Tag Archives: British Armed Forces

Hammond: Army Regiments facing Axe

English: Infantry of the British Army recruiti...

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

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

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 Interesting, when the 2010 Defence Review was pretty much out of date with three or four months!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammond had something interesting to say about logistics:

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

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

In terms of Reserves:

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

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

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

On the Regimental System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have seen that Prime Ministerial Papers relating to John Nott‘s 1981 cuts to the British Armed Forces were made available to the public on New Years Day, under the 30 year rule. As I am sure you are aware I have long had a strong interest in British Military History in the post war period, and especially in the 1982 Falklands War.

The 1982 war is irrevocably tied up with the Defence cuts of 1981, steered by the Defence Secretary of the time, John Nott. The cuts – which proposed to do away with aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance – are thought to have spurred the Argentine military junta into action. Ironically, if only they had waited another six months the Royal Navy would never have been able to respond. And not only that, but thousands of Dockyard workers who had redundancy notices hanging over their heads were critical in getting the task force ready to sail.

Clearly, if we are looking for lessons of how to do Defence cuts in challenging economic times, the Nott cuts are a valuable example. The file runs to 200+ pages, and consists of ministerial notes, correspondence, memos and speeches. Many of them have handwriting scribbled on, including in the hand of Mrs T herself. I have had a cursory glance through them, and whilst the general thrust is already well known, the files do demonstrate just how far the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach (above), went to try to protect the Navy. He took the very unusual step of asking to see the Prime Minister personally on the issue. Although each of the three service chiefs have the prerogative to see the PM, in practice 99% of the time they raise queries through the Chief of the Defence Staff or the Defence Secretary. Of course, we now know that in that fateful meeting in the House of Commons in April 1982, Leach claimed one of the greatest ‘told you so’s of modern history.

What is new about these documents is the depth they go into in explaining the thinking, the rationale between cutting the Royal Navy, whilst enhancing the RAF and maintaining the Army at the status quo. It is an interesting case study of the defence priorities that Britain had in 1981, and there are also some insights into procurement, costs, and the inventory of equipment that the armed forces had at the time.

I’m going to have a look through them and post up some snippets and my analysis. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning

So, we’ve looked at the various elements that might constitute a re-run of the 1982 Falklands War – the political dimension; the naval war (Aircraft carriers, naval aviation, amphibious warfare, escorts, logistics, submarines); the air war; and the land battle.

I think the key points to emerge are as follows:

  • Lack of carrier-borne air cover MIGHT not preclude a succesful task force, but it would be useful
  • We have JUST enough amphibious capability to effect a landing if need be
  • We have some very high quality Destroyers and Frigates, but nowhere near enough of them
  • We are perilously short of auxiliaries, and would need much assistance from the Merchant Navy
  • Our submarines are very capable, but far too few
  • The four Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be crucial
  • Any landing force would be battle-hardened, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Argentines forces, although more professional, are outclassed equipment wise

As we can see, there are a lot of ‘might’, ‘just’. Which is hardly ideal when planning to embark on a military operation. The theme that seems to emerge is that the British Armed Forces – in terms of inventory and personnel – are very high quality, but few in number. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the economic situation – in fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better. And if future defence cuts prune back – salami slice – ship numbers, for example, then we would go beyond the point where an operation ‘might’ be possible, to a point where one would be foolhardy.

Politically, the Falklands/Malvinas issue is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and certainly not after the discovery of natural resouces in the seabed of the South Atlantic. The current Argentine President is continually spouting ‘route-one’ politics, ie fooling the population away from domestic problems by targetting an external bogeyman. The current period of South American love-in has also emboldened Kirchner, it seems. How long this might last is anyones guess, given the fickle nature of Latin American politics.

1982 taught us that signs of weakness, such as cutting vital and sometimes symbolic assets, can be the first domino in causing unsavoury types to play their hand. Any possible savings that might have been gained from retiring HMS Endurance in 1982 were completely dwarfed by the costs – human, financial and materiel – that were incurred after Argentina took it to be a launchpad for war. As such, cost-cutting can be short-sighted – cutting a ship might save a few million, but will it cost us much more in the long run? Defence does give traction on the world stage. It was this lack of co-ordination between defence and diplomacy that caused such problems in 1982.

