Tag Archives: Iraq

Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE,...

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I’m in two minds over the Sir Richard Dannatt issue. On the one hand, if I was a squaddie and I heard the top boss sticking it to the politicians on my behalf I would probably think ‘nice one!’ – theres nothing better for military morale than to see politicians having a hard time. But at the same time, Dannatt’s complaints have never been of just a military nature, they have always taken on a distinctly partly political overtone. Even if not necessarily pro-party, they are definitely anti-party (which you could argue is virtually the same thing).

There is nothing wrong with military leaders having an opinion. We live in a modern democracy, everyone has an opinion. I don’t even think that it is necessarily wrong to express them in public – if they’ve been expressed in private and not listened to, and you think its important enough, make it a public issue. Some things the public deserve to know, regardless of whether it is comfortable for the politicians. And in the modern era of spin, politicians and their ‘special advisors’ are prone to treating the military as they do any other department – keeping ‘on message’ is more important than doing a good job.

But while Dannatt was raising valid points, at the same time it was also couched in an anti-Labour, and somewhat pro-Tory feeling. Military officers should be apolitical – at least in public. The job of the armed forces is to do the bidding of the elected Government of the day, regardless of what colour that Government represents. Its that party political tone that really is the problem. You get the feeling that Gordon Brown pretty much blanked Dannatt as he was seen to be politically unreliable. This is a dangerous precedent, for politicians to shun Generals based on their politics. Ability to do the job should be the over-riding factor.

If Richard Dannatt‘s memoirs are to be believed, his relationship with Gordon Brown became so fractured that they did not meet for 6 months towards the end of his period in command, and had to resort to ambushing the Prime Minister on Horse Guards Parade. It’s pretty poor that both of them let their relationship get so bad. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with. But you just have to make the best of it. The people of Britain, and the Army in particular, deserved better. Mike Jackson might have been seen as being tamed by New Labour, but the General cannot pick or choose with politicians he gets to choose with, so might as well get on with it as best he can.

Dannatt’s ‘beef’ with the former Labour Government seems to be that while the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 set down guidelines for how the armed forces should be structured, Gordon Brown then refused throughout the coming years to fund them properly. This is pretty hard to argue with – the state that the Army found itself in 2003 before it went into Iraq is well known, no matter what Brown might argue.

Essentially, the armed forces were caught between Blair and Brown in their fractuous relationship, that has been well documented. In order to safeguard his own position as PM Blair handed Brown unprecedented control over public spending, and refused to confront him. So if Brown was in charge of the purse strings – and, in effect, in charge overall – what the hell was Blair doing? Why did we have a PM who was willing to espouse wise words internationally, but would not put his foot down with the bloke next door? Very strange for the two most powerful men in the country to be so disfunctional.

Sadly Labour’s record on Defence was disappointing. The initial 1998 Strategic Defence Review set a sensible framework, and the Blair Doctrine of humitarian intervention was well thought out. But 9/11, Blair’s willingness to follow Bush’s hawkish foreign policy to the end of the earth, combined with Brown’s unwillingness to fund Defence properly or to work properly with his Army chief made for a deadly combination.

Nobody emergest with any credibility from this fiasco. And the row is only likely to get worse, with Dannatt’s memoirs ‘Leading from the Front’ due to be released later this month. Of course, you can look forward to a full review here.

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Private Leonard Fry

Some time ago I reviewed Kut 1916 by Patrick Crowley. It tells some pretty graphic stories about the suffering endured by British troops present during the siege, and those captured by the Turks.

However it is only now, thanks to the information contained in the Portsmouth Section of the National Roll of the Great War, that I am beginning to be able to discover some of the stories of men from Portsmouth who were in Iraq during that terrible period.

Private Leonard Fry, of 25 Plymouth Street, had joined the Army back in 1905. He was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment. He was twice wounded at Kut. After the surrender he was taken prisoner, and while being force marched to Tikrit he developed dysentry, and was left to die at the side of the road. His date of death is recorded as 6 June 1916, presumably the last time he was seen alive. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Basra Memorial.

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Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley

Think of British military disasters: Galipoli, Singapore, Arnhem. Men such as Percival and Browning have been dammed for evermore But one epic failure that receives very little attention is that of Kut. Recent years have seen Kut fade into obscurity, especially compared to Galipoli – another disastrous Turkish expedition. Here Patrick Crowley, a serving British Army Officer, aims to redress the balance.

