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.
The announcement that the government is creating four Ranger battalions as part of a Special Operations Brigade hammers another nail in the coffin of the Country Infantry Battalions. The idea of a Tier 2 Force is not new. As part of the post-9/11 Strategic Defence Review, we proposed a similar formation to support the Special Forces, but the Chief of the General Staff vetoed the idea because he believed it would mean the line infantry would be relegated to little more than garrison troops (he was a Royal Anglian).
Since then the county infantry battalions, which were the backbone of the British Army for two hundred years have been devastated by the last three Defence Reviews. Combined with the decision to dispose of our tracked armour (all Warrior infantry fighting vehicles and 79 Challenger tanks), this will limit Britain’s ability to move off roads and tracks in combat areas and will restrict the British Army to “security force” status, wholly dependent on the US military.
The decline and fall of the British Army since the First Gulf War is a tragic tale that is entering a new chapter. Whether this proves to be the denouement, or not depends on the attitudes of society and the state of the country’s finances after the Pandemic.
After 20 years of Strategic Defence Reviews, the Government has returned to the era of the Integrated Approach. This was a pre-Millennium term that described the internal Ministry of Defence co-ordination between the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. It was supeceded by the comprehensive approach which merged Defence requirements with those of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development in a meaningful way that put Britain at the heart of Global peacekeeping.
That all changed in 2013 when the UK and US governments failed to act against the attacks on the civilian population in Syria. The 2021 Defence Review, (announced last week) effectively neuters the British Armed Forces and puts all the money into the hands of the centralised spy masters in London and GCHQ.
Some might say that the jailing of Major General (Retired) Nick Welch is a sign that we cannot trust the leaders of the Armed Forces anymore. However, it is not so long ago that the Army offered incentives to soldiers to buy their own houses and still claim for the boarding school allowance, but now it is has made this a criminal offence.
The two issues may not seem related, but our Allies and Adversaries will see them both as a sign that Britain’s role in the world has diminished further and the government is not able to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians threatened by genocide, or deploy a meaningful militarily force abroad.
Several of the characters in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners will reappear in my next book, which is due to be published after Lockdown. These include journalists, diplomats, politicians and soldiers such as Brian Horrocks.
After he returned from Russia and picked up the Military Cross he had been awarded in 1920, his career in the following decade was remarkably similar to thousands of British Army officers who served in the 1980s, alternating his postings between the British Army of the Rhine and counter-insurgency operations in Ireland, which he described as “a most unpleasant form of warfare”.
One of his highlights was representing Britain at the 1924 Paris Olympics, where he competed in the Modern Pentathlon, a gruelling multi-discipline sport that involves show-jumping, fencing, running, swimming and shooting. However, this was trumped when he joyfully married Nancy Kitchin four years later.
As a slightly slow starter, he did not attend Staff College until he was 35 years-old, but his progress afterwards didn’t suggest that he would become such a meteoric success in World War II and end up commanding three different corps in North Africa and XXX Corps in North West Europe.
I wonder what he would have thought of the British Army being reduced to less than the size of one of these corps!
Two days before the Treaty of Riga was signed, the British Government finally sealed their trade deal with Lenin’s Soviet Republic.
The deal had been gestating since the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had agreed with the Allies on 25th April 1920 “to adopt a resolution to restore trade with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic”.
Negotiations during the eleven months that led to the President of the Board of Trade, Robert Horne, signing the agreement, were fraught with problems. When Lloyd George first met with the Soviet envoy, Leonid Krassin, Winston Churchill was livid and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff accused the Prime minister of treason because the Soviets were still holding British soldiers, sailors and airmen as prisoners-of-war.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon was equally opposed to the deal and voted against it in the November Cabinet meeting, even after the prisoners were released.
The iconic treaty was a watershed moment in the history of Russia because it gave recognition to the communist government and effectively condoned the repression that led to the death of millions of lives during Stalin’s pogroms.
See chapter 15 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for the story how the negotiations progressed while the British soldiers were slowly starved in their Moscow jail.
Two important centenary anniversaries affecting the Anglo-Russian relationship occur this month. This week’s blog commemorates the end of the war between Poland and the Soviet Union.
The Peace of Riga, signed on 18th March took seven months to negotiate and benefited the Polish government more than the Congress of Soviets, which had to pay 30 million roubles compensation and abandon all rights and claims to territory west of the Ukraine.
Even though the Poles came out well, General Pilsudski the hero of the Battle for Warsaw, was highly critical of the loss of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Lenin was equally frustrated that his plans to export the Communist revolution to the West had been blunted.
The Allies were reluctant to recognize the treaty because the frontier was drawn 250 kilometres east of the Curzon Line that had been agreed at the Paris Peace Conference. Winston Churchill was a staunch supporter of the fight against Bolshevism and had tried to persuade the Government to send military support to Poland (see his secret memorandum below). However, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was more interested in a trade deal and said “When I mentioned the possibility of our going to war to support Poland, a shudder passed through the House of Commons…”. As a result, the government procrastinated and did not recognize the border until March 1923.
The peace treaty stabilized Polish-Soviet relations until Stalin invaded his neighbour on 17 September 1939 sixteen days after Hitler invaded from the West. It took another 50 years before Poland freed itself from Soviet shackles.