Tag Archives: Britain

Kirchner’s Argentina: externalising domestic tensions

Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, the President of Argentina, started the year in typical fashion by publishing an ‘open letter’ in the Guardian and the Independent, calling for negotiations over the status of the Falkland Islands.

In the letter Fernandez Kirchner argues that the islands were stripped from Argentina in an act of 19th Century colonialism:

“The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule. Since then, Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity.”

The letter ends: 

“In the name of the Argentine people, I reiterate our invitation for us to abide by the resolutions of the United Nations.”

The historical account put forward by Argentina differs starkly not only from the one on the Foreign Office website, but also general consensus. Ironically, Argentina itself was settled as an act of Nineteenth Century colonialism. It’s like asking the spanish-descended Argentinians to bugger off home, and leave the indigenous peoples in peace.

It is tempting to ask why the Guardian and the Independent published the ‘letter’. However, they are two of Britain’s more forward-thinking newspapers, and advertising income is advertising income, even if it comes from the Argentine Government.

If I was an Argentine citizen, I would be wondering how come my President could find not only the time to worry about publishing an ‘open letter’ in British newspapers, but also how the Argentine Treasury could afford to fund such a grandiose publicity stunt.

The British Government, quite rightly, points out that the Falklands is not a colony, and its relationship with the Falkland Islands is by choice of the islanders, not coercion. Therefore, not only is there nothing for the UK Government to negotiate over, but the islanders have a universal human right, enshrined in the very basic UN principles, to determine their own government and sovereignty.

The answer as to why the issue keeps re-appearing, as so often with latin american politics, lies within. Listed below are just a few of the news stories regarding Argentina from the BBC website in the past few months:

Widespread unrest and looting in Argentina; troops deployed

Seized Argentine Navy ship leaves Ghana

IMF data deadline looms for Argentine fagile economy

Argentina wins court delay over debt

Argentina default over debt likely

So… rioting on the streets and supermarkets being looted; Navy ship seized in a foreign port over unpaid debts; the IMF questioning Argentine honesty regarding financial data; and the possibility of a default over foreign debt… still wondering why Fernandez-Kirchner is trying to divert the attention of her people outside the country’s borders? It’s an ever-present in Argentine politics – when there are problems, the Malvinas issue is dragged out. It’s route one politics and not all that indistinguishable from Galtieri’s methodology in 1982.

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Falklands 30 – Pebble Island and Mikado: Special Forces in the Falklands

One intriguing element of the Falklands War is the use of Special Forces during the conflict. In some cases the SAS – and SBS – punched well above their weight. In other cases, they were misused and suffered significant losses. Due to their very nature, much of the story of the special forces in the Falklands is yet to – indeed may never – be told.

The SAS in particular was experiencing a high profile in 1982, shortly after the Iranian Embassy. Many of the men in the Regiment in 1982 had served in places such as Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. The SAS were among the first units into action, on South Georgia. On 21 April a troop was landed on Fortuna Glacier on the island, but had to be exfiltrated due to the blizzard conditions. Two Wessex Helicopters crashed attempting to lift them out. The third, from HMS Antrim, managed to take off, heavily overladed with SAS men and the crews of the other two crashed helicopters.

Although the Argentines had sunk HMS Sheffield with an Super Etendard-launched Exrocet misseile, it was knocwn that tchey possessed at least several more. Whilst EC arms embargos prevented Argentine procuring any ore from France, and secret service agents were outbidding the Argentines on the black market, the attention of military planners turned to neutralising the threat posed by the Etendard/Exocet combination. To lose one Destroyer was bad enough; but to lose an Aircraft Carrier might have meant the end of the war.

Operation Mikado was a plan to use the SAS to attack the Argentine’s Super Etendard bases at Tierra Fuego. On 17 May 1982 a Sea King of 846 Naval Air Squadron took off from HMS Invincible, which had steamed to within 500 miles of the Argentine mainland. The Sea King was carrying a recce party of B Squadron SAS, who were heading to scout the Super Etendard airbase at Rio Grande. It would be a one way trip for the Sea King – lacking the range to make it back to the task force, she was stripped down to the bare essentials. Landing west of the Chilean border, the aircraft was ditched in a lake. Even though the aircrew punched holes in her fuselage, she refused to sink. The aircrew were picked up in Chile and flown home.The SAS men believed that they had been spotted by the Chileans, and messaged their HQ in Hereford informing that the mission was being aborted. They had indeed been spotted, and 1,300 Argentine Marines sweeped the area searching for them.

This failure meant that the main party would have to go in blind. The fact that the recce party might have been compromised also meant that the Argentines might be suspicious and on alert. The Rio Grande area was believed to be defended by four Battalions of Argentine Marines. Despite this, the Squadron OC ordered the raid to go ahead. The operation had been rehearsed thoroughly for the past week.

The Mikado plan seems to have been strongly pushed for by Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, then director of British Special Forces. The plan called for two RAF C130 Hercules to fly from Ascension Island with 55 men of B Squadron SAS onboard. The Hercules would land on the tarmac of the runway, keeping their engines running while the SAS men destroyed the Etendards. If somehow the C130′s survived they men would re-board the aircraft and fly to neutral Chile. If not, then the survivors would have to cross the border on foot. The proposed plan was extremely sensitive, as it extended the war to the South American mainland – something that would not find favour among international opinion.

Tying up to Hercules transport aircraft meant that they would at best be interned in Chile for the duration, at worst be destroyed entirely. But perhaps worse than that, 55  expensively trained SAS troops – a significant proportion of Britain’s special forces – were being put in serious danger. Would the loss of these men and two aircraft have represented a good exchange for five Super Etendards?

One cannot help but feel that de la Billiere was taking his inspiration from raids on Axis airfields in North Africa. The situation in 1982 was quite different – the Argentines surely expected some kind of attack on their air bases. Perhaps DLB was inspired by Operation Entebbe, an Israeli operation to recover hostages on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. The Ugandan Forces in 1976 posed far less of a threat to the Israelis than the Argentines did to the SAS, both in terms of early warning and anti-air defences. The Argentine radar might give them a six minute warning of the incoming aircraft – ample time to throw up stout defences.

