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.
I am looking forward to the Early Early Christmas Fair at Tidworth on Tuesday 27 September from 4 p.m. when I will be signing books and talking about Churchill’s Second Darkest Hour in World War II and the four Battles at El Alamein, which marked the “beginning of the end” according to his famous address at the Lord Mayor’s Reception in November.
I have recently toured the battlefield and paid homage to the thousands of soldiers and airmen who are buried at El Alamein. The coast line is unrecognisable from even ten years ago, but the family looking after the Commonwealth War Cemetery are still doing a fantastic job in testing conditions. The museum has a new addition since I was last in North Africa with the arrival of a P-40 Kittyhawk found in the desert in immaculate condition.
On his way to take command of 13 Corps at El Alamein, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks felt a certain amount of trepidation because generals, at that time in the Middle East, didn’t as a rule last very long. He subsequently wrote that: “Command in the desert was regarded as an almost certain prelude to a bowler hat.”
He need not have feared because he was supported fully by the Eighth Army commander, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery and despite an uncomfortable interview with the Prime Minister, he earned huge plaudits for blunting Rommel’s attack at the Battle of Alem Halfa, 80 years ago today.After his success with 13 Corps in Egypt, he went on to even greater exploits with 10 Corps in Tunisia and 30 Corps in North West Europe, but sadly was medically discharged due to the wounds he suffered, so we never saw him as a peace time general.
There is still a fierce debate about when exactly the turning point of the war occurred. Churchill’s wonderful quotation about “…the beginning of the end” leads many people to believe that it was November 1942. However, others including distinguished historians such as Basil Liddell Hart believe it was earlier in July at the first Battle of El Alamein, or at the beginning of September when Horrocks held firm on the Alem Halfa ridge.
The BBC and national newspapers are reporting a spate of violence in Libya yesterday as if war has erupted again. However…
This appears to be a case of a political leader from Cyrenaica entering the capital city with his own bodyguards without clearing it beforehand with the Tripoli militias. The routes the convoy took were all blocked by vehicle check points, who controlled the access. The tragic death of at least 23 people certainly lifts this above the normal night time clashes along the militia boundaries, but this level of violence was often seen in the Gadhafi era, when groups opposing the government were mercilessly crushed in places such as Benghazi and Misrata.
Most western governments have strict rules about visitors from other countries with armed bodyguards. As Prince Harry has found, it is a very sensitive area and it is not unreasonable for weapons to be removed before entering someone else’s fiefdom. What is needed in Libya is a heavy-hitting UN Head of Mission to arbitrate between the two sides and offer guidance to the Libyan politicians trying to reintegrate their country into the international community. The sooner one is appointed, the better for (almost) everyone.
It is hard to believe that exactly five years ago, Boris Johnson was in Benghazi being introduced to some of the military personnel that Britain had trained as part of the education programme I introduced in 2012.As Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister, he gained a good reputation with his efforts to bring stability to the country and to negotiate a peace deal during the Berlin conference before the pandemic.
We know that he is looking for a new job, and that the UN is looking for a heavy hitting politician, who can bring the sides together, so it seems to be the perfect match.
The saga to appoint a new head of the UN Support Mission in Libya has taken another twist this week. The proposal to appoint Senagalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bitali as the Secretary’s General’s Special Representative has been rejected by the government in Tripoli. After nine UN envoys in the past ten years, they are seeking a serious heavyweight, who can mediate between the two political authorities in Tobruk and Tripoli and deliver the presidential election that was postponed last December.
Unfortunately, this entanglement in New York is unlikely to be solved while the war in Ukraine continues. Moscow still backs Khalifa Haftar, who controls the Libyan Army in Cyrenaica and is aligned with the Tobruk House of Representatives. The USA will not allow them to take over the whole country, but neither is it in a position to help militarily. Turkey is the main provider of security assistance in Tripolitania, but it is not doing enough to support disarmament and the humanitarian agenda.
France and Italy would like to take the lead, but their history in North Africa provides a stumbling block. Egypt and OPEC countries are seen as rivals and active competitors. The only country that has a proven track record of long-term diplomatic support and friendship (when Libya was a very poor country) is Britain. It is time that London provided another strong nomination for the UNSMIL lead.
I was fortunate to meet HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Dartmouth House after leaving school, when I was a member of the English Speaking Union. It is therefore a huge delight to be invited to return to Charles Street and give a talk in the historic Churchill Room on Monday 19th September.
The event starts with a drinks reception at 6 pm when I will display items belonging to the main characters in the book. Apart from explaining why the details of the British campaign in Siberia were covered-up after the prisoners returned from their Moscow jails, I will discuss the impact on Anglo-Russian relations and the relevance to the current crisis in Ukraine.
The Sunday Times article on nuclear war in Ukraine echoes my earlier posts about Russian strategy. There is no doubt that Putin is willing to use tactical nuclear weapons such as the Iskander missile system, with a three mile radius of devastation, if the ends justify the means.
With China and India seemingly unwilling to side with the West, the onus lies with NATO to support Ukrainian resistance. However, the bill of £5 billion per month to maintain the current defences would be dwarfed, if it is decided to build an offensive force to retake the land Russia has annexed.
We all know that if the West falters, it will only be a matter of time before Putin restocks his army and takes another slice of the pie.What we need is strong political leadership and a reinvestment in conventional armed forces, but the financial crisis is unlikely to make this a popular choice. It is the high costs of the alternatives that makes it more likely that we will do nothing, but even that has unpalatable consequences.