Daily Archives: 14 February, 2010

65 years ago: Operation Veritable

Reichswald War Cemetery, Germany

Reichswald War Cemetery, Germany

65 years ago this month British and Canadian troops were fighting hard in Operation Veritable, the battle of the Reichswald Forest.

The battle of the Reichswald was brought about by the legacies of Operation Market Garden and the Ardennes offensive. After the failure at Arnhem the allies were only left with the option of crossing the Rhine east of the Reichswald forest. This entailed taking the area between the Rhine and Maas rivers. Veritable had originally been planned to take place in January 1945, but had to be delayed due to the German Ardennes offensive. Allied forces earmarked for the battle had to be redeployed to stem the German attack.

The Battle was fought by the Canadian 1st Army, along with significant reinforcement by British Divisions. The operation started on 8 February 1945 with large aerial and artillery bombardments, including one of the biggest artillery barrages of the war, by over 1,000 guns and lasting 5 hours, and a large smokescreen. On the night of 7-8 February 1945 a force of 285 Lancasters led by 10 Mosquito Pathfinders ‘took out’ the German town of Kleve, close behind the German lines.

The battle was largely a hard, infantry slog through dense woodland, in the depths of a particularly cold winter and was finally over by 10 March, with the Allies firmly on the Rhine.

Local men who fell in the battle of the Reichswald include:

Private Edward Searle was serving with the 7th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, in the 43rd (Wessex) Division. 21 and from Stamshaw, he was killed on 15 February 1945 and is buried in Reichswald War Cemetery, Germany.

Fusilier William Moore, 18 and from Milton, was killed on 26 February 1945. He was serving in the 7th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 53rd (Welsh) Division. He is buried in Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Holland.

Lieutenant Robert Milne was serving with 151 Field Regiment, a Territorial Royal Artilley unit that provided artillery support to the 11th Armoured Division. 20 and from Southsea, he was killed on 1 March 1945. He is buried in Groesbeek War Cemetery, Holland. The 11th Armoured Division had been transferred across the Maas to reinforce XXX Corps as the battle progressed.

Some years ago I went on a coach tour of the countryside between the Maas and the Rhine, leading up from the German city of Duisburg to the Dutch border near the Reichswald, taking in town of Xanten, Kleve, Goch and Kevelaer. Although it seemed very nice in June, I can imagine it seemed very different in a cold February.

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RAF pilot flies Joint Strike Fighter for the first time

A British pilot has flown the F-35 Lightning – known in the UK as the Joint Strike Fighter – for the first time. Squadron Leader Steve Long of the RAF flew at 20,000 feet over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. Squadron Leader Long has been based with VX-23 US Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron since May 2008. It is encouraging that a British Officer has been working on the project, so the Ministry of Defence should not be buying blind.

Squadron Leader Long said:

“Flying the JSF was exactly like the simulators that I’ve been flying for over 18 months now, which gives you a lot of confidence in all the modelling and simulation work that has been done in all the other areas of flying. This aircraft gives the RAF and Navy a quantum leap in airborne capability. A pilot in this aircraft will have an unprecedented level of situational awareness about what’s going on in the airspace and on the battlefield or ocean below because of its highly advanced sensors. This aircraft will plug into coalition battlefield networks and be able to pass that picture on to all other players.”

The Joint Strike Fighter is due to take over front-line duties from the Harrier, both in the RAF and on the Royal Navy’s Aircraft Carriers in its navalised version. It promises to be a very important aircraft, not only with the capabilities that it will offer, but also in that it will be at forefront of RAF-Navy interoperability. In replacing the Harrier it will also play a key role in close air support, something that is proving instrumental in Afghanistan.

There are fears however that with looming defence cuts the UK will face real difficulties in purchasing the JSF. Not having an aircraft to replace the Harrier or to fly off of the new Aircraft Carriers would leave us at a severe disadvantage. The RAF has plenty of Typhoons for Air Defence, but it also needs ground attack craft too. Typhoons can act as multi-role platforms but that is essentially a compromise and hardly ideal, they have been largely multi-roled as an afterthought.

I’m no expert on the high performance of fast jets, and my opinion probably counts for very little. But… Will the JSF prove to be more important to UK Defence than the Tyhoon? I have a feeling that it will be. My impression is that the JSF will be able to act in air defence better than the Typhoon can in ground attack. There are historical parallels – look at how the Harrier performed far beyond anyones expectations in 1982, against technically superior aircraft.

The JSF is likely to have a tough time in the upcoming Defence Review, however.

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Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq