Tag Archives: Iraq

Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE,...

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I’m in two minds over the Sir Richard Dannatt issue. On the one hand, if I was a squaddie and I heard the top boss sticking it to the politicians on my behalf I would probably think ‘nice one!’ – theres nothing better for military morale than to see politicians having a hard time. But at the same time, Dannatt’s complaints have never been of just a military nature, they have always taken on a distinctly partly political overtone. Even if not necessarily pro-party, they are definitely anti-party (which you could argue is virtually the same thing).

There is nothing wrong with military leaders having an opinion. We live in a modern democracy, everyone has an opinion. I don’t even think that it is necessarily wrong to express them in public – if they’ve been expressed in private and not listened to, and you think its important enough, make it a public issue. Some things the public deserve to know, regardless of whether it is comfortable for the politicians. And in the modern era of spin, politicians and their ‘special advisors’ are prone to treating the military as they do any other department – keeping ‘on message’ is more important than doing a good job.

But while Dannatt was raising valid points, at the same time it was also couched in an anti-Labour, and somewhat pro-Tory feeling. Military officers should be apolitical – at least in public. The job of the armed forces is to do the bidding of the elected Government of the day, regardless of what colour that Government represents. Its that party political tone that really is the problem. You get the feeling that Gordon Brown pretty much blanked Dannatt as he was seen to be politically unreliable. This is a dangerous precedent, for politicians to shun Generals based on their politics. Ability to do the job should be the over-riding factor.

If Richard Dannatt‘s memoirs are to be believed, his relationship with Gordon Brown became so fractured that they did not meet for 6 months towards the end of his period in command, and had to resort to ambushing the Prime Minister on Horse Guards Parade. It’s pretty poor that both of them let their relationship get so bad. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with. But you just have to make the best of it. The people of Britain, and the Army in particular, deserved better. Mike Jackson might have been seen as being tamed by New Labour, but the General cannot pick or choose with politicians he gets to choose with, so might as well get on with it as best he can.

Dannatt’s ‘beef’ with the former Labour Government seems to be that while the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 set down guidelines for how the armed forces should be structured, Gordon Brown then refused throughout the coming years to fund them properly. This is pretty hard to argue with – the state that the Army found itself in 2003 before it went into Iraq is well known, no matter what Brown might argue.

Essentially, the armed forces were caught between Blair and Brown in their fractuous relationship, that has been well documented. In order to safeguard his own position as PM Blair handed Brown unprecedented control over public spending, and refused to confront him. So if Brown was in charge of the purse strings – and, in effect, in charge overall – what the hell was Blair doing? Why did we have a PM who was willing to espouse wise words internationally, but would not put his foot down with the bloke next door? Very strange for the two most powerful men in the country to be so disfunctional.

Sadly Labour’s record on Defence was disappointing. The initial 1998 Strategic Defence Review set a sensible framework, and the Blair Doctrine of humitarian intervention was well thought out. But 9/11, Blair’s willingness to follow Bush’s hawkish foreign policy to the end of the earth, combined with Brown’s unwillingness to fund Defence properly or to work properly with his Army chief made for a deadly combination.

Nobody emergest with any credibility from this fiasco. And the row is only likely to get worse, with Dannatt’s memoirs ‘Leading from the Front’ due to be released later this month. Of course, you can look forward to a full review here.


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Private Leonard Fry

Some time ago I reviewed Kut 1916 by Patrick Crowley. It tells some pretty graphic stories about the suffering endured by British troops present during the siege, and those captured by the Turks.

However it is only now, thanks to the information contained in the Portsmouth Section of the National Roll of the Great War, that I am beginning to be able to discover some of the stories of men from Portsmouth who were in Iraq during that terrible period.

Private Leonard Fry, of 25 Plymouth Street, had joined the Army back in 1905. He was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment. He was twice wounded at Kut. After the surrender he was taken prisoner, and while being force marched to Tikrit he developed dysentry, and was left to die at the side of the road. His date of death is recorded as 6 June 1916, presumably the last time he was seen alive. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Basra Memorial.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War One

Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley

Think of British military disasters: Galipoli, Singapore, Arnhem. Men such as Percival and Browning have been dammed for evermore But one epic failure that receives very little attention is that of Kut. Recent years have seen Kut fade into obscurity, especially compared to Galipoli – another disastrous Turkish expedition. Here Patrick Crowley, a serving British Army Officer, aims to redress the balance.

