Daily Archives: 1 November, 2009

Supreme Courage by Sir Peter De La Billiere

Supreme Courage - Sir Peter De La Billiere

Supreme Courage - Sir Peter De La Billiere

As I am currently looking through the London Gazette’s online records of Victoria Cross citations, I thought it would be both topical and appropriate, given the closeness to Remembrance Day, to take a look at one of the many books focussing on Britain’s highest award for gallantry.

Sir Peter, or DLB, needs no introduction. A long-serving SAS officer, commander of British Forces in the Gulf and highly decorated himself, he is one of Britain’s most high profile Generals of modern times, long before Mike Jackson and Richard Dannatt. Therefore not only is he well entitled to write about heroism from the first hand- unlike, say Lord Ashcroft – but his name on the cover of a book will always inspire interest.

DLB tells some fascinating stories in this book. Some of them are well known, such as Noel Chavasse and Guy Gibson, and will be a quick recap to most people with an interest in military history. Some of them are not so well known, such as David Wanklyn and Albert Ball. But all of the cases included in the book are treated in context – their lives before and after the VC. Selecting VC winners to write about must be impossible – there are so many deserving cases.

One aspect where DLB really adds to our understanding, is the multinational and multicultural element of the Victoria Cross. The VC has been won by many Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Gurkhas, and men from many other backgrounds. War can be a leveller as a human experience, and provides the same potential for tragedy and heroism to all men, regardless of race, colour or creed.

In taking this broader approach, DLB adds to our understanding of courage and heroism, and also our understanding of human nature and ourselves. What is it about human beings that makes such feats possible? Drawing on expert analysis by Lord Moran, and citing examples from his own career, DLB takes us away from a simple ‘this is what happened’ narrative. This is essentially a social history, a valuable addition to any military library.

If you like this, you might also like:

Warriors – Max Hastings
The Anatomy of Courage – Lord Moran


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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Remembrance, victoria cross

Forces Crisis? Get rid of the Darlings!

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

The Armed Forces are being stifled by an over-preponderence of pointless staff officers, a former senior officer has told the Sunday Express.

Colonel Richard Kemp, an ex-commander of British Forces in Afghanisatan, argues that there are far too many staff officers, headquarters and senior officers who add little value to what is actually happening at the sharp end of the spear.

This is nothing new, for many years ‘Whitehall warriors’ have blighted the military. It is perfectly possible for an office to progress simply from creating a good impression with the right people, rather than getting on with the job. ‘Boy’ Browning is a good example.

It would also be very difficult to argue that the armed forces are not bloated by having too many senior officers, many of whom are in irrelevant or comfortable jobs that we could do without. There is also still much duplication between the Armed Forces. In many cases there are three posts in each of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy doing essentially the same thing. Is this really necessary? Is it justified to keep senior officers in non-essential jobs when we havent got enough helicopters? Why is it ever OK to have more Admirals than we have ships?

As well as the Chief of Defence Staff, who overseas the armed forces as a whole, each services has its own Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff respectively. In addition each service has a main commander in chief who overseas the actual operation part of the service, and another officer on the same level who handles personnel and administration issues. Even then, there is also a Joint Operational Headquarters which is responsible for co-ordinating deployments across all three services. Confusing? Overloaded? Bloated? It would be hard to argue otherwise. This even before we think about the offices, headquarters, assistants and staff officers used to look after all of these layers. In many cases this is far in excess of what the equivalent manager in industry would have.

Support services ARE important. The soldier on the front line is only the bullet being fired by a very large gun. But this should not be used as cover for maintaining antiquated and overloaded structures and systems. The UK armed forces are smaller than the US Marine Corps, which has more men, more ships, more aircraft, but a much simpler command system. On the other hand, the US does not have a tradition of superfluous staff officers to maintain.

Unfortunately the one thing that makes our armed forces so formidable – their history and traditions – also holds them back. Whenever a restructuring is proposed plenty of commentators cry foul over the loss of historic regiments. This is obviously very sad to see, but we have to be realistic and focus on what we are actually having to do. The Regimental system, where members owe their tribal loyalty firstly to the Regiment rather than the Army, has time and time again been a real strength. But it need not preclude change. In 2007 the Royal Greenjackets and Light Infantry merged to form the Rifles, a regiment actually more in keeping with both of the original regiments history than they were themselves!

Military establishments have through time been largely conservative. A prime example is how the British Army Cavalry were allowed to retain their horses for many years, when it was inevitable to anyone with any sense that horses would be pointless when tanks were becoming such a force in warfare. But the Cavalry officers were allowed to keep their horses for nostalgic reasons. In the same manner, is it realistic for the RAF to have illusions of fighters over the white cliffs of Dover?

Whatever the answer, difficult questions should not be avoided. While braided staff officers traipse though the corridors of Whitehall, men are dying and being blown apart in Afghanistan.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force

Britain ‘faces world choice’

Britain still has a taste for being a world power – and a determination to be a key influence on the United States, a senior defence analyst has told the BBC. But it faces a choice on how to play out that role, says Michael Codner, head of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.

With a general election looming and both Labour and the Tories promising to hold an early Strategic Defence Review, big questions are bound to be asked about the future of the armed forces. Structures, equipment, procurement, all depend on what exactly we plan to do with our soldiers, sailors and airmen. As war is essentially the pursuit of politics through other means, the need to form a policy on our use of defence in foreign affairs is paramount. Two big projects are likely to come under close scrutiny – the new Aircraft Carriers and our Nuclear deterrent.

