Tag Archives: Royal Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting thoughts indeed…

Read the full article here

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940’s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Marines (part 1)

Formed back in the eighteenth century, the Royal Marines have a long and illustrious history of service at sea. Much of the Corps served onboard Royal Naval ships, providing security, landing and boarding parties, bands and – on larger ships – crewing one of the main guns.

Yet the Second World War found the Royal Marines involved more than ever before in a new form of warfare – amphibious operations. In modern times the Marines are known primary for their green beret, command role. But in the Second World War the Royal Marine Commandos were a pretty new concept.

116 Royal Marines from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. As one of the main manning ports of the Corps, a large proportion of men came to settle in the area.

Areas

35 – Southsea (30.17%)
13 – Eastney (11.2%)
9 – Milton (7.76%)
8 – Fratton (6.9%)
7 – Copnor (6.03%)
5 – Cosham (4.31%)
3 – North End (2.59%)
2 – Mile End (1.72%)
1 – Buckland (0.86%)
1 – East Cosham (0.86%)
1 – Landport (0.86%)
1 – Paulsgrove (0.86%)
1 – Portsea (0.86%)

27 Royal Marines – 23.28% – are listed simpy as from Portsmouth. The remainder are unknown, or appear to come from somewhere else but perhaps have some Portsmouth connections.

The concentration of so many Royal Marines living in Southsea, Eastney, Milton and Fratton is not surprising, given the presence of the Marines Barracks at Eastney.

Years

11 – 1939 (9.48%)
6 – 1940 (5.17%)
45 – 1941 (38.79%)
20 – 1942 (17.24%)
13 – 1943 (11.2%)
9 – 1944 (7.76%)
7 – 1945 (6.03%)
5 – 1946 (4.31%)
1 – 1947 (0.86%)

All but one of the men killed in 1939 went down on HMS Royal Oak. The large number of men killed in 1941 is due to the large number of casualties suffered in the sinkings of HMS Hood and HMS Barham.

Ages

10 – teenagers (inc. 2 17 year olds) (8.62%)
39 – 20’s (33.62%)
28 – 30’s (24.14%)
15 – 40’s (12.93%)
5 – 50’s (4.31%)
2 – 60’s (1.72%)

The age of 18 Royal Marines – 15.52% – is unknown.

The majority of Royal Marines were in their 20’s or 30’s. Its noticeable, however, that the Royal Marines also contained a sizeable number of teenagers. A number of older former Marines were recalled to the sevice to act as instructors or in an administration role during the war, and these account for the men who were in their 50’s and 60’s.

Ranks

6 Portsmouth Marines – 5.17% – killed during the war were officers:

3 – Captain
3 – Lieutenant

The remaining 110 Marines – 94.83% – were NCO’s or junior ratings:

1 – Master at Arms
1 – Company Sergeant Major
2 – Quartermaster Sergeant
8 – Colour Sergeant
11 – Sergeant
4 – Bandmaster
5 – Corporal
2 – Lance Corporal
74 – Marine
2 – Boy Bugler

Units

The vast majority of Marines who were killed during the war became casualties while serving onboard ships:

57 – Ship duty (49.14%)
22 – RM Band Service (18.97%)
21 – unknown (18.1%)
6 – Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisation (5.17%)
4 – Commando (6.9%)
3 – Landing Craft (2.59%)
2 – RM Police (1.72%)
1 – RM Engineers (0.86%)

In particular, many Marines lost their lives onboard the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In addition, most of the Royal Marine Bandsmen who were killed were onboard ships. Although sea service was the overwhelming tradition of the Corps, there is evidence that the Royal Marines were beginning to diversify – forming Commando units, crewing Landing Craft, and providing personnel for the Mobile Naval Base Dockyard Organisations.

Cemeteries and Memorials

As the vast majority of Marines – 70 men, 60.34% – were lost at sea, most have no known grave other than the sea and are remembered on the various naval memorials:

63 – Portsmouth Memorial
5 – Plymouth Memorial
2 – Chatham Memorial

46 men – 39.66% – were buried ashore:

30 – UK
3 – Egypt
3 – Italy
3 – Sri Lanka
2 – France
2 – Holland
1 – Australia
1 – India
1 – Malta
1 – New Zealand

Of the men buried in the UK, 9 were buried in Highland Road Cemetery (close to the Marine Barracks at Eastney), 6 in Milton Cemetery and 2 in Kingston Cemetery. Others were buried in other naval locations, such as Haslar, Lyness, Milford Haven, Portland.

