Category Archives: politics

Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

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Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? by Andrew Norman

Plenty of theories have been advanced about Adolf Hitler – his background, his inspirations and his mental state. But to my knowledge this book by Andrew Norman is one of the first to assert that he was suffering from Schizophrenia.

Norman begins by taking a detailed look at Hitler’s childhood, his family and his upbringing. One assertion is that Hitler knew plenty of Jews early in life and was certainly no anti-semite until later in life. Indeed, anti-semitism had existed in Europe long before 1933, and certainly long before Hitler. Add to this mix his attitudes to Marxism, the impact of World War One, the crisis in Germany between 1918 and 1933 and we have what we could describe as either a toxic mix of causes, or an extremely unfortunate set of circumstances coming together to create a monster.

One of the most striking things in this book is the examination of Hitler’s early influences. One is particularly distubring, namely Lanz van Liebenfels. Liebenfels was a former monk, no less, who edited and produced a rather cheap, base anti-semite magazine entitled Ostara. Hitler never seems to have acknowledged his sources, particularly once he hit the ‘big stage’. Perhaps, as Norman suggests, Hitler did not want to lessen his own image. One influence I was not aware of is that of Houston Stewart Chaimberlain. I’m even more surprised, given that Chaimberlain was born in Southsea in 1855! Chaimberlain left Britain at the age of 14 to undergo treatment for poor health, and while visiting health resorts in Germany was accompanied by a Prussian tutor. Chaimberlain was influenced towards German history and culture. Chaimberlain was later a great supporter of Hitler.

The conclusion is that Hitler was unhinged by his disfunctional family background, under the influence of some particularly nasty influences from an early age, and particularly susceptible given his possible schizophrenia. The former condition would certainly explain his undoubted delusions, be it his faith in astrology, or his ‘command delusions, which led him to follow the advice of a mysterious ‘voice’ rather than his generals sound reasoning. Clearly not a decision making policy that one would vote for in the next general election, thats for sure.

Anyone who has even flicked through Mein Kampf will be well aware that it is full of ranting and raving, and is a disparate collection of diatribes on various subjects, from Judaism, Bolshevism and even sexually transmitted diseases and poverty. It certainly adds to the feeling that Hitler was not a person capable of rational thought processes. I guess this is where the title of the book comes from – rather than being a Dictator in control, Hitler was in fact a puppet of his influences and his illness.

Hitler’s relationships with women also come under scrutiny. Namely, that he had an improper relationship with his young niece, who died in suspicious circumstances, and also that his relationship with Eva Braun was unusual to say the least. This all adds to a picture of a person who, clearly, was not quite right in the head in any sense. Even his own close family seem to have had very little time for him.

But does all of this really matter? Firstly, we can chew over the causes of Hitler’s behaviour all we like, but it doesn’t change the fact that he and his regime commited some of the most heinous crimes in history. Contrary to popular opinion, men such as Stalin may have killed more people, but it is the horrific, industrial and hateful manner of the Nazi regime that still shocks today. And surely understanding how such a person came into being, is crucial to recognising evil today. Thankfully, I doubt very much whether someone in Hitler’s condition would reach prominence in the modern world, and for that we must be very grateful.

Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, politics, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

Europe in Flames by Harold J Goldberg

Writing a ‘History of the ….war’ is always an ambitious idea, and one that is very rarely pulled off. There’s just so much to cover, it can only ever really be a framework at best. Not since Basil Liddell Hart‘s History of the Second World War has a historian really gone close to covering this vast conflict in one volume. In any case, it’s all been so well written about, what is there that we can add anyway?

I’m not what exactly the purpose of this book is. It gives an overview of the Second World War, year by year, in pretty basic fashion. But it also interweaves some oral history quotes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these quotes have been chosen and not others. There are, after all, millions of oral history testimonies relating to the Second World War, and choosing one or two relating to each major event in history does seem a bit minimalist and arbitrary.

However, if you know absolutely nothing about the Second World War in Europe – and, dare I say it, this might apply to a lot of budding historians stateside – I guess this isn’t too bad a place to start. It does focus very much on geo-political and strategic affairs, but then I guess that is what most history syllabuses tend to begin with anyway. It is telling that the bibliography includes mainly american historians, which would seem to point readers in that direction, rather than the more considerable – and, in my opinion, more scholarly – works that have come from Europe.