Britain launched a campaign to occupy Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – early in the First World War, in an attempt to occupy the stratgically important oilfields around Basra. Given the growing importance of motor vehicles and oil fuelled warships, it was also another route to undermining the Ottoman Turk Empire, an ally of Germany. The British Government was also following a policy of ‘knocking away the props’, feeling that by eliminating Turkey from the war deadlock on the western front would be broken.

Initially the aim was simply to occupy southern Iraq. But overconfidence, underestimation of the enemy and naive mission creep led to the force attempting a march on Baghdad. After it became clear that Baghdad was not immediately reachable, the overall commander, General Nixon, ordered Major-General Townshend, Commanding the 6th Indian Division, to hold out at Kut. Apparently Nixon was confident in his ability to relieve Kut, and Townshend saw no reason to demur. Quite why it was felt important to hold Kut no-one seems to have pondered.

The relief force has serious problems reaching Kut – once again, they underestimated the ability of their Turkish opponents. There were also serious problems with transport, with only the River Tigris available. Eventually the garrison at Kut ran out of food, giving Townshend no option but to surrender in April 1916. By the end men were resorting to eating dogs, horseflesh and starlings. 11,800 British soldiers, many of them Indian, became prisoners.

There are serious questions asked about Townshend’s conduct after his surrender. Spirited off to a relatively luxurious existence, his soldiers suffered untold horrors. Already in a poor state after months of siege privations, they were beaten on their march into captivity, given poor rations and little or no medical treatment. Yet Townshend appears not to have been concerned about their safety. The treatment of Allied Prisoners by the Turks is clearly one of the most overlooked atrocities in twentieth century warfare – some harrowing stories of suffering emerge. Of the men who surrendered at Kut, 4,250 died in captivity.

So what went wrong at Kut? Firstly, the siege should not have took place in the first place – the force should have withdrawn to Basra. Secondly, the relief force was not strong enough to reach Kut. And at all stages of the campaign senior officers grossly underestimated their opponentss – even though evidence from Galipoli should have suggested that the Turk soldier was no pushover. Another endemic failure seems to have been an inability and unwillingness to organise logistics properly. Finally, in his handling of the surrender, Townshend was guilty of failing in his duty to his men. Overall, it seems that a lot of incompetence went into what transpired at Kut.

This book by Patrick Crowley is an admirable and professional attempt to analyse the campaign, and the reasons for its failure. It is very well researched, and blends strategy with personal histories very well. Unlike a lot of narrative military histories, this book has a very ‘military’ feel, with its strong resonance with lessons learnt, and the evocation of more recent British campaigns in Iraq. In 1916 the 1st/4th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was fighting in Iraq, while in 2004 their successor Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, fought a siege like action in nearby Amara. The I am a big fan of this relevant style of history, that will be useful to military personnel and interesting to historians alike.

Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley is published by The History Press


Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Iraq, Uncategorized, World War One

Portsmouth an the Anglo-Iraqi War 1941

Prior to the Second World War Iraq as governed by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate. Despite this there were few British forces in Iraq, and those that were in the main belonged to the RAF. The biggest base at RAF Habbaniya, 55 miles west of Baghdad, supported a number of aircraft, RAF ground forces, and also acted as a training base.

On 1 April 1941 a group of Iraqi nationalists embarked on a coup against the Regent of Iraq. The immediate plans of the group, led by Rashid Ali, were to expel the British and allies themelves with the Axis powers. The British forces at Habbaniya were seriously outnumbered, having only 84 obsolete planes wth only 39 pilots, 1000 other personnel, and a few ancient armoured cars.

Habbaniya was the scene of heavy fighting for several weeks, being under seige until reinforcements came by land from Egypt and by sea via Basra. The Iraqi rebels finally surrendered at Baghdad on 31 May 1941. The war resulted in the occupation of Iraq by British forces, preventing Germany from formenting further trouble or using it as a base. The Iraqi oil fields were also secured. Wavell wrote that the “gallant defence” of Habbaniya was crucial, and Churchill that the “spirited defence” of Habbaniya was a “prime factor” in British success.

