Tag Archives: northern ireland

HMS Defender due into Portsmouth on Wednesday

 Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring & HMS Dauntless

The fifth and newest Type 45 Destoyer, HMS Defender, is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the first time at 9.30am on Wednesday morning. The penultimate ship of the class to arrive, she will anchor up overnight in the Solent tomorrow evening, and should be visible from Southsea seafront.

Very nice ships, all with great names (well, except Duncan maybe!), but still too few of them – even just two more might have really made a difference. With Daring, Dauntless AND Diamond all away on deployments at the moment, and Dragon preparing to leave later this year, the operational tempo for escort ships is clearly creaking at the seams. It does seem a waste to use ships that were designed to provide area defence for 60,000 ton carriers chasing pirate Dhows.

History has shown that to keep one ship on station on deployment, you need four ships. Ships are normally in one of four states – on deployment (or transiting), working up, shaking down or in refit. Given that the average deployment to the South Atlantic or east of Suez lasts 5 to 7 months, working up and FOST can take the same kind of time frame, and comprehensive refits can take around 18 months, we can see quite easily that six ships will not be enough to everything that we want them to do. The bizarre thing is that everyone knows it, even amateur analysts such as myself. The Admirals definitely know it, but aren’t allowed to say so as it would embarass the politicians.

Such a procurement strategy does seem strange, when only a couple of weeks ago the Army managed to keep the vast majority of its tanks, which are only – on average – used once in a decade, and then in nothing more than an armoured brigade level. Destroyers and Frigates are like infantry battalions – on a never-ending deployment cycle that has no slack. Sure, ships cost money, but lack of ships when it matters can cost a whole lot more.

The other problem is one of strategy. What exactly do we want the Type 45’s to do? In conception, and in armament, they are powerful area defence Destroyers, with a very capable anti-air and missile system, and a very powerful radar fit. Is it a good use to send them patrolling? Granted, any military asset should be able to perform basic functions specific to its service in the short term – witness gunners and sappers, for example, operating as infantry in Northern Ireland. But it seems that the Type 45’s are very much written into the escort deployment roster. Things do seem to smack of short-termism.

Once the Type 45 programme has been delivered, attention shifts to the imminent arrival of the Carriers, in whatever shape or form that takes, and then the crucial Type 26 programme of future Frigates.

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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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‘Sir, They’re Taking the Kids Indoors’ by Ken Wharton

One of the sad facts of the Northern Ireland peace process is the way in which the experiences of the thousands of British soldiers who served in one of Britain’s most complex wars have been swept under the carpet. Sadly, as with many peace processes, it seems that a by-product of moderating the hard-liners in the interests of a bright future, is that some uncomfortable truths about the past are conveniently overlooked.

Ken Wharton, however, has been ploughing something of a lone furrow when it comes to ensuring that the humble British Squaddie in Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten. This book remembers the years of 1973 and 1974. The title alludes to the manner in which the IRA had an uncanny knack of ensuring that nationalist families took their children off the streets before an impending terrorist attack. Patrolling British soldiers would be well aware that something was awry, by the absence of the usually ubiquitous children on the streets. ‘Sir, they’re taking the kids indoors’ was more often than not a signal that something unpleasant was about to happen.

Northern Ireland must have been the most difficult conflict imaginable for a soldier. Restricted by what were completely unrealistic rules of engagement – particularly having to play by all of the rules, when the paramilitaries definitely did not – can’t have been easy. And I have to say as well, I am in awe of the bravery of some of these ex-squaddies, putting their names to their experiences and views so publicly, especially when certain unsavoury elements might be looking.

I always learn something new from Kens books. From the month my month breakdownof incidents, I get the impression that it was not necessarily the big well-known incidents that caused such a heavy death toll in the Province, but the constant ‘drip-drip’ effect of ‘smaller’ incidents, almost on a daily basis throughout the troubles. Perhaps to many, Northern Ireland consisted of Bloody Sunday, Warrenpoint and Hunger Strikes, and nothing else in between. Also, its only from looking at the list of fatalities that you can see just what a prediliction some paramilitary groups had for violence that often had nothing to do with the Troubles. With many of the incidents that Ken writes about, you could interchange the sectartian elements – religions, groups or neighbourhoods – and they would be virtually identical.

Something more controversial, certainly in the current era, is the extent to which Irish-American ‘aid’ helped to finance the IRA. To what extent was this intentional? This is probably something for a diligent historian to work on in years to come with the advantage of hindsight and when the potential for embarassment does not cause such a barrier. But it’s surely more than a coincidence that many of the weapons used by the IRA in this period were American-made Armalites or Garands.