Is it narrow-minded to think solely about the Falkland Islands? After all, history is full of examples of forces and leaders who prepared to fight the last war, only to find that they were hopelessly stuck in the past. Aside from extremist terrorism, and perhaps Iran in the straights of Hormuz, Argentine threats to the Falklands are the most serious threat to British interests today. And we would be sensible to plan accordingly. All the time the Falkland Islanders wish to remain British, we have a duty to defend them.

Also, we should be aware that any ignominious outcome in the Falklands would have big domestic and international repurcussions. If the Argentines were to reclaim the Falklands, what is to stop the Spanish applying pressure over Gibraltar? We might find that we also put other nations in sticky positions over their far-flung possessions. And for Britain to be defeated by a second-world state would be embarassing to say the least – losing wars and surrendering territories does nothing for your international standing. In 1982 the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact cannot have failed to note that the British Armed Forces punched very hard. Showing that you will not be pushed about will surely make other enemies think twice about having a pop.

In 2012 the Falklands could be defended, and retaken if necessary. Just.

 

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Filed under Army, Falklands War, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines

The Irish who fought for Britain

Apparently there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 in a few days time looking at the discrimination suffered by Irishmen from the Republic who fought for Britain during the Second World War. I never knew this, but apparently the Irish Government had a blacklist of men who had deserted from the Irish Republic‘s forces and joined the British Armed Forces. The discrimination reached quite far, down to all Government agencies. It must have been hell for many of the poor blokes to have to hide their past for 60 odd years. As somebody says on the programme, it is incredible that men who volunteered to fight fascism were persecuted far more than men who simply deserted and went on the run. Even men who died in action were still included on the list.

On the face of it, this policy isn’t surprising. Ireland in 1939 still had a decidedly anti-British chip on its shoulder, particularly in officialdom. Of course, Eamon de Valera was the only world leader to offer his condolences to Nazi Germany on Hitler’s death. The rationale for which, I have never understood. But to learn that the Government actually went as far as to have a blacklist of names, to the point of affecting men’s employment prospects, is rather startling.

To this day, Irish citizens have a unique status when it comes to applying to serve in the British Armed Forces. If anyone has looked at the entry requirements, they often specify ‘UK, Commonwealth or Irish’ nationality. But Irish recruitment into the Royal Navy and British Army, in particular, has been going on for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic era legions of Irishmen served in Wellington’s Army – Sergeant Patrick Harper of the Sharpe novels, for example. My own Catholic Irish ancestry brought my family to Portsmouth, to join the Royal Navy. In 1914 my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, journeyed from Birkenhead to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, we can tell where WW1 sailors were born. 5 sailors out of 745 I have researched so far came from Ireland. This doesn’t include men who might be second generation immigrants. It is also noticeable that many Portsmouth servicemen died fighting with Irish Army units – the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in particular. In his many books Richard Doherty has charted the great contribution that Irishmen – from north and south of the border – made to the allied cause in the Second World War. And in the First World War, the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland put aside their differences and joined Divisions that included Protestant and Catholic men.

It seems to me that discrimination against Irishmen who fought Hitler was petty, and had more to do with an inherent anti-Britishness than any thoughts about the morality of the Second World War. When men have to hide medals that they earnt fighting against extremism and tyranny, its a very strange world indeed.

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Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918 by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody

During my research into Portsmouth’s Great War casualties, I have come across a number who are buried in Greece. I must confess that although I knew that the British Army had fought in ‘Salonika‘ during the First World War, I had very little awareness of what had actually happened in that campaign. As the Introduction explains, when this book was first published in 2004 it was the first book on Salonika to reach a British market in 39 years! Little wonder that the campaign has been ignored by history, overshadowed by both the Western Front on the one hand, and Gallipoli on the other.

The Balkans has always been a notoriously sensitive region throughout European history, with the melting pot of Yugoslavia, and numerous ethnic and religious tensions in the area. Into this dangerous context, the British Army landed in 1915. Ostensibly their presence was protect Greece against Bulgarian agression, yet many in the Greek establishment were decidedly anti-British and pro-German. The real intention was to divert Bulgarian resources away from a possible attack on Franco-Serbian forces elsewhere in the Balkans. The campaign took place in the Greek province of Macedonia (not to be confused with the modern state of Macedonia, which is nearby but part of the former Yugoslavia), and British forces depended on the port of Salonika for their lines of communications. Thus it was into a very delicate and awkward theatre that British soldiers entered in 1915.