Europe in Flames is published by Stackpole Books

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The Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 by Charlie Heyman

Something that doesn’t seem to appear on many strategits or analysts radars if the growth of the European Union as a military infrastructure and a regional power. Since the end of the Second World War, NATO dominated military planning in western and central Europe. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, however, NATO has found itself at something of a loose end.

The EU, on the other hand, appears to be a rising presence on the world stage. The 27 members have a joint population of 498 million people, a joint defence budget of 182bn Euros, and a total of 934,600 soldiers, 223,770 sailors and 331,450 airmen. 5,325 tanks, 7 aircraft carriers, 69 submarines, and 140 Frigates and Destroyers. A mammoth 2,088 combat aircraft, 603 transporters, and 77 air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

It would be wrong to assume that the EU is the same as NATO. Although many members are the same, there are exceptions. Ireland, Sweden, Finland,  Austria and Cyprus are members of the EU only; while Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania and Turkey are members of NATO but not the EU. Denmark is a member of both, but has an op-out clause where EU defence policy is concerned.

The co-ordination and integration of European militaries could be seen by some as a move towards European federalism – after all, one of the hallmarks of a ‘state’ is a military, and with a permanent European military staff, it does herald integration like never before. But what an EU military does reflect, is a Europe endeavouring to work together without needing a cross-Atlantic input. NATO is still important as an underpin to the western hemisphere’s unity.

The EU military commitee is nominally made up of the CDS of each nation, but in practice is formed by a representative seconded from each respective armed forces. The chairmanship rotates every three years and is a 4-star post. The current commander is a Swedish General, and I think it is very important that the Committee is not necessarily always commanded by those with the most muscle. There is an EU ops centre in Brussels, that can command a relatively small force of about 2,000 troops. Other national operational centres have been placed at the EU’s disposal, including PJHQ at Northwood, and its equivalent in Paris, Potsdam, Rome and Greece.

There are a number of non-NATO, EU based multilateral structures:

  • Eurpean Air Group (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK)
  • European Airlift Centre (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Sealift Co-ordination Centre (Netherlands and UK)
  • European Amphibious Initiative (France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Standby High Readiness Brigade (AU, DK, SU, IRL, I, LIT, N, NOR, PL, P, SLOVENIA, E, SV)
  • SE Europe Brigade (Greece, Italy, Slovenia)
  • Nordic Co-Ordinated Arrangement for Military Peace support (Finland, Sweden, Denmark)
  • EUROCORPS – Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, France, Luxembourg
  • EUROFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain
  • EUROMARFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain

EUROCORPS in particular is a credible structure, with a Franco-German Brigade and a Multinational Command Brigade permanently attached, and up to 9 other Brigades earmarked. Other national, multinational or international units could be made available – the British led ARRC, for example.

The most interesting development, for me, is that of the EU battlegroup. Whilst European nations between them have a sum total military that appears formidable, at present it is limited in its deployability. The reliance on national forces and ad-hoc arrangements every time a threat emerges does not tend to engender long-term planning. In my opinion, officers, staffs and forces are bound to work better together in a crisis if they work together when there isn’t one too. And whilst it might seem like an excuse for cost-cutting – much the same as ‘jointery’ does in the UK – there is no doubt much duplication among 27 militaries that could be avoided.

On paper, the national forces of the EU have 120 Brigades that are deployable. However, many smaller countries do not even have forces of that level. Even if, for example countries like the Baltic states – have one or two Brigades, deploying them would repesent a herculean effort. Why not, therefore, combine and send a battalion each? In terms of ships also, whilst Britain, for example, might have one Albion class LPD available, if more were needed for an appropriate task, why not add-in a Rotterdam or Galicia class ship? Some countries have plenty of escort ships but no carrier, in which case integrated battle groups could work dividends. Many smaller nations have no transporter aircraft, but others do. Another example, for me, is in sealift. Obviously, countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic have no sealift capabilty. Fine, drive to Rotterdam or south to a Med port and load up on a borrowed ro-ro there instead!

There are a total of 17 EU battlegroups available. Many are comprised solely of national Brigades (including the UK battlegroup), but others are a combined group. Some are based on geography (Spain and Italy’s amphibious battlegroup, France and Belgium, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia) while others are a little strange (Germany, Netherlands and Finland; and Ireland teaming up with Nordic and Baltic countries). The aim is to have two battlegroups on high readiness at any given time.

