As we approach the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I am reminded that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Tobruk with the Duke of Edinburgh and met the King and Queen of Libya at the end of her first world tour in May 1954. During her visit to Cyrenaica, she toured the Tobruk war cemetery, attended a parade in the desert by the Royal Scots Greys and met families of the garrison troops.
At the end of the stopover, she and Prince Philip boarded The Royal Yacht Britannia, which had brought Prince Charles and Princess Anne from England on its maiden voyage. An enthusiastic heir to the throne rushed up to Her Majesty when she was piped aboard, but according to the magazine, Vanity Fair, the Queen adhered to protocol and said “No, not you, dear,” as she greeted dignitaries first, then shook the five-year-old’s extended hand before privately sharing a “warm and affectionate” reunion with her “enchanting” children in her cabin.
This was not the first British royal visit to Libya because her father, King George VI, had travelled to Tripoli on 19th June 1943 on his way to Malta to present a Field Marshal’s baton to Viscount Gort. In Libya, the King was hosted by Major General Brian Robertson, who later earned fame for his part in the relief of Berlin. This was a low key visit compared with the triumphant parade for the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in February because the Luftwaffe was still very active along the North African Coast, as evidenced by the near-death experience handed to General Horrocks a fortnight earlier.
News that Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks’ ashes were never scattered after his funeral in 1985 has come as a complete surprise this weekend.
The ceremony on Monday gives us another chance to pay our respects to one of the finest British generals of World War II. Horrocks was awarded an immediate DSO for his leadership of XIII corps at El Alamein, took over X corps in Libya for the Advance to Tripoli and in 1943 led IX corps during the final Allied offensive in North Africa, before he was badly wounded by enemy aircraft on the coast of Tunisia. A year later, he was given XXX corps in France, which he commanded until the end of the war, when he sadly had to be medically-discharged due to the injuries he had sustained.
In researching for my book, Liberating Libya, I interviewed one of his platoon sergeants, Jeff Haward MM, of the Middlesex Regiment and had tremendous help from the actor Edward Fox, who became good friends with him when he prepared for his role in the film A Bridge Too Far.However, the biggest discovery was when I learned that he nearly died of Typhus after he was captured by the Red Army in Krasnoyarsk in 1920 and it was only through the care of his best friend, Captain Eric Hayes, that he lived to become such a success twenty years later. See Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for the full story of the Horrocks’ time as a PoW in Russia during WWI.
The World War 2 commemoration in Moscow has provided another chilling reminder of the military power that President Putin currently holds. He justifies his aggression by claiming that the West threatened Russia. This rationale was put forward by Peter Hitchens when we opposed each other at the RA Butler Debate on Anglo-Russian relations before Lockdown. It is the flawed excuse of the killer who claims that because a person insulted him, he is justified in hitting them with a hammer. However, pre-emption is not one of the three permitted reasons to go to war in international law (self-defence; a treaty such as NATO’s Article 5; or a UN resolution in response to something like genocide).
The irony is that it is the West’s weakness, not its military threat, that has enabled Putin to invade his neighbour. Not only have we run down our military so we can no longer sustain a fully capable armoured division abroad, but our decisions about Libya, Syria and Afghanistan have demonstrated to Putin that we run away from difficulties overseas. Since China, India and most of Asia are still providing him with economic sanctuary, we really need to change tack if we are to win this one.
This month we are commemorating the Battle of Gazala, which marked the high point of Rommel’s tactical success in World War II. It began well enough for the Eighth Army. In the north, 1st South African Division held the initial German push and at the southern bastion of Bir Hakkim, the Free French Brigade stopped the Italian XX corps. However, beyond this, the old hands in the Afrika Korps hooked around the static line and according to Ken Macksey: “one by one…the British formations offered themselves for destruction.”
The rot stopped in the centre at an area named Knightsbridge with theMark 3 Grant tanks making their presence felt for the first time in the western desert. This provided an opportunity for the British commander, General Ritchie to strike a fatal blow using Cecil Haydon’s 150 Brigade as a pivot, but he sat on his hands while Rommel, who was “down to his last cup of water” boldly attacked the British position in what became known as the Cauldron.
Rommel described the British defence as “the toughest resistance imaginable”, but the gallant Brigadier Haydon, who had commanded his brigade since 1940, was abandoned by General Ritchie and sadly killed in action with thousands of his soldiers marched into captivity.The only highlight was in the north where Sergeant Quentin Smythe of the Royal Natal Carabineers was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading two attacks on German strong points despite being hit in the head by shrapnel.
There are 2,674 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen buried in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Libya. This lonely site in the desert is meticulously maintained by a friendly Libyan family who have looked after it since its creation. This week, I am giving a talk to an audience which includes the son of a padre at Gazala and will reflect on the sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers in Libya during World War II.
It is reported today that lawyers acting for Libya have demanded the return of ruins kept in Windsor Great Park. I was questioned about these recently and found no evidence in my research that indicates these were looted from Leptis Magna by the colourful 19th century British Consul, Colonel Hanmer Warrington.
The story is covered in chapter 3 of my book, Liberating Libya. William Smyth, captain of the survey ship HMS Aidwho was later awarded a Royal Geographical Society gold medal visited the North Coast of Africa in 1817 and at Tripoli had, with the help of the consul, secured an agreement with Pasha Yusef Karamanli. He returned to London with 37 marble columns from Leptis Magna and subsequently submitted a proposal to the Admiralty, suggesting that while he charted the coastline from the ship, now renamed HMS Adventurer, a land party should survey the historical sites. That survey was led by Lieutenant Frederick Beechey exactly 200 years ago.