Britain launched a campaign to occupy Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – early in the First World War, in an attempt to occupy the stratgically important oilfields around Basra. Given the growing importance of motor vehicles and oil fuelled warships, it was also another route to undermining the Ottoman Turk Empire, an ally of Germany. The British Government was also following a policy of ‘knocking away the props’, feeling that by eliminating Turkey from the war deadlock on the western front would be broken.

Initially the aim was simply to occupy southern Iraq. But overconfidence, underestimation of the enemy and naive mission creep led to the force attempting a march on Baghdad. After it became clear that Baghdad was not immediately reachable, the overall commander, General Nixon, ordered Major-General Townshend, Commanding the 6th Indian Division, to hold out at Kut. Apparently Nixon was confident in his ability to relieve Kut, and Townshend saw no reason to demur. Quite why it was felt important to hold Kut no-one seems to have pondered.

The relief force has serious problems reaching Kut – once again, they underestimated the ability of their Turkish opponents. There were also serious problems with transport, with only the River Tigris available. Eventually the garrison at Kut ran out of food, giving Townshend no option but to surrender in April 1916. By the end men were resorting to eating dogs, horseflesh and starlings. 11,800 British soldiers, many of them Indian, became prisoners.

There are serious questions asked about Townshend’s conduct after his surrender. Spirited off to a relatively luxurious existence, his soldiers suffered untold horrors. Already in a poor state after months of siege privations, they were beaten on their march into captivity, given poor rations and little or no medical treatment. Yet Townshend appears not to have been concerned about their safety. The treatment of Allied Prisoners by the Turks is clearly one of the most overlooked atrocities in twentieth century warfare – some harrowing stories of suffering emerge. Of the men who surrendered at Kut, 4,250 died in captivity.

So what went wrong at Kut? Firstly, the siege should not have took place in the first place – the force should have withdrawn to Basra. Secondly, the relief force was not strong enough to reach Kut. And at all stages of the campaign senior officers grossly underestimated their opponentss – even though evidence from Galipoli should have suggested that the Turk soldier was no pushover. Another endemic failure seems to have been an inability and unwillingness to organise logistics properly. Finally, in his handling of the surrender, Townshend was guilty of failing in his duty to his men. Overall, it seems that a lot of incompetence went into what transpired at Kut.

This book by Patrick Crowley is an admirable and professional attempt to analyse the campaign, and the reasons for its failure. It is very well researched, and blends strategy with personal histories very well. Unlike a lot of narrative military histories, this book has a very ‘military’ feel, with its strong resonance with lessons learnt, and the evocation of more recent British campaigns in Iraq. In 1916 the 1st/4th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was fighting in Iraq, while in 2004 their successor Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, fought a siege like action in nearby Amara. The I am a big fan of this relevant style of history, that will be useful to military personnel and interesting to historians alike.

Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley is published by The History Press

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Portsmouth an the Anglo-Iraqi War 1941

Prior to the Second World War Iraq as governed by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate. Despite this there were few British forces in Iraq, and those that were in the main belonged to the RAF. The biggest base at RAF Habbaniya, 55 miles west of Baghdad, supported a number of aircraft, RAF ground forces, and also acted as a training base.

On 1 April 1941 a group of Iraqi nationalists embarked on a coup against the Regent of Iraq. The immediate plans of the group, led by Rashid Ali, were to expel the British and allies themelves with the Axis powers. The British forces at Habbaniya were seriously outnumbered, having only 84 obsolete planes wth only 39 pilots, 1000 other personnel, and a few ancient armoured cars.

Habbaniya was the scene of heavy fighting for several weeks, being under seige until reinforcements came by land from Egypt and by sea via Basra. The Iraqi rebels finally surrendered at Baghdad on 31 May 1941. The war resulted in the occupation of Iraq by British forces, preventing Germany from formenting further trouble or using it as a base. The Iraqi oil fields were also secured. Wavell wrote that the “gallant defence” of Habbaniya was crucial, and Churchill that the “spirited defence” of Habbaniya was a “prime factor” in British success.

