Tag Archives: cold war

Government confirms new 20 year rule for official documents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More German Warship pictures

I thought I would share some more, slightly better quality pictures of the German warships that are currently in Portsmouth Harbour this weekend.

700 German sailors arrived in Portsmouth on Friday, their first port visit on a deployment to Western Europe and North America during which they will also visit Faslance for Exercise Joint Warrior, Dublin, Portugal, France, Spain, Halifax, Quebec City (Frankfurt and Emden), Op Sail in Norfolk VA, Baltimore/Annapolis (Hessen), before returning to Wilhelmshaven in June and July.

FGS Frankfurt am Main

FGS Frankfurt is a Berlin class replenishment ship of the German Navy. Their official designation is ‘task force supplier’, but in role they are broadly similar to a British replenishment oiler, such as the RFA Wave Class. Frankfurt was Commissioned in 2002, and is normally based in Kiel. At 20,000 tons she can carry 9,330 tons of fuel oil, aviation fuel and fresh water, and 500 tons of mixed dry cargo. Notice from the pics that she has container space out on deck. They carry a more considerable defensive armament than their British counterparts – four Rheinmettal miniguns and shoulder launched Stinger anti-air missile systems. They also have space for 43 hospital patients, and a hangar and pad for two Sea King helicopters. Very flexible ships.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt

Frankfurt

Frankfurt

FGS Emden

FGS Emden is a Bremen Class Frigate, commissioned in 1983. Hence she’s a bit of an old girl. The class was originally designed for escorting allied reinforcement convoys during the Cold War, primarily in an anti-submarine role. Interestingly, they were the last German naval units constructed under the post-war limitations on the German Navy.

Emden has a 76mm main gun, a Sea Sparrow SAM system and two RAM close-in weapon systems. The Bremens normally carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles, but notice here that Emden’s Harpoon launchers are empty.

Emden

Emden

Emden

FGS Hessen

I didn’t manage to catch Hessen coming in, but here are some pics that show her alongside South Railway Jetty in Pompey. Hessen is a Sachsen class Frigate, comissioned in 2006. They are advanced anti-air warfare Frigates, similar to the Dutch De Zeven Provincien Class. They carry a 76mm main gun, Evolved Sea Sparrow SAM, 2 RAM CIWS and 2 Quadruple Harpoon launchers.

Hessen

Hessen

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Argentina take Falklands issues to the UN

ID: DN-SC-94-01949 Service Depicted: Navy A po...

Image via Wikipedia

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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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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Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70’s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970’s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20’s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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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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