Remembering Sylvia Syms In Libya

Very sad to hear that the brilliant Sylvia Syms died this week. She made her name as the lead actress with two giants of the acting world, Sir John Mills and Sir Anthony Quayle, in one of the most iconic war films, Ice Cold In Alex.

The film was due to be made in Egypt, but the Suez Crisis in 1956 resulted in a location switch to Libya. Filming began close to the Sahara on 10 September 1957. During an interview when she was 77 years old, Sylvia Syms said that conditions during the desert shoot were difficult and that: “You may find this hard to believe, but there was very little acting. It was horrible. We became those people…we were those people”. She suggested the crew “didn’t know what Method Acting was, we just called it ‘getting on with it’.” However, I believe she is playing this down because she was at RADA in the same era as Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Siân Phillips and Glenda Jackson, while Marlon Brando and James Dean were trailblazing the technique in Hollywood.

Although the film was a great success in Britain, it did not break into the Hollywood award scene in the manner of The Bridge On The River Kwai. Its legacy, however, is greater than many movies of that era thanks to its use in a number of lager advertisements. It was also one of several films that were assisted by the British Army in Libya. The tanks of the Queen’s Bays, which had earned six Libyan Battle Honours in 1942, appeared in one of Cubby Broccoli’s early films, No Time To Die with Victor Mature and Anthony Newly. Many of the extras in the wartime adventure Sea of Sand, in which Michael Craig was nominated for the Best Actor prize at the BAFTAs, were British Army personnel serving in Libya and their autograph books filled up when Richard Burton, Nigel Green and Christopher Lee featured in Bitter Victory, a war film typical of the genre that portrayed the clash of classes and ranks. However, the most famous cast appeared in the Legend of the Lost, filmed at Leptis Magna and Ghadames, which starred John Wayne and Sophia Loren.

There are more stories about filming in Libya and intrepid women in the desert in Chapter 14 of Liberating Libya.

Sylvia Syms – Ice Cold In Alex

Why The Leopard Tank Is So Controversial

There were few political qualms about sending a squadron of British Challenger 2 tanks to the Ukraine last week because on their own, they will make little difference to the course of the war. So why are there so many problems with Germany sending Leopard 2 tanks to their near neighbours?

The reason is threefold. First, the technical side. The Krauss-Maffei Wegmann Leopard 2 is much easier to master than Challenger 2; the 120 mm smooth bore gun is quicker to fire and more simple to aim; the mobility is better because it is a lighter tank and the power to weight ratio is much higher, so it is 10 mph faster than Challenger 2. It is used in a dozen European countries and has been manufactured in a way that makes it easy for export. The only area that the Challenger 2 wins is in the protection of the tank because it carries the best armour in the world and it is 15 cms less in height.

The second reason is tactical. Tank warfare is essentially offensive war. Up to now, we have been helping the Ukrainians protect their territory with stand-off, defensive weapon systems used against a hated aggressor. The deployment of Leopard 2 from Germany (and other European countries) changes this dynamic, so that NATO will inevitably be drawn into direct combat with Russia.

And this leads to the third reason: the political-strategic unintended consequences. What does this mean for Germany’s constitution which allows for its armed forces to be used solely for defence of its own territory? What retaliation will come from Moscow if German tanks kill Russian soldiers? What will happen when Leopard 2 tanks are destroyed on the battlefield? How will the donation denude the German Army of some of its key battle-winning capability?

It is no wonder that the Berlin government is hesitant about deploying Leopard 2 against the Russian Army.

Leopard 2 Twenty-two Years Ago

Challenger 2 Tanks To Ukraine

Twenty years ago, the Challenger 2 proved to be the finest tank in the world against its contemporaries in the Middle East, but unfortunately, the British Army did not look after them as well as they might.

The recovery of one tank that was destroyed in a “blue on blue”, which killed two crew members in 2003 was a particular problem. We moved the remains (of the tank) to Kirkcudbright where they were pieced together to discover what went wrong. The jigsaw puzzle took more than a year to solve. Unfortunately, despite having the best armour protection, Iraqi insurgents also found a weak spot in the front of the tank a couple of years later and it has since become vulnerable to top attack missiles from unmanned air vehicles, which are prevalent in the Ukraine war.

I remember having to respond to a letter to the Prime Minister from the Chief Executive of the local borough council, who was angry about the effect of budget cuts on the Ministry of Defence, resulting in the cannibalisation of equipment. The fact is that 190 Challenger 2 tanks were cannibalised to sustain the operational fleet and this reflected a much wider problem of hollowing out vital equipment from ships, aircraft and land vehicles due to a shortage of money. This partly led to the mothballing of many vehicles at Ashchurch and the subsequent decimation of tank regiments in the last decade.