Warrington served in Tripoli for 32 years from 1812 until 1834. His principle achievement was to prevent the French from becoming the dominant partner in Libya. There are several places where his diplomatic agreements might be found, but there is absoulutely no way, the Libyan rulers would have allowed him to stay for another 25 years if these marbles were stolen in 1817.
The parading of Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin by the Russian government is an appalling, but not unexpected, contravention of the laws of war. Their surrender in Mariupol is similar to the situation of the last British prisoners-of-war in World War One, who surrendered in Siberia and were transported to Moscow during the Russian civil war. They can expect to be treated as high-value political prisoners, which is better than captured enemy soldiers, who Russia treats with barbarous contempt.
They will still be psychologically “leant-on” to revoke their previous loyalties and interrogated to give away details of Ukrainian locations, tactics and command structures. However, their value as Prominente will mean that they will not suffer the same physical degradations as the other Ukrainian marines captured in the besieged port.
The proposal to exchange them for a Russian political prisoner is also not new. In 1920, Brian Horrocks and the other British soldiers were exchanged for the political envoy Babushkin and seven other Bolsheviks in a convoluted operation that took the best part of six weeks to conclude. It will be very distressing for Shaun and Aiden’s families, but hopefully history will repeat itself and the story will have a similar ending to Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
Ben Barry at the International Institute of Strategic Studies has produced an excellent brief on the next steps of the Russian campaign in Ukraine.Ben, who I know well from our Bosnia postings, wrote a hard hitting internal report on the war in Iraq that was never published and is not afraid of telling it as it is.
The detail in his report about Russian equipment confirms what I witnessed in 2017. I also agree with his assessment that when the Russians move away from urban centres, they will use more artillery and air power against the defending forces, as they elevate the campaign from a “special military operation” to a “local war”. In 1942, General Montgomery described these same tactics, that he used at El Alamein, as “crumbling away” the enemy’s capabilities. It is only a matter of time…
We have been getting rid of Britain’s conventional land forces and not replacing them with anything as capable as the latest Russian hardware. The reality is that prioritising “Cyber” capabilities has made us extremely vulnerable and completely reliant on other nations for our own defence. If we are serious about stopping Putin in his tracks, we must deliver on programmes such as the Ajax light tank that was supposed to replace our dated Scimitars five years ago and reinstate the armoured training programme that is required to build a capability that can match Putin’s army.
In 1995, I was in the Balkans during a period when all sides committed war crimes; the worst of which was the genocide in Srebrenica, which resulted in over 8,000 civilian deaths. By then, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had already been established by the United Nations. Those of us deployed with UNPROFOR took evidence after any attacks which we believed contravened the law, such as when white phosphorus was fired into civilian blocks of flats soon after I arrived in Maglaj.
Eight years later, I found myself back in Bosnia planning the NATO military operations to hunt PIFWCs (persons indicted for war crimes). Each military operation involved specialist Italian Carabinieri who set up an inner cordon and a Special Forces arrest team from one of the signatory countries.The secret diplomatic process that was sewn up in capital cities and the Hague, was a brilliant example of the international community working together for a common purpose and provides an exemplary model for those who are calling for war criminals to be indicted in the current war in Ukraine.
I am looking forward to speaking to the Society for Libyan Studies about Anglo-Libyan relations in the 20th century. One of my discoveries was the map below that reveals how Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener became involved in the long-standing dispute about the Libyan frontier with Egypt. I will also tell the tale of the roller-coaster ride from the policy of non-intervention to the post-war British administration that found itself looking after a devastated and impoverished country and how all this changed after oil was discovered in the Libyan desert.
The humanitarian response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees has been ray of light this week, but with diplomacy failing and military means ruled out, the West’s support to the Kiev Government in its war with Russia remains restricted to Intelligence and Economic levers of power.
Unfortunately, Putin foresaw this and has built huge financial reserves and hoarded key electronics and pharmaceutical goods before launching his invasion. The Russian State is stepping in to keep people at work and the banking system has not collapsed as Washington thought it would. With oil still around $100 per barrel, Russia will earn about four times more than it did last year from exports. It is likely that China will fill the gaps in consumable goods such as cars, that the western governments have sanctioned.
Meanwhile, the Western economies are facing their own problems with post-Covid inflation exacerbated by the lack of badly needed Eastern commodities. For example, the Russian and Ukrainian combined wheat production accounts for 30 per cent of the global demand. Miners are also in a stranglehold with refining costs of copper and platinum group metals increasing dramatically because they require hugely energy-intensive processes.
This all reminds me of the situation in 1920 when Parliament was supporting the White cause in Ukraine and Poland against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. At a Cabinet meeting on 17 November, Lloyd George’s government spent an hour and a half discussing sanctions on Russia. The President of the Board of Trade, Sir Robert Horn made an impassioned plea based on the critical economic situation in Britain, with business confidence very low and unemployment very high and was supported by the Prime Minister, who said: “When I mentioned the possibility of our going to war to support Poland, a shudder passed through the House and those who were clamouring against Bolshevism immediately shewed the white feather… I have heard predictions about the fall of Soviet Government for the last two years, Denikin, Judenitch, Wrangel have all collapsed, but I cannot see any immediate prospect of the collapse of the Soviet Government.”
Unfortunately, Putin’s government seems to be not too different; see Part 2 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for a grounding in the modern Anglo-Russian relationship.