The SAS men – a lot more sensible and less bloodthirsty than popularculture would have us believe – do not seem to have liked the plan one bit, seeing it as a suicide mission. One Sergeant went as far as handing in his resignation. One RAF Pilot assigned to the mission is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The Squadron Commander agreed with the concept, but did not like the specifics of the plan that he was being pressured into implementing. The Squadron Commander was removed and replaced with the Regiment’s second in command. According to some accounts, De la Billiere made himself very unpopular in some quarters, as it was felt that he was trying to engineer a high-profile mission for the Regiment. After the war De la Billiere delivered a extremely ill-judged – some might say bad taste laden – speech to the SAS men, near enough accusing them of mutiny. He was laughed out of the room.

In hindsight, taking the war to the Argentine mainland in such a manner would have escalated the war, and not reflected well on the British effort to retake the islands. The Argentines were almost certainly on their guard against such an event, and it would be hard to believe that the slow, unarmed Hercules would be sitting ducks for the Argentine air defences. If they guarded Stanley airport with Roland and Tigercat missiles and radar-laid Rheinmetal cannon, what would they be guarding a mainland Super Etendard base with?

By contrast with Operation Mikado, the raid on Pebble Island was an outstanding success. Off West Falkland, Pebble Island hosted a small airfield with Pucara light attack aircraft and Mentor reconaissance craft. These aircraft were will within range of the chosen landing site at San Carlos, and could have compromised the amphibious task group on its way to the landings, and then launched attacks on the ships and troops at their most vulnerable point. According to Sandy Woodward’s memoirs, he was pondering the problem with his planning team when a ‘talking tree’ SAS officer chipped in, ‘I wonder if we might be able to help, Admiral?’. After convincing the SAS that they could not spend two weeks planning, the raid was set for the night of 14 and 15 May.

Boat Troop of D Squadron carried out prior reconaissance, via cockleshell-style Klepper canoes. On the night HMS Hermes sailed to off the north of West Falkland, accompanied by HMS Glamorgan. Sea King helicopters carried 45 members of D Squadron of the SAS, dropping them off just under four miles from the airfield. The raiding party were heavily armed, including mortars and anti-armour weapons. The party reached the airfield without being spotted, and managed to place explosive charges on all of the aircraft. Once the charges had been placed the SAS men opened fire with small arms, followed by gunfire support from HMS Glamorgan offshore.

The party were exfiltrated succesfully, with only one SAS man wounded. According to British sources the Argentine commander was killed – this is denied by the Argentines themselves – and 11 aircraft were destroyed. The raid was considered a complete success, with the objective neutralised and virtually no casualties suffered.

A further tragedy befell the SAS the night before the landings at San Carlos. Crossdecking between ships, a Sea King loaded with SAS men apparently struck a seabird in mid-flight. Of the 30 men on the aircraft, only eight got out alive. It was the largest loss of life for the Regiment since the Second World War. Many of the men lost were veterans of South Georgia and Pebble Island.

Other SAS patrols were out on the Falklands prior to the landings at San Carlos, carrying out the arguably less glamorous work of surveillance and survey work. Men ofthe SBS were on the landing beaches to guide the amphibious force in on D-Day. That the landings were succesful and unopposed was down very much to their work with the mark one human eyeball.

The profile and connections of the SAS do seem to have caused some problems for the force commanders on the ground. When more than one SAS Squadron deploys on an operation the CO accompanies them. In this instance he had direct satellite communication with Hereford and London, and hence was able to communicate with Britain quicker than any of his superiors. And in De la Billiere the SAS had a vociferous supporter who was not afraid to knock down doors in the interests of ‘his’ Regiment. Was Operation Mikado a political construction to aid the Regiment’s profile?

The experiences of special forces in the Falklands would suggest that there is much value in having highly trained, very capable special forces on call for unforseen eventualities. When tasked to do a job properly and given the resources to do it, the investment more than pays dividends. But, and this is a big but, they need to be properly used, and employed with care. As with most things military, it is about knowing your tools, and what jobs to use them for.

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Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

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I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990′s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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Argentina take Falklands issues to the UN

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The Argentines have been steadily ratcheting up the pressure on the Falklands for the past few years, and yesterday the Argentine Foreign Minister met with the Secretary General of the United Nations to air the South American country’s grievances.

I spent a fair bit of time studying the history of the United Nations some years ago, and took part in a few model United Nations debates. Therefore you could say I have a bit of an insight into how the organisation works. It is certainly not an idyllic, righteous organisation like it was intended to be. In reality, it is dominated by the large block of non-aligned countries who vote en-masse, and in particular ex-colonial countries who still have a chip on their shoulders about imperialism. Hence Britain often comes in for a bit of a bashing at the UN.

Lets look at the history of Britain and decolonialisation. Britain effectively gave up much of her Empire post-1945, and it has to be said, handled it much better than other decolonising countries, such as France, Belgium, Holland, and even Portugal. Yet somehow that fact seems to go un-noticed. Seeing the Falklands through the prism of colonialism is misleading, as the islands themselves never had any kind of population before British settlers arrived over two hundred years ago. At that point, Argentina did not even exist. Argentina itself is a nation of settlers – in the last Argentine census, only 1.6% of the population declared themselves to be descended from Amerindians. In that case, when are the other 98.4% going to be catching a flight home to Madrid?

To any observer with more than one brain cell, the Argentinians are shooting themselves in the foot by marching to the United Nations under the banner of colonialism. The United Nations is based on one fundamental tenet above all overs – that all human beings are born free and equal, and have the right to choose the kind of governance under which they live. Therefore, effectively Argentina wants to over-ride the fundamental principles of the United Nations, by annexing a country that is populated by citizens who wish to chose a different path for their destiny. 70 years ago, such policies drove Europe to war. The United Nations was founded to prevent war, yet by constantly listening to the Argentines morally and intellectually bankrupt histrionics, the UN is emboldening Fernandez Kirchner’s regime.

The Argentine Foreign Ministers claims about British escalation were also clearly untrue. We need to be very clear of the difference between nuclear POWERED submarines and nuclear ARMED submarines. South America is indeed a non-nuclear zone, a treaty to which Britain has long been a signatory. But think about it – Britain has four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines, which are armed with Trident nuclear missiles. These are to provide a nuclear deterrent against countries which might threaten a nuclear strike on Britain. Despite the end of the Cold War, this pretty much constitutes Russia. And perhaps China and some rogue states. Out of the four Vanguard class boats, usually one is ever on patrol under the waves. Why would Britain denude her nuclear deterrent by sending a sub to sit off Argentina? In any case, using nuclear missiles on a country like Argentina would hardly help Britain’s cause.