Many of the overseas burials seem to have been men who were taken ill onboard ship and died in hospital in principal naval ports, such as Sri Lanka or Malta. One Marine who died in France was killed at Dieppe, another the day after D-Day. One man in Holland was killed in the Walcheren landings, another – a Marines Engineer – was killed in the Rhine Crossing.

Decorations

4 Portsmouth Marines who died during the war – 6.9% – were the holders of some kind of decoration:

Cross of St George 4th Class (Russia)
Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird (won in WW1 at Jutland)

Mentioned in Despatches
Sergeant Arthur Bradley (47 Commando, Malta Convoys)
Sergeant Christopher Blake (Northern Waters)

Kings Badge
Sergeant John Maker

The Kings Badge was awarded to the best all-round recruit in each intake of Marines.

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local military history events this summer

Its looking like a bumper summer for all things military history in the Portsmouth area. If I’ve missed any out, feel free to comment!

Overlord Vehicle Show – 28 to 31 May 2010

This event takes place every year at the Horndean showground near Portsmouth, and is organised by the Solent Overlord Executive Military Vehicle Club. For 4 days from 9am until 5.30pm you can take a good look at a whole host of military vehicles, re-enactors, arena events and stalls. This year the shows designated charity is the Gurkha Welfare Trust. For more information click here, and to look at some pictures from last years event, click here.

South Coast Proms – 25 and 26 June 2010

This is a brand new event, featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines – only the best military band in the world! Its taking place on Whale Island, a naval base normally closed to the public. Pre-show entertainment starts at 6.30pm each night, and the evening will end on a high with the traditional Naval Ceremonial Sunset and a fireworks finale. For more information click here.

Para Spectacular and Veterans Day – 3 and 4 July 2010

This event began life as the Pompey Paras spectacular over twenty years ago. This year, for the second year running, its a two-day event and incorporates the Armed Forces and Veterans Day. It takes place on Southsea Common, and features a range of dislays, arena events, and parachute displays. According to the local media an Apache might even make an appearance! The day ends with a marchpast of veterans and a performance from the Parachute Regiment band. As the Grandson of a Para I always try and make an appearance if I can. For more information click here, and to see pictures of last years event click here.

Navy Days – 30 July to 01 August 2010

This biennial event takes place at Portsmouth Dockyard. Aimed at showcasing the Royal Navy past, present and future, we can expect a wide array of ships, displays, arena events, aerial and water displays, and a whole host of entertainment. Already confirmed to appear are HMS Daring and Dauntless, the two new Type 45 Destroyers; RFA Argus, an aviation training and casualty receiving ship; two Type 23 Frigates; HMS Cattistock, a mine-countermeasures vessel; HMS Tyne, a fishery patrol vessel; and HMS Gleaner, an inshore survey launch. Nearer the event we can also expect some foreign warships to be announced. As well as the modern ships visitors will be able to see all the usual attractions of the historic dockyard. The Royal Marines band will be performing, along with the Royal Signals white helmets motorcycle display team, and the Brickwoods Field Gun competition. In the air, the Royal Navy Black Cats helicopter display team will appear, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance, and the Royal Artillery Black Knights Parachute Display team. Looks like a great day out. For more infomation click here.

Shoreham Airshow – 21 to 22 August 2010

The last event of the year is the annual Battle of Britain airshow at Shoreham airport. Headlining the show this year are contributions from the RAF, in the shape of a Harrier GR9, Hawk T1, Tucano T1, King Air, Grob Tutor, the Lancaster, Spitifire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and the Falcons parachute display team (saturday only). On Sunday the Red Devils Parachute Display team will be performing. A wide array of civilian displays are expected – Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnats, BAC Strikemaster, De Havilland Vampire, Catalina Flying Boat, a large number of Spitfires and Hurricanes, B-17 Flying Fortress, and a number of aerobatic displays. As well as the aerial displays there are always a wide range of static displays, including from the armed forces, and re-enactors. I’ve been the past two years and always had a great time. For more information click here.

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Falklands then and now: Land Forces

Although it is the job of the Royal Navy to defeat the enemy surface threat and make conditions favourable for any amphibious landing, it is only the Royal Marines or Army who can take the fight to the enemy on land.

