One of the gloomiest updates at the RUSI conference last week was about the replacement for the Scimitar light tanks that have been in service for 50 years. I operated a fleet of them (known as Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance) in Norway, Denmark, Germany and Bosnia when they had a Jaguar 4.2 litre petrol engine, but this was replaced with a Cummins diesel after my return from Bosnia. They have been extended beyond their out of service date several times, but are now effectively obsolescent vehicles.
The long wait for the Ajax tanks, which seems to have gone on forever and will stretch way beyond the date that we were promised by the contractor when it was awarded the project. The first tanks should have arrived in 2017, but reliability and safety issues continue to delay this £3.5 Billion project and the failings this year have led the House of Commons Defence Select Committee to comment that it was “yet another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence”.
The history of this flawed project from the cancellation of the over-elaborate FRES programme, to the removal of reliability engineers from Abbey Wood, would make a fascinating, but depressing read. The delay of this project is seriously undermining the British Army’s transformation, but more importantly, we must think of the soldiers who are operating obsolescent equipment in the Baltic and West Africa and make them the top priority for the delivery of the first tanks, not the troops in administrative garrisons.
Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) of B Squadron 17th/21st Lancers in the Arctic Circle, 1980
On the 77th anniversary of the D Day landings, the British Normandy Memorial has been unveiled in the town of Ver-sur-Mer. Liam O’Connor’s elegant design is a fitting tribute, but why has it taken so long for the country to recognize the sacrifice of these 22,442 men and women with a permanent monument?
For my latest book, I have been allowed to quote from the private papers of Colonel Patrick McCraith, whose regiment, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry landed with all its battle tanks on D Day. In the previous year, they had fought all the way from El Alamein through Libya to Tunisia where their commanding officer, Colonel Flash Kellett (the MP for Birmingham Aston), had sadly been killed in action.
Pat McCraith, who had also commanded the Yeomanry Patrol in the Long Range Desert Group, was wounded for the third time on 10th June 1944. He was in regimental headquarters in a farmhouse, near to Tilly-sur-Seulles, when a German shell exploded among the officers, killing Major Michael Laycock (acting commanding officer), Captain George Jones (adjutant) and Lieutenant Lawrence Head (intelligence officer). It’s no wonder, Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks wrote about the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry in World War II “no armoured regiment can show a finer record of hard fighting.”
For three years, I organised the annual RUSI land warfare conference at the beginning of June, when the latest British Army concepts were presented to a discerning audience of international military officers as well as government officials, journalists and representatives of Defence industry. The main focus during my time was the digitization of the Army, the introduction of unmanned aircraft and the protection of individual soldiers on the front line.
The weekend before the event, the Chief of the General Staff always warms up with an interview that outlines the topics for discussion. In preparation for this year’s conference, which begins on Wednesday, the current Chief has focused thinking on the technological changes that are happening in the aftermath of the recent Defence and Security Review. However, the big strategic issue is the diminishing public support for war and the low tolerance for British casualties. These and other moral dilemmas facing the British Army in the 2020s are much greater challenges than teaching soldiers how to use modern equipment. I hope they are not brushed under the carpet this week.
The Royal Navy is about to embark on a global cruise, exercising its right to navigate around the world and visit British allies along the way.
The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will act as the command ship for a task force that includes American and Dutch ships and provide organic air power against ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
The mission has been criticized by two former Chiefs of Defence, Lord Houghton and Lord Richards. Their angst goes back to the Strategic Defence and Security Review, when the Government backed the Royal Navy’s view of the future, rather than the Army’s proposals. At the time, there was a behind-the-scenes internecine war between the Services as the Treasury reduced the amount of money available to the Armed Forces by boosting the domestic security capability and playing a game of “divide and rule” with the Service Chiefs (a theme covered in my forthcoming book).
The grand tour of the world has not yet become a focus for the environmentalists. However, I am sure some activists will pick up on the fact that the carrier alone carries over 8,000 tonnes of fuel to support the ship and her aircraft. This is enough to power the average family car to travel to the moon and back twelve times.
Whatever the criticisms, it is wonderful to see the Union Jack at sea, leading the way out of the Lockdown with the accompanying diplomatic and trade opportunities that HMS Queen Elizabeth will provide.
It was very good to see, after my post last week, that a few newspapers ran feature articles on British military operations in Mali, highlighting the tremendous work of the Light Dragoons on their lengthy desert patrols. However, this is not the only major military deployment that is happening in May this year.The British army is also participating in one of the largest NATO exercises in Europe since the Cold War. Stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans, the coordinated deployment of nearly 30,000 multinational troops is a meaningful statement to President Putin that he cannot intimidate his neighbours.
The British capability, which includes parachute and infantry companies, complements the Enhanced Forward Presence stationed in Poland and the Baltic States. The UK Battle Group in Estonia that includes challenger tanks and AS90 self propelled guns, is incredibly popular and yet the British newspapers provide little coverage of what our troops are doing to reassure our friends and prevent conflict.
Perhaps the most meaningful contribution is in Albania, a NATO Member since 2009. The strategic port of Durres is host to important sustainment operations with 104 British logistics support brigade heavily involved in developing the systems and processes. It is not quite on the same scale as the Reinforcement in Germany exercises which involved up to 50,000 British troops in the 1980s, but it is still a significant measure of military capability. Hopefully, we will see a bit more about this in the national media before the exercise ends on 2nd June.