Now nuclear POWERED submarines are different – we have more of them, of the Astute and Trafalgar classes. But there is no limit on them going anywhere, as they only carry conventional torpedoes, and Tomahawk missiles. There is a distinct possibility that there is one in the South Atlantic, but that could have been the case at any point over the past 30 years since the Falklands War. The faint possibility that there might be one there now does not constitute an escalation. Neither does sending the new Type 45 Destroyer HMS Dauntless, nor sending Prince William on a tour of duty as a Search and Rescue Pilot. Both are completely routine deployments. In the case of Dauntless, the Type 45′s are replacing the Type 42′s which used to perform the South Atantic patrol task. Vastly improved, yes, but hey thats called progess and technology. And it seems to have escaped Buenos Aires attention that a Search and Rescue deployment is a humanitarian function – a yellow Sea King isn’t likely to start dropping depth charges.

Claims of a four fold increase in military assets are also laughable. The garrison of the Falklands has remained at the same levels for years – at sea a patrol vessel, a destroyer, perhaps an RFA and the ice patrol ship; on land a roulement infantry company and a Rapier detachment; and in the air four Typhoons, a VC10 and a Hercules, and the two Sea King SAR’s. Increasing that fourfold would give us the following:

  • Four Destroyers and Frigates – including a couple of Type 45′s
  • Probably another OPV
  • Couple more RFA’s – with that level of RN deployment, need tankers and supply ships
  • An Infantry Battalion – lets say, 2 Para?
  • Every Rapier launcher we can get
  • 2 Squadrons worth of Typhoons
  • More refuelling and transport aircraft
  • A few more helicopters for sundry tasks

Wow – that’s quite some force we have in the South Atlantic. Actually, if we had all of those assets in the Falklands like the Argentines are insinuating, they probably wouldn’t be able to take the islands. Ironic, eh?

I thought that the British ambassador at the UN did a very good job of rebutting these sensational but ludicrous claims. I, on the other hand, have been thinking about a career change for some time. I’m good at writing fiction – perhaps I could apply to become an Argentinian diplomat?

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The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom

This is a first for Daly History – a review of a book, by an author who I have actually met before reading the book! To tell the story, and go off on a bit of a tangent, Professor Groom lives in the same village on Dartmoor that my girlfriend originates from.*

I found this a really interesting study. The title is a pleasant surprise in that it is perhaps slightly misleading – it isn’t just a story of the flag itself, but of the union in a broader sense, and indeed, it is a story of national identity and culture, not just of Britain but of its constituent parts too. Groom examines pre-Union Jack symbols such as the three lions, and also phenomenon such as the patriotic song.  Not only is it a history of how the flag evolved – sure, we all know about how the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick were combined – this book also takes a stuidious look at how the flag has been interpreted as part of national culture. The Union Jack has been used by the mods, and in more recent times by the far right. And of course there are those garish union jack shorts, and Ginger Spices union jack dress of the 90′s. The interesting this is, that the flag itself, in a physical manner, has never attracted the same reverence as the Star Spangled Banner. Try lowering the american flag, in front of an audience of american tourists. If the Union Jack was to be dragged through the dirt none of us would be too offended, yet if Old Glory so much as brushes against the floor, that event has cataclysmic repurcussions!

For me, the most pertinent and salient point made within is that British identity is at a crossroads. Whilst Ireland has partly seceded from the union – leaving behind Ulster – Wales and Scotland have, in recent years, been showing increasing independence. Witness Alex Salmond’s contunual posturing. So where does that leave Britain? who knows. But more tellingly, where does it leave England? For as long as anyone can remember, English identity has become subsumed by that of Britain. Inevitably the dominant partner in the union in many ways, until recent years the identity of the English nation was relatively vacuous. English sports teams sang the British national anthem, and more often than not their fans carried the union jack instead of the cross of st george.

Perhaps that is changing, and since Euro 96 English football fans have recently embraced St George -  I can receall watching England at Euro 2004, in a Lisbon Estadio da Luz carpeted in white and red. English success in Cricket and Rugby has probably also helped matters. But what exactly IS english identity? What is it to be English? It is so true that English identity has not evolved in the same manner as the other British nations. We think of English culture, and we think of morris dancing, or quaint little customs that take place in random villages. England doesn’t have a national dress, or even its own national anthem. And with Scotland and Wales potentially going their own way, perhaps English culture has space to evolve and emerge in the coming years?

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It has received rave reviews since its publication, and one can see why. It sits at an interesting and all-embracing nexus between history, sociology, culture and politics.

*…And Nick is quite some hurdy-gurdy player too.

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Scotland, Subs and Royal Yachts

The Royal Yacht Britannia

A couple of interesting stories emerged today in naval circles.

Firstly, the Mail in Scotland yesterday reported that the Ministry of Defence was considering contingency plans to re-locate submarines and ships based at Faslane in Scotland, in the event of an independence referendum voting in favour of severing ties with the rest of Britain. Currently, Faslane hosts the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile Submarines, HMS Astute, and eight Sandown Class MCMV’s of the 1st MCM Squadron. Faslane is also due to be the base port for the rest of the Astute Class as they come in to service.

Devonport has the sole nuclear refuelling and repair facility for submarines in Britain, including a dock specially built to fit the Vanguard Class, so it would make sense to base at least some of the submarines there. Given that Plymouth is more remote than Portsmouth, it might make sense to base the Vanguards there, and the Astutes at Portsmouth. The Sandown Class Minehunters would fit in well at Portsmouth, given that the Hunt Class are already based there. Or, perhaps, Plymouth could become more of a Submarine base, taking Vanguards and Astutes and transferring surface ships to Portsmouth in their stead. The fly in the ointment would be the Trident missile facility at Coulport on the Clyde – not something you could move in a hurry.