Historically the British Army has by and large been a small, professional force that has been described elsewhere as a bullet to be fired by the Royal Navy, and then retrieved. This happened in numerous imperial conflicts, and the Falklands was perhaps the last example of this kind of operation.

The picture in 1982

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

1982 found the British Army in a curious position historically. For the first time in its history it had something of a primacy within the armed forces, with its huge treaty commitment to NATO in the shape of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). In 1982 a whole British Corps was stationed in Germany, consisting of 4 Armoured Divisions. This was largely of deterrence value, against the Warsaw pact across the inner German Border.

Alongside Germany, Northern Ireland represented a major commitment to the British Army from 1969 onwards. In 1980 11,000 troops were deployed in the province. The commitment to Northern Ireland also weakened BAOR, as troops from Germany also took turns serving there. Although this represented a drain on the Army’s manpower, it also had benefits. Referred to as a ‘Corporals war’, it gave young soldiers a steep learning curve.

Britain did maintain a small force designated for ‘out of area’ operations or to reinforce NATO’s flanks: in the main, this comprised 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines, and 5 Airborne Brigade. In public consciousness Paras and Marines always appear whenever there is a crisis. In 1982, however, armoured warfare in North Europe dominated British military thinking.

That 3 Commando Brigade and 5 Brigade comprised the land forces sent to the Falklands was natural, as they were the forces on high alert for out of area operations – BAOR could not be weakened, nor could Northern Ireland. The other troops sent to the Falklands – the Welsh and Scots Guards – had just finished public duties, but were all that could be spared.

By and large the performance of British land forces in the Falklands was exemplary. Even when heavily outnumbered, without air superiority and with scant helicopter support, their training, motivation and leadership won out. The reputation of units such as the Paras, the Royal Marines and the Gurkhas had a powerful psychological effect on the young Argentine conscripts.

The picture in 2009

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

The British Army has been radically reduced since the end of the Cold War, as part of the so-called ‘peace-dividend’. In addition the peace process in Northern Ireland has led to a draw-down in Army commitments there. This has also led to cuts.

Any future Falklands land war would again fall upon the infantry, given the terrain in the Falklands. In 2009, the Army consists of 37 Battalions of regular infantry. 22 of these are light infantry, 7 armoured, 4 Air Assault, 3 mechanised, and 1 demonstration. Of these 3 are performing public duties.

The Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade would be the ideal spearhead of any land forces to retake the Falklands, given their expertise and experience in Amphibious warfare. The Brigade currently consists of 3 RM Commandos and an attached Army Battalion. This would probably require reinforcing by at least another Army Brigade, as in 1982, as well as their supporting arms – logistics, engineering, artillery, and so forth.

At the time of writing over 10,000 British soldiers are in Afghanistan. Currently this consists of 4 infantry Battalions as well as supporting troops. Brigades serve in Afghanistan for 6 months, in some cases with 18 months in between deployments. When we consider work-up training, post-deployment leave, etc, the overstretch is even starker. If any Argentine invasion of the Falklands took place this would severely restrict the troops available, in the same way that BAOR and Northern Ireland did in 1982. If it happened while 3 Commando Brigade, the specialist amphibious infantry, were in Afghanistan, then any land force would be severely handicapped.

There are positives, however. Virtually all of the Army’s Battalions have been deployed on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years, against a formidable enemy in the Taliban. This can only have heightened professionalism and fighting edge, particularly among line infantry Battalions who are perhaps not as glamorous as the Marines or the Paras. An average line infantry Battalion would probably be more capable of fighting a Goose Green that it would have been in 1982.

However, the Argentine forces will in all likelihood also have improved on their 1982 state. The ending of conscription will have led to a more professional army. It can no longer intervene in internal politics, and hence resembles a modern Army that is soleley focussed on soldiering. It has also been able to co-operate more with allies, such as the US, and a thaw in relations with Chile has removed the need to station large forces on that border. This would free up specialist mountain warfare troops, unlike in 1982.

Conclusion

Although the British Army is much leaner than in 1982, it is in a lot of ways meaner. In addition, it is more flexible, both structurally and doctrinally. It is less focussed on one particular theatre, and out-of-area operations are now the norm rather than the rule. The line infantry on the whole is more experienced than it was in 1982.