Flight Sergeant Albert Couch, 33 and from Buckland, and Flight Sergeant Philip Osborn, 41 and from Southsea, both died during the uprising – Couch on 6 May, Osborn on 16 May. It is unclear whether they were aircrew or ground crew. Their service numbers indicate that both were pre-war regular members of the RAF. They are buried in Habbaniya War Cemetery, Iraq.

For many years Commonwealth War Graves in Iraq have been un-maintained due to the political situation in that county. Hopefully some day soon the graves of allied servicemen in Iraq will be restored to the condition that they deserve.


Filed under middle east, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Fierce debate over UK Defence spending

The Prime Minister had denied that he ‘guillotined’ the Defence budget while British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex-MOD civil servant had earlier made the claim while giving evidence at the Iraq Inquiry.

Conservative Leader David Cameron said: “Isn’t it becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the government in general, and you in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?”

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut “arbitrary”, and that “I think it’s fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn’t want us to get as much as we got.” It would seem increasingly that the Government was willing to make huge commitments, but not to fund the armed forces to carry them out.

It is also broadly accepted that Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had more control over public spending than any of his predecessors. Not only was he able to control spending, but Government policy by default. Gordon Brown’s denials come after a stream of witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry have stated that preparation for the war was severely hampered and inadequate.

It would not be in the Prime ministers interests to admit that he did not fund the armed forces properly: politicians are rarely blessed with honesty over such matters. But why ignore the clear findings of an Inquiry, that he ordered, before it has even finished?


Filed under Afghanistan, debate, defence, Iraq, News, politics

Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.


Filed under Afghanistan, debate, Iraq, politics

Iraq Inquiry: my opinions so far…

Ive been closely following the progress of the Chilcott Inquiry into the events leading up to and during the Iraq War, until British troops left Iraq last year.

The composition of the Inquiry is interesting. Sir John Chilcott is a former senior Civil Servant. Perhaps not a heavyweight by any means, but in my opinion he has chaired it competently so far. There are two military Historians on the panel: Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official Historian of the Falklands War, and Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s official biographer. I am glad that there are historians on the panel, but I wish they were not what you might call ‘establishment’ historians. Somebody like Richard Holmes, David Starkey or Simon Schama might have been a lot more probing. An experienced Barrister would have been wise too, to advise on legal issues.

So far I think the evidence given by the military figures has been very insightful. On the whole, it appears that given the UK’s subservient role in the invasion the military side of things was handled very well. Things were certainly not helped by the US Department of Defences’ lack of planning for the post-war phase – the British Army has huge experience of counter-insurgency, why was this not heeded?

In terms of the politics, however, nothing has changed my mind that there was some serious dishonesty going on. Even IF – and it is a big if – the intelligence led Tony Blair to believe the 45 minute caveat, there was still a lot of creative industry being applied in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’. Alistair Campbell’s appearance today says much: even in front of an inquiry, seeking the truth, his stance is to put on an act, and to lie, spin and slither away. Maybe expecting the truth from Campbell is too much: the man is, after all, a professional liar. The ironic thing is that his demeanour at the inquiry showed exactly what was wrong with British politics at the time: an unelected official, expert at manipulating the truth, was pulling the strings.

The evidence given by commanders about the ineffectiveness of the Department for International Development has been telling. I have long thought that the UK’s approach to overseas aid is a mess: we are happy to hand over millions to countries who do not need it, without strings attached, yet when it comes to a country like Iraq, which desparately needed our help and quickly, DFID stood back idley. Quick and efficient aid would have helped prevent the slide towards insurrection and disorder.

On the whole, I get the impression that the Politics side of things was a monumental cock-up. The military side of things, once we disregard the politics, was handled rather well from a UK point of view. The panel have been more probing and incisive than we might have expected, and from their line of questioning on Campbell, Tony Blair can expect an uncomfortable time.

But it is one thing holding an inquiry, it is quite another to actually take notice of it and absorb its lessons. Will the mistakes and succeses be taken into account with future Government policy? Will the US have a similar inquiry, or take notice of the findings of the Chilcott inquiry?

If you make mistakes and ignore them, then they’re just gonna keep happening again. And in this case, mistakes mean lives lost.


Filed under debate, Iraq, politics