Secondly, Education Secretary Michael Gove has egg on his face after suggesting that perhaps the Government could purchase a new Royal Yacht for the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee this year. The last Royal Yacht, HMY Britannia, was retired in 1997 as a cost-cutting measure. As wonderful as she was, the concept of a Royal Yacht belongs in the twentieth century. The figure being quoted for building a replacement is £60m, which seems conservative for me – that was the figure quoted in 1997, and with inflation, it must be well over twice that now. At a time when the Royal Navy is losing ships hand over fist, is it a great idea to commit it to running a Royal Yacht? Not only do we need to consider the build costs, but the fitting out, the manning, the basing, the maintenance, the running costs… can we really afford it? I doubt it. I’m a keen supporter of traditions and heritage, but only where it makes sense on an operational and economic level.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Royal Marines

Having visited the Royal Marines Museum the other day to take a look at their ‘More than a Name’ exhbition, I thought I would follow it up by taking a look at what I have learnt about Portsmouth‘s Royal Marines of WW1.

The names of Royal Marines from Portsmouth who died between 1914 and 1921 are included in the Royal Navy panels on Portsmouth’s WW1 Cenotaph in Guildhall Square. So far I have processed and researched all of the Navy names from A up to M, so just over halfway and probably enough to start drawing some conclusions.

So far, 161 men from Portsmouth died serving with the various units of the Corps of Royal Marines in the Great War. 72 were Royal Marine Light Infantry, 68 were Royal Marine Artillery, 14 were Royal Marine Bandsmen, and 1 was a Royal Marine Engineer. 1 served in the RM Canteen Service, and one was an officer of as yet unknown origin.

As in WW2, most Marines were killed on sea service in ships. 12 Marines were killed in HMS Good Hope on 1 November 1914, 9 in HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914, and a total of 30 at Jutland on 31 May 1916, in Black Prince, Invincible, Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Defence.

9 were killed serving with the Royal Marine Howitzer Brigade on the Western Front, and 16 were killed serving with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division (8 in France, 5 at Gallipoli, 2 in Britain, 1 in Belgium and 1 in Greece). One man, Private William Elliot of the RMLI, was killed serving in Northern Russia on 27 August 1919, during the Russian Civil War.

Thanks to the National Archives, we have information available for when Royal Marines enlisted in the Corps. And the findings are striking. Out of the 144 who we have enlistment dates for, only 18 joined up after the start of the war. In fact, 61 had enlisted when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. This suggests that the Royal Marine of 1914-18 was an older, experienced man, and that the Corps did not actually expand that much in wartime. Much as with the Royal Navy, its role in peace was almost as demanding as it was in war. Of course, the Corps had its own emergency manpower to fall back on, in the form of the Royal Marines Reserve. 12 RMR men were killed in action.

Out of those 18 who joined up post August 1914, four of them were killed serving with the Royal Naval Division. This would suggest that the RN Division was composed of a higher proportion of hostilities only men than ships detachments. As we might expect, a large proportion of Royal Marines were living in Southsea and Eastney, near to the Royal Marine Barracks. Of the 97 that we have age statistics for, 44 were aged 30 or over – the oldest at 51!

So whilst the British Army of 1914-18 was very much a wartime creation – particularly from 1915 onwards – the Royal Marines, and to an extent the Royal Navy by definition – were still very much a product of Victorian Society.

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23 Things they dont tell you about Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang

Ok, so this is a bit of a departure from my usual reading of a military history bent. And equally, I tend to steer clear of politics, not wanting to alienate anyone – or myself for that matter – due merely to party politics. But my brother bought me this book for Christmas as a leftfield wildcard kind of gift, and I have found reading it to be a revelation.

Since the 1980′s, and in particular the conservative economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher, free market economic policy has been an orthodoxy, not quite globally but certainly in the North Atlantic area. The philosophy is that the less you interfere and meddle in the economy, the more everything will turn out better for everyone, and income will trickly down and we will all live happily ever after.

Chang is also quite pertinent in question the manner in which the United States is always, without fail, held up as the poster boy of economic success. I cannot help but think that this is down to the historical legacy of the ‘american dream’, and a pinch of american narrow-mindedness. Whilst the US does have a strong economy, a high proportion of its wealth is distributed at the very top of its earning spectrum, whereas other countries, such as Sweden, might not have so many billionaires, but they have fewer of their citizens living in abject poverty. It all depends on exactly HOW we measure economic prosperity.

Essentially, I think Chang presents a stern critique of free-market capitalism, whilst defending capitalism itself as a broader concept. I can understand where he is coming from. I come from working class roots, and I would have to say I lean firmly to the left when it comes to equality and social justice in society, but at the same time I believe it is important to have an independent, ‘can-do’ spirit. The problem with free-market ideology, as I see it, is that when you remove all rules, the lowest common denominator wins out – ie, in crude terms, shit floats to the top. Hence the rise of the yuppy.

I was also much taken by Chang’s assertion that the Post Industrial Era is a myth. Why? Well, much of the world is still producing, ie, manufacturing. There IS still money to be made from making things, it is just that some countries chose to abandon their manufacturing industries and move towards service based economies. The Post-Industrial tag seems to be an attempt to justify the abandonment of production, if nothing else. Not that service based industries have really worked out very well for Britain anyway.

Another aspect that Chang examines very succinctly is that of the welfare state. Many argue, mostly in the US, that a bloated welfare state not only costs the country money, but encourages the lower classes to be lazy, knowing that they do not have to work too hard to survive. Yet it could be argued – Chang does, and I tend to agree – that having a welfare state means that employees are able to take more risks, knowing that if things do not work out or if their employer goes bust, they will not be on the breadlines. This is the case in most European states, whereas in the US, employees could be excused for playing it safe and protecting their jobs, as losing ones job means losing everything, due to a virtual non-existance of any kind of welfare support. This means effectively that you only get one decent shot at a career, or a business – which is hardly conducive to innovation and risk taking!

Chang’s final point is that whilst we have learnt the lessons of the 2008 crash, the credit crunch, we have yet to reform the financial industries to take into account these lessons. The credit crunch showed that free market ideology leads to irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, but the banks and stock markets have been unaffected since their disastrous actions. Why? well, one suspects that bankers and stockbrokers have enough influence to protect their interests politically, but it also shows the extent to which free market-ism is taken as a given in modern society. Perhaps it is down to the false notion that western capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War over eastern communism, and therfore must surely be superior?

In conclusion, I don’t think we can exclude politics from anything  that we discuss, in terms of history or military affairs. After all, who makes the decisions and shapes the policy? And for that matter, don’t economic forces drive defence procurement?