This is the fourth of Ken’s Northern Ireland books that I have reviewed, and I have enjoyed reading every one of them. There are some cracking stories here – the Republican neighbourhood dog that had its vocal cords taken out by a Paras SLR, and other real, whites of the eyes, front line experiences. In generations to come I think these books will be extremely useful and important.

‘Sir, they’re taking the Kids indoors’ is published by Helion

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Titanic in perspective

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but as interesting as the whole Titanic thing is, are we losing some kind of perspective? There are a couple of issues about the Titanic where the romanticism and popular culture has overshadowed some important parts of history. Sure, the Titanic was a marvellous ship, and its cultural impact, and its effect on safety at sea, stands for itself. But how many people know about other ships that were sunk just four years later, with a much higher loss of life and a less than 2% chance of survival?While it is popularly thought that the Titanic set sail from Southampton, it subsequently called at Cherbourg and then Queenstown in Ireland. Admittedly, Southampton was home to many of the crew, and it was the point at which the majority of the wealthy passengers boarded. But what about those who boarded in France and Ireland – in particular the many poorer steerage emigrant passengers from Queenstown? And what about the thousands of men who spent years slaving over the construction of the ship at Harland and Wolff in Belfast? Might they not have a strong claim to cultural ‘ownership’ of the Titanic? I suspect that many of us have been seduced by the glitz and glamour of the wealthy, influential Kate Winslet-esque passengers who joined the ship at Southampton, rather than Northern Ireland’s shipyard workers who spent years grafting over her.

When the Titanic foundered, she was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. 710 of these survived (32%), whilst 1514 perished (68%). Perhaps, in retrospect, the sinking of the Titanic did prove to be the beginning of the end of the carefree Edwardian period, and in a rather more sober manner, it did lead to more serious legislation regarding safety at sea. But we only need to look at more catastrophic loss of life only a few years later to try and put things into context.

In November 1914 two Portsmouth battleships were sunk. HMS Bulwark work lost at anchor off Sheerness in the Thames due to an accidental explosion. Of her 750 crewmembers, 738 were lost. Only 12 survived – a survival rate of just 1.6%. And this for a ship anchored close to shore, in British waters, in the estuary leading to London. Also in November HMS Good Hope was sunk off South America in the Coronel. All of her 900 crew were lost. Yet who knows about HMS Bulwark and HMS Good Hope?

On 31 May the British Grand Fleet joined battle with the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea of Jutland. Jutland saw perhaps the greatest loss of life in a single action that the Royal Navy had ever witnessed. The Battlecruiser HMS Invincible was sunk, and of her 1032 crewmen, only 6 survived, while the other 1026 men lost. A crewman on HMS Invincible at Jutland had a chance of survival of 0.58%. Another Portsmouth Battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was also sunk. Of her 1284 crew, an incredible 1266 men lost, with only 18 – 1.4% – survived. The other large ship from Portsmouth sunk at Jutland – the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince lost all of her 857 crew, with no survivors. That’s 3,149 men on three ships – and that’s just the Portsmouth based ships.

Why is it that one liner, sunk in peacetime by misadventure, completely overshadows the even more catastrophic and perilous loss of life just over four years later? Why, and how have forgotten about these thousands of sailors, their ships and the battles in which they were lost? Surely righting a wrong of history has to be a motivation for all of us heading into the 2014-18 Centenary period.

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30 year rule for historic records reduced to 20 years

I took this photograph myself when I went on a...

The National Archives in Kew (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Justice has announced that the current 30-year rule for historic official documents is to be reduced to 20 years.

Currently, official Government documents handed to the National Archives are closed for 30 years after they were produced. This means, for example, that documents relating to the Falklands War in 1982 are expected to become available in 2012. The exception, of course, is material that is judged to be too sensitive on national security grounds.

This is welcome news for historians, as it means that more historic records will be available for research much more quickly. According to the announcement on the ministry’s website, however, the process may take a while:

“To amend the Public Records Act to reduce the 30-year rule so that historical records are generally made available at The National Archives and other places of deposit after 20 years; this will be transitioned over a 10 year period at a rate of two years’ worth of records being transferred per year, with a view to commencing the process in 2013″

This still means however that documents relating to a whole host of events in the 1980’s will become available up to 10 years earlier than anticipated – the Falklands War, Thatcher‘s disputes with the Unions, Northern Ireland and the IRA, and possibly even documents relating to football hooliganism, Thatcher’s downfall and the first Gulf War. It has also been argued that the move will enhance transparency in Government, as ministers will only have to wait 20 years for their actions to come under scrutiny, rather than the present cushion of three decades.