Viewed from the foresight of British military overconfidence, and underestimation of the enemy, the campaign was a disappointment military. British forces failed to make much headway, even when the Bulgarians were on the point of collapse. In the end, the Armistice in September 1918 came completely out of the blue. Personally, I would argue that to have fought a tricky campaign with a lack of resources, lack of priority, and against a formidable enemy, climate and disease, not to mention a neutral host country, was no mean feat at all.

Many British troops at Salonika had embarked from Gallipoli, and there were many similarities between the two campaigns. Both were borne out of a desire to avoid mass casualties by fighting on the western front, and to attempt to ‘knock away the props’ by defeating Germany‘s allies. Little did the ‘easterners’ understand that Germany was propping up her allies. Similar arguments would be heard twenty five years later when Churchill exhoted the allies to exploit Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’, irritating american suspicions in the process. But the similarities do not end there. Troops fighting in the Eastern Mediteranean fought against the enemies of the heat, disease, and an foe that turned out to be much more formidable than had been expected.

This is a very useful book indeed. It sheds new light on a vastly under-studied campaign, and it certainly expanded my Great War horizons. It is incredibly well researched, and makes plentiful use of primary sources – both official documents and eyewitness accounts. It is not just a political narrative, but gives ample attention to the rank and file soldier, and wider contexts.

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Shoreham Airshow 2011

After giving it a miss last year, three generations of Daly’s made a return to Shoreham Airshow yesterday. There was so much to see, I do apologise if I forget anything. We missed the first couple of displays stuck in traffic on the A27 – I believe it was a glider display.

The Consolidated Catalina is a real special aircraft that I was very pleased to see. A flying boat not dis-similar to the Short Sunderland, the Catalina played a vital role during the Second World War in reconnaisance, transport, and in all manner of maritime roles. It’s not an aircraft that you see too often.

There was a very minimal representation from the RAF this year – only training aircraft in the Hawk, the Tutor and the Tucano. I’m actually quite a fan of the Hawk, a nippy little jet. The RAF also provided one of their distinctive yellow Search and Rescue Sea Kings, which marked the 70th anniversary of RAF Search and Rescue by giving a demonstration of winching, from an RNLI RIB on a trailer on the runway.

I might be biased, but the Parachute Regiment Red Devils Parachute Display team are easily the best around. In fact, I’m not sure why other Regiments are allowed to waste time and money having parachute display teams. They always land on a sixpence.

The Great War display is always very interesting, evocative of the magnificent men in their flying machines. It’s incredible that these such basic airframes fly like they do. Something that occured to me is how similar the Sopwith Camel is to the Fairey Swordfish, which was present this year. The little ‘Stringbag’ was obsolete at the start of the war in 1939, but still managed to cripple the Bismarck in 1941.

My Grandad and myself were pondering which has a more evocative sound and sight – the B17 Flying Fortress or the Avro Lancaster, both of which displayed at Shoreham this year. We came to the conclusion that the Lancaster is like a solid, dependable truck, while the B17 is like a Humvee – big and bold, but with some bling too.

Some of the most interesting aircraft are some of the lesser known jets – the Hawker Hunter and the De Havilland Vampire are fantastic aircraft, and look and sound beautiful.

The centrepiece of every Shoreham airshow is the Battle of Britain style airfield scramble. We are quite fortunate to see this, where every year a couple of Messerschmitt’s blitz the aerodrome, before the Spitfires and Hurricanes get up and chase them off. It is great to see, with the pyrotechnics, and Dads Army firing on the sidelines, but when you go every year, I can’t help wonder if I’m the only person who knows exactly what is going to happen and when. But then again, if they didn’t do it, you would feel let down!

Shoreham always has plenty of aerobatic teams. The Yakovlevs, flying Russian WW2 vintage aircraft, the SWIP team, the Blades, and the Breitling wingwalkers (young ladies who have to be seen to be believed!).

After the Vulcan had to pull out at the last minute with fuel tank problems, the organisers obviously had to find something unique to close the show. Step forward Christian Moullec. This frenchman’s act really is unique. A conservationist, Moullec raises birds (Geese or Cranes) from hatching, and trains them to fly along with him, in his microlight. It is a fantastic spectacle.

It did feel like there wasn’t quite as much at this years show as there has been in the past. The Red Arrows have never been allowed to make a ful display at Shoreham, apparently due to aviation rules and the proximity of air routes out of Gatwick. It is sad that the British Armed Forces could not provide more display aircraft, but then again they are probably all busy in Afghanistan or Libya. It is a shame, because seeing a Typhoon or an Apache at an airshow could be the thing that recruits a pilot of the future.