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Petty Officer Percy Kempster DSM

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Having been researching twelve australian great war soldiers who lie in Portsmouth, little did I expect to come across a Portsmouth-based naval rating who died whilst serving with the Royal Australian Navy.

Percy John Kempster was born in Southampton, on 24 October 1883. Kempster initially joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16, in 1899. In late 1907 Percy married his wife Beatrice, in Portsmouth. After completing his service with the Royal Navy – including service on submarines at HMS Dolphin – Kempster joined the Royal Australian Navy on 24 October 1913, for an initial period of 5 years. Upon joining the RAN he was immediately promoted to Leading Seaman, and passed for eventual promotion to Petty Officer in due course.

It seems that Kempster’s main task upon joining the RAN was to form part of the crew delivering Australia’s first submarines. HM Submarines AE1 and AE2 were built at Vickers, and accepted by the Australian Navy at Portsmouth in February 1914. They finally left Portsmouth on 2 March 1914, escorted by the Light Cruiser HMS Eclipse. They finally arrived in Sydney Harbour on 24 May 1914, an epic voyage on such small, cramped vessels. After his arrival in Australia Kempster came under the command of HMAS Penguin, an ex Royal Navy sloop being used as a Submarine Depot ship.

Whilst Kempster was in Australia the First World War began. Obviously unhappy at being thousands of miles away from the action, after completing such an epic voyage Kempster returned to Britain. How exactly is unclear, but on 1 January 1915 he came back under the command of the RAN’s London Depot, serving in Royal Navy submarines. British and colonial personnel often interchanged on postings. Hence it is not a surprise that Kempster fought in the Royal Navy, even though he was technically an Australian rating.

On 20 January 1916 Percy Kempster was promoted to Petty Officer, and on 10 August 1917 he was appointed a Submarine Coxon – a key job on such small and demanding vessels. For service on HM Submarine G8 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, announced in the London Gazette on 2 November 1917, for ‘services in action with enemy submarines’. Early submarines were much smaller than their modern equivalents – the G Class only having a crew of 31 men.

Sadly, Kempster did not survive the end of the war. On 14 January 1918 HM Submarine G8 was lost in the North Sea. The exact cause of her loss remains unknown. Petty Officer Percy Kempster is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial. He was 34. At the time of his death his unit was given as HMS Lucia, a Royal Navy submarine ship. His wife Beatrice was living at 180 Fratton Road in Portsmouth.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The political dimension

Before we embark on a look at whether a Falklands War could be fought in 2012, I want to add the caveat that here, we are not merely attempting to fight the last war. The Falklands is just a convenient yardstick for judging a fundamental responsibility of Government, our national ability to defend ourselves and our interests. It is, unless the French invade the Channel Islands any time soon, probably the only case in which Britain might have to act unilateraly on the world stage. What we are doing is assessing change over time, comparing 1982 to 2012. In many ways the world has moved on since 1982, so it would inevitably be a very different conflict, much the same as there is hardly likely to be another Battle of Britain any time in the forseeable future.

Any operation at such a distance is inevitably going to be a joint, ‘purple’ operation. In our discussions, I don’t want us to become too centric on any particular Arm or asset. I have no time for single-service narrowmindedness; at some point people need to grow up and consign the spectre of services attempting to out-maneouvre each other to the history books. When armed forces squabble there is only ever one winner – the Treasury.

One aspect that I neglected in my 2009 review, was that of politics – both domestic, regional and international. As Clauszwitz said, war is the pursuit of politics through other means, and this is particularly true of international crises that require military intervention. Very rarely in history have wars been fought for wars sake alone; invariably they are motivated by some kind of politics. Witness the 1982 invasion by Argentina. As this broad spectrum of politics would determine if, when and how a war might be fought, and its potential outcome, it seems only sensible to consider these important factors.

Buenos Aries

In 1982 Argentina was ruled by a military junta. Fighting a brutal internal war and locked in territorial disputes with neighbours, the Malvinas provided a suitable release valve for serious internal problems. Ostensibly, much has changed since then. But has it? Argentina is led by a person whose chief virtue is that they are the widow of the last President (Democracy, love it). Not only that, but Christina Fernandez-Kirchner has developed a reputation not only for tasteless flirting at international summits, but also  coming out with some inflamatory remarks in recent years. Althought it is tempting to think that whilst Argentina is a democracy military action is unlikely, this underestimates the importance of the Malvinas issue to the Argentine psyche – it has the ability to reduce perfectly sane people into a blithering mess. With the global economy in the situation that it is, and with the potential for social and economic unrest, the Malvina’s option is never going to be completely off  the table for Buenos Aires.

South America

In 1982 Argentina was pretty much isolated, as military dictatorships invariably tend to be. Locked in territorial disputes with neighbours, she had to retain most of her best troops to stave off a threat from Chile. In 2o12, the scene is quiet different. As a democracy Argentina is very much in from the cold, and recent years have seen something of a South American love in, with characters such as Lula and Chavez supporting Fernandez-Kirchner’s rantings. Whilst much of this is motivated by the popularity of anti-imperialist rhetoric, there have been several cases of latin american countries denying British ships access to facilities, ostensibly at the behest of Buenos Aires. This regional support would extremely unlikely to deter Argentina.

Yet, if Argentina were to unexpectedly invade the Falklands, as an agressive act without provocation, we might see support from South American countries fall away. Britain has defence links with Brazil, and whilst Chile and Argentina are getting on a lot better nowadays, again, Britain has strong links with Chile. The Argentines and Uruguayans also have underlying issues. Thus, whilst Argentina might not be as isolated as she was in 1982, an invasion would not win her any allies.

London

The current Government clearly believes that there is no threat in the South Atlantic. When posed questions in Parliament about the possiblity of another Falklands War, the Prime Minister simply replied, in a naive Rumsfeldian manner, that as Argentina is a democracy this would be unthinkable.

Putting aside the economic reasoning, the SDSR was, effectively, a 1920′s style 10 year gamble on the part of the Government. That for at least the next ten years, Britain would not have to act on her own militarily, without the aid of allies. Whilst in some respects that is true –  invariably Britain acts as part of an alliance, whether it be EU, NATO or otherwise – all the time Britain has interests around the globe, you can never quite discount the need to intervene on your own. Whilst the British Empire is no more – indeed, empires have had their day - there are still Brits around the globe who want to be British, and who deserve our protection. The problem is, that defence cuts rarely deter threats. Quite the opposite.