Oliver Morley, Acting Chief Executive of The National Archives, said: ‘We look forward to working with government to implement these changes and will play a pivotal role in smoothing the transition for the records bodies involved.’

The move comes following a review of the 30 year rule in 2008. The 30 year rule has been increasingly redundant, as the Freedom of Information Act has made it possible for members of the public to request the opening up of material well before its 30 year closure has elapsed. This is particularly relevant with harmless and non-sensitive material that will help historians and family history enthusiasts alike.

I have also often thought that the 100 year limit on the national census returns is also excessive – might 50 years not be more sensible? I long for the day we can all access the little-known ‘wartime census’.

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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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Lest we Forget

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Warrior (Image via Wikipedia)

First of all, apologies that its taken me this long to post something today, thanks to some pretty unpleasant stuff (but dont worry, everythings ok).

I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone who visits my blog how important the 11th of November is. The day took on a special resonance when on 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent at 11am, ending the First World War on the Western Front. Since then 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month has been a time to remember the men and women who died during the First World War, the Second World War, and all wars since.

90 years ago today the Cenotaph was erected in Whitehall, and has been the setting for national commemoration ever since. Also in 1920 the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, in a state funeral attended by Royals, Field Marshals and Generals alike. The concept of remembering a completely unknown soldier was completely new, but captured the imagination of the country – the idea that ALL war dead should be remembered, regardless of who they are. The unknown warrior represents all of his comrades.

Of course on a day like today we remember the more than 5,000 men and women from Portsmouth who died during the First World War, the 2,549 who died during the Second World War, and the men who were killed during wars in Korea, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But most of all… don’t just remember them for a couple of minutes on one day each year. Remember them every day. Because thats the gap that their loss left in the lives of their family and friends.

For anyone local, the annual Remembrance Sunday Service in Guildhall Square in Portsmouth starts this Sunday at 10.30am. Hope to see you there.

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Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam – the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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A Long Long War by Ken Wharton

I’ve always had an interest in ‘the troubles‘, as the war in Northern Ireland has euphemistically been called. I’ve already reviewed Ken Wharton‘s book ‘Bloody Belfast‘ which I enjoyed immensely, so I’m very interested to be able to read his first book on the war in the province, which has just been reprinted by Helion in paperback. The title really is ‘ronseal’ – Northern Ireland was the longest continuous operation fought by the British Army, and virtually every British soldier from 1969 to 1998 would have experience of the province.

Historiographically, at present it isn’t quite the ‘done thing’ to try to write about Northern Ireland ‘as it was’ – the peace process and the Good Friday agreement have meant that a certain political correctness has prevailed. Between Paisley and McGuinness shaking hands, the British soldier has vanished. Just as political prisoners were freed, much of the history has been ignored, whether it be the role that certain republicans played, and also the experiences of the British Squaddie on the streets and in the countryside. I suppose its the adage that ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’, and at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the IRA are seen as freedom fighters by many. Many of the stories in this book are extremely callous – the murder of female soldiers, indsicriminate bombings, using schools and children as cover, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the massace at Enniskillen in 1987.

I think its absolutely critical to really understand as much as we can the experiences of the British Squaddie on the ground in Belfast, Londonderry, Crossmaglen and elsewhere. Not only in terms of the lessons in counter-insurgency, of which there are many, but also in terms of what they, as men, went through. Its incredibly harrowing to read some of the traumatic stories of shootings and bombings. To be honest its hard to know where to begin recounting stories, but suffice to say I was incredibly moved reading some of the incidents that took place. And these are only case studies. Its all the more poignant when you know of relatives who served in Northern Ireland too. But amongst all the moving tales, there also some typical tommy-humour anecdotes too. Time and time again, the British soldier somehow manages to make light of even the most dire situation.

On a more strategic and tactical level, this book shows just how professional the British Army and its soldiers became at counter-insurgency and fighting amongst the civil population. This was a very different war to most others. There was never going to be any kind of surrender, or victory parade. The Army were there to support the civil power in bringing about peace, and not to defeat the nationalists. The Army in Ulster could in all likelihood have gone all out to destroy the IRA, but that would only have polarised the situation and recruited more terrorists for the cause. The Army therefore found itself in an all-but impossible position of having to be on the streets, but only being allowed to fire if fired upon or under threat. A testing ordeal indeed for any soldier. Fighting among the people was also a different experience – soldiers interaction with society, good and bad and with both protestant and catholic, was crucial. Verfy often the squaddie cuts to the chase where officers, historians or politicians would be prone to waffle, and I cannot help but agree with the one soldier who felt that Ian Paisley recruited more young catholics for the IRA than anyone else.