Of course, such close intergration only works if countries are genuinely prepared to do their share when the prverbial hits the fan. But all the time countries are working together, they’re less likely to be fighting each other, and more likely to be more effective when called on to fight alongside each other.

Suffice to say, I found this book very thought provoking indeed!

The Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 is published by Pen and Sword

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More bluff and bluster from Cristina Kirchner

President of the United States Barack Obama an...

no comment needed (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular readers will know that I am not exactly a fan of Argentina‘s current President, one Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. That Argentina is a country that invaded British territory less than 30 years ago isn’t really part of it.Nor is that despite their defeat in 1982 they keep agitating. It’s difficult to have much regard for somebody who clearly has no ability as a politician, and is exploiting an issue and hoodwinking her own citizens. It’s the equivalent of the people of Britain electing Katie Price as PM.

During this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions Tory MP Andrew Rosindell asked Mr Cameron to remind President Barack Obama that “the British government will never accept any kind of negotiations over the South Atlantic archipelago”. This comes a week after the US’s incredibly naive reference to the Falklands as ‘the Malvinas’ in a joint declaration with Argentina.

Mr Cameron, to his credit, responded that “as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory – full stop, end of story.”

Kirchner called Cameron’s comments an “expression of mediocrity, and almost of stupidity”. Really, I’m not making it up. Also that  the British people “continue to be a crude colonial power in decline”. Kirchner’s new-found confidence no doubt come after the US’s pro-Argentinian stance became clear last week.  The hypocrisy is outstanding. The Falklands existed and were settled by British people before Argentina even existed. The majority of Argentinians are of Spanish settler descent – are they all going to go home, and leave South America to the indigenous people?

Earlier this week a Falkland Islander became the first person from the British territory to accept Argentinian citizenship. Predictably, Argentina made a big deal about it, incorporating giving this gentleman (I’m not going to repeat his name) his identity card during a ceremony to mark the end of the Falklands War. Whatever his reasons, he’s putting his homeland at risk by inflating the Argentinians ambitions and appearing to validate their viewpoint. That over 200 British men died to liberate the Falklands, we should never forget.

It’s funny that Argentina has been ramping up its stance over the Falklands in the past year or two. First oil is discovered in the South Atlantic. Argentina is also suffering from a very deep recession, and the associated problems that go with it. Kirchner is unpopular and is low in the opinion polls. There is a presidential election in October, and Kirchner has yet to declare if she is a candidate or not. Using the Falklands issue is a pretty basic ploy in Argentine politics – it seems to make normally sane people foam at the mouth.

I don’t normally go in for jingoism, or anything that might be seen as jingoism. But I want any Falkland Islanders reading this to know that the people of Britain are with you.

 

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the life experience of Prime Minister – or lack thereof

Prime Minister Jim Callaghan sent a naval task...

Jim Callaghan - the last British PM to have served in the armed forces. And a Pompey boy to boot (Image via Wikipedia)

Yesterday we talked about the problem of Prime Minister not having any experience whatsoever of the military. I decided to take a look at the education and early employment of Prime Ministers before they entered politics. It makes for interesting reading:

Anthony Eden – Eton, Oxford (Oriental Languages), Kings Royal Rifle Corps Officer WW1 (Military Cross, Brigade Major)

Harold Macmillan – Eton, Oxford (Classics), Grenadier Guards Officer WW1 (wounded three times), ADC to Governor-General of Canada, junior partner with Macmillan publishers

Alec Douglas Home – Eton, Oxford (Modern History), first class cricketer.

Harold Wilson – Royds Hall Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), economic history lecturer at Oxford, Civil Service (research assistant for William Beveridge during WW2).

Ted HeathChatham House Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), Royal Artillery 1941-1946 (Anti-Aircraft, North West Europe), Civil Service.

James Callaghan – Portsmouth Northern Secondary Modern (no Uni), Inland Revenue, Inland Revenue Staff Federation, Lieutenant RN (East Indies, Admiralty).

Margaret ThatcherKesteven and Grantham Girls School, Oxford (Chemistry), Research Chemist.

John Major - Rutlish Grammar School (no Uni), Insurance Clerk, London Electricity Board, Banker, London Borough Councillor

Tony Blair - Fettes College, Oxford (Law), Barrister.

Gordon Brown – Kircaldy High School, Edinburgh (History PHD and Rector), Politics lecturer, journalist for Scottish TV, Open University tutor.