Crises rarely tap you on the shoulder to give you fair warning just before they explode. Even when they do, you cannot always rely on your Foreign Office to deal with them properly (ahem, Carrington). That is exactly what I am trying to get across here- in an uncertain world, the only certain thing is that you can expect the unexpected. Who foresaw the Arab Spring, and Lybia in particular? No one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And what about the first Gulf War? The moral is very much that you cannot plan for international crises, but you can at least try to put yourself in a position to respond to most scenarios as best you can.

Any Government faced with an invasion of British territory – or any other gross affront to British interests – would be hard pressed to survive. The British public might not be quite the flag waving rabble of Charles and Di’s wedding, but I doubt very much whether any administration surrendering the Falklands would survive. Given the support for the armed forces in recent years, any pictures of  being made to lie prostate on the ground would provoke outrage. In 1982 Thatcher was able to turn things around by hook and crook, but whether that would be possible in 2012 is another matter.

Port Stanley

In 1982 the issue was very clear - the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were British, and wanted to remain British. In that sense, Britain was acting to defend their rights of self-determination, to live under the sovereignty of their choosing. Virtually all of the Falkland Islanders are of British descent, and whilst there are allegations of Imperialism, in many cases Falklands families have been living there longer than Spanish-descended Argentines have been living in South America. Any Government abandoning the Falkland Islanders to Argentina against their will could expect to be relegated to the opposition benches pretty sharpish, particularly given the place that the Falklands holds in British culture after 1982.

The issue of citizenship, sovereignty and self-determination still remains, yet since 2009 a huge new issue has arisen – that of black gold. Huge fossil fuel reserves have been discovered in the South Atlantic off the Falkland Islands, and ownership of the territorial waters brings with it the right to explore for gas and oil. It might be a coincidence, but Argentine bluff and bluster since the discovery has increased considerably.

Lucrative natural resources have had the ability to cause war more than any other factor in the past 25 or so years. And with the global economy in the doldrums, any means of making money is going to be sought after. Any businesses looking to drill for oil in the South Atlantic will exert considerable lobbying pressure on the UK Government, and indeed on other Governments. The Government might also be more inclined to act to support oil companies, more than it would for a few thousands kelpers. The same goes for fishing rights, albeit on not such a money-spinning level.

United Nations and global opinion

The policy of the United Nations – Security Council and General Assembly – has been unequivocal in its policy on the Falklands – Britain and Argentina should resume negotiations towards a peaceful settlement. Quite how these negotations should come about, what should be negotiated and what a peaceful settlement would comprise, has never been elaborated. Thus the UN, sadly as usual, is as intransigent as it could possibly be.

Any un-mitigated invasion of the Falklands would no doubt be brought before the Security Council. Of the 5 permanent members, the UK would of course vote for action, the US and France would probably be swayed towards the British cause, however China may prove more difficult. And with the current frosty state of relations between Britain and Russia, help from that direction can probably be discounted. The chance of any resolution going through without a veto from one of the permanent 5 members seems unlikely. When we consider the rest of the membership, it is also unlikely that all of them would vote for Britain – anti-colonialism is hot political currency these days, and the non-aligned movement has gained influence in the past few years.

As a key member of the EU and NATO, Britain could in theory call on support from these quarters. However, as in 1982, I would find it hard to believe that France would lend us Charles de Gaulle, or that the US would provide AWACS for us. The best we could probably hope for is sanctions to be placed on Argentina, covert assistance with supplies and basing, and help in covering for our standing patrols, such as in the Gulf or off the horn of Africa, in order to free up slack for a Task Force. We might find ourselves in need of more Tomahawks at some point, in which case we would have to go cap in hand to the US.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations

The British Grand Fleet steaming in parallel c...

The Grand Fleet of WW1 (Image via Wikipedia)

Having completed the entry of Portsmouth Soldiers who were killed between 1914 and 1921, for the past few months I have begun entering the names of sailors from Portsmouth who were killed in the Great War. Having processed some 414 sailors and 82 Royal Marines, I have a pretty decent sample to make some interesting observations.

Thanks to the way that WW1 Naval service records are available online, we can see the exact date of birth and place of birth for virtually ever 1914-18 sailor. And the findings are striking. A very large percentage of Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Great War were actually born here. I would have presumed that many more would have been born elsewhere but moved to Portsmouth in service. I wonder how many of them were second or even third generation sailors? It seems that the Navy did not actually expand significantly, in terms of manpower, between when most of these men were born in the late Victorian period and 1914. Certainly not as much as the Army expanded, in any case.

Of those who did come from elsewhere, most of them came from nearby maritime counties, such as Sussex or Dorset. A sizeable amount came from London, which also had a seafaring tradition. Others came from virtually every county in Britain, including some from Ireland, Scotland, and even two from Malta. One great surprise is the sizeable amount who came from the Channel Island – a place with a very small population, but obviously a great many young men familiar with the sea.

As with my similar research into WW2, it seems that most Pompey sailors were pre-war regulars, and often Leading Rates, Petty Officers or Warrant Officers. Long-serving sailors were clearly more likely to settle here, and most of them seem to have lived in areas close to the naval base, such as Landport, Buckland and Portsea. About 90% of CWGC entries for WW1 sailors include house numbers and street names, which gives great potential for some geo-mapping exercises. Oddly enough very few naval officers seem to have settled in Portsmouth – perhaps it was not quite fashionable.

Relatively few sailors in WW1 seem to have won medals compared to their counterparts in WW2. One exception seems to have been the submarine service, in which a number of Pompey sailors were involved. Several were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, at a time when submarines were very much in their infancy, and a very hazardous way of going to war.

The Navy did not actually expand that much during WW1. Obviously the only way you would really need to expand naval manpower massively is if you had new ships to crew, but in 1914 the Royal Navy was already easiest the largest in the world. The only ‘expansion’ involved the re-activation of some Reserve Fleet ships. One of these was HMS Good Hope, which was crewed almost exclusively by re-called reservists. In fact, when war was declared the Royal Navy received too many volunteers, and formed a Royal Naval Division for service on land. Several Portsmouth men were killed with the RN Division, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Most sailors were killed in the large set piece battles, such as at Jutland or the Coronel. At Jutland HMS Invincible, Princess Royal and Black Prince were lost, and HMS Good Hope at the Coronel. A number of other ships were sunk by accidental explosions, such as HMS Bulwark and HMS Natal.