One thing I have always wondered, is to what extent the IRA – and this might apply to other paramilitary groups also – drew its membership from politically-motivated men, or rather from a thuggish element who would have turned to crime in any case. Some of the stories shared by soldiers here suggest that political motivation may not have been as strong as we might first think. Here the importance of civil and military co-operation is clear – if living conditions, employment etc are sorted out, people are less likely to turn to terrorism, as with most types of crime.

If I have to single out some stories, it is those of the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment that really have my admiration. Mostly territorial, the members of the UDR had normal day jobs, and served in the evenings and weekends. Living in the communities that they were serving, they were extremely vulnerable to terrorists 24/7, any many of them – including a number of female members – paid the price.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe very much in balance in history. For too long the history of Northern Ireland has been completely out of balance. Ken Wharton has done some crucial work in redressing the balance, and I’m sure these eyewitness history accounts will be useful for historians for years to come. Not just for the major incidents, but also for the recollections about barracks, equipment, food and morale. The photographs, many of them personal images taken by soldiers on the ground, are fascinating too. The men in this book, and those that they represent, deserve the utmost credit for the job that they did. The troubles might have deeply scarred Northern Ireland, but they must also have scarred many thousands of British soldiers and their families.

A Long Long War is published by Helion

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In the ranks of death: The Irish in the Second World War by Richard Doherty

Hot on the heels of Bloody Belfast, I received another book on Irish History, this time focussing on the contribution of Irish people and Irish units to the Second World War.

Irish History really is like trying to untangle a particularly nasty ‘birdsnest’ on a fishing reel. Particularly if we are looking at Anglo-Irish History – its a prime example of how history can be affected by past and indeed future events. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland affected the path towards Irish nationalism, as much as the Easter Rising and the Troubles affect how Cromwell is seen today. Somewhere in amongst this passionate and complex historiography, we have the fact that a significant number of Irishman have fought for the British Crown over hundreds of years. Perhaps one of the best – although fictional – examples is that of Sergeant Harper in Sharpe.

But that is not all. Add into the equation the many thousands of Irish diaspora, particularly people who left during hard times to seek work, and joined the British Armed Forces. This leads us to consider one crucial question – why would Irishmen, particularly from the south, serve the British Crown? Doherty offers a number of reasons – hardship being one, alongside a desire to defend Democracy. Tellingly, however, Doherty tells us that in the post-war years when the Troubles were at their height, many Irish veterans had to use hardshp as an excuse for joining the Royal Navy or the British Army. A prime example of how current events can shape our understanding of the past.

This book by Richard Doherty sheds new light on this fascinating aspect of the War. In particular the first chapter uses some extensive research and statistics to challenge previous work on Irish participation and losses. The rest of the book follows a chronological path, detailing Irish units and Irishmen who took part in key actions. Medal winners are well documented, as are some typically Irish anecdotes – including the Protestant Northern Irish CSM who met the Pope wearing his Orange Order sash.

Its only after reading an account like this that you realise just what a contribution the Irish, from North and South, made to the British war effort. So many Generals seem to have had Irish connections – Dill, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Horrocks and O’Connor to name but a few. And then there was a plethora of other officers who distinguished themselves- Blaire ‘Paddy’ Mayne (DSO and 3 Bars, CO of the SAS and an Irish Achilles if ever there was one), Brigadier Hackett of Arnhem fame, Colonel Otway of Merville Battery, and Joe Vandeleur, CO of Irish Guards in the frantic dash up the corridor to Arnhem. As well as men, we are informed about some fine units, including the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 8th Kings Own Royal Irish Hussars, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Irish Guards.

On the downside, it is sometimes difficult to follow the Irish thread in amongst the broader strategic picture. Admittedly, Irishmen took part in virtually every battle and served on board most ships, so it must have been difficult to keep to the Irish thread. But this is a fantastic book, with thorough research complementing an analytical and well scoped approach.

In the ranks of death is published by Pen and Sword

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Bloody Belfast: An Oral History of the British Army’s war against the IRA by Ken Whaton

“But it wasn’t really a war was it?” – John Humphrys

To the over 300,000 British servicemen who served in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007 it certainly was a war. To the hundreds of families who received the dreaded knock on the door, it was a war. To the countless families impacted on by the stresses and strains of Northern Ireland, it was a war. To my Nan, whose nerves were shredded dreading a knock on the door informing her of bad news, it definitely was a war.

