Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990’s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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How to Make a Royal Marines Officer (1989)

I’ve found this rather interesting programme on BBC iplayer showing the training of a group of Royal Marines officer trainees undertaking the Commando Commissioning Course at Lympstone.

It’s quite interesting to note the training for officers compared to men – more focus on initiative, not so many extreme bollockings but the same physical and mental tests. As one of the staff mentions, the idea is that the young officers who if they are comissioned will be commanding a platoon of 30 blokes, many of them older, can stand in front of their men and provide a good example and not be embarrased. It’s always intriguing to see the NCO’s staff berating the ‘young gentlemen’, calling them all kinds of things, suffixed with a ‘sir’. But every green beret in the Royal Marines will have done the same training.

I’ve always found the psychological aspect of military training pretty interesting, as it can apply to other fields and professions. The skills of leadership in particular are fascinating – how do you pick out a leader at 18 or 19, from the thousands of applicants? It’s entirely possible that from those humble beginnings, one of them might end up as a Major-General commanding the Corps.

The lad from Barbados attempting the Commando Course during winter in particular seems to have had a pretty tough time!

Click here to watch (UK only)

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Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Land Forces

English: 2 para guarding POWs Port Stanley 1982

In 1982, the quality of British troops held out when the task force’s land troops came up against the Argentine Army. Much has changed since 1982, both in the British Army and the Argentine Army. Land Forces would play a pivotal part in any future battle for the Falklands, whether it be defending them, or attempting to retake them.

If the Falkland Islands were threatened, one would imagine that the first reaction of the British Government would be to reinforce the lone infantry Company at Mount Pleasant. This would probably involve flying in another infantry Battalion via Ascension, and some extra air defence in the form of Rapier and Starstreak of the Royal Artillery. An infantry Battalion is usually on standby as a spearhead Battalion to move anywhere in the world at short notice.

If, however, the islands were taken by Argentina, then larger land forces would be required to land and retake them. There are 9 Brigades available to the British Armed Forces for rapid deployment anywhere in the world:

There are also a number of other administrative Brigades, that are not geared up towards active deployment. These are the umbrellas for battalions and Regiments not earmarked for deployments, but which could in times of crisis be called upon. In such a manner in 1982, the Scots and Welsh Guards were deployed after finishing a stint of public duties in London, as they happened to be available.

As in 1982, we would probably be looking to the spearhead Brigades, ie 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigade to bear the brunt of any operations. Realistically, with the shipping available, the likely Argentine Garrison to be faced and the troops available, any mission to retake the Falklands would probably consist of two reinforced Brigades, with a similar level of supporting troops – artillery, engineers, etc – as was seen in 1982.

The fly in the ointment, at present, would be Afghanistan. Currently light infantry and mechanised Brigades serve 6 month stints in Afghanistan, meaning that Brigades such as 16 AA and 3 Cdo have spent up 6 months of every two years in Helmand. Prior to this, they are training up for the role, and afterwards building themselves up again. Of course, if it really came to it, troops arriving back from Afghanistan could be sent down south a week later, but this would hardly be ideal. In an ideal world, 16 AA and 3 Cdo Brigades would both be available. In the next best case scenario it would be 3 Cdo Brigade plus one of the light infantry Brigades, and the least satisactory scenario would be 16 AA plus a light infantry Brigade. 3 Cdo Brigade, of course, would be invaluable due to their amphibious role.

There can be few personnel in the British Army who have not served at least one tour of Afghanistan, and many have probably served more, as well as in Iraq and possibly in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia for some older sweats. The British soldier of 2012 is much more experienced and battle-hardened than many of his predecessors, and thanks to some early disasters in Iraq, personnel equipment seems to have seriously improved. In 1982, many troops went down with trench foot thanks to having inferior boots for cold weather. Most weapons systems have been updated – for example the SLR with the SA80, the Bren with the Minimi, and Milan with Javelin. A lot of the new vehicles that have been procured for use in Afghanistan to replace Land Rover are great for that theatre, but would be totally unsuitable to peat bogs in the Falklands. As in 1982, Scimitars and others of the CVR(T) family would be very handy.

Ideologically, the British Army is in a strange place compared to 1982. The last ten years have been spent largely fighting counter-insurgency wards against extremist islamic terrorists – firstly in Iraq, and then Afghanistan. To what extent could the Army go from fighting in the sand to fighting in chilly mountain ranges overnight? One suspects so, given the similarity between the Falklands and the Brecon Beacons, for one. Could it summon up the agression for a conventional war, after devoting much of its attention to ‘wars among the people’? I suspect that this wouldn’t be a problem – in 1982 the British Army was geared towards fighting the Russians in North West Europe, and also dealing with terrorists in Northern Ireland, which especially provided very good training for junior leaders. And unlike 1982, most British troops are not already commited to NATO.