Having said that, overstretch caused by operations in Afghanistan would severely limit the kind of force that could be generated. A best case scenario would see 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade both available; a compromise situation would either of the Commando or Air Assault Brigades reinforced by another Army Brigade, and a worst case scenario would see neither the Commando nor Air Assault Brigades available.

In the Argentine Army, it could also expect to face a more professional, better trained and better motivated enemy, who would be able to deploy more reinforcements, particularly elite troops and specialist mountain warfare units.

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Falklands then and now: Amphibious Warfare

Britain, and particularly the Royal Navy, were among the pioneers of amphibious warfare – that is, moving your troops from the sea to land, and keeping them there. After Galipoli, and a ‘reverse invasion’ at Dunkirk, lessons were put to effect in Sicily, and later on in Normandy.

So how was it that Amphibious Warfare was in such a perilous state in 1982? Although the capability had been proven time and time again in action and in exercise, and the Royal Marines Commando Brigade had a role as reinforcements for NATO’s northern flank, amphibious warfare was seen as a low priority. The Royal Navy’s emphasis was still mainly on anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet Union in the North Sea and North Atlantic.

The picture in 1982

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

The Royal Navy had post-war trialled the concept of the Commando Carrier: an Aircraft Carrier operating Helicopters to land a Royal Marines force. These were used effectively in Suez in 1956. However, given the shortage of Carriers in 1982, and that the task force needed both available flat tops for providing air defence, the Commando Brigade – the spearhead of the land forces – would have to rely on the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships.

The two ships of the Fearless Class of Landing Platform Dock were available. HMS Fearless was available to sail straight away; HMS Intrepid was destored and run-down, and only after a mammoth effort by Portsmouth Dockyard was she able to sail south. In fact, the whole operation hinged on when she was available. The two Fearless class Landing Platform Docks, almost 20 years old, could carry a maximum of 700 troops each, with 8 Landing Craft. They carried no helicopters themselves, but had space to operate 4 or 5 medium helicopters, usually ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Fleet Air Arm’s Commando Support Group. Both ships were also equipped to act as Flagships to an amphibious group.

The six Round table class of Landing Ships were normally tasked by the Army, supporting the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. They could carry up to 500 troops each, but were primarily designed for transporting vehicles and stores. They were not designed for long-range amphibious operations, and were not even considered part of the Royal Navy’s active fleet. They carried no landing craft or aircraft, with the Fearless Class Landing Craft being used instead to ferry troops ashore.

The Royal Navy’s amphibious group in 1982 could deploy a Commando Brigade and Headquarters, albeit in cramped and far from ideal conditions. It also relied predominantly on landing craft rather than helicopters. It required the use of Merchant ships to carry stores, ammunition and extra troops. Losses, particularly either of the Fearless Class or of any Landing Craft, might have proved critical.

The picture in 2009

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

The Royal Navy now has an expanded and capable amphibious fleet, having learnt the lessons of the Falklands War and committed itself to ‘out of area’ expeditionary warfare. This cultural aspect is important – in 1982 the Amphibious Commanders and the Battle Group Commander were by their own admission not singing from the same hymn sheet.

The Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean can use her 18 Helicopters and 4 Landing Craft to deploy almost 800 troops, the equivalent of more than an army Battalion or RM Commando. She can also operate British Army Apache Helicopters, and might also be a useful platform for launching an air assault by airborne units in conjunction with any seaborne operation. She was however designed to commerical rather than military standards, and will require replacement in the non too distant future.

The Assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are an improvement on the Fearless Class and can deploy up to 700 troops each, with eight Landing Craft each. One of these ships is usually at high readiness, and the other in refit or training. However, often these are deployed on tasks that would normally be performed by destroyers or frigates. As with the Carriers, much would depend on the ability to get the second ship ready for action. As in 1982, one of these ships would likely provide the Flagship for the Amphibious group.

The four Bay Class Landing ships, a significant improvement on the Round table class, can deploy 350 troops each, by 2 Landing Craft and Mexefloat rafts. Of the four, two are normally available for immediate use, and the other two either on operations or in refit or training. As with the Albion Class, these are often deployed on escort duties in place of Frigates or Destroyers. I will examine the potential for calling up Merchant vessels in a future instalment, but the RFA does also contain the Point Class vessels for performing sealift duties, which would be invaluable for performing a task that required the use of requisitioned Commercial vessels in 1982.