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Portsmouth News launches ‘Hands off our Navy’ campaign

The Portsmouth News has launched its ‘Hands of our Navy’ campaign, highlighting the danger of cutting the Royal Navy in the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review. The paper us running a series of articles highlighting the role of the Navy, and are planning to deliver an open letter to 10 Downing Street soon.

Here are the News’s ten reasons for the need to save the Royal Navy from deep cuts, in no particular order:

Protecting trade: Most of the oil used by the UK arrives by sea and 92 per cent of global trade passes through just nine narrow ‘choke points’ where it is especially easy for a nation, pirates or even a terrorist group to attack shipping. Global maritime trade relies on the free and lawful use of the sea. Warships protect the ships that carry the food you eat, the things you buy and the fuel you need. We need a strong Royal Navy to protect our way of life.

Helping in the fight against terrorists and piracy: The Royal Navy is part of the complex array of forces trying to combat global terrorism. Whether contributing personnel, and aircraft to Afghanistan, or conducting maritime search of suspect vessels, the navy helps police the seas and disrupt terrorist operations. The navy needs more ships, not less, to patrol areas used by terrorist traffic and dominated by the threat of piracy.

The Royal Navy deterrent: The presence of a warship can send a powerful message of deterrence without a shot being fired. When the Royal Navy turned up in Sierra Leone in 2000 to help UN forces deal with a bloody civil war, a ceasefire was called. This was no coincidence. The Royal Navy’s impact is as powerful today as it ever has.
The last time a government considered deep navy cuts, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Cutting the navy sends a message of weakness to the world.

Preserving Britain’s global political role: Royal Navy ships are a key component in projecting Britain’s influence. Visiting navy vessels promote relationships with friendly and neutral nations around the world. The size and ability of the navy is a significant factor in how much influence we have over global politics and, in particular, the actions of the United States. A smaller fleet equals a smaller role in the world.

Disrupting the flow of illegal drugs: The Royal Navy regularly patrols in the Caribbean region and has made seizures of millions of pounds worth of drugs grown in South America intended for Europe. The navy has also seized drugs from suspect vessels across the world’s oceans. Money from the sale of drugs is a source of funds for terrorism and criminal empires. We must not give in to drug lords by downsizing the navy.

Supplying humanitarian aid and helping with disaster relief around the world: Every year, Royal Navy warships are involved in providing aid, comfort and relief of nations that have suffered natural disasters. In the Caribbean where islands are regularly devastated, navy ships have often been the first on the scene providing help to the local authorities. It would be criminal if Britain could no longer provide immediate support to help people in their hour of need.

Training and employing people: The Royal Navy directly employs approximately 35,000 people and is key in securing the jobs of thousands of more people who support the navy. Ex-forces personnel are generally a valuable labour resource for the economy. A lack of investment in the service is leading to a vicious circle as experienced people resign, tired of too much time away from home serving on under-manned ships. A further reduction in the number of sailors could harm Britain’s future as a maritime nation.

Supporting manufacturing, industry, research and science: Designing, building and maintaining the vessels and equipment needed by the Royal Navy employs thousands of people in the UK and helps maintain cutting edge industrial skills of benefit to the economy as a whole. The nation would be poorer without shipbuilding.

Protecting UK waters and the fish stocks: Fish are an important part of our diet and the fishing industry is a mainstay of many small ports around UK. Protecting fish stocks from over-fishing, preventing plunder by foreign vessels and enforcing fish quotas and regulations is actually the oldest task performed by the Royal Navy. We need to protect UK waters.

Search and rescue: Royal Navy aircraft are on standby to perform rescue missions around the UK 24 hours a day. Many Royal Navy aircrew have received bravery awards. Many mariners, climbers and holidaymakers owe their lives to the Royal Navy.

Its hard to argue with any of those. The only thing is, I’m really not sure whether strategy comes into it, I’m beginning to think that these cuts will be a case of the Tresury-axe falling, and then picking up the pieces afterwards. Of course, in a sensible world, we would look at what we do and how much it costs. Then, we would look at what we do that we can afford to not do, and what we can afford to scale back with. Then of course you identify the ‘alamo’ tasks which we absolutely MUST do. But then, isn’t defence the alomo of all governments?

I applaud any efforts to highlight British defence, especially in an area where many of us are ‘seablind’. The only problem is, that Defence nowadays is exactly that – joined up Defence, and not just any single service. Any debates need to take account of the fact that there are three services, and it is no good lobbying fiercely for one and making no comments about the other services at all. If one service escapes cuts, the others might pay – and that might not be so good for the bigger picture.

As I have already highlighted, the SDSR is clearly a structure-less, Treasury-led review, looking for cuts and to hell with the Defence and Security aspects. I’m not sure what good the lobbying will do, with a Government that is so keen to find cuts and is showing itself to be very inept when it comes to Defence.

All the same, ANY debate about defence has to be a good thing – for too long Defence has been a non-issue in politics and society at large. Think Defence, Save the Royal Navy, The Phoenix Think Tank and The UK National Defence Association all do sterling work to stimulate debate. I just wish that the passion that people have for showing thanks for our servicemen and for raising money for them would transmit over to the bigger issues too.

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts revisited

British Royal Marines in the Falkland Islands ...

An image we ever want to see again? (Image via Wikipedia)

The parallels with 1982 are all to worrying. An aggressively-sounding Government in Buenos Aries (even though technically Democratic), a newly elected but unpopular Conservative Government seeking to slash public expenditure, and economic problems in both countries.

In 1982 the Secretary of State for Defence had just implemented a Defence Review the previous year. It was conducted in the context of economic problems, a Thatcher-led desire to slash budgets, and a Soviet build-up during the era of ‘reaganomics’. Nott’s solution was to concentrate almost solely on Britain’s role in NATO. The purchase of Trident was confirmed. The British Army of the Rhine, although the centrepiece of British defence within NATO, was to be limited to 55,000 men. The Royal Navy was to lose one fifth of its 60 Destroyers and Frigates. Aircraft Carriers were to be phased out, with the sale of HMS Hermes and the newly-built ‘through deck cruiserHMS Invincible. Amphibious ships were to be scrapped too, meaning the end of HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless. Essentially, the Navy was to become an anti-submarine force to operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. The ability to act independently out of the NATO area was effectively being given up. And amongst other things, the Royal Navy Dockyards were to be drastically wound down and privatised, meaning thousands of redundancies. One of the lesser-known items in the review was the withdrawal of the antartic patrol ship, HMS Endurance.