David Cameron – Eton, Oxford (PPE), MP’s researcher, Conservative Research Department, Special Advisor to Chancellor of the Exchequer and then the Home Secretary, Special Adviser at Carlton TV.

Interesting stuff indeed. It does appear that in recent years – Blair onwards – politics has become a career in itself, which people aspire to from a young age. Yet is it not fair to say that elected representatives are meant to be just that – one of us, elected to represent us? How can they do that when they have not lived like the rest of us?

It does seem to me that it is more sensible for politicians to have some kind of prior career, and hence experience of the ‘real world’. Even though most PM’s with a previous career were in the main professionals or office workers, its at least more worldly – and grounded – than a few years acting as a lacky for a Minister. The funny thing is, its not new for politicians to have had little of a career – in the Nineteenth Century it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats and the gentry to enter politics having had no career at all.

How about Prime Ministers and military service? The last British Prime Minister to have served in the military was Jim Callaghan. Going backwards, all post-war Prime Ministers, save Home and Wilson, served in either WW1 or WW2. It is not difficult to imagine that Eden’s and Macmillan’s service on the Western Front must have helped in their political service during WW2. But then again, Eden did make a serious hash of Suez.

When David Cameron was elected, commentators noted that he was the first Old Etonian PM since Alec Douglas Home, something we thought we might never see again. Indeed, it seems that immediately post-war being an Old Etonian was ncessary to be PM. But when will we next have a Prime Minister with a military background? Or even an opposition leader, or senior Cabinet Minister?

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Warships: Interational Fleet Review

HMS Liverpool, a Royal Navy Type 42 Batch 2 ai...

HMS Liverpool, en-route to Libya

I’ve just picked up the latest copy of this fascinating magazine. As usual it makes for a measured, insightful but pointed read.

Iran has recently sent warships through the Suez Canal, after signing a defence pact with Syria. Transit through the canal is governed by the Egyptian Government, and the post-Mubarak leadership broke a tacit agreement with Israel and the US to not allow Iranian vessels through. The pact with Syria and the prospect of Iranian vessels in the Mediterranean – especially off the Israeli coast -changes the strategic picture in the Middle East somewhat.

The Magazine also highlights the folly of the Government’s Defence Cuts, in that the Royal Navy Frigate leading the British contribution to the sea blockade of Libya, HMS Cumberland, is due to come home to decomission soon. The ship we are sending to relieve her, HMS Liverpool, is an elderly Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer, which is also due to be scrapped within a couple of years. France, meanwhile, has sent its Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has been using its significant amphibious capability. Britain appears increasingly impotent, especially when consider that even China has sent a Warship. However old and labour intensive they are, the Type 22′s are extremely capable ships, and they are not being replaced. An editorial takes Cameron’s SDSR to pieces, arguing that its credibility has been torn to shreds by events in Libya. Britain is now a second rate player on the European-international stage.

Elsewhere, the new Australian Aircraft Carrier HMAS Canberra has been launched at the Navantia yard in Ferrol, Spain. Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, she and her sister HMAS Adelaide are officially termed Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD).  They have enough space to operate two dozen helicopters, a ski-ramp and the potential for operating VSTOL jets (Australia is purchasing Joint Strike Fighter), and an amphibious dock to the rear. At well over 20,000 tons she is much larger than anything the mother country has built for years, and represents a quantum leap for Australia, both in terms of size and capability. Something Britain could really do with.

Finally – and some might say amusingly – we get a round-up of the UK independence party‘s Defence manifesto. And interesting reading it makes too. They propose to retain British Forces completely under national control, and to maintain a fleet of – wait for it:

  • 3 Aicraft Carriers
  • 4 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 12 Nuclear Attack Submarines
  • 11 Destroyers
  • 20 Frigates
  • 6 Amphibious vessels
  • 21 Minewarfare vessels
  • 7 Offshore Patrol Vessels
  • 55 Strike Fighters
  • Retain 3 Commando Brigade

This sounds impressive. But remember, this is essentially what we had only 10 years ago anyway. This extensive building programme would cost a lot, but would generate jobs and boost the shipbuilding industry, and would guarantee the future of jobs at bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport and Rosyth. How to fund it? Well, UKIP suggest stopping our annual international aid bill of £10bn to countries that have space programmes, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Sounds loopy, but there are grains of truth therein.