The Argentine Army abolished conscription after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983. In 1982, the Argentine Garrison consisted of two strong Brigades, which consisted of 8 Regiments, the equivalent of a British Battalion. The Argentines also had many support troops, in terms of artillery, engineers and armoured cars. But as has often been written, in 1982 the Argentines had to keep their best troops in South America to guard against a possible Chilean attack. As a result, most of the troops deployed to the Falklands were inexperienced conscripts, and many were from warmer parts of the country, not suited to fighting in the cold and wet Falklands.

In 2012, the Argentine Army has 10 Brigades in total – two armoured, three mechanised, three mountain, one paratrooper and one jungle. In particular, a Rapid Deployment Forces is built around the Paratroop Brigade. The Argentine Marines consists of 4 Infantry Battalions with supporting troops. With the addition of dedicated Mountain Brigades, the Argentines could probably provide a better garrison for the Falklands than they did in 1982.Of course, what we do not know is how well trained their troops are – although the Argentine Army does seem to have benefited from increased international co-operation. In addition, friendly relations with the rest of South America means that Argentina would not have to leave units behind to guard her own frontiers.

But, as with the British Task Force, the Argentine’s real problem would be getting their troops to the islands in the first place. With one sole amphibious ship, and the tricky prospect of taking Mount Pleasant intact, they might have a bit of trouble actually getting them to the Falklands in the first place. But if a re-run of 1982 was to be experienced, but with modern forces, I would expect a British land force to edge it based on experience and training.

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Counter-insurgency by Ian Beckett and John Pimlott

In the past I have heard all kind of funny things said about counter-insurgency warfare. It’s not ‘real war’, or that it causes armies to ‘go soft’. Both of which are, in my opinion, horse shit. But I guess on the other hand it is also symptomatic that military historians have not really studied COIN as much as they should have. This is a very useful book, therefore. And it is extremely relevant, in that both of the authors have lectured at Sandhurst and other Defence institutions.

The British Army has perhaps the most experience of fighting counter-insurgency. Not only does the Army have a history of fighting small, foreign wars against populations and having to make do and improvise, but in the long drawn-out withdrawl from Empire British Forces were time and time again called in to provide a bulwark against unsavoury insurgents. This happened in Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Oman, and in numerous places in Africa. And not to mention Northern Ireland. And the British Army has an enviable record of success. One of the key lessons learnt from the insurgency in Malaya is the importance of uniting civilian and military leadership – in Malaya the land forces commander was also the Governor-General, not only providing unity in leadership but also eliminating a possible area for rifts. In Oman, every effort was made to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals, and to take care of economic and social factors so the insurgency did not seem a viable alternative.

The French Army, on the other hand, did not fare too well in Vietnam or Algeria. The author of this chapter even feels that at times the French Army studied COIN so much that some officers began to sympathise far too much with revolutionary ideals. Certainly, the French failure in Vietnam led to the debacle that the US waded into not long after. And failure in Algeria led to all manner of instability at home, including leading the Generals to machine for a change of Government.

It would be difficult to argue that the US Army has a good reputation when it comes to COIN. Clearly, the flexible, unconventional and tactful approach that it calls for does not lend itself well to forces based on overwhelming firepower and materiel. Listening to quotes from US Generals over Vietnam, you get the feeling that it was not the kind of war that they wanted to fight. Well, you’re lucky if you get to pick your wars, otherwise you fight the ones your masters want you to. And when you do, you should fight to win. Or at the very least, not lose. Lines of command were hopelessly complicated – one observer found it hard to work out who was actually running the Vietnam War, with so many headquarters and Departments involved.

In contrast, the Portuguese Army actually had a pretty good track record at dealing with COIN in countries such as Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. This is even more remarkable when we consider Portugal’s size, it’s economy, and the fact that its forces were routed in Goa not long before. Their success in fielding such forces in their colonial possessions and their subsequent success would suggest that size is not an issue in dealing with COIN. A military coup led to Portugal’s withdrawal from Empire in 1974, rather than any kind of military reverse.

It’s a similar picture with the Rhodesian Army, which fought a COIN campaign against the pre-cursors to Robert Mugabe in the African bush. As well as the Selou Scouts and forming a Rhodesian SAS, part of the Rhodesian’s tactics for countering the terrorists included erecting game fences and minefields along frontiers. The amount of haven states along Rhodesia’s borders, however, made things more problematic. Rhodesia might have become Zimbabwe eventally, but the Rhodesian security forces were by no means defeated, and in the opinion of the author could have continued the campaign indefinitely.

So, looking at these various COIN campaigns, do any lessons emerge? Firstly, that civil and military leaderships needs to be as one – either united, or merged. Officers need to forget about ideas of set piece battles and focus on the campaign at hand, and how to win it. The US General who said that he would not let Vietnam ‘destroy everything that the US Army stands for’ was ironically showing the kind of inflexibility that loses COIN campaigns in any case. And far from making security forces ‘go soft’, the flexibility and agility required in COIN campaigns can actually be very useful – witness the experience gained by the British Army in Northern Ireland, and how it engendered excellent leadership at junior NCO level.