These proposals were underway when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The kind of crisis that the Nott review hard ruled out had happened. Reportedly MOD Civil Servants were most upset that the Falklands War had scuppered their beautiful review. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, obtained permission from Margaret Thatcher to assemble a Task Force, apparently John Nott went as white as a sheet. He knew that his career was finished. Somehow I cant help feeling that for a lot of people their careers were more important than the fate of British Citizens in the South Atlantic, and the fate of the men sent to fight for them.

The upshot of the Falklands War was that almost everything that had been offered up as savings was rescued at the eleventh hour. Hermes was sold, but the three Invincible Class Carriers -as we are allowed to call them now – were retained. Fearless and Intrepid were reprieved, and replaced with HMS Albion and Bulwark recently. HMS Ocean has also added to the Royal Navy’s expeditionary capability. Endurance was also reprieved, and replaced in the early 1990′s with a modern vessel. The Destroyer and Frigate fleet was pegged – in the short term – at 55 ships.

The cost of the Falklands War – financial, human, and material – has been far in excess of the relatively meagre savings sought by Nott. The hundreds of lives lost in 1982. The ships sunk, aircraft lost, ammunition expended. The cost of a sizeable garrison, and building a military base at Mount Pleasant. The Falklands Island has had a patrol ship,  a Frigate or Destroyer on guard, and auxiliary vessels since the war. The running cost – to this day, and still rising - must be incredible. All inspired to save a few quid. Evidence, if any is needed, that Defence cuts can be shortsighted and a false economy. Argentinian sources suggest that the decision to invade, although largely spurred on by domestic unrest, was further emboldened by the Nott cuts. The Junta’s reasoning was that if the British were cutting their forces – and the ice patrol ship in particular – not only would they be unable to respond to an invasion, but they obviously did not care about their overseas posessions enough to defend them in the first place.

Fortunately, British resolve was restored by the war. Although it is tragic that in the modern world we even need to resort to force, had Britain capitulated in 1982 we would, in Henry Leach’s words, have been living in a very different country were words counted for little. Britain’s role as a force on the world state was maintained, a brutal military dictatorship fell, and the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact received a timely reminder of the quality of NATO standard troops. But all by the skin of our teeth, and if Nott’s cuts had been fully implemented, we would have not been able to act.

Whilst Mrs Thatcher received plaudits for her handling of the Falklands War, more searching inquiries suggest that the war needn’t have happened in the first place. If only the Foreign Office under Lord Carrington had not been so clueless, the Defence Secretary not so subservient, and if Thatcher had not been so single minded and ideological in wishing to strip public spending. Worryingly, the upcoming Defence Review may once again remove Britain’s ability to react adequately to any crisis in the world, particularly in the South Atlantic. This cannot have been lost on the Argentinians. Do we really trust David Cameron and ‘Boy’ George Osborne to sort things out for us if their cuts go badly wrong?

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Plan for Britain and France to ‘share’ Carriers

FS CdG11

FS Charles De Gaulle (Image via Wikipedia)

Rumours regarding defence cuts have reached a new level of lunacy, with reports that the Government is considering talks with France to share aircraft carriers.

The plan would see the two countries co-ordinate refit cycles, so that at least one aircraft carrier would always be at sea. In effect, what we would see is an Anglo-French task group. Which is all very well in theory when both countries are agreed on action, but what if – say, like with Iraq – there is disagreement about intervening? The UK would be powerless to contribute an aircraft carrier if Queen Elizabeth happened to be in refit.

Take, for example, the Falklands. If Argentina were to invade again, any task force to reclaim the islands would need air cover – which means an Aircraft Carrier. But imagine if Queen Elizabeth is in refit, are the French going to let us ‘borrow’ Charles De Gaulle? Very unlikely, in my opinion. In effect, this would mean a French veto on UK foreign and defence policy.

Even IF the plan could be made to work, it is unlikely to be very popular with either country, particularly the British and French sailors. There is nothing wrong with inter-state co-ordination (take, for example, the Anglo-Dutch Amphibious Group, a model joint poject), but it only works if the constituent parties are willing to work closely together and can rely on each other. Would a British Task Force get the same effective cover from Rafale’s flown from De Gaulle as it would from a Queen Elizabeth class with F-35′s? I doubt it. In any case, the CDG has been riddled with technical problems throughout her service life – a French former President even referred to her as ‘half an aircraft carrier’. The consensus seems to be that she is neither reliable nor effective.

Politically the French are unreliable. Long term enemies of Britain, the twentieth century may have seen France become an ally, but it has none the less been an uneasy entente cordiale. There is still animosity over Britain’s withdrawl from Dunkirk (I don’t know quite what else they expected us to do) and the destruction of the French Fleet in 1940 (again, what else could we have done?). De Gaulle made for a very uneasy bedfellow during the war (somehow managing to gain a status as a French hero without actually doing anything), and his withdrawal of France from NATO could have had disastrous results if the Warsaw Pact had rolled across the Iron Curtain. French Foreign policy – and Defence policy- is invariably governed by what is good for France, and not much more.

I’m not against co-operation, far from it. But it has to make sense and be workable. I did read a suggestion in a well-known warship magazine for closer co-operation amongst Commonwealth navies, which is something that would make a lot of sense. Not only do countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a head of state, but they also share much culturally, politically and linguistically. Such countries almost always find themselves co-operating in coalitions, alliances and operations. The only fly in the ointment might be public opinion in countries which are keen to assert their independence of the ‘mother country’.

Make no mistake about it, this is an accountant driven plan. It would enable the MOD to either make Prince of Wales a Commando Carrier, sell her to another country, or scrap her completely. Yet the cost to British Defence capabilities would far outweight the potential savings, which in any case might not be as much as hoped. And militarily, it makes about as much sense as the UK offering to sell Argentina the Bulwark or Albion LPD’s. But that is exactly what the French ARE trying to do – sell the Argentinians one of their landing ships…

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