In Conclusion

In total, an amphibious group consisting of HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and perhaps three of the Bay Class ships would be able to carry and deploy a reinforced Commando Brigade along with its Headquarters and supporting troops, but would also be well placed to launch further units and equipment arriving in theatre as well, without such a reliance on Merchant vessels. It also possesses more strength, capability and flexibility in terms of landing craft and helicopter assets than it did in 1982. This was shown by the succesful assault on the Al Faw peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade in 2003, and the operations in Sierra Leone several years before.

The Royal Navy may be able to deploy a much stronger Amphbious Task Group than it did in 1982, and is much more focussed on amphibious warfare than it was in 1982. In all likelihood the real difficulties would be in providing air cover for such an operation and finding enough escort ships to provide close defence. To launch an amphibious assault requires air superiority and command of the seas: is it worth having such a capability if you cannot create the conditions to deploy it, nor defend it?

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They died on Christmas Day

Sadly, aside from the unique example of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western front, war usually has no regard for Christmas. Of the 1,000 Portsmouth soldiers, sailors and airmen who I have so far researched, these three men died on Christmas Day.

Corporal Robert Davison, from Milton, was a Royal Marine onboard HMS Berwick when he was killed 25 December 1940. At the time HMS Berwick was serving in North West Approaches. Davison must have died and been buried at sea, as he has no grave and is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Private George Griffin, 21 and from Milton, was serving in the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in Burma when he was killed on 25 December 1941, fighting the Japanese. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Rangoon Memorial.

Petty Officer Frederick Bulbeck, 35 and from Drayton, died on 25 December 1945. He was serving onboard HMS Zodiac, a Zambesi class Destroyer. He died after the war had ended, and is buried in Hamburg War Cemetery, Germany.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

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HMS Bulwark

I managed to catch a rare sight today when HMS Bulwark came into Portsmouth Dockyard. Conveniently when I was able to dash out of work in my lunch hour! Known as Landing Platform Docks, Bulwark and her sister ship HMS Albion are replacements for the HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

Their primary role is to embark, transport and deploy troops, their vehicles and equipment. To do this she carries 8 Landing Craft – with a resident Squadron of Royal Marines to operate them – which can be loaded through the dock at the stern of the ship or off of a side door and ramp. They can operate Helicopters up to the size of the Chinook, although there are no Hangar facilities onboard.

Albion and Bulwark, as well as carrying troops, can act as the Flagship for an Amphibious Task Group, containing the Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean and several ships from the Bay Class of Auxilliary Landing Ships. They can carry 305 troops for long periods, and 710 in an emergency. The whole ship has been specifically designed around the needs of the embarked military force.

Weighing 18,500 tons, they are a significant improvement on Fearless and Intrepid. Although their top speed, 18 knots, is pretty low.

Albion was commissioned in 2003, and Bulwark in 2004. Both are based in Plymouth, along with HMS Ocean. This probably makes sense as the Commando Brigade is based in the West Country. Therefore it is not very often that one of these ships comes into Portsmouth.

Earlier this year HMS Bulwark headed a UK task group taking part in Amphibious exercises and ‘flying the flag’ operations in the Far East. She’s looking pretty rusty – her predecessor used to be nicknamed ‘Rusty B’ so obviously she is living up to the nickname!

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

The introduction of Albion, Bulwark and Ocean represents a commitment to the UK’s amphibious capability. For years up until the Falklands war the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the Royal Marines, and preferred to spend time and money on aircraft carriers and submarines. The Falklands War changed all that, and along with 16 Air Assault Brigade the amphibious ships and the Commando Brigade comprise the UK’s readily deployable forces, ready and able to deploy into any enviroment from the Arctic to the Tropics.

It is difficult to envisage what kind of environment such a force would be used in – although securing a destabilised country, such as Sierra Leonne, could be one. The Falklands showed that amphibious operations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, and as the Royal Navy is getting shorter and shorter of Destroyers and Frigates armed with anti-aircraft missiles to act as escorts it might be difficult to deploy our amphibious forces against anything more than medium opposition.

But in an unpredictable world a capable Amphibious Task Force is a sound insurance policy.