Flight Sergeant Albert Couch, 33 and from Buckland, and Flight Sergeant Philip Osborn, 41 and from Southsea, both died during the uprising – Couch on 6 May, Osborn on 16 May. It is unclear whether they were aircrew or ground crew. Their service numbers indicate that both were pre-war regular members of the RAF. They are buried in Habbaniya War Cemetery, Iraq.

For many years Commonwealth War Graves in Iraq have been un-maintained due to the political situation in that county. Hopefully some day soon the graves of allied servicemen in Iraq will be restored to the condition that they deserve.

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Fierce debate over UK Defence spending

The Prime Minister had denied that he ‘guillotined’ the Defence budget while British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex-MOD civil servant had earlier made the claim while giving evidence at the Iraq Inquiry.

Conservative Leader David Cameron said: “Isn’t it becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the government in general, and you in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?”

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut “arbitrary”, and that “I think it’s fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn’t want us to get as much as we got.” It would seem increasingly that the Government was willing to make huge commitments, but not to fund the armed forces to carry them out.

It is also broadly accepted that Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had more control over public spending than any of his predecessors. Not only was he able to control spending, but Government policy by default. Gordon Brown’s denials come after a stream of witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry have stated that preparation for the war was severely hampered and inadequate.

It would not be in the Prime ministers interests to admit that he did not fund the armed forces properly: politicians are rarely blessed with honesty over such matters. But why ignore the clear findings of an Inquiry, that he ordered, before it has even finished?

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Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.

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Iraq Inquiry: my opinions so far…

Ive been closely following the progress of the Chilcott Inquiry into the events leading up to and during the Iraq War, until British troops left Iraq last year.

The composition of the Inquiry is interesting. Sir John Chilcott is a former senior Civil Servant. Perhaps not a heavyweight by any means, but in my opinion he has chaired it competently so far. There are two military Historians on the panel: Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official Historian of the Falklands War, and Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s official biographer. I am glad that there are historians on the panel, but I wish they were not what you might call ‘establishment’ historians. Somebody like Richard Holmes, David Starkey or Simon Schama might have been a lot more probing. An experienced Barrister would have been wise too, to advise on legal issues.

So far I think the evidence given by the military figures has been very insightful. On the whole, it appears that given the UK’s subservient role in the invasion the military side of things was handled very well. Things were certainly not helped by the US Department of Defences’ lack of planning for the post-war phase – the British Army has huge experience of counter-insurgency, why was this not heeded?

In terms of the politics, however, nothing has changed my mind that there was some serious dishonesty going on. Even IF – and it is a big if – the intelligence led Tony Blair to believe the 45 minute caveat, there was still a lot of creative industry being applied in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’. Alistair Campbell’s appearance today says much: even in front of an inquiry, seeking the truth, his stance is to put on an act, and to lie, spin and slither away. Maybe expecting the truth from Campbell is too much: the man is, after all, a professional liar. The ironic thing is that his demeanour at the inquiry showed exactly what was wrong with British politics at the time: an unelected official, expert at manipulating the truth, was pulling the strings.

The evidence given by commanders about the ineffectiveness of the Department for International Development has been telling. I have long thought that the UK’s approach to overseas aid is a mess: we are happy to hand over millions to countries who do not need it, without strings attached, yet when it comes to a country like Iraq, which desparately needed our help and quickly, DFID stood back idley. Quick and efficient aid would have helped prevent the slide towards insurrection and disorder.

On the whole, I get the impression that the Politics side of things was a monumental cock-up. The military side of things, once we disregard the politics, was handled rather well from a UK point of view. The panel have been more probing and incisive than we might have expected, and from their line of questioning on Campbell, Tony Blair can expect an uncomfortable time.

But it is one thing holding an inquiry, it is quite another to actually take notice of it and absorb its lessons. Will the mistakes and succeses be taken into account with future Government policy? Will the US have a similar inquiry, or take notice of the findings of the Chilcott inquiry?

If you make mistakes and ignore them, then they’re just gonna keep happening again. And in this case, mistakes mean lives lost.

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Hitler’s Gulf War: The Fight for Iraq 1941

Hitler's Gulf War

Hitler's Gulf War

Contrary to popular opinion, Iraq did not suddenly appear in 1991. Nor during the Iran-Iraq War. The country played a not insignificant part in the Second World War, as this new book by Barrie G James argues.