The little-known operation in Mali, (code-named Newcombe) is probably the most challenging of all the current British Army deployments in 2021.
The war began when I was in Libya after the remnants of Gadhafi’s army arrived in Timbuktoo with a huge quantity of weapons. They were welcomed by the Tuareg tribes of the Azawad (Northern Mali), who promptly rebelled against the central government in Bamako and established a strong liberation army, which was unfortunately linked with terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. The international community, led by France, propped up the government and went to war in the desert.
British special forces have operated with the French counter-terrorism forces since 2013, but last year, the National Security Council also agreed to send a task group with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, known as MINUSMA. This Long Range Reconnaissance Group, comprising infantry and armoured troops, is based at Gao, which is 250 miles east of Timbuktoo.
Mali is designated as one of the United Nations least developed countries, where poverty is rife and mortality rates are among some of the worst in the world. The people desperately need Aid, but the delivery of medical support, food, supplies and education depends on the security provided by UN peacekeepers.
At this time of the year, the roasting heat of the desert makes for a horrendous environment, but the month-long patrols are only a repeat of what the Long Range Desert Group did in the Libyan desert eighty years ago. It would be good if the British media could find some space in their newspapers to report on the magnificent work of the Royal Anglians and Light Dragoons to bring peace and security to the people of the Sahel.
On Saturday 8th May, the former Defence Minister, Johnny Mercer is leading a protest march to Westminster on behalf of the elderly veterans, who are under investigation for alleged crimes in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.
Hopefully, by then the trial against the two soldiers charged with shooting an IRA officer responsible for the deaths of 15 British troops, will have collapsed. The Judge in Belfast has already condemned the prosecution’s case against by ruling that the statements given in 1972 are inadmissible and criticizing the lack of new evidence.
We have to remember that 1972 saw the worst levels of violence in Northern Ireland. At 0400 hours on Monday 31 July, the Government launched Operation Motorman against the IRA safe havens in Derry and Belfast. The security forces expected an intense firefight, but the work with local communities and restraint on the part of the soldiers ensured that heavy civilian casualties were avoided. This operation lasted until December that year and was a notable success for not only demonstrating that the rule of law would be applied in all places, but also for catching many of the Provisional IRA commanders. It was also a key turning point in the campaign as the IRA changed their tactics from insurgency to terrorism.
The 200 soldiers sent into the fray by the government 50 years ago, who are now under investigation, were doing their duty to the best of their abilities and deserve our tributes, not our censure.
Throughout the past year more than 10,000 military men and women have worked tirelessly as part of the Government’s campaign to tackle Covid-19. Sadly, there has been very little coverage in the national newspapers of the wide range of tasks they have undertaken as part of Operation Rescript. Key activities include testing and vaccinations, as well as casualty transportation, logistic distribution, co-ordination and communications.
Twenty years ago, there was a clear understanding about the use of the military in a national emergency. The British Army had to take control of the Foot and Mouth Crisis in 2001 and four years later, had to prepare plans for the Fuel Blockade that included training 1,000 military drivers to operate oil tankers. Several times in the past decade, soldiers have had to reach out to communities that were devastated by extreme weather events, such as the flooding of the River Severn and everyone remembers the huge part played by service personnel, when G4S admitted they could not provide adequate security cover during the 2012 Olympic Games.
Isn’t it time for the National Media to properly inform the public about the fantastic work carried out be the military in support of the Covid Pandemic, rather than just report on the negative stories such as criminal prosecutions?
Waterstones and Amazon have now added my new book, Liberating Libya: to their online lists. However, do not hold your breath because my publisher intends to wait until after Lockdown and launch the book in October, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the death of Colonel Gadhafi.
The book is dedicated to the nine soldiers, who were awarded the Victoria Cross in Libya (five of them posthumous) and the only Libyan to be awarded the Military Cross in World War II.There also features about the British efforts to end the Tripoli slave trade in the 19th century and the six intrepid women, who carved their name in the desert.
Currently, we are choosing between two sub-titles: British Bonds of Friendship, or British Diplomacy and War in the Desert. Both accurately describe the subject of the book (Anglo-Libyan relations since the first treaty was signed during the reign of James II), but which do you think is better?
This week, we have seen a renewal of rhetoric about Libya. On Wednesday, Chatham House sent out a video explaining the consequences of the conflict and the latest work of the United Nations. The following day, the media exposed the role played by the Russian security firm, which has been increasing since its success in Syria.
This week sees the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the iconic Siege of Tobruk. On 10th April 1941, Rommel launched his first assault on the enclave, but this was halted by a heavy sandstorm and well-sited British guns. The following day was Good Friday, but there was no bank holiday for the defenders because the Afrika Korps drove straight up the El Adem Road, accompanied by a blistering bombardment from artillery and dive-bombers.
The attack was blocked by the Royal Tank Regiment and the Australian 20th Brigade, but the fight continued throughout Easter. On the night of 13th April, Corporal John Edmondson, a giant of a man from Wagga Wagga, rescued his patrol commander and beat back the German advance, but sadly he died of his wounds later that night. For his inspiring leadership and conspicuous bravery, which led to the defeat of the German Easter attack, he was awarded the first Victoria Cross to an Australian in World War II and the first of nine to be earned in Libya.
Commemorating John Edmondson, we must also remember what his sacrifice meant as we look forward to the Libyan national elections later this year.