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Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

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More ridiculous calls over Ark Royal name

There have been more ludicrous calls by elected representatives to name one of the new Aircraft Carriers HMS Ark Royal. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt has written to the Defence Secretary Liam Fox to suggest that one of the new Aircraft Carriers is called ‘Queen Elizabeth, the Ark Royal’.

Ms Mordaunt, who is a naval reservist and sits on the parliamentary defence committee, wrote: ‘It is almost unthinkable that there should be a Royal Navy without an Ark Royal, whatever the historic precedents.’

This quote shows a breathtaking lack of grasp of history. Ships names come and go but the Royal Navy sails on regardless – that IS the historical precedent. The irony is, she talks about Ark Royal being such an indispensable name on the one hand, presumably thanks preceisely to its history – but then says something like ‘whatever the historical precedents’.

A recent poll conducted by the Portsmouth Evening News showed that over 90% of local people – many of them either serving, ex sailors or naval families – thought that the name Ark Royal should be allowed to rest for a while. I quite agree. As I have written before, the Royal Navy has a vast history covering hundreds of proud names – why the fixation on just one? Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are fine, historic names in their own right. It is NOT ‘unthinkable’ to not have an Ark Royal – the Royal Navy went without one for hundreds of years from the days of the Spanish Armada to the mid Twentieth Century. Why does no one mind about their not being an Illustrious, or an Invincible?

The Royal Navy would get on just fine without an Ark Royal. This myth that Ark Royal is such a historic name only came about thanks to the late 1970′s TV programme Sailor in any case. Soon we’re not going to have enough ships to keep every name that we have become attached to.

I’m not sure why politicians keep banging on about the name issue. I could understand if they thought it might win them some popularity and some votes. But its been proven that the vast majority of people do not mind. Either that or people have enough intelligence to realise when politicians are trying to buy their votes with cheap publicity stunts.

All this effort is being expended by politicians on a side-issue, at the same time as the armed forces are being decimated by Government cuts. The lack of priorities is quite distasteful. Lets forget about names and focus on equipment; on manning; on structures and on funding.

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The Black and Tans by Richard Bennett

“I’ve lived through the IRA, the Black and Tanks and the B Specials but yous Paras are worse than the lot!”

I can’t recall for the life of me the book that this quote came from, but these words spoken by a Catholic man in Northern Ireland in the Troubles during the 1970′s shows just how deep memories run in Ireland, and the lasting scar that history can cast.

The Black and Tans were mainland British men recruited to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary at a point when Ireland was degenerating into Civil War, immediately after the Easter Rising in 1916, their name came from the motley collection of uniforms that they were given. The Black and Tans have gone down in history with a fearsome reputation, with Republicans viewing them as nothing better than state backed terrorists.

What manner of men joined the Black and Tans? They seem to have been, almost overwhelmingly, former soldiers who had served during the Great War but were struggling to find employment in the post-war period. But as former soldiers they were hardly suited to policing and keeping the peace. For the most part they had been brutalised by their experiences on the Western Front, and had been imbued with an offensive spirit that did not always lead to good peacekeeping – this is a quandry that the British Army would revisit from 1969 onwards, particularly after Bloody Sunday.

The title of this book is slightly misleading, as it is in truth a potted history of everything from the Easter Rising to Irish Independence. Indeed, there is far more description of Michael Collins and Lloyd George than there is of any Black and Tan. In fact, I struggled to find one instance of a Black and Tan actually being named. This was first published in 1956, and it shows.

So what would I look for in a history of the Black and Tans? Firstly, a study of the conditions in Ireland that led to their formation. Secondly, a good look at what exactly so many young former soldiers who had served on the Western Front were drawn to join the Royal Irish Constabulary and fight in Ireland. I would look for a good description of how the Black and Tans were organised and led, and if possible some oral history accounts from either people who were there or Black and Tans themselves.

But most importantly of all, I would look to try and either prove or disprove the perceived wisdom that the Black and Tans were utterly ruthless and as bad as the IRA themselves. It’s something that has held throughout history but hasn’t really, to my knowledge, been look at in much depth. Assumptions are there to be challenged, after all.

The Black and Tans is published by Pen and Sword

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PM refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya

I’ve seen various articles in recent days where the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that he refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya. Sadly it seems to be the the same old story of politicians cutting Defence to the bone and then when the proverbial hits the fan being only too happy to over-commit whats left.