Britain had received a League of Nations mandate to administer Iraq after the First World War. Severely cash-strapped after 4 years of war, the new RAF proposed to control and police the new territory by air. This left the legacy of an RAF Base at Habbaniya, and Army bases in the south in Basra.

In 1941 an alliance between pan-Arab leader the Mufti of Jerusalem and Iraqi nationalist Army officers, with tacit promises of support from Germany and Italy, launched an uprising to push the British out of Iraq. The British in the country were heavily outnumbered, and reinforcements were a long way off – the British were hard pressed in the North African desert, where the Germans had just pushed them out of Greece and were about to assault Crete.

But somehow, a tiny force of RAF pilots in obsolete aircraft, supported by a few companies of infantry and some local volunteers, held off the Iraqi Army at Habbaniya. The British Embassy in Baghdad was beseiged. A scratch force of reinforcements was sent from Palestine, and an Indian Army Division landed in Basra.

Against all the odds, the RAF and the Army managed to put down the coup and secure Iraq. The loss of Iraq might have been catastrophic. It would have exposed the rear of the British Forces in Egypt, and lost vital oilfields. It might also have led to threats to India.

Why the coup did not succeed is a mystery. Or, rather, why the Axis powers did not give the coup more support. The Germand and Italians had offered support, but in the event only a handful of aircraft arrived, as well as several advisors who seem to have spent more time fighting each other than advising. The Germans were certainly pre-occupied with launching their assault on Crete, which although dominating a part of the Mediterranean, had nowhere near the strategic importance of Iraq. If even a fraction of the airborne forces that were employed in Crete had been used instead in Iraq, the course of the war may have been different. In the event, Germany had to secure the Balkans after Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Greece. This in turn delayed the attack on Russia. All evidence, if any is needed, that the Axis powers’ strategy seriously let them down at this point in the war.

I have something of a personal interest in this story, as my great-uncle, Thomas Daly, was onboard HMS Enterprise when she was giving Naval gunfire support off Basra during the attempt to put down the coup. Later in 1942 my Grandad, Henry Miller, landed in Basra with the 10th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and spent some months in Kirkuk guarding against the threat of a German thrust down the Caucasus.

This is a very important book, as is any that fills a gap and flags up an overlooked subject. Some maps might be useful, as plenty of places are referred to, and it would be easier to picture the lie of the land and the situation on the ground. Some illustrations might also add to the overall feel of the book too. But in its favour, Barrie James has used a readable, Cornelius Ryan style of writing, which might lack references but is more approachable to the non-academic.

Hitlers Gulf War: The Fight for Iraq 1941 is published by Pen & Sword Aviation

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Book Review – latest releases from Osprey Books

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

Osprey have been publishing books in the field of military history for many years. I have long been a fan of their well-presented and accessible style, complete with smart looking maps and fantastic artwork. I have made a lot of use of them over the years, especially their books on Operation Market Garden and Fairmile Motor Torpedo Boats.

These three interesting looking books landed through my letterbox over the weekend, so here are my impressions of them!

The Six Day War 1967: Sinai

This volume comes as part of Osprey’s Campaign series, which now numbers over 200 publications. They are well regarded as among the best introductions to any particular battle of campaign in history.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was part of the long running dispute that took place in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century, which is arguably still smouldering today. Since its inception Israel had long lived under the threat of annihilation. Under pressure in 1967, Israel launched a devastating pre-emptive strike on its enemy Egypt, eventually reaching the Suez Canal in just five days.

This book charts the story of this short but sharp war, in particular one of the most daring and successful operations in modern military history. As with all Osprey books it contains some crisp and accurate maps, well researched original photographs and some incredibly detailed artwork of aircraft, armoured vehicles and battlefield scenes. The text itself looks at the deep political reasons behind the war, and also the complex internal politics of the Israeli state. Along with chronologies and orders of battle, this strikes a helpful balance between detail and accessibility, which in my experience is the hallmark of the Campaign series. Whilst they may not have the detail and referencing of a full academic work, if you know absolutely nothing about the 1967 war – much like myself before picking this up – then you certainly would after putting it down.

M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural: Operation Desert Storm 1991

This account, part of Osprey’s Duel series, focuses more on the machines that were pitted against each other, and the men who fought in them.

