Monthly Archives: October 2010

Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

A Tank in a Glider. How the hell do you fit a Tank in a Glider, and then fly it hundreds of miles, land it, and then fight from it? It seems ridiculous, but this really did happen during the latter stages of the Second World War.

Although Britain was woefully slow in developing Airborne Forces, one aspect in which she was far in advance of her allies and enemies was that of developing means of transporting tanks into battle by air. Obviously it would have been impossible to carry anything like Sherman or Churchill by air, but it was found that the Tetrarch – a small light tank – could fit inside a General Aircraft Hamilcar Glider. Hamilcars were the largest glider used by British Forces during the war, and flew in action in Normandy, at Arnhem and during the Rhine Crossing. Flying a huge Glider loaded with a light tank was an impressive feat for the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, who upon landing became infantry in their own right.

Flint gives us an impressive overview of the development of both the Tetrarch and Locust, and also of the Hamilcar glider that carried them into battle. Not only are we informed about the machines, but also the men and the units that fought with them. It was indeed a surprise to me to learn that once the ground forces linked up with the airborne recce units the airborne men swapped their light tanks for heavier Churchill tanks, which gave the Airborne Division much more firepower and enabled it to act as a regular infantry Division, such as in the advance to the Seine in the summer of 1944 and from the Rhine Crossing to the Elbe in 1945.

One aspect I am particularly interested in is the lack of any serious Armour in the 1st Airborne Division that landed at Arnhem. As Flint has shown, this was more by accident than by design. It would be reasonable to suggest that while Tetrarchs or Locusts might not have fared too well against Mark IVs, Tigers of Panthers later in the battle, in the early advances to the Bridge tanks might have fared better in the infamous ambush than lightly armed Jeeps. Even better, a troop of tanks in front of each Battalion heading for the Bridge would have been most effective. The 1st Airborne Recce commander, Major Freddie Gough, suggested that some of 6th Airborne’s tanks could have been used at Arnhem, but this suggestion was not taken up. This more than fits in with the impression that the Arnhem operation was badly planned and opportunities were missed.

Keith Flint has made valuable use of some original documents, particularly from the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. This is the kind of history I like – original research, on a new subject, that focuses on both the men and the machines. This is a significant addition to both the armoured and airborne historiographies of the Second World War.

Airborne Armour is published by Helion Press

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on – knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, defence, News, politics, Uncategorized

Time Team at Governors Green

Domus Dei, October 2007.

Domus Dei (Image via Wikipedia)

Well Time Team last night didn’t disappoint. Or rather, it did – but it was so disappointing from a historical point of view, it didnt disappoint my premonitions!

The expressed aim of the programme was to uncover the history of the medieval Hospital at the Governors Green area of old Portsmouth, adjoining what is now known as the Garrison Church, which has its origins as part of the Hospital complex. Known originally as Domus Dei, or God’s House, the Hospital was razed in 1540 during Henry VIII’s disolution of the monasteries. The chapel survived, however, and the adjoining land was used to build the Governors House.

The concept of a medieval hospital is very different from our image of operating theatres, accident and emergency et al. Medieval hospitals did exactly what they said on the tin – provided hospitality in a godly setting and manner. In particular pilgrims would use hospitals during their travels to shrines – such as nearby Winchester of Chichester, and places further afield such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They have a very rich and interesting social history, particularly in a port such as Portsmouth, a place that was so important to the defence of the realm too.

The feeling I had from the programme was that the team had not done their research properly at all. They were speculating about things that we already knew about, if only they had bothered to listen to people who tried to tell them! The geophysical survey told us everything that we needed to know, namely that there is an impressive range of buildings under Governors Green, and with some clever use of maps, documents and overlays it shouldnt take too much to interpret them, without the need for digging. I’m also surprised that they thought they could overlay an old tudor map on the current OS map without any errors at all – of course there are going to be anomalies. How you make such a cock-up in the most mapped town in the kingdom is beyond me.

What’s also disappointing, is that Time Team found plenty of interesting 18th Century finds, such as military uniform buttons and clay pipes, but these weren’t shown in the programme – probably because the aim of the programme was to look at the medieval hospital. Yet it would also have been interesting to find out more about Portsmouth’s history as a garrison town. All of the finds, incidentally, have been handed over to Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, as the local Museum.

Predictably we also had the ubiquitous Portsmouth Grammar School kids turning up in their blazers, as always happens when anything of any significance happens in Portsmouth. You would think there aren’t any other schools in the city. A chance to involve other young people in Portsmouth’s history was missed.

So, essentially, much research, three days digging, much expertise and resources were spent telling us that what we already knew was there, was in fact, actually there all along! I’m really not sure what the programme achieved at all. It seems to be more about the programme than any kind of historical importance. Don’t get me wrong, Time Team have done some fascinating things over the years, and I used to love it when I was younger, but finding out about how the programme works behind the scenes has been kind of like meeting your idols, only to feel let down.

If anyone would like some light entertainment, Time Team at Governors Green can be watched on Channel 4 On Demmand here.

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Filed under Archaeology, Local History, Medieval history, On TV, Uncategorized

Youtube Picks

A Visit to The Tank Museum

This short film, entitled ‘A Visit to The Tank Museum’, was produced by Film Production Students from Bournemouth, on a budget of just £1,500! This is a great example of a good tie-up for a Museum – the students get a good project and excellent exposure, and the Museum get a cutting edge promo at a great budget!

Royal British Legion TV advert

This year’s Poppy Appeal is almost upon us, and this is a TV advert by the Royal British Legion which you might have seen on screen recently.

Exercise Joint Caterer

Think of Army Catering, and you tend to think of Bully Beef. Whilst I’m sure many serving and former Squaddies will disagree, military catering does seem to have moved on a lot from the western front. Events like this seem a great way of inspiring and encouraging cooks to be inventive with limited rations. An army really does march on its stomach, and eating the same food every day for 6 months cannot be good for morale…

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Tuesday’s Gone

I’ve always liked this song, right from when I first heard Metallica’s cover. Its got a special resonance for me at the moment. Enjoy!

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Filed under Army, Museums, Music, Uncategorized, videos

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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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized

Portsmouth on Time Team tomorrow night, Channel 4

Domus Dei church.

Garrison Church (Image via Wikipedia)

Tomorrow night’s episode of Time Team on Channel 4 comes from Portsmouth.

Last year the arachaeology programme carried out a dig in Old Portsmouth, on the Governors Green area. The existing Garrison Church used to be part of a larger Governors House, and prior to that it used to be part of a much larger complex – the Domus Dei, or Gods House. Domus Dei acted as a hospital and travel lodge.

I’ve had a bit of secondhand inside knowledge on what happened on the dig, but I’ll let you all watch the programme and make what you will of it before I spoil it with my gossip!

Time Team at Governors Green is on Channel 4 tommorrow night (Sunday 24th October) at 5.30pm

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Filed under Ancient History, Local History, On TV