I’m not sure on what mandate an international force could intervene in Libya. After the fiasco surrounding the United Nations and the lack of a resolution for action in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that any unilateral action could take place. The international community has little stomach for intervention at present – the debacle in Iraq – and to a lesser extent Afghanistan – has made politicians very wary of military action. US political and public opinion has never been overly keen on foreign intervention at the best of times, and with Gadaffi promising ‘another Vietnam’, many will be wary of getting involved. And the problems in Libya at the moment are not just limited to that country alone – they were sparked by protests in Tunisia and then Egypt, and there is similar unrest in other North African and Middle Eastern countries. How come the international community considers intervention in one case but not in others? Admittedly there is a difference in that Gadaffi is using his aircraft to bomb civilians protesting against him, and he has a track record of being an extremely difficult character.

Secondly, where are these military units going to come from that the Prime Minister plans to send to Libya? I wouldn’t mind betting that the Chiefs of Staff almost fainted when they read that Cameron plans to commit their ever-shrinking forces in another troublespot. Even as part of an international force within the UN, or more likely NATO – the UK would be able to contribute virtually nothing. It shows just how little Cameron and his Government understand about Defence, and how wrong it is that people with such poor judgement are running the Country’s defence.

Regular readers won’t need reminding that the Royal Navy warship leading the evacuation of British Citizens – HMS Cumberland – was on her last journey home before decommissioning. The other ship standing by, HMS York, is even more elderly than Cumberland. But using Frigates and Destroyers for evacuating British nationals from a trouble spot is ever so slightly overkill – like using a Ferrari to pop to the shop. A Bay Class LPD with a few Landing Craft and a helicopter or two would be ideal. If the worst come to the worst, it wouldn’t even need to dock, it could just sit off the coast and pick people up and drop off aid.

There has been talk of basing RAF fighters on Cyprus to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet the range from Cyrpus to Libya is considerable, and would prevent aircraft being on station for any length of time. The maximum operational range of the Eurofighter is 2,900 miles. Inn the Air Defence role with a 3 hour CAP it can operate at 185 kilometres, and with a ten minute loiter at 1,389 kilometres. It is at least 800 kilometres from Cyprus to the very western border of Libya, and twice that to Tripoli. Therefore Cyprus is barely an option, and the number of aircraft and air and ground crew required to maintain a worthwhile patrol would be considerable – aircraft that we simply do not have. Two years ago we could have sent an Aircraft Carrier plus escort to sit off the North African Coast. Not now – we don’t have one. It seems that ignorance of the flexibility and utility of the aircraft carrier is coming home to roost. Neither do we have the aircraft that could have overflown Libya and told us what Gadaffi is up to – ie, the scrapped Nimrod airframes.

Where are the ground forces to come from? Special Forces have almost certainly been in Libya already, providing close protection for RAF Hercules Transports evacuating Brits from remote desert locations. Given the frequency of tours to Afghanistan, and then when you factor in training, roulement, post-op shake down and the like, the maximum the Army could contribute would be in the region of one to three Battalions. Even then, that would place a huge strain alongside Afghanistan, particularly if any deployment in Lybia went on for too long. Rapid Reaction Forces used to be maintained for such an eventuality – particularly 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade – but at any given time these Brigades are usually either in Afghanistan, preparing to go or recuperating from a deployment.

If you want to be able to intervene in global troublespots as a world policeman – with the personal kudos that goes with it – then you need to back your armed forces to be able to do that job. If, however, you want to asset strip your Defence, then you have to accept that there will be things that you just cannot do any more. The situation is more serious than after the Nott cuts in 1981, when the Royal Navy just about managed to scrape together a task force.

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HMS Cumberland waiting off Libyan Coast

from http://www.dtic.mil/jointvision/graphics/...

HMS Cumberland (Image via Wikipedia)

According to news reports the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Cumberland has been ordered to halt her voyage home from the Gulf in order to standby off Libya. Regular readers will recall that Cumberland and her Type 22 sister ships are to be decommissioned later this year. A reminder, if any is needed, that British interests and the safety of British national is being imperilled by defence cuts.