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We Died With Our Boots Clean by Kenneth McAlpine

We Died With Our Boots Clean

We Died With Our Boots Clean

At the age of seventeen, Kenneth McAlpine absconded from the prestigious Repton School and joined the Royal Marine Commando’s, one of the elite special forces that Winston Churchill had ordered to ‘set Europe ablaze’. By 1944, they were an integral part of the invasion of Europe.

This book follows Kenneth and his comrades from the rigours of Commando training, through the Normandy beaches to Victory in Europe. After three months training he found himself in action on D-Day, securing the east flank of the Normandy beachead. Several months savage fighting followed, before they took part in the capture of Walcheren Island, a little-known but key action that enabled the opening of the port of Antwerp. Skirmishes followed on Dutch islands and waterways, before the unit was sent as part of the occupation force in Germany.

There is much that is interesting about the experiences of the rank and file soldier. Not that grand strategy is unimportant. But without a wide range of eyewitness testimonty, it is not unlike a skeleton without flesh on its bones. Kenneth McAlpine’s account is the kind that adds colour to our understanding of conflict. In particular, the character and psyche of the British serviceman, and how he approaches fighting. There are some golden anecdotes about relations between officers and other ranks. At one point the troop even conspired to kill their Sergeant-Major, and reading McApline’s account you cannot help but sympathise. One of his colleagues was disciplined for insulting the Queen of Holland. McAlpine considers a broad range of subjects – discipline, rations, weapons, uniform, other units, punishment, reasons for fighting and the diversity and peculiarities of his fellow Royal Marine Commando’s. Not only did I find it very interesting, but also amusing and a pleasure to read.

If this was a purely military history book, I would perhaps be more conscious about a couple of things. Several times McAlpine goes from anecdote to anecdote, which can be confusing. Also, there are several minor errors of accuracy. But this is not a textbook, and we must respect Kenneth’s memories. Such is the nature of human rememiscence, especially from a distance of 65 years.

I have always been a fan of the veterans account. For too many years the history of warfare consisted of the ‘great man’ school of history, where Generals were the most important people, and battles consisted of grand strategy and not much more. And particularly at a time when there are fewer and fewer veterans alive, it is all the more important that we encourage them to tell their stories. In years to come will be very glad that they did.

We Died With Our Boots Clean is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Marines, social history, World War Two

UPDATED: Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird

Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird, of the Royal Marines, died on 25 October 1943. He was 62, and from Southsea. He lies in Highland Road Cemetery in Southsea, Portsmouth.

Several things seem very interesting about Colour Sergeant Bird.

Firstly, he was very old to be in the forces, even in an administrative or training role. Colour Sergeant is the Royal Marines equivalent of what the Army call a Staff Sergeant, so it looks like Bird was based at the Royal Marines Barracks at Eastney.

But secondly, and most interesting of all, he was a holder of the Russian Cross of St George, 4th Class. This was a decoration introduced by Tsarist Russia for bravery in action, and was abolished by the Soviets after the Russian Revolution.

How did Bird come to win such an exotic decoration? It looks like he must have seen action in Russia at some point, possibly in the First World War or more likely in the Russian Civil War between 1917 and 1923, when British forces fought alongside the white russians against the Bolsheviks.

I have been unable to find any citations for this award, although I have also found that some men who were awarded Russian medals were given them under a false name, to prevent reprisals by Communists.

LATEST NEWS:
I have just downloaded Colour Sergeant Bird’s service record from the National Archives website. It makes very interesting reading.

Born on 8th Novembert 1880 in Wandsworth, London, he enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1898, when he was 17. Although he joined the Royal Marines Artillery – at a time when the Royal Marines consisted of Artillery and Light Infantry – he spent most of his service onboard ship, probably as part of a gun crew. Traditionally, on British Battleships one of the main guns was crewed entirely by Royal Marines. He was present at the Battle of Falklands Islands onboard HMS Inflexible in 1914, in support of the Galipoli campaign in 1915, and at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 onboard Inflexible.

It was for his service at Jutland that the Russian Government conferred the Cross of St George on him. He served in the Royal Marines until 1922 when he was transferred to the Royal Marines Reserve. He carried on in this capacity until 1930 when he turned 50, and was discharged. When the Second World War began in 1939 he was re-engaged as a drill instructor, until he was discharged on 20th October 1942, only 5 days before he died.

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Filed under Local History, Navy, Royal Marines, World War One