Tag Archives: terrorism

Bloody Belfast: An Oral History of the British Army’s war against the IRA by Ken Whaton

“But it wasn’t really a war was it?” – John Humphrys

To the over 300,000 British servicemen who served in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007 it certainly was a war. To the hundreds of families who received the dreaded knock on the door, it was a war. To the countless families impacted on by the stresses and strains of Northern Ireland, it was a war. To my Nan, whose nerves were shredded dreading a knock on the door informing her of bad news, it definitely was a war.

It is not easy for me to talk objectively about Northern Ireland. Having been told about it by three of my uncles who served there in the 1970’s, and having read a fair few published accounts by certain Greenjackets and Paras, I was not picking up this book ‘blind’.

What this book by Ken Wharton tells us, is that we need to rethink what we think of as ‘war’, beyond the two world wars. Just because active service in Belfast and Londonderr and Crossmaglen did not meet our narrow definition of battle, it does not lessen the bravery of the men who served there. Those of us reading from the comfort of our armchairs cannot begin to imagine the human strain of being on service in the Province at the height of the Troubles. If anything Northern Ireland was a more difficult kind of war, as with yellow cards and rules of engagement, the Security Forces were incredibly hamstrung in what they could do.

What also leaps out from the pages of this book is the leadership that NCO’s and even Private’s were called on to show. Northern Ireland has often been called a ‘Corporal’s war’. Rather than in conventional battle where officers and senior NCO’s make decisions and give orders, the war in Northern Ireland was conducted largely by low-level units. On patrol every man had to show the utmost initiative. But along with showing incredible initiative – indeed, the Army gained long-term benefits from this learning curve – the physical and psychological toll was huge.

Oral History has always been a greatway of telling ordinary people’s stories – and they are old in their own words. The human memory being what it is, we cannot take every word as gospel, but as exactly wha they are – memories. I suppose in the interests of balance it might be interesting to compare the views of IRA members during the same period. But what is interesting is that for the large part, the squaddies interviewed seem to have been as bitter loyalist paramilitaries as much as republicans. As most often in history, the average British Squaddie does not seem to have been bothered with politics. Others might feel that the British Army acted like gangsters, but evidence suggests that time and time again British soldiers showed amazing restraint. And thats how the war was ‘won’ – by not letting the terrorists achieve their goal of dragging down the Security Forces. If other certain armies had been fighting in Northern Ireland, a lot of sledgehammers might have been deployed against walnuts.

Wharton also sheds new light on some aspects of the war that are perhaps no so well known. The not insignificant number of British Army personnel who took their own lives. The massaging of statistics by the Ministry of Defence. The dedication of the men of the Ulster Defence Regiment. That what the British public knew about what went on ‘over the water’ depended on the media. And how many of the events in this Book will be completely unknown to the reader – we have all heard of Omagh, Bloody Sunday and Warrenpoint, but these were by no means the only atrocities carried out. There is a comprehensive roll of honour at the end of the book, giving names, dates, units and causes of death.

This is an immensely readable book – I had great trouble putting it down.

Bloody Belfast is published by The History Press



Filed under Army, Book of the Week

Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

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

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

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

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

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

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

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

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

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq

Jack the Painter: Burning Portsmouth Dockyard

Very few people know that perhaps the first ever terrorist act on British soil took place in Portsmouth Dockyard. In December 1776 James Aitken, a British sympathiser for the American colonies in the war of independence, tried to burn down Portsmouth Dockyard.

A petty criminal, Aitken had travelled to America. After developing sympathy for the American struggle for independence, he travelled to France to suggest a scheme to the American agent in Paris. Aitken had gone to very one of the six Royal Dockyards in England, and had even developed an incendiary device to use. He had even managed to slip into the Dockyard, undetected, and inspect storehouses and make sketches.

On 7 December 1776 Aitken entered the Ropehouse, which ran the width of the yard. After trouble lighting his fuse he rushed out, and made his escape on a cart and then on foot, before looking back and seeing flames.

Hundreds of men fought the blaze, including marines, yard workers and even sailors. The fire was put out with little damage, but near panic reigned. Newspapers across the country reported the fire. Even King George III followed developments closely. The authorities were soon on the trail of Aitken, who had been spotted lurking around the Dockyard.

Aitken had made his way to London, but the contact he had been told to meet by the agent in France was in fact a double agent. After un-successfully trying to burn the Dockyard at Plymouth Aitken was arrested for housebreaking at Odiham in North Hampshire. He was charged with the Dockyard fire and then tried, convicted and hanged in March 1777. His trial at Winchester was a huge public spectacle, and dominated Newspapers and Magazines. Even his execution was a spectacle, Aitken having been hung from the mizzenmast of the Frigate Arethusa. After death his body was hung in irons at Fort Blockhouse, across the Harbour entrance at Gosport.

That ‘Jack the Painter’ chose to target Portsmouth Dockyard shows just what an important site it was in the late 18th Century, during the wars with Revolutionary America and later France. The Yard would have been bustling with the ‘wooden walls’ of the Royal Navy’s warships. Not only was it important militarily, but the Dockyard was also a very public symbol of British power.

But what is also interesting about ‘Jack the Painter’ is that his acts instilled fear much greater than their actual consequences, and in this sense he was the first Terrorist. And it happened here, in Portsmouth Dockyard. What more evidence is needed about just how important the Dockyard was?

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Filed under Dockyard, Local History