I’m not entirely sure what use a Frigate would be for evacuating the 500-odd British nationals living in Libya. Unlike an aircraft carrier or an assault ship, a Frigate does not have large hangars or vehicle decks in which to accomodate people. And a ship the size of the Type 22 has a crew of around only 200 in the first place – how would such a ship cope with a few more hundreds mouths to feed, one wonders? And Libya is a lot further from the UK than the north Spanish coast was during the Volcanic Ash Cloud rescue effort last year, meaning a longer sea journey.

This is yet another hollow commitment from the Government. In order to be seen to be doing something, regardless of whethers its worthwhile or not, a soon-to-be-decommissioned Frigate is sent to await a task for which it is wholly unsuited. And its another indication of how short-sighted our defence planning is – politicians want warships off the balance sheet, but when the proverbial hits the fan they are only too happy to commit them to action.

I’m reminded of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict several years ago. The then Foreign Secretary eagerly promised a British Frigate to patrol off the coast for illegal arms shipments. Apparently it was quietly pointed out that no Frigates were available, and that if the Foreign Secretary wanted one, then he had better make one magically appear from nowhere.

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England’s green and privatised land

New Forest Autumn

Image by danny george via Flickr

The Government is currently consulting over proposals to sell off a large proportion of our nationally-owned forests. As far as I can tell the plans are ill-defined, ideologically-driven and risk casting a scar upon the landscape of this land forever. In the consultation document Caroline Spelman describes them as ‘treasured woodlands’, but if thats so, why flog them?

Historically Britain – or at least England – has been one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe. Forests and trees are a strong central thread in British history – look at Robin Hood and his merry men hiding out in Sherwood Forest for starters. For hundreds of years the Forests sustained Royal Hunting, with plenty of lodges and a supportive infrastructure. And then we have the crucial role that Royal Forests played in supplying timber for the burgeoning Royal Navy. Not for nothing is the Royal Navy’s march entitled ‘Heart of Oak‘.

The Government, through the Forestry Commission, currently looks after 18% of Britain’s woodland – 258,000 hectares. The other 82% is privately owned (how much of it is on Tory MP’s and Peers estates, one wonders?). Near me there are a couple of ancient Forests – the Forest of Bere and the New Forest. The Forest of Bere was for hundreds of years an ancient hunting reserve. And the New Forest is an enigma all of its own. There are so many ancient customs going on there, and its a real gem of this country that we should be so proud of and protect to the hilt. Particularly at a time when so many people, especially young people, dwell in inner cities and never get to see the countryside – we should be encouraging them to get out and walking in the mud of the Forests. Maybe in this sense communities could take over and run small forests – particularly those on the fringes of urban areas. But only wealthy, well-adjusted communities will have the time, funds and resources to do so.

I cannot understand what the Government hopes to achieve, aside from saving a few quid. Actually, I’ve answered my own question there. Surely some things should be sacred beyond mere penny-pinching? I am in no way convinced about the safeguards in place to prevent private companies – in all likelihood foreign – exploiting and asset stripping the very fabric of our land. We were told before the privatisation of public transport that it would lead to better services and investment, and to be quite frank that was bollocks. The countryside is not an amenity, it IS part of the country. Are we to see ‘the [insert name of faceless company] New Forest’, complete with huge advertising hoardings, blocking access or charging for the right to visit, or exploiting the hell out of the Forest’s resources? We might not, but once control is handed over, what is there to stop it? The consultation talks about ‘alternative models of ownership’, but past experience shows us that this is window dressing for getting something off the balance sheet, and to hell with the consequences, and if someone can profit from it as well, even better.

Is anything about this country sacred? If we are being consulted about selling off our trees, heaths, fields and pastures, had we might as well consult about privatising the oxygen supply as well. For me this goes beyond politics, it’s just plain wrong. Yet only the other day a majority of MP’s in the House of Commons – aided by a large number of Tory MP’s who have rural constituencies and a vacancy in brain cells – actually backed the Government’s plan. Evidence, if any is needed, that MP’s will just go along with whatever their political masters tell them to vote for.

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Only Revolutions

I’ve never written much about international politics. Apart from long ago wanting to work as a Diplomat for the Foreign Office, my sole experience of international diplomacy is taking part in a couple of model UN debates when I was 16. But then again, I write mainly about two things – defence, and history. And isn’t it pretty impossible to separate politics, defence and history? Each affects the other. And of course at the forefront of my thoughts are the events unfolding right now in Egypt.

