New Chief of the General Staff Message

Here’s wishing the new Chief of the General Staff the very best luck as he assumes responsibility for the British Army in these uncertain times. With both the Prime Minister and the Head of NATO telling us to expect a long war in Ukraine/Europe, the challenges facing Britain’s land forces could not be greater because devastating financial cuts have left the army unable to deploy and sustain an armoured division as we did in the Gulf War.

I worked alongside Patrick Sanders after he returned from his outstanding operational command in Basra in 2008 and he grappled with the strategic dilemma facing the Army – the call to focus solely on Afghanistan. His rallying cry to troops this week – telling them to prepare for war with Russia – echoes his writing then, but cancelled training exercises and failed equipment programmes in the past few years have left the British Army in a more parlous state than it has ever been before.

However, the biggest challenge facing the professional head of the army is not physical, but moral – how to incorporate recent changes within society while retaining the “will to fight”? As we approach the annual RUSI Land Warfare Conference on 28 June, there has never been a greater need for a major re-evaluation of current dogma and a return to the basics of a credible and capable army – combined arms manoeuvre.

Gulf War 1991

British Soldiers Sentenced To Death in Ukraine

This week has brought the devastating news for the families of the two British prisoners-of-war who were sentenced to death after they were captured in Mariupol. With the death of Jordan Gatley, who left The Rifles in March to fight in Ukraine, announced yesterday, this is an important moment as the extent of British involvement in Putin’s war comes into focus.

The British prisoners-of-war who were captured in 1920 were never sentenced to death because Lenin wished to use them as hostages. They did have to endure lice-infested prison cells and starvation rations, but they were visited by the French Red Cross, who provided them with a few supplements such as potatoes and the occasional egg. Some of the soldiers were interrogated by the Secret Police, who tried to persuade them to kill their officers and to act as spies, but their loyalty to the group was never compromised.

Here’s hoping that there is similar Red Cross support for Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and that if there is to be a prisoner exchange it occurs soon.

Two of the British PoWs captured in Siberia in 1920

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

It was wonderful to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II today and sing the National Anthem at our local celebration. For seventy years, Her Majesty has been a serene symbol of peace and security in Britain, despite the world being in conflict for most of that time.

After her coronation, The Queen and Prince Philip undertook a global tour ending up in the newly independent Libya, which had just signed a friendship and co-operation treaty with Britain. During this visit, the Royal Couple met the King and Queen of Libya, paid their respects at the Commonwealth War Cemetery and inspected the British troops stationed in Cyrenaica, including the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Royal Tank Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters.

The photograph below invokes the exploits of another intrepid woman who had completed two journeys across Libya in a Land Rover Series One named Pollyanna. Barbara Toy did not publish her books about her time in Libya until after The Queen’s visit, by when the British interest in this fascinating Mediterranean / North African country was at its height. See Liberating Libya for more forgotten stories about the long-standing Anglo-Libyan friendship.

The Royal Couple in Libya in May 1954

British Support To Ukraine – Now and Then

There is a great similarity between the military support that Britain is providing for the Ukrainian Army in 2022 and the help provided by the UK government to General Anton Denikin and General Pyotr Wrangel in Ukraine in 1920.

British medical support to Russians fighting in Ukraine during the first World War had ended when Lady Muriel Paget pulled out her nurses in 1918 and escaped from the Red Terror to Vladivostok. The mission in South Russia reduced in size in April 1920 with the Senior British Military Commander responsible for 150 officers and 450 other ranks. A huge amount of military materiel was provided by the Royal Navy in the Black Sea and there were several casualties, including the last British officer to be killed by the Bolsheviks, 24 year old William Frecheville, who was captured close to the Luhansk Oblast.

One soldier who survived being captured was 19 year old Private Lionel Grant of the Gloucestershire Regiment. He was transferred to Moscow in October 1920 and joined Brian Horrocks’ group in the Andronovsky Prison. Here’s hoping that the current British prisoners in Russia will have a happy ending; similar to Grant and the last British prisoners-of-war of World War I.

The Last British PoWs in WWI – Lionel Grant is standing in the centre of the back row

Royal Visits To Libya

As we approach the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I am reminded that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Tobruk with the Duke of Edinburgh and met the King and Queen of Libya at the end of her first world tour in May 1954. During her visit to Cyrenaica, she toured the Tobruk war cemetery, attended a parade in the desert by the Royal Scots Greys and met families of the garrison troops.

At the end of the stopover, she and Prince Philip boarded The Royal Yacht Britannia, which had brought Prince Charles and Princess Anne from England on its maiden voyage. An enthusiastic heir to the throne rushed up to Her Majesty when she was piped aboard, but according to the magazine, Vanity Fair, the Queen adhered to protocol and said “No, not you, dear,” as she greeted dignitaries first, then shook the five-year-old’s extended hand before privately sharing a “warm and affectionate” reunion with her “enchanting” children in her cabin.

This was not the first British royal visit to Libya because her father, King George VI, had travelled to Tripoli on 19th June 1943 on his way to Malta to present a Field Marshal’s baton to Viscount Gort. In Libya, the King was hosted by Major General Brian Robertson, who later earned fame for his part in the relief of Berlin. This was a low key visit compared with the triumphant parade for the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in February because the Luftwaffe was still very active along the North African Coast, as evidenced by the near-death experience handed to General Horrocks a fortnight earlier.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with King Idris as-Sanussi in Tobruk in May 1954

Horrocks’ Ashes Ceremony

News that Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks’ ashes were never scattered after his funeral in 1985 has come as a complete surprise this weekend.