It will be very interesting to see how the 16 Challenger 2 tanks perform in Ukraine in 2023. I suspect it will not be easy for them because the war is relatively static and they are better suited to battles of manoeuvre. It is also difficult to master the rifle barrelled 120 mm gun; the electronics and engines are in poor condition and the weight is a problem in muddy ground off the beaten tracks. Nevertheless, I wish the Ukrainian Army every success with their new capability.

Challenger 2 Twenty-two Years Ago

Harry’s Greatest Fear

The Duke of Sussex was keen to talk about his military service during the media interviews to promote his ghost-written memoir this week. He is not the first ex-soldier who only spent a short time in the British Army to indicate that this was the most meaningful time of his life, but he has crossed a line with his boasts about how many kills he has notched on his belt.

It all smacks of someone who is desperate for the limelight and shows no respect for his comrades-in-arms. From a historical perspective, there are so many similarities to the life of the Duke of Windsor, who was described as a “Traitor King” in a book last year. However, there is an important difference in that Edward was not born as a “Spare”, as Harry identifies himself. To my mind, this shows that it is not what fate bequeaths to you, but the path you choose that marks out what sort of man you are.

There is another lesson that I draw from the similarities. In his memoir, the Duke of Windsor wrote about travelling to London when Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne and walking down St James’s Street without being recognised. He felt deflated as it was the moment he realised that he was irrelevant in Britain. Perhaps this is Harry’s greatest fear and is what has driven him to a life of hypocrisy and delusion.

We Three Kings

Sky News Tonight on Prince Harry’s Memoir

Tonight, I am discussing the implications of the Duke of Sussex’s revelations in his memoir with Sophy Ridge on Sky News. Inevitably, I will be asked about his claim that he killed 25 Taliban and his description of them as pawns. I won’t spoil what I intend to say, but perhaps Harry should have remembered Gandalf’s advice to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: “True courage is about not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one”.

There are also some serious ramifications that he should have considered. First, the fate of the crews who served with him in the Household Cavalry and Army Air Corps (it is not just his family, who will be at a higher risk of attack by revenge-seeking assassins). Second, to those who gave him exceptional support when he initially failed his Apache helicopter tests. Third, to the families of those he killed – real combat soldiers respect their enemy and don’t describe them as “pawns”. And finally, to the MoD as a whole; now that he has broken the code of what retired officers can write about in their memoirs – has he opened Pandora’s box?

For my next book, I have researched an incident after World War I when Harry’s Great Great Grandfather established the values of the House of Windsor. King George V had to reprimand Field Marshal Viscount French of Ypres when he discovered he was about to publish a memoir of the war, before the Treaty of Versailles was signed. As Head of the Armed Forces, the King was unceasing in his efforts to promote concord and to allay dissension. He believed that “people who write books ought to be shut up” and that “angry disputes” and “personal wrangling” with regard to either the conduct of operations, or the leadership of troops, would not help the cause of peace.

For the record, I never served in the same unit as Harry, but I was in Camp Bastion with him in December 2012 and have interviewed soldiers who were with him during his first tour of Afghanistan. The story of his cancelled deployment to Iraq is told in Chapter 5 of Belfast to Benghazi.

Operation Herrick Arrival

The War In Ukraine Is Not A Game Of Dice

The Daily Telegraph yesterday suggested that Vladimir “Putin is preparing one final, desperate throw of the dice” in his war in Ukraine. This is wishful thinking. If any game metaphor is appropriate for the way Putin is conducting this war, it is chess because he is using his strategic skills, not relying on chance. We also have to remember that for the Ukrainians, this war has been raging since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014, so we are coming to the end of Year 8, not the first anniversary.

In contrast, the message from the NATO Secretary General today, emphasising the long-term nature of this conflict, is much more realistic and should be applauded. As we enter 2023, we need to get away from the hubris that accompanies much of the British Media’s reports as this will inevitably lead to frustration and recrimination. In 2001, the Foreign Secretary announced in the Media that we were planning for a twenty year conflict in Afghanistan and that is what is required in the current situation, not a pretence that peace will be achieved this year.

My sense is that in 12 months, the front line will not have moved very much because Putin is not “desperate”, but working to a long-term plan that denies Ukraine to the West, rather than going for a quick victory. Our continued support to Ukraine is vital, but we must start thinking in the long term for our energy resources, non-ferrous metals, fertilizers and military support.

Health and Happiness

In gratitude to all followers and viewers of this website for their support in 2022, I wish you health and happiness during the festive season.

I remember particularly the feeling of being separated from my family on Christmas Day in Belfast during the Troubles and in Libya during the Arab Spring. So for the Armed Forces men and women, who are serving King and Country on operations at Home or Abroad and especially to those on guard in sangars on Christmas Day, I heartily thank you for your duty and wish you best fortune during 2023.

The Divis Tower Christmas Day 1981

Military Assistance In The Spotlight…Again

This week we should spare a thought for the soldiers, sailors and air personnel who will lose their hard-earned Christmas leave to stand-in for ambulance drivers and border staff.