The Cold War often seen clashes between American and Soviet built tanks, but curiously, never directly between those two countries. Never the less, commentators and intelligence analysts took a close interest in how each sides weaponry compared.

The last armoured clash between American and Soviet produced armour took place in Iraq in 1991, during the first Gulf War. The US M1A1 Abrams battle tank, which made up the bulk of the coalition armour, was barely two years old, and certainly one of the worlds most advanced tanks. The Iraqi T-72 was built by Soviet Russia. Compared to the Abrams it fielded second-rate sights and ammunition, as well as inferior training of its crews. As such the T-72 were never going to be a match for the Abrams, as this book argues. Indeed, the first Gulf-War saw some of the most one-sided armoured fighting in history.

Tech-heads, and fans of vehicles, armour and weaponry will love this book. It delves deep into the development and design of the respective tanks, full of technical drawings, close up photographs and specifications. Crucially, however, it also looks at the human aspect, especially the training of the men who crewed the T-72 and Abrams. Without this, there is a risk that it might be something of a Haynes Manual – very interesting but narrow, only nuts and bolts. Thankfully, by combining the men and materiel, wet get a full picture. Too often the human and machine elements are separated.

Special Operations Forces in Iraq

Military History should never be confined to ‘history’, and this book brings us right up to date with a reminder that servicemen are fighting around the world right as we speak. Some of them of the ‘talking trees’ variety.

Anything to do with Special Forces is a big seller. Look at the explosion of interest in the SAS after the Iranian embassy in 1981 and after the Gulf War. And this book from the Elite series does not disappoint. Looking at the initial deployments and engagements during the first phase of the Iraq War in 2003, through to the insurgency period, the hunt for Ba’ath party officials, Al Qaeda operatives and militiamen. It looks at battles around the port of Um Qassar, in the Kurdish mountains of the North, and the urban warfare in Baghdad and Basra. Refreshingly, it doesn’t just focus on US Special Forces, as many books tend to.

One of the fascinating things about Special Forces is in their name – the special nature of their weapons, equipment and tactics. This book more than delivers, with some cracking illustrations of US, British, Australian and Polish Special Forces. Each illustration has a detailed description. If you were looking to make military models, something like this would be right up your street.

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Book of the week #6 – Sniper One by Sgt Dan Mills

Sniper One - Sgt Dan Mills

Sniper One - Sgt Dan Mills

This weeks book of the week is a real gem. Not only is it a real thrill of a read, it is possibly one of the most important books written about the British Army.

Why? well, as we all know, whenever there is a crisis anywhere in the world, we call on the Paras, the Marines, and the SAS.  The rest of the Army are just cannon fodder, of course.  Dan Mills even refers to this head on, and suggests how damaging it is to morale to the infantryman to think that they are somehow sub-standard. Thankfully, this book succesfully blows apart this myth.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and after the Marines and Paras had gone home, the rest of the Army were taking turns on duty in Iraq. The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment were deployed for a 6 month tour of duty in Al Amarah, north of Basra – one of Iraq’s most lawless provinces. So peaceful was it expected to be, that they werent issued with grenades, and they even left their mortars at home. This is the story of the Battalions Sniper Platoon.

Any expectations of a quiet tour were soon dispelled, most of their 6 month deployment was spent fighting with Iraqi Militiamen loyal to Moqtada al Sadr. The long battle they fought has come to be known as the Siege of Cimic House. It was during this period that Johnson Beharry won his VC. Mills describes every bullet, every aspect of modern warfare.

Mills writes with a dynamism that is gripping, yet has none of the bombast or glorification of Andy McNab or Chris Ryan. Refreshing in his honesty, that he talks about pornography and masturbation all helps you to believe that these are normal men, not the virtual superheroes that front-line soldiers are made out to be. The Tigers recruit from Portsmouth, my home town, and you can almost see people you know in the characters in Mills’ Patoon.

This is a very important book. One, because it focusses on a rather less glamorous Regiment, and secondly because of its realism and its no-nonsense style or writing, it will be invaluable to Historians for hundreds of years. This is a more honest, and more important, book than Bravo Two Zero.

Click here to buy Sniper One: The Blistering True Story of a British Battle Group Under Siege

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