Whether we like it or not, insurgencies are a fact of life in the modern world, and if we want to defeat them we would do better to work out how best to make their success impossible, rather than bemoaning that they do not fit into our fixed ideas of what war is, or should be.

This is a very credible book, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Counter-insurgency is published by Pen and Sword

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Thoughts on Bin Laden

So, the biggest influence in global politics and security over the past 15 years is no more. As most commentators have suggested, it doesn’t actually change that much in real terms. OBL has not in any real sense been commanding Al Qaeda for years, merely providing funds and support and franchising its activities out to other organisations. Osama was more of a figurehead, and he can probably  do that better dead than alive.

Serious questions have to be asked about Pakistan. For somebody as dangerous as OBL to be hiding deep in the country, within 1,000 yards of Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst? For two US Helicopters to enter Pakistani air space without being spotted? Let alone that he escaped detection for so long. Commentators have talked about the tightrope that Pakistan has to walk with regard to terror – meaning that although the Government wants to maintain law and order, many in Pakistan seem to have at least a lukewarm attitude to Islamic fundamentalism. It might be difficult to bring peace to the Afghan-Pakistan area all the time there are undercurrents of support there.

But the problems are not just in Pakistan – the world at large has dealt with Bin Laden inadequately ever since he first emerged onto the global scene. I can recall taking part in a model UN event for students in Geneva in 1998  just after Al Qaeda had bombed US Embassies in Kenya and Tanazania; as much as I tried, nobody was overly concerned with the threat, the regulation of the internet and female circumcision were bigger topics. Not to belittle those two issues, but history has borne me right on that one.

Al Qaeda’s message could well be increasingly redundant. Whereas OBL had presented violence as being the only option, the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the Arab and Islamic world that terrorism is not necessarily the only way. It’s probably not as simple a case as Islamic fundamentalism dying away forever; the movement is so amorphous and loose to apply any general trends. But the undermining of its message and the loss of its sprititual leader could be the end of the beginning.

I can’t help but feel that Terrorists – like many criminals – aren’t as much motivated by politics and rhetoric as we might think, and are merely interested creating in a bloodbath. The sheer hypocris of Bin Laden’s hatred for the US was almost comical. As much as he hated the presence of US troops in Saudi before, during and after the Gulf War, those very same US forces prevented the Islamic Holy Land from being over-run by Saddam, who was far from a devout Muslim. And as for Afghanistan and the Soviets, the US did much to defend that Islamic state too. But as an aside, it is also slightly sad to hear prominent US figures talking about terrorisim, when for years they did very little about the IRA. Not only that, in some quarters the IRA and Sinn Feinn were openly supported, while killing British citizens and servicemen. Records released from the National Archives recently suggest that none other than Senator Ted Kennedy blocked the sale of firearms to the RUC.

Ironically, I suspect that OBL’s death may cause the US more problems than it solves. Which bogeyman does the country unite against now? Where does US strategic policy head from here? A strategic vacuum can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to be. Withdrawing from Iraq, planning to withdraw from Afghanistan and with no appetite for an expeditionary foreign policy, we are probably looking at a new phase in American relations with the rest of the world. Hopefully aside from all the pantomime regarding Obama’s birth certificate Americans will realise that electing a President with brain cells is actually quite a good idea. The same critics would gladly elect the Austrian-born ex-Terminator in any case.

One thing I have enjoyed is seeing all the conspiracy theorists dining out on this one. Anything happens and the same old nutters crawl out of the woodwork. Here’s an idea guys, how about he was actually killed? There might be a very good reason they haven’t shown photos, namely that if he was shot in the head half of his face would be missing? And that the body was disposed of so quickly so as to not let it become a shrine? Even if they did release photos the same cranks would probably dispute that it was him, or even if they did hand over a body. And if some of the cassandras out there don’t realise, any photograph of a man shot in the head aren’t going to be pretty – bullets don’t make the nice neat little holes that some people seem to think. Any image of OBL with half of his face missing is bound to inflame tensions in some quarters. I agree with the Administration that the damage from releasing them outweighs any pros.

And while we’re on predictable responses to world events, can we stop talking about Afghanistan being a war for oil? There’s none there!

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Youtube Picks

Heres a few video’s I’ve seen recently, covering Rock in Helmand Province, another new Destroyer, a 1950’s american political advert, and some rock from an under-rated band.

Helmand Rock Concert

A rock concert? In Helmand?! yep, thats right… It’s got to be a sign that progress is being made in Afghanistan if events like this are allowed to take place. It’s called freedom. Somehow I think it’s something that the Taliban would not tolerate.

HMS Duncan launched

The last of the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers, HMS Duncan, was launched recently in Scotland.

I Like Ike‘ advert

I remember watching this advert while studying modern American history for A-level. I’m really not sure what it was about Ike exactly that US voters ‘liked’, but hey ho… I’m British!

Alter BridgeOpen your eyes

My Girlfriend’s made me rediscover this band. Mark Tremonti‘s a great guitarist, and a LOT better than you can hear here!

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