One option would be to scale back on our spending, and become more of an ordinary European power, and plan to only take part in action as part of a NATO or EU alliance. This would see us lose much of our independent expeditionary capability. Whilst this would be cheaper, it would leave places such as the Falklands vulnerable, and our ability to co-operate with and influence the US would be much reduced.

Another choice would be to retrench even further and only retain the forces necessary to defend the UK, our sea lanes and our air space. But in an increasingly globalised world, this would not be feasible. History has proven that to deliver security at home you sometimes have to act further afield – Afghan poppy fields and Indian Ocean sea lanes are cases in hand.

One policy, which Mr Codner favours, is what defence experts call “strategic raiding” in which British forces are able to intervene swiftly and with a high degree of independence. It places a high value on naval and air forces for “theatre entry and sea basing”, and specialist light infantry. The classic “strategic raiding” operation, he says, is the successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.

The fly in the ointment is Britain’s long-term commitment to involvement in Afghanistan. As long as we are committed to fighting in Helmand, that must quite rightly take priority in resources. But in the even-longer term, we need to leave ourselves balanced and flexible enough to meet future threats. And of course, future threats do not often give us prior notice. Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and Somali Pirates did not hand diplomatic ultimatums to British embassies. And in any case, the ‘Ostrich’ approach in the 1930’s caused us no end of trouble.

Public opinion is important. Britain has been largely succesful in its foreign interventions since Suez in 1956, and while public opinion quite rightly recoils at the sight of Union Jack draped coffins arriving home, there is also a feeling that all the time we are succesful, spending money on defence is justified. Failures, however, would bring this under the spotlight.

To achieve any kind of over-arching policy it is vital that the 3 services somehow manage to co-operate more and stop squabbling over funding and resources. This is partly as a result of Whitehall’s ‘divide and conquer’ approach to running the armed forces. But would it really be too much to ask for an Air Marshal to admit that we need Chinooks not Eurofighters, or for an Admiral to concede that we need smaller, flexible carriers and more frigates and destoyers?

We might doubt exactly how much influence the UK has over the US in terms of defence. If our generals had been listened to before the Iraq war, much of the debacle that ensued afterwards might have been avoided (see General Sir Mike Jackson’s memoirs). But on the other hand, the 1982 Falklands War, and Britain’s convincing success against the odds, had an almost immeasurable effect upon the United States military.

While much of our defence policy will be heavily scrutinised, Britain still has an influence on the world stage out of all proportion to its size. Whether, and how, this can be maintained is another matter.


Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, Falklands War, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force

Victoria Cross Heroes – Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

In the annals of history, there is no doubt that to perform a feat of such bravery to be nominated for a Victoria Cross, putting your life and limb on the line is part and parcel of the action. As unpleasant as it is, in all war, there is a chance that you might not make it home.

But some people take it a step further, and when faced with a difficult decision stare death in the face. This is not suicidal, because action in a suicidal manner is reckless. This is a calculated, balanced judgement, to take on the enemy when you’re heavily outgunned. A judgement that Second World War Destroyer Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope made.

On the 8th April, 1940, H.M.S. Glowworm was proceeding alone in heavy weather towards a rendezvous in West Fjord, when she met and engaged two enemy destroyers, scoring at least one hit on them. The enemy broke off the action and headed North. The Commanding Officer at once gave chase. The German heavy cruiser, Admiral Hipper, was sighted closing the Glowworm at high speed. Because of the heavy sea, the Glowworm could not shadow the enemy and the Commanding Officer therefore decided to attack with torpedoes and then to close in order to inflict as much damage as possible. Five torpedoes were fired and later the remaining five, but without success. The Glowworm was badly hit; one gun was out of action and her speed was much reduced, but with the other three guns still firing she closed and rammed the Admiral’ Hipper. As the Glowworm drew away, she opened fire again and scored one hit at a range of 400 yards. The Glowworm, badly stove in forward and riddled with enemy fire, heeled over to starboard, and the Commanding Officer gave the order to abandon her. Shortly afterwards she capsized and sank. The Admiral Hipper hove to for at least an hour picking up survivors but the loss of life was heavy, only 31 out of the Glowworm’s complement of 149 being saved. The VICTORIA CROSS is bestowed in recognition of the great valour of the Commanding Officer who, after fighting off a superior force of destroyers, sought out and reported a powerful enemy unit, and then fought his ship to the end against overwhelming odds, finally ramming the enemy with supreme coolness and skill.

Gerard Roope as last seen holding onto a rope dropped by the Admiral Hipper, but could not hold on and presumably drowned. The Captain of the Admiral Hipper was so impressed by the valour shown by HMS Glowworm that he ensured the British authorities were informed, via the Red Cross. Full details only emerged after the war, however, and Roope’s widow and son were presented with his Victoria Cross in 1946.

To this day Royal Navy Commanders are taught that one day, they may have to make the same sacrifice as Roope. During the Falklands War in 1982, Commander Christopher Craig, was ordered to take HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, attack anything in the way, and zig zag around the entrance of Falkland Sound to check it if was mined. Hitting a mine would have spelt disaster for the small frigate. Craig could have expected very high praise indeed if Alacrity had been sunk, but as she was not, almost nothing is remembered of her story.

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Filed under Falklands War, maritime history, Navy, Remembrance, victoria cross, World War Two