It is wonderful that the Shoreham Airshow takes place every year, and raises money for the RAF Associations appeal. Remember, unlike many free airshows, Shoreham is a charity event raising for a good cause. It would be nice to see something different sometimes – about 75% of the prgramme is the same most years, which obviously if you go each year, is a bit repetitive. But then again, I’ve never organised an airshow, and it can’t be an easy thing to do, so hats off to the guys at Shoreham!

(whisper it quietly, but lets just say I believe there might be an airshow a lot closer to Portsmouth sometime soon… I can’t reveal my sources, but fingers crossed eh!)

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Filed under airshow, event, Royal Air Force, Vulcan Bomber, World War One, World War Two

Commando Tactics of the Second World War by Stephen Bull

As Stephen Bull quite rightly states in this book, the word ‘Commando‘ has become common currency for all kinds of special forces operations.

The ‘commando’ concept originated from the Boer War, when Dutch-descended ‘Kommando‘ units caused havoc for much larger British units in the South African veldt. Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent at the time, recalled the idea in 1940. At the outset of the Second World War, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ special forces. The Commando’s were formed in 1940, partly by initiative amongst the armed forces, but also spurred on by characteristic notes that flourished from Winston Churchill demmanding instant action. The idea was that while Britain was unable to stike back at the enemy in a conventional manner, small groups of nimble special forces could inflict an impact on occupied Europe out of all proportion to their size.

Commando’s made their presence felt on the Lofoten Raids in Norway; at St Nazaire and Dieppe; on D-Day and in Siciliy and Italy. Strictly speaking the British Army C0mmandos were formed from volunteers from Army units, but the Royal Marines also formed their own Commando units later in the war. The Parachute Regiment was formed from No 2 Commando in 1940, and the SAS and SBS were formed by formed Commando officers. Thus it could be argued that the Commando’s formed their embryo for modern British special forces. Ironically, whilst the Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS still exist, the Army Commandos were disbanded soon after the war.

The title of this book focuses on tactics, but Bull goes much further by writing about the wider history of the Commandos, and the impact that the development of the Commando’s has had on British military ethos and development, the effects of which can still be seen today. But the real strength of this book is in the description of the making of a Commando – what went into selecting and training the men, the development of tactics and equipment, and how mistakes were made and lessons were learnt until a well-honed concept was arrived at. The ‘small, heavily armed but highly mobile’ approach has become widespread amongst all special forces to this day. There is also much in the selection and training that will be familiar to anyone who has read Bravo Two Zero or the million and one other SAS memoirs.

 This book adds considerably to the historiography of British special forces during the Second World War. It is an interesting read in its own right, but it also stands up extremely well as an in-depth military study. It contains some fascinating biographies of leading Commandos, and some useful eyewitness accounts. But the real piece de resitance is the inclusion of contemporary documents, such as details of Commando clothing and equipment, the establishment and armanent of Commando units, and a booklet describing Commando Battle Drill.

Commando Tactics of the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword

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The British Army of the Rhine

Sleeve patch of the British 21st Army Group.

Image via Wikipedia

My recent trip to the Nord Rhein Westfalen region of Germany has got me thinking about the role that British forces played in that part of the world for many years during the Cold War. I wrote an article on this subject some time ago, submitted to Britain at War (and apparently vanished into their ether). Sadly it disappeared on a crashed and rebooted PC, so I have to re-write from memory.

21st Army Group ended the War occupying large portions of Northern Germany, from the Dutch border across to the Baltic, with Montgomery receiving the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. Although initially the British Army was very much an occupation force, and involved in de-Nazification and keeping the Germans to heel, as the Soviets became more and more confrontational, western military doctrine in Germany focussed more on keeping the Russians out than keeping the Germans down. The Berlin Airlift, the creation of West Germany and the Deutsche Mark and the formation of NATO polarised the former allies across either side of the Iron Curtain.

British forces in Germany from the late 1940′s onwards were under no illusions that they were there to face the Russians. British Land Forces in Germany came under the command of the British Army of the Rhine. The Commander-in-Chief of BAOR also served as the commander of NATO’s northern Army Group, and as such had Dutch and German units under command in the event of war. British Air Forces in Germany came under the command of RAF Germany.

