial and futile attempt at bribery.

There was also much clearing up to be done, as the Argentines had shown scant regard for tidiness and cleanliness. Once the Prisoners had been returned home, the garrison itself had to be taken care of – both in accomodating the troops already on the islands, and then replacing them with fresh units from Britain.

The surrender was greated with relief among many in the task force, not least Sandy Woodward who had been struggling to keep all of his ships on station. After months operating in a South Atlantic autumn and early winter, many ships were virtually falling apart at the seams. Although air cover had to be maintained until an airbase could become operational on the Islands, and ships were still needed to defend the islands all the time there was still a threat, ships could at last begin returning home.

In London, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was lauded in the House of Commons. It was one of the rare occasions in British politics when the Leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot, paid tribute to the Prime Minister of the day.

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Falklands 30: The Battle in the Mountains #2

English: The Falklands War, 13 to 14 June

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With 3 Commando Brigade Established on Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet, the way was clear for 5 Brigade to follow through and capture the last range of peaks before Stanley. Despite evidence that the main British attack was coming overland from the west, the Argentine Command still maintained strong forces in Stanley itself, at the airport and on the surrounding coastline, rather than reinforcing the mountains.

2 Para, back in action after their fighting at Goose Green, were allocated Wireless Ridge. Fittingly, Wireless Ridge is just to the east of Mount Longdon, captured by their counterparts in 3 Para three days previously. The Battalion was now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Chaundler, who had been parachuted into the South Atlantic to replace H Jones. The capture of Wireless Ridge would be crucial, as it was the last obstacle before Moody Brook barracks, and the road into Stanley.The morning before the attack found the Paras waiting at Furze Bush Pass, to the north of Mount Longdon. Chaundlers plan was for a noisy attack, with companies taking each contour in turn before occupying Wireless Ridge. 2 Para had strong support, with 2 Scorpions and 2 Scimitars of the Blues and Royals, twelve 105mm guns, 3 Paras mortars from Longdon, and HMS Yarmouth and HMS Ambuscade out to sea providing naval gunfire support. Wireless Ridge was defended by the 7th Infantry Regiment, who had also fought on Mount Longdon.

The attack began at 2115, and the first objective ‘Rough Diamond’ was captured relatively easily, the Argentine defenders seemingly having withdrawn after coming under heavy preliminary bombardment. However, having established themselves on Rough Diamond D Company come under fire from Argentines on ‘Apple Pie’ to the east. A and B Companies assaulted Apple Pie, and the defenders withdrew under the weight of British fire. With the attack going so well, C Company captured Hill 100 without difficulty. With Apple Pie secure, D Company then ‘leapfrogged’ from Rough Diamon onto the western part of Wireless Ridge itself, codenamed ‘Blueberry Pie’. The Scorpions and Scimitars and also 2 Paras own heavy weapons moved up and joined A and B Companied on ‘Apple Pie’. Under such a heavy weight of fire, the Argentines wielded the first half of the ridge, but fought tenaciously over the eastern edge of the objective. After bunker to bunker fighting, by dawn all of Wirless Ridge was in British hands, with the Argentines streaming down the road back into Stanley. A small group attempted to regroup at Moody Brook and attack the Paras again, but were soon driven off. With dawn the Paras could see the road to Stanley, and were pressing for permission to advance into the town. The Paras had fought a fine battle, with the loss of only three men killed.

The 2nd Scots Guards were given the objective of capturing Mount Tumbledown, a long and narrow high feature just to the south west of Stanley. Capturing this would give the British Forces another commanding position over Stanley, and bottle the remaining Argentine forces into a narrow peninsula, limiting their room for maneouvre. The Guards were helicoptered to the north of Mount Harriet, and from there began a detailed reconaissance. The area approaching Tumbledown had already been patrolled by the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre. With a long, open approach to the objective, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott decided on a stealthy attack, retaining the element of surprise. Equally, an attack across the open southern slopes was bound the be spotted. The Guards battleplan was therefore threefold. G Coy would cross the start line at Goat Ridge, and occupy the westernmost part of the mountain. Then, using this as a platform, Left Flank company would pass through them and occupy the middle, highest section of the mountain. Finally, Right Flank Company would come up and take the eastern portion of the ridge. The Guards had in support two Scorpions and Scimitars of the Blues and Royals, up to five batterys of 105mm guns, 42 Commando’s mortars from Mount Harriet, and also the mortars of 1/7 Gurkhas. The Frigates Active and Avenger were also on call for naval gunfire support. Tumbledown was defended by the Argentine 7th Marine Battalion, who were also defending Mount William and Sapper Hill. Thus the Guards, who were going into action for the first time in the war, were coming up against one of the Argentines few crack units.

Before the attack began, a diversionary attack was made along the southern road to Stanley, aiming to confuse the enemy into thinking the target was further south. G Company, meanwhile, secured the western part of the Mountain by 10.30pm. Even with G Company’s fire support, Left Flank Company came up against firm opposition in the craggy peaks in the middle of the objective. Anti-Armour weapons such as MILAN, which had worked elsewhere, were only partly succesful in hitting Argentine bunkers. It was not until 0230 that artillery fire could be brought down on the Argentine defenders, restoring momentum to the stalled attack. After savage, hand-to-hand fighting, a handful of Scots Guards reached the summit. Right Flank Company then came up, and by 0815 the whole of Mount Tunbledown was in the hands of the Scots, for the loss of eight Guardsmen and a Royal Engineer.

The 1/7 Gurkhas had been brought up from Goose Green by helicopter, leaving a company behind to Garrison the area. They were given the objective of capturing Mount William, to the east of Tumbledown, after the Scots Guards had taken that feature – attacking Mount William on its own while Tumbledown was still in Argentine hands would have been foolhardy. With the coming of dawn and with Tumbledown only just taken, it appeared that the Gurkhas would have to make a daylight attack on Mount William. However, the Gurkhas fierce reputation preceded them, and with the news of the fall of Wireless Ridge and Tumbledown filtering through, the Argentines on Mount William fled back into Stanley.

The British troops has fought brilliantly in the mountains, capturing every objective given to them, apart from Mount William – which could be seen as an opportunity for exploitation IF Tumbledown had been captured early. Although the Argentines still had considerable men available, and a variety of heavy weaponry, they were now bottled up into a narrow peninsula only a couple of square miles. With no air or naval support and with the thousands of conscripts completely demoralised, the Argentine Commander Menendez had run out of options. Although the Junta back in Argentine has ordered him to fight to the last man, white flags were already flying over Stanley.

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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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