The ceremony on Monday gives us another chance to pay our respects to one of the finest British generals of World War II. Horrocks was awarded an immediate DSO for his leadership of XIII corps at El Alamein, took over X corps in Libya for the Advance to Tripoli and in 1943 led IX corps during the final Allied offensive in North Africa, before he was badly wounded by enemy aircraft on the coast of Tunisia. A year later, he was given XXX corps in France, which he commanded until the end of the war, when he sadly had to be medically-discharged due to the injuries he had sustained.

In researching for my book, Liberating Libya, I interviewed one of his platoon sergeants, Jeff Haward MM, of the Middlesex Regiment and had tremendous help from the actor Edward Fox, who became good friends with him when he prepared for his role in the film A Bridge Too Far. However, the biggest discovery was when I learned that he nearly died of Typhus after he was captured by the Red Army in Krasnoyarsk in 1920 and it was only through the care of his best friend, Captain Eric Hayes, that he lived to become such a success twenty years later. See Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for the full story of the Horrocks’ time as a PoW in Russia during WWI.

Brian Horrocks, seated second from left, with the last British Army prisoners of war in Russia in WWI

Putin’s Parade

The World War 2 commemoration in Moscow has provided another chilling reminder of the military power that President Putin currently holds. He justifies his aggression by claiming that the West threatened Russia. This rationale was put forward by Peter Hitchens when we opposed each other at the RA Butler Debate on Anglo-Russian relations before Lockdown. It is the flawed excuse of the killer who claims that because a person insulted him, he is justified in hitting them with a hammer. However, pre-emption is not one of the three permitted reasons to go to war in international law (self-defence; a treaty such as NATO’s Article 5; or a UN resolution in response to something like genocide).

The irony is that it is the West’s weakness, not its military threat, that has enabled Putin to invade his neighbour. Not only have we run down our military so we can no longer sustain a fully capable armoured division abroad, but our decisions about Libya, Syria and Afghanistan have demonstrated to Putin that we run away from difficulties overseas. Since China, India and most of Asia are still providing him with economic sanctuary, we really need to change tack if we are to win this one.

Moscow Victory Parade

Gazala Eighty Years On

This month we are commemorating the Battle of Gazala, which marked the high point of Rommel’s tactical success in World War II. It began well enough for the Eighth Army. In the north, 1st South African Division held the initial German push and at the southern bastion of Bir Hakkim, the Free French Brigade stopped the Italian XX corps. However, beyond this, the old hands in the Afrika Korps hooked around the static line and according to Ken Macksey: “one by one…the British formations offered themselves for destruction.”

The rot stopped in the centre at an area named Knightsbridge with the Mark 3 Grant tanks making their presence felt for the first time in the western desert. This provided an opportunity for the British commander, General Ritchie to strike a fatal blow using Cecil Haydon’s 150 Brigade as a pivot, but he sat on his hands while Rommel, who was “down to his last cup of water” boldly attacked the British position in what became known as the Cauldron.

Rommel described the British defence as “the toughest resistance imaginable”, but the gallant Brigadier Haydon, who had commanded his brigade since 1940, was abandoned by General Ritchie and sadly killed in action with thousands of his soldiers marched into captivity. The only highlight was in the north where Sergeant Quentin Smythe of the Royal Natal Carabineers was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading two attacks on German strong points despite being hit in the head by shrapnel.

There are 2,674 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen buried in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Libya. This lonely site in the desert is meticulously maintained by a friendly Libyan family who have looked after it since its creation. This week, I am giving a talk to an audience which includes the son of a padre at Gazala and will reflect on the sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers in Libya during World War II.

Mark 3 Grant Tanks in the Libyan Desert

Crown Estate Asked To Return Libyan Relics

It is reported today that lawyers acting for Libya have demanded the return of ruins kept in Windsor Great Park. I was questioned about these recently and found no evidence in my research that indicates these were looted from Leptis Magna by the colourful 19th century British Consul, Colonel Hanmer Warrington.

The story is covered in chapter 3 of my book, Liberating Libya. William Smyth, captain of the survey ship HMS Aid who was later awarded a Royal Geographical Society gold medal visited the North Coast of Africa in 1817 and at Tripoli had, with the help of the consul, secured an agreement with Pasha Yusef Karamanli. He returned to London with 37 marble columns from Leptis Magna and subsequently submitted a proposal to the Admiralty, suggesting that while he charted the coastline from the ship, now renamed HMS Adventurer, a land party should survey the historical sites. That survey was led by Lieutenant Frederick Beechey exactly 200 years ago.  

Warrington served in Tripoli for 32 years from 1812 until 1834. His principle achievement was to prevent the French from becoming the dominant partner in Libya. There are several places where his diplomatic agreements might be found, but there is absoulutely no way, the Libyan rulers would have allowed him to stay for another 25 years if these marbles were stolen in 1817.

Roman Amphitheatre in Libya

British Prisoners-of War in Russia

The parading of Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin by the Russian government is an appalling, but not unexpected, contravention of the laws of war. Their surrender in Mariupol is similar to the situation of the last British prisoners-of-war in World War One, who surrendered in Siberia and were transported to Moscow during the Russian civil war. They can expect to be treated as high-value political prisoners, which is better than captured enemy soldiers, who Russia treats with barbarous contempt.

They will still be psychologically “leant-on” to revoke their previous loyalties and interrogated to give away details of Ukrainian locations, tactics and command structures. However, their value as Prominente will mean that they will not suffer the same physical degradations as the other Ukrainian marines captured in the besieged port.

The proposal to exchange them for a Russian political prisoner is also not new. In 1920, Brian Horrocks and the other British soldiers were exchanged for the political envoy Babushkin and seven other Bolsheviks in a convoluted operation that took the best part of six weeks to conclude. It will be very distressing for Shaun and Aiden’s families, but hopefully history will repeat itself and the story will have a similar ending to Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.

Brian Horrocks and the other British Prisoners of War transported to Moscow in 1920