The continuing reports of war crimes and atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine has led to a large increase in NATO deployments in Eastern Europe despite waning public support in France, Germany and Italy (where only a quarter of the population are now in favour of sanctions according to recent polls).
As a reminder, at the Madrid summit this year, member states agreed to increase the NATO Response Force from 40,000 to 300,000 troops. What we are currently seeing on the ground is a doubling of the multi-national battle-groups in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; with new formations in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, as well as extra divisional headquarters and pre-positioned equipment, weapon-stockpiles and missile-defence-systems in the region.
There is an element of brinkmanship at play here. From my experience of NATO operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are so many political caveats that accompany these multinational teams that it makes it almost impossible for the lead nation to send troops into the danger zones. There are also the interoperability challenges that degrade the fighting capability, which is why we used to insist that the smallest building block for effective and capable deployments was/is a brigade (not a company as seems to be the case now).
The numbers are also a long way from the size and scale of NATO forces in the Cold War. When I deployed with the NRF’s predecessor to the Russian border in the Arctic Circle and was involved in the famous Reforger exercises in Germany, Britain alone had more than 300,000 troops. However, taken with the increased support provided to the Ukrainian armed forces by individual nations and the need to avoid escalating the war into a nuclear conflict, the new deployments are important developments as the winter approaches.
The Prime Minister’s visit to Kyiv has highlighted the continuing need to support the people of war-torn Ukraine and in particular protect civilians from the bombardment of the capital and other cities. Of his three overseas assignments during the last week, this was without doubt Rishi’s most important in terms of sustaining the Free World. That is not to say that economic hardships and rising sea-levels do not need our close attention, but belt-tightening and crop-growing have to be set within the context of the fight against authoritarianism.
The cases of torture that have been reported following the recapture of Kherson are very harrowing, but are not unique. In 1920, Prime Minister David Lloyd George set up a Committee to Collect Information on Russia led by Alfred Emmott who took evidence between 10 June and 17 August from British prisoners released from Moscow jails. Lord Emmott’s report, held at Nuffield College, Oxford was an important academic source for my book Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners and provides a yardstick for comparing the treatment of captives released this week. It is intriguing that many of the techniques used by the Cheka are still used by the Russian interrogators one hundred years on and that the experience of the journalist, Anzhela Slobodian is so reminiscent of Francis McCullagh’s time in Lubjanka jail told in Chapter 11.
A Moscow Prison for British Prisoners-of-War in 1920
The announcement of the complete withdrawal of British troops from Mali is terrible news for both international peacekeeping and the credibility of British foreign policy.
I have written about Operation Newcombe before because it began when I was in Libya and was closely linked to our Special Forces’ work to prevent the spread of Al Qaida in the Maghreb. The task in Mali is probably the most challenging of all the current British Army deployments both in terms of physical environment and conceptual complexities. It is also one of only three areas where the new General Service Medal is awarded.
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 their physical security.However, the strategic stakes are not just humanitarian, but also involve people trafficking, weapons proliferation and international terrorism. The Long Range Reconnaissance Group that operates from Gao, 250 miles from Timbuctoo, is making a vital contribution and its withdrawal will have severe consequences not only for the Sahel region, but also asylum destinations.
Unfortunately, the strong military government that took over the country in a series of coups has now allied itself to Russia through the mercenary group Wagner. The previous government was propped up by France, which led the international peacekeeping efforts in the desolate countryside. However the current government has rejected western exhortations and is looking for a military solution similar to the Russian aided Assad government victory in Syria and Khalifa Haftar’s success in Libya. Taken together with the 2019 withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is another humiliation for the West as its declining influence continues in World affairs.
As a former author of British peacekeeping policy, I find it tragic how our government has become confused about what it is doing and is now reliant on others for its key military capabilities, so it cannot act independently. If we wish to maintain our place at the high table within the United Nations, then we must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and actively help on the ground, rather than just point the finger from the touch-line (or an Aircraft Carrier).
Eighty years ago, Winston Churchill was invited to the Lord Mayor’s reception on the day before the anniversary of the Armistice and spoke about the ongoing war in the Western Desert. The Second Battle of El Alamein had officially ended on 5th November, but Rommel was still fighting a savage rear-guard action as he withdrew through Libya and each gain, such as Tobruk on 13 November, was accompanied by more British killed in action.