History underpins what happens in international politics. Egypt has traditionally been a US bulwark against communism and then extremism in the Middle East, and Israel’s closest friend in the region (although admittedly that’s not saying much). Hence leaders such as Mubarak have been able to stay in power for a long time, and their abuses of power have been overlooked, as long as they present a front against Islamic extremism. Pan-Arabism also broadly unites the region, particularly against Israel. I didn’t realise just how many regimes in the Middle East are the same – so many leaders have been in power for donkey’s years, and in some cases their fathers before them. I guess once President’s become established in office, the longer they are there the harder they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Whatever that is, its not democracy. And if people on the streets are tearing themselves apart, then there is no meaningful Government of leadership in any case – thats a vacuum, and out of vacuums comes uncertainty. Iraq post-Invasion taught us that.

Countless times we have read about the role of the Army. Egypt has a sizeable military – the third largest in the Middle East after Turkey and Iran - and if it wanted to wade in on the side of either Mubarak of the opposition, that would probably prove decisive. Yet the Army seems unwilling to take a side, and doesn’t even seem willing to separate the two factions. This is probably down to experience, as the Egyptian Army may not be skilled at riot control. Tellingly, it says something about a regime if the Army – usually a representative cross section of society – is not willing to back the President. The military’s role in politics is extremely delicate indeed. An Army can deliver a coup-de-grace to a failing regime, but then it strays into the territory of becoming a military dictatorship. But at the other end of the scale, if the Army cannot intervene internally, then its influence is effectively neutered. Imagine if the British Army had not been able to intervene in Northern Ireland… it would have been a laughing stock.

Hanging over all of these events are the outcomes of previous revolutions. The current upheaval in Egypt was prompted by a similar wave of protest in Tunisia. And we only have to look back to the downfall of Communism in 1989 and 1990 to see how a small protest in one state can provide a tipping point across the region. The downfall of Communism had its roots in the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980′s, and culminated in peaceful revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The lesson from 1989 seems to be that once the people have turned against a regime and are on the streets, it’s in everyones interests for change to take place. History tells us that once the people are on the streets, you can either go on your own terms, or against your will.

Are we looking at a domino effect in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The only fear has to be what might come afterwards.

(oh, and apologies to Biffy Clyro for stealing their album title!)

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Review of the year 2010

Well what a difference a year makes! We started 2010 with a Labour Government, a Royal Navy with aircraft carriers and harriers, Pompey were (just) in the Pemieriship, this blog was getting 2,000 hits a month, and I was about as single as those things that appear in the top 40!!!

In military terms the biggest story has been the brutal cuts of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Put bluntly, the Army did OK thanks to the prominence of Afghanistan and the lobbying of people such as Richard Dannatt, the RAF did its usual slick string-pulling exercise to keep its Ferraris going, and the Navy got hammered. On a brighter note Navy Days in Portsmouth was a real highlight – in hindsight ‘enjoy it while you can’ might have been an apt slogan for the event.

In the general election people voted ‘for change’, without thinking that change can also take you backwards as well as forwards. Sadly over the next 12 months many people who currently have jobs may find themselves with a lot more time on their hands.

On a personal level, this blog has gone from strength to strength – only the other day we received our 80,000th visitor since we began back in July 2009. On 11 November – Remembrance Day, fittingly – we had our highest ever number of visitors, 439 in one day. A big thank you to everyone who has visited, and particularly those of you who have stuck around and contributed.

Away from the blog, I enjoyed giving four talks on ‘what my family did during the war’. I am in the advanced stages of talks with a publisher to get ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’ published. Most of the research is done, and I’m now in the process of writing it up. If all goes to plan, hopefully it will materialise sometime late in 2011.

And now, time for a few awards…

Best WW2 Book I have read this year

Danger UXB by James Owen… honourable mentions for Mother Country by Stephen Bourne; The Battle for Burma by Roy Conyers Nesbit; UXB Malta by S.A.M. Hudson

Best WW1 Book I have read this year

Mud Blood and Bullets by Edward Rowbotham… honourable mentions for The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins and Kut: Courage and Failure in Iraq 1916 by Patrick Crowley.

Best ‘other’ History book I have read this year

A Long Long War by Ken Wharton… honourable mentions for Bloody Belfast by Ken Wharton and Crimson Snow by Jules Stewart

Best Fiction I have read this year

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks… honourable mentions for New York by Edward Rutherfurd and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

… and finally, I would like to thank you all for your support and encouragement, and I hope you all have a great 2011.

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