In the event of the Balloon going up, the BAOR was to face the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. Intelligence reports suggest that the BAOR was heavily outnumbered and seriously in danger of being rolled over very quickly – a likelihood that was not lost upon British squaddies. Documents I have discovered in the National Archives also suggest that there were very few reinforcements available for BAOR – pretty much a few TA Battalions, and two TA SAS Regiments for special forces work. And these units would take days to arrive by air and sea. And from 1969 onwards, the troubles in Northern Ireland proved a constant drain upon manpower in the BAOR. Evacuation of casualties and civilians would be almost impossible due to the lack of transport. But for the first time in British military history, the Army was at the forefront of British defence policy and strategy.

Thousands of British men – and indeed women in children – spent some of the most formative part of their lives in Germany. Imagine the experience a young 19 year old might enjoy being posted to a strange country, going abroad for the first time, and to a country that until relatively recently was the enemy. Only to find that actually, the German Beer and Food is quite to his liking! No wonder many former servicemen look back on their time in Germany so fondly.

Places such as Celle, Hohne, Herford, Hameln, Krefeld, Bielefeld, Paderborn, Detmold, Lippstadt, Sennelager, Soltau, Fallingbostel, Osnabruck and Minden became almost as well known to the British Army as Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Tidworth, Winchester and Catterick. Whole parts of Germany were occupied by thousands of Brits, in virtually exclusive British settlements, on base and off base.

At its height BAOR consisted of over 50,000 men. Add to that the amount of women, children, civilian workers et al, and then consider the turnover of troops every few years, and its no wonder that so many people experienced life in Nord-Rhein Westfalen and Niedersachsen. This experience probably went a long way to establishing Anglo-German relations again after the war.

British Forces in Germany have been in the process of winding down since the end of the Cold War. Few garrisons remain, concentrated mainly around Paderborn and Fallingbostel. There is no military reason for the British Army to be in Germany, but we still have access to some excellent training facilities and the Germans like having us. Indeed, during the Cold War the West German Government paid part of the Army’s basing costs. And until recently, it was cheap to base units in Germany.

Eventually – by 2020 – the British Army in Germany will be nothing more than a memory. We have to hope that this period of history is not lost, simply because the Cold War never became hot. Im particularly interested in the social history of life in BAOR – the human experiences, the impact of living in a foreign country on men, women and children. Sadly the excellent BAOR locations website seems to have gone offline, which is a real pity.

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‘Why things don’t happen’ – calls for a cheap Frigate

Image via Wikipedia

The RUSI has published another thought-provoking article on the state of Britain’s armed forces, that is bound to inform debate and discussion around the ongoing Strategic Defence Revew.

In ‘Why things don’t happen: silent principles of national security’, Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins argue that the deepest issues in British Defence are the most silent – principally, the Royal Navy. The article argues that geopolitics makes a maritime framework imperative for the future of Britain’s armed forces. However, the Royal Navy has progressively – or regressively – become weaker and weaker, to the point of not being able to meet the challenges facing it.

The Royal Navy has often been called the silent service – it goes about its business quietly, efficiently, largely away from public gaze and without without blowing its own trumpet. However, in todays media-savvy world, has this led to the Royal Navy being quietly maligned? The Royal Navy, the authors argue, is the main force safeguarding Britain’s silent security principles.

The same authors argued in an earlier article that the Royal Navy was in danger of losing coherence, with ships that were largely a hangover form the Cold War reducing overall utility in a changing world. One of the other points made, that I totally agree with, is that the deeper principles of defence and security are drowned-out by inter-service politicking. And given that the Navy is overhwelmingly a platform-based service, it is at the mercy of funding and equipment issues.

That ‘hard power’ is being replaced by ‘soft power’ was suggested in a major speech by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007. Similarly to Tony Blair‘s Chicago ‘Blair Doctrine’ speech, Brown’s policy brought about consistent growth in the international aid budget, while the Defence budget became more and more squeezed year on year. Yet this naive believe in throwing money at developing countries (and countries that are richer than the UK, for that matter) is intellectually bankrupt if it comes at the expense of the defence that can safeguard humanitarian intervention. part of the problem, however, is that the carefree signing of cheques to foreign countries is so ingrained in decision-makers , that – in the words of the authors - “It demands a bonfire of current assumptions, plus the demolition and rebuilding of current institutions.”

The MOD’s procurement spending comes in for particularly harsh criticism – it is argued that up to a third of the MOD’s budget is wasted by indecision and delays. The problem is, however, that while the country is effectively at war in Afghanistan, peacetime constraints are still over-riding all decisions in Whitehall – primarily, a desire to cut costs at all times.