In London, Churchill delivered one of his inspiring speeches and with reference to the end of WWI said of the present situation: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” For Remembrance Sunday, he authorised the mass ringing of church bells, not heard in Britain for over two years. Three days later, the Prime Minister visited his alma mater where he said to the assembled school: “Two years have passed since we stood alone…All we knew was that we should fight to the end…Far be it for me to say how long the road will be…but I do feel that the day will shortly come…when we shall reach a broader and brighter light..”
Such powerful words and so appropriate for our Remembrance Sunday in 2022.
The Prime Minister Speaking At Harrow During The Second World War
This week we are commemorating the anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I. At the time, many people claimed it was the war to end all wars, but history shows that war has not magically disappeared from the world. So it is absolutely right that we commemorate the lost lives in all wars and share a thought for the families of soldiers, sailors and air people, who are still struggling to come to terms with their missing loved ones, who died recently on operations abroad, or while training at home.
In 2022, the reason to remember is even more obvious as war has returned to Europe and so many lives have been affected by the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Our government has been neglecting its armed forces since the Financial Crisis, but now more than ever the country’s dedicated service personnel and veterans need our support. That’s why I travelled to El Alamein to commemorate the fallen who gave their lives for our freedoms todayand will be supporting the Royal British Legion this week at our local memorial.
The announcement that HRH King Charles III will be the next Captain General Royal Marines is tremendous news for a branch of the Armed Forces that has been under threat during the 21st Century. At every Defence Review, when the Royal Navy has been squeezed by bean stealers to provide more savings, the future of one of the two United Kingdom rapid entry forces (the other being the Parachute Regiment) has been weighed in the balance.
It was particularly stark in 2010 during the Financial Crisis when we lost our Sea Harriers with no replacement available. As the Royal Navy was being severely cut by the Government, I was very happy to help the Commando Brigade articulate their justification for the Amphibious Operational Capability, so I know how important the new King taking this role will be for the future of the Royal Marines.
But what about all the regiments that proudly claimed the late Queen as their Colonel-in-Chief, including my own, The Royal Lancers (Queen Elizabeths’ Own)? A decision about who will be the next Colonel-in-Chief takes years and involves a convoluted process between the senior officers of the Regiment, the Ministry of Defence and Buckingham Palace. For example, the 16th/5th Lancers were originally listed to have HRH Princess Margaret as Colonel-in-Chief and the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers were to have HRH Princess Elizabeth. However, when Her Majesty The Queen Mother intervened and took the “Delhi Spearmen”, her eldest daughter was bumped down to become Colonel-in-Chief of the “Scarlet Lancers” in 1947.
I have several letters that show how long it takes for a decision to be made. After the War, a number of cavalry regiments sought a Royal Colonel, including the 14th/20th King’s Hussars in 1950. Two years later, on 25 August 1952, the late, great Dick McCreary finally wrote a letter to The Under Secretary of State that begins: “I have the honour to submit that Her Majesty the Queen be approached with a view to obtaining her approval for His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to be asked if he would honour my Regiment by assuming the appointment of its Colonel-in-Chief.” Commentators who are linking the decision of HRH King Charles III as Captain General to the announcement of Harry Windsor’s Spare book, simply do not understand the time line of these decisions.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at a regimental ball one month before I was born!
This weekend we are commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein, which took place between 21 October and 5 November 1942 and according to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, marked “the end of the beginning” of World War II. Some believe that North Africa was a side-show compared with the Normandy landings, however if you look at the proportion of casualties, numbers of troops and intensity (bombs dropped and ammunition used), the evidence points to the battles of Alamein being the true turning point of the war.
Whatever the answer, we should spare a thought today for the PBI (poor bloody infantry) who were forbidden from leaving their slit trenches even for a call of nature as they waited all day in trepidation for the crescendo of noise that accompanied the five hour artillery barrage, which began the first phase, known as Operation Lightfoot. Things were not much better for the tank troops. In the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry staging area, the padre, George Hales, conducted a final service. All who were present in that tense and apprehensive atmosphere remembered his talk, with his quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Endure a while, toil a while, never look back.” However, it was the Sappers who perhaps deserve our deepest admiration because as you can see from the brilliant painting by Terence Cuneo, (thanks to his Estate for allowing me to show his art), the mine clearers had to lead the way in the two designated corridors and were exposed to enemy fire with very little protection.