It is not easy for me to talk objectively about Northern Ireland. Having been told about it by three of my uncles who served there in the 1970’s, and having read a fair few published accounts by certain Greenjackets and Paras, I was not picking up this book ‘blind’.

What this book by Ken Wharton tells us, is that we need to rethink what we think of as ‘war’, beyond the two world wars. Just because active service in Belfast and Londonderr and Crossmaglen did not meet our narrow definition of battle, it does not lessen the bravery of the men who served there. Those of us reading from the comfort of our armchairs cannot begin to imagine the human strain of being on service in the Province at the height of the Troubles. If anything Northern Ireland was a more difficult kind of war, as with yellow cards and rules of engagement, the Security Forces were incredibly hamstrung in what they could do.

What also leaps out from the pages of this book is the leadership that NCO’s and even Private’s were called on to show. Northern Ireland has often been called a ‘Corporal’s war’. Rather than in conventional battle where officers and senior NCO’s make decisions and give orders, the war in Northern Ireland was conducted largely by low-level units. On patrol every man had to show the utmost initiative. But along with showing incredible initiative – indeed, the Army gained long-term benefits from this learning curve – the physical and psychological toll was huge.

Oral History has always been a greatway of telling ordinary people’s stories – and they are old in their own words. The human memory being what it is, we cannot take every word as gospel, but as exactly wha they are – memories. I suppose in the interests of balance it might be interesting to compare the views of IRA members during the same period. But what is interesting is that for the large part, the squaddies interviewed seem to have been as bitter loyalist paramilitaries as much as republicans. As most often in history, the average British Squaddie does not seem to have been bothered with politics. Others might feel that the British Army acted like gangsters, but evidence suggests that time and time again British soldiers showed amazing restraint. And thats how the war was ‘won’ – by not letting the terrorists achieve their goal of dragging down the Security Forces. If other certain armies had been fighting in Northern Ireland, a lot of sledgehammers might have been deployed against walnuts.

Wharton also sheds new light on some aspects of the war that are perhaps no so well known. The not insignificant number of British Army personnel who took their own lives. The massaging of statistics by the Ministry of Defence. The dedication of the men of the Ulster Defence Regiment. That what the British public knew about what went on ‘over the water’ depended on the media. And how many of the events in this Book will be completely unknown to the reader – we have all heard of Omagh, Bloody Sunday and Warrenpoint, but these were by no means the only atrocities carried out. There is a comprehensive roll of honour at the end of the book, giving names, dates, units and causes of death.

This is an immensely readable book – I had great trouble putting it down.

Bloody Belfast is published by The History Press

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Mo Mowlam remembered

I watched the docu-drama Mo on Channel 4 last night. It’s a portrayal of the last years of Mo Mowlam’s life, from just before the General Election of 1997 until her untimely death in 2005.

I know its only TV, and although its as a documentary element its not necessarily 100% accurate, but by all accounts her friends who were involved in making it regarded it as very true to life. Julie Walters was fantastic as Mo, and the screenplay was dramatic, moving and heartfelt. Mo’s story tells us a lot about the past 15 years in Britain. Its maybe too early to look at the New Labour era objectively, but with the Labour Government seemingly sloping towards an election defeat in May it seems natural to look back on those early days.

The way that Tony Blair undermined Mowlam after her standing ovation at the Labour Conference was nothing short of a disgrace. In an almost Stalinist manner, it was not acceptable for a Minister to be too popular. In a Government full of figures intent on following a political career rather than staying true to their beliefs, someone like Mo Mowlam was always going to stand out. But there seems little doubt that amongst ordinary people she remains the most popular and likeable Labour politcian of the past 13 years. Isn’t the Labour party supposed to be about representing ordinary people?

In hindsight it would seem as well that Downing Street attempted to marginalise Mowlam during the Northern Ireland negotiations. This fits in with the controlling, unconstitutional style of Government that is rapidly being exposed by the Iraq Inquiry. Despite attempts to steal the limelight, it has to be said that peace in Northern Ireland – largely brought about by Mo Mowlam – is the greatest achievement of the Labour Government.

But most importantly, Mo was herself. And among a cabal of faceless New Labour functionaries, that was refreshing. The way that she handled her illness was an inspiration. It does seem wrong that while Mo Mowlam suffered like she did, somebody like Peter Mandelson keeps bouncing back like a rubber ball and we have a Prime Minister ill at ease with people and vainly clinging onto power.

Her story tells us about much that is right and wrong about British politics, and budding politicians would to well to watch and learn.

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Filed under debate, News, On TV, politics