The authors also look at globalisation. The real impact of globalisation, they argue, is that states and societies are – more than ever – interdependent. Trade and economies are so interconnected that a small problem anywhere could spell disaster for other parts of the world. But this interdependence is subject to very few checks and balances, as the UN is frequently bypassed and ignored.

The Defence Green Paper’s suggestion that Britain align herself more closely with France is odd to say the least – Britain has since 1945 had wildly varying strategic interests with France. French politicians are hardly likely to take decisions with British interests in mind – De Gaulle is an obvious example.

The article goes onto look at a subject that has occupied much of my attention as of late – that of military tribalism. Although the Ministry of Defence has been the primary agency of Defence planning since the demise of the single-service ministries, it is still governed by a deeply-tribal system. The individual chiefs of staff are the tribal chiefs of their service, making it very difficult for them to agree to any decisions that reflect badly on them in this capacity. Against this tribal atmosphere, ‘jointness’ has been a policy used by the Treasury to divide and rule the services. Jointness may be anathema to many wishing to preserve their independence, but recent – and not so recent – history shows us that no operation in war is ever really not of a joint nature. Evacuations and Invasions are a prime example, and the Royal Marines usually exert an influence out of all proportion to their size. The argument is, therefore, that by protecting their independence, the services are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

The post-Cold War run-down of the Royal Navy has been conducted very much in a climate of ‘nothing ever happens’. Because no major or even medium level war has occured for some time, the assumption is that good order is now a constant. The authors argue, however, that this good order and lack of major conflict is precisely because of pre-emption and deterrent, both nuclear and conventional. The suggestion is that when something does not happen, it is because someone of something has stopped it from happening, or has made it impossible to occur in the first place. The example offered by the authors is that of world trade – if less ships were available to patrol the worlds trade routes, would threats emerge as a result?

 The British Empire was largely built in seapower, which in turn was built on control of the oceans. Perhaps the modern public is seablind thanks to the growth of air travel, but the bulk of Britain’s trade – and crucial elements such as fuel – still comes by sea. And as much of this trade has to transit a small number of choke points – Hormuz, and Suez for example – it is highly vulnerable. Against this background, and that of Britain’s shrinking fleet, states such as India and Australia are expanding their naval resources. Japan is opening a naval base in Djibouti, in order to safeguard her shipping off Somalia.

And so to the size and structure of the Royal Navy. Whilst Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon justified the failure to build new ships, by arguing that as newer ships were bigger and more advanced, they would have more capability and would be able to take on the roles that strength-in-numbers would normally handle. Yet all common sense and logic suggests that a low number of high-spec ships are not ideal for policing the globes sea lanes. Crucially, however, the polarity between high and low intensity operations is seen as alarming – it should be seen more as a spectrum; a sliding scale.

A concise table in the article shows just how hamstrung the Royal Navy will be in future years. In 2010 it has 23 Frigates, with an average age of 15 years and across 4 types. By 2020 this will be 21 ships, with an average age of 21 – the age frequently understood to be the limit of a ships active service life. The perils are all too clear. This force structure has been largely built around the need to escort the two new aircraft carriers, yet Britain is very unlikely to go to war in a conventional manner with a full carrier battle group, and in any case European Navies have ample air defence escorts of their own that could be co-opted. The other problem is that the high cost of Type 45 Destroyers is likely to hamper the number of more useful Type 26 Frigates that can be procured. Such a building programme, the authors argue, effectively tells the world that Britain is ‘signing off’ from maritime security.

So, what steps can be put in place to rectify the slide? Firstly, that strength in depth is important not only for presence and replacability, but also for deterrent value – if the enemy know that you are unlikely to respond, they are more likely to act. And, ‘if you cannot afford to lose a ship, then you cannot afford to use it’. The authors would scap the Type 26 C2 design, and would replace them with 10 cheap Frigates within 10 years, effectively an equivalent of the Type 21 Class in the 1970′s. The Danish Absalon Class, and the Dutch Holland Class, are offered up as inspiration of what can be achieved at much lower cost than the Type 45 and 26 programmes. A cheap, multi-pupose frigate would be of far more use patrolling sea lanes and combatting pirates than a Type 45 Destroyer.

Interesting thoughts indeed…

Read the full article here

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What’s the point of the RAF?

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

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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