There is still much controversy about Montgomery’s attritionist doctrine, which dominated British military thinking for many years afterwards and resonates in Ukraine today. What is more important, however, is that as we approach the season of Remembrance, we continue to pay tribute to the fallen, who gave their lives for our freedoms today.
On Friday 21 October, I will be giving the second of two talks on El Alamein to commemorate the 80th anniversary of this iconic battle. In preparation for the event, I visited the battlefield on the north coast of Egypt and paid tribute to those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. For those who have not visited El Alamein for some years, there is a new exhibit at the museum, which is a pristine Curtiss Kittyhawk (known in the USA as the P-40 Warhawk). This was found in the desert abandoned by its pilot who “disappeared” among the local community.
The talk on Friday will place the Second Battle of El Alamein within Britain’s Mediterranean strategy and the desperate situation in 1942 when Britain lost Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma and Tobruk in rapid succession. I will discuss the roles and relationships of Churchill and the top generals, including: Alexander, Montgomery and the old sweats, Gott and Lumsden and answer the question why Alamein is classified in the same category as Agincourt and Waterlooo, as one of the most important military victories in British history. Tickets are available on the NAM website ahttps://www.nam.ac.uk/whats-on/end-beginning-second-battle-el-alamein
I recently gave a talk about Churchill’s Second Darkest Hour after the loss of Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma, when he was passed a telegram by President Roosevelt on 21 June informing him that Tobruk had surrendered without a fight. He later wrote about the bitter shame he felt: “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.” However, before travelling to North Africa to sort out the army’s mess, he had to face down his opponents in Parliament during a vote of censure about his leadership. In the two-day debate, he delivered another of his great speeches and won the vote emphatically on 2 July, while the first battle of El Alamein raged in Egypt.
After changing the Army Commanders in the Middle East and holding a tetchy meeting with Stalin in August, the Prime Minister returned to London and received yet more bad news when HRH The Duke of Kent was killed in a Sunderland Flying Boat, during a mission to Iceland, while serving with the Royal Air Force.
Churchill had to send an immediate telegram on 25 August to King George VI in Scotland: “Mr Churchill with his humble duty to Your Majesty STOP Sir it is with intense sorrow that I have just learned your brave and charming brother this day killed in action STOP pray allow me to offer my deepest sympathy for the loss of a beloved brother which Your Majesty has sustained STOP” as well as to Queen Mary of Teck and to the Duke of Windsor, who was Governor of the Bahamas.
The secret report of the tragedy shows how similar it was to the 1994 Chinook crash on Mull. It was deemed that the Duke’s funeral four days later would not be a major event since the war situation was so bleak. However, a significant memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday 9th September at 12.30 pm.
In recent days, there has been positive news about Ukraine’s defence of its national integrity, despite Putin’s illegal annexation of captured land. Progress is due to the extraordinary courage of ordinary Ukrainian men and women who are serving on the front line, but a key contribution has been provided by the military assistance from NATO countries, including British missiles, guns, equipment and training. It is all uncannily similar to the support provided at the end of WWI to the White Government in Omsk, led by Admiral Kolchak, except in one very important respect.
In 1919, Britain had 4,000 troops in Siberia, including two infantry battalions (Middlesex Diehards and Hampshire Tigers), a Royal Marine combat team that provided support along the River Kama, a Royal Horse Artillery fire support team, three capital ships (HMS Carlisle, HMS Kent and HMS Suffolk), a medical mission that helped tackle the Typhus epidemic and a railway mission that transported millions of pounds worth of arms and equipment to the front line. This contingent was part of a force of 170,000 thousand European, American and Japanese soldiers bolstering the White Army, which was fighting the Bolsheviks. In today’s war, there are plenty of foreign politicians cheering from the touchline, but very few countries have committed “boots on the ground”.
The big test is about to come. A Russian winter can change everything as Napoleon and Hitler discovered. It will be fascinating to see whether the fighting pauses, or whether a new offensive is launched as in October 1919. Read more about the similarities between the current war in Ukraine and the war in Siberia in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.