I was involved in many operations designated as military aid to the civilian authorities (known as MACA) during my time in the Army, but some were more popular than others. In my experience, soldiers preferred to help vulnerable people during natural disasters such as flooding, or severe snow storms rather than any tasks related to industrial action such as Operation Fresco, which used the iconic Green Goddess fire tenders. It worried many of us when we became involved with industrial disputes because we were seen as strike breakers and were alienating some sections of the public from who we need support. This is the main reason why the military chiefs are pitched against the planned operations (as well as the other issues such pay and availability of troops).

It used to be a rare occurrence that the military was called to help at Home, but since the Foot and Mouth operation, it seems that we have been needed more frequently for national tasks such as Olympic security, Covid relief and illegal immigration. There is a great danger the public starts to believe that the Army is organised for civil contingencies, when in fact this is not even a funded activity. The problem is that the Media does not tell the public what the Armed Forces are really doing in places such as Africa, the Baltic and Iraq because it doesn’t suit their narrative. We really do need a much better public explanation of what the military does on a day-to-day basis.

The Iconic Green Goddess on Operation Fresco

Lockerbie Suspect in US Custody

The report today that Abu Aghila Mohammad Masud has been finally handed over to US authorities, two years after Washington announced their charges against him, has catapulted the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 into the news ten days before the 34th anniversary of this devastating terrorist attack over Lockerbie.

I have often been asked whether it was Libya or Iran that was behind the Lockerbie bombing. The argument for Iran’s involvement is that they were seeking revenge for the shooting down of one of their civilian aircraft by a US warship five months earlier. The much stronger case is that Gadhafi was retaliating for the loss of the Aouzou Strip, a disputed piece of land between Chad and Libya that is full of Uranium deposits and provided the Brother Leader with much of his nuclear weapon capability. Gadhafi believed that the French and American military assistance to Chad tipped the balance and led to 7,000 Libyans being killed in what became known as the Toyota War.

His first act of revenge was to destroy a French DC-10 that was flying from Brassaville (in the People’s Republic of Congo) to Paris on 19 September 1989. The death of all the 170 passengers and crew, from 18 countries, was not widely reported because it occurred over the Niger desert, but the use of a suitcase bomb should have put everyone on high alert.

A similar mode was used against the US Boeing-747 en-route from London to New York. The violent death of 259 passengers and crew as well as eleven residents of Lockerbie was much more widely reported than the September bombing, but I find it strange how few reporters made the connection between the two attacks that were only three months apart.

The censure of the international community and the reaction of President Reagan condemned Libya into ten years of isolation until Gadhafi agreed to hand over two individuals, who were tried by the Scottish courts. His seclusion ended after he donated $1 Billion to the families of the victims of Lockerbie and handed over his weapons of mass destruction and agreed to help US and UK intelligence agencies in the fight against Al Qa’ida. Much more of this story is covered in chapters 15 and 16 of my book, Liberating Libya, which I wrote with help from the British ambassadors at the time of Gadhafi’s reintegration into the international community.

WMD Ready for Loading onto a US C-17 at Mitiga Airbase Following Gadhafi’s Lockerbie deal with the US Government

US Prisoner Exchange With Russia

The exchange of US sportswoman, Brittney Griner with Arms Dealer, Viktor Bout, reminds us of Russia’s long history of prisoner swaps. Human hostage trades were established early in the Communist era and continued throughout the Second World War and the Cold War. The first prisoner exchange treaty, which set the standard for subsequent agreements, was brokered between the British MP, Jim O’Grady and Lenin’s envoy, Maxim Litvinov in 1920 (the draft agreement that was signed on 12 February can be found in Appendix 3 of my book, Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners).

US military prisoners captured during the Russian Civil War were released early in 1920, but there remained a few civilians who were arrested for spying and were held in Moscow along with British and French hostages. Perhaps the most infamous case was that of Mrs Margueritte Harrison. She travelled to Moscow as the correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, but was arrested on Good Friday and taken to Lubjanka prison on the same night as Francis McCullagh. She was tortured by the Tcheka and coerced to act as a Soviet agent. Her false reports led to the arrest of Mrs Stan Harding, correspondent for the New York World, but did not save her from being re-arrested in October 1920 and sent to the Novinsky Prison for Women, eventually being released on 29 July 1921, in exchange for American famine relief.

British prisoners released by the Russians were always quarantined and “debriefed” by MI6, in order to check whether they had been “turned”, or sympathised with Soviet ideology. When you read that Brittney Griner has been taken to an Army Base in San Antonio to help her adapt back to normal life, you can be sure that an element of this programme will be controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency for the same purposes. The ten month imprisonment must have been an extremely traumatic experience for her, but not as bad as the fifteen months of Bolshevik torture suffered by Margueritte Harrison.